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November 22, 2004


I've gotten a couple of e-mails from Martti since he went back to Estonia. For my birthday he sent me the following birthday card:

That crazy Garfield!!!

I was reading a story in CNN about new airport x-ray machines that can see through clothing and found a likely cause of Martti's troubles with airport security. The article said:

>>Traditional X-ray machines used to scan baggage have often struggled to identify plastic explosives, accidentally sounding alarms when detecting chocolate, cheese and peanut butter because of their similar density to the explosive Semtex.<<

So (as you will recall) here is Martti traveling around with a large half-full container of peanut butter with a cellophane lid on it to take home. He said the security people did seem to be very interested in it.

Also he found the blog site after visiting my web page and read all the stories about the Estonians. I was afraid he might take offense, but he said he found it helpful in telling people what the experience was like. He had a hard time describing it and then here was all this information about it already written! He even copied it all into a text file and asked if I minded if he used it to show to people (he took out the e-mail addresses from the comments). Why not?

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U2's iPod Song

Apple has a new iPod song featuring U2 doing the song "Vertigo" from their album to be released this week. They said there was no way they could do a $20 million ad campaign promoting their album, but Apple didn't mind so much apparently.

They performed the song on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. I always record it so I can watch the show later and skip the lame sketches. Both of their songs were good. "Vertigo" is noisy but somehow catchy (maybe because of the iPod commercials?). But then at the end instead of having the cast wave goodbye U2 got up and performed a third song, going back to their US debut album for "I Will Follow". It was fantastic. I've really been disappointed in U2 since at least Achtung Baby, but they really redeemed themselves. It was a great performance and when they were done Bono said "One more . . ." and some music started before the show just ended. I checked some blogs and discussion groups and people were just raving about it. According to one person who says she was there they actually did a couple of more songs but NBC didn't continue the feed. The SNL cast members were on the adjacent stage just ecstatic and wiping away tears from the energy. What a contrast to see seasoned superstars like U2 performing after the lip synch debacle of talentless pop stars in previous weeks. It was one of the best musical moments of TV history. It amazes me that SNL can continue to be so lackluster for the most part but still so relevant. I watched it again when I got home from work today. It was almost like all the posing and antics of recent U2 albums were done intentionally to set themselves up as the real thing again.

November 15, 2004

Exchange Traded Funds

Today I bought my first Exchange Traded Fund (ETF). These are like mutual funds which invest in a bunch of different companies, but ETF's are sold on the market like a stock with their prices changing throughout the day. For the most part ETF's reflect some kind of index like the S&P 500 or, in the case of the one I bought, the Nasdaq 100. They are similar to closed-end mutual funds where an investment company would gather a bunch of money and buy a portfolio of stocks and then sell shares on a market. The problem with closed end funds is they usually sold at a discount to the value of the assets in the portfolio because the people running the fund would take out expenses each year and over a long enough period of time the fund would be worth nothing. The price and value could get out of sync by 10% or more.

The ETF's apparently have fixed that by remaining open-ended. I'm not exactly sure how it all works, but somehow the value of the assets is kept in line with the value of the shares and as they take in more money they buy more assets or sell assets as people sell shares (they use big insurance and pension funds' holdings as a buffer).

Anyway, the Nadaq 100 shares (symbol QQQ) are one of the biggest ETF's out there. The real value of them is that you are diversified just like with a mutual fund (I'm investing in the 100 biggest Nasdaq stocks at one time), but also the expense ratios are very low. For instance, the average mutual fund has expenses of 1.27% which they take out of the fund every year. So if you have $1,000 invested they are charging you $12.70 per year (only you never see it). Vanguard 500 Index Fund has one of the lowest expense ratios for any mutual fund, taking only 0.18% a year for the operation of the fund (Vanguard would charge you a fee of $1.80 on $1,000; don't feel bad for Vanguard that comes out to $141 million for their $78 billion fund). The expense ratio of QQQ is also 0.18% so that is about as low as you can get.

The only bad part is you have to buy ETF's like a stock so you pay a broker commission on every trade whereas it is free to invest in a no-load mutual fund and easy to reinvest dividends or add small increments every month. Still, that's not much. But the nice thing is you can sell at any time and you can get price updates throughout the day.

There are other ETF's too. I had almost decided to buy some Merck about six months ago, but didn't want to put all of my money into one pharmaceutical company which could be impacted in a big way by a patent running out or a drug being banned (like Vioxx which sent Merck's shares down 30% in a day). Instead I was looking to invest in PPH which is an ETF investing in pharmaceutical companies. Eventually I decided not to invest because PPH didn't seem to go up or down that much and stayed in a fairly narrow range. Now that Merck has dropped (which was about a quarter of PPH's holdings) PPH might be a good buy again. People will always need drugs . . .

