May 252008
 

RSS icons

I love RSS. I am a self-confessed, dyed-in-the-wool RSS junkie. I can’t imagine surfing the web without it.

You may be thinking: Well, that’s really nice. Good for you. It’s important to have something that you believe in.

And you may also be thinking: What the heck is RSS? And why should I care?

I’ll answer the second question first, since it is the more important one. There’s also a lot of RSS-related jargon to wade through, but I’ll leave that for last.

What RSS Is

RSS is a convenient way of getting lists of fresh, up-to-the-minute things from the web. These things might, for example, be:

  • The current sales and new items at your favorite on-line stores.
  • Bands, concerts, nature walks, you name it–events that are happening around town in the next few days.
  • Today’s comic strips and political cartoons–just the ones you want, without needing to wade through the stupid ones.
  • The latest news, from your favorite on-line papers.
  • The most recent rant or how-to or funny picture by your favorite bloggers.
  • New podcasts or videos from the artistes that you give your patronage to.
  • Current weather reports–very useful for travellers.
  • Job postings, customized for what you’re looking for.

All of these things are pulled from the web automatically for you, daily, or multiple times a day, without you having to lift a finger. They’re presented to you as lists of links with descriptions. Click on one of the links in the list, and the web page that it refers to is opened in your browser.

Once you’ve looked at an item on the list, your computer will keep track of it and won’t show that item to you again. It’ll only show you new, unread items on the list. (Unless you explicitly tell it to show you everything on the list, even the old stuff that you’ve already looked at.)

I personally find that the most valuable lists are for those websites that I really enjoy but that aren’t updated very often, and that my pea-brain forgets to check without a little RSS help. For example, I really like Tim Eagan’s comics, but he generally only puts out one a week, so I usually forget to go to a website that carries his stuff and look for the latest one. With RSS, I don’t need to remember. Tim’s comics are in my lists, and whenever he publishes a new one, it’ll show up for me.

The other type of RSS list that I find useful is one that replaces a lot of hassle. For example, I love Chad Vader videos. (If you haven’t checked out Darth’s younger and less successful brother, he’s a hoot.) Chad’s videos are posted on YouTube, but it is kind of a hassle to go to YouTube, search for “Chad Vader”, sort through the thousands of videos that have been posted by Chad’s actual creators and legions of fans, try to guess from the sometimes misleading titles if each video is one I’ve seen or not, and so on. Or, to try to remember the name of the people that make the Chad Vader videos (Blame Society Films, which is a funny name but I still can’t remember it), and search for “blame society”, wade through the videos, etc. It’s a hassle.

But YouTube lets me create a custom RSS list just for Blame Society Films. I create it once, and done. Now whenever there are new Chad antics to watch, they show up in my list, and I watch them. So simple. Ahhhh. Yeah, thanks, RSS, and YouTube, and thanks especially, Blame Society Films.

RSS lists still aren’t available for every website, but more and more sites are adding RSS support all the time. And many sites allow you to really customize your list just the way you want it. Sadly, some websites that do provide RSS lists don’t seem to really get the idea, and provide lists that are kind of…useless. (NetFlix, I’m looking at you.)

How To “Do” RSS

So, it sounds pretty good, huh? Setting yourself up with RSS is fairly easy. The basic idea is that you get yourself an RSS reader. If you use the Mac Safari web browser, or Firefox, or the very latest version of Internet Explorer on Windows, you’ve already got an RSS reader built right into your browser. There are exactly twelve zillion other RSS readers that you can install on your PC or Mac; most are free, but some you have to pay for. Personally, though, I like to use Google Reader, which is web-based. It’s fairly easy to set up, I can use it from any computer, and it’s free. If you have a Google Mail account, you’re already set up to use Google Reader. Another popular free RSS reader is My Yahoo!, which you’re already signed up for if you have an e-mail or IM account through Yahoo!. There are roughly thirteen quintillion zillion other web-based RSS readers out there.

OK! Sounds good! Let’s go get us some lists!

The jargon, the lingo, the RSS insiders’ secret codewords

Hold up, there, pardner. We’re at the point where we need to jump in and deal with some jargon. Being a relatively new computer technology, RSS has a pretty good heap of jargon already. Some of it is pretty misleading, and can really trip you up. Let’s go through a few of the more common terms:

