Goodbye 2009, and good riddance

Just by reading the headline you can see that I have no problems leaving 2009 in the dust. It was a crappy year in just about every sense. But rather than drone on and on about what really sucked about the ’09, because really, I could, I will instead pull the old “look back” list trick from my friends in commercial journalism. It works for them so it ought to for me.

  1. The economy – I really should not have to explain this one. If you had stocks, bonds, a retirement account or any kind of savings you know it sucked this year. Enough said.
  2. Employment – or the lack thereof. By ending the year at 10% the US finds itself in bad shape for those wanting work. In California where I am it’s a cruddy 12.3%.
  3. Healthcare – one of the “benefits” of working as a self-employed or small business owner is acquiring your own healthecare. It is neither beneficial nor cheap, I’ve learned. And it seems that Congress would like to make it worse. Way to go, elected officials.
  4. The Financial system – big bailouts, too-big-to-fail thinking, insane back-room deals to help out insurance companies, messed up mortgages and bank failures. Oh, and your credit card APR is going way up.
  5. Climate Change – yes, the Earth is getting warmer in some places. But it seems to do that on its own from time-to-time. Now the truth is coming out and it looks like global warming is all about getting fatter government grants.
  6. Sarah Palin – enough already! Between her book tour, crazy fans, crazy family or just plain dumb things to say this would-be candidate really needs to be given a reality TV show so the rest of thinking American can tune out.
  7. AT&T – their network bites, they are beginning to losing money on services and they really have bad customer service these says. It may be time to start looking for other options.
  8. Apple’s walled garden – better known as the App Store to most folks. It’s been a bad year for Apple on this front and next year doesn’t look to be much better given recent events.
  9. Netbooks – this abomination of technology really needs to die. It may be doing so already. There are no profits in making them, users are unhappy after buying them and most of the internet won’t run on them. I know people are cheap, but come on, spend an extra $50 and buy a laptop.

I thought about going on and listing some hopeful predictions for 2010, but let’s just think about the track record for such things: they just don’t pan out. If you can’t predict the easy stuff, like tomorrows weather, then trying to guess how a whole year will turn out like is just nuts. I will stick with my current belief that next year will just be a bit like this year, only with a “ten” at the end of it. We’ll see.

PC Building Fun

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I spent more than my fair share of quality time building and rebuilding PCs. Although it was all for a good cause, it was pretty painful. These PCs are supposed to work when you put them together, and yet these new boxes just didn’t run. As each build stretched on into the early morning hours it became clear that this was just a futile effort. In the end, I gave up my own (and a friend’s) working PCs to get the job done but I’m left with a puzzling thought:

Why is it that technology gets faster/better/cheaper and yet it is just as hard to use as it ever was?

Clearly I missed that day in marketing class.

Video Disc Tools for Happy Streaming

I was asked recently to document the things that a person would need to use in order to take an optical disc with video content on it and turn it into something that streams reliably to the PS3. Rather than write a long email on the topic I’ve decided to chronicle the information here so that I can make it available to anyone who asks, now and in the future.

First off, this guide is for Windows users, so folks using OS X or any of the Linux flavors need to find some way to live temporarily in the Microsoft world. Sorry, but the best and most usable tools only exist for Windows, so you have to deal with it.

Next, I’m going to assume (a risky thing to start with) that the user has some level of decent PC hardware to work with. For the purposes of this article and at the time of this writing decent is a system like this:

  • A Core2 Duo or Phenom II x2 with a clock speed of at least 2Ghz
  • At least 2GB of RAM
  • At least 500GB of free hard disk space, preferably on a SATA controller
  • A DVD + Blu-ray combo reader optical drive, preferably on SATA
  • The OS should be at least Windows XP
  • Some kind of useful Internet connectivity (to acquire the software)

With that taken care of, let us look at why the requirements are set at this level. First off, if any kind of format transcoding is required you are going to be spending a lot of time waiting for things to get done with a slower system. Next, virtually none of the original format media will be usable as-is for streaming, so plenty of memory and disk space are needed to pull apart and re-assemble the video into just the right format. Finally, since there are so many formats out there that are not compatible for streaming there will be at least some time spent buffering up and on-the-fly encoding the stuff you want to watch into a usable stream, and that takes a fast disk and RAM.

The work-flow to accomplish physical media disc video to file based streaming usually goes like this:

  1. The video you want to stream exists on a DVD or Blu-ray disc
  2. Place the disc into your PC DVD/Blu-ray drive and…
  3. Use some software to move the parts you want off the disc and onto the hard drive
  4. Check the files that make it onto the hard drive and re-constitute them into files that can be streamed
  5. Save the new file in a stream-worthy format
  6. Point your streaming software at the new file and…
  7. Navigate to the PC on your gaming console, select the filename and stream away
  8. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Unfortunately the process is anything but simple. But here are my steps to getting the job done in as few hops as is possible.