Part of the key behind an ETF is to stick to some formula like an index so that there won't be any question of where additional money goes or which assets are sold if everyone decides to get out at one time. So there don't seem to be any actively managed ETF's yet.

It's always nice to make money the first day and I'm up $10.

November 14, 2004

Wireless Network in a Snap

Susan's new office gave her a laptop as her primary computer. So she was wanting a way to hook it up to her high speed internet service when she "works from home". I told her she would need a router and they would be $20-40. But I recommended she spend a little more and get a router that would support wireless for her laptop. Since a wireless router (802.11g) was $60 (after rebates) and the wired router was $40 and the wireless router still had 4 wired ports she agreed to get it and then possibly get a wireless card for the laptop later on. "But you could watch TV and be on the internet at the same time if you had wireless," I said. She said "That may be a dream of yours, but not me." But before we checked out she decided it would be nice to work while in bed, so she bought the card for $40 (after rebates; each item had two $10 rebates so the cash register printed out nearly a whole roll of receipts).

When we got home I checked the Service Tag number on her laptop and went to Dell's website to see what it came loaded with. It turns out it already had a wireless card!

Before hooking anything up I ran the Linksys setup software and it inspected the system and told me to put the router between the cable modem and the computer (as suspected), set the TCP/IP setting to automaticaly detect, and restart. So far so good. I did this and when it restarted it told me to set the TCP/IP setting to automatically detect, and restart. I tried a few different ways and just stayed stuck in the loop. Then I got the printed instructions which told me how to access the web configuration for the router. I did this, but it didn't work. Uh-oh. I have heard too many horror stories of people spending days on technical support trying to get their networks configured. It seemed like it needed host and domain names. So I called Comcast to get that and they said I wouldn't need it and to call the equipment provider. So I called Linksys with a sense of foreboding, afraid they would say the problem was with the provider. They told me to take the setup disk out of the computer and after about 15 minutes got me in business, at least on the desktop that had worked fine before anyway. The solution involved clicking a "Clone MACS" button and then turning off the cable modem and router and then turning them back on.

We started up the laptop and told it to detect the network and after a minute or so got that to work. Susan was able to get on the internet and look up Five Forks and Find Him Frog, then logged on to some computer programs for work from across the room. Done!

Despite the stupid setup software not working right, this was relatively simple and now Susan can return the wireless card since we never opened it. Sixty bucks and a couple of hours of work for a high speed wireless network. Not bad. But the tech support call as a result of the bad software probably cost Linksys all the profit they would have made on this sale.

November 12, 2004

HDTV Reception

Last year when I bought my Sony HDTV it was "HDTV ready" meaning it couldn't actually show you HDTV signals it was receiving. When I first moved into the house I had terrible TV reception with an indoor antenna. Then I got a neat looking antenna that didn't really work. Then I eventually bought a big multi-pronged aluminum one and put it in the attic. That didn't work all that well either. But eventually local stations were offered on satellite (first DirecTV then I switched to Dish Network) for $6 so I just paid the extra for very clear local stations. When I got the Dish PVR with its built in digital recorder, having the local stations over satellite was a real plus.

But still I was missing out on a large part of the capability of my HDTV. Yes, DVD's looked great, but HDTV has even more resolution than a DVD. The problem is if I was going to get it over Dish I would have to upgrade my equipment and pay extra fees (currently only $30 per month). But I also knew that HDTV signals were being broadcast by the local stations. To get them you needed good reception, which I wasn't really able to get and an expensive receiver to decode the signals. It didn't make much sense that I wouldn't get good reception being that I'm close to Atlanta, but I do get some problems from stations not being all in one direction.

To get HDTV you have to have just a regular antenna with good reception (some people just use rabbit ears) and a HDTV receiver (or tuner) since one isn't built in to my TV. I had heard they cost $500 so I wasn't in a rush to get one. But today I decided to make a last ditch effort to get better TV reception by moving the antenna outside onto the roof and away from the chimney which I thought might be causing ghosting. The reception was crystal clear on most channels! (later on I read that attics aren't so great for antennas and the attic itself blocks about 30% of the signal; now they tell me).

Next step is to do some research on these receivers or tuners. I didn't even know what they were called. It turns out Samsung makes a whole array of them and a good one was the SIR-T451. According to reviews I read it was a vast improvement over the SIR-T351 and was still affordably priced from $250-$299. But not many people stock them. Circuit City is one that has them though. So off I went to Circuit City. Foiled: It turns out my Circuit City on Memorial Drive has closed. So I went home to find where the nearest one might be and figured if I was going out of my way I would call ahead and make sure they had them in stock. According to the web site no Circuit City has the Samsung receiver. Buy.com says there is a 1-2 week wait for them. Crutchfield Electronics doesn't have them in stock either. So you can't buy them. I signed up to be notified by Circuit City when they get them in stock.

