Saturday, December 22, 2007

Advice to the young at heart

In the fifteen years since I left the Beeb I've employed & supervised a dozen engineers and a couple of runners/work experience types. Some of them have blown me away with how keen they are and other have totally underwhelmed me with their eagerness! If I had any advice then it would fall into a few categories

  • Timekeeping - the difference between being a few minutes early and a bit late equates to maybe ten minutes extra in bed but from your supervisor's point of view it is a world of difference. Are you serious about what you do or are you just showing up so that you get your pay cheque? The Micawber principle applies. Also - the people who I've known who are easy about their timekeeping at the start of the working day tend to be sticklers come the end of it.
  • Are you aiming to give your best or merely doing as little as you can get away with? I know modern employment law encourages the latter - all this business of verbal and then several written warnings means that lazy people can gauge where the bar is and then stay just above it. The irony is that people who set out to impress the boss with how hard they work invariably enjoy their labour more and the day flies by.
  • Do you try and better yourself during the quiet periods - if you're an engineer then no doubt there are areas where you know little and knowing more would make you a better, more rounded individual. In my line (broadcast engineering) I've known lots of people who do what they do and nothing else - vision engineers who never stray into the workshop to do some equipment maintenance, Avid support engineers who never take an interest in systems design etc. If you call yourself a television engineer then you should (as a matter of course) be able to (or at least aiming yourself towards) rack a studio camera, build and configure an Avid/FCP workstation from scratch, re-head and align a VTR, calibrate a grade-1 monitor and configure a variety of internet routers and firewalls. Specialisation is for insects.
  • Take your employer's IT seriously - I knew one engineer who religiously backed-up his pr0n and illegal MP3 collection but never bothered with his work - when his laptop's drive died we lost a load of customer data, but at least the filth and music was safe! After all - someone else is paying for the computer and bandwidth and if you're doing more personal stuff on work time than actual work then something is wrong. Also - if you're serious get to know all three modern OSes - knowing Linux as well as the MacOS and Windows inside out can only make you better at IT in general. Those engineers I know who have bothered to move out of their Windows comfort zone are all the better for it.
  • Spread all you learn around - trying to cultivate a guru status makes no sense - do you really want to be the only engineer who gets the call at three AM?!
  • Take electrical, chemical and mechanical safety very seriously. If you're responsible for PAT testing a system do it twice. If you can test something both by measuring it and then using the system it's intended for then do it - nobody likes to have to return to a system that should have been left working.
  • Finally - don't view anything as being beneath you - if something needs doing and you can then you'll be all the better for getting it done. Have you got a couple of hours to kill and the workshop needs sweeping - I do it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What you get from another systems integrator!

Thanks for Paula at MPC for sending me this one - it's the comms room of a big, well known TV facility.
Tony and my boys nearly feinted when I showed them this.....

Friday, December 14, 2007

Absolute Zero

On BBC Four over the next couple of nights - looks very interesting.
This two-part scientific detective tale tells the story of a remarkable group of pioneers who wanted to reach the ultimate extreme: absolute zero, a place so cold that the physical world as we know it doesn't exist, electricity flows without resistance, fluids defy gravity and the speed of light can be reduced to 38 miles per hour.
Each film features a strange cast of eccentric characters, including: Clarence Birds Eye; Frederic 'Ice King' Tudor, who founded an empire harvesting ice; and James Dewar, who almost drove himself crazy by trying to liquefy hydrogen.
Absolute zero became the Holy Grail of temperature physicists and is considered the gateway to many new technologies, such as nano-construction, neurological networks and quantum computing. The possibilities, it seems, are limitless.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sticking it to the man

  1. No Sweat make alternative, fairtrade versions of Converse Allstars (they've been owned by Nike for the last four years) as well as other trendy items.
  2. Radiohead - the current album In Rainbows is one of the best recordings I've heard this year - and all without the involvement of a record company.
  3. ComSkip - If you know me then you've heard me bang on about automated removal of adverts from recorded transport-streams. I believe television advertising is morally wrong - it is all about distorting the truth and tantalising the poor. ComSkip means you need never see a TV ad on your PVR again. The new version works on live shows - i.e. while a programme is being recorded.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What a hard dance the SaMBa is!

I recently installed Leopard on a late-model G4 for use as a media machine at home and I have to say it works really well (I wish the step-upgrade to Vista had been as nice!) but I've discovered a few things about how Samba/SMB/CIFS works under various OSes;
  1. Leopard gives you a warning when you share a folder over SMB - something like 'your password will be stored and shared as plain-text' - very good I thought, warning you about the problem of pre-Kerberos SMB (v.3 SMB in Windows?) - but no - it ONLY supports Kerberos authentication! This effectively limits you to using only post Win2k boxes to access Leopard. My PDA can't pluck files off Leopard and the Mac can't get files off my Linux-based NAS.
  2. When you mount an SMB share from Leopard using an XP machine (jn the case of my MediaPortal PVR) it will only accept the first authentication approach - i.e if you're not logged into the Windows box with an account that Leopard recognises then you can't supply any other credentials. Since Leopard can't integrate into a Windows domain this is a major drop-off.
  3. Vista won't talk to pre-V2 Samba servers - apparently the rumour that SMB 2 in Vista was engineered specifically to 'f**k with Samba' might be true! Listen to the edition of Floss Weekly (in the title link) - you'll learn more about Samba/SMB/CIFS than you currently know.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Friday, December 07, 2007

Master of all I survey!

It's the Root6 workshop looking a bit tidier than normal. Thanks Mark - your panoramas are becoming a mainstay of my blog.

Monday, December 03, 2007

10 gig ethernet over cat5e?

It's a question a couple of people have asked me now. It is even the case that Intel and Alcatel have suggested they may have a line-conditioning chip that will allow it over sub-10m distances, but my response is;
The problem become apparent when you consider that 10gig over cat7 runs at 600Mhz (strictly speaking you need 22Ghz to carry 10gig data - Nyquist limit and all that) but 10gigE uses QAM and OFDM modulation techniques to achieve this. Now, cat5e cable is flat'ish to 100Mhz and cat6 to 250Mhz.

By the time gigE came along it was cheap enough to incorporate a QAM16 modulator and OFDM encoder on the network card and so they could start getting away with sub-Nyquist bandwidths. 10gigE takes this to another level with QAM64 modulation (similar to aDSL and DVB-T) and a verterbie decoder. But, even then it really does need the 650Mhz of bandwidth to achieve 10gig speeds over 100m of cable - the guys at Tyco reckoned that doing 10 gigE over cat5e would only ever be feasible over sub-10m distances, even with heavy-duty line-conditioning chips.
The strength of an IP stack is that it will tolerate lots of line noise and packet failures - the network card may reports that it's seeing the 10gig heartbeat but if you're dropping half your packets is it worth it?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Up on the roof

He's as cheesy as you like but I do enjoy James Taylor - from his 1979 album Flag;
When this old world starts a getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I'll climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space

On the roof, its peaceful as can be
And there the world below don't bother me, no, no

Thank to Mark for passing on this composite picture he took from the roof of Channel Five's building where we are currently working.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Saturday evening and I'm blogging from the workshop.....

Ho hum,

Anyhow - for the few hours I have had at home this week I discovered Synergy - what a superb utility. It lets you easily share a single mouse and keyboard between multiple computers with different operating systems, each with its own display, without special hardware. It's intended for users with multiple computers on their desk since each system uses its own monitor(s).
Redirecting the mouse and keyboard is as simple as moving the mouse off the edge of your screen. Synergy also merges the clipboards of all the systems into one, allowing cut-and-paste between systems. Furthermore, it synchronizes screen savers so they all start and stop together and, if screen locking is enabled, only one screen requires a password to unlock them all.

