Monday, 26 November 2007

I spent the better part of the last week at my dad's place, along with family and extended family for the holiday. They live in Los Altos, in the South Bay area of California. I decided, in a phase of misguided insanity, to get up at 4:00 a.m. on Friday morning to go down to the local Sears store in order to take  advantage of the Toshiba HD-A3 deal they had going (see an approximately equal Amazon deal here). The HD-A3 is a HD-DVD hd-d3_clfront player, and if you were willing to deal with the crowds, you could score one of the $300 players for $169, which is quite a deal. And it comes bundled with two movies (300 and Bourne Identity - good ones), and Toshiba has a deal where you can get five more HD-DVD movies for free from a list of titles.

Unfortunately, I forgot in my excitement and planning frenzy that Sears sucks. I should have stopped to - oh, I dunno - think or something.

Imagine the lonnnng line at Sears, waiting for the doors on the east side of the store to open precisely at 5am. People were giddy, and excitement poured from the mouths of people in many languages. Since I (of course) was late and was not really all that excited about being the last guy in, I just looked at the line and decided to wander down the sidewalk to the corner to see what other doors might eventually open up. If I was going to be last, I could at least get a good loser seat, you know?

This, friends, is where Sears made it's first mistake. Three other people stood with me at the wrong door, in sight of the long line of people who had been there for presumably hours. My door companions, too, had that dejected, partially confused look of glazed donuts in their eyes. And at about two minutes before the magical hour of 5am, the employees inside the store opened our door - before they opened the door where the long line was waiting.

Now, I don't know if some Sears employee thought that was funny or what, but I can tell you the line of people was collectively pissed, and vocalized that fact as we walked right in our door. Some bolted for our door, as well. Others stood their ground. It turned out it was no big deal, since the long line was at the entrance closest to the stair leading down to the electronics department (which is where everyone was headed - more on that in a minute). But the initial opening of the wrong door had the people worked up, and as we marched down the steps of the non-working escalator to the electronics floor, elbows and attitudes started to fly.

Now, if that was it, I'd say it was really no big deal. But there's a more to the story.

We get to the bottom of the escalator (mostly by force, as the crowd behind is pushing hard to get to  its destination), and see that there is no way to move once there because the growing number of people who have already made it downstairs are all stopped about 20 feet away, looking down at something, shoving and jumping over each other. I work my way through the throng and walk around to the other side and discover what was essentially a small, round end table on the floor with a festive red tablecloth draped over it, and a pencil. One woman among the staff started yelling to the entire crows that they would have to sign up on the paper to be served.

You have got to be kidding me, I thought. Who was the genius who came up with this idea?

I stood there and took a few body-blows to my back and shoulders as a couple fireplugs of individuals tried to force their way through the huddled masses to get to the magical service lamp table. It quickly got to the point where I decided to let a couple of controlled elbows loose when one particular individual got to be a little too rough... Just enough to point out he might want to stop, which he did. Then a seven-foot Neanderthal of an individual tried to barge his way through, and failing that then tried to lean and reach over everyone to sign up that way. He was arms-a-swingin' and managed to elbow my jaw a good one, which I didn't particularly appreciate, so in the true holiday spirit I responded with a quick and (relatively)harmless knuckle jab to the ribs. After a couple of those (hey, I was protecting my face), he decided to back off. At least people were able to recognize they were acting like idiots. Good thing no one was drunk.

Anyhow, this story is supposed to be about finding the HD-DVD player for my dad (which I eventually did), not about wrestling at Sears. Needless to say, I gave up on doing any business at Sears almost immediately. The store had almost every DVD player in their arsenal in boxes on the floor except for the Toshiba HD-DVD player and a couple others. So the only way to get what I needed was to sign up on a list that I could not get to and risk a bruised face. No thanks. I think maybe I'm giving up on Sears for good.

I left and did what all good 'Mericans do at 5:30 a.m. on a Friday. I went to Starbucks and got a latte and an expensive muffin. Then I decided to drive down the street in a city I am completely unfamiliar with (in the dark) and see what other stores/crowds I could find. Not too far away, Circuit City was incredibly freakin' packed. The line went around the back of the building even 30 minutes after they opened, and this was a very large building. I didn't even consider getting in line, but it was a sight to see. Same was true for Best Buy. The line was not as spectacular, but it was equally crazy. At both stores they were well-organized and seemed to have a gameplan in place. Much better than Sears, for sure.

