g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon ValleyNew York-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry, political bile, and sports car rentals.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

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James Lileks
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As the Apple Turns
Entropicana
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Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
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Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
.clue
Ravishing Light
Rosenblog
Cartago Delenda Est



Cars without compromise.





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  4/4/2005 -  4/10/2005
 3/28/2005 -   4/3/2005
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 1/17/2005 -  1/23/2005
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  1/3/2005 -   1/9/2005
12/27/2004 -   1/2/2004
12/20/2004 - 12/26/2004
12/13/2004 - 12/19/2004
 12/6/2004 - 12/12/2004
11/29/2004 -  12/5/2004
11/22/2004 - 11/28/2004
11/15/2004 - 11/21/2004
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10/25/2004 - 10/31/2004
10/18/2004 - 10/24/2004
10/11/2004 - 10/17/2004
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  2/2/2004 -   2/8/2004
 1/26/2004 -   2/1/2004
 1/19/2004 -  1/25/2004
 1/12/2004 -  1/18/2004
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12/29/2003 -   1/4/2004
12/22/2003 - 12/28/2003
12/15/2003 - 12/21/2003
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11/24/2003 - 11/30/2003
11/17/2003 - 11/23/2003
11/10/2003 - 11/16/2003
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10/27/2003 -  11/2/2003
10/20/2003 - 10/26/2003
10/13/2003 - 10/19/2003
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  7/7/2003 -  7/13/2003
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12/30/2002 -   1/5/2003
12/23/2002 - 12/29/2002
12/16/2002 - 12/22/2002
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11/25/2002 -  12/1/2002
11/18/2002 - 11/24/2002
11/11/2002 - 11/17/2002
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10/28/2002 -  11/3/2002
10/21/2002 - 10/27/2002
10/14/2002 - 10/20/2002
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 8/19/2002 -  8/25/2002
 8/12/2002 -  8/18/2002
  8/5/2002 -  8/11/2002
 7/29/2002 -   8/4/2002
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 7/15/2002 -  7/21/2002
  7/8/2002 -  7/14/2002
  7/1/2002 -   7/7/2002
 6/24/2002 -  6/30/2002
 6/17/2002 -  6/23/2002
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  6/3/2002 -   6/9/2002
 5/27/2002 -   6/2/2002
 5/20/2002 -  5/26/2002
 5/13/2002 -  5/19/2002
  5/6/2002 -  5/12/2002
 4/29/2002 -   5/5/2002
 4/22/2002 -  4/28/2002
 4/15/2002 -  4/21/2002
  4/8/2002 -  4/14/2002
  4/1/2002 -   4/7/2002
 3/25/2002 -  3/31/2002
 3/18/2002 -  3/24/2002
 3/11/2002 -  3/17/2002
  3/4/2002 -  3/10/2002
 2/25/2002 -   3/3/2002
 2/18/2002 -  2/24/2002
 2/11/2002 -  2/17/2002
  2/4/2002 -  2/10/2002
 1/28/2002 -   2/3/2002
 1/21/2002 -  1/27/2002
 1/14/2002 -  1/20/2002
  1/7/2002 -  1/13/2002
12/31/2001 -   1/6/2002
12/24/2001 - 12/30/2001
12/17/2001 - 12/23/2001
Sunday, September 24, 2006
00:16 - I've never seen anybody with a pierced brain before

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I hear tell from my friends who watch it that Family Guy somehow snuck an F-bomb past the censors tonight.

Watch: it'll be hailed as a great moral advance in these puritanical times and a slap in the face of The Man.


17:55 - The next stage

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You know what iTunes movies need?

Subtitles.

And DVD-player-type controls.

And alternate audio tracks.

And special features.

Yeah—everything DVDs have, except for, you know, the DVDs.

But I'd settle for subtitles to start out with. It'd hardly even take up any extra space or download time, and I'm sure they could be muxed into the video stream, or packaged in a bundle format that wouldn't be compatible with Windows.

But if they could do that, then they could do lyrics in songs, right?

C'mon, Apple. You've laid the groundwork for a new digital medium to replace the physical formats for audio and video. It has the potential to be everything the physical media are and more. So now it's time to make that happen, what what?

