All the modern conveniences

I discovered the other day that my standalone DVD recorder had made the Q sign since the last time I used it years ago, possibly due to a blown capacitor, apparently a common problem of aging with the model I had. Rather than just replace it, I thought, “Maybe video capture on PCs has come a ways since I last looked into it.” Years ago, video capture most often involved a PCIe card in the PC and the results could easily be mediocre, with dropped frames and other artifacts if you didn’t have quite a powerful and therefore expensive PC. It was more reliable to instead plug the VCR into a standalone DVD recorder, so that’s what I did back then.

And so video capture has improved, to the point of being ridiculously easy. For US$23 – a couple hundred dollars less than capture cards of years ago – I now have a much more convenient way to digitise VHS tapes, bypassing the old DVD recorder middleman and directly producing MP4s. It comes with editing software and works very nicely indeed.

There are no worries these days about performance and poor quality captures. Yesterday, my four-core/eight-processor/16GB machine – US$900 two years ago – was simultaneously doing all of the following without any performance degradation. In fact, the CPU usage hovered around 25-30% throughout.

  • Downloading 11GB of a TV series at about 3MB/second
  • Continuing the BitLocker encryption of all of my 5TB offsite backup drive, including unallocated sectors for safety
  • Writing 20GB of a few series of another programme to a Blu-ray data disc
  • On the 2nd optical drive, ripping the last 100 CDs I’d never gotten around to digitising, about one every four minutes; they’re all in the dumpster now along with the DVD recorder
  • Merging seven parts of one episode of “The Story of English” I’d downloaded from YouTube (eight episodes are there in full, but episode 3 is split up); five more old tapes went into the dumpster
  • Capturing audio/video from a 2-hour VHS tape to test the TOTMC device and saving to an MP4 file

The first major project will be to digitise W.C. Fields and Rita Hayworth films I have on the VHS tapes pictured below. To that end, my VCR is now on a short bookshelf shelf right next to the PC for maximum convenience. I believe I have about a third of the films below in digital form already and will investigate before I start.

How’d I get so many W.C. Fields films? Well, it certainly wasn’t because they were all available on video. A good number of these weren’t ever released on tape but were broadcast regularly on Sunday mornings by a local TV station many years ago. They had some rare ones and I got every one they aired during that run, editing out commercial breaks in real time.

Fun with maths

Some months ago, I got a tad annoyed at dealing with 5-pound bags of ice in the freezer, mainly because when I’d go in for some, almost inevitably one or two chunks of ice would slide out and skitter across the floor. So, I did a little ice volume calculation and measured the depth of the freezer shelf and figured that this item was precisely the ticket, and I mean really precisely, as if it were made for just this task though no one mentions it.

I had a slight frisson of satisfaction when I put that first bag of ice into the container and found the lid was just able to close, and the container fit like a glove on the shelf, with the tabs under the back end of the container hooked around the back of the shelf and holding it in place. A bit of packing tape – which still sticks when frozen – on the back end of the lid turned it into a hinged one.

Reverse musical chairs

Repurposing my media cabinet as a display case the other day ended up kicking off a home decluttering project that’s going so well it feels a bit like conjuring. Moving the Lunar Module case and the other figurines freed up lots of space on a six-tier bookshelf on the other side of the living room, which allowed me to move some of the books I had piled on top of other things to that shelf. Two small purchases have helped carry this increasingly nifty game of reverse musical chairs several rounds forward and it’s still in progress. A new 2-tier Winsome bookshelf – my fourth – allowed me to clear all the remaining books that were piled on other things, letting me further declutter those other things. A second 16″ long clip-on drawer for the InterMetro commercial wire shelving in my kitchen allowed me to declutter the six shelves on that 74x48x18″ unit, and also store lots of little kitchen gewgaws that had been sitting in my simplehuman dish strainer for many moons simply because I had no good place to put them. That in turn allowed me to give the strainer a good scrub this morning, and so the list goes on.

My aims are 1) to go through everything and toss anything I haven’t even looked at for a decade unless there’s a damned good reason to keep it – no rationalising allowed – 2) excepting the Samsung TV and Dimplex fireplace insert cartons, get rid of empty packaging unless the item it held is still under warranty, and – the main point – 3) not have things piled on top of other things. I’m about three-quarters there, but will pause for several days until the dumpster is emptied again, which occurs fortnightly. Since last week, I’ve tossed out a 3-yard dumpster’s worth and probably have about one yard left to toss.

