Fighting with computers

Computers are not always friendly.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Removing DRM from WMV files

Did you ever wanted to play a file on a different device but you were prevented to do so because the file you bought had some nasty DRM inside?

Well, I did and I wanted to do something about it. There is a tool that seems to work nicely for this purpose and it does not involves cracking the DRM system. It is tunebite software. It somehow reminds me the idea of Total Recorder but now it does work with videos too.

The idea is quite simple: If you can play it you can record on-the-fly from your own computer. I guess it is easier to say than to do it. But this company seems to have done a pretty good job.

They claim doing this is not illegal but I cannot provide you legal advice. For me it did the work of enabling my wife watching a DRM-ed video on her Creative Vision:M, which by the way it is a better video "iPod" than Apple's.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Merging Arduino and Xbee

There are many open source projects out there. Many of you are familiar with the concept of open source software, where the source code is made available. Not so common is the idea of open-source hardware. What is the idea here? You get the full details of the hardware and firmware as if it were just the code of an open source software project. It is about extending the openness of a project to the hardware and firmware levels.

Arduino is one of these open-source hardware projects. It is a family of small printed circuit boards powered by Atmel micro-controllers that can be programed. You develop the code for these micro-controllers using an Integrated Development Environment (IDE) also provided on the project's web-page, available for Windows, Linux or OSX. The IDE is based on Processing IDE I covered a while ago and the programming language is based on Wiring language. The goal is to make user life easier as the development is aimed to artists more than to engineers.

The micro-controller is first programmed with a boot loader so the user code can later downloaded to the board without the need of an external programmer. The USB version can even be powered from the PC you are developing with.

You can but the hardware (or just the PCB if you prefer) from a number of providers online, even you can find deals on eBay for around $20. You can also but pre-programmed micro-controllers containing the boot-loader.

XBee is a completely different beast: It is a commercial piece of hardware, intended for OEM use. XBee module implements the ZigBee(r) proprietary wireless standard. ZigBee operates on the 2.4Ghz ISM band, the same as Wi-Fi, but ZigBee is intended for low-power, low speed, short-range wireless communication. ZigBee uses IEEE 802.15.4 standard for its MAC layer. Xbee modules are cheap too. List price is $19 ea.

A Spanish company called Libelium put Arduino and Xbee together to offer a family of wireless sensor networks with an "open" twist. I recently bought a set of sensors and gateways to play with it to use it for an upcoming lab exercise in one of our Master's degrees. Till now I am just learning the role of each component and how can you change its behavior.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Photo slideshows

Digital photography brings yet another way to annoy friends and relatives. Digital photogtraphy is convenient, and you do not have to buy or develop film, so you may end up, like me, taking (and keeping) many shots that are not that great.

Thousands of pictures pile up on your hard drive but they are not in a format you can easily share with your grandma (unless she is Internet proficient). Two online services I have found quite useful are flickr and Google's Picasa. They make easy for you to share your photos even when you are on the go.

However, if you want to create something oriented for people who at most are capable of playing a DVD then you need other tools. Some DVD burning programs can help you creating a simple slideshow of your photos. However my experience is that just a sequence of pictures without a soundtrack is not something people are going to enjoy.

Another problem is that even if you have sound, the pictures without any motion look boring and uninteresting most of the time. Remember that DVD resolution is 700x500 pixels aprox (it depends on whether you are using NTSC or PAL standard). This is far away from your camera resolution (or your computer's display resolution). It is no wonder why your pictures look so dull on a DVD.

In my quest for some software to spice things up when creating a photo DVD I have found several interesting programs. The most notable thing is that you do not have to show a static picture but you can pan and zoom across the image so you can reveal details that otherwise will go unnoticed. This effect is known as "Ken Burns" effect. And I am sure you have seen it on TV documentaries many times.

On the Windows front I've found this program to be quite nice. However, be warned that processing time can be very very long for a large photo set (several hours with a 2Ghz PC). This program allows you to create several collections as DVD chapters and also handles the creation of a DVD menu. Particularly interesting is the feature it can also handle you digital camera videos too.

On the Linux side this project looks good too, but I haven't tried myself yet.

Yet another nice commercial tool is this other program. They have cool samples on their website, check them out.

For OSX I tried iMovie, which comes included with any Mac, and I particularly liked the new feature that allows you to upload your movies to YouTube with a single click. Though the application is more like Windows Media Maker (video editing) it handles pretty well the task of creating a photo slideshow. However, I read somewhere that Photo to Movie was a better tool for the task. It is definitely worth a try and, contrary to iMovie, it is designed specifically for this task. Just be careful not to overlap two soundtracks. This latter tool I liked the most and it is also available for Windows.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Kensington Expert Mouse

Contrary to what the name may suggest this device is not a mouse but a trackball. At around $100 it is an expensive alternative to traditional mice. Kensington trackballs have been around for more than 15 years and I have read good things about them.

I decided to judge by myself and I bought one unit. The bottom line is that except the annoying noise and feel of the scroll ring the device is quite nice. The optical tracking is hopefully more precise and less sensitive to dirt than older mechanical systems.

I have contacted Kensington customer support to report the problem, but given what I have read on the net it seems to be a common complaint from users. I have not yet heard from Kensington but I have thought you may want to "hear" and feel it by yourself before buying one unit.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Joost 1.0 beta is now available

I've tried both versions, windows and osx, and they seem to work ok. The new era of P2P TV is here for you to decide whether it will stay or not. Joost image and sound quality are quite ok. Service is now open to everybody, you may want to give it a try.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Good-bye Mailinator?

I tried to use service today unsuccessfully. It seems the popular passwordless free webmail service is not available now (being passwordless means that you should not use it for any private messages as anybody might have access to your messages if they figure out your mailbox name).

For several years, Mailinator was a useful allied for those not willing to give up their real email address when registering for a service or download.

They seem to have a blog. And nothing about shutting down the system is ever mentioned. So hopefully is just a technical problem they are experiencing as the domain name is paid for till 2011 by Mailinator's creator Paul Tyma. Pinging the server works, but the system rejects any http connection attempt.

Anyway, fear not as there are different interesting alternatives.

Update: They are back on-line!!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Another new iMac

I have been fascinated with the idea of a silent computer and the new Apple iMac captured my attention when they created the new aluminum line.

Last time I bought a computer from Apple it ended up being used mostly by my wife. For this problem not to happen again I've just bought her a new iMac!. I am allowed to use it from time to time (mostly to install new software).

After a few hours of using the system I am more than happy with the looks, the clutter-free desktop and the silent operation (I guess that after several minutes of heavy load you will start listening some noise but this just has not happened yet). I've read it has three fans inside.

The main complain is that the unit is not user serviceable (say goodbye to upgrade your hard disk). However everything I've tried just worked out of the box, no problem at all. I only needed to look the documentation to learn how to suspend the system (press play 3 seconds on the remote or the power button or select suspend in the apple-menu).

While some people complain there is no leds on the front this is not exact as the iSight camera does have a green led. What is true is that there is no external indication (led) as to whether the system is off or suspended (maybe the could blink the camera led for this?).

I was kindly asked to change the DVD zone code when playing a DVD for the first time (and yes, the code map is included in the help in case you -- as I did-- do not remember what is the damn code for your area).

While wireless keyboard looks good too I stuck with the wired one to have a USB 2.0 socket readily available (under the keyboard).

All in all, I am quite happy with this desktop system and so is my wife.