Monday, December 26, 2005

50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years

How gadget-geek are you? Memory lane meets modern day pockets-ringing-iPods-singing bliss in this PC World article:

50 Greatest Gadgets of the Past 50 Years

Yahoo Mail Beta

I'm in the Yahoo! Mail beta. Sweet. And... well doggone, it kicks much ass. The interface is much like a typical stand-alone mail client (like Mozilla Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook), with a preview pane, a message listing pane, and a folder hierarchy pane. I suspect there's some AJAX going on, with the instant-responsiveness and drag-and-drop functionality.

If only they could combine Gmail's tagging system with Yahoo's interface... I'd be in heaven. I'm a HUGE fan of the "tag and search" method of archiving and managing email (as opposed to using single-referenced folders for sorting mail).

Thumbs up on the new Yahoo mail. It'll be interesting to see where it goes.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Podcasting on Windows

Whew! Learning how to set up a new podcast is hard work!

I have a little pet project in the works (one I'm not quite ready to pull the top off yet... soon, soon...). It's a podcast, and seeing as I know little to nothing about audio recording, it's been a bit of a trial and error experience for me. There is definitely a need for a one-stop web site for podcasting newbies. Hmmm... In the meantime, here's a list of the best resources I found in my quest for podcast producing knowledge.

Check out all of the podcasting links I've bookmarked throughout my search at

Where to start:
  • Systm Epidsode 4 - Podcasting: A creation of Kevin Rose and his group, Revision3, this videocast covers the basics of podcasting equipment, software, and publishing. It is the best "big picture" overview I've found.
  • How to Podcast: A comprehensive tutorial, including video how-to's on recording and editing with Audacity.
  • Webmonkey Tutorial - "All the World's a Podcast": A good overview of the podcasting process.
  • O'Reilly's "What is Podcasting" Tutorial: Another good overview, with some specific hardware and software recommendations.
  • Engaget's Podcasting Tutorial: This one focuses on Mac, but there is some good information Windows users can glean from it.
  • Podcasting Hacks: An invaluable book by O'Reilly publishing. It covers not only the technical details of podcasting, but also gives examples of how to format various types of shows - sports show, political talk show, music/movie review show, etc.
What You Need:

These are my own conclusions based on everything I've read in the past week. If you dig through my links yourself, you may come to different conclusions (and feel free!) If you don't want to spend a week reading, though, this will help get you started.

You will need, at minimum: a PC with Windows XP and a sound card, a microphone, and recording software.

Hardware recommendations:

Let's start with the microphone. (I'll assume that the PC you have is plenty fine for recording voice - anything not more than a few years old should be A-OK). You can get really crazy with the microphone, and there are a zillion options out there. There seem to be two main camps: those who prefer to use USB mic's, so as to "keep it digital," and those who prefer traditional mic's. The latter are more complicated, but more flexible, as you can record into many devices and not just a PC. USB mic's limit your recording device options pretty much to PC's.

If you're using your PC anyway, I recommend going with a USB microphone. If you plan to be sitting at a desk while recording, the Logitech Desktop USB Microphone is a fine entry-level choice. It retails under $30. If you prefer a hands-free setup, check out the Logitech Premium USB Headset (Model 350). The key here is to make sure you get a noise canceling microphone. This headset retails under $50. Plantronics also makes a wildly popular headset amongst podcasters: the Plantronics DSP-500 USB Headset. It too retails under $50.

If you have future aspirations to buy mixer equipment, or want to be able to record audio into devices other than a PC (such as a handheld iRiver 799 MP3 Player/Recorder), a regular microphone will suit you better. This is where things can get expensive quickly - but they don't have to!

There are two kinds of microphones: dynamic and condenser. To be as non-audio-geek as possible, condenser mic's require additional power ("phantom power," typically from a "preamp" device). Dynamic mic's don't require additonal power, and are less sensitive to rough treatment (they're harder to break). My advice: go with a dynamic mic.

Variable number 2: the "pickup pattern." Each microphone has a shape to which areas are most sensitive. This is also referred to as the "directional pattern." The most common is the cardioid directional pattern (a heart-shaped pattern that provides the greatest level of sensitivity). If you're speaking directly into the microphone, this is your best choice. Sounds coming from the sides or rear of the mic are largely ignored. These fall in the uni-directional category. Another common pattern is the omni-directional pattern. This pattern can pick up sound from all directions equally, and is good when you want to offer the ambience of your recording environment, or when you're recording a meeting, conference or multiple people on one mic.

