Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Playing AVCHD on Ubuntu Linux

Have I finally managed it? Can I finally watch my Sony HD camcorder recordings on my Ubuntu home computer?? Still need to try this on my main system (which is faster) but I can finally play them without crashing! Here's how I did it:

  1. Tested on an Athlon X2 dual-1.9Ghz machine running Ubuntu 8.10
  2. I uninstalled all existing 'vlc' components (which were v0.9.4) through Synaptic
  3. I also had to delete the ~/.config/VLC configuration files
  4. Per the instructions on the site I added their "Intrepid/Nightly" repository to Synaptic,
  5. I installed the latest version, v1.0.0~git20081127-4 (according to Synaptic)
  6. I then disabled the Videolan repository since this copy seems to be working!
  7. Finally, I disabled the FFmpeg "h.264 Loop Filter" in VLC
    (which improves playback speed but at the cost of some picture quality)
My Sony's AVCHD clips are 1440x1080i and this computer (using one 1.9 GHz cpu-core at 100%) can't quite play it back without dropping frames. BUT it doesn't crash anymore, which every other video player (including previous versions of VLC) would do! So now I'm hopeful that my other system will be fast enough...

P.S. I'm being very specific about uninstalling all the original 0.9.4 modules, as well as deleting the hidden config folder, because both of those elements caused errors otherwise!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Excellent economics essays

Nothing personal to contribute today, just wanted to add to the Google scores of the following essays which I think do an excellent job of explaining our country's current (and increasing) economic problems:

Common economic mis-beliefs
from Rich Toscano's blog, "Nerd's Eye View", on Voice Of San Diego.

Human nature and the inevitability of financial bubbles
from disgraced (but still so suave and well-spoken!...) tech-stock analyst, Henry Blodgett

'Gaming' in prices (aka bubbles) for any variable-return investment
from the same Dec '08 issue of The Atlantic

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Installing Canon MP620 on Ubuntu

There's been a lot of pain making my new Canon printer work with Linux. Here's the simplified procedure I finally developed. This is only to make it print! I'm not trying to use the scanner yet.

(These instructions and files were culled from the posts and files at )


1. download the two updated DEBs and one PPD (see below for locations),
- cnijfilter-common_2.80-1_i386.deb
- cnijfilter-mp610series_2.80-1_i386.deb
- canonmp610en.ppd

2. install 'libcupsys2' through Synaptic (needed for Canon DEBs)

3. install the Canon drivers,
> sudo dpkg -i cnijfilter-common_2.80-1_i386.deb
> sudo dpkg -i cnijfilter-mp610series_2.80-1_i386.deb

4. install the printer using the newer PPD, canonmp610en.ppd

5. In the printer Properties > Print Options, set Paper Feed = Cassette


- I got the DEBs from the Canon Asia web-site,
- I selected Multifunction > Pixma > MP610 > Drivers and then downloaded these 2 packages,
- "Common (Debian)"
- "IJ Printer Driver (Debian)"

- The PPD came from this same blog's SF project,
- Finally, I downloaded 'ppdMP610en-1.3.tar.gz' (English) and unpacked it

UPDATE (11/3/09)
I've added a new post re new driver versions and Ubuntu 9.10 support,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I learned a new French word today (I think...)

I knew there was some kind of foreign-ey expression using "ne" (sic) that related to the change in a woman's maiden name vs married name. And I had occasion today to write an email about renaming my co-worker's network accounts, so I tried to use it. But I wasn't sure if I'd written the expression correctly (I hadn't). It literally took me FOREVER to figure-out a useful search in Google, mostly because I was searching for the wrong word -- it's really spelled "nee" (not "ne").

I had originally written "Please rename accounts for Mary Uglyname ne Smith" (the names have been changed to protect the innocent). But now I've learned that "nee" means "born" in French and so I should have written "Mary Smith nee Uglyname."

P.S. Another quick lesson? Inserting (sic) is supposed to mean, "Yes, I know that preceding word is misspelled!" Or, at least I think that's what it means...

P.P.S. I threw that misused "literally" in there just to mess with my wife :-)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Follow-up re credit default swaps (CDSes)

My favorite economics and business show, Marketplace on NPR, has a great blog video on the continuing financial crisis,

They don't say anything about any criminal behavior but I'm sure that's to-follow. Instead, they seem to be saying that the issue is the lack of reporting requirements, i.e., companies can essentially be gambling enormous sums of money but not need to tell investors that they're doing it. Obviously, a company that reports 'good' earnings but also has to admit that they're doing a lot of CDS 'gambling' won't be viewed as favorably by the market.

