June, 2003

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Wicked Good

Saturday, June 28th, 2003

Saw the pre-Broadway production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked last night and found myself thoroughly charmed by the piece. The story, based on Gregory Maguire’s cleverly-written novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, is a sort of “prequel” and backstory to the movie classic The Wizard of Oz, and reveals just how appearances can be deceiving, and how both choice and circumstance shape destiny… I think what most appeals to me about it is how it shows—albeit in a fictitious context—that even “villains” have a story to tell, to which we can be sympathetic. I may be a bit overly sentimental but a couple of Elphaba’s (the Wicked Witch herself) numbers had me fighting to keep a dry eye.

I’m so much more productive…

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

… at the office when I have a (borrowed) Buffy standy-pop guarding my cubicle (and me in it) from frivolous visitors.

[photo of my cube, guarded by Buffy]

Best personal ad ever

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

One of my friends just posted a personal ad to Craig’s List:

I’m 21, I’m an Angry White Male, and I vote party-line Republican. Words that would describe me include “bitter”, “closed-minded”, “evil”, and “corporate tool”. My general political views can be summed up as “Arrest the Hippies” and “Nuke the Bastards.”

What makes it truly hilarious is that he’s actually being completely honest and accurate about himself.

Copy-protect THIS

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

In addition to the US version of the album, I thought it might be interesting to get the Canadian version of Sarah Brightman’s new album, Harem. So I did.

I received it today. Much to my great irritation, the music disc (according to Philips—owner of the CD logo and standard—it can’t technically be called a “CD”) was copy-protected in an effort to twart copying or “ripping” the disc to convert it into a storable format such as MP3. This is a major problem for me because although I have several hundred CDs in my collection, I have the all stored in MP3 format on a central server. I listen to the music using either the computer, network appliances that can play MP3s over my network, or my iPod.

Mind you, any attempt to prevent copying is completely futile; the worst they can do (and have done) is to make copying more difficult, much to the chagrin of many law-abiding consumers such as myself. Because the disc was designed to be playable in conventional CD (and DVD) players, all that I had to do is use such a player with digital output, and pipe that digital music stream back into my computer to record it. So I did. The added complication was that I had to solder together an improvised cable to allow me to connect the SPDIF digital output of my DVD player to the 2-pin header digital input of my computer’s sound card:

[photo of ripping rig]

This experience underscored the idiocy of attempting to copy-protect music discs. Some such discs have even been rumoured to damage computer CD-ROM drives. All in all it’s a huge disservice to the consumer, and ineffective for stopping music piracy. I hope there’s a special place in Hell reserved for the likes of the RIAA and their supporters.

Old memories

Thursday, June 19th, 2003

I refer not to nostalgia or reminiscence. I bought a laser printer today, a discontinued (but entirely capable; laser printers haven’t gotten that much better over the past five years) Xerox DocuPrint P8ex. I’ve found that I occasionally need to print documents at home—mostly maps and driving directions and such—and inkjet printers are particularly ill-suited for my usage pattern, as ink cartridges tend to dry out with intermittent use.

I’ve owned several different inkjets since my first (an HP DeskJet 500) in 1993; at the time, the DeskJet was priced around $500, which was considerably cheaper than the lowest-end laser printers of the day, which cost 2-3 times as much. Since then, manufacturers started selling inkjets according to a “Gillette razor” business model where the printer is priced next to nothing, but the consumables (most notably the ink) cost an arm and a leg to replace. Consequently there have been some inkjet printers that I’ve bought, used until the included ink cartridges ran out (which is after a mere couple hundred pages at best), and discarded, replacing it with a newer inkjet printer, and so on…

Finally, while some people find the ability to print colour a compelling feature of inkjet printers, in practice I’ve never had the need to print in colour. For prints of my digital photos, I’ll usually turn to places like ShutterFly; nowadays, even the photo center at the local Safeway supermarket will do digital prints. The quality of the prints is vastly superior to most inkjet printers, and the cost per print turns out to be lower than doing it yourself with an inkjet.

What really clinched it for me, though, was that laser printers have now fallen to ridiculously low prices, and their toner cartridges—though expensive—are rated to last thousands of pages. For my Xerox P8ex, I paid an almost-laughable $99.95 which includes a toner cartridge (separately priced at $120; hmm…) rated for 5000 pages. In my case said cartridge will likely last the entire useful lifetime of the printer (3-4 years).

