Friday, April 29, 2005

Average Age

One of the things I wanted to do yesterday was change the oil in my lawn mower, something I do each spring. Being a cheapskate, I get my oil from Wal-Mart since they are ever so slightly cheaper.

I was there in the middle of the day and, as far as I could tell, the only person under 65 in the store.

It was the most amazing and slow-moving crowd of customers I've ever seen.

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Always Check the Website

Yesterday while I was out running some other errands, I stopped in a few stores to check out prices on the DSC-P200, the digital camera I've been talking myself into buying. As would be expected on something price-fixed, everyone was selling it for the exact same price, except Wal-Mart which was 4 bucks cheaper. Since I hadn't discussed the timing of the actual purchase with Linzy, I didn't buy anything then. On a whim when I got home, I checked the Best Buy website.

Lo and behold, they were selling the camera 20 bucks cheaper, and the 1G memory stick for 10 bucks cheaper (then the already 'on sale' price in this week's flyer).

The cool thing about Best Buy's site is that you can purchase things and say you'll pick them up in a store. About an hour after placing the order I got an e-mail saying my order was ready to pick up. We drove over to the same store I had been in earlier in the day, and picked up the camera. No paying for shipping, no waiting a week for delivery, and we paid $30 less then what the store was selling it for.

For the second time in three weeks I was impressed with this whole Internet thing. I think it might really take off.

On a different note, the thing that I didn't realize about the new camera is how small it is, in particular how much smaller then our old camera it is.

Through the magic of Photoshop, here is the new camera compared to the old one.


The new camera is roughly the size of a camera-phone.


The only problem I've noticed so far (which admittedly hasn't been long) is that the 2" LCD actually sticks out from the case. On the old camera the LCD screen was recessed into the case body. I imagine the protruding LCD screen will become a magnet for smudges and scratches.

We'll get a good opportunity to test out the camera this weekend at the wedding in Duluth.

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

It's all about being specific

You too can be the best at something, as long as you are specific enough about what exactly it is that you do.

For example, yesterday I got an e-mail from a publicist that included the line:

... is the world’s premiere electronic harmonica player who plays with DJs while wearing a colorful and elaborate light-wire suit


Note that they are not claiming he is the world's best electronic harmonica player (let alone best regular harmonica player). Nor is he necessarily the best electronic harmonica player who wears a colorful and elaborate light-wire suit. But, when you are talking about an electronic harmonica, an elaborate light-wire suit and a DJ, he's got the title all wrapped up.

I'd tell you about all the things I'm the world's best in, but I don't like to brag.


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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Disappointed but probably not surprised

I laughed to myself today at a headline I saw on Blabbermouth:

Guns N' Roses Fans Disappointed by Axl Rose's No-Show


Surely they weren't surprised when he didn't show up. Have they been living under a rock the past 10 years?

It's not like Axl has a good record for showing up when he says he will these days. And some of those no-shows were even legitimate concerts, as opposed to some crazy bar owner claiming Axl was going to appear at his podunk bar.

For reference, "axl rose no-show" on google comes up with 718 results, while "guns n roses no-show" comes up with 13,200 results. The latter includes fun results like this.


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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Movies: Kung Fu Hustle

On Saturday night, Brenden and I went to go see Kung Fu Hustle. I had somewhat high expectations for it, but I was not disappointed.

I am not a huge Kung Fu movie fan, but I have seen my fair share and usually enjoy them at least somewhat. Of course I enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I can also enjoy an old-school Jackie Chan movie like Rumble in the Bronx for its pure death-defying stunts and crazy action, or Pray for Death for its silly plot and the shock that comes from watching the bad guy punch unexpectedly punch a kid in the face through a car window.

Typically I enjoy the blindingly fast moves and back-and-forth of the battles in Kung Fu movies until the last third of the movie or so, when I start to get bored with the repetition. Kung Fu Hustle was a little different in that it was primarily a comedy, with Kung Fu as the catalyst for the humor. That resulted in the expected over-the-top action sequences, which were pretty entertaining to watch.

One of the better battles was 'three guys versus the entire Axe gang' that came in the first third of the movie. Its always amusing to watch the stunt doubles go flying as the 'heroes' wade through a mob of bad guys.

However, as with any movie based on being 'over-the-top', Kung Fu Hustle did have some points where you just kind of rolled your eyes and groaned. I joked with Brenden on the ride home that it was clear that anything that popped into Stephen Chow's head apparently made it into the movie, because some of the parts were pretty bizarre. The award for strangest and most unnecessary scene was a 2.5 minute road-runner style chase scene between two characters.

But still I enjoyed Kung Fu Hustle quite a bit. If you like Kung Fu movies at all, it is probably worth seeing.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

Books: Softwar

A couple weeks ago I finally finished Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle. As you might guess from the ridiculously long title, it is a biography of Larry Ellison, and also covers a lot of the history of Oracle. The style of the book is somewhat novel. It is written by one of the writers for the Economist, but Larry Ellison added footnotes on various topics every few pages. Supposedly neither had editorial control over the other's comments.

The book was interesting enough, primarily because Larry Ellison is quite a character and thus there are lots of stories to tell about him. I didn't find the book as interesting as Jack Welch's book though. I'm not sure if that was because I knew quite a bit about Ellison and Oracle beforehand, or if it is because the Welch book was an autobiography and so seemed more intimate.

While the book was probably a touch more impartial the way it was written (Larry has a reputation of being a bit of a braggart and occasionally revising history in his favor), I still would have enjoyed to read about events in Larry's written words. Instead there were long quoted passages that (I assume) were quoted verbatim from conversations. That made parts of the book seem a bit stilted to me, where the writer was basically just gluing huge sections of potentially different conversations together.

Parts of Softwar were more interesting then others. I found the parts dealing with Larry's history, and the initial history of Oracle particularly interesting. There is certainly plenty of material for a biography in Larry's life and the rather tumultuous history of Oracle.

The parts of the book dealing with more recent events (the launch of the E-Business Suite 11i for example) didn't appeal to me as much. For one thing, they focused much more on the marketing message and what Larry was doing to sell the product. That made them seem more like advertising for Oracle, rather then a historical look back on something.

