Archive for June, 2008

Adventures in hand building

June 28th, 2008

Adventures in hand building computers

I’ve been doing more video these days.  But rendering video files takes a long time, like maybe two hours for every hour of video.  So I decided to run my rendering operation like a dentist’s office, with multiple operatories.  That means multiple machines.

I have a Dell desktop and although it’s ok on editing (I use Adobe Premiere Pro CS 3.0), whenever I need to render I have to take a nap or go for a walk because it takes so long and you can’t edit the next video while you’re rendering the last.  This can’t be efficient.

So I decided to get a second machine, and keep it pure, with only Adobe video software, and use that when the first machine is tied up.  Ah, but what computer should I get?

First I went to Dell, but boy their high end video quality machines are really expensive.  Then I went to Best Buy, because, like the mountain, it was there.  They had a 64-bit HP that looked pretty good for a good price, but I started to wonder about the 64-bit thing.

I googled 64-bit and it wasn’t clear that Adobe can use all of the memory addressable by the 64-bit processor or whether it can use even the 4 megabytes of memory it uses on a 32-bit processor.  64-bit, like Vista, is probably something for later, but not now.

So I decided to call Adobe.  Luckily, I got a sales guy who would talk to me about this, and luckier still he was wiling to talk to me about his own personal setup.  He said he didn’t buy factory built machines, but was into hand built machines.  Although I’d seen components at places like CompUSA, I’d really gotten close to hand built machines.

He was high on hand built.  You can build it your way, like a hamburger.   With any kind of motherboard and chips and drives and video cards and everything.  And because it doesn’t come with all the creepy software the factory built machines come with, which invariably shows your machine down.  And for what you get, hand built is cheaper.

What price purity?  He told me what he had on his machine, from the name and manufacturer and model number of the motherboard to the chips and drives and video cards, and so forth.  Then the problem was for me to somehow recreate what he had.

Sure I could get on the web and order a case and all these components, and then try to put them together and configure them.  Daunting, I thought.  Why not just get someone here in Honolulu to do that for me?  A geek person, I thought.  But how many geek people do you actually know, ones you can actually talk to.

And then I remembered Supergeeks.  I had heard that they do hand built.  So I gave them a call in hopes that this would simple and quick, that I could tell them what I wanted and they could just build it and deliver it to me, and make me happier than I had ever been.

Lucky still again.  I called them and got Oliver, their parts man, and he laid out how this would all happen and what it would cost.  I ordered it right there and then, and he flew in the parts and set up the machine and delivered it me in one week. Just like Dell.

Had I ordered the parts and put them together myself I suppose I would have learned more about how to build and configure hand built machines like the guy from Adobe, but that would have involved more time and risk for me.  It was better to have them do this.

I had to a learn a few things about the machine after they delivered it but in one day’s time it was fully operational, just as I had dreamed it would be, and now I have exactly what I wanted with exactly the specs I wanted, and I’m as happy as clam.  You know that feeling of elation when you get a brand new high powered computer that actually works.

Kudos to Oliver and his friends Ryan and Ron at Supergeeks.  They did a great job.  My fingers are crossed that this will work swell and for a long time, better than factory built, and that I won’t need onsite maintenance, because that unfortunately is not in the deal.

Hand built is like hand coded, all transparent, all modular, all yours.  And all things considered, I might even make this the way I get my computers in the future. It’s not so much a geek thing as the fact that these parts and components are generic and modular.  In the 21st Century they have become commodity, and for me that is a very good thing.

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Let's bring back the boys (and girls)

June 23rd, 2008

Farewell to our kidsIf we really wanted them back, we’d do something about it.  Everyone always says they’re leaving by the carload, our best and brightest, and we’ll never get them back.

We’re tried silly things like parties, websites and clubby chat rooms.  But for the most part we’ve been unable to get them to come back, with all the damage that does to our demographic.

The longer they stay away, the less likely it is that they’ll return.  They finish school, get jobs, get married, have kids, and make a life.  Can you blame them?   Do you think they’re going to drop all that and come back midcourse?  Lots of luck.