UPDATE: Sam M. writes:

That'll be iTunes 8. First, give it a year or so for the studios to notice that this model makes oodles of money for them, and to realize that the type of people who want commentaries and special features are the type of people who would replace their DVD player with an 802.11n set-top box streaming content from their computers anyway. Then they'll offer regular one-disc DVDs with no special features for the Christmas With The Kranks for 19 bucks from Walmart audience, and all that commentary jazz and special features will be a $1.99-$4.99 extra on iTunes, and for the really hardcore fan, there's the 4-disc HD/Blu-Ray Ultra Special Edition with 87 hours of bonus material and collectible pewter figurines of the main characters.

Another prediction is that once their catalog gets big enough and iTVs are enough living rooms, iTunes will introduce a rental option for about four or five bucks, with the option to pay the full 15 if you like the movie and want to keep it. Otherwise the DRM will make the movie unplayable and delete it. Kinda what DivX tried back in the day.

That's what Steve has been spending this whole time telling the world he refuses to do with music... everyone else has a rental model where the DRM expires the music unless you refresh it every month, and Steve keeps saying people would rather own their media. And there are already movie download sites like Vongo.com that operate on a rental model, just like the Napsters of the world.

That said, movies are a bit of a different animal. People rent movies all the time, from video stores; there hasn't been any analogous "music rental" system in place for people to get used to, so iTunes' download-to-own model has always made more sense to people than renting. But with videos it might well be a different story. Just yesterday I was browsing the catalog and thinking, "You know, I wouldn't mind renting these movies so I can watch them once—but I'm not sure I'd want to buy them, for $10-$15, especially sight unseen."

(The biggest issue for me being disk space rather than price, actually. And that's another area in which movies differ pretty significantly from music. 1GB represents a lot more hardware to budget for than 3MB.)

I bought Grosse Pointe Blank and enjoyed its playback experience and flexibility immensely; but do I want to watch it again? Not for a while, certainly. That's way different from music, where I might well want to listen to the same song several times a day. So now I've got a big lump taking up a gigabyte of my disk and my backup system, pretty much uselessly. If I'd rented the movie, I'd just delete it. But now I can't, or else I wasted my $15.

Imagine if I didn't like the movie.

So frankly I really like the idea of the rental option for movies. I can see devouring my way through the entire library if that were available. Music, not so much. But with a library of (say) 100 movies, they stand to make $500 on rentals from me where they might only get $15 or $30 on outright purchases. I just hope they can keep the story straight, and don't have to feel like they're compromising their position or going back on their philosophy. If they make the case sufficiently that movies are a very different thing from music and follow different rules, they could make it stick.


12:35 - Profluence

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Something that I discovered while sequestered in you-don't-have-a-server-anymore-land was a bunch of new placemark dots that I noticed in Google Earth, appearing in an eerily regular pattern:



These are part of a (possibly) new layer that popped up in the "Google Earth Community" section: placemarks for Confluence, a global project for mapping out all the integer latitude/longitude points on the globe by visiting them personally. It's a bit like geocaching, in that you have to bring a GPS and take photos of it showing all zeroes for the decimal coordinates.

There are documented confluence points all around the planet; some of them are in really weird and inaccessible places, like fifty miles from the nearest road in Nevada, or out in the middle of a frozen lake in the Northwest Territories. Some of the coverage in other countries is particularly fascinating, like when the placemarks abruptly stop at the border of some country where you don't really expect to find larking techno-geeks tramping through the underbrush more intent on reaching the prescribed coordinates than avoiding armed patrols or whatever. And it's funny how on the equator, the points are hundreds of miles apart, but in places like Iceland you can walk from one to the next.

Apparently the site has been around for a number of years, and every single placemark leads to a page with a fascinating, well-written, and thoroughly photographically documented description of the surroundings of that particular grid point on the planet.

This is the kind of stuff that can really swallow a weekend. At least if you're me.

Saturday, September 23, 2006
20:11 - For God's sake, we've got to do something!

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Something that circumstances kept me from commenting on in a timely manner was iTunes 7, otherwise known as "Let's Make a Major Version Jump Actually Mean Something This Time".



In short: I like it, but they best watch theyself now. They're starting to flail just a teeeensy bit. It seems to me that there's plenty to get excited about in iTunes now that it supports full-scale (640-pixel-wide) Hollywood movies and lets you play them back in a wholeheartedly polished manner, without having to monkey with the established parts of the interface to the extent that they've done here.

