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Archive for May, 2011

YouTube Versus Television

TECHNOLOGY moves on and one must adapt to it. “Luddite” a word that is often used to discourage those who deviate from the norm, such as those who refuse to carry a mobile phone everywhere they go.The term Luddite in this case refers not necessarily to rejection of progress but to conformity of lack thereof.

Television is a generic term which refers to a device for remote viewing of something. Conventionally, however, we think of television as a set although some large bits of furniture or even projectors might nowadays qualify as televisions. What is common in almost all of them is that, with the exception of streaming or on-demand viewing, television is controlled by broadcasters, who have a lot of control over the viewer’s mind many hours of each day. The viewer can typically select the least undesirable channel among a finite number. Just because there are many channels these days does not mean one can watch a lot of them at once (simultaneously), so this limitation remains. The choice is elusive.

YouTube is different for several reasons as by its nature it allows anyone to broadcast and it also gives the viewer a lot more control over what is being watched. This is why I stopped watching television and eventually gave my set to a friend. The set was of no use anymore. It felt more like a device for passing commercials and clips that I did not wish to see. Sure, there were exceptions, but those were very rare. To choose a channel is still an illusion of choice as that hardly leaves much selection in the hands of the viewer. The choices are preselected by other people.

Recently I started to get more actively involved in YouTube not as a mere viewer. Back when YouTube presented statistics on how many videos a given account has watched the number 22,000 came up and since then I have watched probably about 50,000 videos on YouTube. So I pine to become part of those who contribute. In the coming weeks I will convert some older material and upload it to YouTube. It may be an interesting experience. Can a viewer engage in a two-way exchange of information? That certainly would be beneficial to society as it can weaken the power of media empires over people’s minds. It can also help promote the TechBytes show to people who never heard about it. At the very least as an experiment I shall see how it goes. This might be rethought.

Reflections on Permanently Moving From KDE3 to KDE4: 2 Years Later

KDE3 and KDE4

My last KDE3 desktop on the left and the current KDE4 desktop on the right

MY FIRST experience with KDE4 was KDE 4.1. I had not had a reason to abandon what I was using back then (no upgrade treadmill). I finally started using KDE4 (full time) when 4.3 came out. From that point onwards I could not really go back to KDE3 and be happy. There was nothing in KDE3 that I really did not have in KDE4.

GNOME seems to be going through a similar phase of transition right now. Linux Mint is clinging onto GNOME2 and some users abandon GNOME altogether because of Unity or Shell. Eventually, however, it will probably stablise and users will come to accept change. It can take time (maybe years) and despite minor changes that take some time getting used to, KDE3 does everything substantial that KDE3 could do and it actually does a lot more with decent performance (comparable or better than) w.r.t. to KDE3 on the very same hardware.

All improvements come with a learning curve.

TechBytes Episode 48: First Time With Flash Option

TechBytes

Direct download as Ogg (1:04:41, 13.8 MB) | High-quality MP3 (24.4 MB) | Low-quality MP3 (7.4 MB)

Summary: Tim and Roy speak about some of the latest news items which pose danger to software freedom

TODAY’S show is unique as it is the first time we produce a Flash option for listening to the show. We talk about GNU/Linux in North Korea, HTC’s Microsoft tax on Linux, and the pressure for Steve Ballmer to step down (among many other topics).

Today’s closing track is “1977″ by Anita Tijoux. The track comes from the usual source. All tracks are from SXSW 2010 (get the torrents legally here). In previous shows we played many good tracks such as April Smith’s “Colors”. There was also “Edge of My Seat” by Amber Rubarth, “Have This Drink” by Black Mike and Kemistry, “Joyful Noise” by Breakestra, “Sei La” by Erika Machado, “El Camino” by No te va gustar, “Future Eyes” by Ear Pwr, “Tokki no Rassha ” by Dolly, “Quanto Tempo” by Doces Cariocas, “Cos I said so” by Fangs, “Iguana” by SambaDa, “We Should Give” by Amity, “Blackout City” by Anamanaguchi, and “She’s Got You” by Cosmo Jarvis. We thank those artists for choosing to spread their good work. We have many more in the pipeline for future shows. We hope you will join us for future shows and consider subscribing to the show via the RSS feed. You can also visit our archives for past shows. If you have an Identi.ca account, consider subscribing to TechBytes in order to keep up to date.

