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the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

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Sony Xperia Z3v impressions and workarounds

Posted by Trixter on January 10, 2015

The Xperia Z3v is a very odd hybrid of a phone that is being marketed as a flagship for the current generation of smartphones; it was released in October 2014 and is a Verizon exclusive (other carriers have the older Z2 or Z3).  There is a nearly criminal lack of coverage in the media for this phone, so I thought I’d rectify that with my thoughts on the phone after two months of use.  First, some background:

We switched the entire family over from Sprint to Verizon (more expensive, but you get what you pay for) and part of the terms of the switch was that we all get new phones.  As I was a long-time Samsung customer (Epic 4G, Galaxy S4) I was planning on going with the S5, but wanted a few things the S5 couldn’t give me, like stereo front-facing speakers.  After reviewing everything Verizon offered that met my requirements, I decided to try the Xperia Z3v under the agreement that I could return it after 14 days if I wanted to switch to another phone.  Because the phone is best-in-class in a few areas, I’ve decided to keep it, accepting that a few aspects of the phone need workarounds.

The Z3v is a combination of the Z2 (larger, thicker body; slower CPU) and the Z3 (camera, screen).  It’s a frankenphone that only Verizon offers.  Let’s start by describing the basic features of the phone that drew me to it:

  • 20 megapixel camera sensor
  • 1080@60p and 4K@30 video recording
  • IP65/68 rating (dustproof, waterproof up to 5 feet for up to 30 minutes)
  • Front-facing stereo speakers
  • Dedicated physical camera shutter button
  • Wireless charging

(It has more features than these obviously, like remote PS4 playing, but these are the only ones that interested me.)  Sounds awesome right?  Well, it mostly is.  Based on my experience, here’s what “mostly awesome” means:

Pros

The camera.  As a point’n’shoot, the Z3v is one of the best I’ve ever had.  The 20mp sensor, coupled with firmware borrowed from the Sonty CyberShot line of cameras means that it shoots great automatic pictures.  In default “auto” mode, which is what you get if you press the camera shutter button to wake up the phone and go straight to the camera app, it uses the 20MP sensor to oversample the scene and provide both free HDR shots and stabilization.  It is smart enough to turn off stabilization if it notices the camera is on a tripod, and tells you it is doing so with a small status indicator.  Actually, it’s smart enough to do all sorts of things that I won’t bother mentioning here — just know that the Z3v is good enough that I don’t carry a dedicated camera any more.  Is it a replacement for a DSLR?  No, of course not.  But it is definitely a replacement for a sub-$300 point’n’shoot.  The shutter button even performs a press-half-to-focus-lock, press-full-to-shoot function.

4k video.  Being able to shoot this is not terribly practical, but it does work, and you do see some additional fine detail that you don’t see in 1080p mode.  4K mode is useful if you can’t decide on the framing of a 1080p shot and you want the ability to crop without losing detail.  It works best outdoors; there’s no point in using it in low light.

It’s waterproof.  Will I be shooting underwater?  No.  Will I be secretly grateful that my accidental fumble of the phone into the toilet won’t completely destroy it?  Absolutely.

Active noise-canceling for free.  This feature isn’t advertised heavily, but if you purchase the custom “Sony Digital Noise Cancelling Headset (MDR-NC31EM)” earbuds for $45 and stick them in the phone, the Z3v will 1. recognize they are in, and 2. enable active noise-cancelling.  This works because the earbuds have little microphones on them that sample the environment, which the phone then generates the inverse waveform for in certain bands and mixes that into the output.  While the earbuds aren’t the most comfortable things to have in for more than an hour, the features does work well — better than noise-isolation earbuds which I’ve used for a decade — and I’m thankful to have them on my commute.  I haven’t noticed any distortion, but I listen to mostly spoken material on my commute.

Wireless charging.  With a cheap Qi charger, this simply works, which is great because the USB/charging port is normally behind a waterproof door you have to keep opening and closing when connecting via that port.

Battery life.  The battery life on this phone is simply amazing given what the phone is capable of.  I can go two days on a single charge, and that includes 3-4 hours of screen-on time per day.  If that’s not good enough for you, there are two classes of power-saving modes with multiple levels of customization, the latter of which shuts down everything except calling and texting and can stretch a single charge up to seven days.  Geezus.

Sounds too good to be true?  Well…

Cons

The 20MP mode is disappointing.  The camera normally shoots everything at 8MP.  If you want the true resolution of the sensor, you can enable 20MP in “manual mode”.  It works, and you have some customization over the shot, but it’s disappointing because the sensor and lens are small enough that there is no appreciable extra detail captured in the 20MP shot.  I’ve done comparisons with the phone on a tripod in a lot of light and there was just no advantage: I scaled the 20MP shot down to 8MP in photoshop and it didn’t look any better; I did a 100% crop of a few locations in both images and the 20MP didn’t have any more detail, mostly just fuzzier larger sections.  So, it’s sort-of useless, and I don’t use it.

