Long Live The Tablet

I’m a computer nerd, I don’t deny this fact. People who know me don’t dispute this fact either.

Given how heavily I use my laptop & 3G modem commuting and how frequently I’m on a plane, I figured I could find a tablet useful. Since I’m not a foaming at the mouth sort of Apple fanboy (I usually wait until after 2nd or 3rd generation apple hardware is released), and I have personal and professional interests in Android, I researched both the iPad 2 and the Xoom.

Spec for spec, I found them comparable. Sure, neither have HD screens, but I have a HD A/V setup at home for that sort of media experience. The Xoom has expandable memory, which gets expensive when you bulking it up to 64GB. The Xoom has an LTE upgrade, which is very nice, but I don’t expect an LTE network in Ireland in the next 2 – 3 years. In the end, I realised the decision was down to the apps available. The iPad is slightly longer established, hence the better ecosystem of apps.

4 weeks ago, my iPad finally arrived, and it took a lot less time than that for me to become a convert. Sure, I don’t have the freedom of Android, but I’m happy with the better polished apps found in Apple’s app store.

I have specific use cases I wanted a tablet for:

Digital newspaper
These days, I mainly keep on top of current affairs through Twitter for breaking news and Google Reader for general interest stuff. I also have a subscription to the paper edition of Wired, but the delivery delays and mounting backlogs are becoming annoying. I intend to convert to the iPad edition of Wired and maybe even pick up a few more periodicals, if they also have iPad editions.
Media viewer
I’m a big multimedia consumer. I watch TV episodes to distract myself when commuting and I have a lot of DVD box sets I’ll watch over and over. I’ve used my laptop for this over the years, but it’s becoming more and more awkward to whip out my laptop and watch something while standing on a crowded train. Sure, having to sync content via iTunes is annoying, but I expect that to change over time. In the meantime, I’m more than happy with my combination of a media player and a network streaming app (for accessing my NAS when I’m at home). It turns out the Xoom doesn’t have any dedicated h.264 decoding hardware, so I’m definitely happy with the iPad 2 here.
Portable Internet Thingie
This is pretty self explanatory. I’m a computer geek. I use GMail and other web apps a lot. I also have a robust To Do list system, so it’s nice having a better way to maintain it other than fighting with the small screen on my iPhone.

What I didn’t expect:

Aperture photo organising
I expected to keep using my laptop for sorting and organising my digital photos in Aperture. Turns out, there is an iPad app which will bidirectionally sync Aperture projects to the iPad, so you can add metadata to your photos and then sync them back. Handy!
Semi decent SSH access
I got an SSH app, but dismissed it pretty quickly since the on screen keyboard is klunky and slow to type on. Turns out, it’s handy for quick one line things, like restarting that un-babysat daemon on my colo box, as I’m on a train, while Nagios is going crazy paging me about it.
The lack of a native Facebook app
There are a few third party apps, but the thought of paying for one just feels dirty. I used to only use it occasionally, since I have a lost of friends between Google Buzz and Twitter. For weeks later & I’m not missing Facebook at all. I don’t expect to deactivate my account anytime soon though, it’s still a handy, all else fails address book.

All in all, I’m glad I waited a year before getting a tablet. I’m an early adopter, but I’m not a bleeding edge early adopter.

Posted from Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland.

Homebrew NAS Box

Last June, I built myself a homebrew NAS box. Every so often people ask me about it, so I might as well document what I did once and for all.

For a few years, I was storing media and backing up my photos onto a single disk in a USB caddy. There are a few problems with this approach, if like me you’re a sysadmin (no redundancy, no SMART monitoring, limited capacity, etc) so I started thinking about getting a NAS.

I looked at the Thecus and QNAP models and found the higher end ones had some of the features I was looking for. But I’m a FreeBSD user and I wanted to start trying ZFS, so firmware hackability was one of the most important features I was looking for. None of the models I was looking at were very hackable. So now, I was in homebrew territory, which concerned me since I didn’t want a full sized system with a stack of disks in it.

Then on the recommendation from Colm Buckley, I ended up looking into Tranquil PC, who make the BBS2, a dual core 1.66GHz Intel Atom CPU, up to 4GB RAM system in the form factor of a NAS. I ended up getting one with 4GB RAM and filling it with 5x Western Digital 2TB disks.

