Jul 272013



Five and half months, zero posts.  Where have I been?  As it turns out, fairly busy with work – on features that support Chromecast, which we finally launched this week.

I’m really excited about the product that we shipped, the accessible price at which we shipped it, and the support for multi-screen experiences that both ourselves and partners have now integrated into truly broad offerings like YouTube, Netflix, Google Play, and Chrome.  As I’ve mentioned here before, we cut the cord when moving here to Washington, relying on streaming services and Google TV, with Blu-ray discs where needed, to get the content we wanted.  So the opportunity to work on bringing a better experience for streaming & web video to everyone has truly been both a joy and privilege.

I’m not going to say more about Chromecast here, as this is my personal blog, doesn’t reflect the views of Google, and would be an inappropriate place to share anything about the product.  But since I only ever posted here for people that I know, I did just want to share why I’d been so quiet as of late :).  It was a huge amount of effort working with a really talented to team to ship what we did, but this really still is the very early days of enabling a whole different way to consume content, so I’m guessing things don’t get less busy from here!

 Posted by at 9:02 am
Sep 052012

It’s been an incredibly long time since my last post – not for lack of interesting things to share, but for a number of reasons.  One of those was returning from Toronto with 700 photos – after aggressively deleting while in Toronto – to process.  Another was being a little busier with work.  But perhaps the most significant contributor was having realized, shortly after Valerie and the kids left for Toronto a week before I did, that I weighed way too much, and really needed to do something about it.  So I decided, to start, that I should try and lose 8 pounds of actual weight (not just retained water) in the 8 days before heading to Toronto, attending family dinners and a wedding, and eating myself silly again.

Now, you occasionally hear that the maximum safe rate for losing weight is 1 or 2 pounds a week, but clearly that wasn’t going to cut it here. So, what to do other than turning to the Internet for a magic low-effort solution, right? OK, not so much; I’m not too prone to believing things that seem to be against the laws of physics or chemistry, so I did some planning with simple math; 8 pounds = 28,000 excess calories, so I’d have to burn on average 3,500 a day more than I was eating.  Eating less than 1,500 calories a day would likely have triggered starvation responses from my body given the higher level of physical activity; at that level of intake and my current weight, I could count on losing 1,000 a day via food, which meant losing 2,500 more a day via exercise.  Anything high intensity was out, as there’s no way I could sustain than for 8 days without my muscles quitting on me, so it’d just take 4-5 hours a day of medium intensity exercise. Realistically, even with moderate breaks, it’d probably take 6 hours a day. Ouch!

Fortunately, this realization happened just after the 4th of July, so I was able to use some of the generous time off work that Google provided to get a head start, knowing that once the work week resumed, it’d be nearly impossible to find the requisite time. While I did get a good portion of the necessary exercise from walking, the sun does set, and that meant needing to use exercise machines. Fortunately, we have a really nice setup in our basement that leaves no excuse for not exercising:

Unfortunately, I hate exercise machines. Spending an extended period on them feels like torture, that’s bearable in this setup only because of the entertainment system directly in front of the exercise equipment. I managed to go through almost the entire Fullmetal Alchemist anime series, not to mention some movies and a bunch of Starcraft 2 games on this 8-day quest. And this is where the “internet scam” part of the post comes in.

About a year and a half prior, the lamp on my projector had started getting dim after roughly 2,000 hours of service – so I replaced it. I just needed a model number LMP-H200 bulb, so I did what I always do – searched for one online, and ordered a replacement. This turned out to be much more complex than usual; places like Amazon didn’t carry them directly, but there were lots of 3rd-party sellers. I chose one with a decent online rating, got my lamp, installed it, and was good to go. Or so I thought.

As it turns out, the majority of projector lamps available online are essentially 3rd-party replacements. Yet for some reason I don’t understand, they all get away with calling themselves a “Sony LMP-H200”, even though they’re not made by Sony. In many cases, even when on sites with very high reseller ratings (4.5+ stars out of 5), it’s difficult to tell whether you’re buying an original or not. The only reliable indicator seems to be the price – the original Sony products are basically $300; the knock-offs start as low as $80, but get up into the $200’s.  And unfortunately, there are so many knock-offs and so many knock-off vendors, that it’s hard to tell which might be a viable solution, and which replacements are total garbage. Some claim to use exactly the same Phillips bulb in a refurbished enclosure, others try and define seemingly arbitrary terms like OEM, OEM Compatible, Genuine Compatible, etc. But fragmentation is so high, and meaningful trustworthy user feedback so low, that it’s hit and miss.

