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Random Tidbits

Random Fact of the Day:

A tidbit that you can learn only by poring over random Wikipedia articles:

Jan‘ from The Office (NBC TV show) is the sister of the CEO of Flock (as in the browser company).

It’s all one big happy family I guess.

Random Quote of the Day:

“Oh, I get it! Silicon Valley is like Hollywood, but for nerds, and without the chicks” – from a commenter on Valleywag (which in my humble opinion has started to read like a tired rag these days).

Random Find of the Day: – this guy adds a comment to every top-voted reddit submission with a ‘fun fact’ about a topic in the article. He’s gotten so popular that there’s another guy ( copying him.


It’s been a while since I posted anything, so I figured I’d resume on a light note 🙂 On the bright side, my HD PVR conundrum was solved yesterday and I have a Tivo HD on the way thanks to!

Blockbuster vs Netflix

After reading a few reviews (and partly because I was in the mood for some change {lame, I know}), I decided to ditch BlockBuster Online and switch to Netflix for my movie fix. I’ve been with BBO almost since they started (Sep ’04?) so this was a pretty drastic move! In a few hours of playing around, I’ve found a few things I like about NFLX:

  • Multiple profiles: Now, the wife & I can both have our own queue without one of us hogging the movie queue.
  • Stream to PC: This is the one thing I’m most exited about – not because I want to go from watching movies from my couch on a 40″ screen to sitting at a computer chair watching movies on a 19″ screen, but because I’m fairly certain that this is just a pre-cursor for Netflix providing movie downloads on the XBox.

I’m not too impressed by Netflix’s UI yet – a couple of things that annoy me  – for one, why doesn’t the search box just take to me the movie I’m searching for when it offers me suggestions:


It offered me the right movie in the dropdown, but when I select it, it does a search on the term rather than take me to the movie directly. All that AJAXy autocomplete goodness wasted!

The other annoyance: Why is this popup displayed for every movie I add to my queue?


BBO used to let me bulk-add movies to my queue without any annoying popups! I’ll probably also miss the occasional game rental and in-store exchange from Blockbuster, but I’m hoping the larger selection and stream to PC features make up for it!

Happy New Year…

Here’s wishing everyone who sees this entry a happy new year 2008. In the spirit of a light and lively new year, here’s a new year greeting in legalese I got from someone at work:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all…and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2008, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make this country great (not to imply that this country is necessarily  greater than any other country), and without regard to the race, creed,  color, age, physical ability, religious faith, or sexual orientation of  the wishee.

This wish is limited to the customary and usual good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first. “Holiday” is not intended to, nor shall it be considered, limited to the usual Judeo-Christian celebrations or servances, or to such activities of any organized or ad hoc religious community, group, individual or belief (or lack thereof).

Note: By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms. This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. This greeting is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. This greeting implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for the wishee her/himself or others, or responsibility for the consequences which may arise from the implementation or non-implementation of same. This greeting is void where prohibited by law.

The HD PVR conundrum

I finally gave in to geek pressure and decided to get ourselves a new TV. The gorgeous Samsung LNT4065F. 40″, LCD, 1080p. The TV’s due to arrive later this week or early next, so I thought I’d do some early research to figure out how to get the most out of it.

My current setup is a relatively ancient 27″ Sony flat-tube TV we bought as soon as we moved to Seattle back in ’04, so this is a significant upgrade in terms of screen size (27->40), technology (analog SD tube -> digital HD LCD) and most significantly, resolution (480i -> 1080p).

Our primary use of the TV is to play DVDs (thanks to BlockBuster Online and iTalkies), TV (via our trusty Series 2 Tivo and basic Comcast cable) and an XBox 360 Premium that I stood in line for 8 hours to buy on launch day.

The only HD-capable device on this list is the XBox 360 – capable of doing 1080p games and 1080i movies over component and 1080p movies over VGA. So, this one was easy – I picked up a Xbox VGA cable for cheap that I can use to get upscaled DVD playback and I’m all set of experience movies and gaming at full HD. I thought about getting the XBox HD-DVD player given the great deals we’re seeing on them this holiday season, but figured that it wasn’t wise to invest on either side of the HD format wars till there was a clear winner. Moreover, only some movies are available in HD-DVD and others are in Blu-Ray, so it didn’t make sense to confine myself to a single format till dual-format players become more common down the road.

My DVD player – a Panasonic home-theater-in-a-box from the same bygone era – doesn’t upconvert DVDs to 1080i. I figured I’ll let this one slip and keep my current DVD player, especially since it supports 480p and use the XBox for DVD playback when I really wanted upconverted video.

Cable – this one’s tricky. I don’t have digital cable , so the only HD-channels I can get right now in HD are the local channels through the TV’s built-in QAM tuner. The bigger problem for me, even if I do switch from cable to Satellite or OTA/ATSC, is how to get a PVR solution that supports HD video. The Series2 Tivo that I’ve owned for the past couple of years clearly doesn’t support HD-video of any kind. My significant other is addicted to the Tivo and would immediately disapprove of any solution that involves losing the PVR functionality (I know – I asked!).

