Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Living with an electrical engineer is always…interesting. I’m also an engineer, but my desire to tinker is more software-oriented than hardware, whereas Damir likes to build things. After our initial experiments with the HD TV antenna that we bought for $35, he started researching on the web, and ended up building three other HD antennae.

HD antenna 2.0 - the first homebuildFirst up was actually the most expensive of the home-builds, since he bought heavy-gauge wire instead of using the coathangers suggested in the YouTube video that inspired it. It was mounted on a piece of Ikea shelving that we had lying around (if it had been the final version, we would have trimmed it back just to a single wooden stick), and consisted of the above-mentioned copper wire ($13), a TV matching transformer (needed on all the antennae to convert the signal to the coax connection to go to the TV, $1) and some screws for that shelving that we already had. With no amplification, it worked as well as the commercial one that is amplified, although we couldn’t find the sweet spot that allowed us to get all 7 HD channels — or at least the 5 that we care about — without moving it around. Also, it could have put out someone’s eye.

HD antenna 3.0 designThat night, he took his copy of the ARRL handbook to bed to brush up on his antenna theory.

The next model, a discone model, never made it past the early prototype stage. Shown here is the cone part (he was still working on the disc part), which would have been covered with aluminum foil. He later found this to not be the right type anyway, but he had fun making (and wearing) the cones.

More research ensued.

HD TV antenna 4.0The 3rd version, a.k.a. HD antenna 4.0, is what we’re sticking with for now. It’s made of two sections cut from aluminum foil (yes, the type from the kitchen) taped to an old wooden ruler. The sections are connected on one side by a 390 ohm resistor (4 for $0.25), and on the other by the TV matching transformer. You can see a close-up of the construction in an earlier phase when he was trying it out on a larger board here; he calculated the exact size of the foil pieces from his antenna theory textbook. Technically, it’s a T2FD antenna.

The antenna-on-a-ruler is attached with 2-sided sticky pads to an old wooden salad server, then mounted on an unused tripod to allow us to easily move it around to find the right spot.

With this configuration, we get the five main HD digital channels that we wanted without moving the antenna: CBC, CTV, CityTV, Global and Sun TV. We can also get Omni 1 and Omni 2 if we move it around, but we rarely watch those so aren’t concerned about it.

Keep in mind that we are less than 1km from the CN Tower, but are west of Spadina and face west, so we’re bouncing our signals off the surrounding buildings. When we tried our Philips antenna (the one that we bought) at a neighbour’s place that has a clear line of sight to the tower, it picked up 7 or 8 HD channels with no fiddling, and several VHF channels as well (since her TV used a single feed for both analog and digital tuners).

I’ve now cancelled our Rogers cable, which will take effect mid-August. The only remaining thing is to use the (currently unused) Philips antenna as a VHF antenna to pick up the lower-range analog channels and feed them to the DVR (which has no digital tuner) and then on to the TV via the HDMI connection — if we get any decent reception on VHF, that will allow us to watch and record those channels.

Okay, I don’t think that I’m going to do this very often, but I just have to prove that I can. Tonight, I downloaded the Internet Channel to my Wii (500 Wii points = $5), and I have a fully-functional Opera browser. So here I am in WordPress, typing a blog post on my Wii. I cheated a bit and am using a USB keyboard attached to the back — the thought of doing this one character at a time using the Wiimote was just too much for me.

It seems to enter carriage returns in this entry field okay, but links didn’t work when I entered the HTML code.

An online conversation with a few friends last week got me thinking harder about something that’s been on my mind lately: is it possible to get rid of my Rogers cable subscription, and get TV signals the old-fashioned way: with an antenna? This is now referred to as “OTA” (over the air) for those in the know, and there’s a whole range of digital HD channels that you can pick up in addition to the old familiar analog ones.

