Google Themes Waste Pixels?

I use the custom Google homepage. It isn't the greatest thing ever, but it works well for me as a homepage with weather, RSS feeds, stock quotes, Gmail subjects, and of course, search.

I like the minimal style of Google, but when they added themes, I gave them a try. I'm using the cityscape theme, and I'm liking it.

We got in a discussion at work about how these themes waste your screen real estate. Some use more space than others. For me, I don't mind giving up the 56 pixels.


Add Features to Apple TV Using Automator

One of the things I really wish the Apple TV had was widgets. I'd find them far more useful on my TV than I do on my computer. Specifically, widgets that would show me the weather and TV schedules. So what do you do? Shove that content in any way possible!

The Apple TV can show images and things like weather and tv schedules are pretty easy to find on the web as images, or at least data that you can use to generate your own images. I was lucky enough to find a local TV station that hosts plain ol' jpegs of the weather at a fixed location. You get these by clicking on them in the website, perfect.

Through some trial and error in Automator, I came up with this set of actions.

  1. Get Specified URLs - The ones that show the weather

  2. Download URLS - Pull the content locally

  3. Rename Finder Items - I tack on the date and time, mostly for initial testing, but eventually I'll set this up to run on a regular basis and I don't want to mess with the dupe import dialog in iPhoto

  4. Import Photos into iPhoto - I made a Weather album that I'm importing into. I then set the Apple TV to sync the weather album and I'm all set.

This is pretty rough still. I haven't figured out a good way to clean out the old weather images and I haven't yet set a cron to make sure I have current data on the Apple TV. The final hurdle is figuring out how often the Apple TV autosyncs, or perhaps a way to force the sync programatically.

I already mentioned TV listings, but I'm sure you can think of all sorts of content you could sync, such as contact data, RSS feeds, Netflix queues, email headers, and on and on.


Apple TV is Worth It

2 cables and 2 minutes. That's all it took to get the Apple TV up and running. I connected power and the HDMI to my TV. I chose English, chose my wireless network, entered my password, and then entered the generated passcode into my Mac mini downstairs. That's all. I was live and living.

You probably don't like to read my paragraphs, so let me tell you why I'm loving the Apple TV in list form.

  • Easy setup - I just covered that

  • Tiny size

  • Album art looks amazing. The "drifting" art screen saver is great. I could sit and watch it for hours.

  • Menus are snappy and handsome - I don't know why people are saying the interface looks like crap. It's simple and sleek. What do you want it to be?

  • Streaming is working great. The smallish hard drive doesn't seem to be a problem when the streaming works so well. For reference, both my iTunes library and the Apple TV are wireless.

  • Syncing setup is simple, although slow on that first sync ;)

  • It syncs your playcounts like an iPod! This might be my favorite feature so far. I know, I'm weird. If you think about this, it makes sense since it will sync only your unwatched shows by default, but since other playback of "shared" content doesn't update the playcounts (like playback from another computer over the network), I wasn't expecting this. I still need to see if streamed content updates. I know sync'd content does.

  • Movie trailers start-up almost instantly. You could always do this in iTunes, but it was such a pain in the ass. Now you can be sitting in the family room with friends and decide what movie to go see as a group, right on the TV...without going and hooking up any other gear.

  • Video podcasts - You'll hear folks saying the Apple TV doesn't do anything more than a video iPod with the video output cable. I agree, as long as you forget the fact that you have to leave a cable hanging from your TV for your iPod....and your iPod has to be charged...and your iPod has to be with you...and you don't mind running to the iPod every 3 minutes to start a new podcast...and you don't want to pause...and...and....hmmm, I'm writing paragraphs again :)

  • Photos - I've sync'd photos to my ReplayTV before. It was great once they were there. Getting them there was terrible. Now I tick a box for the album I want and I'm done.

At this point, I'm definitely recommending this.

Apple TV and Mac Mini - Not the Same Size

Here's my contribution to the Apple TV mania. Lots of people are under the impression that the Apple TV is the same form factor as the Mac mini. While they are the same shape and colors, they are different in size (7.7" vs. 6.5"). Take a look at the pictures and decide for yourself whether they are meant to be stacked together or not.

I do like that the lights are in the same general spot so that they would look good if you stacked them.

When wondering why the mini is smaller, do remember that it has a big external power supply. I wouldn't mind seing Apple update the Mac mini to integrate the power supply and use the same footprint as the Apple TV.


Apple TV vs. Media Center Extender

Everywhere you look that has comments about the Apple TV are comments about how stupid you'd be to buy an Apple TV and how smart you'd be to buy a Media Center Extender, specifically an Xbox 360. Here are 5 reasons why I chose the Apple TV over an Xbox 360.

