Saturday, December 29, 2007

Soulmate

Channel-surfing tonight I came upon a program called Live From Abbey Road on the Sundance channel. The person performing was Natasha Bedingfield doing a song called Soulmate. The song was rather apropos and touching, and so the lyrics are my posting for tonight. Enjoy.

"Soulmate" - Natasha Bedingfield

Incompatible.
It don't matter though
'Cause someone's bound to hear my cry.
Speak out if you do --
You're not easy to find.

Is it possible Mr. Loveable
Is already in my life?
Right in front of me?
Or maybe you're in disguise?

Chorus:
Who doesn't long for someone to hold?
Who knows how to love you without being told?
Somebody tell me why I'm on my own
If there's a soulmate for everyone...

Here we are again.
Circles never end.
How do I find the perfect fit?
There's enough for everyone
But I'm still waiting in line...

{chorus}

Who doesn't long for someone?

Most relationships seem so transitory.
They're all good but not the permanent one.

{chorus}

Friday, December 21, 2007

Blind Obedience

Once upon a time... A now ex-girlfriend said that we had to eat fish for dinner during the upcoming Friday. "Why," I asked? She said, "Because it's Good Friday." I replied, "I know that. I would like to know why you eat fish on Good Friday." She angrily replied, "Because that's what you do on Good Friday. It's part of my religion."

I use this example because I was genuinely interested in the why involved in the decision not to eat meat on Good Friday. I eventually found out from a coworker that the reason was to make a sacrifice symbolizing the sacrifices Jesus Christ had to make in dying for our sins. Even though I'm not religious, I found this to be reasonable because I now understood why I was going to have fish for dinner.

My ex-girlfriend's response is a good example of what could be best called blind obedience.

On the way home from a friend's house tonight, I watched a driver in front of me pull into the right-hand turn lane. Just before making the turn (after stopping), the person then turned on their right-turn signal and made the turn. The person obviously didn't know why they needed to use their turn signal except that the law says they have to do so (blind obedience). The reason for using turn signals is to inform the drivers around you that you are going to attempt a lane change or turn. If people understood why they were required to use their turn signals, they might actually use them prior to actually attempting the operation, not during it or just before cutting-off the driver next to them. Turn signals are to help the drivers around you understand your intentions (it doesn't guarantee that you will be able to do what you intend).

Blind obedience doesn't mean you know why and you do something even though you don't want to do it. It's not turning on the TV but not knowing why the electrons flow the way they do. Blind obedience is doing what someone or society tells you to do without having a clue why you're doing it.

The one thing worse than blind obedience is when someone who is blindly obedient demands that someone else do the same thing as they are, "just because you have to do it."

Part of what makes us human is our ability to understand our surroundings, not just react to them. Blind obedience strips us of this ability to understand. It makes us less human.

Understanding why you are performing an action gives more meaning to the action. If it's a religious tradition or activity, it gives meaning to that action. It allows you to have a deeper understanding of your religion. In driving, it allows you to be a better, more defensive, driver. Understanding why you're doing what you do means that you make better, more informed, decisions.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dishes and Cables and Snow Globes, Oh My

Warning: Bloggish posting follows

Saturday was the annual holiday party for Austin NoKidding, which includes a "white elephant" gift exchange. I ended up with a rather (ehem) large clay scene depicting the birth of Christ complete with an animated music box and snow globe. Now while I actually like Christmas decorations, this just was way too busy for my tastes...and apparently everyone else's as well, as I couldn't get anyone to "steal" it away.

I was going to "re-gift" this as next year's white elephant gift that everyone tries to avoid. However, last night I remembered that my ex-boss' wife collects all things Christmas. Their house is amazingly full of all sorts of Christmas decorations, and this "thing" (not even sure what to call it) fits perfectly with the other knick-knacks they have. So last night the gift that nobody wanted has a very good home.

I had a great time talking to Mary who's created a neat country music web site (with the intent to make it her career). It's definitely worth a look at http://www.icmdb.com/.

Yesterday also marked a change in my TV viewing that I hope will be a good thing over the long haul: I got cable and (today) ditched DirecTV. Despite my problems with DirecTV making changes to my TiVo that caused it to randomly reboot, I was actually fairly happy with them. But the idea of putting a large dish on what will soon become my newly installed roof didn't make me feel confident. I also am beginning to tire of the sleezy tactics (that cable is also guilty of) TV delivery companies (how else do you describe cable, satellite, etc.?) use to price their services. If you don't threaten to leave and/or simply express displeasure at the price, they keep jacking it up.

That all being said, I was actually rather impressed with the video quality that cable TV delivered. This is in sharp contrast to how things used to be a few years ago when cable's quality sucked. I think now that they're delivering phone service as well, they tend to pay a little more attention to reliability and quality (although only time will tell what really happens). The Scientific Atlanta DVR is...well...not as impressive. I think TiVo has the edge on almost all the competition, but you'd think SA would take some direction from TiVo and everyone else and provide a few more features. One can only hope that with Cisco purchasing Scientific Atlanta that the software in the box gets better (although PLEASE do not start making THIS DVR reboot randomly!).

I feel that even though I purchased few to no gifts this year, I spent more than my fair share during the holiday season and helped to give the US economy a boost. That certainly was not my intent, but I suppose it's always nice to have some unintended positive side-effects...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Coping With HDTV

Those who have yet to take the plunge into HDTV probably don't understand the title of this entry. Whether you're contemplating going to HDTV, waiting until the dust settles, or have already ventured into this new realm, this article is for you.

When I decided to purchase my first HDTV a few weeks ago, I never suspected that the darn thing would start consuming my life. I did know that there would be issues to solve, but I never knew just how frustrating and costly they would be. I now know more than I ever wanted to know about things like ATSC, 256QAM, 8VSB, color bias, component and HDMI video interfaces, and so on. With as much as I know, there is so much more about this that I don't know. What I'm hoping I can give you all here is both an update on what I've done in this regard, and maybe impart some wisdom that may help those who haven't yet taken this journey (or to commiserate with those who have).

Why Do I Want HDTV?

This is a great question that you should seriously ask yourself before you even consider buying anything. If your thinking was anything like mine, you probably saw some really awesome video on someone else's TV or in the store, and wanted that experience at home every time you watched TV.

In reality, those who are getting HDTV right now are really early adopters of the technology. Much of the television content is still standard definition (SD), even if it is in letterbox format (16:9 wide-screen format). This is going to change, but right now when you watch The Simpsons or South Park, you're only getting it in SD. On the other hand, if you're a sports fanatic there is a lot of content out there. Football games are frequently HD (even on an over-the-air antenna), and even if you're like me and have no interest in professional sports, you'll find yourself watching at least part of a football or baseball game in HD just because it is so awesome.

Another reason people frequently get HD is because they want a widescreen or larger-screen TV and feel that this is a good time to go to HD as well. This is actually a good reason to get a HDTV if you're careful about what you buy. Be aware that when your screen size increases, so do all the imperfections in the video signal. So all the little compression artifacts on SD DirecTV or some of the older SD programs (regardless of station) will look blurry and may not give you the joy you were hoping to find. It gets worse once you see any HD program material and wonder why everything can't be that way.

If you're going to get a new TV anyway, and you don't usually replace your TV for years and years, then this is probably a good time to get a HDTV. If you're just looking to get HDTV because it's the hot new technology, then read the rest of this before you buy.

What To Buy

The first thing that most people consider when they're about to buy a new TV is the size. So first and foremost, do not get the largest TV that you can afford. Unless you want whiplash from swinging your head back and forth, there is no reason to purchase a TV that is larger than a reasonable size for the room where you intend to watch it. There are many people who have set guidelines for sizing TVs, but frankly the best way that I know is to go to the store, sit or stand as far back as your sofa will be from the TV, then see if that size is good for you. For most family room type environments, a 40-50 inch HDTV will be fine. If you have a dedicated media room or sit further back than is typical, then consider a larger set. Even with this recommendation made, the decision is personal. However, don't get suckered into buying a bigger HDTV to keep-up with your friends or because the salesperson made your size decision seem wimpy. Be honest with yourself. Get some people to come shopping with you and listen to their opinions, but make your own decision.

After deciding on size it is then time to start looking at each TV of the same size in the store and watch the demo videos. Look carefully at scenes that move a lot (like panning through a football field, or anything else with a lot of full-screen motion). It is a lot more useful when all the sets are playing the same video and it repeats over and over. Look carefully at the video and make sure that the motion is smooth (not choppy) and doesn't show any tearing or other oddities. Take a cursory look at the pictures on each and see that the colors look reasonable (not bright -- just the right level). Be aware that the stores or manufacturers jack-up the color and brightness to make their TVs stand out among the rest. You should be looking for a TV that reproduces color with fidelity. You know, what it would look like if you were really there. Walk out of the store without buying anything when you're done. Resist the temptation to buy.

