Tivo Geek

August 29, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Off the Wall, Personal, Technology | 1 Comment

I will admit it publically — I am an Official Tivo Geek.  The other night, I hacked a sample Tivo HME “Hello World” app so it would put my son’s name and “Go Ravens!” in big purple letters on the TV screen.  I now have a basic idea for a Tivo version of the Weatherbug app, hosted on the low power server box that I built for the primary purpose of hosting movies to stream to the Tivo.  The family already uses the Tivo to listen to our digital music collection of ripped MP3s, and I hope to do the same with our DVD collection.

I think the Tivo has changed our family’s media habits more than any other device since I first installed an Ethernet hub.  We watch what we want to watch, when we want to watch it.  Looking for something on TV?  Take your choice of one of the two hundred or so of our favorites we have on tap, plus any one of the dozens of movies and episodes we have selected to stream via Netflix.  Commercials?  Skip over them.  Miss the begining of the Ravens game?  The Tivo is already recording it, so you can start at the opening kickoff and skip past commercial breaks until you catch up to the action.   Phone call?  Pause the show, then pick up right where you left off.  The Tivo will handle the rest.  Tivo is the new doughnut.

With the server, the Tivo also organizes and displays photos and home movies.  It provides a comprehensive TV guide, and you can even use it to order a pizza.  The dual tuners support HDTV and CableCard, so it handles the new digital formats without a hitch.  I really don’t see why anyone with a TV set doesn’t log on and buy one.

But true Tivo Geekdom requires taking things to a new level.  Hence Bopo, the Windows XP server that my sons and I hacked together out of a HP T5710 motherboard and some cheap parts from China.  The name comes from my son’s hamster — I’ve taken to naming our various computers after our household pets.  Bopo is small and cute and … well, so is Bopo.  It fits nicely in a wooden jewelry box that ended up in our possession a ways back.  I was planning on having Bopo sit on the shelf next to Tivo, so it had to look nice.  But, I abandoned that plan and just put it down in the basement utility closet with the rest of the network stuff.  Bopo still looks cool, and it runs cool too (if you leave the lid open), since it only sucks down 18 watts, which is about as much as the hallway light that my kids leave on all the time.  The main storage drive is 160 Gb, which I figure should hold about 100 DVDs worth.  I plan to upgrade it to a 1Tb drive after Christmas, if I can find a good sale.  The Tivo’s warranty also expires around then, so I’ll look at upgrading its internal drive as well.

But a good server needs good software, and I’ve been able to scrounge that off the Web.  I’m using Tivo Desktop for music and photos, though I may try Galleon as an alternative.  I crunch DVDs down to mp4s with Handbrake, then serve them up with StreamBaby.  I’m also playing around with KMTTG to archive Tivo’ed shows — I found Tivo Desktop Plus to be seriously disappointing in this area.  And now that I’ve got my hands on a .NET library for HME programming, I can write my own apps.  A Weatherbug client will probably be the first, but the sky is the limit from there.  Hmmm, what about an Atari 2600 emulator…..  Or maybe  — Space Ace!

Theology Thought for the Day

August 27, 2009 at 8:31 am | Posted in Theology | 1 Comment

Any attempt to objectify sin that does not take into account the personal subjective nature of those involved denies the inherent personhood of the individual, if I understand John Paul the Great properly.  And, since sin is a betrayal of God by Man, then such an objectification therefore denies the Personhood of God Himself…..

The Two-Child Policy?

August 26, 2009 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Economics, Science | Leave a comment

 I spotted this article a ways back, which naturally I found quite fascinating.  I wonder if the Chinese government had taken a good look at this:

Population Pyramid: Year 2000

Population Pyramid: Year 2050

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, this is the current projection — in forty years, the largest demographic segment of Chinese society will be women over eighty years old.  Their society and economy just isn’t set up to handle this.  And believe it or not, the situation is even worse in the urban areas — the above projections are based on a fertility rate of 1.77 children per woman (a stable population is about 2.1 children per women).  Shanghai has a fertility rate of 0.8 children per woman … and dropping.  No wonder they are scrambling!

