Posted by mike in Computers,Entertainment,News at 10:44 am on January 13, 2008

Or, at least, it should be soon.

Now that Warner Bros. has switched from being in the HD-DVD camp to siding with Blu-Ray, the dominoes are falling and hopefully we’ll see the end of “The Format Wars, Round 2” in the near future.

My primary interest in this is the fact that I’d like one format to win outright so that everybody can get on with adopting it. It seems clear that the majority of consumers have been waiting to see who wins before purchasing an HD home video player (although there’s some speculation that adoption will be slow, regardless).

The two formats are largely the same in terms of features, but the primary difference has been that Blu-ray offers a DRM scheme that the studios view as being superior (copy-protection features appear to be the studios’ main concern, and with good reason). Another difference–albeit a more minor one, as its use hasn’t been fully explored as of yet–is the fact that the Blu-ray format includes Java support. This also might explain why Microsoft, never a fan of anything Sun- or Java-related, has sided with HD-DVD, although even that seems like it might change.

And then there’s what I still consider to have been a shrewd and ingenious move on Sony’s part, the decision to release the PlayStation 3 with a Blu-ray player built-in. This forced a lot of high-end gamers to become early adopters of the Blu-ray format, whether they realized it or not. (On the down side, it initially drove up the cost of their gaming console, perhaps to the detriment of their market share; this issue has largely disappeared, however, since the introduction of the $399 PS3.) Personally, though, the presence of the Blu-ray player was the primary reason I had for wanting (and getting) a PS3; indeed, I do not own any games for it (yet), but I have already purchased several Blu-ray movies. An additional bonus to using the PS3 as a DVD/Blu-ray player (although one that’s not often talked about, for whatever reason), is that it does a great job functioning as an upscaling DVD player for standard-definition movies, too. After adding an IR remote, so that I can control movie playback on the PS3 with my Harmony 880, I’ve found that the PS3 makes a terrific centerpiece to my home theater setup.

I’m hopeful that the chips will continue to fall, and Blu-ray will be able to announce a de facto victory sometime in 2008. Then the studios can get on with producing more content for the format, more people will jump on the bandwagon, and hopefully prices will come down as well. Of course, as with all new technology, porn may serve as the tipping point.

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Posted by mike in Computers,Entertainment,Friends at 11:17 pm on December 5, 2007

As I mentioned previously, about 6 months ago I switched from DirecTV to Insight Digital cable service, giving up my beloved DirecTiVo in the process. The experience has made me appreciate–and miss–the care and attention to detail that went into the design of the TiVo UI. I’d like to enumerate in detail exactly which design mistakes Motorola’s engineers made that TiVo’s accounted for. Simultaneously, CK is going to do the same thing in reference to his DirecTV Plus HD DVR, which he recently switched to.

We’ll start with the remotes. CK has already written his comparison, finding squarely in favor of the DirecTiVo’s remote (unsurprisingly). Now it’s my turn to take a look at the remote that comes with the Motorola 6xxx series of cable boxes. I have the Motorola 6416, which is the dual-tuner HD-compatible version with a 160GB hard drive.

Motorola's remote
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention right up front that I haven’t used this remote much, as after the first week or so of having (and hating) it, I programmed my Harmony 880 (possibly the second-greatest TV-related invention, after TiVo itself) to control the new DVR, and tossed the Insight remote into a drawer, never to be used again. Here are the main reasons I have for thinking that every user of one of these cable boxes should do the same:

  • Too many similarly-shaped and -sized buttons. While the “On Demand” button is nice and big and easy to feel for in the dark, that’s not the one I’m going for most often when I pick up the remote–usually it’s the pause button, or the video transport buttons. They’re all about the same size and shape, and grouped in a 3×3 grid. On the plus side, when picking up the remote your thumb naturally goes to the “OK/Select” button in the middle, which is a good “home position” to start from. It’s just that it’s hard to go anywhere from there except to the arrow buttons immediately surrounding it.
  • Page up/Page down buttons. These buttons are stupid, because it makes much more sense to use the Channel up/down buttons for this functionality, when in a context where going up and down by page makes more sense (like being in the on-screen guide). This is the way TiVo does it, and using the Channel buttons comes very intuitively and works quite well. Not only has Motorola chosen to use separate buttons for Page up/down, though, but they’ve also placed them on opposite sides of the remote, making it impossible to easily go between them when browsing through the guide.
  • The most important buttons are small and poorly-placed. With the notable exception of the aforementioned OK button, the most important buttons are in the worst possible places, with the worst offenders being the Guide and Menu buttons. The My DVR button also gets blended into the array of video control buttons towards the top; this is the button that brings up your list of recorded programs, so on a DVR box, it gets used a lot (TiVo users will know it as the List button).
  • Too many “back” buttons. Perhaps as a sign of skittishness (or, more likely, a testament to how confusing their software is), the developers have given the user multiple ways to go backwards at any point in the interface. There’s a Last button to go back a screen, which does the same as the left arrow button in most circumstances. There’s an Exit button which exits out of the menu system completely. Then there’s a Stop button, which really doesn’t make much sense to me. When you’re watching TV, or a previously-recorded show from the DVR’s hard drive, what does the concept of “Stop” mean? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean you want everything to stop and go to a blank screen, as it would on a VCR. The TiVo engineers thought of this, and so TiVo remotes do not have a Stop button at all; instead, you simply press the appropriate button to indicate what you want to do next. If you’re currently watching a recorded show and want to switch to live TV, you press the Live TV button. If you want to go back to the menu of recorded shows to watch a different one, you press the List button. Stop doesn’t make sense in the context of a DVR, so it shouldn’t be there at all.
  • Important funcionality missing. While there’s a “review” button (the circular arrow pointing “backwards,” found just to the left of the My DVR button), there is no equivalent “skip” button. This is especially odd when you consider that the box actually has this functionality–using my Harmony’s “replay” and “skip” buttons, I can skip backwards 15 seconds or forwards 30 seconds, respectively. Why only the “replay” feature has a button on the stock remote is a mystery to me; particularly when you consider the typical length of a commercial, the 30 second skip feature is arguably the more useful of the two. You might also notice that even though this remote is for a dual-tuner DVR, there is no obvious way to switch between tuners–keep reading for an explanation of that glaring omission.
  • Picture-in-Picture buttons. These are especially confusing, since the box does not have picture-in-picture capability, and so the buttons serve no purpose… with one very notable exception. Having omitted a tuner-swap button in their design of the remote, the box’s engineers have chosen to co-opt the “PIP Swap” button for that purpose.:
    Deceiving swap button
    When I first got this box, for the first several days of using it I was actually under the impression that there was no way to explicitly switch tuners (this was an action I was used to performing quite regularly with my DirecTiVo). I mistakenly thought that the only way to utilize the dual tuner functionality was by side effect: if it is recording a show and you try to change the channel, a dialog box will pop up offering the option to switch to the other tuner. I would then be “stuck” on the other tuner, unless I went into the My DVR interface and selected the show being recorded to watch. I’ll touch on this more when I do my review of the DVR software, but suffice it to say that this was confusing and annoying. Even after figuring out how to swap tuners, it is still very non-intuitive to have to use a tiny button at the bottom of the remote in a group of otherwise unused (reserved for future use, maybe?) PIP buttons in order to take full advantage of the DVR’s two tuners. Luckily, on my Harmony I’ve programmed a custom button called simply “Swap,” and it’s in a much more easily-accessible place on the remote.

Harmony 880 remote
The remote’s deficiencies are a telling sign of the amount of thought that went into the design of this cable box overall. Especially when contrasted with the brilliantly-designed TiVo remote, it falls very short. The Harmony 880 (pictured at left) that I use and love, while not quite matching the TiVo remote in terms of button layout and intuitive feel in your hand, comes pretty close, while also offering the additional functionality of controlling all of your home theater components by itself and being completely programmable. I honestly don’t think I could put up with the stock remote that came with my Motorola DVR provided by Insight for any significant length of time, especially after having used a TiVo remote for over 3 years; luckily the Harmony means that I don’t have to.

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Posted by mike in Computers,Entertainment,Internet at 8:22 am on May 15, 2007

This past weekend was commencement at U of I. As is pretty typical of these things, they had a relatively famous alum (Jawed Karim) speak at it. What’s different about this particular guy, though, is that he’s quite young for a speaker–he and I are about the same age, actually (like me, he’ll presumably be skipping his 10-year high school reunion this summer). His resume pretty much speaks for itself: he’s been working on some interesting and high-profile Internet-related technologies for his entire adult life. The most recent such endeavor, and by far the one he’s most famous for, is YouTube.

