Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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:

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


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 »

Back on the grid

Posted by Trixter on August 25, 2007

Through the help of two good friends, I am now back on the grid, and (cue insidious music) stronger than before.  I finally have a dual-core rig, for one thing.

I have enough parts left over to construct a second machine to replace my ailing fileserver, so that’s my next project.  But before I start that, I’m going to write a curious new utility that will help anyone with digital picture frames.  More later.

Posted in Technology | Leave a Comment »

The truth about netopsystems

Posted by Trixter on August 19, 2007

I was first made aware of Net Op Systems (currently going by the name of NOS Microsystems Ltd.) when downloading Adobe Acrobat Reader about 3 years ago. I was struck by how small the compressed deliverable was, so, being a compression hobbyist, I did some preliminary analysis and found that they used a considerable about of context arrangement and prediction (ie. “solid” mode in rar/7-zip, or the content-specific predictors in PAQ) to get the size down. I recently ran across their product again when downloading the most recent version of Solaris x86; it comes in a 1.1G NOSSO executable package. The sole payload was a 3.1G .ISO image, which meant the compressed deliverable was 37% of the uncompressed size.  This is very impressive, given that the .ISO image is filled with a lot of .JAR and .BZ2 compressed images themselves. The successful extraction of a workable .ISO file from this compressed deliverable means that NOSSO has to perform the following to work its magic:

  1. Identify the various compressed files in the .ISO wrapper
  2. Extract those compressed files
  3. Decompress the content inside those compressed files
  4. Arrange everything by context (ie. all ASCII text in one group, all binary executables in another group, etc)
  5. Compress the entire thing to a proprietary stream, using content-specific prediction for various content groups
  6. Store the original arrangement of the compressed and uncompressed content

Upon extraction, the NOSSO distributable has to perform the following:

  1. Decompress everything and keep track of it
  2. RECOMPRESS the data originally found in compressed files, so that their effective format is kept the same. There may be small differences due to compression options and implementations, but as long as the end result is usable by the end program (ie. a reassembled .ZIP file is still able to be decompressed into the same contents) then there’s no harm done.
  3. Rearrange the end result back into the original container (in my case an .ISO file)

This is why they call their process “reconstitution” instead of “decompression”, because the end result, while functionally identical, is usually not bit-for-bit identical. By taking advantage of context and recompressing files from less-efficient formats into the more efficient format NOSSO uses internally, we can get these excellent compression ratios. (In fact, I’ll wager that, to speed up reconstitution times, they use a very fast and less efficient version of recompression of the files inside the target wrapper, which would inflate them slightly and result in even more “impressive” compression ratios :-)

What’s the downside? The downside is that this entire process defeats its own purpose. I’ll explain:

NOSSO is marketed as a delivery format that saves everybody bandwidth and, presumably, time. It’s that presumption that allows them to shoot themselves in the foot. While the compressed distributable only took 39 minutes to download on my 6mbit/s cable modem connection, it took a whopping 124 minutes to “reconstitute” on a 2.6GHz P4 with 700MB RAM free (out of 1G RAM total). My total time to get the end result was 163 minutes. (A 2.6GHz machine is not the bleeding edge in 2007, but it’s no slouch either, and is representative of the average system most people will use for everyday use.) At its original size, 3.1G, it would have taken me only 104 minutes to download it.

It would have been faster to get the end result had it not been compressed at all.

Now, 6mbit/s is a pretty fast broadband connection, so I understand that skews the results a bit. With a more common broadband connection speed of 3mbit/s, let’s check the numbers again: Compressed download + extraction: 202 minutes. Uncompressed download: 208 minutes. Okay, so it’s break-even at a 3mbit/s connection. But break-even still involves 100% CPU utilization as the thing is decompressed, resulting in an unusable system for two hours, so it’s still not “free”.

Is there strength in using any compression at all? Let’s check both WinRAR and 7-Zip on the original 3.1G unmodified .ISO file:

  • 7-Zip compressed size: 2.68G. Time to download at 3mbit/s: 187 minutes. Decompression time: 14 minutes. Total time to get the end result: 201 minutes.
  • WinRAR compressed size: 2.69G. Time to download at 3mbit/s: 189 minutes. Decompression time: 3 minutes. Total time to get the end result: 192 minutes.

So, at 3mb/s, the end result was just about the same, except our system was only tied up for 3 or 15 minutes instead of two hours. We’d get even more compression at the same decompression speed if we burst the .ISO like NOSSO does, compressed using WinRAR’s or 7-Zip’s “solid” mode, and then reconstitute it back into an .ISO when done with a small utility program.

My conclusion from all this is that there’s really no point in using NetOpSystem’s product, unless the end-user’s broadband speed is 1mbit/s or slower. But if it’s that slow, the user is already used to ordering DVD-ROMs for delivery instead of trying to download them, right? Or, if the user downloads them anyway, they’re used to firing them off before they go to bed, to download overnight. So, again, no need for the product…

…unless you’re the content producer and want to transfer cost (bandwidth) to the end user (time). Which is probably why NetOpSystems is still in business.

Posted in Technology | 16 Comments »


Posted by Trixter on August 2, 2007

My anality reared its ugly head — I couldn’t take this computer-in-unknown-state any longer, so I gathered up my birthday money and bought a new power supply and motherboard. Eight hours later at 4am, I finally heard my first BEEP — one long and two short, which was a memory problem. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to hear the damn thing finally speak to me. Some DDR swaps, and we finally boot.