So, my options are:

  1. HD Tivo: Luckily for me, Tivo launched it’s HD-capable Series 3 last year. More recently, they launched the scaled down and cheaper HD Tivo. This PVR supports upto 20 hours of recorded HD content from OTA or digital cable (via the CableCard). Sounds perfect, except, that it costs $249 + $12.95/mo. That puts it out of this year’s tech budget!
  2. Media Center PC: As I detailed in a series of earlier posts, I put together a killer quad core PC earlier in the year that runs Vista Ultimate and Windows Media Center. I’ve been using the XBox as a Media Center extender for a few months which works pretty well. So, all I need to do is get a TV tuner that supports HD and I should be all set, right? It turns that life is not that simple. Most HD tuners support decoding only QAM or ATSC signals – i.e. only free-to-air channels can be decoded. There are a handful of TV tuner cards that support CableCard so that digital cable channels can also be decoded, but get this – those cards are only sold integrated into a new PC!!! That’s right – you can’t just buy a CableCard capable decoder and plug it into your PC – you have to buy a cable-industry Certified PC that in their words “would absolutely be able to deliver on the wide range of things that you couldn’t predict with certainty would happen on a home-built PC“. Hmm.. we all know what means -thanks to DRM requirements, there’s no way a home-built PC can use a CableCard tuner right now! So, my HD-MCE dreams end there – even if I wanted to pay ComCast the extra $5 a month for the CableCard!
  3. Comcast’s HD-PVR: Comcast gives^H^H^H^H^H rents an HD-capable PVR (nee DVR) for the low low price of $13.95/mo. This sounds like a good option till you read reviews of the DVR and realize that it’s a piece of cr*p. I’ll pass, and wait till Comcast starts offering Tivo’s which they’ve started doing in some regions already.
  4. Do nothing: The PM in me decided to go with this option for now. As discussed above, all options have significant downsides or costs that do not align with current priorities 🙂 Therefore, I decided to do nothing for now and be content with SD cable programming and the Tivo Series 2 till such a time when the above issues are resolved. Tivo prices are sure to drop in the next few months and Comcast will probably start offering Tivo’s in the Seattle region sometime next year.

So, I’ll just wait a few months till options 1 or 3 above become viable. This is definitely the best option given current realities…

PS: The fall update for the XBox 360 introduced support for viewing Xvid/DivX streaming video. So, a 5th option, of questionable appropriateness is to download err.. place/time-shifted videos from that European site that charges € 1/month. That’s a viable option for viewing the occasionally TV show at 720p as long as € 1 < $13.95 :-)

Thinking about Africa

I rarely write anything about politics or my view of the world, but Arvind’s post “Africa: why it’s fucked up and what you can do” appealed too much to the armchair economist in me to keep quiet. Particularly interesting is this quote:

The main problem with Africa is petty dictators. Don’t take my word for it — a Ghanaian economist argues passionately for this view in this video. One phrase in particular is worth quoting — “Africa’s begging bowl leaks” referring to the futility of conventional foreign aid because of government corruption. He also explains how Africa’s traditional societies were free markets, even if not industrialized, and what Africa needs is more capitalism, not less.

Maybe the begging bowl is the problem. Africa needs to stop looking towards the West with a begging bowl and start looking towards the East with a photocopier instead. They need to open up their economies, encourage entrepreneurship and emulate what Asia has done over the past 50 years. After all, in countries like South Korea, China, India and Vietnam, economic liberalization has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and that has in turn led to political stability.

Also interesting:

Building my new PC – Step 2: Putting it all together

An avid follower of my blog (the only follower of my blog ?) reminded me the other day that I never completed my series on putting my PC together. I think the fact is that I’ve been too busy playing with it to write up my experience in assembling it!

Putting the PC together was a lot simpler than I expected. Granted, the last PC I put together was back in ’99 (or was it 2000?) when I put together a P3-500 for my parents so that they could browse the Internet, send me email and so that I could play Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 whenever I visited them. That was also my first time, so it took me a while to figure out how to screw the motherboard to the case, plug in the CPU etc.

This time, it was all a lot easier, partly because I had the Internet to look up anything I couldn’t figure out and because all the parts actually came with manuals! The only thing that stumped me was the fact that the video card only had a DVI out while my LCD monitor had only VGA input. In the excitement of wanting to see it all boot, I didn’t want to wait an extra day to get a DVI-to-VGA adapter, so I tried using my LCD TV as a monitor (via S-video). That didn’t work as expected and my motherboard didn’t have an on-board speaker, so I finally had to wait till I could find an adapter and used that to connect the rig up to the LCD and make sure it booted correctly. I also had a scary incident when the CPU made a crunch sound as I bolted it into the motherboard. My heart stopped for a second, but I was glad I didn’t damage anything in the process.

