Monday, September 28, 2009

Why computers will eventually screw us!

As I opened my Blogger dashboard to edit a new blog yesterday I was faced with the statement in red (click for sharper view) shown in the screen capture left. Apparently some algorithms invented by geniuses decided that this blog, running here for more than two years, is a spam. Spam blogs generate an immense amount of postings, it seems, with cheap content and a gazillion links to same pages on the net. Maybe. I don't know. I haven't come across any of that for almost 20 years I'm surfing the net. Or maybe I have. I can't tell. Anyways, the blogger bots decided I am a spammer... I'm sure they'll have to rethink their algorithms as they remind me of the antispam engines of my employer stopping systematically legit mails to allow viagra sellers pass thru undisturbed to deliver their ridiculous spam.

In any case, what happened here reminded me of the legendary article Bill Joy wrote years ago in the Wired magazine about computers taking over our lives in the not too distant future and messing them up. In other words, when natural (human) intelligence (or is it stupidity?) teaches computers to 'think' via all sorts of algorithms, then count the 'innocent' to pay the price and the 'guilty' to pass undisturbed. Good ol' Bill Joy. He's increasingly being proven right, is he not?

The most hilarious thing though is that when I requested a so-called 'unlock review', whereby they presumably engage a real person to examine their insane spam-blog verdicts, they presented me with a very friendly message (see screen capture here right) aplogizing on behalf of their 'bots' !!!??!! Can you imagine that? Real humans apologizing on behalf of their robots !!?!? Billie boy, we are already there. Yep. Transformers have taken over our lives already and we don't even know it yet!

UPDATE: As of  this morning I was exonerated from being accused as a spammer! Allahu Akbar!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A bit old but still worth it... if you watch it to the end!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How to make 720p DVDs from Set-top box recordings

Just wanted to share my experiences from solving this problem:

Set-top boxes used in Cable or Satellite Digital Television Transmission will mostly encode recorded content into proprietary file formats and offer no interface at all for transferring industry standard HD* (say AVCHD) recorded files from their HDD** to attached external Media disks or computers***. They're often equipped with Ethernet or/and USB ports, however, these cannot be typically used for file transfers between their own HDD and attached external appliances. Thus, the problem remains: how do you extract a recorded program from a set-top box for permanent storage in your own multimedia hard disks or own burnt DVDs? Preferably on HD resolutions (min @ 720p, a.k.a. HD-Ready)?

I recently touched upon this subject, but today I'd like to share my success in solving the problem, whereby the Set-top box in my case was a HD Digicorder obtained from Telenet in this country. This set-top has one HDMI, one Component and one SCART Composite video outputs. It also offers one S/PDIF and a second RCA standard Stereo Audio output (typically for audio use in conjunction with the component signal), in addition to the audio outputs embedded in the HDMI and SCART connectors respectively. Other set-top boxes offer almost identical connectivity, I reckon... especially if they happen to support HDTV. Therefore, the process I describe is readily applicable to any other similar set-top boxes out there. An interesting detail about component video is that it bypasses encryption that is often applied to 'author locked' TV programmes when HDMI connectors are used. Component connectivity is analog, unlocked and offers great HD resolutions at the same time, in other words, it's a dream beauty!

  1. Sony Bravia Full-HD television (basically, this is not necessary for the actual process other than watching the programme while recording...)
  2. Telenet HD Digicorder (used to decode the cable signals and also record programmes on its HDD)
  3. Hauppauge HD PVR (to encode Component HD or SD Composite input A/V signals, via USB and into the Mac)
  4. MacBook Pro (Sorry folks, I can't go back to Windows after my Vista experience...)
  5. Connecting Cables (obviously... these being, a component RGB cable, a S/PDIF or an RCA stereo audio connector for A/V, and a USB cable to connect the computer with the PVR)
  6. Empty writable DVDs
  1. EyeTV 3.1.x
  2. Toast Titanium 10.0.x
  3. Mac OSX - Snow(y) Leo(pard) in my case
To do steps:
  1. Programme the Digicorder to record a given HD channel. Currently, plenty of TV content, free or paid, is offered at 720p by Telenet in Belgium.
  2. Turn on the PVR.
  3. Connect the Mac via USB and launch EyeTV. The Component Signal is visible on the EyeTV window, and is identical to what we see on a Flat HD-Ready TV (ie. Bravia connected to the Digicorder via HDMI)
  4. Use the Digicorder controls to locate the recorded programme and hit play.
  5. Hit EyeTV's 'Record' button. Watch, or go have a few drinks until it's over...
  6. When recording reaches end, terminate so-called 'Live Recording' on EyeTV.
  7. Use EyeTV feature to export Recording to Titanium Toast. Select Blu-Ray as 'disk-burning' option.
  8. Place an empty writable DVD in optical drive and hit the Ti-Toast "Burn" button.
  9. With the available input resolution arranged by the PVR AVCHD encoding, Ti-Toast uses content as is... only some multiplexing during a few secs, and it then burns the DVD in just a matter of minutes.
  10. Enjoy the result on a Blu-ray disk-player or PSP3, at an impeccable 720p HD-Ready resolution...

