New Tech Toys

I’ve made several very worthwhile tech purchases this year. While I’m interested in how gadgets and computing help us work more efficiently, I’m not exactly an early adopter (save for the original iPod and iPhone). Spending time weighing features and scouting deals precede any purchase, and that’s led to me getting the following kit:

Room-filling sound in a portable package. Pricey, but worth it.

Jawbone Big Jambox

I work out a lot in the gym, outside, and at the pool, and I appreciate having music to keep my head in the right place. But a lot of places don’t have outlets, and even if there are, it’s cumbersome to lug around a tangle of wires and speakers. Enter the brick-like Big Jambox, which combines surprisingly room-filling sound with a longevous battery and Bluetooth A2DP connectivity. It fills our 1000-square foot weight room with ease and tucks easily into a gym bag. It also works great by the pool and beach. It’s not audiophile sound quality, but it doesn’t need to be because the convenience are portability make it an easy sell. Jawbone also makes a smaller version, but the Big Jambox fills large spaces much better. Try getting a refurbished one; I got mine through NewEgg and shipped it through Aramex.

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

Galaxy Note 2: unreasonably large.

I gave up my original iPhone for a Google Nexus One and quickly grew to favor Android’s extensibility and openness over the iOS’ polish and aesthetic. Gmail integration initially drew me to the platform, but over time Android has simply become better for productivity. Only on Android I could select multiple photos and then attach them all to an email, or begin composing an email and then later select attachment from local storage or Dropbox, or bring up a contextual menu in an app. The other day I downloaded a video from YouTube onto my school computer and copied it to my Android phone, where it played natively – no conversion necessary, no need to have a special computer through which the phone was tethered. I missed the seamless iTunes music syncing and access to quality games like Civilization, but that’s it – as a productivity tool, Android worked better for me.

Regrettably, time was cruel to my Nexus One, scarring the body and claiming the power button due to a well-documented design flaw. I kept it running by rooting it and installing CyanogenMod to work around the power button issue, but poor battery life and limited storage continued to bother me. The former complaint is what initially drew me to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 – the huge size of the phone meant that it could hold a high-capacity battery. The S Pen digitizer was also a cool toy, and I anticipated being able to easily annotate PDFs and take quick handwritten notes. It’s 1000x more accurate than using a stylus to draw on an iPhone.

It’s been about three months since I purchased a gently used Note 2 from for 140KD, and I still think it’s a great phone, but it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s so big that one-handed use is difficult, and even my lengthy thumbs can’t reach across the width of the screen. Other phones seem like toys in comparison. The digitizer is a cool feature, but one that yields more utility on its larger cousin, the Galaxy Note 10.1 (my next tablet purchase to replace my iPad 2 will likely be that, or its successor). It’s not a feature I use on a day-to-day basis. The battery life is great, lasting me for two days of light use on an HSPDA network. The large screen – 5.5″ – is nice for browsing web pages, but not as much as you might think since it’s only 720p. When compared to my girlfriend’s 1080p HTC One X, which has a smaller screen but higher resolution, the difference is noticeable. On the other hand, I have a user-replaceable battery and microSD card slot, which the One X lacks. They’re two different phones for two different audiences and I’m quite happy with my Note 2, but the One X has me thinking that my next phone two or three years’ hence will be smaller than my current one.

Custom-built media center PC

Not much to look at, but less than $400 sans hard drives and it can double as a workstation.
Not much to look at, but less than $400 sans hard drives and it can double as a workstation.

I used to play my shows off of a WD TV live connected to a 2TB hard drive, but this setup always made me nervous – I experienced a catastrophic HD failure a few years ago and lost all of my music and college pics. Aware that my setup was vulnerable to the same issue, I turned to RAID for a solution. (Yes, I know RAID is not a backup, but I’m looking to protect against hardware failure, not user error or malicious deletions) Since a lot of prebuilt desktop and computers don’t have the internal space for the 3 hard drives required for a RAID5 setup, I decided to get a computer custom-built for me at the Hawalli Computer Souk, which is really collection of independent hole-in-the-wall computer stores on Ibn Khaldun Street displaying an eclectic mix of computer components in haphazardly-organized storefronts. My contact at WorldNet computers really knew what he was doing, and I ended up with:

