Monday, April 30, 2007

Ctrl-Alt-Lost?

The "10 foot experience." Heard that phrase before? It's what all the big boys (Microsoft, Apple, Sony, etc) want to own...that last remaining 10 feet between your television set and your ass on the couch.

Interestingly, they're almost there - with the release of Vista and the built-in media center functionality (which makes this rev 4, I believe of MCE), Apple's iTV, the Microsoft XBox 360, the Sony Ps3, the Nintendo Wii, or a half a dozen other pieces of equipment - they almost have it. A consumer device for the masses that allows equal time for commercial broadcast television, internet video, video podcasts, gaming, movie rental, etc - all without getting your ass up off the couch except to go make nachos. (I have an excellent recipe for nachos, btw.)

My personal 10-foot-experience of choice is a computer with Microsoft MCE attached to my plasma screen, and XBox 360's elsewhere in the house used as media extenders. A plugin for MCE called TV Tonic, allows me to subscribe - in a disturbingly simple fashion - to video podcasts, Yougle allows me to view Youtube videos through the MCE interface, and on and on.

Now that I can access all of this additional content - and keep in mind this content is all cheaply produced, mostly homegrown, and ragingly experimental - from my couch, I find a strange thing happening: I don't have a lot of time in my life to sit down and watch television - yet, faced with a choice between watching the most recent episode of Lost in all its high-definition, $2M/episode glory...and, well, Ctrl-Alt-Chicken...Lost doesn't always come out ahead.

So, what is Ctrl-Alt-Chicken? One of a few dozen offerings from Revision 3, a video podcast "network" of sorts started by ex TechTV and G4 guys Jay Adelson, Kevin Rose, David Prager, Dan Huard, and Ron Gorodetzk. (The most "famous" faces on Revision 3 are, of course, Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, of Digg/Diggnation fame.) Revision 3 offers contents that mostly appeal to the geek contingent (early adopters in internet content delivery) which is, of course, cheaply produced and distributed over video podcast delivery channels....but yet, there is something to these "shows."

Most of the offering on Revision 3 are wildly entertaining - these late-20, early 30-somethings sitting around riffing on popular culture, technology and - in the case of Ctrl-Alt-Chicken - bad cooking. The content seems fresh, alive and unscripted...even the scripted content. One of the better scripted shows is Webdrifter, a video podcast from comedian Martin Sargent with an awesome concept: Sargent gets in a car and travels to the people who put up lunatic-fringe websites. The episode with Alex Chiu, "inventor" of rings that make you immortal, is sure to be a classic. ("Frankly, Alex, I can't see why you want to be immortal. Your apartment is a shitbox.")

It's not just the 20-somethings that have a lock on this new culture of home-grown media, and Revision 3 isn't the only video podcast network out there: Leo Leporte - also of TechTV fame - is the creator of TWiT.tv (TWiT stands for TWiT.tv's flagship show, This Week in Tech.) Leporte, and his rotating list of cohorts (John C. Dvorak, Patrick Norton, Robert Heron) are - let's be kind here - "old guard" techies, yet the formula is remarkably similar: wildly entertaining roundtable discussions that are addictive and informative. (It should be no small surprise that Revision 3 personalities and TWiT.tv personalities routinely appear on each other's shows.)

Again, the content on TWiT.tv is mostly aimed at fellow gearheads, but that is slowly changing. (Also, in this era of convergence, iPods, and ubiquitous computing, do the monikers "gearhead" and "geek" even apply anymore? Aren't we all our own IT departments these days?) But the secret of the TWiT.tv audio and video podcasts is the same as Revision 3's strategy: wildly entertaining hosts/hostesses in front of the mics and cameras talking about things they truly love.

And the list is growing, MobuzzTV, PlanetTV, CNET Podcast Central, etc. Is this the true face of new media? Independent video and audio producers with fresh content? (And, in many cases, old media producers who "get it" and see the seismic shift occurring before their eyes: NPR, Comedy Central, etc.)

So now, I pause before I select what I watch. Don't get me wrong - the multi-million dollar dramas (Lost, Heroes, etc.) still grab my attention. But they are no longer competing with each other for my eyeballs, they are competing with Diggnation.... transforming the entire video landscape into "long tail" viewing.

And that, Mr. Abrams, may be the biggest monster on your island.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Big Vista Sweep, part III

Well, it wasn't the warmest Saturday we've had here in Boston, but it was quite nice. Passible, really, given the standard New England spring we've had to endure. Nonetheless, it didn't really matter to me - since I was stuck in my home office dealing with...