It is better than relying on VNC's keyboard/mouse transport - it doesn't suffer any of that systems lag when re-drawing the screen. I have it working between an XP box and a late-model G4 that I've just put Leopard onto. If you intend to use it under Linux or OS-X and grab it from SourceForge you'll have to install it yourself and spin the .conf file which is involved but do'able. It took me about an hour to get working using the XP machine as the server (i.e. where the keyboard and mouse is attached) and the G4 as client. As soon as I had I discovered SynergyKM which is a GUI that makes Mac config a breeze.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Resolution goes bust

It seems that every facility I've ever worked for has gone bankrupt! There is normally a few years separating my departure and their going under but the last facility I ran engineering at went under yesterday. Here is a nice picture of their OB truck and the last big project I did for them.
In this photo it is being crane'd into the premesis that was Fame Academy.

So, in reverse order;

  • Carlton (later Corinthian) Broadcast Facilities - my tenure; 1993/94, went bust; 2005
  • Oasis Television - my tenure; 1994/99, went bust; 2006
  • Resolution Post Group - my tenure; 1999/2002, went bust; 2007
So, Mr Facility Owner - don't employ Crawley if you value your business!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Analogue, non-GPS in-car navigation!

I've been so bad at blogging recently - mostly due to the pressure of work. By the time 22:00 comes around and I get home I'm in no mind to write blog entries. This is a pity because I've seen a lot of cool stuf recently. Anyways - this caught my eye on Digg and I did a bit more snooping around Honda's site.
The gas-rate gyro works by using the inertial force of gas to move straight, employing helium ejected from a nozzle and blown onto two heated wires. The unit determines directional changes by sensing the temperature differences between the two wires. Therefore, this type of gyro, which employed just eight parts, was a very appealing candidate. However, it was not very accurate, and the zero point was often impossible to locate precisely. It was a problem for the development staff, but further study nevertheless identified certain benefits. As a result, the staff continued its research, hoping to develop a system that would offer reliable control, although within a limited range, along with constant zero correction.

It makes the achievement of affordable GPS receivers seem not such a great milestone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

DataCentre Design & Build

I went to a very good lecture at my institute last night - here are some of the things that struck me;

  • UK data-centres currently consume about 4% of the electricity generated in this country. This is set to rise to 7% by 2010 and then about one percent per year on current rates of growth.
  • If you look at a kW-hour as generated and measure how much of that makes it to the processor you see that there are modest losses in transmission and sub-stations, but by the gates of the data-centre you still have 80%. However, once you've gone through distribution and (particularly) UPSes and then the mass-market PSUs that most servers still ship with you are down to about 10% of original power by the time you get to the motherboard.
  • Virtualisation hasn't yet penetrated into UK data-centres as much as it should have - this is particularly important because the average server is typically consuming only 15% of processor cycles. I did write about VM Ware previously.
  • Having spent time at VNSL's data-centre in Stratford a few days recently I've been thinking about efficiently those guys do cooling and power-distribution - see previous post here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Operation Christmas Child

This is an old post from a couple of years ago - but I thought it was important to re-blog it.

Despite what you may have read in The Guardian from last year these guys do a tremendous thing every Christmas. More importantly they give normal people the chance to be involved in something special. A couple of years back a friend was a volunteer driver for them and worked in an orphanage in the Czech Republic in the run-up to Christmas. He was profoundly touched by the experience and couldn't even see where the cynical white middle-class liberal (with a small L!) press had got their info from. Still, if you've got nothing honorable in your own soul it's hard to recognize selflessness in others - you just assume they have ulterior motives.
There is an anti-American undercurrent in the newspapers aimed at the chattering classes and I don't like it. Every American I've met (here and in the States) has been an entirely reasonable person. Surely you can hold a view that you dissapprove of Bush and the war and yet still feel affectionate towards normal Americans.
Anyhow - it's not too late - the couple of hours it'll take you to fill a shoebox with some goodies (and maybe £10 out of your Christmas budget) will be time and cash better spent than you'll ever realise.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Data Centre wiring

All of last week we were integrating a set of server cabinets for Dataupia and yesterday I took two of the wiremen to the data centre in East London where the service was to be housed. We spent the day finishing the install and during several of the hurry-up-and-wait periods I chatted a bit with one of the admins there. They host for several large corporates including a well known search engine and their machine room is enormous. I thought I'd seen big machine rooms in TV facilities but even the mighty Red Bee looks small compared to this! They have four diverse power feeds (from different providers) and four separate incoming fibre sets (again, totally diverse). I had a good look around and here are a few observations;

  • All the power (16A and 32A feeds, terminating in the cabinets in C-form ends) starts in the mains room on Powerconn connectors - supposedly because those connectors lock - unusual.
  • Despite every bit of equipment having a switch mode supply (and hence being an inductive load) every MCB in the mains room was C-rated and double the required capacity (C32s for the 16A circuits etc.) - I'm sure using correctly rated D-breakers would be better from a safety and reliability point of view.
  • Air conditioning was via the floor - cool air forced out of the raised floor void and warm air extracted from above. Given that all kit draws air in from the front and cold air is heavier than warm air I'd have thought the TV practice of dropping cold air down the front of the bays was a better configuration.
  • All of the techs and admins who saw Clyde and Linus at work marvelled at the numbered cables and the fact that all our cat6 was cut to exact length - I can't believe the entire internet runs of pre-made patch cords!
  • Al the fibre I saw was tight-buffered OM1 run in Copex - what technical reason is there for that? Have they never heard of loose-tube cable?!

So all in all an interesting day - I was gratified that the way we build machine rooms in TV seems more sensible than these guys (and I'm assuming this is a tier-one provider). With all this in mind I signed up for the following at my institute. If you're interested drop me a line and come next Tuesday;

IET London, Hammersmith Section
20th November 2007 - DataCentre Design & Build
Talk by Mike Stokes of Symantec

Mike Stokes leads the data centre consulting practice for Symantec in the UK. He has over 10 years experience in guiding clients in the definition of how to meet their requirements for data centre capacity covering capacity planning, technical specification, project definition, financial analysis and business justifications.

His talk will cover the common difficulties being currently being experienced by many companies in deciding how to provide adequate space, power supply, connectivity and cooling on a 10+ year planning horizon, for IT architectures that have been changing dramatically every three to five years, a trend which is only expected to accelerate.

This subject should have something of interest for all IT Professionals, IET engineers and managers of IT operations.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Spoof iPhone commercial

Graham (who keeps his podrush blog) told me of the bizzare whooping and cheering he was subjected to when he entered the Apple store on Regent Street on the day the iPhone launched here in London. Rupert put me onto this - made me laugh.

MurrayPro's new SD/HD cage

The reason I always liked using MurrayPro gear is that it comes from a small English company where you can talk to the designer if you need to - Tony has helped me out on numerous occasions when I've needed advice on fixing a piece of his kit or mod'ing it for some other purpose.
His cages have always been very useful - the Cage2K which has been around for the best part of ten years has the superb feature of actually labelling each page of cursors. It's so useful to see in small, discrete text shoot 16x9, protect 14x9 (or whatever).
This is his new product - I include a screenshot of the magazine advert. It launches after Christmas but I may well have an advanced one to use on an upcoming job.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Two interesting things today

Brooks's Law
Brooks's law was stated by Fred Brooks in his 1975 book The Mythical Man-Month as "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." Likewise, Brooks memorably stated "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned."

