Monthly Archives: March 2006

Free Public Domain Clip Art

As a followup to the recent article on vector graphics I thought I would share a great example of vector graphics at work. The folks at the Open Clip Art Library are hard at work compiling a catalog of public domain clip art. While the keyword search is still pretty rought around the edges the library has done a great job at soliciting donated artwork. Of course, the two best parts are the requirement that all clip art be in the public domain and that SVG is the primary vector graphics format used.

What does this mean to you? First, it means that you can be fairly certain you won’t be sued for a copyright violation in using this artwork in publications, in a presentation, or on a web site. This in itself is a great reason to have the library. Secondly, the use of SVG means you can use a variety of programs to manipulate and work with the files and scale them to any size you require. For more information on the SVG file format specifically and vector graphics in general see my earlier article.

Vector Graphics and You

If you’re intertested in technology and subtle trends or in digital art you should know about vector graphics. Essentially vector graphics are filled line art. The difference between graphics like this and photographs (raster or bitmapped graphics) is that a bitmapped graphic stores a line as a series of XY coordinates (pixels) that are some color value while a vector graphic would store the line as a vector starting from some XY coordinate and ending at another XY coordinate with some color value. While usually being less photorealistic there are several distinct advantages to the vector graphics format.

The major advantage, and the one we’ll concentrate on here, is the ability to scale vector graphics to any size without pixalation. Obviousy this is a tremendous advantage when working on digital publications which might be printed on any size paper or displayed at any resolution on a PC.

There are a number of different programs and file formats for working with vector graphics. Probably the most widespread is the Adobe Illustrator program which is the workhorse of the industry. Other examples are Corel Draw, Macromedia FreeHand and the Macromedia Shockwave/Flash programs, but those are primarily used for animation and web-based work only. On the file format side you have the proprietary .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .swf (Flash), .dcr (Shockwave), .cdr (Corel Draw) and on the standards (with varying degrees of openness) side you have .wmf (Windows Meta File), .cgm (Computer Graphics Metafile) and .svg (Scalable Vector Graphics). SVG is what we’ll be concentrating on here as that seems to be the way the industry is moving.

Scalable Vector Graphics is an open standards markup language for storing vector graphics. Things like this which aren’t ritzy or of interest to the general public tend to have long adoption curves. This is certainly true of SVG which was started in 1998 and is just picking up steam. SVG is supported in at least some way by most of the major players these days including Adobe Illustrator. Interestingly, SVG supports animation as well so as more toold are developed it might be possible to see SVG supplant Shockwave/Flash as an internet animation standard. Starting with release 1.5 of the popular Mozilla Firefox browser SVG support is built in and no additional viewer or plugin needs to be downloaded. Unfortunatly, Internet Explorer still requires the download of a (free) plugin.

Another advantage of SVG is that, being an open standard, there are a variety of tools to choose from. The most popular seems to be Inkscape which is a (more focused) fork of the Sodipodi group, both of these tools are cross-platform and open source. Recently commercial software publisher Xara has released an open source version of their software named Xara Xtreme and is supposedly working with the Inkscape developers to create an even better and more complete open source solution. One of the older supporters of SVG is Skencil, but they seem to have fallen behind Inkscape. Of course recent versions of Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw also support SVG although they are not always 100% compatible with some of the other tools. Many tools have also been created which allow you to convert older formats such as WMF to SVG.

While it may not be exciting, revolutionary or an overnight change SVG is starting to gain momentum as the format of choice for vector graphics. If you are designing a logo or other line art I would get a copy of it in SVG format as some insurance against file format obsolescence. Although vector graphics are not as widely supported by consumer applications as raster graphics that seems to be changing as well and the numerous advantages of vector graphics for simple artwork and diagrams should prove successful in the long run.

Using Linux for Drive Imaging

An idea that has been hiding out in one of my mind’s recesses is using Linux as a platform for imaging hard drives. The DOS based drive image programs (Ghost, DriveImage, etc.) seem to run into lots of problems supporting newer hardware and ideas such as booting from CD or USB drive , supporting multiple NICs, storing and recalling images over a network, etc. While more modern solutions such as Acronis True Image are WinPE based they have not seen the same widespread adoption and remain proprietary solutions that lock up your image data in some non-standard format.