  • RSS – Short for Really Simple Syndication. RSS is the computer file format of the lists of things we want to look at. RSS lists are designed to be easily passed around and comprehended by computers, but they’re also just text files that you can read yourself if you really want to. Not surprisingly, an RSS list stored in a file will probably have a filename like “AmazonSales.RSS”. Note that there are multiple versions of RSS, since RSS is still relatively new and is still changing. The latest version of any good RSS reader can handle all of them.
  • Feed – Websites that provide RSS lists usually call them Feeds. They’re not really feeds of any sort. Nothing is being fed to your computer; the feeds aren’t forced down your computer’s throat. They’re just lists of things on the web, and your computer needs to go get them just like it does with normal web pages.
  • Subscription – Another misleading term. When you use an RSS list, you’re not really subscribing to anything. You don’t need to provide any personal info to anyone, or pay anyone anything to use the RSS list. When you subscribe to an RSS feed, you’re simply adding the RSS list to your existing lists. That’s all.
  • Newsfeed – A list or feed of…news stories. Since news bloggers and newspapers were some of the earliest publishers of RSS lists, the term newsfeed and feed became somewhat synonymous.
  • Aggregator – A nerdy name for your RSS reader. Since the reader aggregates–or collects–the lists of stuff, it is called an aggregator.
  • OPML – Short for Outline Processor Markup Language. A list of lists; a computer format for passing around multiple RSS lists in a single file. The OPML list doesn’t contain the items in the RSS lists, but just refers to the lists themselves.
  • XML – Short for eXtensible Markup Language. XML is just the “mama” of RSS; it is an (intentionally vague) computer file format that RSS is derived from. Many websites that provide RSS lists will call them XML instead, but they’re still RSS, or one of it’s siblings, like…
  • Atom – A sibling of RSS, and another way for computers to pass lists around. Atom has a different internal format from RSS, but works pretty much the same way. Any decent RSS reader can handle Atom too.

Subscribe to those fine RSS Feeds

OK, so, now we’re down to it. You’ve got yourself an RSS reader, you’re up on the jargon, and you’re ready to start makin’ some lists, baby. If you use Safari, or Firefox, or fresh fresh Internet Explorer, you just keep your eyeballs peeled for a little link that looks like this, or one that says “RSS” or “XML” or “Feeds” and click on it. It’ll either cause your browser to get excited and ask if you want to aggregate the feed to your bookmarks, or will lead you to a web page full of RSS lists. And you click on the list that you’re interested in, and then your browser adds it to your bookmarks. That’s it. Done. Here are some examples of the icons used for RSS lists:

A galaxy of RSS icons

If you’re using an on-line reader like Google Reader or My Yahoo!, there are three ways to get the RSS list into your reader:

  • Go to the reader’s web page, and search for what you’re interested in. The easiest way to do this in Google Reader is to click on the “Add Subscription” item at the left of the the window, then when the text box pops up, just type in the name of whatever it is you’re interested in, for example, “chad vader”. Reader will then show a list of feeds that are related to your search terms. Click on the feed that sounds closest, and that’s it.
  • Many websites provide links that are already set up for your RSS reader. These are nice, since you just click on the name of your RSS reader, and the feed will be added for you automatically.
  • Most websites still only provide basic links to their RSS lists. To get these ones into your web-based reader, you need to right-click on them, then select “Copy Link Location” from the pop-up list, then go to your reader’s web page, and paste in the link in the correct place. For Google Reader, click on the “Add Subscription” item, then paste the link into the pop-up text box.

RSS: Admitting There’s A Problem is the first step

All right, now you’re an RSS junkie too! And since you’ve had a taste of the good life and are hooked, it is time to reveal the dark side of RSS. Yeah, you just knew that something this good had to be pretty bad too, and you’re absolutely right.

Here are, in no particular order, the biggest problems that I see with RSS feeds:

  • Firehose. It’s very easy to subscribe to a lot of feeds, especially fun feeds. And many of the websites that publish those feeds put out several updates per day, which means several RSS items per day per site. That can add up to hundreds of new RSS items per day. Breaking the feeds up by category helps, but ultimately, it’s just a lot of information flowing at you. It can be overwhelming, yet you still want to keep up with your favorites. This can be stressful. Not stressful like being in a car accident, but just a little stressful. And we’re all already stressed out as it is.
  • Blandness. Each RSS reader has its own look, and RSS feeds have no real “look” to them at all. The result is that every item from every feed looks just like every other item. It is really easy to lose focus and just breeze past an item that you might be very interested in. Looking at individual feeds rather than all of them at once helps, but some feeds have dozens or hundreds of new items each day all by themselves, so it is still easy to zone out while reading through a list of hundreds of look-alike items from a single feed.
  • Ads. RSS feeds don’t have many ads in them so far, but there are a few, and there will be more. Some day soon, we’ll probably need to install special features in our RSS readers that block some or all ads. This might be tricky, since ads are no different from other RSS items, except that they talk about stuff that someone wants you to buy, rather than stuff you’re interested in.
  • Bloat. Some websites provide RSS items that are essentially the entire content of the web pages that they refer to, rather than just a link and a summary. The items will include thousands of words of text, dozens of large pictures, and even videos. Besides being an annoyance to scroll past, these items can really slow down or even crash some RSS readers.

The first taste is always free

And now, a few example RSS feeds:

The latest “Deep Cover” comics from Tim Eagan.

The latest “Chad Vader” videos on YouTube (and other comic creations from Blame Society Films)

Dave Barry’s Blog. (Not as good as his column used to be, but there is still a lot of funny stuff.)