Look online and see what people are saying about the brands/models you found interesting. When you feel ready to buy, take into account what you've seen, what other people have said, and what you've discovered after messing with the controls on the TV in the store. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish because you do get what you pay for, but also don't buy the most expensive unit thinking you'll get the best there is.

There's also the LCD vs. Plasma vs. DLP vs. rear projection vs. {name that latest new technology}. You should research that as well (use current information as there are always improvements in the different technology as time goes on). There's pros and cons to each, and like everything else it's sometimes down to personal choice and gut-feelings. Understand that some of these have consumables (such as lamps), some require periodic alignment, some have a glossy screen that is hard to watch in the daytime when sunlight comes through the windows, some generate lots of heat, etc. These are all things to consider.

Other Stuff You'll Need

Most entertainment centers are not equipped to accommodate a wide-screen TV, never mind that 50 inch TV you have your eyes on. So be prepared to be purchasing a lot of new furniture unless you somehow planned for this. This kind of furniture isn't cheap, even for the simplest stand for your new TV. I planned for this eventuality (or so I thought) by constructing my entertainment center out of Skandia wood shelving. Unfortunately the two shelving towers were separated by a shelf who's maximum size is 32 inches (they don't make it any bigger) and the TV is 50 inches wide (counting the speakers and decorative border on the TV). So I had to go to plan "B." I like natural wood which is what Skandia is, and I was able to find a really nice TV stand (in the photo) to go in the center of the two shelf towers. This very simple stand was a few hundred dollars. Quality is important because it's not much fun when your new expensive TV comes crashing down when your $50 TV stand topples-over.

You can also mount the TV on the wall, but be aware of the wires coming out the back and the holes you'll need to put in the wall to support the weight. For heaven's sake don't put it above the fireplace. Aside from the obvious potential heat issues, y0u'll quickly tire of having to look up to watch TV.

You'll also need a source of HD content. The cheapest source is over-the-air. Because TV stations will be required to broadcast in digital format by the beginning of 2009 many metro areas (Austin being one of them) have most, if not all, of their TV stations broadcasting digitally. What's important about this is that if your HDTV has an ATSC tuner (the standard for digital TV that the US adopted) then you put a small antenna in your attic or on the roof and you have instant nice TV. Gone are the days of analog TV where a less-than-perfect signal would leave you with a snowy, ghosty mess. With digital TV you either get it or you don't, for the most part. If you have an even reasonably good signal (even a little ghosty) then you'll get a stunningly great digital picture. Then there's Cable TV, Satellite TV (DirecTV and Dish Network), and a few other newcomers (like the phone company). All of them have varying amounts of HD programming. Be aware that while the broadcasters may have the capability of broadcasting HD content, that doesn't guarantee that your favorite programs will be "filmed" in HD. So in short, set your HD content expectations appropriately. It will only get better from here.

Note that your DVD player doesn't produce high definition video. The picture is clear and most newer DVDs are in widescreen format, which the DVD player can send to your TV. However, the picture is still 480 lines because that's how the DVD was recorded. It will look good, but not as good as Blu-Ray or HD-DVD media (which requires a new player, and the standard is still being debated). An "upconverting" DVD player (that plays standard 480-line media) does not make your DVDs high definition. This just causes the DVD player to process the video signal and produce a signal your HDTV can process in high definition mode. This may work better than letting the TV convert the signal, since some HDTV sets have poorly designed up-converter circuits. Bottom line: If you have a good DVD player with a component video (the one with the red, green, and blue color video plugs) output then keep your DVD player until the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD debate has been resolved.

Finally, if you do not already have a modern audio system (with surround-sound capability) then this is something you will most likely want to get. HD media typically has superior audio with more than two channels. While a good-quality stereo system will provide a satisfying experience while viewing a HD program, a surround-sound system will produce a more theater-like experience. I haven't purchased a new audio system yet, so I have yet to encounter the successes and failures in this area.

Adjusting Your New HDTV

Contrary to common sense, your new HDTV is not ready out-of-the-box for the best picture it can produce. In fact, my experience was initially heart-wrenching. I connected my old DirecTV receiver and noticed that people's faces and some gray-colored things actually had a green tint to them. Movement on the screen would cause fine lines to form on the edges of the moving objects. The colors were overly-bright and not realistic. My first thought was, "I bought this new, expensive HDTV and now everything I watch is going to look like crap." Unfortunately this is not an uncommon experience.

As mentioned above, TVs are not adjusted initially to produce the best picture but rather to stand-out among a sea of other TV sets on the showroom floor. People typically don't look for a realistic picture, but rather one that is very colorful and bright. Once the novelty of that big, bright, colorful picture passes you'll be looking for a realistic, detailed, and accurate representation of the picture being broadcast or played. To do this, you will need to calibrate the settings on your set.

Calibration on most HDTVs will need to be done for each individual input. Specific suggestions are way beyond the scope of this article. A good general rule is to purchase a calibration DVD and use that to make the adjustments to your HDTV. "Digital Video Essentials" (somewhat dated) is a good calibration DVD and has a lot of excellent information (explained in lay-person's terms) about the how and why certain settings should be made the way they are. The DVD will explain the adjustment procedure then places a test pattern on your screen that you use to adjust your HDTV properly. Another good rule-of-thumb is to try to leave most of the "video enhancements" turned off. For example, using a "black level enhancement" may sound like a good idea but in many cases it distorts the picture (it does help restore some sanity to a HDTV with the brightness adjusted too high). Some motion enhancers are helpful but should be tried on a "low" setting first to make sure that it is helping the picture and not distorting it. Video that is too crisp is not realistic.

If you're not going to buy that calibration DVD, then the next best thing to do is learn about all of the color settings for your specific HDTV (not a bad idea in either case) and adjust flesh-tones and objects you know the color to be correct. Add just enough color (using the color level control) to get a realistic coloring of the video. Too little color will make the picture look "weak," and too high of a color will make the colors far too vivid ("saturated") and not realistic. If your HDTV doesn't have a reset function, make a note of all settings before changing them in case your changes actually make matters worse.

If you don't calibrate your HDTV, you will likely become frustrated and disappointed with your purchase. Larger (and crisper) displays make video errors larger and crisper. Expect to spend about a week or so tweeking the adjustments.

Enjoying Your HDTV

By now it should be obvious that buying a HDTV is more than just bringing home a new TV, plugging it in, and forgetting about it like you did with previous TV sets. I knew there were going to be some challenges but I never suspected it would be this complicated. The important thing to remember is to take your time with all the changes. It may feel as though you've taken a step backward and there will be a strong temptation to go out and buy everything at once. This will only make you more frustrated and disillusioned with this technology. Consider this as though you were remodeling a major room in your home. Take a moment to consider what you want and need, and the order you plan on buying or doing each thing. Be prepared to revise the plan when you get to the next step and realize that your original plan either won't work or isn't what you really wanted. Don't buy anything until you've thought carefully about your purchase. Don't buy everything at the same time (unless you're really sure what you want, and if you are, you probably aren't reading this). Don't get suckered into stuff you don't need or want just because your friends have it or the salesperson says it's what you need. Do take a moment to view the roses - even the standard definition ones - on your new HDTV and enjoy what will hopefully be a source of enjoyment for a long time to come.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sundown

"Sometimes I think it's a sin when I feel like I'm winning when I'm losing again." -- Gordon Lightfoot

Every now and then we make decisions that we think are correct and then, for whatever reason, we need to change our minds.

I finally caved-into temptation and purchased the TV set I said I was going to wait to purchase (see "Stuff" entry). A certain popular electronics retailer had a sale price that was too good to pass-up, and I figured it was only a matter of time that it was going to happen anyway. If you're looking to purchase a large screen HDTV be prepared for some surprises. Standard TV from the satellite receiver, which looked pretty good on my old TV, looked like crap on the new HDTV. "What in hell is this? I buy this expensive TV and the picture is crappier than it was on my old TV!!" Welcome to the world of magnified-garbage-in-equals-bigger-garbage-out. The sad truth is that the highly compressed (ugly) video coming from the satellite just looks really bad when it is displayed on a television twice its size. There is a light at the end of the tunnel in that all television is moving toward higher definition and, at least, better compression algorithms. In the meantime, all the predictions I made earlier have come true.

