Friday, 30 May 2008

Shorten URLs via - free bookmarklet for URL redirection

I've started using the free microblogging (or, for me, more microchatting!) service Twitter a lot more lately, but posting URLs (web addresses) within a tweet takes up too much valuable room when you've only got 140 characters to play with.

If you try to include a URL of more than a certain length in a tweet, Twitter does automatically shorten it using TinyURL, but the catch is that the full length of the original longer URL is still counted towards your 140 characters behind the scenes.

So the best course is to reduce or compress the length of the original URL yourself as much as possible first, then paste that "manually" -shortened URL into your tweet.

URL redirection or compression services

There are several free URL redirection services around that will shorten URLs for you, of which I think TinyURL was the first - certainly it's the best known.

You feed them your long URL and they produce a reduced short URL you can use instead which, when clicked, will redirect the clicker to the original long URL. Usually you can just copy and paste the tinier URL.

These address compression services are probably most often used to produce short URLs which the user can then paste into an email, as often long URLs which extend over more than one line will "break" in emails and then the recipient won't go anywhere on trying to click them - not unless they edit the URL first, which is problematic for novices who don't realise that, and inconvenient for everyone.

URL redirection services have their risks (see the Wikipedia TinyURL article), of which the main one to me is that the service goes down or goes bust and then their URLs will stop working. But personally I'm willing to take the chance where it's for ephemeral use, e.g. in tweets which people are unlikely to look at after a day or two.

The main service I use for address shortening is Why? Because every reduction in character count helps, and produces the shortest URLs of any URL shortening service I know of: 5 characters in their base URL, compared with 11 in, for starters. Hey, 6 characters can make all the difference, if like me you find cutting down verbiage hard work!

Also, I like the fact that they produce the shorter URL in a text box, whereas with TinyURL the shortened URL is displayed in the main body of the resulting webpage. Why do I care? Because my Nokia N95 mobile phone lets me copy and paste text (including URLs) from a text box, but not from a webpage - and believe me when you're using a phone without a full keyboard, copy/paste can save bags of time and frustration. bookmarklets

Now do provide a Shorten with bookmarklet which you can click in your browser Favorites, Links bar or Bookmarks Toolbar in order to automatically produce their compressed URL for the webpage you're currently visiting (what are bookmarklets / favelets and how to install and use them).

But what if you want to shorten a webpage's URL without having to go to that web page first, e.g. you've saved the link to its URL previously or you can just rightclick a link to it to get its URL? don't seem to have produced a favelet for that, so I have. Here it is: shorten URLs bookmarklet (which I've also added to my page of useful bookmarklets for bloggers)

Hope it's useful!

(For Firefox users there's a much fancier add-on for you can get, but it's obviously not available for users of other browsers like Internet Explorer, whereas bookmarklets generally work in all sorts of browsers.)

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Extract MP3 or other sound from video files

How to extract just the sound track from a digital video file ("convert" a video file to MP3 etc?)?

There are two easy ways I know of for Windows users, involving free downloadable software:

AoA Audio Extractor

AoA say their extractor turns AVI, MPEG, MPG, FLV (Flash Video), DAT, WMV, ASF, MOV, MP4 and 3GP video files into MP3, WAV and AC3 audio file formats. I've only tried WMV to MP3 so far.

Clearly it's a demo for their paid-for software - they have an arsenal of programs to do stuff with videos and audio files, even DVDs.

It's self-explanatory. Click Add Files, navigate to the movie files you want to add, and select a batch, or just one file if you prefer. Click Browse at the bottom to choose where on your hard drive you want the converted audio to be saved. When you're ready, click Start and go have a cuppa.


Super promises to extract the sound from the above video file formats plus a whole bunch more like FLI, FLC, M2T, MKV, NSV, OGG, QT, RAM, RM(VB), STR, SWF, TS, TRP, VIV and VOB.

It claims to produce not just MP3, WAV and AC3 sound files but also AAC, AMR_NB (for ring tones), AMR_WB, MMF (for ring tones), MP2, MPC (MusePack), OGG and WMA, but I again haven't tried all the variations yet!

