Invitation Only – A Look at Online Betas

Online betas have always been a weird concept to me. Everyone gets hung up on the fact that they’re trying out the cool new thing, but few really think about exactly what they’ve got themselves involved with in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve been a member of a few online betas. Traditionally, those ones where you get invited by others who get invited by others, who- you get the idea. Initially, I can recall some of the bigger ones such as the Google Projects like Gmail, Google Voice, Google Wave, Google Plus, and Google Music (re-branded as Google Play). Other oldies like Pownce and Joost also stand out. In the last year, I’ve got into a few more such as Bottlenose, Spotify, Turntable.fm, Canv.as, and Letterboxd. So, let’s talk a bit about them.

Beta sites have both a cool factor, and a historic one. You have to admit, it can be awesome to be part of a new up and coming internet haven. You get in before all of your friends, you hand out invites as soon as you get them, and feel like a part of the action when really you’re just cementing the site. Some of these services actually turn out to be pretty cool. For example Pownce, comparable to Twitter (or more a Twitter on steroids), was a neat concept wherein you and your friends could share messages, files, and events online. Google services, specifically Wave with its far-out concept, have always been focused at changing the way you interact online. Joost was interesting in that it was one of the first services to use P2P technology to stream videos, doing so fairly well.

Joost’s use of P2PTV Technology

So we have these works of technology thrown up for a handful (relatively) of people to see, and share with others in a semi-exclusive fashion. These sites can often be gimmicky, but there are also some great unique ideas here. Often, they don’t take off. For every successful project like Gmail, I can think of  a half dozen that lasted a few years and disappeared to the point where you’d be lucky enough to find someone who remembers any of them. If in five years I bring up how I was an early invitee to Google Wave, someone will probably accuse me of making the name “Google Wave” up. This frightens me a bit.

Here is where the historic perspective comes in. There were all these interesting concepts out there that just up and folded for one reason or another. One reason sites run betas is to use you as a guinea pig. Don’t feel violated or anything, many bigger sites do the exact same thing and you’ve probably never even realized. You navigate from page to page and little metrics start being generated on some back end interface that report how long you stay on a page, what links you click, etc. “Beta” isn’t always a marketing word or tied to getting advanced access to a site. Yes, it can be both of those things, but it importantly represents the fact that you are in a testing ground and are undergoing the experimental procedures. A lot of people will offer feedback or outright complain about the service they are testing, and the company can either adapt or die. When they die, they’re gone. Most of these online niches are up for a few years, with the hype and buzz of their exclusivity, and end up vanishing overnight before ever hitting their full potential.

We can use this as a learning experience. I find some of the betas I’ve participated in recently are services I enjoy. Turntable.fm allows a bunch of people to come together in a virtual room and play music for each-other, taking the complexities out of online DJing and adding a rich social aspect. You can’t get the same feel from an Icecast server no matter how hard you try.  Bottlenose tracks all of your social networking updates, generating statistics and even a “newspaper” from them. Letterboxd brings back the long lost Netflix friends feature in full force, so you can keep track of what your friends are watching and just how much they like it. What’s a better way to get mass movie recommendations?

My Bottlenose “Sonar”

These services are fun, and I hope they stick around. Even if they don’t, they become bricks in this strange failed beta wall and are akin to those little toy fads most of us were suckered into as children. Some of the older concepts for these sites still pop up again here and there. Joost’s P2P streaming might have been a little advanced for 2007, but now there are dozens of P2P video streaming sites and applications that you can download and use.  Of all the ideas for this websites, some are just duds from the start, but others are simply ahead of their time.

Don’t be surprised if your friend messages you at 2 in the morning with an invite to a site that feels an awful lot like one you were part of six years ago.

Though the sites may die, their ideas don’t. They’re just in the process of being recycled.