The remaining significant portion of Softwar dealt with Larry's passion for sailing, including his run at America's Cup. Even though parts of that were also recent, I found it much more interesting then the recent history Oracle sections. The fact that it was a race and thus had a clear-cut winner and loser probably helped.

Overall I thought Softwar was a good book, and certainly worth what I paid to pick it up at Half-Price Books. It was a nice change after having read spy novels as the last couple books.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Who needed that last paragraph, anyways?

Is anyone else having problems lately with Blogger randomly truncating posts while you are working on them? It seems to show up when I switch back and forth to Preview mode.

I should know better then to type my posts directly into their historically error-prone system. But yet the lure of posting in one-step is nearly unavoidable to lazy Steve.

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Landscaping

Way back in August, I said "Next Spring, we will put in some bushes of some sort", when talking about some landscaping I had done on the side of the house. Well, it is finally Spring here, so there wasn't going to be anymore putting it off.

The new shrubberies, 5 Hostas and a Taunton Yew

In theory the Yew gets 2-3 feet high, and 5 feet across.

The view looking back towards the front yard. The sixth Hosta is a purple one we split off one of the plants in front.
We also put four Hostas in the back, under the deck.

The Hostas we transplanted from Mom and Dad's gardens have a bit of growing to do.

It gets really windy in the back, hopefully the Hostas can handle the abuse.



I also learned that it is a really pain to dig holes for plants after the rock has been put in. Next time, I'm just going to buck up and put the plants in at the same time as the rock, instead of being lazy about it and going "Oh, I'll do that in the spring".

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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Digital Cameras

I've been pining for a new digital camera lately. Our current camera (a Sony DSC-P71) is getting to be a number of years old, and while it still works ok, it has some issues. As was common in cameras of that era, it takes extremely nice pictures in scenes with lots of ambient light (i.e. outside in the sun), but in low-light scenes (i.e. inside) it often doesn't take particularly nice pictures.

The trouble is (besides, of course, the expense of buying a new camera) that I am torn over what kind of camera to get.

On one hand, I would love to have a Digital SLR camera like a Canon Digital Rebel/Rebel XT, a Nikon D70s, or maybe if cost was no object a Canon EOS 20D. I have no doubt that with some practice and experimentation, these cameras would let me take the nicest pictures in pretty much any situation. Especially with special lens and/or an external flash attachment.

But there are some disadvantages to SLRs too.

For one thing, they can be relatively complex when in 'full manual' mode. While I'm sure I could learn how to use it, the camera isn't as useful if only I can use it or if there is a big learning curve to be able to take good pictures with it. Most digital SLRs have automatic modes, but to really take advantage of their features I think you probably have to use manual settings.

The bigger problem that I can see is simply the size of an SLR camera. They have big bodies, large lens, and are just generally bulky. I don't particularly like carrying around a camera on a strap if I am out somewhere with other people (I don't know why, it's just one of those things). I would much rather slip the camera into my pocket and just take it out when I see something I want to take a picture of. Our current camera just barely fits in my pocket, so it works OK for this. No SLR is going to fit in my pocket, so I am afraid that would make me reluctant to use it. It doesn't do much good to buy an expensive new camera if I end up using the old one all the time because I don't want to hassle with the bulkier camera.

Finally, digital SLRs are expensive. They start around the $800 - $1,000 range or even the $2,000 - $2,500 range for the 20D. That's a lot of money to spend on a camera.

So it seems like SLRs aren't the way to go. But Point-and-Shoot cameras aren't necessarily a slam dunk either.

For one thing, the 'better' ones, with more megapixels then our current camera, better automatic focusing, better low-light performance, faster cycle times, etc, are not exactly cheap. Not exactly SLR expensive, but still $300 - $400. And that is a lot of money to spend on something that still might not take all the kinds of pictures I want.

Another problem is size. Some of the best Point-and-Shoot cameras are pretty big, nearly SLR size. That defeats one of the primary benefits I am looking for. The smallest Point-and-Shoot cameras don't necessarily have the best performance, some don't have optical viewfinders (and so can have shakey-cam problems, or battery problems resulting from the LCD being on all the time), and others just don't have all the options I would be looking for.

The ideal solution would be to have camera phones progress to the point where they could replace a high-end 5M Point-and-Shoot camera, and I could just get an SLR for times when I am willing to deal with the larger size camera to have more control over the pictures.

Until that day, I'll probably get something like a Sony DSC-P200.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

Switcheroo

Or - How to go from attending a bachelorette party, to hosting a bachelorette party.

A friend from out-of-town is getting married next weekend, and having her bachelorette party in the Twin Cities, would you like to come? Of course.

Would it be okay if the bachelorette and the maid of honor (who are both coming from out-of-town) spend the night at your house? Of course.

Oh, and another friend from out-of-town will be coming with too, can she spend the night? Of course.

Ok, since we are spending the night, can we come over before the party and drop off our stuff? Of course.

But we won't be eating dinner until later, maybe we should have some appetizers or something small to eat before we go out? Of course, I'll make a few things.

Since most of us will be at your place beforehand, the people who were going to just meet us at the bar were thinking maybe they could come over beforehand too? Of course.

Since we'll all be there beforehand, maybe we should have some drinks to go with the appetizers? Of course, I'll pick up some beer.

Oh, I know you already got the beer, but the bachelorette really likes frozen margaritas, maybe we should have some of those too. Ok, I'll pick some of that up too.

Since we'll all be at your place beforehand, we'll need a way to get to the bar. Maybe you could book a cab or two for us to ride up there?

Tada! Did you see how I did that? You are now hosting a bachelorette party, and responsible for food, drinks, and transportation. Plus people will be coming over, and also coming back later to spend the night. The place is clean, right?

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Pippen - Queen of the Bed

What do you mean you didn't put this bed here for me?


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Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Day in the Life of a DBA

Database Administrator is one of those job titles that can mean a lot of different things. Some DBAs are primarily developers with a bit of database background, some have never programmed anything in their lives, some are reduced to being change control implementers promoting code and objects from one database to another, others spend all their time worrying about tapes, backups, and cloning databases, your Oracle E-Business Suite DBAs spend all their time patching, and I'm sure there are lots of other DBAs out there who do all kinds of other stuff.

