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December 2002

Looking back on 2002

It’s been an interesting year.
The biggest change, obviously, is that I now know how it feels to have a six-figure debt. For those who are curious, it feels better than renting.

I started dating again, and while this relationship isn’t yet my longest-ever, this one certainly feels a lot better than my longest-ever, which was the first one to ever force me to ask the question, “Is this better than nothing?” and then answer, “No.” That was two and a half years ago.

In the process of dating again, I had to ask and answer that question twice.

We had a round of layoffs at work. I escaped the chopping block this time. I do believe there will be another round and I’m not at all convinced that upper management is smart enough to not cut our department. And yes, I have an exit plan.

The inescapable tide of Windows XP rendered my book obsolete.

My book seems to have gone officially out of print (I don’t know if it’s customary for publishers to tell authors those kinds of things) and it’s started to show up in remainder bins. My monthly statements are finally giving hard sales figures. At remainder-bin prices, it’s selling again. But I think it’s been more than a year since I’ve cared.

I joined my church’s board of directors this year. We haven’t fallen apart as a result.

I moved this website to a completely database-driven content management system. I really like the results. I can envision a site that does a better job at letting people get at its content, but this one is on its way to that ideal.

I questioned publicly whether I should move from b2 to Movable Type. For now, I’m going to wait until b2 hits version 1.0 and then consider it again. While MT is the industry leader, I don’t think its lead over b2 is insurmountable. And neither b2 nor MT can reach that ideal I’m envisioning without modification.

I alienated some longterm readers this year. That’s par for the course, and I know that’s something that happens just about every year. But I alienated even more people in college than I do today. I’ve always believed you can alienate some of your readers or you can bore all of them. It bothers me when it happens, but there usually isn’t a whole lot you can do about it once the damage is done. In every case I can think of, it was a matter of somebody being disappointed that I didn’t share their opinion about something or think the way they did.

I’m human. I reserve the right to be wrong.

On the other hand, I seem to have gained more in the past year than I’ve lost, as my daily visits is a generally upward trend. (I stopped keeping track about mid-year last year, then picked up again mid-year this year.) It peaked in October; I lost a couple of days in November and December due to problems upstream of me and that hurt my numbers.

There’ll be changes around here next year, but it’ll have little to do with what I say or how the site looks and everything to do bringing more of my content from the past under this roof and with finding related content more quickly and easily.

A sizable number of my readers run Linux now, and I have more computers running Linux than I have running Windows. I expect both trends will continue. Open source has been a growing trend since 1997 and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue.

I entered the 21st century and got a DVD player and a digital camera.

Here’s to a better 2003.

Need public domain art?

It finally occurred to me to type “public domain” into the Wikipedia and see what came up. Lots of things, that’s what.
Among them I found a mother lode of sources of public domain images. So if you need art a Web page you’re working on and want to be free and clear, or for some other project, there’s the place to go.

The Library of Congress’ American Memory site is especially helpful. Key in whatever you want, and let it search. If the photo was taken by or for a government agency or is older than 1924, you can use it in your own work.

Note that panning and zooming on a still in a video project can be extremely effective. It’s a trick I employ all the time in order to avoid showing a talking head.

Another look at Mozilla’s anti-spam features

I downloaded and installed the most recent Mozilla 1.3 alpha build today (actually from Dec. 12).
For the past few weeks, I’d been using a nightly build I downloaded back in early November. It was buggy, but without assurance that any given night’s build would be any more or less stable than what I already had, I stuck with the familiar.

Initial impressions: The spam filtering still isn’t complete but it works (it just won’t act on the spam it finds–yet). The speed is comparable to anything else I’ve used, and one annoying bug in the mail client is gone. I’ve grown so used to having the spam filtering that I’ll put up with almost anything in order to have it–I get an unbearable amount of spam, and Mozilla quickly identifies it all for me. After a couple of months of using it, I think it’s pretty safe to say only one or two messages per week get past it anymore. I can definitely live with that.

