Friday, December 24, 2010

Meet Emmy

Meet Emmy, the new feline in my life -- adopted from the Austin Humane Society this past Sunday.  Emmy is just over 3 years old and is a domestic short-hair with tortoiseshell coloring.

So far, she's doing very well in her new environment, and got a clean bill-of-health at the vet's office yesterday morning.

I didn't have too many specific requirements for a cat -- but the following traits were desirable:
  1. No litterbox issues (pretty important)
  2. Reasonably good with other cats (in case I happen to end up in a relationship with someone who already has cats)
  3. Has a good "motor" (purrs a lot)
  4. Will be be able to hold a conversation well (in other words, "talks"...cat people know what I mean)
  5. Friendly around other people (in addition to me)
Emmy actually meets all of these, in addition to traveling OK in the car and handles being at the vet's office very well.

I wanted to wait until after this first vet visit before actually saying much here because things could have possibly changed if she had some serious health problem (one never wants to think about this, but vet care for some illnesses can easily cost several thousand dollars).  I have also been a bit recalling some of the sadness for the loss of Smokey a few months ago.

Anyway, expect to hear more about Emmy as time goes on.  If she keeps doing well in the car, I may have a feline companion on my next big car trip!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Good News and Bad News

The good news first:  I adopted a cat this weekend from the local humane society, and there is a cat back in my life again.  I will report more on this in an upcoming posting.  I would like to get past the first vet visit on Thursday before writing more.  I was very surprised when I finally got the new cat home, and all the bad memories of what my previous cat went through were dredged-up.  I'm having a little bit of emotional issues as a result.  I'm sure things will get better.

The bad news is more a reflection on some bad news.  I have been receiving police updates via our neighborhood association, and have had an opportunity to spend more time hearing the news.  More and more I have been hearing of burglaries around the area, and that, too, has dredged-up some emotional baggage from several years ago when my house was burglarized.  The M.O. of said burglars are that they knock on the door, and if nobody answers, they kick-in the door, ransack the home (taking with them whatever they want), and leave behind a sense of being violated and not safe in your own home.  It never seems to end.  Law enforcement calls this a "property crime," but I don't agree.  The crime may be burglary, but this doesn't begin to address the emotional stress that the resident(s) of the home endure.

At what point do people feel entitled to inflict this kind of pain on another person?  I can understand where some folks who have been out of work for a long time may feel a sense of futility where crime appears to be the only option to make a living.  I can't understand how someone in this position can justify harming another person in this way as a means toward that end.  If this truly is the rationale for the increase in so-called "property crimes," then my sympathy toward those who are struggling to find work is starting to diminish.

I often hear the excuse, "Well, the victim will just collect the insurance."  That isn't entirely true.  I don't expect that any want-to-be criminals are reading this, but keep in mind that between deductibles, items that are more expensive than the insurance company feels they should be, and items that are either heirlooms or simply difficult to replace for whatever reason, the insurance doesn't really make one "whole."  It simply helps lessen the financial burden inflicted by the crime, and doesn't do anything to lessen the emotional burden of feeling violated.  It isn't just the stuff that's gone, but the safety and security in one's home along with the memories that went with the stuff that was taken or destroyed.

I don't really care if the home being burglarized is that of someone who earns $100 per year or $100,000 per year - all of us are working hard to get and keep what we have, despite what criminals may think.  To make a prerequisite of living comfortably be a home secured like Fort Knox seems ridiculous.  It seems ridiculous, but lately it may be the only way to provide some guarantee of security in one's home.

I try to remain surprised when I hear about these thefts, but I so often hear about both legal and illegal ways to effectively steal from people that I start to (completely) lose my faith in humanity.  It isn't putting a dollar in the Salvation Army collection pot during the holidays that defines humanity.  Sometimes humanity is recognizing that it is wrong to inflict pain on someone else either because you are in pain or because you somehow feel justified in doing so due to your circumstances or some ill-placed sense of entitlement.  "Peace on Earth - Good will toward man."  This is what this holiday season is really all about.  It doesn't mean you are guaranteed it, it means that you are the one who needs to make it happen.  It doesn't mean that people should give what they have to someone else, or someone should take what they feel is just from someone else.  It means that we recognize that the way we get support from others is by giving support in some way as we're able.  Burglarizing someone's house is a violent, extreme form of greed...and if it is accepted as "typical," then I have to question where humanity is headed...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More about the D-Link DSL-520B

NOTE:  This is an update of my previous posting on December 6 titled "at&t Elite DSL and the D-Link DSL-520B"

(Revised Dec. 15 @ 11:18pm)

I have some updated information about the DSL-520B that I would like to share.

Using ddclient with the DSL-520B

I discovered the magic setting that allows this DSL modem to "bridge" the IP acquired during PPPoE to the host using DHCP.  However, it is riddled with problems (see below) and so I am not recommending this method.

Therefore, I needed a way to reliably acquire the IP address from the DSL modem in a way that ddclient (most common Dynamic DNS update client for UNIX-like operating systems) could understand.  The way to do this (in the ddclient.conf file) is to set-up the following as the method for obtaining the IP address:

use=fw
fw=192.168.1.1/wancfg.cmd?action=view
fw-skip=PPPoE
fw-login=admin, fw-password={your-modem's-admin-password}

That's it.  What this does is cause ddclient to log-into the DSL modem, grab a copy of the HTML that contains the status of the WAN configuration (which contains the PPPoE-obtained IP address), then looks for an IP address that follows the word PPPoE.  Thanks much to the information in the Sourceforge forums for ddclient for this info.

Bridging The PPPoE-obtained IP

I hesitate to actually include this here because it functioned so badly that it had me scratching my head trying to figure out what in heck was happening.  The magic option is under Advanced Setup -> WAN, then edit the WAN interface configuration.  Keep pressing Next until you reach the page that says PPP Username and Password.  There, you will see a check-box that says "PPP IP extension".  Check this box.  This will also cause the "Enable NAT" and "Enable Firewall" on the next couple of pages to be grayed-out, since the device is unable to do so effectively (not really, see below).

What I found when I enabled this option is that it would sometimes work.  I'm a computer guy, and I don't like anything that sometimes works.  This usually means there's a bug, but since I have no way of effectively getting access to the inner workings of the DSL modem, I can't really figure out or fix what the trouble is.  That being said, my guess is that this is due to the use of the bridge (br0) interface which is known to have trouble with DHCP under Linux.  Why they use br0 in the first place is a mystery to me, but whatever the case, they're using it wrong, because DHCP sometimes doesn't work and almost always crashes the DHCP client (dhcpcd) on my machine when the modem is power-cycled.  Ugly ugly ugly.

Security Ugliness

Speaking of ugly, I must mention a bit of ugliness that could only be left in a production device by someone with a screw loose.  When I was looking through the iptables configuration inside the DSL-520B, I found two interesting DNAT mappings:  One mapped port 2525 to port 25 (telnet), and the other mapped port 8080 to port 80 (http), on 192.168.1.1.  What does this mean?  Well it means that anyone could, from outside my LAN, connect to the IP externally visible to the world on port 2525 or 8080 and get my DSL modem's telnet or web server respectively.  WTF?!  Now surely you changed all your passwords from the default, didn't you?  Never mind that...what about someone accessing the DSL modem and exploiting some latent bug that turns up a few months from now?

At NO TIME should there EVER be external access granted to a device like this by default.

Needless to say, I removed those entries manually, and am looking to see if there's any way that they can be turned-off permanently through the web-based configuration menus.  I will update this as soon as I figure it out...

Update:  This actually isn't quite as bad as it originally seemed.  It seems that this is a "feature" of being in "IP Extension" mode.  Since I am now back in NAT mode, I am not seeing this problem.

No Speed Issues...with the DSL modem at least

The problems with my DSL speeds not being what I expect are not due to the DSL modem, and the DSL-520B appears to be working the way it should.  It turns out that my DSL provider (at&t/SBC) has not yet deployed ADSL2 in my neighborhood and I'm still running on G.dmt (the older ADSL standard).  I was able to connect my old Adtran DSL modem (only a bridge) and connect that to a Netgear router with PPPoE capability.  I ran my speed tests on dslreports.com again, and they came out identically to the ones done with the D-Link DSL modem by itself.

The speed problems are due to something within at&t...and I will need to call them about that.

Updated Conclusions about the DSL-520B

While I do plan on continuing to use the D-Link DSL-520B, it will be with some caution.  My Adtran DSL modem maintains no statistics to speak of, and only supports G.dmt.  While the DSL-520B hardware seems solid, the firmware in this modem is clunky and really needs an update and some bugfixes.  There is some discussion about OpenWRT being released for the BCM-63xx hardware, and that would theoretically make it usable on the DSL-520B (which is really a 96338 board with 2M flash and 8M of memory).  However, I am concerned about destroying my DSL modem - especially with no way of backing-up the old image (yet).

