Thursday, December 13, 2007

How Does a Teenageer Get Into Visual Effects for Film and Video?

A couple of years ago, my friend's precocious 11 year-old son was obsessed with buying his first Macintosh computer, and was similarly interested in how he could create visual effects for video and film production. After being warned that the topic was vast, he begged me to write as long a letter as was required.

Well, I definitely think that the Macintosh operating system (Mac OS) is the right platform for "special effects and stuff like that." People are pretty divided and emotional about Macintoshes (Macs) and Windows, but I have intellectual motives for being a Macintosh advocate. Some are esoteric - and have to do with how I think and work with software tools, and how Apple Computer (who makes Macintoshes and the Mac OS) has always approached software and hardware design and implementation a bit differently. I'm not just a "Mac guy" because I want to be part of that cult - it just makes sense to me.

It's an important factor for you, being interested in media production, that the Mac OS is firmly established in the media community as the platform of choice. Though Macintoshes are a small minority of all the computers sold (around 7 per cent now), they represent the majority of people who manipulate still images, moving images and sound for a living. There is Windows software, and more of it, for doing pretty much anything you can do on a Mac. But if I have the choice, I'll still do all my production on a Mac. Part of the reason is kind of deep down in the Mac OS - a really slick kind of integration of a lot of things that mean, for instance, that you can just expect to be able to drag a video file on your Mac's "desktop" into an open window of a program you've never used, and expect that program to try to do the most logical thing with that piece of video. This isn't just the program, or just the Mac OS, but decades of a way of thinking, and people who program for Macs tend to consistently subscribe to these ideas. The Windows landscape is a bit more chaotic - no two programs behave, look, work, or "feel" the same, and you have no expectations about how you might accomplish a task.

OK - I didn't really need to *sell* you on Macs - you already said you wanted one - I was just telling you why I think it's a good choice.

I'm not the kind of guy who can usually tell you "you need to buy this," or "this is the best thing you can be doing." I can't make those kind of clear choices for myself - I'm just too aware of all the variables, and every thing is kind of a compromise. I also can't in good conscience tell someone to spend a lot of money - I'm very careful about that myself - so I'm always mindful when advising about purchases to keep things as economically sensible as I can. I tell you all this because I know that I'm going to end up telling you too much information, and probably won't have clear choices - especially since we haven't talked about this yet (except for your one email paragraph). I want your purchase to suit you, and to complicate matters, you don't yet know what you want.

So what follows won't yet be a guide to buying. For now, I'll just throw a bunch of thoughts at you about this. We need to establish some direction in which you want to proceed, and how fast you want to get there (which includes how much you can spend, or get for free from somewhere else). So here goes some first thoughts. Ask questions, and we'll keep going. We can talk on the phone, or even over the Internet (depending on what kinds of computers, etc. you have at home). Eventually, after you get a Mac, we can easily talk and even video chat.


Assuming you're wanting to spend as little as possible, and assuming you want to buy a new computer (although you could buy a used one), there are a few obvious choices:

(This info about Mac models is obviously out of date now, but I'll leave it historically intact. This is a moving target anyway, and not the point of the article. -Ed)

Apple iMac G5 - - This is the most powerful of these three choices, and the most expensive. It is the only one of the three to use the current state-of-the-art G5 processor, so it's faster, and a bit more "future-proof" (meaning that it will work with software not yet released). These start at $1300, but are a complete computer with software with which you can do a lot of cool stuff. They're ready for video editing (all you need is a digital video camera, which your family might already have), and for making your own video DVDs. Apple's iLife '05 ( software suite is included, and lets you edit video, manage digital still pictures, make and record music, and create DVDs.

Apple Mac mini - - This is a tiny Macintosh computer based on the older G4 processor. It's still plenty fast enough for video editing and other media tasks (recording sounds, special effects, etc.). It starts at $500, but only the $700 model has the DVD-burning SuperDrive - which you definitely want. This doesn't include a keyboard, mouse, or monitor (they figured people buying them would already have these parts around from old Macs), but you could use it with a monitor you already have, so you might only need a USB keyboard and USB mouse. It's possible (with maybe $60 more) to connect a KVM switch (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) so that one monitor, one USB keyboard and one USB mouse share a Windows PC you already have and the Mac mini (or any Mac). The mini also comes with Apple's iLife '05 software suite.

Apple iBook - - These laptop computers are $1,000 and $1,300, but only the higher-priced model comes with the DVD-burning SuperDrive (it also has a bigger display, and is bigger overall). They also use the older G4 processor, but are similar in performance to the Mac mini. The difference, of course, is that they are laptops. So you could actually be editing video in the car going down the road (actually, you could do this with the other Macs, too, with a power inverted plugged into the car's cigarette lighter, but you can't put a big monitor and keyboard on your lap). You could take it to school with you - lots of cool stuff. Of course, it can get dropped or stolen, so that's a big trade-off for portability. Laptops used to be a lot more expensive than desktops. Apple's higher end PowerBooks _are_ expensive, and more powerful than iBooks. But iBooks are pretty good values, and don't necessarily lose a lot to "desktop" computers. One significant drawback (for me, at least) - iBooks only display 1024 x 768 maximum display resolution - that's how many dots make up the screen's picture. Even when you connect them to an external monitor (with an optional $30 adapter), they still only do 1024 x 768. In contrast, the 17" iMac G5 does 1440 x 900, and the 20" iMac G5 is 1680 x 1050. What this means is that when you are working in programs that have a lot of little windows for tools (called "palettes"), you can see them all at once instead of having to layer them all on top of each other. When you're working with more than one program at once (I'm actually running 8 right now), it means you can have their windows side-by-side, to allow for viewing both without switching back and forth, and "dragging" elements between the programs' windows. Despite this display limitation, many people are willing to compromise with a modest screen resolution to have a completely portable computer.
NOTE: You should know that Apple will be changing a very big thing starting at the end of 2006 - they will begin using processors made by Intel instead of the IBM "PowerPC" processors which they currently use in all Macs. At that point, the Mac OS and all major software will have to change dramatically, and some of your old software may not work, or won't work very well. They probably won't sell an Intel-powered Mac that you would be likely to *buy* until some time in 2007 - I think the first models will be very high-end expensive ones. So that's probably so far off it won't really matter - but I though you should know.
Apple's other computers are much more expensive, and some are much more powerful. But I don't think that will matter to you at this point.


Since we haven't really established what you want to do yet, this is a little vague. As I mentioned, all new Macintoshes come with Apple's "iLife" software suite (

iMovie HD - Capture video from your digital video camera (or even footage from TV, or home videos your family already has), edit it, add titles and some (simple) effects and transitions, and output high-quality video back onto digital tape (or DVD, see "iDVD" below).

iDVD - Turn content captured by a digital camcorder (including video from other sources, like VHS or Hi8 tape, or live television) into DVDs you can play in (most of) your family's and friends' DVD players. You can make title menus with custom graphics and captions while "authoring" your DVDs.

iPhoto - Collect and organize photos taken on your digital camera (or collected from friends). Make DVD movies out of them. Print books with them. Make Web pages out of your photos.

Garage Band - Make music with pre-built "loops" of music. Play and record music on a MIDI keyboard. Record and mix live sources (microphones, guitars, etc.) with the loops and MIDI to make elaborate songs. Burn them to a CD and share them with your friends and relatives.

iTunes - Manage all your MP3s. Rip CDs you already own to smaller high-quality AAC or MP3 files on your computer and iPod. Buy music from the Apple Music Store. Buy videos on the Apple Music Store. Put your own home-made videos on your Video iPod.

The iMac G4 and iBook also come with Appleworks (, which is a program which does word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and other typical office/student tasks. Email, Web browsing, address book and other typical daily software is included, and all pretty excellent stuff - all published by Apple Computer.

Eventually, you'll find you need software *other* than what comes with a Mac. But you might not need to worry about that yet. If you get a new Mac and just play with iLife stuff, you'll start to get a feel for "production" - thinking of an idea, planning what you need to do (both of these are actually "pre-production"), shooting (production), and editing, effects and finishing (post-production). Joni teaches college students from 18 years old to 80 years old, and some of them take months to get good at this. I suspect you'll be way ahead of most of them in just weeks (most people aren't as good at learning things as they get older, for lots of reasons). But then you'll get involved with making DVDs, and that will keep you learning for a little while longer.


