Saturday, December 30, 2006

Movies, cell phones, and Linux...

I recently watched two rather amazing movies.. the first, via Netflix, was City of God. The second, in a theatre last night, was Children of Men. Children of Men may just be the most under-hyped movie of 2006. It was incredible, and while possibly hard to find (only in one theatre around here), I highly recommend checking it out.

A Russian web site has posted some information about new HTC phones coming in 2007. The Vox, and its successor, the Wings, both look pretty spiffy. I like the numeric keypad on the front for quick, easy dialing and texting, and the slideout keypad for sending longer messages or entering data that's hard to key in with t9. The new clamshell model also looks pretty slick. My first HTC phone was a Blue Angel, then a Tornado. I've been waiting for a new model with a slim form factor, 3G, and integrated GPS. 2007 just might be the year to upgrade.

This morning I came across an interview with the founder of Ubuntu Linux. A coworker of mine showed me a recent version of Ubunto on his laptop, and I was pretty amazed. It's come a long way since the early versions I played with a couple years back. It has some cool, original UI effects that I haven't seen in Windows nor OS X, and according to my coworker has had better plug and play support for some of his devices than Windows or OS X as well. That's quite an accomplishment for a Linux distribution.

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Winter Update

Having gone back to LA for a week over Thanksgiving just a month ago, I didn't really feel the need to take a vacation, and decided to stay here in Seattle over the holidays.

Seattle gets really quiet this time of year. It doesn't seem like very many people are actually from the city of Seattle. Most have moved here from other suburbs, cities, and states, and go back home over Christmas. Those of us that decided to stay banded together and hit local bars for a few drinks, and went out for Chinese dinner in the city's International District on Christmas.

Most of my coworkers took the two weeks around Christmas/New Years off. I didn't really feel like I needed time off, and am engaged in what I've been working on lately, and kept going in to work. My friends thought it was weird I went to work on Christmas day, but seeing as I don't celebrate Christmas, it was just another day to be productive for me, albeit a very quiet one at the office.

For Hanukkah, I got a Canon sd700 is digital camera to replace the sd400 I broke in a minor mountain biking accident. I also got Gears of War (an amazing game) and an external Maxtor disk drive for my new home media server.

I've been playing a lot of Xbox 360 lately. From 2001-2006, I more or less stopped playing video games altogether (the last game I was seriously hooked on prior to that was Warcraft 3). In fact, the Xbox 360 is the first game console I've personally owned since Super Nintendo. I'm seriously hooked on everything about it.

I've caught up on all my blogs, and all the mailing lists I follow at work (which amounts to skimming tens of thousands of emails). I've read a whole bunch of magazines, and am left only with the latest issues of Details, Wired, GQ, Business Week, and MSDN Magazine on my coffee table (the latter is a recent edition - I'm now officially a total nerd).

I've spent a whole lot of time playing with a whole bunch of new software and toys that won't be announced and/or released for another year. Some people appreciate the health plan, it's the toys that do it for me. This is one aspect of my employment with Microsoft that I will miss most when I move on in the future (this, and the ability to dig up internal code/specs or IM the developer who built something when I wanna understand the internals of how it works).

My relatively new job as a software design engineer is still enjoyable, educational, and challenging. I'm learning a lot more and feel a lot more intellectually stimulated than I did during much of the time I spent in my former role as a program manager. I've been spending a lot of time collaborating with a few young bright developers in India, which has certainly been an interesting experience with its own set of challenges and learning opportunities.

While I once again feel challenge and am again learning new things, I still feel a bit jaded about the whole work life balance culture I've written about before. Yesterday, my buddy and I worked all day in our empty building then went to grab dinner. After dinner, he asked "are you gonna go back?" I was like, "hmm, are you?" Then we both decided to head back to the office, where we stayed working across the hall from each other with our doors open listening to music past midnight. That's the sort of culture I love. The problem is, he's one of the very very few dudes I work with that operates the same way I do (also one of the few dudes I work with my age, no kids, etc). Most of the time, it's just me alone in the empty offices - and that's not good for someone whose job motivation is "to have fun" as opposed to "to feed my kids" or "to climb the corporate ladder".

But alas, I digress..

I'm again trying to convince my Dad to use technology to reach out to members of his temple and community. I recently helped him post a video of his High Holy Days sermon, which I'd highly recommend checking out.