Stupid Filter
StupidFilter was conceived out of necessity. Too long have we suffered in silence under the tyranny of idiocy. In the beginning, the internet was a place where one could communicate intelligently with similarly erudite people. Then, Eternal September hit and we were lost in the noise. The advent of user-driven web content has compounded the matter yet further, straining our tolerance to the breaking point.

Thanks Matt!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Ben Brown leaves me crazy voice-mails - there are a few others! here and here.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Solid state laptops and all that

Watch this episode of Unwired from my mucker Wil Harris;

That caught my eye on Saturday morning while I was sitting around in my dressing gown and catching up on video podcasts. I was so turned onto the idea that I've decided that by hook or by crook I shall get one of these bad boys to play with. It really reminded me of my old Jornada 820 which was excellent as an email/Excel/Word machine.
Anyhow - with that in mind I noticed that Uruguay has ordered 100,000 OLPC machines. The market for small, embedded, task-specific robust devices is getting more interesting.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Visit to Probel in Reading

Simon and I had a day at Probel in Reading to learn about configuring and programming the Sirius router range - we're putting in a 128x128 HD-SDi (with RS422 level as well) at Channel Five and we'll have to do the detailed config before we hand over. I am very familiar with Quartz routers (using their WinSetup tools) but Probel's Nebula tools are new to me. The current version specifically supports;
  • Support for Sirius 256 routers.
  • Dual output mode. This marries two outputs together to provide redundancy. These are in groups of eight; i.e. outputs 1 to 8 are the first output of destinations 1 to 8, outputs 9 to 16 are the second outputs of destinations 1 to 8. Outputs 17 to 24 are the first outputs of destinations 9 to 16, outputs 25 to 32 are the second outputs of destinations 9 to 16, etc.
  • A source can now be set to one of three trigger methods, 625 PAL, 525 NTSC, and HD.
  • Selection of either Field or Frame switching for each of the reference types.
  • The facility to convert Router/Freeway databases to a Nebula database is included in the Nebula Editor. The database must already be on the editor PC (it’s usually called curr_sys.fr1). The user then clicks “File”, “Convert database”, and selects the database to convert to Nebula format. This is saved with a “.ne1” file extension.

The hardware seems rock-solid but the software seems a tad old! When you programme the button panels you don't have the luxary of defining the inputs (example, VTR1 -> VTR9), the output and then just nominate a VTR button on the panel - no - you have to define a VTR button an then define every possible sequence of keypresses and what sources (and then after that destinations!) they refer to. Quartz make it a lot easier!
The Aurora distributed control system (which we haven't bought for Five) allows you to tie many panels to multiple routers and monitor the whole shooting match in a very complete way.
Having avoided Probel (really since I left the Beeb in '92) preferring Quartz for ease of setup and economy I think I'm having to re-visit my prejudices.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Martyn Jospeh at the Union Chapel

I've been a fan of Martyn Joseph since the late eighties and have enjoyed both his recorded and live output. He's a bit Billy Bragg meets Bruce Springsteen - a thinking man's protest singer if you will. Last night I saw him at the Union Chapel in Islington. It's the first time I'd been there and it is one of the best venues I've ever had the pleasure of spending an evening at. I was also joined by my gigging pals Andy and Keith (who used to be the ops manager at Oasis TV) and a splendid evening was had. If you're looking for something a bit thought-provoking and firmly in the Woody Guthrie tradition then let me know and I'll recommend some starter material.
It's been half-term week and I managed to take some time off from what has been the most hectic four months of my life! That is why I've not been blogging so much recently - not because I don't have the odd ten minutes here or there but because I don't have the time to think or investigate interesting technologies/websites/music etc. etc. I've had Radiohead's new album ready to listen to since it came out but as yet I've not had the chance - I suspect the same will be true of Martyn's new CD as well. Ho hum - it has to get quieter eventually!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I love having two monitors!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sitting in the barber's

I've had some funny moment whilst having my hair cut - here are three;
  1. It's his Mama's face!
    The town my wife Sarah comes from is Street in Somerset. During the second world war a prisoner of war camp for Italian soldiers was located nearby and after the war a lot of men who'd previously been POWs emigrated back to Somerset to live. You've got to love a country who treats it's enemy prisoners so well that they want to bring their families back afterwards! Anyway - there is a sizable Italian community in Somerset to this day and one friend of Sarah's family was the local barber. When we were first married I'd make a point of saving haircuts for those occasions we visited Sarah's folks so that I could go with Bob (Sarah's dad) to visit the barber.
    On one occasion the barber was telling us about an unfortunate situation between his son and daughter-in-law. Apparently things weren't going well between the two of them and to cheer her son up the barber's wife had baked a cake and taken it over to cheer up the son. The son had left the cake on the kitchen table and when his wife returned that evening she saw the cake, realised her mother-in-law had been around and so took the cake and threw it on floor and then stamped on it. As the barber was telling this tale of domestic woe he paused and declared;
    ...when my boy saw what she did it wasn't the cake he saw her stamping on but his Mama's face!

    At this point in the tale he regained his composure and starting cutting my hair with renewed vigour, so much so he took a little chunk out of my left ear!

  2. Are you a homosexual?
    Back in London I was sitting in the chair in a clip-joint on Holloway Road and three 'gangsta' characters (I believe they're called) pulled up in soft-top Mercedes and came into the shop. The leader of this group of meat-heads sat down and said he wanted a no.2 with the number '21' shaved into the stubble on the back of his head. The barber immediately asked him;
    Are you a homosexual?
    No, who says I am?
    Well twenty-one is a bit of a gay number, don't you think?

    After this they discussed (for maybe ten minutes) the relative machismo of various numbers and eventually settled on two-hundred and seventeen(!) as a suitably un-gay number.
    At no point did this idiot realise that the barber was mercilessly teasing him. I had trouble not laughing out loud as the other two barbers joined in the debate!

  3. Oh Mr Jeremy - that Mr Blunket he make a lot of trouble for you
    Although a bit of an old-labour chap (like me!) Jeremy Corbyn is an excellent constituency MP - on the couple of occasions that Sarah and I have had dealing with him we've found him to be a real gent and concerned about his ward.
    Anyhow - a couple of years ago at Christmas I was having my hair cut and Mr Corbyn walks into the shop - clearly he and the barber were on terms and after exchanging pleasantries the MP took a seat and waited his turn. As my trim was nearly finished the barber turns to Jeremy and says;
    Oh Mr Jeremy, that Mr Blunket is making a lot of trouble for you - what will you do?

    At this the half-dozen other patrons let their newspapers lower and all eyes were on the representative of Islington North - he squirmed and replied;
    ...oh yes, but I'm looking forward to spending Christmas with the family

    This didn't satisfy the barber who kept up the questions and although I'd have loved to hang around I'd just paid and it would have seemed strange to just stand there and watch a member of her majesty's parliament get the third-degree from a barber with delusions of Paxman-grandeur!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It it waddles and quacks like a duck......

Call it a duck.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Burnt Chillis!

Imagine my suprise when I got back to the office on Monday night when I found half of Soho had been blocked off by the fire-brigade. It turns out that the splendid Thai Cottage restaurant had been dry-frying chillis and the smell made folks think that there was a chemical attack or some such! It even made it into The Times, BBC Online and Radio 4!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Radiohead ditches iTunes to keep album complete

I can only applaud Thom Yorke and the boys for taking this stance - I've often thought that one of the worst aspects of the iTunes music store is the commoditisation of music and the severing of the link between listener and artist - I like engaging with bands and getting into the songs that didn't make it onto the radio. The songs you know when you buy an album are (for me) rarely the ones you wind up loving in the long term. If you only ever cherry-pick the radio friendly cuts from an album you miss out so much.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Is your iPhone knackered?