Whenever someone asks what I do, I never find it particularly easy to explain. Oh, my core job responsibility is supporting the Oracle databases we have at work, but 'supporting' can mean an awful lot of things. What I do can vary widely depending on the day, what fires flare up, and what I feel like doing (to some extent). Over the years at my current job I've ended up focused on a pretty wide variety of stuff.

That's all fine and good, but still pretty vague. So, let's try this. What did Steve do at work today?

  • Researched a PLS-00553 error another DBA was getting while trying to create a new 10g database with the standard database create scripts I wrote. Eventually concluded it was Yet Another Bug with creating a database and running catalog/catproc in the same sqlplus session without reconnecting.

  • Helped another DBA determine why databases hadn't picked up init.ora changes after a cold backup.

  • Worked on a presentation that I have to give on Monday to another group, on how Oracle backups and archive logs work, and how specifically we handle them in our environments.

  • Went to a couple meetings.

  • Wrote a PL/SQL package for another DBA to use for making SOAP calls to a Web Service from within a web application (PHP and mod_plsql). The package does all the generic work of creating a SOAP envelope, header, adding elements, encoding things, checking for fault responses, etc.

  • Spent a while explaining Oracle password files and how the internal and sysdba passwords work with databases on Windows to another DBA.

  • Read the entire Oracle XMLType documentation, a good portion of the XML developers guide, and a whitepaper on XPath queries. Mostly because they were interesting, but also partly to answer questions I had while writing the PL/SQL package mentioned above.

  • Followed up on various outstanding issues, which is pretty much code for sent a lot of e-mails asking for updates

  • Helped two other DBAs plan the upgrade of a 32-bit 9.2 database to 10g on a 64-bit system, where 9.2 is not installed. Also spent a while explaining the differences between locally managed tablespaces that are converted from dictionary managed versus ones that are created as locally managed.

  • Did some bug-fixing in my infrastructure code.

  • Had a rather surreal conversation with another DBA who came to ask about some documentation I had written long ago. There was a question about what something meant, and why it was in a particular order. Eventually it became apparent that the document had been changed a number of times since I wrote it. Then the DBA made a comment that they had actually added the section that was confusing and out-of-order. I assume they didn't know that before they came over to complain.

  • Planned how I was going to write a utility we need to parse and e-mail OS audit trail records.

  • Worked on updating the archive log handling process I wrote so that it can support SQL Server. This doesn't have much to do with the process actually, it is more about adding support for SQL Server to the same code that supports Oracle.

Exciting, no? Try not to trample each other on your way to join the DBA ranks.

I wouldn't necessarily call this a typical day, it was probably a little light on 'traditional' DBA tasks. But it is pretty close, a strange mix of answering questions, development of database-related tools, planning, and troubleshooting.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Prius Test Drive

Today was Earth Day at work, and one of the things they had was a Toyota Prius. The Prius was Toyota's first Hybrid car when it was released in 2001, and now (according to the sales guy) they are moving to having a hybrid option for all their vehicles, from the Corolla to the Tundra (I'm not sure about the Scions).

After checking it out for a little while, I mentioned that the sales guy said they were allowing test drives and Don immediately went off an secured the keys. 5 of us piled into the vehicle for a fairly lengthy test drive.

One of the cool things about this Prius model was that it had a large GPS navigation display screen that showed the 'Energy Monitor'. It showed in realtime exactly what was going on with the two engines (gas and electric), what the level of the battery was, what gas mileage we were getting, which way power was flowing, etc. It was pretty cool to see how the gas engine would shut off at stop signs, how the energy of the wheels was re-directed back to charge the battery when we were braking, etc.

The ride was very smooth, you could barely tell what engine was being used. With 5 fully-grown DBAs in the car, it didn't have a whole lot of get-up-and-go, but it was passable. Apparently it has 110 horsepower when both engines are in use, but 295 lb-ft of torque which somewhat makes up for the lack of horsepower. It probably would have been better with fewer people wedged into the car.

The car was surprisingly spacious inside. There was as much room in the backseat as there is in Linzy's Altima. The only problem we had was with headroom in the back, the tallest DBA in the back was kind of hunched over. It was fine for me.

Supposedly the car gets EPA estimated 50 gallons a mile on the highway and 60 gallons a mile in the city. The better mileage in the city is because with all the stopping, they can use the electric motor more. One interesting thing that was mentioned was that if the heat is on then the gas engine has to be run all the time (to generate the heat), so the gas mileage is worse in the winter.

The catch is of course that the hybrids are more expensive. I think the Accord is roughly $3,000 more with the hybrid option. The Prius (ranging from 21-27,000) is not as expensive as the Accord, but it is more expensive then comparable mid-sized cars. Plus, the relative newness of the whole hybrid technology raises some long-term maintenance concerns.

The batteries, for example, are supposed to last around 130,000 miles (but are only warrantied for 8 years/100,000). That means you have say 120,000 miles in which to make up the $3,000 premium paid for the hybrid car (assuming nothing else hybrid related breaks). If you get 50 mpg in the hybrid versus 30 mpg in a comparable gas care, you would save $3,200 with gas at a constant $2 per gallon. After that you would have to pay ~3,000 to replace the batteries again, and would start trying to recoup the costs again.

Obviously as gas gets more expensive, the payback happens quicker. And this discounts any tax breaks or 'feel good' benefits from not polluting the earth as much.

Of course, there has been a bit of a controversy over the mileage estimates. If you don't actually manage 50 mpg, but instead get the 85% the article says people are experiencing, then you would need gas to be $2.50 a gallon to make back your $3,000 in 120,000 miles.

Regardless, the Prius was very impressive from a technological standpoint, and the car itself was much nicer then I thought it would be. The cool display screen, all digital displays and auto-sensing start (you didn't need to insert the key, just have the key fob in the car. Which is an extra-cost option, BTW) really made the car seem ..well...futuristic, as dumb as that sounds.

