Archive for February, 2008

Looking for Troy

Monday, February 25th, 2008

The Fall of Troy, Peter Ackroyd, 2007

Heinrich Schliemann heinrich_schliemann.jpg

The latest by British historical novelist, the much decorated Ackroyd, is a fanciful take on the 1870s dig by German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Obermann in the novel is forceful man with a foggy past who is obsessed with Homer and the tale of Troy’s destruction. He is wealthy and seeks out a young beautiful Greek wife, Sonia, versed in the writings of Homer. He takes his new bride to the plains and mound of Troy absolutely convinced that the site is the lost city described by Homer. No discovered facts will stand in his way as he digs through untold layers of irreplaceable historical artifacts looking only for an ancient Greek city. No Asian (middle eastern) influence can be allowed in this Western European city. Along the way he hides and smuggles valuables away from the Turks who now control the area to Sophia’s father in Athens. When Sophia discovers clay writing tablets with an unknown script, the tale takes off. Very entertaining exploration of love, obsession, and jealousy complete with a staged rerunning of Achilles race with Hector.

Troy archaeological site in Turkey troy.JPG

Shocking Medicine

Monday, February 18th, 2008

Garcia’s Heart, Liam Durcan, 2007

In the 1950’s American Dr. Ewen Cameron conducted extreme experiments at McGill University in Montreal on human subjects using LSD, electroshock, and sensory deprivation. The CIA provided funding for these experiments ostensibly to study Soviet and Chinese brainwashing techniques but then used the experiments to develop methods of “interrogation” which have been used extensively by the CIA to this day. The CIA also trained torturers throughout Latin America with atrocities repeatedly committed in Chile, Argentina, and Central America. These McGill experiments formed the starting point for Naomi Kline’s Shock Doctrine. Cameron inspired torture techniques also appear repeatedly in Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes history of the CIA. It can be noted that the McGill experiments were taking place at the same time Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and other colleagues and students were experimenting with hallucinogens at Harvard University with entirely different objectives in mind. That they were fired and dropped out as Cameron never was is not surprising.

McGill University mcgill.jpg

Now comes a first novel from Montreal neurologist and McGill Professor Dr. Liam Durcan dealing with the Crimes Against Humanity Hague Trial of a Honduras doctor accused of torturing political prisoners during the 80’s Sandinista Reagan CIA Contra era in Central America. The leading character, Patrick, is a neurologist entrepreneur who has founded a company to use neurological data to study and tailor advertising campaigns, not exactly an endearing choice of career for our leading man. Patrick has a terrible bedside manner so doesn’t practice and he appears addicted to pharmaceuticals for sleep. Durcan gets in some zingers directed at the MBAs busily undermining North American companies:

Patrick had noted that there was something about their business school education that caused them to come out with identical responses to any problem. And not a collective response either. These three budding masters of the universe were definitely not “one plan – one mind” or “all on the same page” or whatever Cliche’ they used this week; you could put these three in separate soundproof rooms for six months and they would still emerge ending each other’s sentences with a frightening certainty. It was as though any difference in culture or gender – Marc-Andre was ostensibly French and Jessica was at least genetically a female – had been shimmed away by their MBA training – giving the impression that they instead had graduated from a military academy or a theological college.

And the hired CEO “as more of a throwback, a gentleman privateer in the midst of an army of corporate automatons.”

Sandinistas sandinista.jpeg sandinista2.jpg

Patrick met Garcia as a teenager when he was caught spraying graffiti on Garcia’s local grocery in Montreal and is made to work in the store as restitution. Patrick stays on, learns that Garcia was once a doctor who still offers illegal medical services to poor immigrants and decides to study medicine himself. Along the way he has an affair with Garcia’s beautiful daughter.

International Court of Justice Hague court-justice.JPG court-facade.jpg

Now Patrick can’t believe that Garcia is guilty of the war crimes he is accused of and travels to the Hague to witness the trial. Details of Honduras and the Sandinista during the 80’s is scarce here and it is hard to get a picture or speculate about Garcia’s possible role. Garcia dies before a verdict is given, much as Slobodan Milosevic and Augusto Pinochet avoided verdicts by dying, an altogether unsatisfying outcome in this novel as well.