Once when I visited news.google.com in the browser and clicked on a link, after I hit the back button I got a confusing “The file / can’t be found”. The nightly builds I used previously had the same bug. So far that’s the only one I’ve found, and the workaround is to visit a couple other sites, then go back to the troublesome one.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few hours so I can’t make any sound judgments on its quality. But as an evolutionary, not revolutionary, upgrade from its predecessor, it ought to be fairly stable.

If you’re desperate to get unburied from beneath an avalanche of spam and you’re willing to put up with a few quirks from your Web browser in order to do it, this is the most effective filter I’ve found yet.

Giving something back to the intellectual commons

As I bounced between social responsibilities, work, and personal responsibilities, I spent some time over in the Wikipedia this week.
I guess part of it is just a sense of duty. I use a lot of GPL software and expect to be tapping the public domain very soon for some upcoming projects. I’m not in a position yet to contribute anything back to the public domain.

But I get extremely annoyed at companies like Disney that see the public domain just as something to be appropriated without ever putting anything back into the pool that benefited them.

I can’t program, and at the moment all of my intellectual property is tied up by the rights of others. But I can write. And the Wikipedia has holes. My knowledge can fill in some of those holes.

So I would encourage anyone who has benefitted from GPL software (and if you use the Web, you’ve used Linux and benefitted from it, even if you’re a Windows-only kind of guy or gal) to head over to the Wikipedia and take a look around. Punch something into its search engine to see if you know anything it doesn’t know about. That even means useless trivia. Punch in your favorite sports team or your favorite band. If nothing comes up, add it. I find the Wikipedia to be strong on current events and current pop culture, and strong on things like presidential history where there are government documents in the public domain that can be appropriated, but not so strong on recent history.

Many wikipedia articles are elaborately written. I spent a couple of hours this morning researching and writing an entry on my great-grandfather’s boss, Mark Hanna. I’m sure even more work went into some of the others.

But if you’re old enough to remember encyclopedias that were printed on paper, you’ll remember that some encyclopedia articles gave little more information than your typical dictionary: Dates of birth and death and one notable achievement. On the Web, where storage space is unlimited and there’s no reason not to go into a fair amount of depth, these articles aren’t ideal. But they’re better than nothing. Someone else is more likely to expand on something that already exists than to create it.

Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.

Merry Christmas

I’m outta here for a bit.
I worked today–did a server upgrade with no one around. Fun. Not.

Then I came home to wrap presents. I’d hidden the presents I bought. I hid them so well it took me half an hour to find them.

And now there’s a few inches of snow on the ground. It’s really pretty. Until you have to drive in it. Sometime after we elected the Redneck from Rolla to be our governor, we forgot how to plow our roads.

So I’m off on a great adventure. See you in a couple days. And Merry and Blessed Christmas to all of you.

Picking a power supply for my video editing PC

I rebuilt my video editing system this past week.
Some months ago, Windows 2000 decided to start acting really goofy–it would start up, and Explorer would crash and restart every 10 seconds. I was able to make the system usable again by going into win.ini and changing the shell from Explorer to the old Program Manager, but seeing as I can’t stand Program Manager, I didn’t like that solution much.

I took the opportunity to make some more changes to the system too, specifically, upgrading to a 1.2 GHz Duron CPU and adding a second 18 GB 10K RPM drive (both purchased for an aborted project) and replacing the Adaptec 2940UW host adapter with an Adaptec 19160 I purchased over a year ago and for some insane reason didn’t use when I built the system in the first place. I also dropped in a Sapphire Radeon 7500 card, since I loaned out the S3 Savage4 card that was originally in the system.

The Radeon is overkill for this application, but it’s a $40 card so I really don’t care. Having a faster processor and a drive dedicated exclusively to holding my source video improved performance noticeably. By today’s standards, this is a very modest system, but it’s very nice for editing. It’s on the low end as far as disk space is concerned–figure a gig per four minutes of video in the standard DV format you’ll get from a firewire-equipped camcorder–but it’s very fast.

