Thursday, May 31, 2007

One of the best kept secrets in tech - Microsoft Surface

Ok, I know I'm a few days behind on this one - but it is worth another look.

This is amazing on two counts: the tech itself - which is truly wonderful in a "Minority Report" kinda way, and in the way Surface was kept under wraps for so long: 5 years in development...and nary a peep out of the Amazing Balmer Screaming Head. (Although Surface does look suspiciously like this little gem that Jeff Han was diddling with last February.)

It's a remarkable thing that CPU and GPU cycles are now so cheap that we can afford to spend a significant fraction of those cycles on gorgeous interfaces like this. The first Surface enabled...uh...surface is called the "Milan." It's retailing for $10,000 - so the target markets are convention halls, hotels, lobbies, restaurants and the like... but can cheaper versions, and small "lightbox" sized devices be far behind? I, of course, want one.

Nice, Redmond - something cool, at long last, besides the XBox360.

The Big Vista Sweep: The Conclusion

...a Mind Transfer in 4 parts.

At the beginning of this grand experiment, I announced I would be upgrading 5 machines to various flavors of Vista from various flavors of XP. For those keeping count at home, I only upgraded 4, not 5.

The 5th victim was to be a Winbook Jive Mini running XP MCE 2005. This machine is outside my firewall - I use it as a machine to collect internet videos and store them before examining the content files for worms, trojans, etc. Since this machine is "bait," and dangling outside my digital fortress, I see little need to upgrade. XP will work just fine on that box for quite some time.

So, how did it all go? Here's a comparative history:

All four machines were successfully converted to flavors of Vista. One of these machines (my RAID0 equipped main desktop ) was, frankly, an expensive bitch. It took many hours of research and almost $500 of new equipment to bring this thing up to snuff. It is not clear where the fault in that setup occurred, but it seems clear that it was miscommunication between the Intel RAID controller software and the Vista operating system. Reading those links in full (Sweep II and Sweep III) can help you avoid these pitfalls if you have a system with a RAID bank on board.

Other than one other incident involving a plasma screen that wouldn't come back to life once it was shut off (see Sweep V), the other Vista upgrades went very smoothly.

As to the health of each system, all of them - without exception - are running noticeably quicker than they did under XP. Although I am still getting used to some of the OSX-like user interface and internal features of Vista, I seem to be able to use the functionality of these new machines OSes in the same manner I used XP.

Worth noting here: Vista Media Center is astonishingly cool. Significantly more robust than XP MCE, it's just damn prettier to look at - even a few Mac aficionados I had over were impressed by the efficiency and ease of use.

So - all in all, The Big Vista Sweep was a success. For your reading pleasure, here are the chapters of this saga compiled for your convenient reading:

  1. The Big Vista Sweep, Part I
  2. The Big Vista Sweep, Part II
  3. The Big Vista Sweep, Part III
  4. The Big Vista Sweep, Part IV
  5. The Big Vista Sweep, Part V
  6. The Big Vista Sweep, Part VI
...back to the Rocket.

The Big Vista Sweep, Part VI

Mind Transfer #4:

Computer: Sony TX770P laptop
Native OS: Windows XP Professional, SP2
Memory: 1.5 Gig
Hard drive: 80 Gig
Extra Devices/Features: Cingular WWAN Radio, Support for most Sony and SD memory sticks

This was almost not worth writing about. I was going to use this machine as an experiment to download windows Vista Business addition from the Microsoft website, since I have never done that before...but, literally, the day I sat down to do this I received the Sony Vista upgrade DVD in the mail. This was the same DVD that I used to upgrade the SZ laptop, but with a new license key. So, it was free - screw the download experiment.

I inserted the DVD, clicked "UPGRADE" and walked away from the machine. 3-4 hours of whirring and clicking later: Vista Business with all the proper drivers and Vista-fied Sony VAIO applications were ready to go. No muss, no fuss. Sony finally figured out their upgrade paths.

Verdict: Success. Round-trip Rocket Time for Upgrade: 4 Hours. Rocket Cost: $0

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is that the Googy-Man Under Your Bed?

...ok, I am not a paranoid guy. Really. I don't think anything bad will happen to me in crowds. I'm completely comfortable giving my credit card to websites. And I think that guy that wants to pet my dog, just wants my dog.

Now, having said that... anyone else getting weirded out by Google's slow encroachment on privacy?

$3.1 Billion for DoubleClick. The largest search engine purchases the largest purveyor of personal click stream patterns?

Google Web History shows up on your personalized home page? Ok, sure - yeah - I understand that they've always had that information, and that they use it to refine their algorithms for data mining, advertising and search...but, uh, to actually see your search history since you started using Googles personalized home page? I know mom and dad have sex, but do you really need to see it?