We already had pared back to the most basic analog cable plan, with no desire for several hundred channels of additional crap that we wouldn’t watch at additional cost, and when we got the Wii a few weeks ago, our TV watching dropped to less than an hour per day on average. We rent movies a couple times a month, read a lot of books, and, of course, there’s the internet: a vast library of fascinating material in a variety of formats. Although the US networks and Hulu block viewing of full TV episodes from Canada, some of our networks do show full episodes online of a few programs, such as Mad Men on CTV.

So, for the cost of one month of our basic cable, we picked up a Philips indoor DTV/HDTV antenna to see how OTA would work for us. We live near Richmond and Spadina, in a west-facing apartment on a low floor: that means that we face away from the CN Tower, source of most OTA signals in the Toronto area (although within 1km of it) and have a lot of taller buildings in the way.

We plugged in the antenna to the DTV port on our TV, scanned for channels, and wham! There was CBC in beautiful HD, completely without distortion. A few hours of playing around, and we found 6 additional channels, including CTV and Global, which syndicate many of the popular US shows during evening prime time. Here’s the rundown of what we can receive:

Station DTV channel Zap2It channel
CBC (CBLT) 5 5
CTV (CFTO) 9 9
Omni 2 (CJMT) 44 69
City TV 57 57
Omni 1 (CFMT) 64 47
Global (CIII) 65 6
Sun TV (CKXT) 66 45

The Zap2It channel is the corresponding channel if you use Zap2It for TV listings, and select Toronto – Local Broadcast as the source: I set my preferences on that site so that I see a grid of only these stations, in this order, as my TV guide.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found a single position that brings in all channels: CBC, Global and CTV seem to be best when bounced off the top of a taller building to the southwest of us, while SunTV is best reflected from the building directly across the road. CityTV and the two OMNI stations are picked up when the antenna is pointed directly towards the tower, that is, through our building. We’re still experimenting, and need a longer cable so that we can try some other locations within our apartment. If we lived in a higher or south-facing unit, I’m sure that the results would be radically different, and we might even pick up some Buffalo stations across the lake if we were high enough, but this is good enough for our TV-watching habits.

I had seen a warning about this earlier today, but wouldn’t have fallen for it after even the briefest review:

secure-your-credit-card scam email

First of all, all the links (including the one to Microsoft and all the credit card companies) link to the same scammy web address, which you can see in the final "For security your Credit Card information" line. Ingeniously, someone actually registered the domain name with which to scam the public into giving away their credit card information. You have to give them credit for that, although their nameservers are Yahoo, so it was only a matter of time before someone woke up over there and cut them off — the site is already down.

Secondly, the scam artist claims to be from Microsoft, yet gives a non-Microsoft email address and website. Yeah, right.

Thirdly, the grammatical errors are beyond laughable:

  • "the up mentioned Credit Card companies"
  • "The securing of your Credit Card will not take longer than 3 minutes, and can spare you of loosing your hard earned money"
  • "Microsoft has sent this email in conformity with the law protected email program rules"

The email header included the following:

Return-Path: support@secure-your-credit-card.com

Received: from stonefive.com ([69.27.20.174]) by mx.google.com with ESMTP id 5si706804nzk.2007.12.18.17.17.02; Tue, 18 Dec 2007 17:17:03 -0800 (PST)

Received-SPF: neutral (google.com: 69.27.20.174 is neither permitted nor denied by best guess record for domain of support@secure-your-credit-card.com) client-ip=69.27.20.174;

Authentication-Results: mx.google.com; spf=neutral (google.com: 69.27.20.174 is neither permitted nor denied by best guess record for domain of support@secure-your-credit-card.com) smtp.mail=support@secure-your-credit-card.com

Received: from ts1.albblaw.local ([69.54.73.162]) by stonefive.com with Microsoft SMTPSVC(6.0.3790.3959); Tue, 18 Dec 2007 17:35:45 -0700

From: "Microsoft" <support@secure-your-credit-card.com>

I’m not sure if that means that the stonefive.com SMTP server or the IP address 69.27.20.174 were hijacked for this purpose.

