Friday, January 27, 2006

Martyn Joseph, Talbot, Friday 20 January

Quite Simply In a Class Of His Own
Western Mail 26th Jan 06
Andrew Hawkey

The reputation of this astonishing artist certainly precedes him, but nothing had prepared those of us previously unacquainted with his work for the sheer strength and impact of our evening with Martyn. The Penarth-born, now Cardiff-based singer/guitarist has developed over the last couple of decades into a veritable one-man music industry: he's released 22 albums, and toured tirelessly world-wide, gathering a fanatical following for his forthright yet modest on- and off-stage persona, and his matchless brand of songcraft, in which accessibly memorable melodies support elegantly-crafted lyrics that reveal his tender understanding of (among other things) relationships, fatherhood, death, and the female psyche, as well as his passionately righteous indignation at routine social injustice, political chicanery, cult celebrity, and endemic hypocrisy. But Martyn's no self-righteous protest singer or preacher: rather, he's the epitome of the common man, albeit a highly evolved one, with a richly life-affirming message for us all, one that might well constitute a template for the conduct of life in these troubled times. And the strength of his (unobtrusive) religious faith surely contributes to the the robustly easy-going confidence that he exudes ... enough, perhaps, to give the determined agnostics among us cause for reflection ...

Armed with three guitars - two acoustic and an electric - plus harmonicas and pedals galore, Martyn's show is full-on from the get-go. He packed 25 songs into his two sets, including everything from his universally acclaimed new CD Deep Blue (the anthemic 'Can't Breathe' ['the killer Coldplay anthem that never was', proclaims the review in Mojo], the heart-melting 'I Would Never Do Anything In This World To Hurt You', and 'Proud Valley Boy', his reminder of Paul Robeson's unlikely role in the relief of Welsh miners' poverty, were standouts), and a tantalizing trawl through his extensive back catalogue. Despite an end-of-tour cold, Martyn's voice was hugely emotive, a whisper one moment, a soulful roar the next, while his guitar work's an essay in robust, unflashy functionality. His personal sound-man worked subtle magic at the desk, pulling out vocal echoes at the meaningful juncture ... the whole evening positively shone with the accumulation of Martyn's years on and off the road, honing and perfecting the skills with which he's blessed.

No one left the Talbot less than charmed, inspired, and thrilled (and probably spoken to personally) by Martyn Joseph, nor, to judge by the throng around the merchandise table, did anybody exit empty-handed. This had been a very special night, and if everyone in the audience tells their friends about it, a full house for his return visit - already being negotiated - looks likely. Comparisons are invidious, but we suggest you miss this man at your peril - in the crowded field of solo performers, Martyn Joseph is quite simply in a class of one.

I first saw Martyn Joseph live in 1988 and have followed him ever since - he had a bit of a dodgy association with Sony in the early 90's but for my money has turned out some of the best protest and love songs ever.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Homebrew PVR, part 4

Wow - I have got my PVR running exactly as I wanted! If you scroll down to part 3 you'll see how easy it was to get the remote control from the Compro card to talk to Media Portal (although the on-screen display kinda obviates the need for anything other than a wireless mouse) - or indeed any other IR device. The last bit of the puzzle was having it power-up and down by itself to make recordings - there is a plug-in called PowerSchedule that does precisely this.

The software seems to drive the card better than the Compro app - recordings never drop frames, it is never out of sync and it never fails to lock to a channel (none of which can be said of Compro's DTV app). It also happily runs a slideshow of your photos, plays an MP3 list AND makes a six megabit (well, on BBC channels anyway!) MPEG2 recording simultaneously. I'm a fan - the EPG is superb and as I mentioned - it makes Windows XP Media Centre look clunky.

