Archives for March 2009


TV is Toast: Mac Mini Media Center

My friends and family are sick of hearing me espouse the virtues of the Mac mini media center I built last weekend, but the experiences since have made me realize that TV as we know it is going to be toast much quicker than I thought even two years ago.

Though I considered AppleTV as one solution, it’s too limiting as it’s Apple and iTunes-centric. Instead, I am using PlexApp, an open source media server forked from the XBox Media Center (XBMC). I’ve downloaded and am playing with Boxee as well, which is positioned as a social media TV platform so friends can see what each other is watching or has watched. 

Using this has profoundly shifted our use of our HDTV. From my watching of HD shows from Revision3 to Hulu shows as well as those from Joost. It’s been fun to get hooked on an old science fiction show with my son as well as my wife who discovered several shows she watched many years ago and is delighted to view again.

We can even bring up DVD’s I’ve backed up to the 1TB external drive which is also increasingly holding all the video I’ve shot over the years (and never pulled off the miniDV tapes). In addition, my multiple gigabytes of photos will end up there as well as all of our music.

iTunes? Yep. We can leverage all that it has to offer from movie rental or purchase to podcasts to music.

The best part is the ease with which developers can create plugins that bring other video sites to Plex. In the works are CBS and ABC ones and more.

Why is TV toast? Because even Comcast cable can’t compete with the on-demand capabilities (and MUCH better user interface than the embarrassingly bad one they offer) of apps like Plex and the ecosystem that has already exploded around it. Yes, they can try to slap us around with draconian measures like their 250GB cap to stave off the inevitable move away from what they offer, or do what I view as the smart thing: embrace these moves, help the development of Plex, Boxee, XBMC and others, and be the preferred delivery method for it all.

So I’ll keep moving along with what we’re doing and hope I’m not exceeding the cap. NOTE: I did ask recently — when on with Comcast’s executive resolution center — that even paying more for a business class account is still subject to that 250GB cap. Weird.


Mogulus: Yep…It’s Still a Beta Product

This is a cautionary tale about a jaw droppingly fabulous technology that simultaneously was quite a frustrating and shaky experience as a producer with what turned out to be just over 94% uptime today. This story also illustrates how inventive and innovative technologies are really pushing the envelope with cloud computing.

Over the last several weeks, I invested days in due diligence on video streaming eventually signing up with Mogulus, “…the most powerful live broadcast platform on the internet.” While I don’t doubt they’ll achieve that vision someday, the tiny gray label in their logo that says “Beta” means that they’re actually, “…the most powerful live broadcast platform on the internet in beta.

Any non-online software company will flat out tell you NOT to use beta software “in production”. Of course, Google’s permanent affixing of the word “beta” under Gmail means that beta has become a convenient excuse when something goes wrong and, frankly, makes you and I as users partly to blame (which reminds me of that line in the movie Animal House when, after destroying the car belonging to the brother of Flounder, one of the fraternity pledges, Otter tells him, “Hey! You fucked up…you trusted us!”

I spent all day today running an online channel filled with several dozen videos, organized into storyboards, for a 24 hour internet broadcast channel for a client. Luckily, the 28 minutes during the live, streaming conference event for my client worked flawlessly, but at least five other times during the day the streaming channel simply went black (though the ticker at the bottom of the screen worked but no video played) and four other times there was stuttering or videos repeating parts of themselves.

Frantic calls from other team members ensued, I emailed support and it corrected itself in minutes (varying from 5-8 minutes) so the email replies were always, “Ahh…I looked at it and it looks fine.”  Each time this happened (or the several times the video stuttered or replayed short snippets of a video 2 or 3 times), we lost viewers which was the real irritant.

[Read more…]


TV = Brain Off / Computer = Brain On

In 2004 Steve Jobs famously said about TV vs. computers, “We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.” It was one of those statements that seemed like a throwaway (and one most of us did the old head bobbing up-n-down about), but it’s become more and more true since then.

My wife and I often take our laptops upstairs and lie in bed finishing up the days emails, exploring, and increasingly watching “TV”. In fact, my brain gets SO turned on that I find it hard to go to sleep…so I’ve actually stopped doing that in order to relax, quiet down and nod off (and older relatives have cautioned on how “you’re going to ruin your marriage” by playing with our laptops at night vs. with each other).

When I first saw the delightful Alec Baldwin Hulu ad on the Super Bowl — with its clear and humorous reference on how TV watching turned your brain into a gelatinous mush they could scoop out and eat (since they’re aliens, after all) — the brilliance of the campaign took my breath away.