As the already-old joke goes, I couldn’t find a video of his commencement speech on YouTube (yet), but I did find a description of it:

Karim’s speech was great. It was short, it was funny, and it had video clips. He advised students to always be open to opportunity and to take risks while you can (like leaving college while still young to try something brand new). He apologized for ruining their gpa’s by inventing YouTube! He was self-deprecating when reminding students that things don’t work right away. In 1997, Karim’s application to the University of Illinois’ computer science department was rejected. He wrote a letter asking them to reconsider, which they did… He also talked about how lame YouTube was in the beginning until users started uploading their own videos — a concept that the founders had not envisioned.

The funniest line of the speech came when Karim explained that YouTube was launched on February 14, 2005. I am paraphrasing, but he said something akin to: “One of the best things about being a computer science major is that Valentine’s Day is just like any other day.”

Jawed previously gave a talk at the UIUC ACM chapter‘s reflections|projections conference last year. This one is available on YouTube, entitled “YouTube: From Concept to Hyper-growth,” and I think it’s well worth watching for anybody interested in this stuff:

Aside from noting that they began development on Valentine’s Day, as Jawed himself saw fit to joke about during his commencement address, I think the funniest part is around the 39:50 mark (11:00 remaining), when he talks about how they realized that in order to really get YouTube to become more popular and start spreading, they’d have to get chicks involved. So they posted an add on Craigslist LA:

Hey, if you’re a female, and we think you’re attractive, and you make 10 videos and upload them, then we’ll send you a hundred bucks via PayPal.

Surprisingly (or not), they didn’t get any replies, but as we all now know, that didn’t hurt YouTube’s success.

What I find so fascinating about this guy is not just the fact that he’s already accomplished so much before his 28th birthday, and not just the fact that he’s somewhat more interesting to me than most young entrepreneurs because he and I went to the same school. It’s the matter-of-fact way he presents himself and his endeavors, as if it’s just a common occurrence to create something that sells for 1.65 billion dollars. I think this is probably what sets folks like him apart: they are so driven that they can’t imagine not working your ass off on idea after idea until you get something that does succeed, so it’s not even surprising to them when it happens. That’s a perspective I don’t think I’ll ever know, but I bet it’s nice, albeit frustrating at times when things that you just know are going to pay off for you take their time getting off the ground.

In a way, of course, I’m envious. How cool would it be to make one of the most popular Web sites on the Internet? Then again, how much work would it take? I think just the fact that the second question so closely follows the first in my mind proves I’m not cut out for this type of thing. But it’s certainly interesting to follow.

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Posted by mike in Computers,News,Science at 11:51 pm on May 8, 2007

A friend I used to work with in the OpCenter sent me a link to a Washington Post article on robots that I found very interesting. It started out reminding me of a selection from The Mind’s I:

The colonel ordered the test stopped.

Why? asked Tilden. What’s wrong?

The colonel just could not stand the pathos of watching the burned, scarred and crippled machine drag itself forward on its last leg.

This test, he charged, was inhumane.

(See “The Soul of the Mark III Beast” in The Mind’s I–which, incidentally, I would consider to be one of the two most influential books from my high school days, along with the previously mentioned Sirens of Titan.)

The article presents several interesting examples of people wanting to ascribe human traits to their robot assistants, and asks lots of neat philosophical questions that many of us might actually have to come up with answers to at some point in our lifetimes.

“The 2 million personal bots in use around the world in 2004 are expected to grow to 7 million next year,” it claims, but this makes me wonder: Where are all of these robots they’re talking about? They can’t all be vacuum cleaners, can they? I’d prefer to imagine 7 million ASIMOs walking around myself, as spooky at that might initially be.

Humans respond so readily to Kismet, created by Cynthia Breazeal, that graduate students working in the lab at night have been known to put up a curtain between themselves and the bot, Brooks reports. They couldn’t stand the way it seemed to gaze around and stare at them. It broke their concentration. These humans are as sophisticated about robots as anyone on Earth. Yet even they are freaked by Kismet’s lifelike behavior.

