process comments edit

I understand that the IT department does their best to help people solve problems and offer services that improve…

You’re asleep already, aren’t you?

Okay, the short version: The company IT department is a good thing, and what they do is meant to help. I’m totally on board with that. I used to be in the IT department. We weren’t out to screw you, I promise.

Here’s the deal, though:

There are a certain quantity of problems that need to be solved, and your computer has a fixed amount of capacity to solve them in. Your disk isn’t getting any faster, your CPU isn’t going to magically process at an extra gigahertz faster. You’ve got what you’ve got. With that, besides getting work done, you probably also want to:

  • Back things up - It’d be a shame if you lost your work.
  • Stop the spread of viruses - You don’t want to get infected, now, do you?
  • Keep company data secure - If someone breaks into your car and steals your laptop while you’re picking up donuts for the morning meeting at the store, they shouldn’t get access to your proprietary data

Each of those things are valuable, but they also eat resources on your system. In some cases, not a trivial amount, either.

I have a 1.7GHz processor and 1.5GB of RAM. It’s not a super powerhouse, but it should be enough to get the job done. It took me eight full minutes to boot up and log in this morning, and my machine is still tanked. Why?

Say you’re getting ready to ride in a bike race. Your computer is your bike. “We got you a pretty decent bike,” says IT, “This bike will definitely get you over the finish line.” You look the bike over, check the specs, and take it out for a spin. Hell, yeah, that bike will do the trick.

“Now, it’s a long race, so you’re going to need some supplies. We’re here to help you,” says IT. And they are - it is a long race, and you do need some supplies. You’re thinking maybe a couple of energy bars and some water.

“First we’re going to strap this 30 gallon drum of water on your back. Yeah, it’s pretty heavy, but you have a fast bike. Oh, and in the event you need to take a break and get off the bike, you don’t want the bike rolling away (?!) so here’s an anvil. It’s okay, though, you have a fast bike. Oh, and we know the first leg of the race is basically a huge hill, but later in the race you’ll want more high gears, so we replaced all of the low gears with high gears so you don’t have to pedal as hard later on. But you have a pretty fast bike, so it should be okay.”

You struggle onto your bike and it barely moves. No one seems to be terribly concerned about this, though, because, crap, man, you have a fast stinking bike so it has to be you causing the issue. And if you complain?

“Yeah, um, I need some water, but I really don’t think I need a drum of water - I only need a water bottle.”

“Well, you can give us back the drum of water, then.”

“Can you give me a water bottle? I do need water, just not a drum.”

“Um, no - all we have is a full drum of water. If you only want a bottle, you’re on your own.”

Thanks.

The cumulative effect of the daily incremental backup, real-time virus scanner, real-time disk encryption, and everything else that runs in the background to help me out is killing me. I booted up this morning and with the startup cost of all of these services, I’m surprised they don’t send someone downstairs to personally punch me in the junk every morning, too. I mean, think about it - whenever I read or write a file, it goes through both a real-time AES 256 encryption and the real-time virus scanner, neither of which I have control to configure because it’s all centrally administered “for us.” I look sideways at this thing and the CPU is pegged and the disk light is on solid for three minutes.

But, hey, if I don’t want to suffer the cost of the incremental backup software (that runs for probably an hour each morning), I can uninstall it. Is there any other backup mechanism? No - if I uninstall it, I’m on my own. Or I could set it to run when I’m not at work… but, oh, wait, you need to be connected to the network to have it run, and the whole point of my having a laptop is so I can take it home with me at night and work disconnected if I need to. There’s no time when I’m not working on my computer that it’s connected to the corporate network. (Not that it matters; I only have about a 30 - 50% success rate on completing a backup at any given point anyway.)

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate what the IT department does for me and they’re a necessary piece of the puzzle. I just feel a little anchored down lately by all the help, is all, and I don’t think folks consider the overhead of all of these helpful-but-necessary services before rolling them out.

media comments edit

Remember how I just bought a new DVD player because my old one wasn’t playing movies? Now that I think about it, the movies it was having trouble with were Casino Royale and Stranger Than Fiction. The symptoms were basically the same as a bad disc - you put the disc in, the player tries and tries to read it to no avail, and you end up ejecting the disc.

From Slashdot

“It seems that the most recent DVDs released by Sony — specifically Stranger Than Fiction, Casino Royale, and The Pursuit of Happyness — have some kind of ‘feature’ that makes them unplayable on many DVD players. This doesn’t appear to be covered by the major media yet, but this link to a discussion over at Amazon gives a flavor of the problems people are experiencing. A blogger called Sony and was told the problem is with the new copy protection scheme, and they do not intend to fix it. Sony says it’s up to the manufacturers to update their hardware.”

Did I just buy a new DVD player because Sony screwed me?

At least I didn’t buy a new Sony DVD player. It’s a Samsung. :)

I’m having a hell of a time with the electronics at my house lately.

Jenn’s iPod has been having trouble syncing with the latest iTunes. Last Tuesday my Xbox gave me the Red Ring of Death. This weekend, my DVD player stopped reading discs and I encountered this awesome Windows Update issue where it pegs the processor at 100% for an indeterminate amount of time. Oh, and I think the connections for the center channel and the left rear channel on my receiver are going wonky.

Freaking awesome.

I’m starting to wonder if I’m coming upon that time where all of the warranties are failing or something - sort of like the seven minute conversation lull, but for electronics warranties.