Google Street View. How creepy/effed up is this? Aside from the dubious value, don't you think it was a little bizzaro that the Googleplex sent out legions of vans to roam through city streets to take pictures of your house? Your neighbor's house? Your apartment? ...jeez, look, you left the window open. The "WTF???" factor here is off the charts.

Google personalized mobile search? So, combined with Google's new GPS-enabled mobile google maps, and, well, the personalized search history that they store for you...and, uh, the stuff sitting in the fat DoubleClick databases? Uh....they know where you were, what you did, what you wanted, and....

...nah! It's prolly nothing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"iPhone, bitch!!!"

... glad someone else thinks that is "Baby Music"

Monday, May 21, 2007

10 Signs That the US Needs Legislators That Understand Tech

There's a lot of technology legislation being created by people who really have very little understand of technology, or the ramifications of the bills and laws they are passing. New industries are being thwarted, consumers are getting shafted, and technological change is occurring at rate that is restricted by clinging to old business models.

Some of these legislators mean well, but they don't know enough. They are afraid of technology and don't understand what this rapid fire change means. These people tend to become unwilling shills of the record industry, movie industry, local businesses and their constituents. Their inability to play the technology chess game in their head makes them easy prey for businesses and coalitions with definitive stakes in certain market spaces.

Others of these people definitively know what they are doing. They are smart, tech-savvy and have a stake in some business or industry which would be effected by technological change - these people are dangerous. They are manipulating the ecosystem for their own benefit, and using fear of change and technology as a tool for that manipulation.

We all have our top 10 lists of idiocy in this area, and it changes (for me anyway) every day. So, without further ado, I present to you:

The RocketList of Idiocy in Technology Legislation

Number 10: States Implement Used CD Legislation

This falls squarely into the "all consumers are to be treated as criminals" camp. Florida and Utah (and potentially Wisconsin and Rhode Island) have enacted legislation which treats people trying to sell used CD or video games as pirates. These laws slipped quietly into the books without nary a ripple of a news story. Among the restrictions:

  • Florida requires all retailers sreselling used CDs to acquire a permit and invest in a $10,000 security bond through the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
  • A CD Store retailer must hold the used CD for 30 days before reselling
  • Stores must fingerprint individuals trading in CDs, copy their state identification, and pay them only in store credit.
  • Although video game retailers are not required to acquire a permit, they need to hold traded games for 15 days before they can be resold.
Clearly this legislation is aimed at making used CD shops behave like pawn shops. At least one retailer has closed its doors because of this action. I've heard a lot of apologists talk about this (cuts down on thieves stealing CDs and selling them for a quick buck, prevents people from counterfeiting CDs, etc.) - it's all nonsense.

Number 9: Amendment made Voting Machine Legislation Limiting Source Code Disclosure

In the original legislation written by Rush Holt's (D-NJ), the e-voting reform bill provided for a lot of changes to the original flawed e-voting laws -- one of the major changes was the introduction of the concept of allowing anyone to examine the source code that controls the voting machine - just by requesting it. Now, the bill has been amended so that source code can still be obtained, but only through a third party agency that can only show the code to government agencies, parties in dispute, or academics.

These types of restrictions are usually put in place by law makers who either don't understand the nature of open-source policies, or see an opportunity to obfuscate the facts by scaring voters with the idea of "open source." It is difficult to imagine what the rationale is for limiting access to the source code - piracy makes no sense, as does hacking - since the machines are not network connected.

What would you rather have, a voting machine company trying to protect its intellectual property, or an open voting process with transparency into the mechanisms that make it all function?

Number 8: Nascent Internet Radio Industry: Royalty Fees. Established Terrestrial Radio: Not So Much

As discussed elsewhere in this blog, as well as 100,000's of other blogs, the RIAA is out to screw over another nascent industry: internet, or streaming, radio. About every 2 years, the RIAA pops up and says "hey, lets make digital radio sources pay for the use of our material," even though it provides the same marketing vehicle for artists that terrestrial radio provides, and terrestrial radio pays nothing. (They play nothing, too, so maybe its fair.)

The argument, the RIAA claims, is that digital forms of music are so easy to pirate, that people - being natural theives, like monkeys - will scope our artists music up from these "internet radio stations" and stick 'em on iPods, and pass them around to their other friends!! Gak! We must protect our artists!!! ...nice argument, if it were true. And, of course, if the RIAA wasn't also trying to collect fees for artists that they don't even represent. Uh, yeah. Make sense to you? Me either - but it made sense to some folks on capitol hill as they considered yet another round of measures to get mom&pop internet radio stations to pay licensing fees per song per user retro-active to January 2006.

