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Derek Carter’s blog » 2007» September

Archive for September, 2007

TRAINS sent me a free DVD - four years too late

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

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A few days ago I received a DVD sent to me by Kalmbach Publishing, which publishes TRAINS and CLASSIC TRAINS, among other magazines. I was rather surprised to get it, as I hadn’t ordered it. The title is “Big Power”, and is apparently the first volume of a new series called “Ultimate Railroading DVD Series”. The idea behind it is to get people to buy more of the series: if you like it, send ‘em money and every few months they’ll send the next disc in the series, which you can decide to keep or return as you see fit. Of course, since this one was unsolicited, I have the third option of keeping it for free.

The DVD itself is rather mediocre. The content, while perfectly accurate, is not only old news to me (and to most of the other people Kalmbach has sent the DVD to) but also doesn’t go into any kind of depth. There are Wikipedia articles more detailed than this DVD. Making things worse, despite the 2007 copyright date on the box, the program was apparently produced in 2003, so everything is four years out of date. It discusses SD70MACs and Dash-9s, while for the last two years TRAINS has been discussing their successors, the SD70ACe and ES44DC.

As a side result of being filmed four years ago, the DVD has a 4:3 aspect ratio. Not too thrilling when everything is moving to widescreen. Video quality varied throughout the program. Some shots were normal DVD quality, but others looked like they were made with low-end cameras. Overall it looked no better than some of my 20-year-old VHS tapes. The footage itself isn’t particularly interesting either. In general the scenery wasn’t interesting, and most shots were close-ups of the locomotives anyway. While not necessarily bad, an entire hour of such shots is kinda boring. The only particularly interesting footage was that taken inside General Electric’s factory in Erie, PA, and some of a locomotive with a stack fire.

I’m not inclined to recommend this DVD to anyone.

Amazon MP3 review

Friday, September 28th, 2007

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Earlier this week Amazon.com released its new MP3 download store into public beta. Known as Amazon MP3, it is the latest store to compete with the iTunes Store in the market for legal digital music downloads. I’ve been experimenting with it for the last few days and have been quite impressed with its catalog and ease of use.

Other stores have attempted to compete with iTunes, with little success. Most are crippled with DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) that is incompatible with iTunes and the iPod, and is far more restrictive than Apple’s Fairplay DRM. The few selling tracks without DRM generally have limited catalogs, and at least one (Walmart) requires Windows to work. Amazon MP3 avoids most of the problems associated with other digital music stores, and will likely be very successful as long as the record labels don’t pull out.

As the name suggests, Amazon MP3 sells all its music in MP3 format. There’s no DRM attached, so the songs can be played on virtually any computer or digital music player. Bitrate varies, but is always high quality. A lot of songs are at a flat bitrate of 256 kbps (the same as iTunes Plus songs), while others use variable bitrate (VBR) encoding, with the average bitrate anywhere from 207 kbps to 280 kbps. This is considerably higher quality than most songs sold through iTunes or other digital music stores, which generally use 128 kbps encoding.

Amazon MP3’s catalog is quite impressive, with around 2 million songs at launch, giving it a broad enough selection to make it popular with a lot of people right from the start. Naturally, it includes content from EMI (the only one of the major labels to renounce DRM) and lots of indie labels. Even more impressive, though, is that Amazon apparently convinced some or all of the other three big labels to sell their music through the store. I’m guessing they consider this an experiment. Hopefully enough people will buy music from Amazon MP3 to convince them that people want high-quality DRM-free music downloads, and they’ll drop the DRM nonsense.

Amazon’s pricing makes iTunes look expensive. Individual songs are 89 or 99 cents each, and most albums are under $9.99. Songs with the same quality on iTunes are $1.29 each, with albums at $9.99 (and often higher).

Buying and downloading songs is easy. Amazon provides a program called the Amazon MP3 Downloader that you install on your computer to manage downloads. When you click on the “Buy” button for the song or album you want to purchase, a small .amz file is downloaded to your computer which tells the MP3 Downloader what to download (all purchases are handled through Amazon’s 1-click system). Some browsers will ask whether you want to open or save this file; choosing the former option automatically passes the .amz to the Downloader. Saving the .amz (as my browser does for anything) also works, but you then have to open it separately. Once the .amz has been opened, the Downloader starts downloading the song or album you just purchased. Multiple songs and albums can be queued at once, but the current version of the Downloader can only download one song at a time.

Once a song has been downloaded, the Downloader automatically adds it to your iTunes (Mac or Windows) or Windows Media Player (Windows) library - an excellent feature for those who already use those programs to manage their music libraries. This feature can be disabled if you use another program to manage your music library, but you will have to manually import the songs from wherever they are downloaded to.