Folks, it works and it rocks! The process described above is ideal when you have all reasons to record something on a Digicorder first before transferring it to the Mac. In case you only have a so-called HD Digibox (a HDTV decoder set-top without a HDD) or you want to store something 'Live' into your Mac, then you can actually use a fit-to-purpose feature offered by EyeTV. By doing so, you can avoid the intermediate recording on the set-top's HDD. I reckon, you might even get a 'better' quality component signal into your PVR, as you will avoid potential quality deterioration from the set-top's encoding/recording step. The only drawback of this solution, is that your living-room space gets 'messy' with the MacBook connected to the PVR in plain daylight as opposed to a clandestine capture in the 'dark' when nobody's sniffin' around... you see, my beloved spouse hates to see inside our living-room landscape anything conspicuous with cables attached; she used to choke each time she leaned behind our TV to dust the furniture and saw the cables on the floor. Nowadays she uses a charwoman instead.

BTW, click for sharper view the screen capture at the top to compare two (identical) frames from the same programme (Canvas Extra-time of Sep 21st, 2009), the top frame captured from an analog SDTV signal (thus no decoder at all, just a plain coax input into EyeTV USB) whereas the bottom frame is from a 720p set-top recording AVCHD encoded by the PVR. Pretty amazing, innit? The graph at the bottom shows the in's and out's of a PVR. Finally, in case you've been wondering what storage size any video capture, like the one described above, occupies on your hard disk, count on about one gigabyte per 25 minutes of component 720p video, compared to half that for an SDTV signal, composite or S-Video.

*High Definition
**Hard Disk Drive
***I'm pretty sure the reasons are not technical... rather related to Authors' Rights applicable legislation.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Presentation techniques

A beloved friend, suffering of insomnia, sent me a hyperlink to this article this morning (2:55am !!). I usually enjoy reading articles about presentation techniques as there are always few good hints that we all could use but much too often forget, and occasionally some excellent tips that we never heard before. The interesting thing about this particular article is that it focuses upon technical people, systems architects. Those hacks care about how to structure people organizations and computer systems to make sense to a given company; in other words, all the dough the CEO will spend on (computer) resources necessary to support his/her company, to really have some visible purpose and preferably yield material returns. That's what biz nerds call the 'ROI'. Easier said than done.

Problem is, most ICT frigtards, especially the so-called and often self-proclaimed "architects" (don't even get me started on evangelists), enjoy confusing their audiences. Many among them almost get orgasmic by listening to themselves spitting out a techie slang and a gazillion TLA's (Three Letter Acronyms...) that gets you nauseous. Everybody else in the room feels constipated, but those morons keep singing on! If at the end of the session they feel they haven't confused us as much, they go home and beat their wives; I shit you not! They intermingle concepts like components and CBD, coarse and fine granularity, services mediation, Entreprise Architecture, SOA (not the Dutch version, mind you*), EAI, adapters, wrappers, Enterprise Service Buses and more shit like this, and if you happen to be in their audience you better take some aspirins with you... or smoke a joint before you walk in, and... go to sleep by the time they kick-off their show with the nerdiest** jokes ever invented. To keep their audience awake, that is. OMG!

Anyways, the author of this article makes some good points... I'm not kidding you... all of his points are almost excellent. I dare say his ten point list sounds way better before he decides to jump into the burden of detailing each one of them. He gets a bit messy later, I'd say. Fine, sinner blessed after all. Honest, the arguments he makes are real good, and I'd even dare argue, not just for nerdy architects trying to get their obnoxious messages thru, but also for everybody else pitching in front of one or more anthropomorphic creatures sitting with their mouth shut and their eyes and ears wide open. I'm often teaching classes myself, and I can tell you, there have been times, especially during pm sessions - just after lunch -, when I kinda felt like I was the next best thing to Valium, getting my students to sleep, poor bastards... See? We can all learn from this.

