This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

January 2004 Archives

January 31, 2004

OK folks, I need your help. New baby means new camcorder, and I'm having a hard time picking one out. The primary objective is to acquire video, indoor and outdoor, suitable for editing and burning to DVD's to send to relatives with DVD players, so video and audio quality are paramount. Something tells me a camera that does poorly under low-light conditions, or whose microphone picks up tape whir, would drive me crazy. As much as I would enjoy a semi-professional $3,000 3CCD unit for making films suitable for Sundance, what I have in mind is a camera suitable for Disneyland. The ultra-portables look neat, but I'd prefer video quality to extra-small, and anything that passes for a one-handed home camcorder these days would probably be fine. Digital, obviously, and Mac-friendly is a must, so Firewire (IEEE 1394) output is required. I'm storage-format agnostic (MiniDV sounds popular), though capacity is high on my list. I'm willing to spend around $1,000.

Secondary objectives include analog video input for digitizing, compatibility with mainstream video conferencing software (iChat AV, Yahoo Messenger), and built-in still photography (not for quality, but for convenience). I wouldn't sacrifice video quality for these features, but I might pay a little more for them. At first glance, most mid-range consumer cameras have these features, so I'm not too worried I'll go without.

CNet's guide tops off with the tempting Sony DCR-TRV80 ($1178 from J&R). It's heavy on the gadgets and high in price, but if someone told me it took better video than any of the others, I'd consider it. The fact that it has features I know I wouldn't use (Ethernet?) makes the price a concern. The Canon Optura 300 ($780 from J&R) would be more what I'm looking for if it weren't for CNet's complaints of unfavorable low-light performance and a poorly placed microphone. Third in CNet's list is the Sony DCR-TRV22 ($550 from J&R), with fewer features (and in some ways, less camera) than the TRV80, but a much better price, praise for night vision, and all the features I mentioned. An Amazon reviewer mentions motor whir on the audio track.

Anyone know anything about these cameras? Are there any features that I'm not considering that I should? Image stabilization? Optical zoom greater than 10x? Are there any ultra-portables with stellar video quality? Are tapeless cameras worth it?

As someone who used to claim an interest in filmmaking, I'm surprised that I'm not already on top of the whole camcorder thing. I'm especially surprised that I haven't really wanted one until now. The quality of consumer video has gone up quite a bit in the last five years, and consumer video editing has arrived. But mostly, I now have something I actually want to record.

January 30, 2004

The three leads in the new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie have been selected. Martin Freeman as Arthur! Yay! Mos Def as Ford, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian, also good.

There was a report that BBC Radio was going to produce a sequel radio series based on the remaining novels, but the link I had expired before I could post it. So it remains in rumorville. Anyone have a confirmation link?

Getting Started with Your Own Software Company.

A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Geoffrey Chaucer, appr. 1391:

Here begynneth the descripcioun of thin Astralabie.

1. Thyn Astrolabie hath a ring to putten on the thombe of thi right hond in taking the height of thinges. And tak kep, for from henes forthward I wol clepen the heighte of any thing that is taken by the rewle "the altitude," withoute moo wordes.

2. This ryng renneth in a maner toret fast to the moder of thyn Astrelabie in so rowm a space that it distourbith not the instrument to hangen after his right centre.

3. The moder of thin Astrelabye is thikkest plate, perced with a large hool, that resceiveth in hir wombe the thynne plates compowned for diverse clymates, and thy reet shapen in manere of a nett or of a webbe of a loppe.

...

Worst instruction manual, ever.

January 29, 2004

If I may complain for a second: PowerBooks simply do not work well as desktop replacements— that is, as a laptop that gets used at least half the time with the lid closed, attached to an external monitor, mouse, keyboard, printer, speakers and what have you. Without a port replicator, everything must be plugged in when going from laptop to desktop, and unplugged when going from desktop to laptop. And before you say "Bluetooth keyboard and mouse," note that a USB keyboard is required to run with the lid closed. Transitioning to desktop mode requires the PowerBook to be booted up, properly asleep (and breathing), and closed before plugging everything in.

But what really earns PowerBooks the raspberry on this one is the transition back to laptop mode: Once put to sleep, unplugging either a USB device or the video cable will wake it up. If you unplug a USB device (such as the keyboard or mouse) first, video will return to the external monitor and you'll have to plug the device back in to do anything further. If you unplug the video cable first, the PowerBook will wake up, realize the lid is closed and there's no external video, then die an improper death. Now that you've lost whatever you had open and any unsaved documents are toast, you might as well proceed to unplug everything, open the lid, turn it on and wait a few minutes for it to start up. But you can't plug the video back in and expect to do it in desktop mode: It's dead, not sleeping, and cannot be awakened without its power button, under the lid.

