The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Vista Revolution

This is a nicely detailed, in-depth review of Windows Vista by Paul Thurrott:

I generally agree with his findings. However, I do take exception to some of his closing comments...

Vista is both broad and deep, with major new features and functionality. Architecturally, it's based on the NT platform that has provided the underpinnings of all mainstream Windows versions for more than a half decade. That suggests that Windows Vista is only an evolutionary upgrade over Windows XP. But don't be deceived: In Vista, Windows has been completely deconstructed and rebuilt as a more elegant componentized system that can be secured and deployed far more easily. The ramifications of this work will reach far into the future, but what all this means to me is that Windows Vista is a major Windows update that deserves your attention. It is, at turns, both revolutionary and evolutionary.
In conclusion, Windows Vista is both evolutionary and revolutionary, and I know it's great because every time I have to use Windows XP, I feel constrained and miss those Vista features I'm just now starting to take for granted.

Vista is revolutionary?? Uh, I don’t think so.

Thurrott is correct that Microsoft has reworked many major subsystems in Windows. But does this constitute a “revolution?” The benefits of the new codebase may be seen in future applications but I rather doubt that those applications will be revolutionary.

For an operating system to be deemed “revolutionary,” it has to fundamentally alter the user experience in some way. Does Vista do this? Of course, not. I grant you, Vista has a pretty new face. Vista also has numerous new features, none of which are revolutionary. Thurrott calls these features “major,” but I dispute that characterization. Yes, they’re nice to have. They can be useful. But “major?” C’mon!

I’ve used Vista for over a month. I generally like it. It has been a positive experience, except for a few minor hiccups. But my user experience has not been fundamentally changed. Compared to Windows XP, Vista feels more like a face-lift.

Contrary to Thurrott’s experience, when I go back to XP, I don’t feel constrained. I don’t miss the Vista features. I can move between the two platforms with ease. This further illustrates the fact that the Vista experience is far from revolutionary.

Windows Vista is a major improvement over XP (when you take the totality of new features). I think you will like it. But at the end of the day, it is no different than using Windows XP or Mac OS X or Linux. They all provide you with the same basic user experience:
  1. a 2-D graphical desktop
  2. mouse and keyboard navigation
  3. data storage and retrieval capability (search and new filesystem)
  4. support for your hardware peripherals (camcorder, iPod, printer, etc.)
  5. application launcher (email, browser, photo editor, etc.)
If Microsoft is going to “Wow” us with a revolution, they have to do better than this.

Overall Evaluation of Vista

I like Windows Vista, I really do. Despite the fact that I found several bugs, none of them are showstoppers and I expect that people will generally have a positive Vista experience. Having said that, I have to say that there is no compelling reason to upgrade to Vista. The Top Reasons for moving to Windows Vista are:
  1. The attractive Aero interface.
  2. The built-in Media Center application.
  3. The built-in Search capability.
  4. The new security features.
I must admit, I am drawn to the Aero interface. But let’s be honest, this is all about cosmetics. Functionally, Aero doesn’t really improve usability over Windows XP. However, there’s no denying that people generally enjoy “eye candy.”

I also like the built-in Media Center application...I can watch TV while I’m on the computer! However, I could do this under Windows XP using Hauppauge’s own TV software. Vista’s solution is simply more elegant, that is all.

While the built-in Search capability is nifty, the fact is, you can add this capability to Windows XP using free, third-party applets. (Ditto for Vista’s Sidebar widgets.)

It remains to be seen how much safer Vista’s much-vaunted new security features will make your computer, but the fact is, you can make your Windows XP machine pretty safe by adopting appropriate security measures.

Bottom line: there is nothing compelling about Vista to make you upgrade from Windows XP. So my recommendation is that if you like Vista, wait until you get a new PC. In other words, if your PC is obsolete or problematic (eg, if you’re still running Windows 98, or if Windows XP is causing you difficulties), then get Vista with a new PC.

If you’re happy with your current Windows XP machine and you are not experiencing any problems, then do NOT upgrade to Vista. It is not worth the risk or hassle.

Either way, you can buy yourself some time until the first Vista Service Pack is released which will fix most of the bugs you are likely to encounter. If you do get a new PC now, I think you’ll like Vista. But be prepared to work around a few glitches...

