Tag Archives: technology

Tweeting on Twitter: an experiment in talking to myself

Random thoughts escape into my head and out my fingertips. It’s a weird feeling talk-typing to no one in particular, just typing thoughts as they enter my head. Not like writing where I consider and reconsider every word. It does appear to be pretty addictive. Is this where personal blogging is headed? Perhaps.

So give me a tweet: here’s my roost on Twitter

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The Non-Geek Peek: TiVo Series3

Originally published at Blogcritics.org

DVRs, digital video recorders, are wondrous things. They allow you not only to record your favorite television shows and movies, but allow you literally to stop time, pause the action when the phone rings or dog barks; do an “instant replay” of that crucial “hail Mary” pass you’ve just got see again. And again. These are things to which a DVD recorder (or heaven forbid, a VCR) can never aspire.

After having subscribed to Comcast’s DVR service for several years, I became frustrated with the lack of features, and with the fact that my DVR machine inexplicably kept erasing the hard drive, or, conversely, failing to record due to “being full” despite the fact that I only had three other recordings on the d**n thing. So, last winter I treated myself to a TiVo Series3 machine and now receive all of my Comcast cable channels through the TiVo receiver. And I will never, ever look back. I’ve been “TiVo’d.” And here’s why:

The Season Pass: I am a House addict. I watch (and re-watch) each episode. I have set my TiVo to record House each time it’s on. The machine picks up every episode broadcast (that’s not already residing on the TiVo’s hard drive). The Comcast DVR can also do this. However, TiVo’s season pass allows something that the Comcast DVR cannot. In addition to being a House fan, I am also a Hugh Laurie fan (my husband would call it a middle-aged crush) — and I’m also a Stephen Dillane fan, an Alan Rickman fan… well, you get the idea. All of these actors are on my “wish list.” The TiVo then records everything (every movie, guest star appearance, talk show appearance, etc) in which my wish list actor appears. Imagine my surprise when Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild appeared on in my recorded programs list (I didn’t even know there was a Stuart Little 3!).

You can also set up wish lists based on “keywords.” In my other life, when I’m writing my blog, I’m a Jewish educator, and always looking for interesting programming of a Jewish nature. Now, I don’t necessarily want the TiVo to record these programs, but I want to know what’s coming up in the next couple of weeks on TV. Typing “Jewish” into a wish list results in some fairly amusing “hits,” as it finds anything even remotely related to “Jewish.” I can choose, manually, to record or not.

TiVo Recommends…: Particularly fond of a show (or movie) you’re viewing? Completely hate it? Use the red and green “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” buttons on the TiVo remote control up to three times to show your enthusiasm (or lack thereof). TiVo uses that information to recommend more television shows and films. The recommendations screen lists programs that it thinks you’ll like, and you can choose to record or ignore, as you wish. The more often you vote up or down (either on your recommendation listings or on shows you happen to be viewing), the more refined will be future recommendations.

Resurrecting deleted shows: Have you ever unintentionally deleted or erased a show or a movie? I know that I have. I had forgotten that my husband missed a Tudors episode when real life dared to intervene on his Sunday night. I’d watched the episode (which was on “season pass” to automatically record), and since I don’t usually keep Tudors episodes past one viewing, I blitzed it before he had a chance to see it. However, TiVo has a neat feature that archives deleted programs, allowing you to bring them back from the dead, preserving not only quality television programming but countless relationships and marriages. Neat, huh?

Now of course none of the aforementioned would be possible without the huge, ginormous hard drive resident on the Series3. My Comcast DVR barely held a season’s worth of House episodes. My TiVo currently holds 57 House episodes, about 20 movies, countless other recordings, and (like that Energizer bunny) keeps going and going and going. (TiVo Series 3 holds about 300 hours of standard definition programming.)

Wireless capability: Although it’s an add-on (and a fairly inexpensive one), if you have a home wireless network, you can add the TiVo wireless adapter and connect to TiVo through your home network. This enables several very cool features. First, you can upload photos, videos, movies, etc from your computer to your TiVo. Anyone who’s connected S-Video cables and RCA plugs from a laptop to the television in order to view computer files on the TV can appreciate being able to do this completely without wires. The TiVo “sees” your computer and its contents and many things you can view on your computer you can see up on your nice big television screen. Conversely, files on your TiVo can be downloaded to your computer for easy transport and viewing on the go.

