Saturday, August 23, 2008

TV high-def for free

We got a new TV but no set-top box. It's fun to explain it to people.
"We watch high-definition TV programs."
"No, we don't pay for cable or a satellite"
"We use a technology where we get digital TV for free"
"No, there's no box, just a metal gizmo on the roof"
"We own the metal thing, there's no monthly fee"
"The technical term for the metal gizmo is 'rabbit ears'"
I've gone for 10 minutes before people realize what I'm talking about:
On a recent TV, you can watch high-definition digital TV signals sent over the air by existing TV stations for free.
I wonder how many people have a recent TV and just assume they have to pay someone to watch TV. Must be nice for cable and satellite companies! In February 2009 the regular analog TV stations will disappear, leaving only the digital signals, but despite all the public service announcements people don't understand broadcast TV will continue to be free.

Each TV station has one to five digital TV channels. The first tends to be their regular analog broadcast in better quality. The others are all over the place. Fox's Channel 2-2 shows LATV, which is cheesy Latin music videos along with a scroll of incoherent text messages. The CBS and NBC affiliates rebroadcast their nightly news over and over. PBS has a world channel, an all-British TV channel, and a kids channel. So it's almost like having basic cable with 57 channels (and nothin' on – Bruce Springsteen).

Each station must be transmitting a coded representation of the day's schedule, because you can find out more info about what's on each digital channel and see what's on later in the day. But before you can scroll through the day's programming for all channels, you have to tune in to each channel to receive this. So it's sort of like a cable box's interactive program guide.

Almost, sort-of. But it beats paying a company money every month for the rest of your life.

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electronics: LCD TV

I wrote way back in April
Meanwhile, I've only 10 days to buy a TV, a surround system, a PS3, and umpteen cables, to play GTA IV.
Indeed, on the day of the Grand Theft Auto IV midnight launch I finally got an LCD TV and disconnected the Sony Trinitron.old Sony Trinitron, new Samsung in box with PS3I had held off for years watching the never-ending procession of must-have features that has kept the price of a high-end TV above $3000: 720p, 1080i, 1080p, CCFL backlight, LED backlight, low millisecond response, DVI input, HDMI input, 120 Hz refresh, OLED...

Actually buying one was straightforward: Best Buy offered a reasonable Samsung LN40A550 TV with a PS3 and installation for $1599, so I bought the package without bothering to go through the heck of comparing TVs. You don't need 1080 resolution at the distance we sit from the TV, but they didn't have a similar deal on a 720p TV. Best Buy agreed to swap the free installation for free TV calibration, but it took two salesmen 30 minutes of wrestling with their sales computer to print the receipt. I think that wore Chris and Glenn out: I was prepared to fight the hard sell of a service contract and overpriced cables, but it never happened.

Set up was easy, just plug in and go. The TV works fine, no bad pixels. I don't even know which of those fancy features it has (I'm a audiophile, not videophile). The picture looked fine from the start and looks slightly better (softer and warmer) after the Geek Squad finally scheduled a guy to calibrate the TV.

I briefly considered the surround sound part. Best Buy had two stacks of surround-sound receivers, each with a hundred connectors on the back but obviously lightweight construction, and none hooked up to speakers. If and when I ever get surround sound I'll get Magnepan surrounds and center speaker, probably with a semi-audiophile receiver from Integra, NAD, or Rotel.

Plugging in a laptop VGA cable gives you a fantastic 1080x1920 desktop with only the slightest ghosting. So I should be copyright infringing TV shows and movies and surfing YouTube on the laptop while hooked up to the TV. But even though the TV is a computer (Samsung offers Linux source code for it) and a set-top box is another computer, watching TV in the living room doesn't fit with a PC.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

web: life of a Beijing pirate is hard, yarrrr

Even with an outside high-def antenna from AntennaPros, I can't tune in to over-the-air NBC ever since the station moved to San Jose. Curse you, hilly geography!

So no Olympics (or Heroes, or Tonight Show) for me. Yet the opening ceremonies are meant to be the greatest ever!

Ahh, but I hear there be “pirates” a-sailing the IntarWub tubes who make TV booty available to landlubbers. (Though what, exactly, is the piracy in taking something freely broadcast over the air to anyone who can receive it and making it available to others?)

