Saturday, December 22, 2007

Starting a Technology Podcast

My friend Brian Westfall and I have technology discussions pretty regularly. We talk about computers, game console games, home theater, among other things. And we talk a lot. Sometimes the discussions actually get pretty deep too.

So recently we decided that we were going to turn some of our conversations into podcasts that others can download and listen to. The result is called "Tech Squawk."

We hurried to record the first episode before Christmas, hoping that some of the stuff we recorded might be of value to someone. It's just a few days before Christmas now, but maybe somebody will find out podcast interesting.

The official web site for the podcast is For anyone using an RSS aggregator, the feed address is

Like I mentioned, the first episode was rushed, just to get something out there in time for the holidays. Which also means it wasn't edited down to a more concise size. So plan on taking up about 90 minutes if you want to listen to the whole thing.

We'll get to our normal weekly schedule after the first of the year. And future episodes will be much shorter. Hopefully less than 30 minutes, because longer podcasts just get a little dull.

Enjoy! And thanks in advance for any feedback!

Monday, December 10, 2007

HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray

I was researching HD-DVD and Blu-ray for an online posting, and some of the information I found is pretty interesting. Here's some of what I found, based on information from and Wikipedia.

HD-DVDs are nearly all released on its higher capacity 30GB format. As of this writing, 51.97% of Blu-Ray discs are released in the lower capacity 25GB BD25 format. Thus the apparent size advantage of Blu-Ray isn't currently being utilized by slightly approximately half of the currently published BR discs. The HD-DVD specification was recently updated to support 17GB per layer, up to three layers (or 51GB) per disc. Blu-Ray officially supports one or two data layers up to 50GB total.

38.11% of Blu-Ray discs are released in the MPEG-2 format. This is the older format that has been blamed for poor video quality on early Blu-ray discs. While the 50GB BD50 discs with MPEG-2 are certainly better than the 25GB BD25 discs, AVC and VC-1 encoded discs offer much better image quality, even comparing these formats in a 25GB format to a 50GB MPEG-2 disc.

Before buying a Blu-Ray disc, check the site to make sure it isn't a 25GB MPEG-2 disc, as these are the ones with image quality problems. A 50GB MPEG-2 disc will look fine for movies of average (or shorter) length as long as there isn't much bonus material on the disc. I am not aware of any general image quality issues with HD-DVD discs.

Other format differences: HD-DVD supports Managed Copy which allows you to copy your movies to a home theater PC, though I'm not aware of any implementations of this just yet. Blu-ray does not have any such capability.

HD-DVD has more interactivity features than the BD 1.0 specification, though BD 1.1 attempts to address this. In the real world, this means that HD-DVD discs currently tend to offer more visually appealing menus and more disc features. This is likely to change slowly with the adoption of the BD 1.1 and 2.0 specification.

Both formats support the same video formats. Audio format capabilities are effectively about the same, with some variation on which competing formats are utilized for different levels of compression. Both support uncompressed audio in at least 7.1 channels.

Both formats support full 1080p resolution at regular TV refresh rates as well as 24p, with effectively all movies being released in that format. The implementation on the discs is slightly different, but the data is the same. Some HD-DVD players only output up to 1080i, but many 1080p TVs are fully able to reproduce the original 1080p signal for display. To take advantage of a smooth 24p-based cadence, players in either format must be connected to a 72 or 120Hz television via HDMI. Connecting to any other type of television or using any other type of connection will result in 3:2 pull-down being added to output video at 60 Hz.

Movie studio support for the two formats is pretty much a toss-up, with current offerings in both camps having almost exactly equal numbers of titles available.

HD-DVD does not have any region coding requirement, so you are always free to import discs from overseas and play them on any player. Blu-Ray uses three region codes (A,B,C) to make sure that encoded discs are not played in regions other than those they are intended for, similar to the way that DVDs are region coded now. This in some cases is a disdvantage for HD-DVD, as sometimes a disc release for a short time is delayed while the movie continues to show in theaters elsewhere in the world.

