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Ode to the e815

I have been a lucky man to have my wife give up her old Motorola e815. This phone rocks for a number of reasons. While it's no smart phone, it's does enough for my purposes that because I didn't pay for it, it's smart to me. It's one of the few free-with-contract phones with EVDO I have ever seen, so using it as modem is extremely bearable. But even using the old-school Openwave browser on it with EV as compared to my old free samsung is noticeably snappier. It also has a microSD slot, and copying photos, movies, and music to it is relatively easy. Making ringtones for it is a snap too.

Browsing free models from Verizon these days with their goofy rooty-tooty-new-every-two promotions, I don't think I'd be as lucky to find a comparable phone, especially in terms of reliability. While the e815 is noticebly beaten, Eva's shiny black Samsung's camera phone broke within three months. Who cares, it's only VGA.

Even if I found something that matched on technology numbers and perhaps reliability, one thing scares me the most about a new phone; a shitty UI. Moving back to a Motorola phone, even though my last one was from character lcd, the UI is leaps and bounds better beyond many technologically superior phones i've had a chance to interact with. While you say you might want a smart phone, what people really want is a smart UI.


Google Custom Domain Headaches

Ack, it's been while since I've posted, I know, but what luck, i have something relevant to actually report.

After initially setting up my wife's blog, tucsonquerido.blogspot.com to use a custom GoDaddy domain back in June, I found what everyone had seemed to find out; it's not perfect. The details are at The Real Blogger Status - Beta: Google Custom Domain - Case Study # I tried Google's way initially, but that left tucsonquerido.com users out in the cold, and after all, www is deprecated. So after a bit of tweaking, I got just plain tucsonquerido.com to work with Blogger by using the IP address associated with ghs.google.com. But I was back at square one. Old school web users could not use www.tucsonquerido.com. Still, google usually gave them a search page instead. I left it like this for a long time and google indexed it accordingly.

I decided recently to see if Google had fixed this, and they did! Well, sort of. They added a checkbox that flip-flops between "forward www traffic to tucsonquerido.com" and vice versa if your publishing url already started with www.

"Great," I thought, "I'll just change everything back and flip this bit!" So I did.

48 hours later, it still didn't seem to work. I followed the directions above and tried deleting the A record, but that still didn't seem to work. I called GoDaddy and they didn't quite know what to do either, but they did suggest at least using their A record IP.

However, I seem to have stumbled upon a possible fix. Before this recent mess, I simply changed the existing A record to point to the ip address for ghs.google.com. Like I mentioned above, this worked for a long time, I just left out the www people. So in order to get my wife's search links back, I changed it back, but this time, added a CNAME record www that points to @, or the root, as well as leaving the the checkbox checked in the publishing settings.

So far, it seems to have worked. But give it 48 hours...


The Rube Goldberg-ian WMA to MP3 Converter

Since we've started using our new home NAS to consolidate and backup our media, I've also undertaken the task to convert my fiance's previous WMA media collection she had accumulated since we started dating. Some of our media devices already supported WMA, such as our Blaupunkt car stereo, and Panasonic DVD player, but the newest, an Ipod 5th gen, obviously wouldn't (well not out of the box at least). Even in the car stereo, however, WMA files never fully worked; tags were never read. So even though MP3s are as much proprietary as WMAs, and WMA has many advantages of its own, MP3's ubiquitous support has won my heart and hard disks. I'd like to believe that keeping OGG media around and supporting its file format by buying a player that supports it will change matters, but the winds of time are behind MP3. Soon enough, patents will expire on MP3.

I initially thought the task would be much easier; surely Google will save me by returning results for "WMA to MP3". Simple inexpensive commercial app links were returned, and they all seemed capable of doing the job, but I felt "icky" knowing that there had to be a GPL/GNU solution to easily do what I needed (or at least a "free as in beer" solution). I had faith I could find success using GPL tools such as mplayer, mencoder, and lame. And I was partly right; I found several examples of mplayer usage with lame in thier own Rube Goldberg-ian *nix bash scripts. So I had hope at least I'd be able to simplify or adapt these to a Windows environment.

