Monday, September 22, 2014

I was going to write something political...

...But then I saw this on my Google+ feed and thought about my old friend, The Whited Sepulchre, who loves weiner dogs. After watching it, I decided the world would be a better place if we all talked less about politics and did this instead.

Enjoy...there's time enough for arguing later...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Dear Amazon: All is Forgiven (mostly)


Okay - I'll admit it: it doesn't take much to buy me off.

I've bitched about buying and downloading mp3's to Linux machines and Amazon's non-support for a while - in fact those posts are some of the most visited on my site. But still I stick with Amazon. It's like some trailer park relationship.

But now I'm willing to kiss and make up because now Amazon Prime memberships get FREE MUSIC STREAMING! (I'm doing the happy dance).

I signed up for Prime around Christmas because (I told myself) I needed a package in a hurry. While normally I might have just popped for the extra shipping, the fact that Prime accounts get free 2 day shipping AND video streaming was enough to get me to fork over the cost of a Prime membership. You can do a free one month trial, so why not?  I don't watch a lot of stuff, but I watch some, and it's a nice deal. I even bought myself a Roku device (from Amazon!) for Father's Day this year to make it easier.

But free music streaming? Holy shit!

I love music. It's one of the things (along with martinis) that keep me sane in this world. I listen at work, I listen in bed at night, I listen to my gawdawful commute. And I have a fairly extensive collection of tunes - some purchased, some ripped, some...well, never mind.

So the Amazon deal is huge.

Now, downloading purchased tracks on Linux is still the painful, ugly process that it has been, BUT, with streaming, I essentially eliminate the middle man (my Linux box) and go straight to the playback device: either my iPhone or Android tablet. There is a new Amazon Music app for both devices. If you listen on a computer at home, there's also a desktop app for Windows and Mac (but not Linux - grumble), and for playback, the web app works and is adequate for any platform - including Linux.

The iPhone and Android apps even allow you to download for off-line listening - perfect for the commute home. I download on the company wifi connection and avoid AT&T's cell phone data crap. And given the Content Industry's attitude about ownership and licensing, how different is a track downloaded that you can only play on the device you downloaded it to from the rights they grudgingly parcel out when you "buy" a track?

Now there is some griping that the Amazon catalog is not as vast as that of, say, Spotify, and that there's very little in the way of new tracks. That may be true, but since I've entered my old-fartage, I don't really care that much about newer music. This falls under the "bug or feature" debate in my mind. Give me some Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz and I'm happy.

So thank you, Amazon. Your Linux support when it comes to buying music is still a bit of a fail, but I may not need to buy any more ever again.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Cloud on the Cheap

These days, The Cloud is all the rage in the computer world.

Cloud storage is probably as far as most folks want (or need) to go - think Box.com, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive/Docs...the list goes on. You can collect quite a bit of free off-site storage if you're of a mind to.  These are all examples of  SaaS - Software as a Service.

PaaS - Platform as a Service - gives you a specific pre-configured platform to build applications or services.


Finally there is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), which is virtualized hardware: CPUs, hard drives, networking, firewalls and the like.

A little background:  at my day job at Sisyphean Corp, I manage hosting for a couple dozen big websites (I lose count sometimes).When I first took this on, we were on physical hardware. Trouble with this is once you make your decisions about the hardware, you're sort of stuck with it for a while. If you've predicted your needs poorly, or they change, well...

I migrated one of our divisions onto virtualized servers using Amazon's EC2 service as a pilot project. With cloud / virtualized servers, you can create, scale up or down, or blow away environments easily as your needs change. Unfortunately we finished the migration right before Amazon had a fairly major public failure, which lasted way too long. We recovered, and over the ensuing months, I learned quite a bit about dealing with Amazon Web Services. I still use them for very specific things.

Last year, I lead a project to migrate our 2 dozen websites off physical hardware, and onto Savvis (now CenturyLink) VPDC cloud services. Though not as inexpensive as AWS, I have to say, I like it a lot.

So -- as though I don't get enough of this geekish shit all day long, I started looking around to play with some of this on my off time. Since it is going to be on my nickel instead of Sisyphean Corp, here's the best (or at least my favorite) cheap stuff I've found.

Amazon

Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla of  cloud computing and offers a full range of services. If you are (ahem) looking to get in on the cheap, they offer, for new users, a year of free service using what they refer to as their Free Tier, which is a single micro instance, with storage and DB services.