Hague Court Room court_room.jpg

Americans In India

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

The Elephanta Suite, Paul Theroux, 2007

Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India Mumbai

A collection of three short stories explores tourism and global business in contemporary India. The first, appearing first in the New Yorker, follows two wealthy fiftyish Americans, married for 30 years, who vacation at a spa purposely isolated from its surrounding community in a luxurious but totally artificial environment. When they become sexually involved with their masseurs, both native employees are fired. Somewhere along the line, the Americans buy some scarfs made from the hair of endangered antelope. Explores tourism as an isolated and insular world created artificially for the wealthy westerner.

The second story follows a divorced American lawyer, sent to Mumbai to negotiate product outsourcing for American companies. He becomes involved with street prostitutes, falls in love with India and finds excuses to remain. His Indian associate, a Jain from a successful family slowly replaces the American and then delivers him to an ashram where he appears content to remain.

The third story concerns two young American girls out to see India. One meets a rich young Western man and never gets out of Mumbai. The other continues traveling by herself until she meets an aggressive, nasty, fat Indian guy and comes to grieve.

Only the second story retains your interest as the lawyer goes native and we see a reversal of roles. At least each story is short.

Russo Sighs

Monday, February 11th, 2008

Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo, 2007

Russo’s new novel revisits many themes from his earlier work particularly Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Thomaston is a small upstate New York town founded by a slave owning Torrie whose main employer is the Tannery which is polluting the Cayuga River, poisoning the ground water, and maiming and killing the worthy local citizens. The town has four distinct districts separated, of course, by Division street, the west side for poor lower class people has seedy bars and is a little dangerous, the east side is for respectable working class people who are also poor but have some civic pride, the burrough where the owner of the tannery and other wealthier families live, and the hill for poor blacks. The story revolves around a small corner grocery on the east side struggling to stay afloat through three generations of optimistic, naive, simple, good hearted men who somehow manage to gain the love of smart, world wise women who actually make the store and their lives work. The New York Lottery allows the Lynch family grocery to stay viable in the face of supermarkets and the closed tannery and to enable the Lynches to buy two additional groceries. The poorer the area, the higher the revenue from the Lottery sales.

Corner Grocery grocery.jpg

If the novel had been a few hundred pages shorter, it might have attracted more readers. But the novel is flawed in a couple of more fundamental ways for this reader who grew up roughly in the period depicted. First, the Vietnam war is raging but the only reference is to a minor character, a black kid who is beaten to a coma for sitting with a white girl is a theater and when he recovers goes to Vietnam to be killed; and the major character Noonan who escapes Thomaston (almost no one else does alive) possibly because he makes a girl pregnant, or because he beat his own father almost to death, or because he is escaping the draft; we never learn which it is. Russo seems to be saying it would take something as drastic as these three events combined to get anyone to leave this poisoned heaven.

NYC Vietnam Protest December 1967vietnam-protest.jpg

This was the era of compulsory draft where every boy had to sign up at age 18 and was assigned a draft lottery number based on his birthday. (Voting age was 21!) To escape the draft, you had to be lucky (low lottery number), get a deferment to go to college like Bill Clinton or Dick Cheney, or leave the country in which case you became a wanted criminal. The first boy in this reader’s small, rural school (12 in my class) to be killed in the war was in 1960. Our classmate and school comedian enlisted in the Marines in 1961 and came home a year later a mental wreck requiring multiple hospitalizations. One classmate got a lucky lottery number, got married and stayed on his farm. The rest of the boys in our class all headed for college, unheard of in our rural community. No girls in our class went to college even the one with high grades. Such was the impact of Vietnam. By 1964, college war protests were gaining momentum even at cow college Washington State in isolated Pullman. The leader of our protests was a varsity wrestler, violinist with the University orchestra, and non religious conscientious objector. Upon graduation, he was sent to teach English in Laos where he survived daily secret bombings. He used to sit on the front porch playing his violin as the bombs fell. After his tour of alternate duty he returned home only to be drafted. When he refused, he was sent to prison.

