george winston in concert

My best Christmas gift this year (aside from my Frosted Flakes pajamas) was that my older sister took me to go see George Winston in concert while I was visiting her in Minneapolis last week. I absolutely love his music, and I never dreamed of being able to see him perform live. It was an excellent show, too. George Winston’s albums are the first piano albums I’ve ever listened to, and I’ve been listening to them for probably over ten years now, and I’m nowhere near tired of them.

I was expecting that, since it was the holidays, most of his selection would be from the December album. I was wrong about that, he played stuff from all his albums, maybe doing three or four selections from December. The one that I remember the best was Tamarack Pines from Forest. It’s an incredibly interesting piece, and it was real treat to see him do it live. I never really thought about how much he’d be moving his hands. Sometimes he would grip the strings inside the piano for extra effect which was weird, but it worked.

Something I didn’t know is that he also plays the guitar. He did about three songs on his guitar. He played the harmonica once, too. Overall, the guy was a really interesting character. He was very modest about his work. When he first came out, he just went straight to the piano and said what he was going to play first. Before each piece he’d say who or what had inspired his work, and after each piece he’d say nothing more than “thank you very much,” and quickly moved on. At the end of the concert he barely even bowed before briskly striding off the stage. You’d certainly never pick him out from a crowd, that’s for sure.

Great music, though. He played about eight of my favorites, which I wrote down, but I left the paper and program back east. I do remember he did Carol of the Bells, though. That one was amazing, too. I love his stuff. :)

national treasure 2

On my little Christmas vacation to Minneapolis, I got to visit the Mall of America, and go to a theater to see National Treasure: Book of Secrets. The movie wasn’t really worth writing about. It wasn’t as good as the first one in regards to humor … it was more serious and focused instead of relationships. The adventure was good, though. I find adventure movies hard to sit through, personally. I don’t like the whole “oh my gosh, are they going to make it?” excitement. It just bugs me. It also makes it so I can’t watch movies a second time. I much more prefer “punch me in the face 857 times with a textbook” style of action movie, like the Bourne trilogy or 007 movies. Action all around versus a mix of drama and then a climatic ending.

Anyway, nothing compared to the actual cartoon that preceded the movie … Disney put a Goofy cartoon before the movie! Old school, baby! Man, I am old enough to remember watching Looney Tunes before movies way back in the day, and Donald Duck and other Disney ones. Wow, I don’t know why they ever did away with that.

The one we saw was “How to Set Up A Home Theater,” and it was absolutely awesome. I was laughing quite a bit during it, and it was a great nod to the old “How To” series of Goofy cartoons that are classic. I would have a hard time watching this newer one and an older one and have even the slightest idea that they were about fifty years apart, it followed the pattern so well. I’d buy the movie on DVD just to see that cartoon again (I never bought the first National Treasure, may or may not someday).

There were trailers on there which looked really good, too. I saw a Wall-E trailer for the first time, and it looks absolutely hilarious … hopefully it’ll be the first Pixar movie that’s worth watching since The Incredibles. In fact, my friend Jason and I were discussing this the other day, and there’s only three of the six that are out that I think are worth watching: Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles. I don’t like Toy Story (for the adventure / climax reason I stated above), never saw Toy Story 2 (no thanks), Finding Nemo was a bore and a half, walked out of Cars, and as far as Ratatouille … I haven’t seen it. I’ve never liked any movie where an animal has the starring role, animated or not.

The other trailer was for Narnia 2, Prince Caspian. Now *that* trailer looked really, really, really cool. I didn’t like the first one at all (the battle was too short, boring, and nothing really happened … it was very well detailed in the book. Plus that goat-man thing looked freaky). The second one looks like it’s gonna rawk. I’m pretty excited for that one.

Seems like there was another trailer … oh yes, Hancock looks hilarious. :) Watch the trailer if you can find it.

That’s about it. As far as the movie itself, it was a good popcorn movie. Definately rated PG as I don’t remember anything remotely offensive at all, which is a nice change of pace. I’d recommend going to see it.

Well, that was a fun little review. I never write ones for movies that I’m sorta half-interested in because it never seems like I’ll have anything to say. Maybe I should just write about them anyway.

merry christmas

Okay, so I’m a little late on my holiday post.  So what. :)  I got to fly out to Minneapolis for the holiday and spend time with my sisters and my nephews and niece.  It was great fun, and extremely exhausting (those little kids run me ragged).  I did have a field day at Toys R Us buying stuff for them though.  That was fun. :)  I also got to see National Treasures 2 (good popcorn movie), and I got a few cool gifts as well.

