Archive for the 'Tech' Category

The future of Apple’s Mac: A cheap PC

Aug 13, 2005 in Tech

A recent article on Wired News reports on the hacked version of Mac OS X that allows Apple’s operating system to be run on ordinary x86 PC’s. Ironically, it runs faster on a PC than it does on a Mac in most cases.

Apple’s next generation of hardware will use an Intel processor, similar to the ones currently used in PC’s today. A leaked version of the new OS, compatible with the new Intel hardware, has been circulating on BitTorrent. The install process for the PC is a bit hairy, not to mention time consuming, so it’s not for the weak-of-heart.

I’ve commented previously on Apple and their stubborn refusal to open up their mini-monopoly to outside influences. I think that the smart thing for Apple to do is to make the Tiger OS X available for PC’s. It would certainly increase their market share, leading to a wider choice of software for OS X and giving Microsoft their first truly formidable competitor on the x86 platform. It’s probably already destined to happen, at least according to this guy.

The Conet Project and Numbers Stations

May 01, 2005 in Tech

Via WFMU’s blog, I found this link to The Conet Project, a 4-CD set of recordings of shortwave radio “numbers stations.” The entire set is in downloadable mp3 format.

Numbers stations are a phenomena unique to shortwave radio. These stations are generally found outside the normal AM and shortwave bands, although they occasionally interfere with commonly used shortwave frequencies. They generally consist of an automated female (or male) voice reading sets of numbers or phonetic letters, punctuated by morse code, audio tones, and even bits of music.

Shortwave radio hobbyists have long speculated that numbers stations are used by spy agencies to communicate with agents out in the field. The numbers, generally in groups of four or five, use a strong form of cryptography called a one-time pad. The person receiving the message transcribes the message by hand using the one-time pad, a dissolveable sheet of paper listing the numbers required to decrypt the transmission. Afterwards the pad is destroyed. This method of transmission offers total anonymity, and as long as the pad is not reused or intercepted, it is totally secure.

A number of musical groups have used recordings of numbers stations in their music, most famously Wilco on the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Numerous media outlets in recent months have run pieces on numbers stations, including the Washington Post, NPR and the BBC.

This site by Simon Mason offers a comprehensive resource on numbers stations and their treatment in media and popular music. A downloadable booklet for the Conet Project CD’s is also available.

Maybe you can keep it after all…

Feb 17, 2005 in Tech

In relation to my Napster article that was published today (see last post), I just learned that some resourceful Napster users have figured out how to circumvent Napster’s copy protection.

Napster’s files are encoded in Windows Media (.wma) format, and use Microsoft’s Janus DRM (digital rights management) technology. Napster files cannot be burned to CD or freely copied unless they’ve been purchased, and if you cancel your subscription, your downloaded music will no longer play.

This workaround uses Winamp plugins that encode the files into .mp3 or .wav format in real-time. Newer versions of Winamp are bundled with a Windows Media plugin that plays your .wma files (no more Windows Media Player!). With a properly configured output plugin, it’s fairly trivial to rip your protected .wma files into free .mp3 or .wav files. This is different than simply recording a .wav file from the output of your sound card (ala Napster’s claims).

I’ve tested this with the out_lame plugin, which encodes the file currently playing into .mp3 format. It can be a little touchy (it took over half an hour to figure out how to keep Winamp from crashing). Just load your playlist, configure the plugin in Options -> Preferences -> Plugins -> Output, and hit the play button.

For iTunes users, the Hymn Project software allows you to to convert Apple’s protected AAC format into free, unprotected formats. (This is good if you want to play your purchased iTunes music in a non-iPod player.)

All of this demonstrates the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of protecting digital media. Copy protection schemes can be broken or bypassed, and many DRM schemes ultimately irritate and inconvenience consumers. It’s good that services such as iTunes and Napster exist to provide consumers with digital music downloads, while compensating artists and record labels (well, mostly record labels). But ultimately, the record industry may have to find new avenues for making a profit, because listeners aren’t going to stop sharing and aquiring free music.

What, there’s no “i” in front of it?

Feb 17, 2005 in Tech

I’m not a big fan of Apple (I’m chuffed at my “Crapple Macintrash iSuck” joke), but I have to admit that the $500 Mac Mini is pretty sweet. (Monitor, keyboard and mouse not included). Yes, it’s that small. Not long after the launch of the $99 iPod Shuffle, Apple steps up with another miniature, low-priced product. I’m amazed they were able to do it. Finally, they got their heads out of their asses and started making products for the consumers that don’t want to spend an extra $500+ for shiny hardware.

The specs are modest, but sufficient. Apparently, there’s no room for a sound card in that small case. And just like replacing the battery in an iPod, upgrading it isn’t cheap and easy. Want wireless, a DVD burner or extra RAM? Gotta send it in for service. The required accessories probably aren’t cheap either. But still, it’s an impressive and affordable piece of engineering. With the new Shuffle and this piece of machinery, it won’t be surprising if Apple increases it’s desktop computer market share and tightens it’s already firm dominance on the portable digital audio market.

As an aside, Apple has a problem with not opening up their hardware or software. Your iPod only works with iTunes, and vice versa. Unlike the PC (what they used to call “IBM compatible”), Apple never licensed the hardware for other companies to manufacture, which means they got buried in the market when the PC rose to dominance (along with a little company called Microsoft). This means that you can buy PC hardware that’s cheaper, bigger and more powerful than just about anything Apple makes (the Power Mac G5 excepted). The iPod and iTunes will continue to dominate the portable digital audio market, but for how long?

On a related note, check out my article on the Napster to Go service.