As embedded (HTML5):

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Ogg Theora
(There is also an MP3 version)

Virgin Trains’ Customer ‘Support’ a Waste of Time

Speeding train

A couple of months ago Virgin Trains made an error which left me with an invalid couple of tickets. I had to purchase 2 new tickets in London and be late as a result, too. At the end of the day I approached Virgin, attempting of course to resolve this over the counter, instead being referred to customer support (by snail mail to Birmingham). After carefully writing an explanation and enclosing the unusable tickets I have been writing a couple of letters to them, passing them by post at the expense of my time and patience. They later ended up sending me a survey to provide feedback on customer support (which I did send them) rather than actually write back about the case of their mishandling. The post never came from them.

To cut this long story short, this whole experience was money down the drain and then a lot of time down the drain. I probably won’t buy tickets from Virgin Trains again. It’s not even worth losing hours like this, either in vain (like in my case) or where the outcome might be rightful compensation. I can only advise others to avoid Virgin Trains as well. After they mess up, their Customer ‘Support’ team failed to pick up the pieces. It’s a recipe for unhappy clients.

How We Make TechBytes

Microphone

Summary: How to make Internet-based phonecalls and also record them with Free software and open standards

TECHBYTES has had to do some research into recording shows with Free software. It was actually our intention since the early days of the show (November 2010) to look into a pipeline which is entirely Free software based. Because of convenience or laziness, we settled for and ended up recording the show under Skype, then doing the rest with Free software. We actually started by experimenting with SIP to some extent while simultaneously looking into a recorder which was compatible with Skype for GNU/Linux. As the show involved many guests (especially at the start) we needed to facilitate Skype access and curtailed the pursuit for a SIP replacement until more recently. Then came the time to record with Richard Stallman, which coincided with the disturbing rumour that Facebook would buy Skype. Eventually it was Microsoft, which can be seen as equally bad.

This post summarises my findings and to some extent Tim’s observations too. We spent many long hours researching the subject, testing many packages, testing the process inside many calls, and making a lot of test recordings, then refining them and adjusting parameters including volume levels. Some listeners provided valuable advice. Some gave application recommendations and here is what was found after a fairly thorough exploration.

SIP Communicator

I started using sip-communicator after Gordon Forbes had made the recommendation (about 4 months ago). It is pretty impressive, it is very features-heavy, and it was built with Java, which makes it somewhat heavy too. The version I use is still not very polished. It has some debugging-level code in it. The good thing about it is the built-in recording capability, webcam support (which works well, unlike Skype which never ever worked for me with any webcam), and automatic detection of all the underlying hardware. It worked with my webcam over the network, but not so consistently though. Some buttons seem to not yet have a callback function associated with them, at least in the version I have installed. It is like a development build. But, having said that, it’s a decent cross-platform application with good SIP support, assuming it can connect to the other side successfully.

Linphone

This good client does not appear to support video although Tim claims otherwise and my experience with it is very limited (the binary to run is linphone-3 on *buntu-based systems, not linphone) . It did not quite succeed with the callers I tested it with. It does have echo cancellation, just like Ekiga, which is the main application that I use.

Ekiga

So, that brings me to Ekiga. Fine application, although the toolkit it uses for the UI does not integrate so beautifully into KDE4. Even Skype sorted that out not so long ago (Qt Curve added), but Skype is out of the question here. Ekiga does everything, including video, reasonably well. Its Windows version is not so official however. When it comes to camera support, it does not consistently transport the image to the other side. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, for whatever reason. It worked for us with webcam over the network, but most of the time it does not.

Blink

One listener told me about Blink, which is cross-platform and quite good looking. It is abundantly easy to use. I have not had so much time to test it, having installed it from unofficially-approved repositories (quite successfully and without issues though). Its cross-platform support seems like a big advantage considering the fact that Ekiga may not support a lot of platforms reliably. Maybe the Skype exodus will motivate developers to hurry up with such development endeavours. Telephony is one of those areas where multiple sides are involved, so ports to proprietary platforms can be more easily justified.

