Monday, November 26, 2007

Why I Chose HD DVD over Blu-ray

In case you haven't heard, there are two mutually-incompatible formats competing to be High-Definition the successor to DVD: Blu-ray Disc, and HD DVD. I have chosen to buy an HD DVD player and start building a library of HD DVDs, and I am opposed to the Blu-ray format. Both formats support the ability to play audio-visual content at High-Definition resolutions, up to 1080p. Both formats offer advanced features, such as pop-up menus that don't interrupt the movie playback, and picture-in-picture commentary. Physically, both formats are read from an optical disc by a blue laser, which is able to pick up finer dots than the red lasers used for CDs and DVDs. Both formats support DRM, which (theoretically) prevents consumers from backing up, ripping, and format-shifting the video content. Both formats are backed by a subset, but not all, of the major Hollywood studios. From the standpoint of someone accustomed to the DVD format, these two competing standards seem to offer the same enhanced viewing experience, but there are several distinctions between the two formats, and for me, the choice was simple, obvious, and straight-forward. The Differences HD movies come in cases similar to DVD cases, but about an inch shorter, and 25% thinner. Blu-ray disc cases are usually blue, and HD DVD cases are usually burgundy-colored. Both types of case are slightly transparent, so that when you open the case, you can see the printing on the back of the cover art insert through the wall of the case. Physical Differences Physically, both formats are the same size and shape as a CD or DVD. HD DVD bears the most physical resemblance to a DVD, and in fact, there are some discs (called Combo Discs) that contain a layer that is readable on a DVD player, as well as the HD DVD layer(s). Blu-ray data layers are closer to the surface, which allows them to have a higher storage capacity per layer than HD DVD (25 vs 15 GB per layer). since both discs spin at the same rate, Blu-ray has a higher maximum bitrate (48.0 vs. 30.24 Mbps). Higher disc capacity means that potentially more content can fit on a Blu-ray disc than an HD DVD disc. Higher maximum bitrate means that more data options can be packed-in to a given segment of disc playback, such as adding more audio languages and/or more options for high-quality sound tracks and commentary tracks. In this aspect, HD DVD is inferior to Blu-ray. The disc capacity issue can be mitigated by adding more layers to an HD DVD: Blu-ray comes in single-layered 25 GB and double layered 50 GB varieties. HD DVD comes in 15, 30, and 51 GB varieties (however, most releases to date have been on 30 GB HD DVDs and 25 GB Blu-ray discs). Audio-Visual Requirements Aside from the physical attributes of the discs, the format standards also set forth a minimal set of features that each player must support, and each disc released in that format must contain at least one of the required audio and video tracks, so that each disc is guaranteed to play on each player (although higher quality features, especially audio tracks, can also be optionally included). Wikipedia has a very helpful table and commentary on this subject on their High-Def Format comparison page. It is interesting to note the differences in the format requirements, and what the results of these differences on the quality of released discs has been in each format. Both formats have identical video codec requirements, so the visual quality of HD and BD releases should be the same, but to date, they have varied. HD DVD has required their players to be able to handle higher quality audio than Blu-ray players, which has led studios to produce higher-quality soundtracks for HD DVDs than for Blu-ray Discs. Wikipedia has an interesting write-up on this phenomenon (emphasis mine):
Blu-ray has a higher maximum disc capacity than HD DVD (50 GB vs. 30 GB for a single sided disc). In September 2007 the DVD Forum approved preliminary specification the triple-layer 51GB HD DVD (ROM only) disc. It is still unknown if the triple layer HD DVD will work in current players. Toshiba has confirmed that testing still needs to be done. An example of how capacity is put to use is King Kong: the film is over three hours long, has reference-quality video, near-reference quality audio, includes a picture-in-picture bonus track, and fits everything on a single 30Gb HD DVD disc. The first 50 GB dual-layer Blu-ray Disc release was the movie Click, which was released on October 10, 2006, several months after the Blu-ray Disc format was released. By comparison, the majority of HD DVD titles were released on 30Gb discs from day one (The Last Samurai, for example). As of September 2007 40% of Blu-ray titles use the 50 GB disc and 60% use the 25 GB disc while most HD DVD movies are in the 30 GB dual layer format. The choice of video compression technology (codec) complicates any comparison of the formats. Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD both support the same three video compression standards: MPEG-2, VC-1 and AVC, each of which exhibits different bitrate/noise-ratio curves, visual impairments/artifacts, and encoder maturity. Initial Blu-ray Disc titles often used MPEG-2 video, which requires the highest average bitrate. and thus the most space, to match the picture quality of the other two video codecs. As of 2007, more and more titles have been authored with the newer compression standards: AVC and VC-1. HD DVD titles have used VC-1 and AVC almost exclusively since the format's introduction. Warner, which releases movies in both formats, often uses the same encode (with VC-1 codec) for both Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD, with identical results. In contrast, Paramount, before they went HD DVD exclusive, created separate encodings, VC-1 for HD DVD and usually MPEG-2 for Blu-ray. Whilst the two formats support similar audio codecs, their usage varies. Most titles released on the Blu-ray format include Dolby Digital tracks for each language in the region, and many also include a Linear PCM track for the primary language. On the other hand, most titles released on the HD DVD format include Dolby Digital Plus tracks for each language in the region, and some also include a Dolby TrueHD track for the primary language.
