SkypeKit Hypocrisy

Skype finally announced it’s much-anticipated new project, SkypeKit. It’s a new SDK that basically separates the Skype user interface from their underlying proprietary protocol used to make and receive voice and video calls. I was generally thinking this would be good news since it will allow Skype to be incorporated into other programs like the multi-protocol IM apps Pidgin, Empathy, and Adium. However, I was disappointed and somewhat appalled to read the following in their announcement:

Is SkypeKit ‘open’? What will you restrict?

The topic of openness is often debated and its definition can mean different things to different people. For starters, we believe in an open Internet and open standards. We are adopting an open approach meaning we are releasing APIs and enabling others to use SkypeKit and apply it in new ways. But, SkypeKit won’t be opened up to every single use case that developers dream up. For example, our license terms prohibit using SkypeKit for gambling or adult-themed applications.

This infuriated me. Where do I start with it? The first sentence is absolutely true. However, it’s completely irrelevant to the proprietary Skype universe. They’re hinting that SkypeKit somehow fits under one of those definitions. It doesn’t. The second sentence may also be true. They just happen to not practice what they believe in because their protocol and codecs, although free, are definitely not “open.” The third sentence is an oxymoron. Since when does “an open approach” mean “letting other people plug into your software?” That’s actually offensive to me. The fourth sentence further highlights the oxymoron of the previous sentence. The fifth sentence is a hyperbole used to make readers think that SkypeKit will only disallow spammers or societal deviants from using their service. Of course, who they actually disallow will be at their discretion.

As a Skype user and a little bit of a fan, I have to say that I’m quite appalled by the SkypeKit announcement. I can overlook the closed-source, proprietary nature of Skype because it works well for me but only if they’re honest about it. If they continue to hawk their service like it’s FOSS (in any way), I probably won’t be interested in continuing my business with them.

So, let me summerize SkypeKit for you. They separate their underlying service/protocol from the outer user interface. This allows Skype to work on more devices easily (including computer applications, televisions, phones, media centers, etc.), where the user interfaces are always different. This will allow Skype to become integrated into, for example, Pidgin/Adium, AIM, Google Chat, Google Chrome OS, and your TV. Skype acts like they’re doing you a favor by allowing their service to run on it. (Maybe they are?). But Skype also charges developers fees if they want to incorporate Skype’s protocol into one of their projects. Gee, so now they’re not free (as in gratis), free (as in libre), or open. Why couldn’t they just answer “no” and be honest with everyone? They could’ve saved face in my book.

eMusic Review

When I bought my new portable audio player, it came with a bunch of free songs from eMusic. I have gotten these offers before, but in the past I did not bother cashing them in because the eMusic selection was pretty limited. Since I wanted to grab some new music to fill my new toy, I decided to give eMusic another chance. I was pleased to find that their selection is much better than it was a few years ago. They are no longer limited to music from independent labels, and they actually offer a decent amount of music from mainstream artists. Much to my delight, they also offer a nice selection of classic rock albums.

As you might be able to guess, another stipulation that I had for eMusic was its ability to work in Ubuntu. They can offer me all the free credits they want, but if they require a PC/Mac-only downloader, it doesn’t do me any good. I was pleasantly surprised to find that eMusic actually offers a Linux downloader, and it actually works fairly well. As a bonus, Banshee offers an integrated eMusic Importer extension in its latest release.