The software is free but you have to go through several pages of ads to get to the download link. I don't begrudge them that, and I do check out the ads there. I think it's only fair as the software is free. (I've blogged about Super before in my post on how to convert 3gp video from mobile phones and rotate the video 90 degrees - see that post for screenshot.)


Both programs let you convert a whole batch of digital films at one go, rather than having to extract the soundtrack from each one laboriously one at a time. AoA even lets you select and convert to audio just an extract or clip from a video, rather than the full soundtrack.

I tested the software when I converted the videos I shot at the London Girl Geek Dinner about search engine optimisation on 25 March 2008. I converted them to MP3 (hear the extracted audio on the same post), and both Super and AoA Audio Extractor did the job fine. I found that AoA was a little faster, and definitely more user friendly, while Super offers more choice of file formats it can convert to and from (see my tips on using Super - although written in a slightly different context, they should help as they still deal with file conversion).

You pays your money... or rather not, in this case, so why not try both out and see which suits you better.

Tip: before uploading the MP3s, I used the open source multi-platform audio editing tool Audacity to compress and normalise the audio files, which makes the speeches sound much clearer to the listener (I was recording with a digital video camera in quite a noisy pub environment).

Friday, 23 May 2008

Birdsong on your computer while you work

If you like hearing the sounds of nature while you work at your computer, like birdsong tweetings, you could do worse than try the Birdsong Channel (which has temporarily replaced the sorely missed OneWord DAB digital radio and digital TV channel).

It has a Flash player so it should work in modern browsers. And now it's in stereo and broadcast 24 hours a day.

I like Digital One's sense of humour in saying:

"For sponsorship opportunities please contact and include the word "Twitcher" in the subject line.

Please note that the line up of birds featured in the cast may change without warning due to illness, weather and migration."

Obviously it uses up bandwidth, but from what I can tell only about 0.01MB a minute, which to me isn't too bad if you're not playing it 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Of course, some employers may block that site, you can only try it and see!

Personally I prefer silence or natural sounds as the predominant ambience in my environment while I work. I generally find background music too distracting even though normally I'm a multi-tasker (when I listen to or make music, I prefer that to be my only or at least primary activity).

Try the Birdsong Channel!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Funny misprint: orang utan, Michael Jackson & Prince Philip!

One of my fave indulgences, Fortean Times, had this wonderful typo on p.8 of the June 2008 (FT236) issue, in the Sidelines column:

"...On 10 February, Ah Meng, an orang-utan who starred in 30 travel films, and had been Prince Philip and Michael Jackson, died in Singapore Zoo, aged 48".

You may now applaud my restraint in not remarking "Well, that explains a thing or two...!"

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

TV ads: no more to deafen?

Sick of having to turn the TV volume down when ads come on, and then back up when the programme proper starts again? From a viewer / consumer perspective, being virtually deafened by a sudden blast of too-loud sound when the ad break starts is very annoying, to say the least. Well, if you're in the UK, you're in luck.

Following a consultation by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) last year, from 7 July 2008 UK television advertisements will have their sound levels regulated under a change in the Broadcasting TV Advertising Standards Code rule 6.9 so that effectively they can't be objectively or subjectively louder than the average volume of the programme they're in or indeed neighbouring ads in the same ad break. The new rule:

Advertisements must not be excessively noisy or strident. The maximum subjective loudness of advertisements must be consistent and in line with the maximum loudness of programmes and junction material.

Surely sensible advertisers won't have a problem with that. Irritating your target audience can't be good marketing / advertising practice: blaring ads may well grab the attention, but not exactly in a positive way.

Yay to the change, I say! Now if only they'd also stop compressing the background music during telly programmes too. Such as the bits of CSI when they're microscoping away in the lab and the like - the background music's often too loud there, I have to turn it down and then back up again to hear the dialogue properly. I don't treat CSI as a music video substitute, if I wanted to listen to a music video I wouldn't be watching CSI. /grumble.

Seriously, if there was a gizmo to similarly regulate the sound during TV programmes (especially many American ones, where misguided attempts at supplying realistic background noise often result in the actors' speech being drowned out), I'd gladly buy one. Maybe I'm just getting old...

Funny mis-recollection

Recently overheard:

" - it's from a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, you know, what's his name again..?"

"Rowan Atkinson".

