Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Gadget Review: iPod Touch 2G

Mrs. Φ gave me a iPod Touch (2nd Generation, 16GB) for Christmas.

I'm not really a gadget guy by contemporary standards. I've hadn't owned an mp3 player. I don't own a GPS. I'm still using the same Razr v3c from almost five years ago. The Razr has a 1.3MP digital camera sans flash; it's the only digital camera I own. My Verizon cell phone plan is voice only, although I occasionally send text messages a $.30 per. Obviously, I've never owned an iPhone, Blackberry, or any of its multitude of cousin devices.

But now I own a Touch.


The Touch has a feature that triangulates between "known Wi-Fi hotspots" to find the user's location. In a GPS world, this must be dumbest idea to have ever been invented. It turns out that there aren't many known Wi-Fi hotspots, so location information is spotty.  It tracks pretty well in Φ’s lily-white little burg, but drops out on the way to work.  It’s performance is often inconsistent. On the way to work on Monday, the nav stopped locating me about two miles from my house, and didn't reacquire my location until I arrived at work. And yet on the way home, the Touch found my location almost as soon as I got off the interstate, giving me over a mile of additional location data.

An added aggravation is that the map utility that came with the Touch (Goggle maps, apparently) doesn't actually store maps on the Touch.  If the user plots a route and steps through it, those steps are saved temporarily in the map cache, where they remain for the duration of that session; otherwise, the user must have an ongoing Wi-Fi connection to use the maps. Which means even if you can triangulate your position from Wi-Fi hotspots, you must be connected to one of those spots to keep receiving map information.

For $75, a company called Orange Gadgets will sell you the iGPS360, a GPS module that plugs into the Touch and feeds it GPS information.  But now that Best Buy has discounted its GPS receivers, it seems a smarter move to get a stand-alone GPS with a bigger screen and built-in maps.

Parenthetically, it’s easy to get spoiled by Google’s adjustable-resolution, multi-layered map content.


The browsing experience isn’t bad.  It isn’t particularly intuitive (indeed, I had already downloaded another browser from iTunes before I figured out that “Safari” is the name of the pre-installed browser), but the screen resolution is 480x320, which makes reading from the 3x2 inch screen much easier than I had anticipated.  It turns out that many (though not all) websites have a “lightweight” format that automatically loads when they detect a connection with an iPod.  But even a full-sized webpage can be read if necessary.


Google Reader is very user-friendly in the iPod format, but blog reading is exactly the kind of content that I would want to download and then read at my leisure without having to worry about ongoing Wi-Fi access.  ITunes has other RSS readers that supposedly allow posts to be downloaded and saved if you establish a RSS account with their online service, but I haven’t tested those applications yet.


Although music and, more recently, movies have always been the heart and soul of the iPod’s functionality, the iTunes software, which manages the Touch when it is connected to a PC, doesn’t have any software to reformat  DVDs to the iPod format.  I’ve been using DVDFab Decryptor 6 during its free 30-day trial.  This process works, but it is time consuming:  reformatting a feature-length movie takes close to an hour.  (By the way, when DVDFab sets the output file resolution to something other than 480x360, it’s to keep the movie’s aspect ratio, not because it doesn’t know what the Touch’s resolution is.

In practice, this process isn’t really practical for grown-ups.  There are very few movies I will sit through more than once, even movies I like, and if I’m going to go to the trouble of reformatting a DVD, I might as well watch the movie right then.  Children’s movies make more sense, so I put in the time to reformat our Pixar collection and upload it to the Touch for our next road trip.

For about the price of a DVD, you can buy a movie from the iTunes website, and download it either to your PC or directly to the Touch.  iTunes also rents the movies for $3.99 (not all titles are immediately available for rent), but this can be frustrating for those of us already paying for Netflix (which I also got for Christmas).  But Netflix’s instant play feature (and Hulu’s, and Google video) are not accessible from the iPod, their content being blocked by Apple, which is in the business of selling and renting movies.  (Yeah, I know:  it’s all about Flash player not being written for the iPod . . . but you know why that is!)  YouTube is available in its lightweight version; however, most of the commercial content (e.g. music videos) isn’t there, since Apple is also in the business of selling music videos.