 

A Care Package from Shinmaryuu

Shinmaryuu is one of my oldest internet friends. The concept of “internet friends” was weird for me to wrap my head around at first, but is almost second nature to me now. I met Shinmaryuu online in 2006. It’s scary to think about that when you cut right down to it. Most of the people I talk to every day are those who I’ve met in the last two years, but internet ties are strong for some reason. There’s always a connection. There is always some web presence that you can hunt for if you master your search engines and old stomping grounds. There’s a beauty to that kind of interaction, but always the fear that it might one day be supplanted with an email from a long lost address bouncing back to your account

Shinmaryuu and myself were both regulars of the Hak.5 community and quickly became friends. We shared a general love of technology, in one form or another, as well as independent media. Back when I was just figuring out what an internet television show was, Shinmaryuu was deep into the scene and even developing his own audio/video content under the banner Random Acts of Anarchy (The video episode of which I still have).

Over the years, we’ve always had each others’  backs. Shinmaryuu contributed an article to the first issue of the Analog.5 ezine I cobbled together (painfully) in 2006. When Stage6 went under and The IPTV Archive went down with it, Shinmaryuu offered a helping hand and even gave the idea of hosting videos on blip.tv where they are to this day. He featured my video show Obsoleet on his Library of Geekdom website, and even ended up contributing a show segment to it (in episode four to be precise). We may not talk as much these days as we used to, but we still go back and forth through twitter and some other channels of communication here and there, talking of the good old days and what’s on the horizon. In all, we’re very similar. We are both content creators, but focused on community and creativity instead of the draw of money and power. You can track Shinmaryuu’s efforts from sXe 13 to Torn Red Sweatpants to Wicked 13 Productions, and in all those years he is still standing for producing the best content that he can. You can’t say the same for most people.

With my newest project on saving Revision3, Shinmaryuu and I have been chatting casually on a few topics, and a few days ago I inquired about some of the content he had collected in the past. I was sure that most of the stuff he initially saved had long since been lost to the troubles of unresponsive hard drives and disc rot, but I was pleasantly proven wrong. We got to talking, and he was kind enough to send me over a little care package of indie content spanning years and dating back to before I was putting bits in proverbial buckets.

What am I going to do with all these lovely discs? Archive them of course, and share them with everyone. Share them with you. All in good time, and all in proper form with disc images and cover/insert scans. Anarchivism.org will feature the Shinmaryuu Collection (working name, haha ) provided the discs are all out of print to the point that you can’t get your hands on them anymore (though I’ll link back to all the content creators I can find). The discs in general are not only beautiful in their physical nature, but by what they represent. Every hand cut booklet and labeled disc reflect the hard work of content creators before. They were here, and now their work has been shared with me.

The Package

So to Shinmaryuu, I offer the deepest thank you. Some things I thought I would never see have fallen gracefully into my lap, and I couldn’t be happier.

These days, Shinmaryuu is still going on strong. You can check out his website, Wicked 13 Productions, or head right to his youtube profile to see all the great videos he is putting out. Check out his content and leave him a comment, or send over a friendly shout on Twitter.

Tell him Fami sent ya.

 

Stay Firm

Every once in a while, I find out a cool way to add some functionality to a standard piece of tech I have by feeding it some custom firmware. Custom firmware might be one of the most overlooked ways of enhancing your devices. Don’t let the idea of running third party software scare you. Though you do run the risk of bricking your tech, most of the procedures for installing custom firmware are well documented and take a matter of minutes.

Here are some of my favorites.

DVD Players

I have always had good luck with Philips brand DVD players for reliability, and most of them also tend to support DivX, which I also like. Anyway, most of these DVD players have region free codes, so you can hit some buttons on your remote and instantly play discs from any region. Taking this a step further, you can also find custom firmwares for your DVD players that you can flash via USB or a disc. These firmwares give you more options for subtitles, longer file name display, volume control, display options, CEC functionality and more.

If you have a Philips DVD player, check out this site for some excellent custom firmwares by vb6rocod. If you have another brand, do some Google searches. You never know who is out there messing with DVD players.

Digital Cameras

As I mentioned in previous articles, I have a Canon 600D. And as I also mentioned, I am a huge fan of the Magic Lantern firmware. The Magic Lantern firmware is atypical in the way that it doesn’t replace the stock firmware. Instead, it runs along side it offering an expansive selection of new features such as HDR video, increased shutter control, and other little gems like microphone levels. Something else that might comfort or annoy you: Magic Lantern runs off your SD card. So, you have to format each SD card you have the way ML wants you to. A pain, but it also ensures that if you need your (or not your) camera to appear stock, you can just pop out the card and be good to go.

