Topic

Tales of the HDTV Superbowl Commercials Party

For the third year in a row, I held a "superbowl commercials" party. In this case, we used MythTV to record the game in HDTV for a while, then sat down to fast forward through the football and slow down to watch the commercials.

I've written a page about the Superbowl Commercials Party here, including fun stories from the party and a bit about the MythTV software that did the recording and playback on two different floors in HDTV.

Also included is a discussion of how the equipment I used will become illegal in just a few months, and what we're doing to try and stop that. It's an interesting lesson in how regulation can stop innovation and what's really happening in the future of TV.

To bell the cat

Here's a simple though not too exciting idea. Make bells for cat collars in different pitches. Thus you can always know which cat is coming just by sound.

Closed caption history on demand

One thing I've noticed when you get a TV broadcast that has 5-channel sound, it that you get the voices on the center channel. Particularly with things like voice-overs, sportscasters etc. If you can mute the center channel, you can watch a game, for example, with no commentators.

But sometimes you do want to hear what they said, if there is something on the field you don't understand. If you have a PVR, you can rewind and turn on the center channel audio (though rarely is there a good UI to do this) but here's another idea.

If the center channel is muted, offer a button that shrinks the display and puts up the last minute or two of history of the closed captions. Of course if there are already bars on the screen use those to display this. You can read quickly (let one of the scrolling controls let you move around) and figure out what was going on, faster than you could through replaying.

Database Dangers: The easy evidence is what they follow

You may have run into the story of a fireman charged with burning down his own home. They charged him because his Safeway Club card records showed he had purchased the type of firestarter that was used in the arson on his house.

Sounds like a good case? Problem is somebody else confessed to the arson. He's now a free man.

People often wonder why privacy advocates get up in arms about things like the Safeway database. I mean, how can it harm you, especially if you're not doing anything suspicious?

The problem is that police are attracted to the evidence that is easy to find. But when databases become more and more comprehensive, the chance that they will contain something interesting grows.

In an old-time investigation, finding receipts for the firestarters would be a major clue, and mind convict somebody. That's because searches of what you bought weren't so easy. If you bought the very tool used in the crime, and it was prominent enough that they found it, it looked bad for you.

But the cops aren't aware they are falling into one of the traps of bad science. When you have a lot of data, you can always find something that matches what you are looking for. When you find it, your intuition tells you "this is too strange to be coincidence." But in fact math tells us that it is. That's why you must never start with the conclusion and dig around in a big pool of data looking for evidence of your conclusion. Good scientists have known not to do this for years. Cops haven't.

Changing the nature of TV again

I love hard disk video recorders because they surprised me by being much more than super-fancy VCRs. They changed the nature of the way people watched TV in ways I didn't expect.

Now I've been working with MythTV which is an open source PVR. I have a new program in development, and if any of the readers out there are using MythTV I wouldn't mind some folks to test it out before I announce it to the Myth community.

This program does many things, including two things that I think could change the nature of how TV is chosen.

The system, called TVWish is in general a wishlist program. It lets you build large lists of TV you're looking to see. If the shows you want come on anywhere on your TV schedule, even years later, it will record them.

For example, I have gathered a list of hundreds of top movies, trimmed to what I have not seen and put it in my wishlist. Now if one of those movies shows up, I will see it. Reminds one of netflix perhaps.

The two big changes however are not this, though it's handy.

First, you can import your wishlist from a web URL. That lets you trust somebody else to program what TV your box will record. I call this a "critic" function because you could name the URL of a TV critic who recommends shows. I anticpate one day the same critics who get advanced tapes of shows and write newspaper columns about tonight's TV might create a list so that your box records it.

But it can mean much more than this. A "critic" can be a friend who recommends shows to you. It can be people on the east coast telling west coasters what was good in the lineup. It can be thousands of fans watching shows and rating them on their remote control, causing people to record and not record shows that night or in reruns. It can be people amalgamating the opinions of viewers and professional critics to redirect how you hear about TV.

