I’ve decided to get a Kindle

Filed in Technology 2 Comments

On Wednesday, I downloaded my first paid-for ebook: An Introduction to Social Constructionism by Vivien Burr. I’d just finished reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, which I found free on the Kindle Store when I installed the Kindle for Android app on my phone. I wasn’t sure whether I’d happily read a whole book from my phone but we seemed to get on pretty well, even reading from a small, backlit screen.

I rather like the crisp freshness of physical new books and the battered usedness of secondhand books, with their mysterious inscriptions from owners (or libraries) past. I also quite like having physical books on shelves; I grew up in a household full of bookcases and I’m easily distracted, when visiting friends, by the contents of their bookcases. But our current small house can’t really take many more shelves.

Pile of books by my bed

I’ve found that having a pile of books-to-read by my bed doesn’t actually make me read them any more quickly. And the weight and bulk of them prevents me carrying one around with me on the off-chance that I might have a spare moment to read it. I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl whenever and wherever I had the chance: on the train, on the station platform, on car journeys, at my in-laws, in the living-room waiting for tea, in the kitchen whilst cooking tea, in bed, in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. In short, anywhere I had my phone and some free time. And I carry my phone everywhere.

The problem with my phone is that it’s not that comfortable to hold for a long time and I’m a bit wary of straining my eyes focusing on such a small, backlit screen. Handily the Kindle automatically syncs your reading position (in the book; not your posture) to the Amazon server and your other registered Kindle devices. So if I had a Kindle, I could read it at home or on the train, and then, when I don’t have the Kindle with me (eg waiting to be served at the takeaway), I could carry on reading the same book from my phone.

So a Kindle is now on my Amazon wishlist. I’m not keen on the closedness of it as a system but I do like the user experience. Just got to patiently wait for my birthday to come round now…

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Greenpeace updated ranking of electronics companies

Filed in Energy and Environment | Technology 3 Comments

Last year, after getting a Nintendo Wii, I wrote a post about its energy consumption and Nintendo’s place in Greenpeace’s electronics company rankings.

Greenpeace have updated their rankings…and Nintendo still holds bottom place. Pleased to see that Samsung and Nokia are still doing well (I have a Nokia phone and Samsung laptop and TV – part of my reason for going with Samsung was their green and ethical reputation).

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Nintendo Wii power consumption

Filed in Energy and Environment | Technology 7 Comments

Greenpeace have released their latest edition of their Guide to Greener Electronics rating Nintendo at the very bottom of the list of 18 electronics companies. It turns out that they’re bottom by default because Nintendo didn’t supply any data. So until Nintendo do supply some data, it’s not possible to tell how green (or not) they are.

Having been involved in trialling the Current Cost monitor recently, I’m interested in not only the company’s green credentials (which the Guide addresses) but the actual Wii’s green credentials, specifically its power consumption (which the Guide doesn’t seem to address). I think this kind of information would be useful to consumers – even if it doesn’t influence whether or not to buy the Wii, information about standby consumption etc would help consumers know whether they’re happy to leave the Wii plugged in 24 hours a day..

I’m interested to know because (like 6 million other people in Europe) I have a Nintendo Wii. So the other night I had a look at the Wii system settings. And found the WiiConnect24 option, which I hadn’t come across before.

In there, you can set your Wii to be:

  • Always connected to the internet (via the wireless connection that you’ve set up previously) regardless of whether you’re using the Wii or not (when in Standby, the orange light shows)
  • Always connected to the internet while you’re using the Wii but not when the Wii switches to Standby (when in Standby, the red light shows)
  • Not connected to the internet at all, even when you’re using the Wii

By default, after you have set up the wireless connection and enabled WiiConnect24 (which is required to be able to visit the online shop etc and which I must have enabled at some stage), the Wii is set to the first option–connected to the internet always, even when the Wii switches to Standby when you’re not actually using it. A benefit of being always online is that the little blue light on the front flashes to alert you that you have received a message (from a Wii friend or from Nintendo) or that there is an update available for you to download. Personally, this is of no interest to me.

