Thursday, February 28, 2008

Frikken FInally




So Cox is FINALLY adding some more HD channels on the 18th.

Wooo hooo, Mythbusters in HD!

The theory is that Cox will be up to 80 HD channels by the end of theyear, instead of the 20 or so they've got now.

From Engadget HD:
Look out, desert dwellers, as Cox Communications is all set to dish out seven new HD channels to Arizona residents next month. On deck is TBS HD, Discovery Channel HD, Science Channel HD, Food Network HD, Animal Planet HD, Golf / Versus HD and History Channel HD. As of now, we've no idea where these will fit into the EPG, but you can phone up Cox and start to gripe if the whole lot doesn't arrive on March 18th.


Of course that's still far fewer than either of the major satellite providers, and several of those 80 channels (like TBS and TNT) are stretch-o-vision pseudo HD; but it's a step in the right direction.

FIghting Men

From Drudge:
PRINCE HARRY FIGHTS ON FRONTLINES IN AFGHANISTAN; 3 MONTH TOUR
Thu Feb 28 2008 11:01:34 ET

They're calling him "Harry the Hero!"

British Royal Prince Harry has been fighting in Afghanistan since late December -- and has been directly involved in gun battle, the DRUDGE REPORT has learned.

The prince, a junior officer in the Blues and Royals, and third in line to the throne, has been a "magnificent soldier" and an "inspiration to all of Briton."

Prince Harry is taking part in a new offensive against the Taliban.

Ministry of Defense and Clarence House refuse all comment. Army chiefs have managed to keep the prince away from media and have encourage fellow soldiers in his squadron to stay quiet.

Developing...
Henry, Prince of Wales, is a fighting man.

The reaction from some has been along the lines of "I'm impressed", from others more like "I'm shocked and surprised".

Me? Impressed absolutely, but not surprised.

Some men love their country far more than their positions in society. Some love their honor more than their comfort.

Although the royal family take a lot of criticism, basically just for being who and what they are (some of which is deserved, some not); the royal family are not cowards, they aren’t lazy, and they aren't shirkers.

Harrys father, Prince Charles is a qualified naval aviator, both fixed and rotary wing; and also a qualified surface warfare officer, and surface command officer. He spent 5 years as a full time naval officer, and 15 years in the royal naval reserve. His last naval tour was 9 months in command of a light cruiser.

Charles of course holds the honorary ranks of marshal, general, and admiral in the army, air force, and navy; but he legitimately earned the rank of commander in the royal navy.

Harrys uncle, Prince Andrew is also a qualified fixed and rotary wing naval aviator, and served in the Falklands war as a CSAR helicopter pilot. Andrew had a 22 year full time naval career; and also legitimately earned the rank of Commander (as his brother had). He is a graduate of the Royal Naval College. In his last tour of duty, he commanded a helicopter squadron for two years.

His other uncle Edward was a 2nd Lt. in the Royal Marines.

Harrys grandfather, prince consort Philip was XO on a destroyer in WW2.

Harry is a graduate of the royal military academy at Sandhurst. He trained as a challenger commander, and commanded a tank troop; but the Army refused to send him to Iraq. He initially fought for combat duty, but the Army convinced him that he would be a danger to other soldiers, because the enemy would make a point of directing their resources towards killing or capturing him specifically.

At that point, he backed down, and retrained as a combat air controller (equivalent to a Forward Air Controller); and requested assignment to Afghanistan (where he is now serving).

By all accounts, the men who have served with Charles, Andrew, and Harry have held them all in the highest regard and with the deepest respect. These are fighting men, and worthy of the honor of their ranks and awards.

CavArms raided by the ATFE

Just saw on the news that the ATF raided CavArms in Gilbert.

Here's the link to the Local News Video

Lots of PSH, and complaints about how CavArms videos were demeaning and offensive to Muslims. CAIR has made a statement calling this video deplorable etc... etc...:



Here's a more balanced and factual (though still completely devoid of content) story from AZCentral.

ANd a video with somewhat more detail, though not much; taken from an interview with an ATF agent on the scene.

No news as to what actual justification the ATF is using here, but I've done business with CavArms, and I don't believe for a second that they've done anything wrong.

Watch that news video, and be prepared to be pissed off at the blatant anti-gun and pro ATF propaganda.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Another Great Man Gone

The two most influential philosophers of small government have died in the past 18 months. First Milton Friedman; and today, William F. Buckley.


No one has done more for the advancement of conservative principles than that man. Lord I wish I was a tenth the writer that he was.

pic stolen from Kim

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two is One, One is None

That is the preparedness maxim.

Basically it means that if you only have one of something important, you can't count on it, because it WILL eventually break, fail, be lost, or stolen, or otherwise refuse or be unable to perform its required function.

Now, when writing here, I generally apply the maxim to the essentials; you know, water, toilet paper, guns, ammo, spare parts for guns and cars etc...

Today though, I'm going to talk about computers.

Ahhh computers, the boon and bane of our existence; and to many of us not much lower on the priority list than those things above (at least until TEOTWAWKI).

So why talk about the two is one maxim and computers today?

Well, how about because I'm irritated.

In the last few months (the current spate of failures started around November I think... maybe October), just at home, we've had the following (just what I can remember, and just in computers... probably more than that actually; plus the TV that died):
  • three hard drives just flat out fail
  • four power supplies die (one desktop, three laptop)
  • two monitors fail
  • three network interfaces fail
  • two cd-rom drives fail
  • several flash memory cards die
  • one PDA have it's charging port break off
  • one laptop just fail completely
  • Two routers die
I think you get the point.

Now of course that's a lot more failures than most people experience; but Mel and I both work at home, and run my business from my home office; so we've got a lot more computers than most (2 laptops active, two desktops active, a couple servers, a couple of testing machines, a couple old boxes as emergency backups/spares... a total of about 10 systems; and that's down from about 15 a few months ago).

We keep hardware around a long time; and we buy a fair bit of new hardware for various reasons; so most of the failures were either beyond their service life, or still in their infant mortality period. We also have very dirty power here, and up until recently we didn't have everything on power conditioners (which is what killed the TV, and which has most definitely been fixed). All that adds up to more failures per system than most experience;

Combined, more systems and more failures per system... well, do the math.

The problem is of course, when something fails here, it generally means I can't work until it gets fixed; and that can get expensive.

As to why I'm particularly irritated today; just in the last three days, the motherboard for the girls computer died, and I had a hard drive physically break while I was doing maintenance on my primary desktop.

My windows boot drive, to be more specific.

Importantly though, only a couple of these breakages caused me an immediate problem, other than some irritation and time wastage; because I followed the maxim. I have spare parts for all my systems, and backups for all my data.

Yes, I had to pick up 2 new monitors; but I was able to function until I did by using old monitors (I always keep a couple around as spares). They were ugly, but they worked.

I was able to recover my windows boot drive using my backup software, onto a spare hard drive (I always keep several around, because they are the most frequent failure in computers). Each of the other hard drive failures, I was also able to put in a spare, and recover from backups. I bought the hard drives on special at woot, 3x 500gb drives for $240 total; just to make sure I had spares around.

The last time woot had them on special, I picked up 3 targus labeled (actually made by iGo, a great company) universal laptop power supplies for $20 each; so when my OEM power supplies have died, I've been able to slot in an iGo until I could get a replacement (or actually in the case of two of them, not bother getting OEM replacements because the iGos are actually better).

It doesn't take a huge investment to make sure you can always keep functioning. A spare hard drive costs under $100 these days. A spare router is $60. A spare DVD burner is about $35. Desktop and laptop power supplies are generally $60 to $80 for either.

Oh and don't forget spare cables. Cables fail all the time, and it's generally cheap to have a couple spares around. You can probably get spare power, network, USB, IDE, and SATA cables for each of your computers for under $30.

Generally speaking, when I upgrade something, I keep the old parts around as spares. Then if I need to use the spare, I buy a replacement and keep cycling things through. If I don't get a spare that way, I just snag them whenever I can pick them up on sale or special etc...

Also, I strip out all the useful cables, screws, brackets, etc... from old computers and other electronics I'm going to toss. You wouldn't believe how often the whole "for want of a nail" scenario plays out; and those spare screws etc... have saved my butt.

The couple of breakages that DID cause me an immediate problem that I mentioned above?

Both were because I didn't follow the maxim.

About a nine months ago, my router died; and I replaced it with my spare. I then forgot to replace the spare. About two months ago, my previous spare router that I was then using as my primary router also died; because of a power surge.

I work over a VPN, and without an internet connection I can't work. I also start work before most stores are open, because my co-workers are all in other time zones. I ended up having to go out to super-walmart at midnight to go and overpay for a router (and not the one I would have bought if given a choice).

You can be damn sure that a couple days later I went out and bought the router I actually needed. Now the midnight walmart router is my spare.

The other one is the girls motherboard.

There are generally two pieces I don't have any spares of: motherboards, and processors.

Basically, I don't keep spares because failure is very rare, because they are quite expensive, and because they tend to go obsolete very quickly. It just doesn't make sense to have a spare mobo and proc around.

What I do always have around is at least one spare computer. With computers so cheap these days, $300 gets you all you really need for a backup box; and you can always have it be a multifunction system (make it a media server or an archive server for example).

If I need to get that computer FUNCTION back up and running quickly, I have all my data backed up, and all my operating systems imaged; and I can just load it up on one of the extra computers rather than try and do a rush repair on the broken one.

I talk about building backup and security systems here, and here.

Thankfully, the girls computer isn't exactly critical to my work; so it isn't really necessary to keep such spares around; and I don't need to clone it onto another machine; but it's still a pain in the butt.

Oh well, time to order a new motherboard.

Mothers little helper

Anti-depressants don't work.

Ok, that's an attention grabber of a headline; and it's not completely true: For SOME people, anti-depressants and other mood controlling drugs, work very well.

For SOME people.

However, those people generally do not include children (in the U.S. somewhere between 5% and 10% of whom are now on some kind of mood controlling drug); and, critically, almost all of the people who take them.

About 2% of the U.S. adult population take mood controlling drugs of some kind; and according to an exhaustive review of all effectiveness data and trials (trials which were conducted by the drug companies themselves, as well as independent trials), for those persons whose mood disorder is not classified as "severe", mood controllers were no more effective than a placebo.

Under todays standards, "severe" mood disorder sufferers only make up between 5% and 20% (there are no good numbers, because doctors and researchers disagree on standards) of the population diagnosed with some type of mood disorder.

So, mood controllers are ineffective, between 80% and 95% of the time; and yet, they are among the most prescribed drugs in this country.

Incredible... or maybe not, if you understand the "mental health" field.

Why are they ineffective? How about because MOST OF THE PEOPLE TAKING THEM DON'T NEED THEM.