All in all it's a great deal, BUT it's only for a single year. And you still need to give them your credit card. Still, if you are curious, it's certainly worth checking out.

Azure

Microsoft, never to miss an opportunity to get on board after everyone else, has a cloud service called Azure. And with only a little effort you can find free trials. At first they were offering 90 days (which I signed up for and promptly pissed away) which they have scaled back to a meager 30 days / $200 worth of services.

Azure is not bad. I liked their management tools better than Amazon's, and Azure's pricing seems to be a little better (although Amazon has a habit of dropping their prices periodically). Much to my surprise, they had Linux environments (along with Windows). Still, I'm not all that interested in trial offers which go away. I *will* be using it for some of my corporate solutions (where Sisyphean picks up the tab).

Google

I had previously run across Google's PaaS offering, called Google App Engine, but Google has recently expanded this to Google Cloud Platform. They are clearly setting their sites on Amazon Web Services. They have a mix of free (for minimal use) services and some paid. Free services (if you are below the paid quota) include the App Engine and Cloud Datastore. Non-free services include Cloud Compute (virtual servers), Cloud SQL (database), Cloud DNS, Cloud Storage, and Big Query.

OpenShift

OpenShift, which is run by RedHat Linux,  is another PaaS service which I have been playing with of  late. The good news: there is a free level of service - no credit card required - which gives you  3 "gears," (the label they give their basic application units). With only a moderate amount of effort, I spun up an instance of an analytics tool called Piwik, which I'm using as part of a project.

They have a number of pre-configured software stacks, including Java and PHP, and applications, including Drupal, WordPress, and MySQL.

The down side with OpenShift is that it can be more than a little complex to set up and use, depending on what you are trying to do. Still, if your not afraid to roll your sleeves up, it could be fun (or useful).

Digital Ocean

Finally, there's Digital Ocean. What to say -- I love these guys. Their service is simple to use, pricing is straightforward (without a lot of add-ons), and it's cheaper than all the other services I've found. They call their instances "droplets" (ocean - droplet? cute). The smallest instance is $5 a month, if you run it 24x7. That's for a 512mb/1CPU instance with 20GB of solid state storage, and 1TB of tranfers. I pay more than that for my shared webhosting provider, and I don't have root access!

They have a number of different Linux images (Ubuntu, RedHat, CentOS, Arch, Debian) to choose from and other, larger sizes. A 1GB/1CPU instance with 30 GB of storage is $10 a month. And those prices are just the maximum you pay. They actually charge you by the hour, with a monthly cap on the cost. So, if you were to spin up the small instance for, say 10 hours of testing one month, it would actually only cost you around $.07 - yeah, you read it right: 7 cents.

There are almost always promo codes (such as ALLSSD10 ) you can add when you sign up that will give you an immediate $10 credit, so essentially you can get 2 months free if you use their smallest instance. There are also iOS and Android apps that will let you manage your instances and/or account. If the above code has expired, find a newer one.

So keep your head in the clouds and have fun!


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How to view a remote desktop for free

There are basically two reasons for viewing a remote desktop: attending online meetings and running applications on (and/or administering) a remote machine. There's a little crossover since some meeting-type software will allow remote control of the presenting machine.

As part of my daily grind, I frequently either host or attend online meetings, and assist end users. My employer, Sisyphean Corp, uses Webex for external meetings (with vendors, consultants or other folks not on our network, and - of late - Microsoft Lynx for internal meetings. There's always Windows Remote Desktop, but it's not well-suited to connecting to machines behind firewalls across the internet, and while it's fine at controlling, it's not designed for presentations.

So, what do you do if you are not part of a huge, monolithic corporation? I was curious and found the following free alternatives in no particular order (you can thank me later). 