The phone is slippery.  The front and back are glass, and the edges are a rougher plastic material.  The edges aren’t enough for me to keep a good grip on the phone at all times.

The native camera apps offer little customization.  If you want to shoot video under odd circumstances, or use the camera on a tripod to take nice stills, the native camera app — even in manual mode —  lacks a few things that make it difficult.  There’s no true manual focus or manual white balance.  You can pick focus “types” and white balance “types” but the focus and exposure are always auto-adjusting.  And the 4K video mode offers no customization whatsoever; it’s 100% auto-adjust.

60p isn’t really 60p.  For some inexplicable reason, the camera shoots video slightly slower than 59.94 or 60fps which are the only framerates considered 60p broadcast standard.  Out of several tests, the resulting videos had variable framerates, all nonstandard, like 59.32 and 58.86.  This leads to slightly jerky video over longer lengths of time, and can cause issues editing in post.  One video I shot and uploaded directly to YouTube without editing shows up as “1080p59″.  (The 30p video modes were all 29.97 like they’re supposed to be, so that’s good at least.)

4k video mode overheats the phone.  Seriously.  The first time you use it, you’ll get a pop-up saying that if the camera overheats, your video will be stopped, saved, and then the camera will shut down to cool off.  Sure enough, it does all that after about 5-7 minutes of 4K video shooting.  This, coupled with the 60p framerate issue noted above, seems very bubblegum-and-shoestring to me.  But, good luck getting those fixed, because:

Frankenphone = orphan.  The Z3v was the result of a partnership between Verizon and Sony; it is a hybrid of the Z2 and Z3.  As a result, neither company will fully support the phone.  I’ve tried to report the firmware bugs noted above to both companies, and both companies tell me to contact the other company.  Sony tells me that Verizon supports the phone exclusively, and Verizon tells me that any firmware bugs in the camera are the responsibility of the manufacturer.  Which really sucks, because:

Playing with the alarm volume can lock up the phone.  If you adjust the volume of an individual alarm a few times, then this hilarious thing happens: When the alarm time comes, it does not make noise but instead locks up the phone.  You have to mash and/or hold down the power button to get out of this state until the phone eventually reboots.  I was late to work one day because of this.  It would be nice to be able to report this bug to someone, but oh well.

The front-facing speakers aren’t as loud or clear as they could be.  My son used to have an HTC One M7 and his audio was louder and clearer than on the Z2v despite the hardware being almost 2 years older.  It’s not bad; just don’t assume it’s a replacement for good headphones.

The Stock youtube app doesn’t allow pre-downloading.  This feature was removed by YouTube at some point, angering hundreds of thousands of commuters, myself included.  I used the stock YouTube app on my Galaxy S4 for a full year for this reason so I could predownload videos in my “Watch Later” list to view on the train, and the Z3v app is fully updated and doesn’t allow caching of videos.

These were initially very big disappointments and I almost returned the phone because of them.  After some research, here’s how I mitigated them:

Workarounds

Slippery: The Verizon store had a $20 cheap flexible plastic case that I put on it just to make it less slippery until I found something else.  I haven’t found anything else, so it’s still on there.  I tried carbon fiber stickers; while they looked nice, all they did was make it more slippery.  Trying to search Amazon or other stores for “Xperia Z3v case” doesn’t work well because you keep getting results for the Z2 or Z3, both of which have different dimensions than the Z3v.

Lack of manual camera options:  I found that OpenCamera works with my phone and supports locking focus, white balance, and exposure.  This allows me to shoot videos in very odd conditions, such as a reflective glass computer CRT that emits colored light.  It doesn’t support the 60p or 4k modes of the phone because those are manufacturer-specific and have no exposed API.

Odd 60p videos:  I am no stranger to avisynth, so I created this script to “fix” 60p videos so that they can be edited in post-production without causing problems:

A = FFAudioSource("MOV_0001.mp4")
V = FFVideoSource("MOV_0001.mp4")
AudioDub(V, A)

# Force compliant framerate (will adjust audio rate to match)
AssumeFPS("ntsc_double", true)

# Resample adjusted audio rate back to 48KHz 
SSRC(48000) #if crashes, use ResampleAudio() instead

Inability to pre-download YouTube videos:  TubeMate now provides that function.  It’s clunky and buggy, but it works well enough to keep my commutes from becoming too boring.

Alarm volume adjustments lock up phone:  Adjust the alarm volume using the Settings->Alarm path instead.  Whatever you set it to, all new alarms will inherit, and you can adjust that all you like without consequences.

Conclusion

I think it’s a great phone if the above Cons don’t affect you and you’re looking to join Verizon and get a new phone before April 2015.  (After April, I believe the new Samsung is coming out, and it remains to be seen how that compares.)

