Sunday, January 25, 2009


Last weekend was my stake conference.  (If you aren’t LDS and aren’t familiar with LDS terminology, just bear with me.)  And we had two general authorities visiting, one a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. 

I’m in charge of video for the stake.  And part of that responsibility is broadcasting meetings from the stake center to the other two church buildings.  I was given several months warning that we would be having a VIP coming (though I was sworn to secrecy about who it was) so I would have plenty of time to make sure that everything was going to work perfectly.  So for about a week before Christmas, and for two weeks after I got back here after Christmas break, I was getting the various buildings and equipment ready to go.  Lots of time in the attics, in the tunnels, and on the roofs of the three buildings.  Thanks to Ryan for helping me run cable to the roof, and the deacons of my ward for doing most of the work running cables in the tunnels.  (They really loved helping, BTW.)

The first meeting that would need video services was the Saturday evening adult meeting.  So that meant I had to have everything working by 7pm that day.  But because this is a major event for me, I actually started hauling equipment over and hooking it up about 24 hours before.  The only major hurdle was the need to be out of the building at 1pm on Saturday for its security sweep.

When I say I go all out, I mean that we use four professional video cameras, and switch between them during the meetings.  All three camera operators and the director all have an intercom for communications.  We had three projectors going, along with at least a dozen televisions in various rooms in all three buildings.  I also provide graphics in real-time (words to the hymns, the text of scriptures being referenced), and setup an array of microphones to create a decent audio mix so the choir and musical numbers can be heard in the remote buildings and on the DVD recording.  (It looks like a general conference, except that it takes place in a stake center instead.)  We even had Spanish interpretation going on.  So it took several hours to setup the equipment, even with help from Brent and two others.  Not only that, but I was trying out some new technology which required me to build several new devices and assemble and test racks of equipment, as well as tweak and test the software I wrote for controlling the whole mess.  Which meant that I was awake most of the night Friday night.  And also that I was at the church building until 3am Sunday morning after the Saturday evening session installing the last of the equipment that was going to be used for the general session at 10am that day.  I think, in total, I got about 7 hours of sleep over three days while it was all going on.

Fortunately it all went off without any sort of major problems.  On Saturday night a power cord got unplugged, taking down a projector and my main camera, but other than that everything worked just the way it was supposed to.  Thanks to quick work of a couple people on the team, we were back up and running in just a couple minutes.  But it was very lucky that we only had one problem, because our visiting general authorities (as well as the stake presidency) were watching everything on LCD monitors placed on the stand.  If we made a mistake, they would see it.

After it was over it took about two hours to take everything down, even with about 5-6 people helping.  And two absolutely stuffed truckloads, plus one carload, to get the equipment home. 

But it was all worth the effort.  The apostle that was there made a very positive comment about what had been done.  And on his way out he thanked me again for my efforts, and gave a compliment on a job well done.  I was also told later on that he hadn’t ever seen anything like that done at a stake level before, and was very impressed.

After I got home Brent and I unloaded the truck and went to bed.  It was about 4:30 Sunday afternoon by then.  And I didn’t wake up until 11:00am the next day.  I was exhausted.

Now I’ll just have to go back and watch the videos to actually find out what took place during the meetings.  Performing the functions of a video director, audio engineer, or graphics guy all pretty much require the full attention of whoever is doing them for them to be done properly, and at any given time I was performing at least two, if not all three of those roles simultaneously.  So, honestly, I have no idea what was said in either meeting.  Good thing I’ve got that recording.

But thanks to Brent (setup, takedown, running a camera twice), Dave (directing Sunday morning), Paul (camera Sunday morning), Irv (setup and takedown), and Danny (setup, takedown, and running a camera twice) for helping with the whole thing.  I couldn’t have done it without you.