Which reminds me... I participated in a two day conference last week, organized by the supreme ICT department of the European Commission, with the Commission CIO himself, Garcia 'Paco' Moran, present and keynoting, and with short appearances by the responsible Commissioner as well, as by his very own Cabinet chief too. Wow! Big shots, that we common civilians were humbled to see alive and breathing... Wonderful venue (at least we can now sleep happy for our tax euros are being put to a good cause), a splendid organization, the best midday snacks and sweets I had in ages, excellent speakers, extremely interesting agenda items! Great stuff! May they invite me to more of those...

The bad news is that there was this one moron among the speakers who made the terrible mistake to think of himself as the smartest skull living on Earth. He was a Dane... a Viking so to say. I generally like the Vikings, especially Hägar, but this dude was so full of shit that I felt (and I was not the only one, I heard later) like jumping off the window... I'm sure this was his last invite ever to a similar future event by DIGIT. He wanted to talk to us about Enterprise Architecture and he kept bullshitting about the term for most of his presentation treating us like first-graders. He spent about twenty minutes trying to convince us that EA should not have to mean Entreprise Architecture in the first place, but many other things that he was piss proud to have invented himself. I'm sure he was on his way to the European Patent Office in the Hague after his pitch. I thought the one that fitted him the best was the one I myself invented for the occasion, that is Extreme Arrogance. Which brings us to... point eleven of great presentation techniques: Make sure your audience don't think of you as the ultimate jerk. Don't underestimate their intelligence and don't just listen to thyself, but observe their bloody body language as well, for Chrissake! They might look like they're getting ready to spit on you, and this should mean something to you about the "effectiveness of your intentions", innit?


*In ICT, SOA means Services Oriented Architecture... in Dutch however, this stands for Sexueel Overdraagbare Aandoeningen (sexually transmitted deceases)... LMAO!
**One of the speakers kicked-off his pitch with this joke during the DIGIT Conference, because, he said, we all looked like we could use a few jokes: SQL walks into a bar and sees two tables and a row. He turns to the tables and sez, "Can I join you?" (laughs). In all fairness, that speaker, Miko Matsumura, was one of the best and he was definitely no Dane!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Does anyone really need a Blu-ray burner nowadays???

We've come a long way in family video. I remember the days when I was obsessive about shooting video of my kids and then editing it with obscenely expensive and low quality analog gear. The number of days and nights and long weekends that I wasted on cutting and pasting and titling and adding music and all that, to achieve something I was pretty proud of at the time (we are talking late eighties early nineties folks)... you just don't wanna know. It's still fun to watch those low quality clips nowadays, now that we are all used to HD, and I often do quick captures of those oldies back to my Mac to then (iMovie) re-edit them, in order to freshen'em up a bit.

In the meantime, amateur video shooting has been galloping ahead, first with better resolution footages, but nevertheless far below the common broadcast quality as we know it on regular SDTV, with cameras shooting Super VHS and Hi8 video, a minor improvement really to the earlier amateur standards. Then, a few years later, into the new Millennium, progress advanced into digital video shooting with easy file transfer of resulting compressed files into PCs and Macs for further editing. Specialized software, featuring non-linear editing, effects, background sound music, transitions, titles, and even 3D effects that we are only used from professional network productions, added more pizazz to the video editing experience. All these suddenly came within the reach of relatively ignorant and computer illiterate consumers, who used to look up to the likes of Spielberg and get wet dreams at the thought of being a bit like His Masterness.

Then came HDTV. Initially came the flat screen plasma and LCD TVs with HDMI and component inputs and then came HDTV programming. More and more commercial channels were being added to the list, offering 720p live program resolutions, a marvel in the eye of the spectator. Then came two waves of optical disk players aiming at full HD resolutions (1080p) fighting for market domination, i.e. HD-DVD and Blu-ray. HD-DVD died prematurely and Blu-ray won but in the meantime it lost almost all its feathers from the cockfight and nobody knows weather it will ever properly get off the ground, feeling the hard competition from alternative content provision channels, like set-top boxes, media centers, PCs, live streaming, etc...

Between you and I, both 720p and 1080i/p standard HDTV resolutions are more than a man can ever desire. The higher resolution, currently only offered by Blu-ray players, is fine if you got a large monitor screen of more than 40 inches. For any other size less than that, Full HD is an overkill... but anyways!

In parallel, we have been overwhelmed the last few years by personal video shooting gear offering 1080i resolutions and progressive HD at 720p. These things are real small and cheap. I recently bought a Sony HDR-TG3 pocket video camera for less than 400 euros (incl. 100 euro rebate) that is the coolest gear an amateur video maker can ever desire. The picture quality of the raw footage connected to an HDTV via HDMI from a beauty like the TG3 is unbelievable! I mean it! Capturing that same footage on a PC or Mac and further editing with an editor like iMovie is simply the closest thing possible to an intellectual orgasm. Sharing the movies over the net or via Media Centers like Apple-TV is all what you further need to compete the act. However...

