A comprehensive guide to all-season shoe care

During the past few weeks, I worked on an extended video (about 50 minutes long) on shoe care, where I explained how I take care of my shoes. In order to offer as much advice as possible, I selected three pairs of shoes: a summer pair, a pair of winter boots and a pair of old shoes that had been abused in the garden and the yard. The point was (and is) to show the viewers how to take care of all sorts of shoes, whether they be warm weather, cold weather or just plain old shoes. As an added bonus, you’ll also learn how to get a spit shine (also known as a mirror shine or a bull shine). Here is the video, enjoy!

This video is part of my “Elegant Gentleman” series, to which you’re encouraged to subscribe, here or on YouTube and on Facebook.

A comparison of watch designs

Remember my video on watch bands? I intended to create a guide to watch designs and I got around to it last week. This video’s even longer than the last one; it’s almost 30 minutes! Get a cup of tea, sit down and get comfortable, because it’s going to take a bit of time to get through it!

Let me sum up my thoughts on watch design:

  • Elegant, classy
  • Simple, fulfilling its purpose as a watch, which is to tell the time and the date
  • Refined features that hint at the intricacies inside the case without flaunting them
  • Easy to use, easy to read: proper color contrast in the lettering and numbering
  • A joy to look at, makes you fall in love with it every time you see it
  • Sturdy, quality-built, lasts a long time (a lifetime even)

Watch the video for the rest of my thoughts and I hope you enjoy it and it’s of use to you!

Storage drops below 7 cents per gigabyte

In January of 2009, I mentioned the price of storage had just dropped below 9 cents per gigabyte. I see now that 2 TB drives are selling below $150 (they’re $140), so it’s time to update my figures. At $139.99 for a 2 TB (2,000 GB) SATA hard drive, that comes out to less than 7 cents per GB. That’s a great deal, and it goes without saying that it’s the lowest price for data storage consumers have ever seen.

Updated 4/19/10: Micro Center is selling 2 TB Seagate SATA drives for $119.99. It’s an in-store special, with a one drive per household limit, but still, that makes it 6 cents per gigabyte. What can I say — expect the price to keep dropping…

On the downside, it seems hard drive manufacturers have hit a ceiling with 2 TB drives. I haven’t heard talk of 3 or 4 TB drives, or anything larger than that. Perhaps I haven’t been keeping up with storage news properly, so if you’ve heard some good news, do let me know!

Can the WD TV be networkable with firmware upgrade?

The WD TV can be placed on a network via an unofficial firmware upgrade available from B-RAD. The souped-up firmware apparently allows one to plug USB ethernet sticks (I’ve had one of those lying around in my desk drawer for years) into the WD TV and mounts its connected drive(s) onto the network — among other additional features.

I haven’t tried this yet. I found out about it from Tobias Schneble, a reader from Germany who emailed me after seeing my article on upgrading the WD TV to the new official firmware from WDC. Tobias tells me there’s a wiki site where detailed instructions are given.

Updated 4/5/09: I modified the post in accordance with the very helpful comment you see below, provided by the fellow who runs the B-RAD website. It turns out that hacking the WD TV to add it to a network and to enable other extra features is as easy as upgrading it with a normal firmware package. That’s great!

How to use a Drobo with the WD TV

The WD TV is my favorite media player (I think it’s better than the Apple TV), and since I also love the Drobo, I wanted to combine the two and have the ultimate media entertainment center: a Drobo packed full of videos, photos and music, connected to a WD TV, which is connected to a large-screen HDTV. I did just that for my parents in December. It was my Christmas gift to them.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind if you want to do the same thing. As you might guess, several complications arise when you attempt to get a device with huge storage capability connected to a media player. The complications have to do mainly with the file systems that the media player can read and use properly, and with the ability of the on-screen menus to navigate an abundance of content efficiently.

The WD TV can only work fully with NTFS, HFS and FAT32 file systems. By “fully”, I mean will build its own catalog of the media present on those devices, store it at the root level of those drives as a hidden directory, and will let you browse using its on-screen menus, by date or by file name. It will also read the HFS+ file system, which is native to the modern Macs, but it will not be able to write to it and build its own catalog; this means you’ll only be able to navigate the media on that device by folder.

