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January 25, 2007

Today I got paid for a few hours of computer rescue work for someone Kim knows through her freelance work. Basically it's an old computer with a drive that wore out, and this was causing all sorts of bizarre symptoms like passwords repeatedly not being saved (because the password file was not readable), file searches hanging indefinitely, and general computer sluggishness.

Today it failed to boot at all, but the user had a newish hard disk that I could install the OS to from scratch and we painfully migrated one directory at a time over from the old hard disk to the new one. Of course there are lots of things that don't work right anymore; since the computer in question is a Mac, some things do actually work as-is, but various applications with serial numbers hidden in invisible files, or registrations tied to specific hardware (like the hard disk drive it's booted from) need reinstallation. During all this the user was pretty stressed since we couldn't be certain that any given important file would be copyable, or lost forever.

So, everyody knows they should do backups, and most people don't, or they do something like every 6 weeks they drag some stuff to a flash drive or burn a CD. Guess what? When your hard disk dies you're still screwed for about a whole day, trying to reinstall everything and get all your serial numbers and config files set up the way you used to have them. Reinstallation from scratch is a totally sucky process, even if your most important documents are still there. Do you have a list of all your passwords, serial numbers, application add-ons you used, and a copy of all those CDs and downloaded installers somewhere convenient? Probably not.

The thing that most people don't want to do is to reinstall everything. So, they keep using a hard disk, as if it will last forever. After about 5 years, maybe a couple more, it will start to fail, and you'll be screwed, and have to reinstall. Once your hard disk starts to be unreadable and to make copy operations fail utterly, it's too late. Get used to the idea that your hard disk, if more than about 4 years old, is going to need to be replaced very soon. If you can't find evidence that your hard disk is less than 4 years old, it's probably going to fail this year and you will lose data, and waste time, and be sad. Before it completely goes Tango Uniform, it will start to make your computer work poorly, and slowly, and you'll possibly wonder WTF and want to buy a whole new computer that you can't afford so you won't do anything except be stressed that your computer is sick. It's not your whole computer, it's your hard disk, and maybe some of the crap on it. If you have Windows, that may include viruses and spyware.

So, here's my advice. Backing up to floppies is ridiculous, and these days backing up to CD or DVD is equally impractical. That doesn't give you a bootable computer to restore to anyway. So, do hard disk to hard disk backups, and just mirror the whole damn drive every time. It takes a while, but it doesn't take over your computer, and you don't have to babysit it and swap media every 5 minutes, so it's not a big ordeal that you'll never actually do, and then feel guilty and worried about.

While you weren't paying attention, hard disks got cheap. Instead of obsessing over manufacturers and vendors and performance and shipping, go to the hard disk page of and get another drive. If you're handy with hardware, get an internal drive and put it in yourself. If you are a normal person who doesn't want to anger the gerbils inside your computer, buy an external drive. Don't waffle and research USB 2.0 vs FireWire vs. SATA vs. Ultra ATA, just get something cheap and huge that will go in your computer, get out your credit card and pull the trigger. Cheap and kinda slow is fine, just get whatever will take 5 minutes to set up once you get it. It has to be a litle larger than your current hard disk, but you can probably find something 50% bigger for less than you thought it would cost.

Once it shows up, hook it up, and do not ever use it for anything but backups. Now, find something free that does whole-disk image copying so that you can boot off of this drive, and run it and do a full backup right now. Don't worry about scheduling yet, just make a whole copy of your main disk onto the backup disk. Once that's done your life is so much more safe and stress free, that you should just do that ASAP.

For the Mac, to accomplish this I recommend Carbon Copy Cloner. For Windows, I don't know what to use, but basically if you start going down the path of schedule incremental backups you screwed up, because you can't boot an incremental backup that's stored in some folder of a drive with no \WINDOWS directory on it. Pick a program that just synchronizes the whole damn disk to the backup disk, and makes the backup disk bootable. I don't know what does that, but that's the setup to go for. If you then want to have all sorts of historical backups in addition, that's your call. But realistically the thing that will screw you utterly is when hardware fails, your computer is non bootable, and you would have to reinstal the OS and reinstall the backup program to get to a point where you could restore stuff. Why bother (or more likely, why sorta look into it and then give up in frustration)? Just sync the drive every week or so, and when your main drive dies, no biggie.

