Dinosaur hunting

Today I slipped over to Laclede Computer Trading Company for the first time in many years. I was in search of an ISA parallel card. They’re not easy to find these days, mostly because they aren’t particularly useful to most people these days, but I figured if anyone would have one, it would be them.

No dice. But man, what memories.

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The kind of guy who could save America

I went to several estate sales today (it’s what I do on Saturdays, after all), but one was memorable. Some sales just jump out at you, and this one had evil genius/mad scientist written all over it.The estate belonged to a man named Carl. From what I could gather, Carl was Catholic, diabetic, and from my wife’s comments, must not have been married at the time he died. She mostly stayed upstairs while I rollicked around in the basement, which was tinkerer’s heaven.

“This guy was just like you!” my wife marveled when I resurfaced once. Well, she’s half right. I very much would have liked Carl. And yes, Carl liked computers and models and trains and didn’t see any point in buying anything he could make himself. But Carl’s knowledge of physics and other sciences went far, far beyond mine, as did his knowledge of electronics. I pulled out box after box after box of electronic components. Some of the stuff was pretty new, and some of it obviously dated to the early 1970s, if not earlier. It pains me to think most of that stuff is going to get thrown away, but there’s no sense in me buying it, even for pennies on the dollar, when I don’t know what it is, let alone what to do with it.

It’s entirely possible that Carl and I did cross paths, sort of. In the 1980s and early 1990s, BBSing was a common hobby among people who enjoyed electronics, amateur radio, and computers. People exactly like Carl. For that matter, it’s possible he might not have just dialed into BBSs, he fit the stereotype of a BBS operator like a hand in a glove. Who knows, maybe Carl ran a BBS I used to call.

Digging around Carl’s work area, I found lots of different things. I bought some moldmaking supplies and casting resin, Bondo body filler, and some tools. Carl took care of his tools. But on his workbench, I found a single file laying there that still had metal shavings on it. Perhaps Carl died before he was finished with it and cleaned it. I found a brush, cleaned off the file, and could picture Carl looking down, nodding approval. I bought the file and the brush. Both were better than the ones I owned previously.

Unfortunately, Carl is the type of person our society has been trained to fear, rather than respect, especially during this decade. I found plenty of literature that Homeland Security wouldn’t approve of. Instructions for making Tesla coils, and lots of instructions for making things that go boom in the back yard. I also found literature that dealt with alternative car fuels, converting cars to electric power, and generating your own electricity.

He was also obviously very interested in robotics and using computers to control things. In a spare bedroom, I found a pile of old Timex Sinclair 1000 computers and peripherals. He added I/O ports to most of them, and hacked another one to use a Texas Instruments keyboard instead of the cheap membrane keyboard that came with it. He must have used that Sinclair for programming. Another spare bedroom had a couple of barely started robotics projects.

Unfortunately, many people look at people like Carl, and are too quick to label him a deviant, or worse yet, a terrorist. The label is unfair. In fact, during natural disasters, amateur radio operators often are the people with the best information early, giving invaluable information to relief workers.

But the most important thing is the tendency not to think within the boundaries that “normal” people usually confine themselves to. Among his things, I found a book titled How to Patent Your Ideas.

Now I don’t know what kind of ideas he had floating in his head. As far as I can tell, he never published any of them (I have his last name, and I searched out of curiosity).

But with all this talk today about energy independence, I think it’s great that some guy in Crestwood, Missouri was thinking along those lines. I don’t know if any of those thoughts turned into anything tangible or not. But frankly, that kind of work is important–much more so than the tinkering I’m doing in my basement, which so far has resulted only in some wooden toys for my son to play with, and metal toys for me.

We need some new ideas, rather than just buying everything from abroad. I know there are still people like Carl out there, but I hope they aren’t a dying breed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden desire to go see what I can do with some of the tools I bought from Carl’s workbench.

Why I generally buy AMD

I was talking to a new coworker today and of course the topic of our first PCs came up. It was Cyrix-based. I didn’t mention my first PC (it seems I’m about four years older–it was an Am486SX2/66).

With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve always bought non-Intel PCs. Most of the Intel PCs I have bought have been used. One boss once went so far as to call me anti-corporate.

I’m not so much anti-corporate as I am pro-competition.