So, anyway, AndySC took his Maplin power meter to his Wii and found that when being used (green light), the Wii draws about 15 Watts, which isn’t too bad really – considering that a laptop can take anything between 20 and 50 Watts, I think. And you’re actually making use of that 15 Watts.

In Standby without an internet connection (red light), the Wii draws less than 1 Watt. Again, not bad. You could unplug it if you wanted to save that Watt but 1 Watt on Standby is pretty good (this is based on a meter for which 1 Watt is the minimum reading, I think).

The bit that seems silly is if you leave your Wii in Standby with the WiiConnect24 internet connection enabled to be always on, the Wii is drawing about 9 Watts of power (over half of what it draws when you’re actively playing on it). Okay, I can see that for some people being alerted with the flashing blue light when you have a message is useful. And maybe it’s useful to be alerted that there’s a new update available so that you can download it when you’re not actually wanting to play on your Wii. What I don’t agree with is having the always-on option as the default setting.

From a usability perspective, having everything enabled by default is good in that the user isn’t prevented from doing any of the things that they might want to do (like receive message or update alerts). But if that wasn’t enabled, would many people actually miss it? It’s not like they wouldn’t still receive messages and alerts – they’d just find out about them the next time they switch on the Wii to play – and, presumably that’s fairly regularly if they’re into using the messaging and updates regularly.

Okay, so 9 Watts doesn’t seem a huge amount of electricity, but even if I use my Wii for 8 hours a day, every day (which is a long long way from the reality), that’s still 16 hours a day that the Wii is sitting there doing nothing at 9 Watts. And it’s that ‘sitting there doing nothing’ that really adds up against the environment and my electricity bill.

I discovered a couple of other features that require WiiConnect24 to be always on are the News and Weather channels but I think this requirement might be a bug – afterall, why should the Wii need to check the news and weather while you’re not using the Wii? When you open the News or Weather channel, I’m sure it checks for the latest information anyway. If anyone from Nintendo reads this, can you check this out?

So, the upshot is that while WiiConnect24 might be useful to some people, it’d be a bit more environmentally friendly to set it so that the internet connection is disabled when the Wii is in Standby. Let that red light glow!

I agree with Greenpeace that it’s important to know how environmentally friendly the company itself (Wii consumption aside) is so I’ll be interested to know what they conclude when Nintendo actually do provide them with data. Will Nintendo be able to overtake the dawdling Microsoft and Phillips?

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It’s here, it’s green, and it’s got ears!

Filed in Open Source 2 Comments

And it’s so exciting! My OLPC laptop has arrived at last!

In case you’ve been living in a cupboard for the past couple of years (this is mainstream, afterall), the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project’s aim is to design a small, cheap, lightweight but robust laptop as a tool to support education in developing countries. The XO (or OLPC) laptop is the result of that effort.

So what’s it like? Well, I’m typing this blog post on it. The width of the laptop is 22.5cm (I just measured it) so the keyboard is quite small. I can’t touchtype on it but I can work up to a fairly efficient multi-finger typing. It’s a bit like typing on the Psion palm-top but the keys feel nicer because they’re rubbery and press easily.

The screen on the XO is amazing. It was designed especially for the requirements of the OLPC project. Many of the children that will use the XO laptop are schooled, or spend a lot of time, out of doors. Therefore, a typical laptop screen would be no good – bright sunlight would render the screen unreadable. There are two modes to the XO’s screen: a full-colour mode which is

pretty readable in sunlight as it is, and a monochrome mode which actually gets clearer to read the brighter the sunlight. Why aren’t all laptops made like this? Working at home in the summer would be so much more fun!

What else? Well, the ‘ears’ are actually the wireless antenae which will still work, apparently, even if you snap one off (they’re actually slightly flexible and tougher than they look in photos). I can connect to my home WPA-encrypted wireless network (but not, sadly, to my work LEAP netwok). There’s no ethernet port but you can, i think, get an ethernet USB dongle to work.

It has a built-in webcam. It comes with 1 GB solid state storage but I’ve put an 8 GB SDHC card in the slot beneath the screen to have more space than I’m bound ever to need. It has a built-in microphone and speakers, with mini-jack sockets for plugging in an external mic and headphones. Or, alternatively, you can plug in different inputs (eg a temperature sensor) to the mic socket.