Is it better than the Motorola DSL modem that self-destructs over time?  Yes and no.  I don't think that the DSL-520B is on a self-destruct course, but the Motorola modem that at&t sells is definitely easier to configure and less problematic firmware-wise (although I may be able to find some holes in that platform also, given some time...).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Where The Net Is Going

While going through some old files on my computer, I found something I wrote back in October of 1995 regarding what we saw the Internet becoming.  It seems as applicable today as it was then, and I think it bears repeating...

As I said in the discussion group, I think that there is a danger in people allowing another group of people - either government or private industry - to take control of what looks to be the most innovative form of electronic communication since the telephone.  Looking ahead, I can see an integrated communications pipeline that allows us access to what we currently know as telephone, television, video entertainment, and Internetworking (computer communications).  Is [sic] seems the natural progression as this new technology has the capability to integrate all these together.  As the pioneers of this technology, we need to see to it that it never becomes the wasteland that television has become, the "charged-by-time-and-distance" that the telephone has become, and the regulated medium that radio has become.  We, the pioneers of this new technology, need to police ourselves and lay the framework so that future generations of "netizens" can freely express themselves, and at the same time provide protection to those that may rightfully be offended by some of that expression.  It's easy to use without ever putting something back.  Let's make the net something that the next generation will be proud of us for.
If I knew then what I know now...

Monday, December 6, 2010

at&t Elite DSL and the D-Link DSL-520B

As promised, I had my DSL service activated a few days ago (on Friday).  Having returned to DSL and getting a chance to use it, I have made some interesting observations.  I also have some comments about the D-Link DSL-520B DSL modem I purchased.

The DSL service I purchased from at&t is the DSL Elite package - advertised as 6 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up.  According to my DSL modem's DSL statistics, my line is capable of supporting 9.504 Mbps down and 1.228 Mbps up, and is provisioned as 6.016 Mbps down and 768 Kbps up (as it should be).  In actuality, according to speed tests to several sites on dslreports.com I am getting about 4.8 Mbps down and 680 Kbps up.  The first number is rather disappointing.  It is showing at least 1.2 Mbps less than the advertised speed.  While this is within at&t's "fine print" speed range, it starts giving credence to Time Warner's (smear) advertising campaign that DSL is slow.  Compared to the measured rates I got on my cable modem (when it works), DSL is slow.  It would be advantageous to at&t to start giving customers a more realistic idea of what they should expect as far as bandwidth is concerned.  Giving 4.8 Mbps on a 6 Mbps line and calling it "within the range of service" is kind of like the auto industry's MPG ratings that bear no resemblance to reality.  When cable (when it works) is giving 7 Mbps (and I can really attain that speed) bursting to around 14 Mbps (I've measured this speed), 4.8 Mbps (best I can do) on DSL is pitiful.  No, I don't have Uverse available in my neighborhood.

That being said, while the performance of my DSL service is kind of lackluster, it appears to be reliable as I remember it.  The at&t technician called me before doing the installation and stopped by my house after he connected it to confirm that I had service.  Given that I did a "self installation," having someone check with me to make sure my service was working was a good thing.

The most irritating thing about the DSL installation was the account set-up.  If I must emphasize one thing to at&t, it is that they must not restrict service to ONLY Windows and MacOS users!  I'm not asking for you to give me OS support - I'm asking you to stop restricting me from registering my DSL service.  I was able to find some third-party solution to skipping the "unsupported OS" message but I should never have had to do this.  How much did Microsoft pay you guys at at&t to screw us Linux users?  Argh.

As I have said in the past, it is always a challenge to choose the lesser of two evils:  at&t or Time Warner.  Poor administrative support and slow speeds vs. we don't give a damn if your service works consistently or not.  Choose one or the other.

Instead of paying at&t for the Motorola (aka. speedstream) DSL modem for $65 or $69, I purchased my own DSL modem from Fry's Electronics for $50.  I purchased the D-Link DSL-520B DSL modem.  The device is fairly good and most definitely running Linux under-the-hood.  They pretty much use the Broadcom reference design (96338 board) for the BCM6338 system-on-a-chip (SOC) MIPS-based controller with ADSL2+ support.  The web pages are a bit cryptic in some places, and I am still not sure about some of the configuration parameters I chose, but the defaults (in most cases) seem to do the right thing.  After getting used to the modem, I was able to do some more advanced configuration.  The one thing I would like to do, and for whatever reason I can't, is to allow the PPPoE IP from at&t to be bridged to the Ethernet port and provided to me via DHCP.  Instead, you can only NAT, and the modem is the only device that is privy to your real IP address.  This means that if I run my own firewall and gateway, I need to double-NAT outgoing traffic, which seems stupid to me.  While the firewall in the DSL-520B is just Linux iptables, the web interface doesn't allow me to to do the fine-grained control I do on my own Linux box.  Also, while the DSL-520B has a dynamic DNS update client (for dyndns.com), I don't know how well it works or not and whether it renews my IP registration in 28 days as dyndns.com requires.  I would rather continue to run my own update client, which is kind of impossible to do reliably and efficiently when I don't have direct access to the real IP I am given.

All this being said, for the casual user, the device should work just fine.  In fact, if all you have are wired devices, you can connect the DSL-520B to a switch and let the built-in DHCP server, NAT, and firewall do all the work of a separate "router."  That could be useful for some users.

For those "l33t ha><0r" techie types, the DSL-520B gives you access to the underlying Linux OS and you can do a lot of very cool things.  If you telnet to the unit, you can get to a Linux shell prompt by:
$ telnet 192.168.1.1
Trying 192.168.1.1...
Connected to 192.168.1.1.
Escape character is '^]'.
Login: admin
Password:
> sh


BusyBox v1.00 (2010.08.18-23:32+0000) Built-in shell (msh)
Enter 'help' for a list of built-in commands.

#
Now, you are able to execute all the iptables commands directly as well as adjust adsl parameters, get all sorts of statistics, and otherwise control the entire box as you wish.  What I have not yet figured out is how to just bypass the dang web interface entirely and simply execute my own commands.  I bet given some time and thought, I could probably make some changes to overcome the bridging issue I mentioned previously.  Note that the OS and utilities all appear to be Broadcom's reference stuff, and that D-Link simply put their own web interface on it.  I'm not faulting D-Link here at all, it's just that (like many of these devices), the chipset can do really cool things but the OS implementation cripples some of the most innovative features.

I was debating whether to just return the DSL modem to Fry's and buy the Motorola modem (notorious for burning up in a few months to a year) or Actiontec or one of those...but given what I can see with the D-Link modem, I think I'll keep it and see if I can unleash some of its pent-up power (hopefully without bricking the unit).

I will try to keep everyone up-to-date on this subject should anything new and exciting surface while I experiment more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

It has been a while since I have been on and passing along my brand of cynical wit.  There has been a lot of stuff going on and it hasn't amounted to much, in many ways.

Today's topic concerns the beginning of the end of my business relationship with Time Warner Cable in Austin.  A year ago I got rid of my cable TV service because, even when I gave them a month to fix the problem, they could not resolve the reception issues in my neighborhood.  Macro-blocking and audio cutting out in the middle of programs is not what I consider usable service.  When I turned off my TV service, I told TW that my Internet service was working well, but if it started to function like the TV service I would not be giving them a month to resolve the problem.  I was hoping to never need to make good on that threat.

Right before I went on my trip to NY a month ago, my RoadRunner (cable-based Internet) service started to drop-out at various times for a minute or so.  If all you do is web browsing, this isn't too bad because the traffic is bursty and you may never notice.  However, if you're streaming audio or video or doing interactive terminal sessions or online games, as I am, then these interruptions cause whatever you're doing to just terminate.  When I got back from NY, I gave it a week or two to resolve (and replaced my cable modem) and finally decided to call TW to report a problem.  I could see the problems on the cable modem's error log, and I could see the same problems on my neighbor's cable modem.  I agreed to have TW send a technician to my house.

So the TW technician comes over and proceeds to snip the connectors off the cable lines in my house and re-terminate them, even though his test equipment reported no problems with the wiring.  In fact, my signal strength was too high.  So instead of installing a splitter to attenuate the signal in the wiring outside my jack, he removed the wall plate, snipped the already short coax cable down, and put the splitter behind the wall, insuring that to do anything else, I will need to remove that wall plate.  Wonderful (said with sarcasm).  Then he goes out to the outside box where all the neighbors are connected to the cable system, puts his equipment on there, and says, "Oh, here's the trouble.  This is definitely a line problem.  I will need to call my manager and have a line technician come out here because it's something in the neighborhood cabling."  Duh.  Isn't this what I've been saying?  Technician then says that the line techs should have the problem resolved within 2 days.  Fine.

Five days and 18 service interruptions later, I decide to call TW to find out what in heck is taking so much time to fix.  I find that the problem was never referred to the line techs, and now TW wants to send another technician to my house.  WTF!?  I explain again what the previous technician found and did, that it was not in my house, so it made no sense to send a technician to my house wasting my time and their's only to determine that it was an issue with the lines in the neighborhood, and that it would be a lot more efficient for them and me for them to start with their own wiring before coming to my house.  But, no, they can't do that...and I'm certainly not allowing yet another technician to visit my house.