In several cases if you are not able to obtain a movie title on the format of choice in your home country, it might be available on the other format elsewhere. If you have elected to use Blu-ray as your format of choice you need to make sure that the disc you are purchasing from overseas will play in your region, however.

Some/many HD-DVD discs are available in a "combo" format (usually at a higher cost) which contains the high definition version of a disc on one side, with a standard DVD version available on the opposite side for playback in regular DVD equipment. Blu-ray does not offer a similar capability.

Discs prices are pretty similar between the two formats, with both being significantly more expensive than DVDs.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Making a Webcast (Creating my Photography Class)

Anyone following my life in the last couple months knows that I recently taught a 5-episode class on photography techniques, and some of you even watched along as I broadcast it across the internet. What a lot of you probably don't know is what it takes to make a webcast happen. So I felt it appropriate to share a little bit of the "behind the scenes" stuff that goes on.

Over the last couple of years I have had a number of friends approach me and ask me if I would be willing to teach them how to take pictures. Of course I'm happy to do so, but in most cases we never got around to doing anything about it, and when we did, I didn't have my thoughts very well organized and honestly I don't think I was really that much of a help. But earlier this year I thought about organizing and teaching a formal class.

It all started by planning out what material I wanted to cover in the class and organizing it into 7 general topics that would fit in about an hour's time each. Since I had been thinking about teaching a photography class for months before even announcing it and most of my thoughts were already fairly well organized as to what I was going to teach, I was well on my way. But I needed to categorize it, and present it all in an order that it would make sense. A lot of time was spent deciding just how much background I would give with regard to a specific point of information, so it turns out I ended up researching, categorizing, and coming up with graphics for about five times as much information as I would be presenting in-class. But that ended up working great because when a student would ask a question, in almost all cases it was along a topic that I have had experience in, or was right in line with something that I had researched beforehand. If someone asked me, for example, "how does depth of field work mathematically?" or "how do you define 'in focus?'" I was actually prepared with an answer for that, complete with graphics to illustrate.

Once the basic outline of the class was set, I had to build a web site to present information about the class and allow students to log in to update their interests and schedule. My brother Brent actually did the vast majority of the programming for it and the biggest chore I had was to design the look of the site and integrate Brent's code into it to make it work. There was about a full day of labor there. But what you nobody ever saw was a custom-written piece of software that I put together to maintain the database on that site. Originally when planning the class I was going to have each class twice in a week so that the most interested people could attend, and the timing of those classes was going to be decided based on when interested students could possibly attend. The software I came up was designed to allow students to input their schedules for the next week, and it would then actually calculate the best days and times of day for between one and three episodes of each class based on who was interested in a given topic and their schedules. I could, with a single mouse click, see when I should hold a class to get the most interested people there, who could attend, and who would not be able to attend. It was actually pretty slick even though it was only eventually used to decide that Thursday at 8 was the best overall time to hold a single class.

Creating the opening graphical video sequence was another task that had to be performed ahead of time. By the time I actually sat down to create it I had a color scheme in mind, so choosing the appropriate background graphic wasn't that hard. The most time consuming part was finding the appropriate pictures and adding them to the timeline with just enough motion and effects to make things interesting. Music was selected, and a DVD made containing the full opening/closing graphic sequence in two versions: both with and without music after the opening (so I could have music playing under my voice as I was introducing the class). Total time creating the opening sequence was about 10 hours.

Next came building a set. My regular living room isn't very camera friendly, and certainly wasn't laid out in a very classroom-friendly configuration, so I had to actually rotate the room 90 degrees from normal and put up fake walls using photo backdrops (called "muslins") for the wall behind me and to create a fake wall behind the projection screen to hide the home theater system behind it (incidentally, I still haven't taken them down; they are much more attractive than the wallpaper behind them). I also had to build the "desk" that I used, which if you were to see it in person, is very oddly shaped and wouldn't make any sense in any other situation. Building and painting the desk took about a day, putting up the fake walls and lighting the room took another half a day.