Until recently, I’ve used the free version of X1 for desktop search. Although it can be very resource-intensive during indexing, I love how it indexes Outlook email across multiple PST files, and allows very flexible searching.

Last week, I installed a network-attached drive for our shared home office, and that reminded me that the free version of X1 didn’t support indexing of files on network drives. Before I decided to bite the bullet and pay for the full professional version, I decided to give Google Desktop Search — which I tried a few months back — another try. It has improved from my first trial, and I like how fast and complete it is at indexing files, but I’m really not happy with the search interface for email.

X1 by default shows all of my email in a single stream, sorted on date (forward or reverse), then allows me to dynamically filter the stream based on any combination of content, to/from, subject, folder (I use folders extensively for email organization within Outlook) and date. Google (once you find the advanced search options page) searches email by content, date and to/from — but doesn’t allow partial match searches on the actual email address in the to/from, which is pretty useless for me when I’m looking for all email from a particular customer, for example. Once a search is executed in Google, there’s no filtering, just the results list; you have to return to the advanced search screen to start a more precise search. Inexplicably, the Google search functionality that’s added into Outlook as a toolbar only allows content searching, no to/from or date searching, and returns the results without reference to where they are in terms of PST file or folder structure.

I also use X1 when I’m reorganizing email, for example, to find all of the messages from a particular customer that are in the Sent Items folder and move them to the specific customer folder. Not only can I find them all quickly, the X1 interface allows me to grab them all directly and move them to the new location; although Outlook has to be open while this is happening, I do the move through X1’s interface, not through Outlook. I can also do many other common Outlook functions directly on messages in the X1 interface, including reply, forward, delete, etc.

At the root of my issue is the completely opposite philosophies adopted by X1 and Google: X1 starts by showing you everything that you have, then allows you to filter the results; Google starts by showing you nothing, then allows you to search for what you want. The Google approach works well on the internet, where the content is essentially infinite and I’m only interested in a tiny subset of it; however, X1 may make more sense for the files that I have on my desktop (and network drive), since I have interest in the complete set of information, and am primarily looking to narrow it down to the few items that I’m interested in at any particular moment.

So today, I’ve reinstalled X1 for indexing only my email, and have left Google Desktop Search for indexing my files while I continue to evaluate Google’s usability as a file search tool. I do like that Google includes things like recent web pages in the search results, so I may end up with this hybrid solution, although I don’t like the idea of using two different utilities for basically the same operation.

You know that a Web 2.0 company is likely in trouble when their new and improved monetization scheme is to nuke their free basic accounts without notice, holding their users’ data hostage pending a signup to a paid premium account. That’s exactly what happened today with Eventbrite, an event registration service that I’ve used in the past and heavily endorsed.

Getting screwed by Eventbrite

Eventbrite’s original line, like most Web 2.0 companies, was that they would always offer a free basic service and a paid premium service, with some nice features on the premium versions. Features that, unfortunately, now include logging on.

Until quite recently, I managed the website and event registration for a not-for-profit club (as a volunteer). A couple of years ago, I convinced the board that we really needed to accept credit cards, and eventually moved event registration and membership renewals to Eventbrite with PayPal for credit card payments. I stepped down from the board this summer, and had a call a few weeks ago from the person who is now managing the event registrations to say that she could no longer add more than one type of ticket to an event — the club had always used a member price and non-member price for tickets. I checked it out, and sure enough, they had actually retracted functionality that had been part of the basic service all along.

The real kicker came today, when she called me again to say that Eventbrite had cut off all access to the wine club’s account unless they upgraded to a premium membership, because of a new rule that says that you can’t collect more than $1000 in ticket sales (in total? per month? per event? unknown) with a basic account, but have to upgrade to a premium account. No advance notice about this so that the club could prepare alternatives, just the inability to login as of today. That means that the two events that they have in progress right now have been hijacked by Eventbrite: the club is unable to access the list of attendees that have signed up to date, or even to shut down the event altogether if they no longer wish to use Eventbrite — which I’m pretty sure that they don’t, given the completely unacceptable behaviour of Eventbrite so far. The event still shows up for people to buy tickets, but the club can’t access it in any way.