Fast forwarding past the commercials: TiVo’s very smart fast forward feature is nothing short of brilliant. Ever fast forward past the commercials, only to skip a bit too far ahead? TiVo feels your pain and understands your frustration. When the fast forward stops, it automatically rewinds back a few seconds, making an often seamless jump over the commercials.

Amazon Unbox: One of the few downsides of using the TiVo box instead of a conventional Comcast cable receiver is the loss of Comcast’s “OnDemand” feature. And admittedly, it’s a great feature; I miss it on my TiVo-powered television. Fortunately, if you miss it a lot, you can add your service’s digital cable box as a second receiver. I have digital cable boxes on two other TV’s so, if I’m in OnDemand withdrawal, I can feed my need. And someday soon (and I believe already available in some markets) Comcast and TiVo will get married and you’ll have access to the best of both worlds.

On the other hand, with TiVo you do have access to the Amazon Unbox (Amazon’s movie rental and purchase download service). This service allows you to browse and search Amazon.com’s movie and television library through TiVo and download direct to your television. Rental is $3.99 for a new release feature film.

Rhapsody: I’ve been a fan of the Rhapsody music service since long before RealAudio took it over years ago. Its music library is exhaustive and eclectic. It’s worth the $25 a year I pay to listen endlessly to everything from classic classical to classic rock, folk, Broadway shows, and pretty much everything and anything else. Log into your Rhapsody account via TiVo and you can have Rhapsody’s entire library come piping though your home theatre.

Et cetera: TiVo comes equipped with a few fun video games, original TiVo programming (The Onion’s, for example), access to Fandango to purchase movie tickets. And now YouTube, as well.

The Future: Amazon has just announced an expansion of its relationship with TiVo. The future will bring a “buy” feature embedded into the TiVo software. That will allow you to purchase products, like books, DVDs and CD (promoted on late night talk shows, for example), direct from Amazon.com with the push of a button on the remote.

The TiVo Series3 receiver retails for around $600.00.

Revisiting the Amazon Kindle e-book reader

Originally published at Blogcritics.org

I confess to having a thing for new electronic gadgets and gizmos.  I always have.  But I’m pretty fickle about them as well.  Gadgets that look cool and act cool, but are too much trouble to use, frustrate my simple mind and typically wind up cast off into a drawer, unused or, if I’m feeling particularly industrious, for sale on eBay.

And so it was with amused disdain (tempered with his usual teasing indulgence) that my husband greeted my delight at having acquired an Amazon Kindle last November. The Kindle is Amazon.com’s electronic reading device. Using something called e-Ink, it provides the user with a traditional reading experience, but without the paper. He waited (and waited) for this, too, to be cast off and up on eBay. Although I was sorely tempted (the eBay price for a Kindle topped out at around $1000 when the product was sold out on Amazon.com for months), nothing would get me to part with my Kindle.  Eight months later, I’m still as enamored of it as I was back in November.

I reviewed the Kindle right out of the box when I got it, but now, after eight months of daily use, I thought it might be time to revisit the device. You know, honeymoon being over and all. So, without further ado:

The Fabulous

Instant access to Amazon.com—Do not underestimate the importance of this feature.  It makes owning the Kindle and browsing in the Amazon.com store an experience as satisfying as browsing the aisles of a brick-and-mortar Borders or Barnes and Noble.  It also places the Kindle head and shoulders above the Sony Reader.

Because the Kindle is wireless, access to the Amazon.com store is always available (and free):  sitting in the pediatrician’s waiting room, in the airport waiting to board your flight, sitting at the pool or lounging in bed wishing you had something good to read.  You flick on the wireless switch, hit the button and you’re in the store.  Browse new releases, the best seller lists (several of them), or search for your favorite author (by typing on the Kindle’s keypad) or genre.  Read reviews, download a free sample chapter or two (instantly), or buy the book.

There is no other reading device (as far as I know) that can do this.  You can also access the Amazon.com store on your computer, buy the Kindle version of the book and, voila, when you turn on the device, your new book magically appears on your device’s home page within a minute or two.

You can also subscribe to newspapers like the New York Times. (The Kindle “whispernet” deposits the newspaper into your device like an invisible newsboy.)  Magazines, including Time and The Atlantic, as well as e-magazines and blogs like Slate and—breaking news—BlogCritics(!) are also available for subscription.