P.S. We even had a little fun with our visiting apostle.  He was watching the whole meeting on the LCD monitor in front of him, but if we put a video image of him on it, he would immediately look up at the crowd.  Several times through the meeting we would watch him do the same thing each time we went to a camera that included him in a shot.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Here’s one of those FYI postings… Even if you aren’t tech savvy, you’ll still probably find this interesting.

Have you ever wondered how the GPS receiver in your car or phone is able to figure out where you are? You and I navigate using street signs and landmarks, but GPS devices don’t have that luxury, so they use a totally different technique to calculate their location. We kind of take them for granted because they have become so pervasive, but the technology behind them is quite sophisticated. How about a peek inside?

The way that it is done is very interesting. Signals are transmitted from a number of satellites in space (between 24 and 32 of them) containing information about the location of each satellite, and a very accurate time stamp. The GPS satellites have atomic clocks on board (not just one, but three, to guarantee reliability) to maintain accurate time, and this is critical to the way the system works. Why? Because GPS receivers calculate their position based on their distances from the GPS satellites, and they calculate that distance based on the amount of time it takes for the signals to travel from the satellite’s transmitter to the receiver’s antenna. (Distance = rate x time.) Considering that radio signals travel at the speed of light, the clocks must be extremely accurate. For every billionth of a second that a clock may be off, the calculated position of that satellite the GPS is going to be off by about one foot. Much more than a few billionths of a second and the system breaks entirely.

GPS receiver lock on to signals from at least 3 satellites (preferably more) and use the data in their signals (the satellite’s position and time stamp) to calculate the distances between the receiver and the satellites, and once that is known, figuring out the location of the receiver isn’t too terribly difficult.

But since the GPS receiver doesn't have its starting position and its own atomic clock as a reference point, it can’t calculate directly the distance from the GPS satellite. It has to calculate when the signal was sent in kind of a roundabout way based on the signals from other satellites. The receiver does know the time difference for the signals from the different satellites to arrive relative to one another, and from there it is then able to figure out how long it took for all of the signals to arrive. All down to a few billionths of a second.

Imagine a large room where four of your friends pick a random location to stand. Each one snaps their fingers once every second, all at the same time. And each time they snap they also announce a clue to their exact location in the room (but not all of the information about their location; there isn’t time in one second to do so). You then put on a blindfold and insert one earplug, and walk into the room, and attempt to ascertain your location as you move around the room (down to a millimeter) based on how long it takes for the sound of their fingers snapping to reach your ears. Sound difficult? Yep. But that’s how GPS works.

Add to this the fact that the GPS satellites are constantly moving, travelling at roughly 17,000 MPH and it sounds like an impossible task. But GPS devices are doing it, and these days the chips to make them work are a fraction of a square inch in size. Amazing.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Digital TV Transition – Are you ready?

Recent surveys are showing that a surprisingly high percentage of Americans don’t understand the digital TV transition that is going to take place next month (Feb 17th).  I suspect most of the readers of my blog are more tech savvy than the average American, but in any case, here’s a quick rundown.

Are you ready?

If you get your television content via satellite (Dish Network or DirecTV, for example), you don’t need to do anything.  Satellite transmission is not affected by the transition in any way.

If you get your television via cable, you don’t need to do anything right now.  Cable companies are not affected directly by the switch to digital.   A few companies of ill repute are using this opportunity to begin transitioning to all digital service, with some are even deceiving their customers by saying that they must upgrade their service or equipment to continue watching TV.  If your cable company is transitioning, you may need to get a new converter box from the cable company at some point, or at a minimum, use a TV with a QAM tuner (most don’t have this).  But your cable company will tell you if and when you may need to swap out equipment.

If you get your television from an antenna (rabbit ear, roof, or otherwise) and your TV is more than a couple years old, you probably need a converter box, available at many locations for about $40-50.  This is especially true if your TV is mid or small sized.

If you get your television from an antenna and your TV is less than a couple years old, consult the TV’s owners manual to see if it can receive ATSC transmissions (it must have an ATSC tuner).  Larger HDTVs usually do.  If it does not, you will need a converter box (like those sold at many popular retailers).  If it does, you are ready for the transition.