Anyhow, I went back to my dad's house and sat down to finish a good Vince Flynn novel I was almost done reading and spent a couple hours that way, with some more coffee and food. I also got online to see what Costco might have in the way of HD-DVD players, since I know they sell them and I have found Costco over the years to be a great place to shop. Sure enough, they have the "club warehouse" version of the same player that was advertised at Sears, dubbed the HD-D3. And low and behold, once you subtract the in-store discounts, it was pretty much the same freakin' price, and  not just for five hours on that one Friday morning. Plus it comes with a HDMI cable, to boot. So, I jumped back in the car around 10:00 a.m., fired up Google maps and followed the directions to get to the nearest Costco.

Sure enough, there were tons of them stacked up and in stock. I also grabbed a 4GB USB thumb drive for my das for $25 after the coupon, which the guy at the register offered up since I didn't have one with me. That's what I mean about shopping at Costco. Between the prices, the service and the great return policy (which I've rarely had to use but it's great when you need it), it's always a good experience.

Anyhow, in my typical Costco-shopping fashion, I also picked up the entire Mitch Rapp series of paperbacks by Vince Flynn (fun books if you're into the whole CIA fiction novels and stuff like me) at for about $8.00 apiece (great deal), and then headed back to the house. Later we grabbed a HD-DVD copy of Planet Earth from Target (Costco only had the standard DVD version in the store, bummer...) to go along with the new player. My dad hooked it up and we watched some HD and standard DVD content, all of which looks great.

hddvd HD-DVD technology is amazing, especially at 1080 resolution. The HD-D3 outputs at 1080i and looks great on my dad's Sharp LCD he just bought. the standard DVD upscaling done my the Toshiba player looks great, with just a few "jaggies" in sharp diagonal lines showing themselves from time to time. The new James Taylor One Man Band DVD (standard DVD resolution) looked awesome on it. I use the Xbox 360 Elite with the HD-DVD drive at home on my 1080p projector, so I get the full 1080p with my setup and it's truly awesome. The HD-D3 has an ethernet port which we hooked up to dad's LAN, and we easily updated to the newest available firmware via the player's menu system.

So, if you're looking for a great deal on HD-DVD players, there are some terrific deals on the Toshiba models (I also hear the HD-A2 is blowing out for around a hundred bucks some places, wow). Check your local Costco store if you're a member.

And skip Sears. Or if you do go there, just be ready to fight dirty.

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Random Stuff | Tech
Monday, 26 November 2007 18:41:14 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Funny how eight years ago can feel like yesterday. My son died the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago, and while much has happened and changed in my life in the intervening time, there's a slice of me that was sort of put on hold, almost like one dimension of time has just stood still while another kept on moving along. I miss Brian, but I am thankful for the time we had together.

So, Thanksgiving is always a bit of a tough time for me. Each year, however, I try my best to remember what the day is all about and to reflect on the things in life for which I am truly grateful, and there are many. Last year I said many of the same things I'll say here, but that's what it's all about really - reflecting, changing and growing.

Not too terribly long ago some friends of mine impressed upon me the importance of taking on an "attitude of gratitude" in life. What they meant - at least in part - was that the place where you focus your mind is pretty much where you'll end up and that being grateful for what you have - rather than obsessed with what you don't have - is a positive thing to do. For the most part I think they're right. This time of year I tend to think about a lot of things, some difficult and some pleasant. But every year I try to take some Thanksgiving time to remember that even though life is crazy and time is often too short, there are so many thing in life for which I am grateful and give thanks.

Life's not perfect, and from the depths of the situations and experiences that substantially change us - often things that we would never wish to have happen again - we are destined to learn and grow, and hopefully to become better people in the end. I know I have experienced that over the years, and my life is quite different as a result.

Sometimes we learn and grow quickly, other times a little too slowly. I still make mistakes. Fear is a great motivator, one that can be leveraged for good or bad. Best to try for good.

But this is supposed to be about what I am thankful for. About gratitude.

I am thankful for my friends, my family, my good career, my home, my dog. I am grateful for talented surgeons and for the people in my life who have cared enough to stop their lives and take care of me when I was truly in need. I sometimes wish I was better to those who have been so good to me. I truly appreciate them, and am thankful they are a part of my life.