Most of the people who are prescribed mood controlling drugs, don't have any objectively identifiable disorder; they are prescribed for "better quality of life" or "reduction of general anxiety" etc... when basically the people taking them are mentally and physically healthy.

There is a huge difference between a mental illness, and an emotional problem; and they MUST Be treated differently.

Sure someone may be having an emotional issue; but if they don't have a chemical or physical problem, a chemical solution is, at best, just a mask. It doesn't solve the problem... in fact it often just makes the underlying issues worse.

Perhaps I should soften that statement; because sometimes emotional issues are so overwhelming, that people lose control of themselves, or simply cannot deal with their issues. Medication can help those people regain control, and start working on their underlying problems; but it still isn't the solution.

Of course, when you give someone a drug that is designed to change their mental state, well, their mental state is probably going to be changed. Their core problem won't be solved, but now they're impotent, or have twitches, or unexplained angry outbursts, or a million other things... because we really don't understand how these drugs work, or what they REALLY do to our minds and bodies.

1 out of every 50 adults, and one out of every 20 children are being told (sometimes being forced even) by their doctors to take these drugs; without an understanding of their effects, and their side effects; and now we know, without even an understanding of their efficacy.

What you have to understand is, we're all just one big money making experiment for the mental health industry.

Under the most recent guidlines published for diagnosing mood disorders, as many as 70% of the population could qualify. Almost all male children would qualify. In fact, if you look at diagnostic criteria, almost all normal male behavior could be taken as signs of a mood disorder; and the standard for diagnosis is generally speaking three or more symptomatic behaviors.

The mental health industry has steadily forced themselves into being a legitimate and major portion of medicine. Almost everyone in America today will see a psychiatrist or psychologist in their lifetime, at the very least in their schools. They have positioned themselves as being just like your general practitioner, helping in preventative medicine and quality of life issues...

...But they aren't that; at least not legitimately.

It's a huge growth business, because they keep defining down the standards for who needs mental health care. At this point, you could be the healthiest, happiest, most mentally well adjusted person on the planet; and after a couple hours with a psychiatrist, you'll be on two medications (one to control the side effects of the other of course) and in a regular course of therapy.

Why?

Because it's their job, that's why; and everyone wants to be successful in their job.

It's the old carpenter problem "when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail".

I have NEVER met a psychologist who didn't think that just about everyone could use therapy. In fact, they are explicitly taught that everyone except true psychopaths can benefit from some type of therapy, if only they would try, or accept it, or be honest etc...

I have RARELY met a psychiatrist who didn't think that at least some of most peoples "problems" could be "solved" pharmaceutically.

The problem here is most peoples "problems" are not subject to a therapeutic solution, be it psychological or psychiatric. Their problems are either practical in nature "I don't make enough money", or they are issue of personal emotion "I'm not happy with how much money I make".

Neither of those problems can be solved by a doctor with a couch or a pill.

Then there's the fact that most of the time, emotional issues are temporary; and guess what, that's OK.

It's OK to be depressed, or upset, or sad, or angry, or hyper... sometimes. It's even OK if they get in the way of your life... sometimes.

We here in the U.S. seem to have bought into this idea that everyone has to be perfectly happy, and satisfied all the time. Never angry, never depressed, never manic...

How boring.

I WANT to be angry sometimes. I WANT to be depressed. I want to be manic, and hyper and super happy.

Love.

Invention.

Inspiration.

Competition.

Drive.

Success.

... all of these things march hand in hand with strong emotions.

It's only when those issues, and emotions screw up your life all the time; and you can't deal with them on your own, or with your family and friends; that people should really start thinking about seeking outside help.

Ok yes, I'm exaggerating a bit. There are a fair number of mental health professionals on either side, who will tell people "you don't need me, or him"; but they are a small minority in my experience.

Also, don't take this to mean I think all psychiatry or psychology are useless; I don't. There are millions of people who are helped by psychiatric medicine. People who could not otherwise function, because their brains just don't work right. Millions more are helped by therapy, because they need to talk to someone who understands their emotional issues; and can help them work through them.

Most people though, most of the time; what they need is a buddy, a beer, and a better job; not a bottle full of pills.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I Want My Money Back

I have yet to see the "born killer" that entered my house in the form of a pit bull/ Rottweiler mix.

From everything the media has told me, Jayne should have spontaneously turned into a rabid deliverer of death and dismemberment.

Instead I have a 7-month old puppy who climbs up in my lap, wakes the kids with kisses, and whines horribly whenever Mac does something as mean as growl at him.

He hasn't even killed one of the cats. What he does when he chases one of the cats and corners her is unspeakable. He holds the cat down and *gasp* GROOMS her.

Where is the obviously evil dog I was promised? Where is my vicious killer?

All I have is a 70lb lapdog who checks on the kids every morning, plays with Mac, and barks at the mailman.

Obviously I was scammed.

/sarcasm

Seriously, Jayne has turned into the world's biggest, wussiest, least vicious lapdog. He's 70lbs and 29" from the center of the shoulders to the base of his tail (already 2" longer than Mac, and 3/4 the weight). He takes up half the bed when he's allowed up. If he could he would spend all day sleeping at Chris's feet, and all night curled up with the kids. He insists on checking on the kids at least once a day, dissolves into endless whining if Mac rebukes him, and gives me the sad "please pet me" eyes at least 10 times a day.

The only object he regularly and viciously sinks his teeth into is a stuffed duck dog toy.

Could it be possible that how a dog is raised counts for more than supposedly dangerous bloodlines? That nurture counts more than nature, that DNA isn't destiny?

Kind of throws the whole concept of identity politics out the window, doesn't it?

Mel

Sage Advice



HT: Jeffro

Post Oscar

I didn't bother with my usual pre-oscar snark this year, because quite frankly, I wasn't all that interested.

The only films I really had any stake in for this year were the terrific, but "not a chance in nine hells" "Eastern Promises"; and a wonderful little independent Irish film called "Once", which was only up for best original song.

Well, it won; and I'm overjoyed for the folks involved. It's a lovely, small, beautiful film; without being irritatingly arty. I don't like arthouse movies, and this isn't that at all.

Anyway, for Kim and Connie, and anyone who appreciates personal stories told well, see this movie.

Eastern promises didn't win anything, as I expected; though the fact that Viggo Mortensen was even nominated speaks volumes as to the willingness of the academy to recognize non traditional roles this year (as does "Juno" getting a best picture nomination, and Depp getting a best actor nod).

Actually, the "Best Actor" crop this year was pretty damn good, with Viggo up for "Eastern Promises", Clooney for "Michael Clayton", Johnny Depp for "Sweeny Todd" (I think it was a mistake nominating him for this actually), Tommy Lee Jones (who's never given a performance I didn't like, even if I didnt like the movie) for "in the valley of Elah"; and the eventual winner, the always great Daniel Day Lewis for "There Will Be Blood".

Unfortunately, I can't evaluate most of these performances, because the only ones I've seen yet are 'Eastern Promises" (which I loved) and "Sweeney Todd" (which I hated), but just from trailers of the others, this was no surprise. Daniel Day Lewis is incredible.

I was pleased to note that Michael Moore was denied another Oscar for pandering, sensationalist, anti-American propaganda bullshit; though of course that category went to ANOTHER documentary full of pandering, sensationalist, anti-American propaganda bullshit.

I was also pleased to note Tilda Swinton won her first Oscar tonight (she's always great, in everything she does) for best support actress; and that Casey Affleck was at least nominated, even if it was for the wrong movie (he mumbled through "...Robert Ford" and was great in "Gone Baby Gone")... though honestly, no-one in the best supporting actor category stood a chance against Javier Bardem this year.

Speaking of Bardem, I guess the biggest surprise of the night was that "No Country for Old Men" swept every major category it was nominated for. Most folks, including me, expected there would be some split; with perhaps "There will be Blood" picking up best adapted screenplay, and maybe even a best director for Paul Thomas Anderson.

Given that "..Blood" had Lewis nominated for best actor though; and "...Old Men" didn't have a nominee in the category, I think that satisfied the elusive "balance" that the academy often seems to look for.

Now, of all the films nominate in major categories, which have I seen, and what do I recommend:

Eastern Promises - Strong recommendation
Sweeney Todd - Strong discommendation
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Mild discommendation
Charlie Wilsons War - Strong recommendation
Gone Baby Gone - Strong recommendation
Ratatouille - Strong recommendation

Oh and I know best song isn't a major category, but I really do strongly recommend "Once".

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Passed a Couple of Milestones Today

So today I did two things I've never done before.

First, I made my first solo visit to the range. Usually Chris or John is with me, because it took a little time for me to become comfortable clearing my own jams and dealing with malfunctions.

Today, I went by myself.

Second, I carried concealed in public for the first time.

My permit arrived in the mail yesterday. For those of you counting, it only took DPS 5 business days to process the application, including mailing time. Yes, that's damn fast.

I love AZ.

However my fingerprints would not read correctly, so along with the permit DPS sent me another fingerprint card to send back to them. Failure to do so would result in the permit being suspended.

So I pack up the fingerprint card, my range bag, and my carry gun...

Oh, did I forget to mention I bought a carry gun just for me? For a long time I've mostly been shooting Chris's guns, and I wanted a carry gun that was 100% mine.

So, after babes with bullets, I bought a Kimber Aegis.

While I love my PF9, when I decided to finally get my CCW permit I knew I needed a carry gun that I could train with every week; without putting my hand on ice afterwards. I'm of the opinion that if I'm going to carry a gun, day in and day out, I need to shoot it at least once a week, and the PF9 wasn't going to do it for me (Chris loves it. He must have no nerves left in his hands).

Bear Arms carries almost every compact 9mm on the market so I figured I would go fingerprint and dry fire everything they had. After going through 10 individual models of handgun I settled on either the Aegis or the H&K P30, both of which fit me well and had triggers I liked.

I called Chris up and he pointed out (quite rightly) that H&K's customer service sucks, and the Aegis was a better choice. So in the course of half an hour, I spent 4 months of the money I had been saving up to buy new gun stuff.

As far as I'm concerned, it was money very well spent.

I love the Aegis; it was accurate out of the box and 400 rounds later I have no complaints. It's quite light, yet I can fire the super hot Cor-Bon through it without a problem, because it fits my hands that well. Plus it's just plain more attractive than the other compact 9mm handguns on the market (the EMP comes close but Bear Arms has yet to get one in stock, and I'm not attached to black polymer at all). And of course it's basically Officer's Model 1911 (just in 9mm) so finding holsters and accessories isn't exactly difficult.

So today, I grabbed my Aegis, my range bag, and the fingerprint card and paid a little visit to Scottsdale Gun Club to get my fingerprints done and break in the Aegis a bit more.