If you are watching using an antenna on an older TV, you will certainly lose your programming if you don’t have a converter box.  You may also need a newer antenna, depending on your distance from a station’s transmitter. 

If you need a converter box, the US government has a coupon program in place that will cover $40 for each of up to two boxes.  Coupons are becoming scarce, so hurry if you need one.  Go to for more information.


The analog television system we have been using for more than 50 years is pretty inefficient in its use of radio waves.  It also occupies premium real estate in terms of radio frequencies.  By moving to digital signals, more channels can be transmitted in the same radio spectrum, and high definition becomes possible.  By reallocating and opening up bands of radio frequencies, new services can be offered.  Among these are dedicated frequencies for public emergency services, and new spectrum for wireless Internet and other data services.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Fix that HDTV

Did you just get an HDTV for Christmas?  Or maybe you’ve had one for a while.  But in either case, I’m willing to bet you left most, if not all, of its picture adjustment controls are at their factory position.  (This information also applies to older standard definition televisions as well, though it isn’t as much of a problem on smaller sets.)

Most people (1) assume the factory knows what they are doing when they configure a television, or (2) they don’t know how to adjust their televisions for the best picture.  Well, guess what… nearly every manufacturer out there sets their televisions with some of the worst picture settings possible.  And the reason they do it is so that when you’re looking at them at the store, theirs looks “better” at first glance than the others.  Over the years the problem has gotten worse and worse, to the point now where the factory settings on some televisions makes them virtually unwatchable.

They also like to be able to advertise these fancy features that are intended to give you a better picture.  But what they aren’t going to tell you is that you’ll get a much more natural and pleasing picture by turning off all of the enhancement features that are available.  Every time you do anything to tweak the image, you are adding distortions and hiding the real picture.

How do we fix it?  Basically we need to adjust whatever settings we can to turn off all enhancements and processing on the image as much as we can. 

For example, the Sharpness control on every television I’ve ever seen is set WAY too high from the factory.  I know, you’re thinking, “but I like a sharp picture.”  Well, you’re getting more than you bargained for.  In order to add perceived sharpness to the picture, they have to also increase the visibility of noise in the picture (which then obscures real picture information).  If your picture ever looks really blocky or has any trace of highlights around objects, chances are it’s your sharpness control adding those artifacts.  They aren’t there in the original picture.  The solution?  Turn the sharpness control OFF, or all the way down, on most televisions.  Most televisions should have the setting turned completely off; only if you own a really high end set do the manufacturers allow any leeway.  If you are used to watching your TV with the sharpness turned too high, the picture might seem too soft at first, but after a while you’ll start to see detail that was being hidden by the noise your TV was adding previously.  And the picture will be much easier on your eyes to watch.

Here’s an example.  The following images are shown with the sharpness control turned off, at 50%, and at 100%.  Notice the clean edges on the one at left?  The other two add highlights (halos) around the edges of the text to make them appear more sharp, which in turn exaggerates the blockiness of the letters.  They’re destroying the original picture with the Sharpness control turned on.  (Image Source)

All other enhancement features should probably be turned off too.  The “noise reduction” and “edge enhancement” features on many TVs are turned on by default from the factory, but they remove real picture information and then add false data to compensate.  Turn off anything else that has “enhance” or “correct” in its name.

Any “dynamic picture” controls that you might have are probably bad, too.  With this feature turned on you’re basically telling your TV that you think it knows what is best with regard to how bright or dark the picture is; it is dynamically adjusting the brightness of your picture.  But there is no way the television can know how bright the picture is really supposed to be.  And besides, that movie you’re watching has already been setup with the correct levels of brightness.  Your TV doesn’t need to try to change it.

Most TVs also have their Color setting set too high too.  The proper setting is usually somewhere right in the middle of the available range, or slightly to the left of it.  If your reds or yellows seem outlandish, your Color control is too high.