On Firefox and Lip Balm

Nov 11, 2004 in Tech

So Mozilla Firefox 1.0 came out yesterday. It’s a huge milestone, and download servers are reportedly swamped. I managed to download and install my copy, but not before realizing that THEY CHANGED THE EXTENSION ARCHITECTURE AGAIN!

I like Firefox, but as a convert from Opera, I’m a little dissatisfied that some of my favorite features (such as tabbed single window mode) are lacking. Extensions resolve this to some extent, but with the latest updates, the extensions have stopped working. They did it with the 1.0 Preview release, and until all of the extensions were updated by their respective authors, I had to downgrade to 0.9.3. So, I’ve downgraded again, and will have to wait until new extensions appear.

On another note, I rediscovered this oldie but goodie: Lip Balm Anonymous. The author of this site contends (seriously) that lip balm is an addictive substance, akin to cigarettes or drugs, peddled by the crooked, greedy lip balm industry. This site seems almost satirical, until you realize that he’s really serious. To me, it’s interesting because I’m a hardcore user of Blistex Lip Medex (the stuff in the little blue jar), and can’t live without it. But I kinda doubt that lip balm usage serves as a gateway to hard drug use, as the author maintains.

Hang on, I need to apply more of this stuff to my lips…

Build your own TiVo!

Jul 07, 2004 in Tech

I’m planning to upgrade my PC soon, and have been pondering the possibility of using a PC as a personal digital video recorder (ala TiVo). Ostensibly, there is a growing movement of computer geeks who are documenting their own attempts to built a PVR (personal video recorder) from PC parts.

The basic, essential step to convert a PC to a PVR is installing a quality TV capture card. The current standard is the Hauppage PVR-350 ($160-180, with hardware decoder, TV-out and FM tuner) or the PVR-250 ($120, needs a seperate video card/mobo with TV-out). The Hauppage comes with a remote control and some PVR software that emulates the basic functions of a digital video recorder . For advanced, TiVo-like functionality, a number of free and commercial software packages are available to make the PVR conversion complete.

You can use your existing PC, provided the hardware is beefy enough, though many prefer to build a standalone PVR unit. Building a full-blown PVR could be an interesting project to pursue if you have the computing power to spare, but you’ll have to do a bit of research and troubleshooting. Building a sleek, top-of-the-line custom PVR can cost much more (in money and time) than a commercial PVR, but the upside is that you won’t have to shell out $12 or more each month for the programming service.

Comcast remote control manuals

Jun 13, 2004 in Tech

Comcast cable box, remote manuals and wiring diagrams

If you’re a Comcast cable subscriber and you’re wondering how to program the cable box remote to control your TV or other devices, the above page has the info you need. (Chances are the cable company didn’t give you a manual to the remote).

If you have the newfangled grey remote with the On Demand button, this is the page is for you. You can setup the remote to adjust the volume and mute your TV.

Wiring diagrams are also available for using your VCR, DVD, TiVo, RF modulator or other devices with the cable box.

The perils of new technology

May 08, 2004 in Tech

I just noticed my beloved SharpMT posted a few entries more than once (one of them at least three times). Why didn’t anyone tell me I looked like an ass?

Don’t code your blog posts by hand any longer!

May 05, 2004 in Tech

Movable Type users: If you’re not using a third-party blog client to post to your blog, you’re doing way too much typing!

Unless you prefer to input all of your HTML by hand, a blogging client will greatly simplify the process of posting to your blog. I assume that all of you fine readers are smart individuals who have already taken advantage of this technological innovation. But if you’re not hip to it yet (hell, I only just learned about it recently), here’s the gist.

There are three blog clients geared specifically towards MT. If you want something simple, try MTClient. It doesn’t have the most attractive interface, and it lacks a help file, but it works with a minimum of configuration.

My preferred client is SharpMT. It’s attractive, full-featured, updated frequently, and it supports plug-ins! (Don’t ask me where you can get ‘em though). You’ll need to install the Microsoft .NET framework (from Windows Update, 23MB) to run it.

I haven’t tried Zempt yet, but it looks like a fine program. It also supports plugins, and you can even call it through a browser bookmarklet.

In short, the above blogging clients have just about all of the posting functions of the MT web interface. You’ll wonder how you updated your blog without it!

Doom Revisited

May 01, 2004 in Tech

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time playing Doom, the all-time greatest first-person shooter game. I’m a fairly casual gamer, and never really got into deathmatching and the more popular FPS’s such as Half-life, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament and such.

Doom’s ultimate appeal lies in it’s bloody (and addictive) simplicity. Plus, it will run on just about any machine. The isometric 3D view of modern FPS’s is frustrating to a non-hardcore gamer such as myself, who fumbles with the mouse/keyboard combo skills required to play. In Doom, on the other hand, all of your aiming is done on the horizontal axis. I prefer a joystick to the mouse/keyboard combo that modern FPS’s require, and Doom allows you to map pretty much all of the features you need onto a eight-button gamepad.

Id open-sourced the code to the Doom engine in 1997, and since then, a number of source ports have been made to extend the features of Doom, giving it a more modern feel. For those of you who haven’t played Doom in a while, go pick up the shareware version (or dust off the copy on your hard drive). While you’re at it, download Doom Legacy and point it to the doom.wad file in the Doom installation directory.

If you have a good video card, you can now play Doom in OpenGL, and use higher resolutions. You also have access to a plethora of new features and configuration options, such as the ability to jump, look up and down, and play Doom like a modern 3D isometric FPS. Doom Legacy also allows you to easily connect to deathmatch game servers, and play against others.

With all the hubbub about the soon-to-be-released Doom 3, it’s as good a time as any to go back and play an enhanced version of the original.