Category Archives: Web Wanderings

Remembering our Media Past

One of my more recent pastimes when I have a few minutes to spare and am already caught up on the news and either need to relax and unwind a bit or just don’t have time to dive in to a more substantial project is to browse around on YouTube (similar to I do on Wikipedia) and see what turns up. One of the more interesting things that I have turned up are old “airchecks” from Twin Cities area television stations.

Being a media geek I’m fascinated by how news has changed over the years, particularly in my market. I’ve known about many of the private collectors of radio airchecks for some time but thanks to the fine people at there are now many TV airchecks from the area available online as well. Some of my favorites are actually the tv news reports on some of the area radio stations (which is how I found the archive in the first place). It’s amazing to see just how different news reporting looked even 15 years ago. While we can discuss somewhat about whether the content is any better there is no doubt that the production quality has drastically improved.

The Coldplay/Satriani Issue

If you’re not yet familiar with the Coldplay/Satriani issue the basic premise is that guitar artist Joe Satriani is suing the band Coldplay because he believes that a member of the band who attended one of his concerts copied some of his music and used it in one of their songs. We’re not talking about sampling or copying a part of a recording but actually copying the musical thought behind one part of the song. In any event you can get a brief idea of what I mean by watching one of the many videos on YouTube where they play the two sections one right after the other. To further complicate things it seems the original idea may have come from a third artist.

Being a bit of a music geek and copyright activist I find this all rather fascinating. After all there a a limited number of original chord progressions. My personal feeling is that you should not be able to own a chord progression at all. Music is built collectively over time by different artists listening to and learning from one another, it’s just how it works. In classical and solo piano music we have this as “variations on…” and the entire development of the Jazz genre is about artists hearing each others “sound” and tweaking it.

I would argue that allowing ownership of chord progressions is similar to allowing ownership of the writing concept that “the butler did it” or one of the many standard plots found in movies and TV. This is plain silly and should not be allowed. Clearly, despite having similar sections and feelings, they are different songs (they are not identical). While it is nice, courteous and polite to acknowledge your inspirations it should not be legally required, nor should you be required to get permission nor should you have to pay for these rights.

Much of the YouTube coverage of this is the simple laying of one track over (or next) to the other. If you’re interested in a much more in depth look at the music theory of chord progressions and knowing how the to melodies and harmonies relate to each other I highly recommend looking at the two part series on the music theory behind the accusations put together by the Creative Guitar Studio in Canada, which also has an accompanying web site.

Deconstructing the Car Talk Jukebox

The great folks at National Public Radio’s Car Talk recently switched from using Real Player to a flash based MP3 media player for online listening. I think this is a fantastic change as the only thing I was still using Real Player for was to listen to Car Talk online. I do realize that for some time a podcast version of the show has been available through NPR but I tend to listen to it spread out over several days and the Real Player (and now Flash based player) allow me to jump directly to specific segments of the show, a big advantage over one long MP3 file for my purposes.

The only problem with the new player is that I initially couldn’t get it to work with my system. The player would never fully load and would not play the show. This really presents a problem if one wants to listen to the show. Of course I submitted an email to Click and Clack notifying them about the problem, apparently they’ve been receiving quite a bit of email about the new player for better or worse because it took about 5 days to even get a form response back. Like most of what Click and Clack have to say it wasn’t that helpful (install the latest version of Flash, etc). Since I already regularly waste time with Flash websites on a regular basis I was sure that Flash wasn’t my problem. This led me to start deconstructing their player architecture to find out and fix the problem myself, in true Car Talk fashion.

To make a long story short for the impatient reader I’ll cut to the chase. Ads are loaded and played from a third party site (NPR) and require cookies (3rd party cookies) to play. The ad must play before the player will load the show audio. I had 3rd party cookies disabled, hence no show. I fixed this by explicitly allowing cookies from both and Of course, there are many more interesting ways of solving the problem and more that can be learned by total deconstruction so the reader looking for further edification may want to read on.

By looking at the page source and link formats I fairly quickly determined that Car Talk was using the JW FLV Media Player and it was loading a playlist file called showAllsmil.xml which likely contained the asset (MP3 audio) URLs to be played. The trick would be to find this file and figure out why my player wouldn’t work. By looking at the source of the player page I could determine that before the player fully loaded it needed to play an ad from NPR. That certainly gave me quite a clue as to why things weren’t working and eventually led me to the cookie solution you read about above but let’s explore the javascript code that selects and gives the player a URL for the MP3 ad:

var site = 'CARTALK';
var area = 'Cartalk.Player';
var pageNum = Math.round(Math.random() * 100000000);
var randomNum = Math.round(Math.random() * 100000000);'+site+'/area='+area+'

