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Week of 24 January 2005

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Monday, 24 January 2005

09:22 - We finished building the AMD budget box yesterday. I installed Windows XP and Xandros 3 on it. Both work fine. The system uses an ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 motherboard, an AMD Sempron processor, and a Lite-On CD writer in an Antec SLK2650BQE case.

For a budget system, it's actually quite fast. The Antec SLK2650BQE is a very nice inexpensive case. It has one of Antec's midrange SmartPower 350W power supplies. The case is painted matte black rather than the glossy "Piano Black" of the Sonata, but it still looks very nice.

I used a Dynatron DC1206MB-L CPU cooler, which is inexpensive but a bit louder than I'd like. The system isn't noisy, exactly, but it's definitely perceptible when running. The power supply fan and the standard 120mm case fan generate almost no noise. The high-pitched whine is all from the CPU cooler fan. With the Dynatron cooler and using the stock thermal pad, the Sempron stabilizes at 42°C, which is a bit warmer than I'd like but still well within the allowable range.

Barbara and I watch very little television. The Weather Channel, the local news sometimes, Masterpiece Theatre and some other stuff on PBS, and Barbara likes Left Wing. Once every month or two we'll watch a movie on Turner Classic Movies. That's about it.

We're paying $48.10 plus tax each month to Time-Warner Cable for cable television service. That's the basic tier of local channels, plus what they used to call the Upper Tier, which includes maybe 50 analog channels, almost none of which we ever watch. This weekend, I told Barbara we were nuts to keep paying TWC $50/month for something we get almost no use out of. So we're going to change that.

We could install an antenna and get the local channels, including PBS, for free, but Barbara wants to keep the Basic service, which is $6.66/month (I am not making this up). I'll spend part of what we save every month on a subscription to NetFlix, which is about $20/month with tax. I don't particularly like the idea of feeding the MPAA, but Barbara enjoys watching an occasional movie, and NetFlix also has a bunch of the other stuff we watch, such as the Poirot/Cadfael/Holmes mysteries, Masterpiece programs like Upstairs, Downstairs; I, Clavdivs; All Creatures Great and Small, and so on. To the extent we watch television, which isn't much, I think we can do better with NetFlix than by paying TWC $50 every month for a service we hardly use.

The home-theater PC is currently in pieces on my workbench, so until I have a stable HTPC, I'll buy an inexpensive DVD player. Not Toshiba, I think. Many, perhaps all, of their models don't play DVD+R/RW discs, which I suppose is because Toshiba is one of the leading companies in the DVD Forum. The "plus" formats are superior in every respect to the "minus" formats, so I don't want a player that doesn't work with the better formats. I think Sony, among others, makes DVD players that play all formats except perhaps the moribund DVD-RAM. I'll probably pick up an inexpensive DVD player at Wal*Mart or Best Buy and use it until I have a stable HTPC for the den. Once we no longer need it in the den, we can always use the DVD player back in the bedroom or downstairs.

On an entirely unrelated note, I intend to learn how to duplicate DVD-Video discs with Xandros.

11:48 - Thanks to Brian Bilbrey, who sent me a link that finally explains why my Viking ancestors pillaged much of Britain and Europe. It seems that they were actually trying to get from Haugesund, Rogaland, Norway, to Trondheim, Sør-Trøndelag, Norway. But Microsoft MapPoint led them astray, to the regret of much of northwestern Europe.

Viking route using Microsoft MapPoint


Tuesday, 25 January 2005

07:30 - Here's an unholy alliance. These folks are desperate to stop file-traders, and are willing to go to any lengths to do so. They are in the odd position of arguing the logical equivalent of insisting that screwdrivers should be illegal because burglars sometimes use them. They go further, though. If a burglar uses a Craftsman screwdriver, these folks want Sears to be held responsible for the burglary.

There's a proper solution, although the copyright pigs squeal every time it's mentioned. Recognize that it is absurd to criminalize behavior that nearly 100% of the population by the evidence of their own actions considers acceptable. Legalize non-commercial copyright infringement, or make it at most an infraction analogous to a parking ticket. Penalize commercial copyright infringement severely, but leave the rest of us alone.

Repeal the Digital Millennium Copyright Act now. Reduce copyright terms to seven years, renewable for seven more years, and place any copyrighted material 14 years or older into the public domain immediately. Eliminate protection for materials for which there is no Constitutional basis for copyright, including films and recorded music. Eliminate software patents and business process patents.

We've been pushed too hard. It's time to start pushing back.