I received an offer from eMusic for 50 free credits. One credit equates to a single song, but many albums are sold as “deals” that cost less than buying all of the songs individually. In order to get the free credits, I had to “subscribe” to eMusic. This means I had to sign up with a credit card and choose a subscription plan, with their most popular being $11.99/month for 24 credits/month. The pricing is pretty reasonable at $0.50/song. Of course, this is contingent upon being able to find 24 songs per month to download and spending $12 every month on music. The first 50 songs are still free, and you are not charged for the subscription until your free credits are used up. As soon as your free credits are gone, your credit card is charged and your subscription starts, but if you’re satisfied with 49 freebies, you can cancel your account without charge and keep the music. They offer a nice bonus too: if you’re close to finishing off your free credits, they’ll offer a few extra freebies to entice you into starting your subscription. For example, if you have 8 free credits left and you’re browsing an album that costs 12 credits, eMusic will probably display a message that says something like “We’ll give you 4 more free credits to start your subscription today.” Unfortunately, the free credits can’t be used to buy certain songs and albums on eMusic. It was pretty frustrating because a few popular albums that I wanted to pick up were unable to be purchased with free credits. Free credits are also only good for 30 days. I would recommend not starting your account until you have about 4 new albums to buy.

I was able to find quite a bit of new music. I made a list long enough to use all of my free credits and my first month’s subscription. All-in-all, I picked up 6 new albums and 5 singles for $11.99. That includes 56 free credits and $11.99 for 24 credits.

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle: 20 Greatest Hits
  • Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits
  • Matt and Kim – Grand
  • Metric – Fantasies
  • The Submarines – Declare a New State!
  • The Temper Trap – Conditions
  • Some Singles:
    • America – Lonely People
    • Jim Croce – I Got A Name
    • Neil Young – Long May You Run
    • The Yardbirds – You’re A Better Man Than I
    • The Yardbirds – For Your Love

Unfortunately, I couldn’t justify renewing my subscription for any longer than one month. During my search for new music, I came across a few new albums that I wanted to pick up, only to find that eMusic did not carry the artist or album. I also could not see myself consistently spending $12/month on music, even if I could find stuff that I liked. Plus, eMusic does not allow unused credits to roll over from month-to-month, so if I had unused credits at the end of a month, I would be forced to use them or lose them. Overall, I was impressed with their collection though. I was just not impressed enough to keep up a monthly subscription. However, they do offer a variety of subscription plans including a “lite” version that costs $6.49/month for 12 credits/month. If you’re willing to subscribe for a year, they’ll also throw in 100 additional free credits. As an interesting side note, when I attempted to cancel my account, I was offered a free extra month (24 songs) with no strings attached. After canceling, I also received an email offer for 75 more free credits to restart my subscription. I may consider renewing in the future if I can come up with enough music.

For now, look forward to some reviews of the aforementioned albums. And if you’re the music-buying type, head over to eMusic and give them a look. You can get a really nice deal on the stuff they offer, and while their selection isn’t as good as iTunes or AmazonMP3, it’s pretty darn good.

Begin To Hope

I probably first discovered Regina Spektor years after most other people in the country. It was only a few months ago that I was captured by her song “Us” featured in the movie 500 Days of Summer. As I went searching for more of her work, I found that she was already a fairly well-established musician. She just released a new album in 2009, and she also released a popular album called Begin to Hope in 2007. I decided to pick it up after enjoying a few samples. (As a side note, this was my first full album purchase from the new Ubuntu One Music Store.)

The album is definitely something unique and worth checking out. Her music immediately made me picture her performing as an independent artist in a city like New York. Spektor’s lyrics are phenomenal. She embodies everything I’d hope from a modern singer-songwriter. Some of her songs are based on syllabic repetition in a style that is truly her own. Their hooks are so simple, and yet they work so well that it’s hard to imagine trying to complicate them with anything more. There were a few songs on the album that I didn’t care for much, but they gave me a deeper respect for Spektor as an artist. They reminded me that she is a true creator that is not afraid to push the boundaries of what a song should sound like. Above all, she appears to remain true to herself and her vision, and that is worthy of respect.

I definitely recommend checking out some of Regina Spektor’s work, especially Begin to Hope. I will probably end up with some more of it over the next few months. Notable songs for me included Fidelity, Après Moi, On the Radio, Better, Sampson, and Edit. You may noticed that the first song that drew me to Spektor isn’t on this album. It’s actually on another called Soviet Kitsch, which I’ll have to pick up at some point too. As for Begin to Hope, if you’re looking for some unique and well-done music, this album comes highly recommended.

