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“I’m not dead yet!”

Something a friend of mine said to me sums it up best: “For an unemployed person, you’ve been awfully busy as of late.” Hence the lack of updates here. My apologies. Since returning from SCALE, my time has been occupied with all manner of things, some of them even money-generating. (So I’m really hopeful that my unemployed status will soon change.)

Unfortunately, I ended up leaving SCALE with a little unexpected surprise. Like most of the conference-going public, I walked away from it with one of the nastiest, most horrible, virulent plagues on the face of this Earth. Had me out for almost 2 weeks. Considering the sheer number of people attending these types of events, it’s almost inevitable that, in spite of my best efforts to avoid it, I still manage to catch something or other whenever I attend a tech event.

The good news is that I’ve been working up some reviews and other blog fodder that I hope to have posted shortly, including a review and my thoughts on my new all-time favorite gadget, the Amazon Kindle 2. I think this will turn out to be a real game-changer for both Amazon and the publishing industry, and may indeed herald the true coming of age of e-books.

Anyway, my thoughts on that, as well as other topics, are soon to come. Watch this space!

SCALE 7x Keynote 2: “Reaching the masses: 10 ways to improve the reach of your FOSS Project” by Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier

Watch on Ustream site (if the above embedded player doesn’t work for you)

Abstract: This talk will cover how to develop a community marketing plan for an open source project. This includes surveying the audience(s) for the project, developing a plan to bring in new users and contributors, and how to measure success. This is aimed at commercial and non-commercial projects alike. Attendees will learn how to do basic PR and marketing with a minimal, or no, budget.

Speaker Bio: Joe ‘Zonker’ Brockmeier is a longtime FOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News, Linux.com, UnixReview.com, IBM developerWorks, and many others.

Qik streaming from SCALE 7x

Tomorrow is the second (and final) day of the SCALE 7x conference, and, come hell or high water, I’m actually gonna try and get out of the control booth long enough to actually attend some events! If I can actually do this, I’ll try and stream as much as I can using Qik. Bear in mind that I’ll be doing this from my BlackBerry (it’s very hard to carry around a full camera + laptop + EVDO card streaming setup) so: (a) the quality won’t be the greatest, (b) it probably won’t be the world’s steadiest footage, (c) it may cut off suddenly if I get a phone call or whatever, or (d) it may suddenly crash (the Qik BlackBerry client is still beta). Anyway, if you’re savvy to all that, then feel free to keep an eye on my Qik stream or use the handy embedded Qik player below.

SCALE 7x Keynote 1: “When Software Is a Service, Is Only the Network Luddite Free?” presented by Bradley M. Kuhn

View the video directly on Ustream.tv (if the above embed code doesn’t work)

So-called Application Service Providers, who provide “Software as a Service (SaaS)”, are now the rule rather than the exception in the software industry. The freedom implications of ubiquitous, high-bandwidth networking and AJAX-based application delivery are not yet fully understood nor adequately addressed by the Software Freedom Movement, such that even those of us who have been paying attention during SaaS’ rise remain befuddled by the freedom implications of the new environment.

Our movement must develop a multi-front response to this proprietary threat that will make the 1980s and 1990s battle against proprietary operating system vendors look easy.

The challenge is specifically centered around two complex issues: (a) traditional user-freedom-protecting licenses (i.e., the copyleft) fail to protect the freedoms of SaaS users, and (b) even if users have the source code to the application they are using, they cannot run it themselves and generate the same network-effect available in the canonical instance.

In this talk, Kuhn will frame and introduce the key questions introduced by these new issues. He will discuss the Affero GPL, which is one of few FLOSS licenses that address this concern from the software licensing perspective, and explain how our traditional solutions cannot succeed as easily in this new context.

Speaker Bio: Bradley M. Kuhn, president of the Software Freedom Conservancy and FLOSS Community Liaison and Policy Analyst for the Software Freedom Law Center, is on the forefront of answering both these issues. Kuhn will discuss how the movement must prepare and plan in new ways to meet these challenges with the same spirit that made this community-oriented and democratic movement possible.

