Video conferencing on the cheap — finally

One of the dreams I’ve always had (from reading too much science fiction, no doubt) is to be able to do point to point video phone calls with folks. I was an early fan of ICQ — which back in the olden days was one of the very first video-calling applications.

I’ve always been disappointed with the results. The early cameras were crummy, bandwidth limitations resulted in choppy pictures with huge latency and the sound-portion of the call was always a nightmare.

It had been a few years since I’d messed around with the stuff, so when my buddy Bill Coleman asked, I took the opportunity to do a geek project and see how things work these days. This is a “notes to myself” post in case I have to retrace my steps some day.

The big breakthrough was to use Skype for the audio portion of the call. It’s pretty easy to get the video portion of the call up and running with MSN Messenger (and presumably AIM and Yahoo Messenger as well). But getting the audio to work has always been way too hard for me to suggest to “normal people” because of all the firewall and routing issues. Skype neatly solves that problem and we judged our Saturday Geek project “pretty cool” and a big success.

Good things

– It’s pretty cheap. For Bill and me, who both already have broadband Internet access and computers and like that, the only out of pocket cost is the $50 we spent on our spiffy little Logitech cameras. The instant-messaging client (MSN Messenger is what we used) and Skype are both free.

– Quality is good — especially the audio. Skype has got the kinks worked out of their stuff, so the audio portion of the call was smooth as silk. And the video works pretty darn good too. A little fiddling (mostly with the video “size” setting once the video portion was up) and we got the audio and video latency (geek talk for “delay”) pretty well lined up with each other so the lips moved when the sound arrived.

– It’s pretty easy, and thus a rewarding project and a lot more fun than all this stuff used to be.

– It will work for people at work. That’s a really big deal for Bill, because he wants to use this to keep in touch with his clients, who tend to be scattered all over the landscape. See the Cookbook for the tech details, but I think this rig will work with no firewall changes (except for the firewall on your PC) and thus won’t give security-people heartburn.

“Read more” to get to the Video Cookbook… Continue reading “Video conferencing on the cheap — finally”

Podcasting

Julio’s been writing about podcasting for (seemingly) ever — and i didn’t read any of the posts until today when he pointed folks at this great 4 Minutes About Podcasting movie.

NOW I get it!

Amazing — all of the “tell your own story” ethic of community radio, combined with all the cool “build your own feed” capability of RSS feeds, which results in “radio” that’s going to show up in Google.. If you’re a community-radio type person who hasn’t messed around with podcasting, go watch that movie — and then let your imagination run wild. I’m sitting here thunderstruck, realizing what the possibilities are…

What an amazing community technology. For example; you’re an organizer of (fill in the blank), laboring away in your local community. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to hear an occasional “show” about your cause, direct from the mouth of your inspirational mentor? If you’re an inspirational-mentor type person, wouldn’t it be great to periodically share your “show” with others?

Or, if you’re more like the typical community-radio programmer, wouldn’t it be great to reach the .0003% of the population of the planet who shares your passion about (fill in the blank)? Conversely, wouldn’t it be great to listen to shows produced by people who exactly share your tastes and views?

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be broadcasters. Their days of being in any way relevant are numbered.

This one totally nifty technology. Thanks Julio for pointing me at the link that finally turned the light bulb on. I’m going to add useful links “below the fold” as I explore — to see that stuff, hit the “read more” button.

Bandwidth — A puzzler

The community radio movement was all about access to limited bandwidth (in our case, noncommercial FM channels). Podcasting is going to present an interesting bandwidth problem for the person with a really popular podcast — it’s going to slurp up a lot of bandwidth to deliver a 50 mByte file to thousands (millions?) of fans that are hungry for your stuff. Looks to me like we’ll need to marry BitTorrent with podcasting pretty soon now.

I’m really interested in the “how do you do it?” part of podcasting right now, so that’s what this first collection of links reflects.

Engadget provided a great starting point on this page about podcasting.

Creating podcasts is pretty straightforward — make a radio show, but pipe it off to an MP3 file when you’re done. I was Googling for “make a podcast” and got zillions of articles about how to make digital radio shows — lots of talk about mixers, and line-inputs-to-the-computer, and like that.

What I’m interested in right now is the RSS feed part — and the very last part of that Engaget article is what tipped me over to understanding. It all revolves around the notion of an “enclosure” in an RSS feed — something that most blog-creating software doesn’t grok yet, but I bet all off them will soon.

I think for now I’ll try just editing up my own RSS feed by hand rather than trying to force-feed Xoops (the software I’m using to create this blog). I’m going to use the XML file in the Engadget article as a template, build me a little “hello world” podcast and see how I do. But not right away. First I gotta finish helping Marcie lay down flooring in the upstairs room at the farm.