I also tested several different defensive loads, to see what it liked. So far likes everything I've fed it; grouping well with several different 124gr loads, and the 147gr Hornady TAP.

My personal preference was the Hydra-Shoks; but it also shot very well with the Hornadys. I'm going to try it out with the 124gr hornady as well, because Chris can load that for us quite cheaply, so I can practice with the equivalent of my carry ammo.

So I have the permit, the gun, and the ammo. What am I missing?

Oh yeah, a way to actually CARRY all of it.

I'm female, I live in the desert, and I have curves. During the 9 months of the year where wearing jackets and/or loose shirts is nearly impossible, I need to carry off-body. Unfortunately this means a concealment purse. I'd much rather carry in a holster, but in my situation that wouldn't exactly be concealed.

SGC didn't have any carry purses I liked for the price ($289 for a Galco purse? I don't think so) so I headed to Shooter's World. I picked up a couple carry purses (under $100 each), and an open carry holster I particularly liked (a Fobus paddle)

So now I have a concealed carry kit I can live with:


I didn't even get out of Shooter's World's parking lot before I stuffed everything I needed into one of my new purses. I had more errands to run after all, that is kind of what I do.

So fully kitted out, I headed to the grocery store. I did all of my normal shopping in one of my normal stores, while carrying.

Needless to say, no one noticed. That is the point, after all.

So today I officially joined the millions of armed citizens that carry concealed every day. I'm a stay-at-home mom, I blend in completely, and I'm armed.

I hope that gives the local goblins something to think about.

Mel

Well... that, plus the spectacular lightning


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Iran

After the third cable cut, I heard from friends in a position to know on this one; that it was near certain they were deliberate cuts, probably by Iran.

Now the ITU is basically confirming it... though they don't absolutely confirm it (and probably never will), the chances this was anything but deliberate are basically zero.


Sea cable snappage was sabotage

Middle eastern cables destroyed deliberately

THE International Telecommunication Union has claimed that a spate of telecommunication outages to the Middle East were the result of sabotage.

Five undersea cables were damaged causing huge disruption to Internet and telephone services in the Middle East and south Asia.

Union spokesman Sami al-Murshed, told AFP said that while there was still an ongoing investigation into the incidents it would seem that there was a deliberate act of sabotage.

While it was possible that one cable could have been damaged by a ship's anchor the others were too deep. Besides the chances of five cables being cut within a two week period was unlikely.

Murshed said on the sidelines of a conference on cyber-crime held in Gulf state of Qatar that the cables lie at great depths under the sea and are not passed over by ships.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Insignificant




Click to Embiggen

Babes with Bullets Schedule Posted

The full schedule for this year's Babes With Bullets camps has finally been posted.

The dates and locations are:

April: Princeton, LA. Room for beginning/intermediate shooters only at this point.

August: Syracuse, NY

September: Montezuma, IA

October: Mesa, AZ

The cost for all of the camps is $450 w/ NRA membership, $475 w/o (so they can buy you a membership). This price includes lodging and is ridiculously low. The camps sell out fast, so claim your spot early.

I hope to be able to go to the Mesa camp this year, barring a conflict with the Gun Blogger Rendezvous. I had so much fun last year that I can't wait for this year's camp.

Mel

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Only John Wayne Left in This Town

I often hear the complaint, mostly from younger folks (not that I am too old myself, but I neatly straddle two different ages of culture) or people who are only casual movie fans, that the classic movie stars of the 30's through the 60's "only play themselves over and over again".

They complain that they don't really act, etc... etc...

The problem of course is they have a lack of exposure to true movie stars.

Some actors, no matter how great they are; have such a unique and forceful screen presence, that it always shines through, and colors your perception of their performance.

Often even people who are serious movie fans, but who prefer method acting, will say of the old movie stars “he was just playing himself again”, or "he just didn't disappear into the role" or somesuch.

I have heard people who really should know better say of Olivier in Hamlet, that "he was too old, I jsut couldnt believe him as Hamlet and other such drivel. The POINT of Hamlet isnt photorealistic simulation; it's expression.

True stars; those who have both ability and presence; EXPRESS the character, in a way that lesser actors simply could not. This is why Cary Grant, and Humphry Bogart are true greats; and why Hugh Grant and Brad Pitt are not.

Now, certainly there are cases where these criticisms are warranted. There is certainly typecasting, and "vehicle casting" and all those ways that movies are made on the strength of the stars personality alone (much of the aforementioned Cary Grants work for example - though certainly not all); but the fact is, some actors even when delivering a great, and completely “out of character” for them performance, their presence comes through.

We call those people stars.

The problem is there aren’t very many true stars today; and even fewer who are also great actors.

Hollywood of the 30's through 60s was a starmaking machine. There was a system by which young actors could become stock players, and get real experience and exposure; building time, learning, and paying their dues on contract; until, if they HAD IT, they would become a true star.

John Wayne made 75 movie appearances, including 44 speaking parts; before he was cast in a star making role (1939s stagecoach). That simply could not happen in film today (though it is still customary in the stage world).

Actually, what’s really sad is, in part because of those criticisms; but also simply because in the 1970s the style, feel, cinematography, writing, and direction of popular cinema all radically changed; how many stars get dismissed as actors, even though they are both.

The 70's changed everything really. Almost overnight (well, from about '65 til about '75 really, but culturally that's a pretty short time frame) film moved from being essentially stage plays with bigger sets, into trying to be more representative of "truth and reality".

Also, the director became far more important in the process; with directors like Scorcese and Cassavetes incorporating the cinema verite ethos. This marks the rise of the "auteur" director in popular film (as had been the case in art films for the previous 20 years); as those directors and producers (and to some extent actors) steeped in that school, took over the controls of the hollywood train. .

At the same time, the Stanislawski/Adler schools of emotive experience based method acting, came to completely dominate the leading actors. It really began with Brando in the 50s; but by the 70s, excepting a few holdouts from an earlier era, and a few people who just had star power on their own (say, Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood), basically every major actor was a method actor; even those you wouldn't expect (like Gene Hackman for example)

In the mean while, the traditional stars (and character actors for that matter); with their stage oriented acting technique and style. were pushed aside.

They didn't change, directors did, and films did along with them. The quality hadn't changed; just the style.

Some people persist in believing that this change is objectively "better" than the older style. That newer films are more "real", and actors "disappear into their characters".

Well who ever said that was better? This new style isn't necessarily better (though of course sometimes it is), the older style isn't worse, it's just different; as film, and stage plays are different.

This left the Cary Grants of the world being dismissed as corny, old fashioned; and even unskilled, or just plain "bad" actors, which couldn't be further from the truth.

How many people do you know today under the age of 50, who know that Carey Grant could really act (or for that matter have more than the barest perception of who he is); or have a more than caricature like image of Jimmy Stewart, stammering through "it's a wonderful life"?

The stereotypical example of this is of course John Wayne. If you aren’t a serious John Wayne fan, you probably have a somewhat cartoonish view of him; and indeed, some of his most popular performances were simply restatements of his other characters, which reinforces this perception.

But if you know better; John Wayne was truly a great actor.

There are a few John Wayne movies you absolutely MUST watch, if you want to understand Wayne as an actor, and not just as “John Wayne”: “Red River”, “Rio Bravo”, “True Grit”, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", “The Searchers”, and “The Shootist” (other would also recommend "The Quiet Man", but I think you're seeing Wayne play and show more of himself there than a character).

I still have a hard time deciding which character moves me more, Ethan Edwards, or J.B. Books. Either one easily ranks in the top 100 film performances by any actor, ever.

That isn't to say the stars are gone completely; but they just aren't as "bright" now. They aren't as big, and they certainly aren't as prolific.

John Wayne had the starring role in 141 major feature films; had at least one leading role every year from 1939 to 1976; and was in the top ten in box office receipts every single year but one, from 1956 to 1974. Cary Grant had 70 someodd starring roles over 35 years. Clark Gable had around 70 over 35 years as well.

George Clooney, by most peoples estimation todays single biggest star in the classic hollywood mold; has only starred in 19, in a career that has thus far spanned almost 30 years. Tom Hanks, the biggest hollywood earner of all time has had about 25 starring roles in the same time period. Harrison Ford has grossed about the same, for about the same number of roles, starting in 1976.

But still, we have our stars. Some of them could even fit into the classic Hollywood roles; say if we were remaking some of the great films from the 30's through the 60's.

Any old movie starring Carey Grant, you can sub in George Clooney. He won’t be as good, but he can pull it off.

For Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper, we’ve got Ed Harris or Harrison ford.

For Montgomery Clift or Alan Ladd, we’ve got Viggo Mortenson; and god help us, Matt Damon ("The Talented Mr. Ripley", "Rounders", "The Departed", "The Good Shepherd..." now shut up - I didn't want to admit it either OK)

For David Niven, we’ve got Pierce Brosnan.

For Jimmy Stewart we’ve got Nick Cage.

Will Smith is no Sidney Poitier; but he is unquestionably a star, and he really can act.

Tom Selleck can almost, but not quite, pull off John Wayne; and any number of other classic western, and tough guy roles. He can pull off Cooper as well.

Kevin Spacey just has an overall old time movie star thing going on; he could pull off any number of the classic roles (and in fact has, on stage).

Then of course there's Jack Nicholson, and Morgan Freeman; two men who are both great stars, and great actors; but they really qualify as an earlier generation (the both turned 70 last month).

Anyway, not great substitutes, but serviceable.

The real problem is in the women. Catherine Zeta Jones, and Renee Zellweger are good; but just not even close to the great woman of the golden age.

They’re just outclassed in every way (except maybe physical fitness); and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

There is no woman today even on the same stage as Catherine Hepburn, or Audry Hepburn (amazing how two unrelated women with the same name can be so diametricaly opposed in character, yet so alike in it simultaneously) , or Bette Davis, or Grace Kelly, or Barbara Stanwyck, or Rosalind Russell… I could go on.

I didn’t quite realize how bad off we were in the actress department until a few days ago. I looked up the top grossing actors and actresses of all time, and here’s the list:
  1. Julia Roberts
  2. Cameron Diaz
  3. Kirsten Dunst
  4. Kathy Bates
  5. Halle Berry
  6. Drew Barrymore
  7. Emma Watson
  8. Nicole Kidman
  9. Natalie Portman
  10. Liv Tyler
  11. Keira Knightly
  12. Meryl Streep
  13. Michelle Pfeiffer
  14. Jada Pinkett Smith
  15. Sandra Bullock
  16. Cate Blanchett
  17. Meg Ryan
  18. Queen Latifah
  19. Renee Zellweger
  20. Catherine Zeta Jones
  21. Judie Dench
  22. Angelina Jolie
  23. Bonnie Hunt
  24. Susan Sarandon
  25. Julianne Moore
  26. Demi More
  27. Glenn Close
  28. Famke Janssen
  29. Helen Hunt
  30. Kate Winslett
  31. Jodie Foster
  32. Anna Paquin
  33. Carre Ann Moss
  34. Joan Allen
  35. Kate Beckinsale
  36. Marissa Tomei
That’s every single woman in the top 150 grossing actors list by the way; all 36 of them.

