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Week of 13 February 2006

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Monday, 13 February 2006
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08:00 - We'd planned to build a new system over the weekend, but I decided to put that off until next weekend. I need a Windows box on my desk to run some astronomy software, and the easiest way to get one is to build a new one rather than repurpose an existing one.

As I was gathering components for the new system last week, I realized that I didn't have what I wanted to build the "budget" system for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. We could still have built a system with the parts I have lying around, of course, but it wouldn't have been appropriate for the book. And, as long as we're building a system, we might as well kill two stones with one bird. So I ordered the rest of the stuff we needed.

Our goal was a $350 system, not counting sales tax, shipping, keyboard and mouse, speakers, or display. We met that goal exactly. Here's what's going into the new "budget" system:

Component Price
Case: Antec SLK1650B $  58
Power supply: 350W Antec SmartPower 2.0 (bundled)
Motherboard: ASRock K8NF4G-SATA2  61
Processor: AMD Sempron 3100+ 72
CPU cooler: Arctic Cooling Silencer 64 Ultra 12
Memory: Crucial 512 MB PC3200 DIMM 57
Hard drive: Seagate ST3808110AS 80 GB Barracuda 7200.9 55
Optical drive: NEC ND-3550A DVD writer 35
Total: $ 350

Not bad for 350 bucks, and immensely better than any big-box store system for that price, even if you add the cost of shipping and a Windows XP license.
Barbara and I will build this system next weekend, and it will end up on my desk as my secondary system. My old secondary system, ripper, which runs Xandros 3.0, has already become my new den system.


Tuesday, 14 February 2006
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09:56 - My favorite Valentine's Day quote:

“You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” --Al Capone

I see the Islamic nutcases have now shown their displeasure with a newspaper in Denmark by burning down a KFC in Pakistan. To the Islamics, that makes sense, which should tell us something right there.

So, in my little "free speech" box at the top right of this page, I decided to display the flag of Denmark in solidarity. I'll leave it up for a week or so, just to remind myself of yet another difference between western civilization, where free speech is generally respected, and Islamic barbarism, which is the implacable enemy of free speech.

As to the cartoons, where are the t-shirts? Where are the bumper stickers? Inquiring minds want to know.


Wednesday, 15 February 2006
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08:55 - The 14th is my Netflix anniversary date, and I'd thought about dropping Netflix yesterday in favor of Blockbuster. I didn't, because several people have told me that Blockbuster has gotten as bad or worse about throttling, and because Netflix has eased up a bit on the throttling this month.

Last month, Netflix sent me only 13 discs. They've sent me nine discs so far this month, of which eight have actually been playable. They shipped me two more discs yesterday. One of them should have shipped Monday for Tuesday delivery. Instead, it shipped yesterday for Friday (!) delivery. The other should have shipped yesterday for delivery today, and did.

Netflix throttling has finally reached the consciousness of the mainstream media. That recent AP article has been reprinted widely, including on the front page of the business section of our newspaper yesterday. The article mentions that heavy renters cost Netflix money in terms of postage, but it ignores one aspect I've never heard mentioned.

When it comes to popular titles, Netflix has the same problem a library does. When a breakout bestseller is released, libraries face a huge disparity between supply and demand. A library that might buy one or two copies of a book suddenly needs literally 100 copies to meet demand. But it can't buy 100 copies, because that demand is short-lived. After a couple of months, demand will have dropped to the point where one or two copies would be sufficient, but the library is instead stuck with 100 copies.

To meet that need, there are companies that specialize in what amounts to short-term rentals of popular books to libraries. A library can order 100 copies of a bestseller from such a company to meet the short-term demand. When demand slacks off, the library can return 98 copies to the rental company, and use the credit for those returned books to rent extra copies of the next bestseller. As far as I know, there's no similar service for DVDs.

So, when a monster hit movie arrives, Netflix has a big problem. In order to meet demand from their 4 million subscribers in anything like a reasonable time, Netflix might require 10,000 copies of that movie. Their otherwise-ideal customers--those who rent a movie and keep it for a week or ten days--actually end up costing them a lot of money, because they have to buy many more copies of that movie. Their "undesirable" customers--those who receive a disc, watch it, and return it immediately--end up saving Netflix money, because that one copy of the disc can serve many more customers.