Just search Amazon for “LMP-H200”, and sort by popularity – of the 10 most popular items, 4 have no rating, 4 have a single star, one has 1.5 stars, and one has 4 stars (with a single rating).  I’ve never seen a product category with such universal dissatisfaction from customers, and I’m surprised Amazon even tolerates this.  These ratings aren’t reflective of people discovering “hey, this isn’t genuine” – read the comments, and it’s reflective of the products not working – or in most cases, surviving a very short period of time.

So, as I’m several days away from my 8-day goal, on target in terms of actual weight loss, the replacement bulb I bought in ignorance burns out – after just ~420 hours out of a rated 2,000-3,000 hours (my original Sony bulb was over the 2,000 hour mark when I felt like it was getting dim). It was already painful to force myself to spend all that time suffering on the machines – what would I do now? Give up? Chromebook to the rescue!

I have one of the newer Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebooks from work, and it seemed just made to fit atop the elliptical machine in my time of need. It has great Netflix performance that somehow seemed to provide all the battery life I needed without even being plugged in! My usual disclaimer, I work on the Chrome team and I’m biased, but it really was a lifesaver in not giving up on my rather arbitrary and excessive goal.

With that temporary solution in place, I was able to finish the 8 days as planned, and lose the 8 pounds the math said I would (plus a little more that I attribute to temporary reductions in water levels), allowing me to go from an outright obese weight to something merely at the high end of being overweight. Yay! Then I got to Toronto, and faced this:

It’s amazing how much easier it is to eat 28,000 calories than it is to burn them!

Most of the information on projector bulbs I shared above was from my purchase the 2nd time around. Ironically, despite the risks involved, I still wound up buying the best non-original bulb I could find, in addition to an original bulb, simply because the original bulb was on indefinite back-order (it took more than a month to arrive). If you’re interested, I bought the original replacement from Adorama; it cost almost $300 and looks like this:

Given the performance of the first original bulb I had (that came with the projector), I strongly recommend sticking with originals and avoiding the knock-offs.  But I’ll post again when my temporary knock-off dies; who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky this time.  But probably not!

On the health front, I’m unlikely to do something as crazy again soon – unless I manage to balloon back up in size again – but even trying to make much slower progress towards a healthy weight requires a surprising amount of time. Especially when the kids triumph in their perpetual quest to avail themselves of junk food. So I’m hoping to work through a backlog of things that I had wanted to share – we’ll see how I do!

 Posted by at 9:48 am
Jun 192012

This is an addendum to the prior post on rebuilding my home server. But don’t worry it’s much shorter. I was just amused by the offer that came with the Hitachi 2TB hard I picked up.  The text in the photo is a bit small (unless you click for the large version), but it reads “Get 3GB free at hitachibackup.com”.  The fine print at the bottom says you can get 250GB of storage for just $49/year. And free apps!

So to be clear, Hitach is selling you a 2 terabyte drive.  That’s 2,000,000,000,000 bytes (since it favors the storage industry not to say 1K =1024).  This is a hard drive in retail packaging that is almost always going to be used in addition to the main drive that your system will typically come with.  They are generously offering to store 3,000,000,000 of those bytes for free – a whopping 0.15% of the drive. That’s like selling a Porsche and including a coupon for a 355ml can of gas. Now, 250GB for $49/year is actually not at all unreasonable – but I think I’d rather go with a cloud storage provider like Google Drive, Windows Live Mesh, or Dropbox that’s actually focused on this!

 Posted by at 8:11 am
Jun 192012

I’ve previously described the approach I use to backups; in a nutshell, I use Windows Home Server (2007) to back up our home PCs and store media content on an old PC with redundant storage, and I back up important things to the cloud (with SmugMug hosting the content that’s most important to me, my photos).

