Friday, December 23, 2005

Once a geek, always a geek

It is a well known fact geeks (such as yours truly) can't easily stop being geeks. "Professional deformation" others say, but one must admit that so many hours invested in learning how things work just for the fun of it do have a profound impact on personal traits and habits.

For a while, I have been enjoying watching video recordings from several sources on my TV, which is also used as a secondary display for my computer. This arrangement makes it possible for me to decode almost the whole plethora of formats available. But there is a drawback: the noise emanating from the fans that prevent my computer and associated storage units from overheating and burning are annoying as heck. I also fear they might impair my hearing on the long run, so obviously something has to be made about this situation.

Where I live, it's not easy to find liquid cooling systems. Also, I don't have the time to transcode all that material to standard DVD (the media is still unreliable and the selection and recording process is very time consuming too). What a geek's got to do then?

Well, several manufacturers are now offering HDD cases with built-in decoders and video ports. Get one, add your hard disc filled with DiVX, XviD, Mp3 and many more files, connect it to your TV and you're set!

Only problem is, they are also rare around my neck of woods. Ack!!! Curse this company-driven market.

But while I wait for my decoder HDD case to arrive, I found another solution: a dvd-player/home theater set which also plays many kinds of mpeg-4 video. It's not as flexible as the aforementioned option, but at least I think I can set aside some time to transcode everything I have to DivX (their decoder is free, and the encoder license is quite affordable). Thanks to their advanced compression format, I can make a whole season of Stargate SG-1 fit within a DVD-R.

Let's take a look at the steps I took on this geek-x-periment:

1 - Select DVD/HTS device.

After shopping around, I settled for the Philips HTS3300. You can take a look at it here. There are several sub-versions depending upon where you live (RCA or SCART connectors at the back, for example). But I'll give you a short list of reasons why I chose it:

* Decodes and displays DivX versions 3 thru 6. Be forewarned though that video files encoded using QT (quarter pixel) or GMC (Global motion compensation) are not supported.

* Built in support for separate subtitle files.

* Plays and converts NTSC or PAL DVDs to the appropiate format for your TV.

* It's Region-free hackable.

* Even though the manual states only DVD+R(W)s can be used, it also plays DVD-R(w)s.

* Built-in Radio tuner.

* AUX-in input. Hey! I can use it as an amplifier for my synths too!

2 - Installation.

This HTS comes with 5 little speakers, a subwoofer and plenty of wiring with Easy-Fit color-coded connectors at the end so you can plug-in each speaker without confusion. I suggest you to obtain a kit of 5 speaker mounts though. Also, only the frontal channel speaker is magnetically shielded (don't put the others to close to your CRT TV or you'll end up creating color spots on the screen).

After installing the speakers and routing the wires appropiately, plug the power cord into an AC outlet and connect the TV selecting the appropiate composite video input (Component progressive video must be enabled manually, but that's piece of cake). Cross your fingers and turn power On.

3 - Configuration.

Now is when the geek side of the force shows up!!!

Make the unit multi-region capable:
Grab the remote control, push [OPEN] and wait for the disc tray to open, then push [9] [9] [9] [9] [0]. Cycle power and you're done!

Upgrade the firmware:
Click here and decompress the file on your desktop. Read the PDF instructions first!!! Not all units require a firmware upgrade.
If you decide to continue, burn a CD with the .BIN file (single session disc-at-once), insert it on your DVD-player and press PLAY. The rest is automatic and the unit will shut off automatically at the end of the process.

Select the appropiate color signal conversion:
Depending upon where you live, you'll want to use the color mode (NTSC or PAL) Native to your region. The unit will automatically convert based upon your choice. Check your manual for the appropiate instructions.

4 - Transcode contents.

Go back to your computer and acquire an encoder license of DivX-Create (20 USCY).
Make sure to select the Home Theatre profile. After that, the process is as simple as dragging and dropping files into the encoder icon.

Rename your files using less than 30 characters. This is only so you can identify them more easily on the DVD navigation screen. Also, if you have external subtitle files, they must be named exactly as the video file that uses them. The supported formats are .srt .smi .sub .ssa and .ass

You don't have any subtitles?? May I suggest then the excellent SubTitle Workshop? It's a movie translator's dream come true!

5 - Enjoy!

Why not, it's a snap and you'll appreciate your files comfortably sitting at your coach-potato spot :)

Let me know what you think. Okie?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The future is... disturbing.

