bbtmn

Posts from February 2010

HTPC – Up and Running (projectlog part 4)

Thursday 25th February 2010

I actually wrote this back in November, but I didn’t publish it at the time because I wanted to get some better photos. I never did, and I can’t be bothered to tidy up the living room and scrounge some batteries to take some now. I realise that the last post about this – in September! – said “part 4 tomorrow”, but well, oops…

Just as a refresher, I’ve been putting together a home theatre PC for the living room at uni-house. This is basically a normal pc with a TV card in the back, that’s hooked up to a normal TV rather than a computer monitor. You then use the PC to watch TV, the advantage being that you can then record stuff or timeshift, as well as stream media from other c0mputers, use iPlayer/4od/YouTube on the TV, and also play video files on the TV.

This started as a way to re-use an old PC, and I started off using my old computer from like 5 or 6 years ago. That plan died off though, because I bought myself a new desktop when I came back to Uni, so I used the computer that replaced for the htpc. Important specs:

  • Core2Duo E6300 (dual core, 1.8GHz)
  • 2GB Ram
  • 500GB Hard Disk (I added this, because I used the old hard drives in my new PC)
  • Leadtek Geforce 7300 graphics card (I also added this, because it’s fanless)

I did a few things to keep it fairly quiet. Firstly that graphics card. I did have a Radeon X1950pro when this was my “main” pc, but it was pretty loud so I swapped it for the 7300. I also pinched a quieter power supply from another pc, and disconnected one of the smaller case fans. So it’s pretty quiet now, which is good.

Because it’s a fairly powerful computer, I went with Windows 7. I’ve ran 7 on all my computers since the Beta was out in January, and it’s pretty bloody good. Everything works really well, and really easily. By way of example, when I was setting up the htpc, I needed to connect it to the internet, but only had one Wi-Fi dongle, which I use on my main pc. So I connected the two computers with an ethernet cable, shared the wireless connection on the main pc, and had the internet running on both PCs in minutes.

Whilst I’m on the subject of OSs, I was looking at laptops a few months ago and looked at MacBooks as well as proper computers (because whatever you want to say, Apple hardware looks really good). I wanted to see what MacOS is like, so I installed it on my desktop for a bit. I can now say that anyone who says that they actually like using MacOS is either a masochist or an idiot, because it’s one of the worst operating systems I’ve ever used. It’s amazingly unintuitive and confusing, and just a pain in the arse to get working properly. It felt half-finished; some bits were really polished but other parts of the UI felt like they’d been carried over from the dark ages. Going from 7 to that felt like such a retrograde step. I also didn’t like the fact that all the “working” bits were hidden from view. I didn’t have a clue where anything was saved, which was really unsettling. The fact that one of the selling points Apple use when selling their computers is that you can run Windows kinda says it all. I digress.

Anyhow, once I got it all up and running, I hooked it all up to the TV:

htpc hooked up to TV

I’ve written before about Media Center in Vista, and it’s pretty similar in 7 so there’s no point rehashing it (look at this video though if you want an idea of how it works), other than to say that it’s pretty damn good. The only problem I’ve had is that the software I wanted to use for remote access, WebGuide, doesn’t work with 7 yet. This isn’t a major problem though, and should be sorted eventually.

There’s some really nice touches in there though. Like in the guide, it fetches information off the internet for each show. So the other night we were browsing though the listings and when we saw whatever film was on Film4, someone said “oh, isn’t so-and-so in that?”. I could find out straight away by selecting the listing and going to the info, where there’s a synopsis and a cast list. It also fetches the info for DVDs, which is pretty cool.

I think I mentioned before that the TV card I bought came with a remote control. I wasn’t that impressed with it to be honest; it didn’t work that well with Media Center and occasionally stopped working all together. After a while I replaced it with this one, which works much better. All the buttons do what they’re meant to do, and it makes it really easy to navigate round everything whilst lying on the sofa.

I’ve got a decent library of videos and stuff on there now, and I’ve also set it up to access the music library on my desktop machine (and the music library in Media Center is really impressive by the way). I’ve installed Spotify on there as well. I wasn’t going to do that initially, but one of my housemates suggested it and I think it’s turned out to be a really good idea.

