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Week of 12 June 2006

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Monday, 12 June 2006
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09:10 - Barbara and I made a Costco run Saturday. She needed a bunch of stuff. All I wanted was a FireWire DV cable and a spindle of CD-R discs. Costco didn't have any DV cables, and the only CD-R spindles they had were TDK-branded discs made in India. That means the discs were actually made by the execrable Moser-Baer, so I passed on them.

On the way home, we stopped at Wal*Mart. They had a Belkin-branded FireWire cable that was just what I needed. Unfortunately, they wanted $25 for it. The same cable on NewEgg costs $9, so I'll order it from them. I expected Wal*Mart to carry only garbage CD-R discs, so I was surprised to see Maxell discs on offer. They were made in Taiwan rather than Japan, true, but I still expected them to be of decent quality. So I picked up a spindle of 50 Maxell CD-Rs for $13.49. Unfortunately, they are brightly colored instead of silver or white, but I can live with that.

When we got home, I started burning some test discs, using the Kubuntu 6.06 ISO. I burned all of the discs in the Plextor PX-740A in my main Ubuntu system, using K3b, and then scanned them with PlexTools Professional v2.32 in my Windows XP system.

For those who are unfamiliar with CD scans, the C1 errors represent errors caught and corrected by the first, lowest level of error detection and correction. All discs, burned or pressed, have at least some C1 errors. C2 errors are more significant. A C2 error is one that couldn't be corrected by the first level of ECC, and had to be corrected by the second level of ECC. CU errors are the worst of all. They're the uncorrectable errors, and any disc that shows CU errors in the data area has at least some unreadable data.

The first chart is a scan of the Kubuntu 6.06 disc burned to one of the Maxell CD-Rs I just bought. The Maxell CD-R was actually made by Ritek, which is known for variable quality. Ritek makes some decent discs, but they also produce some that are complete garbage. This one appears to be pretty decent.

There are 15,755 C1 errors, which is about ten times as many as I prefer to see. Although there are eight C2 errors and 86 CU errors shown in the chart, these are actually pseudo-errors. They occurred at the very end of the burn, and won't affect readability. Overall, I consider this disc mediocre, but a lot of people would be very pleased with it.

From mediocre to horrible. I next burned the Kubuntu ISO to an Office Depot house-brand CD-R. This disc was actually made by the execrable Moser-Baer in India. At 27,030, the number of C1 errors isn't completely outrageous, but there are more than 20,000 C2 errors, which is utterly unacceptable. Most of those cluster in the 28 - 35 minute range, with smaller spikes at about 46, 63, and 72 minutes. This disc is readable, for now, but an excessive number of C2 errors like those shown here often means the disc will be difficult or impossible to read a month or a year after it's written. I wouldn't trust any important data to discs like this one. Oddly, the disc shows only two CU errors, which is fewer than it should show given the results on better quality discs.

From horrible to merely bad. The scan below shows the Kubuntu 6.06 ISO written to a Memorex-branded CD that was actually made by ProDisc Technology. That company produces discs that range in quality from mediocre to awful, sometimes in the same spindle. The C1 score of 55,895 errors is much too high to be acceptable. The 85 CU errors are again at the very end of the burn, and mean nothing. Most of the 20 C2 errors are also at the end of the burn, but there is a significant spike at about 62 minutes. I'd use these discs if they were the only ones I had, but I'd scan each one before depending on the burned data to be readable, and I'd buy some better discs as soon as I could.

Finally, what a good CD-R scan should look like. This one is a Taiyo-Yuden CD-R, and its scan is actually a lot worse than most of the Taiyo-Yuden CD-R discs I've burned. The total C1 errors are 5,282, whereas I often burn TY CD-Rs with fewer than 1,000 C1 errors. The 8 C2 errors and 85 CU errors that show in the chart are actually pseudo-errors. All of them occurred at the very end of the burn, and won't affect readability.

For reference, here's a scan of a pristine pressed audio CD. It's inferior to the burned Maxell CD-R, and far inferior to the burned Taiyo-Yuden CD-R.

So there you have it. The Maxell CD-R discs I bought are usable, if not the best. I need to stock up on CD-Rs, so the next time I order something from NewEgg I'll add a spindle or two of Taiyo-Yuden CD-Rs. But it still seems strange to me that CD-R discs cost nearly as much as DVD+R discs.