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Time for a core dump

I’ve been keeping a low profile lately. That’s for a lot of reasons. I’ve been doing mostly routine sysadmin work lately, which is mind-numbingly boring to write about, and possibly just a little bit less mind-numbingly boring to read about. While a numb mind might not necessarily be a bad thing, there are other reasons not to write about it.
During my college career, I felt like I had less of a private life than most of my classmates because of my weekly newspaper column. I wrote some pretty intensely personal stuff in there, and frankly, it seemed like a lot of the people I hung out with learned more about me from those columns than they did from hanging out with me. Plus, with my picture being attached, I’d get recognized when I went places. I remember many a Friday night, going to Rally’s for a hamburger and having people roll down their windows at stoplights and talk to me. That was pretty cool. But it also made me self-conscious. College towns have some seedy places, you know, and I worried sometimes about whether I’d be seen in the vicinity of some of those places and what people might think.

Looking back now, I should have wondered what they would be doing in the vicinity of those places and why it was OK for them to be nearby and not me. But that’s the difference between how I think now and how I thought when I was 20.

Plus, I know now a lot fewer people read that newspaper than its circulation and advertising departments wanted anyone to think. So I could have had a lot more fun in college and no one would have known.

I’m kidding, of course. And I’m going off on tangent after tangent here.

In the fall of 1999, I willingly gave up having a private life. The upside to that is that writing about things helps me to understand them a lot better. And sometimes I get stunningly brilliant advice. The downside? Well, not everyone knows how to handle being involved in a relationship with a writer. Things are going to come up in writing that you wish wouldn’t have. I know now that’s something you have to talk about, fairly early. Writing about past girlfriends didn’t in and of itself cost me those relationships but I can think of one case where it certainly didn’t help anything. The advice I got might have been able to save that relationship; now it’s going to improve some as-yet-to-be-determined relationship.

There’s another downside too. When you meet a girl and then she punches your name into a search engine, if you’re a guy like me who has four years’ worth of introspective revelations out on the Web, it kind of puts you at a disadvantage in the relationship. She knows a whole lot more about you than you do about her. It kind of throws off the getting-to-know-you process. I’d really rather not say how many times that’s happened in the past year. Maybe those relationships/prospective relationships were doomed anyway. I don’t have any way of knowing. One of them really hurt a lot and I really don’t want to go through it again.

So I’ve been trying to figure out for the past few weeks what to do about all this. Closing up shop isn’t an option. Writing strictly about the newest Linux trick I’ve discovered and nothing else isn’t an option. Writing blather about the same things everyone else is blathering about is a waste of time and worthless. Yes, I’ve been saying since March that much, if not all, of the SCO Unix code duplicated in Linux is probably BSD code that both of them ripped off at different points in time. And now it’s pretty much been proven that I was right. So what? How many hundreds of other people speculated the same thing? How could some of us be more right than others?

I’m going to write what I want, but I’m having a hard time deciding what I want to write. I know I have to learn how to hold something back. Dave Farquhar needs a private life again.

For a while, this may just turn into a log of Wikipedia entries I made that day. Yes, I’m back over there again, toiling in obscurity this time. For a while I was specializing in entries about 1980s home computing. For some reason when I get to thinking about that stuff I remember a lot, and I still have a pile of old books and magazines so I can check my facts. Plus a lot of those old texts are showing up online now. So now the Wikipedia has entries on things like the Coleco Adam and the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. Hey, I find it interesting to go back and look at why these products were failures, OK? TI should have owned the market. It didn’t. Coleco should have owned the market, and they didn’t. Atari really should have owned the market and they crashed almost as hard as Worldcom. So how did a Canadian typewriter company end up owning the home computer market? And why is it that probably four people reading this know who on earth I’m talking about now, in 2003? Call me weird, but I think that’s interesting.

And baseball, well, Darrell Porter and Dick Howser didn’t have entries. They were good men who died way too young, long before they’d given everything they had to offer to this world. Roger Maris didn’t have an entry. There was more to Roger Maris than his 61 home runs.

The entries are chronicled here, if you’re interested in what I’ve been writing lately while I’ve been ignoring this place.