It’s interesting that this is all done in client side javascript instead of randomly serving an ad from a static server side URL, but I guess doing things in javascript is the Web 2.0 way! Now you know what to do if you want to listen to NPR ads all day long. Generate a bunch of random numbers and load up some URLs. What if you want to listen to an actual Car Talk show, perhaps on an unsupported player/OS like Linux without Flash installed. For this you’re going to want to get your hands on that xml playlist file. First you’ll want to find the URL, which as it turns out is also generated by some bits of javascript which could also be done server side:

var f=gup('play');
var s=gup('show');	
if (s==null || s=="") s="WeeklyShow";
var file2 = ''+s+'/'+f;

Where gup is a function which pulls some variables out of the URL, again something really easy to do in a server side language like PHP, oh well…javascript it is. If you want to listen to the entire most recent weekly show you’ll end up with a URL that looks something like:

If you want to just hear the last segment (segment 10 of the show) you’d end up with:

Of course it’s similar for 01smil.xml through 09smil.xml. Note yet again that this could all be handled without creating a million files if it were done server side, but I digress. When you open up that XML playlist file you end up with something where it’s easy to see the MP3 asset files can be found at:

and so on. Note that these streaming MP3s can be played in any MP3 player so you could play them on Linux or just about anything else that plays MP3 files.

An interesting project would be to create a script which dynamically generated an advertisement MP3 URL, pulled the SMIL file and stripped out the asset URLs and spit out a more standard M3U playlist file. If this were done in server side scripting (PHP anyone) you could easily create a link which would feed any player a playlist of the most recent show segments (plus an opening advert to keep NPR happy). Such a M3U playlist would be useful as it would allow you to play streaming Car Talk MP3s from just about any player/OS without manually getting all the segment URLs.

Computer Collecting

Friends who have seen my electronics warehouse, err.. basement, know that I’m an avid collector of “antique” electronics. From the 8-Track recorder, yes you heard that right not just an 8-Track player, but a recorder, to my collection of cell phones and landline phones my interest in history seems to manifest itself in collecting bits of history.

As an information technology professional I think it’s both important and useful to realize how I got to where I am. For me this means both the people like “Mr. C” my elementary school computer teacher who showed me the inside of an Apple //e and taught me the fundamentals of computing as well as those early machines I worked with. This means that it has been one of my personal goals to collect some of those influential machines from my early years. A fun side benefit is the ability to play the games and software I remember from my youth on real hardware instead of an emulator.

This means that I also have quite a collection of computers in my basement, primarily Motorola 68k Macs and a few Commodores. I’ve even gone so far as to have similar minded geek friends over for a LAN party consisting of these early Macs in a LocalTalk environment. Nothing like a good game of Wagon Train 1848 (multiplayer Oregon Trail) to get things going!

Because of these interests I try to stay on top of what’s going on in vintage computing circles, subscribe to several mailing lists and visit quite a few websites devoted to the topic. There’s something to be said for experimenting with computers just to see what can be done even though it may not be practical (LocalTalk to Ethernet bridge for Internet access from a 512K Mac anyone?) though it seems to be something that occurs less frequently these days.

I recently ran across 1000BiT, a website devoted to vintage computing which I had not seen before. 1000BiT is a great website for finding everything you can related to a specific vintage computer in one place. From system specs to original advertising, brochures and manuals they’ve got it covered. It’s a great stroll through personal computing history and an easy place to get lost in for hours as you pour over the specs and adverts which built an empire.

Congressional Media Access

In January of this year I wrote about congressional media access. Specifically the concerns I had related to C-SPAN’s attempt to gain independent camera access to the floor of the house and senate which could prohibit the redistribution of proceedings should copyright be enforced. At the same time the independent camera C-SPAN access to committee hearings was already preventing them from being redistributed freely. At that time I lamented that a situation such as this would occur when the Internet provides such a low cost way for the government to make itself more accessible to the people.

Since January a lot has been going on, primarily thanks to Carl Malamud and the great people at who are truly dedicated to bringing public domain government documents and media to the people via the Internet. Thanks to their efforts the Internet Archive has already started getting access to and posting committee hearings online, the archive page also has a good overview of the current state of things. The goal, and what I consider a great solution is that “By the end of the 110th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives could achieve the goal of providing broadcast-quality video of all hearings and the floor for download on the Internet.” Obviously this would be a huge step forward and I would hope the Senate would follow suit.

I really hope that all this comes to pass as it would be a giant leap forward in making government produced content freely accessible to the people. There are other targets (such as NASA TV archives, FCC proceedings, etc.) which could be similarly targeted. Ideally state legislature proceedings would be online as well. The government produces a huge amount of material which belongs to us, the taxpayers, and there are a lot of interesting things that go on in the government. I believe it is only fair that we have access to these proceedings, and other government documents, collections and media, at the highest quality possible so that we may reuse and distribute them.