To really make iMovie do anything, you'll need a digital video camera which either records to MiniDV tape or Digital-8 tape. The camera must also have a FireWire, or IEEE-1394, or "Sony iLink" connector. If your family doesn't own one already, maybe they should (hint, hint). Or maybe you have a friend who has one. They can cost as little as under $300 (better ones can cost over $4,000). Some models let you connect them to _record_ video from an old "analog" (not digital) source - like VHS or Hi8 or Video8 tape, to digital tape. So you could edit old home movies together and make a DVD out of them, for instance.

If you really want to play music with Garage Band and you can play a piano-style keyboard, you can connect a MIDI-capable synthesizer (using a MIDI adapter) or a small keyboard made just for computers (using a USB plug). The USB MIDI keyboards start at around $50, I think.


You say you're interested in "special effects." This expression has very broad meaning in the media business. There are "mechanical special effects," like building a real car than crushes itself when some computer-generated creature stomps on it. There are special effects guys who blow things up - both big (like a real building) and small (like a model spaceship). More and more, of course, "special effects' get done with computers, but even here, exactly what gets done, and who does what, varies tremendously. And a lot of the actual "work" people do in special effects is pretty un-exciting stuff. There are computer effects jobs where people just hand-trace the outline of a shot of a person moving in a scene, one frame at a time, 24 frames for every second of film. "Wire removal" jobs have people just using software and laboriously "painting out" heavy cables used to suspend actors or props, so they appear to float or fly through the air.

More and more effects are being done on computers, but I don't think that's always the best solution. For one thing, the best CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) sequences still aren't completely undetectable - and I think audiences can feel that, and they know, even if not consciously, that it's not really happening to the actors. For another thing, it's exciting to try to make things work on the set without resorting to CGI work. Yes, CGI has given us a fantastic tool for moving images, but it shouldn't replace getting to do clever things on the set.

Some people who are really smart, and really into movies eventually become "visual effects supervisors" (VFX supervisors). They have to not only know about every aspect of the craft, but they often have to invent solutions for things no one has ever done. Today, they are often involved during the production phase of a movie, and are actually there on the set with the director and actors, sometimes advising on the way something needs to be shot to make the final effect more convincing, and sometimes to make notes about what's happening on the set so that many months later they will have a good idea about how to manipulate the footage to best achieve desired results. Most VFX supervisors are probably serious movie geeks, and can tell you how every special effect in every famous "genre" movie (science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc.) was done.

You should learn about all kinds of special effects. You can get books about this, and you've probably already seen special features on DVDs of movies about them. You're only (almost) 12 years old, and so you won't be getting a job as in special effects for at least another year :-). By the time you're actually trying to *work* in VFX, a lot of the computer tools will have changed. So learning *specific* pieces of software isn't so important. Knowing what can be done, and what to call it, *is* important, and will serve you in years to come. Just start "playing." I do it all the time. You can't really get that far without actually *making* something, so come up with a project. Maybe small, at first. That will make you figure out how to do it. It might not be great, but you'll learn why, and the next time will be better - maybe a lot better. There's an amazing amount of cool technology right now that means that a 12 year old can do stuff now in his own room that took lots of people millions of dollars only a few years ago. Remind me, and we'll try to dig up some examples of things people have made with basic home equipment and a lot of cleverness.

Some of what people call "special effects" these days is computer animation. The Battle Droids and Gungans in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" are completely synthetic creations - entirely generated in a computer. Some of their movements may have been "captured" by analyzing how real humans or animals move, but ultimately, even their movements are controlled by software routines written by human programmers. There are some romantic and very unromantic parts of this process. Some of the people involved are doing serious computer programming. For the epic Invasion of Naboo, they created software that actually makes each of the thousands of Gungans move a little bit differently, not positioned by the animators, but actually following some of the key members of their group, without bumping into each other. They don't even move because of direct actions of the animators - they have kind of a library of possible behaviors, and each Gungan warrior has a little bit of randomness about how he moves.

Other programmers are just writing "code" to make smoke effects, or make things look like they're under water. Their contributions might be profound, but their work is extremely tedious work, trying to write strings of letters, characters and numbers which have the desired affect upon image files in computers. So some of these people are computer programmers, and not really doing what you'd call "art." They probably got computer programming degrees in college, and may or may not have ever thought they would be involved in show business.

Other CGI professionals work doing aesthetic work - designing. They probably studied art in school, and may or may not have used computers along the way. Over the years, software tools have developed to allow traditional artists to apply their talents in painting, photography and sculpture in the "virtual" world of CGI. These tools sometimes look and feel like traditional non-computer art tools - paint brushes, sculpting tools, cameras. These art professionals would have sculpted the first Gungan prototypes out of clay with their hands, then when the final ideas were approved, they tediously translate their sculptures to computer models.

Animators are another specialized kind of craftsperson. They have studied the art of a figure in motion. This is a very special craft, and involves being very observant and analytical about how people and animals move and act. Animation is done with many media forms - ink on paper, clay models, real objects, and computer models. Many experienced animators from the pre-computer days now work as animators in the computer world. Their skills are still valuable because they understand movement, and how it is simulated on film (which is really a bunch of still pictures played very rapidly in succession).

The the professionals that comprise a CGI "crew" on a movie have very different jobs and backgrounds. You may be interested in them all, or perhaps only one aspect of this seems interesting. Next time we talk (by email or otherswise), tell me more about what sounds like something you want to do, and we'll continue from there.

Do Ferrets Make Good Pets?

A couple of years ago, a friend's then 11 year-old son found out that we had owned a ferret as a pet, and asked me to tell him all about ferrets. This was email written to him.

Ferrets are cool pets. My wife gave me a female sable (that's a color type) ferret for Christmas many years ago. I named her Sasha.

My observations and comments about ferret behaviors and characteristics are based upon having Sasha as a pet. I also read a few books about ferrets - there are plenty of books available in pet stores (even here in California, where they are not legal to have as pets).

Ferrets are weasels - I guess you probably know that. Other members of the mustelidae family include minks, skunks, wolverines, otters and badgers. Though ferrets are among the smaller mustelids (males of the domesticated species rarely reach 4 pounds, females typically don't exceed 2 pounds), they share a lot of characteristics with their family members:

THEY ARE CARNIVORES - They might look like the other small animals in pet stores (rabbits, chinchillas, rats, hamsters, gerbils), but all those animals are strictly vegetarians. Ferrets in the wild eat most of those other animals that pet stores sell. Ferrets have been used to hunt rabbits for humans, who send them down into rabbit warrens on long cords, then drag the ferret out with a rabbit in its mouth (which weighs twice as much as the ferret). Commercial ferret food, unlike rabbit, hamster, etc., is made of animal meat - like cat food. In fact, there tends to be more animal protein in ferret food than cat foot. Ferrets can and will eat cat food (and I fed some cat food to Sasha), but ferret experts typically suggest that you stick to the higher-protein foods custom-made for pet ferrets.

THEY ARE FEARLESS - I've seen film of a 30-pound wolverine chasing away a 250-pound black bear. Ferrets can be like this - they seem to have no sense of being smaller than other creatures. Sasha used to play with a cat of mine that was over twice her size, and they ran and wrestled and had a great time. Domestic ferrets aren't usually too aggressive to handle - they can actually be a bit affectionate (more about this in a minute), but they can and do bite, though I've never been injured by a ferret's biting.

THEY ARE HYPERACTIVE - Ferrets don't stop moving unless they're asleep. They're not like cats - they can't really focus their attention on one thing for a long time. A cat can watch a bird out a window for minutes - stalking it. Ferrets don't work like that. When we put Sasha in a room with an unfamiliar cat, the cat would hunker down on the floor and watch the ferret without even blinking, following it around the room, and not sure what to make of it. Sasha constantly moved around the new room, poking her head into every crack and crevice, climbing under every chair, table, sofa, etc. At the point where Sasha noticed the cat, she paused for maybe three seconds - then she kept on going. Eventually, she walked right up to the cat. The cat kind of arched it back, not quite sure whether to run or fight. Sasha just walked right up toward the cat. When she got six inches away, the cat whacked her on the top of her head with her paw. Sasha backed up about a foot and blinked a few times, then just tended to walk in a bigger circle around the cat from then on.

