Monday, May 29, 2006

Cable Burn-in Service!

Last year I posted about a firm I'd found who offer one and a half grand mains leads! But the audiophiles have outdone themselves in the emperor's new clothes stakes;
Cables should be burned-in or conditioned on a regular basis for optimum performance. In normal use, there is a leakage current from electrical equipment which causes the cable to take on a charge; cable conditoning will neutralize this charge.
New cables often have very high levels of electrical charge caused by the production process. In addition, gases are often trapped between the insulation and the conductor during manufacture. This can often result in new cables sounding brittle, bright, and lacking in detail. These charges must be neutralized if a cable is to ever achieve its maximum performance.
These people should be prosecuted - they are liars.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Fibre cross-over cables

We sell several SAN solutions depending on requirements for number of clients, bandwidth (DV, SD television, HiDef TV or Film) and platform - these are the ones we either sell a lot of or provide support for;

  • DVS SAN is a superb solution for higher throughput applications - if you're into DI film workflows then this is the boy - based on ADIC's SFS file system.
  • Avid Unity is the origional television SAN - I ran several location reality shows on these. V1 came out in the late '90s and it's looking a bit creaky now (even though they support 4 gig fibre) and hard to manage. Rumour is that it was based on IBM Tivoli SANergy technology
  • Lanshare is Avid's SAN-in-a-box, origionally for offline & DV resolution. It now support multiple standard definition clients through fibre.
  • Terrablock from Facilis is another single-unit SAN but hits the price/performance sweet spot that Avid misses - this is Root6's big seller. They are starting to offer distrubuted filing across multiple TerraBlocks which makes it a very interesting product.
Anyhow - in the systems dept. of Root6 we do lots of fibre installs - and one thing I always ask at the comissioning stage is "host-host or host-fibre switch?" (or "SAN-in-a-box / big SAN" to put it another way!) and people are suprised that you have to swap the TX-RX path if you're working host-host. Kind of stands to reason that when there is no fibre switch you'd need it. So, when someone looks at me suspiciously in the future I'll hand them this little leaflet that DIS ship with the patch-cords.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

GPX2 handheld game console

Look at this bad boy! It runs Linux and is a third of the price of a PSP! can play games. It can play your Movies. It can play your music. It can view photos. It can read Ebooks. It runs on just 2 AA batteries - And it can do all this in the palm of your hand or on your TV screen.
Yes that's right, this handheld can connect to the TV, console style. Watch your DivX movies on the TV. Play emulated classics on the TV. Try big screen Quake. Or just play them all on the GP2X's large 320*240 backlit screen. You get the best of both worlds.
It runs the free Linux operating system. This means a whole world of Games, Utilities and Emulators are at your disposal. Quake, Doom, SNES, Megadrive, MAME, Media players and Applications to name just a few.
It's powerful - Two 200mhz CPU's with 64meg of RAM, custom graphics hardware and decoding chips. Takes SD cards and has 64M of NAND memory. Plenty to play with. One of the most powerful and advanced handhelds today.

Hmmm - that next day of freelancing......
Wikipedia article.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Motivational poster!

Thanks Saul! Sorry Tony!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

BBC and the problems in Burma is the charity my Sarah works for - flail on over to the site and check it out.
Anyhow - the Beeb are the only people who keep the hideous situation in Burma on the agenda. The consistently run articles on their site, carry reports on the radio and packages on the news when there are developments. The most recent clip from the ten o'clock news in on the Hand in Hand site at reasonable resolution, but I thought I'd post it here in the transcode I use on my 'phone.
In the same way that we all know the electronic media is inherently more trustworthy than print media I think the Beeb is inherently more trustworthy than commercial news outlets - definitely ones owned by Fox/Sky/Murdoch.
The WeMedia conference had a lot about this.
There are numerous examples of democracy activists saying how important the BBC is, here is a bit from Hansard in 1996, the quote is by Robin Cook;
President Mandela said of his years in prison: "what we really wanted was the BBC World Service".
Would not the week of President Mandela's state visit be a good time to tell John Birt to drop the proposals that threaten the distinctive ethos of the BBC World Service that has given comfort to supporters of democracy around the world and brought respect for Britain from the world?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Tektronix & automated MPEG test, H264 and VC-1

