Monday, August 27, 2007

Video stores dead... again (Quickflix review)

I've long assumed that the days of the local video store are numbered, but the reason I thought was direct rental with download over the internet. It seems there's another competitor that is very compelling - the online DVD rental businesses.

When Ingmar Bergaman died (actually a week before, which is weird) I felt a desire to watch some of those beautifully lit black and white movies. A visit to the two local video stores proved fruitless. The nicer, more disorganised store couldn't even search their database for anything except titles!

I looked for an online DVD rental service and stumbled across Quickflix. They have a 14 day free trial with unlimited rentals during that time (with 3 out at a time). You can keep a DVD as long as you like with no penalty, (except your monthly fee), but of course they don't send you more until you return some. Sound too good to be true!

They have a catalog of 25,000 titles, you create a queue of what you want, in order, and they send them out with a pre-paid return post envelope and a nice stiff DVD holder. As a new member, I've been a very efficient viewer. When a disk arrives, I watch it and post it back the very next day.

Here's what I like about this vendor:
  • Good web site, quick, good searching, queue management a bit clunky but functional.
  • Reviews by David Strattan and Megan Spencer are a good thing, I'd like more lists to prompt me as well
  • Email notification of what they've just posted and what they've just received back from me is great and clear.
Here's my pretty minor grumbles:
  • The limiting factor is the postal turnaround time. I work in North Sydney and they are in North Sydney, even so it takes three (or mostly four) business days for the posting of one disk back before the next one is sent.
  • They don't send items from the top of my queue. Perhaps they only have a few copies, but I generally get things from number four or more from my queue. It might be good to give some idea of the stock and demand.
  • After your free trial, you go on to the $40/month plan "unlimited" with three DVDs out at a time. Given the turnaround time, this doesn't seem like the best value - I've dropped back to the $20 plan which is a maximum of 5 DVDs per month.
And why is the local DVD store dead? $4 per DVD with a post paid return envelope and a catalog probably 100 times larger beats $6 per DVD and the waste of time going to the store when they are open - hands down.

How about downloading? I hear that a DVD converted to H.264 video takes up about 700Mb. For most of us on current "unlimited" broadband plans (ha!), five movies would be 3.5Gb which is a fair proportion of "unlimited". For this to be really attractive, it would need to be unchargeable download of some sort. Pretty soon, we'll all be renting HD/DVD or BlueRay and these will be much bigger to download so I predict that delivering data by disk through the post will remain pretty attractive for some time, at least in this country...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Solution to Keychain update hang on MacOS X

MacOS X has fewer weird problems than Windows but it's not totally without issues. For the past month I've had a terrible problem where anything that needed to update the keychain would kill the machine to the point of needing a reboot.

Normally, I don't need to do much maintenance but I tried the following:
  • Booted from my install DVD and ran disk utility (that did fix some problems including a file I couldn't previously delete)
  • Running Utilities/Keychain Access and getting it to repair my keychain (it found nothing wrong)
  • Deleted keys with Keychain Access that were used by apps that gave me trouble.
In the end I found a pointer on an Apple mailing list to this article. In the end all I did was:
  • sudo mv /var/db/CodeEquivalenceDatabase /var/db/CodeEquivalenceDatabase.old
  • reboot
And all is well.

Reading around, it seems this is a rare but repeated problem.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

iLife & iWork 08 in use

We're making a DVD at the moment and I've just purchased iLife and & iWork 08.

This DVD has a video component that is being edited together using iMovie and a slide show that we're preparing in Keynote.

Anyhow, iLife and iWork came out this week so I jumped in and bought them. Here's my rundown after giving them a hammering for a day.

The stand-out is iMovie, they seem to have massively re-designed the program around the concept of "event" organised film strips that show you the video as if a film strip that has been unravelled along a light table. You can "scrub" the mouse over the clip and see it animate as if you were spooling a tape over a tape head. It's incredibly fast and smooth to use and a great way to find the best bits in a sequence of video.

iMovie has a sort of all grey look and makes excellent use of the big wide screens we all have now. My impression is that iMovie is pretty much professional grade, with a simple to use user interface. It's rock solid and if it's possible the DV video looks better than it did before for some reason. Update: a feature I rely on, splitting the audio from the video, is actually missing. It turns out others have noticed missing features too. I had assumed it was there but I hadn't found it yet.

The actual video is now stored in Event folders inside your Movies folder in your home directory. The thumbnails for the fast video scrubbing are built and stored there too. I like the way the actual storage is now more transparent - I know what to back up and what to transport to another machine.