Most people will use the phone on full auto, and it is very, very good at that.  Just don’t expect manual fine-tuning of a few things.

Posted in Digital Video, Technology | 1 Comment »

Cyberpunx

Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2014

October is “National Cyber Security Awareness Month”, whatever the hell that means.  In recognition of this dubious designation, I’ve made an HD remaster of the 1990 documentary Cyberpunk available.  Consisting of interviews with William Gibson, Jaron Lanier, Timothy Leary, Vernon Reid (from Living Color), and Michael Synergy, and briefly featuring a few industrial bands such as Front 242, Manufacture, and Front Line Assembly, the documentary provides a look at what the cyberpunk movement was circa 1990.  Subjects such as cyber-terrorism, cybernetic implants/enhancement, virtual reality/telepresence, and general counterculture rebellion against “The System” are touched upon.  Inevitable comparisons with Akira are made.

Here Be Dragons

While the producer and director did an admirable job making the source material interesting and presentable to the public, there are a lot of flaws with the documentary.  Some are minor and can be overlooked, such as the 1990s trend of inserting faux computer graphic overlays (to try to make the material more similar to the world Gibson painted in Neuromancer).  Many of the problems are with pacing; there are entire sections that focus on a particular subject for too long, sometimes without impact.  One section in particular goes so long that different digital effects start to fade in and out after a few minutes, almost as if the editor was bored and resorted to doing something with the image to keep the viewer’s interest.

There are also some very misrepresented facts and predictions, but it’s not really fair to criticize a documentary for failing to predict the future correctly.  That being said, there are some real howlers in here, from the supposed power hackers wield(ed) against governments, to the silly, amateur computer graphics that obscure hackers’ identities, to the heavily hinted-at concept that Neuromancer itself was responsible for shaping technology and history.  The most egregious is equating hacker with cracker (although, to be fair, that’s happened multiple times before and since).

A special mention must be given to Michael Synergy, who perfectly embodies the huckster who started believing his own bullshit.  Some of his claims in the documentary are so utterly, patently ridiculous, so incredibly pretentious, that it takes a great deal of willpower not to scream at him when he’s talking (especially when he mispronounces the word “genre”).  Were I him, I would have wanted this stage in my life to disappear, and it seems as if that wish has come true: His moniker disappeared with the 1990s.  My personal wild speculation is that once the real, actual revolution of the web occurred and it was able to finally call him out, he quietly exited stage left.  (Last I heard, he worked for Autodesk in the mid-1990s, was going by his birth name again, living in Hawaii, working in IT; if anyone has a real update, I would love to know what actually happened to him.)

Most depressingly, there is a real missed opportunity with how Jaron Lanier’s involvement was portrayed.  In the documentary, he comes across as a stoner who only mentions VR, which is a shame because — then and now — he’s the most relevant and accurate representation of a hacker that the documentary includes.  Of everybody interviewed, Jaron is the only person who is still exploring these concepts and ideas, and more importantly their unintended fallout, which you can read about in his most recent book Who Owns The Future?.  (Even if you don’t buy the book, follow that link and read the Q&A to get a feeling for his concerns.)

Worth watching?

While it may be hard to sit through, the documentary retains glimpses of the innocent, wildly-optimistic, techno-hippie idealism that grew with the rise of personal computing and networking.  For that nostalgia factor alone — the time when the Internet existed but the World-Wide Web did not — it’s worth an hour of your time.  It’s also worth watching to catch which ideas were especially prescient, such as:

  • Whoever holds the most information holds the most power
  • Every device will be interconnected
  • Physical boundaries will not impede meaningful communication
  • People will be individual, mobile, uncensored “broadcast stations” (considering I can post to youtube from my phone, I’d call this a reality)
  • The “matrix” as a concept and/or allegory for God (later realized almost to the letter in The Matrix movie trilogy)

…and so on.  You could make an interesting drinking game out of catching which ideas succeeded (although you’d get more drunk, quickly, by catching all of the stupid and inaccurate comments).

Cyberpunk: The Documentary is now available at archive.org.  Grab the MPEG-TS file if able; it’s 60p, Blu-ray compliant, and won’t take up too much space in your memory implant.

Posted in Digital Video, Entertainment, Technology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Hardware for an OpenIndiana ZFS file server

Posted by Trixter on October 6, 2013

It’s hard to be an Illumos user.  The amount of hardware that works correctly with OpenIndiana (my favorite OS right now) is not very well defined and relies on confirmations from the user community whether something works or not.  There are other ways to build a ZFS NAS, such as FreeNAS, but I’ve been using ZFS since it was in Solaris (x86) 10u3 and have followed the path of the devout:  Solaris 10 x86, to OpenSolaris, to OpenIndiana.

