Monday, June 30, 2008

Passive volume controls

The PDF in the link is a good explanation of passive volume control for audio circuits and how to alter the law of potentiometers.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tech support on the eeePC

Joe (my eldest) has been making great use of the little Asus eeePC linux-based ultra-portable for a while. It has everything he needs day to day and he loves the fact that he's running a different OS to everyone else he knows!
Anyhow - ours developed a fault where it started crashing and eventually it couldn't even complete it's BIOS memory count before freezing - a classic case of a hardware problem (you'd think!).

Anyway - I just wanted to detail the miserable experience using Asus's tech support was;

Firstly you have to submit a web request for support - the online form has a couple of funnies - you can only enter 150 characters in the fault description and no punctuation is allowed! If you've ever tried to write something coherent with only alphabetic characters you'll appreciate what a challenge this is! Also - 150 characters? They need to hire a decent PHP programmer! Another niggle is the fact that the case number is a required field! You've just opened a case and they demand your case-number. They also wanted fax-proof of the age of the machine. Given that they've been out for about six months and they come with a two-year warranty.....
Anyhow - you submit the form (after a dozen attempt because they're server keeps firing it back at you with invalid data due to the full-stop you put at the end of the problem description!) and they tell you that it'll take 48 hours for them to acknowledge your request. They manufacture computers and yet they take two days to process a simple CGI form! They are clearly running their tech support system on counting-beads!
Anyhow - after three days I eventually found a number to call and got through to someone who told me that tech support had bounced back my request on the grounds that I hadn't done a system restore - that was required to eliminate software problems! Now, remember that this machine freezes after a few seconds of power AND it has no CD-drive! So, even if it was a software issue they expect you to have bought an external USB CD drive. After much ranting down the 'phone they persuaded me to re-submit on the web. I did and gave it another four days - no response!
So, back on the 'phone to be told that tech support had issued a collection notice but neglected to email me. Eventually I got the UPS details and the thing was collected and returned a week later with a new motherboard and it's all good.

One thing you can never get away from is that tech support departments are never properly funded and tech support engineers will often say anything to get you off the 'phone because they probably won't get you when you call back after having tried the pointless thing they've suggested - re-installing the OS rather than figuring out the problem, for example.

The 'phone number is 0870 1208340, and if you have to do battle with Asus here are a couple of names that helped me;

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Snakeoil salesmen target networking!

I would not have believed it unless I saw it with my own eyes! A five-hundred dollar cat5e cable - for audiophile application!
It has the obligatory signal direction markers - is that for the Tx or the Rx pair?! Like all non-DC electrical signals there are as many electrons going one way as the other!

Thanks Matt - you sick man!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jean Genie

This evening was my eldest two's school music evening - here they are playing sax (Joe, oldest) and drums (Dan, middle boy).
It was a good evening - they did a few numbers culminating in Messing with the Kid - a Rory Gallagher number. I'm very proud.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

I'm a Mac, I'm a PC....

Charlie Brooker's (possibly one of the funniest men alive!) assessment of the Apple ad compaign from last year;

Unless you have been walking around with your eyes closed, and your head encased in a block of concrete, with a blindfold tied round it, in the dark - unless you have been doing that, you surely can't have failed to notice the current Apple Macintosh campaign starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb, which has taken over magazines, newspapers and the internet in a series of brutal coordinated attacks aimed at causing massive loss of resistance. While I don't have anything against shameless promotion per se (after all, within these very brackets I'm promoting my own BBC4 show, which starts tonight at 10pm), there is something infuriating about this particular blitz. In the ads, Webb plays a Mac while Mitchell adopts the mantle of a PC. We know this because they say so right at the start of the ad.

"Hello, I'm a Mac," says Webb.

"And I'm a PC," adds Mitchell.

They then perform a small comic vignette aimed at highlighting the differences between the two computers. So in one, the PC has a "nasty virus" that makes him sneeze like a plague victim; in another, he keeps freezing up and having to reboot. This is a subtle way of saying PCs are unreliable. Mitchell, incidentally, is wearing a nerdy, conservative suit throughout, while Webb is dressed in laid-back contemporary casual wear. This is a subtle way of saying Macs are cool.

The ads are adapted from a near-identical American campaign - the only difference is the use of Mitchell and Webb. They are a logical choice in one sense (everyone likes them), but a curious choice in another, since they are best known for the television series Peep Show - probably the best sitcom of the past five years - in which Mitchell plays a repressed, neurotic underdog, and Webb plays a selfish, self-regarding poseur. So when you see the ads, you think, "PCs are a bit rubbish yet ultimately lovable, whereas Macs are just smug, preening tossers." In other words, it is a devastatingly accurate campaign.

