Feb 182013
 
iPod Touch with John Lennon, Macy Gray

Flickr Creative Commons photo by DeclanTM.

Reviving the “this week with the Mac Mini” series of posts, I thought I’d give an update on my fall 2012 blog post about my choice of music services, since it was written before I made the Mac move.

These days, my choice of music/audio services include:

TuneIn Radio

I’ve written about TuneIn Radio before. TuneIn’s quite useful in letting me listen to NPR streaming audio during the day. The Pro version is only a dollar, but gets rid of the ads (plus lets one record the broadcasts, if one’s interested in such).

Jamendo

Jamendo is a music service that offers free MP3s by independent artists under a Creative Commons license. For those looking for non-mainstream artists, or music not under the RIAA’s thumb, this might be an option.

Pandora

I’ve been giving Pandora another go lately. It’s a nice streaming service for listening to songs similar to your favorites. The one flaw is the limitations on skipping audio tracks (even if you pay for the non-free version, apparently).

YouTube

I’ve used YouTube to try out listening to new songs/musicians, before deciding whether to buy their singles/albums. It helps that many musicians (or their record labels) have put their music videos on YouTube.

Amazon MP3 Store

Amazon’s music store, unlike iTunes, is both cross-platform friendly (including some Linux support/compatibility) and usually cheaper. Amazon will often have frequent sales, discount credits, or free songs. While I still would prefer lossless tracks over lossy ones, Amazon is convenient and inexpensive.

Amazon also offers integration with iTunes via a Mac/Windows album download program, which, besides launching when one downloads an album from Amazon, also imports the album into iTunes. Linux users can get a similar function already built into Banshee. Yes, requiring a separate program just to download a whole album is silly and clunky in my opinion.

A new addition to Amazon is that if you opt to buy CDs, their “AutoRip” service automatically give you free MP3 versions of the album, which some might find convenient.

And of course, there’s Amazon’s Cloud Player service, where music purchases are automatically stored online, from which one can play one’s music on your smartphone (via the Amazon MP3 app).

iTunes

Now that I’m back on Mac, iTunes is an option. However, since Amazon’s music is usually much cheaper, I haven’t really bought anything yet from iTunes. I have downloaded a few free items from iTunes, however, plus iTunes is my music player of choice. I also use iTunes for listening to podcasts and streaming audio.

Podcasts and streaming audio

I usually listen to NPR’s podcasts. It’s a nice way to catch up on my NPR listening, without dealing with my office’s sometimes-poor 3G reception. Podcasts I like to listen to include NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” (if I missed that weekend’s broadcast).

I also keep bookmarked in iTunes several NPR affiliates’ streaming audio options, as well as Canada’s CBC Radio and Chicago’s WGN-AM (solely for the occasional Chicago Blackhawks game).

Freegal

Freegal is a service run by Sony that leases to public libraries their digital music library as free-to-download MP3 files to library patrons. (For a price to libraries, and thus taxpayers, of course, which might raise its own issues.) The service lets one download and keep several free MP3 singles per week to anyone with a library card; here in Milwaukee, I can download three free MP3s per week.

Of course, libraries still carry a vast range of CDs for checking out, but Freegal still might appeal to some.

CDs

While I don’t buy many CDs anymore, I do rip any I buy to my computer in a lossless format. Since the Mac Mini doesn’t come with an optical drive, I bought one from Amazon. Their Amazon Basics external USB optical drive has worked well so far.

Conclusion

That about sums up my current music situation. I haven’t tried Spotify yet, and have long abandoned last.fm, but otherwise, it’s nice to have such a wide range of music choices available.

Oct 162012
 

Xbox 360Microsoft’s announced a revamp of their Xbox streaming music service, as part of both their Windows 8 push and their push to make the Xbox a home entertainment center hub (versus merely a video game system). Renaming their music service from “Zune” to “Xbox Music,” the service will cost $10/month to use on the Xbox (apparently on top of the Xbox Live Gold fees) and Windows 8 phones. A free, (very) limited streaming version will be available on Windows 8 PCs and tablets; no version will be available for Windows 7 (as a way to try to cajole people into upgrading to Windows 8). No word on availability for Macs or Android/iOS phones or devices, either.