Ultimately, I still stand by my earlier post (April 2008) about "The Credit Default Swap scam" -- there's got to be a lot of fraud taking place, same as in other aspects of high finance!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Follow-up re switches at my old job

In my previous post re LAN traffic at the University of Venice, I just realized a mistake I'd made. (Funny how time plays with your memory.) The entire university was NOT one giant collision domain! When I first started working there the university was spread-out in temporary offices all around the city; a new campus was under construction. So, many of the departments were linked by routers and ISDN lines. The problematic LAN was limited to the departments/buildings that were directly linked to the main computer center. Still, this was enough users that those departments' Novell servers showed enormous statistics for lost packets.

And, of course, my primary point still remains -- that switches rendered moot the old argument about NIC design.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The forgotten historical effect of switches

I had a funny little chain of thoughts the other day. I was thinking about how my office's Ghost software (which we use to do disk imaging across the network) uses an old-style packet driver for the network boot disk. Most of my younger counterparts have never seen anything like it, but these drivers used to be quite common. I can remember configuring them for the various DOS-era networking clients waay back in the 1990's. Thinking about this also reminded me about how much effort used to go into designing networks so as to minimize collisions.

I used to work for the University of Venice (Italy!) and their entire campus was setup as ONE big collision domain -- every building was tied directly together and everyone had trouble with lost connections... imagine :-) At the end of my stay there, I suggested to the IT Center that they install a switch at the central hub. At the time, this was considered an extravagance. I explained to them how I'd been going around to all their Novell servers, upgrading the LAN drivers to make them more resilient to ethernet traffic. I think they subsequently used my suggestion ("Our American consultant said...") to justify the expense and I'm sure it was well worth it. Now, of course, switches are The Standard and it's hard to find an old-style dumb hub, and consequently there's no cost premium for it. (P.S. I'm assuming my reader already knows the difference between a hub and a switch?)

Well, the final thought I had was about the problems we used to deal with on hubs. First of all, there was a lot of research into how many workstations you could group together before you started getting more collisions than proper traffic. At the time, 17 workstations was considered the ideal maximum, above that number the percentage of collisions (and rebroadcast attempts) started to climb rapidly. One vendor that seemed prescient about this was 3Com. At first, they were pilloried for the design of their NICs because the hw didn't do any collision detection. Instead they relied on their sw driver to detect it. As long as there were relatively few collisions, this design was MUCH MUCH faster. But on a traditional hub-driven LAN the 3Com cards ended-up CAUSING more collisions since they didn't 'back off' as quickly.

Nowadays, every NIC vendor uses the 3Com-type model since switches have eliminated collisions. So the whole 17-workstation-max, avoid-bad-LAN-client-3Com-NICs advice is just so much ancient history.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Is Rock music Male?

I had to work late the other night and I passed the time by blasting Boston's classic debut album at full-volume. When it was over I realized how much connection I'd felt to the music and the thought occurred to me that I'd been enjoying 'guy' music. But was there such a thing? Could any kind of popular music really be classified as male or female? There are plenty of great female rockers and most of my favorite singers are female. So it seemed silly to classify Rock by gender. Yet the feeling remained, that Rock Music was male. Could I justify that feeling? I could probably Google the idea and find a bunch of dissertations with long complicated explanations. But I'm sure I can write something comparable in an hour (or three) ...

First of all I had to figure-out what I meant by Rock Music. I've always heard that Rock was invented in the 50's with the introduction of "Black" musical themes to "White" pop music. But I've never felt any real connection to that early music. So I think it was more of a transitional style, as musicians experimented and slowly evolved a more 'pure' form of this new music. I may piss-off the piano players out there but I think a modern definition of Rock has to have the electric guitar. And more specifically the kind of anthem and power-chord driven music that was popularized in the late 60's and 70's, what is now considered Classic Rock. But I don't want to use a historical period as my definition! Instead I'm looking for some timeless quality to use in categorizing this 'male' music I'm pursuing.

Can I clarify my definition by considering which bands and songs I consider 'pure'? And does popularity factor into it? Certainly, Led Zeppelin was and is extremely popular. The aforementioned Boston was very popular, though it has since waned. But what about Heart, which is led by the Wilson sisters? Even though they're clearly considered Classic Rock I can't say that I've ever experienced that ethereal-level of connection with their music. So, again, the existing genre of Classic Rock isn't necessarily the definition of 'guy' music I'm searching.