And, of course, whenever I start thinking about the topic of futuretech, I get to wondering: where the hell are the flying cars we’ve been promised in popular fiction for so long? This in turn brings to mind Avery Brooks lamenting the lack of flying cars in the early 21st century in a classic IBM commercial:

There are signs that we might actually get flying cars some day, although “as of spring 2007, no flying prototypes exist,” so we’ve probably got quite a wait still ahead of us. I expect it’ll take even longer for them to get personalities, unfortunately.

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Posted by mike in Computers at 5:47 pm on January 30, 2007

The inevitable release of Windows Vista has finally arrived, and I must say… I couldn’t care less. I can nearly guarantee that this is an operating system I’ll never use personally, and hopefully I won’t ever have to interact with it professionally, either.

I couldn’t help but share this humorously predictive image, from Nick Scipio‘s site:
Viruses Intruders Spyware Trojans and Adware
(I usually check out Nick’s Picture of the Day as part of my daily reading.)

As part of the hype-building for Vista’s launch, Bill Gates appeared on The Daily Show last night. The predominant thought I had while watching his interview was just how uncomfortable and downright dorky Gates remains after all of these years.

I guess I just find it really odd to see a stereotypical computer geek with an awkward laugh and clumsy mannerisms who has achieved as much notoriety and has had such an unquestionable effect on the world as Gates has. You’d think he would’ve acquired some social skills by now. Then again, you’d think his company would’ve learned a few things by now, too. So it goes.

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Posted by mike in Computers at 10:30 pm on January 17, 2007

The replacement hard drive and software CDs that Dell sent (as explained in my last post) arrived yesterday, pleasantly ahead of schedule. It’s been quite a while since the last time I installed Windows XP, and the experience was somewhat of a trip down memory lane of times I’d rather leave in the past (and, for the most part, I have).

My first reminder of just how long ago it really was when XP was first released was when, at the end of “Part 1,” I was reminded prior to rebooting: “If there is a floppy disk in drive A:, remove it.” I realize we’re only talking about 5 or so years ago, but the concept that people were still using floppy disks to boot their PCs to install an operating system that’s still in wide use today was sort of a shock to me.

The fun was just starting, though. During “Part 2” of the Windows XP installation, the user is shown a series of screens full of marketing hype, the purpose of which is presumably to get him or her psyched up about the OS being installed (and have something to read during the half-hour-plus installation). Some of the messages are quaint pieces of nostalgia:

Built-in fax support helps you send faxes directly from your favorite programs and receive faxes right from your computer.

Wow, really? How can I learn more about this new-fangled “fax” technology you speak of?

With Movie Maker, you just transfer movies from your analog or digital video camera to your computer, then put your favorite clips together (and cut out the ones you don’t like), add music, narration, and title slides–even still photographs.

Remember analog video cameras? Remember when basic video editing on a commodity PC was a fairly novel concept?

The installation later goes on to proudly boast that Windows XP is even capable of running “programs with full-color graphics, video, 3-D animation, or surround sound,” as well as kindly pointing out that “CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives and CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) drives are now affordable options on most home computers.”

Maybe it should be viewed as impressive, in a way, that Microsoft produced an operating system at a time when floppies were still the norm and CD-R drives were just becoming “affordable” that has managed to rule the desktop PC market for over 5 years now. But when viewed in the context of all of its failures, some of the claims and promises made by the Windows XP installation program are just funny:

“Windows XP Home Edition not only starts faster than any previous version of Windows, but it also runs your programs more quickly and reliably than ever. If a program becomes unstable, you can close it without having to shut down windows or lose any of your work.”

Remember the promise of real job control? Remember how well they delivered on that? Neither do I. It seems like more and more often, when a process on my Windows XP box hangs or locks up (something that happens altogether too frequently as it is), it takes the whole OS down with it. Oh, sure, Windows acts like it’ll let you kill that one disobedient application and continue working. But I can’t count how many times I’ve sat there clicking on the “End Task” button over and over again, without the OS ever deciding to acknowledge me. Meanwhile, the runaway program sits there, most of its window filled with nothing but blank unresponsive whiteness, happy to continue ignoring me. And that’s not even touching on the all-to-common situation when the program that stops responding is explorer.exe, the user interface shell. The installation procedure, though, was sure to remind me that I was installing “the most reliable Windows ever,” which is sort of like referring to the least unpleasant rape you’ve ever experienced.

