Uncategorized

Samsung Fascinate: Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom!

Here is what happens when some corporate mooks take a perfectly amazing product and intentionally fuck it up.

The phone is awesome.  4″ AMOLED screen.  Excellent camera.  Terrific battery life.  Verizon network.  1 GHz processor.  Android.  If you stop there, you might have the best phone ever.

Now enter the mooks.

Apparently, someone at Microsoft bought a Verizon exec a fat line of coke and a $50 blow job at the Cabaret Royale.  Bing search is so cooked into this phone that you cannot even CHANGE to Google – for everything (search, maps, nav, everything).  Verizon has actually gone out of its way to fucking HIDE the Google Search widget from the Android Market.  Hello?  This is Android.  From Google.  And.  I.  Can’t.  Fucking.  Use.  Fucking.  Google.

IF I LOVED BING I WOULD USE A WINDOWS PHONE.

Attention Ivan Seidenberg: identify the mook in charge of this decision, and immediately sell him to AT&T.  They’ll love that dickhead over there.

And, Ivan, if you happen to be the mook who made that decision, I have a recommendation.  Over the next few weeks, a few hundred thousand of these phones are going to be returned because they don’t offer Google search.  Take each and every one of them and… yeah, you know what to do with them.

Here’s how awesome the phone is: I am considering keeping it and hacking Bing out of it.  It’s really a terrific phone.  Verizon, please, please, please, please, please, please undo this decision with all possible speed.

Please.

HTC EVO Summary

Owning the HTC EVO is like owning a Ferrari with a one-gallon gas tank in a land of dirt roads.

This phone is awesome: Front and rear cameras.  The best camera on a phone, ever.  An amazing display.  1GHz processor.  4G.  Hotspot.  Sexy UI.  Swype (beta).  It’s sleek, beautiful, powerful, and fun.  Like a Ferrari.

Here’s the one-gallon gas tank: battery life is about 4 hours, when I use it like I use my Droid (whose battery has only gone empty on me once or twice in the year I’ve owned it).  It’s epically FAIL.  Just doing basic stuff on it can drain the battery by 50% in an hour.

Here’s the dirt roads: Sprint’s network blows.  I’ve been on Verizon for five years now, having switched from Nextel, AT&T and Sprint.  So, sure, I’m spoiled.  But Sprint’s network is just lousy.  Even when I get 100% signal strength, over 1/2 the time, the data network is dead.  I’ve used the 4G bandwidth some, and occasionally, it’s faster IRL than Verizon’s 3G, but usually, it’s a lot slower.  It doesn’t matter if the underlying network is capable of 6 Mbps if it is only 10% available.

So the EVO is going back.  What a terrible pity.  I will definitely miss it.  But I need a phone I can really use, and I cannot use the EVO.

Samsung Epic 4G AMOLED vs. HTC EVO 4G LCD Screen First Impressions

I had a chance today to do a hands-on comparison between the two major 4G contenders from Sprint: the HTC EVO and the brand-new Samsung Epic.  Let me cut to the chase: I found the Epic’s AMOLED display to be unusable.

The Epic’s brilliant, colorful AMOLED leaps out at you with brilliant, oversaturated colors that make your existing phone look black-and-white, while the EVO’s LCD display humbly displays a neutral, normalized color palette.

On first impression, the Epic grabs your attention. “WOW, look at THAT!”  Images and videos just POP to life in a way you’ve never seen before.

But, on second impression, the AMOLED display comes up short.

The first thing you’ll notice is that whites are blue, not flat white.  Oversaturated colors pop at first, but eventually you start to see them as actually oversaturated.  These are minor problems, but problems nonetheless.

The major problem – the dealbreaker – is text.  The AMOLED display is incapable of rendering smooth font edges.  Instead of a nicely-blurred edge, individual pixels appear, resulting in difficult-to-read text.  The smaller the font, the more obvious the problem, as the eyes focus on tiny font details that turn into individual pixels.

It appears to me that the pixels in an AMOLED display are each surrounded by a tiny black border.  This is unnoticeable when displaying photos or videos, but black-on-white text – or white-on-black text – clearly shows the shortcoming.

I was hopeful that the Epic could be my new phone, but it and its Galaxy S brethren are now crossed off my list.  AMOLED fail.

Ubuntu’s Multimedia Challenge

Having used Ubuntu exclusively now for a few weeks, I am a true believer.  It’s just a great operating system, with great looks, speed, and power.  And it does almost everything a modern platform should.

