Microsoft does well by their customers… and even better by their non-customers

I was curious to read today about Microsoft’s new Windows Genuine Advantage changes coming in Windows Vista Service Pack 1.

The current draconian system of locking down machines that appear to be running pirated versions of Windows has not been well received, apparently, especially a few weeks back when a buggy update was released prematurely and left thousands of “genuine” customers without working copies of Windows. So Microsoft is softening the approach, as described in the article linked above.

In the new version, PC users found to have a pirated copy of Vista will continue to be able to use their computers, but with unmistakable signs their operating system is a fake. The desktop wallpaper will turn black, and a white notice will appear alerting users to the problem. Each time they log in, they will be prompted to buy legitimate software, and every hour, a reminder bubble will appear on the screen.

Users with a high tolerance for irritation can put off switching to genuine software indefinitely, but those who relent and buy a real copy of Windows can do so at reduced prices — $119 for Windows Vista Home Premium, half the regular retail price.

OK, well that does seem to be an improvement, but… wait a minute! Read that second paragraph closely. Surely it can’t mean what I think it means, but it sounds like what they’re saying is that if you pirate Windows first, and then after enduring the automated nagging for an indefinite period of time, you’re entitled to buy Windows for half the regular price paid by loyal customers who purchase a legitimate copy up front.

Well, at least it’s consistent with Vista’s backwards approach to system security. (Throw up excessive warnings to the user about nearly everything they’re about to do, but don’t actually restrict their access to those things based on permissions.)

A configuration-based solution to the translucent menu bar in Leopard

I had forgotten I’d even found and tried this until I looked up at my menu bar today after changing my desktop image and noticed it was opaque. I can’t find the site where I originally got the code, but I’ve found another blog that mentions it. The code to execute at the command line is:

sudo defaults write /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ 'EnvironmentVariables' -dict 'CI_NO_BACKGROUND_IMAGE' 0.63

(The code all needs to be entered on one line, of course; I need to work on my CSS for displaying code, probably employing Google’s Syntax Highlighter. So add that to my gigantic and ever-growing — at an increasing rate — to-do list. At my present trajectory, I will get this done approximately 10 million years after never.)

As the poster notes, the number 0.63 at the end can be any decimal value from 0 to 1. It represents the lightness of the opaque menu bar: 0 is black, 1 is white, and anything in between is shades of gray (surprise!); all non-white values have a subtle gradient as well.

This works great, which is not surprising, since this is the way Apple designed it to be managed. (In other words, they didn’t intend for the end user to be able to adjust it at all… but they built a way into the code to allow their programmers to adjust it.)

Of course, in the meantime since I first complained about it, I have actually come to tolerate (if not like) the translucent menu bar. But for now I’ll leave it as it is. If I do decide to change it back, I’ll run this:

sudo defaults delete /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/ 'EnvironmentVariables'

And of course, because these are system-level changes, you need to reboot for them to take effect (which is probably why I had forgotten I’d done it in the first place; I didn’t restart immediately and surely got distracted by whatever it is in my life that’s constantly distracting me… two kids, perhaps).

WordPress is great, but the documentation leaves a little to be desired…

Alas, the woes of using open source software rear their heads. WordPress abounds with undocumented, or at least very poorly documented, features.

My dilemma: the default function for displaying a list of page links (used on this site to populate the Points of Interest panel in the sidebar) sorts links alphabetically, and there isn’t any obvious way to make it sort by the database’s menu_order field, which logically, to me at least, should be the default especially given that this is how they’re sorted in the admin tool.

Finding little help in the documentation or by my usual means (Google), I decided it couldn’t be done without modification. In my previous installation of WordPress I actually modified the core code itself to change the sort order, but when I upgraded to version 2.1.1 today, it overwrote that change. This time I decided to try the plug-in approach, so my changes would actually stick through version changes, and so I could get familiar with the powerful but arcane plug-in system WordPress uses for extensibility.