This blog post is not about how to build a ZFS fileserver; there are enough out there.  Rather, this post is about what hardware I chose to build mine.  I wanted to spend less than $1000, build something that had future storage upgrade potential, and had a motherboard + CPU that someone else had already verified as good for OpenIndiana.  I wanted ECC memory to further protect against what ZFS already protects against, and finally I wanted to boot off of a USB flash drive.

Here’s what I came up with.  Please forgive the NewEgg formatting, but at least the links are intact in case you want to go buy something:

Qty. Product Description
1 COOLER MASTER HAF series RC-912-KKN1 Black SECC/ ABS Plastic ATX Mid Tower Computer Case COOLER MASTER HAF series RC-912-KKN1 Black SECC/ ABS Plastic ATX Mid Tower Computer Case
Item #: N82E16811119233
Return Policy: Standard Return Policy
1 SUPERMICRO MBD-X9SCM-F-O LGA 1155 Intel C204 Micro ATX Intel Xeon E3 Server Motherboard SUPERMICRO MBD-X9SCM-F-O LGA 1155 Intel C204 Micro ATX Intel Xeon E3 Server Motherboard
Item #: N82E16813182253
Return Policy: Standard Return Policy
1 Rosewill CAPSTONE-550 550W Continuous @ 50°C, Intel Haswell Ready, 80 PLUS GOLD, ATX12V v2.31 & EPS12V v2.92, SLI/CrossFire Ready, Active PFC Power Supply Rosewill CAPSTONE-550 550W Continuous @ 50°C, Intel Haswell Ready, 80 PLUS GOLD, ATX12V v2.31 & EPS12V v2.92, SLI/CrossFire Ready, Active PFC Power Supply
Item #: N82E16817182068
Return Policy: Standard Return Policy
1 Intel Xeon E3-1230 Sandy Bridge 3.2GHz LGA 1155 80W Quad-Core Server Processor BX80623E31230 Intel Xeon E3-1230 Sandy Bridge 3.2GHz LGA 1155 80W Quad-Core Server Processor BX80623E31230
Item #: N82E16819115083
Return Policy: CPU Replacement Only Return Policy
1 Kingston 8GB 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 ECC Unbuffered Server Memory Intel Model KVR13E9/8I Kingston 8GB 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 ECC Unbuffered Server Memory Intel Model KVR13E9/8I
Item #: N82E16820239116
Return Policy: Memory Standard Return Policy
1 LG Black 14X BD-R 2X BD-RE 16X DVD+R 5X DVD-RAM 12X BD-ROM 4MB Cache SATA BDXL Blu-ray Burner, Bare Drive, 3D Play Back (WH14NS40) - OEM LG Black 14X BD-R 2X BD-RE 16X DVD+R 5X DVD-RAM 12X BD-ROM 4MB Cache SATA BDXL Blu-ray Burner, Bare Drive, 3D Play Back (WH14NS40) – OEM
Item #: N82E16827136250
Return Policy: Standard Return Policy
1 Kingston DataTraveler SE9 64GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive Model DTSE9H/64GB Kingston DataTraveler SE9 64GB USB 2.0 Flash Drive Model DTSE9H/64GB
Capacity: 64GB Color: Silver
Item #: 9SIA12K0X40410

This came out to roughly $730.

Normally I try to be fair and list pros and cons, but I only have good things to say about this arrangement.  Everything (hardware and software) worked correctly on the first try.  The performance is ludicrous; I can easily saturate a gigabit pipe with a 4-drive raidz.  There were no hitches installing OpenIndiana at all, even installing to the flash drive (which is connected to an internal USB header so it’s out of the way).  The drives are sideways so the power and sata cables can be routed behind the motherboard.  In fact, everything is routed behind the motherboard except for the main motherboard power cable.  The drives are on rails; while they aren’t hot-swap, it is very easy to swap them without using any tools.

Astute readers will wonder why I purchase a Sandy Bridge Xeon instead of something newer.  Ivy Bridge or Haswell would have given me more bang for my buck, but I wanted to play it safe with confirmed, tested hardware.  I was also unsure if my motherboard would support Ivy Bridge — it requires the latest BIOS to do so, but you need a Sandy Bridge to apply the latest BIOS!  Horrible catch-22.  So I played it safe with Sandy Bridge.  You also might be wondering why a blu-ray drive is there.  That is a “why not?” addition — if it’s possible to burn blu-ray media directly from the fileserver, that’s an additional win.  Even if I can’t, it was only $50 more than a DVD-ROM drive so hey, why not.

All of my previous builds have been from cast-off second-hand hardware; this is the first time I built it right the first time, and I wish I had done this years ago.  I have a good feeling this hardware will last me a good 6-8 years as-is.

