Monthly Archives: February 2008

Carolyn’s Back (…and I’m Back at Work)

Well, after two weeks of Carolyn-lessness, the Beautiful Wife finally returned from her German vacation to a family that much missed her. Unfortunately, my work has much missed me as well, so I’ll be putting in the hours trying to catch up. Thanks to everyone at the office who covered for me in my office…now I just have to get 12.1 out the door before our next show in two weeks: Wizardworld Los Angeles.

If you’ll be down there, stop on by and say, “Hi!”

Dads: Treated Differently from 10-5?

For the past two weeks, I’ve been temporarily playing the role of single dad while Carolyn’s away in Germany. It’s largely been a rush of errands, art projects, home repair, meal preparation, and so on, but we’ve largely managed to get by.

As a regular working stiff, I’m struck by how my normal after-5 and weekend haunts are subtly transformed during the regular work day. For a start, the demographics of the bookstore and mall denizens are different, with young moms, older folks, and young children figuring much more heavily into the mix than on weekends. The really weird part, however, is that people seem to be treating me a little more nicely than they do normally. People seem to smile more. They crack jokes and compliment your kids in the checkout line of the grocery store…even normally grumpy electronics store clerks were suddenly helpful and charming when I came in at 10:30 am with my four year-old in tow.

What the heck is going on? Has a niceness outbreak been infecting the South Bay this past week? Or have I stumbled onto a secret world known only to stay-at-home parents and retirees? I’m not complaining, mind you, but I gotta say it’s starting to weird me out a bit…

Adventures in High-Definition

Well, the previously mentioned Big Freakin’ TV showed up right on schedule, and so far, it’s all I could hope for. It’s huge, was simple to hook up. It’s even fairly svelte–about 9″ deep at the lowest point, and despite its size weighs in at about 70 pounds once it’s unboxed. There’s also no sign of the “high pitched whining” some users of this TV had complained about. Best of all, the picture is gorgeous–especially when viewing HD broadcasts or (even better!) a Blu-ray movie. I thought my Dell lash-up was pretty spiffy before, but this new rig puts it to shame.

There were two reasonably major problems, however. First, my receiver (a Panasonic) lacked HDMI inputs–not to mention an input-selector knob since we managed to shear it off by slamming it with the sliding glass door to the my stereo rack. More importantly, it apparently felt intimidated by its new neighbor the TV, and decided without warning to go from being a stereo receiver to a mono one with the left stereo channel going out entirely. 45 minutes of connection-checking later, I concluded that the left side amp was kaput.

Anxious to get the TV up and running in full surround-sound glory, I decided to drop $200 down a the local Best Buy to pick up a Sony STR-DG510 receiver. I can’t claim to love its display or interface, but I certainly appreciate the sheer amount of technology in the receiver. In addition to HDMI inputs, it adds two or three types of new theater decoding (Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Surround EX, etc.) as well as a very nifty system for auto-configuring your surround speakers. Basically, you just sit where you’d normally be in your living room holding the supplied microphone, then the system blasts white noise from the various speakers and automatically adjusts the relative gain levels and calculates the distance delay that Surround signals should have in order to keep the whole thing in sync. Neat!

Unfortunately, this particular receiver also seems to have some oddities regarding the use of HDMI inputs. To wit: video comes across fine, but instead of hearing sound, the receiver shows the cryptic message “Unlock” — a message which appears nowhere in the 70 page user guide. Browsing the internet, however, it seems that for whatever reasons, the receiver does not allow Audio to pass through the HDMI cable, but instead only accepts digital audio if you hook up the separate optical or coaxial cable from your device. There’s definitely some sort of story here, since the HDMI cable should be able to handle both video and audio through a single cable…but at this point, I’ve decided to just play along and string the extra cables. If anyone can shed light on this weird behavior of the receiver, please let me know!

…Now I just need to drop $150 on a Harmony remote so I don’t need to use three different remotes just to watch TV…

Carolyn’s Adventures in Germany/My Adventures Playing Single Dad for Two Weeks

Carolyn’s big Christmas present from me this year was an airline ticket to Germany, which she’d been dying to visit—and me taking care of the kids at home for two weeks while she visits chocolate museums.

I’ll admit, I’ve got a reasonable bit of trepidation about the long absence, especially since I’ll be playing stay-at-home dad to four-year-old Kelly and ten year-old Neil from 8am–9pm (bedtime), and at the same time trying to keep from dropping too many balls at work (normally 10am–5pm, followed by 11pm–3am).

It’s going to be interesting, but so far, Day 1 (actually Day 0.5 — I dropped Carolyn off at SFO at 11 this morning) was pretty good. The kids both did a lot of picking up around the house, and they both helped muck in with the chores. Kelly even helped make pie (dumping in ingredients and taking turns stirring the filling in the sauce pan), and Neil did everything from cleaning a bathroom to helping with dishes. I’m really proud of both of them, but Carolyn’s left some big shoes to fill. She’s much missed already by all of us!