While I enjoy my Xbox, I don’t see myself using this service, especially if it’d be yet another monthly fee. I’m also not sure how successful this service will be, when there’s a myriad of well-entrenched services that already exist. At least its new name is being tied to the popular Xbox, versus the less-than-popular (and now dead) Zune.

For myself, the services I use for music include:

  • TuneIn Radio: I’ve written about TuneIn Radio before. TuneIn’s quite useful in letting me listen to NPR streaming audio during the day. The Pro version is only a dollar, but gets rid of the ads (plus lets one record the broadcasts, if one’s interested in such).
  • Jamendo: A music service that offers free MP3s by independent artists under a Creative Commons license.
  • Pandora: I haven’t used this one that often lately, but it is useful as a customized streaming radio station (though the song skip limitations seem to be one of its flaws).
  • YouTube: Recently, I’ve used YouTube to try out listening to new songs/musicians, before deciding whether to buy their singles/albums. It helps that many musicians (or their record labels) have put their music videos on YouTube.
  • Amazon MP3 Store: Amazon’s music store, unlike iTunes, is cross-platform friendly (including Linux) and is also fairly cheap. Amazon will often have frequent sales, discount credits, or free songs. While I usually prefer ripping my CDs to a lossless format like FLAC, Amazon’s store is useful for buying singles. It’s also useful for buying albums if they’re cheap enough ($5 or less) to forego buying a CD. As for lossy versus lossless music buying, one could think of MP3s as the modern equivalent of cassette tapes (i.e., lesser sound quality than a CD, but cheaper/convenient) versus “the one true replacement for CDs.”
  • Podcasts: I usually listen to NPR’s podcasts. It’s a nice way to catch up on my NPR listening, without dealing with my office’s sometimes-poor 3G reception. Podcasts I like to listen to include NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” (if I missed that weekend’s broadcast).

In the past, I’ve also tried out eMusic, Magnatune, and Last.fm. I’ve also heard positive things about newcomer Bandcamp.

Overall, I think I’m well set for finding new music, so won’t need Microsoft’s new music service whenever it (inevitably) arrives on Android platforms.

Aug 112012
 

HP M6-1045DX laptop running Linux Mint 13 XfceAs the subject line says, I’ve finally gotten a newer laptop to replace the trusty-but-aging (and wearing out) HP Pavilion dv6-1230us I bought at an OfficeDepot three years ago this month.

The replacement? An HP Pavilion m6-1045dx (yes, HP loves its model numbering), which Engadget mentions here. While it’s being sold as a back-to-school type item, I’m sure it’ll serve me quite well. The specs include 8GB RAM, a 750GB (5400 RPM) hard drive, 15.6″ screen, an i5 processor (“i5-3210M,” running at 2.5Ghz), and a backlit keyboard. It also weighs 5.3 pounds (2.4 kg), a full pound (0.5 kg) lighter than the old model. This will make carrying this laptop on trips much easier.

The m6 is meant to be a new model in the HP series, aimed in this case at being something halfway between an ultrabook (such as the HP Envy series) and a conventional laptop (like the dv6 series). Thus, the m6 is fairly thin and light, yet still has an optical drive. It also looks a bit like a MacBook Pro from a distance, with a brushed aluminum lid and chiclet keyboard.

As for why I didn’t go with the Lenovo ultrabook, besides that the HP has better specs and was on sale at Best Buy for $100 less, I didn’t like the lengthy wait Lenovo’s website listed for receiving one of their IdeaPads (“over 4 weeks”). That said, I ended up ordering the HP off Best Buy’s website, as none of the stores in town had any left in stock.

The move from Xubuntu to Linux Mint

About the second part of the subject line, I had some problems with Xubuntu 12.04 on this laptop: namely, hard freezes when I did certain things, such as copying files from an external hard drive or importing photos into programs. Thus, I thought I’d give Linux Mint 13 Xfce (which is Ubuntu-based) a go, especially since it’d save me the trouble of having to reinstall all my favorite programs anyway. ALong with an issue with Mint’s installer apparently getting confused by some Xubuntu menu elements being left over (despite doing a clean install), Mint also had hard freezes, until I found an apparent solution to the freezing: deleting the “.thumbnails” hidden directory from the /home directory. (I also turned off a Bluetooth applet from loading, just in case that was also causing problems/since I don’t use Bluetooth.) Since then, everything seems to be working well enough. I’ll stick with Mint for now, and will report on any further Mint developments.