The original date to levee these fees was May 15, 2007. Then people got pissed - including NPR, actually - and the date was extended to July 15, 2007. And then, the Senate woke up - specifically Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sam Brownback (R-KS). (Bipartisan cooperation? The enemy of my enemy is my friend!) Introduced 2 weeks ago, the Wyden-Brownback amendment will change the fee to a much more reasonable 7.5% of total revenues (which is almost $0 for most internet stations), the same fee that satellite broadcasters Sirius and XM currently pay.

The education of the Senate by Wyden and Brownback is the reason this idiocy has fallen in my list from #1 to #8. Why did it not fall of the list completely? Because its still a real issue - and the RIAA, I am certain, is not done yet.

Number 7: The Digital Millennium Copyright Hack Act

Enacted in '98 with what, I am sure, was the best of intentions for protecting the rights of artists, production houses and consumers, the DMCA has become the most over-hyped, abused, misguided and easily exploited law the Clinton administration ever conjured into being.

So loosely defined as to be nearly useless, the DMCA has language that explicitly calls out something called "webcasters" to pay licensing fees to "record companies" (two phrases that should immediately raise the red flag in your brain that signals that someone with incomplete knowledge wrote this bill), and that service providers are "expected to remove material from users' web sites that appears to constitute copyright infringement."

This type of hip-slinging language has allowed:
  • ...agencies such as the RIAA to threaten grandmothers
  • ...Uri Geller to issue a take-down notice to YouTube for potentially demonstrating that he could very well be a fraud.
  • ...some bullshit company called "Media Rights Technology" to sue Microsoft, Apple, Real Networks and raft of other real companies (with lawyers, guns and money) because their DRM is not bulletproof. (All together now: hahahahahaha)
The DMCA is wasting all of our time and money, and doing the exact opposite of what it is trying to accomplish: protect artists and enable consumers. Back to the effing shop, people...this thing's not done.

Number 6: Playing the Fear of Terrorism Card - Barring that, Playing the Fear of Child Pornographers Card.

...or the Fear of Godlessness Card...or the Fear of Drunk Drivers Card...or whatever.

Look, let's face it - the majority of American's don't understand how technology works, why it works, what it is capable of, or who uses it for what purposes. All they know is that they want their kids safe, their vegetables fresh and their belief systems unchallenged. Unfortunately, those are the people electing our legislators, and they aren't much better off.

What a perfect opening to prey on the unknowing - so when the US Government wants to censor portions of Google Earth because it "reveals too much" about our military secrets and low profile installations within US borders, standing up and countering with the "Free Speech"...uh, a good way to get you labeled a terrorist sympathizer. So, its ok that civilian and commercial satellites take high resolution photographs of everything all the time and have for decades -- but, oh, now that you can view them easily its a problem? Tell me, when our nations enemies actually had technological prowess (back when actual countries were considered a threat to US security) to intercept and decode civilian satellite images - they were never considered of much use. Now that our enemies are...lets just say...technically less sophisticated, we have a problem?

Likewise, when you bring up that parents should police their own households to uphold their standards of decency, instead of trying to bring about government regulations to enforce their standards of decency on everyone you run the risk of getting labeled an apologist for child pornographers and stalkers. I have a better idea, instead of trying to tie up my government forming meaningless policies or having my ISP create filter technology that doesn't work - how about you get of your lazy ass, walk into your daughter's room to get her off her MySpace chat and take her to the zoo?

Number 5: 95% of Everything is Crap

Or, in this case, 96% - but it's close enough to make Theodor Sturgeon seem like an optimist.


That was the vote in the US House to introduce into the House...are you sitting down?... the Deleting Online Predators Act. ( appropriate.) Aimed squarely at Web 2.0, DOPA's purpose - if passed - will be to ban online social networking from school networks. The idea here - if I can follow the faulty, fear mongering logic thread, is that MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites result in rape, murder and drug use among Our Nations Teens! (ONT! DOPA is for ONT!!!!) Apparently, little Susie is more in danger from BiteMe213 (age 42, Peoria, IL) leering at her prom pictures, then she is from Creep Janitor Guy (CJG! DOPA is ambivalent to CJG!) hanging out at her cheerleading practice.

But, you know, its a hell of a lot easier to convince your tech-illiterate voting constituents that you are technically savvy, and doing something against sexual predators when you try to create an entity like DOPA. And the best part? You don't have to lift a finger! Ever! Just create a house resolution and the school system's IT groups do all the work! (What? Your daughter's school doesn't have an IT system? Oh well, maybe it's easier to just pull the internet plug.) I can just hear CJG cackling in the corner, can you?

Oh...and, the bill, if you choose to read it and risk the taste of bile, is pretty - uh - broad reaching. Not only does MySpace, Facebook and other time-wasters get banned, but so does Shelfari (with its student-unfriendly credo of "Read! Share! Explore!"), or Digg (allowing students to read popular current events! God! NO!!!!!!!!!!!), or... oh - you get the idea.