Full HD or even HD-Ready resolutions on recorded video are not as simple though. I mean, yes, you can read full HDTV resolution footage from amateur video cameras directly into Macs and PCs with a USB 2.0 connection, but how about reading from Set-top boxes that you use to record HD movies broadcasted by Cable suppliers? These morons maintain proprietary file formats and you cannot simply transfer your footage as a readable file into your PC or Mac. The signal way is the only way. Such boxes have normally HDMI and Component outputs for HDTV resolutions, and SCART or composite outputs for SDTV resolutions. Meaning, for HDTV resolution footage, that's a huge problem. Because, not many video capturing devices for PCs or Macs carry HDTV capable inputs (HDMI or component). Furthermore, even if you manage to capture a film or a camera footage within your PC or Mac, how do you output the result to a medium that can play it in High Definition? Excluding of course boxes like AppleTV as well those cheap purpose-fit appliances that interpret media content on attached hard disks and display it on TV monitors via their HDMI or component video outputs... you know what I mean, right?

Well, maybe most of you knew, but I only found out yesterday. Listen to this: It's perfectly possible to burn HDTV (Full-HD or HD-Ready) resolution clips on any optical disk (CD, DVD, DL-DVD and a BD) and then play it on a HD capable disk player, like PS3 or any Blu-ray player for that matter. Trust me, I just did that. HTF, you might ask?

Dead simple! True story! Captured footage with my TG3. Read the footage on the Mac (those with PCs do something similar). Edited the footage on iMovie by selecting good scenes, added transitions and cuts, sound and effects, incl. opening and closing titles. Saved (shared, exported) the result as an HDTV clip (HD-Ready or 720p is my preferred option). Then, used Titanium Toast 10.x to burn the clip on an optical disk of my liking. To enable that in Roxio's Ti-Toast I had to purchase a custom plugin that they charged me 20 bucks for. My target disks were writeable CDs, DVDs or DL-DVDs. I used plain vanilla CDR's and DVD+R's. I could also use BDs but I have no BD burner yet and, actually, since duration of my clips is typically measured in minutes rather than hours, who needs one anyway? It takes about 80 MB per running minute at 720p resolution, so do the math. How many minutes will you get out of a regular (cheap) DVD and how many out of the most expensive BD? Is it worth it? Nope. Trust me. BTW, an added bonus with the Ti-Toast is the fact that you can drop-in various clips to the disk's full rated capacity and you can also add simple menus for selecting those clips after you mounted the disk into your player. It's no Pro DVD production stuff but it works and is kinda nice to see.

So, the great news is that we now have simple and affordable ways to burn disks other than BDs for Blu-ray disk-player consumption and thus achieve HDTV resolutions. Megacool! The problem of shooting a video clip at 720p and burning it on a cheap writable CD or DVD to send to grandma for her to enjoy has been finally solved. And I just found out! However, I still hear many folks' complaining, as they're trying to store content permanently out of their Cable Supplier's Set-top boxes, like for instance the HD Digicorder from Telenet that many of us use in this country.

Actually there are two good solutions to this problem: One is IntensityPro from BlackMagic Design (a card with HDMI in and out that you can mount on your peripheral bus only in case you got a desktop PC or a Mac Pro) and HD-PVR from Hauppauge, a dedicated separate USB connectible box, like those TV boxes from Elgato, that accepts a component HD input (analog signal but still HD-Ready capable). Connect any of those two with your video source on one end (Digicorder, or any other) and your PC/Mac on the other end, and Bob's your uncle. You're good to go. The rest is chickenshit... Oh, yeah... rumor has it that the latter boxes, the Hauppauges I mean, are compatible with Elgato's latest version of EyeTV (3.1), which is by far my preferred package for handling TV signals on the Mac.

UPDATE: Despite what Ti-Toast sez, it's no good to burn clips on CDRs and try to fool a Blu-ray player. Won't do it! Not mine anyways. And it's a Sony. Meaning, only burn on DVDs your clips with HD-Ready resolution to be able to enjoy them on your living room BD player. And if you are loaded and got plenty of time too, then try messing with BD burners and disks if you feel like it! Also, always go for devices on the AVCHD capture standard (supporting the H.264 codec). Only then you can get them plain DVDs playing on Blu-ray players.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Experiencing the New Nano.

It's been some time since I indulged myself into acquiring and unpacking a new iPod. Following the recent product announcements on 09-09-09 and El Jobso's show-off of the latest and brightest from Planet Apple, I couldn't resist my geek temptations and decided to add a new baby brother to my dozen plus older iPods, acquired since their appearance almost 8 years ago. I actually never felt before the user experience common to most iPods of the last few gens. Like cover-flow and playing videos and watching slide-shows and such. Or iPods talking to you with voice menus.