Unfortunately, the 8-year-old Dell desktop that I’d been running the home server on finally died.  Perhaps it was old age. Or perhaps it was the copious amounts of sawdust that came from a construction project conducted right next to the home server  (no, I wasn’t around, but I did notice a beloved old mechanical keyboard I kept around was completely covered in sawdust, so…). I considered trying to find a power supply and/or motherboard replacement, but I would have needed to find a setup that supported the old Parallel ATA drives I had in that machine. It would have been a temporary solution, but it might have kept things going until a new Windows release triggered a familiar cycle: my old PC becomes Valerie’s new PC, and Valerie’s old PC (my old old PC) becomes the home server. But a total lack of interest in Windows 8, and acceptable performance from my current PC even 2.5 years in, and an upgrade didn’t seem imminent.


So, I decided to take the plunge, and build a completely new home server that’s now up and running.  Here’s what I went with, from newegg.com:

  • AMD FX-6100 6-core processor, Biostar A880GZ motherboard, 8GB DDR3 RAM, Seagate 500GB HDD, and a generic 500W case; on special for $320.
  • 2 x Hitachi 2TB disk drives for primary media storage, $130 each for a total of $260.
  • Windows Home Server 2011 OEM for $50.

So it was $630 total for a new system with 4.5TB of storage, enough processor/memory to hopefully act as a good media server even if some transcoding is involved.   The core system seemed like a pretty good deal, though I didn’t wait for deals – I just bought what was available the day the old machine died.  Newegg did a good job of getting things to me immediately, even though my failure to type in a coupon code on their product page probably cost me $20 :).

I stopped building PCs from scratch 13 years ago, when pre-packed systems from Dell started to simply be more cost effective than anything you could build yourself.  So it was a bit of a shock to have to figure out which holes the mounting screws needed to go into to fasten the motherboard in place, or to try and make sure I got the right polarity when plugging LEDs into headers on the motherboard so they’d actually light up.  This was not one of those screwless, everything-slides-into-place cases that I’d become accustomed to.  But ultimately, everything worked.

WHS 2011 vs. WHS 2007

Windows Home Server 2011 seems like a fairly solid experience so far, and it addresses some of the performance issues that WHS 2007 systems seemed to eventually run into. At the same time, it’s a sad reflection at Microsoft’s total failure to produce a server product for the home, because everything that was cool for a non-techie about WHS 2007 is gone.  I once thought about getting a WHS 2007 system for my Dad; I’d never even think about it with a WHS 2011 system. What changed?

  • Perhaps the most visible change is that Microsoft dropped Drive Extender, awesome technology that finally took things beyond the confines of hard drives and drive letters.  If you needed more space, you just plugged in more drives. You didn’t ever have to worry about what file was on what drive. If you marked a particular folder important, WHS 2007 would make sure it was spread across multiple drives so there’d be no data loss. This was the coolest feature of WHS 2007 – something one hoped Microsoft would bring to the rest of the Windows line – but it died. And the Internet literally hated Microsoft for this decision.
  • Of equal importance is that there aren’t any more pre-packaged WHS machines.  With WHS 2007, you could buy an HP from amazon that would do everything out of the box and that had the form factor of a server.  With WHS 2011, the options are few and far between. You pretty much have to buy the OEM version and do things yourself.
  • Doing things yourself doesn’t turn out to be as easy as just installing Windows.  Besides having to borrow a SATA DVD-ROM from another machine to install things (who needs them anymore?), WHS 2011 lacked drivers for my NIC, and it wasn’t obvious how to remedy the problem.  Post-install, a common bug prevented installation on both of our client keys until you go make some changes using Regedit. That’s right, even though this was reported many months ago, the shipping version of WHS requires some registry editing just to install.
  • Achieving redundancy needs careful planning around WHS storage limits.  WHS can’t by default handle drives more than 2TB in size, and it can’t span shares across volumes.  So if your videos or photos collection is ever bigger than 2TB, well, you’ll have two of them.  Worse, it’s backup functionality is limited to 2TB in total.  Once you cross 2TB, you can’t make a backup of your server. While I have a comfortable amount of headroom before I reach this limit, it seems pretty ridiculous and I’m hoping Microsoft patches it before I hit that limit.