The Drobo can be formatted as an NTFS or FAT32 volume when using a PC, or as an HFS+ or FAT32 volume when using a Mac, if you happen to use the Drobo Dashboard to do it. If you use the Disk Utility app on a Mac, and you also happen to have the 3G NTFS drivers installed, you can also format the Drobo as a 3G NTFS or as an HFS volume.

I ended up formatting my parents’ Drobo as an HFS+ volume. I’ll tell you why below. If you’re not interested in the minutiae, skip ahead to the next paragraph.

  • First, I tried formatting it as a 3G NTFS volume. For some reason, the formatting process either froze or took unusually long to complete, and the resulting volume wasn’t readable on the Mac or on the WD TV. I have a feeling that had to do with the fact that the volume was over 2TB in size, and 2TB is the upper limit for NTFS volumes, but I’m not sure.
  • I tried splitting the Drobo into two HFS+ volumes, one 2TB and the other 400GB (2.4 TB was the total available space on the Drobo), then formatting those volumes as 3G NTFS volumes, but that didn’t work either. The formatting process kept hanging up in Disk Utility.
  • I tried formatting the Drobo as a straight NTFS volume using a Parallels VM running Windows XP (I installed the Drobo Dashboard inside the VM), but that kept hanging up as well. Not sure why. Perhaps I should have used a physical Windows machine, but I didn’t have one available to me.
  • I then formatted the Drobo as a FAT32 volume. The upper limit on that was once again 2TB, and I had 2.4TB available. I thought I’d forget about the extra 400GB for a while and just focus on getting the 2TB volume working. Predictably enough, after copying some media over and testing it, it worked fine, but I noticed two things:
    • The WD TV took longer and longer to read the device and build its catalog once I connected the Drobo. The more movies I had on the Drobo, the longer it took the WD TV to catalog each of them. That meant waiting up to 20 minutes for the WD TV to get done with its work before I could use it. I didn’t like that.
    • I had several movies that were over 4GB in size, and since that’s the upper limit for a single file in the FAT32 system, I couldn’t get them copied over to the Drobo. I didn’t like that either.
  • I thought I’d try another route, so I formatted the Drobo as an HFS volume. While this was fully readable and writable on a Mac and also on the WD TV, unfortunately, the maximum file size on HFS is 2GB, and the maximum volume size is also 2TB, same as FAT32 and NTFS. Not much help there.
  • The only choice left to me was HFS+. In spite of the fact that the WD TV can only read it, not write to it, this was and still is, I think, the best choice for formatting a Drobo and for working with the WD TV, from the entire group (NTFS, FAT32, HFS and HFS+). The upper limit on an HFS+ volume is 16 EB (exbibytes), which is equal to 1024 pebibytes — basically, an incredible amount of space. One pebibyte is equal to 1024 terabytes, and the upper limit one can get with a Drobo at the moment is 5.5 terabytes, so it’s nowhere near the technical capability of the file system. Furthermore, the upper limit on a single file in HFS+ is 8 exbibytes, which, as shown above, is just plain huge. In plain English, this mean I could format the Drobo as a single HFS+ volume and not worry about any of my movie files exceeding 4GB or more in size.

Great! Now that I’ve put you to sleep, let’s move on. Next on the agenda came the transfer of all the data to the Drobo. You see, I’m also using my parents’ Drobo as an offsite storage device. You know what they say, give and ye shall receive, right? I made them happy by setting up their media center and also got to back up most of my data, media, and photographs. The transfer of the information took a while, as you might imagine. I didn’t time it, but I think it was somewhere between 24-36 hours to copy about 2TB of data from my Drobo to their Drobo. I’m happy to say that the copy operation did not crash, and completed successfully. That’s a testament to the stability of the Drobo as a storage device.

