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Week of 19 April 2010


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Monday, 19 April 2010
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11:05 - I'm still cranking away on the PC book. Right now, I'm working on the Media Center/HTPC chapter. It's interesting because "media-center system" is really an umbrella term that covers such a wide variety of configurations. One person's media-center system may be an inexpensive Mini-ITX box with limited local storage and no tuner card that serves as a front-end to a server located elsewhere in the house. Another person's media-center system may be a large box with a full ATX motherboard, terabytes of local disk space, and several tuner cards. Many media-center systems have no tuner card at all, because they're not used to record programs. Instead, they merely serve to play DVD or Blu-Ray discs and to play back audio, image, and video files from local or remote disk storage.

In the first two editions of the book, we built media-center systems that focused on PVR functions. Those were really worthless for us, because we simply don't watch much TV, let alone record it. Even when something we want to watch is on PBS, we prefer to wait until we can buy the DVD or rent it from Netflix. So, we built these media-center systems, tested them, and then promptly tore them down to salvage the components for something that was actually useful to us.

For this edition, we're going to build something that'll actually be useful to us and will actually live in our entertainment center. We'll include one tuner card and a reasonable amount of local disk space, just in case we need to record something (which might happen once or twice a year), but the main focus will be on playback of discs and audio/video files. Those media files will reside on a second system, the Home Server, which'll have several terabytes of disk space, sufficient for uncompressed rips of Barbara's collection of several hundred CDs, as well as maybe 2,000 to 3,000 hours of DVD-quality video.

Our primary TV is still an NTSC analog, so we'll run the output from the media-center system via the TV-out on a PCI-E video adapter. Once we get around to replacing the TV, we'll just use the digital-out on the motherboard or the video card. The VGA-level resolution of an analog TV is too low to make the system useful as a general-purpose den PC, so for now we'll use a "10-foot interface" for playing DVDs and audio/video files, as well as limited web access (such as playing YouTube videos). When we do get around to replacing the old TV with a digital unit, we'll probably just use the standard Ubuntu interface.

In the earlier editions, we always did the "here's what we picked, but here's why you might want something else" bit, but that'll be true in spades for the media-center/HTPC system.


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Tuesday, 20 April 2010
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10:34 - It seems that Chinese raw materials and manufactured products aren't the only Chinese things that can't be trusted.

Rampant cheating hurts China's research ambitions

This pisses off scientists big-time, because it's an abuse of trust that cuts to the core of science. With the exception of global warming papers, which unfortunately are incredibly politicized, if I read a peer-reviewed paper in one of the hard sciences, it never crosses my mind that the paper might be fraudulent. It happens sometimes, certainly, but it's so rare for papers from Western scientists that every instance of a fraudulent scientific paper makes the news. A fraudulent paper irrevocably ruins the careers of the authors, and the fallout often damages the institutions with which they're associated. And rightly so. Once someone is proven to be a liar, he can never be trusted again.

Note that I'm not talking about merely bad papers, but truly fraudulent ones. Poorly defined goals, bad methodology, inadequately reported data, poor statistical analyses, and similar defects aren't uncommon, but such defects merely cause one to question the competence of the investigators, not their honesty. Truly fraudulent papers are those in which the investigators simply make up their data or cherry-pick non-representative subsets of their data, which amounts to the same thing.

For papers from Western scientists, such flagrant abuses occur in a tiny percentage of papers, perhaps one in ten thousand or one in one hundred thousand. For papers by scientists and institutions from most third-world countries, my impression is that the incidence of fraud is noticeably higher, perhaps an order of magnitude or more. But even there, fraud remains relatively rare. Contrast that with China, where apparently any paper from a Chinese institution can't be trusted.


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Wednesday, 21 April 2010
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08:38 - Boy, talk about overreaching. The North Carolina Department of Revenue is demanding that Amazon turn over complete details of all orders made by North Carolina residents since 2003. And they mean complete details. Not just a list of orders from each resident and the total amount of the invoice, but all of the line-item detail for each order. Amazon has already filed suit in Seattle, asking the judge to rule this demand unconstitutional. Unconstitutional, indeed. I'm not sure what jurisdiction North Carolina thinks it has over Amazon, which has no presence in the state. It's all about use taxes, of course. North Carolina, like every other state, is desperate to increase tax collections, and they're not picky about how they do it.

The whole concept of a use tax is unconstitutional anyway. It originated when the courts ruled that states could not charge sales tax on transactions that did not occur fully within their jurisdiction. I remember 50 years ago my parents driving from our home in New Castle, Pennsylvania to Youngstown, Ohio, about 15 miles away. They bought furniture and had it shipped back to New Castle. Because delivery didn't occur in Ohio, they owed no Ohio sales tax. Because the purchase didn't occur in Pennsylvania, they owed no Pennsylvania sales tax.

After the court ruling, states decided to get around it by implementing what they called a use tax. If you bought something in-state, you owed sales tax. If you bought something out-of-state, you owed use tax. The problem with that is that the use tax is discriminatory because it's not charged on in-state purchases. For it to be legal, it would have to be charged on all purchases, including ones that were subject to sales tax. As far as I know, no one has ever challenged this, but someone should. It's clearly an out-of-state sales tax under another name, and it's just as unconstitutional as when they called it what it was.

I've just emailed my NC house and senate representatives to make sure they're aware of the situation and to ask them to put a stop to it.


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Thursday, 22 April 2010
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Friday, 23 April 2010
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Saturday, 24 April 2010
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Sunday, 25 April 2010
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