January 21, 2007

Casino Royale is outstanding, and probably the best Bond film ever made.

The RIAA claims to protect artists, but what happens when that means protecting some artists against other artists? Well, the Biz Markie case was the end of sampling (no more Paul's Boutique sampling orgies), but there's a new trend that's putting the RIAA in the position of attacking artists. With Arrest of DJ Drama, the Law Takes Aim at Mixtapes.

In other music stealing news, Is Timbaland a Thief? Also covered on YTMND as Timbaland pulls an Eric Bauman. It's such an obvious rip off; this is no Ice Ice Baby situation with two notes in a syncopated rhythm that could maybe-just-maybe be a coincidence. It's the same damn song, with 4 different instrument voices exactly duplicated. The ascending arpeggio figure (kinda sounds like a Mario Bros. sound) is the dead giveaway.

So, is the RIAA going to protect the artist in the second case, since it's another case of massive unlicensed reselling of someone else's material? Oh wait, the last A is for America, and the original songwriter is Finnish, so no. This must be a tiny down payment of revenge upon Scandinavia for The Pirate Bay: "you search torrent files for copyrighted material owned by U.S. copyright holders (sorta kinda illegal in the U.S. as it sorta kinda enables copyright violation, but not illegal in Sweden), we fail to pay royalties to your fellow Scandinavian for a song that one of our artists blatantly rips off." At least the world knows that Timbaland maybe isn't such a creative genius as he is perhaps well versed in the works of poorly protected songwriters.

January 18, 2007

Kim recently recieved the Where Your Taxes Go email from someone she knows. This factually inaccurate, xenophobic, right-wing anti-Mexican load of... propaganda is an excellent example of one side of the current immigration policy debate in the United States.

Here's my summary of the problems that are cited as reasons to be even more strict about immigration:

  • They retain their own national identity and don't consider themselves Americans
  • They speak a language other than English and won't learn English
  • They take jobs away from U.S. citizens
  • They don't pay U.S. income tax but they do use U.S. government services
  • They are criminals (which is sort of a tautology since they are illegal immigrants and cannot physically be within U.S. borders nor work without breaking the law)

There is a simple solution that solves all of these problems: give a green card to every single person who asks for one. Obviously there need to be some basic restrictions: they would have to pass a basic test for communicable diseases, and would have to supply verifiable documentation of identity from their country of origin. Got SARS? No green card. Got a counterfit Mexican driver's license because you don't want us to know you're really coming from Afghanistan? No green card. Got proof that you're really who you say you are, even though you're coming from Afghanistan? Background check, then possibly a green card.

Want someone to consider themselves an American?
DO: Give them citizenship and tell them they are welcome here. Bake them some cupcakes. Hand them a business card. Invite them to your Super Bowl BBQ. Open your holy book and read what it says about how to treat strangers and poor people, and do what it says.
DO NOT: Tell them you think they are dirty criminal moochers and that you wish they would go away.

Want them to speak English?
DO: Give them a job interview, in English. Go into their store and try to buy something, in English. Volunteer to teach conversational English.
MAYBE DO: If you're a fan of big government, then have the government mandate that the government use English exclusively to communicate with its citizens, and only provide foreign language translations for the police and immigration departments. Tell 'em how to get a green card, and how not to be a public safety hazard (must have driver's license, for which the test is in English, otherwise you go to court in English and maybe go to jail where they only speak English). Then give them a library card and a flyer for some free English courses that civic minded individuals are offering.
If you're not a fan of big government, don't worry about what language people speak among themselves. Let the market decide what language(s) people speak at work, and let the local schools and DMVs and police operate in English as well as the languages understood by the local populace. (This is the current state of U.S. Federal law.)
DO NOT: Deny non-English-speakers the opportunity to pay U.S. income tax. Deny access for would-be immigrants to free English courses and then blame them for speaking the language of their country of origin.

Want them to compete on an even playing field with you for jobs?
DO: Give them the right to demand labor law compliance on the part of their employer, including minimum wage, safe working conditions, and the right to unionize. Have the IRS raid employers who fail to report wages and withhold estimated income tax. Give immigrants a reason to move their whole family here permanently, then give them credit cards, a mortgage, a car loan, a 401K, college funds for their kids, and all the other stuff that makes the cost of living higher in the U.S. than in other countries. Now see if employers can find anybody willing to work for $10/day in cash anymore.