In short, there is no way to go from laptop mode to desktop mode without being on and asleep, and there's no clean way to go from desktop mode to laptop mode without being completely shut down. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, because this just ain't right.

January 27, 2004

At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything special about the MyDoom virus compared to other viruses: it arrives via email as an attachment, and has no effect unless the user, running Microsoft Windows, opens the attachment; if the user does so, it sends itself to other email addresses it finds on the user's computer. It uses no new technological exploits, though I think the social exploit of saying, "The message contains Unicode characters and has been sent as a binary attachment," to encourage recipients to open the attachment is a tad more clever than usual. It searches for email addresses in all kinds of files on the user's hard drive, and sends itself out using a built-in mail server from forged sender addresses— not sure if those are new techniques, but they're also a tad nifty. If the user has the Kazaa P2P file sharing program installed, it will also share itself under inconspicuous but potentially popular filenames.

I'm used to getting a little splash from each major Microsoft Outbreak at work, but today we just got hammered. The message was sent to my pager several times today. I've had several dozen messages sent to my personal email account, though some of them are bounce messages generated by the virus trying to send mail in my name, as random addresses under this domain name. All in all, quite the little show.

Symantec has technical details and removal instructions.

January 23, 2004

Today Sunday is FAO Schwartz's last day in downtown Seattle, closing for good at 7pm. Remaining stock is down to 80% off.

The three-ton bronze FAO Schwartz teddy bear statue that's cemented to the sidewalk in front of the store was purchased for nearly $12,000 in an eBay auction. The buyer intends to move it to his wife's daycare on Bainbridge Island.

Newbie Mac tip: Apple Pro Speakers only work with the newer G4 iMac and the Power Mac G4 equipped with a "minijack." Powerbooks do not have minijacks and cannot use these speakers. The "minijack" provides both stereo audio and power to the speakers, eliminating the need for an external power supply or additional connection to a power outlet. Guess who learned this the hard way. :(

In their stead, JBL Creature 2.1 speakers are in my future. I've heard good things, and they're less than $100.

I'm pleased to report that the Encyclopedia Britannica 2004 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD does not suck, and in fact mostly rocks. The DVD includes both Mac and PC versions of decent software and a decent interface, my only complaint with which is the use of a proprietary windowing system that requires all articles to appear in little windows inside one big window. (No doubt they did this to make it cheaper to maintain both PC and Mac versions.) The software is stable, and while it's a tad sluggish, it never gets in my way. My biggest speed complaint is that it takes a while to start up the first time, which is a disadvantage for quick lookups. You can install the entire contents onto your hard drive for access without the disc inserted, or do a minimal install to save on hard drive space. It includes the full encyclopedias, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and Thesaurus, a world atlas, a few nifty browsing modes, and multimedia supplements to some articles. The best part is the price: $32.99 after $20 mail-in rebate.

The biggest complaint from Amazon.com reviewers is probably my biggest overall complaint: Many of the articles are out of date. What's worse is that some articles are more out of date than others, which means you cannot trust the timeliness of any of the information provided. (It'd be great of each article had a "last updated" date, but they don't.) Still, I would want to find corroborative sources for articles about events in the last 20 years anyway, and for most general subjects (like country profiles) it's obvious where their data ends. (Middle Eastern countries appear to have data up to 1992, for instance.)

I'm also pleased to recommend the CD-ROM that comes with Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (also comes with the leather-bound edition). It too includes both PC and Mac versions, and installs completely to your hard drive. The best part: it's fast, popping through the complete alphabetical word list as you type, letting you hit return at any time to instantly display the definition. On my Mac, the software starts up in under 4 seconds. Despite the fact that MW comes with the Britannica suite, I'm definitely going to be using this version for all of my dictionary look-ups.

January 22, 2004

Donkey Konga! (Thanks Matt.)

January 21, 2004

Applause for Audio Hijack for Mac OS X, an application which can record audio coming out of any application, including streamed audio feeds out of any player. It can start up a player with a URL at a particular time automatically. This plus PublicRadioFan.com means we can automatically record Schickele Mix from obscure public radio stations at obscure times of the week and automatically transfer them to our iPods for later listening.

NASA Is Not Altering Mars Colors. A detailed explanation of why the claim that the NASA Mars images are color shifted is bogus.

I've always wanted a way to copy and paste without dragging text formatting along with it. It's clever and all that modern clipboards will remember the typeface, size and color of text being copid out of a web browser, but it's almost never what I want when I paste it into an email, a Word document, or a Stickie note. It appears SmartWrap is one possible solution, though its clipboard cleaning is not automatic, and if that's all I'm using it for, it may not be worth the $18 shareware cost. But it has many modes of use that might come in handy if you do a lot of text manipulation across apps. There are versions for Mac OS X, Mac Classic, and Windows, too.