Posted in Technology | Leave a Comment »

You couldn’t be a total idiot

Posted by Trixter on July 9, 2012

One of the things I miss about the first decade of personal computing was that nearly every computer enthusiast you met  — on BBSes, in computer stores, etc. — was pretty good at using them.  Early personal computing meant you couldn’t be a total idiot and still use a computer, unlike today.  So if you met someone who used computers enough and liked doing so, chances are they were not an idiot.

I think it’s amazing how much of a commodity personal computers have become.  Last year, my then 2-yr-old nephew could navigate an ipad without any help, even though he wasn’t talking yet.  My 12-yr-old son has a typical smartphone, which means he can send sound, images, and data to anyone in the entire world no matter where he is — that’s stuff I used to watch on Star Trek, and now it’s reality!  That’s both pretty damn scary and pretty awesome.  But I think what’s missing is the element of discovery, of natural intellectual curiosity, trying to figure out what the machine can do, why and how it does what it does, and how to push it farther.  That’s what I miss about the early days, and is probably why I have 27 old computers stuffed into my crawlspace, with 1 or 2 in regular circulation.

I feel like that intellectual-curiosity-for-tech has been lost from the general public in the last 10-15 years.  Maybe I’m wrong and it never existed at all, and I was just lucky enough to always be surrounded by people who were interested in computers in my youth.

A month ago, the newly-unearthed M.U.L.E. for the PC (more on that in a later post) got hours of use as my 12-yr-old and his friend played several games.  Because we didn’t have the manual at the time, there was much experimentation and probing on what keys to press and how the game mechanics worked.  A few months ago, they did the same thing playing 2-player simultaneous Zyll, where they poked and prodded every square inch of the game to try to see what made it tick (and when I surprised them with a dot-matrix-printed Zyll FAQ after they’d played for a few hours, they just about lost their shit).

My point is that they were really into it, and I can’t help but wonder why they aren’t into much neater tech they own that has vastly more power and flexibility.  I never see them as enthusiastic around their xbox or iphone as they were playing these old games and trying to figure out how to drive them.  They might be enthusiastic about the game they’re playing or the people they’re playing with, but never the machine itself.

Why is that?  Does a device lose all interest once it has been through commoditization?

Posted in Sociology, Technology, Vintage Computing | 6 Comments »

I grow tired of the technologically ignorant

Posted by Trixter on February 29, 2012

(This post is overly subjective, more opinionated than my usual efforts, and contains some cussing.  Consider yourself warned.)

I am sick and tired of people who shun technology and progress under the guise of “I’m an old tech veteran, I’ve been working with technology for 30 years, and the new stuff is crap compared to the old stuff.”  People who defend this viewpoint are idiots.  I’m not talking about audiophiles or other self-delusional “prosumers”; I’m talking about people who have worked a tech trade or had hands-on access to technology for many years and think that their perceptions trump reality.  It’s a perverse combination of technology and anti-intellectualism — a form of hipsterism for the over-40 set.

I was prompted to cover this by a recent post on why widescreen monitors are a rip-off (which I will not link to because I truly enjoy the other 99% of this person’s blog, and linking to it would imply that I don’t like him or his site), but the underlying irritation of the entire mindset has been percolating for many years.  Viewpoints that drive me crazy include:

Widescreen monitors don’t make any sense

People think that widescreen monitors are stupid on laptops because most people use laptops for text work, and since text is more comfortable to read in columns, wide columns are harder to read.  This mindset has had the doubly idiotic result of making people think that websites need to be column-limited.  I just love going to a website and having the text squished into a 640-pixel-wide column with 75% of the screen unused.  Don’t like how narrow columns look on a widescreen monitor?  Use the extra space however you want — put up two web pages side by side, or simply don’t look at the unused space.  It’s people like these that also complain that 4:3 video has black bars on either side of it when viewed on a widescreen TV.  It’s called pillarboxing, you idiot, and it’s there to prevent your movie from looking like a funhouse mirror.

Widescreen monitors have made modern laptops better.  A widescreen laptop monitor allows the keyboard to be wider without the depth of the laptop getting too high (to support the height of a 4:3 monitor).  Having a decent keyboard on a laptop used to be impossible without clever wacky engineering tricks; now it is.  Widescreen monitors made ultra-small netbooks possible, so if you’re reading this on a netbook but somehow still disagree with me, you’re a hypocrite.

Analog audio is better than digital

There are entire websites (and wikipedia pages) dedicated to this, usually under the guise of “vinyl is better than CD”.  Most opinions on this subject were formed when analog audio had several decades of mature mastering and production processes, and digital was brand-new (for example vinyl vs. CD in 1983).  Early efforts to put things on CD resulted in some less-than-stellar A/D conversion, which created a type of distortion that most people weren’t used to hearing.  People formed opinions then that have perservered more than 25 years later, even though the technology has gotten much better and all of the early mastering problems have long since been corrected.