In this era and under this pressure, we would talk endlessly about our options and what we would do when our time came. This reader received his draft notice after earning a masters degree at age 24. Discussed options for this eventuality included 1) pretend you are gay; 2) pretend you are a latent psychopathic serial killer who can’t wait for that rifle; 3) flunk the written test; 4) get the family doctor to invent a medical condition; etc.) This blogger played it straight figuring a good written score might get him a desk job like his older brother who spent the Korean war behind a desk at Fort Ord in Monterey because of his college degree. After the test, I was called into the commanding officer’s office who informed me I had the highest score ever seen at the Spokane board and asking why I didn’t go back to school. I went back to school. A coming of age novel set in this period cannot not deal with this. Yet there is nothing to indicate this was on anyone’s mind or that decisions about going to college or leaving the country were influenced by these ever present events.

Woburn Tannery woburn.jpg

The second problem is the poisonous tannery. Thomaston sounds a lot like Woburn Massachusetts site of the true story recorded in the book and movie A Civil Action where a group of young lawyers set out to prove legally that the tannery, now owned by a multinational corporation, was the cause of the miscarriages, birth defects, and widespread cancer killing so many of Woburn’s citizens. The events in A Civil Action took place in the late 1970’s but the Citizens of Woburn themselves had connected their health problems to the tannery’s pollution much earlier.

In Russo’s Thomaston no one seems to blame the tannery and its owners for their health problems. They are more concerned that the tannery will close and jobs will be lost. There are no lawyers or environmentalists anywhere in this book, although it is noticed by some that after the tannery was closed, fish came back to the River, some cancerous. This fatalism and resignation somehow rings false given the real example of Woburn. Is Russo trying to say that life in a bigoted, polluted small town is so good its worth risking miscarriages, birth defects, and early death from cancer to experience, or is he saying that those living in such places lack the awareness, imagination, or wherewithal to be able to escape their fate? I can’t tell.

And the one who got away to Canada? Noonan ends up in Venice, Italy, hotbed of contemporary art. There Noonan becomes a significant artist with a dealer and shows in New York City. He is even offered a teaching gig at Columbia. His art appears to consist of portraits and landscapes. Where in New York is the gallery showing this kind of stuff and who is buying? Russo credits one of his editors with saving this book but I have my doubts.

New Hampshire Redo

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

What the Media isn’t telling you but you need to know

Dennis Kucinich kucinich.jpeg Albert Howard howard.jpeg

To revisit the New Hampshire Digression – How many of you know there is a New Hampshire vote recount taking place right now? Do a google search and try to find out what is going on. You would think there are nothing but wacko conspiracy theorist postings so complete is the absence of coverage. Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign requested and has paid for a Democratic recount. Republican candidate Albert Howard also requested a recount of Republican ballots. What are they finding in New Hampshire four weeks after the election?

State officials were required to audit each voting machine during the election but most failed to do so.

Many Optical ballots were not counted – 550 in one town alone.

Some ballots were not read because voters used the wrong markers.

Memory cards which store the counts from each optical reader for transmission to the central tally machine are missing.

Optical paper ballots themselves, needed for the recount, are missing.

Problems with Diebold voting machines were reported in 21 towns on election night. Details are unknown.

The state is withholding “uncounted” and “spoiled” ballots from the recount against Kucinich’s express request that they be included.

Republican and Democratic ballots are all mixed up slowing down the recount.

Many towns have not send their paper ballots for recounting more than four weeks after the election.

The chain of custody of ballots is so flawed there is no way to verify that the ballots being recounted by hand are the same as those actually counted by the machines in the election. It is easy to imagine a bunch of folk in a back room busily marking ballots today trying to generate a set to match those machine counts.

