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Week of 19 June 2006

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Monday, 19 June 2006
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08:30 - Barbara had a few small projects for me to do over the weekend, which allowed me to cut loose with a Quack of Triumph as I completed each of them. (I used to use a lion-like Roar of Triumph, but now, as a Linux user, I feel compelled to use a penguin-like Quack of Triumph.)

Pournelle sent me a draft of his Byte column segment that's to be posted today. In it, he talks about the retirement of Bill Gates and praises Gates for making small computers ubiquitous. I think Jerry gives Gates much too much credit. I sent him the following:

I think you fall prey to post hoc ergo propter hoc in your argument about Gates's impact on ubiquitous computing. The same would almost certainly have happened had IBM chosen Gary Kildall to provide the OS for the PC, and Bill Gates would be a small footnote in computing history.

It was the PC itself that caused the revolution, not Gates. Or perhaps I should say it was the microprocessor. Microcomputers were certainly popular in CP/M and S/100 days. IBM defined a standard that allowed the explosive growth to occur. Gates was just along for the ride. I suppose one might argue that Gordon Moore and Intel were really responsible, but I think it was more a matter of nothing being so strong as an idea whose time has come.

Gates certainly enriched himself, but I'm not at all convinced that he did the rest of us any favors.

11:18 - I got the Vonage service running at our friend Kim's house the other day without any problems. Then Kim mentioned their alarm system. Ruh-roh.

Alarms are typically wired with a device called an RJ-31X. The CO line from the demarc comes into the input side of the RJ-31X. There are two outputs. The alarm is wired to the primary output, which always has priority. The rest of the phones connect to the secondary output. That way, if a phone is off-hook when the alarm needs to call out, it doesn't matter. As soon as the alarm goes off-hook on the primary output, a relay disconnects the secondary output, allowing the alarm to seize dial tone and place its call.

I told Kim I could probably trace the wires and reconnect things so that that Vonage output went to the RJ-31X input, but that it'd be better to have ADT do the work themselves. That way, there'd be no question that it was done right and that ADT was responsible. We called ADT and arranged for an installer to visit today. I told Kim I'd be happy to be there to watch what was going on, in case they later decided to drop Vonage and return to BellSouth.

The installer showed up as promised and the two of us had an interesting discussion. He told me that their alarms simply couldn't place calls on about 90% of the VoIP systems they encountered, notably those provided by the Time-Warner cable system. Presumably, it's a question of which VoIP adapter is used. Vonage supplied a LinkSys wireless router/VoIP adapter, and as it turned out it worked fine. The alarm was able to dial out to the control center using the Vonage VoIP.

The problem was, it wasn't seizing dial tone, just going off hook like any other telephone and placing the call. I suggested running a cable from the Vonage adapter out to the demarc and connecting the Vonage dial tone to the premise side of the demarc, which would return things to just the way they were when Kim had BellSouth service. But then the installer started tracing wires down in the basement, and announced that it wouldn't work anyway because there was only one pair coming up to the alarm panel (and the RJ-31X). Apparently, when they installed it, they just connected the alarm system as if it were any other telephone set, ignoring the RJ-31X. So the good news is that Kim's alarm is working just as it always did. The bad news is that it doesn't seize dial tone, and never did.

Kim wasn't home this morning, so her mother Mary was trying to deal with all of this. The installer mentioned that the downside of VoIP was that there was no phone service if the cable modem or electric power failed. True, but then telephone cables are also cut from time to time. I suggested to Mary that power failures were the more likely problem, and that was easily addressed by connecting the Vonage adapter to an inexpensive UPS, which should have enough reserve to power just the Vonage adapter for at least several hours.

Oh, well.

And I just realized that I'm now two months from deadline on the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. That means I go into crash mode, focusing solely on the book until it's done. Posts here will be short and sporadic for the duration.

