Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Tribute to Pete Smith

When I was growing up, one of my favorite television programs was the occasional showing of a batch of theatrical short films known as "Pete Smith Specialties." Filmed during the 1930's, 40's, and early 50's, they covered a wide variety of topics, including several of what may well have been the world's first cooking videos. Usually, these films were of a decidedly humorous nature, to the point of making me howl out loud with laughter. Some, however, were of a more serious tone, such as his story of Louis Pasteur's development of immunization, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and amateur radio. Even these, however, invariably contained that special touch of sly, dry wit that was Pete Smith's hallmark throughout his career. In all, over 300 of these films were produced and distributed to movie theaters throughout the United States over a 25-year period. Two of these, "Penny Wisdom" and "Quicker'N A Wink," won Academy Awards for Best Short Subject of 1937 and 1940, respectively.

In addition to producing and narrating these delightful cinematic gems, Pete Smith was for many years the head of publicity and advertising for MGM, where the films were made. Upon his retirement in 1954, he was awarded a special honorary Oscar in recognition of his unique contribution to American filmmaking.

Sadly, his post-retirement years were not kind to Mr. Smith, who had to be hospitalized more and more frequently. Finally, depressed and despondent over his failing health, Pete Smith committed suicide on January 12, 1979, by jumping out of his 9th-floor hospital room window. He was 86 years old.

Even more sadly, however, despite their widespread popularity both in theaters and on television, Warner Home Video (which apparently now owns them) has steadfastly refused to make the Pete Smith Specialties collection available to home video audiences, either on videocassette or DVD. Occasionally, however, the Turner Classic Movies cable broadcasts one or two in between other motion pictures, or in a special presentation, such as their "Marathon of Shorts". Also, a few of them are included in DVD collections of other films, such as those of Esther Williams.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to find four Pete Smith Specialties on YouTube, of all places! The four shorts in question are "Menu," Radio Hams," "Penny Wisdom," and "Fisticuffs". I was glad indeed to be able to see them, to laugh at them, to enjoy them again. How I wish that somebody at Warner Home Video would have the brains--and the guts!--to make the entire collection available on DVD. I think they would be VERY pleasantly surprised at how popular they would once more prove to be! Warner Home Video, are you listening?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Starting Over

Shortly after I posted my last blog entry in November 2007, a series of heat-related problems began to occur with ever-growing frequency. The root cause of the problem lay in the fact that the case I have used for my desktop PC since 2003 is, by current standards, too small to permit sufficient airflow to cool the system properly. Also, there were not enough openings for case fans to create the necessary airflow. The situation became even worse when I upgraded my system from 1 GB of RAM to 2 GB, consisting of 4 SDIMM units of 512 MB each. Although I applied aluminum heat spreaders to each one, the heat problem grew steadily worse, even when I left one side of the case completely open.

Matters finally came to a head in mid-June of 2008. I shut the computer down in order to go pick up and deposit my paycheck. When I returned, to my dismay and chagrin, the computer refused to start up! It would begin the power-up sequence, then abruptly shut down after about five seconds. At this point, I realized that, for all intents and purposes, my PC was dead as a doornail, and that I would have to build a new one almost entirely from scratch.

In assessing what I would need for such a new system, I determined that the SATA hard drive, the sound card, and the TV tuner card were all savalgeable, and I could safely use them in the new system. That would, however, still require a new case, power supply, motherboard, RAM, and a new video card. An online search revealed that a so-called "barebones kit" would most likely be the most cost-efficient approach. Due to an upcoming out-of-state trip, however, I would have to wait at least until November, and the beginning of the holiday season (and the numerous sales and specials hat would become available during that time) before I could even begin to contemplate such a purchase.

In the meantime, I still needed a PC to use in my apartment, as the computer facilities at my local public library are often in heavy use, especially by students. Thankfully, a very generous friend in my church was kind enough to allow me the use of a used IBM ThinkPad A20m laptop, complete with a wi-fi card, until I could get a new desktop unit built. Even so, I have had to upgrade the memory, and install a new hard drive and a DVD-ROM drive, as well as a complete re-installation of Windows and Linux, to get this new system to where I could really use it.

As of right now, "my" laptop is configured as follows:

IBM ThinkPad A20m with Pentium III CPU @ 700 Mhz
512 MB of RAM (the maximum amount the system will hold)
120 GB hard drive
NetGear wireless card
Windows XP Home Edition, upgraded to Service Pack 3
Xubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron), operating in a "dual-boot" setup with Windows XP
DVD-ROM drive, which can be "swapped out" with the original CD-ROM drive if need be
An extra battery
Cooling pad containing 2 fans and a 4-port USB hub
Two USB external hard drives (one is 80 GB PATA-133, the other is 120 GB SATA-300),
which are primarily intended for home use and for backups

Future upgrades will be confined to a possible DVD burner drive (to replace the current DVD-ROM drive), possibly equipped with LightScribe capability (if the budget permits!), plus an upgraded version of InterVideo's WinDVD package. (I am currently using an OEM edition of WinDVD version 5, which is limited to strictly 2-channel sound; I may upgrade to the Platinum Edition of WinDVD version 6, which includes full Dolby Headphone surround support. Due to hardware constraints, it would be pointless to upgrade to any later version of this package, since the CPU's clock speed would not meet the package's hardware requirements.)

Despite the setbacks I have suffered along the way, I am still hoping to have a full home theater/media center desktop PC in operation by the end of 2008, or by early 2009. (I should note that, in place of Linux MCE, I will most likely be using the "Mythbuntu" Linux distribution (again as a "dual-boot" setup with either Windows XP Home Edition or Windows XP Media Center 2005) as the primary operating system. This is due to the fact that Linux MCE does not allow the end user to check for updates or add software manually, a restriction I cannot accept. Also, Linux MCE is designed more as a "whole-house" setup than a simple, "one-PC" system such as I am having to use (especially since I live in an apartment), and is therefore "overkill" in my situation.) Anyhow, stay tuned for further developments!