January 20, 2004

As part of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration vehicle projects, NASA has made available software you can use at home similar to their own software for examining the data returned from the red planet. Download data updates from their web site as they become available. I don't think we get to send Spirit any commands, but maybe I just haven't found the appropriate menu option yet. Windows, Mac and Linux versions of the software are available.

AskTog discusses several Mac OS X third-party apps that help make OS X all he thinks it should be— which is, apparently, Mac OS 9. DragThing, naturally, is his favorite.

AskTog hates the dock, and I can't help but sympathize. My first week as a Mac owner, I had already found myself opening the Applications folder to launch apps. (Again, DragThing is an excellent solution.)

AskTog seems to like Panther.

January 19, 2004

A comparison of BSD and Linux. Not a "this is better than that" comparison, just a nice discussion of the fundamental differences.

On writing maintainable regular expressions.

FlexCar, the beloved car sharing program, set up a nifty web-based reservation system several months ago. The site was pretty slick and worked great. One of the site's more important tables, a graph showing what times cars are available, didn't render quite right in some browsers, notably Mozilla and Safari. But the site was still usable in those browsers, and even if you couldn't see the table, the site still indicated when the car you're reserving isn't available for the time you're requesting. It's such a simple table that I just assumed they'd fix it within weeks of the site launch, and didn't think much of it.

Months later, FlexCar.com responded to complaints (I assume) of this table not rendering properly in some browsers by blocking all non-Internet Explorer browsers from the reservation system. I was surprised by this reaction considering the quality of the rest of the site implementation. Very 1999! So I wrote a letter to FlexCar, insisting that the problem is only with that one table/frame (as far as I could tell), is easy to fix, and does not warrant alienating up to 10% of their users to avoid fixing.

FlexCar recently responded to complaints like mine in their monthly newsletter, sent to all members:

Web Reservation System Requirements
We have received many questions about the support for browsers and operating systems. To clear up any confusion, below are the browsers and operating systems we support.

System requirements: IE 5.5 and 6.0 for Windows OS, and IE 5.2.3 for Mac OS X.

Initially our hope was that if we followed open Internet standards (promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C), we could expect the reservation system to work well under all major browsers. Therefore, we used open standards and avoided proprietary ones.

But we kept running into roadblocks. Unlike an informational Website that simply displays text and graphics, the reservation system is a Web-based software application that includes complex, interactive features (such as the time-selection grid) that require functionality that is not available in all browsers.

The fact is, there is still no browser that fully supports the W3C standards. There are browsers that are substantially "compliant" within the particular features they support, but each publisher picks and chooses which items (functions, events, CSS attributes, etc.) that its browser will support. And sometimes even supposedly "compliant" features behave differently among browsers (even between the Mac and Windows versions of Internet Explorer!). We found that in order to make the system work, we had to use W3C features that were not supported by all browsers, and in a couple of cases we had to use browser-specific features that are outside the W3C standards.

We are working on making the system compatible with more browsers, though we unfortunately can't provide specific dates yet. We will keep you up to date via FlexNotes.

I'm mostly just impressed that they felt it necessary to describe the web developer's plight in such detail in their newsletter. I still believe the problem is pretty easy to fix (though I admit I haven't had time to donate a fix of my own), and the exasperated blame-the-browsers tone of the article is disheartening. But I can imagine the resource constraints and political machinations that led to the browser blocking decision. I'm willing to take their word for it that they're working on fixing the few remaining design bugs and will eventually unblock browsers, considering that it's very much in line with their stated intentions toward designing for web standards and FlexCar's overall philosophy of accessibility and empowerment. But until the table is fixed and browsers are unblocked, it's a dark spot on an otherwise excellent web site.

January 14, 2004

*ahem* *ahem*:

New baby girl!

Please pardon me, I've decided not to post her name, exact date of birth, or photographs on my blog. I'm sure anyone with ill intent with regard to our privacy could acquire that information from data I've already made public, but for now, the choice for her name to be 'net searchable will be hers and hers alone. Friends and family are encouraged to contact me privately for the details. Thanks!

January 13, 2004

Newbie Unix tip: I don't normally do Unix tips (though there's no reason why I shouldn't), but I've tripped over this enough times that I should probably blog it to reduce the likelihood of tripping again later. scp lets you securely copy files between hosts over an ssh connection. When specifying remote filenames or directories that have characters that require shell escaping, such as names that contain spaces, you have to escape the characters twice: once for your local shell, and once for the remote shell.

  scp "Source File" "user@remotehost.com:~/Destination File"

will result in:

  scp: ambiguous target

because, despite the correct use of quotes to tell the shell that "...~/Destination File" is all one term, scp interprets the destination filename as two terms, "~/Destination" and "File". Additionally escaping the spaces in the remote filename within the quotes works as originally intended:

  scp "Source File" "user@remotehost.com:~/Destination\ File"

Notice that local names (like "Source File") do not need to be double-escaped. [Update: fixed example.]