Mind Transfer #2.1: The Sony RC210G Desktop...continued

Computer:
Sony RC210G Desktop
Native OS: WIndows XP MCE 2005, SP2
Memory: 2 Gig
Hard drive: 320Gig RAID0 (twin 160Gig Seagate SATA drives)
Extra Devices/Features: Support for most digital memory sticks, high end graphics card/processor, specialized Sony NTSC Tuner, specialized Sony 7.1 audio, wireless keyboard/mouse, DVI Sony Monitor (1900x1620)


The next step in this endeavor was to locate software that that could ghost the image of my RAID array onto a standard SATA drive. This lead me to two options, care of King Joey (more about him a little later in other blogs):

I settled on Acronis, mostly because of the pricing schemes for NGSS - Norton apparently assumes that to only people that could possibly be interested in fooling around Vista hard drives are enterprises -- so, they only sell NGSS for a minimum of 5 copies. Not good. In addition, Acronis was getting good reviews, so that sealed the deal.

While the Acronis software was downloading, I ran over to Microcenter to pick up:
  • 2 WD 500 Gig SATA Drives (the soul of my new RAID array)
  • 1 WD 320 Gig SATA Drive (to hold the ghost of the original RAID array and use as the boot drive)
The idea here is that I am going to use this little tiff between Intel and Mircosoft as an excuse to upgrade my system. The single SATA disk will be used as my primary boot disk, and the disk that hold the "program files" folder, while the other two SATA disks will be configured as a 1TB RAID0 array to hold data files, video, audio and other things that need fast access. (RAID0 is faster that a regular SATA drive, but not redundant - so the information is not data safe. Since the stuff I'll be holding on that array is transitory, I am more interested in speed rather than safety. ) This configuration will also give me away to remove my old 150Gig external drive. (I'm always trying to work on ways to slim down.)

Back at the office, the Acronis download is complete - I install it, and the system asks to reboot. No worries, I reboot and...

...oh shit...

...disk errors. A lot of disk errors. Vista valiantly attempts to reposition the salvageable clusters, but when I reboot after the recovery attempt, I find things aren't like they used to be: the Windows Uninstaller is out of commision, for one thing - but more importantly, my Sony Ericsson Smartphone sync application has gone mental. It continually spawns new copies of itself until my process table starts to overflow, which prevents me from doing anything.

I spend about 4 hours trying to shut down the SE Smartphone app -- but without the Windows Installer (which is responsible for uninstalling applications as well) that turns out to be rather tricky. I won't bore you with the details, but I finally figure how to nuke it.

Ok, that's one Saturday morning shot to hell... now let me pick up the pieces and see where I am. The RAID array is definitely failing, apparently - but whether from a legitimate hardware problem, or induced from the nonsense going on with the Intel/Microsoft RAID controller dilemma, I'm not sure. However, it turns out that if I use the Vista system restore and go back a couple of checkpoints, I can recover working versions of the applications - which is all that I need for a ghosting. I have my system stable, I'm ready to go.

Put my 320Gig SATA in an external Firewire enclosure, plug it in, fire up Acronis and select "clone a disk." The Acronis UI is straight forward, and promises to do the right things. It shows the RAID array as a viable option for a source drive, and the external SATA as a viable option for the target drive. Punch the button, it preps the disk, and tells me it has to go through a series of reboots. No problem, hit the reboot button... the system reboots, comes up, and Acronis takes over to examine the partition on the new drive. The Vista system comes back up and....

...no further action.

...shit.

I go through this several times - always with the same results. Acronis does not seem to want to continue the process. It simply never remembers where it left off after it performs the first reboot. Sigh.

So, I try the Vista backup application. It has something that purports to be a cloning function, but its really just a bit-for-bit copy function, which leaves your new drive without a Master Boot Record (MBR). Foiled again.

A Lesson in Vista Boot Sectors

Back to Acronis. I notice that is has a way to burn a CD with a bootable image and the Acronis applications. I find a CD-RW, stick it in the drive and tell Acronis to burn an image. It does, I reboot, and...voila! Acronis is there and it sees both drives. 1.5 hours later, and the image of the failing RAID away (MBR included), is on the new 320 Gig drive. Note: this will be important later: when Arconis brings up the machine, both drives - the original bootable RAID array, and the cloned 320Gig are in the computer. This turns out to be an enormous issue.

