Friday, April 24, 2015

Virtual Reality

The Chicago Virtual Reality Meetup group was founded last March (2014) and had its first meeting in June. Gotta love being a ten-minute drive from the meeting place for a change. I love Meetup and have gone to Drupal meetings downtown and out in St. Charles. WordPress meetup in Elmhurst. But to meet in Glen Ellyn was wonderful. Extra bonus points for seeing where the Cubicle Ninjas hide out. I'd first heard of them during my job hunt five years ago but never had the opportunity to meet anyone. Josh Farkas has been a great host and they have a terrific facility with powerful workstations (Mac and Windows) by which to power their Oculus Rift development kits. (They have the original DK1 and two DK2 kits.)

The Ninjas are working on an application for virtual reality environments. I don't know how much more I can say about it but it ties in nicely with my avocational side. Combined with my interest in Second Life, this Meetup group held high expectations for me. I geeked it and wore my old Atari Jaguar shirt, which got noticed. Virtual Reality headgear first got mentioned back in the early 90s and the Jaguar console was hyped as the beneficiary of that technology. It all disappeared as quickly as it bloomed. Twenty years later and with much more powerful computers, we have the money of Facebook backing the Oculus Rift as well as other big-money players throwing in. The shirt was a reminder how these things can fade away.

Josh expressed a lot of enthusiasm for my Second Life expertise and we've been talking about getting together since that first June meeting. It happened, kinda, last December 23 after I got off of work and hustled over to their offices. After fiddling with settings for twenty minutes, I was operating my son's old avatar, using the beta viewer that supports the Oculus Rift. I tried to take a picture but that functionality is not available. I have links to videos. The immersion was impressive: The framing parts of the User Interface (UI) floated just above and below and to the sides so that you faced the full three-dimensional aspects of whatever SL sim you visited without their distraction. With the headgear, you have no view of your hands and therefore need to experiment with placing your left hand over the WASD keys to move around. It took me a few minutes to get the mouse cursor to appear in my view and then I was able to work the menus and click on items.

About five weeks later, I visited again for a longer exploration of Prehistorica and some other Oculus-friendly sites. It's pretty exciting what is going on.

Time passed quickly but it was enough for me to feel like Linden Lab has done a good job of utilizing the OR. I want more! And Josh has promised that I can visit on my own to use one of their stations. I've also tempted him into taking charge of that avatar to begin his own explorations. My feeling is that VR and applications like SL are a major frontier for doing business in the near future when OR headsets (and competitors' versions) go commercial.

I am getting ready to explore High Fidelity as well.

Monday, April 20, 2015

New Musical Horizons Via Sonos

When we moved into our house twenty years ago, I imagined using yards and yards of cable to set up speakers in our family room on one end of the house to the stereo system located in the living room a fair-sized dining room away. A few innocuous holes drilled into the floor in a corner would keep everything hidden, running the wires along the basement ceiling. The basement is quasi-finished, but this was not a solution my darling wife would accept. So we never had music in in the living room unless it played on the television or off a separate music system. We talked for years about getting a wireless system, but the reviews of such systems were not promising.

For Christmas 2014, we gave ourselves a Sonos system. I went to several stores and asked questions, concerned about being able to retire our CD Player and hundreds of CDs over time but to be able to use it with a new system. We needed a component called Connect that would tie into the Players (not called speakers) and the CD Player. The system cost around $1,200. Considering we hadn't bought speakers in more than thirty years (Bose is all it's cracked up to be, although too rich for us to adopt in this scenario), and no new components in a dozen years, we didn't consider this a splurge in any way. Jessie came along and chose the top-of-the-line spea--er, players; one for each room. We could have bought eight inconspicuous players (Player 1) and spread them all over the house, but there's greater quality in the Player 3s we chose. We didn't go with the Playbar or Sub, either, since we don't need to be knocked out of our chairs by explosions on the television. Or add another $700 to the cost.