(The curent Archbish is, of course, Rowan Williams. Though I can certainly picture Mr Bean with a tall hat!)

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Google online calculator and converter

Did you know Google's search page includes an online calculator & converter? One of my very IT literate friends didn't know this trick, so I thought I'd post this tip.

In the standard Google search box, if you type in a calculation then hit enter or Search, it'll actually do the calculation online for you, and provide the answer where you'd normally get search results displayed.

Use * for multiply, / for divide, and +, - and brackets in the usual way, then Search to see the results (more operators and full instructions here - I do wish they'd allow x for multiply though). There's a limit though, if you type in a very very very long calculation it won't do it, I'm not sure how long but I've definitely hit it.

Online conversions

Google also converts from and to units like Roman numerals (very useful in this here 21st century), as well as the more common conversions. And you can enter your query in normal language - e.g. "3.5 lbs in kg" works, just try clicking that. Or even Google's example of 0x7d3 in roman numerals! Tip: you may need to experiment, it seems to work OK with no space, but sometimes it works better if you add a space (e.g. before the lbs in the previous sentence).

Note also that the converter is case sensitive - so converting MB to GB will work but not MB to gb.

But although Googlers showed their sense of humour in allowing you to change your Google search interface language to Klingon or even Pig Latin, they don't yet let you convert into polar bears or Golden Gate Bridges. For that, you have to use the Weird Converter, though even that doesn't have baby elephants. However, if you want to, you could convert into Jenifer Anistons or human tongues, or even right whale testicles or flaccid penises, if you really can't resist the urge to try those! (Heh heh, I bet no one ever thought I'd be able to legitimately work testicles or flaccid penises into a blog post, did they?).

I can use the trick for speeding up searches on Google and other sites with a keyword, to do even fast calculations too: Ctrl-l to call up the Open URL box, then type g then space then my calculation or conversion.

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Faster searching in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera

Speed tip: if you're a faster PC go go keyboard person like me and use Internet Explorer, try installing this speedup searching hack for Internet Explorer, for quicker access to Google. I use Ctrl-l to call up the address bar then type g then space then my search, for very quick results (or you can just click in the address bar then type the keyword for the site you want to search, space, then the search term, if you prefer). So I use w for searching Wikipedia without having to go to that site first, and so on.

This "one letter search" or "shortcut search" trick works for searching your favourite sites other than Google too e.g.Wikipedia or Amazon, and you can use more than one letter to trigger your search if you wish, as long as it's not already in use. For example I use "rt" for searching for movie reviews, and "f" for Google Product Search, formerly Froogle, for price comparisons of stuff I want to buy.

In Firefox and Opera the same feature comes built in - just go to the Wikipedia or your other fave search page, rightclick in the search box, choose "Add a keyword for this search" (or "Create search" in Opera) and type your info including the chosen keyword like w, if it's not already taken (you can use more than one letter for a keyword like "wi").

Creating search in Firefox

Creating search in Opera

Carrying out the search

Then to do the search, go to the browser address bar (or use Ctrl l hotkey which I find quicker), type in the keyword, space and your search terms, and hit Enter or Go.

You can later edit your shortcut searches too (Firefox: the search is a bookmark, find it, rightclick it, choose Properties; in Opera: menu Tools, Preferences, Search tab), so it's well worth setting up search shortcuts for the main sites you regularly search.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Lessig recording: Corruption 2.0 - the next problem technology must solve

Recording of talk by Prof Lawrence Lessig at the Institution of Engineering & Technology, London for the Society for Computers & Law (free download under a Creative Commons licence, of course!) - just click the arrow to play it online:
Prof. Lessig on Corruption 2.0 (see the main page with links to the intro speech etc):
"In this lecture, Professor Lessig builds upon the work of Oxford Professor Jonathan Zittrain to identify a critical dynamic in policy making affecting the Internet, and how technologists have become central to that dynamic. The threats to privacy, security, and the proper protection for copyright are not technical, but political. The remedies to those threats will not just be political, but in an important sense, also technological. Professor Lessig describes this dynamic, and describes the emerging movement in the United States to address it."