I grew up in a world where science was believed to be the best way we had towards understanding everything around us, maybe even ourselves. I even had dreams of becoming an astronaut, working in space and contributing to the embetterment of our species as we began to spread around the neighborhood of our homeworld.

However, things didn't turn up exactly as many expected.
During the 70's, the interest on sending people to space and establishing a permanent residence on the moon simply faded. Governments changed their agendas, the public shifted its attention to more mundane matters... funds were cut almost without mercy. We still explore space with automated probes though, and that's not bad because they are relatively cheap, easier to manufacture and more resilient to the hazards of space. But I still find our present efforts lacking: all the expertise we managed to create during the late 60's to the mid 70's will soon be lost; practically everyone involved in the manned exploration of the moon has died (or at least retired). Training a new generation of experts shall be costly. But maybe, just maybe, we'll do it correctly this time.

My worries now are focused on the social phenomena that slowly, but firmly, seem to have taken ahold of key positions in governments and media around the planet:

- Mysticism is showing its ugly head everywhere, posing as pseudo-science and making everything it can to discredit real science, even in schools.

- People are more concerned about the latest misadventure of some famous fool instead of the impending global climate change.

- Strong line conservatives abound and have taken leadership of several countries around the planet, blindly and simply ignoring criticism against their manifest destiny. Oh, and in the meantime, why not make some profit too by staging a war here and there?

The world was complex enough before we arrived to it, so we created technology and science to make it easier for us. Now we have become very dependent upon technology, but only a small fraction of the population has a deep understanding of it. Trouble is just around the corner.

The late Carl Sagan foresaw this situation more than 20 years ago, and even was able to predict its outcome to a certain degree. People fear what they don't understand, so they retreat from it and instead take comfort on the easier and more readily available junk data. But at the same time they become more dependent on technology (they can't help it, it's an everyday's requirement of the world we live in).

Slowly, they become users and consumers of magic.

Most industries know this, and even rely upon it. How else can one explain things such as the infamous DMCA and heavily encrypted HDMI signals between media receivers/players and displays, presented to the uninformed as "essential for their own benefit"?

Lies... Lies!

Ah well, I feel a little better now.
On the next installment I'll comment on the joys of hacking and bending to MY will an interesting item of consumer electronics.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Music is food for the soul

Today I was listening some Smooth Jazz at work, when they suddenly began playing a melody whose name I have been looking for several years... probably more than 10.

Anyway, I wasted no time and googled for it. Not only found who plays it, but I also found a wonderful midi reconstruction and thought I'd share:

Freedom at night, by David Benoit.

Be sure to visit the whole page too. It's a hidden treasure and surely has improved my mood by 2 orders of magnitude.

Now, if only I could convince the local radio stations to begin implementing RDS services...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Ah yes, the holidays...

Well, holidays are here. They were to be expected.

The overwhelming majority of people find this season enjoyable; but what do others (like yours truly) who find themselves outside that segment do while waiting for it to end?

Spending time at home is not as bad as it used to be. There are more choices for entertainment, true. But somehow, I don't find it very enthusing to spend a whole week watching tv or surfing the web.

Instead, my approach is different and might be described as early-spring cleaning:

* Clean up the mess I have let to accumulate during the year. Not always easy as it sounds, because that implies moving furniture around and leaving no spot undusted.

* Clean up the other mess. This includes rearranging books and magazines while coughing up the accumulated dust, deep cleaning the fridge and washing machine... you get the idea.

* Ordering the rest of the mess. Wires behind an entertainment center have a tendency to reproduce and become so entangled, it's quite a miracle I haven't suffered from any sort of EM radiation poisoning... yet.
Leaving aesthetics aside, this also makes them prone to interference. On most occasions, I end up totally redesigning the connection scheme after a couple days of careful thought.

* Take care of the daily mess. A bachelor can have time for his laundry or to party, but rarely both; guess which one has priority. But this part involves sorting and pairing clothing while also getting rid of old stuff.

Do you begin to sense a pattern?

By bringing order to chaos, interesting things happen at the conscious and subconscious levels: You are doing plenty of physical activity, which helps keep things like S.A.D. at bay. But you are also rearranging things and rediscovering forgotten spots, taking care of them. You are getting rid of old stuff and junk you have neglected for months.

I'm not a psychologist, but I feel that because of these activities, my burdens become lighter. Mood improves too.

Of course, when the holidays are over one is very tempted to return to the old ways. It's ok to do so, I think... but only as long as the cleanup ritual is respected as well.

Oh boy, and I have lots to do for this year.