People who think vinyl sounds better than CD have nostalgia blinders on.  They bought an album in their youth, played it endlessly, loved it.  Then they buy the same album on CD decades later and condemn the entire format as inferior because it sounds different.  Want to know why it sounds different?  It has a wider frequency range, lacks rumble, lacks hiss, sounds exactly the same after 10+ playbacks, and was remastered with better technology and mixing conditions under the guidance and approval of the original artist when he wasn’t coked or drunk or stoned out of his mind.  People like Pete Townsend, Neil Young and Geddy Lee not only approve of the latest digital technology but are actively utilizing it and going through great pains to remaster their classic albums with it.  People are missing the point that it is the mastering and digital compression that causes issues, not the technology itself.  Neil Young recently spoke at a conference where he damned digital music, but not because it is digital — rather, because it is delivered differently than the artists intended.  Neil Young would like nothing better than for everyone to be able to listen to his music at 24/192.  Can’t do that on vinyl, bitches.

Even people who write about the loudness war get it wrong, despite that it’s an easy concept to understand.  Massive dynamic compression drowns out subtle details and can add distortion, which is horrible — but it is not exclusive to digital audio, nor caused by it.  One author correctly notes that massive dynamic compression butchers mixes, but then subtlety implies that all CDs that “clip” have distorted audio.  Digital audio “clips” only if you drive the signal beyond its digital limits.  If you took an audio waveform and normalized it such that the highest peak reached exactly the highest value, it is “positioned at maximum volume”, not clipped.  Nothing is lost (to be fair, nothing is gained either).

The problem is the mastering and production process, not the technology.  Which segues nicely into:

“I will never buy Blu-ray”

The only valid argument against Blu-ray is that it is harder to make a backup copy of the content.  It is indeed harder than it is for DVD, or laserdisc, or videotape.  That is it.  All other arguments are beyond moronic.  Even the cheapest possible 1080p HDTV viewing setup has five times the resolution of DVD and lacks signal degradation in the output path.  If you view a Blu-ray and can’t tell the difference between it and DVD, you have either a shitty viewing setup, a shitty Blu-ray, or a shitty visual cortex.

Someone recently tried to argue with me that DVDs have the same or better picture than Blu-ray and used Robocop as an example.  The comparison was weighted, as they were comparing the $9 Blu-ray that MGM belched out when Blu-ray was only a year old to the Criterion DVD treatment.  I own both, so I checked them out and I agree that the DVD has better color tonality throughout the film.  However, the Blu-ray thoroughly stomped the DVD in every single other area, most obviously resolution.  So much picture detail is added by the increase in resolution that I actually prefer it despite the lack of Criterion oversight.

The real problem, as previously stated, is how the mastering and preproduction process was handled.  Even with new 2012 DVD releases, you can still see the “loudness war” video equivalent of digital ringing, which used to be an accident but was later introduced on purpose as part of a misguided “sharpening” step.  Listen up:  Any sharpening filter added to any signal doesn’t make things sharper; it makes them appear sharper by overlaying a high-frequency permutation signal over the original content, which increases the acutance.  Quality is actually lost when you do this, as the high-frequency info obscures actual picture detail.

This is another example of perception vs. reality, which not coincidentally also segues into:

“Computing was better in the old days”

I love retrocomputing as a hobby.  I think about it nearly every day; this blog was partially created to talk about vintage computing.  But even I wouldn’t say that things were better in the old days.  People who say this don’t realize they are really trying to say something else.  For example, people who say that “BBSes were better than web forums are today” are actually referring to the sociological fact that, when you communicated with people on a BBS, you were communicating with people who met a minimum level of technical competence — because, if they hadn’t, they would have been too stupid to access a BBS, let alone be proficient with a computer.  The overall technological quality level of everyone you met on a BBS in the 1980s was higher than other places, like a laundromat or a bar.  What such people fail to consider is that modern web boards, while having a higher quotient of trolls and B1FFs, are open to the entire world.  The massive scale of humanity you can encounter on even a tiny niche topic is levels of magnitude higher than it used to be.  The sheer scale of information and interaction you can now achieve is staggering, and completely outweighs any minor niggle that you have to deal with 3 or 4 more asshats per day now.

Here’s another example:  “Computer games were better back in the old days.”  This is wrong.  The proper thing to say is that “Some computer game genres were better back in the old days.”  I can get behind that.  For example, graphics were so terrible (or non-existent!) at the birth of computer gaming that entire industries sprang up focusing on narrative.  For such genres (mainly adventure games), several times more effort was put into the story than other genres.  As technology and audiences changed over time, such genres morphed and combined until they no longer resembled their origins.  That doesn’t mean modern games are terrible; it just means that you need to shop around to get what you’re looking for your entertainment.  Don’t play Uncharted 2 expecting a fantastic story with engaging narrative.  (Dialog, maybe, not not narrative.)  Heck, some genres are genuinely awesome today compared to 30 years ago.  For example, Portal and Portal 2 are technically puzzle games, but the storytelling in them — despite never interacting directly with a human — is among the very best I’ve ever encountered.