Want them to contribute more to the economy than they take?
DO: Give them a reason to keep all their money here, and buy everything here, for their whole family. Tax them just like other citizens. Give them a reason to try and build a life, a career, and maybe a business of their own, all in the U.S. Let them move into a house next door to U.S. natives and live among us openly, so they get a sense of a U.S. middle class standard of living and the stuff they have to spend their wages on in order to keep up with the Joneses. Make them feel like they have to work late to pay off their new HDTV, and then tax them on the extra wages they made from working late.
MAYBE: Consider why U.S. federal spending is structured so that we are always running a deficit. Have a look at the E.U. and the assimilation problems they're having now that poorer, less educated Eastern Europeans are moving to Western Europe and screwing up the economy. Fix the tax code and governmental spending so that the economy's success or failure is not solely dependent on the ratio of rich people vs. poor people being high. Reexamine the idea of the welfare state, and ask whether it's doing more harm via our current immigration policy than good.
DO NOT: Force them to work secretly (to avoid the INS) so that their wages are also hidden from the IRS. Force them to keep their family in another country, so they have to keep sending money home. Force them to live in temporary, poor quality housing where they're just paying for the minimal food and shelter required so they can keep making money that they save up and send out of the U.S. economy forever.

Want them to stop being criminals?
DO: Give them an equal opportunity to get a real job at real wages, and give them more to lose if they break the law.
DO NOT: Make them criminals merely due to their current physical location and country of birth, or worse yet, their desire to contribute to our economy. Force them into a life of labor crime (failing to report wages to the IRS) or more serious crimes in order to survive. (Note that U.S. immigration policy does not consider starvation to be a valid cause for asylum in the U.S., much less a justification for issuing a work permit or green card.)

January 17, 2007

Last weekend Kim and I were in New York visiting her family for the holidays. We added an extra day of NYC time on the front end of the trip and had a really nice time wandering around Manhattan.

On Thursday night we ate at Sukhadia's Gokul. Kim got the Surti Undhiu (eggplant) and I got the Bindhi Masala (okra), yum. We stayed at the Americana Inn, which has been very positively reviewed at TripAdvisor, and if you can believe it, charges $75/night for a "petite" room. Since we were planning to basically sleep, shower, and bail, that was pretty appealing. It was petite all right; the room was big enough for a double bed with a sink beside it, a desk at the foot of the bed, and a small closet. I could have stood on the bed and reached three of the four walls in the place. That was OK, really, but the part that bugged me was the lack of a thermostat in the room. The heat was on in the room but the window was drafty and so the room was about 5 degrees colder than I would have liked it. Oh well, still a good deal for something like $87 including tax.

On Friday we went for a stroll around the city, which is something neither of us has done very many times before. We walked up 5th Avenue, stopping for roasted chestnuts (which I had never had before, yum!) and going into the gorgeous Humanities and Social Sciences Library (a.k.a. the "main branch") which Kim had always wanted to visit. It looks more like a museum than a library, with neoclassical architecture (it opened in 1911 but it looks more like something from 50 years earlier) and some really amazing paintings on the walls and ceiling of the 3rd floor. By the way, if you've seen Spider Man, this is the library where Peter Parker has Uncle Ben drop him off (where the "with great power comes great responsibility" speech happens).

They also have a Laptop Docking service, which is basically a bunch of tables to sit at and plug into wired Internet access, no frills, just DHCP and you're surfing, for free, with no time limit. Sweet.

We continued up 5th Avenue, admiring all the clothing stores we can't afford to shop at right now, and discovered a pretty inexpensive place called Mexx (at 6505 5th Avenue) with really nice stylish stuff. Kim says it reminds her of H and M, except the stuff doesn't feel like it's going to fall apart the third time you wear it. We managed to just window shop this time, but next time we're in Manhattan, or Georgetown or Tyson's Corner (since they have stores there too), I don't think we'll be able to resist. :)

At the corner of Central Park we encountered the Apple Store, with the fancy glass cube entrance. We went in for a moment to sort out our afternoon rendezvous with Kim's family (checking the LIRR schedules on a MacBook of some sort) and left, 'cuz man that place is packed. It was about 3 p.m. on a Friday, and the place was bustling. I can't imagine what it's like at 6 p.m. on Friday, or 2 p.m. on a Saturday. It must be a madhouse.