"The essence of what he concludes is that the Internet is under threat from those with special interests to protect or those, especially in government, who seek increased control... One of the elements that underpins the argument is the considerable evidence that supports the view that government decision makers are either stupid or corrupt. Not blatantly corrupt in a Third World bribe way but ready to do what one US politician was advised to do - ‘lean to the green’, ie towards the source of campaign funds. Subtle corruption arises too from the acknowledged effectiveness of lobbying – Mickey Mouse has better funded lobbyists than open source and it shows. With the odd exception, one tends to concede that politicians are not stupid so how does one explain the worldwide trend towards retrospective extension of copyright terms when there can be no conceivable advantage to the wider public interest – it won’t, as Professor Lessig observed, persuade George Gershwin to write more music nor will it turn Cliff into Elvis. Or how to explain the US’s Federal Nutrition Board embrace of 25% sugar as being consistent with a balanced diet?.." (from Eastham writeup)

See also Laurence Eastham's report of the lecture. I'm still listening through it myself, but it sounds excellent.

You can buy or download Prof. Zittrain's book "The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It" book which sets out the ideas referred to in the quote above and in the talk.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Dr Sophie Kain: On Being a Geek,The Apprentice & Sir Alan Sugar (London Geek & Girl Geek Dinner 26 April 2008)

I've posted the full video of this talk, given at the joint London Geek Dinner & London Girl Geek Dinner of 26 April 2008, on the Girlygeekdom blog (main video on Blip) - but here's a short excerpt, just for fans of reality TV show The Apprentice, of the provocative bit where Sophie Kain, as she puts it, "slags off" Sir Alan Sugar!

More seriously, the extract is on whether it's easier for geeks to learn business than for business people to learn geek. No prizes for guessing what her view is on that. Her opinion on Sir Alan and The Apprentice:
"He's looking for better sales people to sell out of date products, when actually what he should be looking for is better geeks to develop much better products that would actually change the environment in which we live."

Zittrain "The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It" book & download

Jonathan Zittrain virtually needs no introduction: world-renowned expert and visionary on the internet and the law / society, professor at Oxford's Oxford Internet Institute and co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, his book "The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It" just came out on 1 May.

I was lucky enough to be at the book launch in London, chaired by ORG head Becky Hogge, last week at the RSA. His lively, witty and informative talk at the launch was superb - and you can now play or download the MP3 audio podcast of Zittrain's talk at the launch of "The future of the internet". The webcast will be out in a week or two, I gather (unless the RSA people were meaning just the podcast). Watch it if you can, if only for the fun slides of happy Bill Gates mugshots and a hamster-powered shredder, and of course what Prof Zittrain said in relation to those slides - but you can hear all that on the podcast. I'd not come across Cats That Look Like Hitler, though I'd heard of couch surfing before! More seriously, see the BBC report on the talk, which sums it up well.

(Digression: another reason to catch the webcast - for anyone who has to do public speaking or lecturing, viewing it should be de rigeur. This is the way to use slides in a talk, instead of inflicting death by PowerPoint on the audience.)

You can:
A full review will follow once I've finished reading it, but he makes very good points, clearly and entertainingly. I'll just quote from the synopsis for now:
"...IPods, iPhones, Xboxes, and TiVos represent the first wave of Internet-centered products that can’t be easily modified by anyone except their vendors or selected partners. These “tethered appliances” have already been used in remarkable but little-known ways: car GPS systems have been reconfigured at the demand of law enforcement to eavesdrop on the occupants at all times, and digital video recorders have been ordered to self-destruct thanks to a lawsuit against the manufacturer thousands of miles away...As tethered appliances and applications eclipse the PC, the very nature of the Internet—its “generativity,” or innovative character—is at risk.

The Internet’s current trajectory is one of lost opportunity. Its salvation, Zittrain rgues, lies in the hands of its millions of users. Drawing on generative technologies like Wikipedia that have so far survived their own successes, this book shows how to develop new technologies and social structures that allow users to work creatively and collaboratively, participate in solutions, and become true “netizens.”"

And, while I shouldn't gloat, I managed to get a signed copy of the book, with a little personalised message, yay! Ultra-intelligent, sharp, funny, a fab speaker as well as writer, and a lovely man too - don't you just want to hate him? (/fan mode).