So who are these Social Defenders of Freedom? Who are the mystery 415? Well, since it is most of them, it's not too hard to figure out...but, if you need a guide, cuz - you know - you're social network site is blocked, check out here.

Number 4: I Just Don't Have the Patents For This...

US patent law is almost as old as the US itself. In fact, it has its origins in
the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, which states: "Congress shall have the power …. [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Powerful stuff, emotion-generating stuff isn't it? It is - quite honestly - amazing that this sort of advanced concept emerged during a time 200 years ago when a group of colonists was trying to break free from their home country...the problem is that this clause was intended for things like plowshares and cotton gins, not so Steve Ballmer could launch 235 patent infringements against Linux in a weird attempt to block Dell from shipping non-Vista machines.

Nor was it intended to be used...:
And this is nothing new, by the way....anyone old enough to remember the DOS database company "d-Base" from trying to trademark the lower case "d"? Or Texas Instruments from trying to patent binary math?

The rule here is very simple, US Patent office, let me break it down for you:

...if its an's ethereal, like the wind or the human spirit. Really.
...if its an's a thing, like a plowshare. Knock yourself out.

Number 3: Honey? Is There Someone Else On the Line?

Ever hear of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)? Yeah, well, the FBI hopes you really don't pay too much attention...they tried to get this thing quietly enacted in 1994, because - darn it - they really want to know what you are VoIPing about. You could be a criminal! Or a terrorist! Or a pornographer!

CALEA is a series of APIs and protocols that conform to a standard to allow the feds to tap into any internet service provider that conforms to it. All of them. Comcast, Verizon, your university's service system, your school's, your company. All of it. Hahaha. Feel safer now? Instead of those persnickety analog phone lines that required people like Gene Hackman to obtain a warrant and sit in a panel van outside your home, now the feds can just set up huge servers and data mining tools (provided that they aren't patented) to collect and filter all of your online activity! Automatically! Neat!

Fortunately, CALEA was opposed by watchdog groups like the EFF, and the University deadline for compliance (May 14, 2007) has come and gone - with CALEA being forced to modify its ruling. Legistlators and the Administration are laughing at CALEA behinds its back, but the thing still isn't dead... stay tuned, the CALEA story isn't over yet.

Number 2&1: It's A Tie For Technical Idiocy!!!

Ok, I tried to order these #2 and #1 as proper examples of the kind of techincal - oh, let's be kind and say "illiteracy" - that pervades our government. I really did. I wanted the number #1 example of why our system of technological legislation has to change and not pander to the fears and concerns of a non-technologically "literate" public...but these were both way to good to give one of them less priority then the other.

In both cases, I decided to despense with my verbose opinions and descriptions of the tied offenders, because (a) they have already gotten a ton of press, and (b) these two videos very clearly highlight the issue. Is it a cheap shot to use a couple of videos to "make fun" of the two offenders? Of course it is - but screw it, one of the these guys is the longest serving senator in the government (oh, and, by the way, he chaired the effing United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during the 109th Congress, for pete's sake), and the other guy runs the freakin' country. The fact that neither of them seem to know what they are talking about in the technology arena - or aren't smart enough to have handlers that do - is a disgrace. So, yeah - this is a cheap shot, but they deserve it.

So, without further ado...

Number 1-1: Ted Steven's Series of Tubes

Number 1-2: The Internets and The Google

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Big Vista Sweep, Part V

Mind Transfer #3.1: The Alienware DHS-5

Computer: Alienware DHS-5 Media Center 2005 server
Native OS: WIndows MCE 2005 Professional, SP2
Memory: 2 Gig

Hard drive: 320Gig Onboard, 3 Terabyte RAID0 Array offboard.
Extra Devices/Features: Support for most digital memory sticks, high end graphics card/processor, dual Hauppauge NTSC Tuners, dual ATI HDTV Wonder tuners, Realtek 7.1 audio processor. Media Center Vista upgrade reported on in Part IV had one little issue: you couldn't turn the plasma TV off...which lead me into the wonderful world of VESA protocols... sitting down?

Before I begin my little Tale Of Woe, let me identify the cast of characters in this play:

  • The Alienware DHS-5. As you remember, this is the machine that was upgraded from XP MCE to Vista MCE. The upgrade went extremely smoothly, and there were no reported problems. (Well, until I tried to turn the plasma screen on and off and back on again.)
  • An ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card. This was the graphics card that came shipped with the Alienware. Its been modified by Alienware to be passively cooled, in order to keep the noise down on the system.
  • A Sony XBR-900, 42" Plasma Screen. Sony no longer makes plasmas, having thrown all of their XBR production into their LCD technology - so this set is no longer available. In addition, it was one of the first plasma's on the market. I think that this was actually part of the problem.
  • A Gefen DVI Detective. This little $60 device, intended for home entertainment installers, saved me from throwing out my home system out of frustration.
The Symptoms

Once the Vista upgrade was complete - I believed that I was out of the woods. I posted my success story on this blog, and turned the entertainment system off and went to bed. The next evening, when I decided to watch television, the system came on - but the plasma screen was blank. Nothing I did brought it back to life -- I resorted to rebooting the Vista machine (which is in my basement) in order to watch television. Really inconvenient.