There’s a load of other stuff on there, other than Media Center. I’ve installed uTorrent and scheduled it to run unthrottled overnight, so it downloads stuff quickly. It’s set up to drop finished torrents in a certain folder, which Media Center monitors so that I can play stuff I’ve downloaded straight away through the Media Center interface, which is pretty handy (although some of my housemates don’t seem to understand this idea and keep turning the pc off at night, even though I’ve asked them not to).  I’ve also got a load of emulators (N64, Megadrive, SNES and NES) as well as some PC games on there. Worms Armageddon has quickly become a house favourite…

Also, streaming video on the TV is excellent. iPlayer, YouTube or whatever, are essentially the same quality as normal TV signals, because the resolution of the screen is comparatively low. The only inconvenience is that you have to swap from the remote control to the keyboard, and leave Media Center to use a web browser to get at it. Relatively minor problem though, to be honest.

Overall, it works really well, and everyone seems to be happy with it, which is good. If I were doing it again, using new components, I think I’d get a mATX motherboard and case, or perhaps even look at MiniITX or something like that. As it is, the next upgrade (when I have a lot more money than I do currently) is to go HD. I think that Formula 1 is going to be broadcast in HD next year and I’d love to be able to get that, but unfortunately it’d require a new TV as well as a new card for the PC. Definitely not on the cards any time soon, then.

So, if anyone else has an old pc lying around, I can definitely recommend it as a worthwhile project. A htpc makes a really good addition to a TV setup, and it’s relatively inexpensive to convert a PC for the purpose.

Posted In: GeekTechnologyTV Tagged: | 1 Comment

Storytelling

Friday 19th February 2010

A while back I commented on a post on Callan’s blog about Avatar. At the time I hadn’t seen the film, so I refrained from commenting on the film itself, but rather on 3D. I’ve seen the movie now and I stand by what I said there about 3D – I really don’t think its “the future” or anything like that. In fact I think that Avatar was a pretty bad vehicle with which to demonstrate 3D as a technology. I thought that the bits of the film where the 3D effect was most effective were the “live” bits, with real actors in real sets. It added to the “grittiness” of those scenes and I think the 3D effect looked brilliant then. I found myself noticing things like reflections in glass or creases and wrinkles on people’s clothes, and overall it made those scenes look pretty good. Not more immersive though, but I shall come back to this. In contrast, I thought that the CGI scenes looked more fake than they would if they were just in 2D. Everything was too smooth, too polished, too obviously rendered.

But enough talk about the technology, because it’s not really what I want to talk about. Avatar (like many contemporary Hollywood films) is a really awful film. The characters, plot, everything is just ridiculously cliched, shallow and pathetic. It’s way too long, and I found myself getting pissed off at everyone involved. I wanted the humans to piss off and die because they were obviously bastards. But I also wanted the na’vi to fuck right off just on general principals. Both sides were equally irritating so the big battle scenes at the end really didn’t move me. I think we were meant to feel some sort of empathy for Zoe and Jake, but honestly I just didn’t care.

And the less said about “Unobtainium”, the better. For fuck’s sake…

In contrast, last night I watched Das Boot for the first time. This is actually 40 minutes longer than Avatar, but you really don’t notice that. In contrast to Avatar, the story doesn’t feel like it drags at any point, and you definitely feel empathy for the characters. Whereas I didn’t give a toss about the characters in Avatar, it’s completely different with this. The way the tension is built and sustained is really amazing, and just goes to show that clever writing is a lot more successful  than any amount of flashy CGI bollocks. We are treated to the odd shot of depth charges exploding around the U-boat but it’s all very dark and murky, probably because it was made pre-CGI. I actually think it’s more successful like this. No doubt if the film were made now it’d be possible to have loads of cool CGI stuff, but I think it’s much better if the focus remains in the sub with the characters; if our only clues as to what’s happening are the same clues that the people on the boat have – the eerie, threatening sounds coming from the water outside.

The point I’m trying to make is that it was a wonderfully immersive film, with probably a more interesting and subtle message than Avatar. You don’t need 3D or any other clever technology to involve an audience, all you need is a bit of intelligence. All too often, gimmicks like CGI and 3D are used as a replacement for good film making (as further evidence, I give you Star Wars… speaking of which, if you have time watch this, well worth it), and it’s a real shame.

