Steve’s latest …

2008/01/16

Of course, I mean the other Steve, Steve Jobs. My world is revolving around few Steves. Steve Jobs is usually Steve Nr. 2 – and no, Joel – the Steve #1 is definitely not Ballmer :-). But every year, for two brief occasions – Macworld and WWDC – Steve Jobs becomes Steve #1 for very large amount of people.

I was waiting with this post full day to allow the new-ity of the keynote sink in and reality distortion field to evaporate …. This is my take on the latest from Appleverse – and an answer to all who were asking whether I did already (pre)ordered and what :-). The answer is – nothing so far. I even have mixed feelings about the four Macworld news and here is why:

Biggest news and coolest announcement is the Macbook Air. Yes, it looks very nice indeed. Yes, the new gestures are amazing. Both pricewise and performance-wise it sits in between Macbook and Macbook Pro, beating both on coolness and portability. But I think I will skip this one.

Main reason is that number of notebooks in my house divided by number of household members is already bigger than one – even if I include the cat. Besides, I do not really need ultra portable notebook so it is hard to justify the cost. For an eBook reader it is still too big and has too short battery life. And for serious work, the screen is too small and the computing power / graphics card not a match to Macbook Pro.

If I did not already have a Macbook, that may have been very strong temptation. But – IMHO – being thinnest and best looking is maybe most important for superstars, but not the most important feature for a notebook. For $500 less you will get same size screen with same resolution, same graphic card, 20% faster CPU plus the DVD drive and Ethernet port. Is the form factor and iluminated screen worth six hundred dollars ? You decide. I am just not convinced that it is worth the asking price of $1899. And how the hell did Apple come to the conclusion that $1799 USD times 1.01 equals $1899 CAD ? What kind of math is that ?

Apple is generally not very nice to Canadians. Regardless of pretty much parity between the loonie and the greenback for many months, we are still paying 10-15% more for the same products as our friends in the USA. We have (officially) no iPhone – unlike Germany, France and UK . Selection offered on iTunes here and down there is so different that it is not even funny. No movie rentals for us for quite some time. It may or may not be in Apple’s hands and possibly caused by legal issues around our overregulated telecom sector … But back to the Macworld.

The iPhone / iTouch upgrades do not excite me at all. The iPhone upgrade is irrelevant (see above) and from the new Touch 4 apps I do not need at least three. Google Maps on iTouch cannot work anywhere as good as on iPhone. Not without phone tower triangulation capability. And density of public WiFi spots in Canada …. no comment. I guess much better will be to wait until SDK is out and third party vendors will join the market. I will happily pay for an application that will make Touch better eBook reader. But charging the $20 for the apps that otherwise identical, same retail price iPod will have for free since today, just cannot be understood otherwise than Apple likes to punish the early adopters – the most loyal fans. Second time in less that 8 months. Point taken …

If you live in the USA, new Apple TV is actually a great idea. The convenience of renting without leaving the sofa can make a huge difference. Price is the about the same or better as the OnDemand rental, you have 30 days to start watching and the same 24 hrs to finish as with cable. What is IMHO killer feature is making it computer independent, but still allow transfer purchased/rented content to your Mac or PC and iPod. An ideal way how to take few movies with you for a long flight or commute. I would buy one right away – if there was a good content.

If the Apple TV had a DVD slot, it would be completely amazing and it would be best shot to become the only box next to TV – no more need for digital terminal and DVD player … I will re-evaluate this one when it is clear what is the iTunes movie selection in Canada – and stick with cable and DVD until then.

Last but not least – Time Capsule. Nice, but I already have an external harddrive for Time Machine. Whether paying twice the price of 500 GB disk is worth the convenience of not having to attach the cable to my Macbook – I am not quite sure. I am also not sure how will the wireless backup speed do compared to FireWire. Capability of backing up both Macs would not help me either because the Macbook still runs Tiger …

So from all the shiny new offering, my most likely 2008 purchase is something that was announced before Macworld to avoid distracting the audience and stealing the thunder: the new Mac Pro server. Getting really well designed and well built 8 cores server with 16 GB RAM for a little more than $4000 is a great deal – and he best way how to run Windows: inside the safe boundaries of UNIX :-).