I have to hand it to Sony hardware engineers - the RAID array cage on the RC210G is a thing of beauty for a consumer product. One Phillips screw holds in each 2-drive shelf, which is hidden behind a separate, no-screws door in the side of the cabinet of the unit. Unscrew the Phillips, and the entire shelf assemble slides out. This makes swapping drives a snap.

I take the 320Gig SATA out of its enclosure, take out the two failing SATA drives that were in the port 0 & port 1 cage, and put the new SATA in port 0. In the second shelf I insert the two 500 Gig SATA drives....reboot and....

...oh shit.

The first thing I notice is that, after the BIOS loads, there are two "bootable" partitions that Vista sees - both of these are called "Windows Vista Ultimate (Recovered)" After some futzing around (including a few more boots), I discover that the first "bootable" partition points nowhere - the second bootable partition is the actual cloned drive. I select it, and the machine comes back to life.

...sort of.

Although I get my login prompt, and it accepts my password, things get off after the login. Vista produces a blank screen with the phrase "creating desktop". When it is finally done, I am presented with a blue screen, and a working mouse pointer. The system is clearly running, tho, so after a another brandy I hit cntl-alt-del and up comes the task manager. Finally, a friendly face.

Selecting "Run..." from the task manager, I type it "explorer," and up comes the desktop...sortof. The desktop is severly altered, and only 1/3rd of my desktop icons are there. A few minutes of digging around reveals the problem. My newly cloned, bootable drive has the "F:" drive designation. (The same designation it had during the cloning process.) There was no "C:" drive, which is where Vista - and 90% of the apps in existence, expect to find everything.

WTF?

The full explanation of this can be found at Multibooter - Cloning Vista, many thanks to the folks at that blog for this vital information.

Essentially, every hackers favorite file boot.ini is gone, ladies and gentleman, and winloader.exe has been moved out of the system partition into \windows\system32 where it belongs. This is a better, less hacky, arrangement -- but it makes cloning the boot drive tricky. In fact, its impossible to do without a little bit of tweaking.

Best I can piece together what happened follows:

When Arconis finished successfully creating the cloned boot drive, it auto-rebooted the computer. This is behavior I would have expected, giving you a chance to check the cloned disk against the original... unfortunately, rebooting a machine with two bootable partitions is a no-no under Vista. The system gets seriously confused and assigns the boot partition to the new drive, and the system partition to the old drive. This has the effect of making the machine unusable
unless both drives are in the system. In addition, Vista does not allow you to change the drive identifier on the bootable drive, insisting in all its Vista-tude that it knows best. All together now: ew.

There are two ways to deal with this - the slick way and the sledgehammer way. (Guess which way I chose?)

The Slick Way


Vista provides you with a command line utility called bcdedit.exe (BCD stands for Boot Configuration Data) which allows you to play with, and set, all of the attributes associated with booting the system. (Both bcdedit, and bootmgr - the replacement for ntldr.exe is beautifully explained here at Multibooters.)

As the folks at Multibooters point out, you can correct the drive letter configuration problem, and the system partition appearing on the wrong drive problem, with three commands:

bcdedit /set {bootmgr} device boot
bcdedit /set {default} device boot

bcdedit /set {default} osdevice boot


Ok, that's very cool. I could have looked up all the options, but it was 1am now and I was pretty annoyed, leading me to...

The Sledgehammer Way

All of this information is dutifully stored in the system registry under the key:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\MountedDevices

An example of the contents of that key can be seen on the right hand side of this blog. As you can see it stores the information for both the boot and system partitions, as well as drive letter configurations. Some digging on the web shows that if Vista can't find that key, it recreates the contents at boot time.

Uh...so...nuke it.

I deleted the contents of
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\MountedDevices in its entirety, and rebooted.

...up it came. All of it. My old machine was back, the desktop was up and normal, the applications all worked, and the new RAID0 array was delegated to the non-bootable drive -- my original goal in the first place.

The RC210G had been transformed to a full-fledged Vista machine, with a 320Gig single SATA disk as the bootable drive and drive to hold applications that don't need the speed, and a 1TB RAID0 SATA Array significantly faster than the 2 7200 SATA drives that comprised it would imply.

Verdict: Success, with frustration.
Round-trip Rocket Time for Upgrade: 17 Hours.
Rocket Cost: Vista Ultimate ($250) + 320 Gig WD SATA drive ($125) + 2 500 Gig WD Sata Drives ($200 each) + Arconis True Image Workstation ($75) = $850.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

iPhoneland

...the more I find myself in alignment with John Dvorak, the odder I feel about myself. (Ah, John. I kid. Really.)