The Magic Lantern firmware is available for most Canon DSLRs. While Nikon and Panasonic camera lines don’t have anything as advanced as ML, people are working on firmwares for Nikon cameras. Who knows where things will be in another six months.

MP3 Player

About 2 years ago, I put Rockbox on my dying iPod Video. After a while, a bunch of little glitches in the Apple firmware got to become a daily annoyance and there were no updates in sight. Rockbox is simply fantastic. I can add files without having to go through iTunes, I can include my FLAC or Ogg files without needing to transcode, Last.fm support is included, I can completely customize my GUI. Rockbox is not just for your old iPod. It supports a slew of devices from the Archos players to the iRiver. Another little side benefit of having an iPod Video is that I can boot and run either the Rockbox firmware or the stock firmware if I ever needed as there is enough memory to include both of them. I haven’t yet, but it’s good to have that option.

Wireless Router

If you are anything like me, you simply amass wireless routers overtime. Okay, you’re probably not like me, but who doesn’t have a WRT54G of some generation somewhere in their house? Why would anyone want to run custom router firmware? The options of course. You can turn a cheap $5 Linksys router from a yard sale into a fully functional high-end device. For example, maybe you want usage graphs, ipv6 support, advances qos, overclocking, daemons, higher TX power, etc.

I currently run an early WRT54G with Tomato and an original Fonera WAP with DD-WRT. If those don’t suit you, check out OpenWrt.

 

There are tons of other devices that can run custom firmware that I just haven’t got around to toying with or don’t have to play with. For example: the PSP, iPhone, AppleTV, WDTV, etc. all have the capability of running custom firmware to run third party applications and homebrew software. Some other platforms have the ability to work around or through stock firmware such as the original Xbox, Wii, and others. While I still use my softmodded Xboxes once in a while and my letterbomb’d Wii, they aren’t true custom firmware installations (and not the easiest processes either).

Simple hacking of your everyday technology can be a great way to add life to your aging toys, and make the experience of some of your newer ones much more enjoyable. So, load up the SD card and get acquainted with the secret menus. And please, don’t remove the drive before the update is complete.

 

Analog Anyone?

I have a handful of reel-to-reel players. As an extension of this, I also happen to have around fifty or so reels to accompany the players. For the past few years, they haven’t been doing much besides serving as over-sized paper weights. Over the past couple months though, I have been recording things on to them. Music to be specific, all sorts of music.

I’ve been recording whole albums onto the reels of quarter inch magnetic tape. At 7.5 inches per second, the quality is pretty much indistinguishable from the MP3 player I record them from. At 45 minutes per side of tape, I can put at least one album per side (in most cases).

Why do all this? I like the process. It can be a bit of relaxation to string up a tape on a machine and hit the play button, watching the reels hit tension and hearing the music wind up. Also, it’s not the easiest thing to find pre-recorded music on reels. You can most likely find some jazz or easy listening albums on tape, but rock-oriented music is hard to get and can fetch a high price if you are lucky enough to locate it. As more collectors get at the harder-to-find tapes, recording yourself is pretty much the best way to go if you want your equipment used for anything other than show.

 

Google++;

For anyone living under a rock for the past week, Google has released a new service: Google Plus. I’m no stranger to the new Google services. I got into the betas for Google Voice and the now failed Google Wave, but this new project of theirs trumps both of these combined. Google Plus is Google’s take on a modern social networking site.

Now, this isn’t their first time in the social networking scene. I’d bet that most people have never heard of Orkut, which was launched in 2004. It was meant to compete with Friendster and Myspace, but never took off outside of Brazil and India. Even now, 7 years later, popularity in Orkut is slowing as other sites like Facebook become more popular.

I first found out about the site one day after launch on June 29th. 10 hours later, I had an invite and went to town exploring the features and seeing just what Plus was all about. What you can first see is that the layout and organization is very similar to Facebook. It has a stream of news from what your friends are doing, profiles, pictures, video, but the features don’t stop there. In a way, G+ is an aggregation of many existing Google services. Picassa, Buzz, Chat, and Google Profiles are already tied in. Mail, Calendar, and Maps have also been redesigned over the past few days suggesting even further integration in the future.