She better bring back some pretty darn good German comic books…

The HD-DVD/Blu-ray Format War: All Over but the Crying

From Engadget:

If the Reuters/NHK report is accurate, now is probably a good time to put your HD-DVD player up on Craigslist (and hope they convert Heroes to Blu-ray soon!).

Good news: the format war is over. Bad news: it took about five years too long. Thanks, guys!

Update 12/19: It’s official: HD-DVD is dead. Toshiba just announced they were pulling out of the HD-DVD business.

The American Dream: Up from next to nothing

A great story about a kid who decided to “test” the American Dream of being able to rise from just the clothes on your back using hard work and a good attitude.

Call me naive, but totally believe in this stuff. I don’t even think it’s the exception. I’ll never forget how when I just got out of college and totaled my net worth for the first time, it came out to $6.

TV Torment

For the past couple of years, my TV setup at home has been a Dell projector shining across the living room at a screen I put together with a couple of yards of blackout fabric, lumber from Home Depot, and some black velvet trim for the border. When the projector isn’t on, it looks like we’ve decorated our living room using a large, minimalist abstract painting commenting on the emptiness of life; at night, which is when I almost always do my TV watching, it magically turns into a 77″ movie screen.

Some months ago, I started tip-toeing into the oh-so-pretty world of HD, which involved changing around lots of cables, my satellite provider (Dish Network’s HD offerings came much more expensively than DirectTV’s), and a Playstation 3, which introduced the world of Blu-ray movies to the Bickford household.

Finally, I could watch Heroes in HD—and notice how amazingly huge everyone’s pores looked. It all looked pretty darn good, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

Anyway, about a week ago, I decided to take a break from the office, grab a coffee, and try to puzzle out how to work a certain new feature into ComicBase and Atomic Avenue. As I paced around the local strip mall with my grande Caffé Mocha (nonfat, no whip cream) in hand, I happened to drop in at the local computer store. There, someone had finally figured out how to sell Playstation 3’s by hooking them up to a big monitor and, you know, actually turning the monitor on (For some reason, the previous strategy of hooking up Playstation 3s to switched-off monitors, employed universally from coast to coast, had not proved the sales dynamo that stores had hoped. Go figure). Anyway, the screens and menus on the Playstation 3 looked fantastic—with a much higher resolution than I was used to seeing at home.

It turns out that the Dell projector we’d scavenged for our home theater lash-up can accept signals of up to 1920×1200, but the actual LCD matrix inside is only 1024×768. That’s a good sight better than the 640×480 signal associated with standard definition TV, but it’s not even quite up to the standard of 720p–the sort of mid-definition HDTV that’s usually broadcast. And it’s miles away from the 1080p, a.k.a. “full HD” which is output by devices like Blu-ray movies and Playstation 3s. In fact, it’s got something like 1/3 of the resolution of full HD.

Looking around at the screens in the electronics store, I was also struck by how very far they’d come in price since they first came on my radar back when Neil was kindergarten. They were actually—dare I say it—within reach of someone whose previous television-budget was such that saving a couple of hundred bucks by constructing his screen out of fabric and wood seemed a very sensible use of time and resources.

At that point, the mighty forces of rationalization and justification started kicking in. And somewhere in the “Ooh! Pretty pictures!” part of my mind, the item, “buy big freaking TV” got added to my mental list of things which ought to be done sooner rather than later. Like, say, tomorrow.

After the requisite approvals from family members had been obtained, I located a 65″ DLP TV from Fry’s electronics which was suitably close in dimension to what we’d grown used to watching, but with the added benefits of far better blacks, the ability to be watched during the daytime, and much higher resolution—all for just $1399. Unfortunately, when I found out that my car was about 1/2″ too narrow to fit the TV box in, I had to decide whether to (A) let the Fry’s delivery goons manhandle my new purchase for $59.99, or (B) try to locate someone with a larger car to haul the set home in.

Naturally, I went with plan B. But when I returned the next day with Joe from our office (whom I’d promised to bribe with lunch if he helped me lug the set home in his car), the Fry’s sales staff announced that the set had just gone up in price—by $600.

“But it wasn’t even listed as being on sale!” I protested. “Just give me yesterday’s price and we’ll have a deal.” But it was all to no avail. With the bitterness that you can only feel when you’ve decided to go all out and spend foolishly on something you really want, only to be thwarted, I walked out of Fry’s and bought Joe his lunch. I was eating a chicken sandwich, but what I was tasting was defeat.

(OK, that last bit might be a bit much. But I was still really, really bitter.)