His summation (and the obligatory public flogging that followed) of the chances of the iPhone's success was essentially right on target. Having spent the last 4 years of my life mired in the world of US Cell Phone Carriers, my feeling is that Apple has probably bitten off more than it can chew. (Not to mention the fact that Apple has never produced a v.1 product that actually worked outta the box as advertised, and early reports of the testing of the iPhone aren't good.)

Sure, 1,000,000 people gave AT&ingular their email addresses to let them know when the iPhone becomes available -- but let's see how many of those emails translate into a $500-$600 purchase.

Recent rumors, tho, seem to have altered the game a little... it seems that Apple and AT&ingular are in talks to subsidize the phone in exchange for a 2 year service contract. Not sure who is paying who in that little arrangement - but I have my suspicions. At any rate, that would be good nudge in the right direction, and would probably bring the cost of the phone into the more affordable $200 range.

Speaking of Apple's luck with version 1 products - we still owe them a debt of gratitude...they are basically the technology "canary in the coal mine." The Apple Newton, for example, may have consumed vast amounts of Apple resources before dying a painful death, but it pushed the technologies behind portable battery life, handwriting recognition, PDAs, etc. So, although I'm not as enamored by their products as the Apple Legion is, I do appreciate them throwing themselves into the fray. So even in the iPhone winds up on the Dvorak "I told you so" pile, the technologies they are pioneering for that think will materialize elsewhere...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Big Vista Sweep, part II

When last we left our intrepid heroes, 1 out of 5 machines (the Sony SZ Laptop) was successfully upgraded to Vista without incident. In fact, the laptop seems to be performing significantly better. It's zippier, and noticeably "prettier." (In fact, the mac-fans at work begrudgingly admit to liking it.)

On to the next victim:

Mind Transfer #2: The Sony RC210G Desktop


Computer:
Sony RC210G Desktop
Native OS: WIndows XP MCE 2005, SP2
Memory: 2 Gig
Hard drive: 320Gig RAID0 (twin 160Gig Seagate SATA drives)
Extra Devices/Features: Support for most digital memory sticks, high end graphics card/processor, specialized Sony NTSC Tuner, specialized Sony 7.1 audio, wireless keyboard/mouse, DVI Sony Monitor (1900x1620)


Bolstered and full of misplaced hubris (can you see where this going?) from my laptop upgrade, I turned my attention next to my main home office desktop - the RC210G. This machine is really my workhorse - personal financing, gaming, editing, video composing and editing, transcoding, iPod docking center, coding machine, etc.

Because of all the work it does, and because I use it to control all the other equipment in the house for maintenance reasons, I chose Vista Ultimate for this machine. Ultimate is the top of the line for Vista - all the bells and whistles, and - of course - the most expensive. This upgrade clocked in at $250.

For this upgrade, I received nothing from Sony - I purchased an upgrade to Vista Ultimate at Microcenter, and went to the Sony support website to download the 35 driver and installation scripts required. (As I mentioned in the last blog entry, Sony is very into creating custom hardware for their machines, and their drivers are very very specific.) Being Sony, there was - of course - no "install these in this order" document, so I had to read through all of the files that I downloaded from their support site, and determine my own ordering. I used my history with OS upgrades and clean installs as a guide, and came up with the following determination for an order of events:

  1. Uninstall applications that were not Vista compatible. (Microsoft's Vista Advisor helped to identify these.)
  2. Use the Sony BIOS upgrade to ready the BIOS for its tighter integration with the OS
  3. Uninstall all native drivers
  4. Run the Sony uninstall scripts for the Sony specific drivers
  5. Run the Vista upgrade from the Vista Ultimate DVD
  6. Have a stiff belt of brandy to quell the panic when the machine reboots without video or audio drivers.
  7. Run the Sony install scripts for the Sony specific drivers in the following order:
    - video drivers
    - audio drivers
    - internal television tuner drivers
    - Sony ancellary applications
  8. More brandy
  9. Reboot
Voila! Vista-fied.

The machine came up, and all of the apps and devices seem to run fine - except for my 6 year old HP 5300 scanner. A quick search through the HP site confirmed that the 5300 would no longer be supported. Oh well, a minor loss. Scanners are a dime a dozen these days.

Oops - spoke too soon, what's that flashing icon in the lower right? Oh look, it's the Intel Matrix controller for the RAID array on the RC210G. It claims that one of the two RAID0 drives is failing.

I bring the system down, and boot up again with to run a surface level scan of the hard drives without the operating system in the way. Results: negative. Both RAID drives are operating fine. I assume that there is just an incompatibility with the firmware on the drives and the Intel Matrix monitor, so that the Matrix monitor is just mistakenly reporting that there is a problem.