Now, look at that list, and tell me, who’s a true movie star? By which I mean they can pull off being lead in a BIG movie (sorry guys, horror and SF don't count here. They allow for a much smaller star actor; because the scenario is really the star), and carry that picture all on their own?
  1. Julia Roberts
  2. Angelina Jolie
Drew Barrymore, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, and Catherine Zeta Jones, maybe a couple others, are or were all close at their peak, but they really couldn’t truly carry a BIG film entirely on their own (sometimes they do well with smaller movies, especially Barrymore)... in fact most of them have tried, and failed.

Ok, easier task; who on that list can REALLY match up with a great leading man? Who can stand up there, and not be blown off the screen?
  1. Julia Roberts
  2. Angelina Jolie
  3. Drew Barrymore
  4. Nicole Kidman
  5. Michelle Pfeiffer
  6. Renee Zellweger
  7. Catherine Zeta Jones
  8. Keira Knightly
  9. Meryl Streep
  10. Cate Blanchett
  11. Judie Dench
  12. Susan Sarandon
  13. Julianne Moore
  14. Glenn Close
  15. Helen Hunt
  16. Kate Winslett
  17. Jodie Foster
  18. Queen Latifah
A lot more; but still less than 20…

Now I can think of a few more who could go up on that second list, but who aren’t in the top 150 grossing actors… Gena Davis, Emma Thompson, Ellen Barkin, Dianne Keaton, Annette Benning, Kate Hudson, or Sigourney Weaver; in fact I could probably go on for a while... but those are all second fiddles, not the true stars.

I can’t really think of any more women who are true movie stars; and not one of those women could come close to matching EITHER Hepburn for guts, brains, wit, charm, grace, or presence.

Is there a single actress today, of the appropriate age to be a lead; who you can imagine going up against Cary Grant in "Bringing up Baby" or "His Girl Friday" or "The Philadelphia Story"?

How about holding their own against Spencer Tracy, in ANY of Hepburns parts (they made nine movies together).... but especially in "Adams Rib" and "Woman of the Year" (the latter has been remade several times; starring Gena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Julia Roberts among others - all were failures) .

So the question is, is the classic movie star obsolete? Do we not want them anymore?

Well... I know I do. I'd give up all 36 of the women on that list for one Audrey Hepburn.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Wired Up

So, as part of our ongoing efforts to prettify and organize the house, I've been rewiring the home theater; both for ease fo maintenance, and for cosmetics.

I redid my interconnects last week (with audio dynamics braided shield stuff; it's good, and it's cheap. You can get it from Costco) which only took about an hour; this week was a bit more work.

The task here is to re-wire the 5.1 speakers, conceal the wiring, and ceiling mount the surrounds. Not as big a job as building a dedicated theater room from scratch; but still a fair bit of work.

First, John and I built new speaker wires.

Here's where I piss some folks off.

Now, audiophiles think that magic speaker wire will somehow produce "more musical" sound etc... etc... , but really there's nothing special about it.

All speaker wire is, is copper wire, with maybe a gold plated or gold/brass alloy connector at the end of it. It's used over relatively short runs, and relatively low power, as cabling applications go.

It's all basic physics; so much so, that so long as you cut your cables to within 10 meters or so of the same length, and terminate them properly; that there will be no measurable difference either sonically, or electrically between any two reasonable quality cables.

Unless you live in a very high RFI (radio frequency interference) environment, shielding your speaker cables won't make a lick of difference; and the resistance of a reasonable gauge of stranded copper wire is so low as to be nearly immeasurable at any run less than 40 feet in length; and of no practical difference until you reach runs of about 200 feet.

14ga stranded copper wire has a resistance of 1 ohm every 400 feet, and a continuous current capacity of 32 amps at 14.4vdc for short runs (or 8 amps for long runs). Most people have runs of 50 ft. or less; and their amplifier is outputting a signal to the speakers of most likely 1 amp or less; and certainly less than 3 amps.

Alright, so what's the deal?

First, buy yourself a 100 foot spool of 14 gauge stranded copper wire:



Yes, it's even oxygen free, and it's $21 for 100 feet of the stuff (actually I paid $30 because I bought it locally).

Unless you are running more than 200 watts, more than 100 feet; anyone who tells you to go heavier than 14ga for home speakers is either listening to bad advice, or trying to sell you something.

For most folks, with an amplifier under 100 watts per channel (the average a/v receiver outputs 70-90 watts rms per channel, with 2 channels driven; and less with all 5,6,or 7 driven), and a load of well under 10 amps total across all of their speakers (probably under 5), really you only need 16ga; but the cost difference is negligible, so why not. Besides, the connectors fit 14ga better.

But... But... what about Monster Cable?

Uhhh yeah.... no. They charge $100 for a 100 foot role of 18ga; and it's EXACTLY THE SAME WIRE as you buy from monoprice for $8. Their 14ga (they dont actually label it as 14ga, but that's what it is) it $125 a roll, vs $21.

Worse, if you buy assembled pairs from them... watchout.

Seriously, you would not believe how much they charge for speaker cable. It's actually offensive to me.

My setup has two 40ft runs for the surrounds, two 8 foot runs for the mains, an a 6 foot run for the center. Monster charges approximately $2.00 a foot, plus $20 per cable.

To buy the equivalent in pre-assembled cables from Monster?

$304...

I don't think so bubba.

The only difference between what monster is selling you, and what you can make yourself, is the cable ends... which Monster also sells you, if you're fixated on the name.

Actually, their cable ends are one thing they do very well; and if you can get a decent price on them, I don't mind buying them.

These:



Run $20 for two pair (enough to make one cable), which is a bit much, but they are very good connectors (presuming you like banana plugs of course; they make other varieties).

These ones:



are just $12 for two pair, which I think is a reasonable price given their quality, and in fact that's what I used for my cables (and what Monster uses on their pre-made cables as well).

You can get slightly cheaper crimp on connectors (they used to be dirt cheap at radioshack, but the whole audiophile scam industry has brought the price up all 'round), but I prefer these ones. You can also use solder on connections; but with these, if somehow corrosion does occur (the main problem with non-soldered connections), I can just unscrew it, snip off a half inch, strip it, and screw it in again.

So, for a total of $80, I've got the same thing as $300 worth of Monster cable... and hell, they even says "monster cable" right on them.

This is how many pro audio installers make a fair portion of their profit. They sell you commodity copper wire with fancy cable ends that took them 2 minutes per cable to strip and assemble, at 4 times the bulk cost of the cables and connectors for outrageous "custom premium speaker interconnect" charges (Sorry for saying this speakertweaker, I know you're a good guy and not a cheat, but most of those in your profession are not as honest).

Of course then I had to figure out how to run the stuff.

My house was built in 1953. I have plaster and lath interior walls with blown cellulose, and a plaster over blueboard ceiling in my living room (the original lath ceiling was replaced between water damage and an air conditioning retrofit in the early 80s).

I've been running the cabling in between the baseboard and carpet; but the 14ga is a bit to big for that, and I'd still have to deal with the run up the wall for the ceiling mounts.

As I said, the construction of the house conducive to running in wall wiring, without doing some serious work; and I really didn't feel like doing that.

Instead, I grabbed some of this stuff from wiremold:



That's the Wiremold Cordmate II system. It's self stick, interlocking conduit; with lengths available up to 10 feet (special order only unfortunately). It's commonly available in 30", 48", and 60" lengths, and a variety of connectors, corner pieces etc...

The Cordmate II is about the smallest, and lowest profile conduit you can get, that can actually take two pair of 14ga cables. They make smaller round section conduit (for antennae wires mostly), and conduits that are both wider, and taller (and even corner, crown molding, and baseboard conduits); but I don't need that much space for my home theater cabling (I do for my office with LAN wiring though).

I picked up a couple of the kits at the local Home Despot; because the way it's priced in every retail outlet I've checked, it's actually cheaper to buy one of the kits, than it is to buy the equivalent length of the conduit.

The kit comes with three 48" sections, and a variety of angles and connectors. The connectors are pretty discreet; and up against the corner of the ceiling and wall, they (and the conduit itself for that matter) are really pretty unobtrusive.

So I ran up the corner behind my equipment, then along the edge of the ceiling to the back wall, and along the back wall itself, breaking out with a tjoint and a flat corner joint at the end of the conduit run, to run the cables to these:




Omnimount 20
wall and ceiling speaker mounts.

I've been meaning to ceiling mount the surrounds for months now, and the mounts have been sitting around for a while waiting for me to run the conduit, and mount them up.

My surrounds have been siting on a shelf right behind our seating position, which put the right surround less than a foot from my right ear... less than ideal. Putting it up on the celiing let me move it out to the sides, and now the sound stage is far more diffuse, and imagin more accurate (thank you audessey).

Really guys, it's that easy. I can't understand these folks that spend more on their cabling and isntallation than they did on th gear.

So go, do it yourself; at least then you'll know how to fix it if it breaks.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Back on the EDGE



Connection that is. My Qwest vDSL has been up and down intermittently all day; this time for the last four hours, and again, with no estimate as to repair time.

This time, they've had a region wide failure of DHCP services; but of course they won't give me a static IP to use until they fix it; and silly me, I forgot to note what my previously assigned IP was.... though... I bet if I checked the logs on the gunthing forums for my posts from this morning... hmmmm....

Anyway, this makes three failures of three hours or more in three days. I'm getting slightly irritated...

Just slightly, really.

No one needs to be hurt.

Yet...

UPDATE: I'm back up again as of about 11:30pm. About a six hour outage this time; and for some reason my speed is off by a few hundred K (I've got a theoretical 3.5megs down and 1 meg up, but I usually see a little under 3):


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Blogiversary

So I almost forgot; today is my three year blogiversary.


First Post!!!!!

Ok folks, people have been telling me to write my own blog for two years now, so finally, here it is.

Yeah I said I'd get around to it before, but I'm lazy, what can I say.

The initial content is mostly going to be stuff I've written for other peoples blogs, and fora etc...

Suggestions, praise, worship, and deification are all welcome.

Labels:

Unrated
Chris Byrne at 2/14/2005 08:53:00 AM Comment (0) | Trackback (0)


This will be post 1880, and something on the order of... I'd guess about a million words; maybe as much as 3 million. Add to that well over a million unique visits, and a couple million page views.

Damn... doesn't seem like three years.

Well, here's to three more.