  1. Availability - No, I don't mean the fact that the Apple TV is finally shipping. I mean that you can use an Apple TV with any computer that can run iTunes. That's a lot of computers. That covers about any Windows or OS X computer built in the last 3 or more years. On the other hand, to use an MCE, you need Media Center (MC). According to Microsoft, you can't install MC. You have to know you want it, and buy it up front, assuming the computer you want even has the option.

    I have a really powerful Windows XP-based computer. Can I upgrade it to be a Windows Media Center-based PC?
    Unfortunately, no. While a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is also a powerful Windows XP-based computer, Microsoft does not retail Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 as an upgrade. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is only available pre-installed by PC manufacturers or qualified computer system builders.

  2. Size - This matters to me. You might have a huge entertainment center, and I do to, but not with the TV that I want to run the Apple TV with. To me, the Apple TV is perfect for its small size and integrated power supply. The Xbox 360, while more capable, is gigantic. It has an external power supply that is nearly as big as the Apple TV itself. I don't want another power brick to hide. The cord is bad enough. Ignoring that power supply, the Xbox 360 is still nearly 4 times the size of the Apple TV.

  3. Power consumption - Apple TV has a 48 watt supply. The Xbox 360 has a 160 watt supply. Save money and the environment :) with an Apple TV!

  4. Cost - Apple TV is $299 and plenty of folks say that's far too much. Xbox 360 with a hard drive is $399. The Xbox can do a lot more than the Apple TV, but we aren't really discussing that here. We're discussing the video playback functionality. If you want to use that Xbox wirelessly, add on $89 for the adapter. Another $20 for a remote. If you aren't going to buy games for the Xbox then it doesn't look like that great of a choice for Media Center Extender.

  5. Store Tie-ins - I like the walled garden of iTunes. I don't want to trade money for points that I can trade for content. Folks are quick to point out that the Xbox can play Divx, xvid, exlax, exwife, and xterra. That doesn't matter to me. I don't download shows over bittorrent (yet?), so being able to play the latest ripper codecs aren't a selling point for me. The iTunes garden does have a big swinging gate. If you can get content in to iTunes, it sounds like the Apple TV will play it. I plan to use that gate to get my purchased DVDs into iTunes.

5 of the Now

  • Lyrics Born - I Changed My Mind (Stereo MCs Rattlesnake Mix) Lyrics Born - Same !@#$ Different Day - I Changed My Mind (Stereo MCs Rattlesnake Mix)
    I've always been a huge Stereo MCs fan. I was lucky enough to find this on vinyl. You can get it digital though. Funk it up boys!

  • Funkdoobiest - Bow Wow Wow Funkdoobiest - Which Doobie U B? - Bow Wow Wow
    Bringing this one out of my archive. I haven't listened to this album in forever. This is from my Cypress HIll days when I just had to have anything produced by DJ Muggs.

  • Citizen Cope - Let the Drummer Kick Citizen Cope - Citizen Cope - Let the Drummer Kick
    This should be called Let the Drummer Kick Back. Mellow, soulful stuff.

  • Booka Shade - Night Falls Booka Shade - Movements - Night Falls
    You barely get the fell for this in a 30 second sample. It builds and builds and makes you glow from the inside. I'm in a dilema on Booka's albums. I love them enough that I want to buy them, but Amazon wants $18 for them! Based on my rules of purchase this almost fits in the import prices, but I really want the real album, even though they are available for $10 on iTunes. Luckily I have plenty of Booka stuff in DJ mixes to listen to while I decide if I want to pay Sam Goody like prices on Amazon.

  • Dilated Peoples - Live on Stage Dilated Peoples - Expansion Team - Live on Stage
    Thanks to Jason for bringing some focus to these guys for me. There's always the groups that you are peripherally aware of, but it takes someone saying "listen to this" to make it sink in sometimes. That's one of the points of the 5otn right? It's me saying "listen to this" :)


Blur, It's Cold in Here

I haven't played video games at home for years. My Playstation 2 sits in a closet doing nothing. I have a game or two that I never even played. I've really never been a gamer, but I have enjoyed video games since the days of Atari.

I had myself convinced there was no way I'd buy any of the latest gen of consoles. They cost too much. The cames cost too much. I had no time. But, then there's the Wii. It costs less. The whole thing is geared towards fun. Best of all, it gets you up off the couch. Still, I wasn't buying.

More and more, the Wii is trying to creep into my life. I hear about people having a ball playing it. I see video podcasts of people playing and it looks awesome. Still, I wasn't buying.