There is also a rather exhaustive article on HD audio at High-Def Digest. So it is apparent that, at least given the quality of current releases, HD DVDs are generally of higher quality (especially when it comes to audio) than their Blu-ray counterparts, despite the fact that Blu-ray has higher storage and bitrate capacity. DRM What is DRM? DRM is what stops you from playing "protected" iTunes tracks on anything that has not been 'ble$$ed' by Apple. It is what prevents you from playing a European or Japanese DVD in your North American DVD player. It (until 1999) prevented you from ripping your DVD movies to your computer to take along on your portable media player, or streamed from your media server to your television without messing with the discs. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray use the AACS DRM system, ostensibly to prevent movie pirates from ripping their discs and posting them online. Unfortunately (and not by accident) this also takes away Fair Use rights that the consumer would otherwise be able to take advantage of, such as the aforementioned ripping for playback on a computer or iPod-like device. AACS is more advanced than the CSS DRM used in DVDs. AACS allows a studio to prevent playback of their releases on player models that are known to have been compromised by hackers. This acts like a black-list of players that will be unable to play the disc, until their firmware has been updated (in a way that the studios are satisfied that it prevents further hacking). Since consumers have come to value the ability to make copies of their movies, and to format-shift them, the creators of AACS have provided a "feature" by which, having taken this ability away, they will sell it back to you in a limited fashion. This feature is called "Managed Copy", and it's a lot like buying a ringtone of a song that you already own in stead of simply being able to clip the song and add it to your phone. It so happens that Blu-ray and HD DVD, though they both share the AACS DRM system, implement their DRM in much different ways: HD DVD:
  • AACS
  • AACS
  • Region Coding to limit the consumers' rights under the First-Sale Doctrine, which means non-American release discs won't work with American players
  • BD+, which attempts to analyze in real-time whether or not the playback is being recorded.
Conclusion: Blu-ray's DRM is much more draconian than HD DVD's. It is much more likely that I will be able to perform Fair Use transformations on my media if they are in the HD DVD format, especially considering that AACS has been cracked. If I develop taste for Bollywood, Anime, or Film Noir, I will be able to buy foreign discs without having to wait until such a time as the studio deems it worthwhile to release in this region. Blu-ray "Profiles" You know that really cool sounding picture-in-picture commentary feature that I mentioned earlier, the one where in stead of just hearing the commentary, you get to see the commentator (or the story-board, or the shot without the CGI, or whatever else they want to show you) in a little PIP screen within the main screen as the title is playing? Yeah, well, it turns out that if you bought a Blu-ray player before, um... now, then it doesn't support that feature. It seems that every Blu-ray player until now was under the "Grace Period" Profile 1.0, and that "Final Standard" Profile 1.1 players will finally be coming out in the future. Also, no Blu-ray Discs to date support it at all, since there have been no players that implemented it. The first one to be released will be in January of 2008. Picture-in-picture requires that the player have a secondary video and audio decoder, which none of the Profile 1.0 players have, and so no Profile 1.0 Blu-ray player will be able to play these features on future discs. The only exception to this is the PlayStation 3, which has enough processing power to decode a secondary audio/video stream in software, and is scheduled to be updated in order to enable this feature by the end of 2007. HD DVD players have always been required to meet the same set of features, that Blu-ray is only now catching up to. Price & Freebies I got my HD DVD player for $199 at It was the HD-A3, and it came with Bourne Identity and 300 in the box. I also got to pick three free HD DVD movies, and I get five free thanks to a mail-in offer, for a total of ten HD DVD movies, all included in the price of my player. The cheapest Blu-ray players are still in the $350 range, which makes them quite pricey. (They also come with a similar mail-in-offer.) The most tempting Blu-ray player for me would be the PS3, at $400, it's one of the cheapest, and since it's getting upgraded to Profile 1.1 with the new firmware, it is by far the best deal. The PS3 also has some bonus features, such as the ability to play PS3 games. The problem with that is that (especially since I have a Wii) I'm not all that interested in any of the (comparatively few) games out for the PS3 (with the possible exception of Heavenly Sword, but even then, the game is pretty short, and if I really can't resist, I can simply rent it--especially considering the price of PS3 games). In fact, the most attractive feature (for me, even more attractive than the fact that it plays BD movies) is the fact that it can boot Linux. Lately I've been ripping my library of DVDs to my computer. Video transcoding is a very CPU-bound process, and the PS3 has a 3.2 GHz seven-core cell processor, which could shorten the hours-long process to a matter of a few minutes. Whenever I consider the price of upgrading or supplementing my Linux box, the PS3 always comes to mind, but, so far, I resist. I don't want to support Blu-ray, and one of the main reasons is that I don't like Sony's formats: remember Memory Stick? For the longest time it was twice the price of the equivalent SD card, which was directly due to the fact that Sony wanted to lock their digital camera customers into buying them, and charge more because they could. Remember MiniDisc? The colossal failure that was UMD? I'm too young to remember BetaMax, but I have personal experience with the lengths to which Sony will go at the customer's expense to restrict customers, simply because they think they can get away with it. Sony has thrown the entire weight of their corporate empire behind the success of the Blu-ray format: they included Blu-ray in every PS3 and sold every console at a considerable loss, hoping to re-cooperate the money in royalties from the sale of Blu-ray movies (and games, but that amount of subsidization won't be made up by game sales) by making their format a success. Essentially, they are taking an enormous loss on their gaming division, hoping to control the DVD industry in the future and cash in on the royalties, not to mention the benefits of selling back to the consumer their fair-use rights in a piecemeal fashion. Do I wish to spite Sony by doing what I can to make sure they fail? Yes. But I also stand, as a consumer, to benefit from HD DVD winning (or at least surviving) the format war. It's a gamble, and one that I may lose, but one that to me is worth it. Studio Support One thing that makes this format war unlike the DVD+/-R format war is studio support. With writable DVD media, you could write whatever data you wanted to your discs using your drive of choice, you only had to make sure that the media you bought at the store matched your burner. With Blu-ray and HD DVD, you still have to make sure that the discs that you buy match your player, but you can't get every disc for your player of choice: most movie studios are on one side or the other, each only publishing in their preferred format: (Incidentally, while on the topic of burning DVDs, HD DVD has an advantage over Blu-ray in this area: HD DVD supports burning HD-resolution video to regular DVD+/-R media for playback in HD on an HD DVD player. This is particularly attractive for home movies, wedding videos, and amateur movie-makers who make short films. The only difference between using DVD media and HD-DVD media is that red-laser DVDs can't fit as much data, so it would have to be shorter (about 85 minutes). DVD burners and their media are readily available, high quality, and cheap.) From Wikipedia, the studios aligned with each format: Blu-ray:
  • Sony Pictures (Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, MGM)
  • Buena Vista (Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Miramax)
  • 20th Century Fox
  • Lionsgate
  • NBC Universal (Universal Studios, NBC)
  • Viacom (Paramount, Dreamworks SGK)
  • Dreamworks Animation SGK
  • Weinstein Co. (Dimension Films)
Both Blu-ray and HD DVD:
  • Time Warner (Warner Brothers, New Line, HBO)
The way in which the DVD+/-R format war was resolved is that after a while, most drives manufactured were able to support both formats. It doesn't matter which format of writable DVD media I buy at the store, it will work the same in my computer's drive, and so for me, the consumer, there is very little difference. This sort of resolution to the format war may end up being what happens, but that is years away. Dual format players exist, but so far, they are more expensive than buying two players, and tend to support the full feature set of a single format, and only basic features of the other. Another solution that Warner has experimented with is Total HD, which is nothing more or less than a single disc with HD DVD on one side and Blu-ray on the other. The problem with this is that it costs more to manufacture the disc, as well as to produce and arrange the bonus features and menu systems, which are implemented differently on the two formats. Another huge reason that this solution won't resolve the format war is that most discs would not be available in this format, and so consumers would still have to either pass on a large portion of available HD movies, or buy both players. The only value that a Total HD disc adds for the consumer above individual releases is as a hedge against their favorite format losing: if their format dies, they don't have to re-buy that particular disc in the winning format. As a consequence of the general pattern of studio support for one format or the other (Warner being the exception), one's choice of format can be greatly influenced by which movies and TV shows will be available for one's High-Def library. While Blu-ray has Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-man, Kingdom of Heaven, Lost, Fantastic Four, Die Hard, and Pixar movies, HD DVD has Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Shrek, the Bourne and Riddick series, Transformers, The Mummy, and The Last Samurai. Notable titles that can be had in either format include the BBC's Planet Earth Collection, Harry Potter, The Matrix Trilogy, 300, Alexander, and Troy. The Blu-ray releases that have me glancing longingly over the fence, tempting me to "go purple" are the action/special effects movies: Pirates of the Caribbean, Kingdom of Heaven, Casino Royale, etc. I care more about High-Def where it counts: spectacular blockbuster hits that dazzle the senses; the kind of movies that you would go see at the theater rather than on DVD because of the quality of the experience. One asset that Blu-ray definitely has over HD DVD, however, is its Disney/Pixar movies. In fact, I would say that if Blu-ray did not have Disney, HD DVD would be clearly winning the format war. This fact, while I recognize it as a market trend, is rather puzzling to me personally, because computer-animated movies, while they look better in HD, don't look that much better, because there wasn't much that they lost in being encoded for DVD. While Monster's, Inc. has fuzzy monsters, and Ratatouille has fuzzy rats, rendering their fur at 1080p doesn't add much to the experience of watching the movies. The reason being, while there is a great amount of fine detail retained with the HD release, that detail is "regular" (or "uniform"). The human brain is pretty adept at filling in the visual details if it knows what to expect, not to mention that HD players (both Blu-ray and HD DVD, as well as "up-converting" red-laser DVD players) do a pretty good job of rendering standard DVDs at HD resolutions on HDTVs. The popularity of HD cartoons might have more to do with the allure of having an immaculate collection than with actual viewing experience (and logic). [The Irony of this statement does not escape me.] Then again, the only High-Def animated cartoon I've seen so far was The Wild on Blu-ray in a Circuit City, and I was unimpressed. Perhaps other movies have had better results. The kind of computer animation I am interested in seeing in High-Definition is the Lord of the Rings-style battle, where there are thousands of soldiers, each different from the other, and each behaving in a unique, intelligent way. Then, and only then does it become worthwhile to see the individual details of computer animation. Not that it hurts, mind you, but animated cartoon movies will not be enough to make me get a Blu-ray player. One of the best features of the High-Def formats is the space for and capability to have unique special features. That may end up being the most powerful factor that determines whether I will buy in DVD or HD. As an example, Serenity is one of my favorite movies, and it being just the sort of movie that I would want in HD, I was considering getting the HD DVD version despite the fact that I own it on DVD, but at this point, since the special features are identical to the DVD release, I don't think I will. Here's hoping they release a collector's edition down the road. Oh, and another season of Firefly. And a pony. I want a pony. In Conclusion The format situation is not ideal. I would have preferred it if Sony and Toshiba et al would have worked out their differences back in 2006. That didn't happen, so we're stuck in the middle of two less-than-ideal choices (three, if you count sticking with DVD). I chose HD DVD because I firmly believe that it is the better format for the customer, and this is the way in which I prefer other customers to behave. The worst that could happen is that I be left with a bunch of discs that no one builds players for anymore, but even in that case, I still will have my current player, and I'm sure that there will be enough people in my situation to maintain a niche market. I doubt that this will happen: what I envision is dual-format players, much like what happened with DVD+/-R will become the norm, such that it doesn't matter what kind of discs you buy. I think that the events of this Christmas shopping season, and the consumer habits that follow, will be a major factor in the format war. Warner will no doubt be gaging the level of interest in its Harry Potter releases in each of the two formats; HD DVD players have reached the critical sub-$200 price point, and there is a potential for a tipping point in the favor of HD DVD within the next year. Then again, with the recent price drop for the PS3, and Wiis in short supply, Sony's Trojan horse Blu-ray players may be what guarantees the format's success. We shall see.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