    Unless you are a glutton for punishment, enjoy troubleshooting endless registry settings and numerous software incompatibilities, just go get AnyDVD HD and call it a day.

    So much work can be saved by just following this one step. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve read of people trying this or that only to end up with files that don’t work or messed up audio and video sync. Save yourself a whole lot of pain and just use the one thing that works every single time: AnyDVD.

    Eventually you’ll need to get rid of that extra “stuff” that you don’t want surrounding the video that you do want, so grab tsMuxeR for all the Blu-ray tweaking.

    There is a lot of junk packed onto discs these days and most of it isn’t what you want to watch. TsMuxeR will help you pull out the stuff that matters, dump what doesn’t, then reconstitute a new file that will stream just fine. Major space savings can come from just firing up this tool and pulling out all of the languages and extras that eat up so much of the space.

    How do you find out what is the good stuff to keep and what is the stuff to throw away? BDInfo is there to help out with your Blu-ray needs.

    This handy accessory can help you zero in on just the right parts of the disc that you need in order to keep what you want and dump what you don’t.

    Eventually you will run into something that just won’t stream no matter what you do. When that day arrives turn to RipBot264 and make your own file format.

    VC-1 video and DTS audio do not stream well, and by well I mean not at all. When you encounter these codecs you must convert them into something that will stream, and RipBot264 does that for you. The scary bit of this tool is it’s requirement to install a few other geeky video tools on the PC, but don’t worry. It will use them and you’ll never have to worry about seeing them again.

    This stuff is all fine and dandy, but I just want to take a normal DVD and stream it. For that you need one more tool, VOBMerge.

    If you have a standard DVD and you know exactly what parts of the disc you want to keep, VOBMerge can take those parts and turn them into one large streaming file. It is really as simple as anything gets.

    Great. I have streaming files but I need to get them to my game console. The simplest way to do that and the one that works with the most success for the PS3 is PS3 Media Server.

    The great thing about this software is that it runs on Windows, OS X and Linux (if you have the patience to get all the bits compiled). You simply point it at a directory of streaming capable files, let it index those files, hook your game console up to the network and stream away. On the PS3 your system shows up as a “play button” arrow, so it is easy to find. Simply find and hit play on any file that you see and its streaming video time for you.

    So this is my short list of things people can use to take video and stream it. There isn’t a full set of instructions because, frankly, there is no one right way to do things. Instead, there is an entire Internet full of guides out there with thousands of people who’ve done things one way or another. I encourage you to seek those forums out and have a look at what other folks have tried before embarking on your own disc to stream adventure.

Attempting to break the surly bonds of Voicemail

Now that I’ve become more of a nomadic worker, without a full-time office location, I’ve been looking for ways to make my phone presence consistent and available no matter how a client might reach me. Switching to AT&T U-verse was one step in that direction, as they offered custom options for forwarding calls and personalize rings.  Using Google Voice (formerly Grand Central) was another, as it allowed a “call one number and reach me anywhere” capability.

Until today I was unsure of how to loop my mobile phone into this world. That did make things a bit difficult as many contacts try to reach me using that number first. Further complicating this connectivity is the fact that in some locations, like my home, I have virtually no wireless signal strength at all.  This left many people thinking that I was ignoring their call when actually I could never hear the phone ring at all.

I decided to do a bit of hunting today and came across this great link for AT&T Wireless customers and forwarding… and it had information to do almost exactly what I wanted to do. I now have things setup in a circular but I believe usable manner:


If this all works I hope to rarely, if ever, listen to another voicemail message again as I’ll be talking to the person who is calling or Google Voice will transcribe the voicemail into text for me.

If At First You Don't Succeed, Fail, Fail Again

I’ve had a tough week, technology-wise.  Over the course of the last three days I’ve had two relatively new hard drives fail, a gigabit switch started having some ports go slow and a servo that controls the throttle on an RC airplane went nuts.  I think it may be time for some time away from the keyboard.

I believe my new saying for hard disks should go something like this:

“There are no such things as good, dependable or safe disks.  There are just disks that have failed and those that will fail.”

On the recommendation of some people on the Internet, I bought and tested a Samsung F1 Spinpoint 1TB SATA drive.  It seemed great: it was big, fast, very quiet and energy efficient.  Windows seemed to like it and a couple of my other PCs with very finicky SATA controllers took a shine to it as well.  After about a month or so of using it I decided to purchase 5 more, 4 to put into my ReadyNAS storage box and one “spare” to use for shuttling data around. I also convinced a partner of mine to pony up for an additional 4 drives for his NAS.  All seemed right in the world.