The second element reflects something I wrote about before in my essays on the future of TV. I now call it Abridging a TV Series

Here, you take a series that is in reruns or syndication. You get a list of the episodes, ranked in order of quality. You put this list into my program and set a quality level. And you only watch the best. You skip the turkeys. Life is too short to watch bad TV. Already many TV show fan sites have episode lists with ratings, either critical or based on fan votes. I've been using these lists to manually abridge series and it's amazingly producitve. A mediocre series turns into a shorter, excellent one.  read more »

Two cables into the PC

In spite of all sorts of efforts, I remain amazed at how many cables still go in and out of my PC. My home theatre PC, which I recently wanted to take somewhere, had me unplugging power, ether, audio, digital audio/SPDIF, keyboard, mouse, cable in, video out and a serial cable providing PPP to the old Tivo. It could easily have had another video, USB devices like a printer and more.

How about 2 wires into the next generation PC, or failing that 3. Power (no way around that yet) and 10 gigabit optical fiber. Ok, so we're not quite ready to run our HDTV video display (which needs over 3 gigabits for 2MP) on the ethernet, though we could quite often get away with it for everything but gaming if the display device had an X server with video decoders in it. So let's accept the 3rd cable as the video cable.

We made a mistake going to dedicated protocol wires like usb and firewire. Hard to say it's a mistake since it's so much better than what we had before, but I think IP is better. Instead, we could have built small hub boxes that have the power and the ethernet (gigabit now), into which small peripherals that need power like keyboards, mice and such would be plugged. Of course printers and other devices that already have their own external power would just need the ethernet.

Or, to extend an idea I pushed last year in the blog, a universal DC power system would be developed where data was exchanged (on minimal 5v power) to tell the power supply what to provide before the full power came on. Then you would buy blocks with the data and more sophisticated and powerful switching supplies which could run the devices we currently have 20 bricks and wallwarts to power -- routers, scanners, phones, external drives etc.

Of course, where it made sense we could even drop the ether part and have wireless, though we still need the power of course except for the lowest power intermittent devices that can have batteries.

It's amazing how many wires snake out of my desk, and even more out the back of my audio/video shelf. Sure would be nice if it could be a lot fewer.

Revealing you get stuff for free

Dan Gilmor notes that he is concerned about a new program called the “Silicon Valley 100” in which a marketing company identified 100 influentical silicon valley folks with plans to give us stuff in the hope of generating buzz. Dan worries whether people will disclose they got the stuff for free as part of this venture.

I certainly never had any thought of keeping it secret, and having my name in Newsweek certainly wouldn’t make it easy to do so. Slashdot called it an “elitist club” but in fact, all it amounted to for me was getting an E-mail from Auren Hoffman asking if I could be put on the list and if I would mind being sent free stuff with no strings attached.

I actually at first wondered if it was a particularly clever phishing attempt. My brain is trained to be wary at notes from strangers saying, “We’ll send you lots of free suff, just give us your address.” :-) Back at the dawn of the internet, my e-mail address got put in a book called “E-mail addresses of the rich and famous.” I was flattered for about 10 seconds until I saw all the bizarre spam I ended up getting because of it.

But I couldn’t see any reason not to let them send me the stuff. My opinion certainly can’t be bought so easily, and most of the people on the list are well off enough that the same applies.

So while I was planning on disclosing the background — I am naturally skeptical and assume the people I talk to should be as well — I don’t even really have Dan’s reservations about those who don’t go out of their way to disclose this. As he says, the press get most of the stuff they review for free and it’s just assumed. (To the credit of his arguments, this is not true of Consumer Reports, which is indeed very high integrity.)

Will this program get us to talk about products we would not have gone out and bought on our own, or talked about if we did buy them? Quite possibly. I just don’t see it as so sinister, or novel. So, once I figured it wasn’t a phishing scheme, I said I would give it a whorl.

And oh yeah, I’m taking the toilet seat for a second bathroom, because I already have a different brand in my master bathroom, and think in general they’re cool. No idea about the one they’re sending yet. Now whether Hoffman will get people to blog about their hemorrhoid problems is a different question.

