Friday, June 29, 2007

On iPhone, Paris Hilton, Six Stupid, and more

Summary: This week's reading recommendations focused on processes and other topics.

Today is the iPhone day. Am I the only one who noticed that iPhone had turned into Paris Hilton of the technology world? Haven't we had enough of both? Really,
"Hitler got less coverage when he invaded Poland."
Thank you John Dvorak. And thank you Mika Brzezinski. Now, about things that matter.

Bob Lewis, the publisher of IS Survivor and president of IT Catalist, just discovered a new methodology called Six Stupid:
"Everyone knows that a group of people is dumber than its least intelligent member. Six Stupid is based on this insight. Unlike the better-known Six Sigma, Six Stupid requires the collaboration of at least six idiots, to design process flows that defy reason and preclude exceptions."
It's unfortunate that many Six Stupid processes (methodologies, rules, etc) start as great ideas, but at some point get overtaken by zealots and eventually turn into entities that exist mostly for the goals of their own. Instead of helping, they become obstacles. Instead of reducing time and effort, they require more time and effort. To make sure your process does not turn into Six Stupid, remember:
"Turning a new process on does not justify employees turning their brains off."
Now, here is a process from Google described in Life at Google - The Microsoftie Perspective, which is definitely not Six Stupid:
"Google has the concept of "Tech Stops." Each floor of each building has one. They handle all of the IT stuff for employees in the building including troubleshooting networks, machines, etc. If you’re having a problem you just walk into a Tech Stop and someone will fix it. [...] If your laptop breaks you bring it to a Tech Stop and they fix it or give you another one (they move your data for you). If one of your test machines is old and crusty you bring it to the Tech Stop and they give you a new one. [...] If you need more equipment than your job description allows, your manager just needs to approve the action."
As far as I know this process is not patented. Someone at Intel IT management chain, please give John Johnson a call.

And here is another process: hiring -- or should I say "non-hiring" -- of technology workers in the US. In this video, Lawrence Lebowitz, vice president and director of marketing for the Cohen & Grigsby law firm, explains how employers can hire cheap foreign workers while following the legal process imposed by the U.S. government that is inteneded to guarantee that no qualified U.S. worker is left behind. According to Lebowitz,
"[T]he goal [of this process] is clearly not to find a qualified and interested U.S. worker."
It's not stupid, but it's so wrong, so deviant... And what were these guys thinking when they were shooting the video. OK, maybe it's One Stupid. By the way, now I understand the purpose of the job advertisements placed in professional magazines.

Well, some processes directed against us have antidotes. In case you're shopping for a Dell laptop, read 22 Confessions Of A Former Dell Sales Manager. Smart, uh! Dell's reaction on the other hand was not so smart.

Finally, Dare Obasanjo (AKA Carnage4Life), a son of the president of Nigeria and a current Microsoft employee, described a meeting with Bill Gates, who was planning a trip to Nigeria, in a blog post, which I recommend to readers. You can learn a few things about Bill Gates and Obasanjo (the president): how he became a president after a military coup in 1976, served one term, held free elections, was jailed, was elected again, became a born-again Christian... What a life! The last part of the post made me laugh. As Obasanjo was leaving the building, he overheard the following exchange between the receptionist of the building and a visitor:
Visitor: Where is Bill Gates's office?
Receptionist: I'm not at liberty to divulge that information.
Visitor: I need to see him, I just downloaded Windows Vista and I have a number of complaints.
Enjoy the weekend, and please don't mention iPhone (or Paris Hilton) to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The end of Microsoft... Digital Image Suite

Summary: Obituary for Microsoft Digital Image Suite.

By now, you must have heard that Microsoft has discontinued its line of Digital Image Suite products. I'm a bit disappointed because it's one of my favorite Microsoft applications.

From the beginning, Digital Image Suite received mostly positive reviews from press and consumers. In his 2005 review, Paul Thurrott, who is not shy to criticize Microsoft's bloopers, said:
"Though I spend a lot of time using PhotoShop, I've come to appreciate the simpler, task-based approach used by Digital Image Editor, and some of its tools are clearly superior to those offered by the more expensive Adobe product. [...] And what can I say about Photo Story 3.1? It's an application without peer, and one of the few times when I can honestly say that Microsoft continues to out-do the best Apple has to offer. Taken together, the applications that comprise Digital Image Suite 2006 combine to make a fantastic solution for editing, managing, and sharing digital photos. Given the price, it'd be a mistake to ignore this elegant, well-designed product."
I totally agree. After using both Adobe Photoshop Elements and Digital Image Suite for a few years, I found Digital Image Suite more intuitive. I absolutely love its smart erase feature, which deletes unwanted objects (I could not find this option in Photoshop Elements, at least in the older versions). To be fair, Photoshop makes it easier to erase backgrounds (based on color proximity), which is a must feature for making transparent icons and images. But overall, I prefer Digital Image Suite's user-friendly interface.