FreeVo — My home-brew Tivo, minus the monthly subscription fees

This is the latest geek project — reclaiming Robert’s old PC and transmogrifying it into a personal video recorder (PVR for short) with a Hauppauge PVR 350 and SageTV software.

Sure, I could have gone out and bought a Tivo or ReplayTV for about the same (or maybe a little less) money. But I see several advantages to doing it myself;

  • I get a glorious few weeks of primo geek tinkering/learning (in addition to the PVR stuff I found myself introduced to the “silent PC” geek sub-cult as I realized that the PC was making way too much noise to remain in the living room without modification)
  • I get a PVR that I can reconfigure (add disk, add more video cards, etc.) when I want to
  • I don’t have to pay a monthly fee to TiVo (I’m using SageTV software that sucks down the program guides off the web for free)
  • I can share/view the shows all over the home network
  • I can participate in EFF’s call to arms over the “broadcast flag” and be my own hardware vendor at the same time.

    This blog entry is my “notes to myself” to record the saga, and will serve as a reminder if I have to come back and retrace my steps at some point in the future. If you decide to do this, it might be a useful set of tips for you too. For the details… read on
    Continue reading “FreeVo — My home-brew Tivo, minus the monthly subscription fees”

  • Anonymous Blogs – another tool for community-building

    The Annual O’Connor Christmas Day Christmas Party always produces a few really interesting conversations. This year I talked to an old friend (who will remain anonymous – you’ll see why in a minute) about using blogs as a way for people to talk to each other without revealing their identity.

    This kind of thing has been happening on the Internet ever since the beginning, but public blog site (like Blog Spot) make it MUCH easier for “normal people” to set up an anonymous space than most of the preceding tools.

    So natcherly, this morning the New York Times runs a story about an anonymous blog. Pretty darn handy. The story on the Times site is about Anonymous Lawyer, a fictional web site about life in a Big Law law-firm. A great example of an anonymous site, run on a public blog service.

    In this case, eventually you find out the identity of the author of the site, but only because he allows that to happen. I imagine there are lots of blogs out there where it would be very hard to figure out the real identity of the person posting.

    Another possibility would be to set up a “private group” on Yahoo Groups. That would tend to keep your posts off the search engines — a drawback to Blog Spot is that most of their blogs get sucked into the search engines (I’m not sure whether you can make a Blog Spot blog “private”).

    If you have a finite group of people in the group, you could all share the same user-name and password when posting to your blog/group and thus add another layer of anonymity to the conversations.

    Marcie’s blog is an example of a site where identity is consciously “managed” within narrow limits. She’s very careful not to reveal the location of our farm, because she doesn’t want people to come visiting unannounced. For a long time, you also wouldn’t have been able to get in touch with Marcie except through the blog, although we recently changed that.

    So — if you’re an organizer looking for a place where identity can be masked in order to have candid discussions, consider a blog on a public server.

    Applying lessons learned during Y2k, I rediscover Peter de Jager

    I'm heading into a big project, and as part of preparing for it I revisited the site I maintained while participating in the Y2k preparations for my home town of St Paul, MN.

    Just about every single Y2k link on that site is busted now, although one is selling some strange kind of medical nostrum that's not likely to live up to it's claims of Improving My Life In Every Way.

    But one of the links led me to the new site run by Peter de Jager. For those of you who don't remember, Peter was considered by many to be the person who first voiced the Y2k problem in terms that were compelling enough to get people off the dime. Opinions vary — some think Peter was a nutcase, sounding the alarm for a non-problem — and I agree, Peter got a little shrill at times. But I also think he's a very good thinker and did us all a great service by sticking to his guns.

    I'm glad to see that Peter is still thinking, writing and active. I recommend his publications pages if you are interested in large-scale change management projects (like I am).

    Philadelphia wireless project — I can't make the numbers work

    Here's my daily dose of rants and puzzlements. Today's revolves around the recently-announced wireless project in Philadelphia. Like lots of folks, I'm hoping they'll make it go. Like lots of folks, I can't quite figure out how they're going to make the numbers work. Here's why.

    Get an envelope out, we gonna do some figuring on the back of it. Let's see here, the Philly folks say they're going to light up the whole town for free Internet access. Ok, great. Presume all the geek problems away and let's say they get it lit. Now, if they really finally run with “free” they've basically replaced all the ISPs in town. Well, maybe that's ok. After all maybe this is an amenity that cities should do, like roads and sewers and stuff. Here's where the numbers get hard…

    If residential Internet access is free, then most everybody will switch to it. Some significant percentage of 1,000,000 households. First “numbers” problem — how much is upstream access for all those folks going to cost??

    Get your envelope out. Let's say we give everybody up to 3 mBits (kinda like cable). And let's assume that people aren't all going to use it at the same time. That's called “oversubscription” and everybody does it – ISPs, phone companies, you name it. What oversubscription ratio? For the sake of the envelope, say 30-times. So for every megabit of upstream access, we can sell 30 mBits of “downstream” or customer access. Or 10 customers (remember? 3 mBits/customer). So for every 10 customers, we need another megabit of upstream access for those peak times (after supper).