I went to a Tektronix training seminar this morning and really got a lot out of it. The first session was led by a chap called Dr Mark Nicholls who amongst other things set me straight in my perception of the current cream of MPEG4-like codecs;

  • MPEG4 implementations (DivX, XVID, WM9 etc.) score over previous DCT-schemas (MPEG2 principally) in that they allow forward and reverse reference to distinct macro-blocks rather than discrete frames. That is where the increased compressibility comes from and explains some of the weird effects you see in corrupt DivX files!
  • More recent implementations (H.264 & VC-1) allow for variable size macroblocks as well - in effect the compression can track the detail better and really allocated data-space where things need it.
  • No broadcasters currently implement PCR timing recovery in the transport stream - I wonder if this explains why the MS-DVR format files my homebrewed PVR produces are always 12-frames wrong sync-wise (i.e. there is no way of precisely timing each GOP)? You get this effect if you try and play the files outside the MediaPortal app or if you import them into VirtualDub.
The rest of the session was devoted to Cerify - a very clever system for automated QC of LAN/SAN-based media - Rupert had a look at the API and is convinced it would be a cinch to make Artbox drive it. It really was a very impressive demo and I imagine it will be the kind of thing that lots of broadcasters would buy into in coming years. A kind of n x virtual-WVR7100s continually hoovering up new media and analyzing it for all video/audio and transmission parameters (including perceived parameter - measurement of compression PSNR for example).
Anyhow - it's probably copyright, but all the training notes are here.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Who gets to define the Zeitgeist?

Chris Morris's Brass Eye was one of the best observed comedies ever (well, until Nathan Barley came along). I'm amused that I hear engineers refering to certain production people as Nathan Barleys!
Anyhow - I read this piece in yesterday's Independent and wondered why it's that certain segment of the white, middle-class, decedant types who get to define the times. Just read the text and think back (if you can!) to the eighties. I had a brilliant time - I was studying my degree, graduated, went to work at the Beeb and got married but I was very aware that for many it was a terrible time - if you were unemployed (it hit 4 million), if you were buying a house (interest rates hit 16% - oh yes, I remember it well!), if you were a miner, stealworker or trade-unionist it was terrible. Most of us weren't going to
...extravagant parties most weekends, and weeknights slumped with the rest of the media world in Groucho's listening to Julie Burchill hold court or bitching about some editor or other.
I had a similar chat with my Mum A couple of years ago - we'd just seen a BBC documentary about the sixties featuring Joan Bakewell going on about what a liberating time it was. My Mum (who grew up in a small town in North Wales) has the view that there is a huge gulf between her experience - just getting on with life, working, having kids etc. and the Carnaby Street idea of the sixties - in truth all that stuff only really happened in Carnaby Street!
Oh, another thing - what is a PR guru?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Thai food & VMWare ESX Server!

I went our for a very nice meal with my friend Kevin Cade last night - he's in town on a training course at IBM on the South Bank covering VMWare's new server product line;
VMware ESX Server is quite different from the other VMware products - which all run on top of either Windows or Linux - as it has its own proprietary kernel and is installed directly on the bare metal. This approach provides better control and granularity on allocating resources to Virtual Machines, and also increases security, thus positioning VMware ESX as an enterprise-grade product.

ESX is VMware's flagship product and has been rapidly adopted by companies who are looking to consolidate their servers. Two other products are used in conjunction with ESX - Virtual Center and VMotion. Virtual Center allows monitoring and management of multiple ESX or GSX servers. VMotion allows moving virtual machines between servers on the fly, with zero downtime.

He's very excited by this - apparently you can migrate a server image between boxes with zero downtime! Which seems incredible! Because they have rolled their own kernal (based on 2.4 Linux) it runs very tight and the typical performance hit for running the emulated environment is in the order of 20% - but this decreases as you host multiple servers on the same hardware due to some very clever transparent memory sharing arrangements. I'm running the baby version of VMWare on my laptop so I can have a mixed Windows/Ubuntu environment and I've been impressed - the virtual NAT router that sits between Linux and the Windows network drivers is a joy to behold!
Kevin also does the First Person Show podcast (link in the RH bar) and he was interviewing my friend Victoria for episode 14. After tea we wandered along the embankment chatting - he has three boys (like me) and it was a splendid evening!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

End of Silicon Graphics?