What about grouping by musicians, especially singers? The singers that initially come to mind are hyper-masculine guys like Robert Plant or the singer from Boston. But I have no idea who Boston's singer is! Honestly, I've never had a strong connection to the actual singers. I mean, if I paid attention to lyrics I'd be a Country music fan, right? heh heh. And as much as I associate with the instrumentals I don't think the individual performances are what inspired my sense of connection.

Maybe I'm mistaking Music I Like for music that's male like me? I'm obviously going to connect most with the songs I like most, duh. But that seems like too simplistic and circular an argument. And the singers I actually like for their singing are usually women, like Aretha Franklin (who's R&B) or Tift Merritt (Country).

At last, I think I have a real clue. The music I'm considering Rock is music with a 'testosterone' edge to it -- aggressive, forceful, even sexual. This definition would make Rock 'male' but it wouldn't preclude women from enjoying or creating it since they have testosterone, too. I want to make clear that I don't mean the music has to be angry or violent, though. I don't think it's fair to blame that on testosterone. Again, there are probably doctoral dissertations that describe what constitutes Male, or what effect testosterone has on people, but for my purposes I just mean an energetic, impatient Joy For Life.

So now I have a working definition. Unfortunately it would then follow that Anything Teenage Boys Like is pure Rock, right? Maybe... Most of the stuff that kids listen to today is just noise to me. And a lot of it is 'urban' music with even more overt "Black" influence. Again, not stuff I've ever felt any connection to. My definition seems to be slipping away...

Ultimately, I think that it's not possible to say that Rock is male. Instead, I think that one of the elements of Classic music -- of any genre -- is that sense of testosterone. And that there are probably innumerable other elements that help make the Classics so classic. My favorite bands growing-up were XTC (not so manly) and The Police (manly, hence all the female fans). Rather than a 'male' sense of connection, both bands shared a cleverness, an understated sophistication in their arrangements and instrumentation. But now I really am going to leave it to PhDs to define these additional elements of great music!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Finally a good CD ripper for Linux

I had about given-up on finding a good CD-to-MP3 ripper for Ubuntu. All the 'official' programs had serious shortcomings, e.g. the included Sound Juicer didn't support MP3 out-of-the-box and even after I'd reconfigured it I somehow continued to receive OGG format instead. Very frustrating, especially considering the multiple options available under Windows. I even tried using Musicmatch Jukebox inside a Windows virtual-machine (VirtualBox) but it couldn't read the CD because Ubuntu wouldn't mount it??

One of the early recommendations had been for 'Grip' and I initially dismissed it because it seemed too clumsy to use. Eventually, I received feedback on the Ubuntu forums telling me to check all the settings again because -- clumsy though it was -- it should only be a one-time effort to configure. And they were right!

Basically, Grip seems to default to the absolute lowest-common denominator, i.e., no ID3 tags, no mixed upper/lower-case, and no spaces. But all those feature can be re-enabled and it has a very flexible naming-method with lots of variables to choose from. So, I eventually went back and was able to configure it exactly as I wanted.

I now have it configured to rip my CDs to a folder labeled as
Genre \ Artist - Disc \ Artist - Track# - Song Title

  1. go into Synaptic and install 'grip'
  2. In the 'Grip' software, under Config > CD,
    set Device = /dev/scd0
  3. (optional?) under Rip > Ripper,
    set Rip file format = /home/music/%G/%A - %d/%n.wav
  4. under Encode > Encoder
    set Encoder = lame
    set Encoder Command-line = -h -V 3 -b %b %w %m
    set Encode File Format = /home/music/%G/%A - %d/%A - %t - %n.%x
  5. under Encode > Options,
    set M3U file format = /home/music/%G/%A - %d/%A - %d.m3u
    set Encoding bitrate = 160
  6. under ID3,
    enable both "Add ID3" and "Add ID3v2"
  7. under Config > Misc,
    checkbox ('enable') both "Do not lowercase" and "Do not change spaces"
    set Characters To Not Strip = ()'-
NOTE - this Encoder Command-line uses VBR Quality = '3' (which is slightly better than the default '4') resulting in files with a bit-rate in the 180-200 kbps range, and with a minimum bitrate set by Grip (default is 160 kbps)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

And again, more Ubuntu breakage

I seem to have 'fixed' it now but I wanted to report still more breakage in my Ubuntu 8.04 setup. The Last Straw was when the Fast User Switcher stopped detecting that I was already logged-in and started to reset my login each time. In other words, my wife would switch from my login to hers but then when I'd try to switch back it would crash all my programs.

