Sometimes you find this rare gem of a piece of software that just works and that just solves a problem you have been having an itch with for a long time. SnagIT, from TechSmith, is just such a program. It makes doing screen captures and editing them incredibly easy and convenient. It also has some nice extras, like capturing a webpage in its entirety by scrolling the window in Internet Explorer or Firefox. Simple, but a great time saver for me. I feel like I literally saved hours of work time in just a few weeks of using this program. 30 bucks for a piece of software that does screen capture? In my job, a no-brainer. Highly recommended!
I often listen to Leo Laporte’s “This Week in Tech” podcast. It is not particularly focused, but thanks to the quality of the participants it always enjoyable and I tend to end up learning something about general IT and general desktop computing that I did not know before. However, there are a few annoying themes that tend to pop up. One of these is the idea that traditional paper journalism and journalism in general is dead, to be replaced by smart news search engines finding “just what I need” based on my preferences. I think that idea is utterly broken. There is immense value to reading a collection of news and articles put together by someone skilled in the craft, and not just a search bot looking for stuff like what I already know and like.
Here is nice example of what such a bleak world would be missing…
Just last week I found the group “Universal Poplab“. A Swedish trio making nice pop music in a style that is quite reminiscent of classic 1980’s Synthpop. Which I happen to like. How I found it? Pure serendipity of the kind that will never happen in a world of agent-based targeted search and information. I was moving the car to the garage, and just tuned in to P3 on the radio. Where they happened to interviewing the group and played some short bits from their hits from recent years (hits that had completely gone me by, as I tend to be quite out of touch with cultural developments since we had a child a few years ago). “This is brilliant” I thought and logged into iTunes and bought a record immediately.
Without that purely random act, I probably would never have found out about them. There is so much good stuff out there hidden in enormous mass of indifferent stuff that the only really good way to get a handle on it is to let someone better informed tell you. Not some search bot. I guess this qualifies for “Rant” status.
This is way off-topic and not very relevant to anyone located even remotely far from Uppsala. But my favorite summer beer is back for another season. Slottskällans Bryggeri here in Uppsala (in which I was a shareholder in an earlier incarnation before the reconstruction a couple of years’ ago) has once again decided to a run of “Vit“, their local idea of a German-style Weissen. It is a perfect summer beer, and a good beer any time of the year. Get it while supplies last, seems to be fairly limited in production.
Slottskällan is a true microbrewery, despite recent increases they are still producing only enough to cover the Uppsala and Stockholm markets, and some special orders from some places more distant. Their customer list is a good hint for good places to find their good beers.
I just found out that my favorite Windows XP PowerToy is built into Windows Vista. To get to a command-prompt located in any folder directly from the Explorer, follow the instructions found at a Microsoft MSDN blog: Tim Sneath : Windows Vista Secret #1: Open Command Prompt Here. Very useful. But why not make it more obvious than “press shift while right-clicking?”.
One common use-case for multicore processing on the desktop and elsewhere is “doing many things at the same time”. You could be running many user-interface programs at once, like the “typical today’s teenager template” of tens of IM clients, web sessions, email conversations, music and video players, downloading movies, etc. Or it is a more business-like background indexing of harddrives, backups being taken, downloading large business files, compiling software, updating source code repositories, etc.
I have been doing both of these modes to some extent, and the main problem with them at least on a PC is that while the processors might be good at multitasking and sharing the CPU load, my IO system is annoyingly non-parallel.
A question that pops up quite often when computer architects and representatives from firms like Intel encounter a crowd today is but just what do you need more computing power for????. Most regular users are fairly happy with the speed at which they process words, surf the web, read email, do IP phone calls, crunch numbers in Excel, and other common tasks. It is hard to perceive the need for more speed in everyday tasks, unlike a decade or two ago when you could definitely ask for improvement. I remember scrolling a page in PageMaker on a Mac SE (8Mhz 68000). You counted the clicks and waited for the screen to jump, redraw, jump, redraw, stabilize… quite a different experience from working with modern computers and far more complex software that still responds instantaneously to almost any work.
A short update to the previous posting on how to compress video for the nano.
It turns out that the “iPod video” profile of Nero Recode is half aimed at showing video from your iPod on external devices. That’s the only good reason for the “high” resolution. I typically got a video size of 15MB per minute with these settings, which quickly fills up even gigabytes of space.
Using the “iPod Video-AVC” profile instead is optimized for viewing on the Nano itself and not on some external device. The resolution is down to 320×200-240 depending on source aspect ratio. And the resulting files are only about 5MB per minute, much more manageable for carrying a large video library on an iPod. I cannot see any difference in the quality of the output…
Update (2007-September-23): The default iPod-AVC setting has some issue with rapid cross-fades between scenes. To get around this, I set the quality settings to “2-pass” and “highest quality” in the detailed settings you can make in the second screen before moving on to actually encode things. This created very nice looking video that had no problems handling even the previously broken fades.
The cost was even more compute time. I think the current settings takes some 5 to 10 hours per material hour to encode (on my Athlon XP 2700+, not exactly a screamer by current standards).