I've been thinking quite often about the purpose and future of this blog. As I write this, I just realized I've been blogging for over 2 years now. I went back and re-read one of my first posts from the very beginning called Why Blog?. I suppose it still holds true, though since then I think I have become okay with using the blog to update people who care about what's going on in my life from time to time. I find myself interested in reading such updates in other peoples' blogs.

Well, that's about it for this semi-stream-of-conciousness post. It's rather quiet around here over the holidays, so if you're a friend and ar ereading this, drop me a comment/email/IM sometime and say hi. :)

Friday, December 22, 2006

COMCASTIC Price Reductions!

Today, my Comcast combined cable internet and television bill went from $122.18 to $136.69 when they raised their 2007 prices and when my "we know our prices are too high" promotion ran out.

What's a "we know our prices are too high" promotion? It's the promotion you get when you call Comcast and tell them their prices are too high. It lasts for 6 months, and you must call to renew it at the end of the 6 month period. The conversation goes something like this (minus a lot of smalltalk about Christmas):

Adam: Hello, I'm calling because I noticed the monthly amount on my bill for the upcoming billing period is increasing from $122 to $137, and I'd like to understand what's going on.

Comcast Rep 1: My guess is you had a promotion that expired.

Adam: Yeah, that sounds right. About half a year ago I called you guys because a previous promotion I had then had expired, and the price for your services were just too expensive. Your cable internet service before taxes is $46/month, but Qwest's DSL service is only $27/month. The person I spoke to then gave me another promotional discount to keep me from looking around at other services.

Comcast Rep 1: Oh but you're not seeing the big picture. DSL is barely faster than dialup, and there are outages all the time [Comcast never has outages]. A girl here used to work for Qwest, and she says Comcast is much better, and that you only get fast speeds if you're 500ft away because of all the noise.

Adam: (giggling) I see. Well, I sorta work with these technologies for a living, and that's just not the case. Qwest does have a 7mbps DSL service for $37/month, that's still $10/month less than you.

Comcast Rep 1: Well my son plays video games, and they really need the high speeds, if you do this for a living you probably know that already. We all have decisions to make, but you should really look at the big picture.

Adam: Look, the bottom line is that my bill went up from $122 to $137 for service that has stayed the same and is already overpriced. If you can get the price down, I'll say thank you, hang up the phone, and be happy. If you can't, just tell me, and I'll call up Qwest or any of the other dozens of ISPs and get a much cheaper new customer introductory offer from them instead.

Comcast Rep 1: Okay, just a minute and I'll get you over to the department that can help you out.

Comcast Rep 2: Hi, what can I do for you?

Adam: [I explain the situation again]

Comcast Rep 2: Well, I see here you did have a promotional offer and it just expired. I can apply that now for another 6 months for you.

Adam: That'd be great. Also, what's the difference between "Digital Classic" and "Digital Plus"?

Comcast Rep 2: Oh, Digital Plus has a lot more channels and only costs $4/month more.

Adam: Like what channels?

Comcast Rep 2: Toon Disney, The Military Channel, [...], the MTVs and VH1s.

Adam: Is that all of the MTVs and VH1s? Or just some extra ones?

Comcast Rep 2: It's MTV Hits, MTV Jams... just the extra ones...

Adam: I see. I'd like to change to Digital Classic as well.

Comcast Rep 2: Ok I can do that for you, and if you miss any channels you can just call us back.

Adam: Great.

Comcast Rep 2: Have a Merry Christmas!

Adam: You too!

In short, my bill is now over $15/month less, thanks to my brand spankin' new "we know our prices are too high" promotion. I don't have any of the following channels, but I don't think I'll miss them too much:

122 Toon Disney
127 Nick Too
139 LOGO
180 NFL Network
201 Discovery Home Channel
203 DIY
204 Fine Living
222 FIT TV
231 I-Life TV
271 Discovery Times
274 The Military Channel
275 The Biography Channel
276 History Channel International
471 CMT Pure Country
472 MTV Hits
475 MTV Jams
504 Lifetime Movie Network
505 Sundance Channel
513 IndiePLEX
514 RetroPLEX
516 Encore WAM!
519 Encore Love
521 Encore Mystery
523 Encore Westerns
527 Encore Drama
529 Encore Action
606 MTV Tr3s

So call 1-800-COMCAST today, and get your "we know our prices are too high" promotion! If you're feeling ballsy, you can even remind them how their $77/month cable TV compares to DirecTV's $40/month 12-month introductory offer ("oh but satellites have outages all the time")!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Windows, Xbox 360, and Windows Media Player in a DRM World

There's been a lot of buzz recently over Bill's harsh words towards current Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology...