After the data transfer was complete, I was done. It was time to sit back on the sofa and enjoy my hard work. Even though the WD TV couldn’t aggregate the media on the Drobo and build its catalog, which would have let me browse the media by type (video, photo or music), date or title, I was able to browse the Drobo by folder. Since I’d already organized the media that way, I didn’t mind it at all. I had my videos broken down into separate folders for Cartoons (I love classic cartoons), Movies, Documentaries and TV Shows (I love Mister Ed), and I was able to watch most of my stuff.

As a side note, even though the WD TV manual says it’ll play WMV9 files, and my Mister Ed episodes were encoded (I believe) with WMV9 technology, I can’t play them on the WD TV. I’m sad about that, but at least I can watch them on my MacBook and iMac. Perhaps I’ll re-encode them into MP4 files at some point.

I mentioned something at the start of the article about the on-screen menus and their ability to navigate the content efficiently. The WD TV lists the media in thumbnail mode by default, which means you’ll have a little icon next to each media file. When you have a ton of files to look through, that’s not very efficient. Fortunately, you can go into the WD TV settings and change it to List mode. This will list each piece of content on a single line, and will let you see more titles per screen. To scroll up and down the file lists faster, simply hold down the up or down arrows on the WD TV remote, and it’ll accelerate, speeding through the titles.

I’ll concede that the on-screen menus for the WD TV aren’t as slick as those you see on the Apple TV — and by that I mean how easy and quick it is to navigate to a particular title, not the glitz and glamour of a fancier UI skin — so there’s some work to be done there, but the WD TV is much more practical than the Apple TV when it comes to playing your media. You simply plug in a USB drive loaded to the gills with movies and photos, and it’ll play them right away, which is something that the Apple TV just doesn’t do out of the box.

That’s it, folks! Let me summarize things to make it easy for you:

  1. Format your Drobo in HFS+ if you have a Mac, or NTFS if you have a PC. Keep in mind there’s a 2TB per volume limit under NTFS, and that WD TV will only recognize one volume at a time (at least currently). Stay away from FAT32 and HFS because of the file-size limitations (4GB for FAT32 and 2GB for HFS).
  2. Transfer your media to the Drobo.
  3. Enjoy!

Buy a WD TV or a Drobo.

Storage drops below 9 cents per gigabyte

I see that Newegg.com lists the Seagate 1.5TB SATA hard drive for $129.99 with free shipping. Sure, it’s an OEM drive, which means it’s not boxed, but who cares? Do you realize what this means? It means you’re paying $0.086 per terabyte gigabyte. Storage has become even cheaper — unthinkably cheap. The previous relevant price point was $100 for a 1TB drive, which meant $0.100 per gigabyte (a dime).

Seagate 1.5TB SATA Drive

A gigabyte is now cheaper than a dime! I just didn’t think it would happen this fast. I remember when a dime would get you 100MB, and I thought that was a lot. Okay, let me not kid myself: I remember when a dime would get you 1MB or less. Now you get 1GB, which is 1,000 times the storage capacity, for less than the same tiny dime. Amazing!

If you’re looking for extra storage capacity, now would be a good time. If I hadn’t already filled up my main Drobo with 1TB drives, I’d jump all over these, because they’re definitely at the right price point, especially now that they’ve been cleared for use with the Drobo once more.

Seagate FreeAgent Xtreme 1.5TB

While I’m on the subject of good deals, let me remind you of my guide to getting good deals on hard drives. I mention it because Micro Center happens to be selling the Seagate FreeAgent Xtreme 1.5TB (a triple interface external hard drive) for $149.99. This means that you’re paying $20 for the enclosure over the price of the hard drive alone.

Remember, this is a triple interface drive (USB 2.0/FW400/eSATA), and that means the enclosure is very inexpensive. Instead of buying one of those DIY enclosures that may or may not work (I’ve been there), you’ll get something that’s guaranteed to work, or you can return it.

Join MP4 files with Front End Digital Media Workshop

Want an easy way to join MP4 clips together? Front End Media Workshop, a nifty piece of Mac software published by the now defunct K-werkx, can definitely help you out. While the folks that put it together aren’t online any longer, the app is still available for download from CNET.

FE_DMW makes it really easy to join video clips
FE_DMW makes it really easy to join video clips

The app (it shows up as FE_DigitalMediaWorkshop in the Apps folder by the way) is meant to do a bunch of other things, but I found it most useful to join together several MP4 clips from my video collection.