Paired lights for lit signs

You see it everywhere -- signs on buildings where a light has gone out. It is often amusing where a missing letter changes the name of the company in some silly way.

They spend fortunes on these signs, but bulbs are hard to replace. So why don't they make them with a special unit that has sockets for 2 bulbs, and switches over to the backup when the first one burns out? It's not actually that much more expensive, as you are going to pay for the 2nd bulb eventually (especially incandescent) though here you pay for it earlier.

To get fancy, you want a way for it to tell somebody that a bulb went out. A small data over power chip could constantly squirt simple low-data-rate packets down the power line, "I have a bulb that went out!" Something like the x10 protocol, which can be transmitted by a chip that costs pennies.

Could use that protocol for remote turn on/off as well if you wanted. You would wait for a few bulbs to go out before sending a worker out to replace them. That worker costs more than the spare bulb anyway.

Ultimate photographer's monopod

When you go out hiking and photographing, carrying a tripod can be too much, even my lovely carbon-fiber one. Besides, you want a good hiking stick on a hike anyway, you exercise more of your body. And most hiking sticks have a small tripod screw in them to use as a camera mount.

But here's a plan to make an all-out monopod/hiking stick kit to do a lot more than you can do with just the basic stick.

First, like many sticks, you want a spike end you can stick in the ground with an rubber cap you can put on it. Some monopods have tiny tripod legs that come out of the base that can be used for a light camera on level ground, which is also useful.

However, my alternate proposal takes longer to set up but would be more stable -- guy wires. In this case some retractable strong wires that can be pulled out from near the top of the stick. On the end of the wires you would find, or could attach a means to loop the wire around something (nearby tree, railing) and ratchet to pull tight the wire. You would also have a set of fine ground spikes that could be staked in soft ground and connected to the wire loop, then ratcheted tight. Finally, you cold put weights on the wires, such as rocks, your other gear or a person's foot in a pinch.

The result could be a moderately stable platform, on which you would put your ball head, or in my case panoramic head. Of course weights or thin stakes would not resist a hard shove (though being tied around railings and trees might) but it should be able to handle a fairly heavy camera, since it is the main pole which does that job.

And of course it would all collapse into something 19" long to go in your suitcase. Though you probably couldn't have the stakes in carry-on luggage.

Ant-proof pet bowl

When you get an ant infestation here in California, you need to make sure your kitchen is clean with nothing to attact them. But if you have pet food out, they will find it.

In theory, ants won't crawl over some materials like vaseline. But if you coat the bowl rim with vaseline, it will get in the pet's hair.

So I suggest a wide pet bowl with a deep and large groove near the base which you can squirt something like vaseline into. It must be wide enough that ants can't do the living bridge trick to cross it, and deep enough that pet hair won't get into the vaseline. That stuff should stay around for quite some time before needing a refill, though if you dishwash the bowl, you will lose it.

Better door to door shuttles

Just back from the nightmare of holiday travel, which started at 5:30am on Christmas morning and a security line snaking all the way to baggage claim. Coming back 6 days later, I braved the door to door shuttles from the airport.

I generally regret the decision to use these shuttles, which seem to average about 1 hour 30 minutes for the 35 minute drive to my home from SFO. This time, they had 10 people waiting for my town (which would normally be a dream as you would not spend all that time wanding around closer towns dropping off earlier folks) but in fact after we saw others had waited an hour for any shuttle to show up, we went to the caltrain, which takes an hour for the trip but is predictable.

The curse of these shuttles is how unpredictable they are. For some they are a quick trip but often they will drive you many times around the airport waiting for passengers, and then on an unpredictable drive. The public hates unpredictability even more than slowness, and would pay for predictability, I think.