Since I wanted to use the drive bays purely for storage, I was originally running the system off a 16GB CF card connected via USB, while I sorted out an IDE Disk On Module. But after opening my BBS2 up, I couldn’t find an IDE slot for the Disk On Module to go into, so I resorted back to the USB storage solution, but using a new 16GB SanDisk Cruzer USB key as the system disk.

The result? I have a 10TB NAS which takes ~40W of electricity to run (I should really confirm that with my power meter), runs FreeBSD 8.x, stores everything in ZFS and can interface with pretty much anything I want, from my Mac Mini powered Multimedia Setup, to my new Squeezebox Touch. It speaks NFS, SMB and AFP, so pretty much any client can talk to it, and it didn’t take anything more than a standard FreeBSD install to set it up. In the (somewhat) distant future, when I manage to use most of the free space I may end up getting the SQA-EX to add another 5 disks to the system.

DIY Multimedia Centre

While I’m not a die hard A/V nerd, I’m a fan of watching movies and a number of TV shows. Hence why I have a reasonably large, eclectic collection of DVDs. It was only a matter time before I would build myself a multimedia centre at home, but I’m being careful to keep it modular so I can adapt it to new technologies as they appear. Alas, I built it in stages, with a flat screen TV coming near the end. The following is an account of my current setup, in order of acquisition of each component.

When I was buying a DVD player a few years ago, I was careful to make sure it was future-proof. I’m very glad I chose to get a Pioneer DVD player, primarily because it is one of the higher end DVD players which can do 1080p upscaling quite well, and it’s relatively easy to make region-free with some IR codes and a laptop or a palm pilot.

Next came a computer; a 2007 vintage Intel Core 2 Duo Mac Mini to be precise. It does a fairly good job of driving the TV at 1080p, but with the help of a Toslink+DVI–>HDMI convertor. By and large, we run Boxee (a fork of XBMC, but with a more remote friendly UI in my opinion) and Apple’s Front Row on the Mac mini, as front ends to the media collection. I have grand plans to proxy specific traffic via the US so I can take advantage of Boxee’s additional features like Hulu, etc outside the US), but I perpetually keep meaning to find the time to do so.

The keystone of the system was my flat screen TV, bought mid 2009. After ~2 years of research and much anticipation, I finally decided upon the Panasonic 42" TX-P42V10 Neo-PDP Plasma TV. Why Plasma over LCD or LED? Plasma defaults to black unlike LCD, so it’s better for movies over gaming. As for LED, it was too new (ie unproven) and relatively expensive. Panasonic’s Neo-PDP was ultimately alluring since it lacks many of the legacy burn-in problems plasma has been plagues with over the years, not to mention being ultra thin (the TX-P42V10 is 50mm thick!) and low power* (power consumption is ~300W when on , <5W in standby). If that wasn’t enough, the TX-P42V10 has an ethernet port (it’s awesome being able to ping my TV to double check if it’s left on!), so it can talk to YouTube, flickr, etc. I also find it entertaining that deep within the TV menu the “system license” option prints the GNU License onscreen.

The glue that keeps everything together is a single remote control, the Logitech Harmony 885 controls everything (even Mac OSX on the Mac Mini via Remote Buddy) flawlessly.

In time to come, I fully expect to swap out the Mac Mini + DVI–>HDMI convertor to the 2010 Mac Mini with native HDMI output, as well as a Logitech Sqeezebox system to stop requiring the TV to be on to just to play music, as well as having a proper surround sound speaker set, once I find a wireless or semi-wireless surround sound set to adapt to my partially wired living room setup.

All in all, this media nerd is very happy. πŸ™‚

* I’m a power conscious nerd who loves numbers, but that’s worthy of another (planned) blog post at a later date.

2008

So, Christmas the annual arbitrary numerical rollover day have been and gone.Β This week, I’ve been off work finally (I was oncall over Christmas week) for a full week for the first time in quite a while. I’ve been spending it lazying round, trying to recover from a cold I caught last week and working on little, annoying tasks I’ve been meaning to do for ages, but never got around to doing them until now.