I started using an all mplayer solution; pipe mplayer to mplayer or mencoder and be done with it! Eh, not exactly. I could get mplayer to output wav files though... or... to stdout... which lame can read! Well, that would be an awesome one line commando transcode, but I could never get it to work on Windows. I did find a patch by Slingbox that gave better support for stdin in mplayer or lame (I forget which now) which lead me down the path of trying to compile my own solution, but that got to be too much work. Plus, i realized that there doesn't seem to be much support for tags. And that's the rub; I'm an ID3 tag and filename freak. If I didn't appreciate metadata so much, I would probably wouldn't be writing this post, but there's just something I enjoy about a good ID3 tag.

So what did I end up with? Actually a couple of reasonable solutions. Now Winamp isn't free as in speech, but I am quite familiar with it and it is free as in beer-ish. The paid for pro version could probably do all of what I needed quite easily, and support my ipod, but here comes the icky feeling again. The free version does have a couple of great features though. It does have a built in transcode, and it does support a recent out_lame plugin. The transcode feature doesn't let you transcode to mp3 without paying for Winamp Pro, but there is a rather elegant hack of installing the lame ACM codec to add support to Winamp WAV ripping to convert to mp3. But after a couple of passes, it would crash, and I could only seem to get ABR support, not the full VBR I desired.

However, the out_lame plugin is quite nice. It will let you take whatever Winamp will play back and convert it to mp3, all according to what tags and filename features you setup in Winamp.
Now that alone is not very Rube Goldberg-ian, and I still had to at least drag and drop both the WMA files and output files, so I developed a couple of .bat scripts that when used with another Winamp command-line add-on called CLEveR, would allow me to batch convert every wma it found, using whatever lame VBR settings, tags and filenames of my choosing.

Would Rube Goldberg even know what I was talking about by now?

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Openfiler at Home

A few months ago, as I was anticipating my next move for my home NAS, i came across a slashdot poster's link to Openfiler . While I was originally going to use FreeNAS, i'm glad I saved that bookmark. The FreeNAS installer would not boot on my machine, and if it wasn't for Openfiler, I really wouldn't have a free web-based alternative that I could try turn-key.

Openfiler seems to have come a long way from it's 1.x days, where, if i'm not mistaken, it was a package to be installed on a standard linux install. At version 2.0, it was based on Cent OS, and now at version 2.1+, based on rpath. However, the features it now offers are way beyond Freenas. To me, that means it's getting leaner and meaner, and because it's used in production environments, by paying customers, reassuring.

Although it will take more disk space for an Openfiler install, I really think that's moot, at least in my case. A 32Mb install is great, but really, the cost difference in between a 32Mb compact flash and a 2Gb compact flash is not that inhibitive, especially when you have the ability for local authentication, raid 6, and lots of supported hardware.

Although my installation of Openfiler did have some hiccups, the support forums and irc channel had plenty of people willing to help. The web gui became very easy to navigate after a short period.

As for performance, I have only done cursory tests, but I have been very surprised at the speed. Both my workstation and the nas use run-of-the-mill rosewill gigabit PCI cards, and I have been able to make dvd isos move back and forth very fast. One thing I've found, is that any bottleneck that may exists (besides no jumbo packet support on my D-Link 4300 router), is probably due to my slower pata disks in my workstation, which steadily light their equivelent leds, while the server only blinks occasionally.

I still have lots of things to tweak on the server, such as the hardware monitor, and all the leds, which all blink in unison for some reason, but i'm very happy to have gotten this far, at the performance I was shooting for.

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Gamble gone wrong

After a long debate on buying the Thecus 5200, an impressively built NAS bassed around a Celeron M, I decided I would instead use it as inspiration to build my own. Although it's plug and play, has gigabit ethernet performance, supports 5 discs and Raid 6, features high on my list, it is also a tad more expensive than what I believed I could spec out on my own. Plus, I wanted the experience of building my own always-on server.

I started out with an Icy Doc 4 bay backplane and a black Mapower 4 x5.25 bay external raid enclosure. One of my goals was to approach teh same size as the 5200, as well as create a look of a "just a bunch of disks" front facia. My first motherboard, an ASUS P5RD2-VM, was just a tad too big to fit in the enclosure without some heavy modification to both it and the backplane. I then exchanged it for a different Asus board, the K8N-VM, which is the smallest, least expensive microatx motherboard I could find. It didn't have the same exact features performance wise, but it was still workable. Or so I thought.