For example, I’d purchased a DVD of “The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird“, a re-titled version of the 1952 original, La Bergère et Le Ramoneur. The film is little known, and features the dramatic escape of a pair of lovers from the claws of a despotic ruler. A curious bird helps them escape and orchestrates the toppling of the ruler’s oppressive regime, which mirrored, at the time, what was going on behind the iron curtain of Eastern Europe. Peter Ustinov voices the bird and also narrates the story.

At any rate, I’d copied the DVD to my computer only to later realize that I’d done it by chapters instead of copying the entire movie as a single file. Front End Digital Media Workshop allowed me to drag the five or six clips for each chapter onto its main window, drag and drop to arrange them in order, then, within minutes, join them together as a single file. The output was saved to the desktop in a folder (one for each join operation), where I could review, rename and archive it.

Sure, if you have Quicktime Pro, you can join video files there, or you can also import them into iMovie, but a small, single purpose app that does it faster and without a lot of fuss scores higher in my book. I may even use it later to snip clips from the beginning and end of some of my other video files, since I see that it has that feature built in as well.

Run WordPress by itself or cached?

I’ve been running an experiment for the past three months. I wanted to see how well WordPress would do if I ran it by itself, without any sort of caching. So far, so good.

About four months ago, my web server kept getting pummelled into the ground almost daily, and I couldn’t figure out why it kept happening. After researching the issue, I found the prevailing opinion to side with the need for a caching plugin. People were complaining that it’s just not optimized well, and must be run with the aid of such a plugin, otherwise higher levels of traffic will bring the web server down. Trouble was, I already ran my WP install cached, using WP Super Cache, had been doing so for over a year, and my server still went down. (I should specify it had only recently started to go down.) What was I to do?

I posted a message in the WP forums asking why WordPress doesn’t generate static files. Were there any plans to do so in the future? To my surprise, Matt Mullenweg (WP’s founder) replied to my post, and told me that while there are caching plugins out there, WordPress.com doesn’t run any, and they’re doing just fine hosting millions of blogs. Others chimed in as well, and their replies got me to make the following changes:

  1. Made the switch to a VPS (Virtual Private Server) with SliceHost. Four months later, I’m still very happy about that move.
  2. Doubled the RAM on my web server (to 512MB from 256MB).
  3. Turned off WP Super Cache and started running my site by itself.

Each step followed the other in succession. I wanted to make gradual changes so I could see why my server kept having issues. Switching to a VPS host was good, and it was needed, but for my traffic levels, it wasn’t enough. Doubling the RAM was good and it was needed, and while the new RAM is enough for now, I’d still be having problems if I didn’t also disable my caching plugin.

Here’s where I think the crux of the caching/non-caching issue lies: it has to do with the load placed on the server as cached versions of the pages get created. Normally, that’s a non-issue. But as I monitored my server carefully, I discovered that it went down only as it started to get indexed heavily by search engines. Their bots visited my site in spurts, with traffic peaking, then falling back down. They spawned multiple threads, over ten at times, following links and slurping up the content. It’s when bot traffic peaked that an incredible load was placed on the web server. It kept generating cached versions of pages it hadn’t already cached, RAM and CPU demand increased to unsustainable levels, and it went down.

No amount of tweaking the Apache and MySQL config files helped with this sort of scenario, or at least it didn’t help me. You see, the difference between peak traffic levels with search engines vs. people is that people will go to a single article or a group of articles that are in demand. A caching plugin works great for those sorts of situations. There’s a limited number of pages to worry about caching, and those pages get served up time and time again. The load is acceptable. When a search engine bot starts indexing your site, it’ll call up any and all available pages that it can find. That can place a huge load on the web server as it scrambles to serve up those pages and build static versions for the caching plugin. I believe that it’s too much for most medium-sized servers to handle, and they will usually go down.

