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Week of 15 December 2003

Latest Update : Saturday, 20 December 2003 09:49 -0500


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Monday, 15 December 2003

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9:11 - I finished building the Home Theater PC yesterday. By far the loudest part of it is the CPU cooler sitting on top of the Athlon XP 2600+. It's pretty noticeable with the lid off, but we're hoping that with the lid on and sitting all the way across the den it'll be acceptable. If not, there are quieter alternatives.

I had planned to use a 160 GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 S-ATA hard drive. Unfortunately, (a) the Seagate S-ATA drive has only an S-ATA power connector, (b) the Antec TruePower 380 power supply has only P-ATA power connectors, and (c) I couldn't find an adapter cable, and it was Sunday. So I ended up using a 120 GB Seagate Barracuda ATA V P-ATA drive. It was that or a 160 GB Maxtor DiamondMax Plus9 drive, which is fast and reliable but significantly noisier than the Barracuda.

I had also planned to use a black Plextor combo drive to give me DVD-ROM and CD-R/RW. I couldn't find one of those. I found an empty box for one. That'll teach me to keep empty boxes. I ended up installing a white Plextor PX-504A DVD+R drive. I'd dithered about including local DVD burning capability in the HTPC system, and had concluded that I didn't need it there. Instead, I could simply copy anything I wanted to archive over to one of my main desktop systems, where it'd be a lot more convenient to burn the DVD (rather than using a TV as a display). But the PX-504A, while overkill, will certainly do the job.

Now comes the fun part, installing the ATi PVR software and getting everything configured. After that, the second fun part will be getting all the cables connected. I think I'm going to have to stop by Radio Shack and pick up a splitter. The way things are currently set up, the cable TV f-connector goes to the VCR, which has an RF-out f-connector that goes to the TV. The RADEON All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro has an RF-in f-connector, but that's it. (Well, actually, it has a second f-connector, but that's FM-in).

I can, of course, connect video-out from the RADEON to the TV, and that's what we'll use for watching recorded programs. But we'd like to be able to watch one channel while recording another, and that means we need two tuners. I could add a second tuner card to the HTPC box, but it's cheaper, easier, and quicker just to use the TV tuner to watch live TV. But that means I'll need RF-in to the TV, which is why I need the splitter.

Appearance-wise, the HTPC box will do for now, but I need to make a couple of changes. I was at first annoyed because I had only a white drive, but looking at the system, the white drive with the brushed chrome bezel is actually less intrusive than a black drive would have been. But neither is perfect. I think what I'm going to do eventually is replace the white PX-504A DVD burner with a black DVD-ROM drive and paint the brushed-chrome front bezel of the Antec Overture case with a can of flat black spray paint.

As I've been doing all of this, it has struck me more than once that this is a very strange project for someone who'd be happier having no television in the house at all. Still, I suppose it makes sense, because this is probably going to be the Year of the HTPC. It's also likely to be the Year of DRM, so if you value your Fair Use rights, now would probably be a good time to build a similar system before open components disappear from the market. It'd probably also be a good time to learn about things like duping DVDs, and for downloading the software that you need to rip and dupe.

And speaking of the Year of *, someone emailed me the other day to ask how I can call myself a pundit if I never publish a list of predictions for the coming year. As far as I remember, I've never called myself a pundit, but perhaps I will come up with a list of my predictions for 2004.

14:24 - Here's an interesting piece of information. When I realized that the Antec Overture case had no S-ATA power connectors with its power supply, I sent off the following message to one of my contacts at Antec. Her response follows:

I've started building the "Home Theater PC" based on the Overture case. It's a very nice case, but I was surprised to find that the power supply doesn't include any Serial ATA power connectors. I'd assumed that by this time Antec power supplies would include at least one S-ATA power connector. That wouldn't have been a problem with a Maxtor S-ATA drive, which includes both S-ATA and P-ATA power connectors, but of course I am using Seagate S-ATA drives, which include only the S-ATA power connector.

Does Antec plan to modify its power supplies to include S-ATA connectors, or at least to sell (or bundle) an S-ATA->Molex power adapter?

Actually, all our regular TruePower models now include two S-ATA connectors. On the Overture, however, it is a special True 380XR model, on which these are in the process of being added. For a quick solution, you can use one of our SATA adapters. I am sending you one today.

 

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Tuesday, 16 December 2003

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8:59 - Someone posted over on the messageboard that Best Buy is selling Lite-On CD burners for $30 after rebate and Lite-On DVD+/- burners for $80 after rebate (although apparently the DVD burners are already sold out). That's an excellent price, obviously. I strongly prefer Plextor drives, but the Lite-On drives I've looked at have been usable, if not top-notch.

We're in the same stage now we were in with CD burners years ago. The best models are more reliable, less likely to burn coasters, and more likely to use any given blank disc. The cheaper models burn a lot of coasters, and can be very picky about which blanks they'll use. Interestingly, the Plextor PX-708A DVD burner seems to have "good taste" when it comes to DVD-R blanks. It'll use any name-brand DVD-R blank you throw at it, but reject no-name cheapy DVD-R blanks. Which is a good thing, although the person with a spindle of cheesy DVD-R blanks may not think so. Conversely, the PX-708A seems happy to use just about any DVD+R blank, including the no-name ones.