SCALE (Southern California Linux Expo) is THIS Weekend!

scale7x-banner-1_1.gifAre you a Linux geek? Are you even mildly curious about Linux and/or Open Source software in general? Do you live in the Southern California area? And are you free this weekend? (February 20-22) If so, then you might want to check out the Southern California Linux Expo (aka SCALE) conference out.

Now in its seventh year, SCALE is bringing back many of its hallmark features, while adding even more to the mix. A wide range of conference tracks will be presented, suitable for both novice and pro alike. This year they are boasting expanded coverage for those new to Linux and Open Source software. “Conferences-within-a-conference” for specialty fields, including Women in Open Source, DOHCS (Demonstrating Open-source HealthCare Solutions) and OSSIE (Open Source Software In Education), will be returning again this year. And SCALE University, sponsored by LOPSA, will provide four half-day classes for system administrators of all skill and experience levels. Finally, the exhibit hall will be even bigger this year, featuring companies both big and small showcasing their Linux and Open Source software-based products and services. New this year is the dotORG pavilion, an area showcasing smaller open source projects and groups. Finally, Birds of a Feather sessions provide an informal and relaxing venue for people sharing common interests to get together and shoot the breeze.

I have had the privilege of attending all 6 prior SCALE conferences, and it has been a rare pleasure to watch this conference grow and mature. Even though it has grown tremendously over the years, SCALE still retains the small, friendly feeling it had from the beginning. I highly recommend you check out this fine show.

More information, including schedules, speaker bios, and online registration can be found at the SCALE website. You can also check out their flyer (494 KB PDF), as well as listen to an audio greeting (956 KB MP3).

Hope to see you there!

Greetings Twitter followers!

If you are reading this, you probably followed a link from one of my tweets on Twitter. Welcome!

Review: Amod AGL3080 GPS Data Logger

amod.jpg

Geotagging – the technique of adding GPS location data to your digital photos – has been around for quite a few years now, but due to various factors hasn’t hit the mainstream.

For one thing, until very recently, GPS units have been relatively expensive and not readily available. However, within the past few years GPS’s have simply exploded on the marketplace, and at quite attractive price points. You can now get decent GPS receivers for well under $100. One such unit, specifically designed for geotagging, is the Amod AGL3080, which I will be reviewing today.

Also, the software necessary to take that GPS data, correlate it to your photos, and (most importantly) share and organize your photos based on their location, has not been commonly available. This has all changed with the recent releases of Google Picasa (available for both Windows and Mac) and iPhoto ‘09, part of iLife ‘09 (available for Mac only). Both programs now support integrated geotagging support, but iPhoto’s implementation is (IMHO) by far the slickest, with a new “Places” view that easily lets you view all of your photos by location, either showing them on a map of the world, or letting you drill down (in iTunes Browser view style) by continent, country, city, and locale.

I should note at this point that we are in fact starting to see the logical next step to this technology: cameras with built-in GPS functionality. Currently, there are two cameras on the market with built-in GPS: the Nikon Coolpix P6000 (about $380) and the GE E1050TW (about $160). Also, if you have a high-end Nikon or Fuji DSLR, you can add a GPS unit that sits on the camera’s “hot shoe” and plugs into its data port; two examples include the Wolverine GEO-35 and the Geometr Gps Receiver (both about $150 each). Also, several camera phones, including the iPhone, various Blackberrys, and some of the Motorola handsets can geotag photos taken with them, although you will usually have to enable this feature explicitly (look in the options screen of your unit’s camera application), although your mileage may vary with these devices. I have a Blackberry Curve and have never been able to get the geotag feature to work; even if I am standing out in the middle of nowhere, with a clear view of the sky, I haven’t been able to get any of my photos geotagged. However, my previous phone, a Motorola RAZR model VE20, perfectly geotagged my photos, including many that were taken indoors, where GPS reception is usually spotty to nonexistent.

Anyway, back to the Amod GPS unit. It’s very small and light – about the size and weight of a typical pocket pager — and can be stuffed into almost any camera bag with ease. It also comes with a carabiner-like strap that lets you hang it from, say, your camera bag or camera’s strap; however, I found that if I used this method, the GPS unit would swing around wildly while I was walking or running, and would get in the way. I opted instead to stuff the GPS unit in one of the outer pockets of my LowePro Slingshot camera bag.