The setup is not well explained in the manual that comes with the system even though it's very straightforward once you've survived it. You plug the Connect module into your home Wireless system via a LAN cable. It adopts your wireless network. When you plug in a Player, it sends a ping to your app and you name it. The app allows you to play different music on each Player or to combine them to play the same thing. The app recognizes music services (anything you have installed: Spotify, Pandora, Slacker, Calm, etc. as well as Amazon and Google accounts that store your digital music) as well as Internet Radio. This latter took me completely by surprise and has been a wonderful source of discovery for us these past few months. You have at least two dozen genres of music with dozens of stations for each category. Yes, a lot of them would love to have you subscribe but if you can handle the ads--it's radio the way an old-timer like me understands it--you can change channels, endlessly once an ad has worn out its welcome.

While we actually knew that the system is run via a mobile app, it didn't occur to us until I had it set up that Jessie didn't have a smartphone and her three-year old Nook couldn't handle the Sonos app. So her Christmas bonus was a Kindle Fire HD 7 and they lived happily ever after. Another interesting thing to note: Windows Phone doesn't have a free Sonos app, but something called Phonos. It lets me do thumbs up/down with Pandora, something Sonos app doesn't do, and just about anything else it does. You should test it using Free Trial, which is a nice aspect of all Windows Phone apps.

What we thought we were buying was a replacement for quite a few electronic components: Amp/Receiver and speakers in a cabinet in our living room. Now there's just a pedestal with the Sonos Player on it. (I'll get them over to Best Buy or somewhere for recycling when the weather improves.) Now for the first time in twenty years, we can walk from the family room through the dining room or kitchen and emerge in the living room listening to the same music. The icing on the cake was the vast resevoir of musical services the Internet provides. The real irony of it all is that with so much new music to listen to, we rarely go through the effort of turning on the CD Player--the app doesn't do that although it does have a Line-In option for listening to the CDP once you've chosen a CD and turned it on. (We could have saved $300--the cost of a Player 2 by skipping the CD connection of the Connect. I had hoped, although no one promised it, that the Connect would also work with our SmartTV but that requires the $699 Playbar.)

As I pondered in a previous post ripping our CDs seems very worthwhile with the accessibility to digital media so simple.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Update on Galaxy and other Tech

So last May 2014 was my previous post about my Galaxy Tab 3. I made my peace with it last Fall when I just paid out my AT&T Next account and pulled it off the data line. It had come perilously close to tipping me past my 2GB limit the previous month, so I'd had enough of it wily ways. Now if it can't get a datafeed, it actually lets me know that wifi has stopped. That doesn't happen very often, either, making me suspicious of its inability to hold onto a wifi signal when a sim card is present. Regardless, I feel so much more secure about it.

What is irksome, of course, is having gone a year in monthly Next payments on the tablet, I still owed $135. At the time, I suppose, a Galaxy Tab 4 wasn't going for $150, but it is now.

I used it at work running our conference mobile app to check on how speakers and sessions were configuring, running the content management system on my workstation. The picture at right shows Qualtrics software running on my main screen, with Outlook on my work laptop, and the tablet below. We use Qualtrics to create our online surveys.

It also has become my reading medium, and now that Jessie has a new tablet, we can share our Kindle accounts and justify buying books that we will both read. We also replaced Bose speakers that were 30+ years and starting to sound ragged with a Sonos system. This wireless sound system provides us, for the first time, with music in both main living areas of our home. (It's also why Jessie needed to update her three-year old Nook to a Kindle Fire HD 7 since she needs the Sonos App to run the system.) We wanted to be able to connect to our CD player and that has been accomplished. Goodbye to the Sony receiver/amp bought 15-20 years ago, since we now how what amounts to Sirius FM in terms of access to Internet Radio, not to mention my growing digital music libraries on Google Play and Amazon, as well as Pandora (and Spotify if we were so inclined). We bought the Player 5 speakers, which are a pretty good equivalent to the old Bose speakers and definitely fill our living room and TV room with plenty of fine sound. Expanding to other rooms with smaller speaker systems is possible, as well.

