Posts tagged ‘PC’

Brink Lindsey Proposes a Growth Plan with Appeal Across The Political Spectrum

It turns out that small government libertarians like myself and large-government progressives actually have something in common -- we both fear accumulations of unaccountable power.  We just find such power in different places.  Progressives fear the accumulation of power in large corporations and moneyed individuals.  Libertarians fear government power.

I won't try to take Caplan's ideological Turing test today, but will just speak from my own perspective.  I wonder how Progressives can ignore that government has guns and prisons while corporations just have the ability to sell you something or hire you (though perhaps not on the terms you prefer).  When pressed to explain why the Left is more comfortable with government power, their explanations (to my taste) depend too much on assumptions that competent versions of "their guy" pull the levers of power, and that power itself and the vagaries of government incentives will not corrupt this guy.

On the other hand, progressives ask me all the time, "how can you trust corporations so much" and then list off a justifiably long list of examples of them acting poorly.  This, I think, is where the real difference comes in, and where the confusion often comes int he public discourse.  I will answer that I don't trust anyone, government or corporations.  What I trust are the incentives and the accountability enforced in a market where a) consumers can take their money elsewhere if they get bad products or services; b) employees can take their labor elsewhere if they are treated poorly; and c) entrepreneurs can make a fortune identifying shortcomings in incumbent businesses and offering consumers and/or employees a better deal.

Unfortunately, when a person or organization finds itself very successful in this game, there is a natural tendency to want to protect their winning position.  But nothing in the market can stop a challenge from a better product or service, so successful entities tend to turn to the government (which has a monopoly on guns and prisons and asset seizures and the like) for protection against upstart challengers.  If successful, these restrictions tend to hobble growth and innovation -- imagine if IBM had successfully used government influence to halt the PC revolution or if AT&T had blocked the growth of cell phones.

This dynamic is at the heart of Brink Lindsey's new white paper at Cato (pdf).   As has been his wont in several past works, Lindsey is looking for proposals that bridge the gap between Left and Right.  So, rather than stake out the 98th salvo in an area where there seems to be a hopeless ideological divide (e.g. minimum wage or low-skill immigration), he focuses on four areas one could imagine building a broad coalition.  Lindsey focuses on attempts by successful incumbents to use government to cement their position and calls them "regressive regulation" because they tend to benefit the already-successful at the expense of everyone else.

In the following sections, I examine four major examples of regressive regulation: (a) excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law; (b) protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; (c) restrictions on high-skilled immigration; and (d) artificial scarcity created by land-use regulation. In all four examples, current government policy works to create explicit barriers to entry. In the first two cases, the restriction is on entry into a product market: businesses are not allowed to sell products that are deemed to infringe on a copyright or patent, and individuals are not allowed to sell their services without a license. In the other two cases, actual physical entry into a geographic area is being limited: on the one hand, immigration into the country; on the other, the development and purchase or rental of real estate.

One can immediately see how this might appeal across ideologies.  Libertarians and market Conservatives will like the reduction in regulation and government scope.  Progressives should like the elimination of government actions that primarily help the wealthy and powerful.**

I said "cross ideologies" above rather than bi-partisan because things get messy when actual politics intrude.  All of these protected constituencies wield a lot of political influence across both parties -- that is why the regressive regulation exists in the first place.  And they all have finally honed stories about how these restrictions that prevent new competition and business models are really there to protect the little people (just watch the battles between Uber and the taxi cartels and you will see what I mean).

Never-the-less, this strikes me as a pretty good list.  For whatever barriers there may be, it is a hell of a lot easier to picture a bipartisan agreement on any of these issues than on, say, low-skill immigration.  I haven't finished reading to the end -- I have to get on now with my day job -- so I have yet to see if there are any concrete proposals that look promising.

 

**The ideological problem here, of course, is that libertarians think that these restrictions are the primary way in which the wealthy unfairly benefit while most Progressives would (I suppose) see it as a side issue given that they believe that even the free-est of market capitalism is inherently unfair.

Root Cause Failure Analysis Fail

I just finished setting up 10 laptops for new managers.  I hate this process, but it is much faster now since I figured out how to get one exactly right and then clone a disk image onto a usb hard drive.  I can then boot the new computer with a recovery disk and apply the disk image.

Anyway, there was something wrong with two of the installations.  Symantec had server issues all this week and two of the PC's simply would not sync with their servers, probably because I set them up at the heights of their issues.  So I had to pull them out, and do the uninstall-reinstall thing on the virus software.

But the very first laptop did not work -- it was coming on but its screen was blank.  I pulled another out of the box.  Same problem.  And again.

Panicking I changed the power supply, checked the power outlets, and everything else I could think of.  I finally called Dell in a rage.

Before they could really even pick up the phone, I happened to tilt the computer.  The screen came on.  I lifted it up in the air.  Worked fine.

I finally figured out that I was sitting the laptop on top another closed laptop (of the same model) I had been working on.  The bottom laptop was powered down, but it turned out that something was causing the laptop on top of it to have its screen not work.  I can only guess it was some magnetic thing from the battery charging apparatus, since that was the only thing that was likely energized in the other laptop.

Anyway, problem solved but I never would have guessed that stacking laptops would make them not work.

Geeky Reflections -- Simulated Annealing

When I was an undergrad, my interest was in interfacing microcomputers with mechanical devices.  Most of what we did would be labelled "robotics" today, or at least proto-robotics (e.g. ripping the ultrasonic rangefinder out of a Polaroid camera, putting it on a stepper motor, and trying to paint a radar image of the room on a computer screen).