I tried several combinations of orientation, but nothing layed out well still. The motherboard would fit without modification, but because the case was never meant to mount a motherboard, it would have not mounted well on the little bit of metal to hang it on. Plus, the end of the enclosure would end up looking very ragged. So, I upgraded to the smallest, most reasonable looking microatx case that could hold 3 5.25 bays. The Athenatech A3603BB.400 is a good looking case, that sets itself appart in that sense. It takes the Icy Dock 4 in 3 backplane well, but as reviewers have noted, you can't use just any microatx motherboard, as the lowest 5.25 bay will probably hit. No problem, i have the smallest microatx board that appears to exist. Or so I thought.

I wouldn't be writing this now if everything was up and running. Instead, i'd probably be ripping my entire cd and dvd collection to my new fileserver. I used to think the Asus brand name was revered and sought after (I exaggerate), but I have come to realize I can't trust what even their own manual says, or the standards they say they support. This board does not have enough sata2 ports for my needs, but that shouldn't have stopped me, as it does have two pci-express slots, a 16x and a 1x. Using two run of the mill Rosewill sata2 pci-e 2port cards, I thought surely I could overcome this, and have extra sata2 ports to boot, especially since I could just use the onboard video. Not so, says Asus tech support, whom I called after the machine would beep with a 1x board in the 16x slot, regardless of bios settings. "Only a video card is supported in the 16x slot."

This seems to go against the pci-express standard, but that doesn't seem to be a concern with Asus, as they have other shoddy implementations on the board. Since I was also trying to boot from a CF ide adapter, I had to disable the udma options in the bios. Except that even if I disabled them, various flavors of linux insisted they were still on. I don't know who to trust, but i'm leaning towards linux gurus. It's already known that the linux acpi does not work well with Asus.

The tech support rep, although stumbling his way through an explanation, also led me to believe that their sata2 support does not support any type of switching used for port multipliers. I confirmed this looking up Nvidias 6100 chipset. If I had at least 1 sata2 port that did, i could use an add on switch that supported 5 disks, all at full speed. Simultaneously. My pci-express 1x card, however, does support port multipliers, so I still have that avenue.

So, now I'm fighting my way through any decent install of linux that I could at least test with. My original intent was FreeNAS, but I couldn't even get it installed, and even the developer suggests not to trust it's software raid. Openfiler is next, and if that installs successfully, I'll at least have a test bed to calcualte how far I may need to backtrack in design.


Mega Hurts

After multiple attempts to install Fedora Core 3 on the thinclient, including upgrading from a 1gb card(Transcend) to a 2gb card (riData), frying a cdrom trying to use the onboard molex, and an install bug that would send me in a loop if I was just a bit over the space limit, I finally got it installed(Yay!).

Then I found that there really is no margin to the processor requirements for skype and SkypeMate. Even though fc3 on the 266mhz Pentium Netvista with 256mb of ram is actually quite usable, Skypemate seems to take most of the cycles. Skype alone seems to do ok when up and running. I imagine that the overhead to use the B2k adapter as an audio device is just too much. It is also possible that if WikiPedia is correct about Skype doing constant writes to the hard drive, which in my case is a CompactFlash card, that could be slowing it down as well. I managed to call my cell phone and roughly get connected, but the sound was more than choppy. Either way, the results kept me quite bummed.

I still like the idea, and if nothing else, it satisfies my curiosity temporarily. I had never used Fedora or RedHat before, and it's a simple, if not too simple, setup (minus recurring bugs). I would like next to see if it is possible to bump up the systems processor, using an AMD K6. I just happened to find someone who has already done this and recorded it. Back to eBay!