THEY ARE CURIOUS - On the Christmas morning I got Sasha, I put a cardboard tube from wrapping paper on the floor near Sasha (who was probably only 3 or 4 months old). When she noticed the end of it, she immediately walked through to the other end. When she popped out, she looked around until she noticed *that* end of the tube, then she went through again. She would do this almost indefinitely, until I removed the tube. I think you could do this to many adult ferrets, and they couldn't resist going through - it's how they hunt in the wild, so it's an instinctive trait, but it represents how they are inquisitive about their environment. I remember reading an article 25 years ago about scientists at a Particle Accelerator facility sending a ferret through the tiny tubular core of their miles-long underground loop to make sure there were no obstructions before they fired a high-energy stream of subatomic particles through it. The ferret would happily walk through the long tube until it popped out the other end of the giant loop.

THEY ARE TOUGH - Sasha was about the size of a small sock. But I stepped on her with pretty much my whole weight at least once, and it didn't seem to matter. She kind of squeaked (probably just the air getting forced out of her lungs), but was none the worse for wear. On more than one occasion, she fell from the second floor down onto the hardwood stairs below (she was always poking around between the railing around the stairwell) - but she'd just kind a blink a few times, and start running up and down the stairs again.

THEY ARE INTELLIGENT - Very much unlike all those rodents and Leporida (the family name of rabbits) in pet stores, these are pretty clever animals. They are hunters, remember, so they tend to need skills which exceed those of their prey.

IS A FERRET A GOOD PET? - This depends upon what you want out of a pet. Sasha wasn't exactly capable of affection - certainly nothing like the devotion of a dog, and not like the mutual affection which a cat can provide. But they do know who you are, and will come when you call. Sasha understood when she was being told not to do something - she'd stop, whine a little, then go do something else. We handled her a lot, and she was very patient about it, and I think she even liked it, if only because it was less boring than nothing. She'd always come to see what we wanted if we called her, and on rare occasions, she'd fall asleep in your lap. It's pretty cool to have any animal trust you like that.

Ferrets probably aren't really to happy being kept in a cage. If they were out in the wild, I think they'd travel miles every day on their short little legs. This means you have to give them a lot of attention - more than a dog or cat. I actually let Sasha run around on her own in one of my houses while I was home. Keep in mind that keeping a ferret contained is really tricky. I used to find Sasha in our hall linen closet, with the door closed. The first couple of times, I thought she'd run in while the door was open. Then I began to wonder. The gap under the closet door was maybe 3/4" of an inch high. Sasha was about 2" in diameter. So one day, I got in the closet, and called to her. First, she scratched at the floor, and whined a little. I called her again. She scratched some more. Then, I started to see her nose under the door. For about 20 seconds, she squashed herself under the door, squishing her body so it looked like a half-full water balloon, until she was inside the closet with me. The moral of that story is - you'd better be *very* careful about the space in which you think you can enclose your ferret. If the hole around the pipes under your bathroom sink have a 3/4" gap - a ferret might give that a shot.

Sasha had a great time with our cat Sonja. Sonja came into our household when she was just a 4 month old kitten, and pretty soon Sonja and Sasha were racing all over the house together. Sonja would run sideways along the back of an old sofa (in our bachelor's pad house) and leap across the furniture - Sasha could get to almost any place Sonja went by climbing or falling. They'd start to wrestle and bite at each other sometimes. Sonja could bite Sasha anywhere, and Sasha never seemed to care much. But occasionally we'd hear Sonja meowing, and see that Sasha had her cheek or ear or something in a vice-like grip. They loved playing rough, and never seemed to take anything personally.

Ferrets will use a litter box. This is great, and a pretty important factor that makes them potential pets. But Sasha wasn't above using a convenient corner if she was a long way from her box, so be warned if you leave a ferret unsupervised for any period of time.

Some people carry ferrets with them in public, in pocketbooks and handbags, and in custom-made ferret carriers that you wear like a chest-pack. So some ferrets are "tame" enough to be in that kind of hostile environment (some cats couldn't deal with this, for instance).

Ferrets have a strong, sweet, musky odor (remember, they're related to skunks). Domesticated male ferrets typically have some scent glands surgically removed when they are young (all pet store ferrets will have been neutered and de-scented), but they still have strong scent. My wife and I didn't mind it - it's actually kind of interesting. But you might want to test-smell a ferret before you decide to keep one as a pet. They're not so smelly that you can smell one at a distance - you pretty much have to hold them up to your nose, but you can do this in a pet store.

Ferrets can be more destructive to personal belongings that you might think. Sasha loved rubber things: she'd drag a video camera tripod (which weighs about 10 pounds - she weighed 1.5 pounds) all over the house by a rubber ring around part of the center post. She ate about 1/4 of a Nerf football over a year or two's time (it showed back up, sort of, in her litter box). She'd steal and chew up the insoles out of my roommate's running shoes, and chew through the end of his dirty socks (the smellier the better) until she came out the other end. So they need some supervision. We were just bachelors living in a mostly empty house, so we weren't too concerned (though my roommate didn't really like having to replace his insoles and socks all the time).

Sasha was a good pet. We had her until she passed away when she was eight years old. Ferrets can live longer - usually 10-12 years, and sometimes more, but Sasha also contracted feline leukemia from a feline leukemia vaccination when she was young. She wasn't expected to live - the disease is almost 100 per cent fatal to ferrets. But she survived, and was a great curiosity to North Carolina veterinarians. We suspect that might have shortened her life a bit.

Ferrets are legal in every state of the U.S. except California and Hawaii (as of the end of 2007). I'm not sure what these state's real objections are, but I think the fact that California is a huge state with enormous agricultural business and Hawaii has such a small ecosystem makes them sensitive to altering their ecological balance. There are certainly plenty of examples where man has introduced a species of plant or animal to a new environment with disastrous results. So far, pet ferrets have not created a significant ecological problem. Despite this, pro-ferret organizations in California claim that hundreds of thousands of families in the state own ferrets as pets. We've had many people in pet stores say that if we wanted a ferret, they knew who to call, and several years ago, all the major pet store chains in California started carrying ferret supplies - even though ferrets are illegal in California. They continue to campaign to state government to legalize pet ferrets here.

Ferrets can be interesting pets, but require a bit more attention than dogs or cats, and should be appreciated as being far higher-order mammals than rodents and rabbits. Perhaps a ferret would be a good pet for you.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More Misguided DRM

The nasty case of "guilty until proven otherwise" in which a file-sharing utility included with Western Digital hard drives doesn't allow users to share video or audio over the Internet.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Discover Music You'll Like at Pandora Radio

(I wrote this email February 2006, but when writing some friends about it again today, I realized I should post it here.)
UPDATE: Early in 2007, SoundExchange, a non-profit performance rights organization (created as an unincorporated division of the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA) convinced the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) to propose new, higher royalty rates for webcasts and streaming music sites, which is retroactive for 2006 and in effect until 2010. This may be the death knell for much of live Internet radio. Pandora's founder, Tim Westergren, says there is no way that his business can survive if this decision is not overturned. Here's an interview with Westergren about the impact of the proposed royalty rates on Pandora and Internet music.
Here's something great I just discovered, it's Pandora Radio. It's ad-based Internet radio which plays on your Web browser, but with a very cool twist. A staff of 40+ musical academics analyze songs based upon proprietary parameters about music - NOT song popularity - and this data becomes part of their Music Genome Project. When you create a "radio station" in Pandora (you can have 100 at a time), you "seed" the station with a song or artist. The station streams music to you based upon these characteristics. You can "guide" Pandora by indicating that you like or dislike the songs played, and (natch) you can click to buy from Amazon or iTunes. It's a very cool way to listen to free music, and to discover other music you might like.

My wife and I both enjoy using Pandora as a "radio" listening solution, and we've both found new performers which we would never had an opportunity to discover otherwise.