Next came the video cameras (all 5 of them), two of which had to be mounted to a wall because there was no room for tripods. Running cables for the four microphones (3 on the ceiling for the three couches and my wireless lavaliere mic) and 15 video sources (yes, there really were 15 video sources) to my "studio" followed, but ironically the most challenging part of setting up the set was getting video from the laptop computer I was using to my monitor, the projector, and out to the web simultaneously. I needed to be able to see my computer desktop but present the informational slides simultaneously on three different types of display devices (projector, LCD and CRT monitors, and output to the web). I won't go into any more detail, but it was actually the biggest technological challenge I had setting up for the class.

Video from the two main cameras was shot by one or two operators who generously donated their time (David Skousen and Paul Green, thank you!), and sent down the hall to the studio where former roommate and great friend Brad Riching selected different between the different sources using a proprietary video switching solution (more about that in a minute). Brad also ran the audio mixer to combine just the right amount of sound from each of the four microphones (and when necessary the music from the DVD), and the audio, along with the video was sent to processing equipment to make it look and sound better for DVD and web broadcast. In short, each microphone is run through multiple processors to make sure that levels are both loud enough to hear and not so loud that they distort, another so that speech is intelligible, and after all of that the final signal is processed yet again in the same manner before being sent to the recorder and out to the web. Video is handled in a similar way. (On a side note, if all of the audio and video processing equipment used was stacked, top to bottom it would be about 10 feet high.) The processed audio and video are distributed to a hard drive-based video recorder, a computer to encode it for web distribution, and three on-set video monitors simultaneously. That way I (and my class) could see exactly what was going out to the internet.

The encoded video was sent to an in-house server, and was pulled from that server to another that has a direct internet connection, provided by my great friend Brian Westfall. When the webcast is watched from home, it was actually Brian's server that you were connecting to because my internet connection at home isn't anywhere near fast enough to handle more than a couple people watching.

For each class I began researching topics specific to that class about a week beforehand. On average I'd spend about 8-12 hours reading information online from different photography web sites and in magazines to get a better feel for other photographer's techniques so the material being presented wasn't from just my own experience. On the day of (and sometimes the day before) a class, I would spend the entire day searching for sample images, taking pictures, and building the slides that would be shown in the next class. I also would spend about 3-4 hours building an outline for me to follow while I am teaching. In the first couple of episodes you'll see my outline on the desk (incidentally printed on blue paper rather than white to avoid blowing out the video camera exposure), but by the third I began using a new "notes" feature in my slide presentation software (again, more on that in a minute). Originally I had a video prompter setup so I could read my notes without having to look down at my desk, but I found I wasn't using it so it was abandoned after the second class.

Another helpful piece of technology was the IFB (In-ear FeedBack earphone monitor) I was wearing in my ear as I was teaching. While the class was going on I could hear the introductory music, myself, the classroom microphones, and occasionally Brad would speak up and remind me of something or give me helpful hints. On numerous occasions I would forget to mention something, or misspeak, and Brad would come on and tell me without anyone else even knowing that was going on. Several bits of misinformation and cases of missing information were avoided because of that one small thing.

Okay, so on to the proprietary technology. As it turns out, other than Windows and the photo imaging software I covered in the last class, every piece of software used to make the class was something I had written at one time or another. The slide presentation software is something I started working on about 3 years ago and it has grown quite a bit since that time. I don't know if anyone noticed, but the slides are of much higher quality than those made by PowerPoint, and I could create slides in real time. As far as I know there isn't any other software out there that is capable of doing that, and it certainly made the class run more smoothly since, as students would ask questions, I could pull up images or slides to illustrate my answer even if they weren't part of my original presentation. The only problem I ran into with the software was that for some reason it was taking next to forever to resize images for television display (as was seen in the first 3 classes) on the laptop that I was using to run the slideshow. Fortunately I was able to fix the problem and images came up immediately for classes 4 & 5.