And it is not just Paul Thurrott and me. Average user ratings of Digital Image Suite at stand between 4 and 4.5 (stars) out of 5 (depending on the version and edition), which is no worse than Photoshop Element. If user responses focused only on the product features and functionality, the ratings would have been even higher (many negative reviews addressed Pinnacle Studio, which came with some editions of Digital Image Suite; a few users also complained about Digital Image Suite's handling of RAW image files).

Why did Microsoft decide to ditch such a decent product? We may never know. Microsoft claims that
"Many of the digital imaging features and tools that have been enjoyed [in Digital Image Suite] for years now can be found in new Microsoft titles and services including Windows Vista™."
I would be really surprised if this were the case. Maybe some of the simple features, such as photo album and basic image enhancements (cropping, rotation, red eye reduction, color and exposure correction, image resizing) are or will be offered in Vista, but I really doubt that Vista would provide smart erase tools or anything more-or-less advanced. We'll see...

Microsoft has promised to support the product for the next 3 years, but in the meantime, maybe it's a good idea to start learning new tools. Say, GIMP (or GIMPShop)... Just kidding (no offense to GIMP lovers, I'm sure it's a great application once you figure out how to use it, I just never had time -- or patience -- for it). I must be naive, but I hope that Paint.NET will take over from where Digital Image Suite left off, similar to what Digital Image Suite did after Microsoft PhotoDraw died.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dvorak prediction 4,652

Summary: Lame rant on the importance of buzzwords and fads in high tech.

John C. Dvorak, an award-winning technical columnist, is not known for avoiding (technical) controversies. Some of his opinions and predictions (such as suggestion that Apple would abandon MacOS and switch to Windows) were proved wrong (at least thus far); others came true (for example, he predicted that Apple would release iPod despite Steve Jobs' denial). In a recent column Dvorak responds to Sam Palmisano (head of IBM) who has just pronounced client-server computing dead. Says Palmisano:
"The PC client-server model has run its course."
According to Palmisano, businesses must "escape the economic waste that has plagued traditional client-server architectures" and move to "a new architecture for data centers" coupled with "software as a service (SaaS) environments and service-oriented architectures (SOAs)."

Dvorak calls Palmisano's "new" approach nothing more than:
"what they do now, but with a fancy name"
and concludes:
"In the next few years we will see more and more new monikers that rename what we already do but change absolutely nothing."
You may discard Dvorak's opinion as irrelevant, but if you decide to analyze Palmisano's statement seriously, you will have to answer similar questions. Do client-server architectures really plaque businesses with economic waste? If they do, what (or who) can guarantee that the "new" architecture will do any better? By emphasizing the end of PC client-server model, does Palmisano mean to somehow distinguish it from non-PC client-server models? Does he suggest that non-PC client-server models (whatever they are) are alive and well? What is so particular about the PC (vs. non-PC) client-server model other than the fact that with the recent sale of PC unit to Lenovo IBM has exited the PC business? And which "traditional" client-server architectures is Palmisano talking about: 2-tier, 3-tier, n-tier, ...? Isn't Web-based architecture also client-server, as Dvorak rightly points out? Aren't all distributed application architectures based on the client-server architecture (even peer-to-peer can be viewed as client-server at certain angle, as well as SOA and others)?

I guess, Palmisano, who majored in history at school and specialized in sales at work, did not intend to be technically precise, or even correct. His likely goal -- and it's hard to argue with Dvorak about this -- must be promotion of the IBM's current lines of businesses (servers, consulting services), and buzzwords seem to be the best promotional drivers in the today's corporate world. In fact, if he substituted a new architecture for data centers with IBM-built hardware and software as a service (SaaS) environments and service-oriented architectures (SOAs) with IBM-built software, Palmisano's talking points would make more sense (at least, from the IBM's perspective), but they would not generate as much hype.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

MP3 encoding primer

Summary: A mini-tutorial on audio ripping and MP3 creation.

If you are trying to figure out how to make the best sounding MP3s from your favorite CD collection or keep wondering why certain MP3s sound better than others, here is some information that can help you sort things out.

First, a bit of background on CD ripping for MP3 novices (if you're not a novice, feel free to skip the next section).