That’s about it.  I hope your holidays was fun.

copyright and rights to copy

I’ve always noticed a bit of an interesting trend when it comes to people wielding copyright laws, and that is the general assumption that just because something is copyrighted by someone, that it automatically implies that people have no rights to copy them.  That is not true.  Sadly, though, you hear the phrase “it’s copyrighted” as an excuse not to copy something.  Well, guess what, you’re going to be hard pressed to find something that *isn’t* copyrighted these days, especially since in the U.S. you don’t need to register them anymore with the government or even add a (c) to your work.  Everything is just automatically protected by copyright law.

The fact of the matter is, people give away the rights to copy all the time (free software, anyone?) without giving up the copyright.  So, to say something is “copyrighted” does not necessarily imply that the owner of the copyright will be offended if you make a copy.  What you really need to do is find out their feeling on the matter.

I’m really going to simplify here and say that there are three general degrees of distributing copy rights: licensing, permission and unrestrictive.

Licensing would be what the big companies want to do.  Sure you pay $18 for a small plastic disc, but you are licensing the content.  You don’t own it, and that’s why you can’t make copies.  You are generally agreeing to terms that say, “this is one copy, for you, and you alone.”  Licensing can have lots of forms, and basically gets into contracts after that.  Radio stations license the right to copy the music they play by rebroadcasting it.  Just like a movie theater, they get master copies, and license the right to make copies themselves, while the producers get a cut of the income.

The second one is generally “please ask permission before using this.”  You’ll see this a lot on things that aren’t necessarily hugely popular, but the owners don’t want people running naked in the streets with their works, either.  Generally speaking, it seems like the owners are always going to approve of the use if they approve with the application (chilling, I know, but still reasonable for most applications).

The third is what free software licenses use — nobody has to ask for permission because it’s already granted ahead of time.  I suppose there is a fourth method to copyright which is fair use, but that doesn’t really fall into the realm of sharing since in most cases you’re only sampling the work.

Don’t think for a second that just because large entertainment industries enforce their rights to copy on most everything they own, that their method is the status quo.  The word copyright implies making copies.  The question is, who has the rights?

second annual netflix rental roundup

Well, it’s been two years now since I’ve been hooked on Netflix.  I can’t say I’m disappointed yet.  In recent months, though, I’ve switched from trying my luck with movies to trying with TV shows a little bit, and the success ratio has been much higher …. around 75% compared to something like 7% with movies.  I’m just guessing.  I should quantify that.

Anyway, to compare directly to last years stats, I’ll post the same results first:

Current plan: 5 a month (unlimited)

# of times I changed my plan: 7

# DVDs at home: 0

# of movies in my queue: 483

# of movies I’ve rated: 1,948

# recommendations: 7

# of movies I’ve rented: 78

# of 5-star ratings (from rentals): 1

# of 4-star ratings (from rentals): 4

# of movies I’ve bought on DVD (because of rentals): 2

I figured the numbers were poorer this year, but they’re pretty close to last year’s, except for the new movies I bought because I liked the rental so much (84 Charing Cross Road and The Court Jester).

It might be worth explaining my movie rating system.  I give something 3 stars if I think it’s clean enough and worth watching … that is, I’d rent it, maybe buy it, and definately watch it again.  I don’t include that in the stats since I think its too general a number.  But in this case, the number that I rated 3 stars that I haven’t seen before was 7.  Still a pretty low number, and it just goes to show that most of the stuff out there isn’t worth watching (in my opinion).  I’m pretty picky, though.

Here’s some categories I’d put stuff into, which occurred to me as I was looking over the list:

Movies I expected to be good that disappointed me: Do Not Disturb, The Princess and the Pirate, How to Make an American Quilt, Move Over Darling, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Thrill of It All, The Ice Pirates

Thought it would be slightly entertaining, but was horrible:  Dungeons and Dragons, Merlin, A Cinderella Story

Unexepected surprises (good movies): The Cure, 84 Charing Cross Road, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, The Court Jester, Time After Time, Hacking Democracy, The Dead Zone, Smallville, Spider-man (the 67 collection), Ivanhoe

Seen it before, liked it, watched it again, still like it: Coach Carter, The Fog of War, Lady in White, Carpool, Mom and Dad Save the World, Without a Trace, The ‘Burbs, Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Freaky Friday

