The dream is over

My quest for data comes to an end as the local 7-11 is no longer giving out iTunes cups and I can’t seem to find any iTunes Pepsi bottles anymore. If you’ve been following my progress, the final tally was 5 for 7. Only two losers in seven outings, putting my winning percentage at 71%. Given that they claimed 33% would win, I’m either really lucky (doubtful), they wanted almost everyone to win, or demand wasn’t nearly as high as they thought.

The big gig that solves eveyrthing

I spent the weekend in Seattle, enjoying a lot of good food and fun and last night I got to see Scott’s big opening gig. I took a whole mess of photos and put my favorites up here, and I’ll be eeking out the best of them on my ten years site this week.

Scott’s show was fantastic. Amazingly enough, he wasn’t very nervous before it started, and he sounded better than ever with Michael playing violin and mandolin as backup. Michael cracked up me too, he spent all day working on his fence, then threw on a hat and we gave him a ride to the show. A couple hours later he was on stage duelling licks with Josh Kelley’s kickass slide guitar player Ben Peeler. Then there was the crowd, and the people that clustered around Scott after his set to get autographed CDs. It was nuts, and great to watch others experience Scott’s music for the first time.

Josh Kelley was really good, much better than his album. His voice has more range live and he can really play a guitar. Actuallly after seeing him play, his CD sounds like they engineered out all the personality and warmth in his music, which is a shame.

In the big picture, it was just an opening gig for Scott, but then I think back to the years I’ve known him and worked with him; I’ve seen him playing coffee houses and doing open mic shows, and seeing this show was like all that hard work finally paid off. Josh liked the show, the promoter liked the show, and the audience liked the show and he sold a bunch of CDs. It seems like stuff is finally falling into place for Scott and it felt like I was watching him take the first steps on a road to albums and more shows and touring and the like. All in all, I had a great time and was stoked to see a friend succeed.

Gmail’s new promise

I can’t believe how much flak Google is getting over gmail. Hotmail and Yahoo feature 5 or more obnoxious ads on every page view, plus advertising in each and every mail they send out, but Google creates a better version of web mail and we have state representitives introducing laws to ban the service before it even launches.

Has the whole world gone crazy?!

They’ve gone and updated their policy at gmail, and it boggles my mind that they even have to go to such great lengths to explain how their subtle ads aren’t the new red menace.

They should introduce a new promise for gmail users. Every message that gets sent to a gmail account will result in a kitten getting petted one time. They could rival the old fishcam at Netscape, by having a big room with a kitten-petting robot showing everyone how much love the kittens are getting from the PetBot2000. And remember, no humans would be involved in the kitten petting.

Would that make things better finally?

A confession and a song

I eschew reality TV in most all forms, but that kind of ended last year when I happened to catch the first episode of American Idol and I’ve watched every episode since. Most of it is pap and watching a show requires fast forwarding through almost all of it, but once in a while you get some magic moments. Here’s Fantasia’s song from last night’s show (which I got from Caroline‘s site). It was easily the best performance of the last two seasons. It wasn’t just singing it right, the way she presented it onstage made it look like it was ripped from a Broadway show. This is what you get when you totally commit to doing something creative, it’s freaking amazing.

