Dropbox

Dropbox is cloud storage on the next level: You install their little application – available for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows – which will create a folder which will automatically be kept synchronized between all the computers where you have installed that little application on.

Because it synchronizes in the background and always keeps the local copy around, the access-speed isn’t different from a normal local folder – mainly because it is, after all, a local folder you are accessing. Dropbox is not one of these slow “online hard drives” it’s more like rsync in the background (and rsync it is – the application is intelligent enough to only transmit deltas – even from binary files).

They do provide you with a web interface of course, but the synchronizing aspect is the most interesting.

The synchronized data ends up somewhere in Amazon’s S3 service, which is fine with me.

Unfortunately, while the data stored in an encrypted fashion on S3, the key is generated by the Dropbox server and thus known to them, which makes Dropbox completely unusable for sensitive unencrypted data. They do state in the FAQ that this will maybe change sometime in the future, but for not it is as it is.

Still, I found some use for Dropbox: ~/Library/Preferences, ~/.zshrc and ~/.ssh all are now stored in ~/Dropbox/System and symlinked back to their original place. This means that a large chunk of my user profile is availalbe on all the computers I’m working on. I would even try the same trick with ~/Library/Application Support, but that seems risky due to the missing encryption and due to the fact that Application Support sometimes contains database files which get corrupted for sure when moved around while they are open – like the Firefox profile.

This naturally even works when the internet connection is down – DropBox synchronizes changes locally, so when the internet (or Dropbox) is down, I just have the most recent copy of when the service was still working – that’s more than good enough.

Another use that comes to mind for Dropbox storage are game save files or addons you’d want to have access to on every computer you are using – just move your stuff to ~/Dropbox and symlink it back to the original place.

Very convenient.

Now if only they’d provide me with a way to provide my own encryption key. That way I would instantly buy the pro account with 25GB of storage and move lots and lots of data in there.

Dropbox is the answer to the ever increasing amount of computers in my life because now I don’t care about setting up the same stuff over and over again. It’s just there and ready. Very helpful.

Listen to your home music from the office

My MP3 collection is safely stored on shion, on a drobo mounted as /nas. Naturally, I want to listen to said music from the office – especially considering my fully routed VPN access between the office and my home infrastructure and the upstream which suffices for at least 10 concurrent 128bit streams (boy – technology has changed in the last few years – I remember the times where you couldn’t reliably stream 128 bit streams – let alone my 160/320 mp3s).

I’ve tried many things so far to make this happen:

  • serve the files with a tool like jinzora. This works, but I don’t really like jinzora’s web interface and I was never able to get it to work correctly on my Ubuntu box. I was able to trace it down to null bytes read from their tag parser, but the code is very convoluted and practically unreadable without putting quite some effort into that. Considering that I didn’t much like the interface in the first place, I didn’t want to invest time into that.
  • Use a SlimServer (now Squeezecenter) with a softsqueeze player. Even though I don’t use my squeezebox (an original model with the original slimdevices brand, not the newer Logitech one) any more because the integrated amplifier in the Sonos players works much better for my current setup. This solution worked quite ok, but the audio tends to stutter a bit at the beginning of tracks, indicating some buffering issues.
  • Use iTune’s integrated library sharing feature. This seemed both undoable and unpractical. Unpractical because it would force me to keep my main mac running all the time and undoable because iTunes sharing can’t pass subnet boundaries. Aside of that, it’s a wonderful solution as audio doesn’t stutter, I already know the interface and access is very quick and convenient.

But then I found out how to make the iTunes thing both very much doable and practical.

The network boundary problem can be solved using Network Beacon, a ZeroConf proxy. Start the application, create a new beacon. Chose any service name, use «_daap._tcp.» as service type, set the port number to 3689, enable the host proxy, keep the host name clear and enter the IP address of the system running iTunes (or firefly – see below).

Oh, and the target iTunes refuses to serve out data to machines in different subnets, so to be able to directly access a remote iTunes, you’d also have to set up an SSH tunnel.

Using Network Beacon, ZeroConf quickly begins working across any subnet boundaries.

The next problem was about the fact that I was forced to keep my main workstation running at home. I fixed that with Firefly Media Server for which even a pretty recent prebuilt package exists for Ubuntu (apt-get install mt-daapd).

I’ve installed that, configured iptables to drop packets for port 3689 on the external interface, configured Firefly to use the music share (which basically is a current backup of the itunes library of my main workstation – rsync for the win).

Firefly in this case even detects the existing iTunes playlists (as the music share is just a backup copy of my iTunes library – including the iTunes Library.xml), though smart playists don’t work, but can easily be recreated in the firefly web interface.

