This is Zach's personal blog. If you're looking for his movies, please click here. Otherwise, have fun!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Houston, we have HD! In a very esoteric fashion, anyway...

As one might expect, grabbing HD frames from the MPEG-2 TS stream, and converting them to H.264 for the Apple TV, is a process fraught with danger, whether from the Long Conversion Time of Doom, the Horror of Out-Of-Sync Audio, or the Terror of Low Disk Space. But I tell ye, here are the programs you need on Mac OS X to make all your troubles vanish:
  • iRecord, as mentioned in this space previously;
  • iSquint, the iPod converter which also does a serviceable job converting for Apple TV; and last but not least
  • MPEG Streamclip, an absolutely essential editor for MPEG-TS files.

All three of these items are absolutely free. For best results, especially if you want to edit out commercials, you should also buy Apple's MPEG2 player component for QuickTime, which is $20. But if you're fine with fast-forwarding, à la TiVo, you can do it all for free. Read on...

First off, you need a compatible HD cable box. I have the Motorola DCT-2600, the standard non-DVR digital box from Comcast. If your cable box has a FireWire output, it'll probably work.

Set up your recording in iRecord's intuitive interface. For me, I was taping Bones (a guilty pleasure my wife and I share; I like Emily Deschanel, she likes David Boreanaz). Fox is a 720p network. If you're taping on ABC or Fox, no scaling is needed; any other network broadcasts at 1080i, so you'll lose some resolution, as the Apple TV doesn't play 1080. In any case, I set the machine to record on Wednesday from 7:59 to 9:00 P.M. 8 to 9 would have been fine, too, as it turned out. (Needless to say, you'll have the computer connected to the box via FireWire at the appropriate time.)

Once the recording is finished, open MPEG Streamclip. If you haven't already, go to the Preferences window and check the box marked "Fix streams with data breaks." This is absolutely essential to make sure the audio and video sync up throughout the stream. Now open the MPEG-TS file you just recorded. It may tell you the file is not legal; hit "Open Anyway."

Now, if you don't have the Quicktime MPEG2 component, you'll get a warning and a play bar will appear, but no picture. No worries. Choose "Convert to MPEG..." from the File menu. You're transforming it from a transport stream to a picture stream (like those used on DVDs) but with no loss of resolution. You need to do this conversion so the aforementioned "Fix streams with data breaks" will apply to the new stream. You could just as easily convert it to a new TS stream as well.

When you've got the new picture stream done, open iSquint and drag the new file to the iSquint conversion list. Select "Optimize for TV" and "H.264 encoding," then hit the Advanced button. Now, enter a resolution of 1280 x 720, a data rate of 4500 (or so... in my experience you could go down to 2000 and still have it look OK), and a frame rate--this is important--of 23.976. If you put in a straight 24, you can get judder, since the original stream is running at 59.94 FPS. You should also choose an audio bitrate of 160 or less. Hit Start. Several cups of coffee later, you'll have an .mp4 file suitable for dropping into iTunes and syncing to your Apple TV! (If you have Quicktime Pro, you can open the .mp4 file in Quicktime, edit out the commercials, and save the result as a self-contained movie; the .mov will also play on the Apple TV.)

If you have the MPEG2 component, you can take iSquint out of the equation entirely. Open the first file (the MPEG-TS you recorded with iRecord) in MPEG Streamclip and edit it directly. MPEG Streamclip uses an in-point, out-point system for its edits; see the in-program help for details. Pay special attention to where the MPEG2 keyframes are; you can use the Go To Keyframe command in the Edit menu liberally. (MPEG Streamclip will choose appropriate cut points for you if you don't do this, but I prefer to have the control.) Then, instead of choosing Convert to MPEG, you can choose Export to MPEG-4 to convert directly. Again, you need to make sure "Fix streams with data breaks" is ON in Preferences, otherwise you're doing absolutely no good.

The bit rate, frame rate, audio bit rate, etc. settings are similar to iSquint. Just be sure you choose the 720p scaling if you've recorded a 1080i stream. I haven't done a 1080i stream yet, so YMMV. In particular, I'm not sure whether the frame-rate would still be 23.976. But I think so. You may also want to choose "de-interlace" for a 1080i file.

Be warned, MPEG Streamclip takes a lot longer to export than iSquint. On the other hand, the second process takes up a lot less disk space.

I realize, with my teeny weeny readership, most of you are probably scratching your head and saying "whaaa?" But if this helped, or if you have any questions or corrections, please do leave a comment in this post.