OpenID is very Good IdeaTM. At the very least, it will allow me to identify myself when commenting on Deborah's blog (from now on). I hope it picks up steam and the big sites start using it.
A few useful OpenID resources: What I did is set up tags on my blog which delegate OpenID to, so I can use my blog URL with's service. Here's what it looks like (inside the <head>):
<link href="" rel="openid.server"/>
<link href="" rel="openid.delegate"/>
<meta content="" equiv="X-XRDS-Location"/>

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Apple and AT&T just announced the rate plans for the iPhone contract. I've been watching the market with a wary eye. I'm not usually an early adopter, but there have been exceptions. I need a new phone. My current phone, a Motorola V551, has become practically unusable because the speaker volume has faded to almost nothing. I basically have to use my hands-free kit in order to place a call, or I won't be able to hear anything on the other end. That said, there are two reasons why I am watching the iPhone:
  1. To see what other options become available as a result of the splash it makes on the market. Capitalism is a wonderful thing. If the iPhone sells like hotcakes, chances are, other high-end phones will drop in price due to decreased demand, and will be ripe for the picking.
  2. To see if it would be worth it to buy.
The main problem with number 2 is that I currently don't use anything analogous to the fancy-schmancy features offered by the iPhone, so it's not like the cost iPhone would replace any expense that I currently have. The only iPhone feature that I currently use is "making calls."
  • I don't own an iPod. I never have. I don't even have iTunes installed on any computer that I own, nor have I ever purchased downloaded music (although with DRM-free music from the EMI label available, I am willing to enter that market).
Part of what I have been waiting for happened today: they announced their rate plans, including the family plans, which is relevant to me because I am currently on a Cingular family plan with my mother and brother. One thing I do like about Apple is that they make things simple: It would cost me $20 more than I am currently paying to add the iPhone features to my plan. This is true (within one cent) whether I create a different plan, or whether I tack-on the iPhone features to my current plan. (Although the way my plan works there is a percentage discount on the main line, and so it might be cheaper if I were able to transition the plan to an iPhone-base plan rather than adding it on, because then the discount would also apply to the additional $20.) iPhone plans add three things over other plans. For $20, you get:
  • Unlimited data: for e-mail and Internet access
  • 200 text messages (sent or received)
  • Visual voicemail
Currently, I use text messaging as little as possible. Text messaging is pure price-gouging profit for the wireless phone providers: it costs them nothing extra, and it never has cost them any extra. They charge extra simply because there are people willing to pay. It's a teeny-tiny packet of data! What's even more ridiculous is when they separate text messaging from data service. I consider it a nice (though insufficient) gesture that the iPhone plan includes 200 text messages. This is enough for casual use, and I won't have to be as annoyed at the 15 cents they currently charge me if I want to read message that someone sends me. Did you know that you can send someone a text message over e-mail? If I have a phone with a web browser and/or an e-mail client, why would I ever use the built-in text messaging feature? That might just be my very first iPhone Safari widget: a free (over the Internet) text messaging application. The main flaw in all of this is that when I commit to a contract with a wireless carrier, I usually receive a discount on my phone in exchange: basically, the wireless carrier is paying for my phone up front, and part of my monthly service charge is paying them back for the phone in monthly installments. That is the way it has worked since the dawn of time. Not so with the iPhone, at least not at launch. $500 or $600 will buy you an iPhone. You can use it as a WiFi-enabled PDA/iPod if you like. You will get no discount for buying the phone from AT&T, nor for activating it with them, but they will still require you to enter a 2-year contract (with a $175 early termination fee) simply for tacking what amounts to a $20 data package onto your plan. Now, it could be argued that the phone is actually "worth" $675 or $775 (and I'm sure that it is to a few schmucks on eBay). It could also be argued that $20 is less than the traditional rate charged for unlimited mobile Internet access. For now I am in wait-and-see mode.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Web Feeds and Aggregators: Thoughts

I just "discovered" Google Reader. Oh, no, I knew it was there all along. It's even one of Firefox's default feed subscription options. I had simply been ignoring its existence this whole time, content to use Firefox's Live Bookmarks feature for all my RSS/Atom needs. For the uninitiated, a "web feed" is a way to "subscribe" to the content of a website, such as a blog, news outlet, podcast, or just about anything these days. After subscribing to a web feed, a visitor is automatically notified of new content on that website by their feed reader of choice. There are quite a few out there, including Firefox's Web Feeds feature, Google Reader, the Opera Browser, and Thunderbird. Basically, in stead of having to go to every website to see if there is new content available, the reader can subscribe to the websites' feeds, and will be automatically notified of any new content on each site. The problem is that with some feed aggregators, they simply pull all of your content off the site, and allow the readers to get the content without visiting the site. This becomes problematic for ad-supported websites, which typically either draw the readers to the site by providing unique participatory content, such as a discussion forum or comments, by only providing a summary of the actual content in the feed, or by injecting ads into the feed. I am not an ad-supported website, but I do like my readers to interact with me and each other through comments. If none of the users are drawn to my actual website, then none of them will see each other's comments. The other thing I like to do is keep track of roughly how many people are reading my blog, and blogger doesn't provide tools to track users on the site itself, much less the feed. They do provide a mechanism to insert something into the feed at the bottom, which could be used to tally readers. What I have been doing is having the feed only contain the first paragraph or so of the post, and then the readers are directed to the post's actual page. This may prove inconvenient for some readers, although I was trying out Thunderbird, and what it did with my blog was to simply load the post's page directly into the reading frame, which is actually ideal from my perspective. Other readers, particularly aggregators such as Google Reader only display the text and image content, and use their own formatting. I have been considering switching the feed to contain the entire post, but I'm not yet sure. What do you think? Is anyone actually reading this? Do you use web feeds? What reader(s) do you use? Do you prefer to have blogger format the post, or do you prefer your reader's formatting? I have decided that for the time being I will try out Google Reader for all of my friends' blogs, and for newsletters that I read every time, but for news sites where I tend to cherry-pick the articles, I'm sticking with Firefox's live bookmarks: it gives you a menu of the latest posts, with the ones you've read already grayed out. I wouldn't want my feed list to get clogged with every article on Ars Technica, Slashdot, Technocrat, and certainly not Digg.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

My FreeBSD Adventure With Thebeast

Warning: not for the faint of heart. This is a pretty long chronicle, full of technical jargon, but it might prove useful/entertaining to Linux/BSD users.

A while ago I bought a computer from the surplus store. There were a couple of things that were noticeable about this computer: the first was that when I turned it on, the hard drives inside were exceptionally loud, and the second was its identification:

Behold, the mark of thebeast!

The hard drive noise turned out to be an old SCSI hard drive that had been hooked up to the power supply, but as there is no SCSI support, not to the motherboard. I took it out, obviously, but because of its roar, and the markings on the case, I decided that this computer's name would be known on the network as thebeast (not to be eschatologically confused with the Antichrist).

Another beast-like quality of this computer is its chimera-like nature: there are four different operating systems installed in a quad-boot configuration. An interesting thing about the hard drive that came with this computer is that it's a 20GB hard drive, but Windows thinks it's a 7.8GB hard drive. There apparently are some contradictory drive geometry settings programmed onto the drive. I suspect that this was done in order to keep the same standard part number and specs, while upgrading to newer, more often-produced hardware: it's been a while since they've made 8GB desktop hard drives in quantity.