In my case, disabling the caching plugin and making sure no traces were left in the .htaccess file were the only things that helped. Now, I might have up to four different search engine bots crawling my site, each spawning multiple threads, and my server will usually not go down. Sure, there are times when the server will get dangerously low on RAM, and will be unresponsive for 5-10 minutes, but that’s an acceptable scenario for me. And if I should all of a sudden get huge amounts of people traffic to a post, it’s possible that the web server will also become unresponsive, at least for a time. But the great thing about running WordPress by itself is that Apache will usually take care of itself. As the requests die down, Apache will kill the extra threads, the available RAM will go back up again, and the server will recover nicely. That wasn’t possible while I ran the caching plugin. When it went down, it stayed down, and that was a problem.

I realize that what works for me may not work for others. I have not tested what happens with WP Super Cache on a larger server, for example one with more RAM. It’s possible that the larger amount of RAM there will offset the greater demand placed on the server as it builds static versions of the pages, although I’m not sure what to say about the CPU usage. That also peaked as the caching plugin went crazy. Not sure how that’ll work on a more powerful server.

WP Super Cache has some options that allow you to cache more pages and keep them cached for longer periods of time. Perhaps fiddling with those options would have allowed me to keep running the plugin, but I wanted to see how things stood from the other side of the fence. Like I said, so far, so good. Caveats aside, running WordPress by itself was the cure for my persistent web server outages.

Just give me a good zoom lens, thanks

Greetings from Osttirol! My wife and I have been vacationing in Austria for the past week. It’s a gorgeous place to visit and, needless to say, I took tons of photos here. I’ve been carrying my Canon 5D and my lenses with me everywhere, and let me tell you, I’ve been sorely in need of a good zoom lens.

The lens inventory in my camera bag is woefully short at the moment. I started out with three primes: EF 24mm f/1.4L, EF 50mm f/1.4, and EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I sold the 24mm prime with the intention of buying the EF 24-105mm f/4L Zoom, but other circumstances intervened, and now I’ve only got the 50mm and 100mm lenses.

There are some who say it’s better to have prime lenses. I disagree. I’d like to see them carry five or six prime lenses in a backpack up and down a mountain in order to get the range that one or two good zoom lenses would give, and then tell me if they still feel the same way. And by the way, try changing lenses in swift mountain breezes, with insects buzzing around you and just dying to get inside the sensor chamber and leave smudge marks (which happened to me). Oh, and don’t forget to throw in a few other accessories such as polarizers and UV filters of various sizes for the different diameters of each lens, plus one or two water bottles and a fleece jacket plus an umbrella in case the weather goes bad, and then we’ll talk…

In a way, I was glad to only have to carry two lenses; I’d have really felt the weight of a third one. But I felt so limited in the photos I could take, because I could only use the 50mm or the 100mm lens to frame my photos. In some instances, I could walk back and forth to get a better view or angle, but in others, there was no way to get a better photo without also being able to fly — which incidentally, would be very nice, but I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. And no, I don’t believe in cropping. I only do it when I absolutely have to. I didn’t pay $2,800 for a full-frame sensor that can take 12.8 megapixel photos so I could crop them and get the same resolution I can get from a $500 camera.

To this day, I slap my head when I think that I could have had the 24-105mm zoom lens as a kit lens with my 5D for a little over half its usual price. I was such a fool not to get it! It’s a light and sharp zoom with more range than the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L, and you can easily walk around with it for hours without getting too tired.

So far on this trip (which ends very soon, unfortunately) I took 1904 photos with the 50mm prime, and 471 photos with the 100mm prime. If I had had (don’t you just love the English language) the 24-105mm zoom on my trip, it’d have stayed on my camera 95% of the time, because that’s the range I use the most, particularly on the wider end of that focal spectrum, which was not available to me, each and every day, how stupid could I be, ugh…

Look, I’m not knocking the 50mm prime, which is a great prime, and very cost effective given its low light capabilities and sharpness. And I’m definitely not knocking the 100mm prime, which is versatile and a fantastic macro lens with gorgeous bokeh. But I really didn’t need f/1.4 or macro capabilities for landscape photography, which is what I did on this trip. I needed a zoom lens!