The way to survive the HDTV upgrade is to look at the long term and not expect perfection in the short term. People who know me know I'm not really good at this (sounds like a learning opportunity).

I'm watching the sun go down on the relationship between two friends. In addition to the strain it has placed on just about every aspect of my already strained life, it is another example of romance gone bad. I'd like to say I learned something from this but things are so messed-up that the only thing I've learned is that I'm staying out of the way of future train-wrecks by remaining far removed from any moral support from now on. I would normally conclude from this situation that there's absolutely no hope for an old geeky computer guy. However, my friend "Speck" who got me started writing here in the first place seems to have the right formula for making things work. Thank goodness something is going right.

The sun is also setting on a tradition I looked forward to every year: My ex-boss' (Dan's) Christmas party. This is the last year he said he's going to do this, and I can't say I blame him. It's a lot of work to do to prepare, and we've all gotten separated since his retirement. I'm hoping for something new next year that I can embrace as much as I have this. What I enjoyed about this party was the fact that I could completely relax and be myself. It is a fairly simple and easy going get-together at Dan and his wife's home. Everyone brought something, and most of us would sit around, eat, and chat about old times and neat stuff we were doing. It was one of the few times I could honestly say that I came home more refreshed than when I arrived. The world needs more parties like this. The stuffy corporate dress-up-and-get-drunk party is the antithesis to this and what made me hate Christmas parties in the past. So my thanks to Dan for all the great times we had every year, and here's hoping we can establish a new tradition next year in the same spirit. They will be tough shoes to fill.

With that said, it's time to sit down and chat with a bunch of nice felines waiting for a good home. It has been said that, "Everything I needed to know about life I learned from my cat." I'm about to go gather some wisdom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stuff

It feels like a whole lot of nothing has been happening lately, but some stuff has been worthy of note.

I finally went to the retina specialist that my cute optometrist recommended (she actually contacted Dr. Chen, and his office finally contacted me to find out when I was going to make an appointment). To make a long story short, the final outcome was that I don't need surgery. It seems nearsighted eyes have an oblong shape rather than round. In some nearsighted people, this causes the retina to stretch which can result in thin spots that show-up on retina scans as spots. It is possible for these thin spots to develop a hole, so it's important to watch for any significant changes. So the only thing I need to do is to make sure I visit with Dr. Beck once a year, like I have been doing. Aside from the discomfort of having my eyes dilated (mucho discomforto for me) it was a good doctor visit. So the retina stuff is over for now.

There's a 46 inch Sony XBR4 HDTV that has been calling my name lately. I have come very close to purchasing this expensive television set at least three times in the past two weeks. I'm one of those people who tries to avoid filling voids in my life with stuff. While I know I will eventually get this, I have, for the third time, decided the timing is bad. I've been in an especially depressed mood lately and deep down I know that the TV is simply a gadget that I'm using to provide a diversion from the real problems that need to be addressed. It doesn't help that the usual hypocritical commercialistic holiday people call "Christmas" seems to be starting early this year, and the "buy stuff" message is coming from everywhere already. A HDTV would be nice, but getting this creates a snowball effect of stuff that will need to be bought...
  • The TV doesn't fit in my existing entertainment center, so at the very least the shelving unit I made into an entertainment center would need to be significantly reworked (and I'll likely need a new TV stand).
  • I'm still using the stereo system I bought when I was a student in college over 20 years ago. Getting the most out of the new TV really requires that my audio system be updated to a surround system.
  • I currently have no source of HDTV programming except for over-the-air without getting more expensive satellite service or cable TV (which is seriously lacking in HD content). DirecTV can be persuaded to give discounts on a HD DVR, but I'm not really excited about giving up my TiVo for an inferior product.
  • Getting over-the-air TV will require me to get an antenna, set it up in the attic, and do wiring to get it down to the TV. After that, I'll be able to view live TV but without a DVR that can record HD content over-the-air (my TiVo can't handle HD and only works with DirecTV) I'll have to watch any programs when they air with no commercial editing.
  • If I want to make a DVR that can record live TV, I will need to buy a new computer because none of the systems I have are up to the task.
If I just got the TV and didn't do something about getting HD content, then it would be pointless to have a TV that is designed to display HD content. So this purchase of an expensive TV creates the need for a lot of extra stuff I'm just not prepared to purchase (or work on) right now, even though it is cool.

I have some stuff to say about Christmas. I used to love Christmas. I saw it as a time of year where we played happy music, created cheerful light displays, and got together with friends and family and did fun things. What better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ than to be thankful for our good fortune and be with people we care about. It just doesn't seem that way anymore. Many of my friends disappear for the holidays to visit their extended families. Everyone is running around trying to buy the perfect gift. The stores are mobbed and the roads are clogged with idiots who are only thinking of themselves. The stores are pushing the buy-buy-buy mentality earlier every year. So much to the disappointment of some of my extended family, I have decided to not buy gifts and have asked for them to not buy me gifts. I don't need more stuff. It is hard to buy something for people you see once every couple of years and who (by their own admission) don't really want stuff either. "But it's the thought that counts." Absolutely. I think about everyone all the time, but buying stuff doesn't bring me any closer to them. Say, "Bah humbug." Whatever. What's meaningful to me is getting together with friends, driving around looking at the neat light displays, meeting for dinner, and getting together to do fun things. I can't think of any better way of celebrating the holiday season.

Speaking of stuff ... it's almost Thanksgiving and time for my favorite food -- stuffing.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Hummmmmm

It's always nice to be able to help your parents solve a problem even though you live 2000 miles away from them. Today, I did just that and the problem and solution deserve an explanation to help benefit others.

So you have this neat new audio system or TV and everything works great except that you hear a slight humming in the background, or you see very faint wide horizontal bars that appear to go up your TV screen. This behavior isn't normal. The most common cause for this problem is called a "ground loop." A ground loop (in lay-person's terms) is what happens when the electrical shielding around cables within a system connect at different points that allows an electrical current to begin flowing in the shield (generating noise). The purpose of the shield around the cables for your TV and audio equipment is to prevent stray electrical signals that are in the air (like from your cell phone or the motor in a vacuum cleaner) from interfering with the signals you actually want passing through the cable (like sound or picture information). Ground loops are difficult to diagnose and solve because it requires identifying all the grounding sources for the different shields and isolating each one to see which makes the hum go away.

In my parents' case, we isolated the offending path to be through the cable TV wire. My father looked at the wire and, realizing that I mentioned a grounding problem, noticed that the cable TV ground outside was improperly connected to a pipe that went nowhere. Our house has a history of stray electrical signals coming into the house through the ground lines, and so we theorized that these stray electrons found a nice neat pathway through my parents new HDTV and out the cable TV line.

The way to stop ground loops from happening is to get all the involved ground connections going to the same place. In most cases, this is done for you automatically since everything goes to the same power strip, and thus, the same ground connection in your home's electrical system through the electrical outlet. However, since the cable TV line was improperly grounded at the house, it was taking a pathway to some other home down the street, which was either the source of the stray signal or where it was trying to go.

So in this case, I suggested that my parents remove the stupid ground the cable TV company connected and connect that to the common electrical ground outside that my father installed years ago (and did a great job with). That caused the cable line to ground at the same point as all the other electrical appliances in the house. It also solved the problem with the hum coming from the TV, and the hum-bars going up the screen. Mission accomplished.

As I seem to be doing more and more lately, more information can be obtained from Wikipedia at this link to electrical ground loops. It pretty much says what I just said, but has more tech info as well as other informational links.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Peace on Earth?

Those of you who have really perused my "blog" completely may have noticed I have described myself as a "freethinker." I carefully chose that term as opposed to atheist, agnostic, or godless because the latter carry myriad negative connotations with them that really don't describe me. When I was a kid I wasn't very popular because I did what made me happy (and what seemed like the right thing) and didn't follow the crowd or try to impress others. I feel that the term freethinker better describes my overall philosophy on life, not just religion.

I never was religious in the way most people are. The revealing of Santa Claus' true identity pretty much sealed religion's fate for me. I never saw any need for faith in a higher power, and the concept of prayer and the various customs seemed (and still seem) rather silly and, at best, antiquated. I fully support the right for anyone to believe as they wish, however. If these faith-based belief systems work for you, then go right ahead and believe them as long as you don't try to change my mind or interfere with my right to believe as I do.