It’s also extremely unreliable. In a 90-minute session, the machine locked up twice. One was a black screen of death, and the other was a spontaneous reboot. In its previous incarnation, the system had a 750 MHz Duron processor and a 4500-rpm Quantum lct as a secondary drive for overflow use (I’d use it as a holding bin for video, then move it to the 10K drive for final output to tape to avoid dropped frames). Until the weird Explorer problem, it was rock solid. My Antec 300W power supply handled that load just fine.

That Antec power supply is about three years old, a relic from an era when 500 MHz was a blindingly fast processor and power requirements weren’t as obscene as they are now. Its age and the standards to which it were built are probably a problem.

PC Power and Cooling’s power supply selector gives a nice way to size a power supply to match a system. For me, it suggested that a PCP&C 275-watt power supply would be adequate under some circumstances. Well, assuming the box provided 275 watts divided properly on the correct rails, that is. (That kind of talk makes most people’s eyes start to glaze over, so people don’t talk about it much. PCP&C included.) But this machine has exactly one PCI slot still open, so it’s heavily loaded. I want more headroom than that.

PCP&C has its 350W box on sale for $71, which is considerably higher than Newegg will charge for basic 350W Antec or Enermax units, but pricing on business-grade or enthusiast-grade Antec and Enermax units is in line with PCP&C, and the PCP&C units have a better warranty. Plus PCP&C will ship it free and they throw in some freebies worth about $5 retail when all’s said and done.

I’ll get the Turbo-Cool 350 model rather than the Silencer 275 model. Quiet would be nice, but the system already makes a racket. So I’ll take overbuilt. Everything else about this system is.

These guys have a clue

I read on Slashdot this morning that Phish is selling soundboard recordings of its live concerts online, in unrestricted format.
For $10, fans can download concerts in MP3 format, or for $13, they can download in lossless format.

Record industry and bands take note: People are far more likely to have heard of whatever artist you happen to be listening to right now than they have Phish. But chances are Phish makes more money than whoever it is you’re listening to right now. The Rolling Stones had problems selling out venues on their last tour. Phish never has problems filling the house.

I’m not a Phish fan. To my knowledge, I’ve only ever heard one Phish song, back in 1996 when they had a song in heavy rotation on the AOR-oriented station I listened to in college. They’re a quirky alternative band. I like quirky alternative music, but my favorite quirky alternative bands are quirky in different ways than Phish.

Phish’s absence from most radio stations tells you that a lot of people aren’t into their quirks. Yet a lot of other people are. Phish proves that narrowcasting, as opposed to broadcasting, can be profitable. You don’t have to be a manufactured sellout to make it in the industry. Phish was around long before the current crop of manufactured boy bands, and after all of this crop is just a memory like the Bay City Rollers and the New Kids on the Block, Phish will still be making records and touring.

So what’s the secret? The willingness to sell unprotected copies of its concerts online gives a good clue. Phish allows things like tape recorders and cameras in their concerts. And if you want to trade live tapes with friends or give them away, that’s fine too. So people can get introduced to the band very cheaply.

How often have you heard a new band, liked their stuff, and then run out and bought more of it? I know I’ve done it a lot. But if I only kind of like a band, I don’t become obsessed, because I don’t run out to buy a $15 disc that I kind of liked. But when a friend is free to give me a copy of something I kind of like, I get more chances to acquire a taste for it. Obviously, not everybody who copies a Phish concert becomes a fan. But the economics show that some people who copy Phish concerts must end up running out and buying records and concert tickets.

Still not convinced? The Dave Matthews Band has a similar liberal policy towards taping shows, and you can download all the DMB concerts you want, for free, at archive.org. You probably have heard of them. I know you’ve heard them on the radio.

People are going to copy the Phish MP3s they download. Friends will split the cost of downloading one concert and then make copies for each other. I know that, and I’m sure that Phish knows that. They ask people not to do that. Some will anyway.