I look for more reviews. Some of the receivers are very expensive but I find a review comparing the Samsung I was thinking about getting to one sold by Walmart called a US Digital HDTV Receiver. It is only $200. This guy actually preferred it to the Samsung which he had also bought (back in July when it was still in stock). So off I go to my Walmart on Wesley Chapel Road off of I-20. Foiled again: It has been closed too. So I head up to the one in Tucker hoping that they don't close at 9:00 PM (turns out they're open till midnight). I find one and buy it.

I take it home and plug it in to the antenna and the TV. I turn it on and finally figure out how to make the TV use the Video 6 input. It searches for channels automatically and detects 15 of them! I haven't even pointed the antenna yet, it's just on a stand I made and put on the flat part of my roof (turns out I had it pointed within about 5 degrees of optimal; later I used antennaweb.org to get bearings and distances to all the Atlanta stations). But the picture is very blue. I check my component connections, thinking, my red cord might have dropped. Nope. But then I check the setup and it's not set on HDTV. I switch it over to HDTV output and I'm in business!

Most of the Atlanta networks actually broadcast two signals, one at regular definition, and one at high definition. Channel 11 just shows radar all the time on the their SD channel. Channel 2 shows a 24-hour ABC news channel. But the show ER looked great and it fills up the whole screen! At last I can use the whole widescreen for something other than DVD's (most shows are still broadcast at regular definition and even higher definition broadcasts are usually shot on the standard 4:3 aspect ratio instead of widescreen). It was amazingly simple and there is this whole other world of television out there for free if you get the right equipment (not free).

I don't get PBS Channel 8 WGTV. Fox 5 is very weak but I'm hoping some antenna pointing will help that (seems to). Since Channel 8 is on Stone Mountain and directly opposite of all the other stations downtown, I may never be able to get it, but I do get the other PBS channel, WPBA 30, and that's nice because I don't have it on Dish (I would have to add another dish antenna and wiring to my setup just for 30, so I have never bothered). Also the WB channel (69?) doesn't come in well even if I point right at it.

I guess I will keep subscribing to local channels since I like to record stuff on the PVR and I have no way of recording HDTV signals. I'm back to watching commercials but at least I'm getting a really stunning picture. And although Georgia lost to Auburn this weekend, the silver lining is they did in spectacular widescreen clarity! Go Dawgs!

November 6, 2004

eMusic conclusion

Just a brief follow-up (see first and second posts). I finished all my downloads. I looked in the Soundtracks section and found Charlie Brown Christmas. That's a good one so I downloaded the whole album. I also found Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. I remember liking the the different themes for each character so I downloaded the whole 20-minute track. Honestly it was disappointing, not really a complete work but just those few themes over and over again plus the narration of the story. Other than that I continued as before, downloading a few more Pixies B-sides, Peter Murphy, Pavement, Rancid, Charlatans UK, The Church, and NOFX. It's a challenge finding 100 songs you will like, but I was very pleased with discovering Pavement ("Grounded" "Cut Your Hair" and "Trigger Cut") and NOFX ("Bob" and "Linoleum") and I like some of the Peter Murphy tracks ("Cuts You Up" "Sweetest Drop" and "Low Room"), Pixies ("Manta Ray" "Dance the Manta Ray" and "Into the White"), and Rancid who have a strong Clash influence (especially on "Time Bomb"). If you're interested in trying the service out you don't have to buy Dockers. They offer a free month with 100 songs to anyone with a credit card.

When I cancelled, here is what I wrote as my reason:

I got this trial subscription from Dockers. Initially I was disappointed with the selection of artists I'd heard of, but after really digging I found a lot of music I am enjoying (or already own like The Pixies, Peter Murphy, and Rusted Root). The "popular tracks" that show up for each artist are misleading. They seem to be chosen at random or deliberately leave out things that are truly popular. For instance the Top 20 list had 3 songs by CCR, but none of them showed up in CCR's list of popular tracks. Also the top 20 list isn't sufficient. You should expand it to at least the top 50 for each genre. The All Music Guide reviews are good and I referred to their website a lot when trying to figure out which songs I should download. Because I have dial-up, listening first was out of the question. The download manager is very good, but I was disappointed that when I cancelled one download in the queue my account wasn't credited for it. Having "neighbors" with similar interests was good as it sent me looking at some artists I wasn't familiar with. I respect what you are trying to do with this service and by not having a lot of popular artists you force people to find new music, which is always a great thing. I may subscribe again sometime, but for now I thank you for the free trial and hope that you at least got some money from Dockers.