This is the exact same sequence of events that I had when I told TW I was canceling my cable TV service a year ago.

As much as I despise at&t, I realized it was time, after five years of fairly good Internet service with Time Warner, to go back to at&t and get DSL again.  I say this with a lot of trepidation because I have been singing the praises of my Internet service for a while, but I know deep down that this is going to be an ongoing problem.  The fact is that there is something wrong with the cable TV infrastructure in this neighborhood, and TW would rather deny there is a problem than to fix it.  I'm tired of dealing with incompetence in this area.  I'm a network administrator responsible for a large network consisting of many routers, switches, and various servers.  If my infrastructure worked like this they'd fire me on the spot, with good reason.  Despite my issues with at&t's administrative BS, the DSL service they provided to me worked pretty well most of  the time.

Truth be told:  If you have good cable infrastructure in your neighborhood, RoadRunner is a good deal, for all the reasons I've mentioned in my previous postings.  On the flip side, Time Warner Austin has no desire to properly fix infrastructure that has problems, and would rather bellyache about declining cable subscriptions and people who allegedly use "disproportionate" Internet bandwidth on RoadRunner.  If you're in one of the areas with bad infrastructure, chances are that it will never get fixed, and you'll either need to tolerate crappy service or go with someone else.

Oh, and if any of you Time Warner people are reading this:  Please go to hell.  Go directly to hell.  Do not pass "Go."  Do not collect $200.  You had more than ample opportunity to keep my business.  Instead, you treated me like just another annoying customer.  I warned you repeatedly about the consequences of this behavior, and you decided to ignore me.  It's too late to make amends.  Good bye.

(last minute update)
A co-worker forwarded this to me, and I thought it was entirely apropos.  I suspect that if I called TW and said "shibboleet" they would send the padded wagon instead of forward me to a l33t t3ch...
http://xkcd.com/806/

Friday, October 22, 2010

If you're not with us...

This morning I saw a bumper sticker:
Aren't you glad that your mother
was pro life?
This logic is about the same kind of logic is "If you're not with us you're against us."  Neither makes sense.  In fact, the bumper sticker is false - my mother is "pro choice."

People who are not anti-abortion (note the double-negative there) are not baby killing savages who are out having sex just to go through the abortion process (which is not pleasant, by the way).  They are people who believe in a woman's right to choose that method of birth control should it be necessary...and the key word here is "necessary."  Nobody really wants to have an abortion.

The key here is that my mother (and father) made a conscious decision to have a family.  They didn't do so for reasons of family or religious pressure, but because they wanted children and were prepared to raise a family.  My parents weren't wealthy.  There were times during my childhood where our family did struggle a bit financially, but my parents put aside the expensive cars and other luxuries at that time to make sure that we had a good childhood.  My father would work overtime at his job for the extra money.

So to all you pro-lifers out there, please get one.  I'm not with you, but I'm not against you either.  Abortion, while not a pleasant alternative, is sometimes the only one.  A child born into a family that can't take care of him or her is a far greater "crime" than abortion will ever be.  I realize that may go against the religious beliefs of some of you, but then we're not supposed to be basing our legal system on your religious beliefs.  However, in a majority of cases, even those who are pro-choice are generally looking to bring their pregnancy to term.  They want a family, and they have made their choice...which happens to be the same as your's.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Roku Second Impressions

Here's an update to my article on Roku First Impressions posted the other day.

To recap, I had issues with audio on the Revision3 videos on the Roku briefly "cutting out" periodically.  I feel I must post Roku's response.  Note that this is a perfect example of incredibly bad technical support (no sarcasm, names the same to embarrass the guilty, highlighting is mine):

Thank you for contacting ROKU Customer Service. My Name is Sunil and I will be helping you with your query.
We apologize for the inconvenience and delay in responding to your valuable query.
I suggest you to try streaming Revision 3 content on your computer.
Kindly go through the following instructions.
1.Turn off the Modem, Router, and the Roku player.
2.Plug the Modem back in, give it some time to settle down.
3.Plug the router back in and when ready, turn on the Roku player.
If you have a cable modem, kindly unscrew the co-axial cable, wait for 30 seconds and then plug it back in.
Please feel free to email us for further queries.
Thank you for providing us with an opportunity to assist you and thank you for choosing ROKU.
Best Regards,
Sunil
Roku Customer Service.
Why is this a bad response?
  1. I indicated in my "valuable query" that other content worked fine. This should have  immediately caused the question to drop into "oh, something may be wrong with that provider's content."
  2. If I wanted to stream content on my computer, I wouldn't have purchased the Roku player.
  3. I'm not sure that the cable company would like the idea of people being asked to remove the coax cable from the cable modem.  I can imagine "Joe User" doing this and then not being able to get anything working again!
  4. As I have come to expect from companies these days, they always redirect any fault from themselves to someone else.  In this case, the customer service rep clearly feels it is a problem with the cable company.
A good response would have offered more than one possible solution, and an opportunity to follow-up to see if the problem was corrected.  This response was clearly a cut-and-paste response, with the exception of one line.

Paying attention to customer issues is important because it can identify underlying problems with the product that can be corrected, resulting in more satisfied current and future customers.  The customer feels they are being heard, and the product gets better.  It's a win-win situation.

What I will need to do now is further troubleshoot the problem on my own and contact Revision3 to see if they can find anything in their own Roku application that may be causing the difficulty.  I have to hope that someone there actually can take responsibility for the issue and possibly contact Roku with more information.

My other options is, as a Roku application "developer," post my problem to the forum and see if someone at Roku will listen and possibly take a look at the player's source code.  I'm very afraid of the response I would get if I told them about the YouTube problem in that last posting.

I will reiterate that Roku is getting increasing competition in this area, and if they don't take these kinds of issues seriously and work to resolve them, they will soon find themselves out-of-business.

PS: Yes, last night I did have problems with my cable Internet service, but that was not happening when the Revision3 streaming problem happened...  Actually, our whole area experienced problems...and we may be still, I'm not entirely sure...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TiVo's Revenge

As if someone from TiVo was reading this blog, all of a sudden today they announced that Pandora was now available on the series 3 TiVos, including the TiVo HD.  In addition, I was first told this by "Interceptor" (yes, I do remember who you are) in a comment and Susan D. in a private e-mail.  I'm sure I will continue to hear this for the next couple of weeks, but I do thank y'all for letting me know about it.  To add insult to injury, TiVo also put a message on my TiVo HD that Pandora was now available for the Premere, even though I was not on a Premere and it really did work on my TiVo HD.

Ugh.

Does this change my opinion of TiVo?  Unfortunately, no.  The damage has kind of been done already.

On that note, I found a cartoon from The Oatmeal titled Why I'd Rather Be Punched In The Testicles Than Call Customer Service that I think is appropriate here...

Also, my RoadRunner service has been failing intermittently all evening long.  It seems I have somehow evoked bad Karma from somewhere...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Roku First Impressions

I received my Roku XDS media player on Saturday (two days after ordering it).  That, in itself, is amazing.  I have to say that both Roku and the US Postal Service did a great job in getting the player to me with hardly a thought.

The XDS is a very nice tiny unit in appearance - measuring about half the size of a hard cover book.  There is a single power light on the front that Roku dimmed down to almost completely invisible.  Is that a problem?  In this case, no.  I am sick and tired of blinding blue LEDs shining out of every piece of equipment I have purchased lately.  This light does nothing but tell you that the unit has power, so there is no need to have it bright and always visible.  The only time you'll really need to see it if the media player stops working -- if that happens you'll get up and look at it close-up anyhow!

Set-up was a piece of cake, but be prepared with a computer close-by before you start.  Despite the effort by Roku to try to make you feel like you'll never need to use your computer once you have this device, it is clear that this is not the case.  To activate the unit and have it upgrade its software you will need to register it with Roku's web site, which involves entering an activation code to the web site that displays on the screen.  Roku calls this their Rendezvous registration process, and you will find yourself doing this often.  Even though there are a lot of free Internet services you can access on the Roku platform, many services (like Pandora) link to your existing account, and this is the way that Roku saves people lots of keystrokes or using "Ouija board" typing with the remote.  It's not a pain if you have a laptop handy near the TV, but if you don't you should probably somehow bring the Roku player near a computer while you set-up programming from the "channel store" or you'll find yourself running back and forth between the TV and computer.  Aside from the computer, about all you need to do to set-up this box is plug it in.

I mentioned in my earlier postings a concern about advertising and that I didn't think there was any.  I now know that there are most definitely ads on the screen, specifically on the main screen.  It isn't terribly intrusive (not like TiVo, where they almost trick you into selecting them), but nonetheless they are there.  It looks to me like they really want me to use Amazon's video-on-demand service.  I actually would like some way to say, "Please leave me alone, I was thinking about it anyway."  I would really appreciate it if they would keep this to a minimum.