Book Price—The current best-sellers and most other hardcover books are $9.99. Paperbacks cost generally between $3.00 and $7.00. If you buy a lot of hardcover books (and I do), you are saving about $15.00 per book.  Admittedly, you don’t have a physical copy of the book, and for some of us, that’s a blessing.  The Barnett household is littered with books.  We have approximately 2,000 volumes stashed and stacked in various bookcases (shelved two deep in places), on coffee tables, shelves nightstands and other places.  The possibility of buying new books without adding to the clutter is (as they say in Yiddish) a mechaiyah. (Insert deep relieved sigh here.)

Deleting a book from the Kindle library doesn’t erase it, either.  The book is simply stored back at Amazon.com for easy retrieval. Unlike storing a finished book in the dark reaches of my bedroom bookcase, I can actually find that biography of Thomas Jefferson when I absolutely must read it again.

Selection and Variety—The Amazon.com Kindle store contains more than 130,000 books, and it’s not just the best sellers and new releases.  A couple of weeks ago, for example, I needed a particular book on Jewish prayer. I was out of town and needed the book for a lecture.  I accessed the Kindle store on the device, and crossed my fingers (or to be more to the point, said a little prayer).  And there it was. The Kindle store has a very comprehensive selection of all genres.

Portability—For me, this is the reason for forking out $350 or more for any electronic reading device.  I can carry a whole library of books with me wherever I go.  And I do. I typically read one novel and two or three non-fiction books at a time.  In hardcover.  That’s a lot of books to carry around on a daily basis (or especially when traveling).

I also like to read at lunch, and to me there is no bigger reading buzz kill than trying to manage silverware and 750-page novel at the same time (especially when the novel is towards the beginning.)  Keeping those pages weighted down with salt-shakers, ice-water tumblers, and other at-hand implements is neither easy nor relaxing.  With the Kindle, I simply turn it on and prop it up.  Pages are turned by pressing very large buttons located both on the left and right of the Kindle.  Making it a wonderful lunchtime companion.  It’s also great to read in bed, for much the same reason.  No more unwieldy and hefty tomes to balance while I’m propped up bed. (So sue me, I like really long novels!)

Adjustable Type Size—This is a great feature for the middle-aged and elderly amongst us.  You can bump up the font size incrementally—all the way up to “I-really-ought-to-get-reading-glasses” size.

Keeps your place—Ever fall asleep and lose your place in a book?  Forget to bookmark or dog-ear a page?  The Kindle always saves your place.  If you want to mark a page for reference, there’s a cute little dog ear graphic in the top corner of each page.  Place an electronic bookmark and the little “corner” turns down just like a real dog-eared page.

Battery Life—Like most electronic readers using “e-Ink,” the Kindle’s real-time battery life is about two weeks or more.  If, that is, you use the wireless feature only when needed.  Flip it on to download your books or browse in the store and turn off when you’re done.  The device itself uses very, very little energy.

Needs improvement:

The Back Cover—Maybe it’s just my personal device, but the back of my Kindle keeps coming loose.  It’s a nuisance, and it should snap in place more securely than it does.  Without the included book-cover (which is great), I believe I may have lost the back of the device long ago.

Buttons—Don’t get me wrong; I love the big, accessible page-turning bars.  But accessible location also makes them too easy to flip accidentally.

Color—The Kindle would be extra cool if it had color ability.  Maybe in its next life; I understand that Kindle 2.0 may not be too far off in the future!

Page Numbers—I like to know what page I’m on.  I just do.  The Kindle tracks your reading progress by paragraph rather than by page.  I do understand why, especially if you’ve bumped up the type size, you can flip page after page without seeming to have made progress.  Although I’ve grown accustomed to this “new” way of judging my progress in the book, I really miss those page numbers.

Blurb—Sometimes, especially after I’ve put down a book for awhile, I forget why I started reading it in the first place, and the back cover (or the blurb) synopsis helps remind me of what the book’s about.  It’s something lacking on the Kindle, and something I greatly miss.  It’s a little thing, but (for me) it’s the one thing that would really make Kindle books “real” for me.  Silly, huh?

Bottom line:  It’s still a totally worthwhile electronic gizmo.  I rank it in importance after my laptop and my Blackberry (and actually ahead of my iPod – though just slightly).