Aside from utilizing existing services, Google Plus has some of it’s very own. Circles are the first thing I came to. I know that Facebook has a similar feature in that you can group your friends and give these groups access to different parts of your profile, but Google revolutionizes it. You can create several circles, and share information selectively among them. The only feature I’d like to see added here is circle nesting. Hangouts are also very clever and creative. While we may be familiar with social network chat features, Google adds video chat in the form of hangouts. No need to schedule a skype chat with your buddies, you can instantly video chat with all of your friends whenever you want. Lastly, Sparks seem interesting but a bit out of place. The main idea behind it is getting articles and information that you will like without any digging on your end, and being able to share that with friends. I can see this being a nice way to find information, but how do you know the quality of what you are getting?

Some of the more hidden features are nice as well. For example, Connected Accounts is a welcome feature as it allows linking of regularly used social media services. I can tie in my Facebook, Twitter, etc. Data Liberation is fantastic as I can download any and all of my information used on Plus. Also, you can delete and remove your account: a feature many people wish they could find on Facebook.

Though Google has closed invites for the time being, I’m hoping they open them again for more of a production environment . Very few people I know were lucky enough to get in when the window was open, and I’d really like to see the site  when more of my friends are using it with me. I’m still getting to know all of the features and options, but I can say that I’m impressed, and I feel that this is only the start so something big.

 

A Rant on RantMedia

I learned a little bit ago that Obsoleet was added to the RantTV lineup. This got me thinking about RantMedia as a whole, and what it really means to me.

RantMedia was founded in 1999 as one of the first SHOUTCast stations. They have three audio streams: Talk, Industrial, and Punk. In 2003, RantTV was created as a video stream after the release of the Nullsoft Streaming Video codec. RantMedia is headed by James O’Brien (Cimmerian) and Sean Kennedy who are not only responsible for being show hosts, but also recording, editing, and releasing the content. Anything streamed on Rant is done with permission, and any content produced in-house is licensed under Creative Commons. Rant has also branched out into the print world, with an online ‘zine and even published novels. Combined with a loyal community, RantMedia is a full-on independent media organization.

Rant’s slogan is “Don’t Hate the Media, Become the Media” which come’s from Jello Biafra’s sixth spoken word album. The album title itself is a reference to a track on the album supporting the Independent Media Center which provided round-the-clock independent coverage of the WTO protests of 1999 (For more information on this, I suggest listening to the album or checking out a great documentary, Pirate Radio USA, which in part showcases the event.) The slogan rings true with Rant: if you’re sick of what is currently out there, make your own.

I first discovered Rant in late 2005. I was never much into the audio content, but was hooked by the video. Sean Kennedy’s Biafra-esque style and charisma made every video he was in not only fun to watch, but interesting and informative as well. The RantTV stream was also a big influence on me as I was discovering independent internet video, and would later be involved in. I even set up an old computer, a used Radeon card, a VCR, and an automatic switch box from an NES to splice the audio/video from the computer to the cable line coming in my house at the time. RantTV was always on channel 3 anywhere in the house, 24/7.

That was years ago, and though the computer I used may have died, my interest in Rant has not. It’s a weird and almost eerie feeling being able to tune in to RantTV and see myself on the stream. That aside, it is one of my proudest accomplishments. Rant has not only been an influence on me, but many others who just enjoy listening, distributing content, or creating their own.

Even though RantMedia is over ten years old, they are still going on strong. The streams are still pumping, shows are still going, and community remains active. Many media operations come and go, but this is one that never buckles as time goes on. Rant has stuck to its message, and gone on for years with no advertising or corporate interference. It may not be as well known or funded as some other internet media giants, but RantMedia holds a place as my favorite independent media network.