We continued up, strolled thru the park (munching on more chestnuts) and decided to skip the ice skating since we have that at home, in favor of more exploration on foot. We stopped by The Shops at Columbus Circle, which is a fancy new mall, reminiscent of Tyson's Corner or the San Francisco Shopping Center, nice but not particularly fascinating. Check off that item on our "things to see" list. We hopped the C train down to Greenwich Village and wandered around until we found lunch at Taim Falafel & Smoothie Bar. Awesome, and totally unplanned. (See also: The Amateur Gourmet review, New York Magazine review.) I thought it would be romantic and/or picturesque to walk down to the water, stopping briefly to check out NY Artificial. Well, NY Artificial has some pretty weird stuff, and the waterfront there isn't too picturesque, plus it was about 10 degrees colder at the water, and windy to boot. So we cut back across to 7th Ave S and down into Soho and across Canal St. Man, Canal street is just an oasis of sleazy crapola selling street vendors and sleazy crapola seeking shoppers. Every other clump of guys recites the regional mantra, "Rolex, Rolex, Rolex, Movado". Uh huh. We kind of power walked through Tribeca because we were short on time and I wanted to see Wall Street, so we didn't see much there, other than the stark contrast between working people and the proliferation of suit shops (a giant Men's Wearhouse, etc.) and Starbucks, and the ugly junk vendors and counterfeiters back at Canal St.

Wall St. was something of a letdown, though we did see the American Stock Exchange and New York Stock Exchange buildings. There were about 8 uniformed police officers (and what looked like a paddywagon) stationed outside of the NYSE, which at first struck me as odd, then probably appropriate given the amount of wealth changing hands and the number of people working in close proximity in that area. The NYSE's American Flag had been replaced with Christmas lights wrapped around the columns forming the shape of the flag in lights.

After that we went back into the subway and got our luggage from the hotel and headed to Penn Station for the LIRR out to see Kim's parents. I checked my watch and we were walking for a total of 4 hours, not including lunch, brief stops in shops, or subway time. I guess that means my sprained ankle is all better now, because it didn't bug me at all. (I'm certain that Tae Kwon Do is what made me stretch and strengthen it back into health.)

January 16, 2007

Netflix to Deliver Movies to the PC. Oh, cool! The company that first noticed that DVDs are easier to mail than videotapes is going to give us a digital downloads service.

Oh wait, it's not a download service. It's streaming video, using a proprietary DRM-encumbered format. Forget using it on your iPod, Zune, or other portable player. Forget about burning movies to VCD or DVD for playback on your DVD player and big TV. There's no service at all if your bandwidth is less than the movie bit rate, such as when you're in most hotels (still set up for guests' expectations circa 1988, here's your analog phone line jack Mr. Business Traveler), or an airplane, or somebody's house who isn't a big nerd like you and doesn't have a broadband connection.

Please mommy, can it use RealPlayer so we can party like it's 1997? Oh wait, it plays inside the browser, and requires MSIE. Okay, so it's more 1998 than 1997. Rawk! Remember how everybody except NPR gave up on streaming in a closed DRM-encumbered format for free full-length content like 5 or 6 years ago?

"My favorite part of this movie is where the screen goes black and it says "Buffering..." at the bottom, then just stops and you have to start over and seek back to where you think you were, or wherever the player lets you seek to, if it lets you seek at all. I've watched it six times and I still haven't seen how it ends!"

While others (Apple on the Mac, PC, iPod, and Apple TV, and Microsoft on the Xbox 360) are gambling on sorta-HD downloaded content that you can play back again and again and in some cases on different endpoints and maybe even watch as you download if your connection is fast enough, Netflix is a full ten years behind. This kind of service is not even as good as PPV movies on demand from your cable company. Not even as appealing as PPV movies on demand in your hotel room. (Wanna guess whether hotels which do have internet access and PPV movies in house will block Netflix's streaming site?)

Here's what their would-be customers actually do: they put up with DVDs for the most part, but some folks who spend a lot of time traveling rip their purchased DVDs and keep them on their hard drives to reduce the amount of stuff they have to carry and to let the DVD drive in their laptops stay turned off to save battery power. They have to break the DRM to do this, which is fairly easy to do either by downloading a program to do it (called a "DVD ripper") or by just downloading the movie in pre-ripped format, but that also means they now have a copyable file sitting around that they can share with their friends. The downloadable DRM-encumbered approach (the one Apple has chosen) gives the benefits (just extra bits on the hard disk, not extra atoms in the suitcase; maybe some power savings if the hard disk uses less power than the DVD drive) without making users break the DRM to get it.