Irritating Paperwork, Pissed-Off Parents, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I just spent the last half hour filling out school registration forms for the kids for next year.

The application fee is due tomorrow.

It's February.

Last year I was able to put off this particularly annoying bit of responsibility until April. Hell, last year open house for potential new families wasn't until March.

That was before this particular bit of nasty business at St Thomas, a neighboring Catholic school:

Nun fired as principal of St. Thomas

Michael Clancy
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 22, 2008 11:18 AM

A Catholic school principal was fired just days after she was told she could remain in her job the rest of the year.

Sister Patricia Gehling was principal at St. Thomas the Apostle School in central Phoenix for 7½ years.

On Jan. 14, just after school resumed after the Christmas holiday, Gehling was informed her contract would not be renewed. Word spread, and on Thursday a group of parents gathered to pray for her retention.


After school on Friday, she was told not to return.


These parents did more than pray. Given no information other than "not due to misconduct" many of the parents did what they could to "rectify" the situation and reverse the priest's decision. According to all accounts the principal was quite loved by the families at the school and parents did not understand what was going on or why she was let go. Many contacted the Diocese (which did nothing since the decision was in accordance with church policy), some contacted the priests of the neighboring parishes (same thing), and a few went as far as leaving letters on our windshields during the morning masses, asking for all of us to call the Diocese and plead on their behalf.

As a fellow mom commented, that last attempt "wasn't very Catholic of them". Oh, and the last statement of, "please help us, this could happen to you!"... obviously they don't know our priests. Or our principal. Or our vice principal.

But anyway...

The Monday after the firing our school office was swamped with new families trying to get their kids into our school. The flood only increased after attempts at rectifying the situation failed.

So our April registration date has been moved to February so admissions can get a head start on processing all of the applications.

The school has a policy of putting returning students and their siblings first as far as admissions go, then depends on a mix of factors such as being part of the parish, grades, recommendations, family interviews... you get the idea.

It's a helluva lot of work just to consider one new student much less a sizable portion of another schools student body. I don't envy admissions at all at the moment. Not only do they have a huge pile of paperwork to wade through, but parents of kids in Catholic schools are not known for their patience in waiting for a decision especially if they've applied to many schools as a form of insurance.

Plus we have the best school in the area, Catholic or no, and everyone knows it (yes, I love the school that much).

So in order to not step on anyone's toes, all current families have been asked to submit their applications NOW in order to make sure places are reserved for those who wish to return BEFORE new applications are considered.

While I appreciate that the school is making sure that returning students and their siblings are considered first, I'm a little annoyed that it's FEBRUARY and I'm filling out the school application and submitting immunization records.

Oh well, could have been worse. This could have happened in October.

Oh, and I don't even want to think about the enrollment numbers at St. Thomas for next year. This has been a truly nasty business, done in accordance with canon law or no. I don't think St. Thomas will be the same for quite a while to come; and while I do not have the knowledge to even think about questioning the priest's decision I somehow don't think he expected quite this response. No priest wants to see his parish torn apart.

Chalk another one up to the law of unintended consequences.

Happy Hallmark Day


Bad luck and Trouble

Mel just had her second car accident in three weeks; neither her fault.

A few weeks back, she was dropping the kids off at Grandmas house for the weekend. The route to grandmas is a narrow twisty mountain road, with off camber turns, and radical elevation changes and grades in turns etc...

Well, she came around a corner, and a little white POS econobox was in her lane; and there isn't exactly anywhere to go. She pulled as far to the side as possible without risking plunging over the side, and the genius of lane discipline scraped the entire drivers side length of the truck with his mirror.

Better though, he never stopped.

Thankfully everyone was OK, and the only damage to the truck is a long scrape that can be buffed right out.

She reported it to DPS, who gave her static about leaving the scene... lessee, twisty mountain road in the middle of nowhere, with no safe place to pull of, and no cell reception... yeaahhhh... OK.

Then, this morning, she was coming back from dropping the kids off at school, when the chain of cars in front of her short stopped at an intersection. She managed to stop in time, the guy behind her didn't. He now has a hitch receiver shaped hole in his bumper; and again thankfully Mel is OK, just a little shook up.

Understandably though, Mel is a little freaked about driving at the moment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

1994 is calling, they want their dialup back

Actually, I'm getting a whole 243k theoretical, and about 180k actual speed at the moment; more like the multi channel ISDN I had in Ireland in 2001.

My ISP (Qwest choice - not regular Qwest, an entirely different division, with different tech support, different billing systems, different everything really) is currently experiencing a major regional failure. Apparently the have a trunk cut and a router failure, and it's knocked out Qwest choice customer in all of Chandler, Glendale, Scottsdale, and parts of Tempe and Phoenix.

Joy.

So I am currently enjoying the thrilling speeds and convenience of access provided by EDGE-G2, through my smartphone.

Though my phone is capable of 3.5G speeds over UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA, my mobile provider is unfortunately not; at least not until either later in 2008, when in theory they will be rolling out 14Mbit/sec download speeds (to crush AT&T and Verizons offerings).

Coincidentally this is set to show up right around the time the next generation iPod is supposed to also show up, sporting 3.5g hardware.

Unfortunately, Qwest couldn't give me a firm estimate as to how long the outage would be. It's already been three hours, and they expect at least another 3, maybe as much as 8.

I say again, joy.

Normally this isn't too big deal. I can certainly live without the internet for a few hours. The problem is, I work from home, and all my work is done over the VPN into the office. No internet, rather obviously no VPN. No VPN, no work. No work bad.

Further, the VPN client and the phones internet connection do not get along. It works over a 3g/3.5g connection,. but there's something about the way edge works that just makes the Crisco 3000 concentrators VPN client go insane. I've tried it with many different VPNs, on several different systems, and I can never seem to get it to work properly for more than a few minutes at a time.

Did I mention I couldn't wait until t-mobile gets 3/3.5G? It's almost enough to make me want to switch to AT&T (we're GSM people)... almost, but not quite.

UPDATE: Looks like we went back up around 3am.

Of course in reviewing my firewall logs to figure that out, I discover that I'm being constantly portscanned from ports 135 to 65535, from sources 130.13.0.0 - 130.13.255.254; with some extra special hits on typical vuln ports. Storm worm botnet probably; but the fact that they've compromised an entire class B... oy.

So I call up the abuse admin at Qwest, and they don't even know about this netblock. It's some old local Denver thing from when Qwest was MUCH smaller, and it's not even supposed to be routed right now. They don't know what's going on, or who's responsible for it.

I'd say "wow, that makes me so confident in Qwest" except I didn't have any confidence to begin with.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

CCW Wrap-Up

For those of you who wished to see the qualifier target, here it is:


As it turns out, I really didn't have anything to worry about. That's the standard NRA qualification target; 5 shots at 5 yards and another 5 shots at 10 yards. All I needed was 7 out of 10 within the 7 ring.


Somehow I think I did all right.

The size of the class surprised me. 50 applicants in all; we took all the available space in the training room and despite the large number of lanes at SGC we had to shoot the qualifier in 2 relays.

After we finished the shooting part of the class we immediately dove into the DPS-determined subject matter. Most of the info is a little fuzzy to me as I was suffering from a rather extreme sinus infection at the time (and yes, it hurt my ears to shoot). Actually, to be honest, I ended up suffering from boredom.

You see, I already knew most of this stuff. Chris made sure I knew all of the legal aspects of self defense before I even moved in so that if there was a problem with an intruder or whatnot, I'd be able to deal.

Anyway, as I've already mentioned I was more than a little sick at the time so it's probably a good thing I could take the test in my sleep.

However my fellow applicants had many, many questions.

SGC has 2 self-defense lawyers who teach the class, and they had answers to all of the questions, no matter how obscure. Even if the answer ended up being; "it depends."

In fact, you could sum up the entire class as "it depends". It depends on the police officer, the prosecutor, and most importantly the jury. While AZ laws place the burden of proof on the prosecutor (vs. the old system of the person who defended themselves having to prove that it was indeed proof) staying as far within the law as physically possible HELPS.

Suffice it to say that the applicable portions of AZ law were drummed into our heads repeatedly and forcefully.

Honestly, I thought the class and the instructors did their job extremely well. We were given all pertinent information in an entertaining (or would have been if I hadn't been so sick) manner and the personal responsibility aspect was drummed into us quite effectively.

The best part of all of this though was knowing that my class wasn't alone. SGC has its CCW course every 2 weeks and sells out the class almost every time. That's approximately 1300 new CCW applications each year in a shall-issue state. 1300 new people carrying in public and ready to do what it takes to protect themselves and each other. It doesn't get much better than that.

Mel

The perils/joys of insomnia

See, this is what happens when you run around all weekend, then can't sleep at all Sunday night; stay up Monday till you pass out at 5:30pm, then wake up 4 hours later unable to sleep again.

Netflix "Watch Now" is like evil crack for insomniacs.

I'm 15 episodes into season one of "30 rock". I almost never watch sitcoms, because I don't like the format; but this is some funny stuff.

Who'da thought that Alec Baldwin was a comic genius...

I still hate Tracy Morgan though... actually I hate him more now than I did before.

UPDATE: 2 hours later, there went the rest of season one.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How to save $2000 a year by spending $400

Do you like Starbucks?

I mean their coffee, not their corporate structure, blighting the landscape etc...

I don't actually; Starbucks is over-roasted, poorly blended, poorly extracted, and mostly overpriced coffee.

I prefer my local coffee shops (there are three very good ones within three miles of me); but even then, if you want a five shot latte, they get a bit expensive.

Mel and I are both big espresso drinkers. I'm also a big regular coffee drinker, but Mel only likes the espresso drinks. Something about the tannic character of regular brewed coffee doesn't sit well with her.

Anyway, we drink a lot of coffee; and a lot of espresso; and up until a few months ago, we were doing it mostly by buying these espresso drinks at either one of the local shops, or Starbucks (the locals aren't open the hours that Starbucks is)... to the tune of about $10 every working day for the two of us.

$10 a working day... 200 days a year... yipes, $2,000 a year on coffee drinks?

This is one of those things that kills budgeting, because it doesn't seem like much for each individual transaction, but when you careful track everything you spend (and we do), and then add it all up, at the end of the month there's $200 on coffee.

... And then there's the calories. I can't tell you how many women I've known who go crazy on diets eating nothing but rabbit food and celery soup etc... and tey not only aren't losing weight, they keep gaining it.

What they didn't realize was that as they reduced their calorie intake from other sources, they started drinking 2 and 3 lattes a day... lattes that are 470 calories a piece. People thing "oh it's just coffee", and coffee only has .5 calories per ounce... except those venti hazelnut lattes AREN'T just coffee, they're 6oz of coffee, plus 12oz of whole milk or even half and half, plus usually 2 tablespoons worth of sugar (flavor shots are sugar syrup).