This of course means that if ever Windows tries to install on the drive, it totally screws up the partition table. I initially tried to install it on a 4 GB partition at the beginning of the disk, but it insisted on writing its own. "Fine," I said, and I let it write its own table. This worked, but as soon as I tried to partition the rest of the disk on the same table, Windows wouldn't boot anymore. What I ended up doing was taking a 3GB hard drive that I had around and installing Windows 2000 Pro on that. Of course, to do this, I had to set it as the primary drive, install it, and then switch it back to the secondary drive (so that I could use Grub, a boot loader, to pick an operating system at boot time). Windows doesn't play nice with other operating systems. It thinks it owns the disk. To get it to boot off of the second disk, you even have to trick it into thinking that its disk is really first. Here's my grub.conf file:
default 0
fallback 1
timeout 15

title Gentoo Linux 2.6.20-r8
root (hd0,0)
kernel /boot/gentoo/kernel-linux-2.6.20-gentoo-r6 root=/dev/hda6 video=i810fb:accel

title Gentoo Linux 2.6.20-r8 (rescue)
root (hd0,0)
kernel /boot/gentoo/kernel-linux-2.6.20-gentoo-r8 root=/dev/hda6 init=/bin/bb

title Gentoo/FreeBSD 6.2
root (hd0,1,d)
kernel /boot/loader

title FreeBSD 6.2
root (hd0,2,d)
kernel /boot/loader

title Windows 2000 Professional
# Make Windows think its disk is first
map (hd1) (hd0)
map (hd0) (hd1)
rootnoverify (hd1,0)
chainloader +1
As you may be able to tell, when the system boots from the BIOS, it gets a menu screen with the following choices:
  • Gentoo Linux 2.6.20-r8
  • Gentoo Linux 2.6.20-r8 (rescue)
  • Gentoo/FreeBSD 6.2
  • FreeBSD 6.2
  • Windows 2000 Professional
Whichever option is chosen is the operating system that will boot. Each of the operating systems sits on its own partition, but they can all see each other's files, with the exception of Windows, which can't properly read the partition table/disk geometry of the first hard drive. If not for that limitation, I would be able to see the Ext2 and Ext3 partitions (in this case Linux's /boot and /home) after installing a driver in Windows. I typically use ReiserFS for the other Linux partitions (/, /usr, and /var), for which there might be a read-only Windows driver, and FreeBSD uses the UFS file system, which as far as I know has no Windows driver.

Getting FreeBSD and Linux to see Windows' NTFS partition was pretty easy. In Linux the line in /etc/fstab looks like this:
/dev/hdb1       /mnt/win2k      ntfs            ro,nosuid,nls=utf8      0 0 # ~3.0GiB
and in FreeBSD it looks like this:
/dev/ad1s1      /mnt/win2k      ntfs            ro                      0 0 # ~3.0GiB
They're essentially the same. Linux uses "hd" (for an IDE hard drive), "b" meaning the second drive (the first drive is "hda"), and "1" denoting the first (and in this case, only) partition on that drive. FreeBSD identifies devices by the name of the driver used to access them in stead of their function as in Linux. "ad" refers to the disk driver, "1" refers to the second disk (ad0 is the first disk), "s" is for 'slice' which is the BSD word for a what Linux and Windows call primary partitions, and "1" refers to the first slice. This is, by the way, distinct from the way that Grub refers to hard drives. Grub calls your first hard drive (hd0), and its first partition is (hd0,0). If that partition has sub-partitions, as BSD or Solaris UFS slices are wont to have, then your root slice on a second partition on a third disk would be: (hd2,1,a).
The first partition of the first disk:
Linux: /dev/hda1
Grub: (hd0,0)
BSD: /dev/ad0s0

The first sub-partition in the first slice of the first disk:
Grub: (hd0,0,a)
BSD: /dev/ad0s0a
Simple, right? It took a fair amount of searching and sifting to find all that out.

Getting FreeBSD to recognize Linux partitions is as easy as identifying the partitions and filesystem:
# Gentoo Linux
/dev/ad0s6 /mnt/linux reiserfs rw,noatime,nodev 0 0
/dev/ad0s1 /mnt/linux/boot ext2fs rw,noatime,nodev 0 0
/dev/ad0s7 /mnt/linux/usr reiserfs ro,noatime,nodev 0 0
/dev/ad0s8 /mnt/linux/var reiserfs ro,noatime,nodev 0 0
/dev/ad0s9 /mnt/linux/home ext3 rw,noatime,nodev 0 0
Getting Linux to see my Gentoo/FreeBSD partition was equally straight-forward, since there were no sub-partitions, though I did have to specify the ufstype attribute:
/dev/hda2       /mnt/gfbsd      ufs             ro,ufstype=ufs2,nosuid,nodev    0 0 # 3586MiB
Getting Linux to see UFS sub-partitions was a bit trickier. Doing an "fdisk -l" only showed the main slice (/dev/hda3), not the sub-partitions, but entering "cat /proc/partitions" revealed the device names of the missing sub-partitions. (I suppose ls /dev/hd*) would have revealed the names, too). It was a bit tricky to figure out which device went with which. The extended partition with the Linux partitions on it began at hda5, and where those left off was where the UFS sub-partitions began, but they weren't in the order in which they were created. UFS apparently assigned the first sub-partition I had created within this slice (which was a swap partition, shared with the Gentoo/FreeBSD install) as ad0s3b, reserving the "a" slot for my / partition, and making the /var and /usr partitions "d" and "e" respectively. Therefore, this is how I mapped my drives from Linux:
# First Hard Drive
/dev/hda1 /boot ext2 noauto,noatime 1 2 # 16MiB
/dev/hda2 /mnt/gfbsd ufs ro,ufstype=ufs2,nosuid,nodev 0 0 # 3586MiB
#/dev/hda3 is the freebsd slice: hda10,11,12,13 # 7680MiB
#/dev/hda4 is the extended partition: hda5,6,7,8,9
/dev/hda5 none swap sw 0 0 # 1024MiB
/dev/hda6 / reiserfs noatime,user_xattr 0 1 # 256MiB
/dev/hda7 /usr reiserfs noatime,user_xattr 0 1 # 3586MiB
/dev/hda8 /var reiserfs noatime,user_xattr 0 1 # 256MiB
/dev/hda9 /home ext3 noatime,user_xattr 0 1 # ~3.8GB
/dev/hda10 /mnt/freebsd ufs ro,ufstype=ufs2,nosuid,nodev 0 0 # 7680MiB
#/dev/hda11 /mnt/freebsd is the FreeBSD swap partition # 512MiB
/dev/hda12 /mnt/freebsd/var ufs ro,ufstype=ufs2,nosuid,nodev 0 0 # 1024MiB
/dev/hda13 /mnt/freebsd/usr ufs ro,ufstype=ufs2,nosuid,nodev 0 0 # ~5.3GB