The solution seems to have been removing the official Nvidia driver?! We are now running the very generic 'nv' (or is it 'nvidia'? who cares...) video driver.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Still more Ubuntu breakage

Just to follow-up on yesterday's rant, today has a new symptom. I've barely used the computer this past week so I can't imagine what I might have done to cause it.

I was starting to grow suspicious because my office Ubuntu setup had downloaded two updates while my home PC had not. Just now, under my wife's login, I saw the Update Manager prompting her/us to download. When I switched back to my own login, the prompt went away.

Did I do something to indicate I did not want to receive automatic updates? Or, did this version of Ubuntu just spontaneously stop offering them...

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nothing nice to say about new Ubuntu

I take back everything nice I said about Ubuntu! I upgraded from 7.10 to 8.04.1 about a month ago and it's been one breakage after another. I thought I was being smart, waiting for the 8.04.1 "Service Pack" to come out before upgrading. Maybe a clean install would've worked fine but my upgrade has been so bad I'm seriously considering rolling-back to my 7.10 backup.

Since upgrading:
  • The Alternate CD updater rewrote my repository and update lists, then crashed without any message, leaving my system in an unstable state. After hours of experimenting I finally managed to get the update restarted and through to completion.
  • After the update none of my drives were accessible?! Apparently the new version uses a new naming scheme for drives but the update failed to update my 'fstab' configuration file. Fortunately I had another computer handy and was able to track down the required changes.
  • The Ubuntu-supported Nvidia video driver no longer works so I've had to switch to the official Nvidia driver. I'd previously learned (the hard way) that you can't trust this driver to work through a kernel upgrade. And, in just the past month, I've already had to uninstall it temporarily, apply a new kernel update, then reinstall it. PITA...
  • I had previously installed the now-included User Switcher. Needless to say, the update broke it, so my wife has to use a workaround. I was able to fix it once but now I can't remember how I did it; my latest attempts have failed.
  • I had previously installed the latest version of HPLIP (Hewlett-Packard Linux Printing). Ubuntu tried to install an older version alongside it, causing neither to work. I eventually uninstalled both, then reinstalled the newer version.
  • I spent DAYS trying to find a way to rip my CDs to MP3. WTF? The built-in 'Sound Juicer' used to work but refused to let me select MP3 anymore. I eventually tracked-down the needed change but... even though MP3 was selected it still did OGG format instead. WTF WTF?! Eventually, I settled for an old program, 'Grip', which does the basic task but fails to record any ID3 info.
  • Amidst all the printer mayhem, the VirtualBox printer support is malfunctioning again. I can get it to print but then I have to reboot the machine in order to get HPLIP working again.
  • My installed version of Crossover 6.1, which admittedly is not current anymore, stopped working. Fortunately the Ubuntu forums quickly yielded the solution: There was a new security lock-out in Ubuntu 8.04 which had to be partially disabled in order to allow Crossover to work.
  • Finally, my DVD drive no longer reads DVD data discs. I think my initial problem was an old flaky drive but even the new drive is having problems. I've managed to find a multi-step manual procedure to get discs to load, but it should all be automatic! In fact, as a test, I booted from a flash drive with generic 8.04.1 and the drive seemed to work fine. So something in my configuration is causing the problem.
Unfortunately, for now, I think I'm just going to give-up on making things work any better. And I'm certainly going to stop recommending Ubuntu to people.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What's the deal with poor TV concert-sound?

Something unusual happened last night, something significantly rare that I felt compelled to mention it. I was watching the 4th of July celebrations on PBS and the concert sound-mix was excellent?! I've grown inured (though still not happy) to the fact that almost all live music on TV has a shitty mix. I'm pretty sure it's because they want to make sure it still sounds decent even on a cheap TV with cheap speakers. They do something similar with studio recordings where they double-check that it still sounds good on a set of cheap car speakers. But I don't think they 'dumb down' the mix the way they do on TV, i.e., entire instruments will simply be missing.

Even the DVDs of concerts will exhibit this. If the band wasn't sufficiently mike'd then they might be stuck making the best of a bad collection of line recordings. But for a concert that's being recorded for resale you'd think they'd have avoided this predictable issue.