So, while I might not be getting one anytime soon (and neither is anyone else, as there is a 6-9 month waiting list), it was a pretty neat car to test drive.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Bikes

Yesterday, Linzy and I spent the evening hitting every bike store in town trying to find new bikes. I used to have a bike when I was younger, but somewhere along the line the rear tire got slashed and I never got it repaired. At some point I think my Parents got tired of it junking up their garage and gave it away. Linzy still had her bike from when she was a kid, but it was a pink & baby blue Huffy. Not exactly what she is looking to be riding around the neighborhood.

With the gorgeous weather we've been having lately, we thought it would be nice to have new bikes so we could go on rides together. Sort of like those board games, except that we would get exercise at the same time.

We ended up getting matching Trek 7100s. They are certainly not top-of-the-line, or even middle-of-the-line, but they rode nicely, had comfy seats, appeared to be well constructed, and best of all, they were reasonably priced.

Well, 'reasonably priced' is a relative thing. I have to admit that during our first stop at Erik's Bike Shop there was a bit of sticker shock, considering I can't remember the last time I shopped for a bike. It was probably long enough ago that I wasn't the one paying.

And then after you add on all the price-gouged extras like kickstands (seriously, who buys a bike without a kickstand. They should just be included), water bottles and holders, helmets, and a trip computer (I had to get a gadget out of the deal) things got somewhat pricey.

But, now we are the proud owners of shiny new bikes, and I am looking forward to taking them out for a spin.

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Junk Mail

This is a historic moment for you. Today you were approved for Charter Membership in the premier club for American history enthusiasts. Don't send money. Not even a Buffalo Nickel. It's not necessary.

That is roughly how the History Channel Club Declaration of Membership letter that I got as junk mail today starts out. It takes a full four pages to explain the copious benefits available if I just send them one dollar a month. They truly spared no expense, including a Commemorative Token that I can keep with pride, as it's a nice reminder of America's heritage and greatness! (Or so I hear).


The History Channel Club is unique. There is no other club like it. We're a membership of people with an unending passion for America, for exploring and enjoying American history! From reading about the moments leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence to making personal journeys that retrace the footsteps of our American heroes. We just can't get enough.

So, what did I do to deserve the "honor of being named a Charter Member of The History Channel Club"? Discovered unknown secrets of Lewis & Clark's journey? Found the secret Masonic map on the back of the Declaration of Independence?

No, that might be what you have to do to join this exclusive club. I just had to buy my father-in-law a "History of the Corvette" DVD for Christmas.

The Club started as a way for viewers of The History Channel to get together. A forum to learn more about the history of our great land and separate the myths and folklore from the actual, factual accounts. A place to swap war stories and share memorabilia. To pass on tips about which historic sites to visit. And, truth be told, a platform to do a little bragging about an American ancestor every now and then.

...

Today, our Member roll includes some of the most serious history enthusiasts across the USA. People who are truly passionate about the red, white and blue. History buffs of all ages. Folks who truly love this country. Its past. Its rich heritage. People who, like you, thirst to learn more and are dedicated to passing along that knowledge and heartfelt pride to future generations.

Now, I might be getting a bit picky, but it seems wrong that as far as the History Channel Club is concerned, the history most worth learning about is American History. Certainly, buying a video about an American car (which was, incidentally, modeled after European sports cars of the era, according to their own video) means I am truly passionate about the red, white and blue.

And, for you cheapskates in the audience, not already chomping at the bit to join this exclusive club:

How much are your yearly dues? They're about what you'd expect to pay to join such a Club about 100 years ago! In fact, we've had Members say it would be a bargain today at about ten dollars a month ... over a hundred dollars a year.

You pay only $1 a month. That's far less then you'd pay for a "run-of-the-mill" history magazine that only briefly covers the topics you love. It's far less than an entrance fee to a museum too!

And that museum probably wastes space on non-American history too.

The letter was chock full of fodder, but I think that is enough for now. Also, apologies to anyone who might actually be a member. I'm sure it is a fabulous club.

The Letter






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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Power Outage

Tonight's post was lost, suprisingly enough, not due to Blogger's continual unreliability, but the recent unreliability of our power.

That's the second power outage in two weeks, the previous one was during one of the days I was home sick a few weeks back.

Of course, that is not to say Blogger is blameless. Their shiny new 'recover post' feature failed miserably to recover even part of what I was writing. Instead it sat there and spun ('clocked', as Linzy would say) until eventually it had taken so long the auto-save feature came along and trampled the cookie while saving the text of the post I was trying to recover into. Nice.

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Science Museum Trip

Linzy and I went to the Minnesota Science Museum this afternoon. Linzy had a project to do for school on the pharmacology exhibits at the museum, and I went along. The science museum wasn't nearly as much fun as I remember it being when I was 12.

This was my first trip to the museum in a long, long time. I used to love going to the museum when I was a kid. They had all kinds of fun hands-on exhibits, dinosaur skeletons, and all kinds of other stuff that seems cool to a young kid. They still have similar (but updated) exhibits, but they are pretty kid-oriented. I guess that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, but it was a bit of a disappointment.

This was the first time I had been there since they built a new building in 1999, and I have to say it is quite a nice place. It is significantly bigger then the previous building, but a good portion of the building didn't seem to be in use for exhibits right now.

Contributing to my disappointment with the whole trip was the fact that the 'Chinasaur' exhibit was not as cool as I was expecting. They had quite a few dinosaur skeletons, but they wasn't as much information about them as I would have liked. I suppose that is part of their plan to sell you the information headsets, but another two bucks a person seemed a bit excessive, on top of the $12.50 a person it costs to get in the door.

We also were unlucky with the Omnitheater movies that were available when we arrived. Everything was more crowded then we were expecting, so we couldn't get in to see the Antarctica show at 3:00. Instead we saw 'Seasons' at 4:00, which is one of my least favorite shows.

I'm sure when I have kids to bring to the museum, I'll enjoy it a lot more. Until then, I don't think I'll be a regular attendee.

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Wishlist: Renaming files with Autofill Options

Up until a few months ago, I was one of those dinosaurs still using an old version of Microsoft Office (Office 2000, specifically). And to be honest, we would still be using it if Linzy wasn't in school where they had a class that required the use of some wizards added in Office 2003. And even then, if they weren't offering the whole Office 2003 Professional suite to students for $50, we probably still wouldn't have bought it.