  • A-Case ATX case – room for 2 x 5.25″ and 5 or 6 3.5″ drives
  • Asus P8H77-Z motherboard
  • 3rd generation 3.3Ghz Core i3
  • 8GB RAM
  • 3 x 2TB Hard drives for my RAID and a 1.5TB HD for the boot disk
  • Nvidia GT218-series graphics card with HDMI, DVI, and VGA out

None of this was top-of-the-line, and in fact was probably overkill for my needs, but I got a good deal – 130KD for the computer and under 30KD for each hard drive (these are prices not far off Stateside ones). Considering that a 2-bay NAS setup would run me $300 just for the enclosure, I think I got a good deal. On the software side, I set it up as follows:

Still on the to do list are getting Shairport set up, which will allow the computer to act like an Airport Express and receive audio streams for iOS devices; NFS server, for more robust file serving; finding some solution to implement a webcam-based security camera; and testing whether Ubuntu has MTP support and will let me sync my Galaxy Note 2 with the Rhythmbox music player – this will let me ditch iTunes completely.

I don’t recommend this kind of setup for everyone; a media player box like the WD TV Live and a USB hard drive will serve most people just fine. My approach also requires hours and hours of setup since Linux is still really rough around the edges:

Building your own home media server is definitely a hobbyist solution, but if you’re willing to put in the time, it’s a much more powerful, flexible, and affordable setup than any commercial offering.

The Generational Digital Divide, Elucidated

Somtimes I feel like I’m part of this generation. Photo Credit: x-ray delta one via Compfight cc
As part of a jigsaw in class today, I asked students to email me a photo from one major event in modern (post-1949) Chinese history. One student found a suitable image using his iPhone, and then came to my assistance, because he had not idea how to use the Mail program. I was the first one to show him how he could email a photo saved to his Photo Library. And even though he had two email accounts, neither was set up on his device – he simply doesn’t use email for communication (the kids like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Viber). Once we got one set up, we was mystified by what the CC and BCC fields stood for. (Another thing the kids find difficult is the concept of email bounces. I often get kids complaining that I don’t receive their emails, and when we check their inboxes there are clearly bounce messages because they misspelled my email address – but these warnings just don’t register with them) I found the contrast between our preferred modes of communication amusing – especially since I was born in 1982 and grew up around computers myself. This just goes to illustrate the care schools need to take when deciding on electronic communications platforms – which one will best serve the greatest audience (parents, teachers, and students) at your school?

#COETAIL Course 5 Project: The Flipped Classroom for History

The final project for the COETAIL program is a <10 minute video documenting your experiences implementing technology in practice. Rather than opting for a screencast or digital story foramt, I chose to make an infomercial as a kind of tribute to Billy Mays:

I probably put too much work into it, and a lot of that was a function of my inexperience and lack of equipment. Here are a few lessons I learned:

  1. Proper planning will save you editing time. I didn’t have a separate mic for my camcorder (and the built-in mic was too noisy), so I recorded sound separately using an iPhone headset mic with my Galaxy Note 2 phone. This resulted in a separate audio and video track that I had to sync up manually in Final Cut Pro X. It was time-consuming and a PITA. Had I planned ahead and borrowed a mic with fully charged batteries from Sound and Lights Club, I would have saved myself a lot of editing time.
  2. Hardware counts. Entry-level hardware is fine for simple videos, but my Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro from 2009 struggled to keep up with scrolling and moving clips once I had multiple pictures, videos, and titles in the project – even with 8GB of RAM and an SSD. The 13″ screen wasn’t big enough for the FCPX interface, either. Consider reserving space in a lab with iMacs or other workstations.
  3. Acting is hard. This should be apparent enough from my awkward performance. When people think of making a video they often think of shooting your own footage, but I would try to shy away from this. Without training (which I indeed lack) it results in lackluster results.
  4. Clear your schedule. It took me hours and hours to do this – probably between 1.5 and 2 hours of work for every minute of video you see.