I knew from my experience trying to grab early Joanna Newsom albums how difficult this would be.
  • Google for Olympics 2008 opening ceremony torrent
  • Update to latest BitTorrent program just to be safe.
  • Download the small .torrent file, it opens in BitTorrent.
  • My download speed is close to zero, so I reconfigure my router's port forwarding for my current IP address
  • It starts downloading, dozens of computers world-wide handing me pieces!
  • The torrent contains two files
    1. Beijing.Summer.Olympics.2008.Torch.and.Fireworks.BBC-HD.1080p.H.264.AC3.2.0.mkv (1.12 GB)
    2. Olympic Opening Ceremony [2008] (minus athletes entering).avi (598 MB)
    The first file downloads in a few hours, the second file never gets started.
  • I watch the first file, in Media Player Classic. It's insanely high resolution but choppy as hell and it's only the five minute climax of the guy running around the scroll!
  • Search again, find torrents on The Pirate Bay yarrr, arrrr, together with user reviews. Everyone wants a torrent without commercials and without the irritating commentators, nobody has one. For a bunch of freeloaders we sure are demanding.
  • I settle on Beijing.Olympics.2008.Opening.Ceremony.720p.HDTV.x264-ORENJi, not-quite-so high-def
  • download the .torrent and BitTorrent starts grabbing pieces of the file.
  • It's 5 gigabytes, 53 files 95.3 MB each!
  • The next morning it's all downloaded, but my BitTorrent program continues to offer bits of the file to other users. Arrr, they're not just pirates, they be Communist pirates sharing amongst themselves!
  • Try to play the first file, orenji-x264-beijing.olympics.2008.opening.ceremony.720p.hdtv.x264-orenji.r00, but no luck: Windows Media Player, Media Player Classic, and VLC Player all can't play it. Media Player Classic knows a few details about it like the encoding rate, but there's no sound or video in any of them.
  • Google for x264 "Media Player Classic", figure out it's a variant of H264 video compression, this forum post tells me I need ffdshow plus Haali Matroska Splitter
  • I download and install those decoder packs, adding to the half-dozen media-playing bits and pieces on my computer. Both have dozens of setup options for which formats they should own and mostly incomprehensible video settings.
  • Again, try to play that first 95MB file, nothing doing.
  • I look more closely, there's also a orenji-x264-beijing.olympics.2008.opening.ceremony.720p.hdtv.x264-orenji.rar file, which sounds like a compressed file.
  • Try opening this, 7-Zip volunteers to open it.
  • Indeed, it's a compressed file, so I extract the original file blahblah.mkv
  • 15 minutes later, it's still extracting.
  • The original file is 5,157,477 kB!! 5GB! And there are 50 of these! I'll need to dedicate a hard drive just for this one TV program!
And even with these encoders, the sound is staticky and choppy; I guess not only is my disk too small, but my Athlon 64 3000 with 1GB of RAM isn't powerful enough. The insane file sizes and CPU demands demonstrate that high-quality computer video has barely entered the realm of possibility, unlike computer audio where any $40 cellphone or $2 birthday card can play music.

Yet clearly there are many people who have mastered this hassle and happily grab a daily buffet of free TV shows and movies from the pirates' distributed digital treasure chest.

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

eco: drying with solar wind power

I showed our first-generation low tech solar wind photonic membrane evaporator, here's its replacement saving money, avoiding pollution, and reducing wear and tear.

clothes drying on laundry trees by Kris Borchardt
Even lower tech than before, but the two laundry tree sculptures by Kris Borchardt are functional art.

And here's lower-tech indoor clothes drying technology for $13.
Pull-out end of retractable clothes dryer lineBusiness end of retractable clothes dryer line

If you put clothes in a dryer during the summer, you're crazy.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

web: XULRunner means every app can be a Firefox app

The most excellent Firefox browser (see my tips) is built on Mozilla code. So is the Thunderbird e-mail client, and a bunch of other applications are “powered by Mozilla”. The name for the underlying code to talk to the network, render HTML, display controls, etc. is XULRunner.

