2008-11-30

Buying unprotected music in Germany

It's more difficult than you think (amazon.com). ;-)
I hate DRM. And I also think that as long as legal downloads are simple and cheap enough, people will not bother with piracy. In the United States, one already has quite a few options for downloading unprotected (what a strange word in this context) music. But for the internationally available iTunes, it's more complicated: From what I've read, record labels were scared of Apple getting too much power, so they withheld unprotected versions of their content (which is on Amazon.com). Thus, only a few songs are available in a DRM-free format (hopefully this will change soon). Fortunately, there are online music stores that can be used from European countries and that have more unprotected music:
  • eMusic. Pros: all songs DRM-free, cheaper than iTunes. Cons: subscription-only (14.99 EUR per month for 30 songs, 16.99 for 50 songs, 20.99 for 75 songs, 29.99 for 100 songs).
  • PayPlay. Pros: all songs DRM-free, cheaper than iTunes, no subscription. Cons: Billing happens in chunks of $5.
  • iTunes. Pros: precise billing, no subscription, cheaper than CDs. Cons: many songs are DRM-only.
Now, if only video content was as readily available in Germany.

New video editing ideas

A video about “Interactive Video Object Manipulation” demonstrates research done by Adobe. One can for example, draw a rectangle on a moving object, type text into it and the text stays attached as the object moves:Or, with several people in a video, one can create a picture where shots from different times appear side by side, thus increasing the probability that all of them look good. [Source and picture: Engadget]
If you want to see more technology in a similar vein, look at these videos:
  • Image Resizing by Seam Carving: Resizes images without them looking distorted. By marking areas, one can remove these areas when compressing the image.
  • Microsoft Photosynth: Places images in a 3-dimensional space allowing one to do all kinds of cool zooming etc.

2008-11-28

Firefox tags and parent folders

For version 3.0, Firefox got a new SQLite-based bookmarks mangement. While I'm sad that they completely dropped RDF (even prior to that, it was used in strange ways), the new system is cool, especially how tags are handled—each tag is a folder (in a backup to a JSON file, the folder contents are even stored redundantly). This makes bookmark management really simple:
  • Show all bookmarks with a given tag: look at the contents of the tag folder. Wish: a “child counter” in the folder title so that one does not have to open the folder to see how many bookmarks are in it.
  • Remove a tag: remove the tag folder.
  • Merge two tags: move all bookmarks from one tag folder to another; Firefox makes sure that there are no duplicates.
With tags, the inadequate handling of parent folders in Firefox becomes a problem: If a bookmark shows up in a tag folder or in search results, one cannot get to its parent (even though every bookmark has exactly one parent). Thus, its surroundings, where it is stored, are inaccessible. Fortunately, there are two extensions that help: I think it's time that Firefox made this standard functionality.

2008-11-27

Google has banned me

From all Google groups, that is (that’s a lot of content!). The weird thing is that I can do less when I'm logged in than when I'm logged out, because then, they don't know that they have banned me. This seems to be a common problem. To add insult to injury, many resources for fixing it are only available in Google groups itself (if you are logged in and not banned).

“Sorry... The owner of this group has banned you from this group.” This initially mislead me to believe it was a one-group thing.

“Forbidden. Your client does not have permission to get URL / from this server.” Slight problem: Most of the resources for figuring out what went wrong are on exactly this server.

The root of the problem

The problem is a tricky one: Google offers most of its services for free and is faced with a lot of spam. Hence, to save costs, they have to automate and don’t employ many people in support. That is, you get what you paid for. On the other hand, many people use those services for critical data which they can’t afford to lose. Thus, Google has a lot of responsibility which it doesn’t always live up to (and probably can’t, cost-wise). It comes down to the rule:
Be sure that you are in control of content that is important to you.
For example, by constantly backing up or by storing your content offline and only pushing it to Google [1].

Trying to fix the problem

There is no direct solution, so I've tried indirect ones:
  • Disable autoresponder: this leads to Google checking if the account has been blocked due to too many posts made via email. Some people have successfully (ab)used this to get unbanned.
  • Feedback about Google Accounts: One step higher up the Google chain, this is one of the few generic options for getting in contact with Google. I left a note.
  • I sent a fax to Google Inc.: Yes, there was real paper involved.
  • I gave feedback on the GG help site (which obviously was negative).
So far, none of this has worked.

Updates

Related reading

  1. Google Blogger: staying in control of your content and other tips

Hiding the Finder's desktop

Scenario: You are making a screencast but don't want the Finder's icons to show up in the background. A slightly awkward solution is to use the Finder's preferences to hide icons for external media etc. and to move all files in the Desktop folder somewhere else. Luckily, TinkerTool provides us with a simpler solution (or rather, with easy access to something that Apple has already built into the Finder):Once the option “Disable Desktop features” has been checked and the Finder has been relaunched, the Desktop is completely free of any Finder artifacts. And it is just as easy to switch the Finder back on.