My video editing ephiphany

Something I learned yesterday. And it was entirely a happy accident. But many things that appear to have artistic quality are nothing but happy accidents.
My copy of Adobe Premiere 6.0 had a second disc in the jewel. I had assumed it was just tryout versions of other Adobe software, or a tutorial disc, so I never really paid much attention to it. It turned out to be a disc titled SmartSound QuickTracks for Adobe Premiere. It’s awfully cool, in reality. Install it, and then you can go into File, New in Premiere and select QuickTrack. Click Launch Maestro, and up pops a wizard-style interface. Pick a few options that describe the nature of your piece (style, mood, etc.) and tell it how long you want your audio clip to be, and it’ll loop musical bits in its library to give you one or more sound clips as close to your specifications as possible. Play them, and if any are satisfactory, it’ll generate a file and drop it into one of Premiere’s bins for you.

Very slick. And professional films almost always have a soundtrack to them. The reason is pretty simple. Music can heighten mood, and changes in the soundtrack can delineate segments of the film.

But I learned another reason. The video, with Luke speaking, had a lot of room noise in it, and I found it distracting. I tried filtering out the noise, but that’s hard to do if you don’t have any experience doing it. By the time I was done, his voice was crystal clear, but he sounded like a speech synthesizer. Imagine an old Texas Instruments Speak ‘n Spell with intonation and mood, and you’ll have a pretty good idea how Luke sounded. So I left the noise in there. (With pro equipment, you record room noise with one mic and the subject with another mic, so you can turn down the room noise at will. But I didn’t use pro equipment.)

What I found, after inserting a loop of Mozart being played softly on piano, was that Luke sounded clearer. The music covered up the distracting elements of the room noise, leaving just enough that you could still tell Luke was recorded in a living room, not a sound room. But the distracting element was camouflaged. And Mozart made me concentrate on what Luke was saying.

Steve DeLassus tells me this discovery qualifies me as a scientist.

I tried a couple of other pieces and found they didn’t work so well, so some experimentation is usually necessary. But it made the video look a whole lot more professional and a whole lot more polished. I won’t impress people in the audience who have Premiere and have loaded the same disc (I recognized a few of the more contemporary pieces as very commonly used stock music footage, mostly from low-budget commercials) but impressing people isn’t the goal anyway.

Of course once you get sick of the freebie tunes or if you can’t find an appropriate one, you can buy bigger libraries at $295 a pop. And that’s something I’ll probably do at some point.

If you happen to have Premiere (and if you don’t, I recommend you pick up a Pinnacle DV200 card, which sells for under $300 and includes Premiere, SmartSound QuickTracks, Photoshop LE, Pinnacle’s very nice DVTools for automatically scanning and cataloging your tapes, and plug-ins for titling and transitions–you get more functionality than Apple Final Cut Pro delivers, and Final Cut Pro costs $995), adding a musical score is a good way to spice up your home movies. I’m sure that someday the RIAA will determine that the use of commercial music in people’s home videos is the cause of declining record sales–since it can’t be the economy or the declining quality of new releases–but until that happens, private use of the music in your record collection will be covered under fair use. So I’m sure I’ll have to license rights to use U2’s “Kite” in the video I want shown at my funeral service in 2101, but for the time being, if you want to integrate Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” into your vacation video, no one’s going to stop you.

Speaking of which, not to sound morbid, but give “Kite” a listen if you happen to have All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I can’t think of a cooler song to play at a funeral. “Who’s to know when the time has come around / Don’t want to see you cry / I know that this is not goodbye.” Although, admittedly, I misunderstood the line “I’m a man / I’m not a child” as “I’m a man / I’m out of time,” which has considerably more finality. But, as is often the case, I digress.

Elementary video. This guide is very basic. But if you follow its rules to the letter, you’ll always look competent. If you’re wanting to make your home movies look better or learn the basics of video editing, it’s a good start, and considerably less expensive than the route I took. Someone else paid for my initial training, but it sure wasn’t cheap.

The other thing to remember about rules: Eventually you’ll develop a sense for when to break them. And eventually you’ll give in to that sense, and you’ll discover that some shots look great even though they stomp all over the rule of thirds. Don’t worry about it. That’s the difference between breaking rules intelligently and non-intelligently. I’m sure there are sentence fragments somewhere on this page too. Most of them are there for some reason, albeit probably sick and twisted.

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