I have a bunch of apps I would love to explore but just haven't worked out the time: several meditation-guidance apps (Meditation Helper, ZazenMeditation Timer, and Insight Timer) and music apps (Pocketband, Oscilab, Caustic). Guitar Tuna works on my Nokia 1020 Windows phone as well as the Galaxy. (Yes, I replaced my not-so-smartphone with a camera, er, the 1020, which may have run its course in terms of what Nokia is presently offering, but with Win8.1 it does all I need and takes amazing photos. I will ride this horse until it crumbles in my paw.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Some thoughts on music media

I am listening to an MP3 of Supertramp's "Classics" and remembering their concert up at Alpine Valley in the late 70s with Jessie and my brother Roger. One vivid memory is when the giant screen behind the band projected this image of a commuter train embarking out of its station and onto its route, sped up to match perfectly with the band vamping in the closing three minutes of "Crime of the Century." Of course, I'm aging myself. It was a simpler time: the vinyl album was like a photo taken to remind you of the vacation you'd gone on. It wasn't going to last forever. But neither does the memory unless you have something to prompt it out of the unkempt storage of infrequently exercised brain cells.

While I cannot claim the breadth of experience that my mother has, I have been through a lot of transitions in the technology of the artistic efforts of the musicians of the past century and more. We were at a few stores this weekend and couldn't find a CD of classical music let alone any selections from Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music. Why were we even in a store considering buying such outdated media as CDs? you may well ask. We didn't miss the train, folks, we hesitate for good reasons. How many times should we buy this particular piece of music? we ask in reply.

I jumped on the technology train and began recording my vinyl albums onto cassette tapes. (Yeah, I pretty much dodged 8-track after experiencing Roger's adaptation. He didn't invest too much in cartridges but it was the player in his car that really made him kick himself. My bad choice in failed technology avenues was Quadraphonic Recordings. And I really started with my 8th grade graduation gift of a small reel-to-reel tape recorder with a patch cord for a transistor radio!) I went after that practice with gusto, transcribing at least 200 albums to that format. And just like the way businesses adapt to the dukes and jabs of technology, I found stores that sold and traded "like new" albums, so I had a way to recycle my vinyl collection and build up a formidable collection of tapes.

Well, a fire in our apartment building did a pretty nasty job on the classic vinyls I had stored in the water-logged basement, while my cassettes survived. At least until it became clear that the CD was the Next Big Thing. (Let's not discuss the whole idea of it being an incorruptible or indestructible medium as originally pitched, nor about the pros and cons of the quality of the performance.) When it became clear that cassette players were joining reel-to-reel and 8-track players in museums, I jumped ship. I bought a converter plug for my computer and fully intended on transferring the tapes to CD. But that "spare time" in which I converted vinyl to cassette seemed to have disappeared. (Sure, I'll name names: Zach and Alex.) I deemed my time to be of sufficient worth that I would proceed to purchase CDs to replace the "classics" in my cassette collection.

The first problem in this transition: some of my favorite bands--Ozark Mountain Daredevils, for instance--were pre-CD and obscure. Procrastination, however, became my friend. Diligent searching discovered that the Daredevils had bought back their tapes and released their albums on CD. If all you can think of is "Jackie Blue," in regard to this wonderful country rock band, go to Spotify and look up "Beauty in the River," "Country Girl," and "Gypsy Forest" for the true, haunting melodies of an All-Time Under-Appreciated Band. Even more obscure than OMD, was a Chicago-based band called Wilderness Road, whose first of only two albums was "Wilderness Road," a western opera about a bounty man. You can find some of the songs in digital format but not all of them. I found the website of one of the band leaders and was able to get a limited edition CD that could be my most valued musical possession besides my guitars. What's particularly special about this is my cassette recording ends abruptly because the vinyl album had become so worn that it skipped at the end and the needle would lift off.

The second problem in this transition is cost: simply buying "Best of" albums handled a fair amount of purchasing songs for the second or third time around. "Jackie Blue," which I loathe, but is considered the peak of OMD's creativity would be on a Best of. I was very disappointed, for instance, in having "Let's Get Drunk and Screw" on a collection of Jimmie Buffet's best, while not seeing "It's My Job" or "Incommunicado." Obviously, I was not consulted when the compilation was made. Bruce Springsteen has a song similar to "It's My Job" that I have on a bootleg cassette that I cannot find on Spotify. (As far as that goes, look on the Blue Oyster Cult lists for songs from their "Imaginos" album, no longer in print in the US and the only BOC album not on CD. I made a special order of a Euro version of it, since I consider it among their best albums--the Bouchard brothers left the band, and I assume there's an Issue about rights to the songs. I've never heard them perform songs from "Imaginos" in concert.)