Some of the inspiration for this was the woman in the middle of the three units here moving out eight days ago. It got me thinking, “Geez, what if I suddenly had to move? What a nightmare that would be.” Now, less so. And the house is looking spiffier by the hour.

The audio/video future is much nicer looking

Click for a larger version

This media cabinet in my living room used to contain two more shelves and lots of audio-video gear that’s now all obsolete. I think the new contents, shown in more detail below, are much nicer to look at. Here’s what I used to have:

  • Turntable: Replaced with an Ion USB turntable next to my desktop PC for much easier digitising.
  • A/V receiver and five speakers: Replaced by a Vizio 38″ 5.1 soundbar that sits under my TV and does Bluetooth and optical audio, with left, right, and centre speakers in the bar and a wireless subwoofer that also drives the two rear bookshelf-sized speakers.
  • VCR and DVD recorder: The VHS tapes that I needed to transfer I’ve done, or their contents have become digitally available (examples include the complete Larry Sanders Show boxed set, the French-issued Tex Avery Complete, and the Japanese boxed set of Jûzô Itami’s ten films), but I am keeping these two in the spare room in case I run into something else I need to digitise in future.
  • LaserDisc player: All the LaserDiscs I had – maybe fifty – have been re-released on DVD and/or Blu-ray and I have the replacements I wanted.
  • DVD/CD player and Western Digital DLNA player: Replaced with the LG All-Region/All-Zone DVD/Blu-ray/CD/WiFi DLNA/Internet player you see above that plays 1) every kind of disc from any country you can throw at it, automatically converting PAL to NTSC as needed, 2) programmes and films from my file server via the free Universal Media Server much better than Windows Media Server – and 3) from online services like Amazon Video and Netflix. My Samsung TV independently does numbers 2 and 3 as well. The LG player is two years old and no longer sold, but you can find its current equivalent by searching for LG BPM55 Multizone on Amazon.
  • Cable TV box: Pffft. Not replaced. I have Internet-only service now.
  • About 500 feet of all sorts of cables and wiring: I filled up a tall kitchen trash bag with those and happily tossed the lot.

You can click any of the following to see a larger version:

Only one of the astronauts’ A7LB spacesuits should have the commander’s red striping, used to easily distinguish who’s who in live video and photographs. I’ll fix that one of these days.

These Red Hot Riding Hood and Wolfie porcelain sculptures by Kent Melton were produced in 1995. Red’s saucy pose is from her dance routine in this excerpt from “Swing Shift Cinderella”.

Franklin Mint art deco figures “Promise in Gold’ and “Galaxy in Gold”

The other compelling argument

I just skimmed this article, and I can understand what they’re saying, but all the while I was thinking, “Okay, but this is all made irrelevant by the single overriding and compelling argument not to join the fool thing in the first place: one glance at its founder. I would not buy a used car from that man.” I always thought the same of Richard Nixon.

[Dingleface’s] small print may be the next big thing in European antitrust as watchdogs home in on how the world’s biggest social network collects information from users that helps generate vast advertising revenues.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office is examining whether [Dingleface] essentially takes advantage of its popularity to bully users into agreeing to terms and conditions they might not understand. The details that users provide help generate the targeted ads that make the company so rich.

In the eyes of the Cartel Office, [Dingleface] is “extorting” information from its users, said Frederik Wiemer, a lawyer at Heuking Kuehn Lueer Wojtek in Hamburg. “Whoever doesn’t agree to the data use, gets locked out of the social network community,” he said. “The fear of social isolation is exploited to get access to the complete surfing activities of users.”

[more at the link]

“Now let ‘er go, you got a good aim.”

I followed W.C. Fields’s advice to his niece in the clip above just now before sending the email quoted below to customer service at a site. There’s a new trend of harassing people via email to buy items they’ve looked at in the last twenty-four hours, no doubt the product of some fevered MBA’s gin-soaked nightmares. To date, I’ve had three sites start doing this over the last several months. One of them is eBay, but I believe I found their account setting to shut these off. The site I wrote to has no such setting; in fact, I opted out of all emails from them many moons ago and verified that’s still set.

Can you tell me how to opt out of the emails haranguing me to buy items that I viewed on your site within the last 24 hours? These automated emails started just a few months ago and occur even when I’m not logged in, thanks to cookies I allow you to create on my system because I’m a registered user.

I do not wish to receive emails simply because I looked at an item, because they’re intrusive and, frankly, annoying to such a high degree that I can only compare them to a car salesman following me out of his lot and knocking on my door several hours later to ask why I didn’t buy anything. If they’re not curtailed I’ll be compelled to visit any competitor’s site rather than yours when I want to look at something.