Most of  the main user interface is modeled after the modern iPod and Windows Media Center graphic displays that flip items back and forth using the left and right arrow keys on the remote.  While this does make it so that an idiot can use the XDS, I don't feel that this scales well and I find it a little annoying.  I think I would like an option where I could either categorize my channels or put them in a list format of some kind.  As the number of channels available increase and the number of channels I have in my subscription list increase it will become more cumbersome to flip through all the choices all the time.  Think of it like having a stack of CDs to play -- when you have 10 or so CDs it isn't bad to flip through them all to find the one you want.  Once you have more than that, you alphabetize them and/or organize them by genre or the like.  On the plus side, the configuration screens are very intuitive and function well.  They ship the device with a short diagram on how to hook the thing up (I laughed when I opened the box and staring me in the face was a card with only the word "Hi!" printed on it).  Really, that's about all you need.

Since I have a Netflix account already, that was the first thing I tried.  I tested it by watching an episode of Tripping The Rift that was in my instant queue, and was disappointed that the audio and video became horribly out-of-sync as the show continued, and the video was mediorcre.  Knowing that I have had this experience with some Netflix online movies before with the TiVo I tried watching Outsourced and fast-forwarded into the middle of the movie.  Not only was the audio OK now, but the video itself was impressive.  I also tried to view a program that didn't work correctly on the TiVo, and it messed-up in the same spot on the Roku player.  So the problem is Netflix, not either player.  Unlike the TiVo, you can do searches for movies on Netflix right from the Roku player.  If the Amazon video-on-demand service works as well as Netflix (or better) then this is going to be pretty cool.

The next thing I tried was Pandora...of course.  That worked without a single problem.  Having seen the Flash (yuck) version of Pandora on occasion, I do miss some of the features that they support there and would like to see those on the Roku version.  Otherwise it worked just like I wanted when I contacted Pandora over a year ago.  If I had to make one complaint, it would be that they somehow punch the volume way up on the music to the point where I have to remember to turn my home theater amp's volume way down before playing that channel.  The interface for Pandora on Roku is very nicely done for HDTV, in that it just looks really good.  I wish that Pandora for a browser was done in Java instead of Flash.  Sigh.

There are two issues that I had with channels and these are a bit annoying.  On Revision3's programs, the audio occasionally cuts out for a second during the program.  I think this may be because they drop a few bits in the audio stream for whatever reason, and my home theater amp takes a second or so to figure out what kind of digital audio it is receiving and then start playing it.  I feel this is a bug in the home theater system, but in any case it is annoying.  The other one is much worse and I don't know what to do about it:  I tried watching newer episodes of Is It A Good Idea To Microwave This? using a third-party YouTube application, and my Sony HDTV barfed on the video stream (it said it was receiving video in an "unsupported format").  It is hard to tell whether this is a limitation of my TV, a problem with the third-party application, or a bug in the Roku player's firmware.  I contacted Roku about the first problem and have yet to get a response, which is a bit disappointing.

Today I joined Roku's developer program, which allows one to write applications to use with the Roku media players.  I can't say much about it yet since, well, I just joined.  However, I am impressed with what looks like a very open development platform.  Seeing the documentation that Roku provided makes me respect the engineering that went into making Roku's players and how much thought went into the hardware and software.  In any case, Roku applications are written in a language called BrightScript, which seems like a cross between BASIC and Javascript.

A few other random things worthy of mention...
  • There is not any local disk storage...so anything you watch is streamed (not stored), although there does appear to be plenty of memory for buffering.
  • Only port 80 and 443 seem to need to be open outbound in your firewall for things to work (it is not necessary for any inbound connections)
  • When they say that you should not locate the unit near a source of heat (like home theater receiver) they aren't kidding.  The bottom of the XDS gets fairly warm by itself despite the excellent ventilation on top.
  • The remote control has no volume control (it is a very basic remote without learning capabilities).
  • ...also, the remote control has no power button as the Roku players are not meant to be turned off.
  • The XDS pulls between 5-6 watts of power no matter what it seems to be doing, according to my Kill-a-Watt.
  • I have not tried the wireless capabilities yet, but will soon...
Given the $100 price tag for the XDS, I'm not sure if this was a good buy yet.  I'm clearly not disappointed with the player, but at the same time I'm not overwhelmingly impressed yet.  Given that some Blu-Ray players are now doing similar things while being able to play Blu-Ray disks at the same time, I think that Roku's survival is going to depend on how well they can attract content providers and to provide a pleasant user experience.  The open development platform seems like a good first step in attracting content providers, but their draconian legal agreements are kind of intimidating.  As far as improving the user experience - again, the user interface needs to scale better for increased programming.  No ads would be nice too.  Good customer support is a must.

I will try to write more about this as I get more of a chance to use it.  I am trying to get a really good idea how I feel about it while still in the 30-day money back guarantee period.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

ExiTiVo

I have made my decision:  The TiVo is going away.  I have thought a lot about this, and feel that there is no reason to continue with TiVo.

In addition to the issues I have with TiVo (explained in the previous posting), I found out something about the TiVo Premere that, if true, is equally disturbing.  Woot was selling a refurbished TiVo Premere and there was some talk about the device on Woot's discussion forum.   Coming into question was the stability of the unit, and that TiVo had disabled one of the CPUs due to stability issues.  The disabling of the CPU caused the unit to be sluggish.  It sounds like an all-around bad deal in general.

Here's my plan that has already begun to be implemented:
  1. Add a signal distribution amplifier to the antenna (the reason will be understood in #2) - I have purchased and installed a Channel Master 3414 (aka PCT model PCT-MA2-4P) 4-port antenna distribution amplifier.  This is a good-quality distribution amplifier that provides 4 outputs with 8dB gain per port.  I also purchased a power injector so that I could provide power to the amp from inside the house where the UPS-protected power is located.  I installed this today and it works great.  The signal quality has remained constant as measured on my TV sets, but I am receiving a few more channels and adding additional splitters has not degraded the signal (exactly what I was looking to do).  Remember that an amplifier does not improve signal quality - if you have a bad signal, it will only amplify the same bad signal.
  2. Purchase a SiliconDust HDHomeRun dual TV tuner - The HDHomeRun is a network-based TV tuner.  That is, there are two coax antenna connections coming in, and a network connection going out.  I have heard good things about this tuner from other people, and SiliconDust has kept the network protocol used to access the HDHomeRun non-proprietary.  There is software for Windows, Mac, and Linux alike, and great support for all three platforms.  Better still, having the TV tuner as a network device means no weird TV cards installed into the computer that require special drivers.  I will write more about this when I get to play with it a little.  I was very impressed with what I saw.  The fact that there are two coax inputs (one for each tuner) means I will need to use a splitter to provide two antenna connections.  This is the reason I bought the distribution amp.  Finally, having the tuner as a network device means that I can access the tuner from any of the computers on my network.  This will be useful while I'm testing.
  3. Implement MythTV as the DVR replacement for the TiVo.  MythTV is an open source TiVo-like DVR program that runs on a Linux-based PC. Because it is open source, I have the source code and can modify it and fix problems if necessary.  It is free, as in I don't have any software to purchase.  There is a group that provides TV guide data for $20/year (yes, per year) that provides the TV schedules that you'd use to see what's on, or to program the DVR software to record a show.  While MythTV looks really good, I have not looked extensively at it yet.  I do plan on getting more serious about this when I come back from vacation.
  4. Purchase a Roku XD|S box to view streaming online programming.  The Roku is ordered, and I should have it before I leave for vacation (will be taking it with me to show my parents).  My reservation about Roku is their terms-of-service (I also discussed this in an earlier entry).  However, they are more universally compatible with streaming media services like Netflix, Amazon, and (soon) Hulu+, as well as others, than any other device.  People are generally happy with what Roku provides, and while I am grumbling a bit about the price, I feel it is likely to provide satisfaction that I don't currently see with TiVo.  While I see that Windows 7 and Windows Media Center could potentially fill this role, I see the Roku as being much more polished and dedicated to the task.  Time will tell.  I tried Windows 7 and the WMC at work and while I saw some positives, overall it felt clunky to use.
  5. Purchase a new Netgear GS108T v1 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switch with web-based management capabilities.  The switch is both for the increased number of devices being connected to the network, and to help solve an unrelated problem that has recently come to my attention.  I have been having spotty wireless network problems since I moved the WAP back to the "study" (aka. the mad computer science laboratory).  As I was brushing my teeth the other night I realized why:  The WAP is on the wall opposite the big mirror in the master bathroom.  It is also behind the big flue pipe for the fireplace.  That poor WAP has no chance of being able to provide good service to the side of the house where I need it most (on the other side of the mirror and fireplace flue).  So the WAP will need to go back to the living room, and I would like to move to all Gigabit Ethernet-capable networking throughout the house, as much as possible.  This Netgear switch also supports multiple virtual LAN (VLAN) capabilities and 802.1q trunking that I am used to using at work.  There are some ideas I have been throwing around about having some of my devices on a more secure network, and this would allow me to do that.
The TV tuner and switch should arrive tomorrow, and the Roku sometime next week.  The first thing is to get familiar with the hardware and make sure it will do what I want.  Next will be to integrate everything together.  The final phase of doing MythTV is a bit up-in-the-air at the moment.  I can either move my main server back into the living room and hook it to the TV and use my server as a DVR as well, or I can purchase a small Intel Atom-based mini-system and use it as a DVR front-end at the TV (and leave the server where it is).