Some caveats and comments about running Pandora:
  • Pandora plays on any browser and any OS with Macromedia Flash v7 and above. Broadband is necessary to handle the 128Kbps (typical MP3 bitrate) streams.
  • Ads appear in a frame of the browser. Pretty unintrusive.
  • "Accounts" are free, and allow you to log in and play your Pandora stations anywhere.
  • The interface is less than intuitive. I didn't read any documentation (typical for me), and it was a bit awkward to get started.
  • Because the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) prohibits "on-demand" characteristics of free online music delivery, you're restricted about how many songs you can "skip" in an hour - the theory being that if you could keep skipping until you liked something, that would be "on-demand." If you just let Panora play (in a browser windows - Firefox works better than Safari for this), it just delivers 128Kbps streams all day long. As it turns out, if I listen to at least a minute or so of each song, I seem to be able to get away with skipping - so it seems that part of the arrangement is that artists get a certain amount of exposure. If you listen for 30 seconds or so and click "I don't like it" on a song's album art pop-up, it will skip automatically.
  • Once a song has played, or you've skipped a song, you can't return to play it again (that would be "on-demand," remember?). But you can still get a pop-up list of actions, including "add to favorites" and purchasing options.
  • We've found that entering an artist's name rather than a song title seems to yield better results sooner.
  • I can't say I've discovered that clicking "Guide Us" and entering another artist or title has been terribly effective, but I haven't experimented that much with Pandora, I just use it.
  • You can rename and delete Radio Stations, so I think it makes the most sense to go crazy and make another station when have a new idea of a song/artist to try. Again, trying to "tune" a single station by adding more songs I like has not be very rewarding.
All in all, if you want to discover new music, and like to have music playing around you, this is a fantastic solution.

I discovered Pandora listening to a Podcast interview with it's founder, Tim Westergren.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

AIM in Gmail

Google has introduced AIM in Gmail, allowing Gmail users to include AIM/AOL chat in their Gmail window (Gmail users have been able to text-chat with each other for some time) on most Web browsers. Pretty slick, and especially useful in workplace environments or on borrowed computers where installing an IM client application isn't allowed or practical.

Even though IM in Gmail isn't as full-featured as application-based clients such as AOL Instant Messenger, iChat or Trillian, one really cool thing Gmail can do is offline chat. You can send IMs to people who aren't online, and they receive them the next time they log in.

I appreciate that Google fosters continuous innovation in their products - it keeps me using them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why a Mac May be the Best Windows Computer

Now that users can run Windows on Macintosh computers using solutions such as Apple's Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion, it obviously provides flexibility to users wishing to benefit from multiple operating systems. (It's possible to have a single Mac configured to triple-boot into the Mac OS, Windows and Linux - plus users can directly access the Unix OS which is the underlying system for OS X for a fourth operating system.)

But I think there's a good argument that a Macintosh makes the ideal Windows computer. Why? Because in the vast world of Windows "clones," there is immense diversity in the combinations of hardware that comprise any given "PC." And though these components are theoretically built to common "standards" for the Windows OS, there are potentially frustrating and expensive consequences of incompatibilities between Microsoft Windows, various hardware components, and the software "drivers" written by their manufacturers or third parties to control and communicate with those hardware components.

I spent an enormous amount of time diagnosing a problem with installing a higher-performance 3D graphics display in a Windows XP machine which was ultimately an incompatibility between a four-model series of 3D graphics card and a tiny chip on the computer's motherboard (the "southbridge," or I/O controller hub). The video card worked fine on other motherboards, and the motherboard worked with other video cards. Ultimately, changing the motherboard was the solution (the video card was more valuable, and had been purchased as a performance upgrade), but I'd spent over 100 hours in diagnostics and research before recognizing a clue in an online post about a similar, but different problem. This would have been an impossible problem to actually resolve professionally (any service department would have determined that one or the other component was faulty and informed the customer to buy a replacement graphics card, which would have also failed, after which they would have replaced the motherboard, which would have failed, etc.) at any reasonable cost. This was my own PC, and I am a determined diagnostician, so I was willing to put in a huge amount of time over a period of many months to find the actual solution - but this would be a horrific and probably unresolvable problem for most of the population.

That this kind of incompatibility problem might only affect a tiny part of the PC buying public (those who happen to have the particular combination of southbridge chip-equipped motherboard and graphics card) doesn't provide encouragement because of its rarity - on the contrary, it means that fewer diagnosticians will have ever encountered it, much less shared a solution in the online community.

Compared with the vast market of PC clones, there are a very limited number of Macintosh hardware models, which have tightly-controlled component sources known to Apple, Inc., who also provides nearly all the Windows drivers for this hardware. The Macintosh user community is a vigorous, active culture of sharing information. These factors create a "Windows on Mac" microcosm in which there are far fewer mysteries than in the "other" 96 per cent of the computer-using world.

So there you have it. A Mac may just be the ultimate Windows computer. Whouda thunk?

Apple Boot Camp Beta Expiration

On November 28, 2007, Boot Camp users received email notices that Boot Camp Beta will expire on December 31, 2007.

Apple's (unsupported) Boot Camp Beta, which provides software tools to install Microsoft Windows XP or Vista operating systems on Macintosh computers with Intel microprocessors. Apple's original end-user license agreement (EULA) for Boot Camp Beta cited that it would expire either on December 31, 2007 or when Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard shipped, whichever came first, but Leopard debuted on October 26, so Apple appears to have given users a brief extension. Apple had been issuing notice of this impending event for some time, citing that Boot Camp functionality would be included in Mac OS 10.5 "Leopard." (Here is the Boot Camp 2.0 page for Leopard.)

Following the expiration of Boot Camp Beta, a Mac running Windows installed using Boot Camp will continue to boot into Windows. However, the Boot Camp Assistant Beta (used to install and configure the Boot Camp partition) will no longer function, so Boot Camp installations are no longer possible without Mac OS 10.5. The license from Apple to run Boot Camp Beta expired as well, and Apple advises to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard to continue using Boot Camp 2.0. The Boot Camp Beta downloads were removed from the Apple website at the end of September.

Interestingly, Apple's Support site hosts a technical note from October 22, 2007, "Removing a Windows partition after Boot Camp Beta has expired in Mac OS X 10.4." This is apparently to address the needs of users wishing to perform this action, but finding that the Boot Camp Assistant Beta no longer functions. Apple's solution is for users to set manually their Mac's clock to a date before September 30, 2007 and then launch Boot Camp Assistant Beta. I find no examples of whether it's possible to use this trick to install Boot Camp Beta - which would be interesting.

It's not clear at this time whether any solution for installing Boot Camp on a Mac running OS 10.4 will ever be provided - I'm guessing that there will not. For those who find Boot Camp useful, it's a compelling reason to pay Apple to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5. Having said that, alternatives for running Windows on an Intel Mac exist. Virtualization software such as Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware Fusion allow Intel Mac users to run Windows XP or Vista applications transparently from within the Mac OS environment, and allows users to easily pass data between Windows and Mac applications, where Boot Camp functionality requires that the Mac be started in either the Mac OS or Windows. However, a Boot Camp-prepared Mac running Windows is a full-fledged Windows computer, where there may be some compatibility issues with some applications in virtualization software, particularly regarding hardware/software interaction.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Apple Releases Final Cut Express 4

On November 15, 2007 Apple released their latest version of Final Cut Express, their "prosumer" video editing application based on Apple's Final Cut Pro software.

Notably, Final Cut Express 4 now supports the nascent AVCHD standard, which is used by an increasing number of "tapeless" high-definition camcorders. With this update, all three of Apple's video-editing programs (iMovie, Final Cut Express, Final Cut Pro) now provide (limited) AVCHD support.

NOTE: Apple's AVCHD support is limited to Intel-based Macintoshes. The Voltaic software utility allows both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs to download AVCHD files (except DVD-based - see below) and transcode them to files used by iMovie (HD or '08), Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro.

At this point, Apple still does not support transfer of AVCHD files from HD camcorders which record directly to DVD, because Mac OS X does not support the UDF 2.5/2.6 file system used by DVD-recording camcorders. I have read reports that users have successfully transferred files from AVCHD DVDs using the ReadDVD!™ utility from Software Architects.

Gmail Now Has IMAP Support!

Google began supporting IMAP access to Gmail accounts the end of October 2007. The Gmail IMAP help page details how to configure your Gmail account and your email client application(s) to access Gmail IMAP servers.Link

Friday, November 16, 2007

AOL Now Supports POP Mail!

I don't recall exactly how I noticed this, but today (November 16, 2007) I realized that America Online email now supports the POP email protocol. After 15 years, AOL finally supports the most common email standard!

(AOL started offering IMAP support in 2004, and we've been accessing our AOL accounts using Apple Mail, after using AOL Communicator and Claris Emailer - we haven't actually used an AOL application in a decade.)

There seems to be surprisingly little about this the Web, perhaps because the geeky masses long ago forsook AOL as a provider. I did find this interesting forum posting from June 2007 where the poster includes a transcript of an online chat with an AOL tech in which the tech denies AOL has POP support, but instructions for setting up an email client for an AOL POP server are on AOL Help Pages. So I guess this rolled out quietly since June 2007.