First, we've got yet another reskinning of the buttons, which long ago shed their "Classic Aqua" guise in favor of the new-fangled "flat shiny round controls" and "metal buttons that you know would make a satisfying tick sound if you pressed them in real life" metaphors. Now, the buttons have dispensed with any pretense of Looking Like Things—they don't emulate any real-life devices, which is probably a good thing, no matter how many new generations of UI designers have to rediscover the merits of such principles. But it also means iTunes now has scrollbars whose Aqua-ness has dried up, possibly the first Apple app to do so since the release of OS X in 2001. Now the scrollbars are a solid-ish blue-gray color, with a rounded-looking surface and round endpoints, but no more resembling the "flowing water" (or "slippery squeezy snake") motif of old. This would seem to be a nod to the cross-platform nature of iTunes in this day and age, belonging as much to the Windows world as to the Mac; but considering how many reports are apparently flying about the rumor mills of playback bugs in the Windows version, that impartiality might only be for show at this point.

There's also some question as to how well thought out the new color scheme and interface layout in iTunes 7 has been. John Gruber of Daring Fireball noticed that a Knowledge Base article at Apple had a screenshot of a pre-release version of iTunes with a much darker blue sidebar with white text, much like what you find on the new iPod interface demo page. Presumably it was yanked at the last minute; but you'll still find that color scheme all over the place in the new iTunes website and in the iTunes Music Store. Personally I think it looks very sharp in those applications (and the Store in particular is much spruced-up, especially in previously neglected pages like the "Just Added" section, which has fixed a long-present bug where it would lose keyboard focus at the drop of the hat, making it a pain to read through the entire list if you ever click on any links to see what the listed albums are).

But although the sidebar now has more or less the same color scheme as it used to, albeit with completely redesigned icons and that new subheading-based layout (which I can just see my mom squinting at and wondering why they can't just pick a layout and make up their mind), there are these two new view modes that pervade the entire system: the "Grouped with Artwork" view and the "Cover Flow" view. These, to me, represent where iTunes is having an identity crisis. The Cover Flow browser is reportedly an outright-purchased bit of functionality from a third-party plugin, and it's quite slick, albeit pretty useless in anything but a demo; but the "Grouped with Artwork" view, which gives regular music, podcasts, audiobooks, and other pure-audio media types a visual browser analogous to the "icon view on a reflective black floor" view that videos had in the previous version, looks like it came straight out of a competitive design review. See, I recall that early screenshots of Windows Media Player in Vista operated on precisely that basis, with cover art down the left acting as a grouping mechanism for the tracks listed down the right. Apple seems to have been spooked by this, and is trying to jimmy in the same functionality—because whether it helps in browsing or not, it's a highly visual navigation mode that looks great in screenshots. It might prove to be useless in practice, but without it, iTunes would look quaint and austere next to a media player with that browsing mode. You just know it.

But Apple couldn't make that big a change to the default text-list browsing metaphor upon which its vaunted ease of use and intuitiveness is built. So they had to break it out into a whole new view mode, something that they can point to if anyone challenges them with a competitor whose interface looks slicker, even if it's clumsier to get around in. And if that isn't enough, there's always the Cover Browser, which is even more useless, and even more effective in shutting up the competition in a visual demo.

But that's what irritates me. iTunes has never needed to stoop to these kinds of blatant eye-candy tactics before. Along with the all-pervasive "reflection" trick that shows up in everything from album covers to the new multicolored stacked progress bar showing your iPod's disk usage in the new (and highly demoable) connected-iPod screen, these kinds of visual flourishes represent a strategy that I like to call "trying too hard". Apple started from zero market penetration, with an application that undercut its established competition both in price and in number of features, and it took the world by storm through its purity and simplicity. It could have wowed the world from day one by going the "Look how many skins we support!" route that everyone else at the time was doing; but they didn't, preferring to stick with this clean, simple, primarily textual interface to your music. They didn't even add album art until version 4.0 or so, and even then it was in that halfhearted little sub-window tucked away in the bottom of your Source pane. Now, as though to correct that injustice, they've turned automatic album-art retrieval and visual browsing based on the album cover into a central design pillar. And though those navigation modes are secondary and tertiary to the original, they still have the distinct odor of something that we could have done without. Now we can't chuckle inwardly at the sight of some other media player that uses these techniques, sneering about how they "just don't get it"... because now, apparently, iTunes doesn't get it either. Or at least it implicitly concedes that its way isn't superior—just one of several.