Until you need multimedia power.  Specifically, photos, music, and video.

Ubuntu’s photo managers, like F-Spot, Shotwell, and the like are all hopelessly simple.  They tend to choke on large collections.  The first time I started F-Spot, I pointed it at the folder containing my photos and watched it die a miserable death.  They don’t organize well by metadata: sort by date, or sort by folder.  That’s it.  They either don’t connect to photo sharing websites, or connect only very clumsily.  The editing capability is terribly lacking.

Here, the paradigm is Picasa.  Picasa handles importing, organizing, simple editing, and uploading to a sharing site with absolute aplomb.  It is super fast, handles huge collections with ease, is very easy to use, and is surprisingly powerful.

Picasa is available as a download from Google (it isn’t available through the Ubuntu software manager) and only runs as a WINE app.  It’s stuck on version 3.0 and there is no sign of a future release, even though Google remains staunchly pro-Linux.  Nevertheless, Picasa 3.0 running under WINE is far better than any native Linux alternative.

In order for Ubuntu to succeed in the mainstream, it needs native Picasa, or a sufficiently robust alternative.

Next up is music.  The default player, Rhythmbox, is woefully inadequate.  I was sorely put to the test when I tried to perform the most basic of music management tasks: create a playlist and put it on my iPod.  I created the playlist easily enough, but found there was no way to copy it to the iPod.  FAIL.  Undaunted, I copied the tracks from the playlist to the iPod, then created a new playlist on the iPod and dragged the tracks into it.  This almost worked, except that when I tried to order the tracks to my liking, I found that they remained in the original order on my iPod.

And then when I tried to rename the playlist, Rhythmbox crashed.

Here there is One App to Rule Them All.  iTunes?  Ha!  I scoff at the suggestion.  Nay, not iTunes.

MediaMonkey.  Far and away the best music management app, ever.  By a longshot.

If all you do is buy songs from iTunes and play them in iTunes and on your iPod, then iTunes might be good enough for you.  And it would be better than any of the native Linux alternatives.  Of course, iTunes on Linux ain’t happening.

But if you have a complex mess of MP3s, FLACs, stuff your friend loaned you on a flash drive, songs you ripped from your CDs, and other serious organizational tasks, MediaMonkey’s database-driven design puts everything else to shame.

In order for Ubuntu to succeed as a mainstream OS, it needs music management software on par with MediaMonkey.

I’ve already mentioned how badly I hit my head on video editing.  I don’t expect Ubuntu to ship with a free copy of Vegas.  But the existing video apps are super weak.  Let’s pick one and run it over the NLE goal line, OK?

At least Ubuntu runs VirtualBox well.  I will need it for a few Windows apps that I’m not going to be able to leave behind.

At least, not yet.

Google Voice FAIL

Recent message transcription from Google Voice:

I’d love to be back on my staff. If the i’m on the put. Could be a me telephone and I’m Mesa. Maybe Clinton you’re leaving was on the within these things. But if it works isn’t gonna get there, and we had a second two passes. Bye.

I love it when a good plan comes together.

Not Moleskine. Ecosystem.

I’m a big Moleskine fan.  Besides their awesome notebooks, their small planner worked wonders on my ability to keep my poop in a group.

Today I discovered Ecosystem.  It’s like someone took everything that was great about Moleskine, and made it with a better cover, brighter, heavier paper, and clearer print.  Then they decided to make it out of 100% recycled materials right here in the good old USA.

If you like Moleskines like I do, then check out Ecosystem.  They rock.

Ubuntu: Video Editing FAIL

Well this time I really have bumped my head hard on Ubuntu.

Video editing apps are simply a shambles.  The default editor, PiTiVi (which apparently is Ubuntu-speak for “PiTiFul”) is terrible.  Editing is a joke.  It would take all morning to list my complaints, which isn’t worth my time.  Just suffice to say, it sucks.

I installed a half-dozen competing editors and found that the only app that comes close to being usable is Kdenlive, which is still pretty hard to use.

This is all to be expected, and is why I kept my Windows machine for multimedia editing.  But if you are planning a switch to Ubuntu, and expect to get any multimedia work done on it, watch out.  The apps are very, very weak at this time.