It is important to understand, particularly if you are religious, that I do have a strong moral foundation. My belief system puts a very high value on life (of all living things, not just human), emphasizes trying to treat others as I would like to be treated, and that the only person responsible for what I do is me. That system of values (except for the last one) is the one that most of the religious groups claim that their value system is based upon. I'm not being nice or doing good things because I feel it will help my position in the afterlife -- I am doing it because it is the right thing to do.

So with all that being said - Religious evangelism and extremism in particular is dangerous. Once the exterior shell of "love thy neighbor" is stripped away, a core of hate and judgmental belief remains. History is littered with hideous acts performed in the name of religion -- from the burning of alleged "witches" to the bombing of abortion clinics -- from the Spanish Inquisition to certain jihads of Islamic fundamentalism to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. If there is a supreme being looking down on what we're doing, he or she is shaking their head in shame at this point. I don't think Jesus Christ would approve of the commercialism and greed that has become the day we celebrate his birth.

As many of you already know there is usually a reason for me to have an outburst such as this, and you would be correct in believing that this time is no different. Last night I watched another episode of ABC News' 20/20 and John Stossel's story about the funeral protests by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas. The WBC asserts that all the bad things that have happened to the United States is God's retaliation for the support of homosexuality ("fags" as WBC would call them) within our country. They have brainwashed their children into believing their agenda and hate speech without even understanding what it truly means. Incidentally, their web site, www.godhatesfags.com, is no longer accessible, although I'm sure this is merely temporary.

I'm not homosexual (hopefully, this is obvious) - but I support homosexuals as people who haven't done anything to anyone. They're human beings just like you and I. They're not responsible for the collapse of the family - in actuality, lack of planning for a family and marrying for the sole reason of having children and fulfilling religious dogmas are responsible for that. They're not responsible for the spread of AIDS or other illnesses. My only gripe with the gay/lesbian community is with the fringe and extreme groups (acting weird doesn't help support your group). While I'm not comfortable with sexual preferences different from my own, it doesn't mean that these folks can't be my friends and that they do their thing and I do mine. There are a whole lot more important issues facing the world today than worrying about someone else's sexual preference. It seems to me that Fred Phelps and the WBC need to find something more productive to do with their time and energy.

People: You don't need religion to be a good person. I don't know whether or not there's a supreme being, and if there is I'm not going to pretend to know how that being manifests itself within our universe. I can only hope that any entity that is above us in knowledge and wisdom would rather that we spend our time making the world a better place (that means less fighting and finger-pointing) than to waste time worshiping and fighting in the name of him/her. Stargate SG1 fans will know that we've already dealt with the Goa'uld and the Ori (who not-so-coincidentally look a lot like TV evangelists) and the harm that they do.

If you're interested in further study on this topic, here are a few interesting links:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Indirect TV

(or, why in hell is it so fargin complicated to watch TV?)

There are some companies that I swear are full of corksucking bastages. I used to think that our local cable company was the epitome of that kind of organization, but I've recently come to see DirecTV as the new contender.

So here's the story: I have a TiVo that's specially designed for DirecTV service (it won't work on any other TV service). I got this device purposely -- it has all the cool features and user interface of a TiVo, but has two satellite receivers built-in so that it can be recording two programs at once while I'm watching a third previously recorded one. TiVos are also great because they run Linux internally and they're really reliable. Reliable, that is, until DirecTV got their hands on it.

At the beginning of October DirecTV automatically "upgraded" the software on my TiVo. Since the software upgrade my TiVo has been rebooting by itself every day or so - usually while I'm trying to watch something. This is the second time that DirecTV has pushed out a bad software update that has caused the unit to be so unstable as to make watching TV more of a chore than relaxing.

I called DirecTV asking them to please put back the old software version. I explained why. I did it with enough technical terminology so that they would understand that they weren't dealing with the usual customer who forgot to plug their system into the wall outlet. DirecTV's answer: My TiVo is plugged into a wall outlet that isn't working properly, and to plug it into another outlet. I explained that this wasn't the problem, but I would try it anyhow (not really, because I knew this was NOT the problem). I also added that my family was about to visit, and that if the system started failing while they were here that the next call they had from me would be to cancel my service. The id10t on the other end of the line insisted that it had to be something in my electrical service because nobody else was having such a problem. That was a total lie, because on DirecTV's own tech support forums (and other forums) there are a whole lot of people complaining about the same problem (it seems to be affecting only certain certain revision units).

So while my parents were here, the piece of shit rebooted at least twice while we were watching live TV and we missed the end of the programs.

I spent 8 hours (yes, 8) pulling apart the unit, backing-up the hard disk, and tried to get the old software version running again (it is stored on an alternate partition on the disk). Whatever was done by the new software didn't let the old software run anymore, so that was a waste of time. I did find a log file on the disk though that confirmed what I already knew: That there was a bug in the software that was causing the reboots.

So I called DirecTV again, this time as the irate customer I should have been the first time. They now admitted there was a problem, but the best they could do is replace the TiVo with one of their new DVRs (that are not TiVos). This is bad for two reasons: One is that I lose all the programming I have on the disk, the other is that their new DVRs are crappy and don't work at all like the TiVo. To make a long story short, they won't put the old software version back, they have no idea why the problem is happening, they have no idea how long it will take to fix it, and the best they could do to compensate me for my inconvenience (and embarrassment with my parents) was a $5/month discount for 3 months.

So for the first time in over 3 years, I am now thinking about going back to the cable company that so disappointed me enough to install a satellite dish on the roof of my house (knowing full well that this is now a matter of picking the lesser of two evils).

It should not be so difficult to watch TV. Is this what we've come to? It's bad enough that all the programs have that annoying crap that pops-up on the bottom or side of the screen in the middle of the show you're watching. I was thinking about getting a HDTV. Why? I don't know. So I can watch poor programming from an unreliable cable or satellite provider in high definition?

If I got rid of the cable/satellite TV I would miss things like South Park, Stargate Atlantis, and random cool stuff that I sometimes stumble on when I'm bored (thanks Tristin for that insight). It's the crack cocaine of the entertainment world.

I am so, so tired of bad service. When will it end? Do I get rid of pay-TV and try to kick the TV habit cold turkey? Do I get cable to send a message to DirecTV that they probably will never get? Do I stay with DirecTV in the hopes that they fix the problem eventually? Should I get a HDTV so I can watch whatever TV I happen to have more clearly and bigger? I just don't know anymore...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Home Ownership and Stinky Stuff

Whoever coined the phrase "the joys of home ownership" either never owned a home or has a sick sense of humor.

My parents are down to visit for a week, which is usually a good thing (I don't see them often). Today during a walk around the yard, my father and I just happened to look at the water meter and noticed the meter moving with no water being used. After some water-diagnostics we discovered a break in my water service. Same place as in my former house in Sugar Land -- a brass-to-PVC plastic fitting broke where it threads into the brass fitting. The good news: We've dug a hole and it's obvious where it is. The bad news: It isn't something that's going to be easily fixed (at least not without numerous trips to Home Depot and lots of digging). So until the professionals can get here in the morning, the water is off except for absolute necessities.

Don't let anyone fool you: New(er) houses are not problem-free houses. My house is 11 years old. I'm just about to spend a bunch to have a lot of rotten trim replaced. The yard has cost mucho dinero to maintain. The air conditioner has already had expensive repairs, and the water heater is about to take a one-way trip to water heater heaven. I won't even mention the unmentionable electrical wiring in this house (thankfully that I could fix myself). This blasted house cost me more than the older house I owned. The only joy in home ownership that I have is my next door neighbor (her name is Joy).

It seems that there's another group of people trying to "fix" a different kind of problem: Specifically, replacing the nice lack of smell in fresh air with the stinky smell of perfumes. My parents use fabric softener on their clothes - the perfume smell in there is strong enough to make my throat sore. The smell never goes away. This is supposed to make the clothes smell "fresh." News flash: No, it doesn't. It smells like a bottle of cheap perfume was dumped into a pile of clothes (and this isn't far from the truth). I have a bottle of Lysol Bathroom Cleaner - "Island Breeze" scent. I don't know where this "island" is, but no island I've ever visited ever smelled like this and never for so long (like upwards of a week). Maybe they're talking about outside a cheap perfume factory on Staten Island or something? The biggest liars are the people who make Fabreze. They claim it doesn't cover odors, but rather it eliminates them. Oh, really? This shit is just another product loaded with perfumes that not only leaves a perfume-loaded residue on the furniture, but transfers to people's clothes as well. Good god people, do you need perfume in EVERYTHING? What ever happened to the lack of smell of stuff? If you have a sensitive schnoz and these perfumes cause your throat to close-up, what do you do? It's hard to find any cleaning or personal care product without some kind of perfume odor. Even frigging garbage bags are scented now. I'd rather smell cat feces than perfume. Give me back my fresh air.