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe it'll win over more users. But it just feels dirty to me. Like how filename extensions felt to me when OS X 10.1 foisted them upon us. But maybe, just as with that issue, I'll eventually soften and come to see these three navigation modes as every bit as mutually interdependent and variously useful in their own specific circumstances as Icon, List, and Column Views in the Finder.

But probably not.

At any rate, what really gets me about iTunes 7 is that it doesn't need these bells and whistles to justify its big version number jump. It's already got plenty. Full-length movies, for one, that play in a full-screen window with an excellent floating controller that works vastly better than the clunky and unresponsive display window in iTunes 6. And more than this: playback has been addressed with a complete rethinking of the track-to-track transition issue, with a new "gapless" playback behavior that will address many users' complaints stemming from live albums with choppy silence in the applause between tracks. I'm not sure how it works, but iTunes 7 has to process your entire library for gapless playback the first time you run it, so it's apparently something fairly technically intensive. Then again, the Help page for gapless playback says this:
What is Gapless Playback?

Gapless playback means that there is no pause in playback between the end of one audio file and the beginning of the next audio file. This allows for playback of content with no gaps the way it was meant to be heard. Some examples of gapless albums include:

• "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd
• "Abbey Road" by The Beatles
• Many live and classical albums

Gapless Playback in iTunes

Gapless playback is always on in iTunes 7 or later unless the Crossfade feature is turned on. If Crossfade is on, only audio files that have the "Part of a gapless album" option checked and are capable of being played gaplessly will play with no gaps:



Gapless Playback on iPod

iPod does not support crossfade playback and only some iPod models support gapless playback. For those models that do, all files that support gapless playback are played gaplessly whether or not the "Part of a gapless album" option is checked.

Supported iPod models (make sure you have the latest iPod Software)

• iPod nano (Second Generation)
• Fifth Generation iPod
• Fifth Generation iPod (Late 2006)

So maybe all it is is another attribute that has to be plugged into every file. No digital processing of the audio data has to be done at all; it's just a schema change. Whatever it is, though, I'm glad they considered it this important.

Another helpful thing in the new schema is tracking of "skipped" songs. Now, if you press Next while listening to a song, it updates both a "Skip Count" and a "Last Skipped" field. I can imagine all kinds of uses for these in Smart Playlists, can't you? "Favorite Music" + "Skip Count > 5" = "Music I Think I Like But Actually Don't Ever Want to Listen To, So Who Do I Think I'm Kidding". Awesome!

Barring the bugs that plague Windows users, iTunes 7 is objectively lots more useful in organizing one's digital media than it ever has been; Apple is having to contend with a very challenging branding issue as they shoehorn movies into the "iTunes" experience, and the balance they're striking (renaming the "iTunes Music Store" to the "iTunes Store", but keeping the "iTunes" name) is probably going to be pretty successful. (After all, Tower Records hasn't exactly suffered from brand dilution.) They've managed to enhance iTunes' functionality with regular music while simultaneously making it eminently functional with movies and TV shows. The trick is in figuring out whether the focus should remain on music, or if they should go to a yet more agnostic presentation, not presuming that you want to listen to music when you fire up iTunes—hey, maybe you bought your iPod specifically for movies and TV shows, not for music at all. What then? Does iTunes cater enough to those buyers without alienating the ones who just want music and don't care about movies? It's not an easy question. But Apple seems to have answered it with aplomb, and in general I think the designers of iTunes 7 have done about as well as anyone could have.

That doesn't mean I don't take exception to the blatant demo-pandering in the cover-browsing, reflective-tabley eye candy. But if it all helps to tie all the media that iTunes supports together in a common metaphor, with hardly any thought expended on how best to watch a movie versus how best to listen to a song, I guess it's fine if that thought instead has to be expended on a clumsy, strange visual browser interface mode that exists only to thumb its nose at Redmond. If that's the worst we have to contend with, I think iTunes' charmed life will probably continue into the foreseeable future.