But the companies that sell dirty JPEGs online don’t protect their wares. They’re smoking crack if they think their stuff isn’t getting passed around. A cursory glance at the headers tells you the whole alt.binaries.sex tree is one massive copyright violation. But the players you read about in the mainstream press in the mid-’90s are the same players you read about in the mainstream press today. Piracy isn’t putting those guys out of business. They get people hooked on their product and they come pay for it when they can’t get enough of it for free.

Doesn’t music pretty much work the same way?

I’m not saying this makes piracy right or ethical, but if someone pirates something and then ends up buying more stuff than they pirated in the first place, then the copyright holder isn’t exactly hurt by the action.

About six years ago, there was a Web site called The Cure MP3 Audio Archive. You could go there and download everything imaginable–basically everything that had ever been recorded by the band that didn’t appear on the albums you could buy in record stores–from demos Robert Smith, Porl Thompson and Lol Tolhurst recorded when they were in high school and called themselves Easy Cure to recordings from their most recent concerts. Eventually a band representative asked them to remove all of the studio recordings. They complied. Then a couple of months later, Elektra Records stepped in and shut the site down completely.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Elektra, or Robert Smith himself, for that matter, had simply bought out the archive and turned it into a pay site.

I think we’re about to get an idea.

I’m returning to the Web’s good old days

In the early days of the Web, there were only 12 pages on it.
Well, there appeared to be hundreds, even thousands, of pages on the Web, but only 12 of them actually had any real content. The rest of them were pages coded by college students, who were the only people who had time to learn HTML (they made time by signing up only for classes that met in computer labs and worked on their homepages during lecture). Their pages consisted entirely of their resume, a bunch of animated GIFs, links to however many of the 12 pages they’d discovered, and links to all their friends.

Then the college students flunked out because they didn’t pay attention in class–the professors handed them finals, and they thought it was scrap paper meant to be used to sketch out the next week’s big design–and two years later, after the school’s bureaucracy figured out they were no longer students and kicked them out, they went and got jobs.

Somehow they convinced their new employers that if they went and spent thousands and thousands of dollars on equipment and put their companies online, they’d make lots of money. The result of that convincing was the dot-com boom. The biggest difference for the students was that now they got paid a fortune to sit in the back of a cubicle programming Web pages that contained a lot of animated GIFs (provided by advertisers, rather than stolen from another Web page), and, in a novel bit of creativity, these animated GIFs themselves linked to one of the 12 pages on the Web that contained real content.

Well, after a series of IPOs that would have created hundreds of thousands of new millionaires had they not been forbidden by law from selling their stock certificates, someone finally remembered how to read a balance sheet and found that the total amount of money generated by the dotcom boom was four-fifty. Rubles. Investors panicked and sold off all their stock. Companies got investigated for fraud and the college students got laid off. (You thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you?) Once again, they hung around for a couple of years until the bloated bureaucracy figured out they didn’t work there anymore and kicked them out.

The upside of all of this is that the Web isn’t as commercial now as it was a few years ago. The downside is that the commercials are way more annoying than ever.

Meanwhile, those college students are still working on their personal pages, most of which now end in .com or .net or .org and they don’t have squiggly lines in them anymore. Now they annoy the 12 Web sites that still produce original content by deep-linking their stories on blogs and adding their own comments.

Meet the new Internet: Same as the old Internet.

So in that grand tradition, since I haven’t had an original thought all day and have absolutely nothing meaningful to say tonight, I’ll provide a couple of links to stories I found and add some worthless commentary to it. And someone will think it’s great and spectacular and declare me a visionary and I’ll start a new software company.

Or something.

Santa Claus reportedly considering Linux

BBSpot: “IIS couldn’t keep up when Slashdot posted a link to that web-interface I made for turning Rudolph’s new LED nose on and off. That was the last straw,” [Santa] Claus continued. “I’m entrusting the entire holiday of Christmas to a company that can’t even make a reliable web server?”
The story mentions lots of other reasons for Santa to switch from Windows. I guess that means Santa doesn’t believe that controversial IDC report from last month or whenever it was. Thanks to Karl Koenig for this link.