So I guess this posting truly stinks today. Thank goodness that no perfumes were used in its production.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Personal Honey


Question of the day: What is the sound of one banjo dueling?

It's Sunday night (October 14, to be exact) at the Austin No Kidding monthly supper at Threadgill's. A discussion about how great the biscuits taste with honey takes place. I finally notice someone at the table has a container of honey. She comments, "This is my personal honey." I respond, "I'm still looking for my personal honey." So another person at the table takes the other container of honey from the table and writes my name on it and puts it in front of me. While my comment was humorous, and the response equally humorous, it does give me pause wondering if my point were communicated sufficiently. Is a container of honey the best life can give me as a soulmate? Do my fellow no-kidders feel that I am only worthy of romancing a container of honey? Are my comments too sharp in that they sting like a bee? Stay tuned for the answer to these and other silly questions.

I saw the movie "The Tao of Steve" the other night on IFC for the second time. I can't say I really like this movie a lot, but the music is good and it's an oddly funny romantic comedy. The Tao of Steve is actually the main character's rules for seducing a woman, specifically:
  1. Be without desire ("Keep your heart at bay...")
  2. Do something excellent ("Be excellent in front of her...")
  3. Be gone ("And then you pull away...")
The premise being that women don't want a guy who is too easy to get - they want a challenge. I find this whole thing rather funny as long as it is fiction. Definitely not the best way to find a personal honey.

I'm battling ants (ants suck) in my master bathroom right now. The way to get rid of ants is to present them with food tainted with ant poison, which they take back to their nest, feed to their nestmates, and they die of poisoning. I've been thinking: What if the Earth and humanity are just a disease or common pest at a microscopic level as part of some larger being? What if bacteria and viruses are simply the ant poison of this larger being who is trying to get rid of us? If so, I'm sure we really piss off that being because we're quite difficult to get rid of... Anyhow, just some deep thought about our place in the universe. By the way, I thought of this way before I ever saw Animal House. Coincidentally, The History Channel just showed a program about a scientist who theorizes that plagues (such as the H5N1 influenza virus) actually originate from outer space and are brought here by comets breaking-up in our upper atmosphere. Interestingly scary this all is.

I'm sorry for the morbid writings tonight. Since becoming aware of the eye problems (see earlier post) and generally feeling blah, I just don't have much upbeat stuff to say. "Sleep tight Mr. Serious. Maybe you'll feel better tomorrow."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Finished phone conversion

Major milestone achieved this evening: I completed the conversion of the last of 813 telephones to the new phone system at work. This marks the culmination of over three years of hard work (about a year and a half of development, and another year and a half of implementation and the conversion).

I celebrated with a container of Starbucks Java Chip ice cream. Mmmmm...

While I was writing this, Tori Amos performed on the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (I had it on in the background). I like some of the stuff she does, but never really got into most of her songs. When I do see her perform though, I just can't believe how amazing she is at the piano. Just a side note.

What you can't see can make you not see. See?

Well, time to break the promise that this wasn't going to be your usual "blog." Sorry. Oh, and if you're as squeamish at medical stuff with the eyes as I am, then you may want to skip the next paragraph.

I came back from the eye doctor today. One of the two reasons I went was because I started periodically seeing things going through my vision that looks like stuff you'd see under a microscope. My eye doctor calls these things "floaters" and says it's debris (old cells and stuff) floating around in the fluid of the eye. This, they say, is something that seems to come with age (thanks a bunch father time). Among reasons for this to happen is when the wall of the retina gets compromised and in my case this is what's happening. I have a tiny hole in my retina, and today I found it is getting worse. I now need to see a doctor who's specialty is the inside of the eye, and may end up having the inside of my eye shot with lasers (to seal the hole before my entire retina detaches from the inside of my eye). I'm not really good about people messing with my eyes, including me (notice I don't wear contact lenses...). So needless to say that there are feelings of fear, terror, and impending doom going through my head. Retinal detachment (what can happen without treatment) is also not fun, unless your idea of fun includes going blind. I really enjoy seeing (no pun intended) my eye doctor (Dr. Laura Beck) because she's cute and she's an excellent eye doctor. I could really do without this kind of bad news though!

On a positive note, however, Dr. Beck knew just what was wrong with the new glasses I have been so frustrated with, and the opticians there were able to adjust the lenses so I could actually see correctly with them. The lenses were actually rotated slightly on their axes in the frame, and they were able to turn the lenses slightly so everything worked right. Seems this is a problem when you have an astigmatism.

Get your eyes checked regularly. Add that to the list of things that are important.

So with this said, I probably need to add that as I get older it feels like everything in my body is breaking. My short-term memory is going all to hell (people say this probably due to stress, but I don't know) - I remember watching certain TV shows but when someone wants to talk about them I can't remember squat about the details right away. My right leg hurts when I sit for a while. For whatever reason, I kept banging my right elbow into corners of stuff (tables, walls) and now my right arm hurts when I try to lift stuff. Anyhow, suffice to say that I'm still alive and kicking, but there are days when I wonder what the next half of my life will bring...

Monday, October 8, 2007

A few of my favorite things

Like many people who use this kind of communication forum, I've discovered that I'm writing more about what's irking me than what I enjoy. That's to be expected I guess, but I'm sure my two or three readers out there would like to hear something positive for a change. So with that in mind, here are some things that make me happy.

If it weren't obvious already, given the great cassette tape archival project mentioned earlier, I spend a great deal of time listening to music. My tastes are eclectic and rather unusual for a nerdy guy like me. I really don't like anything that sounds like it came out of a computer or on dead space on the shortwave band. Yes, folks, at least one techie that isn't into techno or related genres. Some people would say I'm kind of stuck in the early 60s, but I also like ragtime and solo piano, we've already established my admiration of The Partridge Family, and I even have The Union Underground's "...an education in rebellion" in my CD collection. I have loads of pop-Country from the '80s like Kathy Mattea and Jennifer McCarter & The McCarters. I don't sing or dance (not into either, probably just as well), but can listen intensely to whatever's playing on the MP3 or CD player.

Likewise I also enjoy watching movies. Most of what I like most are comedies, and even better would be comedies with meaning. I think Real Genius is pure genius - one of the great movies of all time. Likewise, Amelie (real title Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain) was entirely enjoyable and I was shocked when I found out that I was one of the few who hadn't seen it. Then there are some odd favorites such as Ghost World and The Unbelievable Truth that really fall into that category of comedies with meaning. Finally, L.A. Story is a truly great romantic comedy (I won't bother explaining why - just see it). For some more lighthearted "B" movies (okay, maybe "C" or "D" too...) try 100 Women or Sexy Movie. I've seen more movies than I can remember.

My favorite TV programs are as varied as my musical and movie interests. I enjoy The Simpsons, South Park, and Robot Chicken but also CSI, Lingo (on the Game Show Network), various cooking shows on the Food TV channel, and various shows on The Discovery Channel or The Learning Channel.

To get away from things in Austin, I'll take mini road-trips out to various places. Usually, I don't have any real destination in mind - I just enjoy seeing trees and countryside rather than big concrete structures. While I can't say I'm really much of an outdoorsy person (definitely not a rugged outdoor type), I am definitely not a city person. If I could, I would be living in a subterranean or cave home out in a less densely populated area (I hesitate to say "rural" because I like living near people, just not so close).

I like going out to eat just about any type of food. The two caveats are that the location is non-smoking and that I don't need to dress-up at all. Eating out, for me, is to relax and enjoy myself, and having to worry about dress is just not relaxing. If I can't come in jeans and a plaid shirt (my official geek uniform), then it probably isn't the place for me. Good Italian food and Texas BBQ is heaven.

I generally enjoy being with animals, with a preference for cats. I volunteer at the Austin Humane Society as a "cat socializer" which is very fun (excluding the politics there). My own cat is a 16 year old Siamese mix. He manages to tolerate his unusual human.

Finally, as the name of this "blog" implies, I'm an avid computer enthusiast that gets to do this stuff for a living as well. My interests are mostly in computer networking and communications, but I've done various things with computers over the years. Anyone who knows me also knows I'm also a big supporter of the Open Source movement. I strongly feel that it's morally wrong for companies to control or own the technology that allows people to communicate. Innovation can't happen without an open platform on which to develop. So while many people get excited about seeing movies through their computer, I'm usually getting my hands dirty at a lower level figuring out how to make bits flow better. Lately I haven't been doing much of this as a hobby as I once did because my job keeps me plenty busy. But I still enjoy what I do (usually) and have an unusual home set-up.