Cheap Peeps

It's been a while since I posted but wanted to write a bit about most recent forray into Internet Telephony. I bought a usb to rj11 adapter a few months ago to try fax or data over Skype with my Dish Network receiver. I figured it would be a fun experiment, and there seems to be so much debate about whether or not data over voip is possible. Some Google searches say so using VOIP providers, but Skype is a bit different as I understand. Regardless, it did take up an afternoon of fiddling, and satisfied my curiosity. I put the adapter back on the shelf thinking it might come in handy sometime (even though we didn't own a regular phone). Sure enough, Eva found a use for it. After a couple of $200+ cell phone bills calling friends back in the midwest, I rigged up an inexpensive 900mhz phone with one of our workstations and taught her to dial out. With Skypes free skypeOut for the US and Canada until the end of the year, she should be able to save at least minutes, if not money (I hardly use my cell phone at all). I expect to try some international dialing to keep her connected to Paraguay as well. Don't expect the same quality using phone>adapter>wi-fi>internet. It appears to be too latent for good quality. So it hangs off of my wired desktop for the time being.

That got me thinking: wouldn't an always on thin client be the perfect application for this? My Netvista 8364 NUS has been gathering dust waiting for a nice touchscreen monitor to mate with it, so it might serve a better purpose serving Skype calls than just looking cool. There is some question as to if it has enough horsepower to not only run Fedora, but to keep skype going, but tinkering is what has got me this far. So, soon I will purchase a 1gb compact flash card and reference this guide to install Fedora Core 3, which apparently is the only linux that skypemate will install and work on.


Damn Small Linux and the ThinClient

After finally locating a ps/2 keyboard in the dumpster (no, i wasn't specifically looking there, my neighbors were moving), I was able to try out my Netvista 8364. At first, the standard post screens looked quite normal: keyboard. check. Mouse. check. DHCP. check. But I soon got lost in what I can only describe as IBM menu hell. My only real aim was to try to boot from an external device, such as a cd rom drive or a compact flash drive, but it only wanted to boot to the network.

Finally, even after I scanned it before for pertinent info, i reread http://www.freegeekmichiana.org/netvista.html
and found the boot menu option I was looking for. Success! The boot from IDE option menu seemed hidden to me, but after I fiddled with it, I could now either boot from my attached desktop DVD-drive, or the CF adapter, which shows up as a hard drive.

A few hours later, it was up and running, with some caveats. As I learned later, the best instll method involves two partiions, one for the base install, and a backup partition for stuff you want to save across boots. Damn Small uses MyDSL, a nifty way to extend teh base install for users. It allows you to use and update the base install to boot, then add the components on the fly. So, to do a proper install, I will reformat and try again. The CF card does boot slower, truth be told, and I'm wondering if I couldn't try booting a bigger CF card. 128mb is tight when adding DSL extras.

For the most part, however, the only thing left in the hardware equation is a nice touchscreen LCD monitor.


Distro Decisions

Although I'm a big fan of various Linux distros, my Netvista 8364 NUS has sent me searching for the right one. Must work on older hardware, have some sort of desktop, and be able to boot from various media. I found it in Damn Small Linux, which has a number of extensions that allow you to modify what elsewise would be a standard LiveCD distrobution. Since I have no ps/2 input devices for the Netvista, i've been trying to create a frugal install on a new 128mb SimpleTech compact flash card via a Crucial Technology usb device, after booting off the live cd. It didn't take but one try for me to apparently "brick" the new CF card. Either the reader is not Linux friendly, or it was not done writing during install. Oops. I was confused to say the least, but now it doesn't show up in Windows, or when it does, it doesn't allow me to format it, giving "error in IOCTL call".

Although SimpleTech's tech support would not believe me that it was possible to put Linux on a CF card (?), the rep did say that they would RMA my product, just "Don't do it again". Not the type of geek advice I like. I'll try booting the netvista directly from CD-rom, and see if I can get it recognized there. Then maybe Linux will rescue me once again.


Thin Client

Well, the raid 5 will have to wait. Just too much money to spend before taking our trip to South America. That's not to say I haven't been keeping my geek interests piqued. I recently purchased an IBM Netvista 2800 NUS, or 8364, on eBay. Instead of the POS station idea i had for the kitchen, I'm going to try this first. I dont' know much about these things, but they sound fun. Pentium 266mhz, 128mb of ram, with a compact flash slot and ide port, support for pci, usb, and touch screens. Basically a silent pc.

I bought it thinking it might have the compact flash (the e in 2800e) with WinCE installed, but no dice. So besides netbooting, it needs some medium to store the boot part on. I bought a 128mb compact flash card to try linux. I'd like to get it to be used primarily as a remote desktop, but it has the stats for more than just that. With support for pci, a wireless pci adapter allows me to put it anymore.