Sony eReader format (LRF) viewer for the Mac, Linux and Windows

2008/01/07

Thanks to Kovid Goyal, the Sony Reader’s very own terrible software (iTunes wannabe) can very soon be decommissioned from my software collection. The libprs500 project, multi-platform solution written in Python works very well and allows to move data between Sony and your Mac / Linux / Windows. The UI is actually pretty decent, considering that it is not native Cocoa app:

picture-8.png

You can also edit metadata, which is very important because of the limited screen space on PRS500. As added benefit, the application gives you a reader for LRF file format that allows reading unprotected LRF books on the Mac/Linux as well in addition to Windows. Here is a snapshot:

picture-9.png

And best for the end: the libprs500 can do format conversion from TXT, HTML, RTF and LIT (haleluja !) as well as PDF – as long as it does not contain too many images. Seems like Christmas arrived twice this winter – and we have still Macworld ahead ๐Ÿ™‚

Huge thanks to Kovid who wrote this thing and to Peter who made aware of it …


iPod touch – finally !

2007/10/12

So, I have finally got it. Only the 8 GB version as the 16 GB were sold out, but I just could not wait for another week :-). After playing with it for about 1.5 hour, I like it even more. The readability of Safari Web sites is excellent – I started to put together some links. Did not try too many sites yet, but the Dzone reads OK :-). Also the PDF book reading is very good – but that is no news. I guess I will have to put up some internal Apache access to my PDF eBooks from my bed :-).

Wireless gets connected right away and works very good with WPA. Comapared to Macbook, the signal strength indicator shows less bars (about same as my Windows notebooks) – but is still reliable enough. The only partially weird thing with wireless is when you change networks, after return the Safari insisted for some time to keep the Bridghead WiFi address. Speaking of which – Bridgehead got major black point today, as their WiFi does not support Safari. I never noticed it with Macbook – as I used mostly Firefox, but now I have no choice ! I am going to test Zavida – another coffeeshop with free WiFi soon.

After I loaded podcasts, I went for a short 2 hour walk to test drive the iPod part of the gadget. Sound quality is hard to judge on spoken word. Leo sounded good as always and John C. Dvorak was as irresistibly cranky and funny as usual. Compared to my second gen Nano, the only disadvantage I have found so far is that you have actually look at the display when you need to stop play (in order to talk to somebody) or skip through the advertisement – whereas with clickwheel it can be done just by hand in your pocket.


More on Sony Reader

2007/01/27

I have been living with my Sony eReader for almost a month now and managed to read about two full books. If not the time crush in biometric project, I would have probably read much more than just two books – nevertheless, I do have some real life experience with the device.

First – the claimed battery life of 7500 page turns is BS. I have observed real battery life about 15-20 hours, so unless you manage to turn about 500 pages per hour, it just does not add up. I have observed that battery was good for about 1 full book (about 400 letter pages, or about 900 “small” pages on reader), read over 2 weeks period, the battery dropped from full charge to one segment. It is possible that it depends on how reading style – if you are turning pages and reading continuously, it lasts longer. Browsing through books seems to consume considerable energy. I think that 15-20 hours reading time is more than enough – it will keep you busy on flight to Australia :-). Certainly huge improvement against PDA based readers, where the battery life is 4-5 hours max. My 2 years old PocketPC is now down to about 3.5 hrs. I am still using it because a) I have lots of books in PalmDoc and CHM formats and b) I like to read in bed …

I have looked at the content of the SD card as it is in file system. The Reader does not seem to do any conversion for the files involved – the copied PDF and RTF files are binary equal to the original files. The structure of the SD card is:

\Sony Reader\
\Sony Reader\books
\Sony Reader\database

The books folder contains all files copied into SD. The database contains single XML file cache.xml, which holds directory of the books. I do not know yet whether the file indeed a directory or what it says – a cache. Simple experiment to do is to copy few files and test of Reader will find them and updates the cache. The book metadata has following format as:

<text author="AUTHOR NAME" page="0" part="0" scale="0" sourceid="37" id="269">
date="Sat, 30 Dec 2006 22:42:12 GMT" mime="text/plain"
path="Sony Reader/books/FILENAME.txt" size="339623"
title="BOOK TITLE">
<layouts>
<layout part="0" scale="0">
...

