Friday, December 03, 2010

Getting HTML code to show up in Blogger

If you want to write something in a blog that happens to be HTML code, you can get it to show up by using alternatives to characters.

In the last post, I was trying to write /<microSD>/ as part of an explanation.  What I posted was just //.  It's because Blogger and the browser interpreted the < > as html code and didn't show it as text.

Why's it showing up here?  Because I didn't actually insert a <.   What I put in is "& l t ; " and "& g t" (without the spaces and quotation marks).  Blogger replaces that set of characters with < and  >.

The alternates are Unicode Alternatives for special characters in HTML.  That link has a long list of them and explains where and how they work.

Really simple directions for making Rockbox playlists

If you're starting to use Rockbox, start with playlists.

Rockbox treats everything it's playing as part of a playlist. If you put a bunch of songs into a folder, then start to play one of them, Rockbox automatically puts all of the songs in that folder into a playlist. You won't necessarily know it unless you decide to save it as a playlist.

This post is about creating playlists using your computer.  You can also create playlists using just your player and Rockbox, but that's a separate discussion.

What's a playlist?
A playlist is really just a list of songs. What makes it into a playlist is that there's a file path connected with each song on the list. When Rockbox reads the next song on the playlist, it uses the file path to find the song. Rockbox knows it's a playlist because of the file name extension: .m3u or .m3u8.

Incidentally, Rockbox creates playlists using .m3u8 as the extension. Most computer-based music managers seem to use .m3u. Rockbox recognizes either one.

A playlist file will look like:
The keys to making your playlists work are:
  • getting the file paths right so Rockbox can find the songs
  • getting the file extension right so Rockbox knows they're playlists
  • getting your playlists in the right folder so they show up in the Playlist Catalog

File Paths
First the file paths.   The file system Rockbox uses is just like the one on your computer.   It's identical if you use Linux.  If you use Windows, there's one significant difference: the Rockbox root directory (the base directly that every other folder and file is a part of) is called "/". That a forward slash without the quotation marks.

In Windows, the root directly is probably something like C:\ or G:\. In Rockbox, it's /.   Rockbox, like Linux, uses a forward slash instead of a backslash, but I've read that it understands both.  Haven't tested that though -- I always use a forward slash.

Rockbox Folders
On my Sansa Fuze, with a micro SD card in it, I have two root folders:
  • /
  • /<microSD>/
My songs are in these two folders:

  • /<microSD>/MUSIC/
  • /MUSIC/

    My songs names look like this:
    • 01 - Suzie Q.mp3
    • 01 - Sympathy For the Devil.mp3
    for no particular reason other than it's convenient for the way I store them on my computer. I use this file structure:
    /Music/"Band"/"Album"/"Track Number" - "Title".mp3
    This isn't significant; you can name your songs anything you want.  If I'd designed it with the portable player in mind, I might have left off the track number for simplicity.

    A playlist looks like this:
    /<microSD>/MUSIC/01 - Suzie Q.mp3
    /<microSD>/MUSIC/01 - Sympathy For the Devil.mp3
    /<microSD>/MUSIC/01 - The Red Rooster.mp3
    /MUSIC/1 - I Can't Be Satisfied.mp3
    /MUSIC/01 - I'm A Man.mp3
    The songs that begin with "/MUSIC/" are on the players' internal storage in the "MUSIC" folder. The songs that begin with "//MUSIC/ are on the micro SD disk in the "MUSIC" folder.

    To show up in the Rockbox Playlist Catalog, playlists have to be in the playlist folder:

    So the name for the example playlist could be:
    and the complete file name (the one you'd use as the file path in a playlist) would be
    Creating a Playlist
    To create a playlist on your computer, you can use a text editor.  Just a simple text editor is easiest.  You can use a word processor like OpenOffice Writer or Microsoft Word, but you have to save it as a text file.  If you save it as the regular .odt or .doc file it will have a lot of formatting information that will confuse Rockbox.

    For me, it's easiest to make a list of the songs first, then add the file paths.  So I start by typing just the file names:

    01 - Suzie Q.mp3
    01 - Sympathy For the Devil.mp3
    01 - The Red Rooster.mp3
    1 - I Can't Be Satisfied.mp3 
    01 - I'm A Man.mp3

    Once that's done I add the paths using copy and paste.  If the first song is in /<microSD>/MUSIC/, I type that in, copy it, and paste it in front of all the songs that are on the microSD card.

    Then I do the same for the songs /MUSIC/.

    Then I save the playlist as playlistname.m3u8 into the /Playlists folder.