# Second Hard Drive
/dev/hdb1 /mnt/win2k ntfs ro,nosuid,nls=utf8 0 0 # ~3.0GB
After I had Windows and Linux up and running (Gentoo is my favorite flavor of Linux, so that's what I used), I set my sights on FreeBSD. This was done for a number of reasons:
  1. With a chimera machine called thebeast, one must, must have a BSD install. I mean, have you seen their 'Beastie the BSD daemon' mascot? BSD is the essence of geeky hotness, and with that "E280666" sticker on the box, who could resist? It was a sign.
  2. Operating systems are a hobby of mine, and I've never worked with a BSD before. Caleb had mentioned that I should look at BSD, because Mac OS X is based on it.
  3. I hear Gentoo is a very BSD-like Linux, so it wouldn't be totally foreign, and there's even a project to get Gentoo's Portage on BSD.
I had once before tried to install FreeBSD on this computer, but I kept running into problems during the install. Once I finally had it installed, I had no idea how to get X working, let alone any actual user software. This time, I decided I would try the Gentoo/FreeBSD approach. I chose FreeBSD over NetBSD and OpenBSD because there seems to be a better community and support around FreeBSD. Along with that, (and probably having to do with that) it was the most supported (read 'least experimental') in the Gentoo-Alt *BSD project, and that was my stepping stone of choice from Linux.

Installing Gentoo/FreeBSD was as simple as following the provided online instructions. They were written by Gentoo/Linux developers who mess with FreeBSD, not FreeBSD developers, which means I could follow them more naturally: they basically gloss over the similarities, while slowing down to explain the differences.

I went with the LiveCD option for installing, since I had no existing installation: I downloaded and burned a FreeSBIE CD, and followed the guide, deviating where necessary. My biggest BSD-related installation issue was getting the right Ethernet driver configured in /etc/conf.d/net. In Linux, you don't care what the driver is called, you just configure it as net.eth0, but in BSD, I had to know that I was using the xl driver, so my init script was called net.xl0.

Also, I ran into trouble with the /etc/conf.d/net config file. In Linux, I had this:
dhcpcd_eth0="-t 15 -N"
dhcp_eth0=( "nontp nonis" )
config_eth0=( " brd" )
routes_eth0=( "default gateway" )
fallback_eth0=( "dhcp" )
but in FreeBSD, I needed to remove the parentheses, and I also discovered that I should use "via" in stead of "gw" or "gateway" to specify the default route to the Internet.
dhcpcd_xl0="-t 15 -N"
dhcp_xl0=" 'nontp nonis' "
config_xl0=" ' broadcast' "
routes_xl0=" 'default via' "
fallback_xl0=" 'dhcp' "
One thing that was nice about doing Gentoo/FreeBSD before the actual FreeBSD install was that in Gentoo/FreeBSD, the init script layout is the same, and you install all of your userland applications through portage, which with I'm very familiar, and so I was tweaking use flags, configuring daemons and services, and using package.keywords without so much as batting an eye.

Configuring and compiling the kernel was relatively straight-forward, FreeBSD's handbook is an excellent resource, and I used it extensively later on in the actual installation.

When I got to /etc/fstab, I was accustomed to having the /tmp directory (as well as some others) on its own virtual memory disk, so I looked up how to do that. Here's the line from /etc/fstab:
In Linux:
tmpfs   /tmp            tmpfs   size=512M,nr_inodes=1M,mode=1777,noexec 0 0
md      /tmp            mfs     rw,-s100m               0 0
Unfortunatley, the Gentoo/FreeBSD project doesn't enable you to easily install just anything. I was able to install X with gnome-light, and firefox, as well as a few other things, but the majority of ebuilds in the portage tree aren't ready for installation on FreeBSD out of the box. To get a real FreeBSD installation, I was going to have to do it the right way. One program that I annoyingly could not install was fortune-mod. An earlier installation of Gentoo/FreeBSD had successfully installed with it, but then the ebuild had been updated to a new version (and all older versions removed), and I was left without a viable fortune program. A tragedy, I know. Anyway, onward.

Installing FreeBSD
I burned the FreeBSD CD ISOs that I had downloaded via Bittorrent, pulled up the handbook, and dove in. This time I was able to follow the handbook much better than the last time I had done the installation, and thanks to the copious amount of poking around the system I had done during my Gentoo/FreeBSD install, I was up and running in no time. I customized the kernel to exclude hardware I didn't have, and also to build my sound driver. To build it, I added the following to my kernel config file:
# Sound card support customized to this machine
device sound
device snd_ich
and the following line to the /boot/loader.conf file to have the module automatically loaded:
snd_ich_load="YES"              # Intel ICH
Then I ran into a bit of a problem. In my previous installations, my mouse had worked just fine. I had been successfully using a 2-port Iogear KVM switch between a small Linux box (minix) and thebeast, but I had since switched to using a 4-port LinksKey KVM (with audio support) between four different boxes, and the mouse wouldn't work in BSD. It worked in Windows and Linux just fine, but in FreeBSD, no matter what kernel I used, and even if I used the FreeSBIE LiveCD, the mouse pointer would be there on the screen in X, but it wouldn't move or click. What was more, I discovered that the mouse device was absent from /dev. It was quite frustrating to finally have a fancy graphical environment up and running on BSD, and not be able to use it, except by keyboard shortcuts and tabbing.