I see no account setting that allows me to stop these emails from being auto-generated. Can you help? Thank you for your assistance in resolving this matter.

Had I not counted to ten before writing the above, I feel certain I would have included the phrase chuckleheaded Goddamned emails. A cooler head has prevailed, but I retain the satisfaction of having typed that anyway.

The destruction of the Ivory® brand

The package design when I was a kid

The fictional scene: a Proctor & Gamble marketing department conference room, circa 2007.

“Today’s meeting is to discuss P&G’s long-term plans for the dismantling of the Ivory brand. Why? It’s plain, it’s vanilla, and it’s boring. It doesn’t even have colour; it’s the very definition of lacklustre. Sales are stagnant and we all know that shareholders raise eyebrows at status quo and no growth. These may be the towers that Ivory built, but today it represents less than 1% of P&G sales – it’s inconsequential at best. Frankly, we view it as an albatross ’round our necks and we need to end the brand over the course of the next several years and leave that particular customer base in the past, but in a somewhat subtle fashion. Now I want imaginative ideas on how we could go about this, even ones that you may think sound stupid.”

“I have one. Let’s make Ivory bars smaller in the most annoying way possible…not shorter, but narrower, so it doesn’t even feel like the same bar millions of people have been holding in their hands for decades.”

“Great idea. If we shave maybe three-quarters of an ounce off the sides, that will save us big time on shipping costs, too.”

“And we could disguise the size change by doing it at the same time as next year’s ‘Olympics edition’ bars and the package redesign. Kind of like ‘Look, up in the sky!’ while you’re relieving a mark of his wallet. Anyone complains, we just say consumer surveys showed most people wanted smaller bars or some other such malarkey.”

“Some people will probably curse us for years to come every time they unwrap another bar and are reminded yet again of our stripping the familiarity off the shape. It’ll be the epitome of irksome!”

“Good point. It’s a fine idea that I’m sure will be approved. Who else?”

“I have one. You know our liquid hand soap that’s pretty much the only national brand that both rinses off easily and leaves no scent?”

“Sure. What about it?”

“What if we got rid of it entirely? Just cut off one of the brand’s limbs, the heaviest one that costs us the most to move around.”

“Well, that seems pretty nasty. I like it. Now that’s thinking outside the box.”

“Box? What box? I don’t see any boxes of liquid hand soap around here!”


“And former customers would be annoyed, I mean properly annoyed, as they see the last of the national supply dwindle on eBay and Amazon whilst its price per ounce rises to that of a top-shelf whisky.”

“Very nice. Anyone else?”

“Along those same lines, what if we were to introduce an Ivory body wash?”

“We’re talking about the destruction of the brand, not creating new products.”

“No, no, stay with me on this. You did say ‘somewhat subtle’.”

“Go on.”

“Here’s the twist: We make this new body wash pretty much impossible to rinse off in the shower, even with intense spray. Five minutes…six minutes…doesn’t matter – it just won’t come off!”

“Absolutely brilliant. They’ll hate it! They’ll hate us!

“And you know what? You might even fool some of the former liquid hand soap users into trying this body wash – once, anyway! – thinking maybe it would be like the old liquid soap. Picture them at their sink for twenty minutes trying to rinse it off, failing miserably and now both slimy and late for work. Idiots!”

“Ha! ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’ All right, I think this is a good start. Let me bring these ideas to the high mucky-mucks and we’ll see what they say. Good job, folks.”


My perhaps slightly obsessive preparation included seeking out Rich Hall’s latest for the Beeb, “Countrier Than You”, before surgery. His documentaries are always top shelf, and a hoot to boot.

Comfy in my cave – so far, only a little stinging in the first couple post-op hours that went away after a single Percocet.

“Could we maybe get rid of the egg part?”

Dunkin’ Donuts to use fewer ingredients in egg patty for breakfast sandwiches

I remember when Dunkin’ Donuts first started to do breakfast sandwiches maybe twenty years ago. Back then, they would actually crack an egg into a little paper tray and put it in the microwave, most always shooting you hateful looks because you were the arsehole who just ordered an egg sandwich.

Those baleful glances were actually far preferable to the factory-made over-easyish egg-shaped monstrosity they serve these days, which reminds me of those long tubes of hard-boiled egg manufactured to facilitate perfect slices for salad bars*, only much worse. At least those tubes have just egg whites and egg yolks.