After a reboot, tho, I begin to notice things:
  • The hard drive LED will periodically come on and stay on
  • The system will be zipping along and then lock up for about 2 seconds and then resume.
  • Then the kicker: iTunes would freeze the entire system, forcing a reboot.
I spent a fair amount of time blaming Steve Jobs (there's a lot of chatter in the blog world about Apple's reticence to support Vista) until I dug into the symptoms a bit more. It only happened when iTunes was fetching new podcasts (my primary reason for having an iPod). It would start to fetch the latest batch, and somewhere around 8-10 downloads it would lock the system up. My suspicion returned to the RAID drive array, since that is where the podcasts were being deposited.

I did a defragment of the RAID drives and another surface level check to see if there were any bad sectors that were getting hit... same issue: iTunes would lock up during podcast fetches. I attached a USB2 external drive to the system, and logged into iTunes to change the location that it kept its music and podcasts. Rebooted, and...iTunes resumed working.

Ruh-row, Reorge! Fuck. It's the RAID array.

A quick scan through the mighty blogosphere revealed a couple of interesting gems: Intel RAID controllers were failing under vista for a couple of different configurations, and after a lot of finger pointing between Microsoft and Intel, Intel finally fessed up...sorta. They claim that their controllers were working fine, but just before shipping Vista, Microsoft changed the way that they did power management on RAIDs, and Intel wasn't given enough time to test out the change. Whatever, someone didn't get a memo, apparently.

So, I've done all the software change things I can do: updated the firmware on the drives, removed bad Intel entries in the windows registry - all to no avail. What's left? Replace the Maxtor SATA drives that are causing the trouble with Western Digital SATA drives that purportedly work with the new Vista configuration.

After a trip to Microcenter, I now own:
  • A 320Gig external firewire drive
  • 2 500Gig WD SATA drives
Back home, I download a copy of Norton's Ghost Solution Suite 2.0, the only ghosting software I would trust that can handle the Vista boot sectors.

...yes, kids, the Rocketman is going to replace the primary RAID drives. Bahahah. I'm so whacky.

Stay tuned....

The Big Vista Sweep, part I

So, as you imagine I have a lot of machines lying around my house. Some UNIX, some Apple, and some XP and XP Media Center. The XP machines have been rock solid and stable for years. I rarely boot them, and - despite the media blitz to the contrary - they have not been hacked or zombified or...well, anything.

With all that stability, I started to get antsy...so, nothing left to do but destabilize. I bought a fleet of Vista OS's of various flavors with the intention of installing them to each of the following machines:

  • A Sony SZ370P Laptop. (Tagged as "Vista Ready") Native OS: XP Pro, SP2. Target OS: Vista Business This thing is my work laptop and a workhorse. I use it to code, do office apps, run test suites for work, web usage, etc etc.
  • A Sony RC210G Desktop. Native OS: XP MCE 2005, SP2. Target OS: Vista Ultimate. Another workhorse. Actually, that's pretty light - this thing seriously kicks ass. It has a legit RAID system inside, amazing graphics and video ability, and 7.1 channel audio. In a former life I did scientific visualization graphics and high end special effects work. I still keep my hand in that stuff, plus do a lot of video editing on the side as a hobby... this thing doesn't even breathe hard. Oh, yeah - and its passively cooled. (No fans. Shhh!)
  • An Alienware DHS-5 Media Center 2005 server. Native OS: XP MCE 2005, SP2. Target OS: Vista Home Premium Also a work horse, also kicks ass. I have 3 terabytes of RAID array (RAID0 configuration) attached to this thing, and it manages and maintains all of my digital media. Everything in the house feeds it, and it plays out to all of the display and listening devices in my home.
  • A Winbook Jive Mini. Native OS: XP MCE 2005, SP2. Target OS: Debating that now. Winbook was purchased last year by Microcenter. (Microcenter has a fleet of east coast computer stores.) When I was looking for a replacement "outside the firewall" machine to run Azureus on, I bought this thing at Microcenter. I didn't want to spend a lot of money since this was just going to be the "bait" that I threw to the hacker wolves on the other side of my firewall, so I bought the floor model for $500. This thing would work great as a media center machine, by the way, for a small apartment. Small, quiet and fits in an entertainment cabinet.
  • A Sony TX "Ultra portable" laptop, dubbed "the wee one." Native OS: XP Professional, SP2. Target OS: Vista Business Not as powerful as its older brother the SZ, but this is my personal laptop and the laptop of choice for business trips or personal trips, or just tossing in my bag when I go to the gym so I can grab a cup of coffee later and websurf. Paired up with a Verizon EVDO aircard, I'm online all the time. (You can debate whether that is good or bad, but this blog is about tech and social change, right?) This will be the last machine that I Vista-fy. I need a control subject.
So, that's the cast and crew. These upgrades are going to take place throughout the next month, so I'll be posting the status of each mind transfer as I get through each one.