You may have already deduced that all this costs more than an annual TiVo subscription (and maybe even a TiVo Premere).  I am not doing this to save money overall - I am doing it because TiVo is charging me money and disappointing me at the same time.  What I hope to accomplish here is to regain control over my home entertainment choices, and to avoid paying for services that are clearly not providing appropriate value for their cost.  I also see the TV tuner (definitely) and Roku box (questionably)  as being good long-term investments with no ongoing subscription costs.

If TiVo had fulfilled its promises for the device I purchased to do all that they claimed, then most of what I am doing would be unnecessary.  On the other hand, once I have all this new stuff in place and working, it could be a showcase for what could be done as an alternative to cable TV and TiVo with ongoing costs and frustrating customer support.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Message Regarding NY Trip

This is a note to those people interested in seeing information about my travels on the NY trip:

I am not going to post much in the way of specifics on this blog, for two reasons:
  1. There will be some personal information (like where I live) I don't want posted here
  2. There will be people who will be getting the personal information about the trip that I don't want over here
Therefore, if you would like to read about my journey and how things are going, then please contact me privately (through e-mail) and I will send you the link and a password (if needed).

If you don't know my e-mail address, and I know you well enough, and you still want to view that private information, then please say so in the comments, and I will try to find a way to get in touch with you.

Ten Ten Ten

I seem to remember saying something about checking to see if I were still alive if I forgot about 10/10/10.  In order to avoid needless checks of my pulse, here it is.  I remembered.

The idea of ridding myself of the TiVo HD is still on the table.  At games night on Friday, Emil suggested that I look at Blu-Ray players that have Internet capabilities.  I did, but was not terribly happy with the outcome.  It seems that all these devices are not really autonomous devices accessing specific services, but rather they connect to a consolidator (for lack of a better term) that translates from the menu-driven interface on the device to the service that you wish to view (like Netflix or YouTube), and they all have varying levels of support for different services.  Roku, while supporting a very large number of services, pretty much does the same thing (see below for some unpleasant surprises with that).  Therefore, if one of these services goes away, then so does the ability to use your Internet-ready capabilities with this device.  It also means you are at the mercy of the provider as to what is presented and how it is presented.

That brings me to my next comment:  Ads.  I was looking at Roku's terms-of-service and apparently they slipped in a phrase saying that they reserve the right to insert ads into the service at any time, and they also reserve the right to remove or add features as they please.  This disturbs me.  If the content provider chooses to place ads into their content, then while I may not like it I have to accept that this is their way of gaining revenue.  However, there is no reason (technically, anyway) why a consolidator needs to do this.  The reason why the company that makes the Roku provides ways to access content is so that they can sell their box.  If the box can't get any content, then they wouldn't sell the hardware.  I'm not sure why this concept seems so foreign to people.  Now I know that Roku doesn't have ads on it right now, but then why do they have this in their terms-of-service?  Stop it now.  Stop it everybody.  Once you charge me for a piece of equipment, that should be your revenue stream.  If you feel that your product requires an ongoing service, then please bill me a reasonable amount for that service (I will not buy your product if that cost is unreasonable).  Don't play these dumb games with people.  Let's not even talk about the fact that they're collecting statistical information about people's viewing habits and selling that too.

This whole thing has me tired from thinking too much.  I am trying to resolve a home entertainment plan that addresses my sense of ethics without preventing me from viewing potentially useful and/or entertaining content.  My gut feeling tells me that the Roku is really the right way to go even with their disturbing terms-of-service clauses.

Aside from thinking about this and performing a 4-hour middle-of-the-night upgrade at work (that went very successfully, as far as I can tell) I have been trying to rest this weekend.  In a couple of weeks I'll be in a Prius headed for New York.  Wow.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Planned Obsolescence

If you've been reading this blog for a long time, you may remember back when I purchased my TiVo HD in December, 2008.  Since the beginning I have had various issues with this device...or, rather, not really with the device, but with TiVo as a company.

A few months ago, TiVo released a new DVR called the TiVo Premere.  I wrote about this back in April and my fear (that I didn't write about) was that TiVo was going to fail to do any further updates to the TiVo HD that I owned.  That fear appears to be coming to reality.  Now I know that technology progresses quickly and all that stuff, but the features they are leaving off the TiVo HD are simply a ploy to force people to move to the new platform.  I don't know about all of you, but I don't just buy a $300 piece of equipment to throw it out in two years.  The proverbial knife-in-the-back from TiVo to me was the fact that they're now offering the Pandora (www.pandora.com) music service on TiVo, but only on the Premere.  I wrote Pandora about a year ago suggesting that they partner with TiVo.  Now, in order to use that, I need to buy a new TiVo.  Well, that just sucks.

What also sucks is that I have been unable to watch episodes of Is It A Good Idea To Microwave This? on YouTube for the second half of the past season on my TiVo.  There have been numerous problems with YouTube and the TiVo HD's ability to access certain programs.  Has TiVo made any effort to fix this?  Is there even any place for me to complain?  No.  In my opinion, this system, while serving me well as a DVR, has fallen short of the promises that TiVo made about it.  As a customer, I feel betrayed by TiVo.  In addition to paying for the DVR, I also pay a monthly service fee that totals about $130/year.  Even this isn't enough for TiVo, though, since they also have advertisements on the unit as well.  All this, and the best they can do is give a discount off the price of a new TiVo.  I don't want a new device -- I want the one I paid for to do what it was supposed to do.  I want the additional money I pay for the privilege of using their device and the revenue they get from throwing ads in my face to further the capabilities of the device I have.  If that's not possible because they screwed-up and didn't properly develop the unit I have, then instead of  making me pay $200 for a newer model, why not allow me to trade-in my current system, along with all the recorded programming moved from the old system to the new one, for (perhaps) a $50 fee?  Why not?  Because TiVo doesn't really give a damn about its customers.  I should have known that from the first experience I had with their customer support department, and the fact that they didn't even compensate me for my trouble.  What a crappy company.

I'm thinking that it's time to handle TiVo the same way I handled cable TV when it wasn't performing as it should.  It's time to cut my losses, stop paying TiVo for their pathetic service, and go in a different direction.

My friend Mary showed me her Roku box the other day, and it was actually pretty impressive.  Roku is not a DVR, it's a small Internet appliance that allows one to view various Internet-based programming (like the stuff from Revision3) and pay-for content like Netflix and Amazon On-Demand.  It doesn't cost anything monthly (aside from what you'd pay Netflix or Amazon), there are no advertisements in the device, it sells for under $100, and has an open development model that allows people to create services that can be viewed with it.  Is it perfect?  Well, no.  It has no disk storage capability, so you're limited to Internet streaming.  It does do what they say it does, and many people are fairly happy with it.  I think this device could probably take the place of those services TiVo promised but didn't deliver.

For DVR-type functionality...I think the best thing to do now  is to look at a media center version of Microsoft Windows (yes, you actually heard me consider this!) or try getting open source MythTV to work.  Either one can provide a usable DVR platform for over-the-air broadcasts.

I'm about to go on vacation in a couple of weeks.  When I get back, I'm going to make my decision.  At the moment, though, I have reached the limits of my patience with TiVo.  I can't see giving them another cent of my money if they can't deliver on the TiVo HD platform what they said they would deliver.  I don't have any confidence that will change in a month's time, and so prepare for the next change in my home entertainment plans.  It's going to be a wild ride!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

American Muslims

I was trying to stay out of the controversy surrounding the construction of a mosque near the former World Trade Center site.  I was trying to stay away from that discussion because I'm certainly not religious, and really don't have any business being for or against construction of any religious house of worship.  I did a good job of staying out of the debate.  Today I am breaking my silence.

The reason I am speaking out is because I just saw the ABC News episode of 20/20 from last night discussing the truths and misconceptions about Muslims and Islam.  I realized that these people and atheists have something in common:  We are both feared and discriminated against for our beliefs (or lack thereof).  Something else touched me:  At one point in the program, there even was the revelation that Muslim belief is that all people should be united together, including atheists.  When I heard what the people on the program were saying, I saw sincerity.  I then realized how bigoted a large portion of the American population has become.  It is no different than it was when I was in high school -- If you're different, you're worthy of ridicule and people are to fear and loathe you.

Such as the case with the mosque at the so-called "ground zero" site.  First and foremost, it is not on the site of the former World Trade Center.  How close is too close?  Why does it matter?  The only people who are concerned about things being close to their "shrines" are, well, Christians.  Timothy McVeigh is Christian.  Should we prohibit a church from being built near the site of the Oklahoma City bombing because a Christian performed that act?  Oh, wait.  There is a church right next to that site.  Were they involved?  Should we be suspicious of Christians in Oklahoma City because they may be potential terrorists?  Of course not.  In reality, McVeigh's motivations were political, not religious, even if he were to say was his actions were in the name of some deity.  Same for those people who orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon buildings on September 11, 2001.  They were not representative of the Muslim faith, but of an extremist group with a beef against the United States that used a radical interpretation of the Islamic faith to justify their actions.  These people are no more representative of Islam than McVeigh is representative of Christianity (although sometimes I do wonder about what some Christians are trying to legislate...).

