Monthly Archives: December 2006

The Protection Racket

Consumer protection that is. A couple of weeks ago I heard about a problem where Verizon gave an incorrect quote (several times) for data plan usage (seems they fail to understand the difference between $.002/kb (.002 dollars/kb) and .002 cents/kb) and refused to admit their mistake. That seems to be sorted out for the original poster now, though it appears to remain an issue for many others who had the same problem and who are now discovering they are not alone.

One other good thing to come out of this was my discovery of The Consumerist: Shoppers Bite Back web site. As someone who feels consumers are often used and abused by big businesses which fail to act responsibly it’s nice to see the small guy get a voice. Incidentally, Time Magazine has named you (or me) person of the year. Isn’t it interesting how massive distribution and viral publicity on the internet can do wonders to turn the table on big businesses which are not so nimble anymore?

A Lesson in Civil Defense

As a bit of a modern history buff I was pleased to find a few interesting websites related to Civil Defense in the post WWII era last month. First up is the online Civil Defense Museum. This enjoyable site shows you just some of what went on during the cold war era of civil defense including photos and information about fallout shelters, propaganda posters and more. One thing which would make this even better is if high resolution scans of some of the posters could be posted, it’s difficult to locate these CD posters!

The same site has some information and photos from a decommisioned Nike Missile Base. For those not in the know the Nike missile system was a surfact to air defense system built in a ring around many major metropolitan areas during the cold war. This is of interest to me because my mother grew up on a farm nead one of these bases. An even better example of what one of these bases looked like in their heyday can be found in these photos from a restored base (SF-88) just North of San Francisco, CA.

Slightly older than the Nike bases and the cold war civil defense information are some of the famous World War II propaganda posters. These are much easier to locate and generally better preserved than the civil defense ones. For example, the Northwestern University Library has an online gallery of their poster collection and will provide public domain high resolution scans (so you could print your own copies if you wanted) for a nominal fee, it’s not free but at least they make them available. An even better collection and better scans lies closer to me at the Univeristy of Minnesota digial World War I and II poster collection. These are even better preserved and better indexed than the Northwestern ones. Unfortunatly, they don’t have any provision for sharing full resolution (or even high resolution) copies of their scans, even for a fee. It’s a shame that a public instiution is sitting on what could be a fantastic collection of high resolution public domain artwork from an important time in our nation’s history. I do understand the need to recoup the cost of scanning these and sending copies out but a nominal fee could easily cover these expenses.

Public Domain Sheet Music

There was some flap last week when the International Mozart Museum purchased and made copies of the entire Neue Mozart-Ausgabe (complete works of Mozart) available online. As it turns out the license is quite restrictive and only solo studying is allowed. Note that this work (as a farily new translation) is still in copyright, older public domain versions are already available.

In any event it set me off on a quick search around the internet for public domain sheet music. I didn’t come up with much, certainly nothing on the scale of Project Gutenberg. Mutopia is about as close as you can come, but even this is quite a small project. Project Gutenberg and others do have some music available, unfortunatly a lot of it is only available in proprietary formats requiring expensive software to view or print (more on this below). If all you’re looking for is scans of pages you can try sites like these but it would be nice to have it in a truly digital and free format.

From what I can tell you really need to make things available in multiple formats, preferably LilyPond which does a subpurb job of old style engraving and outputting into PDF (for people who want to print it and play it), these people are serious about making music look the way it should and not computer generated sheet music which generally looks quite poor. Being an open format converters can easily be written to convert LilyPond files into other formats.

The Holiday Train

I heard on the news last week that Canadian Pacific Railways has a lit up holiday train which rolls across the countryside, at least on the CP tracks, this time of year. Living in the upper midwest this is my neighborhood, unfortunatly by the time I heard, it was too late to see one of the stops but I’ll have to remember to get out next year and take some pictures!