In doing this, we were playing around with S-100 bus computers (PC's were a bit in the future at that point) and I got interested in brute force approaches to solving the traveling salesman problem.  The way this is done is to establish some random points in x,y space and then connect them with a random path and measure the length of that path.  The initial random path is obviously going to be a terrible solution.  So you have the computer randomly flip flop two segments, and then you see if the resulting total distance is reduced.  If it is, then you keep the change and try another.

This will lead to a much shorter path, but often will not lead to the optimally shortest path.  The reason is that the result can get stuck in a local minimum that is not the optimum.  Essentially, to break out of this, you have to allow the solution to get worse first before it can get better.

The approach I was playing with was called simulated annealing.  Everything I said above is the same in this approach, but sometimes you let the program accept flip-flopped segments that yield a worse (ie longer) rather than better path.  The allowed amount worse is governed by a "temperature" that is slowly lowered.  Initially, at high temperatures, the solution can jump into most any solution, better or worse.  But as the "temperature" is lowered, the allowed amount of jumping into worse solutions is reduced.  Essentially, the system is much, much more likely than the previous approach to settle closer to the actual optimum.  This is roughly an analog of how annealing works in metals.  The code is ridiculously simple.   I don't remember it being much more than 100 lines in Pascal.

Anyway, if you lived through the above without falling asleep, the payoff is this site.  After 30 years of pretty much never thinking about simulated annealing again, I found Todd Schneider's blog which has a great visual overview of solving the travelling salesman problem with simulated annealing.  If you really want to visually see it work, go to the customizable examples at the bottom and set the iterations per map draw for about 100.  Then watch.  It really does look a bit like a large excited molecule slowly cooling.  Here is an example below but check out his site.

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App Addictions of the Day

My kids are working to waste large swathes of my time by introducing me to addictive games

2048, via my daughter

QuizUp, via my son

Those are the quickies.  For more serious gaming on the iPad, I have been playing a bunch of euro-style board game ports, including Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola, Eclipse, Dominant Species, Small World, Ticket to Ride.    All recommended.  I have heard rumors of iOS apps for Dominion and 7 Wonders, two of my current favorite board games, but I have seen anything appear.  Board Game Geek has an iOS blog (beware, the format is uglier than a geocities page).  I downloaded Pandemic but have not played it.  There are also ports of Carcasonne and Settlers of Catan but neither of those are my favorites.

I have also enjoyed the port of Baldur's Gate II to the iPad.  This is still, perhaps with Neverwinter Nights 2, the best AD&D rules RPG for the computer.  The only problem with Baldurs Gate is the graphics on the PC are dated, but they work fine on the iPad.  I downloaded a Master of Orion port the other day but have not tried it yet.

But for REAL time wasting, I look forward to this fall when there is apparently a new version of Civilization / Alpha Centauri coming out.  Trying to have my desk cleared before then.

Windows 8 Even Worse Than I Thought

Up to this point, after some initial bad impressions trying Windows 8 briefly, I have avoided it like the plague.  However, my son needed a new laptop and the only ones that really met our requirements only came in Windows 8 flavors, so we bought one.

What an awful mess.  The system boots up into a tiled mess that looks like some cheesy website covered in moving gifs and viagra ads.  To make matters worse, nothing on this tablet-based interface is organized at all logically.  The interface is like the room of an ADD child that dropped all of his toys and books in random spots.  I am sure these tiles have some sort of navigation paradigm, but it is completely different from any used in past windows versions.  I could not, for example, figure out how to easily exit the store except to alt-tab out (there is no exit or quit option and right-click context menus which are one of the great advantages of windows over mac don't seem to work a lot of the time).  Again, I am sure there is some way to do it, but I have no idea what it is and no desire to learn new navigation commands.  Perhaps Microsoft intends that one use a gamepad instead of a mouse -- I would not be surprised at this point.

Unlike older versions of windows, windows update did not run automatically at first bootup.  I knew from past experience there were likely dozens of security patches I needed to install right away.  I hunted for quite a while just to find the windows control panel (so I could run windows update).  It was buried in a sub-menu of a toolbar on the right side of the screen that only pops up if you find a tiny (unmarked) spot in the corner of the screen with your mouse.   It amazes me that anyone thought replacing the start button with an unmarked spot on the screen was a good idea.

Of course, the control panel is called something entirely different now, but I did eventually find windows update and there were, as expected, over 70 security patches that needed to be installed.  But for some reason they would not download immediately, but kept giving me a message that they would be downloaded at some future indeterminate date.  I finally found a way to force them to download.

My next step was to get rid of the stupid application tile interface and get the computer to boot directly to desktop and get the old start button back.  This requires a free upgrade to windows 8.1, but there is no obvious way to do this, even through windows update.  I finally had to search the internet to find the link.  This sent me into the windows 8 app store.  What a total mess that is!  If anything, it is more poorly organized than the Apple app store.  Like the Apple store, it seems aimed at people who want to browse applications virtually at random rather than find something specific.  Incredibly, there is no search function.  Yes, I know, I have to be wrong about that, but I scrolled all over that damn storefront and cannot find a search box.

So I cannot actually find the Windows 8.1 upgrade.  The web site tells me that I should be presented with a prominent option to download it in the store, but I am not.  It is nowhere to be found.  I found an FAQ somewhere that suggested that I would not be offered the 8.1 upgrade if my 8.0 installation is missing certain patches, so I am going back to windows update to see if there is something I am still missing.

I was wrong about windows 8 -- I once wrote it was bad but perhaps not as bad as Vista or ME.  But it is.  This is the worst thing I have ever seen come out of Microsoft.  It is inexplicable that this company with such a strong market share in the business world could saddle its flagship OS with an interface more appropriate to an XBOX.

In the past, I have said that I would not want a desktop with a tablet interface.  But at the end of the day, I would not want a tablet with this interface.  Perhaps with hours of work, I will make this computer usable.  Who would have ever thought I would have longed for the day when I had to spend an hour with a new computer removing bloatware.  Now I have to spend a day trying to emulate the windows 7 experience on windows 8.