Photos/Videos

Yes, I have the obligatory photos of the laptop, taken on my smartphone (excuse the quality).

HP M6-1045DX laptop keyboard (right side view)

HP M6-1045DX laptop (left side view)

HP laptop firing up Windows 7 for the first time

And for the first time, a homeshot video (on my smartphone) of the unboxing. Keep in mind I’m not an experienced camcorder (or smartphone video recorder) user, nor at unboxing videos, but thought others might like to see such anyway. And yes, I turned comments on YouTube off. While I greatly appreciate your thoughts, blog readers, there’s no need for the YouTube idiot brigade to post off-topic/offensive remarks.

 

Jul 212012
 

GoogleOn the heels of my recent iGoogle alternatives post, I took a look over what other Google services I’ve come to rely upon, and thought I’d write a followup post. Yes, writing this made me realize how reliant I am upon “da Google” (to quote the crocs in the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine”). This post lists my suggested alternatives to Google’s services, where possible.

AdSense

Google seems to dominate this area, but one alternative might be Amazon.com’s Associate program.

Analytics

There’re some alternatives to Google Analytics for website statistics tracking. One option (that I haven’t tested, but read about) for self-hosted WordPress users is WordPress.com Stats, which comes as part of the Jetpack plugin package. Once installed, self-hosted WordPress users get the same general site statistics WordPress.com users can access.

Another option is Piwik, an open-source statistics package with similar functionality to Google Analytics. However, unlike Analytics (or WordPress.com Stats), Piwik must be installed on one’s site. Installation difficulty may vary; my webhost offers Piwik installation through software installation options in cPanel. Another issue (last I used Piwik) is that one can’t export Piwik data to use in another analytics program. (It does, however, let one import Google Analytics data.) I used to use Piwik until earlier this year, when (with Anthony’s Notes’ webhost move) I also moved to Google Analytics (after discovering Piwik’s lack of data exporting the hard way…).

Blogger/Blogspot

Various alternatives exist to Google’s blog hosting service. WordPress (either self-hosted or through WordPress.com) is a popular alternative, offering plenty of features (some better than what Blogger offers). Another possible alternative is Tumblr, assuming one wants a lightweight blog with fewer features than Blogger or WordPress.

As longtime readers may recall, my blog started out on Blogspot, before Blogspot’s parent company was sold to Google. I moved to the WordPress-based current solution a few years ago.

Android smartphones

Android’s become one of the most popular smartphone platforms, and makes particular use (by default) of various Google services, including its calendar, search, and contacts features. The most popular alternative for most will be the iPhone, though there’ll be a few who’ll want Blackberry or the even fewer who’ll want Windows Phone. Even within Android, one has the option to change the default search engine (Bing or Yahoo are the usual alternatives).

Feedburner

FeedBurner, an RSS feed creation/tracking tool, is another service Google bought some years ago, and offers some rudimentary tracking statistics. If having tracking statistics available isn’t a concern, the best alternative is to just offer the default RSS feeds for one’s blog.

Gmail

Gmail’s one of Google’s most popular services, with everyone and their mother having a Gmail address by this point. Still, other free email options exist. The alternative I’d choose would be Yahoo, which still offers free email addresses, even if lacking the flashiness of Gmail. For some, Hotmail may also be an alternative (though I’d choose Yahoo well before choosing Hotmail).

Google Reader

Google Reader folds RSS feeds into one easy-to-use interface, and has the advantage of being accessible from anywhere, just like a Gmail account.

Alternatives include a myriad of third-party stand-alone newsfeed readers, including Liferea on Linux.

Google+

Social networks are one area where Google’s yet to dominate (if ever). As such, Google’s role here is reversed, with Google+ as the alternative to the dominant social network, Facebook. Other popular social networks include Twitter and LinkedIn (for professional usage).