10:48 - I just called Time-Warner Cable to discontinue our upper-tier service, which drops our monthly charge for cable TV from about $50 to $6.66. They really hate that, and they did their best to talk me out of it. The woman asked why we were dropping the upper tier, and I told her because we hardly ever watched anything on it. She asked if we'd reconsider if they gave us a 33% discount for three months. I told her we wouldn't, and she then asked if we'd reconsider if they gave us a 33% discount for a year. I patiently explained that, since we weren't watching the upper tier, anything short of a permanent 100% discount wouldn't sway us.

Eventually, I got it all worked out with the customer service lady, who was very nice. They start billing us at the lower rate as of today, but they don't actually disconnect the upper tier until 7 February. TWC obviously tells its customer service people to push hard against downgrades. After she told me it'd be a couple weeks until they actually disconnected the upper tier, she said that'd give us a chance to keep watching it and perhaps change our minds. Geez. I did emphasize that we want to continue our Roadrunner cable modem service, and that I'd be very upset if they accidentally disconnected it as well.

Barbara is running errands after work today, and one of them is to pick up a DVD player at Best Buy. I looked at the various models available, and decided to go with a really cheap unit. It's regularly $40 and on sale for $37. Stu Nicol, one of my subscribers, recommended it over on the messageboard. It has all the outputs and other features we need, and it reads DVD+R/RW discs. I also looked at Sony and Philips models in the $60 to $80 range, but all they add is features we don't need.

The next step is to sign up for NetFlix, but before we do that we need to sit down and decide which DVDs we want to put on our list. The site isn't explicit about how the "wish list" works, but it sounds to me as though NetFlix simply ships you any three DVDs on your list that are available, I hope giving preference to those higher on your list. I assume that if we had only three movies on our list we might have to wait for a while, but if we had 20 or 30 we'd probably get whichever three of those happened to be available soonest.

What I don't understand is how to handle series that span multiple DVDs. For example, if we wanted to watch all episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we'd have to put seven items on our list, one for each of the seven seasons. But we want to get those seven sets in order. Presumably we'd handle that by putting only Season 1 on our wish list initially, waiting until we'd gotten Season 1 before we put Season 2 on our list. But I don't know for sure. I suppose it's too much to expect NetFlix to handle conditionals on the wish lists.

On an entirely unrelated note, I'm about to order a spindle or two of Verbatim 8X DVD+R discs from NewEgg, along with some Cordura DVD cases.


Wednesday, 26 January 2005

08:35 - One of my friends is working on a project for which he needs a Windows 2000 Professional distribution CD. He has the upgrade version, but he needs the full version. He asked if I had a copy he could borrow temporarily. I didn't think that'd be a problem. Back when Microsoft first shipped Windows 2000 Pro, they sent me two boxes, each with only one NFR CD but with licenses for 10 simultaneous users.

Alas, when I cleaned up my office recently, I really cleaned up my office. I don't have much use for Windows 2000 Pro since we've converted almost entirely to Xandros Linux. I kept the Windows XP boxes because I need to run Windows XP on testbed systems to do screenshots for the books, but Windows 2000 is now so old that it's merely an historical curiosity. I know I kept at least one of the W2KP boxes, but I have no idea where it might be.

Digging around, I was able to find a Windows 2000 CD-R copy with the activation key written on it. I hope that's good enough for my friend.

Barbara brought home the $37 DVD player yesterday. I hooked it up to the TV to test it, but alas I had no DVD to use. The DVD player does at least boot and display a setup screen, so I suspect all is well. For many years, I've had a "test" DVD that I use when I need to work with DVD video for the books. It's an old Lion King video that one of my friends bought at McDonalds for $5 during a promotion. His kids outgrew it, and he gave it to me. I'd misplaced it, so I called my friend Paul Jones yesterday and asked him if he and Mary had a DVD I could borrow. Any DVD.  He did, and he dropped it by on his way to work this morning. Thanks, Paul.

What's odd is the lack of penetration of DVD-Video among my friends. I had to think for a moment to figure out which of my friends were likely to have a DVD I could borrow. Among the general population, DVD players are about as common as telephones and indoor plumbing. Among my friends, the penetration of DVD-Video is perhaps 40%, if that. Nearly all of them have DVD writers in their computers, mind you, but only a minority have DVD-Video players connected to their televisions.

Several people, including Linux users, have told me that the tools for duplicating DVD-Video discs are much better under Windows than Linux. As a learning experience, I plan to try both. Whenever possible, I much prefer to use Linux, but I'm not a total zealot. If Windows can do useful things that Linux can't, so be it.