Edit: after writing most of this, I finished the Bones export. After about a half-hour, judder appears in the stream, as though the exported frame rate is not quite synched with the original frame rate. Perhaps 23.976 is not the magic number after all. Working...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Another reason the well-off are different.

As long as I'm quoting other blogs who are quoting other people, here's David Iglesias (via Digby), on part of the reason he won't run for political office:
And, frankly, I’ve got a practical matter. I’ve got four kids—all girls—so I’m going to have four weddings and four college educations in the next 15 years, and based on what members of Congress make…just do the math! It’s not very encouraging.
A rank-and-file member of Congress makes $165,200.

Granted, unless you're within driving distance of the Capitol, you essentially have to have two houses (since, according to the Constitution, a Congresscritter must reside in the state which they represent). Nonetheless, give me break; $165k ain't chicken feed. Iglesias can choose not to run for office for whatever reason he wishes. But don't try for my sympathy because you'd be getting a pay cut.

Don't call me stupid!

Jacob Weisberg pulls a Jamie Lee Curtis:
I am seldom bothered by minor errors from a good writer, but Roberts' mistakes are so extensive, foolish, and revealing of his basic ignorance about the United States in particular, that it may be worth noting a few of those I caught in a fast read. The San Francisco earthquake did considerably more than $400,000 in damage. Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in 1941, did not write for Encounter, which began publication in 1953. The Proposition 13 Tax Revolt took place in the 1970s, not the 1980s—an important distinction because it presaged Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Michael Milken was not a "takeover arbitrageur," whatever that is. Roberts cannot know that there were 500 registered lobbyists in Washington during World War II because lobbyists weren't forced to register until 1946. Gregg Easterbrook is not the editor of the New Republic. "No man gets left behind" is a line from the film Black Hawk Down, not the motto of the U.S. Army Rangers; their actual motto is "Rangers Lead the Way."
"And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto; I looked them up."

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It's made of wood... A WITCH!

Oh, this is something I'd love to put together.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The adventure continues...

Another Apple TV resource site: AwkwardTV. Yowza.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Apple TiVo!

Thanks to an anonymous commenter for pointing this out:

It's looking like this thing could be a new homebrew platform. People have got XviD working, SSH and VNC, and of course upgraded hard drives. Yowza!

Personally, I doubt I'll be cracking open the case or anything, at least until a year from now when the warranty expires, but this is some cool stuff, man.

I've had some minor success using the FireWire output on my cable box, and a little app called iRecord, to turn my laptop into a DVR. Converting the resulting MPEG-TS file into a 720p, 24fps H264 .mp4 file, using iSquint, allows it to sync to the Apple TV no problems. And hey presto, there's the hi-def DVR that I wanted, oh, two years ago.

I tested it with eight minutes of Nova, which is broadcast in 1080i at 30fps. Although there was of course data loss--going down to 720p and 24fps--it still looked a heck of a lot better than the 640x360 AVI you'd get from BitTorrent (well, if anyone torrented Nova, that is).

It appears that Apple has changed its "maximum playback requirements"; before release they said the box could only play "progressive main profile" H264, whatever that means, and although the specs still say that, some of the other formats have expanded, notably MPEG-4. However, iSquint creates Simple Profile videos--for the iPod--and they work beautifully.

I can say, however, that the 24fps barrier for 720p is currently insurmountable--30fps wouldn't sync, and I doubt it would stream either. But I wouldn't at all be surprised if this barrier disappeared in a subsequent software update.

For reference, here are the settings that I used in iSquint to make it work (click the Advanced... button to open the drawer):
  • Resolution: 1280 x 720
  • Video Bitrate: 5000
  • Framerate: 24
  • H.264 encoding (of course)

Holy Samurai!

Rashomon is on the Internet Archive?!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

iTV was easier to type.

For the first time in a while, I'm an early adopter. I usually talk a good line--"Yeah, I'm gonna buy the iPod nano TODAY, and I'm camping out for the Macs with Intel too!"--but in actual fact, the purchase usually comes quite a bit later. But not so this time; yesterday at 3:30 I shouldered my bag of provisions, kissed my wife goodbye, and journeyed into the wilds of the Columbia Mall to hunt an Apple TV.

I returned an hour and a half later, trophy in hand, and immediately hooked it up to our gigantic (in depth, not screen size--it's a tube, y'see) HDTV via a horribly expensive HDMI cable. The device found our WiFi network instantly, I entered the WEP encryption code and then a shorter code to identify the iTunes on our iMac, and ba-ding, it began syncing to our iTunes library instantly.