And there’s ‘ebook mode’… You know how you can get some highly-priced regular laptops that have a screen that swivels round into ‘tablet mode’? Well, the XO does that too. To be fair, the XO doesn’t have a touch-sensitive screen but then its screen swivels so that you can use it to read ebooks. At the press of a button, you can rotate the display by 90, 180, 270, or 360 degrees. And if reading an ebook isn’t your thing, you can play games using the game buttons on either side of the screen.

I know I’m sounding like a commercial break now but it really is that cool. And rather sweet for a inanimate object. And it has a handle. And it fits in my handbag.

Oh, and did I mention it’s green?

And it has ears. :)

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Setting up a Freecom media player with Ubuntu

Filed in Open Source 9 Comments

This has taken me over two months (on and off) to finally get set up so hopefully this post will make things a bit smoother for other people.

I have the Freecom Network Media Player 350 WLAN model with no harddrive. As we already have a MythTV media server in our living-room, I wanted to set up the new media player in the bedroom with my old 17″ LCD monitor and a pair of speakers. The media player has 802.11G wireless so I can listen to music over the network, though I’m not sure if that’ll be up to playing video so we might have to finish running the ethernet cable anyway.

So, what did I have to do to set it up? And why did it take me so long?

Well, the answer to the first question should really be “not a lot” because it’s mostly set up ready to go when you take it out of the box. In practice, it took me about three stints of fiddling around to get it working (only the ‘Sharing files from a Linux PC’ bit of this post is specific to Linux and Ubuntu, by the way).

Video output

First of all (and a significant mistake on the part of the manufacturers, I feel), the Freecom media player defaults to Composite, its analogue output. You can switch it to HD-DVI, its digital output, but you must have the digital output device (my LCD monitor in this case) connected to the media player with a DVI cable (the one with the white ends). If the LCD monitor is not connected, the media player doesn’t believe you that a digital output is really what you want and won’t switch.

But, in order to see the Setup screens on the media player, you have to have connected the media player to some kind of non-digital display. This was fine for me at home because our TV is still an old CRT and has easily accessible composite input (the triple cable with yellow/white/red plugs on it). At my parents’ house, however, they have a shiny new LCD TV with no composite input. Although the media player is handily supplied with a composite cable, it doesn’t come with either an s-video or scart cable, which is all that my parents’ TV can take.

So, after enlisting my parents to help lug their old portable TVs around the house, I managed to get an analogue output (old portable TV) and a digital output (the new LCD TV) in the same physical location so that I could plug the media player into both and switch the media player output to digital. Unfortunately, the default resolution of the digital output on the media player is 576 and not 1080. The LCD TV, however, will only recognise 1080. And you can only change the resolution of the media player’s digital output setting *after* you’ve switched to the digital output.

So something of a Catch-22 situation there.

I eventually got it working back at home where my LCD monitor was less picky about what resolution the media player fed into it and I could change to digital output then switch resolution, then save the settings so that the media player boots into digital output every time.

Wireless

We use WPA wireless encryption on our home network (use the WPA-TKIP option on the media player), so this was never going to be completely straightforward. But, really, entering a 63-character passphrase using a remote control is beyond a joke!

Basically, for each character, you tab through a list of 36 characters (0-9-a-z), using the Up arrow on the remote control, until you reach the one you want. Then, you press the Right arrow to move to the next character before repeating the previous step. For 63 characters!

Also, one thing that the media player instructions don’t mention is that you have to use the ASCII version of the WPA key, not the Hex version (which is what I’m used to using on my laptop, on the Wii, and on pretty much every other wireless device I use — except our digital photo frame, which is another story!).

Once I’d worked out how to enter the WPA key, it connected easily. It’s pretty much the same experience on a WEP network except that the key is much shorter to enter!

Sharing files from a Linux PC

This is where the Ubuntu (or LInux in general) bit comes in.

The media player’s manual provides detailed instructions on how to share files from a Windows PC to the media player so it takes a bit of translation to get the same thing to work from a Linux PC.