So that's a small piece of what gets me excited. There is, of course, a lot more to know, but I'll leave that for later...

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Back to the future

In an effort to stay away from the office today, I got into my Prius, charged up the flux capacitor, got to 88 MPH, and took a trip back to 1996 Sugar Land, TX. Seriously, I didn't go 88 MPH, the flux capacitor was actually a bunch of NiMH batteries, and the year is 2007 - but I really did end up in Sugar Land, TX.

Almost 11 years ago I moved to Austin from the Houston area. There are days I wonder whether I did the right thing even though everyone reading this will simultaneously shout "YES! You did!" at their computers. I had a nice house in Sugar Land and worked for a big computer company (yeah, that one). It is hard to remember sometimes just how miserable I was becoming right before I moved: There was the barking dog in the back that was waking me up, the neighbors-from-hell across the street, all the stuff I was accomplishing at work being converted to Microsoft Windows. If that weren't enough the trip today was a testament to why moving to Austin was absolutely the right move. When I arrived in Sugar Land today, I was trying to find my old apartment and house. My first comment to myself was, "I have no idea where I am." The area has become so crowded it may as well be an extension of Houston. My old apartment building is now managed by Gables Residential, and they destroyed it like they've destroyed most other apartment complexes (it was run down and I couldn't even find where I used to live). I haven't actually seen my old house in the daytime in a long time. The new owners have let it get really run down. The beautiful (but in need of refinishing) wood door was replaced by a white steel door. Yuck (the new door doesn't go with the house). The fence was in need of maintenance when I moved - 11 years later, it is still in need of maintenance in the same places, and more. I really liked that house - it was a neat house. The neighborhood, oh well...what can I say... Yes, as much as I don't like what's happening to Austin, I can say without any hesitation that moving was a good idea.

The impromptu trip was not without some value though:

I didn't end up going to the office. Mission accomplished.

The sunset from the countryside along "alt 90" tonight was amazing. I mean it was amazing enough to really have needed a camera (which I, of course, neglected to bring being an impromptu trip).

Aside from some small irritations (and the fact I was kind of tired and getting drowsy driving), it was a relaxing trip.

But it does bother me that they're doing to Austin the same thing that they've done to Sugar Land and the other Houston suburbs. Sometimes growth is NOT a good thing. Smart growth sometimes is agreeing that the way things are is just fine. But I suppose I'm never going to win on this, and when Austin becomes the next Sugar Land, it'll be time to move on. Sigh...

If you want a real shock, see the movie "The Sugarland Express" (the beginning was really filmed near TX Hwy 6 and US59 (soon to become I65, as I just found out). It looked nothing like that 11 years ago, and now it REALLY doesn't look like that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Making easy-listening music palatable

In my continuing exploration through the cassette tapes I have had since the 1970s, I found a treat that absolutely deserves sharing...

Somehow I must have been in a really weird mood one evening. I had a sound effects record, my FM radio tuned to the "easy listening" music station, a tape deck, and obviously way too much time on my hands.

I have three songs: an instrumental version of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," some really sweet vocal but can't figure out what the title is, and another instrumental of a song I don't know all mixed with the sound effects recording of a thunderstorm playing in the background (the track was repeated over and over again as needed). I'm not exactly sure how I mixed the recordings because the sound quality isn't all that bad considering the equipment used.

In any case - the results were hilarious and almost soothing at the same time. Particularly with the vocal, in some places the thunder clap came at just the right time in the song for humorous effect. It was definitely worth saving for posterity.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Little Miracles

Why does one choose to not have children?

This question comes up often to people in the child-free community - sometimes even among ourselves. It would be wrong not to ask this question just as it is wrong for people to not honestly ask themselves why they do choose to have children.

Let's talk green for a moment: Of all the things that environmentalists address, they usually forget one of the biggest ones -- the number of human beings on this planet. According to both the United Nations and the US Government's Census sites, the world population is increasing. In the United States alone there are over 300 million people - for the world, in excess of 6 billion human beings. This number is not going down - maybe in certain countries it is, but world-wide it is increasing, as it is in the United States. Particularly in developed countries, the life expectancy of the average human being has increased. There is no reason to be fruitful and multiply as certain religious groups would have you believe. While it is true that humans are not the only living beings that tax the ecosystem, we're by far the worst. We consume far more resources than we need to live, and we don't care if we deplete the supply until it's too late. If it's green you're trying to be, then the ultimate green decision is to stop adding to the Earth's population.

People need a license and insurance to drive a car (in the United States, anyway). Why? The license is to assure that you know the basic "rules-of-the-road" and insurance is to assure that you are financially responsible for your share of the blame in an accident. To have children you need neither a license nor insurance - and in looking at how people drive (given the requirements for that privilege) it's no wonder how little thought is given to the emotional, personal, and financial requirements necessary to bear and raise a child. People consider it a right and as such they see no reason why society as a whole should not share the burden (blessing?) of rearing this child. For me, personally, I do have the financial resources but I lack the emotional and personal (time) resources for such an important endeavor. I've watched and most people who have made a lifestyle choice to have children lack one or more of those three essential requirements and either refuse to admit it or determine that children are so important to society that everyone should help offset those shortcomings. I disagree...society doesn't need more selfish people in the world.

Which brings me to my third comment and ultimate bitch on the subject: The assumption by many people that children are little miracles and are the reason why we're here, and that they are the ultimate fulfillment of one's life, etc. I won't even go further into detail into this utter bullshit because that's what it is. First, I've only heard of one story of immaculate conception and even that one is suspect in my opinion. So for everyone else out there it goes like this: Two people of the opposite sex actually have a little sex, sperm fertilizes egg, nine months later if you have a healthy sperm, egg, and incubator, out pops at least one miniature human being. There is nothing miraculous about this - it's nature. Lots of animals do it. Second, don't preach to me about love being part of the equation either, because there's a lot of women getting knocked-up about the same way that the family dog gets knocked-up. Yes, we are here because someone had sex, etc. But that isn't any reason why the process is miraculous, and it certainly doesn't need future mom parking places at the supermarket, breast-feeding in public (it's a private thing, really), special privileges at work, and you name it. Folks - get real here. Your offspring requires more of the public's resources and yet you want tax breaks, special privileges, and you drive your SUV while the rest of us should protect the planet's resources for your child's future. This isn't miraculous, it's downright selfish, unreasonable, and insane. I have no interest in being part of this club.

I applaud people who have taken the care to plan for their family -- assure they have the proper resources available to raise their child, then spend the time doing just that. It's a hard job and doing it right means sacrificing personal dreams and goals in order to do what's best for your child. While this isn't miraculous and I still don't feel you deserve special treatment (because you planned properly for your family, remember), I do give you a pat on the back and special respect for doing it right. Your kids are probably wonderful to be around, and are willing to give back to the world instead of constantly taking and taking and taking from it. I only know a few people who are actually like this and because of their devotion to their kids, I don't see them very often. However, it makes me feel good and I realize that I could never do the job as well as they do. I know I don't need children to define me - I give back in other ways that hopefully makes the world a better place. If you can't see your life being worthwhile without children, then you probably don't have the emotional resources to raise children. Find your own worth first, plan for your family, consider your impact on the world, then have children when you're ready. You've now started to make the world a better place, for you and your children.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Fun with profiles

I finally decided to put more stuff in my profile tonight, and was messing around with some of the features of Blogger.

What I found cool was following the links in the favorite music and movie sections. So, for example, I essentially asked, "Who else out there likes The Partridge Family?" It was interesting to look at the profiles of the people who shared these same interests.

I shouldn't be so impressed with this since I used "matchmaker" systems back in the good old BBS days of the early 1980s. What's different about this, I suppose, is that it has such a global context.

So for the answer to the above question: There are 52 profiles that list The Partridge Family in their list of favorite music (including the ersatz profiles). Oddly, a clever kid named Sarah who probably was born 20 years after they were popular likes them. There is also Cathleen in NYC who is multi-talented and a comedian as well, and Mark in Chicago. Whatever, what a strange trip it has been.

So the moral to the story, if there is one, is that no matter how unusual you think your musical interests may be, there's someone out there who thinks it's just fine. That's a great feeling to have right before I turn in for the night...


Saturday, September 22, 2007

What's important

It's been a weekend of learning about things that are important and not important.