    If most of our 1,000,000 households switch to our free service, we gonna need a *lot* of upstream access. Let's say 20% of the households sign up. 200,000 customers means we have to buy 20,000 MBits of upstream access. 20 GigaBits! Wow! A T1 line is 1.5 MBits, so that would be 13,000 T1's. That a lot. Ok, Internet access is overbuilt and getting really cheap, so maybe they've got a really good deal. Maybe $10/month per MBit (that's cheaper than anything I've heard of, but hey, benefit of the doubt that's my motto…). $200,000/month for upstream. $2,400,000 a year of taxpayer money…

    Once the customers have signed up for Internet, any time anything goes wrong with their computer that they can't understand, who they gonna call? The ISP, that's who. So now Philly's got to provide help-desk support for 200,000 customers. Let's say each customer calls once a year with a hard question that takes an hour to answer. 200,000 hours a year. People work 2000 hours a year, so that's 100 people answering help-desk calls at, say $50,000/year. Hmm, $5,000,000/year…

    See where this is heading? I could run through all the rest of the stuff that an ISP does — network maintenance, upgrades, fixing people's connections, paying the bills, etc. Roll all that up in a ball and it looks to me like you've got at least $10-15 million/year to keep it running.

    On the one hand, that's a lot of money. On the other hand, compared to losing money on ballparks and stadiums and roads and sewers and economic incentives for people to move in, maybe it's not. I'd love to see the numbers for that project.

    RNC — a time of great innovation

    Ok, I'm a Democrat. Might as well get that out of the way early. But if the tables were reversed and all these folks were aiming all this cool community technology at the DNC, I'd still be pumping out my engineer's victory salute.

    Local Twin Cities Type Guy Paul Schmelzer has written up a great piece on his blog summarizing the technology that will be used by various demonstrators at the RNC in a few weeks.

    I'm glad to see that the community-technology movement is still coming up with great new ideas to tweak the establishment and have some fun at the same time. Carry on, peepul!

    What if congress could vote electronically?

    I woke up wondering what would change if legislators (at any level, local through international) could vote over the Internet. What’s the implication of that (inevitable, although maybe not in my lifetime) change in the way that representative government takes place?

    Here are some initial thoughts before heading off to the farm this morning.

    Legislators;

    – would spend more time in their home district

    – would be more influenced by the voices of the people they represent

    – would be harder for lobbyists to reach

    – wouldn’t need to be paid as much (since they would only need one residence)

    – would spend less time on travel

    I think there are some great quality, performance and cost enhancements possible here. I’ll keep editing this for a few days…

    Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water

    David Coursey has a piece this week about MindJet’s Mind Manager software that caught my eye. I like David’s stuff a lot — like the Baby Bear he’s usually thinking about stuff that’s in the “just right” place for me, not too far out there in rocket-science exotic whacko new-idea land, but not talking about stuff that I’ve looked at six months ago and already evaluated.

    read on for more observations about mind-mapping software and the community-collaboration connection… Continue reading “Mind-mapping software — I'm going to stick my toe in the water”

    Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA

    Every once in a while conversation will turn to trying to solve a problem that has people stumped — like the lunchtime conversation today with my friend Bruce McKendry in which we decided to take on the problem of fixing health care. Yep, you heard it here first. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

    Something Bruce said (“this is a problem that needs to be solved outside, or along side, the existing institutions”) reminded me of Dee Hock. ‘Bet you haven’t heard of Dee Hock, but your life has been influenced by his creation. He’s the person who led the project that created the VISA network and thus solved a problem that was vexing all the banks that were creating their own independent bank-card systems and going broke in the process.

    Hock’s solution was to form a new kind of entity (VISA) which allowed the banks to cooperate and compete at the same time. The story of the creation of the VISA network is a fascinating tale. Dee Hock decided to generalize from that experience and see if he could help others apply the lessons-learned to their big complicated problems.

    He made up a new word, “chaordic”, to describe this process of bringing order out of chaos and formed an organzation to carry on the work. The Chaordic Commons is their home on the ‘net.

    Read on for notes, commentary and useful links into their site… Continue reading “Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA”

    Regulating by layer

    Back from my speech this morning. I had a great conversation with Steve Kelley about the “layer cake” problem that VoIP regulation presents. After scribbling a few things on a pad of paper, it was time to give my talk but I thought it would be a Good Thing to get the scribbles into this blog. Read on for the details…

    Suppose you decided to approach regulating VoIP (or any other telecommunications thingy) from the standpoint of regulating differently depending on what layer that thingy was. Here’s a picture of the layers;

    The bottom layer is the physical link between you and your provider. It could be copper wire to the phone company, coax cable to the cable company, fiber optic cable, a microwave radio link, a laser link, etc. It’s the physicall stuff that makes the connection. Very expensive to put in, very unlikely that you’re going to have these connections to more than one place. Aka a natural monopoly.