I shot a clip and posted it on YouTube for you to enjoy it here. What can I say? I rather not spoil it by trying to use common words to describe the feeling. Ain't no good. Enjoy the clip instead!

BTW, in case you been wondering, I shot that clip with a Sony HDR-DG3 pocket camcorder and edited the footage in iMovie 2009.

And finally. I called the largest supplier of Apple goodies in this country and asked whether they had any 3GS in stock. I been trying to buy one since its introduction last June. Did the same with 3G a year ago. Then, they had some stock and I bought one; now they say, they have a 300 piece backorder and no idea when they gonna get delivered. And this is Belgium, right? Neither Kenya nor Côte d'Ivoire! Blimey! We'll end up in a state where we'll never be able to buy any iPhone anymore. By the time they' be able to deliver from stock, Apple will have announced the next model and naturally people will try to get that one...

Saturday, September 12, 2009


The expo shown above by Stephan Vanfleteren, a promising young, in his mid thirties, Flemish photographer of 'De Morgen' newspaper, has been set-up at an unusual venue... a building in the city of Ghent that used to host a permanent circus, years ago. I always thought that circus set-ups were temporary, arranged in open areas, with huge, centrally built tents and lots of trailers parked around them, hosting animals, clowns, and acrobats. The Ghent building apparently defies that logic. Even worse. That circus used to be called 'the new circus' as there was already an earlier one down the road, naturally known as 'the old circus'. I've been living 33 years close to the city and had no idea that in the not too distant past Gentenaars loved circus-going so much! One learns all the time! In the mid fifties of last century (about when I was born, mind you), the circus was turned into the Mahy Garage for Fiat cars (see picture below) and then abandoned in 1979, 30 yrs ago. All this recent time, it obviously served as a refuge to pigeons and spiders (shown somewhere in the clip above, too). Not too long ago the city decided to create and plan a rather ambitious residential and shopping development project (De Krook) that will cover the entire block, surrounded by the canal and a few streets, but building works have not started yet.

Recently Lannoo, the editor and producer of Vanfleteren's books, decided to use the old circus as the venue for this expo in order to basically promote the photographer's recent work and moreover advertise and sell Vanfleteren's latest book titled "Portret 1989-2009".

My daughter, a college graduate in photography herself, finds his work déjà-vu and doesn't particularly think it's either original or creative. In many ways, I must admit she's right, his techniques are indeed familiar old tricks. Very short depths of field, measured in mm rather than cm or m, black and white dramatic effects with very little detail in the shadow parts, vignetting, often shot with wide angle, rendering some facial details quite extreme, and ultra sharp Carl Zeiss glass eyes and aged skin textures.

Vanfleteren shoots celebs in Flanders. Who are these? Mostly people shown in newspapers, books, and magazines. Like actors, TV celebs, politicians, writers, sportsmen/women, comedians, visual artists, in short all those with whom the common people like to identify and look up to. His book contains 335 portraits but that's not to say that there are 335 different individuals shot, as some celebs are shot multiple times. The vast majority of them are Flemish, some Dutch and Walloons too. The Flemish are mostly known in this country as BVs (Bekende Vlamingen). Not necessarily these folks are any better than the rest of us, but their photographs show-up in newspapers more often than anyone else's. So be it!

As I was checking the shots in his book (which I bought for 55 euros, mind you... true story), I couldn't help recognizing that two classes of people were missing from this celebs catalog of Flanders country. These were a) successful managers and industry leaders (incl. doctors, entrepreneurs, top managers, etc) and b) known university and other school professors and researchers. In fact, those who make it happen... the real thing... the economy that drives and steers our daily lives and cares that we all get some crumbs on the table, to eat and drink. In fact, celebs only deal with the entertaining part of our daily life whereas the leaders in those activities that keep the system running are mostly hidden in the shadow of celebs, entirely ignored by the media, simply doing their business. A cyclist celeb in this country is far more important that Pattie Maes, whom most among the 'high intellect Americans' (yep, that's no oxymoron) consider as one of the top female brains and researchers on the planet! But Pattie is no celeb material as she does her job and being under the spot is the last thing on her mind!