About two weeks ago I started noticing my ReadyNAS box getting slower and slower when trying to copy files from it or put files on it.  It also has a web page where the admin tasks get done, and most days I was fortunate to see that page in two to three minutes after trying it.  Great, I thought, some kind of firmware mess up (the box can offer and upgrade its own firmware) has happened.  So I slapped on a new version of the firmware, rebooted the NAS, and then nothing. Truly nothing, as in no web page, no network shares, no ping returns.  A few more reboots and things appeared to be working, so I left it alone to worry about it another day.

In the meantime I reformatted my main PC to be a full time Windows 7 x64 RC1 machine, so I fed it my existing Samsung 1TB drive to run from.  That worked for about 24 hours, then Win7 just stopped responding.  Thinking that I fouled it somehow (it happens, I go nuts on new installs from time to time) I hammered the whole install and did it again.  This time around it lasted for about 6 hours before Win7 coughed up an error message that roughly translated said:

“Dude (it’s California, work with me here), this drive is busted and you should back it up. Oh, and I won’t let you write to it any more. Have a nice day.”

Flash forward to June 19, just 24 hours after the desktop drive was rejected by Windows and now the NAS just disappeared.  I checked it to verify that it still had power but beyond that it did nothing but sit there and blink.  Reboot and try again.  The NAS works, but very slowly.  I finally get the admin web page up to view what the matter might be.  To my surprise there are no alerts in its log of “very bad things” that happen on it when I’m not looking, but there is another page where I can see the raw details of each disk’s S.M.A.R.T. report.  This is where all the scary data is on errors, retries and the like.  Imagine my surprise to find that one of my disks, labeled “2” by the NAS, has gone off the deep end with over 100K of errors in less than a weeks time.  I shut the box down and pulled that drive, replacing it with that “spare” Samsung I had been using as my portable disk.  26 hours later the NAS is up and running and it seems happy again, but I’m not so sure.

Along with my panic and rage, I notice that a few of my machines are running slowly when connecting to each other on my network or talking to the Internet.  That’s odd, I say to myself, since I often have self referential conversations, my network is all Gigabit Ethernet enabled save for a few older devices.  I check the gigabit switch and find that at least two of the ports are lit at 10/100 speeds.  The PCs confirm this and I sit puzzled.  It worked last week, I thought, but now it’s gone and slowed itself down for no reason?  A quick check of the Internets using some Google-foo and I have my answer, this Netgear 8 port switch, the GS608, has a history of dying slowly and taking one port at a time down to a crawl.  It just decided to make itself known to me while I’m fighting my hard disks.

Normally, three big failures at once is plenty, but since this is my life I had to make it more exciting.  I drove off to the RC airfield to fly my “reliable” airplane and the servo that controls the throttle goes nuts. It decides there are two settings: full on and off.  Stranger still is the fact that this has never happened on any airplane I’ve had before and after tinkering with the airplane and changing nothing it “cures” itself.  Knowing the week I’ve just had I packed everything up in the truck and took my toys home.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is supposed to be, other than when I seem to have bad luck in a portion of my world it happens in clumps.  I’ll certainly want to be extra careful the next time I get in something fast and dangerous to go somewhere… come to think of it my car was just in the shop for a safety system malfunction. Hmmm….


All About Scams and ID Theft

Two different events conspired to make today suck: an email purporting to be from the FBI and US Mail from a former employer telling me that my identity may have been stolen.

The FBI mail is the typical Internet scam, but this time with more legit looking information and 50% less bad grammar.  It tells me that:

your e-mail address was among the e-mails that won this year promo award of UK National Lottery, that is the fund that was transferred to Africa , and it has been recovered.

Of course, I completely forgot about that lotto ticket I picked up when I was in London five years ago.  How silly of me, and how wonderful that the FBI took the time to track it down for me.  I’m sure someone will fall for this but it’s just another hoax in my inbox.

This second one is more serious.  It seems that a former employer who will remain nameless contracted with an accounting firm which had my personal identification (and that of others) on a laptop.  That laptop was stolen and the firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, says it had all kinds of security to keep my information safe, and that I shouldn’t worry.  Sounds fine until you read the next paragraph:

… as the laptop was in use at the time of the theft, we cannot be certain that these security measures were enabled.

So now I’m told that someone can go out and masquerade as me, creating new bank accounts, credit cards and personal loans and that all PWC can say is sorry, we’re not liable?  I realize that the 21st century was going to be new and exciting but I didn’t realize that personal or corporate responsibility wasn’t one of the 20th century carry-overs. Shameful, I say.


Windows 7 makes networked media work

Windows 7 RC1 (build 7100): the new Windows Media Player 12 is all kinds of goodness.

I readily admit that I am hard on computers, I really do break them on a regular basis while seeming to find the absolute limits of what they are capable of.  So with more than a little trepidation I installed the Release Candidate build (7100) of Windows 7 and set it to work scanning my overly large and complicated media library.