Here are 2 recent examples of this dumbing-down:
  • The Steve Miller Band - Live in Someplace (sorry, I forget). It's a recent recording and a great performance, but several times I saw someone playing a guitar rhythm or some kind of percussion and it simply was not there in the mix.
  • Tift Merrit - Live at Austin City Limits. You rarely hear Tift's rhythm guitar, or even her piano backing. In this instance I suspect they only had 1 line for both the piano and organ, not realizing that she and the organist sometimes play at the same time. And since the organ is much louder than the piano (see my review of her San Diego performance two months ago) they probably had to drop the level to keep it from drowning the mix; sorry piano! And I was particularly excited about this DVD because it included a DTS soundtrack (which is higher-quality than Dolby Digital) so I assumed it would have a higher-quality mix, too.
Lastly, the other disappointing thing is that I'm still hearing these dumbed-down mixes on digital surround-sound broadcasts on HDTV. I suppose someone with an HDTV might still have cheap speakers but isn't the likelihood a lot higher than the viewer will have a proper sound system (like me) ?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

DS research piggybacks on Alzheimer's

Maybe I was unduly negative in my last post re prospects for DS research. What I forgot to take into account is the fact that a lot of research into Alzheimers seems to impact research into DS, too. And there's no shortage of people with -- or likely to develop -- Alzheimers. "Thank you", Baby Boomers?

There seems to be a lot of similarity in brain chemistry between people with DS and people with Alzheimers. Many of the medicines being tested on people with DS were originally developed to treat Alzheimers. So hopefully this means that the current population of people with DS -- who will probably be the last? -- will continue to receive new treatments.

Friday, June 6, 2008

New prenatal test spells doom for people with Down Syndrome

Yesterday's business news made me terribly sad, but also admittedly happy.

You see, I have a child with Down Syndrome (DS) and I'm glad my wife and I didn't know beforehand. We had the typical amount of prenatal testing and nothing serious was found. Now this new test from Sequenom may dramatically reduce the number of children born with DS. In the abstract I think this would be great. But I also think it will negatively affect the prospects for people who already have DS. As the population of people with DS declines so will the potential ROI on any new drugs/treatments. Am I being unduly negative here?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Police concert speaker problems

I had the good fortune to see The Police in concert again last night, here in San Diego. I'd previously seen them about a year ago up in Los Angeles. What a difference a year makes! As always, they played fantastic but last night's concert really fell flat compared to a year ago. The problem was the sound system -- they were practically unhearable. I think the problem is their speakers.

I'm pretty sure they're touring with their own complete PA setup, speakers and amplifiers. So the sound problems are probably their own fault rather than the venues; fyi - Cricket Amphitheater still sucks! I think The Police are trying to make it through the end of their concert schedule without replacing any of their speakers, even though they're totally worn-out. It's kind of a rip-off, if you ask me. Theirs has been by-far the most successful concert of the year so I know they can afford to replace $100k of speakers.

I try not to let technical problems like this bother me. But seriously, the sound system was completely overloaded and distorted throughout the entire performance. The audience was forced to 'intuit' the notes and with only partial success. Many MANY times I saw the band hit the chorus of a song and then stare in wonder as the audience failed to react -- because we couldn't hear any change in the song! I'm sure things like this also demoralize a band and bring down their performance level.

On another (funny) side-note: You know how the stereotypical concert experience used to be for everyone to hold their lighters up, sort of create a field of 'candlelight' ? Well people don't smoke like they used to. Instead, the new candlelight is created by everyone holding their cellphone-cameras aloft, creating a field of LCD-display-candlelight (and visible only to the audience behind them).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Do great artists have to pay their 'dues' first?

Here's a goofy chain of thoughts: My wife and I like to record new TV shows but delay watching them until the season is over. This allows us to watch them as fast (or slow) as we want. We learned to appreciate this after the first season of Veronica Mars, which was so great we ended-up watching the last 3 episodes in one giant late-night push -- we just HAD TO KNOW what happened next! Well, the latest series to get this treatment is the short-lived Bionic Woman on NBC. It got canned after just 8 episodes?

Anyways, so we're watching one of the few Bionic Woman episodes and in one scene the hero gets caught pretending to be a Picasso expert. The person they're trying to fool asks them, "What's your favorite piece by Picasso," and the hero's flummoxed, has no answer. At the time, I couldn't think of a favorite either. But now, a day later, I woke-up thinking about it (isn't the mind a strange thing?).