Per the author, there's visibly one key celeb's portrait missing, and the photographer makes a hell of a story about her in the prologue of his book. Belgian ex-Queen Fabiola, the 'Spanish witch'! Vanfleteren sez that he's fallen in love with her hair style and he was probably having wet dreams considering the possibility of shooting her portrait, but her Royal Secretary and Personal Adviser, a dude with a gazillion names -- typical of someone with noble origins in this part of the world -- informed the photographer that this was a no-go. If I was that adviser myself and had imagined beforehand what that rejection would have caused in terms of Vanfleteren's hilarious commentary in his book prologue, along with more comments on TV and other media, I'd have never refused the bleedin' photo-shoot, mark my words. But that's again Belgium. Pettiness and ridicule at all levels, turning the indigenous into targets for 'Belgian' jokes, adored by our neighbors, especially the Dutch and the French.

Did I, or do I like Vanfleteren's pictures? As I am neither a certified expert nor I ever studied photography like my sibling, I... love them. There's a lot of drama and variation. Each person shown takes a pose and uses artifacts that have something to say about his/her character and activity. His lens goes deeper, much deeper than the surface. We see aspects of the personages that are very intimate, very personal. From that point of view, Vanfleteren is definitely quite original after all. For Flanders, his work is as monumental as that of the likes of Yousuf Karsh and Mario Testino. Only difference, the persons he shoots or he shot, with very few exceptions, are only dudes known in an area of max 15K sq km, give-n-take, the Flanders country...

Like I said, so be it!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Condom!

How to make a living without any productive work!

Capitalism is cool. To many though, especially the poor and the weak and the disadvantaged, it often seems evil and anti-social and destroying people's lives and should be dropped. Unfortunately, capitalism goes hand in hand with freedom and democracy, and as bad it may be, it's still way better than any other alternative that we've seen in the last 10 thousand years on Planet Earth, including Plato's Utopia.

It is a challenging statement that this blog has started with, innit? Imagine Johnny boy having a great life, in terms of income that is, while he don't need do no shit to earn a living. All it takes is surfing the net, watching the market, and doing some online day-trading. If you know what you are doing, you are da man! You can make a living with dough others sweat blood and tears to get any near to!

An example! Late July 2009. Johnny boy's watching AAPL moving south. He knows he needs to check upon AAPL's Puts. He likes trading options short term, so he looks no further than August / September expiries, less than one and two months down the road respectively. He decides to sell 10 August and 30 September contracts, breadcrumbs really, both @ 160 strike. AAPL is trading at 167 at that moment, give 'n take. Johnny thinks AAPL will move up. He feels August might be rather tricky for the strike to hold in the clear, but he's rather confident about the September expiry. Johnny will soon make, give'n-take 15 big ones on this transaction. Time needed to make it happen: 6 'productive' minutes. The time to search real time data on some gazillion free of charge URLs, make the sell decision, evaluate risks and send an SMS to his banker, some place out there in the banking universe, waiting for more of his Johnny clients to tell him what to do with their money. In the next 15 minutes Johnny gets a confirmation that the transaction got thru and placed a fresh 15 grand 'n change on his current account. Deal done. Let's go eat supper now, Johnny boy!

Johnny goes on with his life. He hasn't started spending his cash, as it's not earned yet for sure... there's always the risk options end "in-the-money" and then his buyers will come running, but that's ok. Johnny's got a few alternative strategies if things get ugly. Happened before. When things turned out bad, he used to go for some new similar 'sells' at distant future expiry dates. With the proceedings, he then covered his current open positions before too late. And so on. Eventually the stock does a turnaround (they always do) and Johnny wipes away his losses, hands down. In fact, his best bets work when, at expiration, his target stock falls sandwiched in between two rates at which Johnny sells Puts (@ the lower) and Calls (@ the higher). The narrower the spread between the two the better the dough. The higher the risk though. Johnny swears by Apple and its products, but bleedin' AAPL is much too tricky to handle short term. Don't even get me started on medium term! It's a high volatility stock, like the experts use to call it! Anyways, sometime in the past, Johnny tried buying options at "some" price, putin' his cash on the table, hoping for obnoxious percent returns if the stock moved in the right sense but he always screwed this up, big time. There were other Johnnies then, who were singin' their way to the bank, with his money. So, he decided once and for all to only do 'sells' in the future, and avoid 'buys' of derivatives like hell.

Anyways, about early August AAPL suddenly headed south and Johnny felt like his first bet might squeeze him to some panic recovery strategies with the stock closing @ just above 159 bucks, for just a single night. That one was a slight shock. His banker however got cold sweat running all over him, even more than Johnny himself, but... never mind. That's why the bank pays him, poor sod. To 'empathize' with his customers!