  • Webex - I was slightly surprised to discover Webex actually has a free plan as long as you only need to meet with 2 other people. Any more than 3 and things get start getting a little pricey. Still, Webex is sort of the leader of the pack, and as such has things like IOS and Android clients.
  • Screenleap - this looks dead easy: java-based, so it will run on Windows and Linux with no install. Free account has a 2 hour daily limit, with up to 8 meeting attendees, paid for accounts get more options, including more attendees, SSL encryption. There are also APIs to enable sharing on your website. I've not tried this but it looks interesting.
  • Vyew - more than just a screen-sharing service, Vyew is a fairly full-blown collaboration space. Meetings are set up as always on "rooms" which allow for document sharing, and other team-based activities.  Ad-supported (ugh) but up to 10 real-time participants (20 person limit per room). I've used this - it's a little clunky but not a bad tool.
  • Teamviewer - control Macs and PC over the internet or do online meetings. Mobile versions of the client available for IOS, Android and Windows Phone. "Free for private use" - whatever the hell that means; don't blame me if it suddenly stops working. It says it's free for all non-commercial users. Once I give it a shot I'll let you know.
Some interesting, but more limited alternatives, more focused on remote admin/control:
  • Remobo - intended for remote control across a firewall using a VPN, but not presentations. I've not used, but I think I may look into it. Clients for Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • Gbridge - built on top of Google's GTalk service; lets you control, sync, share desktops and chat between computers. Both have to have the software installed! Interesting but limited to Windows machines
  • Crossloop - Free screensharing and unlimited remote access for Windows and Mac for one computer. Requires a download and install. If you are just looking to control your home PC while away, this could be an okay option. Paid access gets you access to more computers and remote access via Android app. If you were formerly using Logmein (which did away with their free account without warning) this might be an option.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why bother with iTunes or Amazon MP3 store?

Call me an old curmudgeon, but I find a lot of what passes for new music boring in the extreme: manufactured pop, pseudo-country, and studio produced crap. There are a few things interesting that I've chanced upon - most of it stuff my offspring have turned me on to - but not a lot.

Lately I've been supplementing my (ahem) legally purchased music from Amazon (yes - as awful as they are, I still patronize them) with a new source - Archive.org.

Archive.org, in case you've never been there, bills itself rather cumbersomely as "Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music and Wayback Machine." While accurate, it's a bit of a mouthful. I could write several posts on this amazing site and barely scratch the surface. If you've never visited it, just do it. Just. Do. It. You won't be sorry.

Some basics about me: I love music - especially old music. The funkier the better. Growing up, my dad had numerous Spike Jones 78's, which we listened to endlessly.  I love jazz. I love old radio. I love oddball stuff. I love *some* old rock music.

I recently have started listening to a lot of Oscar Peterson. The man's a God. After dropping some coin at Amazon and the Half-Price Books flagship store in Dallas, I did a little searching at Archive.Org and found Oscar's Boogie:

Other things I found at random include:


I'm also a big Stan Getz fan - here are Oscar and Stan together:


Some other treats I found were this huge collection of Art Tatum recordings (Tatum was a source of inspiration to Peterson) and this Fats Waller collection. Going to a search result will give you the option to stream or download the file - usually a zip file either a collection of  audio files, a single cut, or a long file with multiple selections. The files are usually available as either MP3's or (for the Free Software crowd) Ogg files. There's a handy embeddable player (which is what I'm using). A lot of these are transcriptions of old recordings - even off 78's (in fact there's a whole sections of the site devoted to transcriptions off 78's!).

There are sprinkling of recordings by Joe Pass, one of the greatest jazz guitarists you never heard of here and there.


Some other large jazz collections that you may find interesting (in no particular order):
Of course, old jazz isn't the only thing out there. If your taste runs to more recent tunes, check out the Live Music Archive: recordings of performers who have a "tape-friendly" attitude. While most of these are regional bands (you may have never heard of them but they rock nonetheless), you'll also find such treasures as almost 9,000 live performances of the Grateful Dead.

The hardest thing about finding stuff is...finding stuff. It helps to be very patient and just go exploring. Collections often point you to related collections.

I leave you with Les Paul playing the classic "Sleep Walk."



Friday, November 22, 2013

A short recollection from 50 years ago.

Years later I worked with a guy who was a couple of years older than me who said he never dated anyone who couldn't tell him where they were when Kennedy was assassinated - they were, he opined, either too young or too out of it.

As for me, my family had moved from Fort Worth to the Chicago suburbs the summer I turned nine. The elementary school I attended in Park Forest was close enough that I used to walk home for lunch.

That Friday 50 years ago, my brother and I had come home as usual and were watching Bozo's Circus on WGN when the station broke away for news flashes that President Kennedy had been shot. I wasn't sure what to think other than it seemed shocking - impossible to believe. But I'd seen it on television.

My class had introduced to the idea of  "current events" that year. We were supposed to tell something we'd heard or read about in the news. This seemed like the ultimate current event.

I headed back to my classroom (I have no recollection of how my mother had reacted to all this) and my school was in utter chaos. The grown-ups were all flipping out -- some were sobbing, others panicked (this was during the Cold War, remember) -- and they ended up sending us home early. Really early.