...the story so far:

---------------------------------

Mind Transfer #1: The Sony SZ Laptop.

Computer:
Sony SZ370P laptop
Native OS: WIndows XP Professional, SP2
Memory: 2 Gig
Hard drive: 120Gig
Extra Devices/Features: SVGA Camera (built in), Support for most digital memory sticks, dual graphics cards (one high end/high power consumption, the other standard graphics/low power consumption)


Ok, so I thought I would ease into this with the machine that would either be the easiest to upgrade, or the hardest. (Cutting to the chase, it was the former.) This machine was purchased as "Vista Ready," which means Sony was obligated to send me a copy of Vista Business when it became available. I was nervous for two reasons:

  1. Sony, as you may or may not know, makes fairly robust, high-end machines that have a shitload (technical term) of highly specialized, Sony-specific hardware aimed at optimizing their machines for media. The end result, of course, is that their drivers are pretty twitchy. (Sony is not known for its software or support, so the reliability of new drivers from Sony is always in question.)
  2. I've done a Sony-specific "we promise you that this will work" upgrade before, and completely hosed a desktop. Ugly, very ugly
The upgrade arrived as a single DVD. I watched in abject terror as the DVD installation:
  • stripped out my native drivers
  • stripped out my Sony specific drivers
  • installed Vista Business
  • installed Sony Specific drivers
  • installed native drivers
A final reboot, and....success! The SZ370P had a new consciousness that was Vista. It works, all of it. Even the built-in camera and the AT&T GSM Modem. I have been using it now for 2 weeks without any glitches or problems.

Turns out, Sony must have hired a few release engineers since I last tried this stunt.

Verdict: Success. Round-trip Rocket Time for Upgrade: 4.5 Hours. Rocket Cost: $0




Monday, April 23, 2007

When I say I surround myself with tech...

...I ain't joking. It's amazing I'm not sterile, actually, with all the wired, wireless, and carrier pigeon radiation flooding my home. Think of it this way: I live in my own laboratory.

Since I was a little kid - before this stuff was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, I've been weirdly obsessed with media portability. (Of course, it wasn't called that then - didn't really have a name for it.) I went through the whole thing - analog tape recordings of TV and radio shows, cassette decks in cars, the Walkman, the Watchman (anyone remember that?), and on and on... and now its come to this...

Here's a network topology of my current situation - I'll just walk through it quickly to give you an idea of what we are talking about here -- I get my media in a number of different ways, and I try to keep it all very legal:

AUDIO

audio - hosted: CDs (yup, eff DRM - I rip 'em the old fasioned way - uncompressed, too) - from there, I put them on the media server (currently a modified MCE 2005 box) as uncompressed audio files. They're huge, of course, which is preferred for playback with my Sonos systems, but won't fit on my portable audio stuff (iPod, PSP, Phatbox), so I need to compress the damn things down. For that little task, I use CDex, which I have running via a script in the background. Any new ripped CD shows up on the media center, and it is transcoded to a 128K MP3 file and placed in another directory. It's quick, neat and works.

audio - external sources: three sources - Sirius Satellite radio, Rhapsody, and a few dozen favored internet radio stations, my favorite being radioparadise.com. In addition to these music delivery systems, I live and breath podcasts these days - I'll post a piece on the prevalence of podcasting in a bit, which will include a few of my favorites, but if I don't get my TWiT, Buzz Out Loud, and various NYT podcasts in a timely fashion, I start to spontaneously bleed.

Both hosted and external audio gets mashed together on my Sonos, and the results are amazing. It doesn't matter to me where the music resides, the Sonos just takes it all and combines it - including the podcasts - and then distributes it around my house.

PHOTOGRAPHS

All of my personal photographs currently come from digital camera that I take with me wherever I go - I've got a crappy filing system I use (I really need to clean that up), and then I toss them on the MCE system. For quick viewing, I use the various flatscreens around the house and MCE as the display option. For quick pict printouts, I have a Sony 4x6 photo printer - which is adequate. For real photos, tho, I use oFoto or Shutterfly.