There are many people in this world better than me, and a few of those good people I have the privilege to know personally. I am thankful for them, even if I don't or can't always show it when it counts. I only hope in the future I can be more much more worthy of their qualities.

Finally, I am grateful for my life, the people in it, the goods and the bads, and for the possibilities of the future, whatever they may be. I've been very fortunate in many, many ways, and am truly thankful for that. As they say, "with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."

Yes, it is.

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Personal Stories | Random Stuff
Wednesday, 21 November 2007 22:25:44 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 13 November 2007

I'm doing more and more audio recording lately, and between a little dictation, some random music recording and more importantly the interview needs for the Internet IT talk show I co-host, I decided to go ahead and purchase my own portable digital recording system and microphones.

ZOOM_H4Note: I'm going to explain what I was looking for and a little bit about why, but before I do that let me cut to the chase and tell you that I bought a Zoom H4 Handy Recorder (lots of details at that link) and a couple Shure Beta 87A microphones with the appropriate cables. The feature set of the H4 turns out to be amazing, and I'm pretty excited about using it. I can also tell you that my early initial tests are quite encouraging quality-wise, but the real test will come over the next several weeks as I go to conferences and other places and get to put the gear through some real-world paces.

I had a number of priorities on my list when I started looking for a recorder. In a perfect world I'd get all of them. Wouldn't a perfect world be nice? Anyhow... The priorities were:

High-priority items

  • High-quality digital audio - Simply put, the fidelity of the recorded sound must be terrific, clean and without distortion, and I have to be able to count on the recording to be properly timed (not compressed or stretched when compared to other recordings from the same session).
  • Ability to use two or more external microphones with phantom power built into the recorder - Depending on the various mics I might throw at it, phantom power may or may not be needed.
  • Digital recording to commonly-used removable media, preferably SD cards - I already have a number of SD cards that I use for various purposes, and my laptop and other equipment all have SD slots, so it just makes sense.
  • Ability to leverage storage above 2GB - If I'm buying SD cards, I want to be able to buy high density, large capacity ones, and many devices are limited to 2GB.
  • Easy to get recorded files to the PC for editing.
  • Uncompressed audio capability and multiple bitrates to choose from.
  • Usability - It needs to make sense to use and I have to be able to set options and use it without earning a graduate degree in the ABC-brand device.
  • Small and portable in size - Ideally the microphones should be the largest part of what I have to carry around.
  • Removable batteries - The industry is rife with stories of devices that have built-in batteries that can't be serviced by the owner, which in my book is over the edge of ridiculous.
  • Runs on AC power as an option.
  • Firmware upgradable - Audio gear is also famous for being buggy, so I want to be able to download new firmware and apply it myself.
  • It has to be under $500.00 or else it's off the list.

Lower-priority items (good- or nice-to-have)

  • A built-in microphone for quick recording and portability would be nice for quick and dirty sessions and open environments (non-interview or -instrument or what have you), but it has to be of high-quality, or else it just doesn't do me any good.
  • Native MP3 recording as an option - if the quality is there, I want to have the option to record in this (compressed) mode since much of the time that's where it will end up, so in some cases it may help save some time and storage space to create native MP3s at a high bitrate.
  • Let me plug it straight into my PC or laptop via USB to move files, ala drag-and-drop.
  • As long as we have USB transfers, powering the device over USB 2.0 would be perfect for all those I'm-out-of-battery moments.
  • Instrument capabilities - I'd like to be able to plug my guitar in and record away, for example.
  • Guitar tuner built in - as long as it's plugged in, why not?
  • Multi-track mode - While we're at it, more than two channels to record on would be nice. I'll record the guitar and then add the vocals or another instrument later. Yeah I know, asking for a lot.
  • One button for really easy - even magical - menus and navigation. I'm thinking about interfaces like you find on the Zune, iPod or even iPhone (I can dream eh?), etc. here -- easy to use and quick to do stuff.
  • And a price under $300.00 would be even better, please (for the recorder only that is, the external mics are going to freakin' be a couple hundred bucks each, I know that).

So, how did I fare? At $243.0, the price was right, so that's a good start. The Zoom H4 meets almost all the requirements on my list (which is why I bought it), with a couple notable exceptions. The navigation and controls are not exactly simple (which is ironic since they call it their "handy recorder"), as you have to juggle a jog wheel with one hand and a directional button control with the other to establish your settings and navigate the menu. The screen is small, very small.