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Waiting for Godot

Since getting my Sonata-Vista machine (named Batman), I have found several obvious software glitches. First, the machine occasionally fails to go into sleep mode as scheduled (after 30 minutes of inactivity). Second, the machine occasionally fails to re-acquire the wireless network connection (either on waking from sleep mode or on boot up). Third, on one occasion the machine failed to respond to the keyboard, necessitating a reboot.

This week, I found two more glitches. Fourth, under Vista the Internet browser (either IE7 or Firefox) was very slow to connect to (It could take several minutes!)

This slowdown did not occur under Windows XP, OS X, or Linux (all running Firefox). (I also used IE6 under WinXP and Safari under OS X.) So it had to be a Vista issue exclusively.

Subsequent research uncovered the fix:
netsh command fix

Fifth, on one occasion Windows Media Center suddenly and out of the blue decided that I had scheduled 8 recordings of CBC The National. I had to manually remove each and every scheduled recording. What a pain!

I found these five glitches within 30 days of ownership and use of Windows Vista (and my brand new computer). Look, I'm not a power user. I don't stress my computer at all. If I can find so many bugs within 30 days of typical PC operation, then this is good evidence that Vista is not ready for prime time.

Please note: These are only the glitches that I have found. Don’t overlook all the other reports of Vista bugs and incompatibilities that you can find on the Internet.

It's also worth noting that in over two years of using Windows XP with Service Pack 2, I have found only one or two glitches. Now that is stability!

You should expect this kind of stability from Vista. So my earlier admonition stands: Do NOT adopt Windows Vista until at least Service Pack 1. And if you wish to enjoy WinXP w/SP2 stability, then I suggest going even further and waiting for Service Pack 2!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sonata-Vista Project

My old PCs were getting rather obsolete. I have a couple of Athlon machines and a Toshiba laptop with 1.4GHz Centrino. With the release of Windows Vista, it was time for a new PC to keep pace with the latest developments in IT. The first question was whether to buy a PC from a name brand vendor such as Dell, or assemble my own hot rod PC. I decided on the latter and so began my DIY Vista Box Project...

My primary concern was silent operation. I wanted to eliminate fan noise and hard drive noise as much as possible. So I chose the Antec Sonata II computer case with 450W power supply. It has rubber grommets for the hard drive and a quiet cooling solution. (Antec's tagline is: "Silence is Beautiful.")

I also wanted the most bang for the buck. The "sweet spot" for CPU and memory are E6600 (for Intel Core 2 Duo) and 2GB DDR2. I chose the high performance ASUS P5B Deluxe/WiFi-AP motherboard for its passive cooling and built-in wireless adaptor. The video card is also passively cooled. I pushed the envelope and went for a 500GB hard drive. My component list follows:

  1. Antec Sonata II w/450W P.S.
  2. ASUS P5B Deluxe/WiFi-AP
  3. Intel Core 2 Duo E6600
  4. 2GB Kingston DDR2 (667MHz)
  5. ASUS EAX1600 Pro Silent edition w/256MB DDR2
  6. Western Digital WD5000KS 500GB hard drive
  7. LG 18X DVD writer
  8. Windows Vista Home Premium (32-bit)

Total price in Canadian dollars: $1,382.14 plus tax.

I also chose the following peripherals:

  1. Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 ($19.99 from TigerDirect Canada)
  2. Logitech Click! optical mouse ($12.99 from Canada Computers)
  3. Acer AL2223WD 22" widescreen LCD monitor ($319 plux tax)
  4. Creative Inspire T3030 2.1 speakers ($50.10, shipping & tax incl., from Best Buy Canada)

My photo blog of the project is here:

I named my new machine Batman because of the gorgeous piano-black gloss finish on the case, the silver-gray bezel on the Acer monitor, and the black keyboard and 2.1 speakers.


Out of the box, Vista could not recognize my X1600 Pro video card, motherboard Wi-Fi (Realtek RTL8187), and some "Unknown Device." I downloaded the drivers from AMD/ATI and ASUS, and they resolved the first two devices. (The "Unknown Device" somehow resolved itself!)