 

Payphones

Over the past few months, I’ve been noticing something. Payphones are disappearing. We all know they are “dead” already. For years, we have been fed stories online and otherwise that payphones are phased out, the phone companies are taking them all away because they are too expensive to run, and other similar stories. Honestly, I didn’t see any of this until February. For the longest time, I still saw phones where I’ve always seen them (the exception being public schools, but that’s another topic). Phones at the corner store, by the post office, on the street in the city; they were all there.

Here stands an empty phone kiosk in Philadelphia (the corner of JFK and Market it you want to be precise). I remember there being a phone here, but it’s gone now. I was by this spot not three days ago, and the kiosk still stands, but seems more or less forgotten in plain view. Just another eyesore of the city. A monolith to inefficiency in the modern world, but everything at one point in life.

This next image is from Philadelphia again, at 30th Street Station (At the regional rail platforms). I wanted to take a picture of the empty kiosks I saw, but by the time I showed up, only the outlines of the bases were left. Now, the station is still full of pay phones. Banks of them line a wall leading to the police station. Cubes of them are situated near customer service. Two are outside the food court bathroom. While I’ve been to this station several times a day over the past year, I can’t see I’ve seen them used much, but there they stand, ready for your quarters.

A few months later, I noticed that payphones were disappearing from other places as well. The local train stations had them gone over night. Not even silhouettes or outlines of old paint. No exposed cables or junction boxes leading to nothing, just no record of them ever being there. While I’m not opposed to the concept of removing payphones (considering that is how I got a few), I’m wondering just how long it will be until all record of them are wiped from view. Will there be a day when I can walk the length of a city and not see a burned out kiosk or a graffiti covered blue “Phone” sign hanging off an awkward steel post? Only time will tell, but they don’t seem to be completely disappearing any time soon; just slowly and silently fading away.

 

The End of Vox

At the end of the month, Vox is closing their doors for good. For those who missed it, Vox was a blogging platform. Made public in 2006, Vox took off as something more of a social blogging site. You had friends on the site in the form of “neighbors” who you could connect to and be updated whenever they made a new post. At the time, there weren’t many other outlets in the blogging family. You basically had WordPress and Blogger, the latter just being WordPress based anyway. So when Vox came out, it attracted a lot of attention and really caused something of a social blogging revolution. Since Vox, there have been different takes on the idea with sites like Tumblr and their use of followers, but the true essence of Vox hasn’t been duplicated on any other platform.

I started my first blog on Vox. I only had maybe two or three posts there, but I loved the platform as a way to keep in touch with my friends. If you have ever made friends on an IRC channel, you know that just about everyone has their own blog, and these can be hard to keep track of. When 30 people all have their blogs in one place, this becomes much much more manageable. The popularity of Vox soon dwindled. I remember even back when I was using it, people were closing their accounts up within months of starting them. I soon closed down mine as well and adapted the posts I had there to a Drupal installation on a shared hosting account myself and my friends had. After that, it was from one WordPress installation to another and who knows what the future holds.

While free blogging platforms are still surviving, serious users will always be tempted to go bigger and better and get their own hosted CMS with plugins and extensions. While Vox may seem like a lost site with no merit, it holds a place as a stepping stone for many bloggers and will definitely be missed as time goes on.

 

Video Ephemera and the FFF

Like I stated in my Video Packratism post, I do have a certain knack for accumulating video. Not just any video, however: the hard-to-find, the rarest of rare, and the crappiest of crap. What I’m getting at is video ephemera, a wordy term for video that was not mean to be saved. So think about store training tapes, out-of-print film, amateur audition videos, home movies, store giveaways, instructional videos, safety videos- the list goes on. Anything weird and wacky that nobody would ever think somebody would save and watch more than once in their own lifetime.

To me, these videos are more than just something to be discarded. Every video has its own personality and story that could all be lost with the compacting of a trash truck. So call me crazy, but I strive to save these types of videos and share them with others. I’m not alone in my efforts, as others are doing the same thing. Right now, there are people capturing trashed VHS tapes to a digital format in an attempt to put old blood in an otherwise glossed-over body of modern video. It isn’t an easy task doing something like this, and while knowing how to hook up a VCR might take you through some of the ride, there is still more to consider.