    The middle layers make the connection between your physical stuff and the physical stuff at the destination. Phone switching (SS7), TCP/IP, routers, switches, all fall into this layer. It’s where ISPs and CLECs sit, and it’s much easier to have competition at this layer — witness all the ISPs and CLECs that popped up in the mid-90’s.

    The top layer is the application that you actually use to get things done. An email browser, a web browser, a database, or a VoIP software/hardware package all fall in this top layer and there are virtually no barriers to competition at this layer. There are lots and lots of web pages, VoIP phone companies, email providers and so forth and the problems of monopoly are virtually non-existant. So one view would be to say — “hey, there’s no need to regulate VoIP at all, it’s just an application.”

    But wait, what if we added the notion of a “service” to the mix. We might say, let’s regulate similar things in similar ways. Here’s another picture;

    Now, in addition to thinking about layers, we think about the “service” that is running across those layers. Perhaps we should regulate all TV the same, all phone-calls the same, etc. If you deliver TV pictures over cable or the Internet, what’s the difference? They’re TV pictures and it’s silly to have completely different regulation for each — they’re doing the same thing. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. In the case of VoIP, the argument would be — “either regulate VoIP like POTS, or remove the regulation from POTS” and put them on a level playing field.

    But wait… What about the technology that’s being used? Doesn’t that enter into the discussion as well? Here’s a picture;

    This is a tricky thing — especially in light of the current enthusiasm for protecting “The Internet” from regulation. If you make regulatory decisions based on technology, perhaps the baby goes out with the bathwater. Depending on where I wanted the outcome to wind up, I could pick my argument to use the technology dimension to trump all the other dimensions.

    There are more dimensions, but I don’t know how to draw pictures with any more dimensions than 3, so I’ll stop here. I think the point of this ramble is that the regulatory picture around VoIP can be “segmented” a lot of different ways. If I were trying to push an argument, I would put this segmentation into my bag of tricks and use it to push things into a configuration that favored my outcome.

    Handy info about blogging

    I'm finding myself sending the same links and email message to people over and over, so here's a blog entry that covers the waterfront. Old hat for you experienced blog type people, this entry is for us newbies.

    Bloglines is a great place to start subscribing to and managing blog/RSS feeds.

    This page is where I've put some basic info about what RSS feeds are all about, and is also where you can find the link you need in order to subscribe to this blog.

    RSS feeds are the Rosetta Stone that unlocked blogging for me and transmogrified them into something useful/powerful. I wrote this entry describing RSS feeds for PR folks to puzzle through some of the implications.

    For the technical people, Xoops is the freeware that this blog is built in. It sits on top of two other powerful pieces of freeware — MySQL a very powerful database (competes nicely with the likes of ORACLE or Microsoft SQL Server) and PHP a nifty cross-platform programming language. That mySQL/PHP plumbing environment is a bubbling hotbed of great innovative software development.

    National community-networking summit

    For you history buffs; Lorenzo Milam, Bill Thomas and I organized the first national community-radio-organizer gathering back in 1975. Held in Madison, WI, we called it NARC (national alternative radio convention). I, living in Madison, was responsible for the actual logistics of the conference and overlooked a few things. Like, places for people to stay… But it didn't matter because we all just sat around and talked to each other for 72 hours straight and then headed home.

    This conference — the 2004 National Summit for Community Wireless Networks looks to be the same kind of “ignition” event for the community wireless folks.

    Check out the “sponsor” links if you're interested in finding out who the movers and shakers are around the country. Looks like a pretty energetic bunch. I hope they have as much fun, and get as much started, as we did way back in Madison.

    Virtual teams — community folks could use this technology too

    Here’s an article in CIO that talks about the improved productivity of virtual teams. They are grumpy about video conferencing, but like the “shared workspace” systems that are coming into use.

    I’ve been following (and using) those systems for a while now, and think that there are some good ones (like Groove) that have finally gotten to the point of being really nifty. But I’m getting even more excited about all the open-source activity in this area. Check out this very cool matrix of open-source “content management systems” and be amazed at the capability that’s available for really cheap.

    Which brings me around to Community Computing. Read on…

    I’m thinking that these systems could be put to great use by organizers who are trying to move the ball forward for their causes. I’m reminded of the early days of the Internet when Jon Pratt was working on this sort of thing over at the Minnesota Council of NonProfits and how much cheaper/easier these new systems would be.

    So while I’m fiddling these systems into use in the private sector, I’m also going to be looking for ways that nonprofits could take advantage of all that virtual-team stuff that the CIO piece is talking about.