Monthly Archives: January 2007

Happy Birthday Square One

Today is the twentieth birthday of Square One Television, the 1980s and 90s television show produced by Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now Seseme Workshop). Many of us remember watching both Square One (for math) and 3-2-1 Contact (for science) as children. To some extent educational science programming continued after the discontinuation of 3-2-1 Contact, both Newton’s Apple (for adults) and Bill Nye (for students) continued the trend of high quality educational science programming, though both of those programs have also ceased production. Yet there has never been another successful attempt at educational math programming that I’m aware of. The same fate was met by Ghostwriter (for reading/writing) and Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego (for geography/social studies) which were also popular educational PBS programs. Although these programs may sometimes have been of dubious educational value, they were certainly more educational than much of what is found on afterschool television today and they were enjoyed by a great many people.

Aside from a reprise in this creative and clever educaitonal television writing for school-aged students (most educational programming these days seems aimed at the pre-school to 2nd grade crowd) I would hope that the producers of these early pioneering shows would see fit to release DVDs. Much of this programming is still used in schools because nothing better has come along and the episodes would also be enjoyed by a wider populace which either remembers them or is looking for quality educational programming. Until the day these are available on commercial DVD I’ll have to be satisfied by the tape collection which I have traded with other collectors and converted to DVD.

For more information on Square One Television visit the fantastic Square One Television fansite and forums. For more information on 3-2-1 Contact and early science programming read 80s Science TV at Inkling Magazine.

Bypassing Macrovision protected content with a consumer electronics device?

I was recently reading this CoolTools article in NetworkWorld where Keith Shaw was explaining some of the gadgets he found at CES. One of the things that caught my eye was his explantion of the Streaming Networks iRecord Personal Media Recorder.

What caught my eye was his explanation that this device would allow you to “connect a DVD player…and press the record button…[to] instantly record the video’s content onto your video iPod.” Appaerently you can do the same thing with a PSP or any USB storage device. This is interesting to me because most DVD players, at least those sold in the US, output an analog copy protection system (Macrovision) when playing back digital content protected by a digital copy protection system (CSS). While such analog protection is easily removed by devices designed to do so and can be ignored by digital recording software most digital recording software and hardware manufacturers have been pressured (perhaps with legal threats, I don’t know) into detecting such copy protection on analog inputs and refusing to record. Either there was some misinformation in the NetworkWorld article or the iRecord was ignoring this protection.

I needed to look into this further so I checked out the Streaming Networks page for the iRecord. This page also blatently talks about recording DVDs though the analog inputs on the device. After some further poking around on the site all I could come up with was an FAQ entry explaining this is legal to do (good thing Fair Use still works to avoid analog copy protection, too bad the same can’t be said of digital transcoding thanks to the DMCA…)

The next stop was a CNet review which stated emphatically that “it can record protected DVDs” this seems to put the issue to bed. My only question now is how they avoided having to enforce the Macrovision protection when everyone else does. One potential answers lies in an older cached copy of the CNet review which states “In accordance to the terms, you won’t be able to get this [Macrovision protected] video off of your USB device (iPod, PSP) as you can with other recorded content.” This no longer appears in the current version of the article. Perhaps the information was incorrect and the Macrovision protection is ignored, but perhaps this just isn’t being talked about.

St. Paul, Minnesota Explores Municipal Fiber

Being someone who believes that while municipal wifi is nice it is overhyped and should come after fiber to the premesis (where I do much more computing anyway) I’m excitied to see that the nearby city of St. Paul, Minnesota is exploring municipal fiber.

What the St. Paul Broadband Access Committee (BAC) may not be aware of, but something I suggested they read is Bob Cringley’s article from last year about a new model for municipal connectivity. Instead fo relying on the municipality itself to provide Internet service, arguably with the potential to be a worse system administrator than the RBOCs and cable companies, his suggestion is a public/private partnership. Following his thinking, which comes from Bob Frankston (of VisiCalc fame) and others, the city would install and own the fiber infrastructure from central connectivity points to end users but would not actually provide any Internet (or voice or video service) leaving that up to private providers. In fact, the municipality would not be responsible for any of the electronic equipment either, just the raw pipes (or tubes if you prefer).

The beauty of this solution is that the city will own the infrastructure and allow multiple providers to compete to provide service. That competition, in addition to the fact that providers will not have the large up front cost of installing the fiber itself, should allow for service costs to remain quite low. In addition, with the use of technologies such as optical splitters and combiners it would be possible to get Internet from one provider, voice from a second and video from a third if you so chose. It’ll be interesting to see if this can take off, one thing I know is that I’m not especially interested in having government control the Internet portion of my service, the potential for abuse such as censorship or snooping is simply too great, but I have no problem with them owning some of the last-mile infrastructure if it means I can select from a number of providers!

Explaining the Cingular/AT&T Name Change

I recently ran across this video of Stephan Colbert explaining the Cingular/AT&T name change. He goes though a complete explantion of the lineage of Cingular back to the original AT&T and ends up how today’s AT&T looks a lot like the AT&T of the early 1980s…

Making fun of popular music

I recently saw two videos which poke fun at pop music. The first claims that many pop songs utilize only four chords. The point is illustrated by playing and transitioning through many songs over the course of the video. The second points out that many pop songs are based on the meledy in Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It also does this by playing segments of the songs where the meledy appears.

Of course there are a few problems. First, the key of many of these songs is changed in these videos to make it more obvious so it’s not really the same chords but the same chord progression. Secondly, it’s important to remember that while these songs may incorporate the same chord progression or meledy these are only parts of the song and not the entire basis of the song. There’s a long tradition in the arts of reusing others’ work so I don’t see this (especially the Pachelbel one) as a criticism of pop music so much as a fun and humorus exercise.