After poking around futilely trying to get my plug-in to work (to the point where it was sorting all of my blog posts the way I wanted the pages to be, but not the page list), I stumbled upon a relevant post in the WordPress forums, where a snide jab at “theme designers” (which seemed to be such a broad swipe that it included me) happened to mention an input parameter in the function that calls the page list!

Silly me… the system has built right in a very simple way to sort the list by whatever field you want, and all you have to do is pass in the right parameters in your theme files. The change couldn’t have been simpler… but learning that it was possible certainly could have!

Road Geek Rage

No, I am not experiencing road rage. I am simply a raging road geek.

A little caffeine too late in the day (not to mention curious preoccupation with discovering the mystery of eon8) has kept me up well into the night.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to D.C. and Baltimore, and in particular about the roads there, as I did a fair amount of driving in my 3 days in the area.

I’ve always been fascinated by roads, in particular the Interstate highway system, and in even more particular with anomalies in the Interstate system. The Interstates were conceived as a massive public works project and also as a vision of taking America into a bold, gleaming, gasoline-fueled future. But somewhere along the way reality stepped in and many planned freeways were never built, such as I-335 in Minneapolis or whatever they’d have called Ayd Mill Road in St. Paul if it had become a real freeway.

You can see remnants of such works throughout the country in the form of blocked-off ramps to nowhere or peculiar artificial mounds where bridge embankments had been created but the bridges themselves never constructed.

One thing that’s striking about Baltimore is that, for all of its interesting history and charming neighborhoods, it also has more than its fair share of blight. That was another unexpected side effect of the construction of the Interstate system. (Well, I doubt it was that unexpected to the large numbers of mostly African-American residents who were displaced by eminent domain or who saw their neighborhoods sliced in half by right-of-way lines planned by the mostly white, crew-cutted proto-geeks working in the various state departments of transportation in the ’50s and ’60s.)

While studying the map of Baltimore in anticipation of my upcoming visit, I noticed something rather odd: an “orphaned” stretch of freeway running through a part of the city west of downtown. As it turns out, this freeway, now signed as US 40 but originally identified as I-170, was a failure on a scale that puts Ayd Mill to shame. I didn’t get a chance to drive this road (and I suspect that if I return to the area I probably won’t have much cause to then, either, unless I can convince my family that it’s worth going to an undesirable neighborhood just to drive on a pointless stretch of road), but thanks to insomnia and the wonders of the Internet, now I can feel like I did.

There were also some interesting freeways in the D.C. area, such as the long stretch identified only as To I-295 because, even though for all intents and purposes it really is I-295, it cannot be designated as such due to federal standards for Interstate-grade roadways.

On a less dismal note, I had a couple of other interesting freeway experiences. First, driving into D.C. on I-66, I was surprised to discover that, once you crossed the Beltway, all lanes of the freeway were designated as HOV during rush hour. (Yes, in other words, if you’re driving by yourself, you have no business whatsoever being on I-66 inside the Beltway between the hours of 5:30 AM and 9:30 AM on weekdays.)

The other, and undoubtedly most pleasant, discovery was the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, identified inelegantly on some signs as the “Balto-Wash Pkwy.” This is, surprisingly, a 4-lane freeway, with relatively brisk-moving traffic, managed by the National Park Service, connecting Baltimore and Washington, and perhaps sometime in the distant past actually signed as Maryland (and D.C.) 295, as shown in my 2006 road atlas. The most surprising feature of this road was that it was densely tree-lined for most of its run, completely devoid of billboards and rarely within sight of any artificial structures other than the road itself. Best of all (especially since I drove the entire return trip in heavy rain), commercial trucks are not allowed.

Limitations of the System

After nearly a year away from actively making music, I found a window of opportunity and cranked out 4 complete songs in the span of 6 days. (Actually, 6 evenings, because I worked all day 5 of those 6 days.)

The results were heavily… uh… Ataricized… so there was only one appropriate title for the EP: Limitations of the System.

The whole thing’s available for free download at the link above. (But if you like it, I wouldn’t mind you throwing a bone — or like, maybe, you know, five bucks or something — my way.)

And what do you know, it’s even being “released” on a Tuesday. Maybe Room 34 Records is turning into a real label after all…