This means that I can access my complete home mp3 library from the office, stutter free, using an interface I’m well used to, without being forced to keep my main machine running all the time.

And it isn’t even that much of a hack and thus easy to rebuild should the need arise.

I’d love to not be forced to do the Network Beacon thing, but avahi doesn’t relay ZeroConf information across VPN interfaces.

VMWare Fusion Speed

This may be totally placebo, but I noticed that using Vista inside a VMWare Fusion VM has just turned from nearly unbearable slow to actually quite fast by updating from 2.0 Beta 2 to 2.0 Final.

It may very well be that the beta versions contained additional logging and/or debug code which was keeping the VM from reaching its fullest potential.

So if you are too lazy to upgrade and still running one of the Beta versions, you should consider updating. For me at least, it really brought a nice speed-up.

iTunes 8 visualization

Up until now I have not been a very big fan of iTunes’ visualization engine, probably because I’ve been spoiled with MilkDrop in my Winamp days (which still owns the old iTunes display on so many levels).

But with the release of iTunes 8 and their new visualization, I have to admit that, when you chose the right music (in this case it’s Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy 8), you can really get something out of this.

The still picture really doesn’t do it justice, so I have created this video (it may be a bit small, but you’ll see what I’m getting at)  to visualize my point. Unfortunately, near the end it gets worse and worse, but the beginning is something of the more impressive shows I have ever seen generated out of this particular piece of music.

This may even beat MilkDrop and I could actually see myself assembling a playlist of some sort and put this thing on full screen.

Nice eyecandy!

Apple TV – Second try

When Apple announced their AppleTV a couple of months (or was it years?) ago, I was very skeptical of the general idea behind the device. Think of it: What was the big success behind the iPod? That it could run proprietary AAC files people buy from the music store?

No. That thing didn’t even exist back then. The reason for the success was the total easy (and FAST – remember: Back in the days, we had 1.1 MB/s USB which every MP3 player used vs. 40MB/s Firewire of the iPod) handling and the fact that it was an MP3 player – playing the files everyone already had.

It was a device for playing the content that was available at the time.

The AppleTV in its first incarnation was a device capable of playing content that wasn’t exactly available. Sure it could play the two video podcasts that existed back then (maybe more, but you get the point). And you could buy TV shows and movies in subpar quality on your PC (Windows or Mac) and then transfer them to the device. But the content that was available back then was in a different format: XVID dominated the scene. x264 was a newcomer and MP4 (and mov) wasn’t exactly used.

So what you got was a device, but no content (and the compatible content you had was in subpar quality compared to the incompatible content that was available). And you needed a PC, so it wasn’t exactly a device I could hook to my parents PC for example.

All these things were fixed by Apple today:

  • There is a huge library of content available right here, right now (at least in the US): The new movie rental service. Granted. I think it’s not quite there yet price vs. usability-wise (I think $5 is a totally acceptable price for a movie with unlimited replayability), but at least we have the content.
  • It works without a PC. I can hook this thing up to my parents TV and they can immediately use it.
  • The quality is OK. Actually, it’s more than OK. There is HD content available (though maybe only 720p one, but frankly, on my expensive 1080p projector, I don’t see that much of a difference between 720p and 1080p)
  • It can still access the scarce content that was available before.

The fact that this provides very easy to use video-on-demand to a huge amount of people is what makes me think that this little device is even more of a disruptive technology than the iPod or the iPhone. Think of it: Countless of companies are trying to make people pay for content these days. It’s the telcos, it’s cable companies and it’s device manufacturers. But what do we get? Crappy, constantly crashing devices, which are way too complicated for a non-geek and way too limited in functionality for a geek.

Now we got something that’s perfect for the non-geek. It has the content. It has the ease-of-use. Plug it in, watch your movie. Done. This is what a whole industry tried to do and failed so miserably.

I for my part will still prefer the flexibility given by my custom Windows Media Center solution. I will still prefer the openness provided by illegal copies of movies. I totally refuse to pay multiple times for something just because someone says that I have to. But that’s me.

And even I may sooner or later prefer the comfort of select-now-watch-now to the current procedure (log into private tracker, download torrent, wait for download to finish, watch – torrents are not streamable, even if the bandwith would easily suffice in my case – the packets arrive out of order), so even for me, the AppleTV could be interesting.

This was yet another perfect move by Apple. Ignore the analysts out there who expected more out of this latest keynote. Ignore the bad reception of the keynote by the marked (I hear that Apple stock just dropped a little bit). Ignore all that and listen to yourself: This wonderful device will certainly revolutionize the way we consume video content.