Expanding the size of a Debian Linux software RAID 5 array

Not long ago I built a new storage and mail server to replace several aging servers. I knew that to provide space for all my files and a little room to grow I would need a little more than a terrabyte of storage space and that I wanted this to be in a redundant RAID array. I mentioned in a previous post how I created a software RAID + LVM setup for this. The one catch is that my motherboard had fewer SATA ports than I initially thought so I had to leave one drive off the srray while I got things up and running.

A few days ago the PCI Express SATA controller came in so I needed to add the fifth drive to the existing array, ideally without breaking anything. The first few site I checked stated this was not yet possible but after doing a bit more checking I found out that if you have a current kernel, mdadm and LVM2 tools it actually is. I based this on information from the Gentoo-wiki but I did make a few changes for my specific scenario.

Really the only additional information I needed was to copy the partition table from one of the other drives (sdd) to the new drive (sde). “sfdisk -d /dev/sdd | sfdisk /dev/sde

I also use “lsof /home” to find which processes had open files on the volume before I unmounted it. I also set the stride flag on resize2fs to 16 based on my block and chunk sizes. Apparently getting this correct has a great bearing on speed and efficiency. For the record the stride size should be chunk size (from /proc/mdstat) divided by block size (from the file system). In my case my chunk size was 64k and block size 4k.

Creating free installers for Windows applications

On a recent trip around the web I discovered two open source tools that allow you to create installer packages for Windows applications. The Nullsoft Scriptable Install System (NSIS) has been around for quite a while, I even used it once upon a time to package up a few scripts of mine. A chief complaint at that time was that it didn’t look or operate in the same way the Microsoft Installer (MSI) programs did which has the potential to confuse some users or make them feel that your software was of a lesser quality. In fact recent versions of Mozilla Firefox, Gaim, OpenOffice and many other popular applications use NSIS for the installer. An interesting thing about NSIS is that you can cross compile the Windows installer on POSIX OSs such as Linux.

An alternative to NSIS is Inno Setup which has been around since 1997 when the author grew frustrated with InstallShield Express (ahh the days of InstallShield). Since that time a community of support for this installer has developed leading to tools such as ISTool, a graphical intergface for creating the installer script. One of the interesting things about Inno Setup is the extensive support claimed for installing 64-bit applications, something bound to catch developer’s eyes as more consumers move towards 64-bit computing.

The open source library, for books that is

One of the things that really warms my heart is to see governmental and pseudo-governmental agencies (which often have quite limited budgets as individual entities but collectively have both talent and money) contribute to the common good (and help themselves) by creating open source software which meets their needs and the needs of their peers. This is a great example of how there are a lot of agencies in different geographical areas paying for the same software but which could work collaborativly to develop open source solutions saving everyone money.

The example coming to mind right now is the Georgia PINES library consortium which has developed a free ILS (integrated library system). Libraries often pay quite a bit of money to commercial vendors for nightmarish ILS systems and these fees can easily break the budget for smaller library systems or standalone libraries. A solution like this is an excellent opportunity to have some control over the development of features and costs while contributing back to peer libraries.

From congress to you

Because of my historical association with providing an audio recording of the yearly presidential state of the union address to the Internet Archive project I’m interested in avoiding any chance of copyright infringement by getting my audio as far upstream as possible. Last year I wrote to my congressional delegation and asked a fairly simple question about how congressional programming got from the floor to me on C-SPAN (a public-private partnership which does have some copyright issues). I did get a couple of calls asking for clarification on my question. Apparently it’s not one they get asked a lot because they needed to go do some research. Eventually I got answers, but not good ones. I was able to learn about how the house and senate are responsible for creating the video of floor proceedings and even some about the specific departments responsible but nothing about how C-SPAN is able to get a split of that feed or how I might be able to. Anyway, I got busy with other things and haven’t really thought about it until recently when these two things came to my attention.

The first is the METAVID project at the University of California (Santa Cruz) which is capturing, archiving and streaming legislative proceedings. I thought they might have an in to an pre-CSPANified feed of proceedings which is why I looked into it, but it seems they are actually just taking the C-SPAN feed and covering the logo and text which are copyright C-SPAN, not the really copyright unencumbered answer I am looking for.

It also came to my attention that C-SPAN’s president has been out campaigning for “independant camera” access to the house and senate floor. This sounds like a good thing until you look at what it means. It means that instead of the government produced feed of floor proceedings we now get (and which is public domain) what you get on C-SPAN would be under their copyright control allowing for no reuse, etc. As my initial inquiry suggested last year it seems quite difficult to get a non C-SPANified feed now but at least even the C-SPANified version now is at least in murky copyright waters and not clearly owned by C-SPAN. Thankfully the changes proposed by C-SPAN have been rejected by congressional leadership for the time being but it’s critical to remain vigilant. At the very least I would like to think that completely public domain proceedings would be available live on a free-to-air satellite so they could be viewed, archived and distributed by people such as myself without fear of legal attacks.

Samba as PDC for a small domain

One of the changes in my recent server upgrade was moving from using Samba on Linux as a workgroup server to making it a primary domain controller and implementing a small domain. I’m still waiting for O’Reilly to publish their updated Samba book which comes out this month so in the meantime I turned to the internet for answers.

What I found was a jumble of things using a variety of different methods of configuration to accomplish this. Needless to say I spent quite a bit of time untangling all this different (and sometimes conflicting) information. Although my server runs Debian the singlemost useful resource was this howto from the Gentoo wiki. The domain is up and running but the jury is still out on whether this is actually useful enough to justify the extra setup time and headache for such a small (six client PCs) installation.