Anyway, I managed to install the printer mostly without a hitch (though alarmingly, it uses enough power when printing to cause my ceiling lights to flicker). After doing so, I was browsing through the manual and upon further inspection of the “upgrading your printer’s memory” section, I realized that the printer uses the same memory modules as desktop computers from some 8 years ago. More importantly I realized I had some such old memories buried in the closet; I retrieved one, installed it and presto! upgraded my printer from 4MB to 20MB (quite substantial for a printer). Sometimes it does pay to be a techno-packrat like me!

Rite of passage

Friday, June 13th, 2003

I was cruising down
Montague Expressway
on the way back to the office after heading home to change into something more suitable for dining out. I noticed a motorcycle coming up behind me, and started thinking to myself, “Hey, is that a police motorcycle?” And so the argument went in my head: “I don’t think so, wouldn’t it say ‘Police’ on it?” “But I think only police ‘cycles look like that from the front.” “Don’t the police wear white helmets?”

If I’d been thinking clearly, instead of entertaining this little inner dialogue, I would have slowed down, just to be safe. Anyway, seconds later my question was answered, when the red and blue flashers came on and he pulled me over. And that’s how I got my very first speeding ticket.

[photo of me with speeding ticket]

Actually after four years in California it’s a surprise it didn’t happen sooner. I’ve been pulled over three times previously for various minor infractions, and let off with warnings as many times. I suppose my luck was bound to run out sooner or later.

The “rite” refers to something I’ve heard mentioned and discussed by many of my friends and acquaintances: traffic school. In California you can get a traffic violation stricken from your record (at most once every eighteen months, I’m told)—and thereby avoid paying increased auto insurance premiums—by attending a day-long class on the rules of traffic, etc. I wouldn’t call it a pleasant—or even interesting—experience, but it’s something almost everybody here goes through, and in a way I look forward to it as a sort of rite of passage towards becoming a “real” Californian.

iPod, you pod, EphPod

Wednesday, June 11th, 2003

After experimenting with a number of different portable MP3 players (including the Diamond Rio PMP300, the Creative Nomad IIc, the Memorex MPD8081, in addition to MP3 playback in my Audiovox Maestro PDA and my Casio EX-M2 camera), I finally got an Apple iPod when refurbished first-generation units went on sale at Apple’s online store last week.

After failing many tmes to get the recommended MusicMatch Jukebox software to work with the iPod, I downloaded the free EphPod software and, after having cleaned up the damage done by MusicMatch, worked perfectly. All I wanted was a small applet to upload music to the iPod, and EphPod filled that niche exactly. Highly recommend for all Windows iPod users…

The problems I’ve had with past portable music players were either that they were either too bulky (such as all the CD-based players), or didn’t have enough memory capacity to offset the hassle involved to upload songs (as is the case with the solid-state players). I knew the iPod could address both problems; only last week did it become affordable enough for my tastes. My only quibble about it so far is that being so shiny—polished acrylic in front, polished metal in back—it quickly accumulates highly visible smudges and fingerprints.

Warranty returns…

Thursday, June 5th, 2003

… and shipping stuff out in general have become so much easier since I realized I could open accounts through UPS and FedEx‘s websites, create and print shipping labels and hand the label and package off to my company’s shipping department, who will promptly hand over the parcel to the shipping company. (And if I don’t have tape or packing material, they’ll take care of that, too.) This works especially well for warranty returns of stuff bought online, because the original packing slip will list the weight so I don’t have to weigh the package.

Over the past month I’ve warranty-exchanged three items in this manner:

  • A not-nearly-refurbished-enough Onkyo DVD changer bought from OneCall.
  • A stick of Crucial DDR memory that unexpectedly went bad after two years of reliable service.
  • A two-bulb lighting fixture upgrade I purchased last year for the Eclipse1 aquarium hood on my office aquarium.

What held me back before was my perception that shipping stuff through the US Postal Service was cheaper. In fact, I’ve found that FedEx and UPS shipping rates have come down, while USPS rates have gone up, to the point where USPS is no longer competitive—especially considering the added inconvenience of going to the post office and waiting in line for 10-20 minutes.