The Hunt

I spent a good deal of time hunting down false leads:
  • First assumption: bad graphics driver. I had heard various stories about the Radeon series of graphics cards from ATI and Vista, so I assumed that it was either the driver, or some new setting on the Catalyst control application that comes with the Radeon. I downloaded the new Vista-specific drivers from the ATI site (version 7.4) -- same problem. Although, bonus: the new Catalyst control application allowed me to manually set the pixel size of the displayable area on the screen. (For those of you without plasmas, here's the plasma dirty little secret: overscan. About 5% of the image on a plasma screen falls outside the physical borders of the device, in order to cure certain boundary problems. 99% of people never notice, but if you have a computer hooked up to your plasma, and your application icons fall outside the viewable area - you, uh, notice.)
  • Second assumption: Vista Media Centers "away" mode was getting confused by the plasma being off. This was easily disabled in both VMC itself, and my changing a setting in the registry. It still didn't work, the plasma screen remained blank.
  • Third assumption: Vista's aggressive power management features were getting in the way. This was almost correct and the information I was mining was starting to make some sense - the plasma was informing Vista that it was off, and in order to save power Vista sends a signal to the graphic card to power down. (Turning the plasma off was the equivalent of shutting the lid on a laptop, in that regard.) So, is it possible that the plasma was not informing Vista that it was turned back on...? Well - almost.
The plasma was, indeed, sending a signal to the Vista box. Using a VNC client to log into the media center from a laptop, I was able to observe the Vista "busy mouse icon" start to spin for a second whenever the plasma came on. This indicates that, yes, indeed, Vista was detecting power on mode from the plasma screen. It was just doing the wrong thing.

A check through various Vista Media Center forums, specifically the Australian Vista and XP Media Center Support Forum, revealed that people were experiencing these same symptoms with certain combinations of plasma screens, video switching receivers, HDMI, DVI, VMC and ATI graphics cards. This lead a few people down the "away" path that King Joey pointed me down earlier. Because the combination of machines that were required for this problem to manefest itself was so esoteric, hardly anyone was hitting this issue.

Eff-ing, lucky me.

The Real Problem

Ever wonder how your new operatin system (Linux, OS X, Vista, XP) knows when a laptop display is closed, or what resolution you've set your funky new digital monitor on? In 1989, an industry organization called VESA (Video Electronics Standard Association) was formed to develop protocols for digital display devices to identify themselves and their capabilities to whatever device happened to be connected to it. When you turn your plasma or LCD monitor on, it is the VESA protocol that identifies itself and its display capabilities to your graphics card.

"But wait!" you say. "What if I have a really fancy setup with two, three or even four different display devices! Just like in 24! Won't my computer confuse the VESA announcement from one monitor with the VESA announcements from another monitor?" Good question, rich kid.

Here's the answer: every digital display device has a unique identifier attached to it, called an Electron Device ID (EDID). This number uniquely identifies a specific digital display before announcing its capabilities. So the conversation goes something like this:

Plasma Monitor: "Hi Computer! My EDID is Bob!!!"
Vista: "Hey there, Bob! I'm Vista. How's it hanging?"
PM: "Slightly to the left, Vista!"
Vista & PM: "HaHaHaHa!"
PM: "I kill me!"
Vista: "Yes, that was funny. Tell me Bob, what can you do?"
PM: "Well, I can display 12 resolutions of various color depths, and I have a physical dimension of 1900x1200 pixels!"
Vista: "Let me write that down....ok. Got it. Thanks"
PM: "No problem - well, I'm going to sleep now!"
Vista: "G'night Bob!"

What? Am I anthropomorphizing again? Sorry.

Anyway - certain display devices (especially the earlier implementations, like my Sony plasma screen) incorrectly implemented some of the VESA protocols. In the case of my plasma, the VESA protocol to announce that it is being turned on is probably incorrect. XP was forgiving of that particular error, but Vista - with its overly aggressive power saving features - is not.

So, once Vista instructed the graphics card to power down, it never tells it to power back up again because the plasma screen never issued the correct series of VESA commands when it was turned back on.

The Solution

It is not possible to make Vista relax its stance on power management. For better or worse, you cannot instruct it to simply leave the graphics card on even if there is no device attached to it. Nice.