Pieces of the Future

I haven't rented movies in months (seen plenty on HBO thanks to TiVo and *cough* downloaded from the internet) but recently grabbed a couple gems.
Pieces of April was something I wanted to see last summer, but its life was short-lived on the Oregon art house movie circuit, and before I knew it, it was gone. The movie is fairly strong, it's a little slow in parts, a little flat here and there, but has some really great emotional parts that make up for its shortcomings. I guess I'd give it a 80/100 if I rated movies on a quality scale.
But while I may consider this a pretty good film, I think it's a real breakthrough work; a milestone of sorts. The real breakthrough was the format. Now, I'm not focusing on it because I know it's sort of a gimmick to do a mainstream movie on cheap DV cameras, but it's worth looking at this movie as a sign of things to come.
I'm sure someone in 1979 (or whenever Wordstar first came out) made some bold prediction that in five years the Great American Novel was going to be typed out on a computer running their software and I'm sure people laughed. And when you think about how 99% of the publishing industry works today, through laptops and copies of Word, the Great American Novel is being written every year, thousands of times over, on cheap computers running cheap software that allows for easy writing and editing.
Pieces of April is the first thing recorded on digital video I've seen that finally felt like a "proper" movie. I'm going to say it was the performances and script, not just the actors involved that made it shine. The picture quality definitely feels like a step down from regular cinema, but after the first 10 minutes or so you don't notice any jaggies or the harsh exposure and focus instead on the story. The entire film was made for about $160k, using prosumer-level cameras.
When iMovie came out soon after MiniDV cameras became popular, I heard a lot of people predict that someday soon, the next great film was coming out of some unknown person with a computer, a good script, and a few grand to film it. There has been a few attempts at this already. Sundance recently screened a film edited in iMovie.
Although Pieces of April came out of the "Hollywood Machine" it's the first DV feature I've seen that made me forget it cost nothing and was produced with cheap gear. It was a good movie that happened to be shot in DV, and as technology marches forward, there's no doubt that ten years from now anyone will probably be able to buy a high-def DV camera for about a grand that could shoot a feature.
Of course, you're still going to need the basics that no piece of software or hardware can provide: great story, actors, locations, sound, and editing, but the prices of tools are dropping so fast that maybe someday we'll get to the point where an artist won't be limited by the cash in their pocket, but by the ideas in their heart.

All Hail Bluetooth

While I've known about bluetooth phones for the past few years and heard you could do cool stuff like use it as a modem, control your pc, and sync your computers with your phone, I didn't really give it a try until I got back from Etech this year. In the few months I've been playing with it, I can say one thing's for sure: it's like living in the goddamned future.

What it is

Understanding bluetooth is pretty easy, it's just a name for a low-range networking standard. It's essentially "personal area networking" meaning you can connect a phone to a wireless headset or a mouse with a computer, all without wires. There are a bunch of bluetooth enabled phones and PDAs out now, and thanks to USB adapters, powerbooks and PCs can play too.
My current setup entails a Sony Ericcson t68i phone on t-mobile, paired with a 12" aluminum powerbook. The follow's a run down of how to set it up and what you can do with it once it's in place.

The setup

I started by swapping the sim card from my old phone (a samsung I bought specifically to take photos and post online) into my partner's t68i and vice versa. I was surprised that this Just Worked, but it did. Once it was my phone I called t-mobile customer service and dropped my t-zones service for transferring photos and signed up for their unlimited GPRS internet service for $20/month. I asked for setup help, and they forwarded me to a tech that helped me figure out how to setup the account on my phone and what the CID settings were. I got an SMS a few minutes later with all my settings automatically stored onto the phone as well.
I fired up my powerbook, updated bluetooth to the latest firmware, then ran the "Setup a new bluetooth device" option in the bluetooth menu. I left everything on the defaults then when it asked for an access number to get online, I simply entered in *99***(your CID value)# where (your CID value) depends on your phone but is simply a number. That should add a bluetooth modem to your network preferences and I added the icon to my menubar so I could connect whenever I needed to.
And just like that I had a permanent backup connection whenever wifi was not available. No more worrying about which hotels have network connections and how much they cost. No more getting lost while traveling because I forgot to print a map. I just pop open my powerbook, start the bluetooth connection to my phone, and I'm connected.
In the 20-30 hours I've gotten to use my phone as a modem I've enjoyed a connection that seems to run right at the reported 20kbps speed. It's just a tad slower than a 28.8 modem, but is entirely serviceable for email and web browsing. Reading weblogs with lean code and CSS and RSS feeds is easy as well as reading email on the connection. Bluetooth does seem to suck some battery life out of the phone. I went from a full charge to about 50% left after a couple hours of bluetooth'd connection at an airport recently. The time to connect is fast, only taking a few seconds to establish a connection and bluetooth seems to work fine if I leave the phone in my pocket.
There's something impressive about leaving the phone in your pocket and getting a connection just fine (though you do have to fight the urge to yell "Hey everyone! I've got the internet in my pants!"). WiFi is revolutionary but I take it for granted. Playing with data connections over bluetooth, it feels like the first time I tried WiFi. It's almost magic that I can stand almost anywhere in the US, and pull down data from the air, via a wireless local connection to my phone.