I am not sure how the one or more encoded binary chunks – layouts (for various scales) work. The encoded jpeg -thumbnail is on the hand pretty obvious.

The source of the information appearing in the metadata depends on the source format. For PDF and RTF files, Connect software seems to access the document properties, for TXT files I did not figure it out yet.

So to get good content on the Reader requires

a) get the metadata right and
b) convert the content into best readable format.

Which is, unfortunately the proprietary format BBeB. The readibility of the BBeB is far the best, it offer nicer text, better sizing and overall much better reading experience. The good news is, that it is possible to create content in this format and first few tools are appearing on the net. I will try them out and post the results here as soon as I am done. Until that time, you can download free ebooks (Project Gutenberg and others) on Manybooks.net directly in the eReader format.

This site is very good source of information on the eReader and things around it.


The joys of open source NAS

2007/01/21

Well, as it looks like, I was prematurely ecstatic about the new open source based NAS server. While the hardware works great, I had not much luck so far with setting up the software on top of that.

My original idea was to use FreeNAS, let it boot and install into USB drive and use all 4 SATA disks in RAID 5 set up by BIOS. It did not work. FreeNAS does not see the RAID5 volume created by BIOS and keeps referring to 4 separate SATA drives. So does Openfiles and few other distributions. After the USB key was initialized, the system did not boot and stopped with error message ‘No Ufs’.

Some research later, I found out that the drivers for the chipset needs to be installed in order the hardware RAID to be recognized. In the process of searching I’ve learned more about RAID’s than I ever wanted to know ๐Ÿ™‚ and found out that the hardware RAID I have is in reality half software solution and without loaded drivers and help from OS will not work. Not much surprise, one cannot expect from $110 mainboard to be everything for everybody.

I did few experiments with using 4 SATA disks as separate volumes and set up software RAID 5 in FreeNAS. It worked OK, so as long as you resolve the problem with booting, this almost would be a workable solution. For now, while I am experimenting with the system, it is booting from additional 40GB IDE drive. The “almost” part is bad surprise in FreeNAS capabilities. It allows you to create users and even groups (dunno why), but the access control is all or nothing. For volume, you can set level of authentication required – anonymous, local user or domain, but you cannot define any restrictions on access. For example, you cannot have read only access. This makes FreeNAS completely unsuitable for what I need – I must be able to export read only shares. To do that, I will very likely have to use normal Linux distribution (preferably some with Web based admin interface), and properly configure servers and security. It should not be terribly hard, the trouble is that I know too little about all that Linux-hardisks stuff. On the other hand, it is a great learning opportunity.

As for RAID, there are two possible ways ahead: option one is to get the BIOS RAID working. This would require to find the proper drivers for the Linux kernel version I will be using and learn how to add driver during Linux installation. The other is use software RAID provided by several distributions – e.g. by Openfiler. It may not be as bad as it sounds, because using software RAID inside Linux distributions is exactly what cheaper NAS devices are doing. It does not even have to mean that the performance will be much worse: the main reason these lower end NAS devices are slow in RAID configuration is not enough CPU power and enough memory – typically they have some ARM processor and 256 MB RAM. On my box, I have full Athlon 64 and 1 GB RAM, which is way more powerful.

The tricky part is how do divide the 4 disks into partitions so that I can place /boot and swap somewhere and keep the root partition on RAID-ed disk. It can be tricky, because the partitions that participate in RAID should have same size and you still need to place the /boot swap and the root partition somewhere. Because they are so important, it would be great if they could sit on RAID, but of course it is a chicken-egg problem, because the RAID is created after Linux boots.