For the morbidly curious, here’s their reduced ingredient list for the “egg” part of their sandwiches:

egg whites, water, egg yolks, modified corn starch, natural sauteed flavor (soybean oil, medium-chain triglycerides, natural flavor), salt, artificial butter flavor (propylene glycol, artificial flavor), xanthan gum, citric acid and coarse ground black pepper

I have to admit that the factory that stamps these out would be fascinating to see. For instance, do they mould these simulacra individually or do they make, say, a two-foot-long egg log that they cut into 3/8″ slices?

I also and even more distinctly remember further back, when I was a kid and my family would stop at the local Dunkin’ Donuts after church every Sunday. Our goal was simply a dozen donuts – six honey dipped and six chocolate honey dipped, decades before they abandoned “honey dipped” for “glazed” during their race to the bottom. In winter months, DDs were almost tropically steamy inside because they were actually making donuts in the back for several hours running, on Sunday mornings especially, and smelled strongly, warmly, and gloriously of coffee and donuts frying. Chances were very good on Sundays that the donuts you bought were still going to be warm.

Now there are just a handful of Dunkin’ Donuts in the US that still make their own donuts – only three dozen were left eight years ago. The other shops get their “product” from regional factory bakeries and their premises smell of the definition of forlorn.

This story originally ran in the Boston Globe in 2009 – I’m pasting it here because it’s been behind a paywall for some years now while its accompanying photos (at the link above) are strangely not, but I saved the web page eight years ago. That’s right, I’m an ornery, rule-flouting SOB.

As classical music plays in the background, baker Russ Glod spends his mornings rolling, frying, and frosting hundreds of the circular concoctions for the busiest Dunkin’ Donuts store in the nation. Here, Glod hand-cuts the dough for filled doughnuts. The Dunkin’ Donuts in Weymouth [Massachusetts] on the corner of Route 18 and Park Avenue is one of only three dozen of the more than 2,100 shops in the Northeast that still make doughnuts from scratch in the stores.

Doughnuts the old-fashioned way

At Weymouth Dunkin’ Donuts, in-store bakers keep the confections fresh and the customers very happy

October 6, 2009

WEYMOUTH – By 8:30 a.m., baker Russ Glod is four hours deep into his doughnut dance. As classical music plays in the background, Glod pirouettes through the small kitchen, rolling, frying, and frosting hundreds of these circular concoctions for the busiest Dunkin’ Donuts store in the nation.

Glod is a rarity in the Dunkin’ empire. Only three dozen of the more than 2,100 shops in the Northeast still make doughnuts from scratch in the stores. Most franchisees have their baked goods delivered from a commissary, and the art of making doughnuts on site has nearly disappeared from the chain, famous for its classic 1980s “Time to Make the Donuts’’ tagline.

But the craft lives on in the wee hours at this Weymouth store on the corner of Route 18 and Park Avenue, where bakers cook through the night.

Lynne McLaughlin and Sharon Holdcraft, the sisters who own and run the shop, refused to part with the tradition after taking over the store from their father 11 years ago, even though most other franchisees were outsourcing doughnut making.

“We think it gives us an edge,’’ McLaughlin said as she proudly showed off the kitchen, the sweet smell of cinnamon and sugar wafting throughout the store, which is so popular that the owners put in a two-lane drive-through – and even that isn’t enough to keep traffic from spilling out on the road.

The sisters say keeping the baking in-house has made the shop more agile in the recession, giving them better control over expenses and the ability to cut down quickly on production when business slowed. It has also allowed them to feature an expansive selection of more than 35 doughnuts, compared to 20 varieties typically available at Dunkin’ shops. Unique offerings, like blueberry cake munchkins and glazed jelly doughnuts, have helped the sisters cultivate a fiercely loyal following and have attracted customers who would rather drive here than buy the doughnuts at the Dunkin’s in their own towns.

The success is in the numbers: It is the busiest shop of more than 6,300 Dunkin’s nationwide, serving up more than 1,000 doughnuts a day on average, compared to about 700 doughnuts at a typical Dunkin’ store.

“I wouldn’t go to any of the others. They have the best jelly doughnut out there,’’ said Mary Crowley, 77, who makes the daily trip to this Dunkin’ with several of her church friends, rather than visit shops closer to home on the border of Hingham. Crowley tried several other Dunkin’s when the Weymouth one was closed for renovations years ago, but she has remained loyal ever since it reopened the doors.

Stuart Morris, president of QSR Consulting Group, said baking primary menu items on site is a rarity in the quick-service restaurant industry. Mrs. Fields, a gourmet cookie chain, and Wetzel’s Pretzels are some of the few other companies whose store owners bake on site, according to Morris.