I hate Microsoft Word 2000. When I write a chapter draft, I embed images--screenshots, photos, and so on--so that readers can get an idea of what I'm referring to in the text. Word 2000 is extremely stupid about handling those images. I've been shooting illustrations for the current chapter with the Olympus C-5000 digital camera at five megapixels resolution.  With minimum JPEG compression, those images are about 1.5 MB on disk, although they expand to about 15 MB in memory.

When I embed one of those images in my chapter, I'd think it'd make the file size grow by perhaps 1.5 MB. Ideally, Word should allow me to specify that images should automatically be reduced in size and resolution to keep the file size down, but if there's that option I haven't found it. What makes matters worse is that Word doesn't just take 1.5 MB per image. At least it doesn't store them in expanded 15 MB form, but it does something to increase their size. After I'd added three or four such images to my draft and saved it, I happened to notice its size on disk. It was about 25 MB!

So now I'm using IrfanView manually to thumbnail each image I want to embed. At 640X480 with reasonable compression, the images drop from 1.5 MB each to about 50 KB to 90 KB each. Embedding those, the Word document file size still grows pretty fast, but not nearly as fast as when I was using the original images. Oh, well. It's just one more thing to do.

OpenOffice.org doesn't have this problem, as I recall. Several months ago, I tried using OOo to draft a chapter, and the file size remained reasonable even with a lot of embedded images. That was true even when I saved in Word 2000 format, let alone when I saved natively in the zipped format. The problem is that I can't use OOo for chapter submissions. My editor probably wouldn't have any problem with it. He uses Linux and I suspect he's probably using OOo for a lot of his personal work. But O'Reilly's production processes assume a Word document file, and OOo doesn't produce perfect Word formatted files. When I tried importing an existing Word chapter to OOo, it mostly came across perfectly. But as I scanned the chapter, I noticed that several major sections were missing entirely. They were actually in the document, but had somehow been hidden. I can't afford to take that risk. Also, O'Reilly has a detailed template for Word, with which authors apply formatting and styles. Not all of those convert nicely, and some of the heavily-formatted text is severely munged by OOo. So I'm stuck using Word 2000, although I don't like it much.

 

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Wednesday, 17 December 2003

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10:48 - Another company that sells gutter guards came out today to give an estimate. The one that came yesterday wanted $400 to replace the current gutters, using the existing downspouts, and $900 more to install their gutter guards. The one today wants $1,200 to replace the gutters with built-in gutter-guard models, again using the existing downspouts. The second one also charges $3 per foot to replace any fascia board that needs replaced.

When we talked about it last week, Barbara said that from talking to the neighbors who'd had gutter guards installed, she thought it might cost $500 or $600 to install gutter guards. I thought that was too much money to spend just so that I wouldn't have to spend a few minutes blowing out the gutters three or four times a year, but now it turns out it'll be twice that or more. The real motivation is that Barbara worries that I'll fall off the roof, which isn't going to happen. Heck, if I was remotely worried about that happening, I'd loop a tether line around the chimney before I did the back gutters.

Well, I suppose we'll talk more about it.

More heads-down writing yesterday and for the rest of this week. The HTPC system is built and all the images are shot. Now I have to put everything together in a chapter that flows. That's due by 20 December, so I have my work cut out for me. Barbara and I just signed the contract for the new book and sent it off today.

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Thursday, 18 December 2003

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10:42 - Still heads-down work on the Home Theater PC chapter. Ironically, when Barbara and I went to the astronomy club meeting yesterday evening, we forgot to check to see if Left Wing was a new episode, so we didn't bother to put a tape in the VCR. I'm wondering if we'll end up with the HTPC disk full all the time because we forget to watch and erase programs we've recorded.

That may be a problem until I get the HTPC in its final configuration. Right now, it has only a single 120 GB Seagate Barracuda ATA V hard drive. I'd planned to install at least one and possibly two 160 GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 Serial ATA drives, but (a) the S-ATA drives have only S-ATA power connectors, (b) the Antec power supply has only standard Molex drive power connectors, (c) although I have a stock of power adapters somewhere, I couldn't find any, and (d) when I was building the system, it was a Sunday, so I couldn't drive over to the computer place to buy a couple of adapters. So I ended up with "only" 120 GB of disk space in the HTPC for now.

Antec tells me that I had a pre-transition power supply, and that all shipping Antec power supplies now include a pair of S-ATA power connectors. I do have a couple of alternatives for now. I have some power adapters on the way in, and a 160 GB Seagate external hard drive showed up yesterday. Still, I think 120 GB should suffice for now, and I can always go back and reconfigure the hardware as needed. For that matter, it'll probably be a blessing to replace the hard drive and reinstall everything after the mess that I'll probably leave on the current hard drive from just installing and uninstalling stuff I'm playing with.