I see two options (and you guys who actually do understand this stuff, feel free to correct me if I am completely wrong):

a) keep the IDE drive (which will hold the MBR, /boot, swap and root file system) for boot and Linux installation and create one partition per SATA disk, all combined into large RAID-5. This way, all space on SATA drives is utilized. The IDE is single point of failure, but if it fails, it should be quite easy to boot some LiveCD and reconfigure the access to the data, because the sofware RAID support is built into new kernels and should work the same, regardless of distribution. The most of the IDE disk space will be available – the Linux distribution will comfortably fit into 2-4 GB, and the rest ofย  80 GB (the smallest disk you can buy) can be exported as quick, no-RAID, working disk space (staging area or temp).

b) Partition the SATA disks so that the boot, swap and system partition are on the first disk. The size of the rest of disk wil be determining the primary RAID volume size. The equivalent sized partitions to the system size on the other disks are combined into second RAID5 volume. For example

hda1 – 100 MB = boot, hda2 – 2 GB = swap, hda3 – 4 GB = system, hda4 – 3xx GB = space for RAID 5
hdb1 – 100 MB = (copy of boot), hdb2 – 6 GB = space for vol2 RAID, hdb3 – 3xx GB = space for RAID 5
hdc1 – 100 MB = (copy of boot), hdc2 – 6 GB = space for vol2 RAID, hdc3 – 3xx GB = space for RAID 5
hdd1 – 100 MB = (copy of boot), hdd2 – 6 GB = space for vol2 RAID, hdd3 – 3xx GB = space for RAID 5

After that, there will be two RAID5 volumes: one created from hda4, hdb3, hdc3 and hdd3 – which have all same capacity and one created from hdb2, hdc2 and hdd2. The capacities of the volumes will be 3 x 3xx GB (about 900 GB) for big one and about 12 GB for the smaller one. If any of the disks hdb, hdc and hdd fails, nothing happens and after replacement data will be restored. If disk hda fails, in order to restore, the system must be started from LiveCD, reinstalled on hda (with exact partitions and RAID table) and after booting the data will be restored. Kind of complicated but maybe doable.

There is always plan B, of course: stay with BIOS RAID and use Windows 2003. It would have exactly same issues with drivers as Linux had, but I know how to install this one (as I have done it when we were setting up the development lab). The machine is powerful enough to run it. What would be nice, is that both OS and data would sit on RAID-ed volume. What I do not like on the Windows idea is the necessity of using GUI to do anything – the Remote Desktop is pretty much only practical way how to administer the system. And I would not learn much new either, I think …

Yep, more thinking and planning required. I will shelve the RAID project until next weekend. I have mixed feelings about all this. On one hand, it is great to be discovering new things and learning, but it takes so much time: after Yan built the box, we have tried to get it working until 3AM … Why things cannot “just work” as in Mac world ? If budget would not be problem, here is perfect RAID solution :-).


Dealing with digital mess: Local (offline) File Storage

2007/01/20

If you have digital camera or digital camcorder, you probably have a problem where to store the pictures and video so that they are readily available for viewing and protected against loss caused by hardware failure. How much storage you need depends on how many and how large pictures do you take and how heavy camcorder user you are. In my case, I have switched to shooting RAW on my D70, doing about 2000-4000 shots a year and the camcorder produces about 4-5 GB unprocessed video per hour of recording. After adding some free capacity for the document archives, some MP3 files, anything smaller than 500 GB will be probably too small. To have some space, I decided I better go for 1 Terrabyte of space.

The main advantage of the local disk storage is speed. Regardless how fast your Internet connection is, it is nothing like 1 GB Ethernet, when it comes to to speedy access to your files. You would of course get most speed if the data were stored on local disks of the machine which uses them, but who uses only one machine :-). To separate data storage into dedicated box offers easier sharing and freedom to reinstall OS on the workstation without impacting data availability. Therefore, I want NAS.

Another important feature of the local storage is safety. To protect yourself against data loss, you want to do at minimum RAID storage – likely RAID-5. I was avoding RAID for some time – and as result ended up with many USB disks laying around, lots of cables, power adapters and very complicated cascade backup process, which need to be simplified.