People have developed many hypotheses for the lingering recession.  Some say it was too small a stimulus.  Some blame the sequester.  I blame the Windows 8 launch, which I think has a lot to do with suppressing PC sales and thus much of the electronics and retailing sector.

On Language Courses

Last time we were in Italy, my wife and I vowed that we would try to learn some Italian before we return (she has some high school French and I have a fair amount of Spanish).   Well, we never did much about it.  I will confess that despite being often skeptical of the paradox of choice, it may actually explain my lack of action.  I could not make up my mind between the various courses.

Then along came my son, who has decided with his roommate that they want to do a semester abroad in Italy next year.  I am not sure why he chose Italy -- I can only assume it had something to do with my euphoric descriptions of finding myself in Milan on Vogue fashion night and being surrounded by Italian models.  You know that language course ad with the guy picking up the Italian course so he can have his one chance at the Italian supermodel?  It's a funny ad, but I fear it may actually hit kind of close to home in my household.

Anyway, my son pushed me over the top to buy a course.  The conflicting online reviews can leave your head spinning, but the general conclusions I came to were:

  • Rosetta Stone is all marketing, but not the best course
  • Pimsleur got the most positive ratings.

So I went with the Pimsleur course.  It is PC-based, which fits how my family works.  It allows four installations, so each family member got one.  And it allows its lessons to be downloaded to mp3 files so you can listen in the car or on your iPod (though you lose out on the other parts of the lesson which are non-audio).

So far, 20 days into the thing, I have been happy.  I have never thought of myself as good at languages but I have decided to trust the process.  So far, I feel like I am learning and retaining a lot.  My son reports that he thinks it is better than Rosetta Stone, which his roommate is using.

The weird part for me, who learned Spanish from a grammar nazi, is to work with verbs without first learning all the conjugation rules.   In fact, the course seems to work this way -- you learn examples and phrases first, then over time go back and learn the grammar behind what you are doing.  It seems to work, for a few reasons.  One is that a lot of the verbs you need early on to say basic things (is, go, like) have non-standard conjugations anyway, so memorizing them is what you would have had to do with any approach.  A second reason is that it is a hell of a lot more fun to say useful things than to spend what I remember to be years farting around with conjugation and use rules for the subjunctive.  After all, I am not trying to write an academic paper in Italian, I am trying to enjoy my tourist experience.  The third reason this is working for me is that I do remember a lot of my old Spanish verb conjugations, and it turns out Italian conjugates (at least in the present tense) very similarly to Spanish.

Postscript:  To the early joke about learning Italian to meet women, I will say we were all laughing through about the first 7 lessons of Pimsleur.  If you had designed a course solely to pick up people of the opposite sex, I am not sure one bit of the first few lessons would have been different.  Seriously, we were repeating phases like "do you want to have a drink at your place or mine?"

What Microsoft Windows Has in Common with [Original Cast] Star Trek Movies

Skip every other release.

Here are the original cast Star Trek Movies:

VI:  OK, kind of

V: Bad

IV:  Goofy but enjoyable

III:  Truly terrible

II:  Awesome, to the point that the two Chris Pine et al reboot movies have drawn more heavily on the Wrath of Khan than the original show

I:  Flat, boring

 

Here are the recent Windows releases:

Windows 8:  Sucks

Windows 7:  Excellent

Windows Vista (6?):  God awful

Windows XP :  Very Good

Windows ME:  God awful

Windows 98/2000:  OK

Do you see the pattern?  Windows 7 redeemed the awful Vista in the same way XP redeemed the awful ME.  I can only hope the to-be-released-in-October Windows 8.1 fixes some of the awful mistakes in Windows 8, not the least was the grafting of a butt-ugly touchscreen tablet interface to a PC OS most of us use with mouse and keyboard.  Until then our company is still only buying Windows 7  computers.  Some of my employees buy their own computers -- I provide all the company's tech support and have told them they are on their own if they buy Windows 8 and then can't find the control panel.

Duh: By Abandoning the PC, Microsoft Windows 8 Fails to Save the PC

From today's WSJ

The personal computer is in crisis, and getting little help from Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 8 software once seen as a possible savior.

Research firm IDC issued an alarming report Wednesday for PC makers such as Dell Inc.  and Hewlett-Packard Co.,  saying world-wide shipments of laptops and desktops fell 14% in the first quarter from a year earlier. That is the sharpest drop since IDC began tracking this data in 1994 and marks the fourth straight quarter of declines.

Gartner Inc., a rival research firm, estimated global shipments sank 11.2%, which it called the worst drop since the first quarter of 2001. Gartner blamed the rise of tablets and smartphones, which are sapping demand for personal computers.

Windows 8 was never, ever going to save the PC, because Windows 8 represents an abandonment of the traditional PC.  It is essentially a touchscreen tablet OS forced onto the desktop.  Like Windows Vista, it is an absolutely awful OS that our company has banned any employee from using on a company machine.  Fortunately, we can still buy a few Dell computers with Windows 7, and when that is no longer possible, I will go back to building our company machines and putting Windows 7 on myself, the same thing I did to survive the Vista nightmare  (hanging on to XP until Windows 7 came out).

Later in the article, the author recognizes that Windows 8 is killing the PC rather than saving it

But there is little sign that buyers are responding. In a surprisingly harsh assessment, IDC said Windows 8 hasn't only failed to spur more PC demand but has actually exacerbated the slowdown—confusing consumers with features that don't excel in a tablet mode and compromise the traditional PC experience.

Mr. Chou said not only has Windows 8 failed to attract consumers, but businesses are keeping their distance as well. Chief information officers at several companies echoed his opinion Wednesday.