4.5/5

Sansa Clip Plus

My aunts gave me a gift certificate to Amazon.com for Christmas. I like to spend gift certificates on something I want rather than something I need (like a text book) because I don’t always get a chance to do that. I had been thinking about buying a portable music player to use in my car for a while now, and this was the perfect excuse. I knew that I didn’t want an iPod, so I did some research at Anything But iPod. I was very impressed by their review of the Sansa Clip Plus (or Clip+), and I noted that it took home their #1 player of 2009. I won’t go into too much detail about why I chose the Clip+, but the ability to play OGG and FLAC formats in addition to mp3, the cost, the expandable memory slot, and the reportedly great sound quality were all key factors. I must say that ABi didn’t misrepresent the Clip+ at all. It’s fantastic!

Sansa Clip PlusI bought the 8 GB model from Amazon. Since the Clip+ has an expandable microSDHC slot, I also recently grabbed an 8 GB card for $12 from Fry’s, giving me a total of 16 GB. My main reason for buying a portable music player was to replace the (literally) 50+ CDs strewn over the back seat of my car. I have a lot of music on my computer, but I get sick of listening to the same album all the time, and I usually get very frustrated with the radio. Since my car’s radio unfortunately doesn’t have a line-in jack, I also picked up an iriver AFT 100 FM Transmitter, which works surprisingly well. I was a little skeptical of the FM transmitters at first, but with this one the sound is usually pretty clear and without static.

I don’t have much else to say except: I love this thing! My assortment of music on the road is huge now, which is something I’ve been wanting for a long time. I did a lot of driving during the months of February and March, and this little guy was a perfect companion. Plus, I’m thrilled that this thing has an expandable microSDHC slot. Recently companies have started making 32 GB microSDHC cards, and in a year or two when the price drops, I’ll have a 40 GB mp3 player that’s about the size of a box of matches for very cheap. Plus I love that I have an excuse to expand my music collection. I bought a couple of new albums recently, so look forward to some new music reviews. Sansa also impressed me by having standard protocols for syncing, so I can choose either MSC or MTP mode. To make a long explanation short, it works well on Ubuntu (and Linux in general).

All-in-all, this Sansa Clip+ gets an A+ from me. It comes with a very high recommendation.

Cellphone Economics Revisited: One Year In

Last year I devised a plan to save myself a ton of money by revising my cellphone service. I was paying $576 per year (including taxes) for a mediocre cell plan from AT&T. I’m happy to report that my plan has been a fantastic success. Using this plan, I managed to pay $188.56 (including taxes) for my phone service for the entire year. That includes $162.01 for 1500 prepaid cellphone minutes and $26.55 for a 1-year Skype subscription. The Skype subscription is really the key here. I made a 30 to 60-minute phone call on average of 4 nights/week, every week for a year, for $26 total. That’s pretty amazing. Otherwise, I would have been using about 720 minutes/month to talk to Sadie on my cell every night, in which case talking to her with a regular phone plan including “free” nights and weekends would have been cheaper.

With my heavy reliance on Skype, you’re probably wondering what the service is like. To be honest, it’s better than I expected. I very rarely had a dropped call, and for the most part the sound quality was quite clear. Sadie even told me that she was impressed with the call quality, saying it sounded just as good as if I were calling from a cell.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/nichollsphotos/2906834393/

CC-NC-ND: Jason Nicholls

Were there any downsides to using Skype? Only a few minor ones, some of which I had predicted. Unless you sign up for a SkypeIn online number ($30/year), when you call someone who has Caller ID, your number shows up as something crazy (like 0001123456789), and it’s always different. This scared a lot people who weren’t used to it, since they had no idea who was calling. Sometimes my mom still screens my calls with the answering machine. I could have also gotten around this by buying some Skype Credit, which can be used to disguise Skype calls as ones coming from my cell number. I need the credit in order to send and receive a text message from Skype to my cell to verify the number. I would have done this long ago, but unfortunately the lowest amount of Credit you can buy is $10. I would have had $9.80 worth of Credit still sitting in my account. I decided to save my money and live with the inconvenience for the time being. I also had an issue with poor call quality using my Skype-to-Go calling card, but it significantly improved at some point last Fall.