Counters are slow, leading to speculation that they intentionally exhausted the money provided before finishing.

Counting was suspended in the Democratic recount when the initial funding ran out in the first week of the recount after the first two towns showed up 4% to 10% errors (In favor of Hillary).

This somehow all seems worthy of coverage and something all citizens need to and are entitled to know.
Rich Holt has introduced a national bill required paper ballots but as New Hampshire is showing very clearly, paper ballots alone will not fix the problems in voting.


Thursday, February 7th, 2008

Everything you thought you didn’t need to know about PC networking and broadband Internet (Beware of Firewalls)

We are a two PC household who were early adapters of cable broadband Internet. Cox wants $8 for each extra PC so we set up one PC with a primary Ethernet connection to the cable modem and a second Ethernet connection to the second PC. This setup meant that cox could only see the primary PC. The downside was that the primary PC had to be turned on and working for the second PC to access the Internet. This was done in the dark ages when an Ethernet card cost less than $10 and a router cost a lot.

Cox then upgraded their broadband to tiers of service with 600KB, 1.5MB, and 7MB. Our prices kept going up but we weren’t told that we were now paying for 7MB service which our old modem couldn’t handle. The modem finally went flaky and we got a hold of a helpful technician at Cox who told us we needed a newer modem that was compatible with the newer tiered services. We purchased and installed the new modem ourselves. The technician had told us of Cox’s Las Vegas Data Transfer Test that measures the actual data transfer rates of a broadband connection. We decided to save $20 a month and dropped to the 1.5MB tier.

DLINK EBR-2310 dlink.jpg

Next, our oldest PC, an IBM, died, taking the hard disk and granddaughters’ pictures and movies with it, so we bought a new HP desktop with a 19 inch LCD monitor with built in speakers for under $500. The new PC came with Microsoft’s Vista Premium operation system. We decided it was time to upgrade our Ethernet setup to a DLINK wired router which can be purchased now for under $20 and allows us multiple PCs with a single Cox connection. Our second PC was running windows 2000 Professional. Getting Vista and Windows 2000 to network was the first major obstacle and I don’t recommend anyone try it. Microsoft’s Internet site is less than helpful, even their developers site and I am a retired professional. The second major obstacle was Vista’s security system. Routers have built in firewalls which you should turn on. Turn off the firewall on your PC. If you don’t the router and PC get into wars.

The new HP computer came with a trial security suite from a major vendor who will remain unnamed. This software went to war with Microsoft immediately, even with the firewall turned off. Dump this software. Cox offers its customers its own security suite supplied to Cox by a major security vendor. Its anti-virus and anti-spy-ware features appear to work well, but turn off its firewall or you’ll be back to the wars again.

I use the HDTV as the monitor for the second PC and wanted to watch instant movies from Netflix. Netflix only supports XP or Vista running Microsoft Explorer so I decided to upgrade the PC to a dual boot Vista Windows 2000 system. Microsoft has grown increasingly paranoid about software piracy and looking for installation help on the Internet is to enter a battleground between Microsoft and its users who the company seem to view as a bunch of hackers and thieves out to break their system and steal their precious flaky software. Hence, the ground keeps shifting and Microsoft now insists on being able to on-line activate (or not or to deactivate an already active system) and monitor your software forever. Its pretty scary knowing that big brother Microsoft may disable your PC at any time at their slightest whim.

After some study on the Internet, I learned that Microsoft is up to new tricks in licensing. They now offer a single machine OEM license at slightly lower prices. The fine print says that once this OEM software is installed, it is wed forever to that particular piece of hardware to the extent that if you change as few as three component peripherals on the PC the software may be disabled. The educational version requires so much proof that you are associated with an educational institution that I wonder anyone tries to buy it. Will Microsoft disable your PC if you change jobs or retire? The Vista Premium upgrade version is available to anyone currently running XP or Windows 2000 Professional (if you are not running the Professional version forget it).