I searched the forums online to see if others had had similar problems with the FreeBSD psm driver. I found quite a few people who had issues with touchpads, and a few who had trouble with KVMs. I found solutions to the touchpad issues by adjusting the flags passed into the driver from the kernel configuration device.hints file, but those flags were specific to touchpad initialization and waking up from a laptop's suspended state. No one that I could find had fixed the KVM issue in a way that was helpful for me. What worked for most people was recompiling the kernel with
options       KBD_RESETDELAY=200
options KBD_MAXWAIT=5
adjusted to higher values, but this didn't help me. What I found to be the most help was the psm man page and the dmesg output. Adjusting the KBD_RESETDELAY didn't help at all, even at ridiculously high values, because I found that the mouse was failing to reset, or at least not properly responding, no matter how long the driver waited for a response. Increasing the logging threshold using the kernel following kernel config options:
options       PSM_DEBUG=2
options KBDIO_DEBUG=2
...yielded the following in dmesg:
psm0: current command byte:0065
psm0: failed to reset the aux device.
This combined with the psm man page led me to a flag in /boot/device.hints that disables the initialization attempt at boot time:
This gave me the following in dmesg (and /var/log/messages) with PSM_DEBUG still at 2:
psm0: current command byte:0065
psm0: found IntelliMouse Explorer
psm0: flags 0x400 irq 12 on atkbdc0
psm0: model IntelliMouse Explorer, device ID 4-00, 5 buttons
psm0: config:00000400, flags:00000008, packet size:4
psm0: syncmask:08, syncbits:00
...but I still had no mouse movement in X, whereas before, I had been able to use this mouse just fine. A few hardware options presented themselves: I could use a serial mouse that I have stuffed in a drawer in my room; I could use an adapter to make the PS/2 keyboard and mouse plug into a USB port in stead, and thus use a different driver, or at least a different initialization routine; I could get an extra mouse, or a different mouse, but that defeats the purpose. This should work. It occurred to me finally to specify the mouse device directly in xorg.conf; in stead of /dev/sysmouse, to use /dev/psm0:
Section "InputDevice"
Identifier "Mouse0"
Driver "mouse"
Option "Protocol" "auto"
# Option "Device" "/dev/sysmouse"
Option "Device" "/dev/psm0"
Option "ZAxisMapping" "4 5 6 7"
Option "Buttons" "6"
And it worked. Yay!

I installed ports (FreeBSD's package management system), and thus far I've only installed packages using the "pkg_add -r name" method, although I do hear you can install directly from source if you so desire. In my experience, it's been pretty slick with just binary packages, and I'm content for now. I'm not nearly as adept at ports' intricacies as I am with Gentoo's portage.

Here's what I ended up doing with the graphical interfaces:
  • Since Gentoo/FreeBSD doesn't work with KDE yet, and Gnome is minimal, I went with Xfce4, which is an excellent desktop environment (although I'm using GDM as the login manager: Gentoo has an excellent gdm-themes package, which I unmasked with the x86 keyword in order to install). I'm also using Xfce4 on a 200MHz Pentium-MMX machine that I'm tinkering with (it's called crunchy, and I paid a whopping $5 for it). The Gentoo/FreeBSD partition is also relatively small, so I don't think I'm ever going to install a full Gnome on it, and certainly not KDE.
  • My usual desktop environment for Linux has been Gnome. I also use KDE occasionally, but I prefer Gnome, so in order to be consistent, the Linux install uses GDM and Gnome by default.
  • I installed GDM, Gnome, Fluxbox, Xfce, and some others, but I decided that my FreeBSD system would use KDM for graphical login and KDE as the default desktop.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


When I switched from the old Blogger to the New Blogger beta, I posted about some of the changes that they had made, and also touched on some of the things I liked and didn't like about the changes. Since then, I've had some time to work with the new Blogger, and I've noticed some annoyances. Recently, I was (slightly) involved in beck switching her blog from Typepad to Wordpress. In researching Wordpress' features, I noticed a few things that I liked, and I also recently noticed that it is possible to move an entire blog, comments and all, from Blogger to Wordpress without much trouble. So the question arises, should I switch to Wordpress? Here are some things that I like about blogging with Wordpress over Blogger:
  • Big Brother: Google gets to corrolate my blog with my search history, e-mail, my Google Checkout purchase history, etc. There are some parts of "the world's information" that I would like to keep unorganized and inaccessible, thank-you-very-much.
  • Login issues: whenever I log in to my e-mail account and the session expires, I get logged out of my blog. This is annoying, and it didn't happen before my Blogger account was absorbed into my Google account.
  • Web Statistics: Wordpress gives you excellent statistics, not only on traffic to your blog, but also on how many people are subscribed to your feeds. I use Webalizer and ClustrMaps to get something similar in nature, but I have no idea how many people are subscribed to my feeds or where else they come from.
At the same time, there are things that I still like about Blogger over Wordpress:
  • It requires no change: I'm already doing it.
  • Uploading pictures to Blogger posts with Picasa: it's easy, and the hosting is free (to a point).
  • Wordpress makes labels (tags/categories) as I use them less convenient, or at least so I hear. This is one feature that Blogger does quite well.
So far, I'm not annoyed enough to switch. If Google fixed the login/logout issues, I would be a lot less annoyed. If Wordpress were to start supporting the OpenID specification, it would be even more appealing, especially if Google didn't.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Ansible

I hate sensationalist newspeddling, especially when it's scientific news. Reporters say the silliest things. No, Doc won't be able to get that flux capacitor working in his De Lorain, but that doesn't mean that the experiment described in this article is any less cool.

It all has to do with the speed of light. Nothing, incuding information, can travel faster than the speed of light, but apparently, some scientists are going to try to get information to travel backwards in time along a beam of light.

The reason this might work is that according to Einstein's Relativity, from the perspective of a photon, no time ever passes. Photons don't experience time, because they are travelling at the absolute speed limit of the universe. Absolute speed means infinite time dilation. From the perspective of a photon, zero time passes between the time it is emitted and absorbed. In fact, from the perspective of a photon, the photon doesn't travel any distance either: it's just a bit of energy that doesn't happen to be matter. It hops from its emitter to its final destination in a single moment. If its destination forces its spin to be a certain direction in order to be absorbed, then that's what the spin will be throughout its entire existence: no matter how far or long from our inertial reference frame we think that photon travels.

So, if we can affect the properties of the entire existence of the photon at the absorption point, and if we can entangle a pair of photons so that they share properties, then it is possible to construct an experiment where we cause entangled photons to follow different paths. If the path from which we cause the property to be fixed is longer than the path from which we observe the effects of the property, then it is possible for an event to be caused by an event in its objective future, at least, from our reference frame. (From the reference frame of the pair of photons, everything will be happening simultaniously.)