Several years ago I had the good fortune to be in Barcelona, Spain, where Picasso grew-up and where there's a museum dedicated to him. Most of his really famous artwork is elsewhere now, and this hometown museum primarily has his childhood artwork (though I think "Guernica" was also there? Maybe it was just on traveling exhibit). One early painting of his absolutely stood-out for me. He was just 14 and an art student, and he must have been studying the classic Realist painters. He painted a deathbed scene that was just stunning. Besides being absolutely photo-realistic (How??) it also immediately captures the emotion of the room, and all the people in the scene are absolutely alive with tension and grief.

So now -- confident that *I* could have fooled the bad guy (from Bionic Woman) -- I started thinking about what 'Genius' means in the Arts. Up until that point in his life, Picasso was still just an art student. I think he was regarded as a child prodigy (rightly) but no one knew if he would ever blossom into a great artist. By demonstrating such mastery of the existing paradigm, Realism, I think it allowed him carte blanche to experiment, eventually leading him to invent Cubism -- a sort of anti-Realism! I'm sure my analysis is infantile but it's my blog, so there.

I can think of at least one other example of this phenomenon, where a new artist demonstrated a mastery of the prevailing 'form' before branching-off into the creation of the new: The Beatles. My wife was surprised to learn (after college? 'cha! Where have you been???) that the Beatles recorded both the 50's-type "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" fluff AND the elaborate and philosophical later songs. She really didn't know they were the same band, and without knowing their history I could see why.

The Beatles recorded FIVE albums in their first THREE years! They basically paid their dues to their record-industry masters, and demonstrated a clear mastery of the prevailing teeny-bopper Lite Pop style. Then, when they were safely insulated from criticism, they sprang Sgt Pepper's on us. If I'm not mistaken this is widely considered the first Concept Album (or at least the first hugely successful one).

Monday, May 5, 2008

Managing videos on my new camcorder

Last week I bought a new Sony HDR-CX7 high-definition camcorder. It records to Memory Stick flash-drive and includes a docking station that both charges it and allows direct download via USB cable.The videos are stored to the memory card in the folder, /avchd/bdmv/stream/ *.mts
The problem is figuring-out how to move the files onto the computer without the camera freaking.

If I simply copy, then delete the files, they will still appear in the playlist and give an error if you try to play them. If I delete all the other data files under /avchd then the camera asks you to re-initialize the memory card. I've yet to find a way to remove the .mts files without requiring extra steps on the camera afterwards.

By comparison, with my Nikon digital camera I simply copy the .jpg files and then delete them. The camera recovers from the unexpected disappearance of the files without complaint.

P.S. Kudos to Sony on their docking station's USB interface -- the memory card is easily recognized by Ubuntu Linux. This is in stark contrast to my LG 'Muziq' phone, which has a USB interface but tries to present as both a memory card and a modem, interfering with Linux recognizing the card. It's a cool idea, to be able to use the phone as a modem, but it's only supported in Windows, blech!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

I emailed Tift Merritt

Ha! I bought my wife the concert DVD for Tift Merritt, from her previous tour. But then I realized that it didn't include my favorite song, Late Night Pilgrim, from that same previous album. I checked her web-site,, and found a Contact Us email. So I wrote to her and teased her, "What have you got against 'Late Night Pilgrim'?" I pointed-out that we'd just seen her in concert and she'd played my wife's favorite song but not mine, and now her DVD had skipped it, too. Hopefully she'll understand that I wasn't (too) serious!

Monday, April 28, 2008

The "Credit Default Swap" scam

A quick follow-up to my previous comment about 'credit default swaps' being a scam. I recently came across these 2 excellent and very detailed explanations of the issue:

Longer, more detailed,

Shorter, sweeter,

Basically, these things are a kind of fake insurance but which the government accepts as real insurance. Because of a loophole in the accounting laws (e.g. GAAP) companies can decline to state their financial losses. "Because it's insured!" It's like buying PMI for your mortgage only your 'insurer' is your brother-in-law who never expects to have to cover your mortgage and doesn't have any capital reserves either (like a real insurer would).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I saw Tift Merritt in concert!