I still have two problems, tho:

  • legacy photos
    I am an amateur photographer - and my collection goes back a long time. I started to digitize these things myself on a mid-end, prosumer photo densitometer, but the time is was taking out of my life made me want to scratch my eyes out with a fork, so I stopped. I have these things stored safely, but I'd like to get them digitized cleanly, in as high a rez as is commercially possible.
  • cell phone photos
    Ok, I have to say I honestly didn't care about this stuff before. I figured I'd lose them (who cares) or use flickr or photobucket to store the ones I wanted to keep. I, uh, haven't used those either. I could store them in a directory on the MCE system, but that seems like more hassle than its worth.
If anyone out there has good solutions to these issues, that would be excellent. Please leave 'em here as comments.

VIDEO

Well, are we sitting down, kids? This is gonna take some 'splaining.

I have several discrete sources for video - all trying to keep the following rules in mind:
  • DRMless
    It's not that I am passing video around, or that I like to steal it or whatever - I just can't stand the concept. I hate it for music, and I truly hate it for video. I have a lot of nice little gadgets for bringing this stuff with me on plane flights, hotels, wherever...and I do NOT want to have the conversation about buying something I already bought multiple times.
  • Transcoded
    High-def for the plasma and laptop, low-def for the PSP and iPod.
  • One server to rule them all
    I have one repository (a big one) for all of my video - and I do not want to copy it or move it around as I go from room to room, so it should all sit in one location, and I should be able to access it anywhere using the 10-foot rule. (i.e. a remote.)
  • Keep It Cheap, Stupid
    Sure - you can do all of this stuff with 100's of 1000's of dollars worth of CEDIA installers, video switchers, etc... but screw that. A few $1000 dollars, tops, or its not worth it.
THE NEW-FASHIONED, OLD-FASHIONED WAY

I record it off the air and off cable. Not with a tape, of course, but with my Microsoft Media Center 2005... I bought the DHS-5 from Alienware about 18 months ago, and this thing is really quite a powerhouse. (Alienware has discontinued this model, and I am not sure why.)

Plugged into the DHS-5 are two cable boxes (no cable card support in MCE 2005), and two HighDef Over-the-air tuners. So - 4 input sources (2 NTSC, 2 HDTV). The DHS-5 takes this all in stride, and is able to record and playback in any combination. It is to the point where I honestly, seriously have no idea when anything is on television anymore. I don't know the network, and I don't know the day/time. While this is great for me, it gives the station carriers the willies, I am sure. (In a later post, though, we'll talk about why the production houses are starting to embrace this new business model.)

So, at 2gigs an hour for NTSC (using the microsoft ms-dvr codec), and a whopping 8-12gigs an hour for HDTV, where am I going to put that stuff? Oh, on commercially available external RAID drives, of course. Connected to the DHS-5, are 3 Terrabytes (yes, with a T) of RAID storage from LaCie, but there are now a dozen options available - including internal terabyte S-ATA drives that are now starting to appear on the market.

THE NEW, NEW-FASHIONED WAY

Yay, Bittorrent! Yay, Azureus! Boo, Bittorrent and Azureus script-kiddies! What the hell is wrong with you people, don't you have other things to do?

So - my enthusiasm in having the ability to pull video content from the internet in a fast, efficient manner is damped by my utter disdain for the need to constantly be checking the downloaded content to make sure that it is not infected before I release it into my home ecosystem (yes, I said "ecosystem") and view the content.

To do this, I employ an inexpensive server on the outside of my firewall to run Azureus and collect the content. There, it's isolated until a number of antivirus and antipayload applications can scour it. It's certified clean, the contents are copied over to the MCE's drives for playback.
Its a pain to do that extra step, but its worth it. Even with all the plugins available for Azureus to prevent these things from getting onto your drives, they still do get on your drives.

So, that's the commercial video content, but lately I find myself fascinated with video podcasts. Since I have just been experimenting with video podcasts to my collection of home and portable devices, I still haven't gotten this to be single source yet.

For my portable devices, I use two different delivery mechanisms... for the iPod, of course, I begrudgingly use iTunes. It does an excellent job of aggregating a huge number of the video podcast sources in the iTunes music store, and allows them to get downloaded to the iPod in a timely manner.