Ubuntu: PowerWIN

Update to previous post: I downloaded and installed the Linux ATI video driver for my Lenovo T400.  Immediately my battery life doubled.  I am now seeing battery life roughly comparable to Windows 7 – approximately three hours.  Additionally, the heat generated by the computer is much lower than with the old driver.  Apparently, the video GPU was just cranked up to 100% all the time.

If you use Ubuntu on a notebook, and are suffering poor battery life, a good place to start is with your drivers.  Who would have guessed a video driver would make THAT great a difference?

Ubuntu: PowerFAIL

I’ve been living in a completely Ubuntu world for over a week now, and am still loving the experience overall.  However, one thing has definitely given me pause: Ubuntu clearly consumes more power on my Lenovo T400 than Windows 7 ever did.

Typical battery life for me in Windows 7 was a solid three hours.  With Ubuntu, I am getting no more than 90 minutes.  That’s about a 50% reduction in battery life – similar to the results posted a couple of months ago by Phoronix.

I love Ubuntu, even if I can’t improve the battery life, so I’ll try some tweaks to see if I can improve the results.

By comparison, PowerWIN is clearly the Dell Mini9 Hackintosh.  No spinning disk, no fan, 9″ monitor, and MacOS gives it a typical battery life of well over four hours.  I’ve seen it run for over five hours if the monitor is dimmed.

Now I need to close this post.  I have only 10% battery left and my PC is about to die.

Ubuntu: The Time Has Come

I’ve messed around with the Ubuntu operating system off and on for several years.

It’s an important concept: a Linux distro focused on simplicity, usability, and mass appeal.  Unix has been the “next big thing that never happened” since the 1970s.  Linux was supposed to be the killer implementation, and Red Hat and other companies did a good job at creating compelling server-side distros, but no Linux distributions have ever been sufficiently end-user-friendly to displace Windows and Mac on the desktop.  For years it’s been next to impossible to find drivers for the myriad of hardware that’s required on the desktop for things like cameras, scanners, joysticks, etc.. And applications for Linux – while available – often lack the polish of Windows or Mac apps, and typically must be compiled for the user’s target operating system… needless to say, this is not the sort of process for Joe User.  Problem is, the typical Linux user thinks this process is Just Fine Thanks due to a hundred technical reasons that nobody cares about, so for years, change has come very slowly.

Ubuntu and its benefactor Canonical have been working diligently to make a Linux distro that’s truly user-friendly – something that could truly compete in the free market against Windows and Mac.  I installed Ubuntu for the first time about three years ago, and found it to be interesting – even compelling in many ways – but like always, the drivers and lack of software prevented me from living with it.  I used MS Office apps, and the replacement, OpenOffice, was too underpowered for me, and drivers for much of my hardware were unavailable or inadequate.

Things have been changing, and I have now switched to Ubuntu on all of my computers except my Hackintosh and the DAW at Pleasantry Lane.  While the software is still less-than-enough, I have found that over the past few years my dependence on MS Office has waned significantly due to two factors:

  • MS Office has failed to advance in usefulness
  • Cloud apps like Google Docs have become worthy alternatives

For photo management, nothing touches Picasa, which works better on Windows and Mac than on Linux.  But it does run on Linux (are you listening, Google?).  For music management, nothing touches Media Monkey, but I can use Ubuntu’s default player “Rhythmbox” well enough.  Oracle offers a strong, free, VMWare-compatible virtual host called VirtualBoxOSE that has helped ease my Windows separation anxiety: if something comes up that requires Windows, well, I still have Windows.

I used to do primarily Windows based development.  But, increasingly, I’ve come to see the light on using VMs for development since they make it so easy to have clean, isolated development environments that are easy to push back and forth to production VMs, so running a dev environment in a virtual machine isn’t really a problem if I want to do Windows development.  And besides, increasingly, I’ve been itching to do more *nixy development, like Python, Ruby, MySQL, and CouchDB which I can do natively on this machine (though I’ll probably use a VM for them as well).

Other, bundled software is pretty nice.  There is OpenOffice, which has matured significantly.  There’s Gwibber (a social-media client) and Empathy (a chat client).  Remote Desktop (for Linux boxes) and Terminal Server clients are both built-in.  I spend a lot of time in text editors – and really like the Gedit editor a lot, enough to turn my back willingly on EditPad Pro.  There’s the Evolution mail and calendar client which, like Outlook, I doubt I’ll ever need, since Gmail rocks.

