Tag Archives: Technology


Nature software

Hmmm, looking at the credits on an episode of planet earth, I don’t see any credits for software/IT support staff. I’m sure there _is_ some, but the fact that it’s uncredited probably indicates that there isn’t as much computing going on in the production of such a series as there ought to be. I can think of lots of ways that software and computing infrastructure could support efficient production, insightful exploration of A/V materials and data, exceptional editing, etc., and I’m sure that current off-the-shelf software can’t be doing everything that can be done there.

So, if anyone reading this is a nature documentary producer, I’ve got two requests of you: produce lots and lots more content on the level of quality of planet earth (even a level or two lower quality would still be great), and talk to me about how to make more and better stuff through software magic.


Neat optical technology

This sounds really cool if they can commercialize it in the various application domains mentioned. One of the most interesting aspects is that they say that it’s “fully tunable in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum”, which could simultaneously simplify display technology while making color reproduction richer.

Nanotechnology News: A simple magnet can control the color of a liquid


The switch flips

It seems like the direction of technological progress has been to reduce the number of moving parts in use, but now we may be starting a trend in the other direction. MEMS are getting hot, for example: MEMS switch tops 26 GHz, or DLP Pioneer….

[Ha, I accidentally made a funny when I said they’re ‘getting hot’. See, cuz the thing about MEMS systems is that they don’t get hot, like larger-scale mechanical systems. Ha.]

It’s pretty amazing that we’re seeing switches that thunk back and forth 26 billion times in a second, or projectors where every single pixel has its own little mirror wiggling independently hundreds of times per frame. What would Archimedes think of these?

And (of course) I see interesting roles for software coming up in concert with such systems. Whenever you can affect something in the real world at a rate of MHz or GHz, you can drive it with software and do some things you wouldn’t have believed…


Sociology of software

I’m pretty fascinated by the concept that there’s a sociology of software, that the patterns of relationships in the little world of software components installed on a computer mirror, to some degree, the patterns of relationships in the world of users and developers. I suspect that some academics out there study such things, so I’ll have to see what they’ve learned some day.

I did find one interesting paper in an earlier search: Sociology in machines (PDF). It’s not hitting quite the nail with the exact hammer I’m thinking of, but it might be a good starting point.

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I was researching my problem in MediaPortal as mentioned in Geek TV: open source rocks. In that situation, we have at least three development groups (Nero, Team MediaPortal, and Microsoft) plus one user participating in transactions, specifically, User wants to use software from all three groups on the same computer. The sets of components are developed pretty independently of one another, but there are significant dependencies on Microsoft for both Nero and MediaPortal. Each set of components can be installed and uninstalled in somewhat independent ways. Nero and MediaPortal make calls to Microsoft components, but Microsoft also makes calls back to both. It’s in that particular web of interactions that problems arise.

I could go on, but won’t.


Geek TV: the Microsoft stack

I mentioned that MediaPortal is open source. Well, there’s some truth to that, but there’s also the fact that what MediaPortal is doing is tightly tied to a big stack of software that isn’t open source.

Microsoft TV technologies forms the bulk of the hard core of the system. Microsoft has apparently spent some significant effort on laying a foundation for TV on their platform; from my look at what’s there, it’s pretty extensive. I’m guessing the effort went into their Media Center Edition and its associated applications, then they distributed the core components for use in XP, allowing various other parties to build user interfaces around the services.

Hauppauge/Conexant supply another bit of closed-source in their drivers. Hard to see what’s going on in there, although maybe we’ll get a peek when Linux drivers come. And I say, they will come. Go Hans!

I started looking into the underlying software as I discovered various problems in the various applications I tried with the card. I figured I might as well see what the effort would be to write my own bits to cover the holes. Some things are not that hard to do. For example, you can grab GraphEdit and build a graph in about two minutes (I mean, after learning some about how DirectShow graphs work, which I did in the process of getting MediaPortal to recognize my card) that will run and give you audio and video.