14:40 - Xandros 4 ships Wednesday. I just emailed my PR contact at Xandros, the wonderfully-named Xenia von Wedel, to ask her to send me a download URL for the new products and the manual. She doesn't have download links yet but expects to soon, so I should have Xandros 4 in the next day or two. I'll install it on the den system and play with it for a while before I decide what to do about my main systems. I'll probably stick with Ubuntu, at least for now, but I will give Xandros 4 a good work out. I expect it will be the best newbie Linux available.


Tuesday, 20 June 2006
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10:17 - We're still accumulating stuff for the project systems for the new edition of Building the Perfect PC. The Budget PC is already built. We have all the components for the Mainstream PC and the SOHO Server system. Yesterday, two of the key components for the Gaming PC arrived, an ASUS M2N32-SLI motherboard and a Socket AM2 AMD Athlon 64 FX-62 processor. We need to get some video cards for that system, but otherwise we have what we need. We're still waiting for major pieces of the Media Center system and the SFF system, particularly a Conroe processor and motherboard from Intel and the Fusion media center case from Antec.

The fact that so many new products are just arriving has screwed up our schedule, but we still plan to meet our August deadline for 100% completion of the manuscript. But things are going to be hectic as we approach deadline.

13:20 - This is pretty cool. It's a story about how a Marine named Robichaux proposed to his girlfriend. No, not that Marine named Robichaux, although I spotted the story on his page. A Marine doesn't allow anything to stop him from achieving his objective. Ooh-rah!


Wednesday, 21 June 2006
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08:38 - More FUD about the expected lifetime of burned CDs and DVDs. (The link in the article is broken; it should point here.)

There's no doubt that many burned CDs and DVDs will be useless after two years. I've burned some discs using junk media that were barely readable immediately after I burned them, so I don't doubt that in two years many of them would be unreadable. But the implication of these and similar articles is that it's the technology at fault rather than the implementation. I don't believe that. It all comes down to the quality of the blank discs. Good discs yield good burns. Junk discs yield junk burns.

I've tested CDs that I burned back in the early days of CD burners, when 2X was a fast burn. All of those discs were perfectly readable, including ones that were ten years old or older. Of course, they were burned to top-notch discs. A few months ago, I happened across some of the early DVD+R discs I'd burned in a pre-production sample of a Plextor PX-504A burner. Those discs were burned to Plextor (Taiyo-Yuden) 4X media three years or so previously. Every one of them yielded a nearly perfect scan, indistinguishable from scans of discs I'd just burned that day. Now, three years is not an eternity, but, if these discs were in fact destined to die after two years, shouldn't some degradation be visible after three years?

The moral is that for data you care about you should use high-quality discs--Verbatim MCC003 or MCC004 or Taiyo-Yuden DVD+R blanks or Taiyo-Yuden CD-R blanks--and burn them in a high-quality drive. If the data are particularly important, use PlexTools, Kprobe, or Nero CD-DVD Speed to scan the burned discs. Then store them in a cool, dark place. Make two or three copies for redundancy, and store them separately.

14:11 - I had to laugh at myself just now. I keep a 50-disc spindle of DVD+R discs on top of my main system, which sits next to my desk. I use the 50-disc spindle because it's a convenient size, much smaller and lighter than a full 100-disc spindle. When my 50-disc spindle runs out, I refill it from one of the 100-disc spindles I keep in a media drawer in my desk.

A few minutes ago, I used the last disc on that spindle and opened the media drawer to grab some discs to refill it. My first thought was "Holy Cow! I'm almost out of discs."  Which I am, but the funny part is that what I consider "almost out of discs" isn't what most people would mean by that phrase.

I had only one full 100-disc spindle of Verbatim 16X DVR+R discs, one half-full 100-disc spindle of Verbatim 8X DVD+R discs, one full 50-disc spindle of Verbatim 16X inkjet-printable DVD+R discs, and several 25- and 50-disc spindles of other assorted brands of DVD+R discs. Not to mention a bunch of DVD-R discs, DVD+RW discs, and CD-R discs. All told, there are probably 400 discs in my media drawer, which for me constitutes "almost out".