12:55 - Why Startups Condense in America. An interesting article, but I think Graham misses one significant point. American individualism is probably the most important aspect of American entrepreneurialship. Although individualism is no longer universal in America, a significant percentage of Americans are born and bred individualists, small-mouth anarchists. Other cultures, including Old Europe and Asian cultures do not encourage individualism. In fact, they go out of their way to discourage it.

With the exception of Brits, Europeans and Asians are, by and large, tame pussycats. Fitting in is a large part of nearly all European and Asian cultures. One who sticks his head up gets it chopped off. But within many Americans beats the heart of a tiger. Fitting in isn't important to many of us. Doing things our own way is.

14:28 - There seems to be a firestorm building as a result of recent revelations about actions taken by Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage. WGA is spyware by any reasonable definition. Pam Jones at Groklaw has posted a detailed description of the problem. Even MSM like the Washington Post have started to notice.

Every time something like this comes up, I wonder how people can continue to use Microsoft software. But then I am reminded of the instructions for boiling a frog. Yes, I know this has been debunked, but the principle remains. Microsoft has gotten people accustomed to accepting their outrageous behavior and the incredibly bad security of their products. When there's yet another outrage or yet another gaping security hole, most people just shrug and ignore it.

I'm only indirectly affected because I run Linux, but I do wonder how much longer Windows users are going to put up with Microsoft and Windows. Many are expecting Vista to be the magic bullet that fixes the insecurity of Windows. It won't, for reasons I've written about before. But I suppose that people stuck on the Microsoft treadmill have little else to hope for, so Vista it must be.


Tuesday, 13 June 2006
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08:48 - In response to a suit by a nutcase atheist, a federal court has ruled that "In God We Trust" is a secular motto, and so may continue to appear on US currency and tokens.

As my regular readers know, I'm an atheist. I dislike religion in any form, organized or not. I consider religion to be the enemy of reason, which I regard as the highest accomplishment of humankind. And yet, I have no problem with others practicing religion, as long as they don't attempt to force me to believe or behave as they do. I don't understand how even the most radical atheist could be offended by a cross or a creche set up on government property at Christmas or Easter, or a menorah for that matter. (I do draw the line at Islam, because Islam has shown itself to be the enemy of humanity.)

Perhaps a compromise is in order. Instead of using "In God We Trust" on our currency and tokens, the government should use the motto "In Gold We Trust". That should make everyone happy, except perhaps the government. I certainly don't trust God, and in that I'm by no means alone. But everyone trusts gold. And it's not as though there isn't precedent for such a motto. It has appeared on US money in the past.


Wednesday, 14 June 2006
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08:48 - Netflix is a class act. They sent us a mislabeled disc Saturday, Monarch of the Glen Series 1, Disc 1, which actually turned out to be Series 1, Disc 2. It wasn't their fault. It was the disc itself that was mislabeled, not the sleeve. In the hopes that it was just this copy that was mislabeled, I returned the disc to Netflix and put that title back in my queue. But then I realized that I should let someone know. Even if it was just this disc mislabeled, they need to know so that they can correct the problem. But it may be worse than that. All copies of that disc may be mislabeled. It's been known to happen.

So I called the Netflix toll-free number. After wending my way through a voice-response system, I ended up connected to a very nice young woman who took the particulars and apologized even though it wasn't Netflix's fault. She also offered me a discount on next month's subscription. I told her that was unnecessary, because I rent so many discs that they're losing money on me as it is. She just laughed, and said it was policy to offer a discount in such situations. So Netflix is reducing my subscription fee next month by 25%.

And they also kicked me up to four discs out temporarily, adding the next disc of Coupling to their shipping queue. Coupling, incidentally, is hilarious. Kind of like a British version of Friends, but with sex.

Also, Mary Chervenak offered us her copy of Wonderfalls. We watched the first episode last night. Like Firefly, this series had a very short run. Only 13 episodes were made and only four of those were broadcast. Also like Firefly, Wonderfalls is quirky and original, which I suppose doomed it. Frankly, I'm not sure I would have watched more than a few minutes of this program if it were not for Mary's (and Paul's) strong endorsement, but, after sticking with it for one full episode, Barbara and I plan to watch the rest of the series.

10:42 - This from Bo Leuf:

From:    Bo Leuf
To:      Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: some interesting thoughts here on IPTV
Date:    Wed, 14 Jun 2006 16:36:19 +0200  (10:36 EDT)

Hi, I ran across this piece on revitalizing PBS


/ Bo

Yeah, I read that yesterday. As usual, Cringely misses the point entirely. Nothing in his proposed scheme requires the local affiliates. They add no value to his proposed scheme. They're entirely superfluous.