Drinking even one of these things is like eating a quarter pounder with cheese. The most "evil" drink on the Starbucks menu; the Peppermint white mocha with whipped cream; is, at 700 calories, roughly the same as eating a DOUBLE quarter pounder with cheese.

So, the simple solution is to just give up the espresso drinks right? Or just brew your own coffee.

Great, I do that already.. except that doesn't help with Mel, who gets a sour stomach from all but the most expensive (like $30 a pound) brewed coffees, even when brewed properly (as I've covered before).

So, say you don't want to give up your lattes, what do you do?

Make your own.

The first step is to find a good supplier of beans. If you live in any major metropolitan area, you can get fresh roasted beans at a reasonable price. We use a local roaster here, that blends and roasts their own coffee twice a week, and they're only about $8 a pound for some very nice coffees. If you're really anal you can even buy green beans, and roast your own (our roaster also sells green beans, but we don't have a roasting setup).

Second, buy a proper conical burr grinder. Blade grinders make burned dust. We've got a Cuisinart cuisepro grinder, but there are dozens of brands out there that make decent grinders.

The final and most important step for espresso specifically, is to get an espresso machine.

Oh I know; I bet a bunch of you have tried those home espresso machines, and they're crap. They take forever to heat up, and what they extract is barely drinkable crap. They're a waste of a hundred bucks.

Yes, they ARE a waste of $100. That's why you don't buy a $100 home POS machine.

What you NEED is a heavy duty pump machine; but for $100, all you get is a steam boiler with a 40mm filter, made of pot metal...

Hell, not only do they not work, they are messy, and even dangerous. A few years ago I had one from a supposedly reputable brand actually blow up in my kitchen when the pressure relief valve sedimented up, and the pressure vessel burst. I was only a few feet away when it happened, and I was showered with hot glass and potmetal fragments. Thank god I was wearing glasses at the time, or I would have been seriously hurt, instead of just getting a scalding and some small cuts.

So, whatever you do, DON'T buy one of those cheap $100 home machines...

...But if you spend $400-500 or so, it's a completely different story.

$400-500 or so gets you into a semi-pro level semi-automatic pump machine with a 1500 watt boiler; that will heat up to operating temperature in 30 seconds, and extract a double shot in another 30 seconds.

To extract great espresso from an electric machine, there are three magic numbers:
1. 58mm: the size of professional portafilters (preferably in chromed brass)
2. 1500 watts: the size of heater necessary to properly and quickly heat water for espresso
3. 15 bar: the amount of pressure necessary to properly extract espresso

Mel and I have owned this Breville machine for a little while now:


It's a semi automatic, 15 bar, 1500 watt pump machine; and we love it. We bought it because at $400, it was the lowest price machine that was attractive, had all the features we wanted (mostly, Mel wanted something completely simple to operate, and to clean and maintain), and still got good reviews.

Gaggia, Pavoni, Rancilo, Solis, Breville, and Briel all make decent quality machines, that reach down to that $400-$500 price point (at least through online discounters), and that extract great espresso.

Of course spending more can get you more neat features, more pressure, a bigger heater etc... but what you really NEED, is 15 bar and 1500 watts; everything else is just extra.

One thing I don't care for with the Breville is that they use a crema enhancer (which I didn't know before I ordered it); which is a steam jacket around the filter insert with a pinhole that aerates the espresso as it extracts. Yes, it does make good crema (the oily creamy foam on the top of an espresso shot) but I prefer my espresso crema to come naturally; and with good beans, and a 15 bar pump extracting at the right temperature, crema enhancers are unnecessary.

Irritatingly, it also leaves VERY wet grounds, which means you cant just pull the portafilter, knock the puck out, and reload it; you have to rinse and wipe first.

But the important part is, it' makes very tasty espresso, and it makes it very quickly. The machine heats to operating temperature in 30 seconds; and pulling a double shot only takes a few more on top of that.

Then you just need to steam your milk, and if you like, add your flavor shots (which you can buy almost anywhere); and presto! you have your $6 espresso drink, for all of $0.50, and five minutes (less time than it takes to wait in line at the green monster).

If you want to save on calories, you can get sugar free flavor syrups, and use whole milk instead of half and half... or even 2% (don't go below 2% for steaming, the "milk" semi-curdles, and besides it just doesn't taste right anyway).

Anyway, at our rate of consumption, the $400 machine will have paid for itself in a couple more months, even accounting for coffee and supplies; and it even saves us time, because not only is it faster than driving to the coffee shop, it's about 4 times faster than brewing plain old coffee.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

It's Too Flippin' Early...

...in the morning for me to be up.

What would possess me to be up before noon on a Saturday when the kids are at my mom's?

The CCW course at Scottsdale Gun Club. I'm finally getting my permit.

Wish me luck on my qualifier, I hope I don't need it.

Mel

Friday, February 08, 2008

Oh me wantssssss dammmit

Larry, the proprietor of Fuzzy Bunny Movie Guns, the coolest gun shop in Utah; and author of "Monster Hunter International"; is organizing a group buy through his store, to achieve the next higher status of CZ retail partner.

He's advertising on his own site, arfcom, the high road etc... and I thought some of my readers would be QUITE interested.

The first thing to know is that the group buy covers ALL CZ-USA weapons, including Dan Wesson.

The second thing to know is, he's cut the price to ridiculously low levels. He hasn't specifically said, but I believe it's at cost, plus $25 shipping and transfer fee. He's not advertising prices (can't advertise below list), but if you email him with a specific model, he'll give you a price.

I emailed him, and let me put it this way; if I had the cash, I would buy every CZ I wanted through him right now, that's how good the pricing is.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Conserving valuable resources

So I mentioned that one of my projects for the week was rewiring the home theater. Well, I've (mostly) finished, except for two last things:

First, I still need to rewire the surround speakers; but I have to pick up some wire concealing channel before I do that (I'm moving my surrounds from a shelf behind our heads, to ceiling mounts to the side of our listening positions).

More importantly, I need to re-program the radio presets.

Now, for someone as anal as me, radio presets are a limited resource, not to be wasted. Unfortunately, Mel and I have very varied listening tastes. Although we have a large overlap of things we both like, and a relatively small section of styles and stations only one of us listens to; together we listen to a BUNCH of different styles of music...

..and as I said, I'm anal about that sort of thing. I hate having my presets out of order; and I order them by style, and listening frequency.

My receiver has three bands; FM, AM, and Sirius. I don't actually listen to any terrestrial radio except the local talk stations; and I haven't since I first got Sirius almost 5 years ago.

Sirius is just plain better: Better quality, better selection and variety, better playlists, better DJs, and of course, NO COMMERCIALS.

I can't wait for the Sirius/XM merger to finally go through. There are a couple stations on XM that I'd like, and that don't overlap with Sirius.

Mel on the other hand still listens to local radio a lot (lord knows why).

Anyway, most receivers give you a relatively limited set of presets, say 8 or 10 per bank; but they usually give you a bank or two per band. My receiver is a little different, in that it gives me 40 presets, but they're mixed across all three bands.

That's pretty cool actually, because it means no wasted presets. I only listen to two terrestrial radio stations, one AM and one FM, and Mel listens to maybe a half dozen more. If it was one of those "4 banks of 10, assigned per band" things, we'd have a bunch of blank presets, which as I've said, I'm anal about.

Of course some genius in designing this receiver made it so you can't set presets from the remote, you have to get down on your hands and knees and press a combination of tiny buttons under a cover on the faceplate.

Joy... but livable. I don't change presets very often.

What's been the issue, is winnowing down to 40 presets, and figuring out how to order them.

Again I freely admit, I am anal about this stuff.

Obviously, unless you're a Sirius subscriber, these won't mean a thing to you; and even if you are, there's still the local terrestrial stations for Phoenix mixed in there; but here's our list of 40 ( winnowed down from the 70 or so we originally had listed - like I said, very varied):
  1. 157 - Phoenix traffic and weather
  2. 144 - Patriot - Conservative and Libertarian talk
  3. 145 - Fox talk - Nationally syndicated conservative talk
  4. 131 - Fox news - News
  5. 92.3 - KTAR talk - Local and syndicated conservative/libertarian talk
  6. 550 - KFYI talk - Local and syndicated conservative/libertarian talk
  7. 104 - Raw dog - Dirty comedy
  8. 105 - Laugh break - Clean comedy
  9. 14 - Classic Vinyl - Early classic rock
  10. 15 - Classic Rewind - Later classic rock
  11. 16 - The Vault - Deeper cuts of classic rock
  12. 93.3 - KDKB - Classic rock
  13. 100.7 - KSLX - Classic rock
  14. 74 - Sirius blues - Blues
  15. 23 - Hair Nation - Hair metal, hard rock
  16. 19 - Buzzsaw - Classic hard rock
  17. 20 - Octane - Hard rock from the late 90s on
  18. 28 - Faction - Hard rock, alt hiphop and underground, ska, grind, punk, metal
  19. 29 - Punk - Mixed punk from all genres and eras
  20. 27 - Hard attack - Mixed metal from all eras
  21. 21 - Alt Nation - 2000s alternative
  22. 22 - First Wave - 70s and 80s alternative
  23. 24 - Lithium - 90s alternative
  24. 70 - Disorder - Random jam, alt, semi-punk, garage, and indie
  25. 72 - Pure Jazz
  26. 80 - Symphony
  27. 86 - Pops
  28. 60 - New country
  29. 61 - Prime country
  30. 63 - Outlaw country
  31. 102.5 - KNIX - Mixed country
  32. 107.9 - KMLE - Mixed country
  33. 12 - Super Shuffle - Popular selections from all Sirius channels
  34. 09 - pulse - Mixed rock, alt, pop from the 90s-today - youth/pop oriented
  35. 10 - Bridge - Mixed rock, alt, pop from the 90s-today - adult/indie oriented
  36. 96.9 - KMXP - Mixed rock, 80s-today
  37. 97.9 - KUPD - Mixed contemporary rock
  38. 98.7 - KKLT - Adult contemporary and soft rock 70's-today
  39. 99.9 - KESE - Soft Rock
Hah! One left over. During football season, that one is reserved for NFL radio, but for now it remains empty.

Seriously, this stuff actually takes up cycles in my brain. No, you really don't want to see what else is going on inside there.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"Why bother, there's no real difference anyway"

Some folks don't really see the point of HD-TV, HD-DVD, Blu-Ray etc... Though that title isn't a direct quote, it's a fair composite of the sentiments of several commenters, every time I talk about High def media.

There seem to be two classes of consumers here; the ones who looked at HDTVs and weren't much impressed, and the second are those who just dismiss the whole thing because "DVD looks great anyway, why bother".