My wife and I (as well as many friends) have had our AOL email addresses for over 15 years - and now that it's free to maintain an AOL email account, we have no intention of getting rid of them.

What's important to me about AOL's finally supporting POP:
  • I can now maintain all my email accounts from many different providers (including AOL) from within Gmail - my email "application" of choice for two years now.
  • I no longer have to use an IMAP client on my Palm (or any other mobile device) to check my AOL account when mobile. I'd had to use an IMAP client for this single task.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Car Talk" Now Available as a Podcast!

For many years, my thoughtful wife wake up on Saturday mornings to record Tom and Ray Magliozzi's fantastic automotive radio show on our local National Public Radio (NPR) station to an audio cassette. Whenever we'd take a long driving trip, we'd have tens of hours of Car Talk episodes with us - the perfect thing to keep me alert at the end of a long driving day.

Some years ago, we purchased a Griffin RadioShark, and used the USB-connected radio tuner to automatically record radio programs as MP3 files. Over the years, the RadioShark recorded hundreds of shows which we'd sync to an iPod for travel. It still records NPR shows every week - but it will soon be retired from this function, because...

Finally, Car Talk is available as a podcast. By clicking on this link, you'll be taken to their subscription page in iTunes - where it will then automatically download each episode as they become available. (Don't have iTunes? Get it free here for Mac or PC.)

National Public Radio now offers much of its programming as podcasts. You can view the NPR Podcast Directory at their website, or within iTunes on the NPR store.
Podcasts are subscriptions to audio and video content on the Internet. Nearly all are free, and many are simply "re-purposing" of radio broadcasts. You don't need an iPod or any kind of portable audio player to listen to a podcast, you can listen on your computer using iTunes or any other MP3-playing program. Learn more about podcasts here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Talking Moose Lives!

All of us who were running Macs twenty years ago fondly remember the Talking Moose, who randomly spoke to you from your Compact Mac while you worked, and read your dialog boxes to you (a friend and I often recount that your Mac could "hard crash" - requiring a reset of the computer - and often the Moose would *still* read you the "bomb" error message, twisting the knife, as it were).

The Talking Moose lives on, thanks to the efforts of Uli Kusterer. It's even available as Universal Binary (for PowerPC and Intel Macs).

The original author of the Talking Moose, Steven B. Halls, is Chief Radiologist at St. Mary's Hospital, Camrose, Alberta, Canada.

Monday, November 05, 2007

$400 Sub-notebook Laptop

The Asus Eee PC Linux-powered sub-notebook laptop sells for about $400US, and has an impressive list of features, including:
  • 900MHz Intel Celeron CPU
  • 512MB RAM (1GB optional)
  • 100BT Ethernet
  • 802.11 B/G WiFi
  • 4GB of solid-state storage (8GB optional)
  • MMC/SD/MS/SDHC media reader
  • 300K pixel camera (on 4G and 8G models)
  • Microphone
  • USB 2.0
  • VGA output (1600x1280 max)
  • 2.25 pounds, 9" x 6.5" x 1" closed
  • Xandros Linux variant operating system, plus many preinstalled applciations
  • 3.5 hour battery duration (manufacturer's estimate)
The display is a bit dinky, of course - a 7" diagonal 800x480 LCD, but this is a "sub-notebook" - and what you lose in screen real estate you get back in terms of portability. For the purposes most people need a laptop while mobile (email, Web browsing, digital photo management), it seems fantastic. For many users with minimal computing needs, it may be all the computer they require.

While the Eee PC doesn't have a hard drive or optical drive, it does have USB 2.0 ports, so users can add these when necessary.

The Eee PC comes with Firefox for Web browsing and OpenOffice 2.0 (the free open-source office application suite, which is cross-compatible with Microsoft Office files), as well as instant messaging, media playing and game apps. Apparently the Eee PC can run Windows, and Asus may eventually offer is pre-installed.

This kind of thing isn't usually on my radar, but I watched this review on the recently-launched ChannelFlip site (I know of U.K. presenter/ChannelFlip founder Wil Harris as a frequent guest of Leo Laporte's This Week In Tech podcast) and was impressed enough to post here.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Search & Replace iTunes Song Names and More!

Ever have trouble reading the titles of your Podcasts in a list because they scroll off the right side of your iPod's screen? When every episode is titled something like "This Week's Exciting Edition of the World's Best Fish Noodling Podcast Episode #124," all you see in your list is:
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
  • This Week's Exciting Editi
Pretty irritating, no? The truth is, podcasters should name their episodes with the number or date first. But assuming that isn't going to happen, I use this simple free AppleScript, Search/Replace Tag Script.

By using this Applescript and searching for "This Week's Exciting Edition of the World's Best Fish Noodling Podcast Episode" and replacing with "Noodling," my list now looks like:
  • Noodling #126
  • Noodling #127
  • Noodling #128
  • Noodling #129
  • Noodling #130
  • Noodling #131
Doug Adams hosts Doug's AppleScripts for iTunes, where over 400 (so far) free AppleScripts (most authored by Doug) add functionality to the ubiquitous iTunes on Mac OS X, using this built-in scripting language. Take a look, there's bound to be something there you've always wished iTunes did!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

HD Camcorder Technologies - October 2007

In early October 2007, a friend asked me about buying an HD (High-Definition) camcorder to replace their family DV camcorder. His primary application is shooting his son's football games for post-game analysis. He's an engineer, and our discussions reflect that.

  • Tape - We still like this. The consumer HDV tape format uses the old MiniDV tape format, and records MPEG-2 data at exactly the same 25Mbps (megaBITS per second) as standard definition DV. When you run out of tape while on vacation, you go to the store (even a grocery store, these days) or the photo booth at Disneyland to buy more. When you shoot to tape, it's a $5/hour archive of what represents 13GB of data. Camcorders can duplicate these digital tapes perfectly to each other over a FireWire cable, and footage edited on a computer can be written back to tape losslessly. Downsides: transferring footage to a computer for editing or transcoding ( i.e., for uploading to YouTube, putting on your cell phone) can only occur in real time. Also, tape is pretty mechanical, and may wear out in time easier than optical media (CD-R/RW, DVD-R/RW). Of course, optical media might fail eventually, too.
  • Hard Drive - Perhaps handy and tempting because you can shoot several hours of footage without managing tapes, but when it's full, you'd better have a computer with lots of hard drive space handy, and some time to transfer the data. (On that African safari, you'd better have a laptop and a couple of external hard drives and batteries to transfer footage while bouncing across the veldt in a Land Rover.) HD camcorders shooting to HD use MPEG-4 H.264 "AVC" codec, just like DirecTV's new transmissions. The AVCHD standard provides for potentially greater fidelity than HDV. However, current implementations do not yet match the quality of HDV. Unlike HDV, AVCHD camera offer user-selectable bitrates to balance quality and capacity. This is a new paradigm for computer editing, so we're in the first generations of editing software which handle AVC. Unlike tape, footage can be potentially transferred to a computer in a fraction of the recording time. Obviously, footage must be archived elsewhere, but I'm assuming that you can simply use existing computer data management concepts to copy and "burn" data to DVD-Rs. I don't know if any HD camcorders allow using the drive as a mountable hard drive on the computer - that could potentially save even more time (though you really want your footage archived in another location for safe-keeping).
  • Recordable DVD - This product may appear promising, but is pretty awkward in reality. Using either 12cm or 8cm optical recordable DVDs, these camcorders can produce discs which will play in a consumer DVD player without the need of a computer at any point. DVDs are inexpensive and as with tape, the camera creates a physical archive of the data. However, some mechanisms are slow to respond and ejecting a disc requires a several-minute "finalization" of the media - pretty unwelcome when they call your kid off the bench for the first time and you've just filled up your disc. I think all the HD camcorders recording to DVD-R are using AVCHD.
  • Memory Cards - Astonishingly, Japanese giant Panasonic has been promoting solid-state broadcast HD camcorders for three years (I attend media production trade shows regularly). These shoot to " P2" cards, which are basically the old "PC Card/CardBus/PCMCIA" form-factor containing a RAID-array of four, matched, high-speed Secure Digital High-Capacity (SDHC) cards inside. These are very expensive, but provide many interesting technical benefits to professional video production. Knowing about that has lessened the impact of seeing the recent growth of consumer SD and HD camcorders which shoot to single SDHC cards. Again using AVCHD compression, this promises faster-than-realtime transfer of footage to a computer for editing. As with hard drives, the expense of memory cards means having to archive to another media form. You also have to consider buying multiple $80 8GB cards which might each hold an hour or two of footage.