A little hunting around, tho, lead me to a clever little device used by home theater installation people: the Gefen DVI Detective. Home installers and other professionals often run DVI connections to dozens of devices - turning plasmas on and off a lot can reduce the life of the screen, and simply pulling out a DVI or HDMI cable will send a disconnect signal to whatever the display was connected, which would mess up whatever the installer was trying to do.

Enter Gefen, a manufacture of cables, switches, breakout boxes and other fun gizmos for home entertainment enthusiasts and installers. One of their devices is the DVI Detective - a $60 device that you plug the DVI cable from the display in from one end, and the Vista Media Center in to the other end. When you turn the display on for the first time, the DVI Detective intercepts the signal, remembers the EDID and the display characteristics, and sends the information back out to the Vista Media Center. From that point on, you can just pull the plug on the plasma and the DVI Detective continues to tell the Media Center that the plasma is still connected and on, and everything is fine.

In theory, the VMC never realizes that the plasma has been turned off, and therefore never powers down the graphics card. In theory. In practice... works like a charm. The $60 magic box allowed me to shut my plasma display off with reckless abandon. This solution should also solve similar problems others are having with other display devices, video switchers, video upres devices and DVI-to-HDMI cables.

Mind Transfer #3 is now, officially complete.

So, allow me to revise:

Verdict: Success (amended)
Additional Round-trip Rocket Time for Problem Solving: 12 hours.
Additional Rocket Cost: Gefen DVI Detective ($60)

The increasing relevance of "Max Headroom" in everyday life...

..."Blipverts," anyone?

No one should be allowed to eat greasy food on the couch watching "American Idol" anymore.

Max: "What kind of s-s-show is this, anyway?"
Grossberg: "This is not a show, Max. This is the executive board of Network 23."
Max: "Ah-Ah-Ah. Exec-Exec... you mean you're the people who execute audiences?"

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thanks for showing up AppleTV - Transcode360 was first in line, though

Yeah, I know - Apple is REVOLUTIONARY! They do AMAZING THINGS THAT NO ONE ELSE HAS DONE!!! one else on Apple Computers, I suppose.

For the past year I've been running with the following configuration:

For a non-commercial product, the Transcode360 project (from the folks at the larger Runtime360 project) is as fine a transcoder as I have ever seen in my professional career, actually. Transcode360 works on DiVX, XviD, and AVI files - so it is perfect for video retrieved via bittorrent.

If you don't know, a transcoder is a piece of software that translates between two or more audio, video or image CODECs. A transcoder comes in one of two flavors: batch or streaming. A batch transcoder runs on a schedule to transcode files for use later, and a streaming transcoder performs its work prior to the playback of a foreign file CODEC on any given playback device. (A streaming transcoder usually has a cost to it in the form of a buffer before playback - anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the speed of the machine, the complexity of the transcode, etc.)

The memory footprint of Transcode360 is very small, and although there is a noticeable tax on the CPU, it is not enough to disrupt the other functions on the MCE box. (As a stress test, I let the MCE box record from all four inputs - two NTSC and two OTA HDTV - and transcode out to both of my XBox360's...everything worked fine.) As of the last few releases, Transcode360 also allows you to run the transcoder on one machine while leaving another machine as a streaming source. My Alienware is beefy enough where I don't need to do this, but I did try it to see what happened - and it worked like a champ.

When I moved to Vista MCE from XP MCE 2005, I uninstalled Transcode360. When the update was done, I took a shot of brandy and tried the beta Vista version of Transcode360. I've been running with this beta all week, and no problems have emerged. It installs as a service just as the XP version did, and I'm not even aware that it's operating. Playback on the XBoxes (or, if you're a Brian Regan fan: XBoxen) is straightforward - rather than picking "Play" when you select a video from the MCE video browser, you select "Info" followed by "Transcode"...and within a few seconds, the video begins to playback. You have complete control of the video with pause, fast forward and reverse - albeit there is a noticeable pause for each of these functions that corresponds to the size of your transcode buffer.

The quality of the video playback on the XBox360 is really quite amazing - but I am not sure if that's the quality of the transcoded file, or the upscaling abilities of the XBox - but the end result is everything plays back in amazing detail and quality.

So - invest in an iTV and restrict your playback to iTunes-supported video if you'd like, or stick with MCE and an Xbox and playback without restrictions. Whatever makes Steve happy, I suppose.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Big Vista Sweep, part IV

Mind Transfer #3: The Alienware DHS-5

Alienware DHS-5 Media Center 2005 server
Native OS: WIndows MCE 2005 Professional, SP2
Memory: 2 Gig
Hard drive: 320Gig Onboard, 3 Terabyte RAID0 Array offboard.
Extra Devices/Features: Support for most digital memory sticks, high end graphics card/processor, dual Hauppauge NTSC Tuners, dual ATI HDTV Wonder tuners, Realtek 7.1 audio processor.