Here is is picture of young Mr Will Harris (of Channel Flip) showing me his iPhone last month - I'm just waiting for an email from him to see if Apple latest update to iTunes has killed his hacked handset. Cheeky! Just imagine if you moved cable providers and they insisted you had to use their PC or their TV set - selling the handset as a loss-leader on the service has ultimately got to be bad for consumers.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

They're starting to ship the OLPC

The rumour is that you'll be able to buy them in the west but you'll have to fund the purchase of one for the third world - fantastic! I can't wait to get my hands on one.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Julie Lee - Stillhouse Road

I saw Julie supporting the Vigilantes of Love a few years ago and really enjoyed her self-financed CD "Made from Scratch" - however, it wasn't until I had a few record tokens burning a hole in pocket a few weeks ago that I bought her first label-recorded album. It is splendid with much better versions of "Jesus, he's my man", "Many Waters" and "Your Love" on it as well as ten other songs that I'm quickly falling in love with. Kenny Hutson (who played on and off with the Vigilantes) plays pedal-steel. If you like the alt-country/Americana sound them you'll be good with this.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Best RS422 tester EVER!

This is the most useful piece of test kit I have ever made! I often have to buzz out RS422 machine controls and since every wireman gets the screens correct (pins 4 & 6 for the Tx & Rx screens) you can rely on them being where you expect. After that it's just a matter of having a 2k, 3k, 7k & 8k resistor on the appropriate pins and you can stick it at the end of the run and see where the pins are missing/swapped over by connecting your multimeter across pins 4 & 6 and the signal pins. I always have one handy (and they often get nicked!)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The crisis in Burma

Sarah and I have a special interest in Burma - see the Hand in Hand link in the right hand bar. I thought I'd collect some of the clips I've put up on YouTube over the last year.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Upgrading a Tek WFM7100

I demo Tektronix monitoring products and today I had to upgrade our loaner WFM7100. I'd done software on these chaps before and you can either do it over the web interface or via a USB stick on the front panel. In the case of this version 3.0 update (from the previous v1.25) you have to replace the front control panel, update the boot loader over the network and then use the USB stick to upgrade the instrement.

It's quite a change - it's made it into a WVR7100!
It seems a lot more stable and quicker. Also - it's not a touch-screen any more - it has the same front panel button set as a WVR (but arranged around the display). Using the Java app to control it you can't tell it apart from a WVR. Amazingly Tek ship this upgrade kit for free - given how well made the new front panel is I imagine they are taking a hit of hundreds of pounds per customer update.

I was tickled to see the attached label on the USB stick - you might kill your machine by doing the upgrade and if you do we'll bill you to fix it! I can report the update was entirely successful!
Actually - Tek upgrade procedures are always entirely straighforward and the instructions never leave anything to chance.

Another cool feature is that (being a dual-link HD-SDi machine) it now supports dual live inputs (at YUV 4:2:2, not RGB 4:4:4!) so you can be monitoring two video signals at once!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bottled Water Boom is Hurting the World’s Environment

"...around the world, factories are using more than 18 million barrels of oil and up to 130 billion gallons of fresh water" and that's just to make the bottles, "Another 41 billion gallons of water is then used to fill them." So why are we using more water to make the bottles then the actual amount of water being put into the bottles? This sounds incredibly wasteful.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Funny Linux commands and responses!

% cat "food in cans"
cat: can't open food in cans

% nice man woman
No manual entry for woman.

% ^How did the sex change operation go?^
Modifier failed.

% make love
Make: Don't know how to make love. Stop.

% sleep with me
bad character

% got a light?
No match.

% man: why did you get a divorce?
man:: Too many arguments.

% !:say, what is saccharine?
Bad substitute.

% \(-
(-: Command not found.

$ PATH=pretending! /usr/ucb/which sense
no sense in pretending!

$ drink matter
matter: cannot create

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sumitomo fusion splicers

This is a clip I shot on my 'phone yesterday showing the automated alignment of fibres in the new style fusion splicer. We've had this machine on hire for a week to try and break the back of a couple of fibre jobs that have run on a bit longer than they should.
It really is very impressive - the software does a very accurate alignment every time and as a consequence you can do a lot more circuits in a given time. The only donwside is the £30k price tag!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Busy, busy

I've been really bad at blogging recently - I am snowed under with work as I currently have four decent sized project running simultaneously. Although I had the weekend of Simon's wedding off I have pretty much worked every other weekend going all the way back to the start of July.

I did manage to get yesterday off and I spent a couple of hours helping Joe (my eldest, fourteen) with a new programming project. He's getting into DarkBasic which is procedural language that can be interpreted or compiled and has a bunch of libraries for addressing DirectX functionality. Yesterday we were writing a converter to go between UK, European and US shows sizes - not a hard project but he's just getting use to integer, real and string types so it's all good.

Anyhow - here are just a few notes from the last week or so;

  • The new BBC1 sitcom Outnumbered is very funny.
  • I'm forty today and was very pleased that my Mum sent me the complete Faulty Towers (amongst other things!)
  • The BBC's new iPlayer application is so DRM laden and buggy that I'll stick with UKNova - until they make it that easy and pleasant to use they're onto a looser!
  • The new iPods - the iPod Touch is nearly what I'd like! The only thing missing is being able to sync content over the WiFi - I know you can buy tunes over the 802.11g connection but I like to copy podcasts onto my device while I'm having my porridge.
  • Version 3.5 of Skype don't work with my MacBook/Vista combo - had to downgrade to 3.2

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Simon and Emily's wedding

My good friends Emily and Simon are getting married today at Chalk Farm Baptist Church at 15:00 BST. I have known Simon since he was a young teenager and for the last few years he's often worked for me in between his studies (he's a recent PhD) - and he's now working for me at Root6 full-time and making the fibre optic and high bandwidth (10 gig ethernet) side of the business his own. Emily is a friend who has worked with Sarah on the Burma charity and is on the verge of a big publishing deal.

Anyhow - you can listen to the ceremony on the live audio stream or watch on a camera we're rigging. Live webcam (both links now dead).

Friday, August 31, 2007

Test outputs from the Fluke DTX1800

This is a single page of the test results from Simon's mamouth test of all six-hundred cat7 circuits at one of our current jobs. You won't believe how much data that machine collects on each feed!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

SmartRipper is dead, long live DVD Decrypter!

For the longest time I have used SmartRipper as my tool of choice for ripping the VOBs from a DVD and effecting CSS descrambling. It is fast and you can re-map streams or only rip a single stream if you choose. It can do sub-sections of a transport stream by timecode and does one thing very well - it isn't in the business of trying to re-compress the MPEG2 data or anything and it has served me well. The other day I got the DVD of Amazing Grace out of the library and wanted to watch it on my PVR (which doesnt have a DVD drive) - normally I'd just rip the VOBs across the network to it and watch it. However - it features the bad sector RipGuard protection system - in fact when I did try it in a set-top DVD player it burped and jumped many times during the movie. Anyhow - I had to use DVDDecrypter so I could watch the movie on the equipment I own.
As ever - DRM is an annoyance to legitimate users who've paid for the content - pirates will always find it easy to circumvent copy protection.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fluke DTX-1800 cable analyser

The Fluke DTX-1800 Cable Analyzer provides a bandwidth 900 MHz that supports video distribution, Class F and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Its transmissive LCD display with backlight makes for easy viewing. Its rotary knob makes learning easy and operation simple, keeping you in the know as to what test mode is selected. The USB port facilitates high-speed transfer of data.