A wonderful thing digital technology has brought us is the ability to make perfect duplicates of our video footage. In the past, we could only make lower-quality copies of originals, and copies of copies were nearly unplayable. Today, your consumer video footage can be copied infinitely without any loss whatsoever. So if your parents make a copy of a DVD you sent them to your uncle, and he makes copies for your cousins, everyone's copies are identical. I find this particularly appropriate for protecting the family legacy of photographs and video recordings - if every family member gave every other family member a copy of their precious archives in digital form, then the chances of them surviving into the future are very high.

As with all data, even chemical-based photography, if you don't have duplicates, you risk the loss of irreplaceable of any information. So even if you haven't practiced it before, there's no time like the present to practice "safe data handling." Make duplicates of anything you wouldn't want to lose, and store the duplicates "off-site" in the event of a disaster at your primary storage site.

Actually making duplicates of video data is pretty time-intensive, because video takes up a lot of data space, and most methods take at least as long as the duration of the video. Here are some examples of how you might back up video data from the various digital forms:
  • Tape-to-tape: High-definition HDV, standard-definition MiniDV, and Digital-8 camcorders can "dub" digitally between camcorders and VCRs if both recorders are equipped with FireWire interfaces (Sony calls this "i.Link" and the technical standard is known as "IEEE-1394"). Typically, a "4 pin to 4 pin" FireWire cable is connected between the two camcorders, one is played and the other is placed into record (typcially in "VCR" mode, rather than "camera" mode). The resulting copy represents the quality of the original perfectly.
    • It's pretty awkward and impractical for most people to back up their videotapes while traveling, but if it's really a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you might consider packing along a spare camcorder or a couple of external hard drives for your laptop - never trust having all your data in one place.
    • NOTE: To dub from HDV to standard-def MiniDV or Digital-8, your HDV camcorder must be able to "downsample" or "convert" the HDV to DV during the dub. You can also dub from DV to some HDV camcorders, but the resulting dub will NOT be HDV.
  • Archive to hard drive: This might seem a bit expensive as a long-term archive solution, but hard drive prices continue to fall. At the time of this writing in October 2007 I just noticed a fairly compact 500GB external FireWire hard drive for $150 at my local "warehouse" store - that's over 35 hours of DV/HDV storage, and even more AVCHD. On the road, you could copy from tape to external hard drive in your hotel room at night, if for no other purpose than as a temporary backup until you archived back to tape later, or to optical media.
  • Archive to optical media: This process is typically performed by connecting a camcorder to computer via FireWire/IEEE-1394 cable and a video-editing program, then using a DVD-authoring program to "burn" the edited video to inexpensive recordable DVDs. Current technology encodes home videos as MPEG-2 video on recordable DVDs. This does NOT preserve the original fidelity of standard-definition DV, and so is certainly incapable of maintaining HD recordings. DVDs are "good enough" for most standard-def consumer applications. New-generation consumer HD camcorders that record HD video using the AVCHD/H.264 codec make files small enough to fit a little over an hour of their highest quality HD video on an existing DVD-R (4.7GB). At this time, AVCHD camcorders don't quite have the fidelity of HDV, but will likely change with time. In the next few years, we will probably transition to higher-capacity Blu-ray and HD-DVD recordable drives in our personal computers, and archiving to these may be able to preserve full fidelity of the original camera recordings.
  • Duplicating DVDs - If your camcorder records directly to recordable DVDs, then these DVDs (and any DVDs you make from tape, hard drive-based, or memory-card-based camcorders) can be duplicated in a personal computer with a DVD-burning drive.

Until recently, the only way you could view consumer HD footage on your HDTV was to play back on your camcorder directly connected to the HDTV via HDMI/DVI, analog component video cables, or (if your HDTV supports it) even 1080i over FireWire cable. Of course, you can watch HD footage in full resolution on a computer, provided it's powerful enough and you have a display capable of displaying 1280x720 or 1920x1080 pixels.


I recently realized that it might be possible to put the files from an AVCHD camcorder (or converted from another HD format to AVCHD/H.264 files) on existing DVD-recordable media and play it back in a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player (which support H.264 as one of their codecs), but only if that player could read recordable DVDs, and if it recognized AVCHD files as being valid. I'd sort of automatically put out of my mind worrying about producing high-definition DVDs until we owned a Blu-ray or HD-DVD burner - but it's possible to make hour-long high-def DVDs now, provided you have a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player with these qualities. I found a couple of posts on Sony Playstation 3 forums where users had reported playing 8cm DVDs recorded in a Sony HDR-UX7 HD camcorder on their PS3 game consoles (which have Blu-ray drives and can play commerical Blu-ray movies). Here is a YouTube video of a user demonstrating this (we'll assume this is not a hoax). This blogger says that you can place H.264 files into a folder named "VIDEO" on a data DVD and the PS3 will recognize and play those files. Using this technique, it's possible to make and existing DVD-recordable which plays around an hour of HD content.


I had not really considered this until now - I have just sort of assumed we'd eventually have to bite the bullet and purchase a Blu-ray or HD-DVD burner for a computer (or buy a computer with a burner) *and* decide which of the HD DVD standards we'd buy into to match it. This is also a nice consequence of a rather obtuse concept I first became aware of over a decade ago - with the new tapeless camcorders, we're transitioning from "streaming" data forms (as with tape or live video and audio broadcasts, you have to be able to join in progress) to "file-based" data forms. To get footage from a tape to play on a DVD, you have to create a file from data captured from the tape. With AVCHD, there's the promise of using familiar computer file paradigms and just copying files from the camera media (RAM, HD, DVD) to some other place and having a piece of hardware decode it. This is pretty exciting to us, because until now getting footage from a camcorder to a (SD) DVD is a pretty painful process, including having to "transcode" from however the video was compressed by the camera to another way the DVD player recognized. Having cameras that record files that can be played directly by set-top high-def DVD players (if indeed they can) really makes the path short (provided you're not editing).


Having said that, the algorithms used to store all that HD data in *less* space (some current AVCHD camcorder record up to 1920x1080 pixels@30fps at a data rate of only 15Mbps, while standard-def DV records 720x480@30fps at 25Mbps) have to resort to some devious strategies - namely using inter-frame as well as intra-frame compression. This means that unlike the old DV standard, these cameras don't record every frame. They record periodic full frames followed by the differences between the full frames and the current one. This makes editing pretty tricky, since trying to go forward (or worse, backward) one frame will likely land you on a frame that doesn't actually exist. Early HDV editing solutions (from just 2 years ago) required capturing all the footage at real-time, then waiting hours while the computer created temporary files of intra-frame compressed frames. At the end of editing, if you wished to record back to HDV tape, you waited for hours again while software re-created the long-GOP (Group Of Frames) stream to put back on tape.


There is some argument for using a DVD-burning camcorder if all you want to do is, say, review football plays without editing. As long as you strategized disc-changes at non-critical times (assuming the tales of long DVD-finalizing waits are true), you'd be able to pop these in a [compatible HDTV player or personal computer with AVCHD decoding software] without any intermediate steps. Plus, you get archival media right from the camera (which you can duplicate in a computer with a DVD burner).

MORE CAMCORDER INFO is a site which attempts to provide objective reviews of available products through scientific process. Founder Robin Liss was 12 years old when she founded the site a decade ago.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Termite Tome: We Have Termites?!?

In May of 2000, we had our first encounter as home-owners with termites. Our home is in the Los Angeles area. This article is extracted from email to friends and family.

Last Wednesday, while cleaning out our garage to install shelving, we discovered three cardboard boxes which had been partially consumed by still-present termites. I (stupidly) sprayed the boxes and area with insecticide and carefully disposed of the boxes, once again soaking them with Raid. The next day, I removed a layer of sheet rock from that part of the garage wall and discovered some small mud tubes, and that the termites had eaten a thin bit of the surface of the studs where they met the drywall, and some of the drywall paper where it met the wood. No termites were visible.