Thursday, 22 June 2006
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09:06 - One of the great things about Netflix is the long-tail aspect. Among their 60,000 titles are many obscure ones that I've seen and would like to see again. (They don't have Macunaíma, but no one is perfect.) Browsing Netflix yesterday, I stumbled across a series that every Baby Boomer remembers. The star of the series is Dr. Frank Baxter, and if that means nothing to you, you're not alone. It meant nothing to me, either. I didn't twig until I read that Baxter was the bald guy with glasses who did the Bell Science series.

There were eight of them, and apparently all eight have been released on DVD, two per disc. Unfortunately, Netflix carries only the two discs that contain the first four episodes, Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the MagnificentThe Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, and Meteora: The Unchained Goddess. Unfortunately, all of those were done by Frank Capra, who insisted on introducing his religious beliefs into what should have been pure science films. Still, I can ignore that, as I did when I first saw the films back in the mid-60's. I've added them to my queue.


Friday, 23 June 2006
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09:49 - I downloaded Xandros 4 Home Premium Edition last night from a link sent to me by Xenia von Wedel, who handles PR for Xandros.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Xandros 4 requires product activation, although it would be more accurate to call it forced registration. Xandros supplies a serial number with each copy. During installation, you enter that serial number. Xandros emails you an activation key, which you then paste into the box to activate the product. Although Xandros 4 is usable without activation, it must be activated before you can access the Xandros Networks repository to download additional software or updates.

Although I'm not delighted by this new feature, neither is it a show stopper. Unlike Microsoft's product activation, it's not tied to your hardware configuration. Once Xandros sends you the activation key, you're good to go, no matter what your hardware configuration. That same activation key works forever.

I was a bit concerned that Xandros might have changed its license. Previously, paid-for Xandros versions could be installed on one business system and/or unlimited personal systems. The new activation feature made me wonder if Xandros was now limited to one machine per license. I emailed Xenia to ask, and she responded:

You only need to register once but you do need to activate on each machine you install on with the same code you get in the email. The license has not changed.

I'm sure I'll get some flak from Microsoft fans for giving Xandros a pass on their activation scheme while criticizing Microsoft so harshly for its activation scheme, so let me point out the differences here. Xandros requires only one-time activation, not tied to your hardware configuration. Once Xandros has emailed you the activation key for your serial number, that activation key is good forever and can be used on any number of different machines. Nothing about the Xandros activation scheme can make your computer unusable or inaccessible. I dislike product activation schemes on general principles, but Xandros uses the least intrusive scheme I can imagine. If Microsoft used the same scheme, I would not object to it any more than I object to the Xandros scheme.

On to the software itself. I installed Xandros 4 Home Premium Edition on my den system last night. Xandros hardware detection has always been superb, and that is also true for Xandros 4. I often use my den system to test new Linux distros, because it has a Serial ATA hard drive connected to a SIIG PCI SATA adapter. That combination gives some OS installation routines fits. Windows XP/SP2 doesn't detect it at all. Xandros detected it automatically and installed without further ado.

GUI setup is easier than any other Linux or Microsoft setup procedure I've seen. If you accept the defaults, it requires only four or five mouse clicks to complete, along with entering the administrator password twice and creating a user account. Once installation is complete and the system reboots, it runs a First-Run Wizard to configure the system to your preferences and activate the software. The Premium Edition comes with a second disc that includes applications such as GIMP that won't fit on the main distribution disc.

The desktop itself will look familiar to anyone who has used Xandros 3, although Xandros has done a great deal of work to improve and tweak the interface. Windows users will feel right at home. Everything works pretty much as a Windows user would expect, such as right-clicking on the desktop to change video settings.

Xandros stands head and shoulders above any other Linux distribution when it comes to integration with a Windows network. Xandros detects Windows Networking shared resources automagically, and allows you to connect to shared network volumes and printers with just a couple of mouse clicks. It's equally easy to share resources on the Xandros machine with Windows systems elsewhere on the network. There's no need to futz around with mount points and editing fstab. Everything just works.