While operating heavy machinery

You know how you can talk on your cell phone while driving at a high rate of speed? If you've got a good cell connection, you can transmit data as well. I'll give you a second for that to sink in.
This means while you're (or better yet, someone else is) driving down the freeway at a high rate of speed, you can connect and browse the web and download email from your laptop. I don't know why, but at first I figured this was impossible to do reliably. I've had tons of calls drop off in the last ten years I've used cell phones and voice quality is often less than 100%. If I want to downlaod 50kb of email, at some level I thought every byte is sacred and less than 100% perfect service would result in an unreliable data connection. In practice however, driving across the country at 70mph while downloading email and browsing the web works just fine. It even worked perfectly fine when I tried it on Caltrain, the commuter train line in the Silicon Valley.

caltrain bluetoothin'
Connected via bluetooth on the Caltrain, my laptop near the window as the houses roll by

This recent revelation that you can connect on freeways and trains has really opened up the possibilities. There's little stopping someone from doing a 2004 version of Travels with Samantha, but using a cellphone to post stories and photos from the road along the way.

Bridging the usability gap

One thing about cell phones that's always annoyed me is the keypad interface. You end up spending hours keying in your contacts whenever you get a new one, only to lose them afterwards if you ever switch phones or lose one. Bluetooth on the mac makes this problem a thing of the past by allowing you to link the address book application to your phone via bluetooth. When I switched to this new phone, I simply added a few entries to the Address Book that weren't already there, then sync'd up my phone and I suddenly had 40 phone numbers loaded up. As long as my future phones are bluetooth equipped, I'll never have to key entries in by hand. This is a very cool thing and one of the reasons why all my phones will have bluetooth from now on.

Nerdy fun

A cool bluetooth/t68i helper app I had to try out was Sailing's Clicker app. It installs a whole bunch of little applescripts that can be fired off from your phone. While it was fun to stand 10 feet from my laptop, point my phone and advance songs in iTunes, change the volume, and give powerpoint and keynote talks using my phone's buttons, I can't see this being totally practical for frequent use. The only actual useful feature I did find was incoming calls could be triggered to pause iTunes and set your iChat status to away. I usually leave my phone on vibrate and unless it's nearby on my desk or in my pocket, sometimes I miss calls. With the visual and audible changes on my mac desktop, I most certainly would know there's a call. The downside of this app is battery life on my phone. Without bluetooth on, I can go 3-4 days before I need a charge, but with Clicker connected via bluetooth all the time the phone's nearly dead in about 24 hours. After a day of playing around, I haven't used it since.

More Gadget Freakdom

Lastly, there are a whole host of bluetooth devices out there that you can connect to your phone, laptop, or both. I've got a Jabra Freespeak wireless headset, and it can connect to my phone and my mac. The sound quality is really good on phone calls and after you get used to tweaking it around your ear and jamming the piece into your ear canal, it's really comfy and you hardly feel it after a few minutes. On the mac, you can use it to iChat people using video or just live audio (using iChat as a phone), and it's ok, though the sound quality is kinda so-so.
I haven't tried out bluetooth mice or keyboards on my powerbook since I hear they don't wake sleeping macs (you can't just shake a bluetooth mouse to wake it up like you can with a usb mouse), and I hear the battery life is an issue (changing batteries once/month or recharging often).
I'm looking forward to the integration with cars. This has been problematic so far, but I think it's only because we're in the early stages of adoption. I can't wait until I have a car that is aware of my phone and can turn down my music when it rings, or transmit data (directions, car status, location, etc) to and from my phone.

Conclusion

It all started when a friend smuggled a phone from Finland into this country 2-3 years ago, and I saw his wireless headset that seemed too Star Trek to be real. Fast forward to today, and my own personal setup isn't just feeling Star Trek, it's actually useful.
So far the killer app is data over the connection. Whenever I'm out of my office and beyond the reach of free wifi, I'm on bluetooth. I hear that pricing for Bluetooth is still all over the map (which can bite you in the ass if you travel a lot) but my t-mobile plan has been a solid $20 in the months I've had it, and it even allowed for free data use when I was in Canada recently (on the rogers network I think). I'm still amazed you can speed across the land while downloading email at the same time, and the little gadgets like headsets are also quite useful. I know Bluetooth has been around for a while and no one ever thought it'd be ready for prime time, but that time is now, and the useful applications of this technology are plentiful and easy to use.
updates: A lot of people have sent in tips but here's one I didn't know about:
"One thing your article didn't mention is the how Mac's Address Book can work with Bluetooth. When you have Address book open you have the little BT button enabled, address book will have a popup with the name (if in the address book) and number of the person calling. This is great when you're at the computer but you're phone is across the room or in your pocket or whatnot. The popup will let you send the call to voicemail if you don't want to take the call." — Kirk

New feature

Some of my posts have been getting kind of long, so I figured I might as well move the wordier pieces over to the feature section (and I could finally rid the world of Anil’s mug). Pieces of the Future is a collection of thoughts I had tonight after watching Pieces of April for the first time. It was pretty good as a film, but I think it could be a milestone in filmmaking.