The latest news and financial analysis from The Economist magazine.

Today’s Gold Box deals from Amazon.com

Well, that’s it, pardner. See you out at the feedlot.

 Posted by at 11:00 AM
May 232008
 
The Basics

As you probably know by now, the federal government has decided that we need to switch to over-the-air digital TV in 2009. This decision seems to have caused a lot of confusion. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to what it all means:

Let’s start with a little jargon and get it out of the way. There are two flavors of digital channels: high-definition (often referred to by their resolution, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p), and standard-definition (also referred to by 480i or 480p). Standard-def channels are just like plain ol’ regular TV channels, except that they’re digital instead of analog. High-def channels are just like standard-def channels, except that they’re bigger and more colorful, and are designed to be displayed on HDTVs. There. Got that out of the way. No more crazy acronyms or jumbles of numbers, I promise.

Currently, broadcasters (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, PBS, and UPN/CW/whatever) are still sending out plain ol’ analog TV signals over the air. Any TV can pick up these signals using an antenna (either one on the roof or a pair of “rabbit ears” on top of the TV or even a bent coat hangar). These signals are VHF (channels 2 – 13) and UHF (channels 14 – 83).

Most broadcasters are also sending new digital signals out over the air as well. These signals are also VHF or UHF, but they’re digital instead of analog. That’s the only difference. Let me repeat that. The only difference between the new digital TV channels and the plain ol’ analog TV channels is that they’re digital instead of analog. They’re still sent over the air, and they’re still in the the VHF or UHF band. (See Hype #1 on how the new digital signals aren’t always better than the plain ol’ analog ones.) Your plain ol’ TV can see these new digital signals, but it doesn’t know what to do with them, so it thinks they’re just noise and ignores them.

In 2009, the broadcasters will turn off the plain ol’ TV signals, and send only the digital signals. If you have an older TV, you won’t be able to watch VHF or UHF channels because your TV won’t be able to decipher the new digital channels, and there won’t be any plain ol’ analog channels to watch.

OK, so is it time to panic? Probably not.

If you have a cable or satellite TV subscription, many or all of the new digital channels are already available through your subscription. So, you probably don’t need to do a thing. Note that, at least currently, cable or satellite may not include all of the local VHF / UHF digital channels. (See Hype #4 for details.)

If you have a newer HDTV, your TV can probably pick up and understand the new digital VHF and UHF channels. Many of the earlier HDTVs do not have a digital VHF/UHF tuner built-in, so don’t assume that your HDTV can pick up these channels. To find out if your HDTV can tune in the digital channels, look for “ATSC tuner” in the TV’s manual. If the manual says that your TV has a built-in ATSC tuner, then you can hook an antenna up to your TV and it will display the new digital channels. (If you have both an HDTV with a built-in ATSC tuner and cable or satellite, you’re probably totally set. See Hype #4 for details on why you might not be.)

If neither of these is true, in other words, if you currently have an older TV and only get local stations through an antenna on the roof or on top of your TV, then you’ll need to do something before 2009.

Here are your options:

1. Make your household TV-free. This is a wonderful opportunity to get rid of the idiot box. Sell or donate your current TV, and walk away, cold turkey, from the whole addictive mess.

2. Get a cable or satellite TV subscription. Generally speaking, the cheapest “basic” offering from your cable company will include the local channels. This is often true for satellite subscriptions as well.

3. Get a new HDTV. Hey, great excuse to get that 60″ plasma monster that you’ve had your eye on. But make sure that it includes a built-in “ATSC tuner”.

4. Get a digital converter box and attach it to your current TV. This is a relatively inexpensive option, especially if you can get one of the $40 coupon cards that the government is giving away. The basic, bare-bones digital tuner boxes currently cost $50 – $60. With the federal coupon card, the total out-of-pocket cost for the tuner box may be under $25, or even free, if you get a basic box. In my town, Radio Shack, WalMart, Circuit City, and Best Buy all carry the digital converter boxes. Note that these tuner boxes take the clean, sharp digital channels and convert them into fuzzy plain ol’ analog channels that your plain ol’ TV can understand. (Even the high-def channels are converted. See Hype #3 for more details.) So, the picture and sound coming out of your plain ol’ TV with a digital converter box will probably be a lot better that what you’ve currently got, but won’t be as good as what you’ll see on a big HDTV.

5. Watch TV on your computer. If you have a fairly new PC or Mac desktop or laptop computer, you can get a tuner card or USB gadget that will tune in the digital channels. This can be a fairly low-cost option, if you don’t mind sitting at your computer to watch TV. There are USB tuner gizmos that start at around $60 for PCs, and $120 for Macs, or a lot less if you shop around. The nicer ones will even turn your computer into a DVR (digital video recorder, like a TiVo). Alternatively, many popular TV shows are available for download to your computer through services like iTunes. You’ll need a fast, broadband internet connection to download the shows, though. You don’t need broadband to use the tuner gadgets.