There are some imporvements that could be made to improve the experience. First, it would be nice to use a shopping cart, so you can buy multiple songs/albums at once without having to open a .amz file for each one. Second, it is possible for third-party programs to create playlists in iTunes and add songs to them as part of the import process. It would be nice if the MP3 Downloader did that. Currently I have a smart playlist set up to catch songs purchased from Amazon MP3 that looks at the comments (all songs from Amazon have an ID number in the Comment field, usually preceded by “Amazon.com: ” or “Amazon.com Song ID: “), but even that misses songs that don’t have “Amazon.com” in the Comment field. I also found an outright error: on one of the albums I purchased, the titles on three of the songs were mixed up (iTunes is also guilty of this problem). Presumably this is a rare problem, as there would likely be a lot of discussion on the net if it was widespread.

The only other downside to Amazon MP3 is that it’s US-only. I don’t understand why the record companies won’t allow digital music stores to be global stores; that alone would cut down on a lot of piracy if people weren’t forced to choose between outrageously expensive import CDs and file-sharing sites for acquiring foreign music.

Minor flaws aside, Amazon MP3 is off to a great start. It’s easy to use, and the music works anywhere. I highly encourage people to support it.

People who forget to turn their headlights *on*

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

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It seems like a lot of people are forgetting to turn on their headlights at night. Two or three times in the last week I’ve passed cars which had either no lights or just their marker lights on, well past sundown. “What’s that thing that light keeps glinting off of? Oh, just a car with no lights on that I’m coming up behind at 65 miles an hour.” You’d think the fact they can’t read their instrument panel would be a clue to these people, but apparently not.

Family Day at MIT’s Lincoln Lab

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

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Yesterday Lincoln Lab had an open house for family members of current and former employees on its main campus in Lexington, MA. My grandfather worked there for many years until he retired a decade ago, so he extended the invitation to my dad and I. It took the form of a science fair, with each research group (or a fair number of them, at least) doing a demonstration of whatever it was they were working on. We only visited some of them - there were too many see all of them. I’m afraid they didn’t allow photography, as a lot of research there is done for the government (and is thus classified).

The first exhibit we saw was on thermo-electric systems that can convert electricity to heat or vice-versa. Interesting technology, but not very efficient.

Next there was a display on lasers. One part had a 532 nm green laser shining through a fiber optic cable. Some of the light was absorbed by the fiber and re-emitted at different wavelengths, so that when the beam was sent through a prism it split into a rainbow covering the visible spectrum and a bit on either side of that. Another display at the same table had a red laser (probably 650 nm) shining through a tank of water. Directly opposite the laser was a hole that allowed a stream of water to pour out in an arc that hit a mirror a few centimeters below the level of the laser. The laser beam was carried by the water stream to hit the mirror.

Next was a display on high-speed imaging. They have a CCD sensor capable of taking a million images per second (IIRC), although it’s only used for bursts of a few dozen images.

Next was a display on microchips, which had several microscopes focused on silicon wafers. Always cool to look at those. There were also several tables discussing the fabrication process. One had some blank wafers and a vacuum wand for picking them up.

We then walked through several buildings until we found the scanning electron microscope demo. One was in operation for the demo, so we got to see highly magnified views of a CCD sensor (which looks like the canework on some chairs), a bee, tiny sea creatures, blood cells, and a kind of pollen. The latter was amusing to watch because the electron beam was charging up the pollen particles, which then repelled one another.

From there we headed over to the machine shop. First we saw the rapid-prototyping machine, used to make plastic parts for various things. Sometimes the parts are used as-is, other times they are prototypes for something to be made in a different material. Next we saw a computer-driven milling machine which was making Family Day souvenirs out of aluminum billets. Finally we saw the abrasive water jet cutting machine. As the name suggests, it cuts through materials with a water jet. It can cut through up to 8 inches of solid metal.

Next we saw the room where they assemble circuit boards. Nothing was running at the time, but we could examine the machines used to put solder paste on blank circuit boards (a screen is placed over the board and fancy squeegee rolls over it, depositing the solder where it belongs), place resistors, diodes, and microchips on the board, and the oven used to melt the solder. (I/O connectors are added by hand later.)

We went to see another display that looked interesting, but as the presenter was off at lunch we decided to do the same. They had a pretty good buffet set up outside the main entrance (mmm, sirloin hamburgers )

After lunch we went back to the laser communications demo we had tried to see before lunch. Basically, the data (in this case, an audio stream from a mic) was sent by a laser to a receiver (which was connected to a speaker). Changing the amount of light reaching the receiver dramatically altered the volume of the speaker.

Then we visited the facility’s data center, which was the usual racks of servers and hard drives, providing several gigaflops of processing power and petabytes of RAID-5 data storage.