In short, WHS 2011 only seems to have appeal for techies who build their own system with the very reasonably priced OEM version of the software. This certainly isn’t the typical home, and that’s sad, because people all over the place really need to do a better job of backing up their content. Fortunately, there’s many more cloud options now and for most people, that’s a good option.

There are some high points for WHS 2011; the media serving software is much better, and performance is vastly higher than before. I’m noticing that higher performance now – our home in Kirkland relies on wireless, and WHS 2011 easily saturates the Wifi network while doing backups or copying content. Hopefully once things become incremental, this won’t be a big deal, but right now, our home network is fairly unusable. There’s also fewer random errors even right out of the box, and the fact that it’s not doing anything in fancy makes it easy to get directly to things if you know what you’re doing. So it remains a good solution for me – I just can’t recommend it broadly as I did with WHS 2007.

 Posted by at 7:48 am
May 032012

A great benefit of working for Google is being exposed to all the cool stuff that Google actually does. Even better is that the vast majority of those things are either already publicly available, or become publicly available not long after Google employees get a chance to play with those things. I thought I’d mention a few things I’ve started using recently. A few things that I’ve mentioned before but will repeat: (1) of course I’m biased, I liked Google enough to work there, so take that into account; (2) everything here is 100% public and unrelated to what I work on because I would like my badge to work tomorrow morning, and (3) like all my posts here, this is 100% my own opinion, not that of Google.

So, what cool Google stuff have I started using recently – or started using differently?

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 10:46 am
May 012012

First I changed my surround speakers, getting Mirage OMD-Rs to mount on the wall to better match our room and to make some space.  Then I quickly caved and got matching OMD-28s to replace my left/right speakers, and an OMD-C2 for a center channel. I feel like there was a noticeable improvement – and at roughly 4 times what I originally paid for the Infinity Delta system that it was replacing, one would hope that this would be the case.  But while I’m OK at hearing A/B differences when two things are side-by-side, above a certain level of quality, I’m much less capable of comparing two things if I hear them even a day apart. Still, the new speakers have done a pretty good job of bringing the few movies we’ve watched on them to life.

These changes did leave one weaker link in the system: the subwoofer, an Advent AV-550s that was great for the price, and highly capable of rattling things with its massive 15″ driver and 500W Sunfire amp. While I’ve never felt there was an issue with the AV-550s, I did feel that it was boomy (which was also the main criticism even at it’s low price point by other reviewers, though overall ratings were pretty strong).  Unlike with speakers, I haven’t had much of a chance to listen to different subwoofers, so I also didn’t have a strong basis for comparison. In any event, I spent lots of time researching moderately priced options, and wound up picking the SVS PB-12NSD.

First things first; while some speakers offer nice aesthetics – the Mirage set I mentioned looks quite nice, in my opinion – subwoofers are generally these boring and ugly boxes.  The PB-12NSD takes this to the max; without anything in the picture to gauge its scale, this could be pretty much any boring subwoofer ever made:

(with the grille on)

(with the grille off – super boring!)

Since I wasn’t buying this to fit a particularly constrained space, I didn’t really look at the dimensions. I assumed that since this was a 12″ driver, 400W unit, that it would be smaller but hopefully more precise than my existing AV-550s. Wrong! It was at least as big, and even heavier than its predecessor.

Fortunately, on the acoustic end of things, it didn’t disappoint; indeed, it was really easy to tell the difference with the PB-12NSD because you just feel it a lot more. Whereas my old sub was pretty good down to about 30Hz, the PB-12NSD supposedly gets down to 20Hz – which really is the range where you’re feeling the vibration as opposed to hearing audible sound. Some of the scenes in X-Men: First Class – even the opening where a young Magneto bends the gates open – had substantially more impact with the new sub.

As a company, SVS is also interesting; it’s one of an increasing handful of companies that don’t sell through dealers; they only sell direct, over the Internet (or presumably the phone). While you’d think this model wouldn’t work well for something that you need to hear in person to evaluate, and that’s really expensive to ship around, they seem to be quite successful with the approach; and indeed, considering quality & price, this feels like the approach to beat. Why even go through Amazon, give up some margin, and be forced to charge taxes in a larger number of states? Perhaps the future isn’t that we buy everything from Amazon, but rather that we buy everything direct from the individuals and companies that make those things, with only UPS & FedEx between us? That remains to be seen, but for this particular purchase, buying directly from the folks who made the product worked out pretty well!