So can computers, and some common sense, fix this? Surely you could make reservations which tie your flight number into the database so the shuttle company sees your plane arrive and knows pretty accurately when you will make the curb. (You can confirm that with a cell phone speed dial if your cell number is registered.) If lots of people did this, you could know how quickly a large enough group of people who live close together would be ready to leave.  read more »

Make cheap ATSC (or DVB) RF-modulators

As I continue to play with HDTV, I found I had a horrendous time getting good output from my computer running the MythTV open source PVR into my TV. DVI, the uncompressed digital standard, just wouldn't work from the video card I had to the TV. The TV has Firewire/1394, which would allow me to stream mpeg-2 to it, and that would be really great, but as yet no software supports it because few TVs have such inputs.

Here's another idea, one that reverses old thinking. The earliest VCRs did their outut on an RF modulator to channel 3, the only way to get into older TVs. Now we of course recommend non-RF methods, such as composite video, S-video or best of all component video/VGA, or in the digital realm, DVI and HDMI.

But in fact with TVs being mandated to have ATSC tuners, could it make sense to go back to RF? This gives digital decoding in the TV, in theory the highest quality if the TV has a good decoder. The cables are easy and super cheap, and carry digital video and 6 channel sound -- something even DVI doesn't do. You can run them as long as you want.

Plus, you can have tons of multiple inputs, just on different channels. Put your cable box on channel 3, your PVR on channel 4, DVD player on channel 5 and so on -- no need for the plethora of inputs and mass of cables.

(Don't get me wrong, I think a single ethernet jack would be better than any of these methods, but the TVs don't have them and they do have the tuners now.)

There is one big issue, however, which is on-screen display and comptuer generated menus. The RF sends a compressed mpeg stream. On the
surface, that's great because the boxes handling the video can be slow and
cheap -- they are just slinging bits they don't understand. But once you want
to overlay text on the video, you suddenly have to decode the stream (hard enough) and then re-encode it, which is close to impossible with today's hardware. On the other hand, it should be possible to do non-transparent overlays, where you take over a region of the screen (perhaps the bottom is easiest) and replace it with your generated text.

The ideal solution to this would be to modify the protocols to allow sending a second stream to be overlayed, with an alpha channel, on the main one. This is true no matter how you send compressed video -- RF, ethernet or firewire. However, we don't get to change the protocols, the idea here is to make use of something already out there.

Generating Mpeg from computer menu displays on the other hand is something that should be within the capabilities of today's CPUs. They can do it at smaller resolution (720x480 DVD res is fine) but more to the point unless there are fancy animations, it's static and machine generated and easy to set up for quick conversion.

There's no encryption, which might cause pressure to balk at this but it has a lot of advantages worth considering as kludges go.

More on entertainment.com

In my quest over the leak/sale of the entertainment.com mailing list, I have some amusing updates.

After telling them you don't respond to a "You sold my name" complaint with a request for all of the person's personal information, I got back yet another stock message, "Here's how you can get off our mailing list." I'm getting a lot of companies who use customer service reps for E-mail who clearly never read the E-mails. Yes, I also get software that auto-responds, but amazingly we also get humans who auto-respond.

Anyway, customer service clearly not working, I found their phone number and called their legal dept. where I spoke with a Jill Silverman. She expressed concern after she got clear on what had happened, and asked me to forward her the emails I had gotten to my special address created just for them. I immediately sent them off then heard nothing.

When I inquired again, she told me she never got the E-mails. I figured out why, eventually. The E-mails, which I had put in a text file attachment, were of course spams, and triggered her company's spam filter. Of course, my mail was dropped on the floor, no diagnostic for her or me.

So I put them in a web page and sent her the URL. That should make it through!

Let's teach creation science in the schools

Creationists regularly complain that schools teach evolution improperly and should also offer creation science as an alternative. They went so far as to push one school board to put stickers on biology textbooks remindng students that evolution is a theory and should be critically viewed.

Well, surprisingly, I have some agreement with them. Evolution, like Quantum Mechanics, gravity and others is indeed a theory. And in proper science all theories are subject to intense scrutiny and testing. They are required to make predictions which can turn out false, and those predictions are tested with repeatable experimentation and observation.