My wife found a couple of hundred termite services in our Yellow Pages. We called Terminix and Orkin for inspectors, deciding that we'd start at the top, and see how expensive it could get. I also reasoned that if there were such things as warranties against damage (I didn't know if they actually existed), then the huge companies would have the most clout to actually cover a claim. We know, too, that when you buy the biggest companies, you pay for their advertising budgets. Which, based on television airplay alone, must be enormous. For whatever it's worth, there were ten full-page Yellow Page ads in the San Fernando Valley Yellow Pages, only two of which were Terminix and Orkin. My wife remembered that Yellow Page full-page ads in our home town in North Carolina were $10,000 to $15,000 a year ten years ago - you can imagine what time and this location's impact has on rates.

We're still discussing this, but we've had inspections/quotes from the Big Two, Terminix and Orkin. Bottom lines are basically $1800 for treatment, which includes repair guarantees on structure and property within. Ongoing maintenance of their more expensive plans are $268 and $416/year, respectively. If there's good news, it's that the Orkin inspector/salesman found no significant termite problems in our home. On the negative side, we have termites within the structure. So what to do?

Keep in mind that these reps are selling something. Also keep in mind that termites are almost everywhere (Alaska is the only U.S. state unaffected), and are necessary to the planet's ecology.

The following text is partly information from the pest control reps. Much of it I've learned since Wednesday via the Web. So as always - Do Your Own Research.


The Terminix rep, Greg, came on Thursday an hour and a half after their two-hour scheduled window. I took him immediately to the garage and showed him the site where we'd discovered the termites. I'd also removed a sheet of drywall in the garage and found some mud tubes along the joints between the studs and drywall. So obviously, there was nothing to sell to the customer for the rep - the customer discovered live termites and called the company for and inspection. We were informed that we had one of the two main termite pests, subterranean termites (the other kind are drywood termites). Subterranean are the more dangerous to structures, because they live in underground colonies numbering from hundreds of thousands to millions of termites. They must enter a structure from the earth, and can not be exposed to air or sun, as their soft bodies require constant moisture. If a piece of wood is in contact with the earth, it is at great risk. Subterranean termites will also exploit any crack in cement foundations leading to edible wood. They require a moist environment for their colony, and form the colony near the water table, as deep as 150 feet underground. So quickly killing subterranean termites in a structure only cuts off a single source of food from several they have likely established. The colony will continue to feed elsewhere. Greg said that subterranean termites averaged 5 colonies per acre.

Drywood termites can enter a structure anywhere when in their flighted reproductive stage. (Termites "swarm" to propagate the species - when some males and females born to a colony have wings and eyes - they are normally eyeless - and fly off to mate and establish new colonies. The swarmers have no mouth parts, and do not eat. Ants also have a flying reproductive stage.) Drywood termites live within the wood itself, and get all their moisture from the wood they consume. The colonies are much smaller, numbering only up to a few tens of thousands. However, the only treatment method for dwellings with drywood termites is fumigation - requiring "tenting" of the structure. Prevention against drywoods is not practiced, and reinfestation can occure the day after a fumigation. Drywood colonies grow slowly (reaching destructive sizes in four or five years), so they are not as great a threat as subterraneans, which can feed on multiple sources simultaneously and can grow massive colonies. The only method of treatment for drywood termites is fumigation once they have been detected. Fumigation is not effective against subterranean termites because the colony is safe far underground. Greg did not address whether or not we had drywood termites, nor did he inspect our home. While he measured the exterior perimeter of the home, he let us watch a 10 minute promotional video about the Sentricon product (see below). I accidentally dubbed this tape while we were watching it. We could accidentally dub a copy for you, as well.

We talked about treatments - he offered two:

  • BAITING - Terminix uses a DowElanco product called Sentricon. This is Terminix' main termite product since its inception two years ago. The active ingredient is hexaflumeron, an insect growth regulator (IGR), or chitin inhibitor (pronounced kite'-en, this is the material with which most arthropods make their exoskeletons) which inhibits the molting process which some insects (like termites and ants) use to grow. Unable to accommodate their increasing size by molting their old skin, the worker termites die. The installation surrounds the property with foot-long tubular plastic bait stations, placed both in the ground near wood structures and, if necessary, in holes drilled in cement pads. Indoor stations are available to attach to existing termite mud tubes, to reduce the time that the agent is introduced to the colony. Small vents in the side of the stations admit termite-sized guests. Initially, plain wood is placed within the bait stations to attract and detect termites. Terminix claims that it typically takes 30 to 40 days for a termite colony to discover the wood and begin feeding upon it. Terminix reps return periodically (two weeks to one month) and check the status of every bait station. Data about bait station progress is recorded by bar-code readers on-site and set back to DowElanco, who maintain a database of termite activity and regulate dispensing of their Setricon product. When a bait station if found to have active termite activity, the termites are carefully removed and saved. The the wood is replaced with Sentricon-treated cellulose fibers (termites eat only cellulose - which is actually digested thanks to microscopic protozoa in their gut - this is how most of the dead plant fiber on the planet is broken down into soil constituents). The live termites are replaced in the bait station on top of the treated fibers. They eat their way through the fibers and eventually return to the colony. There, they share their food with the rest of the colony, including the queen and king. In doing so, they pass along the hexaflumeron. Eventually, the workers are unable to grow, and die. Because only the workers leave the colony and forage for food, eventually the entire colony starves. Dow calls this "colony elimination," though Terminix literature reads "eliminates or substantially reduces" colonies. (Some sources claim that it is difficult to determine whether a colony has in fact been eliminated, or merely stopped feeding at a particular site.) Once the bait station shows no live termites, the treated cellulose is replaced again with plain wood and monitoring begins again. The Sentricon video was careful to note that there was little or no drilling in and around the foundation involved, and frequently presented images of technicians from "other" companies using jackhammer-sized drills in people living rooms, etc.
Terminix' warranty for Sentricon treatment covers any structural repair and the contents of the structure beginning six months after Sentricon treatment begins on "qualified homes". (Though Greg did not mention or explain this qualification, the Orkin rep which came the next day was careful to point out that not all homes qualified, and that ours did because he had performed an inspection and deemed our home "clean" enough to warranty. Which is a bit of a comfort - considering the reason for having termite folks at the house.) The warranty is transferable - it belongs to the address, not the owner. Greg said that most exterminators only offer re-treatment warranties. Rates are based upon linear feet of the wood structure's perimeter - doorways, for instance, are not included. Greg measured our home at 214 linear feet. The quote was $1785, which is a year of treatment and monitoring. The program does nothing else but manage Sentricon bait stations - which indicates Terminix' faith and/or commitment to the product. Ongoing maintenance of the program, which maintains the repair warranty, is $268/year for our house. The initial price was rather shocking - we'd seen website quotes of less than half as much for more conventional treatments. I'm impressed that the company offers a repair guarantee. Yes, they are entering into the insurance business preying upon a very vulnerable spot among consumers. But the risks are substantial in warrantying home repairs, so it's also rather convincing. $300 a year for termite insurance is really pretty reasonable, as far as I'm concerned - the $1800 startup is harder to take - my wife is much more hesitant about this figure than I. Greg said that he thought that Terminix was the only company to offer repair guarantees - this is not true, as we'd find out from Orkin the next day. I asked Greg if there were any cautions or indications about hexaflumeron, and he told us that the DowElanco rep would chew on a treated pad as a demonstration. Then again, I remember a DuPont rep pouring Freon on her dress in 11th grade in Mrs. Carter's chemistry class, telling us how inert the product was. Right.
  • LIQUID TREATMENT - Greg quoted $1313/$150 (startup/annual) for the more traditional "barrier treatment," which injects liquid termiticide into ground on the inside and outside of the foundation every foot. This may require drilling holes in cement pads or inside floors every foot. But Terminix does NOT offer a repair warranty for this this program, only a "Re-treatment" warranty - meaning that if you get termites, they keep treating. But he "recommended" the Bait program. As both Terminix and Orkin reps said, these termiticides are temporary, and dissipate into the soil with weather and water to ineffective concentrations in under a year. A long-lasting termiticide, Chlordane, was banned from use almost a decade ago. They require continuous re-treatment, and depend upon the efficiency of the installers to completely cover any possible access to animals sized about a third of a grain of rice. "Efficiency of Installers" is a concept I consider unrealistic.