Completely out of the blue, I chanced to look in the paper's Arts section and there it was -- an article about Tift Merritt in concert the next night. Well, of course, I ran around like my head was cut-off trying to arrange a babysitter, buy tickets, etc. Oh yeah, and keep it all a secret from my wife! But it all worked out and we found ourselves sitting down for a luxury dinner in a swank new downtown "Jazz Dinner Club" called Anthology. It was magnificent, and small enough that there wasn't a bad seat in the house. Of course we were seated about TEN FEET from the stage! ;-)

So how was it? After my lil' mini-review last week, it just seemed so ironic that I would now get the chance to see her perform. In general, it was a great concert ... but she didn't play my favorite song, "Late Night Pilgrim"?! So that tainted an otherwise wonderful experience, and for the rest of the evening I had the missing song in my head as if to make-up for it's absence.

One problem for me with attending live concerts -- and here comes the "technical" aspect -- is that I have over a decade of experience in live music and concert sound. I spent all five years of college, in fact, working as one of the 'lead' soundmen for the University's Associated Student Body. And so I have a hard time listening to live music without noticing myriad little details about the sound production. True to form, at last night's concert I kept wincing every time the organist swamped the mix, or Tift would get too close to her mike and overload it with false 'basso' (which is what happens when you hog a mike). I actually wondered if the venue was too small to have a proper mixing post, that the 'mains' were being handled remotely by the backstage mixing board. But at the very end of the concert, during the presentation of the band, Tift also thanked her soundman and pointed him out in the back of the club (behind me). So maybe part of the problem was the unfamiliar environment and PA. And, to be honest, the mix definitely improved as the night went on though the organ was problematic throughout.

Finally, I want to mention the guitarist. Before leaving for the concert I reviewed my initial post, where my closing comment was a criticism of "uninspired studio musicians" especially the guitar. Well the newspaper article said that she did, in fact, have a regular band -- sorry! But it did not mention a regular guitarist, so I think my criticism of the studio recording's guitarist probably still holds true, i.e., he/she was not someone with long acquaintance with Tift. I don't know if the guitarist I saw perform last night was the same person who recorded on the album. But he did let loose a bit, shred it up on a couple of opening tunes. So I was satisfied!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Google indexed my post in under 2 hours

I've always wondered how long it took Google to update it's indexes. I'm sure they have pre-scheduled updates -- or even dedicated 'spiders' -- for more popular and active sites. I've setup small personal sites before but then never saw them appear in any search engines.

But today I posted a new question on and when I tried to Google for an answer about 2 hours later I got my own post as a hit. So I guess that solves that question!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why Isn't Tift Merritt more popular?

My wife is the country music fan, not me. But I admit I am partial to country-rock, having grown-up with The Eagles, CCR, as well as John Denver. But it was only the past couple of years that I've listened to any current 'country' music. And that was a singer profiled on NPR (so she couldn't be THAT bad, right?) The singer is Tift Merritt and her music is divided between soft ballads and honky-tonk Nashville something-or-other. And I love it! Her melodies are classic and her lyrics are (mostly) poetry sung out loud.

But the only one of her songs ever played on Radio Paradise was blasted by other listeners as "I've heard this song played a million other times by a million other artists." They also said she sounded like 'someone else', e.g. Sheryl Crow or Patti Griffin. Fer crissakes people, most people sound *somewhat* like other persons! Maybe I'm not well-versed enough in modern country music to realize if she really is derivative or not. Personally, I think her music reminds me of Bonnie Raitt and her "Luck of the Draw" album.

On her previous album, the single was "Stray Paper" and while I liked it, it was never one of my favorites. This is the song that everyone on RP ripped. Instead, I really liked "Wait It Out", "Good Hearted Man", "I Am Your Tambourine" and especially "Late Night Pilgrim" (which is a classic song of late-night angst).

Apparently, her record company was disappointed with the sales of the album -- or maybe she was just resistant to immediately cranking out another -- and so she lost her contract. She spent a year slumming it in Paris and then got a new contract, with a new label, and released a new album. I immediately bought it through Amazon MP3 and listened to it every day for weeks. What am I, a teenager?

Anyways, my favorite songs on the new album are "Broken" (the single), "Another Country" (the title track and a sweet love song; I even whispered it spontaneously to my wife one night, wow!). She returns to late-night angst in "Morning is my destination" and even throws in an anti-war song "My Heart Is Free."

Actually, I have a theory about her relative lack of success. She's an excellent singer and songwriter but she doesn't have... A Band! On the new album, in particular, the guitar solos are all competent but they positively smack of studio musician. They're not inspired, at all. Maybe that undercuts all her big production numbers?