For the PSP, things are a little more difficult. The PSP will, of course, play the .MV4 files that show up on the iPod, but PSP screen is SO much larger and brighter, that you want to get video podcasts that are correctly transcoded for the PSP. (After all, don't you wanna see Katrina from MoBuzzTV in all her glory, rather than squished down on a little screen?) There are a couple of ways to deal with this: some sites, like MoBuzz, provide a link to a file already transcoded for a PSP's larger screen -- and the results are great. For everything else, I resort to the same tech I use for transcoding Bittorrent'ed content to the PSP: PSP Video9. This is a shareware tool, but very inexpenisive - US$20, I believe - and is incredibly useful. It not only transcodes the video podcasts, but also does a great job with 90% of the files bittorrented to the house server. (You can also add Videora to the mix to post-transcode bittorrented files automatically when they are received. I time saver when I am trying to hop a plane.)

For the flatscreens around the house, video podcasts can be aggregated, autodownloaded and displayed by a nifty plugin for MCE called TV Tonic. (Works in both MCE 2005 and Vista MCE, by the way.) This little plugin works as well - better, actually - then iTunes for aggregating, collecting and playing video podcasts at the maximum resolution possible. The company has several hundred aggregated video podcast sites, but there is an easy interface for you to enter video podcast RSS feeds that they don't already aggregate. All from your couch - very slick. Oh, extra bonus: TV Tonic plays back on your XBox 360 Media extenders...

...speaking of which, the XBox 360's I have scattered around the house are unbelievable. Full control of the MCE 2005 server from anywhere in the house, full 1080p playback (if you have them cabled that way), and full access to 90% of the MCE plugins, like TV Tonic. (Explain to me again why Apple's iTV is such a big deal?) BTW, I am having this debate with a few folks now - but I swear that the Xbox 360 uprez's all of the content. My NTSC recordings - as well as live NTSC television - sent from the MCE box looks significantly better than the source material.

------------

Anyway, a long winded post today, but I wanted to set the stage for how I live my life on a day to day basis for this blog column... I'll keep this article updated as I swap the gadgetry out in my house for the latest and greatest.

- RocketMan

Does the world really need another vanity technology blog?

...well, no - of course not, don't be silly...

At the last count, there was something like 110,000 new blogs added to the worlds servers every day. Looking at it one way, this blog is just another drop in the ocean of noise. It will get swallowed up promptly, and forgotten. Looking at it another way, contributing to the cacophony of voices is not necessarily a bad thing. Having lived through horrors like Clear Channel and Fox "News" Network, the swirl of independent voices that are blogs, podcasts and video podcasts seems like an excellent way to balance things out.

What I would really like to say here is that "This blog will be different!" Of course, with 110,000 new blogs coming on line each day, that's a ludicrous statement to make. And, sure, I'll be talking about wireless communications, operating system, gadgets, car audio, nanotech and the rest - and there are thousands of places you can go to get all of that information. What I can promise, tho, is to add my viewpoint to the mix -- and, although not completely unique, my vantage point is not as crowded as some of the other places from which to perch and watch the tech parade.

I've been in the tech domain for as long as I can remember - started coding at 15...which, in 1975, made me a fringe player....since that time, I've worked in tech for 2 different branches of the government (NASA/JPL and the FAA), been in more startups then I can shake a stick at (some successful: Art Technology Group, m-Qube, etc, some not successful: why mention them - speaking ill of the dead does no one any good), been in a couple of large corporations (VeriSign, dare I speak your name?), and have even started my own company (MediaRush, How I Miss Thee).

Currently - I'm a CTO (Chief Technology Officer - which means I get to watch others actually do the work, which is frustrating - but also good, since they are all much smarter than I am) at a startup company in the cell phone technology space. (People in the "cell phone technology space" love to call it the "mobile space," but that phrase covers way too much ground, and is a fleeting and temporary thing.) I have a lot of friends in the venture capital space, and I know a ridiculous amount of people at companies all around the US and Europe, so I get to hear all of their perspectives as time goes on.

Add to all of that, I get the same feeds the rest of the other bloggers do: magazines, journals, the WSJ, the NYT, other blogs, podcasts, video podcasts, conferences, business journals, etc etc etc... oh, and I talk to a lot of people at bars and coffee shops - actually a pretty good source of information from the "user acceptance" perspective.

So - I get a lot of input and sift through a tremendous amount of stuff...and my job is to sift through all of that cra...uh, information....and try to locate the vectors and see if they are lining up in any meaningful way. Essentially, this flowery language boils down to the question:

Where is all of this stuff headed?

What's I'd like to do in this blog, is add the additional:

...and is it taking us with it?

Still, the answers I pose will always just be my opinion.... so, I guess this really is just another vanity technology blog, ain't it?

- RocketMan