Ricoh Americas Corp., which replaces about a third of its 17,000 PCs every three years and upgrades to the most current operating system available, said this year it is sticking with Windows 7, released in 2009. Tracey Rothenberger, the company's chief operating officer, said the benefits of switching to the new software aren't worth the effort of training employees to use it.

I am sympathetic to Microsoft's goals, if not their tactics.  Certainly market share in OS is shifting to handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets, and Microsoft has largely missed this market.  To stay relevant, they need to gain share in these markets -- and trying to gain a foothold by somehow leveraging their market share in desktops makes sense.  It would be great to have an OS for tablets that allowed more access to the file system and customization options, as a competitor to Apple's walled garden, though Google is way ahead in that particular niche.

But the imposition of tablet aesthetics, user interface, and apps framework on desktop PC's is just frustrating as hell for those of us who still like using a mouse and prefer our traditional desktop interface.  The training issue for employees is not a trivial one -- when Microsoft completely abandoned the menu structure and user interface of their Office products several years ago, we decided not to upgrade any of our PC's and, when necessary, to use the OpenOffice alternative, as much because it retains the old Office interface as for its being free.

I still use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint 2002 on this computer, because I have never really been happy with the new Office interface.  I use no other software even remotely that old.  I routinely upgrade everything I have.  I dutifully upgrade Quickbooks and Norton Security and a dozen other programs every year.  So to go a decade without upgrading shows how little I think of Microsoft's upgrade strategies.

Using XBMC For A Home Movie System

Because this is a topic that will only be interesting to some, and because it has gotten so long that it fills most of the home page, I am putting the article on how I ripped my home movies and created a video streaming system around XBMC below the fold.  For those who are not sure if they want to bother clicking through, here are some teaser photos of the media center I ended up with:

By the way, I know that in 10 5 years, this will all likely be superseded by streaming accounts.  For the time being, I have fun with this.

Continue reading ‘Using XBMC For A Home Movie System’ »

Network Technology Bleg. Please Be Gentle

OK, this is an incredibly noob question and you will all lose respect for me.  But take this situation:

OK, I am streaming media from the server on the left to the PC on the left running XBMC at my TV.  The data rate is slower than I would have thought over all gigabit lines.  I know there are a jillion things that could be causing this, from software to drivers to, well, lots of stuff.  I have one narrow question.

And this is the embarassingly noob part.  I am presuming that all the data does not actually go through the router, that it can just go from server to switch to TV.  The router is actually on the other side of the house connected by a long line across the roof of questionable quality.  I know the router is involved - I picture small packets of data going to the switch with routing information.

So the question: is there any reason a bad cable from the router to the switch above -- one that still passes data but slower than gigabit speeds -- would slow down streaming from the server to the TV?

Update:  Thanks for the help in the comments.  I am increasingly suspicious I have a graphics driver problem that is causing stuttering on 1080p playback, and I will test that out this weekend.  Turns out there are a lot of XBMC users in the group.  I used to be  a SageTV guy, and I still think their HD hardware streamers were a great solution.  But after Google bought them a couple of years ago they went dark.  There is still an active community but I was ready to move on.  I have switched to XBMC and have been very happy (I never used the TV/recording functions in Sage so the fact XBMC does not have these was no problem, though the OpenElec variant does have them).    I hope to put a post up with my experiences and observations.  I have now done XBMC installations on Windows PCs, an Ubuntu box, using OpenElec (a linux variant), and on an old Apple TV2.  As it turns out I still have not found the perfect installation, but with the right box I may find it with Openelec.

Remote PC Access

I have been using Team Viewer for remote PC access this week and it is awesome - easily the fastest, least frustrating solution I have ever tried.

Love My New Computer Case

By an accident of both finances and previously hitting the technology sweet spot at just the right time, I have not built a computer in several years.  In anticipation of doing some upgrades on my home PC, I started by buying a new case.  Wow!  This is absolutely the best case I have ever had.  I am not sure this is so much the particular case I picked but the evolution of case design in the past few years.  Either way, its awesome.

Just the small step of turning hard drives 90 degrees so their wiring does not conflict with the graphic cards (and they are much easier to slide in and out without removing the expansion cards) makes a huge difference.   This is great, since I am constantly swapping drives in and out (for example I am trying to teach myself Linux/Ubuntu so I have added a dedicated drive and dual boot to the system for that purpose).  In addition, this case, as does many new cases, has a wiring management system the puts all the wiring in a back compartment accessible by a separate panel.  Look how neat everything is:

There is also a hole in the floor of the case, covered by the back door, that allows access to the back of the CPU.  This allows changing the CPU fan without taking out the motherboard, which I took advantage of after I somehow damaged the old CPU fan cleaning it in the case swap.  As you can see it has tons of space, including plenty of room for one of the mile-long graphics cards they are selling nowadays.  Other nice features are a hard drive hot dock and big huge quiet fans with a three-position fan speed control.  The only downside is that there are no front cutouts for 3-1/2 inch drives, but I don't have any so that was not a problem.

This case is expensive - $160 after rebate, but it's the first case I can say that this may be the last case I buy.  It's a Corsair Obsidian Series 650D and I highly recommend it.

Switched to XBMC

I have written before that I have a large movie collection ripped to a 16TB raid.  In the past I have used SageTV to stream, but Sage was bought out by Google almost a year ago and has gone totally dark since then.  So I switched to XBMC, which given I am not messing around with PC-based DVR, actually turns out to be a better solution from a software standpoint.  I will post on my progress next week. The problem is getting a low cost streaming box to run it, like Sage had with the HD200 and HD300.