This is tester that we've just bought to test the big 10-Gig ethernet project we're doing - see a previous post here.

Testing for ten gigs over copper isn't yet ratified so we use a slightly ad-hoc method;
10 Gig testing should be performed to ISO11801 ClassEA Channel (not permanent link) testing using PiMF 600 patch cables. Tyco recommend using a set of 2M patch leads for 500 tests and keeping them referenced to the tested ports.
On the DTX setup it will be ISO ClassEa Ch 25N1255. This is the latest draft standard for 10G cabling system performance. There is currently no permanent link standard to work to as the permanent link requires component performance parameters which have not been defined yet.

I'll post an example XML-export in the next couple of days.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The welfare state is not there for the middle class

I have been a socialist since my late teens – a member of the Labour party and trade union since I started working after university. I believe in the welfare state, I really do - the principle of access to healthcare and education universally and freely available at the point of use marks the UK as a world leader.

Four years ago my mum trapped a nerve in her shoulder - she was in agony and effectively disabled. The waiting time to see the specialist was weeks and months for the operation. She couldn't wait days to get it sorted and so we paid for a consultation and then paid three grand for the operation - she was restored and has been fine since.
Now - both of my parents have paid tax for decades and never been on benefit - my Dad served in the army for thirty years entering as a private in the late fifties and by the time he left (the best part of thirty years later) he was a Captain - he was decorated (LSGC medal) and worked out his career for the MOD as a welfare officer. He raised two kids, stood by my Mum when their marriage hit a rocky spot and always did the right thing. He spent his entire working life giving to the system and serving his country - but none of that matters now.
Three months ago he suffered a stroke and although he has regained his speech and some mobility I've been horrified how little the system has for him. There is no help for getting the house adapted - my Mum has had to raise the cash for a stairlift and adaptions to the bathroom. She has even had to pay for the wheelchair because they have to means-test you and that takes six weeks - she couldn't wait six days for one so that's another expense.
But, I could forgive all of this were it not for the fact that if they want to make use of the health authority's care assistant service they have to pay £12.90 per hour. All this is because my Dad gets a modest military pension on top of his state pension. I suppose in his case he's contributed too much to the system to expect it to help him when he needs it.

I have four friends who are teachers in state schools and they are among some of the most dedicated, capable people that I know. Since there is not a statistically significant difference between average pay rates for state and private schools it seems unlikely that the difference between the success rates at A-level (and subsequent university entry) are down to the ability of teachers. In fact the one teaching friend I quizzed about this made the point that it isn’t the cash you bring to private school that makes them better at teaching it’s your middle-class aspirations. Her contention is that to have a class of children that are teachable you have to have a class of parents who want their kids to do well and will support the teacher. If her class arrive without pencil cases or homework done then she is immediately at a disadvantage. Worse still, if she has to discipline a child for unruly behaviour and she knows the parents will be in the next day shouting and threatening her in front of her class she might as well write that day off as lost. In her view too many of her days are lost thus.
My own experience is that I was good at the things I was doing with my Dad at the weekends – Lego, Mechano, and building crystal radios made me interested in maths and physics and I wound up as a broadcasting engineer. My parents had an input into my education that was an order of magnitude more significant than my school. Whichever way you slice it parents are more important to the work of schools than any amount of money or teacher ability. It seems like the elephant in the corner of the room that no one dares mention is the fact that you only really value the things you have to work and pay for and sixty years in a liberal democracy where nobody really has to try if they don’t want to has bred two generations of people who don’t value education.
Until my eldest child was in year five I would have scoffed at the idea of sending any of my kids to a private school – aside from lacking the ability to pay I saw it as morally wrong that I should buy advantage. However, when my wife and I started to visit the available state schools in Islington we realised that our eldest (who had suffered with moderate bullying at primary school) would not flourish in any of the schools we saw. Since our main motivation for our kids was that they enjoy their teenage years we started investigating alternatives – namely home-schooling or moving out of London. In the end the firm I work for gave me a large enough pay rise to cover the school fees and we wound up sending him to a small international school – his brother has gone there as well. They are exposed a much larger section of humanity and have a great time. I work freelance some weekends and we’ve scaled down our lifestyle to cover the costs but even so about half of my take-home pay goes into school fees. It’s hard, but we found that when it came to our children their happiness (and academic adequateness, not even excellence) was more important than our white middle-class liberal guilt.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Nevil Shute

I've enjoyed Nevil Shute since I was a teenager. However - this year I've read three of his books that I'd not had before. It seems that until 2007 I'd been fortunate to read his exciting and gripping books and not the ones full of tedious detail! Thinking about it a bit more reveals the common thread is Australia! Here are the three;

  • A town like Alice - A few years after World War II, a young woman, Jean Paget, who was working in Malaya when the Japanese invaded, tells her London lawyer the story of her time in Malaya during the war. She is one of a party of European women who were marched around Malaya by the Japanese, since no camp would take them in and the Japanese army would not take responsibility for them. Many of them die on the march, and the rest survive only by the charity of the local villagers. Up until that point the book is a thumping read and is the main basis for the film of 1956. Once the characters get to Australia it becomes slow and boring!

  • Beyond the black stump - The story concerns a young American geologist, Stanton Laird, working in the Australian outback in the field of oil exploration. He is befriended by a local farming family, the Regans, and develops a relationship with their daughter Mollie. Over the course of the explorations (which prove unsuccessful), he notes the unique lifestyle on what amounts to the Australian frontier, and falls in love with Mollie. The two wish to wed, but Mollie's mother insists that Mollie first see how the Lairds live in their Oregon town, Hazel, which was once on the frontier, but is no longer. My word - is this one hard going!

  • On the beach - The story is set in what was then the near future in the months following World War III. The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all life. While the nuclear bombs were confined to the northern hemisphere, global air currents are slowly carrying the fallout to the southern hemisphere. The only part of the planet still habitable is the far south of the globe, specifically Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and the southern parts of South America. From Australia, survivors detect a mysterious and incomprehensible Morse code radio signal originating from the United States. With hope that some life has remained in the contaminated regions, one of the last American nuclear submarines, the USS Scorpion, placed by its captain under Australian naval command, is ordered to sail north from its port of refuge in Melbourne (Australia's southernmost major mainland city) to try to contact whoever is sending the signal. Sounds like it should be un-put-downable but the Australian effect is there - tedious beyond belief!
Having said all that I do think Shute is one of the best authors of the twentieth century and so here are three recommendations to get you going;

  • Marazan - Philip Stenning is a commercial pilot, trained during the First World War. After his engine fails, he crashes and is rescued by an escaped convict, who turns out to have been framed for embezzlement by his Italian half-brother who is smuggling drugs into England. The story tells how Stenning plays a key role in breaking that drug ring.

  • Pied Piper - The story concerns an elderly Englishman, John Sidney Howard, who goes on a fishing holiday in France after the Second World War breaks out, but before the fall of France. Entrusted with the care of two British children, and overtaken by events, he attempts to return to England and safety. His journey is hampered by the unexpected speed of the Nazi invasion of France, and by the fact that he continually finds himself entrusted with the custody of more and more young children. Eventually, he is stranded in Nazi occupied France and he is fully aware that, as an Englishman, he is an enemy to the occupying forces.