My opinion lowered: Greedy, 50 First Dates, The Wizard

Meh: Popeye, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Core

Didn’t finish it: Captain Blood, Capricorn One, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Three Musketeers, Notorious, Dragonheart: The New Beginning, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Sliding Doors, Starcrash, How to Make an American Quilt, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, This Island Earth, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Notebook

What in the world did I just sit through: Silent Running, Logan’s Run, Popeye, Dreamscape, Starcrash

That last category really takes the cake.  Silent Running was about the weirdest thing I have ever seen.  It’s basically a hippy 70’s sci-fi dream movie …. let’s fly off into space, murder our evil corporate overlords … all to save the trees!  That’s not too far off the mark of what happens.

Logan’s Run was just absolutely weird.  I’d heard of the movie ever since I was a kid but had no idea what to expect.  It was mostly interesting until it got to the halfway point where they spend half their time dilly-dallying around outside.  Boring.

Popeye, I already wrote about.  Wasn’t bad … just … another trip.

Nothing can beat out Starcrash for extreme oddity though.  Apparently this movie never had an editor, as you’ll lose count of the inconsistencies and plot holes since there are about a dozen every 5 minutes.  I’m not exaggerating, either.  Star Wars rip-off is the simplest way of describing this movie …. I wouldn’t miss it, if only for the experience, and the fact that you’ll never be able to forget.

Two other movies that I think need honorable mention … The Ice Pirates.  I remember watching the TV spot for this movie a LONG time ago when I was a kid, and I always thought I would have loved that movie.  Watching it now, all I could think to myself was, if I had seen this as a twelve year old, I would have loved it.  Unfortunately, it just bothered me a bit now, so I couldn’t sit through the whole thing.

Last but not least, was Superman II: Donner’s cut, which I wrote about as well. A lot of mixed feelings in that one, since they cut out more than they should have, I think.  I’d still like to mix my own.

Anyway, I always figured this year kind of sucked for rentals, but looking back I see it wasn’t half bad at all.  Most of the good ones I found right near the beginning of the year, and most everything else has just been a complete miss for me.  Oh well, there’s still a ton of movies more to watch … I’m sure there’s something good out there, somewhere. :)

preparing for dts

Now that I’ve got my mythbox all setup properly (I screwed up LVM2 and lost all my data, twice, trying to remove harddrives … meh), I’m back to ripping my DVDs again.  This time I’m using dvd2mkv, my custom little script I wrote, to do all the heavy lifting for my movies.  But, there’s one thing I didn’t really put in there the first time around, and that’s support for alternate audio tracks.

Originally I wrote it simply to check automatically for the highest number of tracks and best audio format.  As a general rule, that chooses the first channel that’s in English with 6 channels, which is always (in every case I’ve seen so far), Dolby Digital.  If there is a DTS track, it’s always the second or third track behind it, but never gets selected automatically since it’s not the first one on the list.  I can, however, select it if I run the program interactively.  Not really ideal, of course, but it’ll have to work for now.

My real question though is, why aren’t there more movies with DTS audio tracks to them?  Back in the day when I was working at a movie theater, one of my managers would swear up and down that DTS was better quality than Dolby.  He would even make the projectionist screen the movies for him in the DTS  theaters if the movie was equipped for it.  He was quite the audio and videophile so I took his word for it.  Now, though, you hardly see it anywhere.  The only DVDs I’ve seen them on are some Paramount and Fox titles, and even then it’s only the newer ones that have it.

What’s also really interesting, and I kind of assumed this, is that SDDS, Sony’s 8 channel format, is completely missing from a home theater setup.  Good ol Sony, going off and making their own standard yet again.

Anyway, when I listen to DVDs with both tracks, I really can’t tell a difference myself.  My receiver supports both DTS and Dolby, so I figure … why not, I’ll rip em anyway and see if it really is any nicer.

remuxing the audio

I really, really hate AAC.  Don’t ask me why … it’s an unreasonable hatred.  But, who cares.  Last night I downloaded a trailer from Apple’s website (they have them in HD, how cool is that … my computer couldn’t handle the 1080p one, heh), and of course the audio was in AAC.  I hate that.

I wanted to get just the audio from the file, decode it using faad, then re-encode it to AC3.  Normally in a situation like this, you would just use mencoder to re-encode the audio portion and create a new AVI.  But, I always have problems with that when I just want to copy the video portion (mencoder -ovc copy -oac whatever … ), so instead I just dump the audio, reencode it, then mux it all back in one file.