An app powered by Mozilla is better than most Windows apps. As I've complained on the IntarWub
I wish my native apps worked as well as web apps in Firefox: ubiquitous text selection, spell-checking in every field, smart zooming, superb auto-update, user data cleanly separated in profiles, and powerful notions like bookmarking, caching, etc. But they don’t, they’re CRAP in comparison. I hate leaving the browser to screw around in native apps like iTunes, media players, and Norton Justshootme Virus. Then, to add insult to injury, these native apps are peppered with web links that don’t have Firefox’s context menu and so lack vital commands like “Bookmark this link” and “Copy link location”.
If native apps used the underlying code of Firefox, they'd work more like it and be better. However, Mozilla-based apps are heavier than they need to be:
  • another .exe installer
  • another copy of the XULRunner code on disk (18MB!) and in memory that you have to update.
There is a way to keep them lightweight, which is to run the application off the XULRunner code in Firefox. Firefox has an undocumented -app command line option to run a XULRunner application using the platform code that came with Firefox 3. (See my post about standalone ChatZilla for an example).

Strangely, Mozilla Corp and third-party vendors put no effort into promoting this. Mozilla folk seem to love extensions that improve Firefox, they have a Firefox extension called Prism that lets you turn Web sites that are sophisticated "Web applications" (like GMail) into icons on the desktop, and they tolerate Mozilla-based applications. But the idea of "use your Firefox code to run lightweight local applications" is well-hidden. Maybe they're afraid of tying other products to Firefox requirements and upgrade schedules, or they assume disk space and memory is "cheap"

The best future is one where Firefox and Thunderbird ship as just another relatively small application that runs off a "central" XULRunner binary, same as all other "powered by Mozilla" applications. That's how the Browse activity on my One Laptop Per Child XO machine works.

One platform to rule them all

I realize you have to pick your battles and Mozilla has to focus on making great products that give users a better Internet experience. But it would be a shame if the solid, coherent, Web-friendly XULRunner platform lost out because it didn't promote itself. Fortunately there's next to no money in platforms (just bragging rights, lock-in, and mindshare) so no one else is trying too hard. The competitors:
  • Every few years Microsoft promotes a different platform for building applications, currently it's Silverlight. No thanks, I keep declining it in Windows Update.
  • Macromedia/Adobe has spent years getting people to write Flash-based applications, first as lightweight gadgets in Macromedia Central, then as Adobe AIR. But text and scrollbars alone in Flash are so jarringly inconsistent that I find Flash apps uncomfortable.
  • Sun's Java is still around on the desktop, I think I have Eclipse and maybe BitTorrent apps using it.
One development that could quickly bring the promised land of all Mozilla-powered apps all the time are the coming low-cost 4PCs (power-performance-price-portability) and network tablets. Once you put Firefox or a Gecko-based browser on these, you've got that 18MB of code in memory, so reuse it to create the small fraction of your computing that isn't Web browsing. That's the vision behind this fantasy? Firefox web tablet.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

web: Chat powered by Firefox's XULRunner

I want all my applications to work as well as Firefox by running off its core technology. Here's an example of running an application off the XULRunner code built into Firefox. I've started using ChatZilla more to interact with OLPC and MediaWiki developers on IRC. This is available as a Firefox extension, but then it closes down when Firefox shuts down. The developer also provides it as a standalone XULRunner app separate from the XULRunner runtime. Although it's undocumented you can run it using your Firefox 3 code:
  1. download the XULRunner version of chatzilla
  2. unzip it (only 2.5 MB)
  3. In a command window, enter \path\to\firefox.exe -app \path\to\unpacked_chatzilla\application.ini
  4. Cool! You're executing a second instance of the firefox code, but it's running a different set of files
  5. To create a shortcut for it (Windows)
    1. Explore your Firefox folder in the Start menu
    2. Copy the Firefox shortcut, rename it Chatzilla XULRunner on Firefox
    3. In the shortcut's Properties, change Target to \path\to\firefox.exe -app application.ini and Start in to \path\to\unpacked_chatzilla
    4. click Change Icon and navigate to \path\to\unpacked_chatzilla\chrome\icons\default and choose the chatzilla .ico as the icon
If this is too geeky, don't worry about it. (Just download and run those “powered by Mozilla” applications like Songbird music player, Miro, etc. Disk and memory are cheap.)

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Monday, August 4, 2008

web: still no date love

I complained about the complete and utter randomness of date formats. Going through receipts from travel:
Jul'06 08
06JUL 2008
And Yankee imperialist scum, none are June, those are all July 6th 2008.

How much time do people waste comprehending the 20 different ways of representing a date? What does it take to get companies to stop this nonsense and use ISO8601 dates?

2008-07-06 Done. All ambiguity gone for anyone on earth.

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