Another thing to note about the pickup patterns: the more specifically directional the mic, the more sensitive it will be to "handling noise" and popping sounds (such as, from pronouncing the letter "p." These sounds are called plosives). So, a cardioid mic will be more sensitive to such noise, whereas an omnidirectional mic is more forgiving of such noise.

How much will one of these suckers set you back? You can get entry level mic's under $30. I picked up a dynamic omnidirectional mic at my local Radio Shack store. They've also got a selection of dynamic unidirectional mic's in the same price range. If you want to get a little more fancy, the Shure SM57 Cardiod Dynamic Microphone is a reliable standard. It retails under $150, but you can find it cheaper. As I write this, has it for $89.

The simplest setup is to get a dynamic microphone to plug into your PC sound card's mic-in port. (Don't forget to buy the adapter for the mic plug - a 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch adapter), or plug a USB mic into your PC.

Next: your recording software.

If you plan to record your podcast alone, or with all guests "live and in person," all you need to do is grab yourself some recording software and be on your way. If you want to do telephone interviews, things get a tiny bit more complicated. It's not too bad, though. Let's start with "live, in person."

There are lots of new podcasting applications popping up in all price ranges - from free (PodProducer, in beta but getting good buzz around the community), to cheap (MixCast Live for Windows - $12), to expensive (ePodcast Producer, $249). The main perk to these types of apps is the inclusion of podcast-specific features, like RSS feed generation for publishing your podcast, built-in "show notes" editors, and the like.

Abobe's commercial product, Adobe Audition, comes highly recommended in the field (but with a price tag of $299). You can download a free 30-day trial of Audition and try before you buy, to see if it suits your needs.

My personal recommendation if you're just starting out is the open source app, Audacity. It's free, and is great for recording and editing your podcast. It can also output your raw recording in popular podcast formats such as MP3 and Ogg Vorbis. You'll find that lots of people use Audacity for their podcasts, and there are lots of tutorials on how to use it. The Systm video tutorial I mentioned earlier demonstrates how to configure Audacity for a podcast. You can find other tutorials on podcasting with Audacity here, here, here, and here.

If you're doing your podcast alone, or with all guests present with you, that's it for software. If you want to do telephone interviews as well, read on.

There are several ways to do phone interviews with people. To record landline phone conversations into your PC or MP3 recording device, you can get a special microphone for recording telephone calls at your local Radio Shack store. There are other, more archaic options, but I'm not going to get into them here, as I have a better idea:

Use Skype. Skype is a voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone service that works great over a broadband internet connection. If your interviewees have Skype, and you have Skype, your call is free. If your interviewees do not have Skype, you can use Skype's "SkypeOut" feature, which allows you to make calls with your Skype account to land line or mobile phones for cheap (2 cents per minute).

The joy of using Skype is that you can easily record high-quality digital audio. This is often referred to as "Skypecasting." The problem, though, is that recording both sides of the conversation can be tricky. To use an app like Audacity, you've got to jump through a bunch of hoops to get a high quality recording without sending nasty audio feedback to your interviewee. I won't go through those hoops, but you'll find free solutions involving "virtual audio cables" and things of that nature if you Google around. Believe me: I tried them all, and it was much more hassle than it was worth. Some of the podcast software I linked above features "VoIP recording." If you do purchase one of those apps, that's the feature you want if you plan to Skypecast.

My favorite solution took less than a minute to set up and is one-click simple. It's called HotRecorder. There is a free version of HotRecorder (great for trying it out to make sure it works with your podcast setup), but in order to use your recordings in a podcast, you'll need to buy the full version for $14.95. Buying the full version gives you access to the audio converter application which allows you to convert the proprietary .elp files that HotRecorder makes into .wav or Ogg Vorbis files you can use in your podcast.

Another nice thing about HotRecorder: it works with many different VoIP applications, and not just Skype. Here's the current list: Google Talk, Skype ™ , AIM ™ , Net2Phone ™ , Yahoo! Messenger ™ , FireFly ™ and many other VoIP applications.


So, you've got a microphone, Audacity, Skype, and HotRecorder all set up on your computer. You've planned out your show's format, and written a script. You're ready to go!

Here's a basic conceptual how-to for recording a simple podcast with an interview.

