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Out With The Old

I have had my SageTV PVR computer setup and running smoothly for a little over two and a half years now. Aside from swapping out and adding a few different recording devices, the box has remained the same throughout this entire time and I could not have been happier with it. A Pentium 4 3GHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, a 300GB SATA drive, and an eVGA 6600GT video card are the guts that comprised this system; nothing flashy, but it made for an excellent entertainment system.

On various posts in the SageTV forums I have read of problems people have had with Sage, or other PVR software products, ranging from blue screening to playback stuttering to system hang ups, but have experienced none of these problems myself (except when I tinker too much). As a matter of fact, with my basic system using the nVidia PureVideo decoder I have had remarkable image quality playing back SD TV content, DVDs, and even HDTV content. Given all this, why would I decide to upgrade my system?

The first reason is the release of Hauppauge's new HD PVR tuner. This little USB device allows for the recording of HDTV using component video feeds. What that means is it will allow recording of high definition television from the cable company's set top box (STB), allowing me to record all of my HD channels as HD, instead of only those broadcast in an unencrypted format (more or less the local network channels). Discovery HD here I come! The only problem is the listed minimum requirements for the HD PVR sights both a dual core processor and a graphic card with 256 MB of memory; neither of which my Sage box had. Granted, given my Sage box already played back HD content recorded with the HDHomeRun, I am still a little skeptical at the Hauppauge requirement.

The second reason for the system overhaul is BluRay. Now that the battle between HDDVD and BluRay is at an end with BluRay emerging the victor, I thought I might give the high definition movie arena a shot. Again, my existing Sage box played back HD recordings without a problem so I imagine it could tackle BluRay content, except for the industriy's lovely little catch: HDCP. HDCP is the movie industry's latest means of preventing copyright violations and movie piracy (which, mind you, as a software developer I am all for copyright protection). Unfortunately, every piece of the BluRay puzzle has to be HDCP compliant, and my poor eVGA 6600GT video card missed the boat. Considering this is an AGP card, I figured if I was going to have to replace the card, I should upgrade to the PCIe standard in the process.

The last reason, and most important, is that I finished my Six-Sigma paper and the Operations Management course with an A- (transfers over to a 4.0 back at Excelsior). So, damn it, I deserved a new toy. And what a toy I built. The new system uses a Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L motherboard, an Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 2.53GHz processor, a Maxtor 500GB drive, 2 GB of RAM, a Gigabyte 8600GT video card, and ASUS BluRay SATA drive (I really need a Tim Allen sound bite here). You're jealous, I can tell.

I spent the better part of this weekend getting the system put together, software installed, and migrating all of the files over. When all was said and done...pretty much the same as my old system. The big improvements were in upgrading SageTV to the newest beta version (6.4.3), which held a few nice items I have been waiting on. Mostly convenience sake kind of things, but Sage also added some nice techie improvements such as H.264 support (for the Hauppauge HD PVR among other H.264 devices). The best part of this new Sage version is that despite it being a Beta release, everything I have tried has worked without a flaw. Impressive.

Once I had Sage running, I still found myself wanting to be "WOWed" with my new rig, so I went out and purchased a couple of BluRay movies and watched them using CyberLink PowerDVD Ultra 7.3 (SageTV does not currently have support for the BluRay menu stuff). Instead of being wowed, I found BluRay to be very disappointing. I guess SageTV and the nVidia PureVideo decoders were too far ahead of their time when it comes to video playback and up scaling, because DVDs on my old Sage box looked just as good as either of the BluRay movie I watched on the new.

All and all, the upgrade has been a mixed bag, the pluses of finally getting away from AGP, meeting the requirements of future enhancements, and the improvements with Sage; the minuses of no visible improvement in video playback and the disappointment of BluRay versus my old system and DVDs. So much for being "In with the new".

To Be Secure

There is a saying in IT, "The only secure computer is one unloaded, unplugged and locked in a closet." More or less a true statement, but with computers everywhere at the workplace and home, it is not a very realistic approach. Plus I would be out of work, and who would want to see me on a street corner begging for money, right? I would make a pitiful vagrant. Really.

Why do I mention this? Well, the issue of computer security came up when I recently helped a friend fine tune a paper for one of her graduate classes. The paper was on the misuse of company resources, in relations to IT and HR departments; and, as just about everything does, it got me thinking (I really need a short vacation from doing that).

In the Information Services industry, security and misuse prevention go hand and hand, or rather, are two sides of the same coin (where do these sayings come from anyway?). The practice of keeping an Internet-connected-network secure from outside threats falls in the same arena as keeping users from going to inappropriate websites. Preventing illegal software, or even spyware, from being loaded by an employee on a company computer is in line with keeping time-wasting games off the computers (solitaire anyone?). The same with phone services, email and any number of other IT sub sects. If you are hitting one side of the issue, odds are you are hitting the other. And hopefully, in this day and age, you are taking information security very seriously.