(Google's top results for "bill gates drm")

After ripping my hair out spending hours trying to "enjoy everywhere" over the weekend, I definitely think we have a long way to go.

My goals were to...

1. Play music purchased from an online music store (URGE in this case) on my Xbox 360

2. Play music that is stored on my home server from other PCs on my home network

3. Play music that is stored on my home server from PCs and devices outside my home network (my work PC when I'm at work, my cell phone when I'm on the go)

4. Sync music that is stored on my home server to my iriver clix portable music player

5. Manage my library of music that is stored on my home server from other PCs on my home network (download songs, rate songs, etc)

Some Background

Over the weekend, I decided to retire my 5+ year old Windows XP desktop by sticking it behind my TV and turning it into a simple file server for music, pictures, and video. I wired it up to the same network used by my Xbox 360 and a few wireless laptops (mainly my home one which still runs XP, and my work one running Vista).

Immediately, I started running into problems enjoying my library of DRM'd music everywhere.

Playing on Xbox 360

The first problem I had was streaming DRM'd songs to my Xbox 360. While music I'd ripped from CDs played fine, songs I'd downloaded from URGE gave the following error:

Can't play this content because it may not be supported. For more info, go to Status code: 19-04-80004005

I scoured the web, and found the following in a Windows Media Connect FAQ:

5.3 Can devices that support Windows Media Connect play protected content on a computer?

A digital media receiver (DMR) must support Windows Media Digital Rights Management (DRM) 10 for Network Devices to play protected WMA and WMV files from online stores such as f.y.e. Download Zone, Napster, and Yahoo! Music.

Although a growing number of DMRs do support Windows Media DRM 10, not all device manufacturers have opted to support it yet. For information about devices that are capable of playing protected Windows Media files, see the PlaysForSure page.

Protected files are digital media files that are protected with a license to prevent unauthorized distribution or playback. The license specifies how you can use the file. For example, a license can specify whether you can play a file on your digital media receiver and for how long. The terms of the license are specified by the person or company that provided the file.

If you subscribe to a music subscription service, such as Napster To Go or Yahoo! Music Unlimited, and you share that content to your digital media receivers, you should periodically play the content on your computer.

Playing the files on your computer ensures that any expired licenses are downloaded again if necessary (subscription services typically issue licenses that are valid for about 30 days). If a license expires, you will not be able to play the file on your device.

This was good news and bad news. The good news was that it's supported and should work. The bad news was that once a month I would have to remotely log in to the computer with the music on it and open Windows Media Player in order to manually refresh my music's licenses. What a pain!

A few days and a few emails to the Windows Media Player team later, I was able to get the Xbox 360 streaming to work after upgrading my DLink DI-524's firmware from version 1.20 to 1.23. This is strange, since both the PC and the 360 were wired and on the same LAN, so I'm kind of curious what DLink was doing with my packets.

Playing on other PCs

The next challenge was to play music stored on my home server from other PCs on my home network. As with the Xbox 360, this proved to work without problems for music I had ripped from CDs. Unfortunately, it wasn't so simple for the DRM'd music I'd purchased from URGE.

When I tried to play songs by browsing to a file share and double-clicking on them, Windows Media Player gave me an error that I did not have rights to play the song. This was despite both Windows Media Player on both the home server and on my XP laptop being authenticated to URGE.

I knew iTunes has supported this for quite awhile via Apple's DAAP protocol, so I went searching on the web, and after a bit of digging found that this is possible using Windows Media Player on Windows Vista (only).

To be sure, I cracked open my Vista laptop, and it did indeed work like a charm. Not quite sure why Vista's required for this Windows Media Player feature to work, but I guess it gives me a good reason to upgrade my home laptop.

Playing music at work, on my cell phone

For music I ripped, I can just go download Orb for free.

I don't know of any way to do this with music I've purchased from URGE. My PC at work is authenticated to URGE (you can use it from 3 PCs), but this doesn't give me access to the same library of downloaded music I already have at home - I need to download songs again there. It certainly doesn't help with streaming music from a mobile device like my phone.

If anyone has any better ideas, please let me know. :-)

Syncing music to my mp3 player

This is probably going to by far be one of the biggest pains in the ass.