Go read the book and join the group annotation of the book!

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Funny silly ad

Just saw this ad in a MicroAnvika pullout in T3 magazine, the gadget mag I read in spite of their ridiculous attitude to women.

The last sentence made me laugh. The claim it so makes breathlessly is certainly correct, strictly speaking. But it scares me that they think it would actually impress people who read it. Maybe they're targeting the Dumb Britain crowd. I hope...

Now what would really impress me is a scanner that's over 100% accurate: automatically paste the text into the right spot of the right document and make me a cup of Earl Grey tea (white, no sugar), perhaps?

(Is there a word or definition for silly phrases like "totally unique", "up to 100% accurate" etc? If there is, I can't think of it. It's not a tautology, exactly.)

Friday, 2 May 2008

Blogger scheduled posts: postpone or delay blog post to future date

Blogger have, as they earlier heralded, finally rolled out the ability for Blogger users to post-date their posts, i.e. write a post and then schedule it for publishing at a future date and time of your choosing.

The ability to postpone or delay blog posts written in advance has been in demand for years. This facility is great for holidays, spacing out your blog posts more evenly over the week, etc. (I admit I don't use it much myself, I'm too paranoid about my post having content that may be out of date when it's published, so I check things first and publish live.)

Previously the best workaround I knew to produce future-dated posts on Blogger was to post via email using Emailschedule.

The new Blogger scheduling facility, which also uses email via Blogsend, has been available via Blogger in Draft (the new features' test playground for Blogger users) since February, with subsequent bug fixes for permalinks and the ability to use scheduling with FTP blogs, before it finally went live for non-Draft users yesterday.

Now, when you draft a post even on the non-Draft version of Blogger, once you've finished it (and saved it, of course) all you have to do is change the date and time after the end of your post to the future date / time when you want it published, then hit Publish (you may need to click the Post Options link to make the Post date and time visible first; it used to be, I wish Blogger hadn't hid it, it doesn't take up much space and is useful). See below, outlined red on the right.

(If you use the Keep Current Time script to ensure your draft posts aren't dated when you first created them but when you publish them, you'll of course have to untick the box first, outlined red on the left above, before you try to change the date and time to your desired future date of posting.)

Full howto (including how to unschedule a previously-scheduled post) is in the Blogger Buzz post on the release of the scheduling posts feature, so I won't go into detail here. I'd just mention that you can view and edit your Scheduled Posts via the usual Edit Posts tab - there's a new "Scheduled" link now, so you can view just your Scheduled Posts:

One trap to watch for - if you're using the Keep Current Time script, you may be forgiven for thinking that "Blogger time" is the same as your time, because the script always makes the Blogger post editor show, at the end of your post, your local time. But that's not necessarily the case. When you untick the Keep current time box, and manually change the time and date (to say 10 am 10 May 2008) and hit Publish, Blogger will publish your post at the date and time you've set - but only at the moment which is that exact time in the timezone shown in your Settings, Formatting tab. If that timezone is set to a different one from your own (it defaults to US Pacific time), then it will only publish the post when it gets to 10 am on 10 May 2008 in California - not 10 am 10 May in London!

So here's a tip: if you're using Keep Current Time and want to use scheduled posting, hie ye over forthwith to Settings, Formatting and ensure your Formatting timezone is set to your own timezone (saving the change of course), to avoid possible future confusion.

I don't normally blog about straightforward stuff on Blogger these days, but I really thought this new feature was worth highlighting. Now if only Blogger will fix it pretty please so that draft posts are published bearing the date/time you click Publish, and not the original date/time when you created or last saved the post, I won't need Keep Current Time!

Get & review a free Penguin Classic book

Thought I'd blog this fast in case all the books go... you can register on the Blog a Penguin Classic site and if you're fast enough you will get sent a free Penguin Classic book to review. Titles are sent out at random.

In return you have to post a review of the book on the Blog a Penguin Classic site within 6 weeks after you receive it. Fair enough!

It's a simple and brilliant idea. Kudos to whoever thought it up at Penguin or their marketing company. What a superb way to combine old and new media, and garner lots of free publicity to boot. This is how it ought to be done.

Thanks to Rachel Clarke for the tweet!