Next was software for running the video switcher. Conventional video switchers use an array of video monitors, one per video source, with rows of buttons (multiple per video source) to select which source is sent to a "preview" and the outgoing "program." Not only is this an ultra expensive way to do things requiring a ton of equipment, it isn't the most ergonomic way to do it either because you're having to look at video monitors directly in front of you and correspond them with a row of buttons away from your line of sight. So what I came up with was a touch-screen based video switching solution. Brad sat in front of a touch screen monitor which showed 16 video windows simultaneously, and simply had to touch one of them to select it to go out to the program feed. Of course it also allows selection of the type of transition between video sources (in the case of this class we used cuts between camera shots and dissolves between graphics). Having such a simple interface is what made it possible for Brad to run both the video switcher and audio mixer at the same time, otherwise running a video switcher is an all-consuming task. Again, I'm not aware of anyone doing anything like this anywhere, so a fully custom piece of software had to be written. As the class went on this software evolved to the point where the DVD players with the graphics could be controlled right from the touch screen interface, and I even added the capability of automatically selecting the slideshow video source as I brought up the slides. Very cool stuff if I do say so myself.

There were other smaller pieces of software that I wrote to make the class work. Of course the color wheel software (download link) that I showed on camera was something that I threw together, and I mentioned earlier the software I created to keep track of students and their schedules. There were other little things, though, like a small program to display the "The program will begin in…" screen before the start of the webcast had to be created.

After each class was held, I had to capture it on the computer for editing. I haven't gone back and cleaned any of it up, mind you, but capture is done in real time, which gave me a chance to watch each class to critique my teaching and look for any holes in the content. After each was captured I added closing credits, encoded it into WMV format for upload to the internet (encoding each episode took about 6-8 hours) and I would then attempt to upload it to Google Video, a process that in and of itself took about 3 hours to complete.

So long story short, for each one hour episode of the class, there was about 3 days of work to create and present it. If I were to offer any advice to anyone thinking of creating a video web or podcast, I would say to do it, but only as long as you are enthusiastic enough to take on that kind of a load and have the time to do so. I had a ton of fun working on every aspect of it, and if I could guarantee that I'd get higher levels of participation from class members and continue to get such great help from my friends I would definitely do another series on something else. Who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll end up doing a class on just Photoshop, or writing software, or running a home recording studio, or making videos. Maybe even a webcast on how to create a webcast.

I'd love to hear your comments.

Insensitive Comments & Taking Offense

The first week I started going to a new ward (church congregation for the LDS-uninitiated) a woman there made a comment to me, that, at the time, I didn't think much of, but looking back what she said could be taken by some as very insensitive and could be considered offensive. Her comment to me was "You need to get married!" (original emphasis), which is something I have heard before, but her tone of voice while she said it seemed to indicate contempt for my single status.

Like I said, I didn't think much of it at the time. And I'm not one to ever take offense at anything. But a while later after thinking about it a little more I began to realize just how insensitive a comment like this is. Not only was she implying that there is something wrong with me because I'm single, she is flat out telling me that it's my fault because I haven't done anything about it. Obviously she knows nothing about me and certainly isn't qualified to offer any advice on my behalf, but what she fails to see is that it isn't (entirely) my fault that I'm not married. There is only so much that I can do about it; it literally takes two to tango. A far less offensive comment (and possibly a snappy, suitable reply) would be: "you need to lose weight!" because, let's face it, that is (usually) something that an individual can do something about themselves without relying on participation from another individual. "You need to get married!" certainly doesn't help the situation, and no matter how hard I try I can't fix it by myself.

I'm not here to rant about this woman's comment so much because we all say things sometimes that can be taken as offensive. But I do believe that we need to "think before we speak" a little bit more.

On the other side of the coin, I also believe that we in general take offense way too often. If you think about it, being offended by someone is a form of justification of hatred toward them (stop and think about that for a minute) and certainly doesn't get anybody anywhere good. What benefit do we have from taking offense? I certainly can't think of any; it has the opposite effect. We have enough problems in the world without adding to it by taking offense at comments made by others. So if someone says something offensive to you, the best thing is to just let it roll off your back and move on. Don't waste any time and energy thinking about it, or even worse, doing anything about it.

Originally this post was going to be a long discourse, but I think it just boils down to being careful what we say, and never taking offense at others' comment. Just don't do it.

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