OK, that’s it for the basics. Read on for some of the aspects that can be a bit confusing, or that TV makers and the government are maybe overhyping a bit.

The Hype

There seems to be a bit of hype surrounding the new digital TV channels:

Hype #1. Digital TV is WAY BETTER than plain ol’ analog TV. TRUE. And FALSE. Yes, digital channels–especially high-def ones–are “perfect” under ideal conditions: the colors are bright and realistic, there’s no snow or other noise, and the sound is as good as from a CD. However, if you’re picking up these channels over the air using an antenna, they’re still VHF or UHF signals, and will still have the same problems as plain ol’ analog signals. The signals can be weak if the TV station’s transmitter tower is far away or blocked by hills or trees. The signal can be noisy on a windy or stormy day, or if it is reflected off of tall buildings. And, unfortunately, it seems that the high-def digital channels are more sensitive to adverse conditions than the standard-def digital channels are.

So, let’s look at what happens to plain ol’ analog channels versus fancy digital channels under these conditions.

If the signal is weak:

An analog channel will be very hard to see or hear, but you’ll still be able to barely make it out. There will be lots of snow in the picture, and lots of static in the sound. Your TV may not even pick up the signal at all, and may simply blank the channel out.

A weak digital channel won’t be there. Period. Your TV might be able to figure out that there is indeed a digital signal there, but it won’t show you any picture at all, or play any sound. You’ll see nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero.

Winner: Plain ol’ analog. It might not be much, but at least you can usually still see something.

If the signal is noisy:

An analog channel will be difficult to see or hear. The picture may jump around, or have lines in it, and will have a lot of snow. The sound will have static or hum in it. Your TV may intermittently blank the channel out.

A weak digital channel will also have problems, but they’ll look different. The picture will have lots of “jaggies”, lines, boxiness, and/or pixelation. Sections of the picture might freeze for one or two seconds at a time. The sound will be choppy, as if it is coming from a helicopter or you’re listening to it through a box fan. Your TV may intermittently blank the channel out. High-def channels will likely be worse.

Winner: Tie. Both plain ol’ analog and digital TV channels have problems, but the problems are annoying in different ways.

If the signal is strong:

A strong analog channel will look pretty good. The sound will be good.

A strong digital channel will look perfect. The picture will be clean, sharp, and colorful. The sound will be dynamic and crisp. A strong high-def channel will look like you’re peering through a window rather than staring at a TV.

Winner: Digital. When the signal is strong, digital is simply much better.

Hype #2. You’ll need a new “digital” antenna to pick up the new digital channels. FALSE. Remember, these new digital channels are still VHF or UHF, just like the plain ol’ analog channels. The same antenna that worked well for plain ol’ TV will work just as well for digital TV. However, if your reception of plain ol’ TV channels is marginal or weak, you may indeed need a better antenna, since your TV or tuner box may decide to completely ignore and blank out a weak digital channel while it lets you see the weak (if noisy) analog channel.

Hype #3. Those cheapie digital converter boxes (the ones with the government coupons) won’t pick up the HDTV stations. You need to buy a new HDTV to watch the high-def channels. FALSE. The digital tuner boxes will pick up every single digital channel that a top-end $6000 HDTV will pick up, high-def or not. They will allow you to watch high-def channels on a 13″ tube TV that you bought in 1972. The converter boxes will compress the glorious high-def digital channels down to plain ol’ TV definition, then they’ll convert that smushed signal to analog, and send it to your old TV. So, what they will not do is turn that 13″ tube TV into a 60″ plasma HDTV set. If you really want that glorious high-def experience, you’ll have to shell out the big money for an HDTV. But if the experience isn’t really important to you, a digital converter box may be all you’ll need. You’ll still be able to watch the high-def channel, but it won’t look any better than any other channel. (In fact, it might look a little worse, since it has been smushed to fit on a standard-def screen.)

Hype #4. You’ve got a brand-new HDTV that tunes in the new digital channels. Plus, you’re paying the extra money for the high-def channels on your cable and satellite subscriptions. You are so totally set. You are Joe and Josephine Digital. You don’t need to do anything. MAYBE.

There might still be some broadcast digital channels that aren’t carried on your cable or satellite subscription. For example, here in my town, the local PBS station transmits one plain ol’ analog channel over the air. But it sends out FIVE digital channels, the plain ol’ one (now in glorious high-def), plus four new ones. And the new channels are pretty good: there’s one that runs nature and history shows; one that runs cooking, craft, and home improvement shows; and two channels that run nothing but kids’ shows. In addition, my local NBC station has a second digital channel that shows nothing but local weather. My satellite subscription doesn’t carry any of these new extra digital channels, just the original plain ol’ ones.

Or.