LP to mp3: Zapping Your Record Collection into the 21st Century

Like most couples of a certain age, my husband and I grew up spending our allowance, and then paychecks buying records (and eventually, cassettes). By the time we got married in the early 1980s our combined record collection totaled approximately 1,000 albums, taking up several bookcase shelves in our living room. CDs soon took the place of the LPs and cassettes as more bookcases were cluttered with another thousand (smaller and shinier) disks. Jewel cases seemed to proliferate in all the nooks and crannies of our home.But our vinyl collection sat collecting dust as we, reluctant to fork out cash to replace our outdated and broken turntable, wondered how to once again enjoy our classic rock, folk, Broadway, classical and jazz recordings (many of which were long out of print)  that never made the leap into the digital age. Library of Congress recordings of Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy; Introducing the Beatles; The Compleat Tom Paxton. Even favorites that had been digitally re-released: A Night at the Opera (Queen); my husband’s Hendrix, Clapton, Johnny and Edgar Winter collection, my original Broadway cast recording of The Music Man (”borrowed” from my parents on a visit home years earlier) lay dormant as we refused to re-purchase CD versions of recordings already in our library on vinyl. We opted to spend our music dollars on new tracks, assuring ourselves that one day, our one-of-kind 1957 Tom Lehrer album—a priceless auction buy–would once again sing to us.And then the iPod thing happened, and mp3 players of every breed propagated on retail shelves, removing us by yet one more technological generation from our beloved record albums. “If only,” we cried, “if only there was a way to stuff those glorious tracks into our iPods;” if only.I searched the oracle of the Internet, invoking the appropriately syntaxed keywords into a Google search and I found there my answer. At least I thought I did.  As I dove into dozens of “how-to” articles written in cryptic techno-ese that I, a non-audiophile, could not decipher, I lost hope. Until I stumbled upon a device called a USB Turntable. Hmmm. Seems easy enough, I mused, glancing through the instructions and descriptions I found online. Plug the turntable’s USB cable into the computer’s USB port. Place album on turntable, start recording software, start turntable. Recording made. (Well, of course you have to flip the record when it reaches the end of side one, but you knew that, right?) Cool. Of course, nothing is ever quite as easy as it seems when you are reading a product review or looking at a user guide without the product actually in hand.However, I was convinced that this was, indeed, do-able. I went out and purchased a turntable. Several manufacturers make USB turntables, including ION and Numark, which can be had for about $150.00. We settled on the Numark TT-USB because it seemed very sturdy and easy to use. And the price was right.The turntable is plugged directly into computer’s USB port; using the computer’s speakers to hear and monitor the recording. And, after a few false starts (I have to learn to actually READ  “quick start guides” before I start playing with my toys), we got the turntable up and working. And thus began a multi-year project (still ongoing) to convert every one of our 1,000 LPs to digital, and upload them into our iPods. That’s approximately 20,000 tracks, making me awfully grateful for our 80 gigabyte iPods. The turntables come packaged with basic recording software, but its worthwhile to buy an upgraded LP to digital transfer software package. There are several out there, including CFB Software’s “LP Recorder” and “LP Ripper.” Nero also includes an LP converter in several of its recording packages. Acoustica is another good package, but is slightly more complicated to use (in my opinion), although it has a lot of cool features.  You can create .wav files or mp3 files.  I suggest first creating a .wav file, the highest quality recording you can create.  Unfortunately .wav files are huge and take up way too much hard drive space to keep forever; and they would obliterate your mp3 player’s storage very, very quickly.  Fortunately you will be able to delete the .wav file once you have completed the conversion process. Most of our vinyl recordings (even the most well-cared for) are scratched and full of “pops” and “clicks.” Therefore, you should run your newly digitized recording through something called a de-clicker. You should perform this task on the .wav file and before you convert it to an mp3.  The de-clicker we use finds typically finds upwards of 15,000 clicks, pops and other distortions in about 15 seconds, removing them instantaneously. Once processed through the  de-clicker, you can save your clean recording as an mp3 file. Then, to save space, you can delete the .wav file.  From that point on, you can do what you want with mp3: burn it onto CD, synch onto your mp3 player or iPod, or phone, keep it in a RealAudio or Window Media Player Library, etc.The only problem is that in our fast-forward, high-speed CD-ripping age, you can’t hurry an analog recording like an LP. Recording an album onto the computer still takes 20 minutes per side. But it’s so worth it. I knew it the moment I was able to hop on the treadmill and listen to Jethro Tull on my iPod. Too cool.