Archive for September, 2007

Learning to Pick my Battles: Doing Less to Accomplish More

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

I’ve had to make some difficult choices in the last few days.

Though it may not seem like it, this site represents a lot of time and effort; the haphazard design, confusing menus and utter lack of documentation mask a fairly complex and powerful back end. Unfortunately, it’s become clear that this complexity renders it more inefficient than I feared; even with no traffic there’s enough database activity to occasionally bring down the server.

Not coincidentally, these problems started just as my blogging efforts were finally getting underway… efforts which also revealed, in flashing neon visible from space, all the reasons that people use a professional content management packages. For one post, I had to add at least three new features: image uploads, thumnails and comments. Please remember that it was never my intention to build a content management system. Every feature on the site, including the blog, was supposed to be a proof-of-concept test for the underlying code.

That’s when it finally hit me how much work would be to get even minimally usable blogging code written. I wouldn’t be able to blog those efforts, or anything else, until I was finished; and even if I could half-ass it, the code still wouldn’t actually support any traffic… so it better not be good, or god-forbid, popular.

This put me in a funk.

Faced with the prospect of toiling indefinitely and having nothing to show for my efforts but a broke-ass pile of crap, I was forced to concede that there’s only one solution: I’m going to move to WordPress for content management.

Once I finally got the taste of defeat out of my mouth and over the urge to junk everything and move to Miami, I realized that this is actually a great option, and something I should have done a long time ago- it takes a number of things off my plate that I never wanted to do anyway, it removes the pressure of having to use my pre-alpha code to support an actual site, and it will give me a personal homepage I’m not ashamed of.

This is the perfect example of learning to pick my battles; by reducing the scope of what I’m working on, I should be able to accomplish quite a bit more.


Video Server, Part 2: Ripping

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

This is the second in a series of articles that will detail the tools and methods I’m using for my personal media server at home. Part 2: Ripping is all about getting data off the DVD and onto the computer. Future articles will detail encoding, converting, integration and disaster management.

Note: For the record that I believe ripping data from DVD movies you do not own is illegal, and I do not support it. ((I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know this for a fact. I think I saw it online and I’m repeating it here just in case it’s true.)) If you enjoy a movie, buy it, and support the people who created it… even if entire industry is a bunch of greedy douchebags.

For a while, I didn’t even realize ripping was a thing. I was playing around with different encoding tools, and they all worked the same way: stick the DVD in, twiddle some stuff, and the program read from the disc and wrote to a file. Most of the time, this worked. More and more often, though, I would encounter a problem; either the problem wouldn’t ready my disk, or it would encode about 20 seconds of data and hang. After some research, I eventually discovered something I already knew: most DVDs are encrypted. This is why you can’t just put in a disc and copy the files off it, even though if you explore you can see them clear as day.

I found the solution was a separate program designed to read the DVD and store an unencrypted copy on the harddrive. After some trial and error, I’ve had great results with DVDFab HD Decrypter. Not only is it free and reliable, it’s dirt simple.

Ripping the data to the hard drive separately also has additional benefits: it may cut down on the wear and tear on the DVD-Rom ((I also have no proof of this, it’s just one of those things that seems true. Maybe reading from a disc for 15 minutes at full-bore does more damage than reading a few bits at a time for two hours.)), as ripping takes considerably less time than encoding, and after the initial rip, you can encode without having to be physically present at the machine, or re-encode if something goes wrong.

DVDFab HD - 1

Insert the disc, wait for the chapter data to load, and hit “Start”. If it’s the first time you’re running the program, also specify the Target: directory.

DHDFab HD - 2

The process usually takes between 10 and 20 minutes.

Afterward, you will find a subdirectory in the FullDisc directory in the Target directory: <Target>/FullDisc/<DVD>. In the above example, the data I want is in F:\FullDisc\BLUSBRO\VIDEO_TS\.

I don’t do a lot of ripping on the Mac, but the few time I have, I’ve had good luck with Mac the Ripper.

Next Up: Encoding.

iPhone Rebate

Friday, September 7th, 2007

Steve Jobs announced today that they intend to give a $100 store credit to everyone who bought an iPhone before the price drop. Gizmodo has the full text of his announcement, but here is the part that I feel addresses my concerns from the other day:

“Our early customers trusted us, and we must live up to that trust with our actions in moments like these.”

Some might argue that a cash rebate would be better; since any money I save up is going to a new Mini anyway, this works out pretty well for me.

iPhone Price Drop

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

Apple just finished up their special event this morning. Among other things, they announced a $200 price cut for the iPhone. I’m sure this is all well and good from a business standpoint, but I do feel kind of screwed. I bought the phone on day one, and while I don’t regret it, I might not have gone through the uncertainty of early adoption if I knew I could wait a measly two months and saved several hundred dollars. For taking a chance on an untested, controversial new product, it feels like Apple owes me a little more loyalty.

This also gives everyone who said the iPhone was too expensive an excuse to say “I told you so.” Apple could have waited until November to announce the cut, given us another couple of months to feel good about our purchase, and still had plenty of time to boost sales for the holiday season.

I’ll just have to take some solace in the fact that, as a stock holder, I’ll probably make a little money off the whole deal.

Video Server, Part 1: Hardware

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

This is the first in a series of articles that will detail the tools and methods I’m using for my personal media server at home. Part 1: Hardware gets the ball rolling with an in-depth look at the physical devices that power my system. Future articles will detail ripping, encoding, integration and disaster management.

wilbur.jpgThe heart of the system is Wilbur, a 1.42 Ghz G4 Mac Mini with 1G RAM. I’m not ashamed to admit that I love this little guy. It’s quiet, reliable, Unix-based, and it’s never given me an ounce of trouble. That being said, though, it could be faster. While fine for day to day tasks, and a great desktop, it just can’t cut it when it comes to the heavy lifting. Enter Clyde.

ClydeClyde is an Intel 2.8 Ghz P4 with 1GB RAM, running Windows XP. Clyde is not super fast, but he’s faster than Wilbur, so I use him for ripping and encoding. In addition to saving me time, using Clyde instead of Wilbur means I don’t have to tie up the machine I actually like to use.

CoolmaxEach machine has a 500GB SATA HDD. Clyde’s is internal, but Wilbur’s drive is mounted in an external FireWire enclosure. This setup has proven not only fast enough to stream video, but substantially faster than the internal drive. I’m currently using an enclosure from a company called Coolmax. It’s ok, but it will eventually get phased out, in favor of another solution that has an added FireWire port for daisy-chaining… and better matches the aesthetics, of course.

AppleTVThe final piece of the hardware puzzle is the AppleTV. This is the box that connects the TV to the network, and streams music, video and photos from a machine running iTunes. It’s slick, it’s easy to install, and it works great. One thing to be aware of, however, is that it only works with HDTVs.

Up next: Ripping.