 Posted by at 10:12 am
Mar 072012

A few posts ago, I talked about 7.1 surround – and about how though it was mostly unnecessary for movies, I stuck with a 7.1 configuration for our room in the basement when replacing floorstanding surround speakers with wall-mounted versions to make some more space for little things like… actually being able to walk by without bumping into a speaker. The plan was just to replace the surrounds, and to stick with the Infinity Delta speakers I’d long been using as the left/center/right speakers. I knew I’d be tempted to go for consistency – but I didn’t think I’d cave in less than a month!

I had actually decided against making any changes – because getting matching Mirage speakers big enough to handle the relatively large space they’d be in was going to be a pretty expensive undertaking.  We don’t get to watch movies or play games like we used to, so getting the “cost per hour” of the system down to a reasonable level would be hard – whereas the prior system had delivered somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 hours of service at a price of less than $0.50 per hour (with some of that equipment remaining in service despite the speaker updates – for now!).

What defeated these rational thoughts? Listening, unfortunately. Prior to buying the Mirage OMD-Rs, thoughts posted online fairly uniformly said that while matching the left/center/right speakers with the surrounds was desirable, it was really not that important. But after listening to some material with the new surrounds, there was a clear and noticeable difference in the sound from the rears. An audiophile – which I’m not – would have been able to characterize this precisely; to me, it just felt like there was more clarity and a different timbre. That, and the illusion of an expiring 10% discount from my first purchase with Vanns (the only authorized Mirage dealer), pushed me into placing the order.  I got a pair of OMD-28 for the left and right channels, and an OMD-C2 for the center channel.  The center arrived last Friday, with the main speakers showing up today.

The Mirage OMD line was designed and initially priced for the high end of the market, where prices start to get fairly crazy for barely perceptible differences. Fortunately (for me, I guess not for Mirage), that didn’t work out – and what I paid was about 1/3rd of what the speakers launched at, an amount that still seemed like a lot to spend on speakers. Mirage has been known over the years for an “omnidirectional” design that produces more diffuse sound; the manifestation of this in the OMD-28s and OMD-C2 is probably the strangest driver you’ve seen:

Being designed for a high price point left a few other interesting marks on the product…

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 10:24 am
Feb 262012

How many A/V receivers do you think Best Buy (.com) carries that support 5.1 surround – 5 speakers plus a subwoofer? 14.  How many that support 7.1 channels or more? 44, with models that start at under $200.  Don’t ask me how it’s possible to make a box that amplifies 7 discrete channels and does surround sound decoding and various other A/V receiver duties for that price! But in all seriousness, you look at what’s being sold out there, and you’d start to assume that you need to have 7 speakers plus a subwoofer if you want the “true” surround sound experience.

What about content? DVD is limited to 5.1 surround (via Dolby Digital or DTS), and not a single streaming service I’m aware of supports better than 5.1 on any title. If you even the possibility of 7.1 surround, you have to get your content on Blu-ray (which delivers the best overall quality anyways). So of the roughly 40 titles that I have on Blu-ray (counting series of things as a single title), how many have a 7.1 soundtrack?  One.  And the 7.1 title in question – Transformers: Dark of the Moon – is not really a title that I’d recommend owning; even for someone like me who grew up with Transformers and collected the toys, I found the movie pretty bad.

But let’s not judge by my collection! There’s a handy site – www.blu-raystats.com – that has a searchable database of almost all known Blu-ray content, with handy filters to narrow down the selection.  Out of the 5,669 titles it reports with no filters, 295 are listed as having 7.1 soundtracks. Unfortunately, even this is deceptive. Even a cursory glance through the actual list quickly reveals that almost all of the movies are older titles that were definitely not recorded or mastered in 7.1 originally – so what you’ll hear out of the extra two speakers is just some the result of some DSP algorithm trying to create a more enveloping sound field. It doesn’t have positional information to know what sounds should really come from behind you.