The unit is powered by 3 AAA batteries, and has an advertised operating time of 15 hours max per set of batteries. This is a great battery life for this class of unit, and I’ve found that it’s generally pretty accurate; as long as you use fresh, high-quality, name-brand alkaline batteries, you will get the advertised battery life.

This long battery life is important, because the way this unit works is that you switch it on when you go out to shoot photos, and you leave it on until you are done shooting photos for the day. I’ve found that it’s best to leave the unit on even if you stop taking photos in the middle of the day, say to have lunch or do some shopping or whatnot. Even so, 15 hours of battery life is more than enough time for even the longest photowalks, even if you take multiple breaks during your picture-taking excursion.

Be sure to check your camera’s clock before heading out on your picture-taking expedition! Geotagging works by matching up the timestamp present in the GPS signal with the timestamp that your camera writes every time you take a picture; in order for your geotagging software to properly match up a photo with the location it was taken at, your camera’s clock must be accurate.

The unit is extremely simple to operate, with only two buttons and three status lights. The power button, located on the left side of the unit, turns it on or off. You have to hold it down for 2-3 seconds in order to power on or off, which makes it impossible to accidentally turn the unit on or off if it’s, say, rattling around inside your backpack or purse.

Once the unit powers on, the three status lights will briefly illuminate (to let you know that they are working properly), and will all go out except for the green GPS Status light. This light stays solid green until the unit acquires a GPS satellite fix; once it acquires a position fix, the GPS light blinks green to let you know that the unit is actively tracking and storing your location. If for some reason you lose sight of the GPS satellites (for example, you walk inside a building or drive through a tunnel or subterranean parking garage), the GPS light will turn on solid green to let you know of this condition.

The other two lights consist of a memory access light, which flashes while the unit is accessing its built-in memory (this will happen periodically as it writes out your GPS track log), and a battery light, which normally stays off, and turns on only when your battery is low.

I mentioned earlier that there are two buttons on this unit. One is for power; the other is a “mark location” button. By its name, you might think that you would have to press this button when you want to mark a particular location (say, when you are taking a photo). But the unit is always tracking your location while it’s turned on, so I’m not entirely sure why you would need a button to specifically mark a location.

When you first turn the unit on, it will require about 2-3 minutes to acquire a satellite fix. This occurs every time you switch the unit off, then switch it back on; which is why I recommended earlier that you leave the unit on all day. It is best to be outdoors while acquiring this initial fix; you don’t need to be standing still, however. For example I was able to acquire an initial fix while riding in a moving car at freeway speeds.

GPS signals are only guaranteed to be reliably received while outdoors under clear, unobstructed skies. Everything I’ve read says that you are not guaranteed to receive signals in dense cityscapes or in foliage (trees, forests, etc.), and you definitely won’t receive signals while indoors. However, in my testing, I was surprised in that I was able to get some signals while indoors. My condo is on the first floor of a 2-story complex, and the unit directly above us is indentical in layout to ours; I found that the unit can maintain a GPS fix (but NOT acquire the initial fix) while in my living room, but can neither acquire nor maintain a fix in my office, which is just one room away from the living room. Also, surprisingly, I was able to maintain a GPS fix while in the basement level of a local department store, as well as a parking structure. So your mileage may vary. This surprising behavior is perhaps due to the fact that this unit uses the reportedly highly-sensitive SiRFstar III GPS receiver chip.

The unit has 128 MB of built-in memory which is used to save the GPS log files. This may seem like not a lot of memory, but GPS log files are actually pretty small in size. In a recent test, I went out on a 6-hour trip driving around the county. I had the GPS on all throughout this trip, and the file it generated was only 6 MB in size.