  • Trustee from the toolroom - The plot hinges on the actions of a technical journalist, Keith Stewart, whose life has been focused on the design and engineering of scale-model machinery. He writes serial articles about how to create scale models in a magazine called the Miniature Mechanic, which are extremely well regarded in the modelling community--as is he. He is called upon to hide a metal box in his sister's and brother in law's boat just before they plan to leave in it to emigrate to Canada. Until they are settled in British Columbia, their daughter, Keith's niece, is to remain with Keith and his wife. His inlaws are lost at sea in French Polynesia. After the deaths are confirmed, Stewart is consulted by his inlaws' solicitor, who has found almost no money in the estate. His brother in law has converted his wealth into diamonds, to evade export and currency restrictions which prevent capital from leaving Britain. His guardianship of his niece is now permanent, and he becomes her trustee (hence the title), but where is her money?
I nicked some the the descriptions from Wikipedia.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Management style

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

'$100 laptop' production begins

Hardware suppliers have been given the green light to ramp-up production of all of the components needed to build millions of the low-cost machines.
Previously, the organisation behind the scheme said that it required orders for 3m laptops to make production viable.
The first machines should be ready to put into the hands of children in developing countries in October 2007.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Three films they messed up

I know you can never make a film that mirrors a book exactly - and in a sense why would you want to? They are different mediums but by converting a book to a screenplay there should be an expectation that you at least carry across some of the ideas and convictions of the original author.

  • Starship Troopers was a book by Robert A. Heinlein which I devoured as a teenager and was very taken with some of the ideas - truly unique ideas (a bit like the first time you saw The Matrix?). However - seeing the film was a real let-down. It's what you'd have got if you gave a fifteen year-old $150 million to make a film.

  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov was another favourite from my teenage years - how did they manage to get it so wrong?

  • A Clockwork Orange - as an undergraduate I found some of Burgess's ideas about language very compelling. Like Orwell he makes the point that because you essentially think in your mother tongue if you let your language degrade so does your power of thought. In the case of Orwell's 1984 the degradation of language is used for political control but in the case of Clockwork Orange it leads to moral decay.
    Now I know Kubrick is a genius and all but when I first saw this movie (knowing the book very well) I thought that he'd never actually read it - at best having read the O-Level notes or maybe a bloke in the pub had given him a half-cut summary. The sequence where Alex imagines himself as a Roman Centurion just made me think of glossy 70's pr0n and I found none of the subtleties or nuances of the book.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Corning Announces Breakthrough Optical Fibre Technology

Corning's breakthrough is based on a nanoStructures optical fibre design that allows the cabled fibre to be bent around very tight corners with virtually no signal loss. These improved attributes will enable telecommunications carriers to economically offer true high-speed Internet, voice and HDTV services to virtually all commercial and residential (apartment and condominium) buildings. Current optical fibre installations lose signal strength and effectiveness when bent around corners and routed through a building, making it difficult and expensive to run fibre all the way to customers' homes.

Hmm - one to watch out for. Hopefully not the big let-down that plastic-fibre was!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Korg M1 battery replacement and patch re-load

My middle boy Daniel plays keyboard and drums (though not at the same time - that would be clever!) - his keyboard is an inherited Korg M1 - back in the late eighties/early nineties it was the multi-timbrel keyboard of choice for many bands but is now a bit long in the tooth. Still the keyboard is nice with good touch-sensitivity and after-touch. The AI synthesis that it employs is great for piano and organ patches and you strings are pretty lush.
Recently it started flagging up that the internal battery was going flat and of course we ignored it - eventually it lost all it's patches, combination sounds and sequences and without spending half an hour trying to program a better sound it produced a plinky-plonky piano that nobody wanted to hear! So - I scored me a £10 USB-MIDI cable off eBay and set about finding the SysEX files to re-load. Terry Little's Korg site is fantastic - he has a walk-through with photos for replacing the CR2032 button cell and links to the original Korg factory settings. I use BankEditor (which is a MIDI librarian specifically for Korg M1 & K3s) - it even comes with the factory Combi, Programmes and Drum kits.
For some reason MidiOX - my MIDI utility of choice - failed to write anything back to the M1 even though it could extract SysEX dumps. Anyhow - Dan is back is the land of the Hammond B3......!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Diagnosing faulty fibre splices

I go to lots of facilities where other engineers have run in fibre and the story is often the same - broadcast engineer who knows a bit about fibre and knows a firm who'll pre-make him tight buffered cable. Now - aside from the fact that tight-buffered cable for installation is never optimal why do they always choose the cheapest patch-cord cable rather than robust cable?

Anyhow - after a chance comment made by the instructor at Tyco last Tuesday I realised you can light up a fibre with a visible laser and the light will spill out at a bad splice. How often have I puzzled over which end of a loose-tube cable has the bad splice? The tester tells you you're loosing 5dBs of optical power but without a Fluke DTX-1800 (with the OTDM module - an extra £4k on the £5k basic!) you can never tell which splice to to blame.
The picture shows a bad splice (but not that bad - it was only loosing 5.5dBs - so would be fine on 2gig and probably fine on 4gig, but not optimal). The little red dot in the middle of the splice protector was a lot clearer than this 'phone-photo shows.

The Maplin keyfob laser pointer was the best fiver I spent this weekend. I just had two 12-hours days of fibre action and it saved a lot of time.

Friday, July 20, 2007

British Telecom tom-foolery!

Here's a question - has anyone ever had a pleasant experience at the hand of BT tech support? Here is a previous post with another example of their poor customer service.
Anyhow - a few weeks ago I'd set up an audio streaming server for a (non-technical) friend. All was well with him edge-serving the stream to another server that had a shed-load of bandwidth. Now, he has BT broadband and they offered him a free upgrade from his 2meg aDSL to their basic business offering (which is an eight-meg circuit). He jumped, but on the day that they upgraded him his connection went dead - well, the crappy little USB modem claimed it was connected but no traffic would flow. When I got to it I discovered that I could ping IP addresses on the internet but no DNS instantiation was going on. So - I called BT and after the usual 'is your anti-virus up to date' etc. I got to speak to a tech who seemed to know what he was talking about. Eventually he did admit that the fault must be in the BT network and gave me a fault reference number. Why he bothered is anyone's guess because when I'd gone another support rep called back and despite my friend giving him the fault reference number they persuaded my friend the fault must be with his PC!
Anyways - I returned a couple of evenings later with a Draytek Vigor 2600 router (it's the standard router we provide to clients for our remote access support). It has a superb status page and will happily detect correct Virtual Path and Channel Identifiers (VPI and VCI figures). guess what - when BT goes from two to eight megs you need to update the VCI to 38 - why do none of their tech's know this?
Anyhow - it's kind of interesting that with a VCI figure of 37 only some protocols worked - I think the difference is between UDP/IP and ICMP - DNS uses (by default) UDP to do look-ups. I should have forced the PC to do DNS look-up over TCP and seen if it made a difference.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

cat6a, cat7 and all that 10gig stuff!

I spent a day at Tyco in Stanmore doing some training on the newest types of ten gigabit network cables. Since there is no ratified standard for ethernet at this data rate (even though both Intel and Cisco have products) everyone is referring to it with different terminology. The Germans refer to the cable as cat7, the Americans as cat6a (the 'a' is augmented) and Tyco (who seem to have the biggest portfolio so far) as XG-10gig cable.
We spent the morning going over the physics of it all - the new cable is a 600Mhz channel and by QAM64 and OFDM (which I blogged about recently) signal processing techniques they can get ten gigabits per sec down one hundred metres of cable. If you use earlier cat5e or cat6 cable you are pretty much limited to sub-30m lengths.
The differences in cable and termination are sufficiently marked with respect to vanilla cat6 as to require different tools and techniques and everything is specified (even down to the sub-50N of force you can apply when pulling it into ducts). They seem to have woken up to the fact that relying on common-mode rejection as the only means of noise reduction is flawed and consequently this new cable is double-screened - the pairs are individually shielded and there is an overall screen. This is why the cable is also referred to as PIMF (pairs in metal foil).
Reasons for differences;

  • Near-end cross talk is dramatically reduced by virtue of the new ends and termination tool. When properly terminated the twisted pair and shield is maintained to within a couple of millimeters of the pin on the connector. You could never achieve this with traditional punch-down methods.