So, what's it good for?

One thing it's not good for is changing events in the past. At best, what you would get is a way for information to be passed instantaniously over great distances, or to place-times in the past that couldn't have affected you with the information yet. It takes several seconds for light to travel the distance between Earth and Mars. Imagine being able to control and monitor a Mars Rover in real time from Earth. Imagine being able to teleconference with your friend on a planet orbiting a star dozens of light-years away. What you'll be doing is monitoring the state of photons that were emitted decades ago by a waystation roughly half way between the two of you, but the state of which was fixed moments ago on the other end. The beam would have had to have started transmitting decades before it reached you, but you would be able to effect the states of the photons received on the other end in the present.

Imagine getting WoW ping times in the 100 millisecond range on an overseas server. Oh, so now I have your attention!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Vista Ultimate

Yes, it's finally here: the pinnacle of Microsoft's manifold glory. It's mostly the same as the pre-release versions that I've been running since last August, so there's not much new to report.

It still runs my favorite free and open source programs just fine.

I had become quite adept at transferring the necessary settings and files from one install to another through the process of repeatedly installing beta versions, so I had no trouble doing that, with the help of my external drive to hold the files, and Athena, my trusty Linux server, still had all of my install files. I upgraded where there was a new version of a program that I use.

Vista's fancy-shmancy window-switching: if you have a graphics card that can handle it, you can use it with Win+Tab (in stead of Alt+Tab).

For all the hum-drum of the final release, I don't want to give anyone the impression that Vista is not pretty. Vista is very pretty, and I think they've done a fine job. The User Account Control feature isn't annoying anymore.

They seemed to have made some minor UI tweaks. I noticed some of the sounds had changed. Also, the file folders used to be open just a crack, so that you could hardly see what was inside them, and they've opened them up a bit.

Vista still doesn't behave quite right with the taskbar on the top of the screen (which is not standard). I still get windows opening underneath it, and two of my icons at the bottom of the screen (Firefox and Opera) keep migrating up one notch.

I haven't yet explored the differences between Home Premium, which is what I had for the beta test, and Ultimate.

I've Moved from Israel to Poland!

Well, technically speaking, my server, athena has moved its DNS listing from (Israel) to (Poland). This occured because apparently the "Israili society for Free Open Source Software," which had registered, originally as a site to host a discussion board and support for users of the Gentoo Linux distribution, had apparently not gotten off the ground, and had donated their DNS listing to the FreeDNS pool at, but that domain was now expiring or changing hands, so it was leaving the pool I've had to move before. Over the past year-and-a-half, I've been at: As you can see, my method of chosing names has typically been to search for something with "gentoo" in it, and then add the hostname "athena" to the beginning of it. Changing domains for me involves the following:
  • Setting up a new DNS entry with the domain server
  • Changing the update URL in the cron script that updates the listing whenever my IP address changes
  • Updating the PuTTY saved sessions on Windows boxes that I use to access Athena via SSH from outside the home network.
  • Updating the links in my blog templates that point to Athena
  • Updating all the links in all of my blog posts that point to content hosted on Athana (mostly pictures)--this one is time-consuming, and has the unfortunate side-effect of re-shuffling my blogs' RSS and Atom feeds.
It's those last two that are the problem. So, why do I put myself through this? It's getting to be pretty inconvenient to have to change all of this every few months in order to keep my links to hosted pictures unbroken. I know one thing I could do would be to pick a more stable domain to subdomain off of. Free DNS entries with "gentoo" in them tend to be unreliable for piggy-backing off of because they tend to belong to failed websites that are simply waiting for their registrations to expire. If I were to choose something more stable, it would last longer, and I wouldn't have to change all of the time. But I like having "gentoo" prominently in the name. It's part of Athena's identity: Gentoo is what makes her tick. I could register my own domain name, of course. It's something I've considered, and something I will probably end up doing eventually. Part of my reluctance is the fact that hacked-up, free DNS is very much in the spirit of Linux, especially Gentoo, which is geared toward customization and tweaking. Yep, I'm just another one of those free software hippies.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

New Blogger Layout

You may have noticed that my blog now looks like everyone else's, with the navigational bar on the right. You may also have noticed other changes. These are all due to the fact that I just changed over from the old Blogger to the new Blogger, with its new layout engine. Before, I was able to use the same template on both of my blogs, simply by copying and pasting the template HTML from one blog to the other. With the new WYSIWYG editing, this is not possible, because the modules are unique to each blog, and copying a template which references nonexistent modules is a bad idea. I was able to keep most of the same page elements, though I have since removed some of the lists of links from this blog so that I only have to maintain one list. From this point, I expect the content of the nav bars to grow apart, so I'm paring them down to what makes sense for each. The advantages of the new layout engine over the old are:
  • Labels
  • Comment feeds
  • Graphical layout and template content management
  • Dynamic pages: instant publishing
One thing that I don't like as much about the whole "New Blogger beta" is the fact that it's tied to my Google account. Now, not only does Google have all of my e-mail indexed, it "knows" that the same person owns these two blogs, and performs the searches that I perform while logged in. It also has a few purchases associated with my account, thanks to Google Checkout. I'm not paranoid or anything, I just don't like that the same company has all of this information on me. It increases their confidence that they can predict what I will like (which no doubt drives the AdSense ads that I see while online), but that also decreases my freedom to dictate how I am perceived by the websites I use. Obviously, I could use a separate account for all these things, which is pretty much what I was doing before I started using my Google account with Blogger, but there's the convenience factor. That, combined with the $20 off $50 deals they were offering is why I use Google Checkout. The world would be a more convenient place if all websites had a single login in order to make a purchase in stead of a separate account at each, but I would rather that my bank manage that account, and that my bank not also have access to all of my e-mail and online musings, conveniently tied together in the same account. Don't get me wrong, I'm rooting for Google against Yahoo, Microsoft, and the other portals because they generally do things right, but that doesn't mean I'm going to drink their Kool-Aid and trust them blindly. I may yet decide to create separate dedicated accounts for blogging, e-mail, and purchases. It's so convenient not to, though.