More specifically, this is what I do:

1. Start with a file where I want to keep the video the same (copy it, no encoding), but only re-encode the audio to another codec.

2. Extract the audio to a WAV file using mplayer

mplayer -vo null -vc null -ao pcm:fast:file=cool_movie_trailer.wav

3. Reencode the WAV to the codec of my choice.  In this case, AC3 (emerge media-sound/aften).

aften cool_movie_trailer.wav cool_movie_trailer.ac3

4. Mux the original video into a Matroska file, ignoring the audio track, and inserting the AC3 track instead

mkvmerge -o cool_movie_trailer.mkv -A cool_movie.trailer.ac3

The -A flag tells mkvmerge to ignore any audio tracks from the .mov file, thus the .ac3 file becomes the first (and only) audio track.  Without that flag, I could have had both audio tracks on there, but I don’t really want that either.

That’s pretty much it.  I wrote a little bash script to do the whole thing for me:

BASE=`basename ${1} .${EXT}`


mplayer ${1} -vo null -vc null -quiet -ao pcm:fast:file=${WAV}
aften ${WAV} ${AC3}
mkvmerge -o ${MKV} -A ${1} ${AC3}
rm ${AC3} ${WAV}

Just save it as and the first (and only) argument is the movie you want to convert.  So, and it’ll spit out the .mkv file and delete all the temp files.

No more AAC.  I’m happy. :)

dvd ripping scripts

I was lucky enough to catch Martin’s post on Planet Larry today about undvd, a script he’s working on — very cool, Martin, I love it.  I’m actually working on one of my own, or have been for a while, and I’ve been toying with the idea of cleaning it up and releasing it for public consumption.

I actually started writing my own because, as Martin says, all the other ones out there are too complex, and I prefer a simple command-line app that does exactly what I need it to do.  I call mine dvd2mkv, since I extract everything I want (video, audio, subtitles, chapters) and dump it straight into a Matroska file.

In fact, the script is already done, and it works great.  It automates the entire process — selects the longest video track, the widescreen one if there if full frame is on there as well, grabs the English (or preferred language track) with the highest number of channels (Dolby or DTS), plus the English subtitles if they exist, and finally the chapters.  All I have to do is put in the title of the movie, and even then if the disc ID is the title, then you can skip past that as well.

In fact, here’s the output of a movie I just ripped a few minutes ago, Return to Me.  Great movie, btw.

steve@charlie ~/dvd $ dvd2mkv
[DVD] Disc title: RETURN_TO_ME
Enter a movie title: [Return To Me]
[Video] Track number: 5
[Video] Aspect ratio: 16/9
[Video] Length: 115.79
[Audio] Track: 128
[Audio] Format: Dolby Digital
[Audio] Channels: 6
[DVD] Subtitles: None
[DVD] Ripping MPEG-2
[DVD] Ripping chapters
[MKV] Creating Matroska file

And that’s it!  Pretty simple. :)  Mine doesn’t have support (right now) for re-encoding the movies, since I’ve already gone into quite a bit of length on why I don’t like doing that, but it would be simple to add.  In fact, my shortcut method would just be to have the user setup mencoder profiles in the config file and call those directly.

Anyway, I like the idea of cleaning it up and throwing it out there, so I’ll probably be doing that fairly soon here.  If it works good enough for me (picky as I am), it’s sure to help out someone.  :)

from samba to nfs

Well, the honeymoon is over.  Samba is great and all, but it’s not gonna work with my simple little network setup.  The main reason is just that it’s too painful to configure just right.  I’ll take “slightly crippling transfer rates when using Konqueror” versus “ignores my settings” any day.

The problems I’m having with Samba are mostly nitpicks, but who cares … it’s my network and I can do whatever I want.  I’m sure most of them could be solved by a little research, but at this point, if I don’t need it, I really don’t wanna invest too much time into it right now.  I just want things to work, I can always screw around later.

Three things that are annoying me: First, I can’t get CIFS to work, but SMBFS works fine.  Naturally, that’s not a killer deal, but I just gotta have the faster, shinier and better protocol or it’ll haunt me forever.  The second is that getting just plain anonymous share mounting isn’t working.  I can do it if I put the username and password options in the fstab file, or point to a credentials file, but it’s still easier if I want to do it manually, I don’t have to add all the options.  The third thing is that Samba is ignoring my preferences for forcing the username to write to and the permissions to use.  Ugh.