  • Alien cross-talk is minimised by the over-shield - cat5e and cat6 never really enjoyed this advantage.

  • Inter-pair cross-talk is minimised by the foil shield around each of the pairs.
There is no RJ45 plug that can be crimped on - you can only buy pre-made patch cords. Panel to panel wiring is the only termination type permitted on site.
This has to be the future of data-centre wiring - we're currently doing a job that involved 600-odd circuits like this (and it's in a visual-effects company), however - I never imagined I'd have gigabit at home and it can only be a couple of years before ten-gig ethernet is ubiquitous.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Scanimate is an analog computer system that was built by the Computer Image Corporation of Denver, Colorado in the late sixties and early seventies. In all only eight machines were ever produced. It was used on many famous jobs over the years, and many of the people that were involved with its development, operation, and care and feeding have gone on to do significant things in a variety of places all over the world. Dave Seig's website is a real treat and a reminder of how innovative engineers had to be before digital framestores were possible. Many thanks to my old mucker Saul Budd for putting me on to this.
It reminded me of the BBC Anchor caption machine that was an electronic analogue video caption generator. By generating shaped wipes (in much the same way as an analogue vision mixer works by using line and field rate waveforms to create circular, square, etc. shaped wipes) with variable voltage offsets to position them the machine was able to make letter shapes and hence words (and even whole lines of text!). Being an analogue machine it drifted and so the kerning between letters would change and even the size of characters changed over the duration of the programme (requiring the operator to keep his eyes on things!).
Now when I started at the Beeb in the eighties people still commonly referred to electronic caption machines as 'anchor' (the news studios all shared an 'anchor lobby' which at that point is where the Aston 3 operators worked). I never saw a working example but ironically some programmes still used real artwork captions (scanned on Sony DMX3000 cameras).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Barcodes and all that

One of the neat things my old colleague Ian Staite did was to introduce me to the joys of barcodes! Since we had to keep a tight reign on tape management at Big Brother and Fame Academy we developed some nice templates for printing tape labels with all the salient data carried in a barcode. Code 39 (sometimes called Code 3 from 9) is a discrete barcode. This means that a fixed pattern of bars represents a single character.
Each character is made up of 9 bars - 3 of which are wider than the others. (In this context a bar can be the printed black bar or the white space between the bars.) A single character therefore consists of 5 black bars and 4 white bars.
The ratio of the bar widths can range from 2.2:1 to 3:1. To read a barcode reliably the decoder must be able to differentiate between the wide and narrow bars. In practice it is better to use barcodes close to the 3:1 ratio which allows nearly a 50% barwidth error to occur before ambiguity occurs. The space between each barcode character is called 'The intercharacter gap'. Its width is undefined but is usually equivalent to a narrow white bar.
There are a couple of things to remember when using this barcode fount;
  • Each barcode has to start and stop with an asterisk

  • Don't try and pack too much data in or make the barcode too small - the Lindy hand-scanner I'm using (which just emulates a USB keyboard - it's like someone types in the numeric value of the code very quickly! The software doesn't know it came from a barcode scanner). I've found 120mm wide is the max and 8-point fount-size is the lowest you want to go before the scanner doesn't read it accurately every time. Using those figures you can reliably encode about 25 bytes.
This is for another production company who have asked me to set them up with tape labelling and barcodes.
I also found a great article about data validation in Excel.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Tour De France from the London Eye

The Tour De France started in London and we got to see the start of it from the London Eye - courtesy of Root6. Thanks to Mark for this photo (he was in a different pod) - it's me and my youngest, James.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Reasons to hate Black Magic, part 3

I have a long and proud tradition of criticising Black Magic Design - much beloved of the FCP crowd their products are built to a price rather than the signal spec. Read some of my previous rantings here and here. This last week I had the pleasure(!) of their new Intensity Pro card - HDMI & analogue component (at 1920x1080) capture. The reason they've launched this card is the slew of HDV camcorders that have an HDMI output. Now - we all know about HDMI's support for HDCP encryption. For most things the HDCP flag is set but no encryption is present. That's the way games consoles work (and foolishly we thought that this card would be good to capture the HD output of a PS3) - BUT, if the card sees even a hint of the HDCP flag it won't capture! Also - the card output is not the usual RGB feed you've expect, but whatever colour space the Quicktime clip is recorded in!

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

When will they start to conform to the specs rather than fobbing you off with "I'm sorry - that's not a supported configuration" - argh!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The PAL vertical interval

Our very own Kevin King asked me about the vertical interval in a PAL signal - the above diagram is excellent and has all you need to know. It's taken from a Tektronix training manual from the late eighties by Margaret Craig called Television Measurements - PAL Systems.
Essentially you should bear in mind the following;

  • Active video starts at line 23 - actually line 23 is a half line so the first 26 u-sec is blank - people who don't know about video often notice this!

  • The other half line is the first half of line 623 (end of field 2) - the reason for the two half-lines is to give the line-scan circuit the best chance to make it back to the same point when it starts the new field.

  • There is no half-line at the start of field-2 or the end of field-1

  • Field 1 and Field 2 both end with five equalising pulses and then start the next field with five broad pulses, to be followed by more eq pulses. These are the only lines not to have a colour burst - that's what Bruch Blanking does on older SPGs.
The reason for a lot of this is down to the stability of phase-locked loops constructed from valves rather than transistors - if you have (potentially) unstable oscillators for every waveform (line-drive, field-drive, sub-carrier etc.) then you have to take every effort to make sure nothings changes phase too quickly - hence the half lines, the broad and equalising pulses etc.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The futility of re-using old storage

I was over at a facility doing a site survey for a fibre network and the owner/operator told me how he planned to re-deploy his ancient 300gig LanShare storage system as an MP3 storage pool. I did a little mental calculation about the economics of re-using old storage; That model of LanShare consumes a bit less than a kilowatt of power - now I'm assuming he's paying seven or eight pence for a Kw/h and so by doing the maths (and bearing in mind the cost of a 300 gig drive - £69.00 inc. VAT today) he's burning that much electricity every three weeks! Even setting aside the cost of administrating ANY Avid storage (and the licensing considerations, needing client connection software etc. etc.) there is no good reason to re-use an old LanShare or Unity.
I had the same argument a few years ago with someone who wanted to re-use a 10x9gig fibre array - the cost of a fibre HBA to allow him to re-use it in a PC was many times the cost of a 120gig drive (and I didn't even do the power calculation) - it's NEVER worth it.

A facility I worked at in the mid-nineties had Paltex edit controllers (of a mid-eighties vintage!). Anyhow - back then the EPROMs containing the software were only 32 Kbytes big. Eventually the system software got to requiring 64 Kbytes of space and so they had to produce an updated system board that actually had the A16 line wired. Imagine my horror when (to avoid the £800 upgrade cost) I had to manually wire (with kynar wire) the most-significant address line on old 32K-capable system boards! By the time I'd finished a couple of them they looked like birds' nests and were about as stable as Charles Manson!
Incidentally - the kilobyte is an obsolete measurement of memory size. Back in the eighties skilled programmers could pack a lot of functionality into a 'K' - I saw a chess program that played a very respectable opening coded in that much space. Nowadays (when programmers are called developers and bolt objects together rather than writing computer code) the megabyte will soon the an obsolete term.
The megahertz is an obsolete term that refers to the speed of old microprocessors' clocks....