    Incidentally, for some reason when I create a playlist using Rockbox itself, the default is for Rockbox to save it in the root directory.  That means it doesn't show up in the Playlist Catalog.  To create it in the /Playlist folder, you have to add /Playlist to the beginning of the name.  That's a real pain when you're using Rockbox's internal keypad.

    It's probably just a setting I have to adjust somewhere, but I haven't figured it out yet.

    Absolute and Relative File Paths
    You can use two different kinds of file paths in Rockbox: Absolute and Relative.

    File paths are just like directions. If you ask someone where the nearest coffee shop is, he can give you directions two ways. One is relative: "go two blocks ahead, then turn left." The other is absolute: "it's on the corner of 3rd and Pine St."

    For the relative directions, you obviously have to know where you are. The wouldn't work in a newspaper ad, for instance.

    File paths in playlists are the same way. The file path for a song can be absolute, meaning it starts with a root directory, or it can be relative, meaning it starts from the directory where the playlist is stored.

    Since the Rockbox Playlist Catalog only lists playlists in the /Playlists directory, it's fairly easy to use either kind of file path. I find it easier to stick with absolute.

    I've read that Rockbox tries to make file paths work even if there missed up. If it doesn't find the song using the filepath on the playlist, it will lop off directories until it finds it. So, for instance, if you the song is in /MUSIC/song.mp3, but you wrote the file path as /NEW/MUSIC/song.mp3, Rockbox would discover that there's no /NEW/ and move on to /MUSIC/.

    I haven't actually tested that, but Rockbox has played a few songs from file paths I messed up.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    Chrome at Home

    Chrome can open local html files.  You just have to hit:

    Ctrl + O

    That opens a regular window into your local hard drives. You just browse for the file you want and click Open.

    Local files are just files stored somewhere on your computer (hard drive, disk, USB drive, etc.) as opposed to on the Internet.

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    Get at the guts

    Here's a great resource if you have a Sony laptop. A company called Northwood Systems is posting teardown guides.  So far they have guides for VGN series laptops, but they're promising more models in the future.

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    The truth of the kernel

    Sometimes you have to know what Linux kernel you're using with your operating system, like Ubuntu.  It's easy, but I always forget how, so this is as much for my own use as anything else:

    To find your current Linux kernel, at the command prompt:
    uname -r (quick, short reply)
    uname -a (same with a little more information)
    The difference between those two is that -r just tells you the version of the Linux kernel.
    l@l:~$ uname -r
    That's pretty straightforward.  The first two numbers, in this case the 2 and the 6, are major and minor releases.  The third number, 32, is the version.  The fourth number, 21, reflects the back-ports that are incorporated into the kernel.

    An rc.x at the end means the version is a release candidate, the last revisions before a version is ready for use.

    If you're curious, you can browse through the history of Linux 2.6.x.  Or back to the very beginning.  If you want to how Linux kernel numbering has changed over the years and why it changed, you can read the history, complete with primary documents.

    Chances are, you're using an operating system that makes use of the Linux kernel, like Ubuntu, Red Hat, Open SUSE and so forth.  These are sometimes called "flavors" of Linux.  Frankly, I find they all taste the same, but they look and operate a little differently.

    By using -a, you'll get a response like this:

    l@l:~$ uname -a
    Linux l 2.6.32-21-generic #32-Ubuntu SMP Fri Apr 16 08:09:38 UTC 2010 x86_64 GNU/Linux
    That tells us that the machine is running Linux, the machine name is "l" and the Linux version is 2.6.32-21-generic.

    I have no idea what the #32 means.  If you do, please let me know.

    Ubuntu is the operating system and SMP means it uses the multiple cores of the processor.

    The date is when the kernel was built.  The x86_64 means it's a 64-bit processor in the X86 family.  GNU/Linux is, by some accounts, the full name of the Linux core.

    Another way to get information about your kernel is by looking at the /proc file.  The command is:
    cat /proc/version
    The result, will look like this:

    l@l:~$ cat /proc/version
    Linux version 2.6.32-21-generic (buildd@yellow) (gcc version 4.4.3 (Ubuntu 4.4.3-4ubuntu5) ) #32-Ubuntu SMP Fri Apr 16 08:09:38 UTC 2010
    What does it all mean?  
    • Linux version 2.6.32-21-generic The complete Linux version.
    • (buildd@yellow) The username and host name of the person who compiled the kernel.  Thanks buildb, home everything's going well at yellow.
    • (gcc version 4.4.3 (Ubuntu 4.4.3-4ubuntu5) ) The version of the compiler buildb used.
    • #32-Ubuntu SMP The type of the kernel (SMP means Symmetric Multi-Processing, which means the kernel makes use of multi-core processing)
    • Fri Apr 16 08:09:38 UTC 2010 The time and day that the kernel was compiled.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    Three quick ways to bring back the past

    When you're browsing the web, it's easy to accidentally close a tab.  Bringing it back is almost as easy, but different, in Firefox and Chrome.