If you have a Color Temperature control on your television, set it to Neutral, or your TV is intentionally shifting all colors toward orange or blue.  And if you remember from my photography class, orange and blue are opposites, and cancel each other out.  So if your TV is shifting the color toward orange (one of the Warm settings), anything that is supposed to be blue actually shows up more like a gray.  And vice versa.

Next, turn down your Brightness.  The television system was designed to carry picture information that is darker than its real black setting.  Many people turn up their Brightness control so they can see every little bit of detail in every shadow.  Wrong.  There are parts of the picture that are supposed to be invisible.  And if “black” on your TV looks even the least bit gray, turn down your Brightness control!

One setting that most manufacturers are generally getting right is the Picture or Contrast control, if you have an LCD or Plasma.  It should be somewhere around 95% of the maximum available setting on newer flat panel displays.  CRT (the old tubes) televisions, on the other hand, should have their contrast set right in the middle, or you risk burning out the TV too quickly, seeing gray objects displayed at white (with anything brighter losing all detail whatsoever) and are certainly seeing the size of your picture change when it goes from bright to dark.   The general rule for all televisions is, turn it up to the point where white looks white, but still retains fine detail.

And one last thing, it actually isn’t good for your eyes to watch television in a fully darkened room.  It is best to have at least a little light coming from around the television.  The professionals recommend a light at least 10% as bright as your television coming from behind the set (ambient light in a normally lit room qualifies) to avoid eye strain.

If you happen to have one of the DVDs out there that have the THX Optimizer (as several Disney films have had in the past), go through the instructions found on the disc.  While not perfect, it will go a long way toward getting you the best picture your television is capable of delivering.

Happy tweaking!

P.S. Some televisions use different settings for different inputs.  So once you finish setting your TV up for the best picture from DVD, you might need to do it all over again for your satellite or cable box, game console, or even over-the-air broadcasts.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Nighttime Winter Photography

Even though it’s cold outside, and driving in snow gets kind of old, I still enjoy winter… sometimes.  One of those times is after a fresh snowfall, when I can get some nighttime snow pictures.  So I went out last night about midnight and captured a few…

Some of the pictures are just meant to show how much snow we have gotten, and aren’t composed in any artistic way.  So please don’t be too critical.  :)

I actually did this two nights in a row, and sent out some from the first night to a couple friends that don’t get snow in the winter, and had a few people ask questions about how I was able to capture them, and what I had done in Photoshop to give them the surreal look that they had.  There’s an easy answer to that question: nothing.  The first bunch didn’t ever see Photoshop.  This bunch did, but all I did was correct the white balance, as I thought the pictures looked too yellow, and felt too warm as a result, so I corrected the color of the snow back to white.  But other than that, I did absolutely nothing to the images; these are just as they came out of the camera.

Other than having a good camera, the only thing I did special was to put the camera on a tripod so the long exposures required at night wouldn’t blur.  I didn’t use any fancy filters, no overpriced exotic lenses.  It was just all about proper composure and making sure the camera didn’t move.  But that wasn’t enough for some images; there are a few in here that are kind of blurry.  Autofocus pretty much doesn’t work at night, and its really hard to manually focus when it’s so dark outside.  So my apologies on those.  I liked the images anyway, so I included them despite their blurriness.

Anyway, enjoy.  I don’t get out to take pictures just for fun very often any more, and that’s why you never see any of my photos here on my blog; I’m usually working for a client, and I generally won’t post any of their images without asking permission first.

The Power of the Ridge Compels Me

When I bought my Honda Ridgeline 3 1/2 years ago I didn’t really realize how much they were looked down on by owners of full-size trucks. I wasn’t buying a truck to be cool; I actually have a need to haul equipment around. At the same time I didn’t want the poor gas mileage of something bigger, and I trust Honda’s reliability, so Ridgeline fit the bill quite nicely.