I hate Macs. I have always hated Macs. I hate people who use Macs. I even hate people who don't use Macs but sometimes wish they did. Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper computers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui.

PCs are the ramshackle computers of the people. You can build your own from scratch, then customise it into oblivion. Sometimes you have to slap it to make it work properly, just like the Tardis (Doctor Who, incidentally, would definitely use a PC). PCs have charm; Macs ooze pretension. When I sit down to use a Mac, the first thing I think is, "I hate Macs", and then I think, "Why has this rubbish aspirational ornament only got one mouse button?" Losing that second mouse button feels like losing a limb. If the ads were really honest, Webb would be standing there with one arm, struggling to open a packet of peanuts while Mitchell effortlessly tore his apart with both hands. But then, if the ads were really honest, Webb would be dressed in unbelievably po-faced avant-garde clothing with a gigantic glowing apple on his back. And instead of conducting a proper conversation, he would be repeatedly congratulating himself for looking so cool, and banging on about how he was going to use his new laptop to write a novel, without ever getting round to doing it, like a mediocre idiot.

Cue 10 years of nasal bleating from Mac-likers who profess to like Macs not because they are fashionable, but because "they are just better". Mac owners often sneer that kind of defence back at you when you mock their silly, posturing contraptions, because in doing so, you have inadvertently put your finger on the dark fear haunting their feeble, quivering soul - that in some sense, they are a superficial semi-person assembled from packaging; an infinitely sad, second-rate replicant who doesn't really know what they are doing here, but feels vaguely significant and creative each time they gaze at their sleek designer machine. And the more deftly constructed and wittily argued their defence, the more terrified and wounded they secretly are.

Aside from crowing about sartorial differences, the adverts also make a big deal about PCs being associated with "work stuff" (Boo! Offices! Boo!), as opposed to Macs, which are apparently better at "fun stuff". How insecure is that? And how inaccurate? Better at "fun stuff", my arse. The only way to have fun with a Mac is to poke its insufferable owner in the eye. For proof, stroll into any decent games shop and cast your eye over the exhaustive range of cutting-edge computer games available exclusively for the PC, then compare that with the sort of rubbish you get on the Mac. Myst, the most pompous and boring videogame of all time, a plodding, dismal "adventure" in which you wandered around solving tedious puzzles in a rubbish magic kingdom apparently modelled on pretentious album covers, originated on the Mac in 1993. That same year, the first shoot-'em-up game, Doom, was released on the PC. This tells you all you will ever need to know about the Mac's relationship with "fun".

Ultimately the campaign's biggest flaw is that it perpetuates the notion that consumers somehow "define themselves" with the technology they choose. If you truly believe you need to pick a mobile phone that "says something" about your personality, don't bother. You don't have a personality. A mental illness, maybe - but not a personality. Of course, that hasn't stopped me slagging off Mac owners, with a series of sweeping generalisations, for the past 900 words, but that is what the ads do to PCs. Besides, that's what we PC owners are like - unreliable, idiosyncratic and gleefully unfair. And if you'll excuse me now, I feel an unexpected crash coming.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Technologists always get it wrong, part 2

Back in 2005 I blogged some of the more famous quotes that were diametrically opposite of what turned out to be the case. Here are a few more I've collected. I wonder how (sometimes very eminent) people feel when they get it so wrong - when they fail to see the situation so dramatically. I think the Y2k hoax was a splendid example of this - where vested interests overtook sense and truth.

While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.
Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer, 1926.

Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.
Darryl F. Zanuck, Head of 20th Century-Fox, 1946.

Radio has no future.
Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist.

This `telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.
Western Union internal memo, 1878

Well informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.
Editorial in the Boston Post, 1865 possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which man shall fly long distances through the air...
Simon Newcomb (1835-1909), astronomer, head of the U.S. Naval Observatory

What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches?
The Quarterly Review, England (March 1825)

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.
Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.
Dr. Dionysus Lardner (1793-1859) Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French military strategist and World War I commander.

The Internet will catastrophically collapse in 1996.
Robert Metcalfe, internet inventor

We have reached the limits of what is possible with computers.
John Von Neumann, 1949

There is no hope for the fanciful idea of reaching the Moon because of insurmountable barriers to escaping the Earth's gravity.
Dr. Forest Ray Moulton, University of Chicago astronomer, 1932.

There is growing evidence that smoking has pharmacological effects that are of real value to smokers.
President of Philip Morris, Inc., 1962

There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.
Albert Einstein, 1932.