The library there has the TX-0 in its basement, which was one of the first transistor-based computers. It’s actually quite small - you could fit it into your living room. The design is interesting: many of the components are modular in nature, so a failed board could be replaced in a minute or two. The transistors are also interesting, as it appears they used the same connection interface as vacuum tubes. The main control panel had lights to indicate what was in the registers, quite convenient for debugging programs (back when you wrote everything in machine code). A very interesting machine to examine. Too bad it’s been inoperable for the last quarter-century.

Next we came across a demo of how radar works, using a sodar system (same concept as radar, but uses sound waves instead). A good round of applause is good for jamming sodar systems, BTW.

Finally, we went through a demo of 3D images and lasers. Wearing 3D glasses, we were able to watch a 3D computer model of Manhattan as an imaginary camera flew all over the city. Next to that was a giant multi-touch display table. Unlike the iPhone’s display, you have to wear a wristband connected to the display for it to properly work (the wristband completes a circuit that runs from the display and through your hand and lets it handle input from up to four people at once). Finally there was a big laser display that had the beam bouncing all over a table and then across the room. The latter part I disliked as the beam was at eye level. Although the beam had gone through a lens that dispersed it and made it harmless, this sets a poor example.

We had a wonderful time there. It’s a neat place.

Problems with the iPod touch

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

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As I mentioned previously, the iPod touch currently has only 16GB of storage at most, with a price tag of $400. That’s too expensive to replace my 8GB 2G iPod nano ($250 at the time), and too small to replace my 60GB 5G iPod. If the touch became cheaper than my nano or got at least 32GB of storage (my music collection is just over 17GB now, and I can live with only a fraction of my video and photo collections) I’d be interested in buying one.

But there’s a few other problems I have with it. After hearing reports on iLounge that some Apple Stores had received shipments of the iPod touch, I went to the one in Braintree to check it out if they were one of the lucky stores. Sure enough, they had it. As I was playing around with one, it dawned on me that both it and the iPhone don’t sort videos very well. The other video iPod models have submenus for Movies, Music Videos, TV Shows, Video Podcasts, and Video Playlists. The iPhone/iPod touch just have a single Video menu which lists every single video synced to the device. While they are separated by kind, if you want to go to a video podcast, you have to scroll through every movie, music video, and tv show that’s on the device first (video playlists aren’t supported at all). On my current iPod, that would mean going through 283 videos, which starts to become a lengthy task. While the capacities of Apple’s current multi-touch devices will probably limit most users to a few dozen videos, this will start to become a problem once flash drive capacities start closing in on the current hard drive capacities.

There’s also a bunch of handy features present on the iPhone that are missing from the iPod touch. No Notes and no way of adding events to calendars, for starters. Despite the Wi-Fi capabilities, there are no widgets for Google Maps, Weather, or Stocks - but there’s a widget for YouTube, not to mention the same Safari browser the iPhone has. The Notes especially are a feature I’d like to have. Hopefully Apple will add a lot of these apps to the touch in future firmware updates.

Let’s see if this works…

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

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I’ve switched over to an actual blog for my news updates and other ramblings. Hopefully I can get the damn thing to work.

New iPods leave much to be desired

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

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Yesterday Apple refreshed the entire iPod line-up. In the past, such events have been the cause of much excitement both before and after, but this time it did not live up to the pre-show anticipation. Here’s my reactions to the new iPods:

iPod shuffle: Meh. New colors, but nothing else. I’ve never cared for the shuffle (no screen and not enough capacity for my tastes).

iPod nano: “I’m a little iPod, short and stout…” The 3G nano needs to go on a diet. Seriously, that extra inch of width just doesn’t look good on it. And what was the point in adding a bigger screen and video support to it? Now it’s just a low capacity iPod with a smaller screen. They should’ve just updated the 2G version with more memory.

iPod classic (aka 6G iPod): Just plain pointless. It’s almost unchanged from the 5G iPod. Admittedly, the greater capacity, component video output, virtually unscratchable anodized aluminum front (too bad the screen is the same old scratch-prone plastic), and modestly enhanced interface will be nice for some people, I’m not going to pay $250 for a new version of what I already have.

iPod touch: “So close, and yet so far…” Pluses: multi-touch display and Wi-Fi. Minuses: maxes out at 16GB of memory (my music collection is now in excess of 17GB), and lacks a lot of the apps the iPhone has (No notepad? WTF?). If it had at least 60GB of memory (the same as my current iPod), I definitely would’ve bought one, but it looks like I’ll have to wait a year or so for the capacity and features to increase.

iPhone: Apple dropped the price to $400 for the 8GB version (this is the same price as the 16GB iPod touch, btw). If dad and I can’t straighten things out with Verizon to get new phones, I might just buy an iPhone. The charging cradle for my current phone is a POS.