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Week of 12 February 2007

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Monday, 12 February 2007
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08:15 - Cali Lewis gave the new edition of Building the Perfect PC a nice plug on GeekBrief.tv. She's using the book to build a Media Center PC that will run Linux and MythTV. People are already harassing me with Beauty and the Beast allusions.

I'm switching gears as of this morning. It's back to work on the astronomy book, with the home chem lab book on hold until I finish the astronomy book. Well, not completely on hold. I plan to devote five days a week to the astronomy book until it's finished, but I'll spend the rest of my time on the home chem lab book.


Tuesday, 13 February 2007
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09:34 - Barbara and I did something last night we almost never do. We watched an episode of a network television program "live". It was Studio 54 Where Are You, the only network program that Barbara still watches. Barbara was fast on the remote mute button, so we didn't actually hear any of the commercials, but I was still struck by just how badly the mere presence of commercials butchers a program.

By my estimate, the presence of commercials instantly knocks two stars off the quality rating for a program. With commercials, even the best video ever made becomes mediocre, and run of the mill stuff becomes unwatchable. As I've been saying for years, advertising is not a sustainable business model, and the sooner that video producers realize that, the better.

This whole idea of networks as aggregators and sponsors paying the costs is obsolete. The networks are no longer needed for distribution, and viewers can and should be paying directly. There's no need for all this DRM crap, and the limited bandwidth arguments put forward by Cringely and other clueless people are red herrings.

Last night's episode of Studio 54 Where Are You, along with every other television program and movie ever made, should reside on the local server at Triad Time Warner Cable, without commercials and without DRM. When I want to watch it, I should be able to press a button on my remote to start it downloading to my local server across the fiber optic link between me and Triad Time Warner Cable's server. That download should show up on next month's cable bill as a $0.25 or $0.50 charge, or whatever the producers price it at. I should be able to stream the download for a minute or two and then start watching, or simply allow the file to finish downloading to my server, from which I can watch it later.

I can keep that program as long as I want, watch it whenever and however many times I want, and copy it freely. But why would I bother? It costs $0.25 or $0.50 to download it again if I want it, and I don't have to deal with the hassles and costs of burning it to DVD. Am I going to share it with friends? Maybe, if I want to turn them on to a great new program I've seen, but again, why would I (or they) bother? It costs them less than a buck to download their own copy.

All of the objections to this model are easily dealt with. Internet bandwidth isn't a problem, because that episode need be transferred only once to the TTWC server. Local bandwidth isn't a problem, because TTWC links via fiber to their head-end equipment, and has considerable unused fiber in reserve. The head-end equipment itself could easily be upgraded to include a terabyte or two of redundant hard disk storage, which could cache frequently-watched programs. Ensuring that the program producers get paid isn't a problem, because TTWC would have to be complete idiots to try to cheat them. And the low revenue per episode isn't a problem, because that's more than the producers get now from ad revenue, once you factor out the very high costs of running that completely unnecessary distribution network, including the local affiliate stations.

This model also encourages diverse programming and the survival of niche programming. Right now, truly excellent series are often canceled because they don't rate a "slot" in a network's schedule. Veronica Mars is hanging by a thread right now for that reason. Under the model I propose, it'd be generating $1 million or so per episode, and the producers could continue to produce new episodes until the demand for them declined to a level that made it uneconomic to continue. Instead of being canceled after 11 episodes, Firefly would still be in production, sustained by loyal viewers. Heck, I'd pay a buck or more for each new Firefly episode, and there are millions of other people who'd do the same. All we need is the infrastructure to support this model, and much of it is already in place.


Wednesday, 14 February 2007
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09:04 - It's said that when Hermann Göring first saw American P-51 fighters escorting B-17 bombers over Berlin he turned to his companions and announced that the war was lost. The MPAA must have the same reaction to an article entitled Pirates of the Multiplex in, of all places, Vanity Fair magazine.

This is a full-length feature article, mind you, not a short blurb stuck somewhere in the back pages. In it, the author calmly admits to downloading copyrighted videos and burning them to DVD, ripping and burning Netflix discs, and so on. It's not an overview, either. The author tells his readers about BitTorrent clients, DVD rippers, and Pirate Bay and other torrent tracker sites.

Before this article, many Vanity Fair readers were probably only vaguely aware that some people downloaded movies and television shows. This article jump-starts them with the details they need to do it themselves. Any bets on how many of the readers of this article will immediately turn around and search Google for "bittorrent" and "pirate bay"?

And speaking of copying movies, it appears that the AACS copy protection used for Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs has been cracked wide open. This isn't a limited, per-title crack like the one made public last month, which depended on extracting the volume key for each disc. This crack extracts the processing key, and therefore works on any current HD video disc. Although that key can be revoked, it appears pointless to do so because the new key could easily be extracted by using a previously cracked disc in a new player. It looks like AACS is now as useless as CSS.


Thursday, 15 February 2007
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08:24 - Has anyone seen a favorable review of Vista from an unbiased source? I haven't, and I've been looking. Oh, sure, you can find glowing reviews written by astroturfer bloggers and people whose living depends on Microsoft products, but even the bloggers whom Microsoft tried to bribe with Acer Ferrari notebooks haven't had much good to say about Vista.