 

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Friday, 19 December 2003

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10:29 - I don't know if or when I'll be able to publish this. I never was able to publish yesterday, although Barbara was able to publish her page last night. Something odd is going on with our Internet connection. At times it seems to be running normally, but then I'll start getting time-outs when browsing the web or checking mail. At first I thought it was a local problem. I rebooted my machine without effect. So I checked other systems here and they were also having access problems. So I unplugged the cable modem and re-connected it. No joy. Finally, I rebooted my Linux border router, again without any improvement. Roadrunner is having some kind of serious problem around here, and it's been going on for more than 24 hours now.

When Barbara got home from work, I mentioned it to her and she said they'd been having problems downtown as well. So perhaps the problem is more than just Roadrunner. Jerry Pournelle was having all kinds of problems yesterday POPping his mail, so there may be something a bit more widespread happening. Roland Dobbins told me there's no general problem, but I've also heard from other people who are having problems. I wonder what's going on.

13:30 - There's some discussion going on on a mailing list I belong to about people who are ambidextrous. I posted the following true story to the list:

My mother was naturally left-handed, but when she was in elementary school they forced her to learn to write right-handed. She was born in 1918, so in those days they still literally smacked kids with a ruler when they tried to use their left hands.

The result was that my mother ended up being ambidextrous. That turned out to be a blessing later in her life, because she was disabled for the last thirty years of her life with rheumatoid arthritis. Some days she couldn't use her left hand, and other days her right. But she could always write with whichever hand was working better that day.

I call myself ambisinistrous, because I do things equally badly with either hand. Actually, that's not quite true. I do some things with one hand and others with the other hand, which is really strange. I didn't realize it until someone pointed it out, but for example I write and throw a ball right-handed, but eat, play pool and shoot a rifle or shotgun left-handed.

What's very odd is that I play tennis right-handed and racket ball left-handed. I made that pay off one time when I was in college. There was this girl I was hitting on, and she was an excellent racket ball player. I'd played tennis with her, so she "knew" I was right-handed. I'd never played racket ball with her, but one day she was smarting off about how she could beat me at racket ball. I proposed that if I beat her at racket ball she would have sex with me. She wasn't confident enough to accept that bet, so I said, "Okay, how about if I play you left-handed?" Heh, heh, heh.

Actually, that's not all that strange, because back when I played tennis seriously I strongly favored my backhand side. I hit a hard open forehand, but was limited there there to flat or perhaps a bit of topspin. I hit backhands harder still, and could do anything with them from underspin to flat to heavy topspin. I guess that came from playing thousands of sets with my brother, who's left-handed. A million or so cross-court rallies made sure Bill and I were both comfortable off either side, but both of us preferred the backhand side, to the extent that we'd both run around forehands to hit backhands. When we played doubles, people always thought it was strange that I played deuce court and Bill played ad, but that was so we'd both have our backhands down the middle, where the vast majority of the balls come. So I guess I'm really naturally left-handed and just happen to do some things right-handed.

When I was teaching people to play tennis, mostly girls of course, I always made the point that backhand was a natural stroke, because your body wasn't in the way. Forehands are very unnatural, because your body is in the way of the swing. I could never figure out why nearly everyone considers forehands easy and backhands difficult, when the truth is the reverse. When anyone challenged me on that idea, I always said, "Oh, yeah? Try dealing cards forehand."

 

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Saturday, 20 December 2003

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9:49 - Last night I read an interesting article about Cyndi Lauper. (scroll down the page past the Yoko Ono stuff for the part about Cyndi).

It was about 1984, and Cyndi Lauper and Madonna were phenoms in a pop music scene that was finally starting to recover from disco. Lauper had topped the charts with her memorable Girls Just Want To Have Fun, and Madonna with something forgettable. Barbara and I had recently seen some Madonna videos, and had just watched a Cyndi Lauper concert on HBO or VH1. The conversation went something like this:

RBT: Well, it's pretty clear which of the two is immensely talented...
BFT: Yep, Cyndi Lauper.
RBT: and which one is talent-free...
BFT: Yep, Madonna.
RBT: And it's pretty clear which one will be the superstar...
BFT: Yep, Madonna
RBT: and which will be forgotten and end up opening for mediocre acts.
BFT: Yep, Cyndi Lauper.

And that, alas, is how it worked out. To most people, Cyndi Lauper is a lightweight one-hit wonder for Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Well, maybe a two-hit wonder, if you include Time After Time. That's unfair, really, because Ms. Lauper has had a successful career by most measures, including Grammys and Emmys. But, unlike Madonna, the girl can actually sing, as in a four-octave range. If you have the chance sometime, listen to some of the covers she's done of everything from R&B to Celtic stuff to Pop. She did one cover with Peter Kingsbery for a French TV show of the insipid pop piece Walk Away Renee. Her voice makes it haunting.

 

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Sunday, 21 December 2003

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