Music (and other audio) on traditional CDs comes in uncompressed format. To copy a song from a CD you first need to rip it using a CD ripper software (no, you cannot just copy it in Windows Explorer). If you want to keep an audio track in original (uncompressed) format (i.e. without loss of quality), you need to rip it to a WAVE (or WAV) file (like Track01.wav). Because WAVE files are very large, it is more practical to convert (encode) audio to compressed formats. Most CD rippers can convert (encode) audio files to compressed formats when ripping them from CDs. Alternatively, you can generate compressed audio files from the already ripped WAVE files. There are many types of audio compression formats, but the most popular is probably MP3. Audio files compressed using the MP3 algorithm (MP3 files) are typically more then 10 times smaller than the original WAVE files. You must be aware that MP3 files may lose audio quality.

The quality of MP3 audio largely depends on the choice of encoder and encoding algorithm settings used when the MP3 file was generated from an original audio source (such as a WAVE file). Because after creating an MP3 file you cannot improve its quality, be careful when selecting the encoder and encoding algorithm settings.

LAME is a popular encoder which makes good quality audio and is (or can be) used with a number of audio rippers. LAME -- and other MP3 encoders -- can generate MP3 files of different quality based on various settings used during encoding, the most important of which is probably bit rate.

Bit rate defines the number of bits (or kilobits) that can be used to encode one second of audio. A higher bit rate normally produces better quality audio, but it also results in a larger file size. Most modern MP3 encoders can make very good quality audio at 128 kbps (kilobits per second) or higher; lower bit rates generally result in poor quality audio.

MP3 audio can be encoded using constant bit rate (CBR) or variable bit rate (VBR); the latter uses different bit rates for encoding different parts of the original audio with more complex parts encoded at higher bit rates and less complex parts encoded at lower bit rates. Using variable bit rate can help achieve better audio quality in smaller files (when compared to CBR). Some older MP3 players may not support VBR encoding, but they are quite rare.

To learn more about MP3 encoding, check the references at the end of this post, but if you just want to know how to make the best-sounding and reasonably-sized MP3 file, simply use a quality MP3 encoder and encode audio using a variable bit rate (VBR) with a minimum of 112 kbps (or higher). Many audio editors require users to install LAME binaries, but you can find a few, which already come with a built-in LAME encoder. For example, winLAME comes with pre-installed LAME binaries and also offers a simple user interface and easy-to-follow process.

If you are fond of a popular (and free) Audiograbber software, you need to manually change its MP3 encoding settings to use an external MP3 encoder, such as LAME (the default settings produce poor-quality 56-bit audio).

To install LAME, copy the LAME binaries from one of the distribution sources, such as RareWares, or following instructions at SourceForge); you can copy the files from the distribution bundle to a new Program Files folder (you will first need to create the folder, e.g. C:\Program Files\Lame).

After making sure that you have the LAME binaries, do the following:
  1. Start Audiograbber.

  2. Select the MP3 Settings option from the Settings menu.

  3. Check the External Encoder check box in the corresponding tab.

  4. Click the Browse button (located next to the text field displayed right below the External MP3 program name label) and select the LAME executable file (lame.exe) from the location where you copied the LAME distribution files.

  5. Change the Predefined arguments option to User Defined.

  6. Enter the following arguments in the Arguments field:

    -h -v -b 128 %s %d

    Some advanced users recommend more complex settings, such as:

    -V9 --vbr-new -q0 -mj -b32 -F --lowpass 19.7 --nspsytune --cwlimit 10.7 --athaa-sensitivity 1 %s %d
    -V2 --vbr-new -q0 --lowpass 19.7 -b96 %s %d
    -V2 --vbr-new -q0 --lowpass 19.7 --cwlimit 10.7 --scale 0.99 -b96 %s %d

    I haven't tried these, but if you experiment, you may be able to find the best sounding options that works for you.

  7. Click the OK button to save settings.

Now, when Audiograbber makes MP3 files, it will use the LAME encoder instead of its own.

To check the quality and encoding settings of an MP3 audio file, use the free EncSpot utility. It can guess which encoder was used to encode the file and give you a general idea of the audio quality of the file.

Here are some tools that can help you generate and improve your MP3s:
Exact Audio Copy
MP3/Tag Studio
Monkey's Audio

Additional references:
First look: Digital Media Core, Audio Format: MP3
How MP3 Files Work
How to turn your MP3’s into ringtones for your mobile phone for free
Variable Bit Rate: Getting the best Bang for your Byte (read comments, they have a lot of good info)
Creating quality audio-files using Windows, L.A.M.E., Ogg Vorbis
Wait wait... fix this podcast