ASUS Xonar DX sound card

I wanted to upgrade from my motherboard’s built-in sound, but most sound cards seem aimed at gamers or HTPC set ups.  I was looking for something a bit different: good sound from good DACs to my powered speakers.  Not surround sound or anything fancy, just stereo speakers and headphones at times.  I didn’t need audiophile-level equipment, but I wanted quality components.  The ASUS Xonar soundcard line gets good reviews, especially running under Linux.  There were a lot of negative comments about Creative Labs, some very passionate, especially about their support for Linux. Continue reading

Android for Auto

I think Microsoft has the right approach to automotive electronics through its Microsoft Auto system, available on Ford vehicles as Ford Sync. It pairs up nicely with your mobile phone to allow handsfree calling, and it uses that capability to call 911 in case of an accident; if the airbags deploy or the fuel pump shuts off, the system uses your phone to dial 911. If your phone was destroyed in the accident it won’t be of much help, of course, but it avoids the call center middleman and associated charges of GM’s rival OnStar system. Plus, OnStar’s built-in telephony capability is susceptible to the same kind of failure in the case of an accident.

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When we travelled to Australia this summer, I needed to get a new DVD player for our kids to occupy them on the long flights. (If you’re going to complain about kids watching TV to me, first make sure you have kids. Then talk to me.) But, instead, I decided to get a cheap $200 netbook, a discontinued Dell Mini 9. I ripped a bunch of kid’s videos, which we own, and put them on a USB stick (the Dell has a tiny SSD HD) and they had a functioning DVD player and I had a little computer, too.

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On Textbooks

TechCrunch (among others) is reporting that Amazon is going to announce a new, bigger Kindle, perhaps with a 10″ screen and a web browser.  The target market is either textbook consumers or newspaper readers, or both.  There may be more than one new Kindle on the way; I guess we’ll see tomorrow.

I don’t know what the answer is for the newspaper industry, but between the film and music industries, they seem to have plenty of examples to choose from.  I’m a hardcore seven-days-a-week, tossed-on-my-doorstep New York Times reader, and I have been since time immemorial.  I’d like to see the paper option continue but I recognize the limitations.   There is real value in journalism and I’m willing to pay for it; as just one example, see their coverage of Afghanistan lately; CJ Chivers and Carlotta Gall and David Sanger and the rest of them have to get paid somehow.

The textbook industry is another situation entirely, and much more interesting from my point of view.  I think the big opportunity is to change the idea of ‘textbook’ fundamentally; my idea would be that university professors would construct classes using whatever content  they need from whatever source is available.  Good teachers do this today and don’t rely on textbooks.  In the future, good teachers would continue to craft their own courses; the difference is that changing technology allows you to create custom ‘textbooks’ that can vary by each course.   I think it would be fair to charge for the design, but I don’t think that will happen; professors today routinely share course syllabi as a courtesy, although those are really just the outlines of a class.  With this new textbook model you could have everything together (or linked together) in one place.

The class, formerly known as the textbook, would include lecture outlines, related readings, bibliography, assignments, on-line components, collaboration, student submissions, photos, and so on — including, perhaps, components of the classic textbook narrative as the backbone.  Course designers would grab parts of other people’s classes and reuse them.   Cool things happen when you remove physical limits to knowledge; compare Wikipedia to old encyclopedias.   A startup, Flat World, is attempting to do something like this using open source content.

You wouldn’t have to require that students have something like the new rumored Kindle, but if the professor was going to review the textbook in class they would have to have *something* to look at — either the paper edition, or a device like this rumored new Kindle.

But I don’t see the device as much of an obstacle; there’s already a free Kindle application for iPhone, for example, so I could just use my phone in a pinch.  And there are tons of other devices that exist or are coming out that can do similar things: e.g., a small tablet computer running Android.  That’s the sort of thing that if it’s successful will be knocked off in Shenzhen within a month and the cost will plummet — the only real cost is in the simple hardware, so you could easily imagine these for $150 or less, in the range of impulse buys even for college students.

I really like the looks of Samsung’s e-book reader, which has a nice soft, non-tech look to it; partly that’s because of the display, which uses monochromatic ‘e-ink,’ not LED.  E-ink also has the advantage of being much less power-hungry so you can use the e-books for days without recharging the batteries.  There are many others on the way, including two student prototypes and Fujitsu’s color e-ink offering.

Boring rant about Boston Acoustics

I finally broke down and decided to get surround sound for our family room television; the speakers that came with our cheapo screen are terrible and with my poor hearing I’m always saying, “eh? Whatdidshesay?”  Which, understandably, drives my wife nuts.  But she doesn’t want eight ugly speakers strewn around the room and neither of us wants to spend too much money on another audio system, so I did some research and bought separate pieces rather than a HTIB (home theater in a box).  I ended up choosing a cheapo Onkyo receiver and three small Boston Acoustics speakers: right/center/left.  I figure I can get the subwoofer later.   Onkyo and Boston Acoustics are both good value brands and this is a decent setup given our constraints.

The receiver came the other day; setting it up was wholly daunting.  The back of the thing looks like engine room of the Millennium Falcon.  But today, the speakers arrived, just in time for track & field at the Olympics this weekend.  And beer!  Woohoo!

I was a bit surprised when the UPS driver told me there were two 70 lbs boxes plus a small box for the center speaker; I was going to try to hang the right and left speakers on the wall and they were advertised as bookshelf size.  But it turns out that Boston Acoustics shipped me two surround sound systems (each with five speakers plus a subwoofer) instead of two speakers. I checked my credit card and they had billed me correctly, but they had shipped the wrong items, a $1,500 mistake.

So, being the nice Catholic boy that I am, I dutifully called up Boston Acoustics and said that they’d made a mistake and that they should come and get their equipment.  I told them, though, that I wanted to open up one of the big surround sound system boxes and pull out the L/R speakers that I had, actually, ordered. And the very nice CSR, who I think understood the situation, said that I couldn’t do that because it would reverse the polarity of the dilithium crystals or something.  Sigh.  She wanted my username and password to login to my account and re-order the speakers because the return would have to be handled as a refund and on and on.  You know how it goes.  I got stuck in a script.

So instead of being evil and making money on this deal — keeping a whole surround sound system for myself and selling the extra one on eBay — I get a hassle.  I’ve got the damn boxes sitting unopened in my entryway, taunting me.  And, worst of all, I’m going to say, “eh? whatdidhesay?” through another round of Olympics swimming.