Adventures in being a bandwidthaholic

I’ve been sharing a remotely hosted server at Rackshack.net (which became EV1) with friends for over a year now and it’s run amazingly well. The account started with 700Gb of montly bandwidth and after the unfortunate SCO license flap, we got upped to 1 terabyte of monthly bandwidth, with seemingly no network speed cap. For the past year, the server’s pushed out a couple Gb of bandwidth a day, tops, from all the sites it hosts. Even when I put a bunch of music online last spring, it hardly made a dent.

This month I figured I’d see just how much a terabyte was. It started when I offered to host the Beatallica songs. After a day the bandwidth jumped to 10-15Gb and it was humming along nicely. Then it hit Pitchfork’s news page, and the bandwidth skyrocketed. The box was pushing out 20Mbit/sec and after a a couple days I had to tell the gang to de-link songs as my monthly bandwidth total reached 100Gb just a few days into April.

I was pretty impressed that the box held up ok (after Chris limited the site to 1 download per user) and was amazed at the traffic a site like Pitchfork could generate from a tiny news blurb. I thought to myself “wow, aside from slashdot I couldn’t imagine a blog ever generating this kind of traffic and demand for files.”

Then Cory linked my 66Mb file of a Jon Stewart interview over at BoingBoing, and it completely blew away the previous bandwidth numbers. In about 12 hours of the link being directed at the box, the network throughput jumped to almost 60Mbit/sec, and it pushed out 131Gb of data in half a day. The box served up all the other sites fine but as I watched my monthly bandwidth allottment reach 40% of the total before the first half of the month was even over, I took it offline and Andy put it up on his tracker, where it is being downloaded like crazy, but off-loaded to everyone’s personal connection sharing the load.

Here’s a cool graph of the network utilization on a weekly, 30-minute moving average (click to see the full image):

You can see the initial rise from a bunch of blogs linking to Beatallica, then the peak is the pitchfork hit, which subsided after song links were eliminated. Then a few days of relative calm and Boingboing is the huge peak, which only lasted half a day. I grabbed this right after I started redirecting folks to the torrent.

I’ve learned a few things from these large bandwidth experiments:

– Ridiculous amounts of bandwidth is out there for a cheap price (the server is only $100/month, shared among people using it). If you’re paying $30 a month and getting hit with bandwidth overage bills that go into the hundreds of dollars, find a friend that knows some linux server administration, get one of these leased boxes, and never worry about bandwidth again.

– A thousand gigabytes is a ton of bandwidth and it’s nice to have around when you want to share large files with friends or the general public. I host my ten years site there and don’t really care about the size of photos or the number of people pulling down the RSS feeds with large images embedded.

– That said, when you get hit with a huge amount of traffic, bandwidth is still going to be a problem. Most colocation hosts cap your line at 10Mbit/sec and I was surprised to see the box creeping up near 60Mbit/sec yesterday. It’s still a problem to host one giant file for a ton of people, even with an absurd amount of bandwidth available to you. Bittorrent is the savior here, Andy tells me even though he seeds all the files on his server (which means the original file’s still on his server being downloaded if no one else is sharing it), his bandwidth is a fraction of what it’d be if it was just a direct download. The best part is the more popular the file (like the boingboing traffic hit), the more people download it from each other instead of your server.

– Setting up your own bittorrent server still a pain in the butt. This needs to be as difficult as setting up apache on a windows desktop. I want to see a BT server exe I click, install, then seed files easily using a web or desktop front-end (yay! Andy sent this and this). Or make an apache module. Also, build BT support into Mozilla, right now. BT is a great technology that solves a fundamental problem we all face everyday, but we have to walk people through how to download the clients first. In some of the data I saw on the Lessig book downloads, only about 5% of users opted to use BT to download, the rest just got it off the server directly. We need more regular folks using BT, by having it built into browsers.