YouTube

YouTube is one site that’s largely unmatched elsewhere online. While there’s other sites like Dailymotion, they don’t even begin to match the range of choices in material or prominence YouTube offers.

Maps

MapQuest is the most prominent alternative to Google Maps… at least as long as one doesn’t need mass transit directions outside the biggest American cities. MapQuest only offers transit information for Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. If one needs mass transit directions and times, Google Maps still has a lock on such. Some cities offer to-the-minute schedule information through their transit systems’ websites, but mine (Milwaukee County Transit System) merely redirects to Google Maps.

Google itself (as a search engine)

And finally, Google’s original purpose in life as a search engine. While Yahoo and Bing are options, the best alternative I’ve seen for non-image web searching is DuckDuckGo, which I’ve written about before. For images, Google Image still seems to be the best choice available, though Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) offers searching through Flickr’s Creative Commons images.

 

Mar 162011
 

Only two days left until I depart for Chicago and C2E2. Yes, I’ll be posting photos, blog thoughts, and Twitter remarks on the whole thing… enough material to keep me going on blog topics for, well, several days at least!

Before I depart, I thought I’d post one or two of the ads made to promote C2E2. This one apparently is what it’d be like if some trendy New York ad agency/fashion designer were creating ads pitching comic conventions:

Last year’s ad by the same creator (“ItsJustSomeRandomGuy,” who’ll also be appearing as a C2E2 panelist), as part of his series of Marvel and DC character parodies (Spider-Man villain the Green Goblin visits Chicago, and has a less-than-fun time):

 

Nov 072010
 

Lately I’ve been looking over what I’ve been spending on my cable bill. After being notified that I’ll be seeing my cable bill raised next month by $16 (from $80 currently, for digital cable service with no specialty channels and a DVR, to $96), I’ve been pondering what it is I watch on TV, and what alternatives I have to paying for cable. Any cable cutting wouldn’t be until next spring at the earliest (when I currently plan on moving, and thus would have to cancel cable anyway).

Looking over what TV shows I usually or often watch, about two-thirds of them are on broadcast TV, while the remaining third are either cartoons (mainly on Cartoon Network or Boomerang) or live sports (mostly basketball and hockey). If and when I cut cable, the following options could serve as alternatives for filling in for the missing cable/DVR:

Buying a DVD recorder or a TiVo: I’d need something to record programming with since I wouldn’t have the cable company’s DVR anymore. While TiVo seems to be a well-done DVR service, I’d still be stuck paying for a monthly subscription fee (about $13) along with the cost of the TiVo. A DVD recorder, while more VCR-like work to manage, would let me avoid paying such fees. While I do have a DVD recorder now, it’s an older analog-tuner model, and thus useless for the digital broadcasting system now in place in the US.

The alternative, building my own DVR from a computer, would be a lot of work (and require laying out even more money to buy a PC), but this works well for some.

Netflix: I already subscribe to Netflix‘s two discs out at-a-time plan for $15 a month, so this wouldn’t change. Netflix has the advantage of offering various box sets of TV programs, as well as movies, so I’d be able to keep up on various cable-only TV shows, albeit on a longer delay. Since I use Linux, the Silverlight-only streaming video offered by Netflix is useless for me (though buying a Netflix-supporting streaming media box for my TV, such as a Roku, would allow it to work).

Roku, Apple TV, and other streaming media set-top boxes: These boxes would allow streaming media from the Internet (such as YouTube, Netflix, etc.) to my TV, and would cost between $60-$100. I’m used to watching some video on my laptop, and have an HDMI cable that can attach the laptop to my TV, so a box probably wouldn’t be needed.

Hulu, YouTube and the networks’ websites: Lots of networks put their TV shows online, though often with some delay after they first air on TV. Cartoon Network’s website offers videos of shows such as “Total Drama World Tour,” “Super Hero Squad,” and “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.” There’s also Hulu, though it carries mostly older programs or ones that already aired on broadcast TV.

YouTube is another source for some shows, though those largely are put up by users, and thus not an authorized source. Still, YouTube would be suitable if there wasn’t another option.