15:58 - I'm trying to accumulate what I need to shoot decent video for O'Reilly to publish, either as pay-for videos or give-away videos to promote our books. I know a bit about still photography, but nothing about video. It seems to me, though, that the three key components of making a good video are using a tripod, lighting the scene properly, and capturing good audio.

We already have a usable tripod, so camera stability won't be a problem. Lighting shouldn't be a problem, either. I'm going to pick up some 500W halogen work lights at Lowes, which should serve well for main, fill, and (if necessary) back lights. I think they're only 2900K rather than the standard 3200K assumed for "tungsten" lighting, but that should work if I set white balance manually.

My main concern is audio. The Canon Elura 100 has a built-in stereo microphone, but I suspect it'll pick up motor noise, not to mention a lot of unwanted environmental noise. The camera has an external mic jack (I made sure of that), so I can connect a standard wired or wireless microphone. I decided I wanted a wireless lavalier system for flexibility.

My editor suggested that even Radio Shack stuff should be good enough. I looked there, and found a wireless microphone system for $50. It looks like a toy, and I suspect its quality is no better than the usual Radio Shack junk. It doesn't even offer monitoring of the received signal.

So I went looking further. B&H Photo offers an Azden WLX-PRO Camera Mountable VHF Wireless Lavalier System for $130, which appears to be a giant step above the Radio Shack system. I think I'll order one today or tomorrow, unless someone tells me I'd be making a mistake.


Thursday, 15 June 2006
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09:19 - Estimated tax day. Grrrrrrrr.

The Inquirer has a mis-titled article about the amount Weird Al Yankovic earns from CD sales versus downloads. Not much in either case, apparently, but he does earn more from CD sales than from downloads. Reading that got me thinking about Courtney Love's blast at the RIAA and record companies. It's been some years since she wrote it, but it's well worth reading or re-reading.

As to Weird Al's problem, I sent him the following:

Why not put up a PayPal "tip jar" and encourage people who've downloaded unauthorized copies of your tracks to send you some money directly? A lot of people would rather feed you than feed the RIAA.

Which I think is a good idea for any creative person. Speaking of which, my web sites and messageboards run on the PBS model. If you've never subscribed or if it's been a while, now would be a good time. I don't aim to make a living at this, but it's nice to cover my hosting costs and other miscellaneous expenses.

10:00 - I almost never buy extended warranties, but I did buy one on the Canon Elura 100 DV camcorder. The company that actually provides the warranty, Mack Camera, has an on-line registration process. The physical warranty is just a card with a serial number on it. You log on to their web site and enter that serial number along with the details of the product to be covered.

As I was examining the camcorder to locate the serial number, I was surprised to see that it was Made in Japan. That's something seldom seen on inexpensive consumer products nowadays. Nearly all of them, even those from Japanese companies, are actually made in China, Taiwan, or Korea.

I much prefer to buy products made in countries known for high-quality manufacturing, such as Japan, Switzerland, Germany, or the United States. (Yes, the United States, which still produces megatons of top-notch manufactured goods.) I'm pleased that the camcorder was made in Japan, because I think it's less likely to fail than one made in China or elsewhere. Still, it has mechanical parts, so buying the extended warranty was probably worth the 15% additional cost.

And the workers just showed up to install siding and gutters, which means it'll be a barkathon for the next few days.


Friday, 16 June 2006
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09:32 - Boy, I expected heads to roll at Microsoft over the Vista delays, but I didn't expect this. Of course, they're playing it as Gates leaving day-to-day operations to devote more time to his foundation, but we all know it's really a matter of him falling on his sword.

That, and getting out before the true seriousness of the Vista delay becomes obvious to everyone. My sources tell me that things are desperate now, with no hope of meeting even the most recently promised ship dates with any product that even approaches what's been promised.

From what I've read and seen of the latest beta release, I can believe that. It's a complete mess, especially the 64-bit version. There are still major pieces missing, and a lot of what's there is broken. It looks to me as though Microsoft will have great difficulties shipping Vista in any reasonable form in time for the holiday season of 2007.

They have so much committed to the February 2007 ship date now that they just about have to ship something, but I don't expect it to be feature-complete, even taking into consideration the gutted feature list. It wouldn't surprise me to see only versions without media center support shipping initially, because that seems to be the major stumbling block. That, and the pervasive DRM.