I checked Circuit City. I checked Best Buy. I even checked other Fry’s stores as well as my nemesis CostCo. But nobody had the television set—or if they did, it was hundreds of dollars more expensive. The worst part was that I just knew I was going to wait out the geniuses at the Fry’s pricing department until the same bloody TV came “on sale” days or months later. But there was no way in creation I was going to hand Fry’s one cent more than $1399 (plus 8.25% sales tax!) for that television.

In the end, our good friend the internet saved me from months of mid-def purgatory. I couldn’t find the exact model I’d settled on for a competitive price, but had the model one step up (with an extra HDMI port on the front as its major improvement) for $1468 — but with the all-important free shipping. When the lack of sales tax was figured in, I was actually a little ahead of the game. More importantly, I escaped the humiliation of crawling back months later to the same folks who had jerked the rug of reckless consumer spending glee out from under my feet.

By next Friday, hopefully I’ll be spending all sorts of pointless hours staring agape at the pretty high-res images on my new TV. The only dark cloud on the horizon? Reviews online say that some sets have had a horrible high-pitched whining coming from the color wheel. It seems to be a problem on a minority of sets, and the rest of the reviewers were gushing about how great the picture was. Hopefully the happy reviewers were not also the deaf ones, and the problem’s been fixed on this model. Otherwise, my TV torment will continue…

“Guitar Hero” for Real Guitars?

Leaving aside the obligatory Guitar Hero and Rock Band bashing, anything which makes playing (and especially learning) an instrument more fun has definitely got my interest. So this definitely seems worth checking out to me…

Scaling up by Downgrading?

Is low-end SQL Express 2005 the way to go for a heavily trafficked site? OK, I know. The question sounds daft, but hear me out.

Right now, Atomic Avenue (and for that matter) use SQL Server 2000 as their back-end database. Like most databases, the bread and butter of the whole thing is garden variety SQL: SELECTs, UPDATEs, etc. using the requisite JOINs, stored procedures and whatnot, along with the occasional subquery, and—I think once or twice in the entire database—something really avant garde like a temporary table. The point is, we make use of basically none of the high-end features that Microsoft has been stuffing into SQL Server in the past few versions to try to sell to the “enterprise” market.

What we do make use of is connections—lots of them. And that’s where we’re starting to get into trouble. See, you don’t just pay Microsoft a couple of grand to use SQL Server, you pay a couple of grand to use SQL Server on one machine, with up to five simultaneous connections going. If you want more connections (and believe me, you do), you have to spring for something called a “CAL” — Client Access License, which permits your server to keep more than that number of connections open at once. These CALs come in “packs” of five, ten, twenty five, etc. and cost about $162 per connection license. Need 25 more simultaneous client connections on your “SQL Standard Edition” server? That’s a cool $4,050 on top of the initial purchase price of $1,899. And remember: that’s for one server.

Being the kind folks they are, Microsoft also offers the option of skipping all this CAL business and just licensing SQL Server for a fixed amount based on the number of processors on your server machine. An SQL Standard Edition license by processor runs $5,999—so that’s basically $12,000 if your machine has two processors. But heck, at least that’s better than the Enterprise Edition of SQL Server 2005: that baby runs $24,999 per processor. Imagine: $50,000 to run a single piece of software on one machine. I’ve just depressed myself utterly by realizing that a copy of ComicBase sells for something like 1/10th of 1 percent of that. We’re definitely in the wrong end of the software biz!

The only good news in this scenario is that connections go surprisingly far if your site is programmed halfway properly. Typically, you can open, service, and close connections in well under a second, allowing a relative handful of connection licenses to handle the connections generated by thousands of typical users without too much waiting around for a free connection to open up. Still, as Atomic Avenue’s traffic continues to grow, I’m getting concerned about lack of available client connections becoming a problem.

The obvious way to handle the problem is to just throw money at it and pay Microsoft for ever-more licenses. When I think of all the giant Alien statues and toy robots we could buy for the office with that same money, however, I’ll admit I have to think twice before reaching for my wallet.

One intriguing alternative is that we might be able to solve the problem by actually downgrading our production servers to the new “Express” version of SQL Server 2005. This version was introduced to compete with free databases like MySQL, and brings virtually all the features of the full versions of SQL Server to the table, but with no cost for the application, and unlimited client connections. The catch? Microsoft hobbled the server by limiting it to handling databases of 4 GB or less; the server can only make use of one processor (but as many cores as it wants); and it can only use 1 GB of RAM for the buffer memory.

Of these limitations, frankly, the memory one gives me the most pause, but it definitely seems worth checking out. I think there’s at least the chance that we may be better off going down to the free version, than by throwing untold thousands at the folks in Redmond. (And if this doesn’t work, we also have the option of rewriting the back-end database in something like MySQL anyway, although that would be a major project to say the least).

I just got our new quad-core database server racked up and ready to go using SQL 2005 Express. I’m not really getting my hopes up, but I’ll let you know what I find out… (And if any of you have experience in this area, by all means write and let me know what you discovered!)