Drivers seem stable, solid, and plentiful.  The only device on any of my computers that doesn’t work in Ubuntu 10.04 is the fingerprint reader on my Lenovo notebook.  Other stuff works surprisingly well.  Integrated camera?  Just works.  HP all-in-one network printer/scanner/fax?  Just works.  Things that used to get Linux boxes really confounded (like Sleep mode) work great now.  Heck, even Bluetooth works.

Other things are such a pleasure.  Boot up time into Ubuntu, once the computer has left the startup screen, is literally one second on my Lenovo (which has an SSD).  Networked computers all see each other nicely and play well together.  The UI is slick and powerful.  Fonts render better in Firefox than in any Windows or Mac browser, making web surfing more pleasurable.  The installation process is super-painless – easier than installing Windows 7 or Snow Leopard.  Ubuntu One is nifty.  The Ubuntu Software Center maintains a convenient list of easily-installable, compatible, and free apps that automatically compile and install in seconds.

It’s fast.  It doesn’t crash.  And it’s virtually virus-proof.

Did I mention it’s free?

Wha Happa?

So… if you follow me at all, you know that this spring, I sorta vanished.  As in, I was impossible to reach and all of my websites went dark.

Well, it’s like this.

In February, my Dad went into the hospital for what was to be the last time.  He had a rough time in his last few weeks, and I spend a lot of time at the hospital.  I had to cancel my plans to meet my friends Russell and David in France for the Jean-Michel Jarre tour and stay in Dallas to tend to him, and to organize a funeral.

While all this was going on, a team of Turkish hackers broke into my Windows box and hacked all of the websites that I host: ProRec.com, RipRowan.com, Pleasantrylane.com, WebCulture.net, and a few others.  It was an unmitigated disaster.

Fortunately, I learned my lessons from my last catastrophe, and I had a backup.  Or so I thought.  My backup device, which had been working, finally failed.  All of my backups were lost.  I still have the content (in the SQL databases) but the pages – they’re gone.

It never ends, does it?

In the meantime a had a bazillion personal responsibilities – including helping out on the new Old 97’s CD “The Grand Theater” – and traveling all over with Vanessa.  I’ve only recently settled temporarily in Austin for a bit so that I can catch up.

I am just now getting back to recovering the sites.  Brent Randall relaunched ProRec on a new hosting service, and we’re working on getting the old content migrated.  I’ve relaunched RipRowan.com here on WordPress.  PleasantryLane will come back soon, as will WebCulture.net.

Nevertheless, it still makes one consider a career in food or custodial services.

Help Me Decide!!!

So I find myself in possession of one too many computers, and I need your help.  Which one should I get rid of?

Computer one is my Hackintosh.  This one is not up for debate.  I have to keep this computer.  This little Dell Mini 9 running Snow Leopard is so useful I wonder how I ever lived without it.  I only note it because…

Computer two is my Lenovo T400 notebook.  As a notebook, it’s a hoss.  8 GB of RAM, 128 GB SSD, 320 GB 7200 RPM data drive, WXGA+, you name it, it’s got it. Even a “real” docking station.  It’s awesome, and if I ever get around to doing more “real” consulting work, I’ll need a good notebook PC.  But then, there’s…

Computer three – the StudioCat Ultra DAW workstation.  6 GB RAM, Intel i7 975 Extreme Edition, 3 TB of disk, in an awesome Antec P183 case.  It’s big, it’s solid, it’s deathly quiet, and an amazing workstation.

So I need to get rid of number 2 or number 3.  I don’t need two portable computers… unless I get a consulting gig that demands one.  And I don’t need all the power of the StudioCat PC… but it’s pretty amazing.

I don’t need all three.  Which one do I dump, and why?

Hackintoshed!!

So I’m writing this with my new $350 Hackintosh netbook.

I learned about Hackintoshing a few months ago, and was intrigued. I love the Mac OS, but there are things about Apple that seriously bother me. iTunes? Can’t stand it. The closed nature of the Mac platform? Not so much. You have to buy a $2600 Mac Pro just to get an expandable computer. And the prices generally. Lordy.

I tried using a Mac as my main computer for a few days and gave up. It is a lovely operating system and a MacBook Pro is a very nice laptop, but the cost – about 2X of the (more powerful) Lenovo – and inability to live “natively” on it (being a Windows guy in Real Life) caused me to give up on it.

But I liked the Mac experience. OSX is a terrific operating system. It’s so clean. It’s delightfully Unixy. I’ve owned several Macs back in the day, and it has always bothered me when I go to someone’s Mac and don’t remember how to use it.