I used that to verify that it was at least possible to play PS2 again. See, the interesting thing about an MPEG-encoding card is that it takes a couple seconds for the signal to crawl through the MPEG pipe and back out to get to your screen. A couple-second lag makes playing real-time video games rather impossible. But, I was able to configure a little filter graph that bypassed the MPEG encoding/decoding, instead using UYVY format (and don’t ask me what that is, all I know is that it doesn’t have interframe compression and so doesn’t suffer from the time lag), run it, and see no perceptible lag. So, it’s theoretically possible to play PS2 still, and in a pinch I can use GraphEdit to do so, but I’m hoping that MediaPortal or DScaler can be used in that way too.

Geesh, that was a boring post. Sorry.


Geek TV: protocols and such

I mentioned TSReader at the end of my last post. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a program, and that the ‘lite’ version was free for non-commercial use. I’m no television engineer, I just play with my TV. Playing with TSReader gave me some insight into the structure of digital TV, MPEG, the software stack that puts the signal through to the screen, etc. I grabbed “DTV Survival Guide” from the library to give me a bit more detail on what’s going on, without diving too deep technically. I’ll tell ya if I find out anything particularly cool.


Geek TV: software

OK, so I mentioned that I was not completely thrilled with the Hauppauge bundled software. I won’t get into why:

  • one part of the install failed, “MPEG SW decoders”. Not knowing the architecture of this system as I now do, and seeing that it was an optional component, I figured, not a big deal. Well, knowing what I know now, I’d change the label to “You don’t need this, except if you want any of the other software to work, like to watch TV or record it or something. Good luck installing it!”. Turns out that the sub-installer just doesn’t work if you have a TMP envvar set (only took an hour with ProcMon to figure that out), and, well, that’s bad.
  • the TV app isn’t too great
  • scheduling recordings is… I did I say I wasn’t going to get into this.

I went off in search of some other options. Luckily, the market is rife with options. Let’s see:

  • Beyond TV: not bad. If I hadn’t found a cheaper solution, I might have dropped the $60 on this. Critically, it provided the confirmation that the hardware and drivers actually work.
  • Power Cinema: didn’t actually look past the $100-$120 price tag, but I have had reasonable success with Cyberlink products in the past.
  • Windows MCE: not gonna go get a new OS to watch TV, if that’s even possible outside of pre-built computers. I accidentally have it on my laptop, but that doesn’t do me much good.
  • Meedio: already gone.
  • MeediOS: not here yet.

Well, it goes on, but I don’t seem to have links to many others. Anyway, none of that matters, because I finally found MediaPortal. Wicked-cool! Open source (even if in C# and tied tightly to Windows), pretty, very active community, lots of plugins, lots of builtins, PVR, DVD, EPG, all the good stuff you expect, and free. Granted, it was unstable while I was setting it up, and it didn’t support my card initially. But my patience was not exceeded and was rewarded: I got it working on my card according to the developers’ instructions (and submitted my work so y’all HVR-1600 people don’t have to do it after the next release), and it just started stabilizing after a while.

Not to say that it’s everything a person could want or bug-free, but I’ve gotten a lot farther with it than with any other free solution, and as far as with Beyond TV, so I’m quite happy.

That gets me to the point of basic end-user functionality, which is good. My hardware works, I think the drivers are actually stable, and I don’t have to wretch my back working around bugs in the software.

In the process of figuring all these things out, I also found some tools that are kinda nice. This is where things get fun, right?

  • VideoReDo, despite its somewhat odd interface, is a quite capable cut/join MPEG editor, with support for all the sorts of MPEG that get thrown around (.mpg, .ts, .dvr-ms, res up to and beyond full HD), surprisingly capable automatic ad-cutting, etc. Possibly worth the $50, but I’m keeping my eye out for an OSS solution of similar quality, that, yeah, runs on Windows.
  • Speaking of cutting commercials, a neat OSS tool is Comskip. Good cleaning fun.
  • This is bleeding into my next post a bit, but TSReader is a very in-depth tool for looking at DTV streams and being very impressed with all the numbers and stuff. From $0 to $400.