Honda really did their research when they designed this truck. The 4-wheel drive system on it is quite advanced, with the truck having the ability to essentially control each wheel independently, so if one wheel starts to slip the truck automatically sends power to the wheels that have traction. So it does amazingly well in snow. Most 4WD vehicles are designed so the same amount of energy is transferred to the road by each of the tires on an axle, so if one tire spins, the other tire on that axle does precisely nothing but sit there like a bump on a log. (4WD is really 2WD, and 2WD is really 1WD; this is done so the tires on an axle can move at different speeds as you go around a corner.) But mine is designed differently.

That withstanding, the general consensus about the Ridgeline among owners of full-size trucks, both domestic and foreign, is that they are soccer mom vehicles, not really designed to handle any of the big heavy jobs that their trucks can. If they did any research with an open mind, though, they’d realize that the Ridgeline is much more rugged than it at first appears. But that doesn’t keep them from making disrespectful comments to me and other RL owners. Granted, I wouldn’t try and tow a houseboat with mine, but they are better equipped than most people think.

Tonight I had an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the Ridgeline to the owners of not just one but two full size trucks. I had gone over to the church to pick up some equipment and as I pulled in there were what looked like a couple of trucks stuck in the snow in the back part of the parking lot. The lot had been plowed a while before, but another 3-4 inches had fallen since then. I guess the combination of packed snow and loose snow on top of it was enough to make it pretty hard for most people to get around. Anyway, the smaller of the two trucks had gotten himself really stuck, and the bigger truck came to help, and got himself even more stuck in the process.

I figured I’d let them try to get out for a couple minutes while I went inside to pick up the stuff I came for. When I came out neither one had moved, so it was pretty obvious they had a dilemma on their hands. So I walked over and asked if they were stuck and needed some help. They did. I told them I’d help if they didn’t feel too insulted by being pulled out by a Honda Ridgeline. The driver of the larger truck (it was a pretty large Heavy Duty Chevy Duramax, complete with lift, big tires, etc) admitted that he felt a little silly (especially with his girlfriend sitting in the passenger seat), but agreed to let me help. I didn’t have my tow strap with me so I told them I’d go home to get it and return in a few minutes.

When I pulled back into the parking lot neither truck had moved an inch. So I pulled in front of the larger truck, with the intent to just pull him far enough to one side that he could move under his own power. So I hooked my tow strap to his front tow hook, and hopped in my truck to start to pull him out, almost straight to his left.

What happened actually surprised everyone. It started with the monster truck being pulled right out of its ruts, and at that point I had some good momentum so I just kept going. I was pulling him almost sideways across the parking lot. But because he was tied to the second truck behind him, it came along too. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched in my mirror as the second truck came loose and was sliding across the parking lot. I was literally dragging both trucks across the parking lot! My little V6 Honda Ridgeline. And I wasn’t on dry pavement, I was driving on the same snow that they had gotten stuck in. I just have a better 4WD system than they do, so I can get traction when they can’t.

I didn’t want to rub it in their faces too much that my “little" “weak” truck was able to do what they couldn’t (they were obviously already uncomfortable with the idea), so I pretty much just gathered up my stuff and left. But I could tell that everybody was surprised at what had just happened. But among their surprise was a little gratitude, too.

I try not to take pride in showing off, but sometimes I just can’t help but do it just a little bit to try to shatter a stereotype. Or maybe it’s an attempt to teach them that they aren’t invincible. I don’t know. But it was kind of fun nonetheless.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened, either. Last year two friends got their trucks stuck in the empty lot down the street from me (at the same time), and roughly the same thing happened, though I pulled them out and dragged them across the field one at a time instead of both at once.

The lesson learned for me is that I need to carry my towing equipment with me at all times, just in case of situations like this. Inevitably I end up pulling at least a few vehicles out of tough spots each winter, so it's probably a good idea to actually be prepared ahead of time.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ahhh… Winter Driving

Oh the joys of winter driving.  But it seems the general public is in need of a refresher course on how to do it properly. 