And then there’s these nifty netbooks everyone is running around with now. The form factor is intriguing. Tiny, lightweight, cheap, and powerful enough for most day-to-day tasks.

I finally saw one in real life at Stack Overflow DevDays, and was convinced. It was a Dell Mini 9 – universally recognized as the easiest, most compatible Hackintosh platform (apparently the 10v is also a very good Hackintosh). It essentially runs OSX natively, right out of the box, and supports it almost completely. Dell no longer makes the Mini 9, but you can pick up a refurb unit cheap. I got mine for $220, with free shipping. I already had a copy of Snow Leopard from my aborted attempt at Mac Ownership. I dropped a 64 GB RunCore SSD into it and set about installing OSX on it.

It was completely painless. I followed these simple instructions and in about an hour had the thing up and running. The only thing that didn’t work correctly was Sleep and Hibernate (the computer would hang when you tried to put it to sleep) which was resolved by installing the free SmartSleep utility from Apple which fixed the Sleep but not the Hibernate problem.

The main complaint – common to any computer with this tiny form factor – is the usability of the keyboard. It is cramped, and the apostrophe / quote key is in a terrible location. However it is usable – I am able to type at about 80% of the rate I achieve on my Lenovo (which may have the perfect keyboard). Productive, but not enjoyable. If you are a serious touch-typist then you will have more problems. I am sort of a four-fingered typist so I think that I am probably more adaptable to this keyboard.

I have read a few people who say that they can type better on an iPhone than the keyboard on a Mini 9. That is balderdash. The Mini 9 does take some getting used to, but it’s a lot faster than typing with one or two fingers. Some people have swapped the keyboard for the Euro / US version which trades smaller keys for a better key layout. I think it comes down to one thing: if you’re writing code, or a novel, or any other large text that makes heavy use of apostrophes and / or quotes, then the Mini 9 is going to be pretty frustrating. Otherwise, you should be able to make it work for you.

On the good side, the screen is small (1024×600) but lovely. It is bright and white and sharp and very pleasant to look at. And with 2 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD the computer is quite fast. Totally inadequate for serious CPU work like A/V, but for 90% of what I use a computer for, it’s just great. It will play videos nicely, too – and they look terrific on the LCD. I/Os are good – ethernet, VGA, 3 USB, audio, and an SD slot. It is the perfect travel companion.

It is also silent – has no moving parts at all – and cool. The bottom warms up a little but doesn’t ever get anywhere near “hot”.

Dell sells the Mini 9 with Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a great little operating system, and is nicely configured to be netbook-friendly on the Mini 9 – but it doesn’t compare to OSX. OSX may be the perfect netbook OS. I haven’t yet installed iLife on this computer, but I can see it coming.

And finally, there’s the cool factor. You’re running the best consumer OS money can buy, on a small, quick, nifty, and very cheap piece of hardware. It’s Mac-cool without the Mac-cost.

If you want a Mac netbook, you have a choice. You can wait for Apple to make one, or you can just Hackintosh a Dell Mini 9 or 10v.

Semantic Blogging Redux

A while back I posted something about WordPress’ taxonomy model.  At the time I thought it was clever and thought we should use something like it for the DotNetNuke Blog module.  Now, I’m less enamored with it.

Here’s why.

To recap, have a look at this database diagram:

The seeming coolness stemmed from the decision to make “terms” unique, regardless of their use, and to build various taxonomies from them using the wp_11_term_taxonomy structure.  So let’s say you have the term “point-and-shoot”, and you use that as both a tag and a category.  “Point-and-shoot” exists once in the wp_11_terms table and twice in the wp_11_term_taxonomy table – each entry indicating the term’s inclusion in two different structures.  This seems useful because the system “understands” that the tag “point-and-shoot” and the category “point-and-shoot” both mean the same thing.

But is that always a safe assumption?

Consider the case of a photo blog, where the writer is posting photos and writing a little about each.  This photographer has a professional studio, and also shoots portraits in public locations, as well as impromptu shots at parties.

This photographer has set up a category structure indicating the situation in which the photo was taken “Studio/Location/Point-and-Shoot” (meaning, an impromptu photograph) and another structure or set of tags indicating what sort of camera was used “Point-and-Shoot”, as opposed to “DSLR”.