Once the demand has died down, Netflix might find that 500 copies of that movie would suffice, but instead they have 10,000 copies. That's a lot of working capital tied up in a bunch of discs that are now essentially worthless to them. Of course, they try to recoup their costs by selling the used discs outright, but I suspect they still end up stuck with a lot of unwanted copies.

In effect, the heavy renters help Netflix keep their inventory turns up, at the expense of costing them more in postage. And I suspect that's why the throttling issue has become increasingly common. When Netflix was starting out, their inventory was smaller and their working capital was more limited. It was more important to turn inventory quickly, particularly since they had fewer distribution centers and the average transit time both directions was longer. Nowadays, Netflix has many more distribution centers and many more discs in inventory, so they worry less about inventory turns and working capital allocation, and more about postage costs.

My only problem with Netflix is that they claim "unlimited rentals" and "one-day turnaround", both of which are lies. Netflix should stop the false advertising and simply tell the truth. They should clarify their most popular three-out program to mean: "Three discs out at any one time, up to 15 discs per month, additional discs charged at $1.25 each", or whatever. If they did that, I'd have no problem at all with Netflix.


Thursday, 16 February 2006
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08:56 - The roll-out of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray is looking more and more like a train wreck.

As of now, only a month before the first HD-DVD players were to ship, they haven't even got the copy-protection specification finalized. In the past week, we've learned that no existing video adapter, including models that were sold as "HDCP-ready", are in fact capable of playing HD programming at HD resolution. Even worse, those existing video adapters can't be upgraded to support HDCP, so all of those who bought one are out of luck. Not that that matters much, because approximately 99.9999% of existing displays are incapable of rendering HDCP-protected programming at high resolution, if at all.

And most people who've bought HD televisions are in for a nasty shock when they learn that those expensive new televisions won't display HDCP programming in high-resolution. If they're lucky, they'll be able to use their expensive new HD-DVD and Blu-Ray players to watch their expensive new HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs in standard DVD resolution. And there's no guarantee they'll even be able to do that. They may see only a black screen.

This is shaping up to be the most disastrous new product roll-out since the Edsel. People are going to stay away from this stuff in droves.

Meanwhile, I'm sure DVD Jon will be working to bypass AACS copy protection. I give it six months, a year at the most, before it's cracked wide open. There'll be AACS versions of DVDshrink available for anyone to download, and we'll be right back where we were.

The RIAA continues its attack on Fair Use. It now says, reversing its previous position, that ripping CDs is illegal. I say it's time to strike back.

What we really need is an honest congressman, if there is such a thing, to introduce a new bill to legalize non-commercial copyright infringement, making it lawful for individuals to copy recorded music, movies, and binary software freely for their own personal use, and to distribute such copies freely, so long as it is not done for profit. Such a bill should also waive all of the circumvention provisions of the DMCA and forbid commercial content providers from incorporating copy protection, product activation, or other technological measures that have the effect of making it more difficult to make and/or use lawful copies.

Here's some truly bad news from Bo Leuf:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: criminalizing blasphemy
Date: Thu, 16 Feb 2006 11:03:51 +0100
From: Bo leuf
To: Robert Bruce Thompson
CC: Jerry Pournelle

Alarmingly, I see that similar serious proposals are now under consideration at three different levels: national (e.g. Sweden), EU directive, and UN, all aiming to criminalize 'blasphemy' in much the same way that incitement based on race, religion and ethnic group already is.

If successful, it would mean that anything considered offensive to any religious group's perception could not be published without risk of criminal prosecution.

This 'protection' against the traditional freedom of expression will in effect be stronger than protection against libel, for example. And it will depend mainly on the degree of offense expressed by those who feel offended.

Talk about a giant step backward. Such arbitrary criteria will assuredly have a serious self-censorship effects on journalism and publishing in the formerly free West. And assuredly be used to further non-religious agendas.

Taken to an extreme it could mean legal constraints on for example publishing scientific papers if the content is 'blasphemous' to an accepted relious group. While this may seem absurd still, and Europeans have long mocked the heated US discussions about 'teaching Darwin's theories' in schools, similar issues of 'politically correct curricula' may soon become commonplace in Europe, especially v.a.v. Islam and Muslim traditions.

Our Constitution protects "hate speech" and blasphemy. Unfortunately, our government pays little attention to our Constitution.

Still, we're better off than Europe, which has been invaded and occupied by Islamics, which are breeding like rabbits. I fear for the future of Europe unless its governments come to their senses and expel the Islamics en masse. If that doesn't happen, and I see no reason to think it will happen, all of Europe will become third-world Islamic theocracies within a generation or two. France is already nearly lost, and several other European nations are not far behind. I'm not entirely sure that the process is reversible even now.