I’ve never really been one for new years resolutions, but this year, I’m going to be more active and get more exercise. I’ve never really been a big fan of athletics, and I gave up swimming regularly a long time ago. :-/ I’m also going to try and get around to watching some of the classic movies I’ve always wanted to watch, but never actually did anything about it. Dr Strangelove is top of my list, especially since I bought it on DVD ages ago and I still haven’t watched it.

2007 was a busy year, both work wise and travel wise. I realised I took 21 flights, visited 4 different countries (many of them a few times over the year) and wandered around 13 cities and saw 7 US states during the year (and I had only been to California before). 2008 doesn’t look like with will be any quieter, Ciara and I are off toΒ CopenhagenΒ in early February. After that, who knows where I’ll end up.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been tinkering with a few techy things which I am planning on posting about here, but not now. Sometime soon, when it’s not 01:00

Checking In

Now that life, particularly work is getting more and more stable and less frantic, I’m going to try and post here more frequently.

Recent things I’ve gotten up to, in no particular order:

  • Occasional cinema trips to see things like Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End. I recommend both, certainly for the fight scenes. (Yes, the originals were the best, but I’m still a bit of a sucker regarding the story lines of each francise.)
  • I’ve very recently acquired another lens for my SLR collection, this time a very, very fast Canon lens, which I’m looking forward to playing with.
  • Voted in the Dail Elections (second time voting in an election, since I conveniently “fell off the register” in 2004). If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the government. πŸ™‚
  • Nearly went geocaching in Wexford, which didn’t happen in the end, since I hadn’t properly planned it and the registration page on geocaching.org isn’t exactly mobile internet friendly. :-/

San Francisco

My first week here is over. Work was mainly meeting people over here and getting used to the way things work at the ‘Plex (ie, I still have to learn to stop walking between buildings. Hello death scooters… πŸ™‚ ) Apart from the office, I ended up in Palo Alto, home of the rich and shameless during trips to the Apple Store and Fry’s Electronics, mainly looking for toys… πŸ™‚

On Saturday, I went into San Francisco (after spending an hour waiting for a Caltrain – damn queue in Starbucks meant I got to watch the train leave from the wrong platform). Once I (finally) got into San Francisco, I discovered what proper US cities look like. They’re big, very big and tall, very tall…

Saturday afternoon decended into nothing more than a shopping trip, probably because I started in Union Square. I ended up acquiring things like a decent set of portable headphones to replace the ones I thought I lost earlier in the day (only to find them again that evening) and a much sought after, decent camera bag and more California friendly clothes (t-shirts and shorts). After a failed attempt to go to the cinema (would have involved a 2 hour wait for a midnight Caltrain back to Mointain View), I ended up getting lost on the Muni before getting a Caltrain back to Mountain View and my apartment. 😐

Sunday was much better day in San Francisco, now that I had worked out the public transport systems. Despite missing the Caltrain (yet again), I went to two museums for some culture – the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, since I’m becoming a sucker for art galleries, particularly modern art and the unique Museum of Cartoon Art – where I saw original Disney, Peanuts/Snoopy and Calvin and Hobbes strips and cells. πŸ™‚

After my cultural quota for the day, I went off on a photography shooting spree around a few preselected venues for the rest of the day. The result of which are up on Flickr. All that’s left on my adgenda for sight seeing next Saturday is the big one – The Golden Gate Bridge, which I’ve intentionally left until last to avail of what looks like forecasted good weather next Saturday (I find the less clouds the better for my landscape photographs), and since it’s disjoint from the other interesting areas of the city.