Here is the hottest product in the geeky build-your-own end of home theater, the Raspberry Pi.   A tiny computer board that apparently will run XBMC (I presume the Linux version) and stream at a full 1080P and costs about $35.  Right now, XBMC users are using either dedicated PC's or hacked AppleTV boxes.  I have one of each on the work bench -- the dedicated PC is expensive and the AppleTV box based on the old ATV2 won't run 1080p.  The new ATV3 will run 1080p but no one has apparently rooted that yet, and besides it is still a lot more than $35.  So I am on the waiting list for my Pi.

Apple Newsstand is a Mess

I have written before that despite being a PC guy, the iPod 2 is probably the greatest piece of gear of I have ever owned.  I take it with me everywhere.

However, the newsstand is a half-baked mess, and is so bad I can't believe they saw fit to release it in this form.  The navigation is totally non-intuitive.  I am never clear if I am going to go to the store or my list of downloaded magazines when clicking on a link.  The library seems to forget that I own certain issues, and because of the choices Apple made, trying to Kluge the thing into its apps store interface, every magazine is really its own app and the Newstand is actually nothing much more than a folder holding all the apps.  This means that the interface changes radically from magazine to magazine.  In half the magazines, I still have not been able to figure out how to navigate from inside a single issue back to the overall issue list.  And don't look for an integrated issue list across all magazines - there is none.  You have to go into every single magazine app to see what issues are available in that particular product.

Worse, the subscription system does not seem to work for many of the magazines.  I have subscribed to magazines, but that fact  is not always obvious in the interface.  And in many cases, the magazines I get to download seem to have little relationship to whether I subscribed.  For example, I subscribed to PC Gamer but am not offered any of the newest issues to download -- they show up as requiring a full price purchase.

There are other bizarre touches as well.  The newstand has a little red "2" icon in the corner, which in the apps store means there are two apps that have updates.   But I can't figure which of my magazines needs updating -- there is no icon on the individual magazines hinting they need updating somehow, and there is no "update all" button or even a button to see a list of updates available as there is in the app store.  Yes, I know the new issues are theoretically supposed to download automatically.  The NYT does.  A number of magazines don't, and I have had to go into the store and click on them to get them to download.

Finally, looking at my iphone, which should have a mirror of all the magazines I have bought on the ipad (same apple account), only about half the magazines show up.

This is just a big, big disappointing mess, all the more so because the iPad feels like the perfect device to read magazines.  I can only guess this was all driven by a desire to reuse the existing apps micro-payments infrastructure, but the result is very un-Apple.  The only reason one tolerates Apple's closed ecosystem and resulting loss of options and flexibility is because it yields predictability, particularly in the interface.  Apple has thrown that all away with Newsstand and I can't believe their user community is going to tolerate it.

Update:  I just googled the Newsstand and I get pages and pages of positive reviews.  This absolutely has to be Apple fan-boy crap.  Really, the Newsstand interface is really awful.

Update#2:  The NYTimes apps seems to work beautifully, but most of the magazines have weird interfaces.  Again, Apple does not seem to have imposed a single interface structure on magazine app developers, so they all have their own.

Example of Why Climate Science is Becoming a Laughingstock

From the Thin Green Line, a reliable source for any absurd science that supports environmental alarmism:

Sending and receiving email makes up a full percent of a relatively green person's annual carbon emissions, the equivalent of driving 200 miles.
Dealing with spam, however, accounts for more than a fifth of the average account holder's electricity use. Spam makes up a shocking 80 percent of all emails sent, but most people get rid of them as fast as you can say "delete."
So how does email stack up to snail mail? The per-message carbon cost of email is just 1/60th of the old-fashioned letter's. But think about it "” you probably send at least 60 times as many emails a year than you ever did letters.

One way to go greener then is to avoid sending a bunch of short emails and instead build a longer message before you send it.

This is simply hilarious, and reminds me of the things the engineers would fool the pointy-haired boss with in Dilbert.  Here was my response:

This is exactly the kind of garbage analysis that is making the environmental movement a laughing stock.

In computing the carbon footprint of email, the vast majority of the energy in the study was taking the amount of energy used by a PC during email use (ie checking, deleting, sending, organizing) and dividing it by the number of emails sent or processed. The number of emails is virtually irrelevant -- it is the time spent on the computer that matters. So futzing around trying to craft one longer email from many shorter emails does nothing, and probably consumers more energy if it takes longer to write than the five short emails.

This is exactly the kind of peril that results from a) reacting to the press release of a study without understanding its methodology (or the underlying science) and b) focusing improvement efforts on the wrong metrics.

The way to save power is to use your computer less, and to shut it down when not in use rather than leaving it on standby.

If one wants to argue that the energy is from actually firing the bits over the web, this is absurd. Even if this had a measurable energy impact, given the very few bytes in an email, reducing your web surfing by one page a day would keep more bytes from moving than completely giving up email.

By the way, the suggestion for an email charge in the linked article is one I have made for years, though the amount is too high. A charge of even 1/100 cent per email would cost each of us about a penny per day but would cost a 10 million mail spammer $1000, probably higher than his or her expected yield from the spam.

Layout Progress -- Staring at Grain Elevators

I had wanted to make more progress this weekend, but we had an astoundingly rare tragedy at one of our campgrounds (family got hit by lightening) so handling that had to take priority. But before that came awful bit of news, I did make some layout progress. Mostly I was tearing my hair out trying to weather a grain elevator, which turn out to be a pain to duplicate, unless one wants to paint it brand new and all white and that is never the look I go for.   They tend to be chipped, with horizontal weathered streaks as well as vertical staining. This is where I am so far. It looks better in person, but for just that reason photos are a great way to exaggerate modeling problems. In this case, I have too much of a cross-hatched effect on the tower and need to work on that.  Push comes to shove I will repaint the tower white and start over.