The rest of the weekend and into the next week was filled television coverage of the the assassination itself, the arrest and killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral and lots of speculation. It took the Thanksgiving holiday that year and created this little pocket universe of time outside the usual flow of the seasons.

Things eventually settled down, but to say they went back to "normal" would be a mistake.

My classmates didn't make much of a distinction between "Dallas" and "Fort Worth."  I lost my Texas accent very quickly.

Later that school year I had my appendix out. By then my classmates had forgotten I was practically from Dallas, and I got a lot of handmade get-well cards. It was years before I self-identified as a Texas again.

For those of us who lived through it, that pocket universe still exists just a half step away from the real world, capable of being unlocked by a date on the calendar the way December 7 was for my dad's generation, and 9-11 is for so many of us alive today.



Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Surprise! Windows 8 doesn't suck as much as I expected.

It's heresy, I  know.

I've used Windows for a while, usually grudgingly, and I'll admit: I've been a hater. I won't bore you with a laundry list of  objections I've had over the years.  "The triumph of marketing over technology," sums up my feelings.

After sticking with Windows XP's bubble gum look and feel (it puts a whole new spin on "gooey interface") I finally made the jump to Windows 7, after skipping the over-hyped and under-performing Vista, and thought it was....not bad.

Being an IT geek I of course had to try out the new Windows 8 prereleases, featuring the new Metro Interface.

I thought: this sucks.

But a funny thing happened. I picked up a copy of Windows 8 on the cheap (for a while you could snag a legit copy from Microsoft for $15 if you knew how to game the system) and installed it on a new Zotac ZBOX microcomputer that doubles as a video server.

There are several add-ons one can install that bring back the Start Menu, allowing you avoid the Metro interface, if you choose. I'm using a freebie called StartMenu8 but there are others, both free and purchasable.

Lo and behold - once you can deal with Windows 8 without Metro, it's not all that bad.  I'd be willing to bet that in some future Service Pack, Microsoft quietly introduces a feature that allows people to toggle the old-style Start Menu on or off.

Curiously enough, IObit, makers of StartMenu8, also make a free product called WinMetro, that emulates/enables the Metro interface for Windows 7, Vista and Windows XP.  ...It's a funny old world.

Since hooking my ZBOX to my television to stream stuff, I've found Metro actually makes a reasonably good 10 foot interface. All you have to do is install an air mouse server on the PC and an air mouse app on your iPhone or Android device. Logitech has a free version of server and app for iPhone, as does WifiMouse (for iPhone and Android).

Once I managed to avoid Metro, I found Windows 8 to be a pretty good product.  The Window Manager is clean, and ditches the curves of Vista/Win7 in favor of a more squared off, less transparent look. A lot of the underlying system tools like Task Manager and the copy utility are redesigned to give more information. There is a feature called Storage Spaces (which I have not actually used) that sounds like a repackaging of the old Windows Home Server Drive Extender, that  allows combining smaller drives to pooled and/or redundant storage.

Just to give time to the other side, the Free Software Foundation is running a media campaign called UpgradeFromWindows8.com, to promote free operating systems like Linux. While I love Linux (I'm running Ubuntu on my main studio box), I gotta say, Windows 8 is the least awful version of Windows I've used in a while - once it's been tweaked.

Close Windows, Open Doors

Monday, February 11, 2013

The internet schools Ron Paul on free enterprise

In a delicious bit of irony (at least from where I sit) the Internet is teaching Ron Paul a thing or two about free enterprise in the Net Economy.

It seems a collection of his fans registered the domain "RonPaul.com" a while back and have amassed quite a mailing list through it:  170,000+  email addresses.

Ron Paul now wants to buy it, but considers their asking price much too high. They generously offered him "RonPaul.org" for free, but he wants the .com version.

Such is the nature of supply and demand, Dr. Paul.

Refusing the free offer of RonPaul.org, and unwilling to pony up the $250,000 the current holders are asking for RonPaul.com, the libertarian icon is filing his case with the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization, demanding the current holders turn over *both* domains to him.

This is, of course, the very same U.N. he was referring to in 1998, when he said: The choice is very clear: we either follow the Constitution or submit to UN global governance. American national sovereignty cannot survive if we allow our domestic laws to be crafted by an international body.

Oh dear.

Not surprisingly, this has not gone down well in some circles.

I, on the other hand, am loving it.

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