So now I wonder, why if we give them their way — sort of — and mandate the teaching of “creation science” in the shools. Except I mean a rigourous, scientific treatment, by non-religious teachers, where a lesson about science and bad science is taught. Other examples of bad science should also be covered.

Students should be challenged to consider the predictions, past and present, of the creation “scientists” and whether they have come true. They should learn what happens when people conclude the results in advance and try to bend the facts to fit them. It happens in all areas of science, and a good education trains you to identify when it is happening, and when you are doing it yourself. They should of course also learn the predictions of evolution and many other theories and how they have been tested and verified. They should learn about theories that had supporters but then failed their tests and thus fell from favour.

Why creation science and not every other bogus fake science? Well, studies show it is probably the one most widely believed by the public, though psychic powers, alien abductions and others also rank highly. So as the #1 it deserves a place in our curriculum, because the critical examination of bad science deserves a place.

Indeed, for a student not actually going into science, it could well be that learning to understand bad science would be the most important thing they take out of the program. They will almost assuredly never need to calculate the velocity of a spherical monkey hanging from a massless rope over a frictionless pulley. But they will encounter bad science and have to deal with it.

(I think the same is true in math for non-professionals. One of the most important things they should learn is how statistics are misused.)

So give them what they want, and then see them beg to take it back.

Some folks don't get it.

When I give an E-mail address to a web site, I give a different one to each site. I have many domains, including one where all addresses are forwarded to me unless I turn them off.

I recently started getting some spams for "entertainment@" the domain, which is the address I gave to use the web site of entertainment.com, which publishes those books of discount restaurant coupons. Their privacy policy states they don't give away or resell the information, so something's fishy. (And no, since I get all addresses at this domain I know spammers are not dictionary attacking it, this almost certainly leaked or was sold out of Entertainment.com)

So I file a complaint and get back a form response explaining their privacy policy because I stupidly entered the selectbox saying it was a privacy policy question. When I sent back another note, you will enjoy the response I got back...  read more »

HDTV wishlist for MythTV

I have been building an HDTV PVR with MythTV and the pcHDTV tuner
card. It's been a major adventure, not yet ready for prime time, but
it's lead me to have some thoughts about things you want to think about
in a PVR that particularly relate to HDTV.

Suggesting new features is of course a somewhat futile activity. In open
source, the usually and appropriate answer is "why don't you go code up
this feature and add it?" In commercial products, most people feel
even the Tivo is too complex and they are correctly loathe to add
new features that complicate the user interface. So I make a priority
note on all of these.

If you are not familiar with certain linux video issues, some of this
will sound like gibberish.  read more »

Let's re-see history in HDTV

For people of my generation, a great deal of history was seen on regular low-resolution TV. But a lot of it, up to the 70s or so (and often after) was shot on film, at higher resolution. Older generations saw some of this (once or twice) in newsreels at the movies.

So as HD sets become common, it would be great to see this old film footage of events like the wars, the Olympics, famous speeches, the moon landing and other space program material in high definition. I saw a DVD of the 1936 Olympics on a good screen and even that was surprising.

Some of this is already happening. HDNet is digitizing old sitcoms like Hogan’s Heroes, which was shot on film. Fun, but I think the life-changing events we’ve never truly seen (or rarely seen) at full resolution would be more important, and would also leave a legacy for education. And yes, that even includes that bad news, like the Challenger and the WTC.

Update: Discovery channel has an upcoming series of NASA footage coming up in HD. Now if only I could get discovery channel HD in a way that I can record without buying their proprietary box.

One fiber does it all

A short note, as I've been busy with a number of things including trying out PC based HDTV recording and mythtv, which I will write about shortly.

In a VoIP pricing debate, I calculated an interesting observation. Today we have voice codecs that can do very fine voice quality in about 25 kilobits. FM radio quality. Cell phone quality can be done in 7 kilobits. Anyway, that means all 200 million adult Americans could be on the phone at once and it would use 5 terabits.