The second important distinction about what is being proposed by the Muslim community is the purpose of their structure.  They have been holding religious services in that building for a while now.  It already is a mosque.  The controversy is over a Muslim community center with recreational facilities.  You know, like a YMCA.  In case you didn't know, YMCA means Young Men's Christian Association...it isn't just a song by The Village People.  In reality, the "Y" is the same kind of thing that the Muslim people plan to build on that site.  It's not a mosque, because the mosque is already there.  That's right Pamela Geller, you ignorant bigoted bitch.  Since a principle tenet of Islam is to help the poor, as with Christianity, and effectively to help thy neighbor, the community center is open to anyone.  The only problem here, really, is that the people who are against the center being built will have a problem sitting next to someone who is Muslim.  That's bigotry folks.

I'm not saying I have any belief in Islam or am a closet Muslim.  I'm an atheist...or as I like to say, a "free thinker."  I like the latter because it describes my belief system - I am willing to listen to what people say, and then make a decision based on my ability to sort through the details and think about them.  I don't believe in blind faith.  I have been saying from the very beginning that this "war on terror" is really a war against a specific group of radical extremists who are against our meddling in a culture that isn't ours.  It is a political war, fueled by hate, and justified by extremist religious belief.  To further assert my disagreement with Pamela Geller, Muslims in the United States, even if they were trying to spread their belief system, are no different than a Christian mission going to some other country giving aid and spreading "the word."  If you ask me, Pamela Geller is an extremist and a terrorist and should be put in jail.  Look at the damage she has already done.

Prior to this whole mosque debate America was in debate over the Latino (Hispanic) community and how we should be "tolerant" of those different from us.  There was (and still is) debate over what constitutes illegal immigration from Mexico and whether we should give leniency to those who have illegally come to America and are now living "productive" lives.  In return, a vocal group of these people have forced their own culture and language down our throats and continue to assert how their culture doesn't matter to us.  It doesn't matter to me.  This is America.  We have a culture.  Embrace it, add to it, help to refine it, make it better, but don't shove your own beliefs and language down my throat.  I bet that most Mexican immigrants ultimately feel this way, but look at how a vocal group of people with an inferiority complex can shake-up things and cause a chasm between people.  We don't need more polarization.  If this country is going to succeed at being United, then we need to come together as Americans and show the world that our way is better.  Americans are Christians, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, and so on.  We're white, black, and brown.   We're men and women, gay and straight.  All of us should be afforded the freedom to live here peacefully and united as Americans so long as we follow the laws of this country.  The minute we discriminate against a group because they're of a different ethnicity, religion, or sex, then we undermine what America is about.

The people who destroyed the World Trade Center do not agree with our culture, are against our economic and political system, and feel that we need to be punished for our beliefs.  If we start wrongly holding a specific religious group responsible for that action, we are guilty of the same injustice as those who performed those horrific acts.  In fact, because we claim to profess otherwise, we may even be worse.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Another One Rides The Bus

Today I had to go to do something I loathe:  Go to the ophthalmologist (try spelling that one without a dictionary).

My optometrist again thought that I may have a hole in my retina, and wanted me to go back and get checked by a specialist again.  Of course he first had to dilate my eyes, which is always a pain in the ... eyes ... for me.  As if this process weren't annoying enough, he poked on my eye with an instrument while looking into my eye with a scope trying to determine how the gel-like fluid in the eye called the vitreous was interacting with my retina.

The good news:  I don't have a hole in my retina.  The "spot" is still a thin spot of my retina.  The bad news:  Apparently the vitreous in my right eye sometimes does something to the retina where it sticks to it kind of like tape and then pulls on it (as best I can understand it).  The danger here is that, over time, the retina could be pulled loose, or worse, could tear (as in rip).  The doctor suggested a laser surgery to fuse the retina to the eye in the place where the retina is being pulled in order to reinforce it (turns out to be in a place in my far peripheral vision).  Now I know some of you are saying, "Cool!  Lasers!"  For me, not so cool.  I mean, lasers are cool, but shooting them in my eye isn't.  Oh, and did I mention that the doctor said, "Before we start the procedure we use a needle to numb the eye in a couple of places so that the process won't hurt so much?"  Uhhhh...put a what in my where?  As in, "Cross my heart and hope to die?"  Needless to say, this is one surgical procedure that I'm going to think about and get a second opinion first, and hope to heck that they give me some serious drugs that'll put my mind into a "special place" while they perform a procedure that resembles medieval torture (or, perhaps, something from Guantanamo Bay).  Thankfully the situation right now isn't urgent...and hopefully will remain that way while I weigh my options.

A new experience that was a lot more pleasant was my travels getting down to the doctor's office.   There is a CapMetro (short for Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority) bus stop right outside the building where I work. Looking at Google Maps showed that there was a bus stop right outside my ophthalmologist's office.  Since I had to be there for an 8am appointment, I didn't much feel like driving down to the medical center area in rush-hour traffic, looking for parking, that I would have to pay for.  Then I would also need to drive to work afterward with my eyes dilated, which isn't the safest condition to be driving in (although I have successfully done this before).  It turns out that there was a bus route that ran from where I work to where I needed to be, and my job allows me to ride the city bus for free, sweetening the deal.  So I figured, "Let's try the bus."  I never really used Austin's public transportation system before.

It was actually a pleasant experience.  The bus arrived at the bus stop on-time at around 7:04am as scheduled, and arrived at the stop right outside the doctor's office building at 7:30am (also as scheduled).  The ride was comfortable and stressless (minus the anxiety over pulling the "stop cord" at the right time to signal a stop at the place I wanted to go).  Likewise, when I finished my appointment, I got to the return bus stop across the street right as the bus arrived, and ended up across the street from where I work.  No fuss, no grumbling at stupid drivers, no driving with dilated eyes, no finding and paying for parking in the med center area of Austin.  Now that's cool.

Unfortunately, Austin really isn't set-up well for a mass transit system that everyone can ditch their car for, like the ones in Manhattan or Washington, DC.  I should also add that the weather was beautiful outside today - not 98 degrees in sweltering heat or pouring down rain.  In this case the bus probably wouldn't have felt so convenient, and to me this demonstrates two of the less important reasons why Austin, TX isn't really the kind of city where you can give-up driving.  Additionally, Austin is less of a large city and more of a small city with a very large and sprawling suburbia.  This is the reason I am against the idea of a rail system in Austin.  I'm not against public rail transportation, but I don't see where it will work well in Austin.  A bus system, on the other hand, is a reasonable solution since routes can be modified as population and transportation trends change.  While it is still hard to modify bus routes, it is much harder to move train tracks.  Suburban sprawl and gentrification kind of by definition causes these kinds of changes.  In any case, the bus system here works, and it seems as though it gets plenty of use.  Even if it weren't free for me, I think the normal $1 each way to avoid the hassles of driving to my appointment would have been well worth the money.

So there you have it.  I have been agonizing over this appointment now for the past couple of weeks, which is why I haven't been writing much.  I have been busy at work too, which is another situation entirely.  Stay tuned:  The Great NY Road Trip is on again...and this time, it's seriously looking to be happening.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Social Networking

Yesterday I spent most...okay, all... of the day bumming around the house.  I had some specific things I needed to do, but ultimately ended up detoured around in various places on the Internet.  Ultimately I ended up purchasing some mp3s from amazon.com.

It is what I bought from amazon.com that started my mind on the subject of social networking.  As you all know, I'm not really a facebook kind of guy.  However, there are a couple of things I've been doing that actually brings a positive light to some of this.  Among these is the idea that I stumbled upon two musical artists simply by messing with my TiVo and looking on YouTube.  One of these people I mentioned before, and that was Sayaka Alessandra.  The other person, who I hadn't mentioned until now, was Stephanie Strand, who performed two songs I have come to like a lot:  Gutters & Drains and New Friend (I also like her animated short, Battle of the Media).  Now, not knowing anything about this person, I wrote her on facebook a while ago because I was interested in knowing how she did a few things in her animated video and got a nice response.  I happened to look at some of the things she was talking about and her interests and that made me take some pause, as there were a number of things we had in common.  Being over 20 years her senior, I figured that the idea of further contact was probably going to seem a bit creepy these days, and so I left things as they were, and walked away saying, "Hmmmm.  There actually are some people who would probably 'get' me."

Get this at amazon.com
Fast-forward to yesterday when I noticed, quite by mistake, that both Sayaka and Stephanie have some of their music for sale as mp3s on amazon.com.  That's when I realized that these social networks actually did have a positive result, and they weren't just places for people to post their every move as if we were all interested in it.  If it weren't for my stumbling upon these two young ladies on YouTube with my TiVo, there were two talented people who's work I would never have known about.  Without their being on YouTube or similar, probably nobody else would have either.  Here are two people armed with talent and a computer, and who were brave enough to share their artistry with the rest of the world, who touched my life as well as many others.  While I had already converted Gutters & Drains into a mp3 from the YouTube video, I thought to myself, "For 99 cents, I really need to buy the mp3 and support her efforts."  I remember buying 45RPM records in high school and college for a buck with the knowledge that the artist was some person who I would never know at all, never mind have any other connection with whatsoever.  Wow.  Things have definitely changed.