Most of the "improvements" to Office in recent years have been fairly unremarkable IMHO. In fact, other then Outlook 2003 (which has significant e-mail improvements over Outlook 2000, but that only make a difference at work) you can hardly tell that you are using a different version.

There is, however; one feature that I have really grown to like, and that is the more flexible autofill options in Excel.

Being a nerd, I end up making lots of spreadsheets. In previous version of Excel you could use autofill to populate cells, but you didn't have much control over what exactly it did. Depending on what you selected when you chose to autofill, it might fill all the cells with the same value, or it might increment the value in each cell.

Now, with Office 2003 after you autofill, a little smart tag pops-up that you can use to have exact control over what was autofilled. Did you want to copy cells? Fill in a series? Fill formatting only? Fill without formatting? You can choose exactly what you want, without having to worry about remembering to select the appropriate cell range beforehand.

Tonight I decided that they really need to offer this type of option in the Windows Explorer, for mass file renames. I frequently find myself with a directory full of files that I want to rename in some way.

Sometimes I'll want to strip off the end of each filename but leave the rest untouched (say during a database refresh when the file has the old database name in its name). Explorer lets me select multiple files and rename them all, but they all end up with the name of the first file, with (1), (2), etc appended on the end. I can honestly say that has never been what I was trying to accomplish.

Sometimes I'll have a bunch of files that I've named one way, and then I decide I really want to change them all in the same way. For example, let's say I've got a directory filled with ripped music, which was done long ago with a different program, which named the files in some funky way (say like Artist - Album - 01 - Song Title 1) and now I've changed my mind and want to strip off "Artist - Album - " from all the files.

What I need is to be able to select multiple files, do a rename operation and then be able to have a little 'autofill options' thing like in Excel that I can click on to choose between making all the files the same name with numbers on the end, making the same edits to all file names, replacing a particular string with another string, etc.

Instead I have to have a Perl script that I use to do regular expression replaces on the file names. It works just fine, but it is not nearly as convenient as having it built into Explorer.

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Invisible Fencing

Perhaps I am the only one, but I just can't seem to help being creeped out by invisible fencing. It just always seems like if the dog wanted to come charging out, I'm putting a lot of faith in a little battery box attached to a collar.

This afternoon because of the nice weather when I was walking Pippen, I took a longer route that eventually drops me off next to a park where there is a walking trail connecting back to the area I live in. There are 3 houses on the sides of the short trail, all have multiple large dogs, and all are contained with invisible fencing.

Normally the dogs bark once or twice and then go about their business, maybe keeping an eye on us, but for the most part leaving us alone. Today, for whatever reason the dogs were highly upset that we were anywhere near their yards, and all 5 stood at the edge of the 'fence' frothing and barking.

It was really strange, because it is not like I am afraid of dogs, and obviously I knew it was unlikely that the dogs would actually decide to step over the fence or even if they did, actually decide to make a meal out of Pippen. But I still couldn't help feeling that I was walking some sort of bizarre gauntlet, with these crazed dogs standing a few feet on either side of the path. It only made matters worse in my mind since there was nothing physical between me and them.

I guess I am just getting wussy.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

XBox 360 Controller

I read a rumor on the web today that was saying the controller for the XBox 360 is going to contain a trackball in the center. Basically like the controller-S, but with a trackball instead of the XBox logo circle.

After double-checking, that even matches up with the leaked pictures of the controller being posted all over. I guess when I first saw them I didn't really think about what the bulge in the middle was, I just assumed it would be the xbox logo again. A trackball seems a little weird, but the more I thought about it, the better idea it seemed. I can think of lots of things to use it for, from games to things like navigating menus, to a more PC-like control scheme for FPS games, or even for controlling a cursor for a web browser built-in to the system.

Obviously I have no idea if there is any validity to the rumor, but it seemed reasonable, and actually kind of cool.

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Spring Weather

If there more gorgeous weather then sunny and 65, I'm not sure what it is. Especially after a cold Minnesota winter.

The trees have started budding the last few days.

Setting sun as viewed from my deck.



The moon was out already.


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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Special Features: Slow Loading

I was reading EvilAvatar today, and noticed this story talking about Half-Life 2 for the XBox. The article (which quotes another article) lists these new fantastic features of Half-Life 2 on XBox (emphasis mine):

  • improved lighting effects
  • lower resolution textures
  • due to a new "streaming" technology, load times should be equal to those on the PC
  • controls have been adapted and auto-aiming has been added
  • controls for the buggy and airboat are still being worked out, with problems driving and firing at the same time
  • the Source engine can now be licensed by Xbox developers
  • there will be NO multiplayer support of any kind; neither LAN nor Live

Now, I've been trying to play my copy of Half-Life 2 ever since I finished Halo 2. I haven't posted a review because I haven't finished it yet, and I may not ever do so. Why? Because it plays like crap on my (rather beefy) computer. Specifically, the load times are ridiculous. It takes roughly 3 minutes to get into the game and load my quicksave. About every 5 minutes or so, the game pauses for around 45 seconds to load the next area.

It completely destroys the illusion of these wide-open realistic environments when every time I go through more then two tunnels on the hovercraft, I have to stop and wait while the computer grinds away. You might think I am exaggerating, but I'm not.

I've tried everything to remedy the problem, patches, driver updates, defragging, but nothing has made even the slightest bit of difference. My only conclusion is that it is expected to be that slow, even with a 3.2 ghz, 1G ram, a 6600GT, and a very fast SATA hard drive.

So I am completely stumped as to why you would have a bullet-item like 'Load times equal to PC'. Call me picky, but I think the load times on the PC suck, and are hardly anything to aspire to.

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Monday, April 11, 2005

Video Games: Final Fantasy 1

After I finished Halo 2 last month, I was in the mood to play something a little less reflex dependant. Since we were going to be leaving for Florida soon, I decided to start Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls on my GameBoy Advance SP.

True to the traditionally complicated Final Fantasy re-release and rename strategy, FF: Dawn of Souls is a re-release of the Playstation game Final Fantasy: Origins, which was a re-release and graphical upgrade of the NES games Final Fantasy 1 and Final Fantasy 2. Now, that is the real Final Fantasy 2, the one formerly only released in Japan, not the Super Nintendo game that was called Final Fantasy 2 in the US but was really Final Fantasy 4. Confused? The bottom line is that FF: Dawn of Souls is a just a copy of two really old Final Fantasy games with slightly upgraded graphics and some bonus dungeons.