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Something to look forward to....

In 2000 the Sunday Times newspaper identified 85,000 Elvis impersonators, compared with just 150 in 1977, the year he died. The report goes on to state that "if growth continues at the same rate, one third of the world will be impersonating Elvis by the year 2019".

Friday, June 29, 2007

Bill Mallonee has a new record out

If you know me you'll have heard me bang on about Bill Mallonee (and before that his band - the Vigilantes of Love). Bill (and his lovely wife Muriah Rose) played an intimate gig at my house last October for about thirty friends and he is never less than superb. The human spirit and bleak experience that drips from every song is unique and you could do a lot worse than to download Circa - the new album. You can also catch any of his old CDs - some as a two-for-one deal if you download.

Here is a posting I noticed via MySpace - it sums my thoughts up perfectly;
About twelve years ago, I discovered the music of Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love through word of mouth. Starting in Athens, Georgia in the early 90's, the music has had overwhelming roots in americana with dabbles in brit-pop, and mass, critical acclaim without much commercial success at all. Mallonee himself - now in his early 50's - has said that record executives have told him, "This is what I listen to when I'm off the clock", and "I love the stuff, but I can't sell it."

These days, the "Vigilantes of Love" moniker has been dropped in favor of the simple and solo, "Bill Mallonee", which is truer to what the music is as Mallonee has been the sole, stable member and songwriter since the beginning. I've had the pleasure of seeing him live about ten times (and even sharing a beer or two) over the years - sometimes with a full band, sometimes with just a second guitarist, and most recently with an accompanying piano player. Each setting has brought out different aspects of the performance while being consistently phenomenal in it's intimacy.

His perseverance has cost him over the years, as spending time away form his family to tour for most of the year, and financing new albums on credit cards (and now, pre-orders by loyal fans) often does. Through all this, though, he's still the type of artist willing to give away his music for free to those willing to listen.

Tonite I received a message on my myspace bulletin board stating that through Mallonee's myspace page (www.myspace/billmallonee) you could download four tracks for free, as well as go to his online store ( and get two full albums for free (one needs to be downloaded track by track, the other is free with purchase of another album - a two for one deal.)

It's great news for those of us living in an age where a CD of new music costs anywhere from twelve to twenty dollars a pop, yet for an artist who has been putting out records year after year with little or no commercial success for near twenty years, one has to wonder what the repercussions for such a bold move may be.

Some of you who know me well know that I've worked in customer service for over ten years now, but through it all, one thing I was never good at was feeding a bullshit line to make a sale and Im not about to start now.

I'm posting this to you, my friends, to tell you about the music of Bill Mallonee - a man I've met, corresponded, bonded, and shared drinks with. He's a good man witha kind heart who I hope to one day get the chance to perform alongside. If you enjoy music with roots in americana (i.e. - country, bluegrass and folk) with dabbles in brit-pop, and have ten bucks to spare, I implore you to go to his online store and pick up a copy of any of his records (I recommend 1998's To The Roof of The Sky, 1999's Audible Sigh, or 2004's Dear Life...). You'll get The Peter Buck (guitarist for R.E.M.) produced Killing Floor for free, and be able to download the brit-pop influenced album Summershine for free to hold you over until your two discs arrive.

That's three CD's of music you've probably never heard, and that has more soul and diligence than a lot of what's being pushed to the masses today, for ten bucks that goes directly to the artist.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Images from Corner Post

These are some pics from the job we did for The Farm Group back in March - you can see the VTR pods with the mil-spec multi-pin connectors for rapid swap out and the custom desk panels for quick connection to the back of the workstation - FireWire, USB, unbalanced audio etc.
We built ten rooms like this with Tony pre-fab'ing all the looms at the workshop and we deployed it all and had it tested in a week.

Something to look forward to....

In 2000 the Sunday Times newspaper identified 85,000 Elvis impersonators, compared with just 150 in 1977, the year he died. The report goes on to state that "if growth continues at the same rate, one third of the world will be impersonating Elvis by the year 2019".

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Big goal-keeper hands!

We know that Apple like to play fast and loose with the facts when they advertise things - rememeber when the G5 launched as the first 64-bit desktop computer and the fastest computer in the world for under $10k! But I really chuckled when I saw the new iPhone page - they are using a model with much larger hands to imply the thing is smaller than it really is!
So, here's a question - what kind of trickery could make the battery seem to last longer than ninety minutes?!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The wisdom of comrade Alexie Sayle

Garibaldi, Italian revolutionary, ends up as a kind of biscuit. It's quite interesting, you know, the number of biscuits that are named after revolutionaries.
You've got your Garibaldi, of course, you've got your Bourbons, then of course you've got your Peek Freens Trotsky Assortment.

"Revolutionary biscuits of Italy
Rise up out of your box!
You have nothing to lose but your wafers
Yum yum yum yum yum!

Monday, June 18, 2007

2nd o/p of MacPro display cards

We're exhibiting at Broadcast Live! and whilst setting up the equipment I had real difficulty getting a MacPro to feed a 23" cinema display - actually because it was a 7.5m DVI cable I'd stuck a DVI DA just before the monitor (Apple displays are very fussy about long cables - much more so than Dell/HP/Acer etc. - but hey, they're design classics darling so why conform to the standards?!) and would occasionally see a flash of the OS-X logon screen but v.unreliable. I knew the DA was OK having checked it on an HP8400 workstation and it wasn't until Graham reminded me of the problem I had at The Joint back in January (link in the title of this post) that I thought to try output two of the card - all good! It turns out the DVI DA doesn't return correct DDC data and so XFree86 (as implemented in OS-X) does funny things.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The how and why of COFDM

Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (COFDM) is a form of modulation which is particularly well-suited to the needs of the terrestrial broadcasting channel. COFDM can cope with high levels of multipath propagation, with a wide spread of delays between the received signals. This leads to the concept of single-frequency networks in which many transmitters send the same signal on the same frequency, generating “artificial multipath”. COFDM also copes well with co-channel narrowband interference, as may be caused by the carriers of existing analogue services.

This is a very well written explanation of COFDM (as used in both digital terrestrial television and digital radio in the UK) - the workings of the multi-carrier system was something that I never really understood but this opened my eyes (did you realise that every DVB-T mux uses more than 6,000 carriers!). Recently I was explaining to someone how Viterbei decoders work (with particular reference to Digital Betacam VTRs) - again, I didn't realise that COFDM uses a modified Viterbei decoder (the 'soft viterbei decoder').
I wish I hadn't specialised in post-production so early as there are many things the the broadcast chain that I'm rusty/ignorant of.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I own a BVW-75P!

Oasis Television are ripping out and starting again and sending a load of their old gear to the dealers and/or skip! They have generously donated me a BetaSP player/recorder - it's one of the ones I looked after during my tenure there (1994-99) and so is an old friend!
The BVW-75P was the first piece of broadcast equipment I got to know very well. During my time in post-production maintenance at the Beeb it ranked with the Questech Charisma and Quantel Paintbox as a device that I could do anything on - I changed more than a hundred head-drums whilst in VTR maintenance and really understood all the workings of it. At the time I promised myself that I'd have one eventually just as a souvenir of what TV engineering used to be. Stripping down and re-building the t-drawer arm assembly is good for the soul!
This one is actually an Ampex-badged one (CVR-75) but it has the more recent board-set; the TBC-12 timebase corrector and the DEC-45 composite decoder.
I am very happy!