Sports streaming video packages: The major sports leagues offer some online streaming packages of out-of-market sports team coverage. While I’d be fine with ABC’s weekend basketball and championship series coverage, NHL hockey has largely moved to being cable-only, like most sports coverage (and probably the main reason more people aren’t cutting cable). However, the NHL offers “GameCenter Live,” which carries out-of-market games not televised on a national network (Versus, NHL Network, or NBC in the US; I assume CBC or TSN in Canada). GameCenter runs for either $169 for the entire season or $21 a month.

While I wouldn’t be able to watch my “local” team (the Minnesota Wild) on GameCenter, I should be able to see the Chicago Blackhawks (Milwaukee’s in Minneapolis’ TV market for hockey). The one other flaw would be not being able to see much of the Stanley Cup playoffs or several games of the championships, as those air on national cable networks. If I wanted to see those, I’d have to go to the trouble of going to a sports bar. I’d also have to go to a sports bar for events like the Olympics (for those events only airing on NBC’s sister cable channels).

Not counting the one-time cost of a DVD recorder, Netflix and NHL GameCenter would run me a total of $36 a month (or only $15 during the summer months with no hockey), a bit over one-third of what I pay now for cable and Netflix. While it wouldn’t be as convenient as cable TV, I’d still be reasonably covered for what I watch, aside from the flaws in live sports coverage mentioned.

For another take from someone who actually is cutting down on cable, see this post from Heather at lectio.ca.

Mar 272010
 

One of the people appearing at the Chicago comic show next month is the creator of a series of amusing YouTube videos parodying the “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads using Marvel and DC action figures, though he’s since taken the parodies into other directions as well. Here’s one of the videos he did for the upcoming convention (using the running gag from his videos of the Green Goblin’s tendency to get electrocuted):

Oct 192008
 

With Halloween approaching, and all manner of Halloween-themed programming on TV (including holiday classic “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”), I thought this’d make a plausible excuse to write another blog post about old cartoons. Thus, here’s a late 70s cartoon involving werewolves: “Fangface.”

“Fangface” debuted on ABC in 1978, and ran for two seasons. The show was the first one produced by Ruby-Spears, a studio founded by two people, Ruby and Spears, who worked for Hanna-Barbera in the 60s and 70s, including having helped create Scooby-Doo. Ruby-Spears in the early 80s eventually merged with Hanna-Barbera and became a sister studio.

Much like most of Hanna-Barbera’s output in this decade being knockoffs of Scooby or “Josie and the Pussycats”, Fangface was about a group of teenagers and their wacky companion solving mysteries and/or fighting villains. In this case, the teenagers were Biff (the team’s leader, a la Fred on Scooby-Doo), Kim (in the role of Daphne), and Puggsy (no real Scooby-Doo counterpart, but was fairly cranky/rude toward the wacky-sidekick of the team, a la Shelly in Jabberjaw/Alexandra in “Josie”).

The wacky sidekick in this series was another teenager named Sherman Fangsworth (or “Fangs” as he was nicknamed). According to the show’s opening, his family had a werewolf born into it every 400 years, and thus, when exposed to the full moon (or, oddly enough, a picture of the full moon), he’d transform into Fangface, a goofy-acting werewolf. The gang would usually make use of Fangface (by carrying around pictures of the full moon to show Fangs to get him to transform) to help deal with some threat. Never mind that Fangface, after transforming, would usually try to eat or attack Puggsy for unexplained reasons (my guess why: see the aforementioned “Puggsy rude toward Fangs” remark above). Upon being exposed to the sun (or a picture of the sun—the gang carried pictures of the sun, too), Fangface would turn back into Fangs. Fangs (who also acted in a somewhat goofy manner) had no memory of his experiences as Fangface, or apparently even knew he was a werewolf.

The show’s second season featured the addition of a baby cousin of Fangs, who like Fangs turn into a pint-sized werewolf named Fangpuss (despite the “only one werewolf every 400 years” opening in the first season).

“Fangface”‘s competition in the 1978-79 season:

CBS: The second half of “The All-New Popeye Hour”, the late 70s Hanna-Barbera series of the spinach-eating sailor.

NBC: Part of “Yogi’s Space Race.”