A nice touch in the media player is that it uses Samba by default to do its file sharing. This means that, on connecting to the network, it finds all the available Samba shares and displays them under the wireless (or wired, if you’re using ethernet) option on the main screen as sources of media.

The less nice touch is that it uses “a really crap authentication system” (Mills, 2008). I easily shared a directory using the Ubuntu GUI. Before you can share a folder using Samba, you must have a Samba server installed on the PC. On Ubuntu (Gutsy in my case), a Samba server is installed and configured by default so you should be fine.

To share a folder using the GUI in Ubuntu:

  1. Right-click the folder on your Ubuntu PC you want to make available to the media player, then click Share folder. The Share Folder dialog opens like this:
    Screenshot of the Share Folder dialog.
  2. In the dialog, from the Share through list select Windows networks (SMB). A couple more fields are added to the dialog.
  3. In the Name field, type a name for the share. This name must be fewer than 12 characters long otherwise the media player doesn’t recognise it (a mistake I made on my first attempt).
    Screenshot of the Share Folder dialog with SMB selected.
  4. Leave the Read only check box selected. There’s no need for the media player to have any more access than this.
  5. Click OK.
  6. Right-click the folder then click Properties. On the Permissions page of the Properties dialog, check that the Folder Access list for ‘Others’ has Access files selected.
  7. Check also that the files in the folder have read-only access for ‘Others’ by looking in the Properties dialog of one or two of the files.

Okay, the folder is now shared but the media player still can’t access the files in it.

In case you’re interested, or in case you prefer to edit the Samba configuration file directly instead of using the GUI, the GUI generates a stanza like this in the /etc/samba/smb.conf file (where ‘cardiff’ is the name I gave to the share, and the path is the location of the folder in my home directory on my Ubuntu PC):

[cardiff]
path = /home/laura/photos/canon_ixus/2007-12-02-cardiff
available = yes
browsable = yes
public = yes
writable = no

At this point, the media player can find your shared directory but can’t access any of the files in it. So you need to do a tiny bit of editing of the smb.conf file (sorry, it’s unavoidable) to allow the media player to authenticate with your Ubuntu PC.

To enable the media player to access any folders you’ve shared (thanks to Hugo Mills for telling me this bit):

  1. Open a terminal window and change to the directory that contains the smb.conf file:
    cd /etc/samba
  2. Back up the smb.conf file (so that you can revert back to using the old version of the file if necessary):
    sudo cp smb.conf smb.conf.bak
  3. Open the smb.conf file in a text editor such as Gedit:
    sudo gedit smb.conf

    Enter your password when prompted. The smb.conf file opens in Gedit.

  4. Find the section of the file called
     ####### Authentication #######
  5. Find the line that says:
    security = user
  6. Replace the line with the following two lines:
    auth methods = guest sam winbind
    security = share
  7. Find the line that says:
    encrypt passwords = true

    Check that the line looks like this and that it isn’t commented out with a semi-colon (;).

And you’re done!

The media player should now be able to read the files in the directory that you shared (you’ll probably have to reload the folder on the media player to display the files).

Playing shared files

The media player supports a whole list of file formats but I’ve had trouble playing some files. I had no trouble playing some mp3 music files, and I was able to play an mp4 video file over the network (although the latter hung the media player the first time through for some reason).

One directory of jpg image files worked fine as a slideshow (though the media player doesn’t automatically rotate portrait pictures) but another directory of jpg images wouldn’t play. I think it’s got something to do with file sizes and the amount of memory available on the media player. A 1.9 MB png file wouldn’t play because it was too big for the media player’s memory.

Also, I haven’t been able to play any of the AVI movie files that I’ve tried. They all came from my Canon Ixus camera so I don’t know what the problem is but maybe the media player supports only certain AVI codecs?

I was also able to play a slideshow of jpg files from a USB key drive that I plugged into the USB port on the back of the media player (a USB extension lead is useful here because my USB key is slightly too bulky to go in port next to the DVI cable port).

Verdict

So far, I’ve not actually tried the media player in situ yet so I can’t say how well it works in its intended setting. But it’s now set up and works with wireless, sound, and file shares.

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