The fact that I've built up a sizable collection of CDs, enough so that I recycled the cases and put them all in large, unwieldy leather CD albums, I am up the creek in terms of doing some kind of recycling at Half-Price Books or the CD Recycle store. It so happens that spare time is opening up and I can ponder ripping the CDs ... for "archive purposes" and dispensing them to all of my mobile platforms. Now the problem becomes one of tracking down those outlier songs in MP3 format and adding them to the collection. Do I pay $1.29 each for the three songs not among those considered the Best from a particular band, and go ahead with $6.99 for the album and deal with redundancy or songs for which I don't particularly care?
It's an interesting dilemma.

At this stage in life, why bother? I've already mentioned Spotify, although my knowledge regarding the depth of the Spotify library grew from a year's subscription, the lowest fee-based setting. (It's the one that doesn't share out to mobile platforms or allow any downloading.) I have also found Pandora an excellent choice for listening on my tablet and when I want to explore the wild blue yonder of new music, I like Slacker's stations. All free and much like listening to radio, even with repetitious ads. When I can get fairly focused playlists for free, or very specific focus for a fee, why bother with the labor of ripping CD archives?

That gets into philosophy and that's a topic for my other personal journal as opposed to this, my professional journal, which looks at how I use tools. It's my blog; I make the distinctions.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Is there an App for Handling Ambivalence?

I've been wanting to write more about my Galaxy 3 Tab 7 but I wanted to provide screenshots and that seems to be a drawback. I have tried the various suggestions as well as read the comments about screen captures on Androids using the latest version of the OS. I am more likely to turn off my tab than capture a screen. This review will have to go without photos since it would be rather ironic to take pictures of the tab using my Windows Phone wouldn't it?

It has taken me longer than I'd like to admit to learn how to walk the Android tightrope on some key operations. A couple of months ago, I noticed I couldn't get my wifi to log into my home account after noticing it wouldn't log onto my work account. So I reset it and once it was running again, saw all of the downloaded apps were gone. I assumed there was some kind of backup going on. Google Play did acknowledge that I'd downloaded them but I had to re-install them. I'm feeling like Samsung has a deal with AT&T to try to get me to jump my data limit by forcing me to back up while unable to use wifi or to download everything again when it's restored. This is not a game I appreciate. I've learned to make sure when I'm in a Wifi environment that the tab is using Wifi or I restart it--I don't need to reset it, thank goodness. Sometimes a Widget won't respond and I just go, well, that was nice but it's not the end of my life.

Another annoying aspect was how my glasses thwarted it's Smart Screen application. If I'm reading an e-book, whether in Kindle or e-Pub mode, the screen goes dim or actually goes away. Kindle is a little more forgiving when I touch the screen to let it know I'm there, whereas e-Pub wants to start other functions. I turn off Smart Screen when I want to read, it got worse until I reset the display time to 30 minutes. I don't usually read longer than that at lunch or on the commute. Of course, now the screen will stay on longer than needed and could wear out the battery faster unless I turn it off.

So, I've become habituated to turning off the tab when I stop using it and to checking for the wifi icon to ensure it's on before doing anything that may require data. That's life with a tablet, I suppose. Those are two very big strikes against what otherwise has been a very useful alternative to my IQ-challenged Windows 7.1 smartphone. It goes without saying that reading books or viewing any app on a bigger screen is preferable to my phone. But I really am very interested in looking at a Nokia win8 phone with a bigger screen. Samsung seems very overrated to me. I'm looking forward to when I can drop the data line and just use the tablet when I am in a wifi situation.

The one failure that puts me off on future Samsung/Android purchases, however, is the inability of its Blue Tooth to play well with my SanteFe's bluetooth. Being able to access such a rich variety of media sources would be terrific. The car is 2010 and it connects very well with our older Samsung phones but I can't believe that newer BT wouldn't be able to reach back and work with our car. Unacceptable.

I have quite a few apps installed now, but very few I actually use that would score in favor of a Android v Windows 8 comparison since both OSs work with Pandora, Slacker, Netflix, YouTube and so on. What immediately comes to mind are the two Second Life apps, Lumiya and SLGo, that let me visit my virtual home on the road without lugging my laptop. The former has a very different interface that has kept me from using it more often. The latter involves either a subscription or pay-as-you-go service and I'm not sure I want to add that to my expenses.