If you do hose it up check out the "My Weather" pluggin.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Fibre cabling for editing workstations

Another article for the Root6 catalogue

As our need for higher speed data transfer increases and the advantages of shared storage become apparent to post-producers – high definition television places a requirement on disk space several times that of standard definition and big productions require editors to collaborate on shows. With all this in mind it is no surprise that we’re leaving SCSI behind and our Avids are increasingly using cheaper commodity-based FireWire storage for low-end DV-based work and fibre-channel for larger SAN (“Storage Area Network”)-based collaborative workflows. At Root6 we’ve seen an increase in SAN sales over the last year with Facilis’s Terrablock product line hitting the price/performance spot for many users.
With this as the background, we now do a significant amount of fibre installations as people look to future proof their facilities. The differences between traditional data fibre and the “young turks” who operate SANs, are significant and the lack of appreciation of those differences has caused many an installation gaff for integrators who haven’t taken the time to appreciate those details.
The biggest difference between data networks and “virtualised SCSI” is in the glass(!) – fibre channel works in a “multi-mode” – many frequencies of light are launched down the same glass fibre cable which will maintain data rates below 10 gbits per second over several hundred metres. Single mode fibre, which has longer been used for more traditional data applications – typically TCP/IP – uses a single colour laser and so the glass can be optimised for that “mode”. Data rates of fifty gigabits per second are achievable over tens of kilometres without amplification. These details are given but after that there are a few other considerations that make the difference between a working installation and a truly flexible/scalable one.
When you buy some fibre-channel storage the manufacturer will ship you patch cords that are commonly refered to as “tight-buffered” cable.

The glass fibres are lined in a nylon jacket which is coated in a plastic sheath. These cables are cheap to manufacture and are flexible enough for dressing within equipment bays. The problem with tight-buffered cable comes when you try and run long lengths of it through voids and dry-risers (between the machine room and the edit suite, for example) – it isn’t really man enough for the job and will often fail. Traditional cable-working techniques tend to compromise it, which is expensive if you have to hire wiring staff or worse still if you lose the edit because the cable has just given up the ghost during that important job. The attraction to most in-house engineering departments is that you can buy the cables ready-made and so you don’t have to concern yourself with manufacturing leads that you have little familiarity with.

By far the better way of providing a fibre infrastructure is to run in a “loose buffered” cable. The construction of this differs in that the fibres float in a mineral oil that is contained within a plastic hose. This is wound in a Kevlar mesh (the same material they make bullet-proof vests out of!) which is all covered in a plastic sheath. The cable scores over tight-buffered cable, in that the fibres can slide within the oil as the cable is pulled around bends and the Kevlar means you can step on the cable and abuse it a lot more than patch cord cable. The bulk of the cost of the cable is in the protective construction and not in the glass fibres themselves and so it becomes very economical to run in a four-core where you might only need two (a transmit-receive pair) or a twenty-four core where you only need eight (for example) – this price scalability means you can future proof yourself (you always end up building more edit suites!) and guard against possible damage (despite the glowing account above it does occasionally get damaged). Neither of these advantages can be ascribed to tight-buffered cable. Although the initial installation cost is marginally higher the total cost of ownership and reliability/flexibility is an order of magnitude better.
Root6 has invested in both training and the necessary equipment to offer a full fibre installation service and will be happy to advise when you are thinking of investing in a SAN. As an aside, in the eighteen months since we opened the fibre division we have not had to return to a client’s premises to repair a broken fibre – we have had to help out several other clients who’ve found that half of the pre-made tight-buffered cables they’ve had run in have failed very quickly.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bye bye to BT and traditional telephony!

I blogged ages ago about how I got Skype running with regular DECT 'phones at home. It was a bit of a mission and even if you are happy to use a headset etc. Skype was always going to be a niche solution while it didn't look and drive like a regular 'phone - but here it is, Netgear are launching a Skype-client in a handset that talks to your WiFi router. Why would anyone who has a broadband connection now continue paying for an analogue telephone line?
The cool thing is that you can take it to work (or while you're out and about - Starbuck etc) and your landline number goes with you. As publically accessible WiFi continues to grow (my PDA beeps more than thirty times if I leave it set to log onto unsecured networks on my half-hour/six mile cycle ride to work).