Getting screwed by Eventbrite

In their help section, pictured above, they state “we have shifted Eventbrite to a one level service that offers these new features to all accounts at a low fee. With that initiative in mind, we are phasing out our Basic (Free) service”. So much for a perpetual free basic service. Furthermore, this likely prices them out of range of most small not-for-profit clubs (like the one that I used to volunteer for) because that extra 2.5% on top of the ticket price — in addition to the 2.9% charged by PayPal for credit card processing — does make a difference for the little guys. What’s really needed is an event registration service at a lower cost, or maybe a good open source solution that can be run on a small organization’s hosted website directly.

Eventbrite appears to be offering a “free” upgrade to the premium service for events that are already in your account, so the club could sign up and presumably get access to the data that’s trapped in there for the current events, but would you really trust these people with your credit card information?

Funniest tweet that I’ve seen in days:

Pardon me sir. I didn’t mean to step on your Long Tail.

From an article today on Money Morning:

More than a decade after Internet pioneer Amazon.com burst upon the scene and revolutionized online retailing, experts are projecting that Internet-based shopping is destined to fall out of favor.

In the next five to 10 years, those who are already comfortable shopping online are likely to grow even more so. But the bulk of the folks who haven’t already made purchases will likely be staying on the sidelines, experts told The Associated Press.

Although I agree that store-based retail will outstrip online retailing for a long time to come, I just can’t see an actual decline in online retail sales, for several reasons:

  1. Although the boomers are starting to retire and will have more time to spend on shopping in person, they’re fairly tech-savvy and will likely keep shopping online for the convenience. That portion of the market will likely stay stable, or drop slightly as their income drops on retirement.
  2. The younger generations — X, Y, whatever — are increasing their earning power and therefore their disposable income, and they’re definitely shopping online. This part of the market will continue to grow.
  3. Some large number of “the bulk of the folks who haven’t already made purchases” are in the 65+ age range, and will die off. Although this doesn’t increase the amount of online shopping (except maybe for their grandkids with the inheritance), it does pull down that part of the curve when you’re looking at the number of people who have never shopped online.
  4. More stores are offering online shopping. For those of us with a preference for online to in-store shopping, that means that more of our disposable income will go to online shopping as it becomes available.
  5. Small businesses are increasingly shopping online to save time and money: I buy office supplies, computers, office furniture and anything else that I can find for my business online.

Talking about *camps and unconferences on my business blog is starting to have some effect: yesterday, I received the following email thread that had gone between two conference organizers in my industry:

You mentioned a technique for facilitating a discussion and I think you called it CAMP? I did a brief search on the web but didn’t find it. Did I remember the acronym correctly? Would you point me to a website for more information? I want to investigate techniques for getting the audience more engaged.

The recipient had passed it on to me, and I responded with some information on Open Space to get them started.

It may come to nothing (especially when they realize that they can’t charge as much for this sort of format), but any interest in unconference formats by conference organizers has to be a good thing for the participants.

Damir, my other half, is a much more traditional engineer than I: he likes to ponder over new technology for a while, while I’m leaping about in it, shouting “c’mon in, the water’s great!” and trying not to get eaten by the sharks. When he does jump in, however, it’s with both feet.

In the past 3 weeks, he learned WordPress and MediaWiki, and last weekend relaunched his website using WordPress for the site content and MediaWiki for a knowledge base. He’s working on getting 100 articles into his wiki, both for general interest (that is, if you’re interested in getting data out of PLCs and into Excel or SQL Server for data analysis) and as a support reference for his customers. A lot of the material is pretty basic, but consider that his audience is the electrical and mechanical maintenance staff at automotive manufacturing plants.

I’ve been talking about moving my corporate website, small as it is, onto WordPress for about a year now, ever since I converted the site for my wine club, but somehow never seem to find the time. Obviously, the bar for websites in our household has been raised, and I have some catching up to do.