Vista Home Premium Upgrade homepremium.jpg

Being budget conscious, I purchased a “new” copy of Vista Premium Upgrade on Ebay for $51 (it can retail for up to $200), about the same price as the educational version (pretty stupid huh?). The seller claimed it had never been installed (activated) and PayPal guarantees they will refund your money if you return the product within 7 days. So I received Vista in its original box and set about installing it. I was terrified Microsoft would try to destroy my Windows 2000 Professional (OEM) installation and all its software including my Microsoft Visual Studio .NET while “upgrading”, but I finally figured out how to install Vista on a separate hard drive and get it to leave the Windows 2000 alone. But when I tried to activate Vista online Microsoft refused to do so. I guess maybe the seller had installed and activated Vista before selling it on Ebay. Rather than immediately returning the package, I decided to try Microsoft’s manual activation procedure which involves Microsoft generating a long series of numbers which must be some combination of Vista’s product id and information identifying your specific PC. You then call an operator (in India judging by the Hinglish accent) who you read the numbers to and try to convince you have come by Vista legitimately. Microsoft makes you feel like a criminal out to defraud them. Fortunately, I succeeded, telling her honestly I had purchased Vista on Ebay and she allowed me to activate the software, probably simultaneously deactivating the seller’s copy if he was still using it.

NetGear WGR614 netgear.jpg

Our son has a new Toshiba laptop computer with Vista premium which a friend tried to connect to Cox Broadband Internet with a refurbished Linksys wireless router. They couldn’t get it to work and I determined that the router had broken once again, so I picked up a NetGear for less than $30. It has the same problem with firewall wars as the Dlink and when I deactivated the Microsoft firewall and removed the trial security software replacing it with Cox’s, the wireless router started working properly and the laptop can be used from anywhere in the house.

The problems with firewalls and security software needs to be highlighted in the installation instructions for routers and PCs. It took awhile and some trial and error to figure out the problems.


Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

Everything you thought you didn’t need to know about video

After two iterations of trying to figure out the new wild west world of video, I thought some might appreciate a little of what I found helpful as most introductions are not. For more details and numbers see Wikipedia.

Desert Traveler antenna3.JPG

The old analog TV had a standard width to height ratio of 4:3. The new HDTV has a standard width to height ratio of 16:9. All standard TVs of either type must conform to these shapes. Both formats are measured diagonally; because of their different width to height ratios a 25 inch 4:3 TV has a screen roughly the height of a 32 inch 16:9 HDTV and a 27 inch 4:3 TV has a screen roughly the height of a 37 inch 16:9 HDTV.

The old analog standard of broadcast is the NTSC which mandates 525 scan lines, constant since 1953 and broadcast in the VHF frequencies. Starting Feb. 17, 2009 the FCC has mandated that NTSC broadcasts cease forever. Cable and satellite providers will continue to support 4:3 analog TVs with their converters for some time but they can be expected to slowly pressure subscribers to switch to HDTVs.

The new digital High Definition standard is the ATSC that mandates three broadcast formats 1080i with 1080 vertical pixels; 720p, with 720 vertical pixels, and for backward compatibility with 4:3 ratio material the 480i with 480 vertical pixels. The first sets were available in 1998 and broadcasts are in the UHF frequencies.

There are no HDTV broadcast standards for either cable or satellite other than displaying images with a 16:9 shape. This means that the customer has no way of knowing how much actual resolution is being broadcast for so called “HD” channels. The FCC doesn’t care. Knowing that both media have limited bandwidth, and judging by the programming I have seen, the actual resolution looks pretty limited, I would guess something significantly less than 720i. The actual resolutions are closely guarded secrets.

Each HDTV has a “native resolution”, the actual number of pixels contained in the unit. Each pixel also has a number of bits allocated per pixel to display the color. Most units have been built with less than 1080 vertical pixels because of hardware and price considerations. Our Samsung has 1360 x 768 pixels with 32 bits per pixel for color, typical in cost effective units today. Still, it is easy to see the difference between 1080i and 720i broadcasts on this set even if there are only 768 vertical pixels available on the screen. Technology purists love 1920 x 1080 physical pixel displays and pay dearly for the privilege.