God, I hate computer networking. I spent the entire day struggling with networking on my Sonata-Vista system. It was very frustrating.

But I started from basics, step by step, and worked myself up to using my new 802.11g Linksys router, which I acquired a couple of weeks ago. (My old router was 802.11b.)

Because my print server and my Toshiba laptop do not support WPA security, they are now both on wired LANs. I had to move my print server to the basement where my cable modem is.


The Sonata-Vista box is not particularly quiet. My brother's new Dimension 9200 is actually quieter. But I’ve given up on trying to make this thing silent. It’s just too hard.

Despite a fanless motherboard and a fanless video card, the 120mm exhaust fan on the Antec case and the whine of the hard drive are noisy enough on their own to render any quiescent measures hopeless.

Also, I kept hearing the occasional thump, thump, thump from the machine. It took me a while to isolate the sound... It came from the hard drive. The thumping is the sound of head seeks!


Assembly took all day Saturday and a small part of Sunday. Despite the care that I took, and the tentative steps, I still managed to make some mistakes...

Here’s a tip: when you’re installing memory DIMMs, before you go pressing on the DIMMs with all your might (and warping the motherboard) trying to cause the retaining clips to close in, do yourself a favour and close the clips as much as possible first, and THEN press on the DIMMs. You’ll find the clips close in and lock into position a whole lot easier. (Would somebody please smack me upside the head?)

The biggest mistake was when I tried installing the mounting rails on the DVD drive. Apparently I used the wrong screws, which didn’t go in very easily. I ended up ripping the head off of one of the screws, so the screw stem is permanently stuck in the screw hole. Fortunately, I was installing the rails into the WRONG SET of screw holes at the time, so the mistake didn’t really matter.

As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”


Installing the CPU and heatsink was actually the easiest part of the assembly, much to my surprise. This was the step that had me paralyzed with fear for the longest time. But the fear was unfounded. Today’s engineers have made this installation quite painless.

You simply lay the CPU gently into the socket, swing down the pressure plate, and use a lever to lock down the plate.

Even the heatsink already came with the thermal contact cement applied on the surface. All I had to do was place the heatsink on top of the CPU, press on the four legs of the heatsink assembly unit so that they lock into the motherboard’s holes, and I was done!


I can watch TV on Batman! And it was so easy to setup, too!

I plugged in my Hauppauge (HOP-hog) WinTV-PVR-USB2. Vista automatically searched for a driver at Windows Update, found it, and installed it.

Then I ran Windows Media Center. The wizard walked me through a few simple questions and I was up and watching TV! It couldn't have been easier. Nice job, Microsoft.

Here is an example of where "it just works." Apple better be afraid--MS is starting to catch up in terms of usability...


When I installed the WinXP driver for the Watchport/V webcam, Vista told me that it couldn't run the software because the program doesn't support multiple processors. I was stunned by this statement...

First, how does the program know that it's on a multiple processor system? And, second, why does it care? This is a webcam, for God's sake--one CPU is all it needs.

So I forced it to run anyway.

This is one of several roadblocks Vista threw up during the installation. But if you persevere, you CAN make the WinXP driver work...

(Maybe it's because this is a USB device. Can't say whether it applies to all USB devices, though.)


Windows Speech Recognition is f*cking FANTABULOUS!!!
My ASUS motherboard came with an array microphone. I attached it to Batman. It sits on top of my Acer monitor.

You can enable speech recognition by going to Accessories/Ease of Access/Windows Speech Recognition. It's dead-easy to setup. The tutorial is a good way to train Vista to recognize your voice--it LEARNS while you talk!

The recognition rate is excellent. It only makes the occasional mistake. Frankly, I'm amazed that it can cut through my slurred speech (at 8:00 in the morning, my mouth and vocal cord aren't at their best).

Speech recognition is useful for both dictation and uttering desktop commands. But I'm much more of a keyboard person myself, so I'll use speech recognition only sparingly.

Mac computing the same as Windows computing

Mac computing isn't that different from Windows computing anymore. OS X and Vista are pretty much on equal footing these days.

For example, Vista's GUI desktop is as pleasant to use as Mac's, if not more so.