09:45 - Thanks to everyone who's explained to me how NetFlix works. I think I have a handle on it now.

Here's an interesting article about why heavy NetFlix users wait longer for popular titles than do new and light users. I'm not worried. No matter how heavily we use NetFlix, I suspect we won't have to wait long for most titles because we're not much interested in new releases and popular movies. We're much more likely to request old Masterpiece or Mystery! titles. Of course, NetFlix probably owns fewer copies of those, so it may balance out to some extent.

Ron Morse was kind enough to post a screenshot of his current queue. It looks like Barbara and I may be in competition with Ron and his wife because our tastes are much the same.

16:30 - DVDshrink appears to be doing its thing. It's currently shrinking the DVD I borrowed from Paul, Lord of the Kings: Return of the Jedi (or something like that...), down far enough to fit on a standard DVD+R/RW disc. I don't have any interest in watching the movie, but we'll watch a few minutes of the duped copy tonight to see how it looks. That's assuming it plays at all.

I chose the minimum compression for the main movie consonant with fitting it all on a DVD+R/RW disc, which turned out to be 58%. I have no idea what that means in terms of picture quality. There was also an option later in the process for getting better image quality at the expense of longer encoding time. I chose the better quality option, which the docs say takes about twice as long. They also gave a choice of extra sharp, sharp, smooth, or extra smooth. I chose smooth for that one.

Even with the high-quality/slow option, it looks like it's going to take only 45 minutes or so to rip and encode the movie on this Pentium 4/560 system, at about 100 frames/second and 2,700 KB/s.

(Note to MPAA: I'm writing this to a DVD+RW disc, which I will erase before I return the original DVD set to Paul. I don't want a copy of your stinking movie. Have a nice day.)


Thursday, 27 January 2005

09:55 - Tomorrow at noon is the deadline to register for a free review copy of PC Hardware Buyer's Guide: Choosing the Perfect Components. If you're a subscriber and would like a review copy, see the instructions for registering on the Subscribers Page. There are only 40 or 50 people registered so far, and I think O'Reilly plans to send out about 50 copies, so your chances of getting one are excellent.

I was mistaken about the time needed to rip and encode the movie. The first pass, which took 45 minutes or so, was only the analysis pass. A second compression pass was needed, which took about the same amount of time. Also, as Barbara pointed out, I had the name of the movie wrong. It's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. When she got home and asked which movie I'd copied, I told her Martin Luther King: The Return of the Jedi. We watched a few minutes of the movie, just to verify that the copy was usable, but when the guy bit into the live fish that was it as far as Barbara was concerned. She never has liked sushi.

I was pleased by the picture quality at 60% compression (which is actually 40% compression; DVDshrink refers to a compressed bitstream that's 60% of original size as "60% compression"). It was noticeably better than VHS quality, and in fact I couldn't tell any difference between the 60% video stream and the original 100% video stream, or indeed any difference between 60% and a live cable signal. Part of the reason for that may be that we're watching the video on a standard analog 27" Panasonic TV. With a larger screen or a full digital path there may well have been differences.

The runtime of the movie is 200 minutes, so 60% compression corresponds to a disc capacity of 120 minutes. I guess that means I'll be able to rip a DVD that has a movie that runs 120 minutes or less or two 60 minute episodes of a TV program without using compression at all.

I'm pleased with DVDshrink, other than the fact that it's a Windows program. It's supposedly possible to run it under Linux using WINE, but I won't mess with that. I'll test the native Linux-based DVD ripping and compression tools. If they work to my satisfaction, I'll use them. Otherwise, I'll just use DVDshrink under Windows.

I installed Windows XP on a test-bed system yesterday, an Intel D925XCV with a Pentium 4/560 processor. I departed from my usual machine naming conventions. This one's named ripper, which seemed appropriate.

When laws are far divorced from reality, as is now the case with copyright law, I think it's everyone's responsibility to ignore those laws and instead behave in what they determine for themselves to be a morally correct way. Here are my own guidelines:

1. If I have ever had a right to have a personal copy of a movie or television program, I always have that right. For example, the Cadfael mysteries; the Poirot mysteries; Upstairs, Downstairs; I, Clavdivs; and All Creatures Great and Small have all been broadcast on PBS. I had and have the right to record copies of them for personal use, and in fact I have copies of many of them on VHS tapes.

