Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Unlucky numbers, yeah right..

13.jpgI'm sceptical about most things but the nail in the coffin of "unlucky" numbers must surely be that they are different in different cultures.

In the US you mostly don't see floor 13 in buildings, here in Malaysia 13 is there but not only is 4 missing but other floors with 4 such as 14 are replaced by 13A!

The building I'm in has two towers that are linked but are at slightly different heights. Most of the floors continue through but one tower has a floor zero.

Had some trouble with my access card and as part of my tests I tried the other tower elevator. The head of security noticed this in the log and explained that the card only lets me use the lift in the tower I'm in for "security", but when I pointed out that you can just walk between the towers he remained convinced it was a good feature.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

PortableApps

I'm hanging out in Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately the internet service at the apartment isn't working and there's no weekend support so I've been hanging out at the local internet cafe.

A fun place, open 24x7, it even has a smoking room - not for me of course.

The computers run diskless XP which seems to load pretty fast over the local lan. Unfortunately while they seem to have cluttered up windows with all sorts of little "enhancements" they have chosen not to install FireFox and I needed it.

PortableApps is the answer if you visit internet cafes. You install on a USB flash drive, run the starter and a launcher app sits in the system tray displaying a menu like this:



I've also installed portable Putty so I can use ssh and I'm downloading PortablePython just for fun. It includes PyScripter which looks fantastic.

Earlier I ventured off to Kuala Lumpur city centre "klcc" as they call it here to check out the fantastic computer shopping centres. I've visited Imbi plaza in the past but there's a new one near by called Low Yat Plaza. I picked up a Cruzer 16GB flash stick for about AU$40 to run my portable environment.

Walking through the six floors of technology my impression is: heaps of netbooks all with the same useless vertical screen resolution of 600 pixels, tons of iPod knock offs, but some very nice phones from HTC that you don't see so much of in Australia.

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I love the way there are shops here with big signs offering to unlock the very phones you can buy from the carrier stores right next door. This includes over the counter iPhone unlocking.

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Update: internet back on

The internet is back on at the apartment after two days. A router needed rebooting...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Vegetable garden going well

Since we renovated the garden a few months back, the weather has been kind to our plants, no extreme conditions and plenty of rain.

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So far we've mostly put in types of lettuce and while we're sharing a bit with, probably, some snails, mostly they are going very well.

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The transplanted tomatoes don't look so good, but I guess it's the wrong time of year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Technology for the traveller

radioAustralia.gifAlong with some "fellow travellers", I participated in a round table discussion on new technology for the traveller.

The program will be aired on Radio Australia's "Tech Stream" which is hosted by Ryan Egan. On the panel is Vanessa Paech from Lonely Planet online and Angus Kidman of Lifehacker Australia.

You can download the item via the story page or directly.

Thanks Ryan for the invite, I look forward to doing it again. Keep up the great work bringing tech to dear old short wave radio.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A couple of days with Twitter

tweetiei-large.pngTwitter's been in the news a lot in the last few weeks. It seems celebrities have discovered it.

Figured I'd re-activate my account and give it a go for a few days. I followed Ashton, Oprah, Larry King and even CNN but wasn't really any better informed than I am with Google Reader and News.

The best tips seemed to come from Kevin Rose including this amusing video designed to mention a brand of Vodka:



but I guess he's reading submissions to Digg.

I've been using the new Mac client Tweetie which brings a very smooth interface with some iPhone style sliding animation to the desktop and it kind of works.

Anyhow, we had a chat on ABC Radio National with Steve Canane here.

I tried to tweet while on air, but strangely I found it hard to both concentrate and update my social network at the same time.. here's what I managed:



Such insights combined with blurry iPhone snaps.

For me, blogging once a week seems to produce better writing. Oprah may well kill the cool, but I question the value of the form.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Minimalist WSPR by Bill of SolderSmoke

I was very excited to read Bill, N2CQR's recent post about how he was able to get spotted on the WSPR network using a very simple transmitter (double side band) comprising an oscillator, a mixer and some audio from a PC sound card. (Based on one from W3PM).

Recently I played around with WSPR on 80m although there isn't nearly as much activity as there is on 30m.

wspr.png


The Google Map looks more gorgeous every time I look at it.

I really think we need to break the shackles of the requirement of accurate timing of transmissions for WSPR or find another mode that can be transmitted with minimal hardware. With WSPR, the smarts are in the reception, and the shared "spot" reporting makes this a fantastic tool for figuring out propagation.

Would it be possible to slow down PSK31 and make, say, PSK3 for the equivalent of QRSS3?

Keep up the great podcast Bill and your contribution to the art is a real bonus too.

Acer Aspire One with Fedora 10 and LXDE

wirelessList.pngI continue to get good value out of the Acer Aspire One netbook I wrote up a while back.