Using DWDM -- dense wave division multiplexing -- where many colours of photon co-exist in an optical fiber, 5 terabits is now well within the range of a single optical fiber.

So yes, everybody could be on the phone at once, in FM quality, with just one optical fiber. Of course one fiber doesn't pass by every town, and multiplexing it all together costs money too and has overhead. But it should be clear just how silly the idea of per minute charges for voice are in the face of this statistic. And indeed they are going away.

Of course we are finding uses for more bandwidth. HDTV file transfers for example (which use 16 megabits but can be credibly done in about 6 with better codecs.) But how long before we can all have an HDTV videophone call at once over a moderate number of fibers?

Temporary split brain

This is a science-fictional idea, but strikingly probable. You are probably aware the brain is split into two halves, joined by a nerve bundle called the corpus callosum. People with severe epilepsy have had the callosum severed, and ended up having two brains in one body. A left brain controlling the right half, and a right brain controlling the left half. The left brain can speak and can lie, the right brain can write with the left hand to communicate. Until experimenters tried to communicate with each half, the people were unaware they were sharing their body with another half-brain. You can read more details if you were unaware.

Anyway, on to the idea. It seems plausible one could apply a temporary anesthetic to the corpus callosum, and temporarily split a person into two brains. Today that might require drastic steps like brain surgery. In the future it's not hard to imagine a specialized drug or highly targetted drug delivery or nanobots to temporarily numb and disable the zone, without too much shutdown of adjacent tissue.

One could even imagine recreational use if it were safe and simple. It would be quite something to learn just what happens when you are split into two and then re-integrated, and how the reformed whole you would remember the two split experiences. Would your left and right half have a conversation? What would they talk about? How long could you persist in this state before it became difficult to reintegrate? How long after the cutoff would you be cogent enough to do all this (one presumes the cutoff might be a bit of a shock.)

Imagine an SF story where one half of the protagonist's brain decides it doesn't want to re-integrate with the other half, and takes steps to assure this...

Linux live CD with network state, use of windows disk

There are a number of Linix "Live CD" distributions out there. These allow you to boot Linux from a CD and run it (somewhat slowly) without ever touching the hard disk in the machine. (They can access the disk however, which makes them good for system repair, both for Linux and Windows.) One popular one is Knoppix, and Mandrake makes one called MandrakeMove, which takes the important next step of letting you store your personal config choices on a USB thumbdrive or floppy. There are distributions that can fit on a thumbrive (after all, those drives are getting quite large for little money, but this is recent enough there hasn't been as much focus on this.)

Let me suggest where I would like this trend to continue. It's great to be able to take any machine and quickly convert it to your style and environment with a CD, or even better a business-card CD or thumbdrive. (Most systems can boot from a CD, fewer from a thumb-drive, most from a floppy leading to another device.) Storing some state on a floppy, thumbdrive, CD-R session -- preferences, home directory files and scripts, browswer config and bookmarks -- is a must. Indeed, if the tools let you build a custom CD just for you with your choice of packages you can bring in much of your whole working environment.

I haven't seen anybody provide automatic storage on the net, based on the assumption the machine you take over probably has an ethernet card. If it does, it would be great to go out and suck down your latest personal changes and files, starting with the most important to get you going, and bringing the rest in the background. This doesn't need a special server, though the group making this distribution might well offer to do so. You could keep and update much of this data in a special mailbox message or mailbox folder, especially with IMAP. Anybody can get access to that. (Or a web mail tool like GMAIL.) Of course if you have actual hosting this can also be used. The data would be encrypted, you would need a password -- not just your mail password -- to use it.

As you changed the data it would be updated to the net storage. Now you could go to any machine with a non-customized CD. Indeed, you could even, on a common fast machine, download a minimal environment (perhaps 60 megabytes which is just a few minutes on a fast broadband link) and after it boots, get the custom information including which other packages are important.

The key is to do things in the Windows filesystem, most likely to be what you find on the machine where you are the guest.  read more »