2. The source or format of a particular copy is immaterial. The copyright pigs try to differentiate based on the source of the copy. For example, years ago radio stations began using hard disk MP3 copies of music tracks. At least one company began shipping actual hard drives to radio stations, pre-loaded with MP3 playlists. The RIAA shut them down, even though the radio stations already owned physical CD or vinyl copies of all the tracks being distributed on the hard drives. The RIAA claimed that possession of the original CD tracks did not give the radio stations the right to receive or use the MP3 versions distributed on hard drives. That's crap. Once the radio station (or I) has the right to use something, they have the right to use it in whatever format they choose. They, and I, have the right to re-encode the material in a different logical or physical format for convenience and ease of use.

3. Whether or not I actually made a copy at the time of broadcast is immaterial. If I ever had the right to make a copy, as I did as soon as the material was broadcast, I always have that right. So, for example, if I choose to make a personal copy of a Cadfael episode, it doesn't matter when I choose to make that copy, the source of the original material from which I make the copy, or the format of the copy I make. I have the right, for example, to record a broadcast of that episode to a VHS tape or a DVD+R disc. Or I could rip a DVD from whatever source--purchased, borrowed, rented, or a copy from the library.

4. I have the right to make derivative works for personal use. For example, if I record Left Wing next week, it is my right to modify what I've recorded by removing commercials and storing the commercial-free version on a tape or disc.

5. I have the right to lend my personal copies to friends, and to borrow their personal copies from them. They have the right to make personal copies of anything I lend them, and I have the right to make personal copies of anything I've borrowed from a friend.

6. I do not have the right to profit commercially from personal copies. (Well, actually, I do, because the Constitution doesn't permit Congress to authorize copyright protection for films and recorded music, but I'm speaking of moral rights here rather than putative legal rights.) If I make a personal copy, I am entitled to do anything with it I wish to do, except distribute it for profit.

In fact, I'll make few copies of anything, because I'd rather spend my time reading. But that doesn't change the fact that I have the right to make personal copies if I choose to do so.

I wonder how closely my own guidelines correspond to those of others. Pretty closely, I suspect.

12:08 - Paul Jones responds:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: rights
Date: Thu, 27 Jan 2005 11:48:57 -0500
From: Paul Jones
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

You have no rights.  Give up.

You didn't like the fish scene?  Man.

Actually, you guys (or you, not sure about Barbara) would probably like the trilogy.  What I didn't tell you is that the movie you have is the third one.  I just grabbed one of the three disks and came over.  It probably would be hard to watch The Return of the King without having seen the first two or read the books (which you'd prefer - they're truly great, as opposed to the extraordinarily good movies)).  -Paul

I know I have no legal rights. I was speaking of moral rights, although I should have chosen a better term. "Moral Rights" (Droit Moral) is already taken to mean something else entirely, the supposed right of an artist to maintain control of his work after he has sold it. Droit Moral is more an issue in Europe, particularly France, than in the US, but I should have called the concept I was speaking of by a different name to avoid confusion. Perhaps "ethical rights", although that has arguments against it as well.

I don't doubt that Lord of the Rings is a top-notch fantasy book, but I've never had any real interest in reading fantasy. I did read Heinlein's Glory Road, and I will eventually read Pournelle's and Niven's Burning series, but I much prefer hard SF to fantasy. Except, of course, for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I also don't doubt that the Ring movies are superb, if one likes that sort of thing. But, although I may eventually read the books, I doubt that I'd ever invest the time required to watch the movies.


Friday, 28 January 2005

10:55 - Last chance to register for a free review copy of PC Hardware Buyer's Guide: Choosing the Perfect Components. If you're a subscriber and would like a review copy, see the instructions for registering on the Subscribers Page. There right at 50 people registered so far, so O'Reilly will probably be sending out copies to everyone who's registered. I'm sending in the list at noon my time today, which is just over an hour from now.

I've received lots of messages from people saying that Lord of the Rings, in both book and movie form, is absolutely superb. In fact, I've had only one dissenting opinion, from Rob Megarrity in Australia, who suggests I not waste my time watching the movies. Given that consensus, I suppose I'll read the book first. If I like that, I may watch the movies.

Is there any way to verify a duped DVD-Video, short of actually watching the whole thing? I would have assumed that if a dupe loads and starts to play that it's probably good all the way through, but I've seen several tutorials on duping DVD-Video discs mention that you should watch all the way through to the end. Suggestions appreciated.


Saturday, 29 January 2005

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Sunday, 30 January 2005

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