I’m writing this as a constant sceptic – as a person always trying to see a flaw in a certain device. But I’m sure that this time around, they really got it. Nice work!

The new iPods

<p>So we have new iPods.</p> <p>Richard sent me an email asking which model he should buy which made me begin thinking whether to upgrade myself. Especially the new touch screen model seemed compelling to me – at first.</p> <p>Still: I was unable to answer that email with a real recommendation (though honestly, I don’t think it was as much about getting a recommendation than about to letting me know that the models were released and to hear my comments about them) and still I don’t really know what to think.</p> <p>First off: This is a matter of taste, but I hate the new nano design: The screen still is too small to be useful for real video consumption, but it made the device very wide – too wide, I think, to be able to comfortably keep it in my trousers pockets while biking (I may be wrong though).</p> <p>Also, I don’t like the rounded corners very much and the new interface… really… why shrink the menu to half a screen and clutter the rest with some meaningless cover art which only the smallest minority of my files are tagged with.</p> <p>Coverflow feels tucked onto the great old interface and looses a lot of its coolness without the touch screen.</p> <p>They don’t provide any advantage in flash size compared to the older nano models and I think the scroll wheel is way too small compared to the large middle button.</p> <p>All in all, I would never ever upgrade my second generation nano to one of the third generation as they provide no advantage, look (much) worse (IMHO) and seem to have a usability problem (too small a scroll wheel)</p> <p>The iPod classic isn’t interesting for me: Old style hard drives are heavy and fragile and ever since I bought that 4GB nano a long while ago, I noticed that there is no real reason behind having all the music on the device.</p> <p>I’m using my nano way more often than I ever used my old iPod: The nano is lighter and I began listening to podcasts. Still: While I lost HD-based iPods around every year and a half due to faulty hard drives or hard drive connectors, my nano still works as well as it did on the first day.</p> <p>Additionally, the iPod classic shares the strange half-full-screen menu and it’s only available in black or white. Nope. Not interesting. At least for me.</p> <p>The iPod touch is interesting because it has a really interesting user interface. But even there I have my doubts: For one, it’s basically an iPhone without the phone. Will I buy an iPhone when (if) it becomes available in Switzerland? If yes, there’s no need to buy the iPod Touch. If no, there still remains that awful usability problem of touch-screen only devices:</p> <p>You can’t use them without taking them out of your pocket.</p> <p>On my nano, I can play and pause the music (or more often podcast) and I can adjust the volume and I can always see what’s on the screen.</p> <p>On the touch interface, I have to put the screen to standby mode, I can’t do anything without looking at the device and I think it may be a bit bulky all in all.</p> <p>The touch is the perfect bathtub surfing device. It’s the perfect device to surf the web right before or after going to sleep. But it’s not portable.</p> <p>Sure. I can take it with me, but it fails in all the aspects of portability. It’s bulky, it can’t be used without taking it out of your pocket and stopping whatever you are doing, it requires two hands to use (so no changing tracks on the bike any more) and it’s totally useless until you manually turn the display back on and unlock it (which also requires two hands to do).</p> <p>So: Which device should Richard buy? I still don’t know. What I know is that I will not be replacing my second generation Nano as long as it keeps working.</p> <p>The Nano looks awesome, works like a charm and is totally portable. Sure. It can’t play video, but next to none of my videos actually fits the requirement of the video functionality anyways and I don’t see myself recoding already compressed content. That just takes an awful lot of time, greatly degrades the quality and generally is not at all worth the effort.</p>

Altering the terminal title bar in Mac OS X

After one year of owning a MacBook Pro, I finally got around to fix my precmd() ZSH-hack to really make the current directory and stuff appear in the title bar of Terminal.app and iTerm.app.

This is the code to add to your .zshrc:

case $TERM in
    *xterm*|ansi)
		function settab { print -Pn "e]1;%n@%m: %~a" }
		function settitle { print -Pn "e]2;%n@%m: %~a" }
		function chpwd { settab;settitle }
		settab;settitle
        ;;
esac

settab sets the tab contents in iTerm and settitle does the same thing for the title bar both in Terminal.app and iTerm.

The sample also shows the variables ZSH replaces in the strings (the parameter -P to print lets ZSH do prompt expansion. See zshmisc(1) for a list of all variables): %n is the currently logged on user, %m the hostname up until the first dot and %~ is displaying the current directory or ~ if you are in $HOME. You can certainly add any other environment variable of your choice if you need more options, but this more or less does it for me.

Usually, the guides in the internet make you use precmd to set the title bar, but somehow, Terminal wasn’t pleased with that method and constantly kept overwriting the title with the default string.

And this is how it looks in both iTerm (above) and Terminal (below):