So basically, 7.1 surround is nearly completely useless over 5.1 surround when it comes to most movie material.  In spite of this, I’ve had a 7.1 setup for some time anyways, as a result of over-buying equipment a dozen years ago. Room geometry here in our new home meant it was time to change some of the speakers in a system that’s worked very well. Was it worth sticking with 7.1, or did my understanding of the above send me down a different path? And what speakers did I go from and to?

One of the new speakers; that’s actually a picture of it hanging on my wall!

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 10:52 am
Dec 052011

I mentioned the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 I received as a parting gift from my co-workers in Toronto, but another thing that they gave me was a Razer Marauder Starcraft 2 keyboard. Functionally, it’s a keyboard; visually, it takes the Starcraft theme to the max, going with a design that looks like it was lifted straight out of the game. It also has some cool features integrated with the game itself, like color that reflects your current APM (how fast you are inputting commands), and the ability to turn red when your army is being killed. I had lots of opportunities to see that – I lost 6 games in a row after trying the keyboard out!

Unfortunately, my particular unit had an issue during regular typing, in which keys would sometimes get input twice for a single keystroke. I’m also not sure what it was, but E-mails I was writing would sometimes get sent spontaneously while I was still in the process of writing them. Getting this fixed wasn’t straightforward, and I hadn’t gotten around to it. However, in searching for information about the issue, I did come across information on the complex world of mechanical keyboards – and long having been a fan of some of the old style keyboards – I even still have a keyboard with a 5-pin DIN connector (the predecessor of the PS/2 keyboard connector), which I used with an adapter for quite some time thanks to its nice clicky feel.

Well, it turns out that they do in fact make them like they used to – if you’re willing to spend $100 or so on a keyboard, which most people aren’t. I was, though (heck, many in the Toronto office spent that much on mechanical joysticks for playing Street Fighter 4) – and the keyboard I chose arrived this week:

It’s a Das Keyboard Standard Model S Ultimate.  The “Ultimate” denotes a feature (or lack thereof) you may have noticed above – the keyboard is unlabeled! And while many people do type without looking at the keyboard, you may discover that the location of some of the more obscure symbols isn’t quite as ingrained in your memory as you think. Typing with one hand, which essentially means you’re not typing reflexively anymore, is also pretty challenging.  I actually chose to go with the “Professional” model (same keyboard, with letters), but the promo price ended in the few hours since I decided – so I got the above instead. It feels great so far, and if you spend a lot of time typing, I do suggest putting a little effort into finding a keyboard that you really like!

 Posted by at 9:37 am
Nov 182011

I’ve never really been that big on mobile devices.  Adrian would often extol the virtues of a 27-some-odd pocket Scottevest – equivalent to an extra carry-on for the airplane, he’d often say – while I’d wonder what I could possibly put in the 24 remaining pockets after my wallet, phone, and compact camera were stowed away.

Almost exactly two months ago, I left Alcatel-Lucent, and while there were many things I’d miss, the two mobile devices that were company property – a Blackberry 8700 phone (note the intentional lack of the word “smart”), and a Lenovo Thinkpad laptop – were not really among them.  My Blackberry was pretty much exclusively for work E-mail while travelling, and similarly, my laptop only saw use when I was on the road (I greatly preferred my desktop both in the office and at home).  But fast forward just a couple of weeks, and it felt like it was raining new kinds of mobile devices; I picked up 5 in the span of just 2-3 weeks, resulting in the following stack:

I only owned two of the devices pictured above when I came in for my last day of work at ALU – the 3rd-gen Amazon Kindle, and the HP Mini netbook which has had the sole role of recording who came to play badminton. This lack of mobile devices actually got momentarily scary, when I realized I’d be alone in Kirkland for 10 days before getting my Google-issued computer, without a device capable of playing Starcraft. Fortunately, my 3 checked bag allowance with Air Canada remedied this – one bag for my desktop, one bag for a monitor, one bag for the keyboard/mouse/accessories… and a few clothes.  My carry-on luggage was exclusively camera bags. So what are all the extra devices above, and what do I think of them? In the order I received them…

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 10:48 am