As a primer, it should be noted that my music library alone is somewhere over 30,000 songs and many of them have horribly broken tags that I refuse to fix, left over from many, many sessions of ripping the original CDs over the years.  Every version of Windows Media Player ever released has choked on them at some point.  ITunes is beyond worthless, freezing and locking up during the scan process and never fully recovering.  Winamp has long since bit the dust and even the mighty VLC goes down for the count when so many tracks are added to its “media library.”  My hopes for WMP 12 doing any better were very low.

Imagine my surprise when, after mere hours, it responded by downloading album artwork and behaving very snappily when searching through the volumes of tunes I have given it.  Better still, none of these tracks were located on the PC where Windows 7 resides: they were on a network attached storage device, the Netgear ReadyNAS.  Searching for tracks: quick.  Playing tracks: near instantaneous.  Exploring the library in Media Center: darn right blissful.  All this from a Microsoft product?  Color me impressed.  My next run at it will be to fire up another system and try streaming from one W7 system to another, both inside and outside the home network.  The nets say it’s possible, but we shall see.

Windows 7 Windows Media Player 12

Worst Service Nominees


I have recently had the great displeasure of participating in three different levels of grief and suffering with three different technology companies.  All three were so terrible that I felt compelled to write about it and post the results here, in the unlikely hope that someone might learn from my pain.  So here it goes…

Adobe: decided that it is OK to hang up on my calls twice for support to activate a product that I had purchased, transfer me between two different call centers and different support staffs in India, force me to repeat the same trouble-shooting steps no less than 8 separate times, and to, in the end, blame me for causing a problem which could only be repaired by tweaking their own registration servers. Just to get Photoshop to run.

HP:spent the better part of three hours bouncing my call between different call centers, different divisions of the company, taking over remote control of my PC, forcibly causing the loss of installed drivers and patches and lecturing me extensively on how I knew nothing about computer hardware to troubleshoot a problem, only to claim that the “outgoing phone lines are down” so that they couldn’t call me back for three days.  In the end, I relented and used the combination of the Internets free help (from other poor, tortured HP owners souls) and a Linux boot CD to restore functions to my USB ports.

AT&T: sent me around and around in circles for more than a week, trying to explain to me that “new services are available in your area”, but then deciding that no service has been improved, but that they can save me money if only I would switch to a new plan.  This led to nearly a week without any working DSL service, a series of confused support technicians, a promise of a new DSL modem that never appeared and a considerably more expensive bill than I started with for the same level of service I had before.  Extra pain points are awarded for having the local repair truck workers tell me that in 30 days or so fiber will be available in my area that will render all of this moot.

So who is the winner of this round?

A track day at Laguna Seca

On March 9 I was fortunate enough to get some track time at the famed Laguna Seca Raceway in Salinas, CA.  It was an interesting experience to say the least, and very different from driving at Thunderhill for past events. As a key point, it was remarkably cold at the track, never getting warmer than about 55 F, making the car develop as close to full horsepower as I’ve experienced but also making the tires a bit slippery for the first few laps.

As for the actual track, it seemed, well, small.  At Thunderhill there are over 3 miles of ground to cover but at Laguna Seca it is just a bit over 2 miles. That might not seem like much, but when the course is constrained and there are 25 cars on it each session, that’s not much room to move around. The biggest challenge I had was trying to find enough open road to actually hit the throttle and go.  Every few turns I caught up with the crowd and was stuck at the slowest speeds I’ve ever experienced on a track.

The car variety was fairly good: lots of Corvettes and 911’s as usual. The poorest example of a track car was the Toyota Prius that showed up in my group.  It drove a scorching 48 MPH on most of the course and seemed to give up after the first session, thankfully.  There were some Mini Coopers, again, not the fastest thing on the track. A good collection of Audi A/RS 4’s and BMW 3’s and 5’s were also around. Some older vehicles like a Ford Mustang Mach I, some kind of strange Lotus car and some older RX7’s and vintage racers were also around. There were also two race setup Dodge Vipers in attendance.  The three unique cars this day were the Ferrarri F430, the Lamborghini Gallardo and a “D” spec racer with a Kawasaki motorcycle engine in it that just tore up the track.

All in all, it was a good experience to learn the lines of a new track, get into new driving situations and generally get to feel a new track setup. The bummers were that there were way to many slow drivers in my group and the sessions were much shorter (15 mins) than they are at Thunderhill. I would probably go again but I’d want to move to a faster group. A quick view of some of the sights and sounds of Laguna Seca can be found in this short video I put together, so take a look.

Quick update: for pictures of that day that I didn’t take (or purchase) look here.

Laguna Seca: typical cars from Micah Stroud on Vimeo.