Streaming is worse than DVDs and worse than DRM encumbered downloads, and is just going to lead to people breaking the Windows Media DRM so they can capture the streams as unprotected video files and move or trade them at will. Or, maybe they'll just ignore the Netflix offering entirely. Either way, it's stupid and will fail just like the dozen other similar services that the studios themselves have introduced themselves over the past seven years or so. Heck, most of them were based on Windows Media DRM too, though some were downloadable, and failed anyway. Apple is claiming to have some success trying basically the same model (downloadable, DRM encumbered), most likely because they already have customers' attention and payment information via the iTunes Music Store, and because if you fully buy into the closed proprietary Apple DRM universe, they've made an effort to reduce the pain of actually enjoying the content you paid for. Microsoft could do the exact same thing with Zune and a future Zune family set top box running a minimal version of Windows Media Center (like Apple TV but more mature) but for some reason they haven't. Instead there's Xbox movies, and then Zune audio, in two completely different silos of hardware, codecs, DRM, and desktop players. (I hear that the online stores might be integrated, not sure about that.) And even if Microsoft did make it all integrated as Apple has, streaming would still stall, and wouldn't reach the Zune unless you were in WiFi range of your home setup and they decided to let Zune devices use their WiFi capabilities to stream content from other home devices. (Anybody wanna bet that they'll do that?)

Maybe from here on out analysts can save time reading the details by just scanning for the phrase that is the kiss of death, "Windows Media DRM". Or "streaming full-length movies". Netflix is doing both.

Cool: Goggles: The Google Maps flight sim.

January 10, 2007

In December: Linksys iPhone. Yesterday: a totally different product, the Apple iPhone. Really? Yes, really. But, isn't this a problem? Yeah. It is. Cisco sues Apple over use of iPhone name. Oops. This can't be an oversight; it has to be some kind of game of chicken that Apple's playing. They knew that Cisco had the trademark all along, apparently. So what's the play they're making? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

January 8, 2007

Yet another adventure in Wikipedia teaches me more about things I thought I knew. This time I started with Kate Bush who was an early user of the groundbreaking Fairlight CMI sampling keyboard. This instrument was also used by Buggles and brief Yes member Trevor Horn. I had no idea he was also a member of The Art of Noise, an "avant-garde synthpop" band who I was introduced to by Tyler Magill in the late 80s. I had their In Visible Silence album on audiocassette and liked it a lot, and it reminded me somewhat of the other big "avant-garde synthpop" band I was listening to, Yello (famous for "Oh Yeah") which I was introduced to by Wayne Heyward.

Of course YouTube has the video for Art of Noise's "Legs" which was one of their sorta kinda hits from 1985. But I forgot that they had a special guest for their video for "Paranoimia", none other than hoax virtuoid idol Max Headroom. I was a big fan of the TV show and its mix of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with biting media criticism, but he was also quite entertaining in this late night TV host clip from USA's Night Flight program. And then there's this totally weird The Karl Lorimar Max Headroom Sweepstakes which is also pretty funny.

Dick in a Box is covered in the NYTimes.

Fainting dieters delay New York City subways.

Funny: Dog Judo (more of an animated short online sitcom than a judo thing); Spiders on Drugs (a parody of the original). Oldies but goodies: Pinky is a very loving cat, It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time, Stewie ribbing Brian about his novel on Family Guy.

I've joined Technorati, though I'm still trying to figure out all of what it does. (Technorati Profile)

January 7, 2007

I have a new blog, just for software stuff, called Pervasive Code. If you're one of my techie friends, you should subscribe to its RSS feed. There are five entries there already, including two long ones, and there are a half dozen more coming as soon as I have time to write them.

I'm not going to be taking classes in the Spring semester, because I'm working full time as the co-founder of a startup company. More news on that in a few weeks. In the meantime I'll be posting a lot of general thoughts and technical stuff on that new blog. Did you subscribe yet?

In case you missed it, I also have a new blog just for music stuff, at That has an RSS feed also.

While you're going crazy with RSS, you might as well add the Wikipedia Picture of the Day RSS Feed.