All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.
Ronald Reagan, 1980

I am tired of all this thing called science.... We have spent millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped.
Simon Cameron, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, 1861 demanding the funding of the Smithsonian Institution be cut off.

Approximately 80% of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation. So let's not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emissions standards for man-made sources.
Ronald Reagan, 1980

X-rays are a hoax.
Lord Kelvin, ca. 1900

Lord Kelvin features a little too heavily in this list for my liking! Also - Ronald Reagan clearly made comments about things he didn't understand.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Quartz routers still the best!

After a brief flirtation with Probel last year I am well and truly back with Quartz as my matrix of choice. I've just finished a little facility in Old Street where I put in a 32x32 HD-SDi & 16-port RS422 configuration and it took me forty-five minutes to programme it. With Probel you'd have to set aside a day (and then another day to debug your panel configurations!).
The most tedious thing about programming Probel configurations is that when you define a panel you have to say that VTR then button 1 then button 1 refers to VTR 11 - you can't just say this button is VTR and then here is the numeric pad - before you know it you have a programming tree that is many layers deep and you have to repeat it for every panel! At least with Quartz you can duplicate one panel to the next.

Monday, June 16, 2008

This machine kills fascists

Woody Guthrie claimed that honour for the guitar - I'd like to add PCs (Mac, Linux & Windows!) and bicycles.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hydrogenated vegetable oil

....hydrogenated vegetable oil. It sounds harmless enough, but it is one of the most dangerous products ever to be mashed into the food we eat.
Food scares are, of course, nothing new, but hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) elevates health risk to a whole new level. Recent scientific research suggests that it may be responsible for an unknown, but certainly very large, number of heart attacks.

Brace yourself before you read the article!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Three recent internet failures

I'm very interested on how WANs (and even the ultimate WAN - the internets) work. Border Gateway Protocol is one of the areas I know little about but would love to have a chance to explore. With the in mind I wanted to write about three interesting events that happened over the last year that highlight some of the inner workings of the Internet.

  • Pakistan's YouTube takedown happened when Pakistan's government ordered it blocked because of offensive material, apparently a video depicting the cartoons about Muhammad that had been posted in a Danish newspaper. Some reports have said the video featured several minutes of a film made by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, an outspoken critic of Islam.
    A spokesman for the Pakistani embassy said on Monday that the order to block access to YouTube came from the highest levels of the government. It would have been passed along to Pakistan's Electronic Media Regulatory Authority and then to Pakistan's telecom authority, the spokesman said, which in turn would have issued the formal order to the Internet providers.
    Pakistan Telecom responded by broadcasting the false claim that it was the correct route for 256 addresses in YouTube's network space. Because that was a more specific destination than the true broadcast from YouTube saying it was home to 1,024 computers, within a few minutes traffic started flowing to the wrong place.
    A timeline created by Renesys, which provides real-time monitoring services, says that it took about 15 seconds for large Pacific-rim providers to direct traffic to the Pakistan ISP, and about 45 seconds for the central routers on much of the rest of the Internet to follow suit.
    YouTube took countermeasures within minutes, first trying to reclaim its network by narrowing its 1,024 broadcast to 256 addresses. Eleven minutes later, YouTube added an even more specific additional broadcast claiming just 64 addresses--which, under the Border Gateway Protocol, is more specific and therefore should overrule the Pakistani one. Over two hours after the initial false broadcast, Pakistan Telecom finally stopped.
    How could this have been prevented? First, Pakistan Telecom shouldn't have broadcast to the entire world that it was hosting YouTube's IP addresses. Second, Hong Kong-based PCCW could have recognized the broadcast as false and filtered it out.

  • Digg's Torrent-server attack started with a SYN flood aimed at Revision3's BitTorrent tracker clogged the company's tubes and brought down all of its web services. The traffic logs indicated that the network was getting slammed by over 8,000 packets every second. Revision3 tracked the source of the packets and discovered that the attack originated from MediaDefender - a company that provides Bittorrent poisoning services to big media. TWiT on 2nd June has very good coverage of the events, particularly Jim Louderback's insights.

  • Amazon's recent DDOS attack happened on 6th June - was taken down by a distributed denial-of-service attack that struck the Web site's load-balancing system. The DDoS attack bypassed AWS services like Amazon's S3, striking directly at the heart of Amazon's business. It's unclear how Amazon fought off the attack, which struck roughly at 10:20 AM.