So the motherboard was toast. Problem solved. So why the new power supply? Because it didn’t quite pass the ATX power supply tester I have. You see, the tester is supposed to show lights and beep. The one I was given showed lights… but no beep. So it was flaky. New motherboard: $70. New power supply: $40.

Total cost of this free machine: free $50 $90 $160. And I still don’t have a PCI-e video card yet (my old Diamond Viper is currently driving the machine. Yes, that’s right kids, a TNT card from 1998 is sitting in an Athlon 64.)

The best part? I scraped off the thermal goo and found it’s an Athlon 64 3200 — as in, the original Athlon 64. It’s slower than my main desktop machine (an Athlon XP). I have now paid upwards of $160 for a machine that is effectively three years old and slower than what I already have. Viva l’irony!

Don’t get me wrong; I think the entire process has been a hoot, and I love solving PC hardware problems. Better yet, the motherboard supports Athlon X2, so when I scrape together some more cash (probably my next birthday ;-) I can swap in an X2 and finally join the world of multi-core computing. It’s all good.

Posted in Technology | 5 Comments »

But it’s FREE

Posted by Trixter on August 1, 2007

In sympathy to my financial plight, and possibly as a birthday present (I’m 36 today, whoopidy-doo), a coworker donated an Athlon 64 rig to me so that Sam could have a fast enough machine to run voice recognition software so he could email his family. (Sam has processing delays akin to autism and has trouble typing quickly.) I received a case, power supply, unknown Athlon 64 CPU hidden under a giant Zalman heatsink, motherboard, and RAM — which is more than powerful enough for voice recognition. All I need to do is add some spare hard drives lying around and it’s functional. It was a very generous donation.

It also doesn’t work.

It won’t POST, other than the fans spinning up; that’s it. No beeps, nothing. So, here begins the shopping list I’ve had to purchase in order to troubleshoot the thing:

  • 20-to-24-pin power supply adapter: $4

…because the PSU was 20-pin and the motherboard was 24-pin. No change in operation. Now we test the power supply itself:

  • Power supply tester for ATX 2.0 power supplies: $20

…confirmed that the power supply is functional. Moving on:

  • Motherboard POST code display and PCI power testing board: $26 (cheap!)

…which I’m still waiting to arrive in the mail. This will let me see any POST codes as well as making sure power is going through the motherboard and hitting the PCI slots. If it starts to POST but stops, then probably the CPU is bad. If it never POSTS a single code, the motherboard is bad. Either way, this “free” gift has cost a minimum of $50, with at least another $80 (CPU or motherboard, whichever I find is bad).

Still, the thought was nice. And heck, getting an Athlon 64 rig for free $50 $130 is a great deal.

I’m not down or anything, I just find the situation ironic (and, by proxy, funny).

Posted in Technology | 2 Comments »

A different, rambling approach

Posted by Trixter on July 23, 2007

After nearly two weeks of unsuccessfully trying to restore the HighPoint RAID mystery sector information that ties my partitions together in a RAID 0 bond of harmony, I’m going to chuck it (the RAID controller, not the computer).  Serves me right for trying to do RAID on the cheap.  The new plan is to attach the drives as Plain Old Dumb Drives(tm) to the PATA ports, restore the XP partitions to a PlainOldDumbDrive, hope it works, and then fire up XP using any means necessary just long enough to export all proprietary databases to open ones (iTunes ratings, Thunderbird filters/junk/prefs, etc.).  Then I most certainly will be rebuilding the machine.

You know, I’ve had this XP partition/setup since 2001?  I guess that’s a testament to the stability of XP.  If you don’t act like a fucktard, XP won’t act like a fucktard back at ya.  I’ve had nearly no issues with XP in 6 straight years, which was a refreshing change from Windows 9x.  What prompted me to purchase Windows XP in 2001 was an experience in Windows 98 that almost had me damaging equipment:  I lost the ability to drag icons.  That wasn’t what made me mad, though: What made me furious was that, a week later, it fixed itself and started working again.  That’s just retarded.

So anyway… the new approach in trying to manage all this is System Rescue CD, brought to you by the fine folks who created partimage.  It’s a Linux rescue CD (a “liveCD” that you can boot directly and use without installing Linux) that works pretty damn well.  It’s taken Linux a long time to figure out how to do NTFS properly, but sysrescuecd distribution works well enough that you can mount a SAMBA/Windows share to a local directory and back up entire partitions to it.  I’m in it right now (running FireFox to add this weblog entry, no less).  In one window I’m copying my Acronis backup images to one of the PlainOldDumbDrives (so that multiple restores will take 30 minutes instead of 5 hours); in the other window I’m trying to figure out why I’m getting only 50mbit/s over my 100mbit/s FD network.  It’s plain, but functional, and can even boot off of a 256MB USB key.

All this because Apple couldn’t keep their iTunes database in XML by default.  Or, making even more sense, store the rating information in the MP3 files themselves using ID3 tags like everyone else.  I was lured into a false sense of security when I learned OS X was based on BSD Unix.  I thought maybe, just maybe, Apple would play nice with the rest of the world for a change.  Silly Trixter!

I’m not giving up yet.  I’m going to get my 14 months of song ratings back if it nearly kills me! Until then, I get to irritate my friends and family by posting blog entries from public computers while my email goes unread for, oh, going on 16 days now.

Posted in Technology | Leave a Comment »