About the only argument that does work involves the complexity of older computers — they were simpler, and you could study them intensely until you could very nearly understand every single circuit of the board, nuance of the video hardware, and opcode of the CPU.  Today, a complete understanding of a computer is no longer possible, which probably explains why Arduino sets and Raspberry Pi are getting so much attention.

Conclusion

I have no conclusion.  Stop being an old-fogey anti-intellectual technophobe, you ignorant hipster fuck.

Posted in Digital Video, Entertainment, Sociology, Technology, Vintage Computing | 10 Comments »

Happy Birthday to the IBM PC (and MTV)

Posted by Trixter on August 12, 2011

Today, the IBM PC celebrates it’s 30th birthday.  11 days earlier, MTV did the same.  Both of those events changed the world and shaped my life, so I had a little fun with my own IBM PC to commemorate the event, which I call MTV Corruption:

Posted in Demoscene, Technology, Vintage Computing | 3 Comments »

My thoughts exactly

Posted by Trixter on July 23, 2011

I normally don’t post short articles that just link to other places, but I ran across two posts recently that say exactly what I was going to try to say in coming weeks.  Rather than stab at the topics badly, I thought it would be better to just refer you to them.  So here they are.

Bryan Jones wrote a wistful account of the end of the space shuttle program, along with his personal photo of Atlantis’ final approach.  I saw the first and the last shuttle launches live on TV (as a 10-year-old, my mother woke me at 5:30 in the morning to watch the first one), and I feel, as he does, that our lack of commitment to a space program is a shame.  For those who wonder what we gained from spending money on the shuttle program, he lists some of the advances the shuttle program has given us, such as cell phone cameras and LED lights.

Optimus wrote a little on why he has pulled back from the demoscene a bit, and I urge all my scener friends to read this because he sums up very closely the state of mind I’ve had in the last couple of years.  In fact, his history mirrors mine a little, including how I felt when I first discovered the scene, how I treated the scene the first few years, why I attempted some scene “outreach” at times, and why I mostly hold back.

So there you go.

Posted in Demoscene, Technology | 1 Comment »

Tips for making your own demodvd

Posted by Trixter on August 24, 2009

I responded to a pouet bbs post recently and thought that the information could help more than just the demoscene, so I’m reproducing and expanding on it here.

As always, some quick background so information below makes sense (if you’re already familiar with the demoscene, skip to the next paragraph):  I’m making a Blu-ray + DVD package called MindCandy Volume 3 that showcases 30+ Windows demos, which in addition to extremely high-quality video will include commentary by the original authors and other fun bits.  Demos are computer programs that showcase the author’s programming skill and creativity, and are usually awesome to look at and listen to.  Demos run realtime (they do not output their graphics+music to output files), which means you need a special capture program to “hook” into the demo and redirect its output to a series of bitmap files+.WAV or .AVI, and the best utility for doing so is kkapture.

Now that that’s out of the way, the question asked was how to get the most decent quality demo footage onto a DVD.  Having had a lot of experience in this area, here are my tips for doing so:

  • Capture the demo in the highest res it allows.  Even if your target is 720×480/576, do it, because the resizing and anti-aliasing will result in less high-contrast transitions which compress better and with less artifacts.
  • Never add filters in any step of the production chain, not even a sharpening filter.  All they do is cover/obscure picture detail, not enhance it.  You can’t create detail that isn’t there, so don’t try.  See previous tip.
  • Preconfigure your graphics card to forced “quality” settings (on my GTX card I’ve been selecting 16xQ anti-aliasing and turning off all texture compression because my card has nearly a gig of vram).  Sometimes this bugs a demo; if so, go back and kkapture it again with more modest settings, but at least try the best settings.
  • Resample down using the best possible resizer that is time-practical (ie. avisynth spline64 or equivalent — bicubic/lanczos are good but can result in ringing, so always inspect your results).
  • Capture in real video rates if you ever want to display on a TV without dropping or adding frames.  This means you enter rates into kkapture like 60000/1001 (NTSC) or 50 (PAL).
  • If you’re putting multiple demos on a dvd, make it one giant output so that 2-pass/n-pass encoding can spread the bitrate appropriately across all the demos.  Yes, it takes longer.  Yes, it is worth it.

And here’s the part people most people forget:

  • If making a dvd, deal with interlacing because a demo at 24/25/30fps really sucks compared to a demo at 50/60fps, and the only way you’re going to get 50/60fps out of a dvd is an interlaced video.  One of the hallmarks of demos as an art form is the nature of having been created on a computer for a computer, and part of that art is a display rate of 50 or 60Hz.  Arbitrarily limiting a demo to a lower framerate when it was created for higher is just wrong.  If a demo is created specifically to look like film, that’s one thing, but limiting it because you want less data to process is a crime.