Once you get back home and are ready to geotag your photos, simply plug the Amod GPS unit into your computer. It has a standard “mini B” type USB plug on it, hidden behind a little plastic access panel. This access panel does feel a bit flimsy but probably won’t come off under normal use. The GPS unit’s internal 128 MB of memory then mounts as a drive letter or drive icon, just like any other USB thumb drive. This means that the device can be used under any operating system — Windows, Mac, Linux, anything — with no special drivers required. Once mounted, the GPS track log files appear as standard text files, which can be copied, read, and manipulated easily.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, merging the GPS track data with the photos that you took — and it is here that this device displays its sole weakness. Like most other consumer devices, the software that comes with the Amod GPS unit is… serviceable. Just that. It comes with JetPhoto for both Windows and Macintosh, which is an “okay” photo editor and organizing program. It supports the GPS log files created by the Amod GPS, so it can properly geotag your photos. JetPhoto includes basic facilities for storing, organizing and sharing your photos by print or web. This is good enough for casual users; however, enthusiasts and professionals will most likely wish to use some other photo organizing system, such as iPhoto, Aperture, Picasa, or Adobe Lightroom. In particular, JetPhoto only supports JPEG files, leaving you RAW shooters out in the cold. I do commend Amod for including Mac software with their package; however, considering that iPhoto, an excellent photo software, already comes with Macs, this seems a bit redundant. This is especially so with the new iPhoto ‘09, which (as mentioned earlier) includes excellent support for geotagging.

However, iPhoto ‘09 does not support reading GPS data from external units such as the Amod; for that, I recommend the excellent $30 HoudahGeo package. Below you will find a screencast where I demonstrate how I use iPhoto ‘09, HoudahGeo, and the Amod GPS, and how they all work together. You should also check out the screencasts found on the HoudahGeo website. These screencasts, produced by Don McAlister of ScreenCasts Online, show more of HoudahGeo’s features, including how to use it to create cool “flying tours” of your photos using Google Earth.

Download the higher-quality H.264 version

One oddity with the unit is that the manual (which comes as a PDF on the included CD-ROM) describes a procedure to erase the contents of the GPS’s built-in memory; I was never able to get this procedure to work. Instead, I just moved the GPS track files to the Trash and emptied the trash once I was done with them. (About that CD, it is one of those small 9-centimeter disks; these disks do NOT read at all in any slot-load CD drive, and any attempt to use these disks in slot-load drives will damage the drive! However they do work with tray-load drives. Most PC desktops and laptops still use tray-load drives; however, of the currently-available Macs, only the Mac Pro (their high-end desktop) still uses tray-load drives; the consumer-level iMac and Mac mini, as well as ALL of the Apple laptops, both consumer and professional, use slot-load drives.)

I am extremely impressed with the Amod GPS. It offers enough features and performance for even the most demanding professional (when paired with the appropriate image cataloging and geotagging software), yet at a price that even a hobbyist can easily afford. It’s the perfect device to get if you’d like to get started in the exciting world of geotagging.

Bottom line: A reasonably priced, no-frills geotagger suitable for both novice and pro photographers alike. Pros: Small and lightweight; inexpensive; works well in all visibility conditions, including sometimes indoors; writes standard log file format; long battery life. Cons: Weak bundled software for Mac users; documented “erase memory” procedure does not appear to work (though easily worked around).

Rating: ★★★★½

Purchase the Amod AGL3080 from Amazon.com now!

Hello world!

Greetings, and welcome to my new tech blog. This will be a place where I spout off on various topics relating to technology and the tech industry. Sometimes it will be a review of a new product that I like (or don’t like). Or perhaps I’ll describe a neat tech trick or hack that I recently discovered. Maybe I’ll read or hear about something that draws my ire, and I’ll get up on my digital soapbox and rant about it. Or maybe I’ll just talk about something random that happens to strike my fancy at the time. In any case, it will be something related to technology or computers, and will (hopefully) be entertaining to you.

A note on product reviews: I don’t accept handouts from companies. (Not that anybody has offered me any… but even if they did, I wouldn’t accept them.) Every product or service that I will review here is one that I decided to purchase with my own hard-earned money, and my reviews will not be influenced in any way. I’m all about editorial integrity here.

If you’d like to follow me in even the non-tech aspects of my life, you can do so by following me on Twitter, or reading my personal blog.

Thanks again for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy your stay!