    In Firefox, you just go to the Toolbar:
    History > Recently Closed Tabs
    If you prefer keystrokes, just hit Alt + S to open the History menu.

    "Recently Closed Tabs" is second from the bottom (just above Recently Closed Windows).

    Choose the tab you want from the list and click.  It will open as a new tab.  Or, actually, as an old tab -- the one you closed, in the same position as the one you closed and with the same history as the one you closed.  Cool.

    In Chrome it's a little different.

    To bring back the last tab you closed:
    The last-closed tab will open right back where it was.  Use the same key combination again and the penultimately-closed tab will pop back open.

    (Note to Ms. Shappenheimer: Ok, you were right, I did use that word. Note to everyone else: Please note what a capacious vocabulary I have).

    If you want to chose from a list which recently-closed tab to open, you can do that too.  Just open a new tab by clicking on the + to the right of the open tabs.   You'll find the list right below the miniature versions of your most visited tabs.
    A little farther down, on the right, you'll see a link to your browsing History.  That will take you to a list of all the web pages you've visited.
    If you want the history of a single tab (the current tab), put the cursor on the Go Back arrow and right click.  This history list will drop down.

    Actually, there's another way to do the same thing.  Instead of right clicking on the Go Back arrow, left click but hold the click until the list drops down.  If you don't hold the click you'll, you guessed it, go back.

    Why two ways to do the same thing?  Google believes it's an important enough function that you'll want a backup in case the primary method wears out.

    Thursday, August 05, 2010

    Rockbox: a great new operating system for your Sansa Fuze

    Rockbox is a Linux-based operating system (I think it's technically "firmware") for portable music players like the Sansa Fuze and iPOD.  It's easy to navigate, has lots of skins and lets you fine tune your music playback with the kind of options you usually find on sophisticated stereo systems.

    I have a 4 GB Sansa Fuze V01 and Rockbox works great on it.   Things can go wrong, though, and installing Rockbox could possibly brick your player.  Bricking means it will no longer work, giving it the  functionality of a brick, but without the weight and structural strength.

    Installing Rockbox on the Fuze
    The type and version of player you have matters, so you have to make sure your specific player is supported by the current version of Rockbox.

    Using the original Sansa Fuze firmware, you can get this information by going to:
    Settings > System Settings > Info
    Version is the first line. Mine looks like: V01.02.31P

    You can check here to see if Rockbox supports your version.

    I used the automatic installer, which you can download from here. It was easy to follow through the installation screens.

    Once you have Rockbox installed, all you have to do is turn on the Fuze and it will boot up to Rockbox. If you want to use the original Sansa Fuze firmware, just do this:
    • Turn off the Fuze
    • Hold down the rewind button (|<< on the control wheel)
    • Turn on the Fuze
    It will boot up the original firmware.  You can only load music through the original firmware.

    If you want to charge the player while running Rockbox, hold the center button (Rockbox calls it the "Select" button) down while plugging the cable into the Fuze.

    The origonal firmware will also automatically boot anytime your Fuze is connected to the USB cable, whether you're using it to transfer music or charge the battery.

    When you're using Rockbox, his is how the controls work:

    That diagram is from the Rockbox manual for the Fuze.

    Wednesday, July 21, 2010

    The easy (easiest?) way to sign pdf documents

    PDF documents are a pain in the butt if you're trying to eliminate paper and work electronically.  They're hard to edit unless you want to spend a bundle on the official Adobe program, and I'm way to cheap for that.

    Okular works well for adding annotations, but it doesn't help at all for adding a signature to PDF docs.  For that you have to be able to either draw a random line (your signature) or insert an image (of your signature).

    Why do it?
    Why would I want to electronically insert my signature into a PDF doc?

    Well, to sign it of course.  Let's say I have to transfer money from my bank account.  They won't let me do that online; for security they want a hard copy of a signed authorization form.

    The bank wants to fax it to me, have me sign it, and fax it back.

    Here's the catch: my fax machine is buried in a landfill somewhere, a layer above my old dot-matrix printer and a couple layers below my external ZIP Drive.

    Sure, I could receive the fax into my computer (or get it my email), print it out, sign it, scan it back into my computer, then email or fax it back.  But there are some problems with that.