As this post on The Register reports the once mighty Silicon Graphics is going under. It's a sorry day for me as they are one of the reasons I got into the broadcast engineering business. In the mid-eighties I was doing a degree in maths and programming and in my final year the faculty took delivery of four Iris 4D25 workstations which were an order of magnitude faster than any other off-the-shelf hardware you could buy. I was hooked - always bugging the network admin to let me in overnight to compile and run code on machines that as well as being fast had TV framestores. From then on (and until I changed jobs in 1999) I've been looking after SG machines. I've owned a couple (although my current Indy is sitting unused under my desk at work!) and have always appreciated their forward looking design. When they absorbed Cray Computer in the late nineties some of Seymour's innovations (like unified memory architecture) showed up in their desktop machines (The O2 and Octane ranges) and at the time we had maybe half a dozen of them at Oasis TV - running everything from Media Illusion to Matadour and Acrobat.
I always felt the end was in sight when they tried to enter the commodity computing market with NT workstations - it's kinda hard to compete with Dell when you're used to selling machine that start at £30k!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Not sure I'd recommend Tiscali again

Dear insert customer name here!
I had a couple of friends connect with Tiscali recently - my inlaws had an entirely unremarkable experience - the self-install modem kit arrived and it installed and worked. My only beef is that it re-brands your Internet Explorer so you see "Tiscali Internet Explorer" in the title-bar. Easily fixed by undo'ing the reg-hack their installer does. Truth to tell if you actually run the ISP's CD you deserve all you get!
Anyhow - our friend Frances had the same kit mailed to her but her experience with them has been awful and shows up how bad cheap tech-support can be. Initially her line was too noisy for a reliable aDSL connection - the modem would loose sync and I spent a while swapping filters and moving 'phone handsets but I couldn't get it reliable - definitely on the hairy edge. Well it took Tiscali two or three calls from me to persuade them to get BT to re-test the line. Two weeks later a BT engineer shows up and sticks in an extra 12dBs at the exchange and the connection was at least reliable. Since I'd uninstalled Tiscali's installer from Frances's PC in disgust they had her re-install (I was out of town) and then she couldn't get any Internet traffic. So, she started on the long slog of 'phone tech support. The variously advised her;

  • To disable any firewalls or antivirus because "that must be the problem".
  • To re-install Windows!
  • Her PC was of too lower spec (like they knew what processor/memory/HD config she had!)
What was apparent to me was that all the tech support representatives she talked to had the attitude that they'd say anything to get her off the line because in all likelihood she'd get someone else when she called back. They had no useful advice, but you're paying £1 a minute for this!
In the end the problem was down to the Tiscali installer CD! I tested this and discovered that about one time in five the installer sets your connection encapsulation to PPOE rather than PPOA (point-to-point over ATM) - now (according to a chum at BT) they could have detected this at their end - he told me that BT tech support representatives would have that on their screen when taking the call and they would have talked her through changing it.

In the end I suppose that when you're paying a mere £15 for a 2Mbits-1 connection you can't expect anything other than a tech support person who reads the laminated folder pages and doesn't really understand IP networking. They all need to listen to Steve Gibson's Security Now podcast.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Far east hackers

A few months ago at work when we upgraded a server we inadvertently left port 25 (the SMTP port) open over the weekend. This caused a load of trouble and we wound up on spam lists and the server collapsed under the weight of illicit messages being relayed through it. When we took a look at the logs it transpired that all of that inbound traffic was from the third world - China, India etc. and one suggestion was that we should IP filter based on geography since we have no customers in those territories. The other comment was that perhaps there should be another Internet for those areas of the world. I felt a bit uncomfortable about that attitude until this week - I have had so many people mounting brute force attacks on my server where I host a handful of websites (mostly for charities, and this blog). Typically I notice my connection slow down, my event log fills up and then my router falls over. When I look at the logs I see a single IP address trying to crack the FTP login using a password generator. Guess what - they are ALWAYS from China or Korea so today I took the decision to block from this territories based on IP. Now I know there are always proxies that villains can hide behind but I bet by this time next week my server will be having an easier time of it.
If you want the IP ranges I'm using I've put them in a couple of text files.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

From today's Guardian

...stopping free school milk caused brittle bones in all subsequent generations of children, and therefore the blame for Rooney's injury must be laid at the door of Margaret Thatcher.

