Christmas Gadgets: Creative Zen, LCD Monitor

So it’s a few days after Christmas, and like most of us tech-heads, I’ve got a few more gadgets to play with.

First up: the Creative Zen 4GB. This one was a little bit of a saga.

Last year, we got the kids no-name MP3 players, on the theory that we didn’t want to spend megabucks on something they wouldn’t use. They made valiant attempts to use them, but the little machines just weren’t up to the job. So, it seemed prudent to buy them iPods this year.

Well, except for Apple’s attempts to break all non-iTunes iPod software, which had the side effect of making the devices unusable under Linux. Still, this was what they wanted, and they had been good this year, and very patient with my ever-more-convoluted schemes to get the old players working. So, iPod Nano 3Gs for both of them. My heart sank as I watched some of my hard-earned money go to reward such behavior.

As part of the deal, I vowed to find a non-Apple player that would be good for when the iPods gave up the ghost or became “uncool”. And my dear wife, upon hearing this, went online, did some research, and bought me the aforementioned Creative Zen 4GB.

From a Linux perspective, it’s in the “not quite ready for prime time” mode. Rhythmbox and Banshee are working on support; I tried a prerelease of Rhythmbox, and found its support to be very unstable. The only usable app is Gnomad2, which has a terrible UI and also occasionally crashes, but can manage to upload audio, video, and photos without too much hassle. Still, this is a problem of fine-tuning, and not of a hostile hardware vendor; I’m confident that these devices will be well-supported in the near future.

The Zen is picky about what video files it will play, but I managed to figure it out: DivX or XviD video, 320×200 or smaller image size, encoded at a 480 kbit/sec video bitrate or less. Other video files might work, too, but you’ll have to find them on your own.

My Zen has a little problem with the button locking feature: after unlocking, the screen comes up to all-white, and you have to power-cycle it to get the display back. I’m assuming this is a firmware bug, as the screen is still visible for a short time after engaging the lock. Other than this, the Zen is a delight, and every bit as functional as the iPod.

The other nice gadget: a 24-inch LCD from Envision, bought after Christmas with a combination of gift cards, exchanges, and some of my own money. It was an open-box, and I saved about $80 for that; the only problem turns out to be a single dead pixel in the corner of the screen which is barely visible. It does 1920×1200 in very nice, bright color.

Here, too, an improvement on my life only came after some effort. Debian 4.0’s drivers for the Intel graphics chipset are not capable of driving a widescreen LCD; the best I could get was 1600×1200, a normal-width resolution stretched across the wide display. I booted an Ubuntu Gutsy live CD to verify that the problem wasn’t with the monitor, and then set to the task of backporting everything I needed from lenny. Happily, before I started, I found that someone (Holger Levsen, to be exact) had done the work for me.

Things are now about 90% there. The new drivers still don’t have everything figured out for running both Compiz desktop effects and XVideo acceleration at the same time, so I’ve had to turn XVideo off. My computer can render video without hardware support, but the quality isn’t as high. But, I have my nice wide screen, with crisp fonts and lots of room. I figure I’ll live with what I have until lenny releases, and then see what progress has been made.

Rest In Peace, CompUSA

I’m very surprised about the popularity of an old post of mine, regarding my experiences with CompUSA. It continues to collect horror story comments, the last one coming less than three weeks ago. While any company has its detractors (especially any company dealing directly with the public), it seems odd to me that people continue to be motivated enough to post to my blog, of all places, their tales of woe.

For me, life has been very CompUSA-less of late. Indianapolis now has a Fry’s, one of only two east of the Mississippi as of this writing, and for someone in the relatively tech-starved Midwest, it is a godsend. (People from the west coast: please stifle your laughter as best you can.) And evidently enough of these horror stories have been passed around that they felt the need to close over half their stores in February.

The Indy store was spared that time, but not for long.

The electronics retailer decided to finish what it had started earlier this year, announcing that it would sell or close the remainder of its stores in the US after the holiday season. The company, controlled by Mexican retail management company Grupo Sanborns since 1999, has been sold to Gordon Brothers Group, a restructuring firm that will be responsible for selling off the remainder of its assets.

In an abstract sense, less competition in the electronic retail business isn’t ever good. But it’s arguable that we’ve never had so much competition in the electronic retail business if you count the Internet stores that have sprung up all over. And I’m certainly happy to see an outfit that will slander people for profit go belly-up.

“This Is Not An Oops.”

Carver County, Minnesota, is in big trouble. (via

Eric Mattson was not surprised that the small vacant lot he bought last year near the shores of Lake Waconia was increasing in value.

What shocked him was the $189 million market value the Carver County assessor’s office came up with for the 55- by 80-foot lot, making it the most valuable property in Waconia and possibly the county.

Of the resulting $2.5 million tax windfall, about $900,000 had already been spent by the time Mattson got the bill and came in to complain. They’re now looking at spending cuts and new taxes to pay for the shortfall.

“This is not an ‘oops.’ This is a major error that affects an awful lot of people,” said Mark Lundgren, director of the Carver County division that oversees the assessor’s office.

So how could someone make such an egregious error?

Lundgren said the trouble began in August when a clerk went into Mattson’s file to change the designation of the property, at 233 Lake St. E., from homestead to non-homestead to reflect its change in status after its sale.

The clerk filled in the $18,900 proposed valuation, but then mistakenly hit the key to exit the program. The computer added four zeros to fill out the nine numerical spaces required by the software, thus indicating the value was $189,000,000.

So many thing come to mind, most of which are probably too snarky. But a few observations come to mind:

  • Don’t just pin this on the clerk. The major mistake was with the programmers, whose software did such an unexpected thing, and on the auditors, who missed a $2.5 million mistake. (Oddly, given that audit failure was an issue, the only solution worth mentioning in the article was “more auditing”.)
  • Programmers, cherish your input. Do not auto-munge it without at least user review! And, I’d argue, don’t auto-munge it at all if the result is at all valuable. Validate it, sure, but don’t change it; force the user to fix his or her own mistakes. After all, if your program was so smart as to know what the user “meant”, why does it need manual data entry at all?
  • Use modern tools! What kind of data store today requires zero-padding? MySQL is a free download, and very popular; for all its perceived faults, it can at least store numbers of variable sizes correctly.

LSB 3.2 Beta

Today, we released the first beta of LSB 3.2. If all goes well, this will hopefully be the only beta.

We’ve been working on 3.2 for a while, and we’re really excited about it. We’ve added quite a few interfaces, based on feedback from application vendors and others. There are whole new sections: printing support, Perl and Python, FreeType, Qt 4, and trial use support (our new name for “optional”) for Xrender, Xft, and the ALSA API.

Betas can only be as good as the people participating; more feedback means a better standard. So please go check out the beta. Look at the whole thing, or just parts you’re interested in. Read the spec, or check out the tests, or try building your favorite open-source app with our SDK.

We’re hoping for a release before Christmas, but that depends on the feedback we get, of course. And we’d rather know about that really big issue we forgot about and delay the beta than find out after the release. So get cracking!