Now addressing the first consumer, there's typically two issues here:
  1. They probably bought, or watched, a not very good HDTV

  2. Said HDTV (even if it was a good one) was probably not hooked to an HD source, or if it was, it was hooked up incorrectly so that HD wasn't being delivered, or there were quality problems.
A lot of folks go in to Costco, grab a TV that looks OK on the floor at a price they can deal with, take it home, and just plug it in, in place of their old TV.

For 60 years, when you upgraded TVs that's generally all you needed to do; unfortunately, with new digital and HD technologies, the "system" no longer works that way. In order to get HD, you need to use HD hookups, HD cables, and HD ports, from an HD source.

Worse, when you get a great brand new high resolution HDTV, and send a standard def source to it, over old cables; frankly they are going to look like crap (more on the "why" behind that later).

If that is your sole experience with HDTV, then yes, you're going to be very unhappy. Your mom and dad probably did that, and that's why...

"Mom and dad" think their new TV is crap...

Ok, so let's presume you've got the "mom and dad took it home and just plugged it in" problem, how do you fix this?

Well, first, if you buy a better quality TV it will have video scaler hardware that makes SD look much less like crap; but generally speaking SD sources don’t look as good on an HDTV as they do on an SDTV.

Technically speaking, it's not that the SD sources actually look worse, it's just that the TV looks so much better, that it reveals just how bad the SD signal was in the first place. It's kinda like someone took your beer goggles off.

By 2009 that will be a moot point, since everything will be in HD, or pseduo-HD (not really HD, but upconverted to look better) because of the mandated DTV cutover. For now though, you generally have to specifically order an HD source. Call your cable or sattelite company and get them to activate an HD service for you (and maybe send you an HD box).

Of course, even if you have an HD cable cable box, it’s entirely likely that the TV is hooked up in a way that is functional, but not necessarily the best way to watch. For example, in the "mom and dad" situation; they probably just plugged in the Coax from their cable box, like they did on their old tube TV.

Remember how bad your VCR looked going over coax?

Untangling the rats nest...

There are quite a few different ways to hook a TV up to a video (and audio) source, and they are kind of complex and confusing. Let's go over them here, in increasing order of quality:
  • 75 Ohm RG-59/RG-6 Coax cable: This is the cable that delivers the signal to your cable box; and for the last 25 years has generally been the way the cable box output to your TV.

    Unfortunately, the standard analog signaling over coax is HORRIBLE in quality. It delivers all the video, and all the audio information for the signal over a single conductor and a single ground. It's noisy, and it has SEVERELY limited sound and video bandwidth available to it.

    Technically speaking, the newer RG6 standard of coax is capable of supporting VERY high bandwidth with digital encoding and/or analog multiplexing (which is how your cable company transmits 400 channels over the stuff); but conventional analog video interconnection using coax is based on the older low bandwidth standards from the 60's.

  • Composite A/V: This is the other familiar cabling standard to most people; and almost all AV equipment supports it.

    With composite video, the video signal is transmitted over a single conductor/shield pair of wires (usually color coded yellow) with RCA plugs. Separately, two channel stereo audio is transmitted over standard red and white color coded RCA audio cables.

    Video signals by nature have two separate types of signals, color information (chrominance), and grayscale light level only information (luminance).

    Technically speaking, there are actually three different chrominance signals, a luminance signal, and two synchronization signals; and this standard is called composite, because it takes all the color, brightness, and sync information, and squeezes them down (compositing) into a single conductor and shield pair.

    Quality is generally slightly better than analog coax, because you are not trying to squeeze all the video and audio signals together into a small fraction of the bandwidth of a single wire; and don't need to modulate or multiplex for that.

  • S-Video: S-Video is somewhat less common than composite, but has been around for about 20 years; and is also available in most AV equipment. Basically, S-video takes the composite signal, and splits the color and brightness information into a pair of conductors (one live, one ground) each.

    Although the source signal for S-video is the exact same as that for composite video; because theres two seperate pairs of conductors for the signal, you get more bandwidth, less modulation and filtering required etc... and therefore the quality is quite a bit better.

    Oh and again; this standard uses separate audio cabling, so you don't have to worry about a quality compromise there... but of course it means more cables to connect.

  • Analog RGB Component: Component video is an interesting beast. Firstly, there are actually three separate common standards for component video; two analog, one digital; and they support different levels of quality. Oh and adding even more complexity, there are several cabling standards for the variants as well.

    Analog component video takes the S-video concept of splitting chrominance and luminance one better, and splits chroma into multiple channels.

    The RGB variant uses separate Red, Green, and Blue chroma channels. Each chroma channel includes a component of the grayscale image, and all the color information for that color.

    RGB component video requires fourth and fifth "sync" channels to carry synchronization information, so that the three colors can be properly combined, and framed etc...

    Some cabling standards for RGB mix the sync channels onto the green chroma channel; while others require a separate cable for sync (which mixes both horizontal and vertical sync), or even two discrete cables for H and V sync.

    The familiar computer "VGA" cable is an RGB component standard. That of course means that the VGA cable can transport a pretty high quality TV signal.

    Technically speaking, analog RGB component can carry resolutions up to 1920x1200 interlaced, which is higher resolution than 1080i; but there is actually less bandwidth available through the analog encoding than digital 1080i signals require.

    A lot of HDTVs have VGA ports, and they support signals from computers, and possibly from AV components, but usually only up to 1024x768, or 1280x1024, at 16 bit or 24 bit color; and of course that's analog video.

    Some early generation HDTVs, especially those that were advertised as "HD monitors" or "HD ready" have separate BNC RGB connectors for each channel (either three or four, with or without the sync mixed onto the green channel).

  • Analog YPbPr Component: The other major analog component signaling standard is YPbPr; which is carried over three pairs of wires, with RCA connectors at each end; and usually color coded in green, blue, and red.

    The YPbPr standard carries the luminance and sync information on the Y channel, the data for blue is on the Pb channel, the data for red is on the Pr channel, and the data for green is derived by subtracting the red and blue data from the luminance data (because once you take red and blue out, the green is left over).

    Other than the cabling difference, YPbPr component video is identical in capability to RGB component.

    Most newer video devices, including A/V receivers, include at a minimum this standard of video; in preference to RGB because it is easier to implement; and because the digital component standard uses the same cabling.

  • Digital YCbCr Component: Digital component video takes the same cabling standard as YPbPr, and adds digital color space and gamma encoding.

    Most often, if a device supports both analog and digital video standards, it will support them both over this sets of jacks and cables; switching modes as required.

    Analog component is still interlaced; but digital is progressive, and supports resolutions (in some implementations) as high as 1920x1080; which is 1080p (though at that resolution, the standard is quite sensitive to cable length, and interference).

    Most HD devices support digital component video at 720p or 1080i (which itself is actually not interlaced; they simply output alternating progressive signals to reduce the total amount of bandwidth required).

    Unfortunately, component doesn't support any DRM or copy protection features; so the studios won't let you output the highest quality signals over it, even though the standard is technically capable of outputing at 1080p.

        • DVI: DVI is an odd duck as well; because it also supports both analog and digital signals over the same connector. DVI has gradually been replacing VGA in the computing world, and to facilitate this, the DVI port can map pins to a VGA port with an adapter, to transmit the analog RGB signal that would otherwise have gone over the VGA cable (and therefore is technically identical to VGA).

          Of course the DVI standard is also a digital standard, and has 29+1 pins (24 standard pin, 5 analog chroma/sync pins, and a grounded shield) vs the 15+1 (15 pins and a shield) of the VGA standard (which is technically called Dsub-15) so a HELL of a lot more data can be sent over DVI.

          DVI digital can be had in two varieties, single link or dual link, the primary difference being how many pins they are actively using. Single link supports resolutions of up to 1920x1200 progressive, and 32 bit color; which is higher than 1080p. Dual link supports up to 2560x1600 progressive at 32 bit color, which is also sometimes called "quad-hd".

          DVI can also support HDCP copy protection, so the studios graciously allow us to send their best quality content over DVI cables. DVI is the "lowest" standard which allows this functionality.

          Like all the other discrete cabling standards, DVI is a video only standard; audio is carried seperately.

  • HDMI: HDMI is a 19 pin, high density compact connector cabling standard, that is electrically an extension of the DVI standard. The primary difference is that it runs at a much higher clock rate, and thus a higher bandwidth; and because of that can support a good deal more data being shipped over the wire, including high definition audio.

    DVI dual link digital cabling supports up to about 7.4 gigabits per second of video data. The latest HDMI 1.3b standard supports 10.2 gigabits of data. This allows a maximum resolution of 2560x1600, and up to 48 bit color (which is actually far more color than the human eye can see).

    All new HD devices include HDMI, because it is the preferred format for AV manufacturers, as well as the studios. You want an HDMI 1.3 port, so you can support high definition audio as well as 1080p HD video, with the hated copy protection the studios enforce on us.
Basically, for at least the next 5 years or so, HDMI is, and will be the dominant media interconnect standard; so you're going to need components that support it, and the cables to go along. That's a good thing though, because it takes that entire spaghetti mess I've gone over above, and it sticks everything into one cable.

One cable for video and audio; one cable type, every kind of audio and video. It's simple, and it generally works (some early HDMI devices had compatibility issues).

OK, but it STILL looks like crap...

Alright, so let's assume we've got the TV hooked up to an HD source, using HDMI; or at worst digital component (let's ignore audio for now if you're not using HDMI).

Let’s not forget the TV settings themselves. There are, quite frankly, a bewildering array of settings for modern TVs; some of which have quite dramatic effects on the viewing experience. Worse, many of them are obscure, and definitely non-intuitive.

Let's continue with the "mom and dad at Costco" example, and talk about TV quality.

Wal-Mart and Costco both carry the Vizio line of TVs as their bottom end HDTV products. In fact, as of this holiday season, Vizio is the best selling line of HDTVs in the U.S.

Now, not to say the Vizios aren’t a great deal, they are, but they have a very broad product line; and "mom and dad" probably bought the cheapest one in whatever size range they wanted.

Let's say they bought a Vizio VW-42L; the lowest price model currently sold in the 42" size range in most stores (42" is the most popular size for LCDs right now).

First, it's a 720p set; which is fine for under 50” and more than six feet away; but the 720p sets don’t get the best features. For example, this model has no video processor, only the most basic scaler, and a mediocre response time of 8ms (thats full on/ full off, not grey to grey; which means nothing to a non video guy, but it's about half the speed you want).

If "mom and dad" have an A/V receiver (stereo receiver with video inputs and outputs) with HDMI, and a video processor( and they don't watch a lot of sports) this isn’t a problem; but given this is their first HDTV, I bet they don’t have an AV receiver with HDMI, and I can't imagine my Dad going without golf and football (actually my dad specifically LOVES his HDTV. He's a gadget lover, though he can never figure the things out).