    First, it wastes paper.  Second, it's not elegant.  Third, it violates the basic principle of Hopeful Hacking, which is that if you expend enough time and effort experimenting, you can always find a better (or at least different) way of doing things.

    Back from the digression
    Here's another option.  To do it, you have to have a graphics editing program called GIMP.  It's in the Ubuntu repositories, so you can added it with Synaptic or by typing
    sudo apt-get install GIMP
    at the command line.   (It's available for Windows as well as Linux).

    GIMP used to come with Ubuntu, but as the developers added more abilities, the folks at Ubuntu decided it had become more than the basic functionality they like to include with the base install.  I'm sure it also added to the difficulty of fitting the Ubuntu installation on a single CD.

    All that functionality is great, but it's specifically not the point of this post.  The point here is to use GIMP to do just one thing: add your signature to PDFs.

    Opening GIMP gives you three windows: the main editing window (in the middle), the Toolbox (on the left) and the Layers, Channels, etc window (on the right).

    If, for some reason, they're not open, you can use CTRL+T to open the Toolbox and CTRL+L to open the layers window.

    You can clear clutter by closing any other windows that happen to open.

    Your Signature
    First, you have to create an electronic image of your signature.  We're going to do it entirely on the computer.

    Another option would be to sign a blank piece of paper, then scan it into your computer.
    In the main window, click
    File > New
    You'll get the Create a New Image dialog box.

    Click on the Template dropdown menu and select US-Letter (300ppi), then click the + sign by Advanced Options.

    Click the Fill With dropdown menu and choose Transparency.  This is critical.  If you don't use a transparent background, your signature will mess up the document you're trying to sign.

    Click OK and you should get a blank image with a transparent background.  GIMP uses a light and dark gray checkerboard pattern to indicate transparency.

    At the bottom left of the main editing window you can adjust the size of the image.  I chose 25%, but you can pick whatever you want as long as it's big enough to sign your name and not so big that you have to scroll to see it all.

    To get ready for signing your name, go over to the Toolbox window.

    Click on the icon for Pencil Tool.

    Below the tool icons there are some options for the Pencil Tool.  Normal mode is fine.  Opacity should be 100%.   Brush sets the size of the line you'll be drawing.  I think Circle (11) works pretty well.  You can experiment.  Scale starts at 1.  You can move the slider to make the line thicker or thinner.

    Just remember that you should judge by the way it looks in the final document, not the way it looks now.
    Now you draw your signature.  This can be the hardest part of the whole process.

    I used the mouse.  You just hold down the left mouse button and write.  When you release the button, the writing stops.  Press it again to start writing again.

    You can hit CTRL+Z to erase the last thing you wrote and try again.

    After using CTRL+Z a couple of dozen times, you might start wondering if there's a better way.
    Well, sure there is.

    You could write on a piece of paper and scan it, as I mentioned earlier.

    Another option is to get a graphics tablet.  I have an old WACOM Graphire that connects through a USB port.

    It works great but, frankly, I wouldn't buy one just for this.  With a little practice you can get a pretty good signature using your mouse, or even a touchpad.

    OK, maybe not the touchpad so much.  That's what I used to copy John Hancock's signature here.
    If anyone ever accuses me of forging a copy of the Declaration of Independence, this should clear me.

    Once your satisfied with your signature, or at least tired of working on it, you just have to save it properly.

    First, we should get it down to a reasonable size.  That US-Letter size image space made plenty of room for writing, but it's a lot bigger than necessary.

    Go back over to the Toolbox and select the Rectangle Select Tool.

    It's a little rectangle icon at the upper left.

    Now you draw a rectangle around your signature.  Pick the part that sticks out the farthest and put the cursor just beyond the line.  Left click the mouse and move the cursor toward what will be the opposite corner of your selected rectangle.  Then release the mouse button.

    The result should look like this.

    With the signature selected, go to the menu bar and select
    Image > Crop to Selection

    At this point, you could make a decision.  But I suggest you don't.  If you've followed these instructions as meticulously as I know you have, your signature is going to be pretty doggone big compared to the document you'll be signing.  Unless you really are forging the Declaration of Independence.

    You could go back up to the Image menu, choose Scale Image and shrink it down to a more reasonable size.  It would actually save you a bit of trouble later, but it could also cause you problems later.

    For the moment, I suggest you leave the size alone, (which is what you probably would have done if I hadn't brought this issue up).  On second thought, forget I mentioned this.

    You'll want to save the image as a PNG file.  They compress nicely, they're versatile but, most important for this exercise, they save transparency.  JPEGs don't do that.