Had a go at installing the beta of Fedora 11 but regrettably it's not ready for prime time just yet. It does look like it will be good though.

After that dead end I went back and installed Fedora 10 and switched to the light weight LXDE desktop. Count me impressed. It's not just "extremely faster" as they quaintly say but the wireless re-connection and scanning seems to work much better than Fedora with Gnome which I find to be annoyingly slow.

I fired it up on the bus this afternoon and found that it had gathered a wonderful list of networks as we travelled. (Reminds me of the early days of wireless back in Hong Kong when many of them were open and you could check your email while stopped at the lights in a cab).

Not everything works and despite my best efforts I couldn't configure it to use a high resolution external screen today.

LXDE was easy to install from within the Fedora Add/Remove software system.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Analog short wave radio still needed

radio.jpgThe action this week by Fiji's military government to shut down Radio Australia's local FM transmissions presumably to silence possible criticism being available to the local population illustrates how important it is that we maintain short wave broadcasting.

Although I'm enthusiastic about digital modes; the widespread, low cost availability of analog short wave radios means that this mode continues to be the way to get news from afar when other options have been cut off.

I always travel with a radio in the bag but in recent years it's been sad to see the retraction of great short wave broadcasters such as the BBC and the rise of religious zealots on HF radio.

While local FM relays and internet streaming is convenient when all is well, in times of natural disaster or censoring governments, it's all too easy to lose these options. A little short wave receiver is an amazing technology - let's keep HF alive.

For all our Fijian readers, here's a place to get the news:


  • SUVA TIMES: SW FREQUENCIES kHz

  • 5am – 8am (Pacific Beat 6am): 9580, 11880 (to 9am)

  • 8am – 10am (Pacific Beat 8am – 9am): 11660

  • 9am – 11am (AM 9.10am – 9.40am): 13630

  • 10am - noon (Connect Asia 11am - noon): 15560

  • Noon – 2pm (Breakfast Club): 17715, 17795

  • 2pm – 5pm (TWT 2pm – 3pm): 15515

  • 5pm – 8pm (Pacific Beat 5pm – 6pm RNZI Dateline 6.30pm – 7pm): 15160, 13630 (to 9pm)

  • 8pm – 2am (PM from 8pm rpt 11pm, AsiaPacific from 10pm): 9580

  • 2am - 5am: 7240



(The religious zealots may not be as silly as we think...)

Thanks Boots for the tipoff.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How about some outage honesty Bigpond?

I've been pretty happy with Telstra's Bigpond cable. When it works, which it mostly does, it works really well. Here it is just now:

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My experience seems pretty good compared to others in Australia and even internationally.

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However, for the past two or three days, it hasn't been working well. Ping loss up to 50%, some sites not reachable.

Picture 1.pngBigpond has a service status page. This page thinks everything is just fine.

The page seems only to show the status of each of BigPond's web sites, it says nothing about network problems.

To get help you must ring 133 933 and go through an interactive voice response system that laboriously makes you pretend to reboot your computer (several times), the modem, and any routers you have. Naturally if you're at all technical you've probably done all this.

Under questioning of the guy I got to, it turns out that the trick is to say "Consultant" to get to the live person queue directly.

After about 30 minutes on the phone it turned out that there was a known outage that would affect me and that it was being worked on. Duh.

Some hours later all seems OK again but I resent being treated like a mushroom.

People like me rely on our internet connection to do work, this includes supporting customers who may have a critical issue that needs to be fixed.

I hope that the government's new broadband wholesaler has the good sense to show honest information about network problems. That's a much better way to reduce calls to the call centre than having a punishing IVR. Internode seems to have a good system and ironically provides a link to Telstra's wholesale page that did show some problems earlier.

Update: some statistics

Set up a cron job to try one ping to www.google.com.au every 60 seconds and log it to a file. It's been running for two days so far and here's how it looks.

ping2.png


For this plot I average ten samples so a full bar is 100% good and anything less, like several at 50% packet loss makes the internet almost unusable here.

Ironically, it's taken me some time to upload that graph. Perhaps more ironically I had trouble uploading the picture of the upload error:

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Grrr.

Update: ooh look, an outage!

Picture 1.png

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A modern media consumer's manifesto

We get a constant stream of movies and TV series arriving at the house via QuickFlix. It's a pretty good deal but really... it seems so archaic to be in a queue waiting to get physical access to what is really digital media.

After being forced to watch another heavy handed "copying a movie is the same as steeling a car" message, I thought it was time to speak up.

When a new blockbuster movie is released, it's natural that the producers try to maximise the income derived from it. In the past this has meant a big marketing campaign leading up to a locally synchronised release in as many theatres as possible in each region of the world.

