Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Repaired Phone

Just a month or so after I bought it, my T-Mobile prepaid phone started rebooting constantly.

I took it back to the place where I bought it. Naturally, they would not replace it. I got a long spiel about how I had to force it to use one specific network or it would reboot, but how that was not a persistent setting so I'd have to reset it each time I powered up the phone. I found this unacceptable, but had to get pretty enraged in the store before the staff would help me. Ultimately all they really did was get on the phone to customer service for me. I had to ship it back to a T-Mobile service center at my expense. The only option available for a prepaid phone was to go without my phone. (That stinks, but it is unfortunately what is laid out in the warranty paperwork).

About two weeks later, I got back what appears to be a new phone. It has slightly revised hardware, although it has the same model number. I'm happy to report that so far it seems to be working much better.

Why I Don't Want an Airport Extreme Base Station

I was considering replacing my Netgear wireless router with something that would work better with our remote Airport Express units -- that is, something that would allow them to put remote computers onto the same network using WAP. The Netgear router will not do this, at least not without a lot of pain.

An Airport Extreme base station would do it, but after some reading, I have ruled out buying one. Why? Because it will not allow me to set the MAC (hardware Ethernet) address.

This features has existed in the last two Netgear routers I've owned, and it is extremely valuable. Our ISP requires that you specify a fixed MAC address. Dealing with Comcast customer service on the phone is not exactly my favorite activity, so it is far easier to reuse the old hardware address when changing hardware.

I think there may be a software solution for this but it looked pretty ugly. There may be a valid security reason for Apple not to want to provide this feature, but they lose out in usability. So no Airport Extreme base station for me!

Miserable Weather

We're having a miserable rainy day in Ann Arbor. I'm reminded of a line from a Tom Robbins novel -- I forget which one -- and I may be misquoting it: "the sky was filled with raw oysters and dead nuns."

We've got our train tickets for Christmas travel. We're headed to Washington, DC to see my cousins. We've got our tofurky for Thanksgiving. A tofurky is kind of like a haggis, except as Isaac says, you don't have to turn a sheep inside-out to make one. We're not actually vegetarians, but I kind of like tofurky, so I think we'll make it our own Pottsgiving tradition.

Much of my money and energy has been going into the Armstrong Collection photos -- if you haven't seen the blog where I'm tracking my efforts, take a look at it here.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Girl in the Fireplace

Last Friday night we watched an episode of Doctor Who entitled "The Girl in the Fireplace."

This was an absolutely fantastic episode. See the Wikipedia entry on this episode here. I edited down the plot summary since it was overly long. This episode won a Hugo award for best dramatic presentation, short form.

There are a lot of things wrong with this episode; it is maddeningly inconsistent. In this episode, the Doctor can supposedly read minds by performing a mind meld like Spock, a new ability. "Time windows" behave in bizarre and inconsistent ways; they're open, or closed, or disabled but still usable once if something hits them hard enough (but then they break), or shut down but still re-openable from one end; basically, they provide whatever the plot calls for at a given time. Time moves at different rates on different sides of the time window, but without any consistency whatsoever; again, it does whatever the plot finds useful. There's a weird sub-plot involving clockwork repair androids deciding that the best way to repair a disabled spaceship is to kill the crew and use their organs to repair a spaceship -- there's a weird scene in which Rose and Mickey discover a human heart beating inside one of the ship's systems. This makes very little sense, especially because apparently the heat of the spaceship systems tends to cook the organs, and the ship smells like roasting meat.

Interestingly, none of this matters. The episode is great because it is beautifully shot and beautifully acted. The costumes and sets are drop-dead gorgeous. Sophia Myles is fantastic and so is David Tennant. The Doctor is smitten with this brilliant and beautiful historic figure; she looks into his lonely soul and loves what she sees there. It is a timeless story of the semi-immortal Doctor confronted again with his helpless love of fleeting human life.

It's the human heart in the middle of the whole crazy Doctor Who apparatus, burning with loss. Suddenly that scene makes sense!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Andy Giveth and Bill Taketh Away

Here is a great article on the arms race between Intel hardware and Windows software and where it has gotten us. The author writes:
Microsoft Office 2007 which, when deployed on Windows Vista, consumes over 12x as much memory and nearly 3x as much processing power as the version that graced PCs just 7 short years ago (Office 2000).
People will try to rebut this result by pointing out that newer software has lots more features. That's true. For some categories, the great increase in processing power over the decades has made possible whole new types of creative activities that weren't possible before because they couldn't be achieved in a reasonable amount of time, memory, and disk space.

My favorite recent case in point is Apple's Aperture, which I've been using to process thousands of scanned family photographs. Aperture maintains one master version of an image file, untouched, and applies all its alterations -- cropping, editing, color shifts, sharpening, etc., as a set of instructions. You can have a dozen different versions of a photograph in progress without saving a dozen different files. To accomplish this it makes very heavy use of your machine's processing power and memory. It trades CPU for disk space. It requires a lot of machine resources, but on the other hand it allows you to experiment with images and make many different trial versions in a way that you just can't do working solely with a more traditional tool like Photoshop. (Although Aperture has fallen down on me for some tasks that Photoshop is capable of accomplishing on the same machine, like rotating a 500-megabyte TIFF file; Photoshop is better tuned towards making maximum use of disk space in exchange for limiting the amount of memory it requires).

But we're talking about an office suite executing the same tasks that were required of it seven years ago. Going outside the scope of the author's arguments, I'd go back much further; my experience with tools like Microsoft Word goes back to Microsoft Word 1.0. That tool was capable of making a writer quite reasonably productive on a Mac Plus with 1 megabyte of RAM.