    Oh, GIMP actually has it's own file format that makes it easy to make adjustments later.  It's .xcf.  That's dot-xcf and then a period that's not related to the file extension.

    If you want to save the file that way first, it will make it easier to come back and adjust your signature later if you want.

    In any case, for what we're doing, you'll need a png file.  Select
    File > Save
    In the Save Image dialog box, choose a name like signature.png (for now, you can change it to xpdjf.dtr later for security).

    This is the end of Part 1.  You only have to do this part once, providing you don't give the file a random name and store it in an obscure place and lose it forever.

    Is it safe?
    OK, you may also be wondering if it's secure to store a digital image of your signature on your computer.

    I don't know.  I guess it's as secure as a lot of other things.  Now that you have a nice digital image of your signature, I wouldn't suggest posting it on Flickr, no matter how elegant it is.  That would be asking for trouble.  

    Emailing it doesn't seem less secure than faxing, or snail mailing.  People send faxes to wrong numbers all the time.  Someone could intercept a bill payment in the mail.  How hard would it be for someone to cut your signature out of something and scan it themselves?

    Someone could hack into your computer and steal the image.  But once they're in your computer there's probably a lot of things they could do to make you miserable.  If you're worried about it, give the file a name like expidff.conf and save it to /proc/1415.   I've done that with files and never found them again myself.

    Adding your signature to the PDF doc
    Now we're getting somewhere.

    In the main GIMP window choose
    File > Open
    and select the PDF file you want to sign.  I'm using one called lease.pdf.

    Instead of popping right open, you get an Import from PDF dialog box because GIMP can't open PDFs directly.

    Select the page or pages you want, then click Import.

    When it opens, scroll down to the place you need to sign.  Remember that you can adjust the view size at the bottom left of the window.

    Now go back up to the top and choose
    File > Open as Layers

    Choose your signature image file and open it.

    You may not see it very well in the edit window; it's going to be huge and may be at the edge of the window.

    You will see it in the Layers window.

    It will be right above the imported PDF image which will be named something like "1".

    It helps here to know just a bit about how GIMP works.  It builds images from independent layers.  You can add layers, delete layers, edit layers, move layers up and down and a lot more.

    In this case, you're only going to have two layers: the imported PDF file and the signature.  Make sure the signature layer stays on top of the PDF doc layer.  Literally.  As long as it's above the PDF doc layer in the Layers window, it will be above the PDF doc in the edit window.  If it somehow moves below the PDF doc layer, you won't see it in the editing window.

    The first thing we're going to do is make you signature a more reasonable size.  With it's layer highlighted in the Layers window, move back over to the editing window.  Select
    Layer > Scale Layer

    In the dialog box that opens, enter 250 into the Width box.  It's just a guess, you can adjust it later.

    Click Scale.

    (By default the Width and Height boxes are linked -- as indicate by a little chain link image to the right of the boxes.  When you entered 250 and hit Tab, it should have automatically changed the Height number to preserve the aspect ratio of the signature image.  If it didn't, your signature will be really tall and narrow.  If that happens, hit CTRL+Z to undo the scaling.  Once the layer is back to its original size, reopen the Scale Image dialog box and click on the little chain image.  That should change it from an unlinked chain to a linked chain.   Then just reenter the width).

    Now go over to the Toolbox and select the Move Tool.  It looks like a plus sign with arrows at the end of the lines.

    Lower down in the Toolbox, select Move the active layer.

    Now put your cursor on the signature layer, hold down the left mouse button and draf the signature to the right place on the PDF doc.

    There you go.  You can adjust the position or the scale to make it look right.
    To add the date (there's always a date), go back to the Toolbox and click on the Text Tool icon.

    Put your cursor where you want to start the date and left click the mouse.  The GIMP Test Editor box will open.  Enter the date and click Close.

    If it's not in the right spot, you can move it.  It's another layer.  Click on it in the Layers window, choose the Move Tool again and put it in the right spot.

    Now all you have to do is create the final, signed PDF document.
    Go to
    File > Print

    Instead of selecting a printer, select Print to File.

    Enter a file name, choose a folder to store it in and for Output format select PDF.  Click on Print and your done.

    When you open the new PDF document it should be the original plus your signature and the date.

    Wednesday, July 07, 2010

    Inbox growing? Delegate to an always-available, eager-to-help assistant

    In just a few minutes you can stop being a slave to your inbox and make you inbox a slave to you.  All you have to do is delegate

    In this case, you're delegating to Gmail (or whatever email service you use).