As serendipity would have it, Google Voice also launched last year. I linked my new Google Voice number to my cell number so that I can give out my Google Voice number and it will ring my cell. Then, if I ever decide to buy a SkypeIn online number, I can tell Google Voice to ring my cell and my computer when someone is calling.

So what is my plan for the future? At least for the next year, I plan to keep doing what I’m doing. I may splurge and buy a SkypeIn number and hook it up to Google Voice. It would not only stop the Caller ID problem I mentioned, but it would also allow me to receive phone calls on my computer, which would be a big help. I would say that at least half of my cellphone minutes are used because someone is calling my phone, and I can’t answer it on Skype. The only thing keeping me from doing that right away is the rumor that Google Voice is soon going to become a desktop VOIP provider and thus a direct Skype competitor. If they can offer competitive rates to Skype, I may have little reason not to use them. Of course, Skype is likely announcing an open-source client, which would be fantastic. Then it will be a battle to see who provides the best quality service, the best price, and the best open-source/Linux compatible platform. It’s shaping up to be quite a year!

On a related note, LifeHacker picked up this topic today. As I posted in their comments: Every time that I have the urge to get a smart phone, I cringe at how much more it’ll cost me every year for features that I don’t even need, and I quickly remember why I don’t already have one 🙂

Rush Proxy Bookmarklet

Graham Walker, a tech-savvy ER Resident who blogs over at The Central Line, recently posted a really nifty little solution to a problem that plagues higher education. Many academic journals require subscriptions to view their contents, and although most school libraries offer proxy accounts to facilitate student access from home, these accounts are often cumbersome to use. His solution was to create a bookmarklet to streamline the process of accessing these materials via proxy account. His video demonstrates how this works really well.

I went ahead and created a Rush University version using his awesome proxy bookmarklet generator. You can create one too by going to the generator and entering: “ezproxy.rush.edu” (without quotes) and clicking “Make the Bookmarklet!” You can save the new link as one of your favorites or simply drag it into your “bookmarks tool bar” if you use Firefox. Then, the next time you’re browsing your favorite academic journal, hit your bookmarklet to easily access the material via your proxy account. Obviously if you’re at a different institution, substitute your school’s proxy account.

If you’re interested, this is the code:
javascript:void(q=location.href);void(q=q.substring(7));void(z=q.split('/'));void(z[0]=z[0]+'.ezproxy.rush.edu');void(h=z.join('/'));void(h='http://'+h);void(location.href=h);

I’d like to reiterate that I did nothing to write this code, and it’s all thanks to Graham Walker. If you like this code, you may also want to check out Dr. Walker’s incredibly useful MDCalc.com.

Ubuntu Artwork Pool

I created a Flickr account so that I could submit some of my more “artsy” photos to the Ubuntu Artwork pool. In order to qualify for the pool, all photos must be licensed as CC-BY-SA or CC-BY, and all my photos are licensed CC-BY. Ubuntu developers will be choosing photos from the pool to be included with the default Ubuntu 10.04 operating system, due for release in April 2010. This is a chance for my work to be seen by millions of people around the world. Here are my submissions:

It was slightly annoying to have to register for a Flickr account because I’m a Picasa user, and I would rather just use them to host my photos. However, developers wanted to limit barriers for photographers to submit their work, and Flickr was the easiest way to to accomplish that.

If you’d like to get your work seen by millions of people, submit it to the Ubuntu Artwork pool under a CC-BY-SA or CC-BY license. Maybe your wallpaper will be distributed with the best free operating system available, Ubuntu.

Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for a few years now, and I just never made time. It’s partly because I always imagined it was going to be too much sci-fi for me. I’m not sure why I tend to shy away from sci-fi books because I usually end up liking them just as much as (if not more than) any other genre. I’ll just go ahead and apologize for that now. This book was simply excellent.

In some ways, “Ender” Wiggin is your typical 5 year old in the future. In many ways, he’s not. Due to the overpopulation of Earth, families are limited to two children except when given explicit governmental permission to have a “Third.” They give permission when a lineage shows particular promise for creating adept military commanders, as they did with the Wiggin family. You see, Earth has had two previous wars with some extra-terrestrials called “Buggers,” who are cunning fighters. Humans only survived the last war because a military genius named Mazer Rackham was able to fend off a massive Bugger attack. The military is trying desperately to discover and train potential leaders for their intergalactic fleet. As Ender embarks on his journey, the threat of a Bugger attack is looming closer than ever. What will become of the fate of mankind?

A bit dramatic? Perhaps, but it works. Watching the military manipulate and challenge children in this age group to see if they “have what it takes to lead” is chilling. It’s remarkable to see the bonds that form between these kids and the intelligence that develops as a result of that pressure. This book gives some keen insight into the military complex and what happens to the mind under stress. More importantly though, it realistically captures how a kid would handle these situations. You empathize with Ender and his friends. You celebrate their victories and wish against their defeats. All-in-all, it’s a really amazing story. If you’ve never read it, check it out!

5/5

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions is the story of Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer obsessed with the writings of a science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. Hoover has requested that Trout be invited to speak at his town’s art festival. As Trout travels to the city, Hoover undergoes some sort of mental breakdown.

The story is definitely odd, and it’s sprinkled with lots of Vonnegut’s artwork. Unfortunately, the story kind of lost me. Not that I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the plot, but rather that I wasn’t entirely sure of its point. It was definitely funny at times and insightful once or twice, but mainly it just left me wondering if I was missing something. Vonnegut has done that to me before, but usually there’s some other nugget of humor or insight that I can take out of his work. This one was a little tougher to grasp.

So, for Vonnegut, not his best work. For a book in general, it’s not bad, especially if you like humor and goofy illustrations. It’s definitely a quick read. I think I finished in 3 days. If you haven’t checked out some of his other stuff that I’ve reviewed, you may want to start there. According to his Wikipedia entry, in his book Palm Sunday he grades his performance on each of his novels. He gave Breakfast of Champions a “C”. I really enjoyed the work that he graded highly, so maybe I should listen to his reviews and pick up God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Mother Night the next time I’m in a Vonnegut mood.

2.5/5

Side note: A reader pointed out that the movie 2081, based on Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, was released on DVD this month. Thanks!

Dad’s Computer

My dad built a computer a few months ago. He has been talking about building a new one for a few years now, so it was about time he got around to it. He had always talked about building a computer that he use to record some of his music on and he wanted something that was more cutting-edge than his current desktop. I think he succeeded quite nicely and although I would tweak a few things if this was a machine for me, I think it fits the bill.

Total: $2200

That’s pretty expensive for a desktop these days. I was really surprised by the expensive sound card, although it does allow him to record multiple inputs, which he plans to use to plug his guitar into the computer. When I built my mom’s budget desktop back in 2008, I was able to do it for about $300 (without a monitor). She was just going for a bare bones system though. Of course this thing is a beast compared to that thing. I’d be interested to see how the Core i7 is working. Apparently, up until a few days ago, he was having trouble with the machine randomly freezing, but it looks like that problem has sorted itself out. He also grabbed a fancy webcam, so we’re able to chat on Skype.

All-in-all, it’s a very nice machine that makes me quite jealous. I had fun giving him my thoughts as he was picking everything out. Too bad I don’t have some spare money lying around because I’ve been brainstorming for an HTPC recently. Oh well, some day!