Archive for June 2007

Thoughts on Windows Media Player 11

Published on June 25, 2007

Several weeks ago, I finally got around to installing Windows Media Player 11. Having put it through its paces, I’d like to share my thoughts on this release.

The most apparent change in WMP 11 is the new look and feel, courtesy of Windows Vista. In fact, the player features the Vista-esque minimize, maximize, and close buttons in the upper right hand corner. Strangely enough, a 1-pixel “dead zone” exists above each of these buttons when the application is maximized. I tend to run most applications maximized, and when I want to either minimize or close a window, I throw my mouse all the way up to the upper right of the screen. With Media Player 11, I can’t do that. Instead, I have to move the mouse down at least 1 pixel from the top to activate any of the buttons. What an unnecessary aggravation, not to mention a break in the Windows XP standard!

The entire interface, as with most things Microsoft tries to make modern, looks like it has been coated in plastic. Everything is black, with the exception of the buttons, which sport an electric blue, back-lit effect. Overall, the interface feels uninspired, but it’s one I can live with. It took me a while to figure out that you have to right click the top of the player to access the standard application menus. Why exactly is Microsoft getting rid of the menus in all of its new applications? Internet Explorer 7 does the same thing.

The new media library interface is a prime example of Media Player’s stance as an iTunes wannabe. Gone is the oh-so-useful tree control for browsing through your stored albums. Instead, the user is presented with a visual collection of music “stacks,” as Microsoft calls them. The more albums in your library for a particular artist, the bigger that artist’s stack will be. This new interface is fairly confusing to me. I have a much harder time finding the artist I want to listen to now, mostly because I can’t quickly scan for the artist’s name (looking down an alphabetized tree control was much easier). One other problem is that the media library is very slow, especially on initial startup. It takes Media Player a while to load all of the album art it needs to display, and this initial slowdown is quite noticeable.

Speaking of album art, Media Player occasionally can’t find the appropriate album cover image. One 2-disc collection of mine (John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Collection) has the correct album image for disc 1, but only has a blank placeholder for disc 2. I note that some of the meta-data for disc 2 also differs, so it’s no doubt a problem with the music database service that Microsoft uses. It’s still a noteworthy annoyance.

I can find at least one positive note about the new media library interface. Playing music from the artist level, rather than the album level, allows me to listen to all of a particular artist’s albums without having to click through them. Media Player automatically moves to the next album in the list when the current album has finished playing, a most welcome feature.

Playing videos through WMP 11 is fine, though I have experienced some occasional stuttering on locally saved files. I recently attempted to watch an episode of Diggnation that I had downloaded, and I found that I could not jump around in the video without experiencing incredible delays of 5 to 10 seconds or more. This wasn’t a problem in version 10.

Ripping music has changed slightly (progress bars now advance in 10% increments), but still seems fast. I have not yet performed a sync operation with my Creative Zen Micro, so I can’t comment on that part of the application. I’m avoiding the “built-in” Napster and URGE music stores, since I still prefer to obtain music on CD.

I’m not sure how to sum up Media Player 11. While it has a few nice features, I think Microsoft has generally taken a step in the wrong direction with this. Have you used WMP 11? If so, what do you think?

Photo Matt on WordPress Security

Published on June 23, 2007

Matt Mullenweg has an interesting post on security in WordPress. He points out that, as a product becomes more popular, its security issues garner more attention:

When a product is popular, not only does it have more eyes from security professionals on it, but any problems garner a level of attention which is not quite warranted by the frequency of the general event, like Angelina Jolie having a baby. There are certainly things intrinsic to coding that can make software more or less secure, but all things being equal the software with the most eyes on it, which usually means Open Source, will be the most robust in the long term.

Zeldman on Maybe

Published on June 22, 2007

Jeffrey Zeldman has written an intriguing article on why “maybe” is one option too many. He compares the usage of “maybe” in questionnaires to five-star rating systems, exposing a point I had never thought of. As always, it’s a well written article that makes you think. Zeldman FTW.