    If that sounds odd, consider this:  Gmail is eager to help, it's always available and, with it's easy-to-use and precise filtering rules, amazing nimble and judicious.

    Here's an example of what I mean:  Let's say you have an investment account and it sends you regular messages.   Every day you get a closing summary, once a month or once a quarter you get a full report on your portfolio, you get announcements about annual meetings of companies whose stock you own, and somewhat regularly you get what amount to sales pitches. And they all come from the same email address.

    Gmail can handle that just like you do.

    Assume they all come from Investment Alert.  The subject lines each identify the contents of the message:

    • your eStatement
    • Closing Summary
    • Annual Meeting
    • deposit to investment account
    • Annual Report

    With rules, you can handle each of those messages in a different way.  Here's how.

    Open an eStatement. Click:

    More Actions > Filter messages like these

    The From: box should already have in it the sender -- your investment company.  Two boxes below that you'll see Subject:

    type eStatement

    then click

    Test Search

    This is important.  It helps you make sure your criteria are catching all of the messages you're trying to filter and, possibly more important, none of the message you don't want to filter.  Just review the list of messages that show up to make sure they're all what you want.

    Then click:

    Next Step

    Here you decide what to do with these messages.  I don't read the eStatements as they come in, but I like to review them if I get a chance.  As a result, I want them out of my inbox, labelled "investments" and marked as read (so they don't add to my already depressing unread count.  To do that, use these options:
    check "Skip the Inbox (Archive it) 
    check "Mark as read" 
    check "Apply the label: and select "investments" from the drop-down menu (or select "New label" and create it) 
    If you have a few of these messages in your inbox, they should be listed below the filter.  To handle all of them:

    check "Also apply filter to x conversations below"

    Finally, click
    Create Filter
    Have two investment accounts (or whatever kind of message you're filtering)?  Apply the same filter to both.  In the From: box:

    • parenthesis around the from address
    • add a space
    • type OR (all caps)
    • add a space
    • type the second from address in perenthesis

    The From: box should look like this: ( OR (

    Now the filter will handle email from both senders.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010

    The easy way to track your music library

    I year or so ago I realized that I never listen to CDs anymore.  I just don't.  It's just too easy to listen from my portable player (Sansa Fuze), phone, or computer.

    That left me with a lot of CDs that were quickly becoming fairly expensive coasters.
    The solution?  Digitize them.  Rip them into digital files, like flac or mp3, and store them on my computer.

    Of course it's not a new idea.  I'd long ago ripped the ones I really like.  What was new, was the task of ripping the rest of them on the off chance that I'd want to listen to a song or two.

    With the new task came some new challenges.  For instance, when would I do it? How would I keep track of which CD's I'd ripped? How would I store the new digital files? What would I do with the old CDs?

    As usual, the process is proceeding with more hope than hacking, more error than trial (yeah, that's weird) and some success.

    On the off chance that it might help someone, I'm posting the key successes:

    • When to rip
    • How to rip
    • How to organize and keep track of ripped CDs
    • Where and how to store the new digital files
    • What to do with the old CDs
    Each point links to the article explaining the process.  For the record, I used these applications and services:
    The apps are all free and open source.  If you use Ubuntu, they either come with the OS or they're in the repositories.

    Saturday, June 05, 2010

    Computing comes full circle, again

    We've kind of come full circle, again. When I was in junior high, the kids who messed with computers used a terminal that connected them to a mainframe somewhere -- probably a university. The terminal was "dumb;" all of the programs were installed on, and ran on the mainframe.

    When the desktop revolution hit (the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981) applications moved off mainframes and onto your own personal computer.

    This was a revolution because it let us worker faster, freer and more conveniently. You didn't have to book time on a mainframe, sit dumbly at your dumb terminal waiting for the mainframe to carry out the task and otherwise be beholden to some other entity.

    Then the Internet took off. At first we just hyperlinked from one document to another. It was neat, but a little limiting. As bandwidth increased and browsers became more sophisticated, people started developing programming languages that used web browsers as sort of an operating system.

    (Anticipating this caused Bill Gates to freak out. He saw the potential for web browsers to replace operating systems (like Windows, for instance) and take over computing. That eventually led to the Microsoft-Netscape browser war. Netscape clearly lost, but it's still not clear that Microsoft won).

    Web pages stopped being still and started moving a bit using applets written in Java and ActiveX, then JavaScript, AJAX, Flash and more.

    That all led to web apps like Zoho, Gmail and Google Docs, Facebook. and what's often called Web 2.0.