I really am thankful that I ended up getting a Video iPod a few months ago. Until now, I had never really used the video playback functionality, but I’m making up for it now… πŸ™‚ I’m also very impressed with my new camera. It’s quite enjoyable to use. I just need to be a little less tame and step away from the automatic photo settings (hence why I got two books off Amazon during the week about how to use my specific camera with weird and cool effects…). I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a proper tripod before I go home, but I have to resist the temptation urge to buy a second lense…

Now, it’s late and I’m off to get some shut eye before another week of work before even more exploration…

Fluke…

I got a pleasent surprise a few minutes ago, flicking around the movie channels on Sky+. I stumbled into Coldblooded, one of my all time favourite films, which at just begun a few minutes earlier. (It’s a hilarious black comedy film; Jason Priestly is a newly appointed hit-man who takes yoga and has no remorse. Think Grosse Point Blank, with lots and lots of extra sadistic black humour. πŸ™‚ )

I’ve been looking for it on DVD for years, but it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on DVD, or even VHS for that matter. Horray for Sky! It’s scheduled again in the early hours of Thursday morning, so I’ve already set it up to record for me. Now all I have to do is work out some way to encode it in XviD off the Sky+ box…

/me strokey beard

Away Notice…

The last few days have been good. Last Thursday, I met up with Mark and Dermot, (two friends I was in school with) who are both back from the UK (where they are both doing postgrads) for Christmas. Last minute shopping turned into anecdotes over drinks, followed by more drinks and bumping into all sorts of people I know from college, proving the world is very small indeed.

Christmas itself was quiet enough, the usual family gatherings occurred and I got a few nice gifts, mainly DVDs from my Amazon wishlist, as well as the Bosco DVD (I’m an 80’s child after all… πŸ˜‰ )

My main tinkering over the last few days has been to revert back to my plan of using Asterisk, since I was unable to get my VoIP phone to connect to Blue Face directly.

After a bit of hassle, I eventually got my head around the problems I kept encountering using the Asterisk port, I eventually worked out why I couldn’t get SIP clients to register and dial each other properly – the codec, protocol and action modules weren’t loading properly.

Shortly after this revation this afternoon, I had Asterisk trunking my calls over IAX2 to Blue Face. Now everything works except for incoming phone calls, which I think is a glitch at the Blue Face end. Horray! One less thing to do, particularly a rather large, distracting thing which has sometimes (well, often) been more appealing than doing my project and other college work…

Now, since I’m off to Venice as of tomorrow, I’m officially inncommunicado as of noon tomorrow until the 3rd of January… πŸ™‚

A Small Topping Of Clarity…

Hmmm, now it makes sense.

For years, ever since I was 12 and saw it in the cinema, I’ve been a fan of the film The American President. It has even been on my DVD Wish List for a while now. So, when I was out shopping this evening, I gave into temptation and bought it for myself. Then looking at the DVD box, things began to make more sense…

I knew there were a few stars from it who went onto becoming cast members of The West Wing, but I didn’t realise it’s at least 4 actors and actresses, not to mention the key – Aaron Sorkin, is responsible for writing them both. It’s all so clear now…

In other news, I finally (after 6 weeks of waiting) received my copy of Time Management for System Administrators this morning. By page xiii, the first page of the preface, it says “I’m trying to say that system adminsitration is not a job. It’s a lifestyle.”. Yes, I think I found the right book for me. I can acknowledge I don’t usually know when to let go.

I’m definitely going to be interested in the tips given in this book, particularly the email on managing your email… πŸ™‚

Never Ending…

Last week was busy, but fun.

After being quite busy early on in the week working on a college assignment I arranged to present early, I went off to the exotic location that is Athlone on Wednesday, to attend the HEAnet Networking Conference. The conference was very good. Many techy talks on a wide range of subjects from online idendities and online legal liability to RIPE NCC Whois, IPv6 and Data Retention. I’m definitely considering going next year. If for no other reason to see what the HEAnet “ninja admins” will do next… πŸ˜‰

Straight from the train back to Dublin, Ciara, Dave and I went to see Elizabethtown. It was ok. Plot has the potential to be very good, but is a bit of a let down. Great soundtrack though, but that’s to be expected of a Cameron Crowe film.

The rest of the weekend was mainly spent reinstalling Windows XP onto Ciara’s laptop ad nausiam in an attempt to get it to work. Eventually I gave up, suspecting the hard disk to be the culprit, but Ciara managed to get Windows reinstalled and actually installing programs today, which was further than I got. I kept having problems after theraputic reboots for newly installed drivers. 😑

Speaking of Ciara, she collected her piece of paper from TCD today. Congratulations to her. πŸ™‚