The basic question about NAS is to build or to buy. Ideally, I would like to have an appliance, not another computer. There is interesting site on the Net – Small Network Builders which offers lot of information about commercial NAS solutions available. Unfortunately, those devices which were in my desired price range (~ $900 to $1100) for TB storage (like Buffalo Home Server), had serious issues either with read/write performance which was at the level of 100 MB network speed on 1GB LAN – or some multi platform compatibility problems. Another potential problem with some NAS boxes was noise. Running four high-performance hard disk drives inside small enclosure requires good cooling and often makes the NAS noisiest part of your office. My goal is to lower the noise, not increase it. An example of NAS with good performance is the Thecus N5200 – but you have to accept the noise. A system that promises quiet operation was Synology CS-406, but in both cases the enclosure (without disks) price tag was in the range $700-$900. If you assume price of the 5 disks about $600-$700, it is impossible to build 1TB in assumed budget.

All commercial NAS devices are computer running usually Linux or BSD Unix with Web based user interface for disk management. The speed of the box is determined (except speed of the disks) by the NIC adapter speed, CPU speed (and amount of RAM) and the overhead of the used OS. Disadvantage of appliance NAS is little control about these and about features supported. With building custom appliance, you have full control and for $800 you can build very decent computer these days.

I have decided to go with larger case – to allow more space around hard drives, better cooling and quieter fans. I asked Yan to recommend really good mainboard with fast enough CPU – but not too fast to need lots of noisy cooling and enough RAM to have space for buffers. Here is configuration I have ended up with – purchased from my favorite hardware supplier:

– AMD 64 3500+ AM2 Processor
– Asus M2NPV-VM AM2 Nf430 mATX MB (Raid5/GbE/Gf6150/VGA/DVI-D)
– 1GB PC2-5300 DDR2 Memory
– Lite-On LH-18A1P-185 DVD-RW 18×18
– Antec Atlas Server Case w/True 500w Power Supply
– 2xSilenX 92mm 14dBA 2000rpm 36cfm Case Fan

Alltogether the price for enclosure was $546. If you add five 320 GB SATAII Seagate HDD, 16MB you will end up with 1.2 TB NAS (900 GB after RAID) which is (hopefully) more powerful, quiter and at least 300-400 cheaper than the pre-built alternatives. The machine which does only fileserver is about 3-4 times faster than my current desktop from early 2002 (which did cost about 2.5K$ at that time). Oh boy …

Technically I did not need buy 5 hard drives for RAID-5, only 4. I just picked up one spare to make sure that when it comes to replacement, I have it available. I believe that having same disks has value and if the increase in HDD capacities will continue with current speed, the 320 GB disks may be unavailable soon.

As for software, I have not decided yet. The best candidate is the FreeNAS. It is not Linux based, but Free BSD. I have no problem with that, quite the opposite – thanks to Macbook, I have very good relationship with FreeBSD Unix now :-).

The machine is completed and running in my office now. It is amazingly quiet – very deep below the level of noise of the other computers. I have not installed OS yet, only booted FreeNAS from the CD. Time to read FreeNAS installation guide I guess.

Will be continued


How to reset an iPod

2007/01/06

when it hangs and does not react. I am posting it so that I do not have to google it out again :-). Key is Menu + Select combination.

Here comes the detailed version (saved from Google Notebook):

  1. Toggle the Hold switch on and off to avoid “hold trap”
  2. Press and hold the Menu and Select buttons until the Apple logo appears, about 6 to 10 seconds. You may need to repeat this step.

Tips:

– set iPod set it on a flat surface.
– Make sure the finger pressing the Select button is not touching any part of the click wheel.
– make sure that you are pressing the Menu button toward the outside of the click wheel, and not near the center.
– if battery is dead, above may not work, try to power the iPod – to a power adapter and plug the power adapter into an electrical outlet, or connect iPod to your computer. Make sure the computer is turned on and isn’t set to go to sleep.
– use only one finger from one hand to press the Center (Select) button, and one finger from the other hand to press the Menu button.

After reset iPod music and files are saved, as well as date and time but some customized settings may be lost.