I'm currently running Ubuntu on my main office desktop system. Ubuntu is generally considered to be one of the best distros for newbie Windows refugees, but Xandros is simply in a different class. The difference is this: with Ubuntu, if you're persistent it's possible to get everything to work. With Xandros 4, everything just works. For a newbie Windows refugee, that difference is night and day.

Xandros 4 is available initially in two versions, the $40 Home Edition and the $80 Home Edition - Premium. The latter version is what most of my readers will want. It includes several third-party commercial products, including Crossover Office (which allows many Windows applications such as MS Office, Photoshop, and Quicken to run under Xandros), Versora Progression Desktop (which automatically migrates e-mail, calendars, address books, bookmarks, and other important data and configuration settings from a Windows machine to Xandros), and NTFS Read and Write (which allows Xandros to read and write to an NTFS volume on a dual-boot system). The Premium version also includes several proprietary Xandros features, such as iPod support.

Frankly, I'm not sure if I'll convert my main desktop system to Xandros 4 or stick with Ubuntu. I became a full-time Linux user nearly two years ago, on 4 July 2004. I started with Xandros 2.0, and eventually upgraded to Xandros 2.5 and then Xandros 3.0. Without Xandros, I'd never have been able to make the switch. After using Linux for two years, I'm no longer quite the newbie I was then. I'm comfortable hacking on Ubuntu or SuSE, and I have my Ubuntu desktop set up just the way I want it. So perhaps I will stick with Ubuntu for my main desktop system, although I will certainly convert Barbara's system from Xandros 3 to Xandros 4.

But of one thing I have no doubt. If you want to make the jump from Windows to Linux, Xandros 4 is what you're looking for. Xandros 4 eliminates about 99% of the frustrations that Windows users encounter when they first start using Linux. If you've been thinking about trying Linux, do yourself a favor. Don't mess with the free stuff. Go out right now and buy a copy of Xandros 4 Home Edition Premium. It'll probably be the best $80 you've ever spent. Then, whatever you do, visit the Xandros Forums and create an account. If you do run into any problems, you'll find answers there from a group of the friendliest and most helpful people I've ever encountered in a user forum.

From:    Howard Roberts
To:      Robert Bruce Thompson
Subject: Manufacturers of discs
Date:    Thu, 22 Jun 2006 18:35:30 +0100  (13:35 EDT)


I've read a few of your recent entries on how you rate the various manufacturers of discs. However, I can't seem to find anywhere that lists who discs we see in the shops are manufactured by and where. Perhaps a brief summary on your journal pages would be of interest to your readers.

Unfortunately, that's a very difficult question to answer. The brand name on a disc often has nothing to do with what company actually made the disc. A company may manufacture discs and sell them under its own brand name, and also sell those discs to others who put their own brand names on it. That same company may also buy discs from others and put its own brand name on them.

Many companies buy discs from several sources and resell those discs under the same brand name and product codes. For example, it's quite possible to walk into a store and find Fuji-branded discs that are actually made in Japan by Taiyo-Yuden, and are of top-notch quality. Sitting right next to that spindle may be another apparently identical spindle of Fuji-branded discs with the same name and product code that were made in Taiwan and are complete trash. Literally the only difference between those two spindles is the country of origin, which normally appears in very small print.

The rules of thumb I currently use (which are subject to change any time) are as follows: any disc of any type that is made in Japan or Singapore is almost certainly of very high quality. Any disc of any type that is made in India, China, Hong Kong, or eastern Europe is almost certainly of very low quality. Discs made in Taiwan may be anything from superb to utter garbage. Discs branded Taiyo-Yuden, although a bit difficult to find in the US other than on-line, are of top quality regardless of format. Verbatim DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW, and DVD-RW are made by MCC or MKM in various factories, but every one I have tested regardless of country of origin has been excellent. (There was a minor glitch several years ago, when Verbatim for a short time started selling discs made by CMC, which were total junk, but they quickly returned to the excellent MCC discs.)