1. Open up Audacity and record your solo segments of the show.
2. Open up Skype and HotRecorder. Call your interviewee with Skype, and hit the record button on HotRecorder. Do your interview.
3. Open the HotRecorder Converter to convert your Skype interview to .wav format.
4. Drag your .wav interview into Audacity. Arrange your Skype clip with your other recorded clips to create your show. Add music or whatever else you want. Edit your show for noise reduction and normalization.
5. Export your show in MP3 format from Audacity.
6. Publish your podcast.

For more detailed tutorials, check out the links I posted earlier. The fine details have been covered well out on the web; it's the big-picture that is missing from a lot of the tutorials.

Adding Music and Effects:

The most important thing to note about putting music into your podcast (such as, for an intro or theme song) is COPYRIGHT. Most commerically released music is copyrighted, and you cannot legally include it in your podcast without getting permission from the artist or publisher. Getting permission usually involves paying a licensing fee to use the song.

A free option is to find a local band who will give you permission to use their song in your podcast (typically in exchange for mentioning their web site or band/album name in your show). Another free option is to check out the PodSafe Music web site, where musicians and sound effect artists catalogue their offerings with express permission granted for use in your podcast.

Publishing Your Podcast:

To publish your podcast to the world, you'll need a couple things: an RSS feed, and internet-accessible server space to store and serve up your MP3 file.

The RSS Feed: Most blogging software (such as WordPress or Drupal) supports the enclosures required to generate a podcast-friendly RSS feed automatically. Check the documentation of your blog software for details. I also recommend using FeedBurner in conjunction with your blog-generated RSS feed. FeedBurner not only keeps statistics on your listening audience, but also automatically generates iTunes-compatible RSS feeds, if you plan to include your podcast in Apple's iTunes directory. For more specific information on RSS feeds for podcasting, check out the tutorials linked above.

Once you have an RSS feed (or a burned feed from FeedBurner), you can submit your feed to various podcast directories, such as iTunes, Yahoo! Podcasts,,, and others. A Google search for "podcast directory" will turn up countless results.

Hosting space: If your podcast becomes insanely popular, you can accidentally find yourself in a world of hurt with bandwidth bills from your web host. With a little foresight, you can avoid such surprises!

Here's a list of various podcast hosting options, ranging from free to cheap. My favorite of these is the site, a free, grass-roots media group that provides unlimited bandwidth for your podcast. I haven't yet tried OurMedia, but it is endorsed by Leo Laporte of This Week in Tech podcast fame.

If you want to combine a blog with your podcast, a more traditional web hosting setup might be better. Since I run a small web development company, I have easy access to such services. For $6.95/month, you can get 250 gigabytes of monthly bandwidth and 5 gigabytes of storage space on a Linux based web server with a 99.9% uptime guarantee (including PHP and MySQL support, perfect for WordPress or your favorite open source blogging or content management system). Most of the podcast hosting services I've seen only offer 5 gigabytes per month of bandwidth for the same price, and many don't include advanced web site features. I chose to host my podcast through The "Economy" web hosting package includes the pricing and features I mentioned above.

To estimate how much bandwidth you'll need (to make sure you don't go over your allotted bandwidth with your hosting provider), multiply the size of your podcast MP3 file times the number of times per month you will release an episode, times the number of listeners you expect to have. A 10-minute podcast recorded at 64 bit quality will be about 5 MB in size.

For example: a bi-weekly 20 minute podcast with 100 listeners requires 10 MB x 2 episodes per month x 100 listeners = 2,000 MB (2 GB) of monthly bandwidth.

Do you see how quickly it adds up? That's why I like my account. My 250 GB/month allows me to grow up to an audience of 12,500 listeners for my bi-weekly 20 minute podcast. That's a lot of listeners. Or, 8,333 listeners for a bi-weekly 30 minute podcast - just divide 250,000 MB by ([minutes x .5] x # of shows per month).


We've covered a lot of ground here. I hope that I've gathered some of the best podcasting how-to resources in one place to help guide your own research into the topic. Go forth and be heard!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005 Firefox Extension

It's yummy alright.

Integrate right into your browser with this Firefox extension.

Way cool. I used for my xmas wishlist this year, giving direct links to places to buy everything on my holiday gift list. I received kudos from my mother - and considering she's an internet newbie, that's pretty impressive. is great for other things, too. I'm slowly moving all of my PC-based bookmarks over to so that I can access them from anywhere. I also spend quite a bit of time browsing through the popular bookmarks on the site - great time killer, as well as a way to find new stuff to see and read and do on the net.

Here's a link to my

Caffeine Finder

How cool is this?