UPDATE: CapLion (who played an indispensable role in the recovery) reminds me that the scrollbars and the dark-on-slightly-less-dark buttons are right out of Apple's "Pro" apps. Does this mean iTunes is about to become a $599 boxed app? Gee, imagine the bottom line!


17:40 - P4WNED

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Some of you might recall what happened back in May, when my hosting company (Managed.com) got bought by another company, WebHostPlus. This entailed a move from the data center in San Jose to a "new" one in New Jersey, just across the GW Bridge from Manhattan. The transition was something of a debacle, as you can read at the link if you don't remember it. But I thought, hey—Managed.com's hardware had always been crashy and brittle, and WHP might actually turn out to be an improvement. Who knows?

Well, the hardware at WHP was actually better. It didn't randomly crash every few days. But it did have one or two incidences of mysterious service outages that lasted for several days at a stretch, which were resolved without so much as an explanatory bulletin from the company or even a helpful message on the support page. Just the ever-popular "Live Tech Support Chat" message button that rotated between variants of "Unavailable" or "Offline" or "Back Shortly".

Sometime around September 7th, one of my two servers at WHP abruptly went offline, with on explanation. (This was my other server, not the one hosting this blog and many other user services.) Then, a few hours later, a friend's server also hosted at WHP went down. Then mine came back up. Then this server, my other machine, went down. Chris's server came back up a day or so later, but my server remained offline for ... well, 13 days and counting.

There was never any adequate explanation given for this. WHP received hundreds of trouble tickets from its colocated and managed customers within those few days (judging by the incrementing ticket IDs), and they replied to all of them with this canned message:

Hello and Good evening. At this time unfortunately we are having network issues that should be resolved shortly. We apologize sincerely for the downtime and will be issueing credits based on a case by case basis. Please do not reopen multiple tickets, if you are still experiencing issues please just reopen 1 ticket so the admins can pass correct information that can be effeciently processed.
-whp staff-

I opened another ticket (as requested); today, nine days later, it's still open, assigned to some tech whose name suggests he might be in India, and has never been updated in that time.

Chris patrolled a number of hosting discussion forums, where he found lots of kindred spirits who had been marooned with WHP servers that had mysteriously gone offline, never to be seen again. From them, and from certain people who claimed to be "on the inside", he learned that apparently WebHostPlus had gone bankrupt—possibly from eating too many other hosting companies too quickly—and had to sell a whole bunch of their servers to pay the rent.

This may or may not be true. But considering that WHP tried to smooth over the inevitable challenge to their "guaranteed uptime" SLA by offering him a credit of 40 whole dollars, I'm not too disinclined to believe it.

Fortunately, I had backups. Unfortunately, my backup was in my garage, behind a dynamic IP, and with limited upload bandwidth. My restore process works best (or, indeed, at all) only if the source of the data is on a static IP. So I bought a hard drive at Fry's, copied the backup data onto it, and FedExed it to another friend in New York who has access to a high-speed network with a static IP.

Meanwhile, I set up with yet another hosting company: The Planet. I'd heard good things about them. And while their prices weren't the lowest, minutes after signing up I realized that this would be a good move, because their remote management system (orbit.theplanet.com—ya get it? Hyuck, hyuck) not only exists, something that no other company I've been with can boast, it's actually very sophisticated and functional. It has bandwidth usage monitoring with actual useful statistical projections, remote reboot and serial console access, a place where you can (voluntarily) register your root passwords so the techs can get into the machine for maintenance, hardware details, and thirty or forty other tools for serving customers' common needs. They even have top-notch FreeBSD support, including a local CVSup mirror for synchronizing your sources at LAN speeds rather than from the central repository. It's like being at some sort of geek spa.

Restoring the data began on Wednesday, and it completed late last night. There remain some issues to work out (having to do largely with the 6.1 kernel and the em driver not playing nice with IPFW), but I think it's stable now, or at least enough so as to allow me to get the blog back online at its new IP and post this update.

The old server is still down, and awaiting service; or, more accurately, it's probably at some pawn shop being mined for personal information. And yet WHP charged me for another month's service... while it was still down, and had been for over a week.

Now I have leisure with which to compose my "Screw you guys, I'm goin' home" letter. This ought to be cathartic.

Friday, September 22, 2006
01:24 - What? Oh.

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I guess we're back.

Thereby hangs a tale, but it'll have to wait for the morning.

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© Brian Tiemann