There are a couple of positives to this, actually.

First, I picked up one of those DVD/VCR combos where the DVD is a recorder and can dub from VHS. (It also does high-def upconversion on both the DVD and VCR.) This is really cool because it allows me to take some of the videotapes we have of home movies and out-of-print stuff and convert to DVD. Tried it with my copy of The Maxx and it worked like a mad bandit. It also means one set of cables for two components - no longer do I need separate TV or receiver inputs for the DVD and the VCR. Very cool.

Second, it’s giving me an opportunity to re-evaluate a lot of things. How the home theater is put together, for example. I have a lot of interesting ideas we can put into place by reorganizing things and moving older components that don’t get a lot of use to other rooms (the CD player can move to a different room because we don’t use it much and the DVD player can play CDs). I’m also looking at how much time we really spent with the Xbox, and it’s a lot. While that thing is busted, I’ve played my other consoles, read books, put puzzles together, watched movies I’ve been wanting to watch for a while… It’s sort of crazy how it’s become such a central part of what I do in the evenings and it makes me wonder if that’s really how it is or if I just get lazy after playing for a bit and could actually do all these other things even with the Xbox around.

Xbox Support should be sending me a box to return my Xbox for repairs sometime this week, hopefully by Wednesday. It’ll be up to 10 business days before they send it back, then up to another five business days for it to arrive, so we’re looking at nearly three weeks. Better make the most of it!

Of course, it does sort of put a damper on some of my media center plans, since I can’t very well set up a media center connected to an Xbox without an Xbox.

Speaking of media center stuff, we were wandering around the mall this weekend and meandered past the Apple store. They had some Apple TVs on display and I showed Jenn how you could navigate around and listen to your music and such that you get from iTunes. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do all the stuff I need it to, so it’s not an option, though a well-configured Mac Mini might fit the bill. Anyway, I digress).

As we were looking at it, poking through the menus, Jenn turned and asked, “Is this is what you want to do with our movies?”

“Yes,” I said. “I want to be able to navigate through, see the cover art, select a movie to watch, and watch it, all without having to search through the binders full of DVDs. This, right here, is precisely what I’ve been trying to do.”

“Okay,” she said, “I get it now. That will be very cool.”

Breakthrough! I admit it was sort of hard to see the full effect when I showed her during my test run with Windows XP Media Center in a virtual machine over a wireless network, but I guess I assumed she was still getting the idea. Apparently not, but now she gets it and is on board.

Sweet.

gaming, xbox comments edit

Xbox 360 General Hardware
FailureSonofabitch.

There I was, playing a little Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, when the Xbox locked up on me while loading the next level. It’s happened before, so I turned the Xbox off (the control was unresponsive after several minutes) and turned it back on again.

And I saw the Red Ring of Death.

Apparently this is common enough to have a knowledge base article all to itself.

This is actually the second Xbox 360 I’ll have had - my last one failed on my birthday last July. Different failure, but both times I’ve had to send it back to be fixed. Hopefully I won’t have to go through the DRM hoops I had to go through last time to get my Xbox Live Arcade games to work on whatever console comes back to me.

xbox comments edit

A couple of Xbox 360 topics this morning.

Xbox 360 QWERTY Keyboard
AttachmentFirst, from the Gamerscore Blog, we find that this summer they’ll be releasing a miniature QWERTY keyboard attachment for your Xbox 360 controller. It was just last night I was complaining about the stupid virtual keyboard and having to run the thumbstick around to send a message. I’ll definitely be picking one of these up.

You can see Flickr photos of the keyboard attachment as well as a press release about it and an upcoming dashboard update. (The feature I’m looking forward to in the dashboard update: “A richer Achievement notification pop-up will showcase the name of the unlocked Achievement and the gamerscore value without needing to leave the game to check the Achievements list.”)

Second, something I’ve noticed lately is that in certain games and during certani music tracks, I’ll hear a static/crackling sound when I have the sound running through my receiver. I don’t hear the static when I listen to a CD or watch a DVD through the Xbox, I don’t hear it in most games, and I don’t hear it from any other component in my home theater - it’s just certain bits of sound from games and digital media. I also don’t really hear it when I listen through just the TV speakers via analog stereo connections.

I called Xbox Support about it to ask what the deal is. I explained the situation in detail (it took a while to get the details straight; I don’t think they have very many people calling with complex issues) and after maybe half an hour on the phone, we arrived at two conclusions:

1) Certain games and sounds are not well optimized for digital output. Particularly in Xbox Live Arcade games (which is where I’m hearing the most static), QA doesn’t always take the time to ensure that the sound is good on a high-resolution audio system. Since I’m not hearing it in all games and/or all media, it has to be a media/game specific problem that can be chalked up to bad sound engineering and QA.

2) I am a nitpicky perfectionist when it comes to audio/visual quality. Jenn doesn’t hear the static until I point it out, but it’s blaringly obvious to me. It makes me wonder if there is a lower population of Xbox 360 owners also having that Xbox 360 connected to a reasonably high quality home theater system where the problem will evidence itself. Regardless, once I hear the issue, I can’t not hear it, so I just put up with it when it rears its ugly head. Again, it’s not in all games, just a few. (Bejeweled 2 is a particular offender.)

Consider this a request to game companies and QA everywhere - test out your games not only on a standard user’s low-end A/V system but also on a higher-end system to make sure your game holds up.