It began with something that has become commonplace to the modern landscape of life: People driving with cell phones in their hands. To these people: News flash -- you are not that important (and you don't drive as well on your phone as you do off it - really, you don't). So that call you're on that's making you drive erratically at 30 MPH in a 45 MPH zone and endangering (or at least inconveniencing) the lives of other people is not important enough. If it's that important, take the call off the road. If that's inconvenient to you, then the call isn't that important, right?

Good customer service is important. Tonight I had a nice dinner with friends at County Line BBQ at 2222/360 in Austin. I don't mind putting a plug in for these fine folks because virtually every time I eat there, they treat me and my family/friends wonderfully. The food is always good, and the service is usually good, but tonight the service was great. I told our waiter so. Everyone gets a tip these days (he got a very good one from me tonight). I'm sure that this waiter though went home feeling pretty good because someone actually told him what a great job he did. It's important to keep that going. In this fast-paced profit-motivated world we live in today not enough emphasis is placed on doing what's right.

This weekend I spent a lot of time talking to a friend about relationships (partly instigated by the entry I did on "baggage"). In fact, she and I spoke until 3 in the morning about that and for both of us that was an important conversation. Some of us just don't have a lot of good experience with the opposite sex. So if you're one of those people (I am) and you want to do the right thing, how do you figure out what to do? Both of us are going through a period of difficulty in our lives trying to let go of some baggage and to be open to finding someone new (one of us longer than the other). It is important to have the affection of someone else. It's also important for that affection to be genuine and honest or else hurt feelings and baggage results. There isn't any way I can compress that whole 5-hour conversation into words here. Suffice to say that I've been left with a lot to think about. It's important to listen to what others say. You can learn something that way.

It's not important to read literature regularly to be considered intelligent. Among the more intellectual of my circle of friends seems to have this attitude that reading books makes you a better person. Now I have no problem with reading, but if you'd rather see the movie than read the book, what in hell's wrong with that? I need to read a lot in my profession/hobby and don't have the patience to sit and read a book when I get home. So to all you people who feel everyone should be reading a book: I say take the time to remove MS-Windows from your computer and install Linux. Don't know how to use Linux? Go read a book on it.

It is important to read something once in a while, though. This commentary counts.

It's important to maintain connections to people. By connections, I mean real connections, not virtual ones through instant messaging (etc). We've become a society of people finding ways to shut ourselves off from the real world. People walk around with headphones in their ears either listening to music or talking to someone on the phone. It may seem like talking on the phone is staying connected, but in truth it is actually shutting you off from everything else going on around you. We lock ourselves into our homes and throw everything that is bothering us (the barking dog, for example) out into the back yard to irritate someone else. After all, if I don't hear it, nobody else does (insert sarcasm). We make ourselves available to anyone with a cell phone, but when that call comes in we forget that we came to sit, talk, and eat lunch with a friend. I think in our quest to make ourselves more connected, we've become less connected. It's important to disconnect for a while and connect to what's really going on. It's a big world out there. It's important for us to see it if we're ever going to strive to make it better.

...and on that note, I'm going to disconnect and see how some friends are doing on their three-week road trip. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baggage - Part 1

I've decided it's finally time to bring out some baggage, and since this particular topic has come up several times in several places and in a recent posting it seems the right time to bring-up the Marianne topic.

First, let's put a face with the name (I like putting faces with names) (yes, the human on the left):

Background: Marianne was my first real girlfriend from around 1986-1988. With the exception of two other very short-lived romantic relationships, it was the last as well. We met through the personal ads in a local newspaper (which seems kind of hokey these days, but it was actually a pretty bold move back then). I actually was sick of seeing really stupid personal ads, and basically felt I could do better. I did, apparently. Marianne's mother actually saw the ad and brought it to her attention. A discussion about music late one night (The DeFranco Family's "Heartbeat, It's A Lovebeat" was part of that) and a couple of movies/"dates" later and the rest was two years or so of history.

So what in heck happened, and why has this set the groundwork for an almost 20 year romantic void?

I usually tell people that the break-up was because we both wanted the other to be someone we weren't. I wanted to get married. I wanted to put a little distance between us and our extended families and childhood lives so we could start making decisions for ourselves and being adults. I had gained a good deal of experience in the computer field, and Long Island didn't seem to offer a good tech career track. Marianne didn't want to get married (in her words, she wanted to get involved in international business, jet-set around the world, and men would have to cater to her demands rather than the other way around), and her closest friends were her extended family which she had no desire to leave. A lot of our schedule was centered around traditions her family had established and we were both expected to follow. I wasn't real crazy about some of the traditions and relatives, and that strained things. We both spent the first part of our relationship (when you're all goo-goo eyes for each other anyway) adapting to the other's way of life trying to make things work. When reality set-in, the break-up was inevitable, but when you've become so deeply involved with another person, that isn't an easy thing.

It's that deeply involved part that created the baggage. I'm not necessarily a private person, but there are certain things I keep close to myself and don't generally share. I broke my usual convention with Marianne and awkwardly shared feelings (in addition to the obvious ones) with her that I hadn't with anyone else. Toward the end of the relationship, I also got into a deep funk because I felt trapped in my job and my relationship goals were going unfulfilled. While she listened to what I said, she really didn't communicate with me about them. Worse still, I tried to get past the "international businesswoman" wall she put up around herself and get her to share some of her feelings and came-up empty. I felt betrayed and the lack of communication led to a sense of mistrust ("if you're not willing to communicate with me, then what are you hiding?").

Then her father said something to me one day in the heat of an argument that cemented the ill feelings - "You always have to have things your way." My self-esteem and confidence were already low, and I was already confused about whether I was expecting too much out of the relationship or life in general, and my goals were already getting kind of messed up. This comment together with the reactions I got from Marianne when I tried to discuss our relationship and in trying to understand her left me not knowing what I did right or wrong (or what appropriate expectations are) in the relationship and a lack of confidence to try again. The two later short-lived relationships, while not the same as this, basically removed any remaining confidence.

I still blame myself deep down for this whole thing getting messed up. More than a few people have tried to convince me otherwise. I know they're right and sometimes I actually believe them, but I feel my track record speaks for itself. I don't really know what ultimately happened to Marianne - I kind of stopped writing to her when she refused to give any kind of congratulations on some work-related accomplishments that meant a lot to me. I wanted to remain friends, but I had real friends and those real friends know that my work means a lot to me (even if they have no idea what I'm doing) and give me the "attaboy" that you sometimes really need when things otherwise seem to be going like shit.

To be at least a little fair, here are a few highlights of things we did that were really kind of cool:
  • The bowling league (we did rather well, actually)...the name of our team was "mixed nuts"
  • If it weren't for the constant encouragement we gave each other to finish college, we probably wouldn't have, and it would have been a horrible mistake.
  • Road trip to Boston ... and getting caught in a snowstorm
  • Her feelings about not wanting children (one of the few feelings she shared) was what made me realize I felt the same and what ultimately landed me in NO KIDDING!
Okay, so hopefully that's all there is to be said on the subject for a while...

Looking into the past

Like most people who have ...ehem... gotten on in years, I have accumulated a lot of memorabilia from my younger days that has moved from place-to-place with me over the years. One of those things is a boatload of cassette tapes. I still have a tape deck and figured it was time to go through these relics of the era of magnetic tapes (yeah, before they had ipods and CDs) and get them into a digital format before they deteriorate completely.

So here's what I've found so far, for your amusement...
  • Several prerecorded cassettes: "Twilight Zone: The Movie" soundtrack (I got this one just for Jennifer Warnes' "Nights Are Forever"), DECUS Fall 1988 Symposium on "Unique Ways To Use Ethernet" (if they only knew....hahaha), Billy Joel "Cold Spring Harbor" (a gift from an ex-girlfriend of 20 years ago, more about that some other day...), and finally a sample tape from a car I bought about 21 years ago (it had some pretty decent songs from the early '80s).
  • Me and two friends annoying my younger sister Hilary (I think she was around 5 or 6 at the time) with the reverb box that I built (I think we recorded this around 1980 or thereabouts). Hilary sang a song through the reverb box at one point ... I need to send her the MP3.
  • An elementary school concert from 1978. My sister Cindy and brother Curt were in the chorus at the time. I knew this because the concert program was with the tape (wow...).