The "only at the movies" release is strengthened by closing off all other options: no TV, no DVD release, no on-line rental or purchase. If you really want to see the latest thing, you pay a premium and there's only one option.

But the world has now changed.

The world has gone global. We are aware of the current episode of our favourite series (flight of the conchords) wherever it plays.

Digital media wants to flow freely, and consumers want to pay for it without artificial limitations like region codes or network barriers.

The multiplex cinema is not necessarily the best way to view a carefully crafted movie - annoying audience members, over priced refreshments, too many ads and previews, and occasionally out of focus projection must compete with a high definition TV in a comfy lounge room and a glass of nice wine.

What I want:

  • Simultaneous, global release

  • Pay per pixel, pay more for more quality

  • Cheap rental option, right away

  • Transportable, non-DRM media



Simultaneous, global release

Don't fight the Internet, leverage the global fan phenomenon for goodness sake.

Make that blockbuster available in all channels: Theatre, DVD, Online, at the same time.

Pay per pixel, pay more for more quality

A simple pricing system based on resolution. IMax at the top, iPod nano at the bottom, everything rationally spaced in between.

Cheap rental option, right away

I'm not interested in storing every movie I've seen, it's a waste. Make rental so cheap I'll rent again and again rather than pay for disks and backups.

Transportable, non-DRM media

Go ahead, embed my name in the media I buy, but let me convert, or more likely down-convert, the program I bought to watch on my iPod on the plane (it's much better than the in flight smeared entertainment).

--

The studios must take some responsibility for not embracing the technology we all use already. Hugh Jackman may be "disappointed" that his latest movie has escaped before it was cooked, but isn't it better to try to satisfy that demand for digital versions rather than trying to simply blocking it?

Oh, and copying Hugh's bits isn't the same as steeling his car - he still has the bits.

Australia's broadband plan

Although the target speed, of just 100Mbps, isn't state of the art (South Korea is shooting for 1Gbps within the same timeframe) overall I'm pleased the Minister for fast and filtered internet has announced what he has this week.

I had a chance to explain some of this from a technical standpoint on ABC Radio National here.

Incidentally, there's an RSS feed of my contributions here.

Perhaps it is 1Gbps but the filtering will slow it back to 1Mbps..

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Microsoft laptop hunting for $1,000 ad

This new ad series from Microsoft is interesting.



It's certainly one of the better PC vs Mac ads we've seen from Microsoft and at its core it does correctly identify that consumers often go shopping with a budget in mind.

asus-eeepc.jpgIf Lauren was choosing purely on price, surely she would have chosen a $300 netbook, like the original Asus EEE-PC with its tiny screen and keyboard.

She wanted a screen of a certain size (17 inch) but was apparently not sophisticated enough to appreciate colour and contrast in that assessment. (Let alone keyboard and trackpad). Despite that she's perfectly comfortable to reel off "250GB hard drive, 4GB of memory".

At one point she says "but the look of that one is drawing me", so clearly design is important to her.

I think Apple is open to criticism for not having an entry level laptop in the netbook category. It would be great if they had one even if no one bought it, just because it would get people in to the store from where they would up-sell themselves to something more usable.

Someone should shoot a similar ad where "Lauren" goes to a PC store looking for a computer constructed with a recyclable aluminium unibody, she'd bounce right out of there pretty quickly.

My waking life is spent interacting with computers, every dollar spent is paid back ten hours a day, five or six or seven days a week, for about two years. As L'Oréal says: "I'm worth it".

Anyhow, great stuff Microsoft. The first ad for a long time to make me think about my choice in computers.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Tecsun PL-600 short wave radio review

A bit of international travel has re-ignited my interest in short wave radio listening.

A long term portable Sony radio user, I bought the Degen DE1103 about a year ago and while very impressed with its sensitive reception, it has some serious usability problems - not the least is the lack of a volume control (well you push a button then spin the tuning dial).

The Tesun PL-600 is larger than the Degen by about 1cm in both height and width and very slightly thicker. Powered by four AA batteries and supplied with 1100mA Hr cells and a switch mode power supply.

front.jpg


Like the Degen, this radio can charge the internal batteries and has a simple timer mechanism to stop charging after the right amount of time.

The display is simple and clear, showing the frequency, time (or memory), a five segment S meter, battery state, bandwidth and other status information.

The decent sized tuning knob on the side is smooth and has fast or slow modes. There is a large volume knob and a large BFO knob with a centre click.

SSB.jpgClearly the ability to receive single sideband is a major selling point as it's shown in big letters on the front.

Similar to the Degen, this radio has two alarm timers and a sleep timer, where it turns off after a period of time. I use the sleep timer all the time to play the radio as I go to sleep but not run all night and go flat.

When I first used the radio it behaved bizarrely until I pushed the reset button in the base with a bent paper clip.