I really enjoyed Final Fantasy 1, it was a lot of fun. Partly because this was my first experience with it. By the time FF1 was originally released in the US, I had already sold my NES for a Genesis, and moved on to Altered Beast, the original John Madden Football, and Herzog Zwei. I was still getting Nintendo Power at the time, which came with a whole FF1 strategy guide. I can still remember longingly reading through all the cool write-ups on FF1 and wishing that I could play it.

Anyways, with a significant graphical upgrade into Super Nintendo-era graphics, FF1 (as included with FF: DoS) really stands up to the test of time. The gameplay is flawlessly balanced (until very late in the game), the quests are straight forward and most of the dungeons are long but rarely willfully convoluted. I almost never had to waste time specifically leveling up; for the most part just taking my time in the dungeons was enough to keep my characters leveled up enough to be able to stay ahead of the endless random encounters.

My only complaint about the game was really a complaint about the bonus dungeons. They were stupidly long (5, 10, 20, and 50 floors) and not even remotely challenging. I delayed playing the 4 dungeons until the very end of the game and by the time I got there none of the enemies that populated all four dungeons could stand a chance even against my weakest characters. Not only were the dungeons unchallenging, but it was the same enemies over and over, and for some reason it seemed like the already frequent random encounter rate was increased (I suppose to make it more 'challenging'). Instead it was just frustrating because the each floor was large (some were entire outdoor maps complete with ships and airships) and it took so long to slog through battles you weren't going to have any trouble winning.

The other problem with the bonus dungeons was that the only really interesting things in the dungeons were the boss creatures. But there was frequently more then one boss character per floor, but only one could be fought in a given trip through the dungeon. So if you wanted to try your hand at both Omega and Shinryu at the bottom of the third dungeon you would have to do all 20 floors twice. I think not.

The telling sign that the bonus dungeons were excessive is the fact that they accounted for at least half of my playing time. I beat the whole game in around 20 hours, but at least 10 (and maybe 12) of those hours were spent in the painfully dull bonus dungeons. Plus, after an extra 12 hours effectively spent just leveling up, by the time I got to the real end-boss of the game, I killed him in just a few rounds.

Regardless, I had a lot of fun playing FF1. It was just a blast to play a game where the focus was solely the RPG gameplay, and that gameplay was so polished.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Stink-Free

Last night I went downtown to O'Donovan's with a bunch of friends again. It was the first time I've been downtown since the smoking ban went into effect. Not being a smoker, I thought it is great.

Mainly because I didn't come home reeking of smoke, but also because I didn't have to sit around in a hazy cloud. It's all about me, after all. :)

The city council was thinking when they decided on the timing of implementing the ban. Since it went into effect on March 31st the weather has been gorgeous. So it isn't as big of a hardship to have to go outside to smoke, as it will be in say, January.

O'Donovan's was a lot of fun again this time. They had a live musician (who Vanessa knows, and was the main reason we went) that did a good job playing some Irish music and cover songs (mostly 70s rock). Plus I had a terrific time shooting the breeze with Brenden and Gerard.

Also, from the 'you kind of had to be there to understand' category:

One interesting thing about O'Donovan's that I learned last night was that when the waitresses tell you they are out of something, just keep asking and eventually they will come up with some.

When I first got there the waitress said that the Smithwicks tap was broken. Luckily Mike was sitting right there drinking a Smithwicks and jumped in with a 'Well, I think it is fixed, because it was just working when I got this a few minutes ago'. The waitress went off and lo-and-behold came back with Smithwicks.

Then, Brenden wanted Murphy's Irish Stout, but the waitress said they were out of that. I teased her a bit about having lost her credibility after the whole Smithwicks thing, but she stuck to her story. The rest of the night I kept mentioning to Brenden that if he just turned on the charm, maybe he could talk one of the waitresses into going next door and getting one from another bar.

Later in the night, when we were ordering our last rounds, I tried my luck on the Murphy's Irish Stout again. This time it was a different waitress and she said 'Yeah no problem'. We were actually a bit skeptical about whether she would be able to come through, but she did. I didn't ask where exactly she was able to get it from. Hopefully (for Brenden and Gerard, who drank it) the stout wasn't from half-filled glasses leftover from the previous night.

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Brick and High-Tech Mortar

I was amazed yesterday when Linzy discovered that the Sam's Club's website lets you upload digital pictures for photo processing that you can then pick up in the store for the regular 17 cent price per picture. That is pretty darn cool because it saves us having to make a special trip over there with the memory stick to drop off the photos.

I personally don't buy into the cost-effectiveness of those home photo printers. Knowing what every inkjet I've ever owned was like for going through ink, and the price of photo paper, I don't see how it could possibly be a better deal to buy a moderately expensive piece of hardware plus pay for materials for each picture. At least not when it only costs 17 cents a photo at the store.

But, I do have to admit it was kind of a hassle to make two trips over there, or to have to try and kill an hour in the store while they were printing out the pictures.

Interestingly, this is not the first time I've been impressed with the Sam's Club website.

This summer when I needed tires for my car, they turned out to be a size not carried in the store. But on the website they let you special order any tire made by the manufacturers they carry (a co-worker actually ordered slicks this way). You just pick out which ones you want, put in your member number and click 'order'. No credit card needed or anything. When the tires come in a few days later, they e-mail/call you and you're good to go.

Pretty cool technology for a company I normally only associate with six-packs of jumbo mayo jars, mega-reams of printer paper and other slightly cheaper but inconveniently sized items.

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Friday, April 08, 2005

Free as in Not Usable

Yesterday I was amused that on the day when Blogger's headline read "Can I recover a lost post? Yes you Can", the service went in the tank and not only could I not post (which is common), but the service ate my post and was so broken I couldn't even get in to use the shiny new feature to retrieve the lost post.

Today the new headline is "recover post feature offline", as they had to back it out.

It's ironic that the feature they use to crutch up the fact that the service goes on the fritz every few days added so much load that everything got even less stable.