2008-11-23

Collaboratively editing a text document

A few years ago, SubEthaEdit was an eye-opener: Several people, sitting at different computers, could edit the same document. Let's clarify what this means:
  • Different computers: The computers could be anywhere. For the internet, you had to let your collaborators know your IP address (by sending a URL that was easy to copy and paste). For a LAN, you could use Bonjour which lists computers by name. Note that LAN can also mean ad-hoc WLAN: Under Mac OS X, any computer can become a wireless router. Thus SubEthaEdit works even without internet access.
  • Same document: All changes appear live and what a user types appears is highlit with a color specific to that user. Thus, the experience is similar to normal text editing, just a bit more agitated, as there is more than one person making changes now.
This is highly useful for the following scenarios:
  • Remote brainstorming: Two people in different locations can brainstorm on a topic by editing the same document and talking/chatting over Skype.
  • Local brainstorming: If several people have to edit the same document, collaborative editing still makes sense, even if they are in the same room. Thank to ad-hoc WLAN, this can even happen in a Cafe.
  • Taking notes: If several speakers frequently alternate (such as in discussions), several people can collaborate to take notes. Then each person can concentrate on a single speaker and properly finish his/her train of thought without being immediately interrupted by a new speaker.
Now, for all its coolness, SubEthaEdit has two disadvantages: It is Mac-only and it costs. Mind you, it is not expensive, but it does make it harder to bring one-time users into the fray. Thus, I was looking for cross-platform (Windows, Linux, Mac) alternatives.
  • EtherPad: A really cool solution. Works well, no install. Only drawback: You need internet access for it to work.
  • Google Docs: I haven't used it yet, but heard good things about it.
  • Gobby: Not sure, Mac installation is a bit complicated and has prevented me from trying it out, so far.
  • Emacs: Nothing looks promising (and cross-platform) enough for me to try out.

2008-11-17

Graphviz: easy graph visualization

This tool has been around for a while, but I still like how useful it is, so I thought I'd write a blog entry about it: Graphviz translates simple textual representation of graphs into diagrams. Visually, this covers everything where shapes are connected by lines (be it with or without arrows), which is quite a lot.
Example: The definition
digraph G {
    TODO -> "Buy food" ;
    TODO -> "Send out invites" ;
}
is displayed by Graphviz as:
Notes:
  • The definition (and input of Graphviz) is just a text file which can be easily created by a program.
  • The GUI version of Graphviz watches files so the diagram will be updated automatically every time the text file changes.
  • Graphviz can export its visualizations in many formats (jpg, PDF, SVG, ...).
  • More examples: Graphviz Gallery, UML Diagrams Using Graphviz Dot.
  • Download (be sure to use one of the “Executable Packages from AT&T”).
Now, my only wish would be a pure JavaScript of Graphviz. All the Graphviz solutions that I’m aware of depend on a server-side native dot binary to do the graph layout.

2008-11-15

Spock is back!

The new Star Trek movie is going to be released in Germany on 7 May. In preparation for that date, more and more pictures (the picture below is part of that gallery) are showing up [via trekmovie.com]. By the way: It is Kirk that is being strangled by Spock. Update: A new trailer is online.

2008-11-10

Asian ladybugs

During the last three years it seemed to me that ladybugs had changed their behavior: In fall, they appeared in large quantities at my window. Some of them got inside (I guess my window is not as sealed as I've always thought), so I had to save them. My rescue operation caused them a bit of a panic which in turn made them secrete tiny bits of a yellowish fluid. When I read up on that, I found out that I wasn't looking at the traditional 7-dot ladybug, but at a new immigrant: The Asian Ladybug. It was imported for fighting vermin. But with its aggressive eating and breeding habits, it is now feared to crowd out native species. Once again: Well done, humanity (see Australia for other “successful” imports of animals and plants). The most interesting thing is that they started appearing in Germany in 2002, so my observations were correct: In fall, they congregate and look for places to hibernate, which causes problems for home owners. But it is not all bad: Apparently, farmers mainly think that their benefits (eating vermin) outweigh their disadvantages (contaminating crops of tender fruits and grapes). From now on, whenever you encounter a ladybird, you can distinguish Asian from European:
Asian: Comes in all kinds of colors, with a varying amount of dots, has a black W on its collar. [Source: Wikipedia]
European: Always 7 dots, always the same color, no W on the collar. [Source: Wikipedia]

Recommended site: Smithsonian Magazine

I've recently come across a good web site, especially about archeology: The Smithsonian Magazine. Check it out, all the content (including the archive) is free.