The frequency can be set either by direct keypad entry or by stepping up and down through popular bands and then tuning with the knob.

sideknobs.jpg


Frequency range is 76-108MHz FM, MW (either 9kHz or 10kHz steps), and 1711 - 29,999KHz on short wave.

One button rolls through FM, MW and LW, another rolls through the short wave bands. Each short wave band is shown in wave length as well as frequency.

There are 600 memory locations, which is pretty silly, but it's easy to store favourite frequencies in the memories. The unit can be switched between "freq" or "preset" mode. In "freq" mode the tuning dial rolls through memories and the key pad can be used to directly select memories by keying the number.

I like the Sony 7600 system where low memories can be chosen with just one key press, on this radio you must key Zero One to choose a location. One button choice would be nice.

Single buttons are provided for Power, time, timer a, timer b, light/snooze, tuning speed/lock, freq/preset select, SSB, FM stereo/bandwidth.

On the side there are switches for antenna gain, and audio tone.

sideswitches.jpg


There's a 3.5mm stereo earphone socket, a 3.5mm antenna input plug and a 6V (tip negative!) DC input.

In the box, there's a nifty long wire antenna on a flat spool with a clip for the curtains, also there's a rather poor stereo earphone set.

antenna.jpg


Comments

Audio quality is not great, on FM the treble is good but bass is boomy and there is some distortion. AM band audio is quite bad on local stations due, I think, to signal overload. The antenna attenuator switch has no effect on MW reception and here in the city many stations sound overloaded. Distant stations sound better but still distorted.

Audio distortion probably doesn't matter too much for short wave listening but I couldn't recommend this radio for music appreciation.

Listening to FM on headphones indicates that the loud speaker is somewhat at fault although it's clear that high frequencies are rolled off quite early on FM.

Tuning is nice and smooth, unlike some of the Sony radios, there's no noticeable chopping as you spin the dial.

Although I do use the sleep timer (where the radio plays for a settable time and then turns itself off) this feature remains mysterious despite the well written manual. For some reason it often triggers when I turn the radio on and I can't figure out how to turn it off.

Another annoyance is that the narrow bandwidth selection in short wave carries over if you switch to MW.

Sensitivity is claimed to be 20uV on short wave and certainly it's sensitive enough to hear band noise which is all you need. I'd love to see a decent AGC in a portable radio like this one day.

Here it is listening to the WIA Sunday broadcast just using the whip antenna.



The side band BFO adjustment is a little sensitive, but usable.

Conclusion

This is a well designed, sensitive portable radio, well suited to folks like me who want to travel and listen to short wave. Let down a bit by audio quality and overload on MW, some usability complaints and the noisy switch mode power supply that came with it from AV-COMM.

letter.jpgAmusingly, along with my radio came a letter, dated April fools day, from AV-COMM's Technical Director Garry Cratt, stating that they do not warrant the radio if you run it just from the supplied power supply.

This seems rather poor as I would certainly regard the ability to run plugged in with the supplied adapter as a core feature. I can only assume that they've been coming back damaged.

I paid AU$179 at AV-Comm which seems a little high given that the big value-add is the power supply which they feel will damage the radio if used. They are available for direct import via Ebay sellers from AU$127 including shipping.

Despite these quibbles, I like the radio and will take it on my next trip.

Update: use in the field

I'm travelling with this radio and I have to report that I'm finding the internal charging feature just doesn't work for me. Not sure if it's the radio itself, or more likely, the supplied plug pack.

You set it to charge and it does so for only a few minutes before stopping. Consequently the batteries never get much of a charge. I've tried changing the setting for mAhr in the radio but this has no effect.

My guess is that the switching power supply somehow confuses the radio's circuitry that detects full charge in the batteries.

The other issue is hardly surprising, the switching supply (that I have to use as the batteries don't get charged) creates so much electrical hash that shortwave is un-usable.

Today I went out and bought some AA primary batteries.

Update2

Sony makes a few great products, among their best are the AA battery chargers. I purchased one with an LED to show the status of each cell. It also allows a deep discharge cycle to reset the "memory" effect. The charging is very fast, perhaps two hours.

I roll between two sets of 4 AA batteries, each set runs the radio for a couple of days of pretty heavy use and this scheme works well.

Despite having the long wire antenna dangling out of my tenth floor window, my conclusion is that this radio is not sensitive enough. Over night I often cannot hear band noise and I'm sure there's stations there I'm missing.

One daily pleasure is listening to Radio Australia on 11840KHz in the morning. AM is on from 6am local time, there's "Breakfast Club" and my old favourite "Connect Asia". The signal belts in here in Kula Lumpur.

Excellent to hear a presenter, Phil Kafcaloudes, who knows the international phonetic alphabet by the way.

Long live RA!