Tuesday, June 30, 2009

computers: Linux update (I'm stuck with it)

I trashed my Windows partition — long story, still haven't given up — so I'm typing this in Firefox in the Kubuntu (K Desktop Environment on Linux) free software I fortunately had installed earlier. Sound still screeches, but apart from that I don't really notice, since I found 64-bit nightly Firefox builds.

KDE is just a nice panel strip and Kickoff menu below my browser windows ;-). (And someday, the promise of KDE's Nepomuk/Strigi/whatever semantic technologies, should Kubuntu ever deign to turn it on and explain it to me.)

Apparently Firefox integrates better with other Linux distributions, so maybe I shouldn't have used this one.

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music: Michael Jackson RIP

I'm listening to Off the Wall, which David Gates in Newsweek rightly identifies: "it came out the year he turned 21, and it was his greatest purely musical moment". I remember hearing the title track with Michael Jackson's yelp and crazed giggles, now so fun to parody, and being stunned by the vocal chances he was taking. Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough is effervescent, wonderful disco with a killer opening and a fantastic percussion lead-out, then Rock with You has impeccable singing over sensational bass by Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson), and a confident lush groove.

Quincy Jones deserves so much of the credit for this record and Thriller. Jackson's best songs were written by Rod Temperton (formerly of Heatwave), but his own songs are fine: the aforementioned Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough, Beat It, Billie Jean, etc. Two of the biggest and best pop records ever made are from Michael Jackson, and all the weirdness and tawdry sickness of his personal life (read Maureen Orth's features in Vanity Fair, but you'll want to bathe afterwards) can't take that away.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

TV: what to do with old videotapes?

With the digital TV transition, my VCR became a boat anchor for recording broadcast television. What, if anything, should I do with all the VHS tapes on the media shelves? I reckon Star Trek: The Next Generation will come out one day on a handful of Blu-ray disks or a single memory chip. Many of the classic bits of broadcast TV are on YouTube, if not I should upload them myself. As with digitizing vinyl if I'm going to do the job I want to do it with quality. The aging PC on which I type this has an ATI All-in-Wonder 9800 Pro card with video-in capability, but it lacks the supposed key feature for quality analog TV digitization, timebase correction.

Also, I've been meaning to give a spare VCR away, this transition makes it even more worthless tech. Another one of spage's laws:
If you don't freecycle something the day you stop using it, it'll be worthless when you finally get around to disposing it.

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TV: what replaces the VCR?

I thought I was set for last night's digital TV transition, I've been watching free digital TV over-the-air for a while. Then I realized... the VCR!!? No more sticking a tape in 5 minutes before you leave in order to record some must-see TV, only to find you overwrote the middle of the Lawrence Welk PBS special after the funny Andy Rooney rant, and then trying to pencil in a meaningful update to the table of contents on the two tape labels and the box to remind you of the random bits of video on the tape worth keeping.

I wonder how many others will be in the same situation? I guess I could get a DTV converter box only for use with the VCR, but tape is so last-century. Once demodulated, the HD signal is fully digital (it's just MPEG-2 1s and 0s), so turning it back into high-frequency modulation of magnetic particles on squeaky spools of plastic film coated with rust seems completely unnecessary. My Samsung LCD TV already has a USB port to read video files from a USB flash drive, it seems it would be a simple software upgrade for it to write video files to USB.

I guess two years ago when electronic companies were planning today's TVs, the bandwidth of HDTV seemed so massive that it would flood any storage device. The digital broadcast TV data rate is 19.4 Mbit/s, which means a 1-hour show fills 8.7 Gigabytes. But nowadays that's half a $25 16GB USB drive. And I think most broadcast "channels" squeeze several digital channels into that bandwidth, so the real rate is less.

As with all other media, the digitization of TV means any small rectangular box with computer chips can now work with video, and indeed cameras, computers, phones, and videogame consoles all do. (The future of video is a bigger discussion than the VCR replacement...) The tuning of over-the-air broadcasts has become the province of digital TV capture "cards" for computers such as the Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro stick; plug an antenna into it, plug it into a PC's USB slot, and watch or record broadcast TV. But that means dedicating a computer computer to recording TV programs, something I tried without success with my desktop. The capture card is already a computer, it could just write the 1s and 0s to an attached USB flash drive without requiring a PC. You would need some simple interface (it couldn't be worse than the VCR's flashing "12:00" UI) to tell the capture card to record a show. You could have a keypad and LCD phone-like UI on the capture card to program it; or the capture card could show its UI on the TV screen, but that would require plugging it into an HDMI input on your TV in addition to the USB slot. Either way it's getting fiddly again.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

music: John Mayer, an appreciation

There are a lot of people out there who know John Mayer only as the Jennifer Aniston-bonking teen heartthrob behind the awful "Your Body is a Wonderland" Let the scales fall from your eyes!
Years ago I caught the video of No Such Thing 1½ times and couldn't get it out of my head. In 20 seconds you can tell he knows how to assemble a quality song. When you hear him sing the fabulously wrong "Uhhhp my sleeve" you hear the musicianship.