The mainstream publications that one might expect to review Vista uncritically have been at best lukewarm about it. The consensus seems to be that there's not much new in Vista, that it's seriously broken in many respects, and that no one should rush out to buy it now. I read one review that was obviously trying to be nice to Vista, but pointed out that Vista did not support the reviewer's nVidia video adapter, Creative Labs sound card, or HP printer, and that most of the applications he'd been running under XP were incompatible with Vista and had no Vista-compatible versions available.

Thomas C. Greene of The Register, certainly no enemy of Microsoft, wrote a typical review of Vista, entitled Vista first look: Bugs and confusion. He concludes:

"So, there's our first look at Vista. It does benefit from a lot of good ideas, many of them Apple's, of course, but good nevertheless. It simply doesn't work very well, unfortunately. There are serious problems with execution; it's not polished; it's not ready. It should not be on the market, and certainly not for the outrageous prices being charged. Don't buy it, at least until after the first service pack is out. Don't pay to be a beta tester."

Which is a pretty representative review of Vista.


Friday, 16 February 2007
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08:11 - It's time for some UPS maintenance. On the recommendation of Jerry Pournelle, I've been using Falcon Electric UPSs exclusively since December 2004. At that time, my office had something like nine PCs and half a dozen CRT monitors, so I needed significant capacity. I installed a large Falcon Electric on-line (dual conversion) UPS under my desk, along with a supplemental battery pack. I haven't touched either of them since that time, even to so much as dust them off.

As Pournelle promised, these things are industrial-strength. Literally, as most of Falcon's sales are to industry, corporate IT departments, and government agencies, all of whom know the best and are willing to pay for it. This Falcon UPS has seen me through numerous power failures, including one notable occasion when the power was off for about 30 minutes and I never realized it because everything in my office, including the desk lamp, was driven by the Falcon UPS.

The Falcon UPS and the supplemental battery pack both look a lot like mini-tower PCs. And, like PCs, they have rear exhaust fans which unfortunately are rather loud. The noise never really bothered me much. After all, these things are designed to sit in server rooms rather than an office, so I'm sure noise level took a backseat to reliability.

I did think about the noise level when Cali Lewis asked me to do an interview with her for GeekBrief.tv. She wanted to do it via Skype, and the easiest place for me to do that is from my office. Given the fan noise from the UPS, I thought I'd install Skype on my notebook and do the interview from the guest suite downstairs, which is much quieter. Fortunately, I talked to Cali via Skype from my office, and she said that the fan noise wasn't intrusive.

So there it sat until the other night, when Barbara commented that something in my office was making a noise that sounded like a telephone dial tone. She went into my office and tried to localize the noise. She concluded that it was coming from the UPS. So I decided it was time to do something. At the very least, I'll tear down the UPS and supplemental battery pack and blow out what is undoubtedly by now a huge mass of dust and dog hair. I may go a step further. From the exterior, the fans appear to be standard PC fans, so I may replace them with Antec fans, which are much quieter.

Obviously, I don't want to have my entire office without power while I do that, nor do I want to plug my equipment directly into the wall receptacles. So I grabbed another Falcon dual-conversion UPS from my work room and plugged it in to give it a full charge before I take down the UPS in my office. The spare unit is a 1 KVA model, which should be more than sufficient for my current configuration. I now have only two PCs, two LCD displays, and an antique HP LaserJet 5P printer, for which 1 KVA should be more than enough.

For the first time in many years, I have my own cell phone. Since I've been working at home, I so seldom leave the house that I hadn't felt the need to have one.

Many years ago, Barbara and I signed up with I forget which cell phone company for a $35/month deal that gave us two cell phones (original Motorola flip phones), a phone number for each, and a third phone number that rang both phones. We had as I recall 150 minutes of shared airtime per month. We paid that monthly bill for about seven years, by which time it had climbed to $50, and on average used only about 10 minutes of airtime per month.

Then one day Barbara was down in Charlotte and used her phone to call me at home. We were shocked when we got the next cell phone bill. The call in question had lasted one minute, and we were charged something like $8 for it. The bill broke it out in detail. I think they charged us a $5 roaming fee, a couple dollars for the "long distance" air time, and some other fee. I called the cell phone company and remonstrated with them. It seemed to me that it would have been good business sense for them to have waived those charges automatically, let alone upon request. But they refused to waive the charges, so we dropped their service.

That left Barbara without a cell phone, so we bought her a prepaid cellular phone. The deal there is that as long as we buy a $25 prepaid card every three months, any remaining time rolls over. By now, Barbara's prepaid phone has something like $300 worth of time on it, because she still was using it for only 10 minutes or less a month.

But Barbara has a cell phone provided by her employer, which doesn't object to employees using company cell phones for personal calls. So Barbara suggested the other night that we stop buying time for her prepaid cellular phone and just let it lapse. I was about to agree when it occurred to me that there are times when I need a cell phone, and less than $9 per month to continue that prepaid cellular service is a pretty cheap way to have one. Even less so because it's a business expense.


Saturday, 17 February 2007
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Sunday, 18 February 2007
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