Trip Report – Day 2

And then it was Thursday, and the Boy had to watch bizarre Japanese cartoons before breakfast. Our big trip of the day was to the Natural Bridge Wildlife Park, a drive-through safari. Great numbers of animals, and many of them came up to the car for photo opportunities and food. The ostriches, never considered the smartest animals in nature, proved to be dimwitted and aggressive. Geez, you’d think the park owners never fed them, the way they tried to climb into the passenger seat for more pellets of compressed grass.

We had enough safari around lunch, so we hit the nearby Natural Bridge Caverns. I’ve been in a few caves, and never have I been in one that was so uncomfortable. The place was 70F and 99% humidity – most caves I think are cooler, if just as humid. Anyway, that was pretty neat, Alex loved it, and then we went back to the pool at the hotel.

Dinner on Day Two was Joe’s Crab Shack, which neither of us had been to before. We shared a meal that was supposed to be 27 shrimp (9 each of three styles), but we counted the tails – 34. The waitress obviously thought my son was adorable – it happens frequently.

Another walk along the San Antonio Riverwalk, and off to bed. End of Day Two.

Trip Report – Day 1

Alex and I hit San Antonio two weeks ago, and I’ve just not felt like writing much since we got back. Now that the sunburn has faded, I’m more willing to hang out in the computer chair.

We started out with Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, which was pretty bizarre, even if the Boy didn’t spend much time looking at anything, but more time telling me it was time to go to the next room. That’s his ideal exhibit – the next room. Whatever is in this room is never as cool as what will be in the next room.

Alex has been begging to go to the Alamo for months, so we hit there next. The Alamo is kind of unique in that it is a national monument that is run by a private non-profit organization. And, unlike the Park Service, they don’t charge admission! Alex was again interested only in the Next Room, of course. Maybe he’ll be more interested in a few years.

We ate the first night at the Rainforest Cafe. Yes, it is kitschy. Yes, the food is nothing to write a culinary review about. But, where else can you eat your dinner surrounded by rubber animals that come to life every ten minutes, and have a thunderstorm indoors every half hour? Exactly. It was a hit, of course.

We rented a room at the Radisson. For a well-known hotel, it was remarkably average. They did have a pool and hot tub, so we spent many many hours in the water. That ended up being the highlight of San Antonio for Alex – the hotel pool.

Three Names = Killer

Why are most notorious killers of recent years referred to in the press (and thereafter by the public at large) by their full names?  This never happens with other criminals or subject of news stories. John Mark Karr, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacy, John Wilkes Boothe, Mark David Chapman…It almost seems like the intent is to make the suspect sound sinister or peculiar, and thereby make them obviously guilty.  After all, if your average person told you to call him John Jacob Smith, you’d think he was pretty darned strange, no?

Snakes on a Mutha….

Samuel Jackson on the Daily Show tonight was the first time I’ve seen an actor do a promo appearance with Jon Stewart and actually talk about the movie.  When Robin Williams was touring for RV, he did schtick about the President and other random Robin things.  When Will Farrell was doing appearances for his latest NASCAR thing, he mentioned the movie briefly and then wandered off into other stuff.

Only Snakes on a Plane can get actors and talk show hosts hyped enough to talk about the movie as if that’s the reason they got together that day.  And, seriously, Samuel Jackson seems to be a very animated fella. He even used the word “blogosphere” without sounding like a clueless dork.  Sweet.

Snakes on a Plane, not Ferrets on a Panel Truck.  Oh yeah.

Digital video creation

OK, someone suggested I put together a quick tutorial or how-to on digital video creation.  Home videos have grown increasingly easy to record, and the output is so much better than the old super-8 film days, but it’s still not easy for some. So, without further ado, Gary’s Video Tutorial. It’s on a wiki, so if you have something useful to contribute, feel free.  I’ve still got to add something about titles and overlays.

Who needs bomb detectors?