I was at my parent's (who have a very full cable-TV service) watching re-runs of "The Young Ones" last weekend and was constantly tickled by the number of times Rick blamed Thatcher. I think that never a truer word is spoken in jest!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Resolution getting set up for Big Brother

This summer's television horror that is Big Brother is almost upon us. I've been up at Elstree Film & TV Studios doing a system for Wish Films and noticed that Resolution - the facility I used to run engineering at - were also on site in the George Lucas stage with the OB truck that I designed (and Tony wired) in 2001. I had a look inside and it is still tidy. They've expanded the size of the Unity SAN - up to twelve Terrabytes now (the last BB I was tech supervisor on we did it on a mere 3.5 Tbytes). It was also nice to hook up with Jonathan Braman who (as well as having a page on IMDb!) has cut off his dreds!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Wish Films and kids virtual television

Joel keeping it real and the new Wish Films machine room

Jim Jam and Sunny is a new ITV children's show that uses animatics and a virtual set. I've been buidling a system up there based around a Terrablock SAN for a tapeless workflow that involves using several bits of software;

  • Boujou allows you to drive motion-track data from video - essentially if you didn't have telimetry data from your camera pedestal you can get motion data from the footage.
  • Maya which is the 3D modeller that is used for character animation.
  • Fusion 5 by Eyeon Software is used for the final composite.
We also installed a couple of Avid Express rooms for offline editing and an Avid Adrenaline for online and finishing.
The perenial problem with ExpressPro is getting AES audio in and out - see a previous post here but I just had a call from Chris to say that the ADI 192 works very well. Not cheap though - almost as much as the Digi 002! When will that thing have digital audio!?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Red camera, NAB and vaporware!

Although my star doesn't burn bright enough in the broadcast engineering sky to warrant a trip to Vegas to see the newest things in TV and Film technology there has been a lot of online chatter relating to the Red HD/DI/EFP (whatever?!) camera. It's a >4k res aquisition device and here is the blurb from their website:
Typical high-end HD camcorders have 2.1M pixel sensors and record with 3:1:1 color subsampled video at up to 30fps. We deliver 11.4M pixels at up to 60fps and record RAW, or 2x over-sampled HD in 4:4:4 or 4:2:2 - your choice. That’s more than 5 times the amount of information available every second and a vastly superior recording quality. Don’t need all that data for your workflow? Dial it back, and keep all the other advantages of the Mysterium Super 35mm cine sized (24.4 x 13.7mm) sensor. You get the same breathtaking Depth of Field and selective focus as found in film cameras. Mysterium boasts a greater than 66db Signal to Noise Ratio thanks to its large 29 sq. micron pixels. And 11,480,800 pixels deliver resolution that can only be called Ultra High Definition.

Given that they are proposing selling this gadget for somewhere between a fifth and a tenth of what you'd currently pay for a Viper etc then you have to take notice. Also bear in mind that these guys normally manufacture sunglasses. The argument I've heard is that being an optical company Oakley are well placed for this kind of product but I think it's fair to say that optics aren't the bottleneck in digital cinema cameras at the moment - it's all the stuff encompassed by their "mysterium" sensor and the resultant data-load.
I showed the picture of the camera to my thirteen year-old and his response was "cool"! It looks like a weapon out of Halo - which is why there is such a buzz on the web - the Mac community love it. Never mind that all they are showing is an aluminium mock-up, it looks cool.

I suppose I'll reserve judgement - I hope I'll be suprised but I expect not. It put me in mind of an all encompassing-price bustin' NLE/production system from about ten years ago - the Trinity Play system that showed at IBC/NAB etc. for a couple of years but never shipped (I had one on order for a year!). While I was looking it up on the web I noticed that Kiki Stockhammer (one of their founders) - who used to do a really good demo - is now playing in an LA SciFi punk band called Warp 11 - amazing!