A Greenie Gets It … Almost

July 24, 2009 at 12:28 pm | Posted in Economics, Technology | Leave a comment

Here is an interesting article from The Huffington Post.  In it, the author addresses “the elephant in the room“: nuclear power is the only “carbon-free” energy source that stands a snowball’s chance of meeting the world’s needs in the forseeable future.  Biofuel has finally been discredited.  Wind and solar sound good and look cool in your backyard, but the energy density just isn’t there.  Factor in the the high cost of installation per kilowatt, the cost of maintenance, and degredation over time, and they are just not practical.  Maybe someday, someone will come up with a more efficient alternative energy source, but in today’s technological toolbox, nuclear fission is the only game in town.

But here is the funny part:

My plan would provide huge economic benefits to the United States. We’d create jobs, improve our trade deficit, and get a nice on-going monthly cash flow from the plants we finance. So whether you believe in global warming or not, this plan works.

Um, yeah.  Thirty years ago, maybe.  That’s when construction began on the last nuclear power plant built in the United States.  The US of A has gained zero experience from designing and building  new commercial-scale plants in for over three decades.  Zip.  So, where are we going to get all these highly specialized American engineers and construction workers from, anyway?

That’s easy — from the countries that still invest in nuclear power: France and Japan.

But what about the great American firms?  We have companies with nuclear experience, don’t we?  Well, yes … and no.  The great Westinghouse, builder of America’s nuclear power empire, was bought by Toshiba back in 2005.  General Electric‘s nuclear division merged with Hitachi in 2006.  Meanwhile, France’s EDF group has been buying up American nuclear firms left and right.  Trade deficit?  Yeah — all the profits are going overseas.

There may be “green jobs” to be found in the nuclear industry, but they are not American.

I’m Published!

July 23, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Posted in Personal, Technology | 3 Comments

I finally got an article published in a major technical magazine!  No, it‘s nothing earth-shattering, and I actually wrote it over my lunch break one day, but I’ve always wanted to see my name in print in a “realperiodical.  The closest I ever came was an attribution in someone else’s column.  But now, I can read my own article!

Yeah, I know, this is rather white and nerdy of me.  But it is cool, sorta.  I mean, there has to be some geek cred for it, right?

By the way, the printed version was edited quite a bit from the original.  I’ve included my original submission below.  But, be sure to click on the link anyway so EDN knows how much you love me!

 

At a former employer, business had been going very well – our startup company selling microprocessor-controlled weather stations to schools and broadcast entities was taking off, orders were picking up, and we were finding our booth very popular at trade shows.  Always on the lookout for things new and different, our president had become enamored with scrolling LED signs, and he insisted we needed one in the booth at the next show.

 “Just imagine: right behind the presenter will be up-to-the-second weather readings scrolling and flashing in bright colors!  Who wouldn’t stop to take a look at that?”

 While I had reservations about the aesthetic appeal of barometric pressure readings blinking in rainbow hues, I did have to admit that it would be a nice challenge which would show off some of our company’s technical expertise.  So I agreed, then almost regretted it when I found out what our schedule was.  Ouch.  We had limited time to get this show on the road.

 The boss had already selected a vendor for the scrolling signs, so I took a look at the interface specification.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that it supported a rich serial protocol for transmitting and updating messages to be displayed.  All I needed to do was convert our serial data stream from the weather station to the format that the sign understood.  The job was starting to seem a lot easier.

 We had decided that we wanted a standalone unit that we could market later, so we went with an 8051-family microcontroller solution which would receive weather data on one UART and transmit display data with the other.  To save time and effort, we ordered an OEM board from a vendor we had used before, and we recycled a number of embedded C routines to handle the serial data streams.  All that had to be done was to write some simple C code to transfer weather data from one stream to another.  We might meet our deadline after all.