So I bought the album "Room for Squares". Massive disappointment. After "No Such Thing", it seems just a generic series of singer-songwriter melancholic songs, with the genuinely bad "Your Body is a Wonderland" as a nadir. A massive let-down, maybe he sold his soul to the devil for that one song.

Then on his next record "Heavier Things" he's thanking Buddy Guy and Elton John, like all the bands on MySpace, and people slam it for its horrible Loudness War sound.

  • The songs on "Room for Squares" all grow on you:
    • Neon has a surprisingly tricky chords
    • 83 is sweet
    • 3x5 is a really strong lyric about living life instead of trying to capture it
    • He tosses in a dead stop acoustic freakout in the midst of Your Body is a Wonderland performances (at 1:20)
  • I caught the TV special of him playing with Buddy Guy, and damn, his blues playing is right there. (I still don't understand the Elton John connection.)
  • "Heavier Things" is an album of expansion and growth in song-writing. Clarity is an outstanding song despite the awful sound.
Then he releases "Try!" by the John Mayer Trio and blows the doors off, from the very first song onwards. He's channeling Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Great stuff, though the sound is hurt by drummer Steve Jordan producing it and over-boosting his snare.

"Continuum" is a bit of an anticlimax, just a set of good pop songs.

All links are YouTube videos unless otherwise indicated. Every performance is subtly different and has its merits. I love John Mayer Trio - Chicken Grease / Jam / Cissy Strut for a lonnng jam. You'd never believe this guy is a pop star in People magazine all the time.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

software: the world is flat but for my house

Google was at Maker Faire promoting SketchUp, a 3D program.

One of the things it can do is texture the surfaces of a model. Wait, Google Maps has a top-down picture of your house from satellite imagery. So draw boundary lines on the edges of your roof, then extrude vertically, then pull up the roof line, and you have a crude wooden-block house shape with your roof. Next, Google Street View may have a drive-by panorama of your house, assuming an angry luddite mob didn't block Google's camera car. So grab the street view and paste it on the front of the model. Five minutes later (assuming you've spent months or years mastering the unintuitive mysteries of a 3-D modeling program) you have a passable representation of your house. You can upload this to Google's 3-D warehouse of SketchUp designs, and you can place it in Google Earth, a more sophisticated version of Google Maps that presents landmarks and other geographic data anywhere and everywhere on earth. When people waltz around your neighborhood in Google Earth, they'll see your dollhouse.[*]
SketchUp house in Google Earth
In the screenshot, the panel below is Google Earth's in-program browser with the house model that Google's 3D ninja whipped up. (Click the screenshot to see more of the Google Earth program).

Yes my neighbors' houses are all low-rise ranch houses sunk into the earth, and there really is a 7-meter shiny ball parked on the street!

Google is crowd-sourcing the creation of a 3-D model of the world. As builders and planners and amateurs create more 3D models, the virtual world gets fleshed out until a fly-through in Google Earth is a pretty good approximation of being there. You can see downtown and the Bay Bridge are getting filled in.
view of downtown SF
It's more evidence for my thesis that computer previsualizations of movies will be good enough to replace the filmed movie.

All of these tools and programs are free, I don't know where Google makes money. Google is looking to get 3D into the browser, so soon you'll get all this in Google Maps; maybe Google will sell billboards in virtual earth. Or maybe they'll charge to have you socialize in it with other avatars.

[*] If you want to see my house, you've got to ask for the additional 3-D warehouse, it doesn't appear automatically. I guess that provides some protection for Google against complaints from house-proud owners that a griefer uploaded a model that makes their property look ugly, or shows a guy mooning out of a window.

An interesting question is why doesn't Google automate this. They have the overhead picture, they have the front picture, so run some AI to glue the two together so my neighbors' houses poke out of the ground to form a 3D canyon.
Road Rash screenshot
I asked Google's modeling ninja and he said the AI isn't smart enough to do it. 10 years ago MetaCreations released Canoma which supposedly let you semi-automatically pin photographs onto 3D shapes and it would guess the outlines of the building. Despite all the wonders our network of computers is producing, hard AI remains hard.

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