And, okay, I will admit that I wasn't really so amused at the situation last night, when I had just lost my whole post. After retyping it from memory, and finally getting it posted this morning, I can once again appreciate the humor of it all.

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Books and More Books

One night, a few weeks ago Brenden came over for dinner and a bit of New Tetris. At some point during the night, we were talking about books and he asked the seemingly innocent question "So how many books do you have that you still haven't read".

I didn't really know off the top of my head, but guessed it to be a lot. Maybe 15, 20? I don't recall if I said it or not, but I was thinking "No more then 30, certainly".

Today, the local library was running a book sale and Linzy picked me up 6 books for 42 cents a piece. Looking at the stack of books on the kitchen table got me thinking again about all the unread books in my imaginary queue.

So how many unread books do I really have lying around?


74


That is insane.

Since I started this blog almost a year ago, I've posted reviews on 20 books (18 posts, one for three books). Even if I read 4 books in the next month, which isn't likely, I would still have more books on hand then I could read in the next 3 years. And that doesn't even count all the books I'll likely receive for my Birthday/Christmas, or that I will want to get because I've been waiting for them for 4 years (I'm talking to you George R.R. Martin).

Somewhat in my defense, a significant number of the unread books (probably over half) were actually given to me by a co-worker years ago. He brought a big cardboard box full of books to give away into work, and somehow I ended up getting all the science fiction and fantasy ones. So that put me significantly in the hole to begin with. Plus, since a bunch of those books aren't anything I would have picked out for myself, they keep getting bumped down the list in favor of newer books. Most of the remaining books were picked up over the years at various garage sales, book sales, the $1 table at Half-Priced Books, etc.

Years and Years ago, when I had a lot more leisure reading time, I had a lot of books but had read all of them at least a few times (keeping only my favorites). More recently it seems that while my reading pace has slowed, my bargain hunting for books has not.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Books: The Bourne Supremacy

A few days ago I finally finished up the book I've been reading since the beginning of March, The Bourne Supremacy. I really enjoyed it, despite what you might think given the long time it took me to finish it. The slow pace was mainly because it was a relatively long book (~600 hardcover pages), I didn't take it on our trip and I wasn't reading very much at a time.

I was really impressed with The Bourne Supremacy, and pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. I was a little leary because although I enjoyed The Bourne Identity, I wasn't sure if I would like reading another book of the same style so soon afterwards.

In fact, initially I wasn't planning on jumping right into the Bourne Supremacy since I didn't own it (just Bourne Identity and Ultimatum). The plan was to pick it up on one of our trips to Half-Price Books. Instead, we happened to be at the library for another reason and I put in a request for the Bourne Supremacy on a whim. From the projected wait time I wasn't expecting to see it for a month or two, which would have been just fine. A week or so later I got a phone call that it had come in, and at that point I hadn't even finished the Bourne Identity yet. Let alone Hacking the XBox, and You Shall Know Our Velocity which were already in the queue. But once it came in, I felt silly saying "Now, I don't want it", so I checked it out for as long as you could and added it to the ever lengthening list of books to read.

Anyways, I am glad that I did, because it was quite a good book. The story seemed somewhat more complicated then the one in Bourne Identity, which I liked. I'm not sure if the story just seemed more complicated, since it had nothing to do with the movie, or if it actually had more twists.

Another thing that I liked about the Bourne Supremacy better then the Bourne Identity was that it didn't feel nearly as repetitive. Until the last hundred pages or so everything in the book felt very fresh. Even those last pages managed to keep my interest because I was anxious to see how everything worked out.

The book is largely set in the Far East which these days is pretty standard Spy-Novel fare, but seems like it would have been pretty forward thinking in 1986. Over the course of the plot the characters range all over, from Hong Kong to Mainland China, and everywhere in between. With all the different characters and their particular subplots, the book moves along at quite a good pace and never feels bogged down.

I really can't think of much about the book that I didn't like. Certainly it is a super-spy-book, so if you have a problem with suspiciously convenient coincidences and one-man penetrates the security of an entire army by himself, you probably won't like it. But otherwise, the book seemed well done.

After that glowing review, I am a bit nervous about the Bourne Ultimatum. For one thing, from what I have read it sounds like Bourne Supremacy is the high-point of the series. For another thing, three spy books roughly in a row might be a bit much. So I am planning to hold off on Ultimatum for at least a little while (I own it, so there is no time crunch).

For right now I've moved onto Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle. After that, well, I don't know.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Power of Following Up

Remember my post from a couple weeks ago where Nissan and the dealership were nickle-and-diming me on my warrant repair?

The dealership was basically passing the buck to me, the customer and pointing fingers at Nissan for not covering what they 'should have been' on a repair. The only recourse they gave me was to call Nissan and complain, apparently thinking I wouldn't actually follow-up.

Ah, how they underestimated my tenacity when I feel wronged.

On the first day back from vacation I dutifully called Nissan to complain. After slogging through an interminable phone tree, I got connected to someone in the warranty department (I think). He toed the company line, and actually got kind of snotty. That made me somewhat irate, and eventually I got passed on to some sort of customer service department.

I was given the impression this department would actually be able to resolve the problem, but all they ended up doing was taking my information and promising to have someone call me back with a resolution by end of business the next day.

Regardless, I was surprised the next day when a guy from the dealership called me at work to say "This whole thing turned into a big hassle for us. We're going back and forth with the general director of this territory, and my boss is involved, etc etc, and it is just not worth it. So we'll send you a check for to cover the charge for the half-an-hour of labor in question".

No "Hey, we're sorry we made a mistake", or "Hey, Nissan says they made a mistake", or "Hey, I can't believe we treated you like that, we're really sorry". Just "You're a pain in the ass, so have your stupid $45 back".

Not exactly what I was looking, but I'll take the end result.

Nissan called several nights later to see if I was satisfied with the result. I have to admit I wasn't as nice about the whole thing as I could have been. For one thing, I hadn't actually seen the check yet (it eventually did arrive, via 4th rate parcel post or something). For another, it didn't seem like this whole deal should have been as hard as it was, seeing that the repair was under a Nissan warranty in the first place. Finally, I wondered aloud about how many other people have been screwed by the same thing, and didn't actually call and so ended up getting charged unnecessarily by their dealerships.