 The initial work went perfectly.  I had hard-coded some test messages into the interface, and they displayed perfectly on the sign.  I set up the serial input buffer and state machine on the receiving port, and I was able to see the extracted weather data in the debug output.  All that was left to do was include the weather data in the output stream.

 I expanded the output buffer to hold the larger data, and reset the system.  Panic quickly set in.  Instead of my orderly flow of temperatures and precipitation counts, all I got was a garble of letters and symbols.  Something was seriously wrong.  Even though the serial code had been tested in a number of other applications, I began to comb through it, looking for any mistake I could have made.  I checked and double-checked every inch of the code, and after banging my head against the wall for a few hours, I chose a time-tested course of action:  I shut off my computer and went home.

 The next morning in the shower (where I have my best ideas), I realized what the problem had to be.  Arriving at work the next day, instead of reaching for the computer power switch, I reached for a small screwdriver I kept for just such purposes.  Prying up the main RAM chip on the OEM board from its socket, I found the culprit – one of the data pins was bent under the chip.  When I increased the size of the output buffer, the compiler had automatically moved the buffer from internal memory in the CPU to external RAM in order to accommodate the extra space.  With the pin bent, though, all the ASCII characters got scrambled before I sent them to the sign, which dutifully displayed the gibberish anyway.

 With the pin straightened, it was not long before we had a working sign interface module, just in time for the next trade show.  Even our president was impressed.  “Looks great!” he said.  “Now, I have this idea for a weather billboard…”

A Year in the Mirror

July 22, 2009 at 11:13 am | Posted in Faded Mirror, Personal | 2 Comments

To the two or three people who might view this weblog occasionally, welcome to the one-year anniversary of The Faded Mirror.  Yes, it was about one year ago that I started tossing random thoughts and web links to the general public.  There have been some popular posts, and some that were completely ignored.  And, over this time, my interests have undergone a bit of a change.

It’s not that there aren’t interesting topics to blog about, but that anything having to do with politics, culture, or economics these days is so goshdurn depressing, and I am increasingly finding that I am more and more  unqualified to write about theological topics.  “A theologian is one who prays,” which puts me at about the Kindergarten level.  There’s not much to say that others haven’t said much better.

And regarding my fascination with personal technology … well, I am so far behind in keeping up that I might as well be reviewing the Mellotron.  My time is so limited that it’s almost impossible to find time to dabble, let alone take pictures and write about it.  But, rest assured that I still have some projects in the works, and I’ll post about them … someday.

So, where does that leave this blog?  Well, my initial goal of  posting once a week has fallen by the wayside.  I might get to it once a month or so.  Also, I’ll probably limit myself to interesting minutia rather than global concepts.  There’s just too much to follow these days, it’s constantly changing, and very little is encouraging to me.  I think I’ll just keep quiet to preserve what’s left of my sanity.

So, if you are one of the two people who read this, please drop a note in the comment box!  And, if you have some trivial idea you want overanalyzed, toss it out — maybe I’ll read up on it and find fodder for a offbeat blog post.

Enjoy.

Forty Years Later

July 20, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Personal, Science, Technology, Workplace | Leave a comment

My dad sent me an email message reminding me how I, as a ten-week-old baby, was propped up in front of the kit-built Heathkit to see the historic landing on the Moon.  This reminded me of a scene from a great movie, The Dish, and I found myself tracking down exactly what a 1201 error in the LEM guidance code was, anyway.

That led to this little gem.

Apparently, not much has changed in the world of third level tech support….

The Next Big Thing, revisited

June 9, 2009 at 11:35 am | Posted in Economics, Technology | 1 Comment

On the heels of a previous posting, the good folks at Dimension sent me a free sample “print” — a salt shaker of an unusual shape.  Here are the pics I took with my brand-new Samsung Alias 2 (excuse the focus problems — I’m still learning the ins and outs):

3D printed salt shaker with screw-off top

3D printed salt shaker with screw-off top

 

Inside the shaker

Inside the shaker

As you can see, the shaker has a unique twisty shape.  Anyone who has worked with plastic molds will tell you that shapes like these make for very complicated (read expensive) molding operations.  But, apparently the uPrinter can handle complex shapes like these with aplomb.  The possibilities seem to be limited only by the imagination of the designer….
It’s hard to see in the picture, but the shaker has a very fine ridged texture on all surfaces due to the manufacturing process.  The ridges could probably be polished off, or it may be that consumers will accept this in exchange for the benefits of creating their own plastic implements.  The ABS plastic itself, however, is solid and durable, and I maintain my statement that stereolithography someday will become a major disruption in the worldwide consumer economy.