My drive/media testing marathon continues. I've just tested some Sony 8X DVD-R discs, which have the media identifier SONY08D1. Unfortunately, I don't think that tells us anything. As far as I'm aware, Sony puts that ID on all of its 8X DVD-R discs, regardless of their actual manufacturers. The graph below shows the results of scanning one of these discs (this was the best result of half a dozen) with PlexTools Professional v2.32 in a Plextor PX-716AL drive. The disc was written at 4X with K3b in a Plextor PX-740A on my main Ubuntu Linux box.

A lot of people might consider this a pretty good scan. PI errors peak at about 58 and there are no PO failures. That's about the best that can be said, however. There are more than a quarter million PI errors over 4.4 GB. Although they're relatively evenly distributed, that's still way too many PI errors for my taste.

Here's the same ISO file burned to a Verbatim 8X MCC 003 disc at the same speed in the same drive, and tested in the same drive.

The MCC 003 burn is not only worlds better than the Sony burn, but considerably better than a pressed disc. In terms of initial readability, it doesn't get much better than this.

The remaining concern is archival stability. There's been a lot said about how unreliable burned CDs and DVDs are, but I take all of that with a grain of salt. I've done my own ad hoc accelerated aging tests, and the results have been encouraging. As long as the discs are stored properly, I don't doubt that they'll be readable ten years from now, and probably fifty. Assuming, of course, there's a drive available to read them.

13:35 - Easy come, easy go. I got email this morning from my agent to let me know that they just deposited an advance royalty check for $4,250 in our account. That would have boosted our checking account balance nicely, except that I've written enough checks this week to buy a decent car. After writing checks for federal and state estimated taxes yesterday, I just wrote a check for $4,150 to the company that's been installing siding, gutters, and gutter guards on our house yesterday and today. That leaves me with an even $100 left over, not counting the estimated tax payments. But Barbara just got a ride with Stephanie to pick up her Trooper, which is having the 100,000 mile service done. Oh, well.


Saturday, 17 June 2006
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09:32 - Our neighbor Kim has had nothing but problems with her telephone service for years. A month or so ago, we were talking about it and I mentioned Vonage and similar VoIP services.

Yesterday afternoon, Barbara needed to go pick up her truck at the mechanic's place and run some errands. I didn't want to leave because the guys were still here working, so Barbara walked down to Kim's house to beg a ride. When Barbara came back to tell me she'd gotten a ride to pick up her truck, she also mentioned that Kim was having fits trying to install a router.

A while later, I walked the dogs down to Kim's house, and found out that the router she was trying to install was the unit she'd gotten from Vonage when she signed up for their VoIP service. Kim had spent hours on the phone with Vonage technical support people in India, trying to figure out how to connect the Vonage router to her telephones. They kept telling her it was easy, which made her madder and madder. She had a three-page printout of instructions, which included dire warnings about her house burning down if she didn't follow instructions.

Those three pages of instructions, absent the lawyerese, could have been summarized in two sentences:

1. At the demarc, disconnect your home wiring from the telephone company wiring.
2. Use a standard base cord to connect the green jack on the Vonage adapter to a phone jack.

So I walked back over to our house, picked up a large flat-blade screwdriver, a roll of electrical tape, and a base cord (which Vonage hadn't supplied), and had her up and running in two minutes. We tested all of her phones, all of which had dial tone and all of which rang.

Then Kim mentioned their security system. Ruh-roh. If it's like other security systems I've seen, it uses an RJ-31X jack between the home phone wiring and the telephone company CO line. The alarm system would be connected to the primary output of the RJ-31X, and the home phone wiring to the secondary. If a set on the secondary is off-hook when the alarm system wants to call out, it doesn't matter. When the alarm system goes off-hook, the RJ-31X disconnects the rest of the phones from the CO line and seizes the line.

I told Kim that I needed to talk to the alarm company to find out how they'd installed the system and, if they'd used an RJ-31X, where it was installed. If they don't have a record of it, I'll have to go off hunting it.

A moment ago, I spoke with their alarm company. I forgot to ask Kim for her password, so of course the company couldn't give me any details about their system, but she did confirm that it was likely they'd installed an RJ-31X and that they probably had the location documented. I told her I'd call her back later today from Kim's house and have Kim give her the password.

She mentioned that for VoIP users they recommended installing a cell-phone based backup system, which I'll talk to Kim about. I also need to make absolutely sure that Kim is aware of the 911 issues and gets 911 set up properly.


Sunday, 18 June 2006
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