Your HDTV picks up the new digital channels just fine, so you can watch them in all their digital glory. But some of the new channels are not (yet) carried by your cable or satellite provider. So you can’t record them on your TiVo or similar DVR (or VHS tape VCR), since the digital tuner is built into your TV, and thus can only be seen by your TV, and not by your DVR or VCR. In this case, you may want to think about getting a digital tuner box just for your DVR or VCR, so it can see and record the new digital channels too. The recordings won’t be high-def, but they’ll be better than nothing. Note too that this is a way to record programs that have the “don’t record me” broadcast flag set on the digital channels.

 Posted by at 6:17 AM
May 212008
 

I’ve been on the hunt recently for a good book light: One that attaches either to the book I’m reading or to my bed’s headboard (I like to read in bed at night).

I first checked Amazon, but most of the book lights listed either cost more than I wanted to pay, or had several very negative reviews, or both.

Next, I went to eBay, figuring that I could maybe find some cheap lights and try them out. I ordered a couple, each costing under $5.00. Both are battery-powered, and both use a single LED for a light source.

One is a see-through plastic clip-on with a short gooseneck to adjust where the light shines. It works, but the LED is surprisingly dim and puts out light that is more blue than white.

The other light is a “robotic transformer Z folding” light (there are zillions of these listed on eBay from many sellers). I bought one that was $3.00, including shipping. It folds into a compact form about the size and shape of a second-gen iPod nano, and unfolds into a “Z” shape. The main body clips onto the back of the book, and the LED pivots up and over the front of the book. This light works quite well, except that the LED is quite close to the page, and thus doesn’t evenly illuminate the entire book. The LED is bright and puts out bluish-white light.

Neither of these lights was exactly what I was looking for, and I’m glad I didn’t buy their retail equivalents. The thought occurred to me that perhaps a USB LED “keyboard light” might make a good book light. So, I bought a couple of inexpensive USB lights off of eBay. Both lights have a USB plug at one end of a long (1 foot or so) gooseneck, and 1 or 3 LEDs at the other end. Both lights proved to be quite bright and to put out fairly white light compared to the clip-on book lights.

To power the lights, I bought a “powered” USB hub (a hub that gets its power from the AC mains instead of from its host computer), and plugged the lights into the USB ports on the hub. I was lucky to find a 4-port powered USB hub on sale at a local retailer for $10.

I’ve now tried out my USB light / hub book light, and am quite pleased with how well it works. The hub not only provides power to the LED, but also acts as a weighted base. The setup only uses a few watts of power, yet gives a very nice spread of light for reading at night. There are two downsides, though: First, there’s no on/off switch for the light. I need to unplug the power cable from the hub to turn the light off. Second, the light isn’t exactly stylish. It looks pretty much like what it is: a USB hub with a gooseneck LED light sticking out of it.


The first problem is fixable. There are LED keyboard lights with on/off switches built into them. I’ve ordered a couple of inexpensive ones from eBay. I saw another one listed on Amazon, but it cost $20, and had very mixed reviews.

As for the second problem, well, I like to think of my light as having a sort of industrial, post-modern look to it. Honestly, I’ve seen uglier lamps out there, and this one works. Plus, even with all the stuff I’ve ordered from eBay, I still have yet to break $40 total. Just the hub and one LED keyboard light would have been under $20.

 Posted by at 9:45 PM
May 172008
 

I’ll admit it. I’m an RSS junkie. I wrote a web-based RSS feed reader when RSS barely existed, and nowadays my Google Reader subscriptions number close to 100.

One of the things I think RSS feeds are (or should be) useful for is announcing when manufacturers or sellers have added a new gizmo or book or game or whatever to their store. Many retailers are catching onto this: ThinkGeek and American Science and Surplus both provide RSS feeds of new items for sale at their stores. But other sellers are slow to add these services. For example, I love Dover books. They’re incredible bargains, and every year or so I go on a binge where I buy like $100 of them or so (which is a lot of books at Dover’s prices!). But their website is pretty old-school, and they don’t provide a “new publications” RSS feed.

Enter Amazon, which provides a useful combination of partnering with just about every company around, customizable RSS feeds, and power searches. Problem is, Amazon doesn’t make them easy to use. So a whole cottage industry has sprung up which provides feeds for items on sale at Amazon, sorted by discount, coupon codes, you name it.

One such site is OnFocus, which provides a free web interface that allows you to roll your own Amazon RSS feeds. For example, let’s say that I want to create a feed that lists, say, new Dover books for sale at Amazon.

I could use OnFocus’ “Amazon Feed Generator” with a keyword of “Dover”, with Store set to “Books” and the sort method set to “Publication Date: New To Old”. This gets me what I want: an RSS feed of the latest (and yet-to-be-released) “Dover” books available at Amazon. However, it includes too many books; not just the ones published by Dover, but any with Dover in the title or written by someone named Dover, etc.

But there’s another, better way to create the RSS feed: using the “Power Search Feed Generator”. This uses Amazon’s “Power Search”, which isn’t as user-friendly (and only works for books, not video games or DVDs or anything else Amazon sells), but is useful for creating a very specific search.