EA Reorganizes

Published on June 20, 2007

It was announced on Monday that EA will reorganize into four labels: EA Games, EA Sports, EA Casual Games, and The Sims. This is an interesting move on their part, intended to “streamline the company” (don’t all companies seem to do this on a daily basis?). It should be interesting to see if this makes any real difference, though I doubt it does. I’ve heard that working for EA is like working in a sweat shop; it’s amazing that any products are released at all, if that’s the case.

What intrigues me most is the fact that “The Sims” will be broken off into its own label. Who knew that a single video game would spawn such an empire? I won’t deny that I was a Sims junkie at one point. I own all of the Sims 1 expansion packs, and I even developed several tools for that very game. The game was highly revolutionary at the time, and remains one of the best examples of an object-oriented programming model (Sidebar: Each individual game object contains the necessary sounds and animations used when a Sim interacts with that object. This programming paradigm is incredibly beneficial, since new objects can be added at a later time without a need to update the game’s core files.).

As one might expect, when the sequel (The Sims 2) was released, I eagerly picked it up. Surprisingly, I was disappointed with the game. Like many Maxis games, performance was sub par, even on my fairly beefy home computer (Sim City 3000, a game dating back to 1999, still stutters on my current machine). In addition, the game play mechanics had changed drastically: Sims had a finite life span, a number of goals needed to be reached through the Sim’s lifetime, and relationships were even harder to maintain. I lost interest fairly quickly, and haven’t played either title in several years.

So, to make a long story short, I’m a little amazed that the product line has continued to do so well. The Sims 2 has a total of 5 expansion packs (with at least 1 more on the way), 3 of which are essentially the same expansions as are available in The Sims 1. I get a “been there, done that” kind of feeling in that regard, but apparently lots of people don’t feel that way. Otherwise, EA wouldn’t have spun the franchise into its own label.

The Totally Rad Show

Published on June 15, 2007

I’ve been meaning to discuss The Totally Rad Show for some time now, and I’m just now getting around to it. For those unfamiliar with the show, TRS describes itself as the “summer blockbuster of geek news shows.” Alex Albrecht (from DiggNation), Jeff Cannata, and Dan Trachtenberg all host the show, and they talk about movies, video games, television, comics, and more. One of the great stylistic elements of the show is that it is shot entirely in front of a green screen. Throughout the show, as the guys bring up various topics, related images appear behind them. The effect is subtle, but it really adds to the overall presentation.

TRS is currently on its 12th episode as of this writing, and I have followed it since episode 1. The content of the show is entertaining, and I’ve been introduced to several really great things based on their discussions. If you’re a geek, or you like video games, movies, and more, be sure to check it out. If nothing else, it’s a great thing to listen to at work. 😀

WordPress 2.2

Published on June 12, 2007

I have updated the WordPress install that powers this website to version 2.2. A number of theme-related API calls were deprecated in 2.1, so I had to make some changes to my custom theme. If you spot any broken links or weird SQL errors, please let me know about it so I can correct the issue.

The Joy of Being Hacked

Published on June 12, 2007

Nearly a week ago, a malicious person or group of persons hacked into DreamHost, the company I use as a web host. The passwords for over 3,500 FTP accounts were compromised, and some customers found unauthorized changes to files or directories. My account was among those that got hacked, and the experience has made me a better computer user.

Having a password stolen is frightening enough, but my situation was nearly a worst case scenario. When I originally set up my user account with DreamHost, I naturally provided the password to be used with that account. This user account granted me access to the DreamHost web panel, FTP uploads, and access to the web server’s shell (via either telnet or ssh). When I later set up an email account, I chose to use this same account out of sheer convenience. I made a likewise decision for access to my web server logs. So, in short, one username and password provided me access to five areas:

  1. The DreamHost Web Panel
  2. My web storage (via FTP)
  3. My web server home directory (via telnet or ssh)
  4. My primary email address
  5. My server logs

Do you see the problem here?