The guy was actually very apologetic, and explained that the whole problem was this:

At the time the warranty coverage manual was put together/entered in the computer, replacing a rear O2 sensor did not include recalibrating the ECM module. However, at some later time Nissan put out a service bulletin saying the proper replacement process included recalibrating the ECM module. But no one ever updated the computer stuff that processes warranty claims. So the dealership was doing what they should have (repairwise), but was getting rejected when they submitted the recalibration expense.

At that point you could argue that the dealership should have brought it to Nissan's attention, that they were doing repairs as specified but getting rejected, but that might be splitting hairs.

Regardless, I ended up getting everything covered exactly as it should have been, and was told the various computer systems were also being updated so the next person doesn't have to go through the same hassle.

Plus, it really only took one phone-call initiated by me to resolve the problem, hardly the worst hoops I've ever had to jump through to get my money back.

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Monday, April 04, 2005

Sickly Steve

The last 7-10 years, I've been pretty healthy.

When I was a kid I had serious ear infection problems (although not like my sister), and I had allergies (again, not like Sarah) and asthma, but those things all got much better as I grew up.

About the only thing I suffer from these days is an annual sinus infection, some mild allergy discomfort at the end of summer, and a serious runny nose if I am around cats for very long.

Until this year that is.

For the last month I have been sick pretty much the whole time. First was that really nasty sinus infection, the one that predictably couldn't be killed with normal antibiotics, only Augmentin. Then, I caught a 24-hour flu on vacation, and spent an entire evening emptying my stomach of everything I had eaten all week (as well as all the bile dissolving that food).

Now, one of those two doozies has gone and turned into pneumonia. The "coughing up a huge mouthful of phlegm whenever you take more then a shallow breath" kind of pneumonia (although I am not sure if there is another kind). It was a fabulous week last week, as I battled through hoping it was just related to the changing weather and/or that it would go away with some rest.

Luckily I am not 80, so there probably isn't much chance of me dying from it.

[ Update: I had already gone to the doctor when I wrote this, so I knew it really was pneumonia. I wasn't just calling it that. Also, I did get some antibiotics, Levaquin to be exact, and it seems to be working. ]

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Movies: Sin City

Linzy and I played hookey from doing any outside chores yesterday, and went to go see Sin City instead. I've never read Frank Miller's graphic novels, so we went based on merely see the trailer and reading some of the reviews.

I thought it was pretty good. The visual look of the film is very cool, shot in color and digitally changed to black & white with occasional colors. The violence was non-stop and graphic, so the movie is definitely not for the squeamish.

The movie intertwines 3 different storylines through out the film. I thought all three were interesting, and it was neat how everything fit together when at first they looked totally separate.

Overall I would recommend it, but only if you steal yourself for one of the most violent movies I've ever seen (even more so than Kill Bill: Vol 1).

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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Best Buy Ending Mail-In Rebates

I read in the paper this morning that Best Buy announced plans to end mail-in rebates at its stores within the next 2 years. The article also mentioned that competitors Circuit City and Comp USA were expected to follow suit.

That sounds great to me. Although we've never not gotten money back on a mail-in rebate, they were always a hassle. And lately it seemed like more and more often we were getting things kicked back for bogus reasons, only to have the rebate accepted when I called and complained. I started always looking for instant rebates, or products that were just plain discounted, trying to avoid mail-in rebates.

The bad part is, of course, that now things will cost a bit more since I'm sure Best Buy won't just be turning all mail-in rebates into instant rebates. After all, the whole point of the complicated mail-in process was to ensure that some customers didn't ever end up getting their money back. So now they'll probably have to offer smaller instant rebates to make up for the fact that everyone will get the discount.

[ I saw on Slashdot that the story was also reported in Business Week ]

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Friday, April 01, 2005

WMP: Auto Playlists

I've complained about my love/hate relationship with Windows Media Player several times before. And actually, there's actually not much love there, mostly just some reluctant acceptance of its slim superiority to the alternatives and hatred for its ridiculous idiosyncrasies.

Even though I devoted half a rant to the complete lack of usefulness of Windows Media Player's Auto Playlists, I am still continuously amazed at the things that I think should be within its narrow reach only to find out that they are in fact a pipe dream.

Take for example creating an auto playlist of all the music from three artists. That seemed like a reasonable thing to want to do, I thought. Except all the criteria for a particular query is ANDed together. Thus making it impossible to say 'this artist or this artist or this artist'.

"Ah-ha", I hear you say, "But you can have more then one query in a playlist. Just make a separate query for each artist and combine them all in a single playlist".

And that would be a good idea, and kind of works. Except that the results of the queries are always just appended to each other. So if your goal was to have a playlist that always played through all the Paul Oakenfold songs in your library, followed by all the 50 cent songs, followed by Pink Floyd, you'd be in luck. But I don't think that is what most people would want (certainly you won't find many people itching for 50, Oakenfold, and Pink Floyd in the same playlist).

The problem is that there isn't any way to apply the 'Randomize playback order' criteria over the results of a union of queries in a playlist. Putting the player on shuffle alleviates this to some extent, but I haven't had good luck with the actual randomness of the shuffle feature.

This same problem (as well as the fact that once a playlist is queued its contents are static) is also what prevents you from being able to do RadioStation playlists in Windows Media Center, like you can apparently do on an iPod. Since the queries are always combined in the same order, you end up with all 200 songs that are new, followed by 100 favorite songs, followed by 100 songs that haven't been played in a while, etc. Instead of all those 400 songs mixed together in one glorious stream.

Being the computer nerd that I am, I even spent a while reading the WMP SDK a few nights ago looking for a way to write my own plug-in to generate more flexible auto playlists. But all the documentation in the SDK on playlists seemed geared towards an Internet broadcaster who wanted to merge advertising and a music playlists together. Even the documentation on the wpl format and how exactly the auto playlists work is scarce. In fact, you might even call it non-existent.

So I guess I am stuck either manually creating static playlists (a monotonous and error-prone task) or living with the rather poor randomness of using shuffle across an ordered playlist.

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