UPDATE: A month after writing this, I read an interview with her where she talks about 'her band'. So apparently the anemic guitar solo and (relatively) 'flat' chorus in "My Heart Is Free" are her producer's fault. There, I've done it. I've pissed-off all the people in her inner circle :-)

Explaining the Housing Bubble?

I think it begs the question: Why am I talking about housing on my 'technical' blog? Because it's my own damn blog, that's why! Ha, just kidding. Actually, I spend a lot of time studying the housing market (and the economy) because I really really want to buy a house but don't want to get burned. And, in many ways, the financial world is technical and so -- being human -- I'm naturally inclined to try to find patterns in the noise.

The conundrum here is about these mysterious "credit default swaps" that all the big financial players seem to be buried in. The news says the market for them is TWICE the size of the actual economy, $50T versus $22T. How can this be??? The widely used description of them is 'insurance' offered inst/amongst the various institution so as to spread risk. But then why did the Federal Reserve need to throw down potentially $30B to prevent the bankruptcy of Bear Sterns?

Near as I can figure it, when the bankers talk about spreading 'risk' they're really talking about spreading LOSSES. So I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually hear about illegal collusion, and maybe an anti-trust investigation of these huge Wall St banks. Just my $.02

Software RAID really is faster

I have run my personal computer on a RAID mirror for years now. I learned the primary reason for RAID on the day, more than 10 years ago, when I started my current job and discovered that my new employer's file server had been running in recovery mode -- for months -- on their RAID-5 array. I had never actually seen a RAID array much less had to recover one. Ah, yes, those were exciting days: "Must.. Fix.. Server, or.. Lose.. New.. Job!"

I've also gone through dozens of hard drives, most of which were malfunctioning by the time I trashed them (and yes, I now securely wipe them beforehand). So it makes great sense to use duplicate drives to avoid a catastrophic failure of one.

One of the other reasons is supposed to be that it's faster. More drives should equal more potential throughput. But in practice it's rarely the case. Most tests I've seen of RAID-5, for instance, show it to be much slower than the simpler forms of RAID, e.g. RAID-4 which uses more drives but avoids the need for any CRC calculations (or whatever RAID-5 is spending so much time doing).

Now, finally, I feel confident that my RAID really is faster. I did a very simple test on my test machine which is setup almost identically to my 'production' machine. The computer is a P4 with 1GB running Ubuntu 7.04 on a pair of identical IDE drives configured as a software mirror. I disabled the login prompt (in System > Administration > Login Window > Security, Enable Automatic Login) and then also set the 'Startup' to immediately load about a dozen apps (in System > Preferences > Sessions, New).

Running normally (with both drives) the test config took about 1:30 to boot and finish loading everything.

I then unplugged one of the drives, let the system figure-out that the array needed to run 'degraded', and retested. It now took over 2:00 to do the same process.

So the mirrored drives appeared to be 25% faster! Of course, a better test would be to reinstall without any RAID partitions, i.e., to eliminate the possibility that the degraded array was the culprit. But then I'd also have to try and recreate the exact same set of installed apps etc, and I'm not that interested in disproving my newfound satisfaction!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Is Ubuntu/Linux really this good?

The thought that occurred to me today -- and inspired setting-up this blog -- was the realization that my current Ubuntu workstation is working so well now that it's become boring. I'm not used to this! The overwhelming majority of the time I've got a long list of tweaks I'm trying to accomplish on my home computers. Maybe I've simply forgotten the things I've given-up upon?

Currently I'm running Ubuntu 7.04 with two mirrored SATA drives. I've updated the drive configs so that I can still boot even if one fails (by default this is not the case?!). I've switched most of my daily applications to Linux equivalents, and the handful of Windows holdovers all work either 'directly' in WINE or in a Virtualbox virtual machine running Windows 2000.

So, is it really time for me to stop obsessively checking for updates and just take my computer for granted??

Introducing myself

I have often had friends refer to me as "Technical Tony" (because my name is Tony). Since I solve technical problems for a living, I always have an opinion -- sometimes even advice -- for my friends and family. Since most of what I accomplish is of no interest to most of the people around me I've decided to try blogging about it. And hopefully somebody Googling for a future topic herein will find my blog and post encouraging feedback.

Honestly, I realize I should probably have just named this blog, "Things to amuse my wife, i.e., the only person reading this!"

P.S. If I say something 'dry' and seemingly self-evident, that's what passes for humor around my grove.