But, the latest upgrade of the H4 software (v2.0 which I had to download and apply to my new device as it was just recently released) makes some improvements to the readability of the screen, plus it does things like add support for the larger SD-HC cards up to 8GB (yay!) and a variety of other improvements as well as some cool new features. There have been five updates to the H4 software released over about the last year providing fixes and enhancements, which shows they're seriously improving as they go - a good sign.

My first experience recording with the H4 was a good one. We recorded two live shows for RunAs Radio at the Microsoft Dev Connections conference. I found a problem though when I tried to use my new microphones and cables. I had bought XLR-to-1/4 inch phono cables, not paying close enough attention to the jacks on the Zoom recorder, which can take either 1/4 inch or XLR on a combo socket. The problem is that the only way the recorder's phantom power works is if you plug in an XLR connection - There is no phantom power available when you plug in a 1/4-inch jack. So, I had to replace the cables I bought with the ones I need.

I've used the recorder in some test scenarios as well as in one formal, must-work recording session, and it performed very well. I've also just arrived in Barcelona, Spain for TechEd Europe, where I'll be recording a number of interviews. So, after this week I will be able to do a hands-on review. So far, so good, and I anticipate the same results after using the H4 as a production recorder.

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AudioBlogging | Tech
Tuesday, 13 November 2007 02:47:56 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 06 November 2007

People just don't think, research or plug in their brains a lot of the time before speaking typing.

Such was the case the other day over at Kim Cameron's Identity Weblog, which was defaced recently via a  vulnerability in the blog application software used to drive the site. Kim is a Microsoft employee and is their Identity Architect. So, he's in a public-facing security role at the company.

As Kim points out, people came out of the woodwork in the comments on a very brief ZDNet article to slam Microsoft, it's applications, the fact that the site was hacked, etc. What they did not realize, even after it was pointed out to them a few times by others, is that the site runs on a BAMP architecture (similar to LAMP, but in this case it's BSD Unix, Apache, mySQL and PHP).

Kim's site runs 100% on non-Microsoft products. The vitriolic commenters on the ZDNet site slammed Microsoft technologies where none exist, and exuded the virtues of using - for example - Linux, Apache, mySQL and PHP -- the very platform that they did not take the time to discover (or even ask) had just been victimized.

You know what they say about assuming things? Yeah.

Security threats are real and exist on all platforms equally, not just IIS and Windows, not just in Windows applications. Bad programmers are bad programmers, and even when well-programmed, new threats arise all the time and need to be remediated once known. There's nothing about that fact that's Microsoft-specific, and to assume such is irresponsible.

I like and respect Kim, and the work he has done is excellent. His evangelism of the need for better forms of identification, authentication and credentialing has been invaluable, and his emphasis on the broad-spectrum community, not just Microsoft, is the right way to address the issues that cross all platforms and application types.

I have seen this non-thinking, just-fire-off-at-the-mouth, *nix-fixes-everything mentality backfire on people before, to great cost. Any system administrator who thinks running anything other than Windows solves their security problems or obviates the need to test, patch, review and maintain has his or her head stuck so far in the sand we have to strain to see their backside. Thinking and reasoning is what makes people special and unique. Take the time to know the facts, understand the circumstances, and reason based in reality.

Facts: Problems exist everywhere - Windows, Linux, OSX, PHP, ASP.NET, you name it. More often than being caused by an underlying platform issue, most security vulnerabilities and exploits are the result of programming errors, a lack of defensive programming style, and poor test coverage. I've managed enough software development with a specific focus on security of the applications to know you can create a completely locked down platform on any of the options available, whether Linux or Windows or other. But if you don't have a solid application, you're screwed. It's a lot like buying a great alarm system with laser detectors in the ceiling, trip wires on the roof, foot-think ceilings of concrete to prevent break-through, glass break sensors on explosive- and projectile-proof glass ... and leaving the front door standing open.

Kudos to Kim for keeping his cool personality in the face of all this and, as always, providing a measured and reasoned response. As he says, "There’s a lot of ideology to get past in teaching people about security." So true.

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IT Security | Tech
Tuesday, 06 November 2007 10:17:40 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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