"Jeff" showed up at the scheduled time. I showed him the garage site, and he told us that we had subterranean termites. He then said that he'd measure our property and crawl under the house, then talk to us about possible treatments. He spent nearly a half hour in our two-foot high crawlspace. When he returned, he told us that it looked fine, except for a single site where he found evidence of drywood termites. The site had been previously marked with the letter "K," an exterminator code for drywood termites. He saw termite "pellets," fecal matter pushed out of the burrow by drywood termites, which he thought were probably recent. He didn't know whether the site had been marked and never treated, or simply re-inhabited coincidentally. In any case, he said that "he wasn't worried" about the drywood discovery. He indicated that we had some plumbing problems in our 3/4 bathroom (we had our master bath's new toilet sitting in the hall, as part of fixing a plumbing leak which had caused some bulging in our bathroom floor and peeling of paint at the baseboard). And he pointed out that we had wood-to-eath contact in our rose bed in the front of our house, where the soil had been shifted or added. Subterranean termites can gain access unobserved at any wood-to-earth point.

When we sat down and discussed treatment with him, he outlined their plan, which included:
  • Liquid barrier treatment (termiticide) for ten linear feet on either side of the site I'd discovered in the garage. This involved drilling holes in the cement pad inside and out.
  • Liquid barrier treatment under our cement front porch and walkway, and back porch; where termites can build mud tubes from the earth to the wood foundation unobserved.
  • Liquid barrier treatment injected through holes drilled in the mortar between the bricks at the front of our house. These bricks apparently provide unobservable access from the ground to wooden structure.
  • Direct treatment of the lumber where the drywood termite evidence was found with liquid termiticide, injected through holes drilled into that lumber only.
  • Treatment of all lumber under our home where it contacts cement foundation blocks with Timbor, an inexpensive sodium borate solution which makes wood inedible to termites. Termites can climb up cracks in cement as narrow as 1/64 of an inch. (This treatment is advertised by many of the hundreds of termite ads in our Yellow Pages.)
  • Installation of bait stations, similar in application to the Terminix/Sentricon system, but using FirstLine, a product of FMC Corporation. This bait is not a growth regulator, but a toxin. The Orkin rep and DowElanco literature comparing their Sentricon product and FirstLine both call it a "stomach poison," but the University of Nebraska page below calls its active ingredient, sulfuramid, a "respiration inhibitor." In any case, this is also intended to affect the entire colony, though both the DowElanco (competitor) literature and U of N page suggest that the product does not eliminate colonies, it only suppresses them. These bait stations are also loaded first with wood, then monitored much as the Sentricon product. The Sentricon literature mentions (as a negative aspect of FirstLine) the necessity of also applying liquid barrier treatment for effectiveness.

Orkin also offers a Repair Warranty, guaranteeing against damage or they cover home repairs. I asked Jeff when the coverage began (Terminix was six months after treatment began), and he said it began with installation of the program. Interestingly, Jeff said that in his opinion, there was no reason to continue the program once the bait stations stopped getting termites. He said that termites never stop using a food source, so if they stopped visiting a station, they were dead. I remarked that it was unusual for Orkin not to encourage ongoing income by selling this as an ongoing program - and Jeff said that this was "his opinion, not Orkin's." Considering what a gold mine termite insurance surely is, I find this a bit odd. Of course, it's not exactly in these companies' best interest to eradicate termites. Nor the planet's for that matter.

Orkin's quote for our house (based upon 210 linear feet) was $1795 for installation and the first year of bait station monitoring. He indicated that if we never got a "hit" on a bait station in the initial year, we'd could choose to continue monitoring, with full repair warranty, at $416 per additional year. Again, he indicated that if a bait station ever got a hit, then received FirstLine treatment and stopped getting termites, he didn't consider it necessary to continue the program with Orkin. In fact, he told us that once the termites stopped feeding on the FirstLine bait, they'd remove the bait stations and fill in any holes in the cement pads, unless the customer opted to continue treatment. Terminix made no such suggestions (nor would you expect any company to).

Jeff also said that Orkin offered a Money-Back Satisfaction Guarantee - if for any reason a customer was NOT satisfied with service at any time, a full refund was offered.


Well, we're still thinking about it. Memorial day Monday is coming up, so we don't have to choose for a couple of days. I guess I'm impressed enough with the idea of repair warranties that I'm willing to pay more for a big-name company than a mom & pop shop. Halfway through writing this, I was leaning toward Terminix and Sentricon, despite the fact that the sales rep for Orkin did much more work (including detection of the drywood termites) and was generally more thorough (and pleasant), and despite the fact that Orkin would treat the drywood site. I may ask Terminix whether they would treat that site as well. The University of Nebraska page below makes Sentricon sound like a more effective product - and I also appreciate that it's actually managed and monitored by its manufacturer, Dow Agro Sciences/DowElanco. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of re-shelving our garage when we discovered the termites eating a couple of cardboard boxes. So we're stalled on that project (fortunately, we put up a vinyl shed before we started the project, so all the garage contents are packed in there for the time being) until we know whether we're going to use a company that needs to drill in the garage floor. And my wife starts teaching Summer School in a couple of weeks.

After reading much of the links below (while I was composing some of this letter), and after half a day of thinking about it (before finishing this letter), I'm now leaning toward the Orkin side. Several apparently impartial academic sources on the Web (I'm always cautious about Web sources - after all, I'm thinking about posting this letter on the Web, and the Web has been my only source) made positive arguments for sulfuramide, used by Orkin under the trade name FirstLine. (We did eventually do an Orkin treatment and one year of maintenance contract. Whether we needed to do either is debatable.)

(You can buy sulfuramide bait systems over-the-counter, and for 25 per cent of the price of FirstLine, but you wouldn't necessarily have the expertise to administer it, and you definitely wouldn't have a repair warranty. Since termite control is difficult to verify, it would be hard to know whether you were doing anything useful. Of course, the same is true for commercial services - except for guarantees.)

Since the rate is nearly identical for the initial treatment, Orkin appears to provide greater service (though I think the point is that Terminix has to pay a great deal of money to DowElanco for Sentricon) - addressing our drywood issue as part of the service, and performing some preventative measures.

I guess I'm leery of trying smaller shops to save money. This Dallas company claims that $8/linear foot is a national average, and that rates can go as high as $12/linear foot. At $1795 for 210 linear feet, Orkin quoted us at $8.55/linear foot, and Terminix' $1785 for 214 linear feet puts them at $8.34/linear foot. So I guess we're supposed to feel lucky.

Doing nothing at all, or thinking that we can control termites ourselves is out of the question now. Perhaps that's because I've been reading termite control propaganda. But some of what I've been reading is straight-up termite academia - and fact is, we build homes out of termite food. Why we don't build with anti-termite treated lumber is beyond me. By all accounts, treatment of lumber with sodium borate would be inexpensive.

When we first saw how many ads there were in the Yellow Pages, I kept saying, "Why would you open up a termite business? Why would you want to go head-to-head with the big guys?" Now I guess I know. Once a homeowner is shocked by the rates of the major companies, the smaller shops can under-price them for whatever service they want to provide. It's so hard to know what's actually going on with termite control, even for the exterminators. Much of the business can be so much snake oil. It's easy to eliminate the currently noticeable nuisance and blame future recurrences on "swarming" or "another colony." I'm considering paying Big Money for the backing of a major company and their repair warranties as a result.

Sorry if I've made some of you paranoid. But I hope that this helps some of you in future termite endeavors.


In 2005, we had another termite encounter, this time with drywood termites.

While standing on our back porch, I realized I was hearing a faint, semi-regular sound. Our barbecue grille was under our porch roof, and on the grille's side-burner was a paper plate from a recent cookout. The plate contained what appeared to be about a half-teaspoon of sand scattered on its surface. Every few seconds, another "grain" or two would fall into the plate. I remembered the word for termite droppings, "frass," and looked it up. I then used a hand-held microscope and inspected the "sand." It looked like this:

Drywood Termite Frass

Actually, this image is cropped from the very photo I found online. And unfortunately, the particles in the plate were exactly these hexagonal granules. Drywood termite poop.

We once again called Orkin and they came out and locally treated the outdoor rafter from with the frass was falling, plus some adjacent wood. The Orkin rep determined that the problem was probably isolated to the single piece of wood (drywood termites generally stay within a limited volume of wood). We did nothing else.


My favorite termite website is Dr. Don's Termite Page. Don Ewart is an entomologist in Australia, working as a research scientist specializing in termites. I trust his data mostly because I can't imagine someone without his credentials making such a page.

Here's an informative page from a Dallas/Ft. Worth exterminator.

Here's a link to a Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station.

See this fact sheet from the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County about termite bait programs.