On the positive side, I finished my first pair of handbuilt switches using N-scale schedule 40 rail.  This was a ton of work for something they sell in the store, but the results are worth it, I think.  The switches are #8, built from Fast Track jigs, soldering the rail to PC board ties every 3-5 ties and using stained wood ties glued to the rail with Pliobond for the rest.  Rail is painted Floquil rail brown with hand-painted rust streaks.

Layout Progress: Base & Initial Trackwork

This is part of a recurring series on the evolution of my n-scale switching layout.  More after the break...

Continue reading ‘Layout Progress: Base & Initial Trackwork’ »

Movie Editing Software Recommendation

For years I have used Adobe Premier Elements v. 3.0 to edit my videos because it worked OK and probably more importantly came in a package with Adobe Photoshop Elements (which is a very good tool, except for the organizer which I don't like).  But I have a PC with a 64-bit operating system and a quad core CPU for which this older software is not optimized -- the old 3.0 was running painfully slowly even on my new computer.   So I downloaded a trial edition of Premier Elements 7 and was horrified at how buggy and unstable it was, without adding any real functionality that I wanted over the old 3.0 edition.  So I then downloaded the brand new v 8.0 and found it if anything even worse.  In retrospect, I could have seen this in the reviews for both products on Amazon.

I have a general rule of thumb that one bad version generation happens, but two in a row means it is time for a change  (the exception to this being Quickbooks, which has had about 4 versions in a row where each is worse than the last, but there is really not a good alternative for me right now).

For video editing, I eventually landed on the oddly named Sony Vegas Movie Studio, v9.0.  I am extremely happy.  It works a lot like Elements used to but is rock solid stable.  I have been working with a 90-minute HD video for 2 days straight without a reboot and it has had no problems and is fast and has all the functionality I could want.  Not for casual applications probably, but I really like it.  I don't usually write posts like this, but this piece of software almost never makes it into the magazine reviews or comparisons at sites like PC Magazine or CNET.  Not sure why, but its an excellent program.  Thanks to the Amazon community, whose reviews again helped me make a good decision.

Postscript: I have never been wildly impressed with Adobe programming and their most recent iteration of Photoshop Elements really worries me as the organizer seems to be badly bugged.  Their programs have always been pigs -- the only way they could get a tolerable load time for Elements was to break the program into four parts and start up with a menu that lets one choose one part or the other.   I know they did this to fight the classic Adobe load time problem (used to have it in spades with Acrobat reader) but I think they have broken something in the process.    You know Adobe programs are a pig when I get impatient for them to load from the new Intel SSD, which generally serves up programs lightening fast.

Is Compulsion OK if We Mean Well?

Kevin Drum thinks John Shaddeg (who is actually my representative) is crazy because he equates the current health care proposals, which Drum says are just to make sure that everyone has decent health care, to "Soviet gulag health care."  Further, Drum concludes that Democrats in Congress are sane and would never ever engage in such over-the-top loony rhetoric as Mr. Shaddeg

But it's a good example of what I mean when I suggest that today's right-wing lunacy is different from left-wing lunacy of the Bush years.  Sure, there were lefty bloggers who went over the top about Amerika and how the NSA was bringing 1984 to life and so forth, but for the most part you didn't have members of Congress taking to the House floor and joining in.  They largely managed to keep a slightly more even keel.

Wow, that will be blood in the water for Conservative bloggers - I can think of a number of Democratic loonies in Congress but I don't want to do the Republican's job for them.  Instead I wrote:

I have no doubt that you have the best of intentions, and that you only want healthy people and two unicorns in every garage. But you are, no matter how well intentioned, achieving your ends through compulsion. You compel person A to pay for person B's health care. You compel doctors and medical suppliers to provide services at costs or at quality levels they would not have provided otherwise. You compel everyone to get insurance -- and not just insurance, but exactly the insurance with the coverage you want, not what they want.

To folks who cherish individual liberties (and who don't look to the Republican party for much leadership on this or any topic) it is all soviet-style compulsion, no matter how pure your motives.

PS- as a libertarian without a horse in the wars between the Coke and Pepsi party, I find this kind of post hilarious. Team Elephant thinks you guys are insane and they are normal, and you think the opposite. You think that calling their president Hitler is fine while they are wrong to do it to yours, and vice-versa. I will give you a big hint. You guys all sound exactly the same. You all use the same tactics. You both have thoughtful members and loonies, both on the sidelines and in positions of power. You both have honest people and corrupt ones. It's like watching Apple vs. PC ads, except those two actually have some differences.

Update:  This from a later Drum piece is exactly what I was referring to.  I am positive the Republicans think the exact same way about Democrats, in fact I hear them all the time saying "We need to get down and dirty like the Democrats and stop being the ones always following the rules."  Apparently Democrats think the same way:

Is it really true that the Democratic leadership acts like a high school social club while the Republican leadership acts more like the mafia?  Step out of line in GOP-land and they'll make you pay dearly: money, committee assignments, and more will be savagely withdrawn if you vote the wrong way.

Self-awareness seems to be in short supply in Washington.

Ezra Klein, There Is A Reason You Can't Get An Answer to Your Question

Ezra Klein writes:

For a long time, I took questions about stifling innovation very seriously. So did a lot of liberals. But then I realized that the people making those arguments wanted to do things like means-test Medicare, or increase cost-sharing across the system, and generally reduce costs in this or that way, which would cut innovation in exactly the same way that single-payer would hypothetically cut innovation: by reducing profits.

I also found that I couldn't get an answer to a very simple question: What level of spending on health care was optimal for innovation? Should we double spending? Triple it? Cut it by 10 percent? Simply give a larger portion of it to drug and device manufacturers? I'd be interested in a proposal meant to maximize medical innovation. I've not yet seen one.