So, if you’re not sure what lenses to get, don’t do what I did, or you’ll be frustrated to no end as well. First get a good, lightweight zoom lens, one that won’t kill your wrist as you carry your camera around taking photos. Later, as you find that you need more specific capabilities, such as being able to take handheld photos at dusk or dawn, or more bokeh, or macro photos, then spring for those primes that have the features you need.

Get iMovie '08 to import 3GP files

I recorded a few video clips with my wife’s mobile phone today, and when I tried to import them into iMovie ’08, I found out that I couldn’t. Apparently, I’m not alone, because if you do a search for this on Google you’ll find there are plenty of other people with the same problem.

Fortunately, there are two ways to work this out, but neither is necessarily obvious. Pick one of them:

  • Open up the clips in Quicktime. I was able to open them up and play them right away. Now, export each clip as an MP4 file. You must specifically select File > Export, then select Movie to MPEG-4 from the Export drop-down menu. Don’t just Save the clip, because it’ll package it as a MOV file, which iMovie ’08 will still refuse to import. You must Export it as an MP4 file. You may also be able to export to other formats, but MP4 is what worked for me.
  • Open them clips in Turbo.264, then export them to some format (try Apple TV or iPod Standard, for example). There’s a catch here though. If the resolution of the clips is too small, Turbo.264 may not be able to convert them, and will give you an error. Best stick with Quicktime then.

Now open up iMovie ’08, and go to File > Import Movies, browse for them, and import to your heart’s content. That’s it!

If Time Machine doesn't work…

… and you get the little exclamation sign within the Time Machine icon in the menu bar, and Time Machine will not back up your Mac any more, then here’s what worked for me, twice so far:

  • Reboot the Mac.
  • Before doing anything else, go into the Time Machine drive, locate your Mac’s folder inside the Backups folder, and look for a single file that starts with a date and ends like this: .inProgress. Move it to the trash.
  • Tell Time Machine to “Back Up Now”.

That’s it. It should start backing up again. But if it doesn’t, you may want to visit the Apple support forums and see what worked for others. Some are saying you’ll need to toggle the backup disk to None, then back to the usual backup drive.

Updated 8/14/08: Make sure you delete the .inProgress file once you move it to the Trash. If you can’t delete it, do a Get Info and make sure you have Read & Write privileges to it, then delete it. It may take a while to delete it, but let the Finder finish the job, don’t cancel it. If you don’t delete that file from the Trash, Time Machine may continue to give you errors and remain unable to back up your Mac.

If iMovie '08 crashes…

You can try bothering with the preferences files, or the codecs, or the color profiles, as the forums tell you to do, or you can do the following:

  1. Go to your home folder > Movies > iMovie Events. Locate the folder with the last clips you imported. Delete the iMovie Cache and iMovie Thumbnails folders.
  2. Restart iMovie. For most of you, that’s all you’ll need to do.
  3. If it still crashes, that means one or more of the actual clips themselves weren’t closed properly by the video camera (perhaps you ran out of battery, space on the card, etc.). Open them up in Quicktime (if you have Quicktime Pro) or some other application (like the software that came with the camera) and snip 1-2 seconds off the end of each clip. Save them, then delete the iMovie Cache and iMovie Thumbnails folders (in case iMovie re-created them).
  4. Now restart iMovie. It should work fine now.

A few words to explain some things:

  • If a movie clip doesn’t open at all from the Finder, then it is corrupted. Perhaps only its header is messed up for some reason. At any rate, I have not yet found software that will fix those movie clips. I searched enough, and only found spyware that promises to do it.
  • If a movie clip opens and plays fine in Quicktime, but iMovie crashes when trying to import it, then its ending is corrupted, as explained in step #3 above. Cutting 1-2 seconds off the end of the clip in some software other than iMovie will restore its ending and let you import it without crashes in iMovie.
  • The method I described above has worked reliably for me on three occasions now, and this is after I wasted hours on the phone with Apple Support. It only occurred to them to let me re-import video clips after having me try all of that other stuff, including a re-install of iMovie ’08 and also the creation of a new account to see if the problems re-occur there. Pointless. I say go to the root of the problem and take care of it right away, don’t beat around the bush.

Hope this helps you too.