But there is something we can do about it – that should come as no surprise – if you really want to do something about this sort of relentless brain drain loss, all you to do is bear down, spend some money and make some sacrifices and, lo and behold, you can.

A few years ago, an expatriate Chinese scientist in New Jersey was wooed back by the Chinese government.  They offered him what they knew would appeal to him most of all, the trappings of science itself – a laboratory and research money and laboratory staff galore in China.  He succumbed easily, and back to China he went to take the prize.

It’s not hard to do that, and certainly worth it – scientists, after all, come with high leverage.  No one knows what great things this guy will do for China now.  His work there could be, probably will be, worth far more than the cost of repatriating him.

So how about repatriating our departed boys and girls, the ones who left because they saw brighter future on the mainland than in Hawaii?  Because their teachers and parents and friends all inculcated in them the notion that the best thing they could to was to follow their peers and go to the mainland for a better life than they could have in Hawaii.

In fact, we have a good life here – it’s just hard to overcome the mainland sirens, as in Odysseus.  We can’t just ask them to plug their ears.  It takes a meaningful incentive to bring them back.  So why don’t we bite the bullet and pay the price of that incentive and bring our best and brightest back home to help us build a future for our state.  We need them more than we can say.  What are we waiting for?

How do we do this?  By the same kind of incentive you would always use – economics mixed with career satisfaction.  Just like the Chinese scientist.  You pay their way.  You give them a free ticket.  You get them a great job and salary, appropriate to their skill.  You help them buy or mortgage a house, or you rent one to/for them cheap for x years.  You excuse them from state income tax for x years.  You offer them free courses at the University to advance their professional training.  You tell them you love them, you make them feel good about themselves and their choice of returning.  Priceless.

You give them bus passes, and opera seats.  You give them memberships at the “Y”.  In short, you do everything you can.  You make them feel like returning heroes.  You target them singly, expatriate by expatriate, or you do it in groups.  You can fix these incentives in concrete or you can change the benefits and quotas every year depending on the need for skilled workers in that sector.  It’s like the HOT lane – computer driven – you adjust things depending on the need, you adapt the supply to the market place.

Are we doing this now?  Not a chance, but we need to.

You can, in fact, for a controlled and predictable budget, bring back as many pau hana expatriates as you need.  You target them, you incentivize them, you make them offers they can’t refuse and, if they do refuse, you sweeten the deal until it’s completely irresistable.

They say providing a skilled workforce is the trick to building a tech industry.  If you want to build that industry, you have to provide the workforce, however difficult that may be.  Well, we can do it.  All we have to is design a system to focus on it.  This is the way to our future, and theirs, and their families.  Let’s not waste a minute – we can’t afford to keep on losing them, we need to stem the tide right now and get them back here post haste.

Those who would oppose this will say, “why spend our money on bringing these kids back – they’ll come back when they're ready.  Why should we give them special treatment?  And if they don’t come back, that’s their problem".  I don’t agree.  That kind of attitude will isolate us from our own children.  This problem is our problem and it’s serious.  We’re got to take charge or our collective destiny, or we will surely be the Sahara of the Beaux Arts (as from H.L. Mencken), and of the Sciences too.

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If you spend more time on the Net, you may be spending more money too

June 18th, 2008

1950s-pay-phone.jpgIn Hawaii right now, Verizon delivers DSL for $14.99, Qwest delivers DSL and wireless for $26.99, EarthLink delivers DSL and cable for $12.95, delivers DSL for $14.99, Road Runner delivers cable for $29.95, Adelphia delivers cable for $23.95, MediaCom delivers cable for $19.95 and Hughes delivers satellite and wireless for $59.99.  All of these guys provide unlimited monthly Internet service to local customers.

Watch out. Most cable companies have official or secret caps on the amount of data they allow subscribers to download every month.  Three of the country's largest internet providers are moving toward a new way to charge us for broadband - by imposing limits on our online accounts.