The reason he could not get an answer to this very simple question is that it is stupid.  It is a non-sequitur.  It is, as Ayn Rand used to warn, a statist trying to force the argument to conform to his statist assumptions.

Let's take a different example, because medicine is so screwed up by government intervention that it can be confusing.  Let's imagine ourselves in the computer market in 1974.  The market is dominated by IBM mainframes, and innovation at the time was considered to be the penetration of mini computers (not to be confused with PCs, these were really just smaller mainframes) by DEC and HP.

Let's say that for some reason the US government decides it is fed up with the IBM "monopoly" and the high cost of mainframe computing and it wants to take over.  It feels like there is a lot of waste in mainframes as some people are using them for frivolous reasons while other companies who really need them can't afford them.  They might have created review boards to make sure that they thought each dollar spent on computing hardware and software was "worth it."

So, how much spending is needed to maintain innovation?  We know in hindsight that the PC revolution is looming in the next few years.  And in that context, Klein's question is absurd.  The answer is that spending per se, and even profits, in the mainframe computing market were irrelevant to the coming series of innovations.    The necessary preconditions were that entrepreneurs saw that new technology provided potential new value to consumers, and were allowed the freedom to launch these new products in hopes that the value these new products provided would be sufficiently high that consumers would pay enough for them to return their cost of manufacture and development and return them a profit.  Some succeeded, and some failed, but entrepreneurs were allowed to try, despite most "experts" predicting the PC was a silly toy.

Note that computer innovators were not required to trundle into some government computing board to justify the PC and its price, to justify how much, as Klein would say, needed to be spent on PC's.   If in fact they were forced to do so, if Jobs and Wozniak had to fly to Washington to justify the Apple I to the Computing Spending Decisions Board, they would have almost certainly been shot down.  Or told they could sell it but only for $200 and not their initial price of $2000.  We would have never had a PC revolution in a government single payer computing world, no matter how much, as Klein asks, was "spent" by the government.   It is possible that the government might eventually have greenlighted a PC (years later) just as the increasingly bureaucratic IBM did, but can you imagine how frail the PC revolution would would be if only IBM had ever sold PCs, without the slew of competitors that emerged, and if every innovation had to pass the scrutiny of a government review board before it could be launched?   Only a tiny percentage of PC innovation and of what we think of as a PC today, mostly in the basic architecture, ever came from IBM.

The very problem is that when government runs computers or health care, innovation is seen as a cost.  Klein, by asking the question in this way, is betraying exactly what is fundamentally wrong with a single-payer system.  The single-payer tends to think in terms of trying to deliver the current value proposition (ie the 2009 level of health care technology) as cheaply as possible.  The problem is that in 2039, it will still be focused on delivering the 2009 level of health care technology.  For the government -- a new drug, a new procedure, a new test -- these are all incremental costs, to be avoided.  Klein just wants a number he can plug into budget projections to say, "see, innovation is covered."  Its like Wesley Mouch asking John Galt near the end of Atlas Shrugged to tell him what orders to give.

I wrote about it just the other day.  You can see it in everything the Left writes -- increased spending is equated with increased costs which are therefore bad.  They all say that America's health care spending is rising and our per capita spending is higher than other nations and that this rising spending is somehow a problem to be fixed.  But there is a value side of the equation.  What are we getting from the spending?  When you leave out things the health care system can't do anything about (homicides and fatal accidents) Americans have the longest life expectancy in the world.  We are getting something for that extra money.  It is not just "cost" to be contained.  Is a year of life worth an extra $100,000 spending?  Everyone has a different answer, which is why we typically let each individual make these tradeoffs, and why people are uncomfortable having someone in the Post Office make the tradeoff for them.

But, the left will say, we will put really smart people on this board, who are angels of public service, who will make perfect decisions on the price-value tradeoffs of innovation (have you noticed that all their programs seem dependent on this assumption?)  Back to our computer example, these guys, they would argue, would have been smart enough to have given Jobs and Wozniak the green light.  This is a fantasy.  It never happens.  No matter how good the people, every such government entity is driven by its incentives, and this group's incentives will be to cut spending.  Innovations that result in a net total increase in spending are not going to be well-received.

Further, these boards get politicized, always.  Companies will quickly learn they have a better chance, say, of getting a new breast cancer treatment rather than a new prostrate cancer treatment past the board because the current administration is closely tied to women's groups.  Just look at current government R&D spending, this already happens.  AIDS was under-funded given its mortality because Conservative administrations thought it a disease mainly of groups it found distasteful; today, women's cancers get far more funding than men's due to the strong political activism of women's groups and the success of the pink ribbon campaign.  Drug companies will learn that the quickest way to board approval may not be winning over the board, but getting certain interest groups to lobby the board, or maybe lobby Congress to override the board.  Just look at the promise not to politicize ownership of GM -- that lasted about 2 days before Congress was passing legislation reversing internal GM decisions and GM was making plant closures based on political rather than economic concerns.

But even beyond these problems, there are Hayekian ones as well.  In the mid-seventies, there might have been only a few thousand people who were excited enough to buy an early microcomputer and see its potential.  What are the odds that one of those folks would be on the government review board, particularly since few of them were in the mainstream establishment of the computing field (heck, few of them were over 19 years old).  And even if one were on the board, would they have approved a technology with only a few initial adherents?  The fact is innovation often requires adoption of bleeding edge risk-takers who are willing to try a new technology and iron out its kinks before the mainstream catches on.   The iPod was not the first music player -- a few of us struggled for years before the iPod with large and sometimes hard to use early mp3 players  -- but if these early MP3 players had not existed, the iPod would not exist.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone makes different tradeoffs.  It may make perfect sense for some person in Washington that a biopsy is not required for certain kind of positive cancer test results.  This may make perfect price-value sense to the beauracrat, but I know a number of people who would lose months or years of their life to worry -- worry that could be short-circuited with an inexpensive biopsy.   Or consider a new cancer treatment -- is a year of life worth an extra $100,000 spending?  Would I prefer to extend my life through chemo or increase the quality of life of the time I have left by avoiding chemo?   Everyone has a different answer, which is why we typically let each individual make these tradeoffs, and why people are uncomfortable having someone in the Post Office make the decision for them.