On a positive note, the iTunes store has a lot of free content if you are interested in watching academic lectures and so forth.  And the public library website has a lot of eBooks and audiobooks that are iPod compatible (although I haven’t tested this feature).  Supposedly, you can “check out” the content in such a way that what you download automatically erases itself after the check out period.


Most of the functionality most sorely missed in the Touch (GPS, flash camera) is available on the iPhone, but the iPhone requires, not just AT&T’s cell service, but it’s data plan as well.  I’m pretty sure that package will run you $1000 per year.  So for a device that doesn’t require cell service or a data plan, the Touch isn’t a bad deal.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
-- Isaiah 9

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mental Health Medley

I'm clearing out some Megan McArdle RSS backlog, and a couple of posts are worth repeating:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

McNaughton Art

This is probably an old controversy (he says as he watches his RSS backlog approach 500), but I recently received an email pointing me to the work of Jon McNaughton, who has posted YouTube commentary explaining his purposes.

Jon McNaughton is, evidently, a Mormon, and his views on religion and politics are boring and conventional. Still, though, the painting is worth a look.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Oscar Boykin once told me that nobody cares about security unless it can be obtained without inconvenience.

Monday morning around 8:00 a.m., I received a voicemail from my mother-in-law. She had received a “funny email” from me, time-stamped the night before, something about me being stranded in London and needing a money transfer right away. Could I please call her?

Facebook, I immediately thought, having read sometime this year that the usual people were scamming Facebook users with exactly this appeal from hacked accounts. But 30 seconds later, my wife called. My mom had called her to tell me that she had received an email from my Yahoo email address with the exact same appeal. Crap, they’ve got my Yahoo account? “Log on to my account and change the password,” I told her. “It will be a few minutes before I can reach a computer.”

Ten minutes later, I logged onto Yahoo and found . . . nothing. I had saved thousands of emails. I had had an address book with over 400 names. All of it was now gone, and I had no way of alerting anyone that the appeal for funds was fraudulent.

But what was potentially worse was that this email address was the email-of-record for every online service I used. And what was definitely worse was that Yahoo’s login / password combo was the very login / password combo I used with all of my social networking accounts. Google. Facebook. Blogger. LinkedIn. All of these were now wide open. And financial services? Most of them have long since prevented users from choosing dictionary words as passwords . . . but not all of them.

As near as I can figure, the hackers were using my account between 9:00 p.m. Sunday at 3:00 a.m. on Monday. Six hours. It took me longer than that to undo the damage.

First, I logged onto Facebook. Change the password, validate a new email address, and post a newsfeed item to ignore emails from Yahoo. I have about 140 Facebook friends, but they would need to be reading Facebook to see a newsfeed item, so I had to send out a Facebook message to be sure everyone would get the word. Facebook, unfortunately, doesn’t want its messaging system to be used for spam, so it limits each message to 20 recipients, and doesn’t make it easy to grind these out.

But that was only a fraction of the people vulnerable. Fortunately, I had a two-year-old backup of my address book on my laptop. Less fortunately, my new email service also had a limit on the number of recipients that a single email could have. The number was higher - 100 - but it worked out to be 100 per hour, because after each email of 100 recipients I sent out, the service temporarily froze my account.

It’s not fair! I thought. My hackers can churn out email faster than I can as the lawful owner!

Meanwhile, the phone at home was ringing off the hook. Most of the Americans called to say that I had been spoofed; I benefitted from a combination of my own reputation as a writer and the poor spelling of the hackers. But some of the foreigners were at the point of being taken in, although they wondered why I wasn’t calling my wife for help.

During the down time, I turned my attention to the other accounts. I just counted them, and I have at least 27 different services for which this address was the email-of-record. All of these now had to be updated. My favorite experience (intended sarcastically) was a business credit card obtained through my employer. When I logged in, I was greeted with a message that my password had expired; would I please click the button below to obtain a new password? Congratulations! it said afterward. We have emailed your new password to your email-of-record.

I was lucky. Oscar was right: I hadn’t cared enough about security to follow anything close to smart password practices. But my hackers didn’t even take the trouble to change the password to my Yahoo account, let alone examine its contents to see what other opportunities might be there for them. Had they done so, I could have been badly hurt, rather than put out about eight hours of work.

Blogging Status: still busy. I see that my RSS reader has over 400 unread items. Sorry for not keeping up with y'all.