There are four major types of HDTVs. Plasma and LCD have virtually the same characteristics today. Both are rated to last 20 years although, of course, this claim cannot be proved today after only 10 years actual experience. The LCD units are getting larger and use slightly less power. DLP projection units are being widely hyped today and they are a little less costly than LCD or Plasma. What they don’t tell you is that the lamp is rated for three years and costs $300 plus the labor cost of replacement. A lot of buyers are in for a big surprise down the road. The least developed technology is the old fashioned tube in a 16:9 shape. Once the analog NTSC sets are obsoleted next year, the tube companies can be expected to put all their energies into producing HDTV tube sets. Today HDTV tube sets remain a limited novelty.

Specs are important but the most important consideration is to buy a unit that meets your own requirements. The screen size depends on how far you expect to sit from the screen. At 6 feet, a 32 inch screen equals a much larger screen seen from 15 feet away. LCD and Plasma sets appear less bright than tube TVs. Good brightness and contrast specs are desirable but more important is being able to control the light in the room. LCD and Plasma pictures also slowly disappear as the viewer moves off to the side (the viewing angle) until no picture can be seen at all. The importance of viewing angle depends on what angle you need to be able to view the picture clearly from various parts of the room. Response times are mostly important to gamers with 5-8 Ms response being adequate.

51 Elements Ready for Takeoff – 100 Miles to Tucson antenna2.JPG

Taking advantage of over the air broadcasts is important when picture quality is actually higher over the air than is available from cable or satellite. Unlike analog broadcasts where picture quality degrades with snow and ghosts, HDTV ATSC broadcasts are either received perfectly or not at all. This reverses some of the rational for getting cable or satellite as the only means of receiving a clear picture. Like cellular telephones, the number of bars representing signal strength is important. You need a bunch of bars to be able receive the ATSC program. To take advantage of the superior quality programming of over the air broadcast, you will need an appropriate antenna. This may not be as easy as it sounds and judging from the number of visible antennas in Phoenix, most people haven’t tried or haven’t succeeded in getting an antenna to work. We read that the major networks (owning TV towers and frequencies) expect to recapture market share from satellite and cable once all have converted to ATSC. Judging from the lack of antennas in the stores selling HDTVs in Phoenix, the networks better figure out how customers are expected to switch back to over the air broadcast of HDTV. The good news is that the UHF antennas will be smaller than VHF or VHF-UHF antennas.

My own experience is instructive. Our son is 6 1/2 miles from the Phoenix TV Towers mountain which you can see from his roof. A simple $30 antenna, without amplifier, mounted in his attic provides perfect reception of ATSC channels. Our house is less than 5 miles from the TV tower mountain but the entire distance is one big range of mountains and we get no signal with any antenna. We installed the biggest antenna we could find (Lowes) above our roof, supplemented by a 12dB signal amplifier pointed to the TV towers in Tucson, 98.4 miles away. With this setup we receive perfect ATSC broadcasts. Total cost was about $100. (Best of all, we avoid the Cardinal NFL Phoenix blackouts!) The lesson is don’t give up even if you need to hire a professional antenna specialist to help you. The result is free broadcast 1080i reception of all PBS, significant sports and other events, to say nothing of crystal clear soap operas. For information about the distance and direction of ATSC broadcast sites from your residence see AntennaWeb.

The HDTV makes an excellent PC or Mac monitor. I use the Samsung as my only monitor today. Combined with broadband Internet (our Cox gives us 1.5 MB downloads), you can see Internet Video and full movies (NetFlix has 6000 titles for instant viewing) on a full size TV screen. The Netflix downloaded movies are lower resolution than DVD but are perfectly adequate for most movies). Material from utube or TV programs like Charlie Rose can be viewed on demand with a size larger than on your normal PC monitor.