Caffeine Finder - a GPS enhanced mobile application for Blackberry that will find you a cup of Joe anywhere in the U.S., with over 45,000 cafes and Starbucks in its directory.

The company also makes a "fast food finder." What a great idea - come up with a template application for "finding" stuff, then plug in all of America's vices.

Future incarnations:

Beer finder.

Casino finder.

What I really want to see: hotspot finder, or - even better - FREE hotspot finder.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


Some random geek tidbits....

I got an email today regarding my application to Yahoo's email beta test. I hear it's a Gmail-killer - so of course I wanted to be in on the action. I signed up a bunch of months back - so long ago, in fact, that I forgot I'd signed up. I got this today in the mail:

Your Yahoo! Mail Beta is coming soon.

Thanks for your interest in the new Yahoo! Mail Beta. Your turn is coming soon.

We know you can't wait to get your hands on the new Yahoo! Mail and we're just as excited about delivering it to you. Right now we're working around-the-clock to make sure it's everything you expect and more.

So stay tuned for further word. In the meantime, there's no need to do anything. Your place in line is secure, and you'll get the green light as soon as possible.

Thanks again,

Yahoo! Mail Team
Sweet. I must say, though - I'm sickly in love with Gmail, so it's going to be hard to tear me away from it.

Moving on... I bought a microphone today. Why, you ask? I'm putting together a poker podcast. I had a little idea for one, and I figured - what the hell. Why not? Details will be made available as this thing becomes a reality...

In the "wtf" category: my Sony 17" LCD monitor has been doing something strange lately, and I'm not sure if it is something wrong with the monitor, or if it is related to the new video card I installed a few months back. I'm thinking the former, because this new behavior just started happening over the past week or so. The monitor will randomly (usually after I've left the computer unattended) power off completely - as in, even the power button is "off" (whereas usually when it is turned "off" it glows red). Rebooting the computer brings it back on, or if I randomly wait a few minutes, it'll come back. I'm thinking it is somehow tied to the computer going into screen saver mode or standby mode. I'm going to try disabling the monitor power-off/standby and see if that stops it from happening. I really hope there's nothing wrong with the monitor, because it's not even a year old (I got it for Xmas last year), and it was pretty expensive when I got it. We will see.

That's it for the geekiness in my life. Check out my Vegas trip reports at the poker blog.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

iPod Lesson the Long Way

I spent 4 hours at Best Buy today, and no, I wasn't Christmas shopping. I stopped in there on my way home from work (after having a nice little lunch with Randy at Northwoods... yummm...) to have them take a look at the iPod adapter in my car. A few weeks ago I went through a huge fiasco to get my old car stereo re-installed in my car, and added an iPod adapter so that I could listen to my iPod through my car's sound system. (The crappy FM tuner adapter thing works but the sound quality is crap). Last night, as I got home and unplugged my iPod, the thing did something funky on the screen. Then today when I got in the car and plugged in the iPod, it wouldn't load up through the stereo. It just sat there stuck on the "Loading..." screen.

So I went to Best Buy and explained what was happening. The guy said it was probably the adapter (some box-like thing that's installed under my seat of my car or behind the dashboard or in some other weird place), but that if it wasn't the adapter, it was my stereo. It was the same guy who finally had successfully installed this stuff last time, so he remembered me. He took my car in right away and went to work on replacing the iPod adapter.

But that didn't fix the problem. So he told me that the AUX port on my stereo must have blown out. Well, shit. So I went inside and dropped $300 on the cheapest Kenwood iPod-supporting car stereo they had in stock. I brought it back to the guy, and he installed it...

Still didn't work. WTF???

To make an already-too-long story short, all he had to do (or, all I had to do) was reboot the iPod. Once we figured out how to reset the iPod (with the help of Google on my Blackberry and a night shift guy who'd come in to work), everything worked again. The guy put my old stereo back in, and gave me the new stereo to bring back inside to return.

So, I got my money back, and my stereo and iPod are working again, thanks to 4 hours of wasted time. That's OK though. The guy didn't charge me a dime, and was very cool (not to mention, patient) about the whole thing. I think we both learned a little something from the experience!

For reference, rebooting the iPod involved holding down the center button and the menu key. I wish I'd have thought of that last night, but since the iPod itself was working just fine, I didn't think of it. Actually I was thinking that the adapter box needed rebooting. Anyhoooo....

Check out my Vegas trip reports - I'm home and tired as hell!