Time Warner Cable began a "trial" of "net metering" in a Beaumont, Texas, this month.  They want customers to sign up for "plans" that have limits and pay hefty surcharges when they exceed those limits.  Comcast said it would slow down the connections of its heaviest users in the markets of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and Warrenton, Virginia.

Comcast continues to engage in “contact blocking” against its customers despite an investigation by the FCC and widespread public outrage over what it has been doing.  And AT&T said it would limit heavy users by basing prices on data volume.

Ben Scott, of the public interest group Free Press, says that the new strategy of the big providers reflects a decision to admit publicly what they have been doing secretly all along.  He adds that their new strategy will not provide the kind of relief that would result from larger investment in high-speed network.  Clearly, as national usage increases, we need a scaled up system, not scaled up prices overworking the existing system.

In Beaumont, Time Warner is “offering” plans with a 5 gig cap, a 20 gig cap and a 40 gig cap.  Prices run from $30 to $50.  If you exceed your cap, you get to pay $1 for each additional gig, so use it carefully.  An hour of TV quality video is about 200 megs, higher quality video 500 megs, and high definition is much more than that, say 5 gigs.  After one hour of high definition, the user with the 5 gig plan will be over his limit.

While these carriers want to return to a pre-1996 dial-up juke-box pay-phone standard of metered charges, most everyone you know is way beyond email and website surfing.  We, all of us, are using more bandwidth every day - video, movies, music, games, voice over and everything else.  Overall bandwidth use on the net is surging, doubling every year and a half.  The net is becoming a center of our culture and daily life.  Computers and TV are now finally coming together for the long-awaited convergence.

This new throwback pricing scheme runs counter to that trend, and to what we have come to love about the Net, its openness and vitality.  It is a huge step backward.  Just when we thought we were all on the road to a new world of Net nirvana, the change these guys want is a complete bummer.  Instead of surfing new heights of Internet delight, we will be tied down by this electronic ceiling.  It will be a constant psychological barrier on use and experimentation, one which will cast a shadow on every moment of our Net experience.

They tell us that net metering is the "fair" way to ensure access for "all" users.  Why does that sound so fishy?  I suggest they've noticed this sweeping trend to greater public use, and they want to cash in on it.  Time Warner, the parent of our own Oceanic Cable that provides Roadrunner to so many of us, is leading the charge, pun intended, and our days of Net freedom may be numbered.  Today Beaumont; tomorrow Hawaii.

Hawaii is sitting pretty for this kind of pricing scheme.  You need to vote to vote with your feet on this, to get off your duff, watch what happens and be prepared to go over to the competition without looking back.  That's why the smart thing may be to squawk about it now, before we get sucked into our own “trial” and a whirlpool of escalating prices.

Why not write to Oceanic at and tell them that we don't want no stinken usage based fees here, that we love the openness and global exchange of the Net, that their escalation plan flies in the face of the global trend, and that we know very well that they're doing this only to make more money.

Nationally, the stakes and the resources in play are huge.  In Hawaii, the market is hundreds of millions.  Do the math.  We could wind up paying more, much more.  We can’t afford to be complacent.  Once the sliding scale begins, it's so easy for them to migrate the data limits down and the charges and penalties up, hoping no one will notice.  We should notice.  We should tell them that if they want to raise the monthly price of broadband here, they’ll have to pay a price in market share, and that we and the PUC will be watching.

Things are also happening in Congress.  The push for net neutrality protection against content blocking has led to several bills.  The "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" co-sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to codify open access to the Internet. The "Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act" introduced by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) would use antitrust regulations to prevent the price discrimination inherent in forcing some customers to pay more for higher bandwidth.

We should ask our delegation to support these two bills.  Failing that, maybe we should go out and buy Time Warner stock (symbol TMW) and vote against management to make the point.  As a last ditch effort, perhaps we should move to the mainland and sign up with the competition, assuming there are some other carriers out there who decide not to go along for the ride.

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