I suppose the polar opposite is something like The Road, and I’ve commented on this film before over on Jenny’s blog. In that case, there’s just… nothing. Again, I didn’t care for the characters and as far as I could tell, there’s no real story to speak of. Now I’m all for a story being subtle, but if it’s so subtle that it’s invisible then it all starts to become somewhat pointless!

Anyway, it’s getting late, so I’m gonna go watch an episode of Mad Men (and read for a bit… I got up very late today) before sleeping. In fact, if you want to see an example of really good storytelling (not to mention beautiful characterisation – I mean really, stunning), watch it. It’s worth doing so just for one particularly brilliant scene at the end of season 1, but I shall say no more so as not to spoil it for anyone.

Posted In: RantSleepTechnologyTV Tagged: | 3 Comments

Romance

Sunday 14th February 2010

It’s a pretty interesting thing, really. When we romanticise something, it seems to me that we hardly ever think about that thing in the way it actually was (or is); we ignore the negative aspects and focus purely on the positive ones.

There’s a space on my bedroom wall at home which I’ve wanted to fill with a poster for some time, but I’ve never been able to decide which one. When I was at school, one of my German teachers clearly liked his motorsport, because all around his classroom were prints of vintage posters, mostly for the Le Mans 24 hour race. I love these sorts of images, because they all seem to capture the spirit of the era. Especially posters for the “classic” races – I think they resemble art more than they do advertising. Look at this poster for the 1961 24 hours of Le Mans, for instance – I think that image is wonderful. The drawing is stunning; you can almost hear the engine, smell the warm oil. Or this poster for the 1937 Monaco Grand Prix. Same thing – to me it perfectly sums up both Monaco, and the era.

Motorsport is amazingly romantic. I couldn’t tell you why, but it really is. I love that many of the circuits have been around for years, because the sense of history surrounding those events is really nice. There’s something special about a Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, something that an Abu Dhabi or Chinese Grand Prix can never have (not picking on those events for any particular reason).

Actually, if there’s something special about Spa, then somewhere like Le Mans is almost sacred. I absolutely adore everything about Le Mans. For the uninitiated, it’s a 24 hour race around an 8.5 mile long circuit, a lot of which is made up of normal roads. It’s been going for years at the same place, and there are some absolutely legendary stories about the race. It’s basically an entire F1 season packed into 24 hours, and I love it for that. I also love that it feels like a proper racing event – like the equivalent of a music festival for petrolheads. You go, set up a tent, drink lots of beer, watch lots of racing and have a jolly good time, and to me that is basically heaven. I’ve not been yet (money, time, exams…), but I will one year and I can’t bloody wait.

You see, I could carry on for ages talking about the wonders of places like Le Mans, Monaco, Monza, Silverstone, Hockenheim, Spa… But I’m romanticising. These places have always been – will always be – very dangerous. We specifically remember the amazing races and stories that happened at these places, and lots of people hark back to the good old days, but when we look back it can be very easy to forget the bad things. The 1955 Le Mans disaster, Stefan Bellof at Spa, Jim Clark at Hockenheim, Jochen Rindt at Monza – to name but a few examples.

I suppose there’s a lot to be said for passion, too. That is probably what carries people through the bad stuff. One of my favourite moments from F1 in 2009 was in the closing laps of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Jenson Button was 2nd, Lewis Hamilton 3rd and lapping quicker. A podium for McLaren at that time was a very good thing – it’d been a pretty bad year for them – but you could tell that Hamilton wanted that 2nd place and he was pushing as hard as he could for it. Too hard, because he span and crashed on the last lap.

I know people who said afterwards “oh he was stupid. He was on the podium anyway, he shouldn’t have been pushing so hard”, but that misses the point. It’s racing, and any racing driver that would’ve settled for 3rd in that situation really doesn’t deserve the name. I suppose that fundamentally, motorsport is very pure – more so than many sports. You have a certain distance to travel, and whoever does it quickest is the winner. It’s a lot purer than, say, football, which is a game that is basically composed of completely arbitrary rules. I think motorsport attracts a certain type of competitiveness, and I for one absolutely love that aspect of it. Yes, Hamilton at Monza could have backed off and ensured he got 3rd place. But why? He wants to win, to prove he’s better than the next guy. Taking the safe course is never going to achieve that.