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

NET-IOM board (continued)

As mentioned earlier this week I have been hugely impressed with this network remote control card and have spent the last couple of days thinking about applications for our customers.

Setup is very easy - 12v DC and a network connection. I also got the prototyping kit which has a relay board and a bunch of LEDs you can test with - CPC have them on special at the moment (see here).
Initial thoughts are that is really seems to do what it said it would - I'll have to get another to test the VTR control (as I'm still not sure you can reduce the latency enough - if you're having to packetise a serial stream that should be co-incident with a video reference and them pass it over a TCP network). Anyhow - the webserver side of the board works well and it can ping me an email when events happen. You can see from the screen-shot that the counter is easy to configure as well.
The only area where the documentation is unclear is that the "programming" jumper (J42 on this board) not only allows the board to receive config data over the serial port but it also disables the ethernet connection - makes sense I suppose - that "webserver on a chip" PICT device you can see in the centre probably can't do config changes while serving up over the network - but they should have mentioned that in the documentation.
Another feature that I'm sure has application is that the board will watch a serial stream and when you get to a pre-defined number of characters (1024 bytes is the default) it will stick them into an email and send it to you! Fantastic - I imagine there are many applications where you want to trap an event and see what log data was generated at the time - I have to find applications for this!
For you edification the manual is here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Save us from pseudoscience!

Although I graduated with a degree in maths & programming I did start out doing a Physics degree (but the maths was too hard!). I was fortunate enough to get a real passion for meta-science - the theory of scientific knowledge if you will.
...just because the sun has risen every day for as long as anyone can remember, doesn't mean that there is any rational reason to believe it will come up tomorrow. There is no rational way to prove that a pattern will continue on just because it has before.

Popper's reply is characteristic, and ties in with his criterion of falsifiability. He states that while there is no way to prove that the sun will come up, we can theorize that it will. If it does not come up, then it will be disproven, but since right now it seems to be consistent with our theory, the theory is not disproven. Thus, Popper's demarcation between science and non-science serves as an answer to an old logical problem as well. - from Wikipedia's entry on Karl Popper
So good scientists will regard all theory as provisional and work tirelessly to disprove accepted theory by counter-example. That is the way knowledge advances - in science nothing is proved, but things can be disproved. Anyone who tells you "science has proved...." is a charlatan!

Anyhow - the link to an article on New Scientist about Burkhard Heim, a little known German Physicist who did a lot of work in trying to unify the quantum theory with relativity. Rather than trying to unify the fundamental forces (gravity, electro-magnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces) he introduces a bunch more with some extra spacial dimensions for them to live in! The problem with this sort of thing is that he wrote all his work in code(!) so no-one else could steal his ideas - consequently there was no peer-review of his work and he fails Karl Popper's test spectacularly! The term "established body of knowledge" is important here, because the pursuit of scientific knowledge usually involves elements of intuition and guesswork; experiments do not always test a theory adequately, and experimental results can be incorrectly interpreted or even wrong. In legitimate science, however, these problems tend to be self-correcting, if not by the original researchers themselves, then through the critical scrutiny of the greater scientific community.

The article is an interesting read none the less - apparently the Pentagon have funding to resurrect some of his ideas.

This got me thinking about how badly most people understand the development of theories - cold fusion, poly-water and homoeopathy are all examples of developments where people said "..maybe they've got something there" and because there is this common belief that mavericks are the people who advance science - Einstein produced "paradigm busting" work with relativity but those events are few and far between (and we all use Newtonian mechanics anyhow!) but in most folks minds it is the people on the edges who produce improvements - well it isn't!
I once had a conversation with two friends - one of whom was/is a leading chest consultant - there are very few people in this world who know more about the lungs than him! The other friend had read about a Russian doctor who theorised that asthma was the body's way of stopping hyper-ventilation and so you treated asthma by making the patient hold their breath or by putting them in an oxygen-poor environment. She'd hear no criticism of this guy despite him having no published (i.e. peer-reviewed) work.

It is the same attitude that let the Y2K hoax take such hold. Unfortunately it's the tabloid-science style that most television shows rely on (have you even watched BBC's "Horizon" show?!).