I would like to see the expertise from creating “live” linux CDs (and USB drives) such as those from Knoppix and Ubuntu used to make a specialty distribution for use in PC hard drive imaging. The ideal solution would have varying levels of compression, a decent user interface, just work out of the box for most users and support storing to and recalling from any SMB/CIFS fileshare. Users should not need any prior experience with linux for basic usage but the distribution should support advanced topics such as multicasting and PXE booting to aid in large deployments. Of course you could give this away and still have an entire business model surrounding support and training on the product for business users.

In my search for a product such as this the closest thing I could locate was the G4L “Ghost for Linux” project. This porject proves there is interest in a program like this but it is really quite unpolished, especially in the UI end and support for anything out of the ordinary like booting from USB. There is no reason that single purpose linux distributions need to be ugly. As Knoppix and Ubuntu have prooven you can get a linux GUI onto a CD with plenty of room left for software.

Pixie Bits

Even among network professionals there are some protocols that remain a bit of voodoo. One of those is the PXE aka Preboot Execution Environment which is pronouced pixie. Developed as part of a larger initiative in the 1990s to make PCs easier to manage PXE sees only minimal use. Along with Wake on LAN (WoL) technology PXE could remotely start a PC and install a drive image regardless of the current state of the system. In another scenario PXE could be used to boot and operate diskless workstations allowing PCs to operate somewhere between a dumb terminal and a standalone PC. Many Linux distributions also support installation via PXE.

Despite all of these uses PXE remains a bit of a mystery, even to the IT professional. Part of that mystery lies in the misunderstandings and complexity of PXE which primarily stem from the use of several other existing technologies such as DHCP and TFTP in the boot process. Back in February Computerworld ran an article that attempts to demystify the PXE boot process. If you’re at all interested in getting to know just a little more about this interesting technology I suggest reading their article.

Free PDF Creation

If you are looking for a simple and free tool to create PDF files I suggest taking a look at PDFCreator. This sourceforge project is a simple open-source program that installs a PDF “printer” into your Windows system. This allows you to create PDF files from just about any program that can print. While the porgram does not support all the bells and whistles that the Adobe Acrobat Writer does, it is suitible for 98% of the PDF creation that goes on. For a cheap and easy way to distribute your documents in the PDF format check this out.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Payphones

The Payphone Project website is just that, a site dedicated to the humble and endangered payphone. Containing everything from photos to stories this is like a back cover of 2600 gone wild. There are currently no payphone pictures from Minnesota. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to photograph and send a copy to them.

Your Digital Life

I’ve often wondered who will be able to run for political office in forty or fifty years. People, especially youg people, seem to be so naive about posting things online. For years online forums and messageboards have been a place where people vented. Now sites like Myspace, Facebook and others are creating such a low barrier to entry that almost every middle and high school child in the United States has some kind of web presence. What many fail to understand is that once something is posted or “said” on the internet it never goes away…ever. The internet is also quite easy to search if you know what you’re doing. This dangerous combination means that everything you write to a messageboard can be found at some point in the future and “can and will be used against you”. Any kind of off-color comment or joke you ever made online, even if your intention wasn’t to hurt anyone, is public knowledge.

Employers already know about this. BusinessWeek recently ran an article called “You are what you post” that talked about some of the implications for job seeking but I think the arena where this will really get the consultants salivating is politics. There are so few people who are able to hold their tounge and never offend anyone. In the past politicians have relied primarily on obscuring and making it difficult to find embarassing things about their past. When today’s teens start running for political office these things will only be an internet search away. Remember that posting to that email discussion list about STDs you made when you were 15? How about that time someone on a messageboard got you mad and you called them a racial slur? You may have forgotten these incidents but the internet has not and neither will your enemies.

I wonder if the politicians of the future will need to be groomed from birth to have no defects and think very, very carefully before ever speaking. On the other hand our society may end up becoming more accepting of faults which would not be an all bad outcome. This remains to be seen but in the meantime those of us who have always tried to think about how what we say today could come back (for better or worse) in the future are going to be much better off than the indiscriminate masses.