Amazon’s Power Search works by letting you tie a search term to a specific area. For this example, I want to tie my search term “Dover” to publishers, not authors nor titles nor any other fields. So, I type this into the Power Search window:

publisher: Dover

and then set the sort method to “Publication Date: New To Old”, then click the “Create Feed” button. Voila! My new RSS feed is exactly what I want: new books at Amazon from Dover Publications.

The Power Search has several different areas you can limit the search by:

  • author: name, for example, author: Wolfe and Gene
  • isbn: number
  • keyword: words, I have yet to figure out how to get this field to work
  • language: language, for example, language: Spanish
  • pubdate: date, for example, pubdate: 2008
  • publisher: name, for example, publisher: Penguin or Tor or Baen or Dover
  • subject: subject, for example, subject: history
  • title: words, for example, title: Ringworld

You can use “and”, “or”, and “not” plus parentheses to combine these. For example, to search for books on Portugese Fado music that are written in English:

subject: fado and language: English

More details on Power Search terms can be found by scrolling to the “Power Searches” section near the bottom of this Amazon page.

BTW, here’s the Atom feed for this blog.

 Posted by at 7:55 AM
May 162008
 

Given how things are swirling around the OLPC project nowadays, I figure it might not be a bad idea to quote the list of non-restricted eBook sources from the OLPC News Forum (many thanks to the OLPC News and Auntie Mame for compiling and maintaining this list!):

  • ManyBooks has Project Gutenberg (hereafter PG) text in a wide variety of formats. XML
  • Google Books public domain books
  • Resources-DKM works by Daniel Keyes Moran
  • Project Gutenburg PG. the Granddaddy of public domain books. all available in “plain vanilla ASCII”, some in HTML. You have to convert to PDF for the XO reader. XML
  • Baen Books A sci-fi publisher put some of their copyrighted works online here for free download. XML
  • Overdrive a service that lets you “check out” a PDF book and it expires in a couple of weeks. Very recent content here…
  • UPenn Digital Library University of PA online respository. XML
  • Magic Keys kids stories inHTML. You’ll need to convert to PDF for the XO
  • Starfall has some downloadable “learning to read” PDFs
  • The Archive has links to many ebook sites
  • Scalzi works from sci-fi writer John Scalzi
  • Craphound Corey Doctorow’s works
  • Planet PDF some very nicely formatted public domain books
  • UA EText Library collection of ebooks for adults from University of Aelaide, Australia.
  • Childrens’ Books Forever
  • FeedBooks. Project Gutenberg texts that are reformatted. You can choose a cusomt size for your pdf (112mm x 155m). XML
  • PSU eClassics Penn State Electronic Classics
  • Wowio a commercial site that offers free ebook downloads. ebooks are ad supported (you will receive and ad along with the book) Appears to be a consortium of small presses. XML
  • LibriVox provides a large collection of free eBooks in audiobook format. XML
  • Telltale Weekly offers many free eBooks in audiobook format.
 Posted by at 9:49 PM
May 162008
 

This post on Lifehacker made me slap my head. I had recently spent a while trying to figure out how to automate having the Mac “read” a book–use its excellent built-in Text-To-Speech system to convert an eBook into an audiobook. The Mac voices aren’t going to replace Derek Jacobi or Bob Inglis for nuanced and powerful reading of great books, but they will get the job done when there’s no other option for creating an audiobook short of reading it aloud yourself.

My first attempt at automatic eBook-to-audiobook translation was to use Automator. I created serveral Workflows, one per speaking voice, with the following Actions:

1. Open Finder Item (the eBook in
text format) with TextEdit.

2. Get Contents of TextEdit. Send
output to:

3. Text To Audio File. Save as
“vickispeak” (for voice “Vicki”)
on the Desktop.

This works quite well, but is a little slow. To run it, I right-click on the input text file in a Finder window, then select Automator from the pop-up menu, and the desired voice’s Workflow from the Automator submenu. It creates an AIFF audio file called “vickispeak” on the Desktop. It does exactly the same thing as the single ‘say’ command, which can be run with much less theatrics from Terminal (type this in all on one line):

say -v Vicki -o ~/Desktop/vickispeak
-f ~/Desktop/ebook.txt

The options to ‘say’ are:

  • -v voiceName
    One of Agnes, Kathy, Princess, Vicki, Victoria, Bruce, Fred, Junior, Ralph, Albert, or one of the many “novelty” voices; there are supposed to be more and better voice options under OS X 10.5. If not specified, the current “System Voice” is used; this is set under the “Text To Speech” tab under “Speech” System Preferences.
  • -o outputSoundFileName
    If not specified, the input text is spoken aloud.
  • -f inputTextFileName
    If not specified, the text to be spoken can be listed as arguments on the command line.