12:56 - I see that California, under court order, has taken steps to ensure a better into-the-box experience.


Friday, 17 February 2006
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09:11 - People are fuming at the revelation that Microsoft requires a new OEM Windows license if you replace the motherboard.

Here's the relevant text from the document linked to in the article:

Rather than purchase completely new PCs, my organization performs in-place upgrades to the hardware on many of our computers. We often times only replace the motherboard, processor, and memory. Since the COA is still on the case and the OS is still installed on the hard drive, this computer is still licensed, right?

ANSWER.  Generally, you may upgrade or replace all of the hardware components on your computer and maintain the license for the original Microsoft OEM operating system software, with the exception of an upgrade or replacement of the motherboard. An upgrade of the motherboard is considered to result in a "new personal computer." Microsoft OEM operating system software cannot be transferred from one computer to another. Therefore, if the motherboard is upgraded or replaced for reasons other than a defect then a new computer has been created, the original license expires, and a new full operating system license (not upgrade) is required. This is true even if the computer is covered under Software Assurance or other Volume License programs.

Here's the workaround if you want to upgrade a motherboard without buying a new Windows license (not to mention new licenses for all your other OEM Microsoft software):

1. Turn off the system and open the case.
2. Remove all memory modules from the system.
3. Restart the system, and note that it refuses to boot.
4. Diagnose the likely cause as a failed motherboard.
5. Replace the motherboard with the new model that you just happen to have waiting.
6. Reactivate Windows.

For those who think the preceding workaround is unethical, this alternative method also works and is indisputably valid:

1. Turn off the system and open the case.
2. Remove the processor from the system.
3. Snap off the ZIF lever on the processor socket.
4. Diagnose the likely cause as a failed motherboard.
5. Replace the motherboard with the new model that you just happen to have waiting.
6. Reactivate Windows.

Better yet, stop dealing with Microsoft. Install Linux.

12:01 - ATi is in real trouble, I think. It has sold millions of video adapters with the claim that those adapters support HDCP. They don't support HDCP, they never will, and there was never any possibility that they would. ATi decided not to pay the licensing fee required for HDCP support, which was $0.045 per adapter. That's right. 4.5 cents each. There's no fix for this. The boards can't be updated via firmware because they lack the chip needed to store the HDCP keys.

It sounds to me as though ATi has a disaster on its hands. The only fair response would be for ATi to recall all of the defective boards and replace them, which I suspect would cost enough to drive ATi into liquidation. And even that wouldn't begin to pay for the damage. It costs real money to open a system, replace a video card, and possibly install new drivers. Just ask any corporate PC manager. Then there are the retail systems owned by individuals, who can't reasonably be expected to do the swap themselves.

To make matters worse, ATi has been quietly changing their web site to remove the references to HDCP compatibility. That won't look good when the matter comes to trial, as I'm sure it eventually will.

nVIDIA cards have the same problem, but nVIDIA seems to be in the clear. nVIDIA doesn't make retail video adapters, but instead depends on OEMs to manufacture video adapters with its chipsets. The nVIDIA reference designs supplied to OEMs apparently did include the necessary chips, but those OEMs chose not to implement HDCP, leaving nVIDIA blameless. Unfortunately, apparently many nVIDIA OEMs made similar claims of HDCP compatibility, apparently in the full knowledge that those claims were false.

I don't understand what these people were thinking. Did they no one would notice? Well, they've noticed now, and in spades.


Saturday, 18 February 2006
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09:41 - Our friend Mary Chervenak has entered an essay contest. Mary is a superb essayist. Just don't make the mistake, as I did, of drinking Coke while you're reading her essay.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: essay
Date: Sat, 18 Feb 2006 08:56:04 -0500
From: Paul B. Jones
To: <many people>

I apologize for the mass email.  Mary has entered an essay contest and ended up a finalist.  The five essays in the final cut are online and
folks can vote for them (1 being the best, 5 being the worst).  I thought I would advertise this, though, of course, you're under no obligation to vote or to vote for hers.  However, it is a pretty funny essay.  And, you'll find it ironic that she has an ex named Paul.  You can follow the link below.  Thanks and enjoy.  -Paul


As they say, vote early and vote often.


Sunday, 19 February 2006
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