The Conspiracy Collision

June 5, 2009 at 11:54 am | Posted in Economics, Science, Theology | Leave a comment

Here’s an interesting observation courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor:

In Islam there is a necessary link between religiosity and worldly power and success. The prophet Muhammad founded a religion and an empire, which lasted for a millennium. Jews and Christians, by comparison, experienced existential crises early in their histories and, as a result, developed narratives whereby God regularly tests his people with hardship or exists in a realm separate from man’s tribulations – the Kingdom of Heaven. Not so in Islam.

As a result, many Muslims ask themselves: How can Christians, Jews, and atheists dominate us – the greatest community, the one most connected to an active God, the one with a right to rule the world in the name of justice? Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi, one of radical Islamism‘s founders, sermonized: “Your honor, which no one dared to touch, is now being trampled upon.… You are Muslims and yet are slaves! This situation is impossible as it is for an object to be white and black.” 

There are three general paths out of this cognitive dissonance for Muslims.

The first is to secularize, to argue that Islam doesn’t entail earthly power. The unsuccessful Arab nationalists, communists, and liberals in the Muslim world have taken this view, holding in various ways that Islam is separate from politics.

The second is to pin blame on unfaithful adherents. Radical Islamists argue that if true Muslims are granted great power, then contemporary believers must be Muslims in name alone. Only by returning to the pure faith, which they interpret wildly into a totalitarian ideology, will the practical problems disappear.

The third solution – compatible with the first two, and the easiest one to adopt – is conspiracy theories. If Muslims are the preeminent community and deserve great success, evil forces must be suppressing them. Muslims will rise again, the argument goes, once they purge themselves of these shadowy foes.

Westerners often perceive Islam as a millenarian cult, while in fact it’s a rather practical religion. Social failure is so hard for many Muslims to swallow because Islam guarantees prosperity and justice. Conspiracy theories rationalize this failure by placing the blame apart from Muslims themselves and safeguarding the necessary connection between Islam and earthly success. Coupled with the real threats outsiders have posed, the theories seem reasonable to many Muslims.

This worldview, importantly, is not unique to radical Islamists. I spent a year studying the Muslim community of Mauritius, an island-nation in the Indian Ocean. I spoke to many liberal Muslims there, people who worked to create Mauritius’s effective and inspiring multicultural democracy. They often introduced conspiracy theories to explain away perceived Muslim failings.

All of this makes it difficult for Obama to speak directly to Muslims without them twisting his words and motivations into an American plot to destroy or at least dampen their communities and faith.

I find this to be a rather fascinating observation of the collision of world and worldview.  I would imagine that wherever conspiracy theories abound, there is such a collision lurking in the background.

We’ve All Got Cell Phones, revisited

May 28, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Posted in Technology | 3 Comments

Almost a year ago, I posted on the transformative nature of cell phone technology. Now, you are reading my first post written on a cell phone. Yes, I am currently typing this on my new Samsung Alias 2 which Verizon gave me for free when I updated our plan to include unlimited text and Web.

It’s amazing to see how much information is already “mobilized” for the limited display capabilities of this fairly capable portable information station. And, for those websites not already mobile friendly, Google offers a “mobilizer” that renders standard web pages in a more mobile palatible format.

Sorry, no links or pictures — I haven’t figured an easy way to add them yet. But, this new method may give me another chance to jot thoughts as I have the odd free moment during the day — if I’m not idly browsing Wikipedia, that is….

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