    This could be considered a return to the old terminal and mainframe idea, but it's a lot better. For instance, your computer (even a netbook) has a lot of processing power. That power works with the online service to give you better features, like speed, universality and the ability to collaborate with other people.

    If you early-adopted any of those web services, you probably noticed a couple of inconveniences. For one thing, there was often a time lag between when you did something and the server side responded. You were also out of luck if you couldn't connect to the Internet.

    You may not have noticed, but your browser was probably getting bloated as well. It needs plugins to run the apps and when you get enough of them running, plus have a few pages open, your system can get sluggish.

    These issues led people to start thinking about running the web apps more from your computer and without using the entire browser.

    Mozilla, the developers of Firefox, came up with web runner, which is now Prism.  Adobe developed AIR.

    As all of this integration between personal computers and the Internet was happening, there was something else going on.  Mobile phones were becoming small computers with constant connections to the cloud.  (And some computers were becoming a lot like mobile phones with a bigger processor.  Netbooks, for instance, and now the iPad).

    I use a lot of web apps, especially the Google ones, but I also fall back to regular desktop programs fairly often.  For instance, if my internet connection is shaky, or I need to quickly take a few notes, I'll use OpenOffice or Tomboy.  I's also found that the web apps, good as they're getting, don't offer all of the features, or the reliability, that I can get on my desktop.

    Formatting documents is a good example.  If I want tab in, uses images boxes, or include other, even slightly sophisticated, layouts, it's a lot easier in OpenOffice than in Google Docs.

    Still, it's great to have the options.

    Saturday, May 08, 2010

    You can have the power (when you need it most)

    King Richard trying to bargain
    for a horse, early on when he was
    offering just this "jewel-encrusted,
    gold and steel sword that holds
    an edge like a Ginsu knife."
    It's the horror of the mini-electronics age: your mobile phone dies just when you're boss is supposed to be calling, or your MP3 player dies halfway through "Stairway to Heaven. "

    "Five volts DC! Five volts DC! My kingdom for five volts DC!"  to update a line from Richard III, who lived when power was just as essential, but came primarily from horses, not rechargeable batteries.

    Well, save your kingdom and, instead, get a rechargeable five volt USB power pack, like this little gem from Sanyo.
    It's basically a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. What makes it nice is that it's versatile, convenient and compact.  When your device dies, you just hook it to the power pack.  You're instantly back in action, and, after a bit, your device will be recharged and ready to go it alone again.

    The power packs are convenient because they take advantage of the increasingly standard USB power.

    One end is the charging end: it has a mini USB jack and a jack for the power supply that comes with it.  You can charge it up either by connecting it to the power supply which plugs into the wall, or by connecting it to any USB power source, like the one ones on your computer.

    Once it's charged, you carry it around with you waiting to use the other end, the supply end.

    On this end there are two USB jacks.  These supply the power for your dead device(s).

    For anything that charges from a mini USB plug, you can use the cable that comes with it.  For the increasing number of devices that charge from micro USB, you can either carry a separate cable, or get a mini-to-micro adapter like the one from Radio Shack.  (It costs $14, but the cheaper ones I've found online come to the same price or more when you add shipping).

    If your device has a special jack, like the Sansa Fuze I carry everywhere, you have to carry that cable, too.

    Yes, your minuscule mobile phone will be bigger with the power pack attached.  And, if anyone notices, it can look a little geeky.  But not nearly as bad as those people you see sprawled on the floor trying to use their phones while they're plugged in under a row of chairs at the airport.

    With a little effort, you can make the connection almost invisible.  A cable running from your pocket to your device isn't much more intrusive then a headphone cord.  If you're just waiting for a all, you can just leave the whole ball of wax in your pocket, purse or brief case.

    There are a bunch of brands out there.  The one I have is the Sanyo KBC-L2.  I've been using it quite a bit for about six months and haven't had any problems.

    Technical Specs
    Each of the output USB jacks supply 5.0V at 500mA.  That's the standard USB spec, so it should work fine for most devices.  Some phones push the limits by using USB, but drawing up to an amp.  The only thing I've noticed with them is that they'll operate, but won't pick up any charge.

    When it's charging, the pack uses 5V and draws from 500mA from the USB jack or 1A from the AC wall charger.

    Incidentally, I abandoned the wall charger immediately.  It's a lot more convenient to carry a universal USB wall charger.  In fact, I was just a little irritated that Sanyo included a generic charger rather than a universal USB wall charger.

    When I get around to it, I'll chop off the plug that came with the wall charger and replace it with a USB jack (or plug).