Nothing is easy with apps. I have purchased movies and music through different stores, so of course, I can't access them from just one app, nor download them so I don't spend data to watch them. It's very likely true whether I have an Apple or Windows product, but there does seem to be a strange disconnect using Google apps in an Android environment that don't seem to want to play well together. This was not a Windows trait they needed to emulate.

I've let this post slide so long now, that I am going to post it rather than continue to polish and revise it as new things come up. I just can't get all that worked up about it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

What's Next? Indeed!

Last Friday was the last straw for my Samsung Focus Flash phone. I was marveling over how nice our new app for the upcoming Annual Conference looked in HTML 5. It made last year's app look like something from DOS (see below comparisons, screenshots from desktop of workstation running the web app). I was clicking through our Schedule app and found when I clicked on the Speakers link, it failed to pull data on them. When I checked the same app--it's a web url, not a true app--on my workstation, the links went through. The implication was clear to me: somewhere along the html trail, my $.99 Windows Phone's incapacity to update to Win 7.5 was to blame. (This was confirmed by our support people at Tripbuilder.) I needed a new phone!

I already knew that I was not close enough to the end of our AT&T contract to qualify for an upgrade. I checked on the AT&T Web store and there was this new AT&T Next option. It basically comes down to renting a device on a new line grafted to the old contract for 20 months. After 12 months, you can trade your device in for a new one for another 20 months. The remaining 8 months of "rental" payments are dropped. Or you can go the 20 months and then you just continue with the services. What's nice is that you still have qualified for the Next options, so you trade in the device and work it from there.

Suddenly, I'm studying up on the Nokia phones, which I posted about awhile ago. I knew they've been bought by Microsoft. The Here Maps have been touted as superior to even Google Maps. The wonderful camera abilities are certainly welcome. Windows 8 will handle HTML 5 with aplomb. This looked like a no-brainer. The Nokia Lumia 925, brand new with aluminum housing, was offered at $21/mo., while the 920 with 8GB, was offered at $15/mo. With the cost of the new line, a new data package, and insurance, it was closer to $25/mo. added to our current phone invoice. Yes, there was that one line to the defunct WinPhone that would expire in April 2014, but nothing can be done. A contract is a contract.

With that hesitation, I considered an ASUS Windows 8 tablet, but that was $25/mo, plus the $10/mo insurance. The one neat wrinkle was the way it could rewire our overall plan: Jessie's phone would be granted unlimited texting (as if we ever came close to our previous limit!), and my WinPhone and tablet would share 2GB of data service. I've barely gotten close to .75GB let alone the full 3GB I had with the previous plan, so this looked worthy of consideration. It let me keep a phone that was very serviceable in a number of smartphone ways and gave me something I could take to conference and on vacation that could work with the conference app--my overriding concern for making a change--rather than my laptop.

Guess what? Besides the fact that a more reasonably priced solution was available, I balked at using a Windows 8 tablet. I like that OS on a phone, but I've head a lot of grief over Win8 on computers. I went back to the store, knowing that if all else failed, a Nokia Lumia 920 would be a major improvement over the Samsung FF. But I looked around at the AT&T Next deals on other tabs and found the Galaxy 3 Tab 7. The monthly rate was $15, same as for the NL920. I'd keep the phone and I'd be learning one of the two top operating systems in the mobile device market. I'd be able to help a much larger group of ABA members at conference with their apps. It all fell together nicely. And Samsung gets another chance!

As I described earlier, I will share 2GB between the two smart devices (my other choice was 4GB for another $10/mo.). I have been very good with doing major downloading via wifi rather than AT&T with the phone for 16 months now. Granted there aren't as many apps out for Windows as there are for Android and yes, even fewer since so many won't run on Win7.1. What's really sweet is that I've been able to accomplish a lot of downloading under both conditions, because with the old plan's billing date, I am almost obliged to indulge myself as I will start with a clean slate after just five more days! (Half a Gig already and rolling!) Once I've got my essentials and "give-a-try apps" onboard, I will buckle down and stay out of the Play Store.

I'll have more to write about as I get myself up to speed on this new environment. Needless to say, as I am composing this post, I am listening to Pandora and wearing a Cheshire grin. (I did not, however, compose this post on the tablet.)