Solving the Dual Tuner Satellite TiVo Dilemma

If you have a single coax line to each room in your house and DirecTV (or just about any other DBS satellite service) you may already be familiar with the fact that you can’t simply split satellite signals like you can with cable TV. Because the satellite companies use antenna (transponder) polarization to put twice as many channels on the same frequency range and they use a 22 kHz signal from the receiver to indicate which polarization should get sent down the line a regualr splitter causes problems. The solution is called a multiswitch which uses a dual-LNB satellite feed to fix one LNB to each polarization and then offer either feed to the receiver that asks for it. This is all well and good if you only have an single receiver in each room.

The problem comes when you have more than one tuner per room such as with a dual tuner TiVo system. You either need a seperate run back to the multiswitch for each tuner, or if you have more than two can use two runs and a cascading multiswitch to split the signal again. What about people who only have one run to a room and no way of adding another one without major construction? Thankfully a company called Sonora has come up with devices called Stackers and DStackers which can combine two polarizations and then split them back out again. The downside is you need both a Stacker and a DStacker which adds up to around $300 worth of additional equipment.

Personally, I think the satellite companies could think a little more creatively about this and offer a centralized tuning system with multiple modular tuners and then send only the channels you want over the coax to a receiver in the room which demodulates it and sends IR commands back to the centralized tuner system. This would also facilitate sharing the TiVo functionality to multiple rooms and lots of other cool ideas. Then again, I’m not all that impressed by the DBS satellite companies anyway, are they really any better than cable? I don’t think so.

E-books for the taking

Regular readers know I’m both a strong believer in giving away free electronic books and articles under open licensing and posting links to other free book resources as I find them. This week I was looking for a source of free e-books with nice formatting to try out one of the print on demand services and I came up with the Linux Documentation Project Guides site. I’ve been to and used the LDP site before but only for the much shorter HOWTOs. The guides section of the site contains a number of free full length refernce books in a variety of formats.

Another tool I came across that’s helpful in working with ebooks is the open source GutenMark software. As you probably already know Project Gutenberg makes public domain books freely available on the internet. If you haven’t used PG what you may not know is the majority of these are formatted only as ASCII text with hard line breaks making them quite unpleasant and difficult to read. The GutenMark software makes a best effort to make them into more readable word wrapped HTML files which can then be imported into a word processor and further refined if you so choose. Hopefully people will spend a bit of time cleaning up some of the more popular books and create versions suitable for offline prinitng and reading. I’m working on such a version of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.

Also, if you’re not aware the Google books project has been scanning public domain books at libraries and posting the images in PDF format online. Unfortunatly, they are watermarking the files and have somewhat restrictive licensising attached to downloading them. What you may not have heard is that Microsoft, Yahoo, the Univeristy of California and several Canadian libraries are undertaking similar projects but are working with the Internet Archive Texts project which have different terms depending on who sponsered the digitization of the book. It is unfortuante that some of these sponsors (usually only the corporate ones and not the libraries) are attaching terms of use to public domain books, but it is at least somewhat nice that they are being made available at all.

In other free ebook news O’Reilly will be publishing the updated Using Samba, 3rd Edition book in January. Hopefully it will be released under the same type of free license as the previous two editions. This updated reference guide will be greatly appreciated by the SAMBA community which has made significant strides in the recent versions of their software.

Organizing Media

I’ve written at least once before about software I could use for organizing my collection of books and DVDs. At that time I thought the Home Library project looked interesting but a little immature, since that time I’ve located a more mature project with similar aims. The Open Media Lending Database (OpenDb) project seems to be just what I’m looking for. It’s clear some real thought has gone into the layout and design of the program. You can add new media type definitions through plugins, export a standardized XML listing of your holdings so you’re not locked in, loan media to others and create a library with several friends. I’ll be sure to take this for a spin in the near future and maybe even start posting some of my own media collection.

Sending SMS messages in Windows XP

If you have a GSM cell phone with either Bluetooth or Infrared technology and a Windows XP system you can save a lot of key tapping on your phone by using a free Microsoft utility to send SMS messages. First you’ll need to download and install the widget from Microsoft. Make sure your phone is paired (assuming you’re using Bluetooth) with the system and select the appropriate modem for your phone in the SMS utility and start sending messages. More detailed instructions are available from O’Reilly along with instructions for doing something similar on Mac OS X.