Ok...this could have gone faster, but I was kindofa dolt about some of this. For the most part, this installation would have (with hindsight) worked straight out of the box. (With a couple of exceptions - because Alienware doesn't sell this machine anymore, they really didn't have any drivers for it on the support website. I also swapped out the original tuner cards for a couple of Hauppauge PVR PCI II tuners. So, I spent a good part of the day hunting down drivers for the Hauppauge, the ATI Radeus 9800 Pro graphics card, and the Realtek 7.1 audio drivers. This was, of course, an exercise in futility, since these popular items already had drivers on the Vista upgrade DVD.)

A quick run through Vista Upgrade Advisor showed that the only bad Vista citizens on this MCE machine were the silly Alienware GUI enhancements (their trademarked "little green man" user interface), Nero DVD burning software, and the old Media Center Extender Server. (This has been replaced by new code inside of Vista MCE itself.) So, I removed these items, plus shutdown the Transcode360 software (more on that in a bit).... however, I was still twitchy from the last Vista upgrade, so I did a couple of idiotic things.

Before I start, I should remind everyone that this Alienware box is the main media supplier (all media) for my house. There are backups to machines elsewhere, but all video, audio and imagery in the house eventually winds up on one of the RAID arrays hanging off of this thing. Furthermore, it's in the basement in a rack, away from the main plasma display in the living room, so I can't see the teletales very easily on the box, and reading 10pt font on a plasma display is a challenge - even given my vampire eyes. (There, I believe that covers all of my excuses quite nicely.)

I start the upgrade late on a Saturday afternoon - and the machine begins its normal upgrade path - however, about 2 hours into the automatic install, the plasma screen goes black. After 20 minutes of blackness, I go into the basement, and the Alienware box looks inert. No telltales, nothing. I put my ear up to the box, and I could hear the hard drive whirring and clicking, but that could have been almost anything. I said a prayer and hit the reboot switch.

To Vista's credit, when the Alienware came back to life, whatever Vista had done undid itself, and the system restored to XP MCE 2005, and presented me with the terse warning "This machine was unable to install Vista." And...I went to bed.

I woke up the next day peeved...the Alienware is an ass-kicking machine loaded with standard equipment. There is no reason that it shouldn't have upgraded. So, I tried again - it went through the same routine... the plasma screen went dark, with a minimal amount of disk activity on the box. I just let it go, I had all afternoon...20 minutes...30...40...whir! Click! It rebooted....with Vista installed.

The machine basically came to life all in one motion, restoring its previous settings including all of the television recording information that I had scheduled. (A big fear I had was that the 30 or so recordings I had scheduled would have to be rescheduled. That would have been a pain.) I ran around the house to the XBox 360 Media Extenders to reboot them, get their UIDs and enter them into Vista Media Center - they came up too.

Then...I tried the remote control: dead. Setting up the tuners: dead. I could see the eHome remote control receiver that came with the Alienware light up, but nothing was happening. Three hours later (yes, three), after searching forums and looking for new occured to me that it could just be that the eHome was unsupported. I went to my office to pull the Sony IR receiver off my newly-Vista'ed desktop, plugged it into the Alienware...and: it immediately installed drivers and started functioning. The rest of the media center setup took 20 minutes.
(Idiot! God!)

So that's it - the Alienware is up and running. Now all I need to do is update Transcode 360...and more on that little gem of a piece of software tomorrow.

Verdict: Success.
Round-trip Rocket Time for Upgrade: 6 Hours - if I wasn't a nimrod: 3 hours.
Rocket Cost: Vista Home Premium ($150)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Uh. Do I really have to comment on this?

I predict a Planet of the Microsoft vs. Planet of the Google on your multiplex' next summer.

Microsoft May Acquire Yahoo for $50B

Having been in a few mergers already, I would love to have been a fly on the wall at THOSE conversations.

WiMax to Cell Industry: Is the End Neigh?, here we go.

Last summer, Sprint announced that it was rolling out a large-scale WiMax network (based on IEEE 802.16e) in 42 cities in the US by the end of 2007. (Quick primer: WiMax is a IEEE standard that provides 1 Gbps peak speed and 100 Mbps average speeds wireless connectivity over a 5 mile radius.)

There was much laughing and guffawing in both the mobile wireless (cell phone, to you cruds) industry, and the mobile wireless (WiFi, to you cruds) industry.

"What a buffoon!" laughed Verizon. "We have EVDO!"

"What a goober!" laughed WiFi pundits! "WiFi already blankets the planet!!"

This was followed by industry insiders jumping on the bandwagon, declaring WiMax a non-starter before it was even out of the gate. It did not, however, deter Sprint who was light-years behind both Verizon and AT&Ingular on rolling out so-called 3G data networks. also did not deter Intel from pressing ahead with WiMax chip design and standards implementation. also did not stop the FCC from approving a WiMax card laptop card from ClearWire last week. also did not stop NXP from developing a low-power WiMax chip that broadcasts in the 2.5GHz to 3.5Ghz range.