As for what maximum (not average!) bitrate to choose, you must always choose the maximum (9800), and even then you will find that some demos will have compression artifacts simply because there is too much picture information changing from frame to frame.  This is something I had to come to terms with for MC3 (we’re including a DVD of the main program with the Blu-ray for those who want to upgrade later).  The only way to make it better is to give the encoder less frames for the bitrate — meaning, if 30i or 30p footage has artifacts, feed it 24p.  The DVD and Blu-ray specs were tuned mostly for real-world footage at film rates, something that has made working with 720p/60 footage so painful.

While the above tips were windows-centric, they apply to any type of demo DVD you may work on.

Posted in Digital Video, MindCandy, Technology | 3 Comments »

Supercharging The Free Time

Posted by Trixter on July 23, 2009

One month ago, I started work at my new job, a trading firm in Chicago. I live in the western suburbs, so I have to take a train in to the city. The train ride is only 35 minutes each way, but due to a bus hookup that I have to make, as well as my scheduled working hours (trading hours), I spend a little over an hour on the homebound train. All told, I spend 1h45m sitting still on a train each day. This is time I used to spend computing, which is why people haven’t heard from me in a while. 

With a new job comes some new pay, so I considered it an investment for my sanity to purchase a laptop for the train. All the time I spent waiting to arrive home can now be spent working on projects and answering email. For someone who commutes so much, and has The Combine™ at home to crunch HD video (more on The Combine™ later), I initially thought that I would grab a tiny Dell notebook; they have a supremely tiny 9” model for $300 that can run for hours on fumes. Less to carry, good enough for syncing email for offline review, and I could even surf if I had to (via USB tether to my smartphone). They even come with a choice of shipping with Ubuntu.

The only problem with that idea is that the #1 project I have to focus on, with a deadline no less, is MindCandy volume 3. MC3 poses some significant challenges for me:

  • We have no dedicated DVD/Blu-ray author this time around (Jeremy is working full-time for Futuremark/Sony), which means I have to author it myself
  • The footage is a mixture of 720p (main program) and 1080p (special features)
  • The combined footage (special features + main program) is over 15 hours long
  • We don’t have any graphical artist for the motion menus, which means I have to design/create/render them myself (if you want to volunteer then by all means please contact me!)

MC3 post-production is essentially a one-man show, as you can see above. And with over 2 hours a day LESS free time, I am understandably nervous about getting it done before the end of the year, as is traditional so that you can snag it as a holiday gift. So, I have to work on the project on the train, which means the laptop would have to run Adobe CS4… and would have to play back HD video, including 1080p… and be able to render 3D graphics for the menu work… and it would have to hold at least 300G of low-res proxy footage video data (the real video footage is over 2 terabytes). So the tiny notebook idea was out.

Hey kids, how do you take a normal laptop and turn it into a Blu-ray production powerhouse?

  • Install nothing less than a Core 2 Duo
  • Replace the 720p LCD with a 1920×1080 LED-backlit full-gamut RGB screen
  • Put in a 500G hard drive
  • Upgrade the RAM to 4G
  • Swap out the DVD burner for a Blu-ray reader
  • Shame the embedded Intel video controller and install a Radeon HD 4570 with 512M dedicated video RAM
  • More power means more juice, so toss the 6-cell battery and install the 9-cell model

So that’s exactly what I did, taking a Dell Studio 15 that normally goes for $750 and injecting it with all of the above, then applying a magical 25%-off-anything-with-an-obscene-cost coupon. Final damage was around $1200. Yay Dell credit!

Here I am, laptop the size of a planet, and all I’ve done is write a blog post.

Man, this thing is heavy.

Posted in Digital Video, Lifehacks, MindCandy, Technology | 5 Comments »

My favorite Casio product…

Posted by Trixter on October 31, 2007

…is not any of their keyboards (although I have very fond memories of playing with my Casio VL-Tone and SK-1). It’s their first digital camera; in fact, the first consumer 3MP digital camera, the QV-3000 EX.

Mine broke a while ago. I finally found a replacement at a reasonable price (ie. under $20). I am taking pictures again. I am happy.

Why so happy over a dumb 3MP consumer camera? Because I am not a professional photographer and I don’t take pro pictures. The QV-3000 EX has just enough control for a noob like me to take manual-focus close-ups:
10300032_edited-1.jpg

…without looking like a complete beginner. And it’s night mode surprised the hell out of me:

10300023_edited-1.jpg

That picture was taken at midnight with the flash and the two house lights providing the only illumination. I wasn’t even using a tripod and it’s not blurry! That’s insane.

Posted in Technology | 1 Comment »

 
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