My home server sits behind my rear projection TV. I really don't want to crawl back there to plug in my clix, then use terminal services to log into it in order to sync my music (which I have to do at least once every 30 days or the music on the clix will expire).

With my ripped mp3s, I can just copy them from a file share (or even access them via my laptop's Windows Media Player library which is file share aware) and drop them on to my clix.

Again, advice is welcome (I already feel an onslaught of "ditch the drm" advice coming).

Managing my music library

The good news was with Vista, I could access my library from other PCs. The bad news was, I couldn't do something as simple as rate a song in it.

I would love to see a distributed library - with songs, playlists, and ratings persisted across my home server, my laptop, my work PC, etc. But, we're just not there yet.

In the meantime, I use terminal services to log into my home server (a Dell that's so old Ethernet wasn't an onboard option and it runs with 256MB of PC133 memory - barely enough to spin up Windows Media Player 11 in 60 seconds).


I love the URGE service, Windows Media Player, Windows Vista, and my Xbox 360... but DRM is making it incredibly difficult to fairly use and enjoy the music I've purchased.

Sunday, I was sitting around playing Gears of War with a buddy, and we were talking about how cool it'd be to listen to Nirvana's In Utero album as game background music. The idea of being able to instantly download the album from URGE and have it playing on my Xbox 360 is a nice thought, but with all the barriers hindering even the simplest end-to-end scenarios described above, it was easier for my buddy to walk into my roommate's room, grab the CD off my roommate's bookshelf, rip it on my laptop, copy it to our home server, and have it truly available whenever/wherever we wanted it in the future.

I love the URGE online music store because I love the ability to download as much new music as I want to all the time for a pretty reasonable flat monthly rate compared to buying even a fraction of the same music on CDs. But I'm starting to really question whether it's worth it without being able to enjoy that music everywhere I really want to.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Keyboard Shortcuts in Windows Vista

If you're a power user, you're probably used to using keyboard shortcuts. One of the quickest ways to learn keyboard shortcuts is from the helpful underlined characters in buttons, menu items, etc:

In the new Windows Vista, these are turned off by default (or at least they were in the Vista build on my laptop):

If you find yourself frustrated as I was, you can turn them back on by going to "Ease of Access" (the new fancy name for Accessibility options) in Control Panel:

Then go to "Change how your keyboard works" (I guess this was the best match even though your keyboard will still work the same):

Then click in the "Underline keyboard shortcuts and access keys" checkbox and click Save:

Now keyboard shortcuts will be shown in all UI controls.

Also, there's a great list of the various Windows Vista keyboard shortcuts you'll want to know about on the Shell Blog. Sadly, one of my most-used, alt-ctrl-del -> t for task manager, is now alt-ctrl-del -> alt-t. I liked the former because it was simple, yet more discoverable than alternatives like ctrl-shift-esc.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Dodgeball Features

Google's Dodgeball service got some new features - a mobile interface (right), and a way to find other Dodgeball users in your Gmail contacts and request them to be your friends.

I played around with the mobile interface for a few minutes, but it couldn't find a bunch of popular bars around here, and the overall experience was pretty uninteresting..

The friend finder found 7 friends out of my 389 Gmail contacts, but Dodgeball has more or less come and gone around here, and these days most of us find it more annoying than cool, so I passed on adding them.

Hadn't seen this posted on any of the blogs I read.. maybe no one cares about Dodgeball anymore :(

Sunday, December 03, 2006

My experience watching a movie on my Xbox 360

Tonight I purchased, downloaded, and watched V for Vendetta on my Xbox 360 using Xbox Live's new movie rental service I blogged about a few weeks ago.

I purchased the high definition (720p) version of the film and wandered away for a few hours while the download started. A few hours later, I returned and started to watch as the movie continued to download (the HD version was over 6GB, so it took awhile even over my "12 mbps" Comcast cable modem connection).

The movie quality (and the movie itself) were awesome. There's limit-less room for innovation in this space, and I'm excited to see what Microsoft and its competitors bust out with next.

Unfortunately, at a whopping $6 for a 24 hour rental, I don't think I'll be watching any more movies on my Xbox 360 soon (the 720p version was 480 Microsoft points - $6; the lower quality 480p version was 320 Microsoft points - $4; the 'net is brewing with interesting opinions about Microsoft's points system).