Each new step forward in movie formats is accompanied by competing standards; VHS had to compete with Sony’s BetaMax; DVD (4.7GB-8.5GB) had to compete with DIVX; HD DVD (15GB-30GB) and Blu-Ray (25GB-50GB Sony) both record movies in a 1080p format. Few titles are available from Netflix, Hollywood, or Blockbuster today in either HD format. Until a winner emerges, players are designed and priced for early adapters. Blockbuster and Walmart have announced they are dropping HD DVDs and Toshiba looks like they are giving up HD DVD players (after selling a million of them). Blu-Ray players now start at about $250, but for now it is best to stay with DVD but look for progressive scan and support for 1080i compatibility. Don’t spend a more than $80 unless you want surround sound.

Stereo is the starting point for HDTV and DVD sound. HDTV models typically support the Dolby Digital (AC-3) format up to “5.1” surround sound. ATSC Broadcasts as well as DVDs support everything from stereo to Dolby 2.1 through 5.1. To get the full benefit of the available sound, you might want to invest in a surround sound system usually packaged with a DVD player. Surround sound is what most people mean by home theater. Surround sound requires 4 corner speakers (front, rear, left, right), 1 center speaker, and 1 woofer. This means wires all over your viewing room. Using your surround sound system with a stereo broadcast sounds like you are in an echo chamber so use it only when Dolby is broadcast. The built in HDTV speakers are usually adequate for stereo. Use sound output connectors on your HDTV to send ATSC broadcast Dolby sound to your surround sound system. A surround sound system with DVD player supporting progressive scan and 1080i compatibility should cost under $200.

ATSC specifies that information describing the resolution (1080i, 720i or 480i), sound (stereo, Dolby 2.1 through 5.1), call letters, and usually a name and description of the show, be broadcast along with the picture itself. This allows the viewer to easily discover the quality of the broadcast and take advantage of surround sound if it is broadcast.

Connecting your DVD, VHS, cable, or satellite converter, HDTV, sound system, PC, etc. can be challenging to say the least. The old coax connector in the HDTV is relegated to the antenna cable. Newer connectors include the component (using 3 RCA cables for red green blue) and S-Video (4 wire). Neither component nor S-Video carry sound so 2 additional RCA cables are needed for left and right sound. DVI and HDMI are new connectors that support both video and sound eliminating the need for additional RCA sound cables. Cables can be purchased to convert DVI to HDMI and vice versa. The PC or Mac can be connected using the traditional 15 pin eVGA connector. Sound may be connected through your HDTV with a mini stereo jack (like your headphones) cable. Some PCs and Macs may also have built in DVI connectors.

Prices are steadily, if slowly dropping for HDTVs. Over the last holiday season several 32 inch LCD models were sold for $500. Their specs didn’t look too bad but they were untested by major labs so they are a bit unknown. One was built by AKAI. Top rated Consumer Reports 32 inch LCD units were available from $700 and the always premium priced but highly rated Sony units sold for $850-900. Sharp now has a 1920 x 1080 resolution 1080p 32 inch LCD unit for as low as $900.The magic number has been $400 for mass market takeoff but I don’t know when this will happen.

NOTE: NTSC 4:3 analog TVs now typically come equipped with component and S-Video connectors for hookup to newer DVD and VHS players, and to cable and satellite converters. Prices are falling fast and for good reason.

Family Games

Friday, February 1st, 2008

The Steep Approach to Garbadale, Iain Banks, 2007

Loch Mond lomond.jpg

The 23rd novel from Scottish Banks is an engrossing page turner. Alban, the main character, is the renegade member of an extended family made rich and successful by the game Empire, invented by a great-great ancestor in 1880. The game has survived all competitors and is now a hit video game for the new generation. Alban has left the family business to become a lumberjack.


Plenty of wise swipes at the Americans (including their game Monopoly) with particular aim at Bush and Iraq. Tension builds as an American company bids to buy the family out. Incest, family secrets (held until the last pages) and exotic settings in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai as well as Paris and the Lochs of Scotland, the book holds your attention.

Hong Kong Harbor hong-kong-harbour.jpg