The interesting thing about these three incidents is that they don't conform to the traditional hacker-led attack. In the case of YouTube it was big-government, in the case of Revision3 it was big-media and in the case of Amazon it was big-money trying to 'short' their stock. No doubt that none of the perpetrators will ever have to answer for their misdeeds.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Yet another reason to home-brew a PVR

As seen on Ars Technica;

At the request of theatrical film makers, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday quietly launched a proceeding on whether to let video program distributors remotely block consumers from recording recently released movies on their DVRs. The technology that does this is called Selectable Output Control (SOC), but the FCC restricts its use. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) wants a waiver on that restriction in the case of high-definition movies broadcast prior to their release as DVDs.

As ever, I point you towards MediaPortal.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Two weeks ago - The London MCM Expo

All three of them shot bits of video and this is the result (cut in iMovie) and set to a They Might Be Giants track.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Vutrix HD Pro 24"

I had a chance to play with the new VuTrix 24" LCD monitor today. It is a native 1920x1080 display (actually 1920x1200 but it uses the top and bottom of the display for UMD data). I stuck it next to a new'ish BVM-20 which I'd just calibrated to illuminant-D and a white-point of 80Cd/m2.
I have to say that the blacks, white and overall colour balance out of the box was pretty good. To get it to track properly I had to set the gamma to 2.5 (rather than a 2.2 standard) and wound a bit of red into the whites. After that it was the best match I'd seen on anything under ten grand.
The one area where it really fell over was on caption-crawlers rendered at field rate - they were universally awful! Aside from that the de-interlacer looked good and the motion rendition was not bad next to the BVM.
I think I'll be definitely recommending it over the Sony LMDs and the cheaper eCinemas - but no match for the mighty DCM-23!

Their marketing bumph;
Standard I/P will be SD HD Auto sensing with "3 Gigabit 1080P" option (Fibre or Copper), with 1080P 50/60 Hz becoming a new standard for HD all monitoring will need to handle this format.
The Integrated Quad version can have 1 (for full frame mode) or 4 x 3G I/P's (Fibre or Copper).
It incorporates four independent video processing channels capable of receiving SD/HD/3G inputs, with internal synchronisation, allowing images to be locked to any input rate or to free-run.
Each image can be independently controlled to adjust aspect ratio, size, colour settings, input format, gamma and other settings.
Under-monitor display (UMD), tally blocks and audio presence meters are also included on all channels allowing a single display to be used in place of multiple units, resulting in significant reduction in space, cost and power consumption; benefits of significant advantage to space and power-constrained installations.
The displays also feature Vutrix's renowned colourimetry control and video processing resulting in images that are colour-accurate and with minimal motion and de-interlacing artefacts.
Network and serial control of all settings and data input allows complete flexibility in installation and operation in all applications.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Method statements, Scopes of Work and all that.

Increasingly my job is about preparing documentation ahead of doing engineering jobs. I know it necessary to show that you've considered all the possible hazards and taken reasonable steps to stop people being injured. From a commercial perspective it's also important that you've codified exactly what you're going to deliver. This has become doubly important in recent years as most people working in television don't understand broadcast standards and good practise and so the implicit wisdom of a qualified workforce has disappeared. When I say 'finishing suite' or 'five camera LE studio' people no longer know what those terms cover (and don't cover).
There is now a whole layer of middle management concerned with this documentation and often take it to ridiculous extremes by rejecting things for being set in the wrong typeface or by listing tasks in room order rather than date order. They tend to be the same people who don't make decisions in meetings, preferring to put it off until the next meeting - after all, why work when you can have a meeting?! It's not good enough that someone has furnished them with the information, they want it exactly like last time (and often won't tell you ahead of time how that is!). It's clearly ridiculous when a Method Statement reached a sixth revision without any substantive changes to it's contents.

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the people of the planet Golgafrincham had the answer;

Golgafrincham is a red semi-desert planet that is home of the Great Circling Poets of Arium and a species of particularly inspiring lichen. Its people decided it was time to rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population, and so concocted a story that their planet would shortly be destroyed in a great catastrophe. (It was apparently under threat from a "mutant star goat"). The useless third of the population (consisting of hairdressers, tired TV producers*, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitizers and the like) were packed into the B-Ark, one of three giant Ark spaceships, and told that everyone else would follow shortly in the other two. The other two thirds of the population, of course, did not follow and "led full, rich and happy lives until they were all suddenly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone".

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

New bike

The Cycle to work scheme is a fantastic deal - you can buy a bike over a year and not pay any VAT and you even get your income tax back. The upshot is you can spank £500 on a bike that winds up costing you £20 a month out of your salary.
I've been riding to work since the early nineties when I left the Beeb and have gone through three bikes since then. In the past I'd bought Raleighs or latterly a Salcarno which aren't a patch on a Ridgeback. After a day I'm really enjoying this machine and although it doesn't look as groovy as a full-on mountain bike it is a joy to ride.
Picture on my Flickr feed