My friend had covered most of this in her paper when I first proof read it for her. She also went into the discussion of monitoring and surveillance of employees versus privacy issues. Basically, the arguments of big brother at work against "this is a private email to my sister that is very important" (blah blah blah). If you have ever heard an argument for employees' rights at work regarding technology resources, or perhaps even argued for them, you can disregard what you have heard or said. In the United States, Germany, and many other countries around the world you don't have those rights for privacy when it comes to company resources. Big brother can, and probably does, watch you. He reads your email. He tracks your phone calls. He knows what fetish porn sites you are into. And, to protect the company that both you and he work for, he should be able to do all of that.

But he shouldn't have to do so much of it. That is what I brought to the table with this paper. The point of view of increased training and awareness, and it is something that helps everyone out more than any other action (or inaction). I am not the first, and won't be the last to say this but, proper training and awareness for employees regarding acceptable use is a must have for any company. Further, proper training and awareness on basic security risks should also be a must have. Two sides of the same coin.

Had I finished my paper on Six Sigma (procrastination really is an art form), I would probably be inclined to dig up statistics and facts on what I am saying. Instead I will go with the common sense approach. If you, as an employee, knew that not only could (and likely would) your emails sent to or from work be read by someone in IT, but also your manager and supervisor, wouldn't you be less inclined to use it for personal messages? What if you knew that your manager would be reading those little flirtatious chat messages you have been sending to that cute girl in accounting? Would you really be looking at that new teddy from Victoria's Secret during your lunch hour if some guy in IT and your supervisor knew you bought it?

For the other side of this coin there is just one phrase that rings home on why training and awareness of security issues is important for employees. "I didn't know." It's been heard a million times, and a lot of the time they really didn't know. Instead, imagine if they did know about scam/phishing emails, the damage malicious software could do, social engineering attacks, why giving ANYONE (even IT members) your password is bad, the dangers of loading software from the Internet, or even just the dangers of browsing to the wrong website. Users would suddenly become your number one security defense, instead of a security breach waiting to happen.

Give it some thought when your budgeting rolls around this year. Instead of, or at least in addition to, looking at that multi-thousand dollar device or piece of software to track everything under the sun on your network (until that buffer overflow attack compromises it), look at setting up a proper *ongoing* employee training regime for your company. Or just unplug the computers and lock them away in the closet.

The Best Day of the Year

I have never been one to celebrate holidays, whether it is Christmas, or Valentine's Day, or Easter, or Birthdays (including my own); to me, these days of the year are just that, another day of the year. I have been this way from an early age, just prior to hitting my teen years. There was no tragedy, religious experience or dramatic event that turned me off to these "special days", but rather a conscious decision on my own part.

The only holiday I have always enjoyed is Thanksgiving, as it is one of the few excuses my family has had to travel across the country, or down the road, and spend time with one another. And it is one of the few that has not, as of yet (knock on wood), been completely bastardized into a Hallmark buying frenzy. Even in that, I do not see myself as celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday, but rather enjoying the reunion with family and friends. A distinction perhaps only to myself.

For me the holidays are generally a charade. A day or two a year that people celebrate the birth of a friend, the love for another, the joy of their religious beliefs, or any of a number of other things. I, we, should not have to be told to purchase a gift for a friend or a loved one simply because of the calendar date. We should not have to be reminded to remember our deity. For if these things only occur because they are marked upon a calendar, do they really matter?

To me, everyday should be a celebration of those things. Being a Christian (Pastafarian really), I try to enjoy the Christmas spirit year round, much to the annoyance of those who know me. Between January and November of each year, you will be hard pressed to find a day that I am not singing Christmas songs aloud and at random. Come December, in proper spirit, I switch to Easter songs. If I see a gift that someone I care about might like and I can afford, I buy it and give it as a gift. Now. Not when their birthday or another holiday rolls around. Perhaps I am just odd. Alright, I am just odd, but in this case I don't see my behavior as strange, only as doing what I see as right.

The major exception to all my bah-humbugness is my daughter. With her, and for her, I celebrate all of the holidays. Each and every year she is my valentine. On Christmas I try to provide a few gifts for her to unwrap and enjoy. The same for each holiday she has chosen to celebrate, but I still never lose sight of the everyday. Each day she has been and will be in my life is the most precious gift of all. And I cherish all of these days.

We might not get to spend the time together that we would if she lived with me, and we might not do all the things that others would expect of a weekend parent, but we do get the most out of our time; even if it is time spent apart from each other. She is my daughter and being a part of her life is the most important and wonderful thing I will ever do in my own life.

Despite the ups and downs, the gray hairs she has given me, and the many nights of worry; I have always been proud of the girl she has been and the woman she is growing up to be. And so I truly hope she enjoys this 17th birthday and 18th year of her life as much as I will continue to cherish each day that I have been blessed with her as a daughter.

Happy Birthday Phaide. You might be getting older, but you will always be my little girl.