Long story short, eventually Johnny secured the cash of his August bet, following expiry Friday on the third week of the month, with AAPL trading safely far above 160 bucks a share. One down, one more to go, Johnny thought. He also treated his woman to a fancy dinner that Friday evening! In the meantime, Apple has been heading north from that moment onwards and never looked back. Analysts have been upgrading the stock almost daily. New targets started with a "2". Cool! El Jobso takes stage at the 09-09-09 event! All the way back from Hades. He's alive and kickin' ass! September Puts @ 160 strike seem a small dot in the southern horizon. Johnny sold them @ 4.4 bucks a share in July and they are trading @ 24 cents as we speak. Do the math! Another week and Johnny's about to pocket the cash for the remaining 30 contracts. He suddenly feels a wee tiny bit of sympathy for those morons who paid him 15 grand to buy his Puts, but he instantly decides to give no shit whatsoever. That's the name of the game. Capitalism is cool for clever and lucky bastards, he thinks. Life is good!

Sad story!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Macintosh Blues

I've got this friend who's retired (70+) and keeps sending me plenty of Medicare jokes. The picture on the left comes from one of those and is titled "challenging vision-test". Now, this has got nothing to do with the subject of the blog today but I thought it was funny, so I put it there...

Thus, all of a sudden, yesterday, as I was sitting there, minding my own business, both of my Macs decided to die on me. One chance in a trillion years and it happened to me, just yesterday. Started with the iMac. I wanted to scan some old pictures on my Epson V700 and the Mac wouldn't see the scanner. I tried all sorts of simple things but to no avail. Turned off the scanner and went on to reboot the iMac. And then was when the bitch happened. The freakin' thing wouldn't boot! I kept seeing this folder icon with a flashing question mark. Your worst Apple nightmare! Mac's equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death! Meaning that my hard disk, if the SOB was still alive (at that moment I wasn't sure yet), was no more bootable. Something had corrupted the root files that typically care that the OS boots on any given Mac box after the familiar startup 'gong'. WTF?! All of a sudden? Out of nowhere?! Apple support sez to try a number of things, one of them being to reinstall the OS. I tried them all, starting by resetting the PRAM and NVRAM, repairing the hard disk (yep, it was still alive and kickin' and BTW, the Disk Utility repair said 'no problems found...') and eventually re-installing darling Snowy over the earlier system files. You can imagine my 'joy' when I saw that even after full reinstall the darn folder icon with the flashing question mark kept coming back. Seer happiness! WTF was this? A virus? I thought Macs got no viruses, right?

I knew by then that the only way forward was to first recover from the damaged bootable all my content files to somewhere safe and then repartition it and reformat it and start all over from scratch. Blimey! As I am of course 'exceptionally intelligent, mind you' I had never used the Time Machine (for Apple uninitiated, the Time Machine is Apple's way to do automatic backups in the background). Or any backup with any other tool for that matter! I thought computer crashes were for pussies!

Thank Moses, my other Mac (a 15' MacBook Pro) was by my side then, at that moment of need. Connected the two Macs with a Firewire cable and booted the damaged iMac in Target mode (booting in Target mode, as all Apple geeks know, places the box is a 'slave' position with respect to another firewire connected Mac who can then see the slave like any other mounted disk and can do disk maintenance of any sort! Even restore a clone OS install upon it! And even make it bootable via this restore. I wish I had a recent clone then... Excellent feature of OSX that even the dumbest dude from a Windows crowd would admit, hands down). I could then 'amuse myself' in the next couple of hours collecting all my useful files, pictures, movies, documents and music, give 'n take 150 GB, on an external 2TB Lacie. Almost with watery eyes for having lost a quasi perfect installation, I launched a new clean install, after repartitioning and reformatting the bleeding iMac. Long story short, this time Snowy worked. Next thing was to bring back my useful content from Lacie and reinstall about 100 applications, which is my 'usual' footprint. Try now to locate the needed install packages, serial numbers, activations, the works! A geek's worst nightmare. 8 hours +, back and forth! I FOKKIN' HATE IT!

But, wait a min... this wasn't the end of it! As it proved, it was just the start of more hail to come. While I been recovering Gigabytes upon Gigabytes back to iMac, I had to do something simple on the MBP. Somethin' trivial I believe, like checking new mail. I don't remember why exactly but I had to go reboot the MBP all of a sudden because something didn't seem to respond kosher. Imagine my flabbergast when, instead of the familiar apple icon, I see AGAIN (!!!) that freakin' folder icon with a question mark flashing to my eyes wide open!!!! Say WHAT? What the F@CK! Holy donkey that carried Mary and Jesus to Egypt! What the hell is goin' on here? I wish someone videoed my reaction when this happened! I mean it! Not in a Trillion years! Macs don't get that shit! Why me??? Think of that... for a good deal of time yesterday pm, only computer that connected me to the outside world was the bleedin' iPhone! You must be shittin' me!