    Monday, May 03, 2010

    What's inside a Sony Vaio VPCS111FM

    I've got Ubuntu up and running on my new VAIO VPCS111FM (love those Sony model numbers).  It's time to start tweaking and for that, I need to know what parts are inside the box.

    Here's the short list (from lshw):

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Sony VAIO VPCS111FM

    After crushing my Sony VAIO SZ750N, and making it worse by trying to install the wrong replacement LCD screen, I broke down and bought a new laptop.

    I got the VPCS111FM. I think it's a scaled down version of the new Z Series, which is apparently the replacement for the SZ Series.

    I checked out the new Z Series laptops They're tempting. Thin and light with clear, bright screens and lots of features. They also range from $1,900 to more than $4,000.

    The VPCS111FM is a Best Buy-only model that is a lot like the Z Series, but without the dual graphics cards and some other features. It's also just over $1,000. There are some similar thin and light laptops made by ASUS, Toshiba and HP, but they're all missing some features I wanted, like a built-in DVD drive, Bluetooth or a big hard drive. The cost of upgrading them, when it was possible, put them in about the same range, so I went with the Sony.

    I hesitated a bit, mostly because Sony always uses some proprietary hardware and doesn't seem to cooperate much with Linux developers. It took we a while to get everything on the SZ750N working with Ubuntu, and then some fiddling to keep it working as I upgraded Ubuntu versions.

    People were already making progress on the VPCS111FM, so I figured everything would work out.

    I haven't installed Ubuntu yet, so I've only used it with the pre-installed Windows 7. It seems odd that Microsoft has moved past Vista and onto Windows 7 and computer companies are still offering a free downgrade to Windows XP. That's got to be driving somebody in Redmond crazy.

    Windows 7, by the way, seems OK. Nothing to tempt we away from Linux, but seems to work fine. My only real complaint is that using the trackpad is awkward. I get used to Linux and whenever I use a computer with Windows I find it irritating that I can't easily switch from moving the cursor to moving the window just my moving my finger to the right side of the pad.

    On to the hardware.

    The keyboard is nice. Not great when compared to some of the others I tried, like the ones on HP and ASUS laptops, but a lot better than the one on the SZ. That one just felt flimsy and cheap.

    It was also loud, which was a problem when I took notes in meetings. Got some dirty looks, and even a comment once, when I forgot to type softly.

    This keyboard is the new "chiclet" type. The keys poke through holes in a metal frame. The frame separates them so there's a space between each key, rather than just a slope. I think it's easier to type. I'm less likely to hit two keys at once.

    The case is metal. It's a silvery color and shiny. Personally I preferred the flat black on the SZ because it was less conspicuous, but this one is fine really.

    The trackpad is metal as are the two button just below it. It feels fine and works well.

    The case has substantial rubber bumpers on both the base and the screen bezel. They stick out a good amount and seem to be stuck on well.

    That's not something I would ordinarily notice, but on the SZ they were so small that the keys made an impression on the LCD when you closed the lid. The impression became more pronounced over time, especially after the bumpers started falling off.

    The heat exhaust is on the left side of the laptop, rather than on the bottom. That's a nice feature. It keeps the heat off your lap, if you use the computer the way the name suggests you would. It also lets the heat escape even if you set the laptop on a soft surface.

    (Specs after the jump)

    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    Buzz Faking

    If you're trying to sell a product or a service, one way to do it is to create a buzz -- get people talking about it and, with some luck, trying it. Real buzz is great, but some sellers settle for creating their own, fake, buzz.

    For example, they search help sites looking for problems their product can solve. Let's someone's selling SpamAnnihilatorGoldPlus 2.0. He could search for questions about stopping spam, then reply:
    WebNewbie: I keeping getting spam in my inbox, does anybody know what I can do to stop it?
    BuzzFaker: I had that same problem. My inbox was filling up with messages I didn't want. It was driving me crazy. This guy I know who's kind of a techie suggested a program called something like Spam Annihilate. He said it was the best and the price was pretty low considering how effective it is. I've been running it for a couple of months and I never get any spam in my inbox anymore. I found it by Googling the name.
    That's pretty basic. More advanced Buzz Faking is entirely fake. The Faker posts his own fake questions, then follows it up with this own fake answer.

    So how can you separate real help from Buzz Faking?

    Saturday, February 06, 2010

    Replacing the LCD on a Sony VGN-T150

    I have a Sony VAIO VGN-T150 that I inherited from my wife when she broke the screen. I replaced the screen and used the computer for a couple of years. Then I broke the screen or, more specifically, United Airlines did.

    Now that I'm replacing it again, I thought I'd post some helpful information. Even if you don't find it helpful, I will the next time I need it.