It did so because of the NBC team’s recognition that most of us in the always-on, always-connected participation culture — increasingly turning our attention away from all traditional mediums like TV, radio, newspapers and magazines — view television watching as the mind numbing, brain mushing pursuit it is, but still one we turn to when we choose to be entertained passively.

The team obviously recognized that doing a fun advertisement to get our attention, directly addressing this obvious fact within it and, of course, delivering a service that meets our needs whether we’re watching an actual television set or have our brains turned on with our computing devices, they nailed it.

Jobs nailed it too over four years ago with that statement. He didn’t say anything about turning your brain on to perform tasks, but rather computers as an extension, a stimulator of our brains.

As we all move away from purely linear, serial tasks and processes toward a world where we drink in information, news, entertainment while connecting with others in a parallel and associative way, I’m eager to live in this time of awakening where more and more of us are living in a perpetual state of having our brains turned on.


Could this be the new newspaper business model?

Knowing that we’re living in the midst of the greatest shift in communication ever, doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the angst and sadness when things like the Hearst Corp. announced Monday that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will print its last newspaper edition and become exclusively Web-based as, making it the nation’s largest daily newspaper to move to online only. Newspapers are toast.

From (one of my favorite sites) comes this photo from Brockton, Massachusetts in December 1940. “Men and a woman reading headlines posted in window of Brockton Enterprise newspaper office on Christmas Eve.” 35mm Kodachrome transparency by Jack Delano.




SXSW App in Javascript That Acts Like Flash

Yep…wish my client launch was one week later so I could've attended South by Southwest (SXSW) where all the cool kids are hangin' out. I am, however, living vicariously through others (via Google Reader and Twitter) and have seen/learned/read some delightful stuff already.

One thing I came across this morning that was very impressive, was the PepsiCo Zeitgeist interactive application (created by Slash7) that follows Twitter feeds with the hashtag "#sxsw"with a cinematic-like interactivity. Watch the movie below or go to the site and play around yourself.


URL Shorteners: Is a Custom One the Solution?

When I wrote this story about a Minnesota company, TinyURL, I mentioned some concerns about URL shortening services.

URL shortening, if you’re not aware, is a service that takes a looooooooong URL (e.g., like a huge one from Google Maps) and turns it into a short one such as

Now that Twitter is becoming so widely adopted — though has its 140 character message limit — the only way to author a good message and deliver a URL is usually with a shortened one.

Here’s the problem. Already I’ve found dead links from shortened URLs. Spammers are getting wise to using them to mask the end site they’re trying to get you to view. In addition, I went to a resource site this week which had every single link a shortened URL!

Concerns have been raised by many people that shortened URLs are weak links that are undermining the integrity of the Web itself (e.g., here and here). To illustrate how pervasive these services have become, well over a year ago Mashable published this post on 90+ URL shortening services! This shortening of URLs process has become laughingly easy for all of us and there are too many uses (again, Twitter, SMS, etc.) where it’s a lot easier to use a shortened URL than a long one…so we all do it.

When voicing my concern about this to Kevin Gilbertson (creator of TinyURL), he assured me that these temporary and ethereal pointers to ‘real’ URLs were not going to “break the Web” but instead were providing a useful service (e.g., to email or Twitter users) where long URLs were a barrier and obstacle to providing others with links. He also pointed out that any publisher, creator of resources online, or those delivering high value which they wish to remain permanently available, are being imprudent if they don’t use the original URLs.

Good point. But is there even a better solution? How about a custom one?

Many URL shortening services are able to create custom ones for companies, media publishers and others. My friend, Garrick Van Buren, has a service called “Cullect” and he recently delivered a customized URL shortener for an online news organization, MinnPost, so I’ve observed how this can be a positive and be within the ultimate control of the organization itself.  They ‘own’ both the original URL and the shortened one so they can maintain the integrity of the linking (disclaimer: another blog I participate in, Minnov8, is the technology contributor to MinnPost).

My recommendation to individual participants is to go ahead and use the URL shortening services, keeping in mind to link to the original URL (not use the shortened one) when creating more permanent pointers on a website, blog or social network. My advice to clients, especially those that have a need to deliver many links in a Twitter stream or through other means, to have a custom URL shortening service created for them so they own, maintain and ensure the integrity of the linking so the Web is not, as many fear, in jeopardy of being ripped apart.