Keynote looks pretty much the same but has some features I was wanting such as the ability to crop images inside it. There's an amazing "magic alpha" feature that I have ended up using in this production - this lets you punch out an image from it's background by making the background transparent.

I'm disappointed at the quality of the exported movie from Keynote, given how fantastic it looks on screen. An 800x600 DV export shows jaggies on the text for some reason. I'll try exporting at higher resolution and letting iDVD do the downrendering. Update: I exported as full resolution H264 and it does look much better.

Pages just gets better all the time, advanced features like change logging, and a formatting tool bar make it more familiar. I really love it but it has always seemed a bit sluggish to use. At the office we've pretty much standardised on NeoOffice/OpenOffice, they do a particularly good job of exporting to PDF which is the standard way to publish now. In particular, OpenOffice's export to PDF generates the table of contents that is displayed down the side in PDF readers, Pages doesn't do that for some reason.

Only played with Numbers a bit. Looks good and they've taken a page layout view of a spreadsheet where bits of spreadsheet can float between images and superb charts. I'm a bit puzzled why they don't just merge it in to Pages and make it like Works used to be.

All up, these programs handle large graphics embedded in documents far better than Microsoft's products ever do, and that's increasingly the way we work today. Combined with OmniGraffle for drawing (there's no need for Apple to compete with such a great product), this is all I need to work.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Stop printing phone books!

I haven't used a printed phone book in years. They turn up on the doorstep each year and go straight into the recycling.

Happily it turns out that you can opt out here in Australia by ringing Sensis. I did this and while it's not one of the options they offer on the menu they did mark us to not receive printed books.

The call centre person obviously didn't get many opt out calls, it's pretty hard to find how to do it.
Personally I think printed books should be opt in and probably paid for.

The irony to me is all the environmental chatter on their site, saying that doing searches help save the environment. Surely the best thing they could do right now is to drastically slash the number of books printed by asking exactly who requires them. My guess is that it would be under 20% of the households.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Efficient news reading and manipulation by Dvorak

I'm a news junky. Radio, including short wave radio, used to be my primary source of world news. As the internet ramped up in the '90s I used to visit a bunch of sites each morning to get my update on what's important to me.

It took maybe 15 minutes, while eating breakfast, to read the sites. I also appreciated their design, sometimes clicked deeper in to their content and viewed their banner ads.

Now I use RSS readers, it used to be NetNewsWire but now that web apps are getting good, I use GoogleReader. I can skim all the headlines in seconds, view a bit more info a few more seconds and drill right to the site if I want more very quickly.

Content is king and it's a great deal but I do feel bad that the sites I read every day (actually many times a day) don't get the benefit of my ad impressions.

Some sites are smart, or manipulative - if you like. The king of traffic manipulation is John C Dvorak. I like his story sense - he's been around a long time reviewing technology, so he's a skeptic and tends to dismiss the hype around new product announcements which is actually a useful approach.

John has a rather broken RSS feed that gives you just the headline, which is often incomprehensible without the image. If you click through, you get the comments about the story, but not the story. So you are forced to go and visit the home page. He's getting several page views through this strategy.

Dvorak and his (new) team of hhopper, Eideard, Uncle Dave, SN, and Gasparrini don't seem to publish any original content on the blog (presumably that's saved for commercial journalism outlets that pay a bit better). The value they are adding is mostly editorial - they find interesting stories and re-publish a bit, often embedding video segments. They always give attribution and links - so that's good for the original content creators.

The big secret in the news business used to be how much of the news (90%?) was simply copied or slightly edited from the wire services: AP, Reuters, etc. It's no longer a secret to anyone who views GoogleNews and sees how the same story appears, word for word, in all the world's news papers.

The news business is changing, I'm amazed to still see the giant pile of newspaper we recycle every week, full of stuff that was old news before it was printed. I think there are the following distinct points in news production where value is added:
  • News gathering - reporters on the ground
  • Editing and researching
  • Editorial selection - choosing stories of interest to different consumer groups
  • Editorial ordering - sorting the stories, choosing the top story
  • Linking relevant stories
  • Packaging into periodic wrapups - news of the day, news of the week, news of the year
  • Opinion - interpreting a bunch of stories to deliver some insight about "what's really going on"
  • Presenting - reading aloud, rendering on paper or HTML or whatever
  • Delivering - to browsers, TVs, phones 
The scary thing is how much of these are able to be done pretty well by automated computer programs.

I love news, but right now the only people being paid by me is my internet provider. This doesn't seem quite fair.