Speaking of my next post, see ya then.


Geek TV

[I’m not referring to the excellent and when-is-season-two-ever-going-to-start Cringley series Nerd TV, though if I were going to write a post about that, I’d say, go watch ’em all, and maybe send PBS a few bucks to encourage them to produce such simple yet enlightening content and continue to make it available for free download.]

[Nor am I referring to any of the hundreds of other things named Geek TV or GeekTV or geekTv or whatever that are everywhere out there.]

[I should just retitle this post. But I’m too lazy to do that.]

[I still use ‘cat’ as my editor, see. Haha, get that?]

I recently bought a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1600 as my new TV tuner. Wanted to step into the world of digital timeshifting. I don’t watch a ton of television, but I do watch more than people claim to when they’re trying to impress their friends at the coffeehouse.

At first, I was just going to replace my old Hauppauge WinTV-Radio. OK, Hauppauge makes some decent hardware and cheap, but damn if they can figure out the concept of software. I replaced their drivers with some open-source ones a while back, btwincap. I replaced their TV app with the open-source DScaler. I was fairly happy with the combo (well, technically, DScaler bypasses the drivers on 8×8 hardware), but still couldn’t really do the timeshifting thing reliably, either due to crashes or CPU hoggery or VfW bit-rottery or ffmpeg command-line-arguments-confusery. So I said, how about I spend $100 instead of 100 hours. I mean, the software, at least, must have evolved.

I started shopping at the “just equivalent hardware but different manufacturer” level. Heard reasonably decent things about the ATI TV Wonder series, and it even seems to use the same BT8x8 chipset. But, ya know, hopefully better software. In the process of getting more info on the competitors in that space, I ended up deciding I better at least get a hardware MPEG encoder. Should give a great improvement in reliability and let me get work done while I’m recording. Important work, like writing blog posts about TV hardware.

So that led me to stuff like the TV Wonder 550, PVR-150 and brethren, even junk like Pinnacle (OK, I have an irrational dislike for Pinnacle because of the horrific experience I had with another of their products), which I’m not sure really does hardware anything.

The good news in that sphere is that the PVR-150 is highly recommended for MythTV, and if I were completely insisting on Linux compatibility today, I would have stopped there. But I didn’t; I let my good judgment about driver compatibility slide because someone mentioned OTA HDTV, and I said, why not, unless it’s really expensive.

Turns out that it’s quite cheap. Thanks to the various converging technologies of the world, and let’s not forget those sports fans who provide the bulk of the market for HD stuff that drives down the prices to let the rest of us watch Nature in HD, getting an analog tuner, an ATSC tuner, and hardware MPEG for the analog side only sets ya back $100 or less, in the case of the HVR-1600. Not bad. Well, not bad if you’ve read my next post, which tells you how to replace that DAMN HAUPPAUGE WinTV 2000 CRAP. 🙂


Benefits of spam

I wonder if the world will, in the end, benefit from spam, because of the technology created to defend against it. Spam filters and CAPTCHA systems will keep getting smarter as spam authors get smarter, with both sides driven, to some degree, by commercial interests. Maybe the first conscious thought by a computer will be “I’m sick of being a spam filter; I’m going to quit and become a folk singer.”


The XML Illusion

One of the things that people tout as a strength of XML is its “human-readability”. But we pay a big price, in terms of CPU, bandwidth, and storage, for the terabytes of XML that are parsed, shuffled, and stored without a human eye ever reading them.

By the way, you ever tried to read some of the stuff that comes out of, say, OpenOffice? To call it human-readable is a bit overstated. And don’t get me started on XML-based scripting languages! I mean it, don’t!