Mumble

For a call with multiple participants this piece of software can be handy. it is cross-platform, it has wonderful setup wizards, and it is easy to use. We may use it in the future. Asterisk has a reputation of something that is hard to set up for similar tasks. Based on TLLTS, there are also recording quality issues associated with it. This downsamples everyone on the line. Of course, it is always possible to record separately on each side and then merge everything. But this is time-consuming and it requires manual synchronisation work.

Left out from this survey we have lots of GNU-affiliated packages and we of course do not bother with so-called ‘Cloud’ Computing options from Google (or Gizmo), which is Fog Computing and proprietary. It’s hardly better than Skype in that regard, as both are cross-platform.

Recording

Recording is another important part of the pipeline. As an alternative to Skype Call Recorder (which works with GNU/Linux) we considered using SIP Communicator and later Blink, which we were told has some recording facility. We have not found that in the GNU/Linux version yet. In any case, recording all system sounds from PCM seemed reasonable and alsamixer enables this to be done at some lower level, if not other mixers that are graphical. Failing to attain high quality, we may just record locally and then merge at the end, as Linux Outlaws is doing for example.

Audacity

Here are some instructions on how to get things working with Audacity. It may not work on all systems and filters might be needed to compensate for noise. But still, it is better than nothing. Since Audacity is also our editor of choice, integration of this sort is desirable.

GTK RecordMyDesktop

The package gtk-recordmydesktop is a front end to a program which requires some command-line-fu. The settings in the GUI are easy to follow and there are detailed tooltips too (optional). For additional command line options such as strict coordinates from which to capture can be specified in the GUI too, if necessary. Those who developed the product did a fine job simplifying screencasts, which is essentially how we process video-based shows. Encoding can be done at the end of recording in order to lower CPU load, especially if compression is used to compact large videos that are mostly static throughout.

Editing

For editing we have only used Audacity with a bunch of filters that we know help improve the quality of raw audio. The program is good for mixing several tracks, Except for that, my only prolonged editing experience goes back to Windows 3.11 days with Sound Blaster software. As I was about 11 or 12 at the time, that does not count for much. We are still improving and since we never edit any of the speech part (not even editing out or having second takes, the editing is mostly mixing oriented).

Encoding

To re-encode videos we use mencoder and ffmpeg, which are command line utilities that do the job pretty well. Some reasonable commands that we routinely run are gathered in a text files.

Postscript: Tim says that Linphone supports cameras and this Wikipedia page, sent by a reader while working on this text, might be handy.

Regarding phone books management, some applications were simpler to manage than others. My personal choice is Ekiga’s, which also has a complete historical calls trail. It is very useful.

If we left out important options, be sure to tell us.

TechBytes Episode 47: hypePads and Chromebooks

TechBytes

Direct download as Ogg (1:15:38, 16.6 MB) | High-quality MP3 (27.6 MB) | Low-quality MP3 (8.7 MB)

Summary: Tim and Roy speak about Unity, Fedora 15, Microsoft’s decline, and notebooks with Linux for Web-based services

TODAY’S afternoon show was shorter than usual and it covered few topics, mostly those that matter a bit more than others. Tim will post the accompanying show notes in the morning.

Today’s tracks are “We Should Give” by Amity, “Blackout City” by Anamanaguchi, and “She’s Got You” by Cosmo Jarvis. The latter two are part of SXSW 2010 Showcasing Artists (get the torrents legally here). We hope you will join us for future shows and consider subscribing to the show via the RSS feed. You can also visit our archives for past shows. If you have an Identi.ca account, consider subscribing to TechBytes in order to keep up to date.

As embedded (HTML5):

Download:

Ogg Theora
(There is also an MP3 version)

Samsung Makes Cupholders

My PC is connected to a stereo system that pipes into the bathroom, bedroom, and living room. But the stereo’s CD is broken. So I started using the tray as a cupholder. It is actually quite handy and since the system is quite old, spillage would not be catastrophic.

Cupholder stereo

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