“Windows XP features the most secure version of Internet Explorer to date.”

This one just has to be a blatant lie. If the program PC World named #8 on its 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time list was actually more secure than its predecessors, then they must’ve been completely vulnerable at all times and we just don’t remember it– IE6’s reputation is legendary. This is an even more dubious statement when you consider that I was installing Windows XP SP2, which was released in late August of 2004, after IE6 had already proven its track record.

I was reminded of a couple other embarrassing failures during the installation process, too: Fast User Switching, Microsoft’s latest attempt to demonstrate how poorly they understand the concept of a multi-user system, and the Windows Firewall, which was short-sightedly not included in the original release (it was part of Service Pack 1), and naively did not default to being enabled until SP2.

I think the whole story of XP was summed up well by a Washington Post article that describes how “the operating system has met only a few of its goals while falling short of others in a catastrophic manner.” Thinking about Microsoft’s optimism when XP came out made me even more skeptical than I already am about Vista. If the industry is cursed enough to be dominated by Vista in 2012 (a prospect I’m very dubious of), I’m expecting a “look back” similar to this one to be even sadder.

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Posted by mike in Computers,News at 8:47 pm on January 13, 2007

Megan got a Dell Inspiron B130 laptop for her birthday this past August. About a week ago, she turned it on and was confronted with a BSOD early in the boot process.


Microsoft’s Knowledge Base article about this symptom is funny in and of itself. My favorite part was this:

This behavior is by design.

Thinking that the problem might be something corrupt with Windows, I asked her to bring me the Windows XP CD that presumably came with her laptop, so that I could perform a repair installation. Instead, she brought me this piece of cardboard:

Dell Cardboard Restore CD

I went to the support page the fake CD told me to go to, and learned that I could press Ctrl-F11 during POST to boot into “Dell PC Restore by Symantec,” which was supposed to fix all of my woes. Apparently Dell ships these things with a customized version of Norton Ghost in an alternate partition on the hard drive, along with their default install image. This is all well and good, and would be a pretty decent solution, except it’s an all-or-nothing endeavor: the only option you are given is to completely wipe the laptop’s hard drive and return it to the state it was in when you first took it out of the box. Since, like almost all college students, Megan did not have any backups of her papers and other classwork she’d done on the laptop, this presented a problem. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll just pull her hard drive out, use my 2.5″ to 3.5″ drive adapter to put it in one of my desktop PCs, and back up her data before performing the restore.” This was easier said than done, though, and I wasn’t able to get any of my PCs to recognize her hard drive. It was becoming apparent that the drive was dying and I’d need to get creative to salvage her files.

I put the disk back into her laptop and booted it with a Gentoo Linux LiveCD. I was then able to mount her Windows partition, archive her files, and copy them to another Linux system on my network. This actually took a couple of tries, as I was interrupted the first time by the tell-tale { DriveReady SeekComplete Error } messages that any Linux user who’s experienced a failing hard drive is likely familiar with.

Confident that I’d saved her papers and coursework, but with my belief that the hard drive was failing strengthened, I returned to the PC Restore utility to see what it would do. The answer was nothing: It silently failed and told me to call Dell support. Seeing as I was busy watching the Playoffs, I instead opted to go with Dell’s option to chat with tech support online. It took about an hour for Shinjan, the helpful representative who chatted with me, to work through all of the details. In the end, he is sending me an OS CD and a replacement hard drive, which I’m told should arrive in 1 to 2 business days.

While I was annoyed by several aspects of this ordeal (failing hard drive in a laptop that’s not even 6 months old; laptop that ships with no operating system media; all-or-nothing system recovery tool; built-in diagnostics that, while extremely useful in theory, took several runs before correctly detecting the error), I ended up being pleasantly surprised at Shinjan’s willingness to trust what I was saying. He did not make me go through too many unnecessary diagnostic steps, and actually considered my diagnostic observations, allowing for us to skip to the part where he sends me a replacement hard drive quicker than I was expecting.

I’m assuming that the new hard drive will resolve the issue. If not, I’ll be sure to update this entry accordingly.

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