Many people have complained that the resolution of the video sold by the iTunes store doesn't look very good on an HDTV. To me, it looks no worse than your average DVD, and that's good enough, given that we don't have a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player. But I did a quick test with one of my animations, specially rendered in HD for the occasion, and ta-da! it worked!

Karyl had just finished reading James Patterson's Along Came a Spider, so she was hinting strongly that we should buy the movie from iTunes--as a test case, don'tcha know--so, what the hell, we did. Although we only watched about half of it, being tired parents and all, we were pleasantly surprised to discover it streamed perfectly over 802.11g, no n required.

Coming up later--results of experiments in converting HD content! Can Apple TV actually play more formats than advertised?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I wonder, is it time for the Rooster Spice podcast to return?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It took a while, but I finally finished Enemy Combatant. It's one of those reads that is gripping, but so disturbing and depressing, that you need to read it in many separate sessions.

I wonder whether we'll ever find out the whole truth about what has been done in America's name during this so-called War on Terror. And I wonder whether we will ever stop it.

"We," he says. Like I couldn't take some steps myself, if I wanted to. But I guess I'm just an ordinary German...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Homeward sun.

Since this was posted on Crooks and Liars, I doubt my select audience of three hasn't seen it before, but just in case, here's a lovely video of two of my favorite musicians, Paul Simon and George Harrison, performing a duet of two of their best songs.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Mac OS bug you must know about.

Via Mike, a public service announcement. If you use Mac OS X, read this NOW. I'm serious.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Enlightened Bracketologist.

This is great fun. But they should have included Butch and Sundance, damn it.

OK, now I'm in a foul enough mood to talk about this again.

In comments, Godfrey wrote:
Upon re-reading and reflection, I'm not sure I really understand what you're saying after all.

"I wrote down my deepest feelings as a type of therapy for years, but it was only when I blogged that other people wrote back" sounds like you feel the writing back is a good thing.

And yet when people show concern — when they give a rat's ass about what you say and "[try] to help" — you call them "sensitive people" who "get unnerved", as though having people care about you is a kind of imposition.

So what do you want?
I DON'T KNOW. Which is, in a nutshell, the problem.

Do I consider it an imposition when people care about me? Yeah, in a way I think I do. Because deep down in my heart, I believe I don't deserve people who care about me. I mean, come on, look at me. I'm sitting here whining about how my life is So Damn Hard and I mean--come on, I don't even have a fucking job! Aren't I the kind of guy who just needs to be shunned and ridiculed?

I spent most of this evening metaphorically curled up in a fetal position, even as I cooked pasta and sauce for dinner (yeah, I can't cook worth a damn either). I have all these commitments this month which I won't detail here, but they are all way the fuck out of my comfort zone, and I'm just at sea about how to proceed. The only saving grace is that come April 21st they'll be gone, assuming I'm not straitjacketed by then. Yet I know--I know--that if I were qualified for these various things (all of which I signed up for of my own volition!) they'd all be a piece of cake. They are not rocket science.

I may have used this before, but in my friend Mike's breakout show, he made a point how everyone really believes they're competent at their job. Go on, raise your hands if you feel you're competent. It's a miracle! No one who reads Rooster Spice is incompetent! All the incompetent people are stuck at Eschaton or something! (This joke works better in a theater--"all the incompetent people are wandering the streets, wondering where 21 Dog Years is playing!")

Well, it's a horrible realization when you determine you are, in fact, incompetent. That's got to be the explanation, right? I mean, I've got a hundred-thousand-dollar education and I can't even manage being a professional parent, for God's sake! The only reason I'm not homeless (or dead) begins with a K and I'm married to her. (No, this is not hyperbole; without my wife my depression probably would have sent me to the streets. Or a Pulitzer, maybe.)

The lighthearted post from a couple days ago masked a real question: what am I going to do when the kids are in junior high? I don't fucking know. The idea of re-entering the workforce fills me with absolute terror. The notion that I could make a name for myself as an independent animator is utterly ridiculous, not to mention far too expensive to contemplate. (Travel and entry fees add up, and I have made exactly 100 dollars on any of my films over a four year period.) So what do I do? Continue leeching off my wife for the rest of my life?

(On the other hand, no one ever accused a housewife of leeching off of her husband, back in the day. But most housewives actually kept house. Ask my wife when the last time was I cleaned the bathroom, and then be prepared for the riotous laughter.)

