Kings of All Media

Kings of All Media

Adding a computer to your home theater no longer means crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. All of the rigs here handle video and audio with aplomb, and even play saved movies while burning DVDs. For the Windows PCs, Intel’s Viiv (rhymes with five) standard promises plug-and-play compatibility with other Viiv-labeled products, like MP3 streamers, when they come out later this year. The downside is that configuring these computers – with the exception of the iMac – is a real challenge. Set aside at least half a day to integrate one of these monsters into your entertainment system.
– Dylan Tweney

How we tested

We timed each model as it ripped a 35-minute audio CD to 192-Kbps MP3 files.
Using Explorer on the Windows machines and iPhoto on the Mac, we clocked how long it took each PC to rotate a hundred 1-Mbyte JPEG images 90 degrees.
Getting AVI video from your camcorder into a format ready for burning to DVD is taxing for any computer. We processed a 10-minute sample video and counted conversion time only, not the time required to burn the disc.

Apple iMac (20-Inch)
You gotta hand it to Apple: The iMac has just about the easiest setup we’ve seen. Everything is integrated into a single, beautiful package, with no monitor, speakers, or remote control receivers to plug in, and no software wizards to stand between you and your new Kung Fu box set. Its Shuffle-like remote is an uncluttered joy to use with the included Front Row software, which lets you browse pictures, music, videos, and DVD menus. The 16:10 widescreen is vivid and clear, although it struggled with shadow detail in the dark opening scenes of The Shawshank Redemption. The same case holds a built-in webcam and some surprisingly respectable speakers. But if you want to send video to your TV, you’ll need a $19 adapter. And the iMac doesn’t allow you to watch and record TV out of the box – for that you’ll want Elgato Systems’ EyeTV 250 ($200).
WIRED: Incredibly simple to set up and use. Elegant one-piece design. Minimalist remote has everything you need – and nothing you don’t. Inexpensive.
TIRED: Only computer here that lacks built-in TV connections. Files quickly fill its 250-Gbyte hard disk. Slowest DVD–encoding in test (14 minutes, 10 seconds). Won’t slide into your stereo cabinet.

Sony Vaio XL2
WIRED: Crisp, stereo component-like design. Includes 200-disc DVD/CD changer and recorder. Wireless keyboard uses RF, not infrared – no line-of-sight required. Integrated Wi-Fi. Slew of home theater-friendly A/V ports.
TIRED: Boot up quirks. Fair-to-middling gaming performance due to lower-end Nvidia 7400 videocard. Overflowing with useless, preinstalled junkware.
*** 1/2

Gateway FX510XL
WIRED: Fast: CD rip took just one minute, 20 seconds; video conversion, only 5 1/2 minutes. Monstrous 1 terabyte of storage. More ports and media card slots than you’ll ever need.
TIRED: Big, ugly PC tower case dominates your living room. Fan sounds like a DustBuster. Hideous, mismatched IR -receivers are an eyesore.

Dell XPS 400
WIRED: Optional dual-drive RAID storage system on test unit protects data against drive failure. Convenient, front-mounted ports and media readers. Compatible with 7.1 surround-sound speaker systems.
TIRED: Ripping a CD took six whole minutes. Annoying pop-up screens for security and backup software get in the way of setup. Paltry 190 gigs of usable storage.
** 1/2

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Kings of All Media

Get blacklisted by Google in just one day!

Last week, my haiku site, tinywords, appeared as the 30th-40th result on a search for haiku on Google. This week, it’s not in the top 500. What happened?

I think Google is punishing me for mentioning the word “haiku” too many times in a previous post, which I admit I did in a fit of pique. Is this a permanent banishment, or have I just been sent to purgatory? Who knows? There’s no way I can find out, and the Great Oz is silent on the matter.

Sigh. You just can’t win with Google, folks.

UPDATE 3/30/06: It seems tinywords is back at #38 or 39. The disappearance was temporary. Thank goodness! I take back all the bad things I said about you, Google. I still like you.

Get blacklisted by Google in just one day!

How to facilitate great conversations on your blog.

The essence of good conversation is give and take. The problem blog-based “conversations” is that the essential give and take is almost always missing. I might say something provocative on my blog, and you might be moved to comment, but that’s usually where the back and forth ends. If I’m an especially responsive kind of guy, I can post a followup response. But how do you know I’ve done that, unless you obsessively check the posts where you’ve left comments?

Alternatively, I could send you an email in response to your comment — but then no one else gets to see the reply.

What I usually do on this site is respond to commenters by email. If my response has general interest, I will also post it as a comment. But this approach has shortcomings, because other commenters don’t get any notification that the discussion has continued since they were last visiting my site.

The “comments RSS” link that WordPress and other blogs give you is a possible solution, but it doesn’t work very well for two reasons. One, it seems to be buggy. I’ve never successfully tracked comments on a single post this way, using Bloglines as my RSS reader, and I’m not entirely certain why it doesn’t work. But more importantly, no one wants to fill up their RSS readers — which are already clogged with way too many subscriptions — with a bunch of subscriptions to comment feeds that may or may not generate additional discussion.

Here’s what we need: An instant mini-mailing list for each post on a blog. When someone posts a comment, there should be a checkbox saying “Keep me posted via email when anyone else comments on this.” If you check that box, you’ll get a confirmation email to make sure you really want to be kept in the loop. If you confirm, then you’ll be on the mini-mailing list for that post.