...nor did it stop Skype from creating mobile versions of its VoIP product.

...nor did it stop Samsung and Sanyo from quietly rolling out WiMax handsets.

...nor did it prevent millions of consumers from getting pissed whenever they open their monthly bills or have restrictions placed on how they use those data and voice services.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

Being Really Insensitive to Artists and Aficionados (RIAA) Pays Off Big Time!, the RIAA has got to psyched, right? It's cool to be #1 at something, even if it is the worst company in America, as voted by the Consumerist. I mean, it takes a tremendous amount of concentration to zip past Haliburton and Exxon (numbers 2 and 3, respectively) in so short a period of time! Way to go, RIAA!

I worry about you, though, as a friend. How can you maintain your lead, year over year, over competition so stiff and fierce? How? Think, RIAA! Think like the wind!

What's that you say? You've figured it out?? You are going to try to shut down internet radio stations for good by charging them a fee that you don't charge commerical, terrestrial broadcast stations? That's brilliant!! It's so anti-consumer, anti-nascent industry, anti-artist...why, it's almost anti-American when you stop to think about it. Congratulations, RIAA! I'm sure you're looking at a decade of being the Worst Company in America parties. (If, of course, you last that long as an organization.)

In case you haven't been paying attention, there are several trains (rockets?) headed for each other on the same track right now:

  • terrestrial radio is becoming more and more irrelevant in the new media world
  • the two satellite radio players (Sirius and XM) are looking to merge
  • internet radio stations are beginning to catch on after several years of struggling along as hobbyist sites
...and, of course, the RIAA wants to rain on the party.

After a failed "back door" attempt to shut internet radio down with a ridiculous fee structure a few years ago, the RIAA is trying it again with a "front door" approach. They petitioned the Library of Congress (actually, the Copyright Royalty Board - which is the department of the LofC that deals with copyright royalty infringements) to enforce a fee structure on "digital music transmission" of $0.08 per song per listener. (Why per listener? Because they can.) They sited a bill that the RIAA pushed through in 1995, which levies fees on digital music.

The LoC bought it - and made the fee retro-active to Jan 1 2006. This means that brilliant radio programming, like would owe $100's of $1000's a month to SoundExchange, the extortion thugs for the RIAA. This type of legislation would shut down Bill Goldsmith, programmer/DJ of RadioParadise, and the 1000's of internet radio stations like him. (Even the relatively big boys, like NPR, are concerned about how they would pay the retro fees.)

The original date on the filing to begin enforcement was May 15 - this week, internet radio was thown a bone by the LofC by moving that date out to June 15. The lobbying is, of course, in full swing. Check out for all the details on how you can help.

...of course, if you help - the RIAA might not get the Worse Company in America moniker in 2008, so you need to think of that when you are making your decision.

Hey...think we can talk Haliburton into contributing to the

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Fon to Starbucks: Can you hear me now?

Ever hear of Fon? If you aren't from Spain, the chances are - probably not. Fon is a self-dubbed "Social Router Community" that allows people, through a common WiFi router, to share their WiFi connection with other Fon members. Fon has a world-wide footprint, and claims to be the largest WiFi router sharing community on the planet.

Membership in Fon, plus $39.95 (or, oddly, 39.95 Euros - what kind of conversion rate is that??) for a Fon sponsored router called "La Fonera" (hey, could I make crap like this up?) which allows you entrant into the world of Fon (or, "El mundo de Fon," I guess). So, how does this organization make its money? Uh...from "aliens." (Again, I can't make this stuff up.)

Anyone not in the Fon community is termed an "alien," and is charged $3/day (or 3 Euros/day...again, someone get these guys a conversion table, quick) for access to a Fon community router. (A portion of the profit - 50% I believe - goes back to the owner of the router. So everyone wins.) Actually, an excellent business model - if they can work the deals with ISPs to allow this type of shared activity.

..weeelllll....uh, looks like they just found one. A big one. Time-Warner and Fon have just signed an agreement that allows that very arrangement. Under this partnership, Time-Warner would be the first ISP in the US to allow bandwidth sharing. And this, my friends, spells trouble for coffee.

Specifically, Starbucks. Fon has just launched a campaign called "Fonbucks," targeted at city dwellers next to Starbucks coffee shops. Get a "La Fonera," plug it into your Time-Warner ISP connection, and turn it on. The aliens drinking their lattes and working on their computers at Starbucks now have choice: $10/day for their Starbucks sponsored connection, or $3/day on the Fon network.

Is it working? Well - examine the Fon map and check for yourself against the Starbucks maps provided through Google maps. There does, in fact, seem to be clustering taking place. That is pretty damn amusing.