“Doughnuts are an indulgent and ‘sinful’ purchase that we all love,’’ Morris said. “Having them made fresh is a statement of quality to the product and a reward to the consumer. It is no wonder that this Dunkin’ Donuts is among the busiest in the country.’’

The movement to central bakeries across the Canton chain was intended to help franchisees simplify their operations while ensuring fresh product is delivered each day to stores, according to Dunkin’ spokesman Andrew Mastrangelo.

This model allows franchisees with one store and those with multiple locations to share baking resources and generate economies of scale. Shop owners usually pay an upfront cost – some starting at $15,000 – and then have ongoing expenses, including the cost of goods and transportation. Most Dunkin’ stores get at least two deliveries a day of the doughnut rings and shells, which are then frosted and filled on site by employees.

In the kitchen at the back of the Weymouth store, Glod, the soft-spoken head baker who has worked here for more than 25 years, appears unaware of his doughnut dexterity. Wearing a white apron splattered with oil, a faded Dunkin’ baseball cap, and a sweat-soaked T-shirt, Glod smiles meekly, “It’s a job.’’

He turns back to his post at the frialator – a huge vat with 150 pounds of oil. With the deft, swift touch of a magician, he flips 36 golden doughnuts using wooden drum sticks that barely touch the rings.

Minutes later, this doughnut wizard is sliding his creations through a tunnel of white glaze, where the gooey white mixture drips off the sides like wax.

Across the kitchen, two assistants are using pastry bags to inject cream into doughnuts and completing the rings with sprinkles, frosting, and other treats.

On any given weekday, Glod spends at least eight hours a day making hundreds of doughnuts – along with dozens of bagels, muffins, and other baked goods. He nearly doubles that output during busy weekends when families trek out to the Weymouth store from across the South Shore. Every few months, Glod will get instructions and photos for a new item Dunkin’ is introducing, most recently the “Toffee in Your Coffee’’ doughnut, which is topped with crushed Heath bars.

“It’s not that hard,’’ Glod said. “You just follow the instructions.’’

Despite Glod’s modesty about his mastery, there’s clearly something about his doughnuts that sets them apart. In a recent taste test organized by the Globe with true connoisseurs of the fine art of doughnuts – 12 officers from the Quincy Police Department – goods baked by Glod consistently beat doughnuts delivered from a Dunkin’ commissary to a Quincy store.

The officers described his creations as moister, fluffier, and more consistent. They were larger and had more filling. Side by side, Glod’s doughnuts won out in nearly every variety: Boston Kreme, jelly, butternut, strawberry frosting, and glazed.

“It was definitely fresher and it just tasted better,’’ said Quincy Detective Leo Coppens, a self-described “doughnut aficionado,’’ who said his doughnut had more jelly and a better sugar coating. “I would know.’’

*Here’s how some places achieve such perfect hard-boiled egg slices. Google “long egg” or “egg loaf” to learn more.

Sprint rides again, stumbles

In the hope that fellow Justin from Sprint might visit: Sprint has redesigned their site again, this time concentrating on the billing and payment section and unfortunately making it rather difficult to figure out whether you’ve paid the current bill. Formerly, on login you would be brought to a single account summary that showed your latest bill and whether you had paid it. Now it’s more complicated.

When you select Pay bill, instead of showing you the outstanding balance as the default amount to pay, it seems to think you don’t owe anything and so says the default payment is $.00. So you need to go to View bill – where it inconveniently doesn’t say whether you’ve paid or not – and note the amount of the bill, then go to Payment activity to see if you’ve paid recently, then go back to Pay bill and enter the amount you owe. Hardly efficient.


My prediction is that they will soon be shutting off service to a fair number of people who mistakenly believe they’ve paid because Pay bill implies, fairly heavily, that they don’t owe anything and who then do not proceed to click here, there, and everywhere to see if it’s true.

My current bill from them is paid, but only in Payment activity can I figure that out, sort of. To fix this redesign problem, they should:

  • In View bill, show whether the bill is paid, as they used to.
  • In Pay bill, show the amount still due on the current bill next to the Total radio button as they used to, not “$.00”.

Postscript, 9 December: It appears they saw the error of their ways because they tossed their recent changes onto the scrap heap and went back to the original code. Smart move.

This and the previous episode make me wonder if the root of the problem is perhaps that Sprint employees only rarely visit their own site. I mean, they get free cell service, so who needs to pay a bill? T’huh. Proposal: Make the web programming honcho and a few lead coders pay for their cell service and reimburse them monthly. I’ll wager there would be fewer – if any – problems with rollouts of site changes from that point forward.