Further details on ‘say’s arguments can be found by typing this in Terminal:

man say

But that’s not the end of things. You can import the resulting (potentially huge) AIFF file into iTunes and convert it to MP3 format (and use very low-quality conversion options to save disk space). You can then copy the (much smaller) MP3 file to your iPod or other portable music player, and play your new audiobook back while commuting, etc.

And you can add some useful commands at the top of your eBook text file that will instruct the Mac books to speak more quickly or at a different pace. According to the Apple Developer’s website, these commands are deprecated, so they may not work under OS X 10.5. The handiest one I’ve found is to add this single line at the very top of the eBook text file:

[[rate +40]]

I’ve found that when using the Vicki voice, “+40″ makes her speak much faster, but she’s still comprehensible. This is completely a matter of taste. To make the rate of speaking slower, use a negative number instead of a positive one. More details on the speech commands you can embed in your text files can be found at this Apple Developer webpage.

Now, of course, all of this presumes that you’ve got an eBook in a raw text file or in some format that can be converted to text. You can find these kinds of books at websites like Project Gutenburg that sponsor copyright-free and otherwise non-restricted texts. A handy list of these sites is on the OLPC News Forum.

Note that if the eBook you want to convert into an audiobook is only in PDF format and not in raw text, using the Automator Workflow instead of the ‘say’ command may make things easier, as Automator has an “Extract Text From PDF” Action built-in, which makes dealing with PDF files relatively easy. More details can be found in this Apple Support discussion.

Note that there are commercial / shareware / freeware applications which will help you create audiobooks more easily and with greater control than these DIY methods:

  • GhostReader is an audiobook recording suite; it even includes more voices.
  • Audiobook Builder will help you organize your audiobook recordings into chapters, and convert your sound files into audiobook formats that iPods and some other MP3 players support bookmarking and other enhanced playback capabilities for.
  • Charles Kelly’s Text-To-Speech to MP3 free application combines all of the steps outlined above into a single step.
  • TypeIt ReadIt is a shareware app that can convert text files to MP3 audio files, and can help visually challenged readers with other tasks.
  • Wizzard / AT&T Natural Voices Text-To-Speech SDK helps you create your own multiplatform applications.
  • iSpeak-it converts many document types, including web pages and RSS feeds, to spoken audio files.
  • MaxPod converts web pages to spoken audio files for use on your iPod.
  • Narrator helps you script your audiobooks by changing the speaking voice, pitch, and other qualities.
 Posted by at 8:47 PM
May 162008
 

ControllerMate showed me something interesting about the Frisby keyboard: The keyboard actually reports itself as two separate USB devices, a keyboard and a mouse. I suppose that this isn’t terribly surprising considering that the keyboard includes a scroll wheel. What is a little surprising is that all of the 20-odd buttons around the edges of the keyboard are tied to the mouse device. (The standard function keys are tied to the keyboard device.) The strange thing is that some of the mouse buttons still work after the Mac sleeps, but most don’t. The scrollwheel still works, for instance. This is one funky keyboard. But it works well, I like it, and it was really cheap on eBay.

I plugged my PS3’s SIXAXIS controller into the Mac to see if ControllerMate could see it. Yes, CM does, and it sees all the buttons and even the tilt sensors. But CM doesn’t see any of the button presses from the controller. According to people on the CM forum, this is likely because the controller is both USB and BlueTooth, and it is still paired with the PS3 overall; the Mac needs to send some sort of handshake signal to the controller to get it talking over USB.

 Posted by at 9:26 AM
May 162008
 


I just bought a cheap Frisby illuminated keyboard on eBay. Not only is it illuminated, but it has a scrollwheel, volume knob, and like 20 extra buttons (in addition to the usual 16 or so function keys). The only thing it lacks is indicator lights for the Caps Lock, Num Lock, and Scroll Lock keys.

When I first plugged it into my Mac, it didn’t work. Well, actually, it did. In fact, the scroll wheel, volume knob, and mute button all “just worked”. But the keyboard wouldn’t light up. The instructions that came with the keyboard (all 1/8 page of them) indicated that the Scroll Lock key was the On/Off switch for the keyboard’s backlight. Pushing it didn’t do anything, even when pressed in combo with Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Windows/Command, or any gaggle of the above. But, when I first plugged the keyboard into the USB port (or into a powered USB hub), it did light up for about 1/2 second or so. What was going on?

A lot of googling led me to believe that this problem is fairly common on Macs, Linux PCs, and even under Windows, although not many people have found a solution.

Here’s apparently what’s going on: The Frisby keyboard (along with many other budget illuminated keyboards) uses the Scroll Lock key as a switch for the backlight because it essentially replaces the Scroll Lock indicator light with the entire keyboard backlight. At first glance, this seems like a clever idea, except for a couple of problems: Some applications (Excel for one) and gadgets (many low-price KVM switches) also make use of the Scroll Lock key, and expect it to be available. Worse, some operating systems (Mac OS X mainly) don’t really know about or care about the Scroll Lock key and don’t support it; OS X doesn’t keep track of the Scroll Lock’s on/off toggle state, and doesn’t tell the keyboard to turn the Scroll Lock LED on and off. So, when the Frisby keyboard is hooked up to a Mac, pressing the Scroll Lock key is ignored by OS X, and thus OS X never tells the keyboard to turn the backlight on. Doh.