Same term.  Two completely different meanings.  Use that term as a search filter and you will get two sets of results, possibly mutually exclusive.

And so – to truly be “semantic”, the term cannot exist independently of its etymology (as expressed in the category hierarchy) as WordPress attempts to implement.

One Injury, Ten Countries

An interesting concept – author with a bad shoulder travels to 10 countries seeking various solutions, then writes about his experiences with various forms of health care in each country.

Something leapt out at me.  Although the book treats this as tangential, I found it strikingly salient:

In an Ayurvedic hospital in India, a regimen of meditation, rice, lentils and massage paid for entirely out of pocket, $42.85 per night, led to “obvious improvement in my frozen joint,” Mr. Reid writes, adding, “To this day, I don’t know why it happened.”

Well there you go.  Arrogant Western medicine does, in fact, have an awful lot to learn from Eastern.  In most of the countries he visited, surgery and steroid injections are de rigeur.  He had to practically travel to the Third World to learn that an inexpensive and risk-free solution was possible.

For over a decade I struggled with a variety of back problems, rejecting the expensive and very risky surgery for so-called “physical therapy” all based in the best Western science has to offer.  A couple months of hatha yoga (Bikram yoga, to be exact) and my back and other joints are as healthy as they were at age 18.

Go figure.  Maybe after a thousand years, those crafty Indians actually figured something out after all.

I think the author – and the NYT article – miss the whole point.  The NYT writer comments that “the comparative merits of different orthopedic philosophies are secondary here.”  Not so fast, Abby.  I don’t think it’s secondary at all.

Perhaps if Western medicine comprehended – and Western insurance covered – valid and often superior forms of treatment like hatha yoga, the United States wouldn’t be in a health care “crisis”.

The Angel of Death

So I decided last Wednesday to finally retire my aging desktop.  It died a peaceful, natural death.

The rest were not so lucky….

For some time I have wanted to replace my aging desktop + laptop combo with a single portable notebook that could serve double duty as an easy traveller as well as a desktop replacement.  I finally found a machine that met my needs well: the Dell Studio XPS 1340.
xps131_01The Studio XPS 1340 is small, weighing about 5.5 pounds, which makes it nicely portable.  And, in an affordable configuration offered at Best Buy, it sports a 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo (1066 MHz FSB), 4 GB RAM, and a 500 GB 7200 RPM hard disk – all of which make it a reasonably strong performer.  It has a nice backlit keyboard, strong metal hinges, a tasteful design with leather accents, and other appointments that seem well thought-out.  And, at $899 from Best Buy, the package was irresistable.  This was the machine for me.

I disassembled my desktop to harvest the data drive out of it and set about getting it ready to eBay, then headed off to pick up my new computer at Best Buy.  Like all new PCs I purchase, my first step when I got it home was to delete the drive partitions and set up Windows sans bloatware.  By the time I had installed Vista (and updates), and Office 2007 (and updates), and Visual Studio 2008 (and updates), and SQL Server (and updates) and other apps, most of my day was gone.  Late that night I inserted a CD-ROM to hear an angry clicking sound from the slot-loaded drive, followed by a diminishing whirring noise.  Yep, the optical drive had failed.

Next day dawned bright and early, as I disappointedly headed back to Best Buy to return the dead machine.  This time I was buttonhooked by the Apple salesman – a slick, knowledgeable gentleman named Bruce.  Bruce wasted no time talking up the MacBook Pro and bashing Dell and Microsoft.  I’ve been saying for years that my next machine might well be a Mac.  It’s no secret that Apple’s building the best hardware out there, and that OSX is the best desktop operating system yet built.  It’s also not lost on me that the virtual machines available to run Windows apps have become robust and powerful, and are strong performers.  After almost an hour of brainwashing from Bruce – as well as the lure of the seductive aluminum lovelies on display – I dropped an additional $1600 and walked out of the store with a MacBook Pro and a copy of VMware Fusion.

It wasn’t 30 minutes before I was truly in love with the Mac (and Leopard).  It does so many things so well.  But 12 hours later – after installing Snow Leopard, Fusion (and updates), Vista (and updates), Office (and updates), et al – I was faced with the ugly truth that however slick and powerful the 2.8 GHz MacBook Pro might be, running Microsoft apps in VMware is still a clumsy and slow way to run a development environment. I’m sure that the MacBook Pro will outrun any Windows notebook when dual-booting Vista natively, but running Vista in a VM is definitely not as fast as running it natively on the 2.4 GHz Dell.  Sorry guys, as a Microsoft development environment, it isn’t as good.  If I could live in MacWorld and rarely use the Windows apps, it would be worth it.  It’s awesome.  But if you live in the Windows world (as I do), the MacBook ends up being a very, very expensive Windows machine.