You need to know your hardware and your software, how to make old components talk to newer ones, and how to be patient when a recording goes wrong two hours in. Different players are always needed and sought, such as Laserdisc, Betamax, CED, Hi8, and VHS. Then you need to break this down even further. VHS decks with quasi s-vhs playback, or an s-vhs deck all in itself, 4-heads, flying erase heards, etc. Combine that with Macrovision defeating gear, time base correctors, video processors, and detailers to get the best picture, and then pipe it all into a DVD recorder, a capture card, or a camcorder. After a while your head will start to spin.

I’d have to say that part of video ephemera is the challenge. From hunting down a diamond in the rough to fighting tooth and nail to get a good quality rip in digital form. There is also the excitement of watching a video that few have seen, and was not meant for your eyes.

Having said that, I’d like to bring your attention to something called The Found Footage Festival which is an event hosted by two filmmakers who share all sorts of strange videos they have found at garage sales and thrift shops. They show little bits of tapes edited together for the best video (who wants to watch an hour long video for one interesting scene?) and provide commentaries during and in between the segments. These commentaries go from purely informative to observational humor. In a way, FFF is keeping ephemera alive. Many people simply chalk it up as a common video mixtape (a mix of video clips assembled into a video which is then released online) but I think that the commentary and research done for the different segments sets FFF apart. Other people are unhappy with the idea that many segments in FFF could actually other people’s uploads which have been spread online already and are simply taken without credit. Personal views aside I can put myself behind any mixtape, whether it be released freely or with a set price.

Video ephemera is not for everyone. Some people may not be interested in the thought of clunky VHS tapes winding up and down to produce a jittery image. For most people these days, if you cannot get a high definition digital download, a video is not worth seeing. For those of you who trip over Laserdisc players in the morning and trade war stories about circumventing copy protection, digitizing your analog media might be a fun and interesting project for you.

Please rewind this tape and remove it from the machine.

 

Pioneer One

About a year ago there was a stir of a new movie on Bittorrent sites. This movie was called The Lionshare and got a lot of attention because it was only released via torrents. That’s right, no DVD release, no theater time, just a torrent download for anyone who wanted it. It was distributed by this interesting company (I guess you could call it a company) called VODO that distributes indie films via torrents. Now why you would need some sort of service like this, I do not know. I suppose that this kind of thing may help get your film out there, but I don’t even know how many people had heard of VODO before The Lionshare, and I wonder if The Lionshare helped out VODO more than vice versa. I do understand the need for a like-minded distribution site. It can be hard to track down more of the same genre of stuff when all you have to go on are torrent links and word of mouth.

So as for The Lionshare, I watched it a few months after I downloaded it. I was mostly deterred from the reviews. The minority seemed to like the film and praised it as an honest look into the life of a twenty-something in modern day, but the majority of reviews I read said the movie was nothing more than a bore, and showed the limits of releasing a film in this manor. I got around to watching it and have to say my opinion lies somewhere in the middle. I think that the movie starts out beautifully, but loses momentum before you really start to learn anything about the characters. Without ruining the story, I’ll tell you that a guy goes on a blind date with a girl, and she invites him to a torrent site, and it follows the guy. This might be as far as this reflects the life of someone today. Women and technology are always good subjects, but I feel that the movie starts to get too hip considering anything besides this.

About two months ago, I found another link in The Lionshare’s universe. There was a Kickstarter (see my previous post) project dealing with a new science fiction show released only on Bittorrent. At this time, internet only television has become an interest phenomena. I’ve seen billboards all over the sity for a show released only online called Reinvent The Wheels which looks to be more of a mainstream thing following a niche concept. This science fiction show, Pioneer One, is a television episode by the same crew that pulled off The Lionshare, and I have to say that I like this work much better. Without giving away too much, it has a watered-down X-Files vibe that I really enjoyed, and centers around a strange piece of debris that lands in the United States. The production value for this is also much higher and looks professional, there there are hiccups. After watching the first episode, I was sad that there were no more. The Kickstarter was only made to produce one episode, so who knows if more will ever be created.

So give these videos a try if you see something you like. Both are available freely on torrent sites and I’m sure there are direct download links up somewhere by now. You might just end up having some new favorite media.