Note also that counterfeiting has been a problem. I know for sure that Verbatim and Taiyo-Yuden discs have been counterfeited, and other premium name brands probably have been as well. You can use price as a sort of guideline. Expensive discs are not necessarily of high quality, but cheap discs, no matter what the brand name on them. are almost certainly of low quality. If you find good name-brand discs, such as Verbatim or Taiyo-Yuden, selling for a very low price, chances are they're fakes.

Speaking of disc quality, someone asked me to post a scan of a pressed DVD. Here's one of a dual-layer commercial DVD-Video disc. The Plextor scan only charts the errors out to 5 GB, while this disc actually contained about 7.6 GB (as is evident from the LSN). This is a pretty decent-looking scan, but it still averages about five times as many errors per GB as a burned Verbatim MCC003 or MCC004 DVD+R disc.


Saturday, 24 June 2006
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10:48 - I'm starting to play around a bit with some of the Xandros-proprietary features in Xandros 4. One of them is Xandros Music Manager, which is apparently based on AmaroK. As its name indicates, XMM is an integrated music manager. It allows you to rip your CD collection to your choice of MP3, OGG, or FLAC, organize the tracks, establish playlists, and so on. It also has automagic recognition of media players, including the iPod. (I don't own an iPod, so I can't test its functionality with that.) I grabbed the screenshot below a few minutes after I started XMM running for the first time on my den system. I'd inserted the Dire Straits CD and told XMM to to start ripping.

Barbara's Creative Labs MP3 player supports only MP3 and Windows Media file formats, so as much as I'd have preferred to rip the audio CDs to OGG or FLAC format, I had no choice but to use MP3. Checking the MP3 settings in Control Center, I was pleased to see that Xandros has made sane default selections. It encodes VBR MP3s at 192 Kb/s, or 1.44 MB/min. An hour of music therefore occupies about 86 MB, which means that about three hours of music will fit on Barbara's 256 MB flash player. That's more than sufficient for her needs. She carries the player to the gym but seldom uses it otherwise.

At home, Barbara generally plays original CDs on a bookshelf system in her office. That may change, though, if I rip her entire CD collection, which now totals probably somewhere around 500 CDs, she can simply play her music on her computer. She has a top-notch set of M-AUDIO studio monitor speakers on her PC, and I suspect 192 Kb/s VBR MP3s will probably sound better than the original CDs do on the bookshelf system.


Sunday, 25 June 2006
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10:08 - Importing Barbara's audio CDs on my den system yesterday came to a crashing halt, literally. I'd used Xandros Music Manager to rip and catalog four CDs, on the last of which the Plextor PX-716A drive started making an odd rattling noise. The rip continued normally, so I figured I'd check things out later. Then I inserted the fifth CD and told XMM to start ripping. The first track did eventually finish, but it took ten or fifteen minutes to complete.

Then Barbara left to run some errands and I went into my office to get some work done. When she returned an hour or so later, I checked on the den system. In an hour, it had just finished ripping the second track and was starting on the third. Hmmm. At that rate, it'd take years to rip Barbara's entire collection.

Given the rattling noise I heard from the drive, I'm pretty sure it's a hardware problem. This Plextor PX-716A drive has almost zero time on it, little enough that I'm going to call this one an out-of-the-box failure.

Speaking of audio CDs, I wonder why Netflix doesn't rent them. It would seem to be an obvious extension of their business. They'd have to make literally zero changes to their software and distribution processes. From their point of view, an audio CD disc is no different from a DVD-Video disc, so they could treat them just the same. No need even for separate queues. Many of their subscribers would boost their membership levels, and Netflix would probably lose fewer members.

Of course, the same could be said for carrying porn videos, although for various reasons Netflix would have to make that a completely separate operation, at least insofar as the public-facing part (had to correct a typo there...). Still, from what I've read, people who happily pay $18/month for three-at-a-time rentals of regular videos would probably pay more than that for one-at-a-time rentals of porn videos.


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