I'm not sure that this has given me any reason to bring my brand of opinion to facebook, nor am I going to pretend that now I'm somehow hip and that I'm into all the stuff the kids are into.  Nah, I'm still the grumpy old mad computer scientist that I always have been.  What is different is that I can see that among all the frivolous use of the Internet and social networking that there is something more that is serious in a good way.  All artists like to say that it's all about the art, and not about the money.  Now, without the need for expensive publishing and distribution, it actually can be all about the art.  Most artists won't be able to quit their day jobs, but if it really is all about the art, then at least they can share their work without breaking the bank.  That is a good thing.  Art (including music and literature) is a reflection of ourselves and the culture we live in.  It is our entertainment.  It allows people to express themselves and share their ideas with others.  While science and technology are critically important, art is what allows expression of our humanity.  It is artists like Sayaka Alessandra and Stephanie Strand that give me hope that there is still significant humanity left in humans and things are not all going to hell in a hand-basket.

Friday, September 10, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Book Burning

So it seems the pastor of a Gainesville, Florida church, Reverend Terry Jones, has decided (or not) to burn copies of the Quran (the Muslim holy book) tomorrow, September 11, 2010, as a "reprisal for Islamist terrorism."  Well, that's sure an example of Christian forgiveness in action (said thick in sarcasm).  Additionally, he's taking a political issue and turning it into a religious issue.

Now I really don't give a damn about pissing off a religious group generally.  Listening to the rhetoric they spew never places my belief system (or lack thereof) in a positive light, and frankly I'm kind of tired of paying my share of their tax breaks.  If I could get some entertainment from them once in a while, it would kind of be money well spent, I suppose.

The difference in this particular event has to do with a war...a war where there's real American troops in a country where a sizable part of the population is Muslim and wrongfully (I think) feels that America is somehow anti-Islam.  The events that took place on 9/11/2001 were politically-motivated actions by a group of Islamic extremists who justified what they did based on what they perceived as American aggression and meddling in their culture.  To further antagonize these extremists would be to put our own citizens at risk, including those serving in the Middle Eastern countries.  It would also demonstrate to potential sympathizers with those extremists that America is, indeed, anti-Islam as they thought.  While burning the Muslim "good book" may be within America's concept of free speech, it is free speech in the same form as shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theater - dangerous, reckless, and serves no useful purpose except to put innocent people in harm's way.

"But...but...but...they did it to our Bible and nobody made a big deal about it!  This is just a further demonstration of how the world is anti-Christian."  NO IT ISN'T!  Gee, people, get a grip!  This sounds like something a five-year-old child would say:  "Well, he burned my book so now I'm gonna burn his book.  Na na na naaah na."  Would you idiots please GROW THE HELL UP!  The reason why "nobody" (and it wasn't nobody, believe me) here made a big deal of the burning of your "good book" or other antagonistic action by certain groups protesting is because there wasn't the strong possibility of a violent retaliatory action against our own citizens because of that action.  That should be enough to cause you to take a step back and find some maturity.  If it isn't, just think about how this kind of behavior is clearly non-Christian, and, Rev. Jones, no, Jesus Christ would not have condoned this kind of behavior.  If you've found some kind of justification for believing he would, then somehow I've misunderstood some of the tenets of Christianity along the way...and I think maybe you have too.  Burning the Quran is not the way to "spread the good word of the Lord."  Argh.  I have a moral problem even typing that phrase.

Then this morning I was listening to our morning talk radio program where I heard that the Westboro Baptist Church (you know, Fred Phelps' "God Hates Fags"...and-everyone-else-who-isn't-us religious cult) is planning on performing the Quran burning if Jones calls-off his book burning.  Attention world:  Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (his merry band of bigots) absolutely, positively, does not reflect the actual views and opinions of the American public in general, and most of us would be happy if they just left the U.S. and found another place to take their hate.

...and that actually brings me to my final comment.  Before anyone somehow justifies burning the Quran because they somehow equate the mosque in NYC and the 9/11 terror attacks with some kind of overall "Islamic invasion" that requires some action....before anyone even THINKS about this, think about fundamentalist and extremist Christian groups like the WBC.  Most of the time these people stop just short of "terrorism" (and I say "most of the time" because killing doctors and bombing abortion clinics in the name of religion is a terrorist activity).  Before you people get on your holy high-horse and make sweeping judgments about followers of Islam, perhaps you should clean-up your own act.  Seriously, I'm sure most Muslims are normal folk who really just do what the rest of us do, but have a somewhat different religious belief.  Nothing more.  The followers of fundamentalist/extremist Islam are really no different from fundamentalist/extremist Christianity and those are the same as any other extreme nut-job out there.

Aside from the scientific reasoning and my own personal feelings about the lack of belief in any religion (a god, so to speak), this kind of conflict is yet another reason I feel happy about not being a "person of faith."  As I've said before, if I'm wrong, I'm sure that I'll be rewarded in the afterlife for not getting involved in all this superstitious nonsense.

PS: My heartfelt sympathy goes out to everyone who lost someone in the Sept. 11 attacks.  In my opinion, we should be honoring those who lost their lives through an understanding of what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.  Burning the Quran is not any way to honor these people, and it won't provide any understanding nor will it prevent future attacks.  Think about it...

Eye Witness News

I'm up late tonight trying to make some sense of my eye doctor appointment today that turned-up the replay of the potential of a small hole in the retina in the far lower left area of my right eye.  My optometrist also feels there is a possibility of a trace amount of fluid that has gotten between my retina and eye.  This coming from the Optomap scan of my eye.  So now I am going to end up having to go back to a retina specialist to make sure my retina is not in danger of detaching.  If there is a problem, there is a possibility that I will need to have the area around the hole sealed-off using laser surgery.  This is not something I am looking forward to, as I'm a fair amount squeamish about eye stuff.

While I was waiting for the doctor, I was looking through the rack of magazines.  In almost every magazine, I observed that the head-shot on the front cover partially obscures the name of the magazine.  This included Sports Illustrated, People, Marie Claire, and Texas.  The only magazine where I could see the name was Popular Science.  Why do magazines do this?  I would think that they would like to be proud of the name of their magazine, and the trademark recognition that it provides.  I spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out what magazine "Mar{head}ire" was (FYI: that was Marie Claire, and I was only able to tell by looking at the spine).  People magazine doesn't have a spine.

I always like browsing through Popular Science and/or Popular Mechanics when I find them in the waiting room where I happen to be.  My parents subscribed to these magazines at various times throughout my childhood, and I found them to be fascinating.  That feeling still hasn't gone away...and maybe it's time to get an old school magazine subscription again.  It's nice to see that they don't have a need to cover up the name of their periodical.

Time once again to make a comment about Time Warner Cable's stupid RoadRunner TV commercials.  They have been claiming again (paraphrasing) that their service is so much faster than DSL service using slow, antiquated phone lines.  Puhleeze...give me a break.  My wireless networking is faster than their Internet service, and it is using even older, "slower" radio signals.  Bottom line is that any of these technologies have progressed far beyond what they had been able to do in the past, and in most cases (especially cable and DSL) the speed is artificially limited by the carrier, not by the technology.  If I were the phone company, I'd show a clip of a snowy TV picture full of interference (or a modern one full of macro-blocking) and say, "Are you ready to get your Internet service from the same people who give you this kind of TV picture?!"  Just cut it out.  If you're going to attack each other, then please do so without the lies and half-truths.  Good grief.

By the way, in the name of full disclosure, I get my Internet service from the local cable company.  I did have DSL at one time as well, and it was fast and reliable.  The only reason I switched is because at&t's customer service sucks worse than Time Warner Cable's at this point.  If Time Warner Cable wanted to make a (mostly) truthful commercial, they should just say:
We're Time Warner Cable.  Hey, we know that cable and DSL Internet service are about the same speed, and almost the same price, and nearly as reliable.  But problems sometimes happen, and when they do, you can call us and we'll fix it without cost to you...unlike the phone company, who tries to blame you for all the problems before they'll even send someone out (and if they do find it's "your problem," they charge you a hefty service fee).  We won't lock you into a time commitment if you want a reasonable price for service.  So you can try us out, experience our blazing fast speeds, and see if you like what we're selling.  If not, then you can stop your service without extra charges.  Try doing that with the phone company.
By the way, TWC, if you use that idea, you should give me a few months of free RoadRunner service. {insert smiley face}  I suspect that their attorneys feel that blatant lies that attack the competitor's technology are a lot easier to defend in court than making the claims I just did...

I went forward with converting the Gentoo Linux OS on my system at work to 64-bit (again, effectively involving a complete OS rebuild).  So far, so good.