Really, once it's booting, only an lcd touchscreen is needed.

Stay tuned.



I've been trying unsuccessfully to bid on several used POS PC on eBay. Eva's passion for trying out new recipes printed off from the internet inspired me. Why not bring the internet to the kitchen, and along with it, access to email and our video and music collection? Unnecessary? Most assuredly, especially considering the size of our kitchen. But I have a rather expensive dream (both in terms of time I spend dreaming, and it's likely cost), that I will build a wired home someday. And this seems like a good place to start, because of its inspired utility. If this works, I may just try the bathroom next.

It has been harder than first thought, mostly because I'm cheap. POS systems start out cheap, but even old ones are sought after. I started out thinking I could get an old laptop, but even old laptops are still quite pricey. Also eBay laptops are really hard to find near complete at the basement price. Plus, who wants to use a mouse in the kitchen, whether it's a touchpad or not? No, it would make more sense to use a touchscreen, maybe even with a touchscreen keyboard. It would be nearly impossible to wire a touchscreen monitor any distance past 6 feet so I've settled on a sort of thin client. The POS systems inspired me because of their all-in-one designs, usually including a rugged touchscreen. Ideally this machine could boot off the network, wirelessly, or using a vnc client. Sound would be harder, but not impossible.

Would a 200mhz client do this. I'm guessing it would be close. But no matter, as long as it's somewhat affordable, it's a place to start living and building my dream.


Mechanical Turk

Last week I read a piece on slashdot about amazon's Mechanical Turk. Since humans still can do even some trivial tasks, like photo recognition, better than computers, they pay you to do said trivial tasks. Of course it was slashdotted within minutes, so I've only recently been able to try it myself.

The easiest way to get started is to find a group of hits, typically from large city, and try to find a given business address in a series of photos. The photos appear to be captures from a DV video taken from a moving vehicle. In a couple of the photos you can actually see the vehicle used to record in the reflection of windows. Chicago has a white Chevy Blazer.

You either match or discard all of the photos. You can return the series or "hit" as well. You get 3 cents per photo "approved". Approved doesn't necessarily seem to mean that there was a good match, as you can discard all of them if they suck.

3 cents seems like easy money. You can look at photos pretty quick, right? Unfortunately, it takes alot longer than i first figured. The photos are quite large, and since they're captures from video, they're grainy as well. Not to mention every one is street level. Sometimes, and in some cities, it's easy to match the address number with the a street address in the photo. Other times, you get pictures of parking lots.

It's still quite a slow interface, regardless of the size of photos being displayed.
I've switched to Opera, which seems to display and cache better. But before you can work on a series, you have to accept it. Then, if no one else has worked on it, you wait for it to load, sometimes again, and select an option. So for about a 20 seconds, you possibly get 3 cents. woot. Your answer is either approved or rejected, or abandoned. Since each group of pictures in the city your working in has an expiration date, it seems that if you work on hundreds of photos and their not approved in time, nobody gets the money. good to know.

So at this point, i've stopped dreaming this is a quick way to get easy money. It has proved fun though. I've been working in Chicago mostly, and since I've been there several times, it's fun to find recognizable landmarks, like my friends backyard!

Lots of room for improvement though. Several times you can follow the logic of addresses. you're looking for 123 damen ave. and you're only shown 119, 121, and the side of a truck. You know it's that corner in the last photo, but there's a ups truck parked otu front. Also, sometimes the capture is only of half of the store front. It might work if they gave you crop tools, but there's no way to specify.
Many businesses appear vacant, so you can infer their address, but who's to say the admin will notice? There should be a highlight feature, or a reasoning field.
Also, there's some common sense reasons not to pick the best photo. Sure that showcases the beautiful script sign out front, but the next photo doesn't show the adult bookstore next door.

So it's fun for now. hope I get my money. My scrolling finger is worn out.

A fart in the wind...

Bah! I revived my blog (last used in 2001. Hey, that's pre-Blogosphere!). I have a couple of projects I want to put out on the web, possibly to get some feedback and insight, er help. Primarily, a +1TB fileserver built on consumer components. Many of the details have already been ironed out, but having never put together something in this category, any help I could get would be welcome.