Then I read that one of my favorite franchises is coming to the Wii. SSX Blur is coming and it's bringing new free-form controls that sound like they'd be fun for controlling snowboarders. Then I see that Junkie XL is doing the soundtrack Junkie XL - Music from SSX Blur and giving it a listen at iTunes, it sounds perfect for the game. Upbeat, fun tracks.

I'm real close to buying one. We'll see.


Hybrid iPods

I'm by no means the first to think of this idea, but the more and more I read about the hybrid hard drives, the more I think, hmm, could those work in an iPod? The idea is, you put the songs you think will be played in the flash and then you don't have to spin the hard drive. More on that in a sec.

For starters, this wouldn't work because the drives are physically too big. Right now, the drives I've read about only come in the 2.5 inch size, not the 1.8 size that the full size iPods use. It's only a matter of time before they get made in that size though, right?

Next, I wondered if the flash cache was big enough. Currently, they come with 512, or at most a gig. Is a gig enough? Ideally, you'd avoid the drive as much as you could and only play from the flash. If we assume a meg a minute, which is about right for 128 AACs or 192 MP3s, you'd get 1000 minutes or 16 and half hours of playback. That's more than a full run of the iPod's battery. This is starting to sound pretty good. If you could predictively populate the flash at sync time, when you have plenty of time and plenty of power, you skip the spinning drive and extend the battery life.

You'd get all of the benefits of a full iPod with the battery life of a nano. That would be cool.

So how would you fill the cache flash with the stuff you'd want, rather than the other 59 gigs of stuff you are carrying?
Well, iTunes could attempt some predictive algorithms to fill the flash, or perhaps they go the low tech route and just ask us. Just like the checkbox to "Play higher rated songs more often" in Party Shuffle, you could tick a box for flash-syncing the higher rated songs if you listen to those more often. Or, maybe you can designate a few playlists as flash-syncable because you know you listen to those the most. Combine that with smart playlists and you'd smart sync the right stuff a good portion of the time. I know I spend most of my time listening to a Not heard recently smart playlist that picks up any newly added content (including podcasts) along with the stuff I haven't listened to in months. This lets me get a nice mix of my new stuff while still keeping my whole library in rotation.

I wanted to see if you could do some predictive syncing and I also wanted to see how much music I listened to between syncs to see if this would work. I looked at my last 16 days of listening, which translates into 4-6 sessions. I'm defining a session as 3-4 days of playback. That's about how long a charge will last me and I need to do this because the last played times aren't the last synced times...unless you're using a shuffle which does set the last played at the time of sync.

I average about 3.5 hours of listening a day. Roll that up into a session and you have 10.5-14 hours which is less than the 16 hour figure from earlier. Still, that assumes a lot of positive hits coming out of the cache. Perhaps a 2 gig flash cache would work out better.

One last idea for those that like to shuffle. The set of tracks for the shuffle could be determined at sync time and populated in the flash. It would still be random, it just wouldn't be chosen at random at the time you were listening.


Some of My Recent Documents

The recently used documents feature is a good thing. I like having it in apps. I also like having it available system wide. Unfortunately, it always seems like the file I used recently doesn't show up on my recently used documents. I got tired of wondering why some files didn't show up in the list and did some quick checking. Here's a list of what will and won't show up under XP's Recent Documents.

Bluetooth File Transfer OutNo
Bluetooth File Transfer InNo
Copy/Paste from Network ComputerNo
File save from FirefoxYes
File save from Internet ExplorerYes
Attachment save out of an Outlook emailNo
Copy from flash card to C: driveNo
Copy/Paste from Network ComputerNo
Rename a fileNo
Open a text file in LemmyNo
Open a text file in NotepadYes

Now certainly a random app's inability to add to the Recent Documents list isn't Microsoft's fault. They document the API to use.

The part that bothers me is that the rest of these tasks don't result in the file on the recent documents list either. I can't tell you how many times I've copied a file or saved an attachment and then went CRAP, where did I just put that. Why can't these show up on the list?

While we're at it, why can't recently changed files show up differently in the File Explorer for a configurable period of time. Download a file, open the folder, and then spend 30 seconds scanning the files trying to remember the name of the thing you just downloaded. Maybe I'll have to write my own Bluetooth file transfer client so I can populate that list myself.

If anyone reading is running Vista and can check to see if any of these behaviors work differently, I'd appreciate it.


iTunes and Content Production

iTunes has always been about the music. Well, it was until the podcasts, and then the TV shows, and then the movies. Ohh, and the audiobooks have been there too, and you can get digital booklets with albums....iTunes has always been about the content. We've got that established, but iTunes has mostly been about selling other peoples content.