Well, it seems I have procrastinated bedtime long enough.  If I don't get to sleep soon, it is unlikely I'll be awake for work in the morning, never mind awake enough to host "games night."

Friday, September 3, 2010

64 Bit Update

Well, it has been a week, and a week it has been.  I did follow-through with the Gentoo Linux OS update, and it is finally finished and working.  Here are some lessons learned:

32 Bit Emulation

You may remember my last entry where I cursed the wine interface software and was grumbling about how it didn't compile.  Well, I also noticed that my chroot trick that I used to compile software for my laptop, netbook, and VPS wasn't working anymore either (the kernel refused to execute any 32-bit executables).

I couldn't believe that Windows 7 could do this and Linux couldn't, and that accidental thought turned me to looking at my kernel configuration.  Wouldn't you know, the kernel has an option that allows 32-bit executables to be used, all that was needed was to check the option.  This is not in a very obvious place -- it isn't under "Processor type and features" but rather "Executable file formats / Emulations" as "IA32 Emulation."  On second thought, that seems rather obvious, and could probably be more attributed to operator error.  In any case, the description of this option says it all:
Include code to run 32-bit programs under a 64-bit kernel. You should likely turn this on, unless you're 100% sure that you don't have any 32-bit programs left.

So be forewarned ... don't forget to configure your kernel accordingly!

That fixed, my complaints in the last entry are silly moot now.

VirtualBox

Before I found the magic kernel parameter above, I thought perhaps I would run a 32-bit Gentoo Linux installation in a virtual machine, like I said in my last posting.  That was not the right thing to do.  I started recompiling the base system as I usually do after loading the "stage 3" tarball.  What normally takes no more than an hour or two on a reasonably fast system took more than 5 hours (with all 4 processor cores assigned).  I say "more than" with a bit of hesitation since I never let it finish, and it didn't even recompile gcc yet.  This was one of the primary motivations for finding a way to run 32-bit executables under the 64-bit kernel, because at the rate this was going I was about to wipe out my 64-bit install and revert back to the old OS build.

Most of my experience with VM software of this kind has been with VMware.  The reason I wanted to abandon VMware for VirtualBox is that VMware has become rather bloated, and lately it has been hit or miss when it comes to working with new kernel and/or browser versions (don't even get my started with the newer Firefox incompatibilities).  On the other hand, VMware's performance has been overall fairly good and, if you can get it working, it is generally rock solid.

VirtualBox has gotten much better since the last time I used it (which ended up being a total failure), but in my opinion still is a bit behind VMware performance-wise (not entirely, but on some things...) and the way VMs are managed is kind of hokey.  With VirtualBox, your VM is basically running through a user-mode graphical application that must remain running in order for your VM to stay alive.  This isn't bad if you're just planning to boot Windows for a few minutes to do a specific thing, but if you want to start working on something and run into a task that has to run for a long time (such as a Gentoo build), then you'd like to be able to shut down your GUI and let the VM run in the background.  The only way to do this is to anticipate that kind of application in advance and start-up the VM using a command-line tool called VBoxHeadless.  The coordination between VM and GUI (console) at that point is clunky, and if you're trying to get to the VM before the boot CD starts-up, you're out of luck.  VirtualBox's virtualized disk performance is great (seemed better than VMware), and they clearly have the upper hand on virtualizing network hardware.  The CPU performance, though, seemed pitiful, particularly given the number of CPU cores and RAM I gave it.

I am likely going to continue using VirtualBox rather than VMware for those times I need to implement a VM for something.  The reason why is the "bloat factor."  VMware seems to be catering to the Windows crowd lately, and they seem to be of the Microsoft mentality that software bloat is okay.  It wouldn't surprise me if I found something to make VirtualBox run faster if I look hard enough.

64-Bit Performance

I'm not entirely sure whether I am seeing a noticeable improvement in the performance of the system or not.  During compiles, my eyeball evaluation of how fast things are going tells me that going to 64-bit was a big win.  However, I also replaced my disk drive as well, and the new disk has a better SATA transfer speed than the other "green" drive (yeah, my carbon footprint increased by a small fraction, yeah yeah yeah).  So it was hard to tell whether it was my electricity-sucking new hard disk or the unleashing of the CPU's raw pent-up power.  For average tasks, the system seems to be running much as it did before.  At no time did I see a performance degradation.  So I do believe this was a win overall.

My Upgrade Mantra

I have always been of the belief that a major upgrade by completely rebuilding a system is a necessary evil once in a while in order to clean up the results of lazy system management.  I found loads of old bits of deprecated configuration files hanging around the system, and a few complete misconfigurations, and one or two things that I said, "What was I thinking?!"  When you're forced to merge your configuration from an old OS install to a new one, you can't hide behind the "if I don't see it then it isn't there" mentality.  I have a few notes to myself to make a few small changes to make ddclient (the DynDNS IP address updater script) run the way I want.  The way I have been doing it is a hack, and while it does work, it is just the wrong way to do it.  If I knew then what I know now...

Conclusions

Well, it has been an "interesting" project.  So far, so good.  While I did have some initial misgivings, I think that these were good lessons, and if anything my knowledge grew from the experience.  Keeping up with computer technology is always a bit challenging.  Doing it on my own system at home, where I can take a break for a bit, is better sometimes than learning while under deadlines at work.

I feel a bit more like a mad computer scientist again.

Monday, August 30, 2010

64 Bits Bytes

Sad day for an idea and a couple of days of intense work.

I realized that the computer system I built about a year and a half ago had some capability that was not being used.  That is, that the processor in the system was capable of running a 64-bit operating system, but I was running a 32-bit version of Gentoo Linux on it.  There really are two main reasons why one would want to run a 64-bit OS:  First is that the amount of memory that can be addressed can be more than 4GB (the address registers are larger).  Second, there are registers and operations within the processor that can handle 64-bit-wide numbers, and this can potentially speed-up certain software.  While the additional memory support would not have immediately helped me, I figured that having 64-bit operations would.  I also considered the idea of turning the entire system into a host for virtual machines, so I could run several systems simultaneously, and figured that the 64-bit support in the OS would help with that.

Those who have installed a 64-bit version of the Windows operating system probably understand that going back and forth is not as easy as flicking a switch or checking a box.  Because the operating system (OS) itself and all the associated programs need to be aware of the increased address space and the additional processor registers, the entire OS needs to be replaced...which means, essentially, rebuilding the OS.  In the case of Gentoo Linux where everything is compiled from scratch, this is an involved operation.  I was also doing this on my main computer system that is my server, Internet gateway, and orchestrates much of the home automation and network support I use.

So in the space of a couple of days, I had to analyze how my system was configured and what software needed to be recompiled, recompile all the software, copy all the configuration settings to the new configuration, and test it out.  I knew this would take a few days, and I would likely run into some problems, so I also purchased a new hard disk to build everything onto (that would become the new system disk).  Needless to say, this turned out to be a lot of work.

The proverbial fine print that you read over and over in your mind is that while 64-bit operating systems have great potential, there is also the potential for software that was not designed to work in a 64-bit environment to fail miserably.  Windows users are familiar with this as well.  Everything seemed to work fine for me until the very last application that I went to test:  wine.  Wine is a piece of software that allows Windows applications to run natively under Linux.  I have one such application that is very important to me, and that is Quicken...an old 32-bit version of Quicken.  So not only did I need to run a Windows application under Linux, and that application was 32-bit, but also wine needed to be compiled as a 32-bit application using special software libraries designed to handle the translation.  This is where everything fell apart -- wine didn't even compile.  Unfortunately the people who coordinate the Gentoo Linux project simply have not sufficiently tested 32-bit wine compiled on a 64-bit OS.  If I compile wine to support 64-bit Windows applications, then my old 32-bit Quicken doesn't run.  So after all that work, things have come to a complete standstill thanks to Quicken.

Yes, 64-bit operating systems can be a bitch.  With apologies to those at hak5, I don't "trust my technolust" right now.

That all said, it is likely that I will move forward with this project, but not entirely as planned.  Since almost everything works, I can essentially transition to the new operating system in a few days, if nothing else starts having problems.  In the meantime, I need to figure out how to get VirtualBox (virtual machine software) running.  If that works in 64-bit mode OK, and I can run a 32-bit virtual machine, then I could have a virtual machine running the old 32-bit Gentoo Linux thats sole purpose is to handle applications that won't work properly on the new operating system.  Will that actually work?  I don't know yet.  I also could move the 32-bit applications to an older computer system until I can come-up with a new plan.

On a more positive note, I did see a performance improvement with the new OS.  It was clear just from compiling the applications that the software was taking better advantage of the Intel Core2 processor's capabilities.  I also found several serious configuration errors, including a bug in one of Gentoo's system initialization scripts, that I was able to correct.  Unfortunately, the mad rush to get everything working has taken a mental toll and I could use a break from looking at this.  So a few steps back before hopefully moving forward again.

A more detailed explanation of what a 64-bit architecture means can be obtained from this article in Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/64-bit

Likewise this article in Wikipedia explains virtual machine technology in detail:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_machine