I know this post is the adult equivalent of "everybody hates me, waaaah!" and it sure seems like I'll never get past that. So don't bother treating this as a serious call for help. I'll be over it soon enough, until next month when I get stressed and tired again. It never gets any better (or, indeed, worse), no matter how hard I try.
Emily Bazelon:
What's troubling about preschool admissions, in the end, is that they reveal how narrow the preferred range of demeanor for little kids is. We want 2- and 3-year-olds to be sunny but not loud, perceptive but not shy, energetic but not hyper. We want them to conform. Your genius friend who can't sit still or your tech-savvy officemate who avoids eye contact? They'd be in the reject pile.

Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: Dude, some dude wearing a sooth told me today's gonna suck.
Antony: Dude, why?
Caesar: Dude, I dunno. Yo, Brutus!
Brutus: Yo, me! (Stabs Caesar.)
Caesar: (Checks watch.) At two, Brutus? (Dies.)
Antony: I better bury him.
Brutus: That'd be honorable.
Antony: Yeah, you'd know about that. (Kills Brutus.)
Cleopatra: Get over here, you big stud.
Antony: No, that's the other play.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A great encounter.

One of the things I love about old Greenbelt is how neighborly it is. If people have seen you walking around town, it's like they know you instantly, no questions asked. We all have a common understanding, after all, in all these tiny, cooperatively-owned townhouses.

For instance, this morning as I was walking back from dropping E off at her nursery school, I passed a man and his daughter, who were (presumably) walking to her bus stop, or maybe their car, on the way to elementary school. I had seen them a few times before, and he must have gathered that I was a stay-at-home dad, because out of the blue he asked me where E was going to be when she's out of nursery school.

"Oh," I said, "she'll be at the elementary school."

"And what are you gonna do?" he laughed.

I knew this question well, so I just shrugged and laughed. He laughed, too, saying, "I tell ya, my wife would say to me, you gotta get out of the house and start workin'!"

"Well, I do some work from home, it just doesn't earn me any money."

"Oh, no," he said, "I don't mean now, but I mean, you know, when it's junior high, what are you gonna do then?"

"I don't know," I admitted.

"I tell you what you gotta do then," he said, leaning in conspiratorally. "Start havin' more babies...!"

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A decent article about reconnecting children with nature.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thursday, March 08, 2007

If you can read this, you are too close.

Someone once said that you should write as if everyone you care about is dead, meaning that an author can't be encumbered by worry over what others will say about his or her writing. (Besides the usual, "damn, too many run-on sentences" and the like.) Whoever said it, no doubt they said it before the Internet age.

Take Rooster Spice, f'rinstance. I started blogging in 2002, long before Google was a verb, and I did so under my real name. I knew that it was possible that people I knew personally would find me, but I didn't care about it; if I had something to say, I said it, even if it made people worry that I was cracking up, or worse, suicidal. For one thing, I figured anyone who knew me would know that I was a moody type in real life and within a few days I would be back to my usual chipper self. Alas, my friends are not, in fact, equipped with telepathy, and so when I said that I was suicidal and/or a danger to others, they--gasp!--believed me, and tried to help. I wrote down my deepest feelings as a type of therapy for years, but it was only when I blogged that other people wrote back.

This was part of the reason that I quit blogging for several months, and then came back psuedonymously. Of course, by then, the damage had been done and the bookmarks had been set, so I went back to my real name eventually. And so, more and more people discovered the Spice: friends, brothers both close and long-lost (and if you're reading, Owen, send me your address because I owe you a Christmas card, damn it), and finally, mom and pop. Mom sometime last year, I think, and Dad very recently. Oh, and the wife, of course, but I never tried to keep it a secret from her.

So, that's fine, I can keep things to a civil tone so that all you sensitive people don't get unnerved. (If you detected some bitterness in that sentence, dear reader, that's your problem, not mine.) But jeez, on some days, I sure do miss the therapy. But when what I have to write would not only worry my friends, but most likely hurt and sicken my family, well, what's a therapeutic blogger to do?

(Cultivate real-life friendships, I suppose. Good luck with that.)

Monday, March 05, 2007

And that doesn't count the cardboard itself.

Recently I made a significant purchase: a new 3D animation suite. While I was able to get my old one for only $199 (plus yearly upgrades of $99 each), this one cost... shall we say, quite a bit more.

So when it came time to recycle the cardboard box it came in, I had mixed feelings... sure, it was so big that it contained mostly air, but still--that was two thousand bucks worth of air!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

If They Might Be Giants shilled for Chevrolet.

We're in a road movie to Berlin
Can't drive out the way we drove in
So seek out this last Suburban
And we'll go...