All slightly annoying, but I never had the issues with NFS.  In fact, the crippling copy speeds were about it, and even that I could probably figure out if I tried.  I’d rather take one issue than three.  Besides, I really should roll up my sleeves and give NFSv4 a try.  Maybe it’ll be less flaky for me.  Who knows.

steve's small hdtv buying guide

Well, it’s Christmas, and what makes a better gift than a TV that’s bigger than your wall? I was talking to my boss last night who just recently bought an HDTV, and we were chatting about it, so I got the idea to post my tips on what to look for in an HDTV if you’re considering a purchase.

HDTVs is actually one area where I have done a TON of research. When you’re buying something that costs over $1k and you plan on having it for 10 years, you should too.

First, get a good brand. There are only three brands worth buying: Sony, Samsung and Sharp. The rest are crap. In fact, most manufacturers will buy their stuff from Samsung. Personally, I prefer Sony, but whatever floats your boat.

Second, rear projection TVs are the way to go — the picture is better and the TVs are much, much, much cheaper than LCD flatpanels. Also, don’t even think about buying plasma (they are getting phased out anyway) as they’ll burn your screen out.

If you can stand having an extra 5 inches sticking out from the back of your TV, rear projection sets are the way to go. Check this out … Circuit City is selling a Sony 1080p 55″ rear projection TV for $1800. A Samsung 46″ LCD HDTV is also on sale for $1950. Whee! (I couldn’t find a good comparision online, but go in the store and you’ll quickly see what I’m saying is true).

Third, protect your investment with a decent power supply — get something with stage 1 or up filtering. You’re gonna pay a lot for the TV, don’t get a $12 power supply from Wal-Mart to keep it running. Expect to spend at least $150 for something decent.

Fourth, HDMI is the way to go for DVDs. Blu-Ray and HD-DVD players are insanely expensive, and not worth the price (yet). Go get a nice upconverting DVD player if you don’t already have one. You can easily snag one for under $100. The HDMI cables are more expensive, but again they are worth the picture quality. Personally I think they look better than Component. I’d recommend buying your cables online instead of spending $60 for a Monster cable that is 3 feet long in the store.

Fifth, you don’t need to get a huge cable deal to get some HDTV channels. Comcast, even with their most basic cable plan ($12/month) will give you the local channels in HDTV (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX). The picture will blow your eyeballs out of the water. Sure, go ahead and spend $$$ if you want on Dish Network and get a lot more HD channels (in fact, from what I’ve gathered … they are the best deal. Its about the same price for lots of HD channels as it is for Comcast’s basic cable), but you don’t need it.

Sixth, look for online coupon codes. It’s worth waiting a month if you can snag a 10% off coupon somewhere. Or, just watch the weekly circulars and see how low the price on your TV will go. If you missed the opportunity, just wait, and it will eventually go back to that same price. If you can’t get some coupons, then be sure to buy from a store that will match the price for up to 30 days *after* the sale. That way, if they do sell it cheaper later, you can get the price difference back in your pocket.

Seventh, and as much as I hate to recommend this, if you are responsible enough to manage your money, open a store credit card and take advantage of their no interest for x amount of months deal. Put the cash that is going to go towards the purchase and put it in the bank, and float it so you can earn interest on it. Then, be sure to pay off the balance in full before you hit the due date, otherwise you’ll get hit with nasty back fees and insanely high interest rates. I really don’t recommend this route unless you *know* you can do it safely.

Eighth, don’t worry if its not “full” HDTV or not. Make sure that it is at least 720p though. Some smaller TVs will tout themselves as HDTV compatible or some crap like that, but they look poopy. The 720p pictures still look amazingly gorgeous. There’s nothing wrong with future-proofing though, and going with the best possible picture, and if it’s a difference of only a few hundred dollars, go for it. In three years you won’t remember if you saved $200 or not going for the cheaper price, but you’ll remember that you stuck yourself with the lower quality.

That’s about all I can think of … just be sure to do a lot of research. Check the connectors on the back. Play with the remote. Look at the features the TV has. Ask lots of questions. And for heaven’s sake, don’t buy on impulse. TVs are heavy and hard to lug back to the store. Especially in the snow. And then the cashiers sneer at you when you want to return stuff.

Have fun, though. HDTVs certainly live up to the hype. :)