It’s hard to convey the reasons I like racing to people who have never even seen a race, or any sort of competitive motorsport. One day, I intend to take all my friends who say they don’t like it to something like an F1 testing day, because I think seeing the cars “in the metal” is a really phenomenal thing. It’s hard to appreciate what they can do without having seen them – it really does amaze you. Actually it’s probably worth them seeing a proper race too, because I can’t think of a way to convey the atmosphere when 20-odd cars fly past you on the track, all of them trying to get ahead of the others. Anyone who doesn’t find that exciting is clinically dead. FACT!

Anyway. Romance. Passion. Idealism. They’re all really good things, but I guess that it’s important that they’re balanced by a decent dose of realism. Because really, that’s the only way that things can develop healthily.

When you saw that this post is called “romance”, published on this particular day, I bet you thought it was about something else? Suckers :-p

Posted In: MotorsportSleepStuff Tagged: | 10 Comments

Tweeting the Night Away

Thursday 11th February 2010

As you may have noticed from the new addition to the sidebar, I recently joined Twitter. I’d managed to hold off from joining for a while because I didn’t really get the point – my writing is quite verbose at the best of times, so what on earth is the use of 140 characters? What can anyone say in that tiny space that is of any worth to anyone? Well, a few people (well, 3) told me that it’s good and that I should join, and so I did, just to see what it’s like. Besides, when I joined it was exam period and at that time joining Twitter seemed a better use of my time than revising for the geotechnical engineering exam I had a day or so later…

Anyway, I quite like it. Turns out there’s a lot that can be said in 140 characters – generally stuff of the form of  “wow, this just happened!” or “ooh, look at this…”. There was a specific thing which made me realise just how powerful a tool Twitter is, and that was the first F1 test of the season, which took place last week. This was the first time that many of the teams showed their 2010 cars to the world and the first time that any of them had a chance to run their cars properly and see how good they actually are (or aren’t). For lots of reasons, people not intimately involved in the teams can’t really read too much from the times, so whilst this early testing isn’t really good for starting to map out the relative competetiveness of each car, it’s still pretty interesting and exciting – there’s not been any F1 since early November, and us F1 fans need our fix!

To me, Twitter really came into it’s element during that first test. There were a number of people at the test circuit (people from the F1 teams as well as journalists) who were tweeting away; keeping the hive mind informed as to who was on track, what laptimes they were doing, what the weather was like, pointing out different technical aspects of the cars, and all sorts of other interesting things which made it really easy and enjoyable to keep up with what was happening. In the past, the only coverage of pre-season testing would have been a short report at the end of the day, listing the times that each driver did and the number of laps, as well as some photos. Following the event on Twitter was really good because getting information throughout the day meant that it was easier to get an “overall” picture of each day of testing, and to try to work out what the times mean (if anything). It was also much more involving – getting an almost-constant stream of information made it seem like much more of an “event”.

I’m really looking forward to using it during the races this year. I can see that it’d be really cool then for much the same reason – taking in multiple sources of information all relating to the same event. That, in conjunction with the live timing app on the F1 website (which – although it sounds really geeky – is surprisingly useful for watching the races. Helps keep track of the strategies, because you see lots of things which aren’t ever picked up in the commentary and helps you to read the race better) should make watching the races even better.

I love technology for things like this. The way I can use different tools to change the way I do certain things, so that I get more out of them (as in this example) or to save time or make it more convenient.  Things like Google Reader and Calendar and the way they interact between all the devices I use to access the internet (phone included – calendar sync on the iPhone is one thing in particular which makes me want to shout “witchcraft!”). The way all my documents are stored in a Dropbox, so that I can work on the same thing on any computer – I love that I can work on a document on my laptop in the library, then come home and work on the same document on my desktop, and the whole transition being pretty much seamless. I don’t have to worry about syncing files between computers or making sure that they’ve all got the most up-to-date version – it’s all just done for me. Clever stuff. All relatively simple stuff too, but it’s amazing how much a difference they make.

Posted In: GeekMotorsportSleepTechnology Tagged: | 5 Comments