Plenty of folks are calling for iTunes to be the savior of independent content everywhere. Skip the label and publish directly on iTunes. We've seen a little of that with services like CD Baby and we're starting to see things happen with video too. These things are great, and I hope they continue, but I want to connect the dots a little differently. It almost seems like things are shaping up for Apple themselves to be the content producers.

I pull together 3 nuggets of info to suggest that Apple might want to dive deeper into the content production business.

For starters, they've settled with Apple Records and can now produce music if they really wanted to.

Second, Apple appears to be having some success in their partnership with Nike selling exercise influenced mixes. I own two of them (Crystal Method The Crystal Method - Drive: Nike+ Original Run - Drive: Nike+ Original Run and Aesop Rock Aesop Rock - All Day: Nike+ Original Run - All Day: Nike+ Original Run (Continuous Mix)) and I love them. As of this writing, there are 15 such mixes available for purchase. I don't know who is actually financing these productions, but Apple is pushing them and they are iTunes exclusive.

Finally, we have the impending release of the Apple TV. Mine is on order and I expect to spend about $60 on content as soon as it arrives. I'll be more than happy to spend the money as I've cancelled my cable and I'm saving $60 a month already. Apple will want more reasons for people to buy Apple TVs. One of those reasons could be exclusive content. Just like HBO got a nice boost from The Sopranos and how Howard Stern sold buckets of Sirus subscriptions, Apple could snag customers with some exclusive content of their own and they could pay the production costs to make that happen.

Apple has historically had a creative base. How cool would it be for them to start employing some of their users to create content for them? Think about what would happen if the next Lost were an iTunes exclusive. That would seriously shake up the TV world, but it would also piss off the networks they've already signed deals with. Maybe the networks had wording in their contracts that said Apple couldn't produce television shows :)

Play Bar Brothers

I realize there aren't a whole lof of ways you can design a play bar, but I did think it was interesting to see how similar the Netflix Watch Now and iTunes Fullscreen Cover Flow play bars are.

The order is the same. Play/pause, scroll bar, volume, and then full screen control.

I actually like that these are similar. I don't want to learn a new layout for every app I use.


Thru-bike CR

Last year's cycling goal was days. This year's cycling goal is miles, but not just any miles. These will be the miles within the city limits of Cedar Rapids, IA. I plan to ride every road in the city this year.

I've created a separate blog for the topic. Partly because I don't want to skew the focus of this blog too much, and partly because I want to give iWeb a spin to see if it is worth using.

Go check out the Thru-bike CR site.

The Apple Drawer

I have a drawer dedicated for Apple stuff. Somehow this topic came up with my friends at work. I got the feeling they thought it was a little weird, and a touch fanatical. I think it's just a sign of being organized :)

I don't know that there are any real surprises or curiosities in the Apple drawer. There's unused iPod docks, extra headphones, and the crappy iPod cases that ship in the box. There's also my wireless Apple mouse that is current unused as I'm using a Wacom tablet and mouse instead (great Christmas gift Jeff).

I like that I can easily find a spare set of headphones when I'm running out the door. I like that I can find the external video cables I need when I'm packing for a trip. I like that it looks like an Iowa winter when I open the drawer.

So, take a look, see what you can identify, and have a laugh at my expense because I have an Apple drawer.


Can't Watch Now

So far, I haven't had much luck with Netflix's Watch Now service. I initially was able to watch a movie fine. My only issue was that I watched 10 minutes but it charged me for the whole movie. It seems I'm not the only one. That's not a big deal. I had hours to burn for the month anyway.

However, now, every time I try to watch a movie, it tells me I need to delete some random amound of MB before I can watch anything. I say random because I can hit back and then click Watch again and it gives me a different number, usually dozens of MBs different than the last time.

I've tried deleting how much it says and that never helps. I have nearly a gig and a half free. Is that not enough?

I also tried uninstalling and reinstalling the player. Still no love. I want this to work, but I'm reaching my mucking threshold and I'm not happy.


Don't Wash That

I'm sure the tag said not to, but the tag was cut off a long time ago. You know those squishy soft mini pillows you can buy at the airport? Yeah, don't put those in the washing machine.

We had our own personal blizzard in our washer. It took us at least a dozen washes with a full vacuuming afterwards to get those little pellets cleaned out of the washer. Luckily the ones that stuck to the clothes got trapped in the dryer lint catcher.

So, have a chuckle at our expense and remember, don't wash that.