And both Mac and Vista have their share of problems, sometimes the same problems! I cite three examples:
  1. Occasionally, the machine fails to go to sleep on schedule (after 30 minutes of idle activity).
  2. Occasionally, the machine fails to re-acquire the wireless network.
  3. Occasionally, the machine fails to respond to the keyboard.
It would appear that, regardless of whether you're in the Mac camp or the Windows camp, power management and wireless networking remain technical challenges for design engineers.

It's also worth noting that while Vista may cause some headaches in supporting certain hardware (usually due to poorly written third-party drivers), this is balanced by the fact that some hardware receive no Mac support whatsoever.

So I seem to be drawn back into the Windows camp. BUT, I haven't give up on Mac OS X yet. The reason is this...

DRM. Digital Rights Management. Vista embraces it.

This may not be much in the public consciousness right now but it will be in the future. As Tom Merritt, Executive Editor at CNET, correctly points out, Vista and DRM are too new and it's too early for users to notice. But once these people realize they can't do what they want to do with their media content, once they see they can't play their music or their movies, they will cry foul. They will blame Microsoft and Vista. They will wish they had gone with Apple.

Just as I had predicted the disaster in Iraq four years ago and sat back waiting patiently for the inevitable outcome to unfold, I now sit back patiently and wait for the DRM storm to descend upon us...

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Best Place in the World to Buy a Condo

Industry professionals are calling it the "condo craze"--but whatever you name it, the condo market in Toronto and the GTA is hotter than ever before.

Watching condo sales for the last few months of 2006 was fascinating. In June, high-rise sales were up 41 per cent, beating the all-time record for market share. July brought the news that high-rise sales increased by 260 per cent in Peel Region and 215 per cent in York Region. In August, condos represented 44 per cent of all new homes sold. High-rise sales brought us the strongest September in five years. Compared to October 2005, that same month in 2006 saw a decrease in high-rise sales, but then November rolled around and sales reached a five-year high for that month.

Right now, we have the most competitive condominium market in North America, which is amazing news for consumers. Toronto and area purchasers enjoy a fabulous selection, outstanding features and remarkable building amenities, and all at competitive prices. Today's condominium developers are doing their best to put together desirable packages to attract buyers--and the buyers are the winners. Our conscientious condominium developers travel to other cities to source items, explore new construction and design techniques, and look at what other builders have to offer.

Intensive market research also ensures that our developers respond to what buyers really want. And today, they want choice. Nowhere in the U.S. will you find the flexibility to choose from so many features, finishes and upgrades. There, builders tend to offer one package and that's what you get. Here, buyers have the opportunity to personalize their condo suites with selections from a wide range of finishes.

Buyers also want fabulous architecture and environmentally friendly green features, and developers have accomplished amazing things on both fronts. Programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and ENERGY STAR are two programs helping builders create win-win situations that benefit both the environment and the homebuyers.

The fact is, today's consumers come into condominium sales offices more prepared than ever before, and developers are determined to keep a step ahead. It's a win-win for Toronto and area customers who get to shop for condos in the best place in the world!

- Pat Baker for Metro Dreamhomes

I bought my condo at West Harbour City, Phase 2 development, along the Lakeshore in Toronto. Expected completion is in 2010. East-facing, I will have a decent view of the Toronto cityline, as well as of the harbourfront.

Chinese Astrology

Hmmm, there may be something to this Chinese astrology shit, after all. In this, The Year of the (Golden?) Pig, I seem to be enjoying some unusual good fortune...

Since Chinese New Year (February 18th), the following have happened:

  1. I bought a new condo in an area that I like, with a view that I like, with a floorplan that I like, at a bargain price.

  2. I assembled my own hot rod Vista box for an excellent total cost of less than $1,400 (tax not incl.). I expect this will jumpstart my entremanurial ambitions later this year.

  3. My girlfriend broke up with me.

  4. I bought an excellent set of new all-season radials for the Silver Beast.
  5. I am once again a millionaire.

The condo isn't too close to the Gardiner. And I get a view of both the cityline and harbourfront. And I have a comfortable amount of floorspace.

"Entremanurial," from the Old French, meaning "to undertake bullshit."

You might be wondering about #3. It's a positive fortune because I recently learned that my girlfriend is psychotic. (In fact, *all* women are psychotic.) The breakup relieves an enormous amount of stress and frustration, and I am happier as a result.