Previous posts about my Samsung Focus Flash or in some other way related:

Using TripBuilder's Phone App

My Next Phone

And that's why it's called a smart phone

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Life in Clicks

It has to be close to 15 years ago that I was introduced to the Logitech Marble Mouse. Not the one with the blue ball, but the older, flatter one with the red ball that is no longer in production. It took less than two days to become completely enamored of this mouse's advantages: my arm could pretty much stay still and my thumb and eyes conspired to draw when needed or otherwise navigate the workstation screen. I have a pretty good idea that Logitech's device preserved my right arm from carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS) over the years of heavy use, at home as well as work.

Yes, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer. I've already written about and shown pictures of my home system. Presently, I spend my weekdays on a Lenovo Pentium Dual Core workstation that uses Windows XP. Ten years ago that would be considered the state-of-the-art OS and few PCs could touch it for performance. Maybe not the same as cat years or dog years, but computers age on a quicker scale than humans. Software groomed for use on Windows 7 and 8 has no mercy on an OS like XP. Or on the person using it, who often resorts to looking at his smartphone while waiting for the system to complete some arcane process that has frozen the screen.

It's slow. I'm back to opening Photoshop and going for coffee. I could take the elevator and buy it 18 floors away, and still find it settling in. Running with Outlook on and two browsers open is a challenge to my patience when I'm used to my laptop at home blazing away.

With time measured in such slow motion, life becomes measurable in clicks. The question to ask, particularly when you've reached my ripe age, is have I been given an unlimited number of clicks? I've been using a computer for close to three decades. The number of clicks I've performed is one of those rare times when "myriad" is not an exaggeration in measuring them. Consequences exist for those who click beyond their limitations. CTS is only one of them, I'm sure. I can feel strains in my wrist and along my arm, pinging my elbow and worming its way to my shoulder.

You would think of all people who live by clicks, developers would be among those who wage a constant fight against clicks. A Web developer certainly knows that the usability of her site rises and falls with the number of clicks it takes to get to a page. When I started my present job, one of my main duties is as Webmaster for our section's site. My war on clicks began. I can cut down the clicks it takes to get to our pages but the tools I use don't share my goals.

For instance, with a slow OS, I find myself facing this message: "You chose to end the nonresponsive program, ______." If Microsoft truly wanted me to send the report, maybe it would take into consideration the number of clicks it costs for me to do them this service. (See the next two graphics.) Maybe those boxes could just fade after a number of seconds that I am given a chance to determine with the Control Panel (or at least the administrators at the ABA).
 Easy to kick Microsoft for any number of ways it adds clicks to my life. It's like kicking a pigeon.

A company that ought to know better is Adobe. I've mentioned some of these tools before. After a recent major upgrade of their CQ5 content management system, I find it appalling how little regard their developers have for trying to limit clicks for its users. The image below shows how their editing window opens up each and every time I need to make adjustments or to create a new page. Because they limit me to an editing window 12 lines deep, I need to click on each side of that box to expand it to see as much of my page as they allow.

Another editing box that am obliged to work with is how we tag content with metadata. This box works vertically as well as horizontally to provide a list of the controlled vocabulary that goes into tagging our content. To adequately tag a paper submitted by a member to our digital assets manager (DAM) takes 36 clicks. Over the three months of our Midwinter Meetings, I will post close to 400 papers. More than 14,000 clicks. I find myself using my middle finger to click sometimes ... to save wear and tear on my pointer.

Any number of solutions to this unnecessary excess of clicking comes to mind. I could copy and paste tags, or since I'm doing a batch of 20-40 papers that share the same tags, a way to process them in multiples shouldn't be that difficult to program. We're not talking about a brand new product, but one that is in version 5 and charges a beefy licensing fee for it use. Users have had plenty of time to register complaints but nothing has been done. Adobe has plenty of competition that does these things more efficiently, too. (So, yes, our IS department shoulders the culpability in my inevitable decline toward CTS. I've mentioned it to them once or twice now.)

I could mention any number of other ways that my burden of clicks could be eased by Webmasters and our IS department, but these are sufficient examples. 

I should hope by now that you have been inspired to consider ways in which you are wasting clicks on software or at favorite Websites. (As always, feel free to comment!) We pay for these things with more than dollars. We also pay in clicks.