Anytime someone posts another comment on that post, you’ll get an email message–and so will anyone else who has subscribed to the discussion on that post. (There could be daily or weekly digest options too.) If you choose to respond via email, the comment should go to the whole mini-mailing list–and it should automatically be posted to the comments area on the weblog, too (subject to the usual moderation rules).

I went through the work of specifying the workflow for this kind of mini-mailing list for my haiku site, tinywords, where the back-and-forth exchange sometimes creates discussions with hundreds of haiku. But I got daunted by the technical difficulties of implementing it in PHP. Plus, I have a day job now.

Still, it seems like a logical plugin for WP or another blogging platform. Does anyone know if something like this exists already?

How to facilitate great conversations on your blog.

Google’s embarrassing mistake.

I think it’s time we all agreed that the “nofollow” tag has been a complete failure.

For those of you new to the concept, nofollow is a tag that blogs can add to hyperlinks in blog comments. The tag tells Google not to use that link in calculating the PageRank for the linked site.

In other words, if I post a comment on your blog, and my comment includes a link to my site, people can click on that link to see my site as usual. Ordinarily Google would see that link and view it — as it views most hyperlinks — as an implicit endorsement of my site. This would ever so slightly boost my site’s ranking in Google search results. But if your blog software adds the nofollow tag, Google won’t give my site any added weight at all.

The half-baked idea was that if everyone adopted nofollow, it would quickly make comment spam pointless. The thinking was that comment spam is aimed at creating lots of links to a certain site, thereby boosting that site’s rankings in Google searches. Example: If I fill your comment pages with links to haiku, then maybe Google will start to believe that my haiku site really does have something to do with haiku.

Since its enthusiastic adoption a year and a half ago, by Google, Six Apart, WordPress, and of course the eminent Dave Winer, I think we can all agree that nofollow has done … nothing. Comment spam? Thicker than ever. It’s had absolutely no effect on the volume of spam. That’s probably because comment spammers don’t give a crap, because the marginal cost of spamming is so low. Also, nofollow-tagged links are still links, which means that humans can still click on them–and if humans can click, there’s a chance somebody might visit the linked sites after all. Heck, if we really wanted to eliminate comment spam, why don’t we just get rid of hyperlinks altogether?

Worse, nofollow has another, more pernicious effect, which is that it reduces the value of legitimate comments. Here’s how:

Why should I bother entering a comment on your blog, after all? Well, I might comment because you’re my friend. But I might also want some tiny little reward for participating in a discussion, contributing to the content on your site, and generally enhancing the value of the conversational Web. That reward? PageRank, baby. But if your blog uses the nofollow tag, you’ve just eliminated that tiny little bit of reciprocity. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather just comment on my own blog. And maybe, if you’re lucky, I’ll link back to you.

In fact, the solution to comment spam is simple. I’ve used it both on this blog, and on my haiku site. Here’s the step-by-step solution:

Step 1. Automatically moderate any comments that include hyperlinks.
Step 2. There is no step 2.

That’s it. Just throw any comments with hyperlinks into a moderation queue. If you feel like it, you can visit that queue every now and then to let legitimate comments through. Or if you’re busy or cranky, ignore the queue. Either way, no spam will get onto your site (well, almost no spam), spammers’ PageRanks won’t get boosted, and legitimate commenters will still be able to post their comments. And if you moderate up any comments that do have links, the commenters will get the PageRank lifts they deserve.

PS: Hmm, it seems that the great minds behind Technorati also seem to have been involved in nofollow.

Google’s embarrassing mistake.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler.

Kindred (Bluestreak  Black Women Writers)The premise of Kindred is that Dana, an African-American woman living in the late 1970s, is suddenly transported back in time to a Maryland slave plantation in 1819. It turns out that she’s been called back in time to save the son of the white plantation owner–a boy who, she soon learns, is one of her ancestors. The novel makes slavery seem more real, and more awful, than any historical work I’ve read, including Howard Zinn. Well-written, troubling, and thought provoking.

The author, Octavia Butler, recently passed away at the age of 58. What a terrible loss. Annalee Newitz wrote a moving tribute.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler.

10,000 digital sheep.

one sheep Best application for MTurk I’ve seen yet: Someone asked people to “draw a sheep facing left.” Compensation per sheep: $0.02. Total number of sheep drawn: 10,000. Their web site shows every single one, and yes, you can buy the sheep: The Sheep Market

Background: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a sort of virtual, distributed sweatshop for online piecework. Programmers can write applications that hand off work to MTurk via an API. MTurk farms the work out to a virtual army of workers (turkers?) who can browse available jobs, pick one to work on, and then send the results in. Most of the jobs can be completed in a few minutes and earn the turker a few pennies or at most a couple dollars. Companies have used the Turk to do all kinds of boring stuff that computers aren’t very good at, but human drones are: Like transcribing podcasts, figuring out which of a group of photos is the best one to represent a storefront, figuring out which URLs are easiest to type, and so on. But drawing sheep takes the cake.

PS: Wired’s current issue has a story on “crowdsourcing” that also discusses Mechanical Turk.

10,000 digital sheep.