BTW, she broke up with me on Chinese New Year (the 18th)! Sheesh.

The new Goodyear Assurance TripleTred all-season radials are a blessing because if my service station hadn't brought my cracking, 8-year-old tires to my attention, I might still be driving on them. A blow-out on the 400 at 140 km/hr might kill me (or someone else).

I'm a (Canadian) millionaire, but just by a hair. A stock market correction will quickly change that. Technically speaking, this isn't a Year-of-the-Pig development since I passed the million dollar net worth mark in December, but it's close enough that I'll give the attribution.

Overall, I am feeling very sanguine about my life...

So, is it the Year of the Golden Pig? The controversy continues, but here's an interesting comment:

Each year is also linked with one of five elements: wood, metal, fire, earth and water. This year is a Fire Pig Year, which occurs once every 60 years. But because it's the 10th Fire Pig Year in a 600-year cycle, that makes it golden, says Marie Diamond, a feng shui expert who writes Chinese horoscopes for AOL.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Google Apps,1895,2097926,00.asp

Joe Wilcox has done an excellent analysis of Google Apps versus Office:

Microsoft Watch article

Whether the head or the tail, Google benefits from good timing. By redesigning the Office user interface, Microsoft has created another barrier to switching from old Office suites and increased costs along the way. Businesses will have to budget for work disruption, extra training and increased support calls, if switching to Office 2007. These kinds of costs have long been a barrier to businesses considering switching to competing productivity suites. Now the costs apply to Office, too. Google's interface is loads more familiar because it resembles the older Office motif.

I'm switching to Google apps. I don't want to pay the absurd price for Office 2007, and at the moment doesn't quite work under Windows Vista.

Do We Really Need Quad Core?

If you ask whether or not we need quad-core CPUs, you may as well ask whether or not we will ever need faster processors. You may as well have asked, back when the Pentium was introduced, whether it wasn't just enough to make faster 486s. That's the equivalent of what we're talking about here. Integrated floating-point units, wider pipelines, MMX, SSE…multiple cores. These are the innovations that will increase CPU power. Sure, each core within a multicore CPU will continue to be tweaked (the Core 2's 128-bit wide SSE execution per core is a good example), but those things only get you so far, and they're very time-consuming and expensive in engineering terms.

But the apps aren't there yet, right? Quad-core could come late next year, you say. No, the apps are there. Ever encode video? All the video encoders are heavily multithreaded, and video encoding is extremely parallelizable: You get huge speedups. Oh, but the average user doesn't encode video…only they do. iDVD is an extremely popular Mac app (Intel fuels Apple's machines now, remember?) and next year, literally tens of millions of new Vista owners will have bundled DVD creation software, too. All that MPEG2 encoding can take a long time. Many portable devices require video to be in a particular format or resolution, so the re-encoding of all that stuff is another big time sink. When it comes to HD-DVD and Blu-ray, even the decoding can suck the life out of a high-end CPU.

Then there's general multitasking. You might think that grandma only runs her web browser and email client, or that your laptop is only for a couple of office and web apps, and maybe listening to some music on the road. Each of these only requires a fraction of modern CPU power, so you don't really need multiple CPUs to handle the load, right? Well, that would be true if that were really all your computer were doing. Operating systems like OS X and Vista index drive contents in the background and run other diagnostic services that attempt to keep your system running smoothly and make those searches pop up in an instant. There's a whole flood of stuff going on—again, none of it particularly CPU-intensive by itself. But add 'em all together with all the little lightweight apps you're running, toss in the constant snooping of virus protection software and maybe a little encryption for your sensitive data (business contacts, company plans, "family videos," whatever) and you're talking about a whole lot of multitasking.

Multitasking is more than just what you see on your taskbar, after all.

So is now the right time for quad-core CPUs? Hell, yes it is. It was the right time for quad-core months ago. It's the right time for six or eight-core CPUs. You could give me 16 cores and I would ask where the 20-core chips are. More cores are faster, and faster is better, because it enables richer, easier-to-use, more fun software. Bring on the many-core CPUs, heavily multitasking OS environments, and multithreaded software. I'm ready for the parallel processing universe.