Road Sign Fonts and Typefaces

I don’t even remember how it happened anymore but somehow a few weeks ago I ended up reading about the various typefaces (fonts) used on highway and road signs. Traditionally road signs, specifically on federally funded roads but often on on local roads as well, have used a series of Gothic typefaces specified in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) documents. It’s my understanding that the original specification called for all uppercase lettering but eventually some of the series were modified to provide for lowercase. As an interesting aside I hadn’t ever really thought about it but if you drive around you’ll still find a great many roadsigns that use uppercase lettering only.

A fairly recent and interesting development is that a private company has received FHWA approval for a new typeface which they developed called Clearview and which supposedly allows for better recognition at a distance without increasing sign size. It’s also interesting to note that this new typeface “natively supports” lower case lettering. Although not yet allowed by all states the Clearview typeface does seem to be gaining momentum and may be coming to a sign near you. The Clearview people have some interesting documentation on their website about the research they did to design the font.

While not officially approved for use on signs and some licensing restrictions apply there are some free fonts such as the Roadgeek set which provide an excellent approximation of the FHWA Gothic and Clearview fonts. The same site points out that the Minnesota DNR makes available a font with the recreation symbols often found on state maps and highway signs. Both of these would be handy resources if you were trying to create a road sign graphic for say a web page. Interesting stuff.

A bit about copyright

Copyright was in the news again recently. Researcher Rufus Pollock has written a new paper in which he both qualitatively and quantitatively makes a case for limited length copyright being a better incentive than perpetual (or lengthy) copyright for the creation of new works (the goal of copyright). If you don’t want to read the full paper a review of it is available from ars technica. Pollock has also written in the past about the value of the public domain. Though his most recent paper is not as strong as other critics of current intellectual property policies (see Boldrin and Levine who suggest it provides no incentive and that it be abolished altogether) it provides an important (and perhaps more reasonable point to start discussing the purpose, success and benefit of intellectual property to society.

There’s more than Chernobyl and Three Mile Island

One of the classes I teach at the University of Minnesota is a course on Technology and Public Ethics. In this class we attempt to uncover some of the social and ethical issues surrounding technology. In some cases technology is a solution to a social dilemma and in other cases it creates or contributes to the dilemma. One topic we look at is the production, transmission and consumption of energy. In the study of society and ethics cut and dried answers are few and far between, such is the case for nuclear power.

While nuclear power has traditionally been viewed with disdain because of a lack of understanding about how it works, the dangers involved and the question of nuclear waste it is again being discussed as a power production option as we become more concerned with the causes and effects of global warming, specifically carbon emissions such as those from traditional power generation sources. In the end nuclear power may provide an important supplement to renewable energy sources in combating the problem of carbon emissions. Before arriving at a conclusion like that it would be important to understand concerns surrounding nuclear power. For the most part these center on the potential for disasters and nuclear waste. While many people have heard of the Three Mile Island incident in the United States and the Chernobyl incident in the Ukraine (see this posting) these are certainly not the only incidents on record.

Two incidents that took place much earlier in the history of nuclear reactors were the Windscale (U.K.) and SL-1 (U.S.) incidents. Thanks to the web you can read about these incidents from several sources:

In addition to these reactor incidents there have been many incidents or close calls in research laboratories which, while they do not generally pose a significant threat to the general public, are dangerous for those in the immediate vicinity.

There is also the question of what to do with nuclear waste. One might argue that a sound policy is the reprocessing of nuclear waste into less harmful and more useful/reusable isotopes and while this has been met with success in Europe it is not currently policy or procedure in the United States where indefinite storage is used. The current plan is for waste to be housed deep underground at Department of Energy storage facilities (Yucca Mountain and WIPP). One of the challenges posed by this plan is a desire to warn future generations of the potential hazards in these locations when all current languages might be lost. This article explains some of the proposed solutions for just this problem.

Handy tool for sheetmetal cutting

Yesterday I was introduced to the TurboShear by Malco which is one of the greatest innovations I’ve seen in sheetmetal work. Instead of using a hand or electric shear for cutting the metal this devices chucks into your cordless drill and allows much more precise cutting (such as square corners) than electric shears and is much faster than hand shears. Shears also work well for cutting vinyl, steel mesh and other similar materials. Malco also makes a heavy duty and fiber cement board version of the product though for basic sheetmetal work such as HVAC ducting the standard TS1 seems to do the trick just fine.

Argh… More Power

You can find quite an interesting selection of videos on YouTube. Today we’re going to watch electricity in action. No, not doing useful things around the house but lots of electricity going awry. Here is a high voltage power line arcing for a while before it arcs to another phase and blows a fuse. Here is a similar video showing night time arcing at a substation. Finally, here is a substation where the arcing got bad enough to superheat the transformer oil, vaporize it and explode it.