One could say that all of this does not answer Klein's question.  That is because his question, built on the wrong premise, is unanswerable.  I suspect he knows this and is, as Brad Warbiany posited in the link above, just setting up a straw man.  All I can do is try to give a feel what what innovation does require, and help folks to understand that it has little if anything to do with Klein's question.

So, if I had to come up with a pithy one sentence answer, here it would be:

Klein:  What level of spending on health care is optimal for innovation?

Me:  The very fact that you intend to control spending centrally, at any level high or low, is what kills innovation.

Postscript: For a totally different reason, I was reading this article on the Russian T-34 tank, probably the best all-around tank for its time ever made when considering its production volume (the Panther was theoretically a better tank but volume production of the scale of the T-34, not to mention mechanical reliability, eluded the Germans).  Apropos of government boards and innovation was this:

The L-11 gun did not live up to expectations, so the Grabin design bureau at Gorky Factory No. 92 designed a superior F-34 76.2 mm gun. No bureaucrat would approve production, but Gorky and KhPZ started producing the gun anyway; official permission only came from Stalin's State Defense Committee after troops in the field sent back praise for the gun's performance.

Pretty Awsome

A 128GB flash drive.

I remember my first mass storage device - a 10MB PC add-in card.  My first thought -- I will never be able to fill that up!  Last month I finished my do-it-yourself  $1000** version of a $60,000 Kaleidescape video server (article to follow on how I did it).    My system has a 6TB capacity Raid 5 drive using 8 one TB drives (if that does not add up, it is because one of the drives is configured as a hot spare).  And the freaking thing is over 70% full already.

** This is, of course, if you treat my time as worth zero, especially for the process of ripping 400+ DVDs.

The Victim Sweepstakes

I probably shouldn't, but I must admit that I am being hugely entertained by the calculus of guilt and victimization in the Democratic Party as supporters of the white woman and the black guy vie to claim the title of being the most put down by "the man."  I can just see the voter in Berkeley yesterday nearly imploding with stress as she tried to figure out whether it was less PC to vote against a black or a woman.  Anyway, MaxedOutMamma is also having fun with the whole thing, and is surprised to find out that "If Hillary doesn't win
tonight it will obviously be proof that the old WASP boys club [of Georgia!] has
conquered using a black guy with the middle name of Hussein."  Yes sir, I remember that time when Georgia went so far as to secede from the union to keep women in bondage....

Save XP!

InfoWorld is hosting a petition to Microsoft to save XP and continue to sell it past the middle of this year.  You can sign their petition here.  I signed the petition, but the real petition for MS may be the numbers coming in for XP sales, which are still strong.  On this Amazon bestsellers page, as of 2/1/08, places #1,2,3,5 where XP and only #4 was Vista. IT News builds on my Amazon analysis:

Gates, in
Las Vegas Sunday, boasted that Microsoft has sold more than 100 million
copies of Windows Vista since the OS launched last January.

While
the number at first sounds impressive, it in fact indicates that the
company's once dominant grip on the OS market is loosening. Based on
Gates' statement, Windows Vista was aboard just 39% of the PC's that
shipped in 2007.

And Vista, in terms of units shipped, only
marginally outperformed first year sales of Windows XP according to
Gates' numbers -- despite the fact that the PC market has almost
doubled in size since XP launched in the post 9-11 gloom of late 2001.

Speaking
five years ago at CES 2003, Gates said that Windows XP in its first
full year on the market sold more than 89 million copies, according to a Microsoft record of the event....

A survey published by InformationWeek last year revealed that 30% of corporate desktop managers have no plans to upgrade their company's PC's to Vista -- ever.

As de facto IT manager for my company, you can include me in that 30%.  My other posts on Vista here.

Update:  Face-saving suggestion for Microsoft:  Rename XP as Vista Lite or some such.  Then they can keep it and claim 100% acceptance of Vista.

Long Time in Coming

Just about everything in the PC architecture has been upgraded -- much better microprocessors, more elaborate OS's, more memory, a much higher bandwidth bus architecture, etc.  However, one bit of 1980's era design still sits at the heart of the computer - the BIOS.  Sure, manufacturers have agreed to some extensions (particularly plug and play) and motherboard makers add in extensions of their own (e.g. for overclocking) but the basic BIOS architecture and functionality, which sits underneath the OS and gets things started when you flip the "on" switch, is basically unchanged. 

A few years ago, Intel proposed a replacement, but ironically only Apple has picked up on the BIOS replacement called EFI.  Now, it appears, at least one leading motherboard manufacturer for PC's is putting a toe in the water:

The specification allows for a considerable change in what can be implemented
at this very low level.

EFI is a specification that defines a software interface between an operating
system and platform firmware. EFI is intended as a significantly improved
replacement of the old legacy BIOS firmware interface used by modern PCs....

Graphical menus, standard mouse point-and-click operations,
pre-operating-system application support such as web browsers, mail applications
and media players, will all feature heavily within EFI.

OK, I know I am Getting Old

From the PC Magazine Blog:

The venerable BlackBerry manufacturer launches a native Facebook client
that makes staying in touch with your Facebook friends a cinch.

Venerable?  BlackBerry?  ROFLMAO, as they say.