In the 1979-80 season, “Fangface and Fangpuss” (as the series was renamed with the addition of Fangs’ cousin) was part of the late 70s Ruby-Spears produced Plastic Man series, as a backup segment (among other segments of the show, including one called “Rickety Rocket” about a group of Black teenagers who solved mysteries in a futuristic world with their wacky talking spaceship, a la “Speed Buggy”). Its competition:

CBS: “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show.” The classic run of Saturday morning Looney Tunes.

NBC: “Fred and Barney Meet the Thing” and “The Super Globetrotters”/”Fred and Barney Meet the Shmoo.” “Thing” was an anthology show (that ever-popular 70s/early 80s programming fad) combining episodes of “The New Fred and Barney Show” (new Flintstones episodes in the style of the 60s series, with Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm as infants) and the Fantastic-Four-very-loosely-based “Thing” cartoon. “Super Globetrotters” featured Hanna-Barbera’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters as superheroes (most of them derived powers-and-appearance-wise from Hanna-Barbera’s 60s superhero cartoon “The Impossibles”). Partway through the season, episodes of “The New Shmoo” (starring the Lil Abner character) were combined with “Thing” to create “Fred and Barney Meet the Shmoo,” with “Globetrotters” moved to an earlier timeslot.

Guessing the competition of the Flintstones and Looney Tunes spelled doom for Plastic Man (and Fangface), as the 1980-81 season replaced Plas’ show with (far as I can tell from online sources) “The Richie Rich/Scooby Doo Show.”

After this, both seasons of “Fangface” would be seen off and on over the years in reruns, either as a stand-alone show or as part of Plastic Man’s reruns. The recent “Scooby Doo and the Goblin King” direct-to-video movie has a villain, while going through a book about various mystical creatures, find an entry for Fangface (in one of the film’s amusing moments, as well as probably a way of keeping Fangface’s trademark current…).

And finally, thanks to YouTube, here’s the opening sequence for the show; note how the part with Kim pulled into some moving wall by a pair of hands seems highly reminiscent of a few similar scenes in the opening for “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?”: http://youtu.be/-GysCevSEOM

Jul 012007
 

While at the mall today, I stopped by the Apple Store to get a look at their newest gadget, the iPhone, which as you’ve all heard by now is Apple’s foray into the world of high-end cell phones. Like the Flash’s super-speed powers, the iPhone supposedly is able to do everything short of making instant coffee, if one believes the hype about the device (or the Conan O’Brien show sketch that made fun of the iPhone).

The store was fairly crowded and busy, with most of the people crowded around the display of iPhones available to try out, which I proceeded to do. I was impressed with the ability of the iPhone to automatically flip the screen to match whatever position the phone was oriented in. I also liked the nice integration and layout of the iPhone’s main menu.

While I think the iPhone might be of interest to someone seeking to replace their iPod nano, PDA and current higher-end cell phone with an all-in-one device, there were a few things about it I found odd:

- For starters, I found the buttons a bit hard to push on the phone I tried; specifically, when using the iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard, I’d keep hitting the button next to the one I actually wanted.

- When I tried to pull up a few clips on YouTube (using the iPhone’s wireless Internet access and built-in copy of Safari), I discovered that YouTube’s actual site doesn’t work. The salesman told me that Flash isn’t installed in any of the phones, and that Apple’s slowly converting the various videos on YouTube into Quicktime-formatted videos that the phone could play. The salesman didn’t give any word on how soon even most of YouTube’s content would be available. I suspect most of the YouTube content available will be of the TV show clips put on there by the movie and TV studios, and not of the homemade stuff (or user-uploaded stuff). Also, I assume there’ll be no easy (or possible) way to install Flash (or any third-party-made widgets) onto the phone, though I could be wrong…

- Like any other higher-end phone of this type, for its primary purpose, it feels rather bulky to hold; since I didn’t call anyone (the models at the store had phone service turned on), I can’t say anything about the phone service quality.

Overall, definitely not something aimed at someone like me, considering I use a Virgin Mobile prepaid cell phone I paid $20 for at Best Buy. Still, I’m sure the mayor of Philadelphia, among others, will be happy jumping on board for the iPhone (and not waiting for a second bug-fixed version to be released)…