TiVo To Go will give TiVo owners with the Home Media package the ability to transfer programs to their PC's for viewing or burning to DVD.

Literally just a few minutes before I found this press release, I ordered the necessary parts to add wireless networking to our DirecTV TiVo, which I intend to use for video extraction. The TiVo hacking community has considered video extraction a taboo subject in cooperative response to TiVo's willingness to continue allowing TiVos to be hackable, so TiVo can maintain a good relationship with the media industry and customers both. Naturally, I have no intention of illegally distributing extracted video. It's nice to see consumer demand for this feature officially met, by both TiVo To Go and the drool-worthy Pioneer TiVo DVD burner.

Funny that this little set of photos of TyStudio in action shows screenshots of Good Eats, which is the first thing we'll be extracting and archiving. Our hard-drive-expanded TiVo is nearly full with every single Good Eats episode ever made.

While we're at it: Get your Good Eats Geek Code.

January 12, 2004

Lego is in even more financial trouble than ever, and will be cancelling several product lines, including electronics and movie tie-ins. And I never got a chance to get into Lego Mindstorms! I won't miss the Harry Potter Legos, but considering Lego's toystore presence in the last few years, it's difficult to imagine what will appear in their place.

Speaking of toy stores, the FAO Schwartz in downtown Seattle, along with many other FAO Schwartz stores, is in the last throes of shutting down. There's not much left, but what's there is steeply discounted. A notable number of stuffed animals are left. Get that $500 giraffe for $250!

What is Mac OS X? Written as an introduction for Linux users, this article discusses more of the underlying systems of the operating system, and less the user interface.

January 9, 2004

It took me several different articles about Apple's recent product announcements to realize what the big deal about iLife actually is. I shrugged at the silly name, "iLife." I snickered at the slogan, "It's like Microsoft Office for the rest of your life"— though not before shaking off a double-take at the unintended second meaning of the phrase. After reading some brief descriptions, I wondered if the admittedly enviable upgrades of the products that were already bundled with my new Mac would be worth $49, and thought maybe not.

What I didn't realize until the next day: iLife includes GarageBand, a fully featured music authoring system, with reasonably rich MIDI and audio recording, editing and mixing capabilities. It has most of the features I paid hundreds for in the still-Panther-buggy Cubase professional-grade music production suite. If it's anything like the rest of the iLife suite, it'd be worth at least twice $49 on its own. Add the iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iTunes upgrades, and iLife is just an insanely great deal.

GarageBand, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD all cater to a notion of personal art that I've been desperate to formalize over the past few years, if only to emphasize its importance. I'd be writing more about it here if it didn't so closely resemble blogging about blogging...

mod_perl: Choosing a Templating System.

Inquisitor is a small, elegant Google-based Internet search app for Mac OS X 10.3.

It's funny how developers of third-party Mac apps love to immitate Apple's most recent marketing voice, arrogant and Lucinda Grande...

January 5, 2004

How to build a cheap Security NOC. Our NOC has a monitor dedicated to playing The Matrix on a continuous loop, which is perhaps appropriate, because the first Matrix movie is mostly about operators.

Newbie Mac tip: You can drag a file or a folder to a Terminal window, and its path will be entered into the Terminal as text.

Unanswered Mac question: How do I change the insertion point (aka "caret", aka "cursor" on other systems) blink rate in Mac OS X? It's a little slow for my taste, and makes it difficult to navigate through textareas. I tend to lose track of the cursor when moving vertically and the cursor is in the "off" mode. Doc searches indicate that in OS 9 and prior, this setting used to be in the PRAM, but that's all I can find. Anyone?

January 4, 2004

The Washington Post reviews CGI battle scenes in holiday movies.

Free alarm clocks for Mac OS X: Pester is simple and does exactly what I want it to: let me quickly set one-off pop-up reminders. Doesn't look like it has recurring reminders, though. MP3 Alarm Clock, also very well done, plays MP3's of your choice for the alarm sound, and looks great for recurring wake-up alarms. What's your favorite?

How to get the D-Link DI-514 802.11b to work with an iBook.

D-Link did a great job of steeply discounting their products in the last couple of weeks. I can't think of anyone who didn't get one of their routers for cheap this holiday season— except for myself, who just picked one up at Office Depot for full price. D'oh.