So, next day.  Back the MacBook went.  I get working on the replacement Dell 1340.  It’s not as slick as the MacBook Pro but it’s pretty sweet.  And I have $1600 back in my pocket.

12 hours later, the thing up and died.  This time, the motherboard.

Bummer.  Another day lost.  That’s three days now that have been spent setting up (and returning) computers.

So, third time’s a charm, right?  Wrong.  That was the last Dell 1340 in all of North Texas.  Maybe all of Texas.

I’m not a deeply religious man, but sometimes I get the idea that God is sending me a clear sign.  Maybe I’m not supposed to have a new computer right this moment.  OK, I get that.

So I decide to go ahead with Plan A (getting rid of the old desktop) but figure I can drop an extra gig of RAM in the old notebook and make it last another year or so.  Plus, I got my hands on a Win7 install and from all i can tell, Win7 outperforms Vista.

So, I fdisk that puppy and install Win7 on it.  Late that night, as the Win7 install is wrapping up, the installer throws errors.  The computer reboots.  CHKDSK is running.  CHKDSK is not happy.  Yep, the hard drive has failed.  Another one bites the dust.  Three down.  Four including the original desktop that died a natural death.

OK.  Now I’m considering a career in home and garden, or perhaps food preparation.

I shake off these thoughts and resolutely turn my mind to positive thinking.  Life hands you lemons?  Make tarte au citron, that’s what I always say.

So I decide to drop the coin for a solid state drive for the notebook.  $300 later, and the notebook is now equipped with the 128 GB SSD from Crucial.  250 MB/sec read, 200 MB/sec write.  Holy Mother of God is this thing fast.  I’ll save that for my next blog post, but I was blown away by the speed.

So Sunday I spent the day reloading Win7 (and updates), installing apps (and updates) — you know the drill.  The computer was super fast now.  I rearranged my desk to be notebook-friendly.  Life is looking good.

Late Sunday night.  No, make that Monday morning.  1:30 AM.  I finish a last set of updates.  The computer reboots.

Why is CHKDSK running?

I think the SSD may be bad…

… I think I’m going to cry now.

True Believer

Joel Spolsky is a big fan of SSDs.  Even when he’s wrong, I like reading his stuff.  But when he’s right, he’s oh-so-right.

So, if you’re keeping up, I recently installed an SSD in my laptop.  This is the summary.

SWEET JESUS MY COMPUTER IS ON METH!

Now, this is not a serious benchmark review.  I”m just calling ’em like I see ’em here.  But this old notebook is now the fastest computer I’ve ever used.

Not really.  If I had to throw a big video rendering project, or a big compilation project at it, it would feel pretty slow.  It only has a Core Duo 1.7 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM.  The ATI Mobility 1400 display adapter doesn’t completely suck for a notebook, but it’s no award winner either.

In fact the only fast piece of hardware in the whole system is drive.  This is one of – if not THE – fastest SSDs available: with 250 MB/sec reads and 200 MB/sec writes, this 128 GB model from Crucial is really, really damned fast.  About twice as fast as a pair of 10,000 RPM Raptors in RAID0.  In the bidness, we call that “crazy fast”.

So this three year old computer simply feels like the fastest machine I’ve ever used.  And I own a really fast machine – a quad processor box with 4 GB of RAM and a nice display adapter I built for my studio.  The laptop feels much, much snappier.

Click on an app, and it just opens.  Boom.  Open a file – no waits.  And the impact on the swapfile can’t be underestimated, either.  When you’re running a lot of apps – even when you have lots of RAM – Windows will use the swapfile heavily.  With this uber-fast drive, you almost never notice swapfile activity.  It just happens too fast.

Which goes to show you – most of the time we’re waiting on our PCs, we’re really waiting on our hard disk.  Don’t believe me?  Throw an SSD in your old PC and get back to me on that.  Like me and Joel, you’ll be a true believer.

Music Appreciation

Welcome address to freshman parents at Boston Conservatory,  given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory:

One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician.

I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “You’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940

Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.” On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world

I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day

At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds

Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had

Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings —people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?” Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this: “If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary

Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.