This is not in my self-assigned range of topics, but I like when other people put up their helpful notes of how to accomplish some task that I am researching. Thus, I feel obliged to do the same when I have tested something reasonably new.
The task at hand here is “how to get video into an iPod Nano”.
The register report “IBM embraces – wtf – Sun’s Solaris across x86 server line” is a very appropriate headline for something quite surprising. The day before this happened, we discussed the announced announcement and said “nah, it can’t be about operating systems”. The idea of IBM in-sourcing Solaris for x86 just felt like the kind of thing that was in the same realm as flying pigs, freezing hells, and similar unlikely events.
I just had a nice vacation in the Estonian town of Pärnu. Pärnu is a really nice little town full of summer visitors and still with lots of local character.
Getting there, however, was less pleasant than it could have been, thanks to Tallink where we booked the trip and the hotel nights in Pärnu.
When we booked the trip, they told us that there were convenient buses from Tallinn to Pärnu, and that we did not need to bring a car. They also booked us on a nice brand-new integrated hotel containing a “water land” and spa services, and being located very close to the beach. Sounded perfect.
As it turned out, some of these things fell through:
- The buses to Pärnu left from the central bus station in Tallinn, which is not close to the docks where the ferries arrive, but rather some kilometers away. It would have been nice if this had been clear from the start. Instead, Tallink representatives and information made sound as if the buses left directly from the docks, or at least in some place very close by.
- The staff on the ferry to Tallinn did not know about the direct local buses from the docks to the central bus station (a tip: it is bus number 2, which stops right outside of terminal D. Or walk some more and take tram number 2). They gave us confused and incorrect information as how to get to the bus station. At least they told us where the bus station was…
- At the last minute (one day before departure) it turned out that our main hotel was overbooked and that we would be given a different hotel. After some discussions they also promised us entrance tickets to the water land in our booked hotel. However, it was not clear how this was to work out in practice. Or if our new hotel was any better or worse than the one we were booked on initially. Customer service gave the impression that all would be handled at check-in in their terminal in Stockholm.
- When we checked in in Stockholm, we did get hotel vouchers for the replacement hotel. But for a double room, not the suite that was what they had said initially. And the check-in personell had no idea about the entrance tickets to the water land. “there is no note of that in the computer system”. We got to talk to a supervisor who told us that things should work out, wrote a note to the hotel on a copy of our booking, and had the good sense to give us a name and phone number to call would they not.
- Once we arrive in Pärnu, the hotel that we were staying at did provide an envelope containing the tickets to the water land that we needed. The hotel was also recently renovated and very fresh (it was the St. Petersburg hotel, in a carefully renovated 16th-17th-century building in downtown Pärnu). The location was more convenient for eating out and shopping, if a bit more removed from the beach (20 minutes walk rather than five).
Thus, in the end, things worked out and we got decent value for our money. Even so, it is still annoying how Tallink handled things, especially since the fixes are mostly in precision of communication and should actually be cheaper for them to do right.
So how could Tallink have done better in our case (and quite probably in general):
- Run their own bus shuttle from Tallink to PÃ¤rnu and other interesting destinations. They do that in Sweden, so why not in Estonia? We would have been happy to pay some extra for a bus conveniently arriving at the docks to take us straight to the destination.
- Present correct and complete facts about each destination on the phone and on their homepage. If they refer people to the bus service to PÃ¤rnu, do provide a time-table, a map on how to get to the main bus station, and a map of the end location to help you find your hotel. After all, Tallink have local staff in Tallinn that can easily find out for you.
- Have their customer service staff be precise and clear. In the end, things did work out and we were not cheated of our vacation. But the details like the standard of our replacement hotel, how the water land tickets would work, and similar simple things could have been clearly communicated from the start. That would have saved them lots of phone service time, and us a bunch of unnecessary annoyment and anxiety.
Finally, the main drawback of a trip of this type where you spend a night on the ferry each way is that the ferry trip takes a lot of time from the vacation. This would not be so bad if it was enjoyable time, and they are trying to give off the impression that it is kind of a luxurious experience to travel on their modern ferries to Tallinn. And mostly it is nice. Going on a ship where you can walk around and have lots of space is vastly superior to inhuman modes of transport like long-distance air travel or car trips. For the kids, having a dedicated playroom is great.
But since the length of the trip makes it necessary to eat dinner and breakfast onboard, the food is quite a important component. And here Tallink and most other Baltic ferries I have tried fall down by simply providing fairly taste-less and disappointing fare. The tradition of a grand buffet is great in principle, but something makes it so that each course is cheapened down to its simplest least tasty version. Creating a rather disappointing experience overall. And there is no indication that the a la carte restaurants are any better. So for now, you eat because you have to and not as much because you enjoy it.
Why this is the case, I don’t know. Either they think their customers do not care or cannot tell a good meal from a poor one, or they lack pride in the kitchen, or they are saving money by using the cheapest stuff they can get away with, or something else.