I like being able to do what Aperture can do with 2.5 gigabytes of RAM and a G5 or better CPU. I like being able to compile software tools with over a million lines of code in them during the span of a coffee break. But as one of the commenters pointed out,
Everyone at my office was excited to see Vista and Office '07 when we bought a new Vista machine. The analyst using the new machine (she has an average of 20 spreadsheets open at a time) was quick to voice her displeasure as it was no faster than her old eMachines PC running Office 2000 with 128mb RAM.
Indeed! And another very perceptive comment:
What do you do with Office that you couldn't do with Office 97? In my experience, most people don't even know how to set paragraph indentation (they hit |tab| instead), let alone use anything advanced.
That is still true today for many, many users, except that in 1987 the big bugaboo was using spaces to indent things, which would come out differently when printed than on the screen. Except these users are using a gigabyte of memory and hundreds of threads to do the same thing!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

TMBG and Oppenheimer Live

Isaac and I went to see They Might Be Giants play last night at the Michigan theater.

The opening act was an Irish duo called Oppenheimer. They were a bit odd. I liked what they were doing with Moog and Roland synths, and appreciated the fact that the drummer was the singer. But I dislike excessive use of sequencing by live acts (Thomas Dolby is the exception, I guess). It mostly seemed to me like each song consisted of one or two nice but interchangeable synth riffs alternating with an interchangeable grinding guitar part alternating with an interchangeable vocal line with lyrics I couldn't understand, but in a mostly good way. I'd describe their mood as "chirpy," which may not have been what they intended. They reminded me of an Irish "Big Country" more tilted towards synth than guitar.

My failure to understand even one word of Oppenheimer's lyrics may have had something to do with the fact that our seats were in the balcony and from that vantage point the acoustics of the venue are poor -- too many reflections in the high frequencies, which makes them kind of dissolve into a generalized sizzling noise, and not much midrange. Fortunately, though, from that vantage point, it was not excessively loud -- my ears are mostly intact today. I'm too old to handle full-blown rock concert volumes any more. (As, I suspect, are the Johns!)

Anyway despite the deficiencies in the audio, They Might Be Giants did a really fun show. I have not heard their newest album, and so some of the songs were unfamiliar, but they also played plenty of older material, including "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," and "The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas" which they played as fast as a Dickies song. These songs they have no doubt played live hundreds of times, but they made them seem reasonably fresh. The set included some of more obscure songs as well, like "She's an Angel," "Spy," "Older," "Dr. Worm," "Drink," and "The Alphabet of Nations." They even played "XTC versus Adam Ant." I was grateful that they did not play "Fingertips."

I should admit that while I was a big fan in the early 1990s, and owned their first few albums, I am not nearly as familiar with most of the band's albums released since around 2000. I recently picked up the compilation "Then," watched "Gigantic," and have been listening to their podcats, but I'm sure there are several albums' worth of TMBG songs I've just never heard. Maybe I can make up for it by saying that I owned two Mono Puff albums at one point?

They did the odd bit of stand-up comedy. Flans claims to have purchased a copy of the Bee Gees album "Cucumber Castle" on vinyl! The thing that impressed me the most was that after many years of touring the band is extremely comfortable together and comfortable interacting with the audience. Flans stood right at the very edge of the stage bashing his guitar, and during solos even held it out so that fans down in front could strum it. That's faith in your audience! They also had the audience clap on the second beat of each measure in 4/4, that is, 1/CLAP/3/4, 1/CLAP/3/4 and Flans yelled out "OK, now keep it going! Don't slow down, don't speed up! And for God's sake don't stop!" They then proceeded to play "Particle Man" following the audience's beat instead of vice-versa, which made us feel like we had quite the awesome responsibility!

In general, the Johns were not quite in top form for ever song, but got energized as the set went on and ended the show well. The only downside was that after two encores the show went so long, until 11 p.m., that we couldn't get a bus home. Grace had to come and pick us up!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ticketmaster, Still

Isaac and I are going to see They Might Be Giants at the Michigan Theater tomorrow night.

Our tickets cost $25 each. So, $50. But then Ticketmaster charged us an additional $38.57 in convenience fees combined with their lowest-price delivery service.

It has been a long time since I bought tickets like this. I had thought the days of Ticketmaster's monopoly price abuse long gone. Why I am I still paying 175% of the face price to buy a pair of tickets? I think this is the last time I'll be going to a venue that sells tickets through Ticketmaster.


So, I have a small amount of money in an E*TRADE savings account. E*TRADE has been in the news recently and its stock price has taken a big hit.

For the record, I am not removing my money. It is only about $200, actually.

I suspect E*TRADE will have to take a big hit just like all the other companies stupid enough to put their assets in securitized mortgage papers. But I'm not one for jumping on the bandwagon; that's how a "run on a bank" goes from rumor to reality. Interesting, too, that the analyst predicting a possible run on E*TRADE works for a competitor, Citigroup.

My prediction: it is Citibank that will be bankrupt within 36 years and begging for Federal bailout. E*TRADE will be a smaller but wiser and still functional concern. As someone who has many thousands of dollars in interest and fees to Citigroup over the past 20 years, I would see this entirely as the wheel of karma turning as it must!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sam Can Count!

Well, sort of.

The other day I was getting Veronica to count. I was asking her "what comes after nine?" After the third try, when she still had not answered correctly, Sam bellowed out "ten!"