Taking Risks: The Most Important Thing You Can Do

Though I watch little broadcast television, I was well aware of Steve Wozniak’s recent appearance on Dancing With the Stars on ABC, but the whole reality TV show genre is one I find revolting as “nasty” (or the possibility thereof) is the way the judges ensure they rile up the crowd and get people to tune in and turn their attention to their little program. 

Early this morning, I came across this post from Laughing Squid that had the video of Woz’s appearance embedded within it. Watching it, I was well aware that a 59 year old geek whose gained a few pounds over the years (and man, can I ever relate!) is not particularly svelte nor adept at cutting a rug.

Though two of the judges were fairly complimentary — and supportive of the risk Woz took to be out there — one of the judges (Bruno Tonioli, whose contribution to the world is being a “top choreographer”…whoopee) made a crack about his dance that it was, “…like a teletubbie going mad.

What an asshole. The kicker, however, is that it doesn’t matter because…

[Read more…]


Are You Buck-Naked in a Coffee Shop?

How often do you go into a coffee shop, are at a convention center or in a hotel lobby, open up your laptop or take out your smartphone, and log on to what you assumeis the open, public Wifi?

Well guess what? It might be…or it might not. A “man-in-the-middle” attack might be going on at that moment and what you think is the name of the public Wifi hotspot might instead be emanating from someone’s laptop as they masquerade as a hotspot.

When you logon to that rogue hotspot, anything unsecured such as checking your email, using file transfer protocol (FTP) programs to upload files or simply anything traveling over that internet connection from your laptop to the Wifi hotspot can be captured (no, not your banking website or most ecommerce ones since they use Secure Socket Layer (SSL) which gives you that little padlock in your web browser showing your logon is secure).

That’s right: for many online activities your usernames and passwords are traveling in the air and easily logged by that jerk running the man-in-the-middle attack.

The first time I wrote about this was here in January of 2005; again here in July of 2007 (where I wrote about solutions); and yet again in January of 2008. Here I am, slightly over one year later, writing about this yet again since I’m seeing zero public alerts or hardly any awareness of the issue by tech leaders and, what sparked it again today, was because Michael Janke had this post about Cafe Crack, a suite of open source software that even a small-propeller-on-my-beanie could make work. 

This Cafe Crack suite is too easy folks and has been out there for some time as evidenced by the fact that the page was last updated in December 2007 (I had no idea it was even out there). Not only is it even simpler to pull off a man-in-the-middle attack than I’d previously thought, it’s going to be a larger problem going forward.

The reason it’ll be a bigger problem is the sheer volume of people accessing Wifi hotspots. For example, when you have people like I know (my daughter; friends; and colleagues) who always access any random hotspot with their iPhones in order to get online, or as netbooks and other similar devices continue to accelerate in popularity, this problem is going to get very, very big and alot of usernames and passwords are going to get stolen (let alone theft or mischief being directed at the services they access).

Protect yourself and do NOT logon to any random hotspot unless you’ve taken steps to ensure you’re protected or not using insecure applications. Tell your friends. I’ve got some solutions listed in that July post, “Are You *Still* Naked in a Coffee Shop?” that you could use and I suggest you do…

…or just sit there naked while others enjoy.


How much time do you invest online?

As more of my attention has shifted away from newspapers, television, books, magazines and radio, I’ve been fascinated by how much time I’m investing online in content consumption…and it’s increasing!

I used to read two newspapers every morning (The Minneapolis StarTribune and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ)) and I still leaf through the “Strib”, but the WSJ went away a long time ago as I get my business news elsewhere.

My RSS reader has 182 blogs in it along with 17 major tech news sites; 6 video related sites and many others.

People send me links to videos that I’ll open at some point…but I always sigh when it’s some clearly interesting video that says “59:05” or something and I don’t take the hour to view it. I just don’t have spare hours laying around.

Twitter gets my moments at stoplights, standing in line, or other times when it’s convenient.

A quick back-of-the-envelope of my personal time investment shows that I’m spending between 2-3 hours per day online consuming content. Much of that used to be TV watching or reading books…but the internet is my mind’s crack cocaine and I’m so jazzed and stimulated exploring, learning, seeking, considering and playing online that I’m still enjoying it, but am growing ever so slightly concerned that it’s too much.

What about you? I’m not talking an addiction or anything, but are you questioning your own time investments? Are you getting the payback on all of that investment that you’d hoped for or expected?