In the meantime, the iMac was slowly getting back in shape, but no app installs had yet happened. Not that simple, mind you. CS4, MS Office, iLIfe, iWork, Lightroom, Aperture, to name a couple... they all take some cycles to get up and running. Especially that moron Microsoft Office that needs to do all its SP updates sequentially! Can you believe that? It's like pulling teeth! What do these guys eat for breakfast to get that smart? Applepies and donuts? Anyways, again I went to try Apple's advice as a good Apple citizen and again I did a reinstall above the damaged version of the MBP OS, but again, no shit! I had to finally repeat identically the same process as on the iMac earlier in order to restore the MBP back to its initial state. Obviously no backup here as well! Jeez, my IQ should be approaching 200 by now!

And, because I'm so bloody smart, ain't I, I managed, long time ago, to lock the laptop with a firmware password, in order to prohibit trespassers booting from an external source in case of theft! Like that helped... every average Apple geek knows that even that trick is pure BS. If you got your fingers on a firmware locked MB, all it takes is a screwdriver to open up the box and recover the hard disk and its data and read it somewhere else. Big deal. Of course the stolen MBP remains unusable which explains the sweet revenge feeling of its legit owner who locked it in the first place. Anyways, what was that firmware lock password again? Search me! Happily, for non-financial logins, I use a simple algorithm to generate a couple possible passwords that I use, and having tried them all, I finally managed to spot the right one and enter the familiar list of available booting sources (BTW, the MBP disk was nowhere to see on that list!). At least I could now reinstall the OS again. But the problem was the 'T' mode! How do you get the darn thing into Target? In the meantime, the iMac was good enough to help me transfer MBP's data to Lacie safely, but how do I get the firewired MBP into a 'T' mode? Because of the firmware lock holding the 'T' key while booting wouldn't do the trick. Sure! Works as specified, right? Would be stupid if it did! Even morons know that... Eventually a faint candle lit upon my skull and I figured it out! I first booted holding the option key, entered the firmware password and instead of selecting any object from the list of bootable sources and hit enter, I first pressed the 'T' key and then hit enter! Wow! Eureka! Praise Allah! The disk went indeed into target mode, at last. The remaining process was then breadcrumbs compared, and lasted for the next several hours, as usual...

My mess started Friday 2pm CET. 8 hrs later both Macs were almost half done. Snowy could again boot normally in both machines, but the state of each one of them was by far not the desired. From 7am this morning until about now (3pm), the recovery's been still going on. Most data and apps are back to normal and right now the MBP is doing a final task. A Time Machine backup, that is! Lesson learnt! I reckon...

The most frustrating part of the job, when one recovers damaged PCs or Macs, is about content files, that is, pictures, videos, browser bookmarks, emails and email accounts, agendas, contacts, and iTunes music. Problem is, the simple availability of those files is not enough to restore the content in its initial state, because Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, Aperture, Lightroom to name a few, have their own way of managing data, and for the purpose of a well done recovery it's not as simple as keeping backups of the content files alone.

I was eventually lucky to be an account holder of and I could get email archives, accounts, logins, etc as well as contacts, browser bookmarks, and passwords all synced and recovered in a 'heartbeat'. I was even delighted to see that all those content rich apps I mentioned above, behaved properly after I put all the content back to the original folders and they (the apps) seem to have found and restored everything on their own, like nothing happened, God bless'em!. Especially iPhoto and iTunes did a superb job. Even Parallels!!! After installing it and updating to its latest version 4 point something, the darn app went to find all my Windows virtual spaces and everything worked like a charm! That was a HUGE bonus! Imagine I had to reinstall bleedin' Windows on top, as virtual spaces upon two Mac boxes after this Friday mess! Don't even get me started on this... No way, Borg! I'd rather jump off the window!

Lessons learnt? I dunno! Will I be disciplined enough in the future to keep backups? Doubt it! Spent almost 24 hours (minus some five hrs that I slept, I think) to do a full recovery on my two Macs and was glad I was able to find backups of my app install packages and their activation keys / serial numbers. It's also cool that these days, every supplier has his products calling home for updates and this makes it even faster to restore apps to their latest and brightest!

Where did all this come from then? Was it a virus? That found its way from the iMac to MBP? Maybe... I'll never know. Is it going to happen again? You bet! And when it does, I rather jump in a hole, 6 feet under, and stay there waiting for the Antichrist!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Let's start the month with some real fun...

BTW, how many stores do you know that'd allow this to take place in their premises, before Security showed up? Only the 5th Avn/59th Street Manhattan Apple Store!