Assembling the PC

Soon enough, I had it up and booting:

Boot Screen

and in an hour or so, had Vista installed and running with Aero enabled. Check out the Processor, Hard Disk and Memory ratings in the Perf Rating tool:

Vista Performance Rating

CPU: 5.9 (the maximum – W00t!!)

Memory: 5.8 and Hard disk 5.4.

Sadly, the PC only get’s a 3.4 in the graphics department because of the sucky video card, but that’s another upgrade for another time.

Next time, I’ll talk about how I tried to install Ubuntu on this PC. I think that post will be called “How Ubuntu ruined my weekend (and why Linux is still not ready for the Desktop)”.

Building my new PC – Step 1: buying components

Ever since I got my DSLR and a couple of 4 gig CF cards a few months back, I’ve been shooting away to glory each weekend and contending with 100s of RAW images. My poor ‘kitchen laptop’ with a 40 gig hard drive and an outdated processor couldn’t take it anymore and was thinking of bailing on me when I decided that it’s about time to get a new PC.

A bit of history — I haven’t had a desktop at home since ’01 when I sold my aging P2-233 to an unsuspecting college junior. I got myself a ‘gaming’ laptop (an HP Pavilion ZT1260) the following year and it was a mixed experience. I loved the portability, but the video card on the laptop overheated after an hour or two of gaming and literally burned the motherboard in a year. It was still under warranty, so HP replaced it (sans all my data) for free, but the replacement lasted only another year or so before it suffered the same fate. So, I vowed never to get a gaming laptop ever again and got us a cheap Toshiba laptop that we used at home predominantly for browsing and email.

I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a media center/media server ever since I got my Tivo and Xbox, and figured I could use it for transcoding recorded tv shows to the iPod, streaming photo and music to the xbox and other misc uses.

Here’s the config I came up with:

CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 quad-core processor, 2.40GHz. I figured I needed a multi-core processor to handle all the photo editing and video transcoding I planned to do. So, well, might as well get as many cores as I can afford 🙂 I didn’t manage to get the lower-powered G0 stepping though, just the older B3.

Motherboard: This was the most confusing part of my search. Unlike other components, there are literally hundreds of unique motherboards and there’s no real quantitative measure that I can filter my searches by. So, I had to go solely by price, reviews on tech forums and a couple of features (like size and number of DIMM slots) that I knew were important to me.

I needed something that could keep up with the quad-core while staying stable and cool. I wasn’t too keen on RAID support though I wanted SATA to serve up all the media I’m planning to host :). I thought I could get a full sized ATX mobo w/ built in Video, but proved pretty difficult. So, finally, I got the ABIT IP35-E, which had good reviews on NewEgg and had the works as far as features were concerned. This mobo has the double boot problem described in some forums, but it’s not a real bug, just an annoyance.

RAM: I figured that since memory prices drop over time, I’ll get just enough for my needs now and expand later as required. So, I got 2 gigs of dual channel DDR2 800 Mhz memory from Corsair – the highly rater Corsair 2GB TWIN2X2048-6400C4. I have two slots left on the mobo which will help in future expansion.

Hard Drive: Again, I wanted to get the best bang for the buck here since hdd prices and capacities are always moving in opposite directions. The best deal I got was on the Western Digital 400GB SATA 150 drive which was on sale on NewEgg at the time. It’s only 7200 RPM and 150MB/s, but I’ll probably be buying a hard drive every year to keep up with growing storage needs 🙂

Video Card: I wasn’t planning to use this PC for major gaming, since I already have an Xbox 360. I initially planned to get a mobo with on board video but since those were hard to come by with the features I wanted, I decided to get the cheapest general purpose video card with DirectX 9 and Vista Aero support. That turned out to be the MSI ATI RADEON X1550 with 128MB on board video memory, HDMI out and TV out. Not a bad card, and totally worth the 30 bucks I paid for it.

Case and Power Supply: These were easy. I didn’t need a fancy case since I wasn’t going to keep this PC in the living room. I needed a fairly powerful power supply, though because of the quad core processor, SATA drive(s) and my long term plans of getting a better video card. So, I picked up a Rosewill case for cheap and a rather basic Coolmax 450W Power Supply from newegg and respectively. Both of them have built in fans, so that should help keep the system cool, if not quiet.

So, I ordered all the components over the period of a week and played the waiting game for FedEx, UPS and others to get them to me.

PC Components

Once they were all here, I started putting them together. That story will be covered in a future post 🙂

Blue Angels

3rd time’s a charm I guess. I finally realized that the best place to watch the Blue Angels show is from the I-90 bridge when it’s closed. Not Genesee Park, not some random location in Mercer Island, but right there on the bridge. I took my parents to the show today inspite of the fact that I hated it the last two times I went and managed to get the best view of the show that I could have hoped for (without owning a boat or a prime piece of lakeside real-estate). We parked in some spot north of the Bridge, near Martin Luther King Way and walked down to the I-90 bridge just before it closed and managed to get a spectacular view of the show with the planes flying right over us a couple of times.

Here’s a pic I clicked, technically not of the Blue Angels, but of the Patriots Jet Team:

Blue Angels