Note: I saw every one of these rules were violated tonight in just the short distance between me and a local burger joint.

  • When cleaning the snow off of your car, don’t forget to clear the side and back windows.  If you want to drive a vehicle that can only see out the front, buy a tank.
  • Do clean the snow off of your car before leaving home/work.  Windshield wipers do not equal ice scrapers.
  • When cleaning the snow off of your car, don’t forget to clear off the headlights, so that others can see you doing foolish things and get off the road.
  • Do not pull out right in front of a snowplow coming at you at 30 mph with a full load of snow in front of its blade.
  • Do not walk out into the street right in front of a snowplow coming at you at 30mph with a full load of snow in front of its blade.
  • Four wheel drive does not help when trying to slow down, or make it easier to get around corners at high speed.  It is great, however, at sending you off wildly into oncoming traffic when you stomp on the accelerator.
  • The middle of a snowstorm is probably not the best time to try to pull a UHAUL truck into an uphill driveway without making at least a minimal attempt at snow removal from said driveway.
  • Clearing a driveway of snow is much easier before cars have driven over it repeatedly.
  • Even if you have the right of way at an intersection, do not assume that the guy coming from your right or left knows how, or wants to stop.
  • Do leave enough space between you and the car ahead of you, so that if he decides to stop, you at least have a small chance of stopping or going around.  Especially when the car ahead of you is me.
  • Do take your foot off of the accelerator when all of your wheels are spinning and you aren’t going anywhere, unless you are attempting to dig yourself into a trench.
  • When approaching an intersection with a yellow or red stoplight give yourself some extra space to stop, unless you intend to become a target to traffic flowing in the opposite direction.
  • Curbs are not bumpers like you find in a bowling alley.  The intent is to stay away from them.  They are not an excuse to play the game badly.
  • Little pickup trucks aren’t designed to be hooked up to snow plow blades.
  • Just because the left turn lane has more snow in it than the straight-through lanes doesn’t give you the right to stay out of it and confuse everyone by making a turn where and when you shouldn’t.
  • When towing a trailer, do not take right turns at 30 miles per hour.  Your trailer will want to keep going straight, taking you with it, right into that curb.

Thank you for your attention.

Friday, January 2, 2009

What Goes Around...

Tulsa, OK -- Doug and brother Brent arrive early at the Tulsa airport to ensure they are able to make the first leg of their trip back home to Utah.  Last year the security lines for similar flights the same time of day were uncharacteristically long, resulting in Doug nearly missing his flight.  Today, however, things would be different.  There was nobody waiting at the airline ticketing counter.  Nobody waiting to get through airport security.  They arrived at their gate nearly an hour and a half before departure time.

As coincidence would have it, there was another flight with the same destination leaving from the gate just minutes after their arrival there.  Within mere seconds of the time they sat down an airline representative approached them and asked if they were waiting for the later flight.  They were offered the opportunity to board the earlier flight.  American Airlines had not been able to fill the flight, and seats were being offered to anyone willing to fill them.

So both Doug and Brent were seated on the earlier flight, in an exit row, with an empty seat between them.  But this was no ordinary exit row.  There was enough space between their row and the one ahead that Doug was able to completely stretch out his legs without touching the seat in front of him.   "This was the first time I have ever been able to do that," Doug said.  Brent, with longer legs, was not able to stretch his legs out completely, but also found the extra space welcome.  "Meh," was his exact word.  American Airlines could not be reached for comment.

While the pair still have an additional flight later today, the extra time to relax and first dibs on AC power outlets to power their laptops in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport were appreciated.  "Today's experience was very nice, especially considering my previous flying experience," Doug said with regard to a flight two weeks previous, where he gave up his seat next to an attractive, desirable flying companion, in exchange for the nonsensical ramblings of a gregarious voluble elderly woman with active, sharp elbows.  "I guess what goes around comes around after all."

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