So, first step, borrow an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player from a friend… and borrow a friend who actually knows what they are doing with setting up a TV; and get a setup disc (they're about $25).

Now, make sure it's using the right cables, and looks good when properly set up with an HD source. Then make sure it looks at least acceptable with an SD source.

If not, then "mom and dad" went too cheap. Thankfully, they probably bought it at Costco, and they have the worlds best return policy. Spend a couple hundred more and get something that advertises one of the following keywords:
  • Faroudja
  • DCDi
  • HQV
  • Silicon Optics
  • Reon
  • Realta
  • Bravia (Sony has several revisions of Bravia, you want the XBR2)
Those are all the names of proper upscaling video processors, and/or their manufacturers. If the TV has even the most basic name brand video processing, you can be reasonably certain it will have acceptable image quality.

If they're stuck with the TV they've got; they probably need to upgrade their stereo anyway; and you can get an AV receiver from Onkyo that has Faroudja DCDi for $500, or HQV Reon processing for about a grand. At that point, if the TV can just act as a monitor for the video processor, you can get away with a cheaper TV.

Of course they'll be better off if they just buy a Sharp, Panasonic, Hitachi, Sony, Mitsubishi, or Pioneer in the first place; preferably a 1080p set. It’ll be a few hundred more, but the quality difference will definitely be noticeable.

Okay so "mom and dad" are sorted, what about the guy who says "It's just a scam anyway. they'll just be changing things constantly, theres a format war, and I'm just going to wait until it settles down". Or there's the guy who says, "Ahhh, I've just got a small apartment, I'll never see a difference anyway".

Yes, you will see a difference...

The difference is startling on even a 24” TV (the smallest set you can get in 1080p). In fact, HD video at 1080p on a small screen has an almost 3D quality to it, because the individual pixels are so small and sharp, with such high contrast and vivid colors (and again, I'll go into more on why later in the post).

Now, if you have a good upconverting DVD player (one that takes a 480i signal and uses image processing to interpolate up to 720p or 1080i/p); you can get something that looks great out of a standard DVD. Though it's not too close to real HD quality, and it doesn't pop in near 3d like true HD does; it's certainly more than enough to satisfy most people.

Up until recently that’s what I was recommending people do , until the format war was resolved. Well, It’s over, BluRay won; and every HD-DVD player and Blu-Ray player are also upconverting DVD players; so buying one not only lets you watch next-gen content, it makes your older content look better too.

Oh and one thing you definitely will notice a difference with, is how bad non-upconverted standard definition movies look on HD-TVs.

You have to remember, they aren’t even making non-HD TVs bigger than 24” anymore; and pretty much everyone in America will be replacing their TV in the next 5 years… most of us in the next year; as the hype over the digital transition goes mainstream.

Every broadcaster is already moved over to DTV in preparation for the cutoff, most of them are broadcasting at least half their shows in HD; and will be broadcasting even more in HD after Feb 2009.

Right now, a little less than 30% of American households have at least one HD TV, and it’s expected another 30% will go HD by the end of 2009.

In February 2009 all broadcast TV goes digital, most of it in HD. Most of the cable companies are following suit by making HD a standard package feature. I figure almost everyone who has a DVD playertoday, will have a BluRay player by the end of 2010 or so; and as of the most recent Sony finagling, 80% of all new movies, and more than 90% of all back catalogue movies, will be coming out in Blu-Ray.

So this isn't VHS vs. Betamax anymore, it's like the difference between having a TV and not having one.

OK now I've talked about how much better HD is than SD... why is that? I mean it's all recorded the same way right?

Well, no, not really.

It’s a matter of resolution (never mind the sound quality)...

Standard DVDs are mastered in 530p, which means 530 lines of horizontal resolution, progressively encoded. This gives you a 720x530 picture, with every line drawn in every frame.

Unfortunately, when output to a standard definition television, that is down converted to 480i; for a 640x480 image, where half the lines of a frame are drawn at one time, 30 times a second each (to produce a 60hz refresh rate and 30 frames per second; the television broadcast standard).

Standard definition broadcast television is even worse, with only 330 lines of horizontal resolution; and standard VHS worse still at 230 lines.

This is why DVD looks so much better than either VHS or TV; and why DVD has become most peoples standard for video quality.

So let's compare DVD's quality on an SDTV, to that of an HD-DVD (or BluRay, they're identical in image quality) on a 1080p HDTV.

The difference lies in the amount of information being displayed.

SD-DVD content on an SDTV is displayed at 480i. That's 640x480 interlaced; for 307,200 pixels, or rather half of that drawn half the time, for a total of 153,600 pixels being drawn at any given moment.

HD content is mastered in 1080p, which is 1080 lines of vertical resolution at 16:9 aspect ratio. This gives you a 1920x1080 picture drawn progressively. It can be displayed at several rates including 24fps, 30fps, 50fps, 60fps, 72fps, and 120fps; but it is mastered at either 30, or 24. For purposes of this comparison let's just match it to SD and make it 60.

The total number of pixels being displayed at any given moment for a 1080p signal, is 2,073,600; and it is displaying the full content at all times, rather than alternating every other row.

That’s 13.5 times the information being displayed on the screen.

Actually, it’s more than that; because HD color depth is higher.

A standard TV can only display about 16 bits of color simultaneously; though the total spectrum of available color to SDTV is approximately 24 bits worth (broadcast TV is maximum of between 18 and 20 bits, because it steals color data to boost brightness and contrast).

HD TVs can display at a minimum the full RGB colorspace; and can do so at 24, 32, 36, 40, or 48 bits of color simultaneously (depending on the type and model).

The color model involves three colors, red, green, and blue; and each color is represented by an equal number of digital bits. So 24 bit color represents 8 bits of Red, Green, and Blue information each (255 discrete shades of each color); and 48 bit color represents 16 bits of information for each color (65,535 discrete shades of each color) .

Color depths above 24 bit, are referred to as "deep color". There are today, movies and players with 36 bit color; and in theory, they could go to 48 bit (the maximum color depth of both film and professional digital video, and the equipment used to process it).

Now, it’s important to note that 36 bits of color isn’t 2 times the color of 16 bits; it’s 65,535 times as much color. 16 bit color is about 65,000 colors, 20 bit color is about a million colors, 24 bit color is about 16.7 million colors, 32 bit color is about 4.3 billion colors, 36 bit is 68 billion colors, and 48 bit is 281 trillion colors.

That's approximately 94 trillion shades of each red, green, and blue.

If that sounds like a ridiculous number, it is and it isn’t. Yes, it's a huge number of colors, but because the human eye is analog and doesn't break things up into discrete bits, it can distinguish about 32 bits of color (and some genetic anomalies can distinguish about 40 bits, because they have an extra set of cones - that's about 1.4 billion, and 366 billion shades of each primary color respectively).

By mastering at higher depths of color than we can see, it makes color anomalies like banding, and clear field moire or block patterns nearly impossible (large areas of very bright solid colors don't look distorted).

We’ve had the technology necessary to broadcast 480i at 30 frames per second, in 20 bit color since the mid 50s; it’s only in the last five years or so that we could even contemplate broadcasting 1080p/30 in 32 bit color.

In fact, it’s so much bandwidth, that even now most broadcasters are only using 1080i (that trick that halves the amount of data you’re sending at once) in 24 bit.

What about the sound?

Of course up to now I've said "let's ignore the sound"; but it's one of the biggest components of the difference between HD and SD.

Again, let's ignore broadcast TV, because it's pretty uniformly awful in sound (though it's amazing what you can fool the mind into believing is there, with a good audio processor. THank you Dolby); and focus on DVD.

SD movies on DVD are mixed in redbook PCM 2 channel stereo (cd quality), Dolby ProLogic, Dolby Digital 5.1, or DTS 5.1.

Those formats encode the soundtrack at approximately the same quality as standard CDs; with a maximum bandwidth of about 320Kbps for Dolby digital 5.1 (though they CAN be mixed and mastered at up to 448kbps), or about 640Kbps for DTS (though most are mastered at FAR lower rates than that even, and the theoretical maximum is 1.5mbps).

Broadcast HD audio, for programming from the premium HD movie channels for example generally also uses the DD or DTS codecs, but it uses them at 640kbps and 768kbps; far higher than the 448Kpbs limit of a DVD.

Getting into BluRay and HD-DVD though is where you see the biggest differences.

HD audio is mastered in multiple formats on each disk (As many as five) to support the various standards available; and is mastered ata MUCH higher data rate.

Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master audio are sampled at 24 bits per sample at 96khz, per channel, for up to 8 discrete channels. The maximum banwidth is up around 24.5 megabits per second; though most soundtracks use lower quality settings (this is one area where BluRay outperforms HD-DVD, which is encoded at about a 20% lower bit rate).

Going from 320Kilobits per second, up to 18 megabits per second; or 640Kbps to 24.5Mbps is a HUGE difference; and that's not even taking into account the fact that the newer encoding technologies use compression that about twice as effective.

You're talking about almost 100 times as much raw sound data in a True HD or Master Audio soundtrack as in a full quality standard 5.1 DVD.

So... is all that really necessary...

Well, that's a tough question. It really depends on the individual consumer doesn't it.

Believe me, unless you're deaf and blind, you are going to see and hear a huge difference between a standard DVD with a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track, and a 1080p high def video with a Master Audio sound track. The former looks and sounds pretty good, the latter... it's almost like being in the same room.

Of course, it comes at all comes at a price...

You're going to need about a $1500 TV, a $500 stereo receiver, a $400 HD video player, and about $1000 worth of speakers (minimum) to really make this work. Also, the movies are about $10 more expensive each as well(oh an an extra $100 for cables and the like); and all those are minimums. You can easily spend twice that, or even 20 times that (if you're building a dedicated theater room for example).

$3500 isn't chicken feed.

Heck, I've been assembling a home theater (or at least an HD home entertainment system. Some people balk at the use of the term "home theater" unless it's a dedicated theater room) for two years now piece by piece, and it's cost us about $5500 to get to that point (we have a bigger TV, better speakers, and a better receiver). Yes, we spread it out over two years, but still, it's a fair chunk of change.

Now personally, I think HD is great. I don't want to watch movies and TV that aren't in HD anymore, and given that $3500 (or $5500 in our case) should last for anywhere from 5 to 10 years, I think it's worth it. Heck, we pay more for cable than we did for the whole entertainment system.

Others might not see it as worth the money though; it's really up to the individual consumer.

So you can say that the difference doesn't matter to you, or that you don't think it's worth the money; but don't try and say there's no difference.

Of course the fact that it looks and sounds better doesn't resolve the problem that very little of it is worth watching. I'm not sure if "American Idol" being in High Definition makes it better, or worse.