  • Way too many "mix tapes" that were an obvious attempt to either (1) declare my never-ending love to the current infatuation at the time (copies of some of these were actually given to the person), or (2) express my disappointment at there not being a current infatuation at the time. I probably shouldn't trivialize the former so much - it was actually a rather sweet and creative gesture, but at the moment (where I'm closer to the latter) it's more of a glass-half-empty time. Most of these tapes are destined for the trash, methinks.
  • Quite a few sessions where I recorded stuff I liked off the radio. About 60% of this resulted in me buying the record/CD at some later time (take that RIAA nazis...), and the rest are songs that are either impossible to get (some really hard-to-find 60s and 70s stuff) or just weren't worth buying. I also had some really amusing commercials recorded.
  • A telephone call with someone I knew in high school talking about MACRO-10 assembly language on the PDP-20 under TOPS-10. Not only am I showing my age, but I'm also proving that I have been a mad computer scientist for a very long time... No, the person had no idea they were being recorded, and I didn't bother listening to it...much.
  • Last, but not least, some songs recorded live from a Randy & The Rainbows concert at a park in Long Island, NY where I grew-up.
What was amazing is some of the incredible sound quality of the recordings, even after generally being treat like crap all these years and given the relative quality of the equipment I used (low-to-mid-range consumer gear).

I'm probably about halfway through the 60 or so tapes. The second half is going to be a challenge -- the tapes are in bad shape (some are broken and need to be spliced somehow) and I know have some hidden gems. If nothing else, when I'm done with this, I can finally prepare to say a final goodbye to cassette tapes and that technology. It was good, it was real, it was even real good at times, but it's a heck of a lot easier to deal with 44.1 KHz PCM files...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thanks John Stossel

A non-tech comment and big "Thanks" goes out to John Stossel of ABC News for his segment regarding health care on the Sept. 14 episode of 20/20. While I have seen Michael Moore's movie SiCKO, and enjoyed it (it raises some very good questions), I felt that there was another side to all this.

Health insurance is not insurance - at least not the way people use it. People use health insurance as though there is a magical pixie fairy in the sky that provides the funding and we all just benefit from it. Where SiCKO is right is that the health insurance industry as a whole is plain broken. Where it is wrong is saying that a government-run health care system is the answer. I asked my doctor (who tends toward the liberal side of the political spectrum) about this, and she said that socialized medicine was simply not workable.

All this being said, I think both Moore & Stossel together present good examples of what's wrong (and right) with health care in the US. It's time people understand that there really is no free lunch. Someone is paying - even in the socialized medicine scenario. Likewise, left entirely in a free-market capitalist system the health care system will not be where it needs to be.

I don't have the answer to this, but I think sometimes it's people asking tough questions and showing both sides of the issue that help bring about positive change. It's great that the debate didn't end with SiCKO. With the 20/20 episode, the discussion is still being kept active, and people who couldn't see eye-to-eye with Michael Moore will also see there really is a problem. Stossel ended the segment with some positive alternatives. It was refreshing to see.

It's for you...

Dear god,

I said I wanted an Open Source phone system -- not open sores with salt rubbed in them. Please correct your mistake as soon as possible.

Your's Frustratingly,

"CPU"

About 2 years (or more?) ago, I decided it would be a neat idea to spearhead a project to replace the antiquated phone system for our research laboratory of 600+ people with something more modern and based on Voice Over IP (VoIP). After looking at the total crap that was out there commercially and usually based on MS-Windows I came upon Asterisk, an Open Source PBX based on Linux. Lots of collaboration with friends and reading through thousands of lines of source code got me up-to-speed and excited about the prospects of replacing our phone system.

Fast forward two years later. I've learned a lot about telephony that I never knew (and some I still don't want to know). But what I really learned was that not very many people really know much about telephony, and lots think they know and don't. We've deployed Asterisk along with a lot of serious customization that I've pretty much done on my own. It's very cool. Some stuff isn't so cool...

The biggest hassle though has been finding T1 interface cards that do the right thing with timing. This is a fundamental thing that has to be right -- If audio is is being transmitted digitally faster than the receiving end is expecting to receive it, then pieces of the audio will get dropped. This is barely acceptable for speech, but it isn't at all if you have a FAX machine or modem on there.

So I have adapter cards from vendor "A" who just happens to know Asterisk really well because their founder created it. We bought vendor A's Quad-T1 cards back at the beginning and they usually worked, but had some quirky problems with them. Two years go by and those quirky problems are becoming more problematic, and we want to get a hardware echo canceler too. So we try to contact vendor A several times by e-mail, to which they either respond with a completely nonsensical answer or not at all. My last question was, in effect, "Can your hardware be upgraded? If yes, how much does it cost? If not, is there a trade-in policy for new hardware?"

After a little bit of this, we decided to try a competitor's (vendor "B") adapter card, because some people on the Internet say they work better. Vendor B's cards are interesting and their sales and tech people are responsive, but the device drivers are just not there. So we bring some of the real show-stopper issues to vendor B's attention and indicate that vendor A's cards do this thing correctly. Their tech guy spends 30 minutes on the phone trying to convince me that vendor A's cards don't do what I think they do, and tries to play down the seriousness of the issues we found (failure to provide redundant timing).

Oh, did I mention that these adapter cards are $1,500 each (add $1,000 for echo canceling hardware).

In the end, I learned a lot by understanding what was going wrong with vendor B's cards, and got vendor A's cards to work better in our system (no thanks the vendor A's folks, and we still don't know if we can upgrade the cards or not). We decided to send vendor B's adapter cards back.

I don't know everything about telephony. I do have a good understanding of the concepts, though. What people are doing to implement these concepts is twisted, and it doesn't need to be this difficult.

We're about 2 months from completing the transition from our old phone system, and then will begin the arduous task of implementing a way of maintaining this mess. Wish me luck.

...ring... "Hello? Oh, hello Mr. Frustration. Hold on...I'll get him.... It's for you."


Monday, September 10, 2007

It's time to trash "Flash"

Yes, really.

Many of the folks out there using the Internet don't really have any idea about how the Internet is put together. Even more don't realize that there are more computers out there than just Micro$oft-based PCs and Apple Macintoshes. What was really cool about the technology that now makes-up the World Wide Web was that it brought together all the different computer operating systems and types so, for example, geeks using Linux could make media presentations that "normal" people using Windows could view (and maybe understand).

So along comes Macromedia (now Adobe) with this idea for a multimedia presentation language called Flash. The concept was well-intended: Create a way for web publishers to create web pages with rich multimedia content, like animation, sound, and video. This was missing from the specifications for the language (HTML) used to present documents to web browsers. The application, originally called Shockwave Flash, was designed so that the content was presented in a way that could be viewed on different kinds of computers and it would look/sound the same. This idea was right in-line with the spirit of the Web.

What's wrong with Flash is that it only runs on computers that Adobe designs the player or plug-in for. The technology is proprietary, meaning that the full specification for how it works is only available to Adobe. So if Adobe doesn't feel like making a Flash player/plug-in for your computer or operating system, you can't view the Flash content. When I ran an operating system called FreeBSD I was unable to view anything that used Flash (like YouTube, for instance) because Adobe decided not to support that operating system.

The other thing wrong with Flash -- or maybe the people who use it -- is its over-use. There is no reason to use Flash to present restaurant menus or navigate web pages because there are perfectly good ways to do this without rich multimedia presentations. It slows down web access for people who have slower Internet connections, and it makes the pages cluttered and/or distracting. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of web page developers who are more interested in showing-off their skills at Flash programming than to clearly and concisely present the content.

Since multimedia on the web is useful for some stuff there needs to be a way to present it without allowing the content (and ultimately entire web sites) to effectively be controlled by a single corporation. The answer is that we need an open source multimedia presentation language. The term open source and open standards refers to a process by which the technology is made available to the public at large so that the geeky computer types can use their abundant free time to make it work on all different kinds of computers, much like the Firefox web browser (for example).

For those who still are not convinced -- consider this: Radio, movie, and television content are effectively controlled by large corporations. The Internet and web technologies have taken the world by storm because publishing content is within the reach of the average person with a computer. Now, consider if all of the technology that drives how you access Internet content is controlled by the same organizations. They would force advertisements into content, limit what content could be allowed, and so on. While this is already starting to happen to some areas of the Internet, it would become more and more prevalent. This issue is one of demanding that the way people express themselves in this new media be untainted by proprietary technologies and needless content restrictions (more on that in a later post, hopefully). It's a free speech issue. Whether you love or hate Micro$oft, or Macintosh, or Linux, it's something that needs to be addressed NOW.

I say, "Trash Flash." It'll be painful in the short-term, but we all know that something better will come out of it in the long-term. Smart geeky people: Please, make that something.