As soon as I got the email that my FTP password had been compromised, I realized how slack I had been about security and panicked. Thankfully, none of my files or databases were corrupted (though I’m still taking a look through everything). I have since changed all of my passwords, and they now all differ from one another, something I should have done from day one.

I try to be as security conscious as possible, but I really dropped the ball in this area, mostly for convenience’s sake. This is the first time I have been ‘hacked’ like this, and I’m actually glad it happened. The experience has motivated me to be more secure in my password handling.

Lots of people are jumping ship as a result of this, but doing so seems premature to me. The folks at DreamHost are being open and honest about the problem, and I really appreciate that. Any company that steps up and says “we made a mistake and we’re trying to prevent it from happening again” is worth sticking with. At the very least, I’ve learned a much needed lesson.

Update: I forgot to mention that other web hosts were also hit by this attack (according to this post), so it wasn’t solely a DreamHost issue.

Spring Trip to the NC Zoo

Published on June 8, 2007

My family and I took a trip to the North Carolina Zoo earlier this week. As I normally do these days, I took my camera along and got lots of great photos. So many of my photographs turned out so well, that I think this may be my best photo album yet. A trusty monopod (which I got for Christmas last year) helped out tremendously in the darker exhibits.

Our trip this time primarily focused on the African exhibits (we spent the majority of our time on our previous trip in the American exhibits). The great thing about the NC Zoo is that there are so many things to see. In fact, it’s hard to see it all in one day!

Monkey Album Bug Fix

Published on June 7, 2007

I have fixed a bug in the navigation links in Monkey Album here at the site. Some of the links used to navigate photo albums with multiple pages were pointing to the wrong location. If you happen to spot any other problems, please let me know.

A new photo album (possibly my best one yet) will be posted within the next day or two, so stay tuned.

Google Maps Frustration

Published on June 4, 2007

I am growing increasingly frustrated with Google Maps. In the past month, on two separate occasions, Google Maps failed to find my intended destination. What really gets under my skin is the fact that Google’s competition found each place without any problems.

Example 1
My family checked out the Clarksville Station restaurant in Roxboro, NC for my sister’s graduation. It’s a steak-house built inside of an old train station and a couple of dining cars from an actual train. It’s located at 4080 Durham Road, Roxboro, NC. Let’s see what the mapping services show for this query:

  • Google Maps: Only locates Durham Road, not the 4080 address.
  • MapQuest: Shows the location as expected.
  • Yahoo! Maps: Can’t find the exact location, but interestingly enough, centers the map at the exact location. Weird.
  • Microsoft Live Search: Gets it exactly right.

Example 2
My car needed service recently, so I took it to Jay’s Automotive, a repair place not too far away from where I live. They are located at 3510 Highway 70 West, Efland, NC. Let’s see how the various mapping services do with this one:

  • Google Maps: Wow. This is so far off, it’s not funny.
  • MapQuest: Again, MapQuest gets the location exactly.
  • Yahoo! Maps: Again, they cannot locate the address, but the map is centered at the correct location.
  • Microsoft Live Search: Again, Microsoft got it exactly right.

What gets me even more steamed is the lack of aerial (or satellite) images for example number 2. Google Maps only has images beginning at zoom level 6 (levels 1 through 5 are all “unavailable”). MapQuest has color images down to zoom level 3 (1 and 2 aren’t available), which is very close. Yahoo! Maps has color imagery at all zoom levels, while Microsoft Live Search has images to zoom level 3 (just like MapQuest, though the image quality is very poor).

Google needs to stop spending money and effort on cheap gimmicks like their recent Street View (is that thing worthless, or what?), and instead beef up their location database and aerial photographs. I can’t even see my house on Google Maps! All the other mapping services have it, so it’s certainly possible to do.

Get with the program, Google. Until then, I think I’ll stick to your competition (at least when satellite photographs are involved).

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