So the end of this rant is that in the article; general relativity, space-time is an active, malleable fabric. It has four dimensions - three of space and one of time - that deform when masses are placed in them...
argh! No - in science fiction time is considered along with the spacial dimensions but in relativity there are four spacial dimensions and time.

Monday, January 09, 2006

NET-IOM Ethernet/Web I/O Board

Occasionally you see a solution that is so cool you have to buy one just to play with it! This card is a little webserver (and it can send emails!) with ethernet, 16 x digital i/o (GPI ins and relay closure for o/p in tele talk!) and 4 analogue i/o channels. It also has an RS232 port. All of these are accessible across a LAN or the internet (if you configure a static route through your router). Most significantly is that two of them will talk to each other and so extending button pushes, lights, buzzers, temperature probes, alarms etc. between buildings is possible. The best bit (for me!) is that you can extend a serial connetion across the internet and according to the manual you can tweak latency so that for time-critical applications (controlling a VTR via the P2 protocol) you could optimise it.
I shall report when I've got it in and tested it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Homebrew PVR, part 3

My ongoing efforts to build a really usable PVR took a couple of steps forward this weekend - The link is a previous post with a few thoughts and observations. As ever with these projects I only have stolen hours here and there and so if it is working adequately then it is a while before I get to optimise things!
Anyhow - I did the following mods:
  • Replaced the barely-adequate processor - it was an AMD 1500XP and so I dropped in a 1900XP I found on eBay. Much better! No more dropped frames and/or audio sync issues. Also - the Compro card always finds the Mux when you switch channels - previously it would drop the Mux if you went between (say) the BBC channels and the ITV ones.
  • Connected the remote power up/down connections to the Compro card - fantastic! The card has a battery-backed clock on board and so will boot the computer, make a recording and power down again and it really works. Having just got my first >£200 electricity bill I'm impressed with this! You can even use the remote control to power up and down.
My next step is to repave the machine with Media Portal - Saul (work mate) really rates it and it seems to be much more usable than XP Media Centre and supports more devices. For my own reference here is a walk-through on configuring Compro IR remote under MediaPortal.
I'm also going to replace the aged graphics card with a dual-RAMDAC one (I have an ATI 7500 doing nothing) so I can use Powerstrip to for a 720x576x50i output (although the SVideo o/p @50hz looks OK).
Wait and see!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

SAMBA (Domain Controller) Server For Small Workgroups With Ubuntu 5

My laptop is due it's annual repave (Windows now takes seven minutes to boot to the desktop!) - it's no slouch - Dell Latitude with two gigs of RAM and a 2Ghz mobile P4 - I'm also planning to have Ubuntu as my dual-boot option. People are always asking me what I'd recommend and up until now Suse or Gnopix would have been my suggestion but Ubuntu is getting good crits.
Anyhow - here is an article doing the walkthrough on replacing your Windows domain controller - interestingly they say a single machine is good for "small" networks of less than two-hundred users. I wonder how well a Windows PDC deals with that number?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

AllPeers Is The FireFox “Killer App”

I'm making this entry with the Performancing extension! It works kinda well. However, something on Digg caught my eye;
AllPeers is a simple, persistent buddy list in the browser. Initially, interaction with those buddies will be limited to discovering and sharing files - If you choose to, you can share any file on your network with one or more of your friends. They will be able to see what files you choose to share (even getting an RSS feed of new files you include), and with a single click download it to their own hard drive. AllPeers will work even when the sharer is offline - AllPeers is a bittorent client, and will allow files to be pulled from multiple sources. When downloading, the file may be grabbed partially or fully from others you have shared it with (or who shared it with you). So a user just clicks on a file, and waits for it to eventually download.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Had a quiet Christmas Mark?

One of my colleagues clearly had a load of time to kill over the holiday - here is the (excellent) result of his 3D StudioMAX / Combustion efforts - Mr Lucas, if you're looking out for another effects animator....?

sabre.avi - it's a DivX.