Cell Phone to POTS Adapters

When the rates on cell phone calling initially started dropping and people started to use cell phones as a primary home phone we saw a number of devices such as the CellSocket that were designed to allow you to feed a cell phone into your regualr home POTS wiring and use it with your home phones. Eventually the interest in these devices seemed to drop off and I actually picked one up on clearance for under $10. One of the biggest inconveniences is that they are tied to a specific phone model. Studies I have seen indicate the average cell phone user changes handsets every year which entailed purchasing an entirely new CellSocket something few consumers were willing to do.

The advent of the family plan which allows you to dedicate a device to replacing you home phone while sharing minutes may revitalize products like CellSocket. Meanwhile technologial advances may have solved the phone must match adapter problem. I recently saw a product called Dock-N-Talk which claims to do just that. You can get different cables for different phones but better yet is support for Bluetooth which has become a standard feature on cell phones. Combining a product such as this with an additional “line” on your cell phone plan could just be what it takes for you to cut the wire.

The Sipura 941

I was surprised to see a new Sipura phone listed in one of the telephony catalogs I receive. Last spring Cisco acquired Sipura, a popular VoIP hardware vendor. It seems that Cisco is now starting to offer Sipura products under the Linksys brand which accounts for some of the confusion. Strangely, the Sipura/Linksys 941 is not listed on either the Linksys or Sipura websites yet you seem to be able to purchase them from a number of online retailers. The popular VoIP-info wiki even has a page dedicated to the 941.

What originally caught my eye is the design of this phone, which is quite similar to the high-end Cisco VoIP phones, at a pricepoint of $149. The phone seems to support either four or two lines depending on which software key you enter which is a strange yet very Cisco-like thing to do. Assuming the phone performs as well as the Cisco phones this could be a promising phone for the cost-conscious small and medium size business.

Another development on the VoIP front is the price reduction in Wi-Fi SIP phones. Devices such as the UTStarCom F1000 phone are coming in for under $170. Keep your eye on these phones!

Web Storage

Last Tuesday Amazon unveiled an online storage service named S3 for which users will pay $0.15 per GB-Month of storage used and $0.20 per GB of data transferred. Ars-technica ran this story following this press release regarding the service. One thing not obvious from some of the buzz surrounding this annoucement is that this seems to primarily be aimed at application developers. As far as I can tell as of now there is no friendly client software or web portal with wich an end-user can easily store their data. That said, this service does offer some interesting possibilities.

The firs thing I thought of is an online backup system. With prices this low the average user could store a DVD’s worth of documents for about seventy-five cents a month (plus transfer). That starts to look appealing as most users don’t have more than a few gigabytes of documents to backup. heck, for prices like that they could even backup their media collections, digital photographs, etc. Think of it this way, for $50 a year (plus transfer) you could have offsite backup of over 25GB of data. That’s appealing to me. The first thing is for someone to write a client for this. If it was me I’d be looking at the ultra-efficient Unison file synchonization software. You may need to get Amazon to support it or just use a simialr idea for differential transfers but either way it would keep transfer costs and associated badnwidth to a minimum. I’ve started using a procees like this for backing up my own data to an offsite server and once I got the initial upload completed the syncing happens quite quickly. The other problem I can forsee is a question of security. With the recent government inquiries regarding search results people need to feel that their data will be secure on Amazon’s servers. The application will need to have built in encryption to prevent access to sensitive data by anyone at Amazon or any outside company or government. With an easy to use file differential based and encrypted backup solution I can see a service like this becoming quite popular.

The second thought I had is that a service like this could be a boon to podcasters who seem to chew through bandwidth like there’s no tomorrow. With built-in support for the bittorrent protocol the only thing that remains to be seen is what type of sustained transfer rate Amazon can support. This could be a great in-between spot for those podcasters who have outgrown most web hosts but aren’t big enough to get a contract with a content distribution network. One report I looked at suggest estimating 60GB of transfer a month costing $40/month compare that with hosting on Amazon’s S3 service which would cost around $12. Savings like that can add up pretty quickly when you’re an independant podcaster. Again, the big holdup is that someone needs to write a client for this.

It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of applications take off and will take advantage of this service. There are some rumblings about Google offering a similar service which could make things even more interesting.