Well, once I figured this out, I was faced with a choice: return the keyboard for a refund, or try to figure out how to get the Mac to support the Scroll Lock key. As with many eBay bargains, the price of the keyboard wasn’t much more than the shipping cost, so if I paid for the shipping to return it, I’d only net a few bucks after getting my refund. So, that was enough of an excuse for me to start hacking away at the problem.

After many false starts and dead ends, I stumbled across a wonderful product called ControllerMate. CM plugs into OS X and allows it to see inputs from various USB gadgets like joysticks and game controllers. CM also supports all of the standard keys and buttons from USB keyboards and mice, plus a ton of esoteric ones. It uses a “connect the blocks” graphical design system to let you assign key / button presses to various sorts of actions, including things like: running AppleScript scripts; telling keyboard lights to turn on and off (!); sending single keystrokes (in other words, remapping keys on the keyboard–handy for Windows-Mac “switchers” and those with keyboards that are missing some of the function keys); sending strings of key presses, mouse movements/clicks, and delays (shades of QuicKeys, which it would be an excellent adjunct to); application launches; and nifty add-ons like logic and arithmetic. ControllerMate is free to try out, and $15 to buy, which is an incredible bargain.

I was able to use ControllerMate to build a simple connection of three blocks:

Scroll Lock keypress
|
V
“Toggle” Logic Block
|
V
Scroll Lock Light on / off.

ControllerMate then runs in the background under OS X, watches the Scroll Lock key, keeps track of it’s on/off state with the “Toggle”, and tells the keyboard’s Scroll Lock light (aka the keyboard backlight) to stay on after I press the Scroll Lock key, then stay off after I press it again. In other words, to make the Mac treat the Scroll Lock key like a Windows PC does. Problem solved!

I also used CM to program functions for all of the zillion extra buttons the keyboard has. Some of the buttons were simple. For example, I made the button with a picture of a calculator on it tell the Finder to launch the Calculator app. Others are a little more complicated. For example, the Play/Pause button tells the Finder to launch iTunes (or select iTunes if it is already running), and then sends a “spacebar” keystroke, which is what iTunes uses for play/pause. This way, the Play/Pause button works correctly even if I press it while running another application.

The one button that stumped me so far is the “Email” button. I’d like to have it use the Google Notifier toolbar’s menu item to “Go To Inbox”. I’ve messed around for quite a while trying to get an AppleScript script that reliably does this, but it is proving very difficult, since the name of the menu item is actually “Go to Inbox – 12 Unread”, where of course “12” changes all the time, since it’s the number of unread messages, and GN’s heirarchy of menus and items is mostly unnamed. Plus, GN’s AppleScript API doesn’t have a function / call / whatever for “Go To Inbox”.

Another AppleScripted button that seemed to work for a while but doesn’t today attempts to have the Finder open up a window with the Applications folder selected. Here’s the AppleScript script that sorta kinda sometimes works:

tell application “Finder”
activate
end tell

tell application “System Events”
tell process “Finder”
tell menu bar 1
tell menu bar item “Go”
tell menu 1
click menu item “Applications”
end tell
end tell
end tell
end tell
end tell

Anyways, the keyboard ended up having one more serious problem. It would stop responding after the Mac went to sleep and woke back up. I discovered that having CM do a USB bus probe made the keyboard work again, and didn’t seem to have any harmful side effects. So, the question became: How to tell the Mac to do some sort of USB bus probe after waking from sleep mode?

The best answer I’ve come up with so far is a hacky combination of Apple’s developer tool called “USB Prober” (included free with XCode, which is included with most–all?–Macs on the installer disks, and which lives in /Developer/Applications/Utilities), an AppleScript script that tells it to run and then immediately quit, and another nifty (and free!) application called SleepWatcher. SW runs in the background on the Mac, and is able to run shell scripts immediately before the Mac sleeps and directly after it wakes up.

So, I made the following simple AppleScript script, which I saved as an Application, turned on the “Run Only” flag, turned off the “Startup Screen” flag, and named “USBProberRunNQuit.app”:

tell application “USB Prober”
quit
end tell

tell application “USB Prober”
activate
end tell

tell application “USB Prober”
quit
end tell

It is run by a one-line shell script called “.wakeup” in my home directory:

/Users/joviko/USBProberRunNQuit.app

So, when my Mac wakes up, SleepWatcher runs the “.wakeup” script, which runs my “USBProberRunNQuit.app” AppleScript app, which runs Apple’s USB Prober app, which probes the USB bus then immediately quits, which makes the Frisby keyboard work. Simple, eh?

 Posted by at 7:57 AM