Japan has been using liquid explosive detectors in its Narita International Airport in Tokyo and demonstrated the technology to U.S. officials at a conference in January, the Japanese Embassy in Washington said.

The administration’s most recent budget request also mystified lawmakers. It asked to take $6 million from the Sciences & Technology Directorate’s 2006 budget that was supposed to be used to develop explosives detection technology and divert it to cover a budget shortfall in the Federal Protective Service, which provides security around government buildings.

Bureaucracy impedes bomb-detection work

I just cannot think of a comment that isn’t filled with cursing.

Blu-Ray drive won’t play Blu-Ray movies

I can’t imagine what one could add to the headline to make this story any more clear. Can you imagine buying one of these drives to play Blu-Ray movies in your new home theater PC and finding out that you can’t? Are they just encouraging piracy now by their total incompetence at this Digital Restrictions Manglement crap?

London gibberish

It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America. We’ve taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously we still aren’t completely safe.

Well, gee. Perfect safety hasn’t been achieved? Let’s give up a few more of our ideals and rip up the last few shreds of the Constitution. What’s amazing to me is that the President isn’t pointing out how the system worked. This is a success for the British security services, an event which shows that law enforcement and good investigation skills actually function as you would hope. The plot was thwarted, all is right with the world. The US and UK should be celebrating this accomplishment, and instead we’re taking people’s water bottles away and making flying just a little more irritating yet again.
Of course, the President is perhaps not crowing about this successful investigation and series of arrests because the British did it using the systems and methods that don’t actually violate their citizens’ rights. Yep, they actually used policemen doing their jobs, not random wiretaps of every phone call and email. They didn’t need to lock people up for years without charges, finding extraordinary means of avoiding domestic and international legal challenges. They did things in ways that violated no law of the land, completely without controversy. Maybe we don’t want to talk about that.

Digital Camcorders

The following is somewhat reformatted from a recent discussion on Cnet about DVD camcorders.

I know many people are considering a digital camcorder for the first time, as their old 8mm and VHS-C cameras start to die. Many people think that a DVD camcorder is a great idea, because it’s so simple: just record to the disk, hit the “finished” button, and play it on a DVD player (although you’ll be recording about 20 minutes on that disk, not the two hours you expect from a full-sized DVD). That works great if you want the exact same capability you had with a simple analog video camera. If you want to produce nicer video, though, the story is quite different.
There are some people who don’t edit their videos, who don’t mind that their home videos look amateurish and contain fingers over lenses and heads blocking shots and poor audio. For those people, a DVD camcorder is a great fit. They neither want nor need the editing quality they are denied by recording in a lossy format; they need and want, however, the ease of taking their videos and dropping them in nearly any DVD player and watching them.

Recording to a DVD in DVD-standard formats means lossy compression and the joys of MPEG formats that anyone who has tried to edit an MPEG can understand. The MiniDV camcorders can dump uncompressed video to your computer, where you can delete the scenes that look bad, you can punch up the color balance and contrast, you can add a music soundtrack if you like. All these things are wonderful, and I do them with all my home videos, producing slick DVDs with titles and transitions and menus for my relatives. That niche is where I want to be.

DVD is a great medium to VIEW video with. It’s even a great medium to shoot video if you understand its limits.

DVDs and MiniDV and hard drives and flash memory all record digitally. So, talk of capacity should include RAW storage in bytes, not just in minutes. Any talk of minutes gets you embroiled in compression issues.

A MiniDV tape holds 13 gigabytes of data. An 8cm DVD (the smaller ones used in camcorders) holds 1.4 gigabytes. An expensive SD card holds 4 gigabytes. A hard-drive based camcorder holds (as of today) around 30 gigabytes. That’s the actual storage capacity, folks. Now, how much do each cost? Well, the best price per gigabyte is the tape, as it has been throughout digital media history.

The cheap nature of tapes convinced the DV forum to make DV standard very close to uncompressed. This makes it easy to edit without losing quality.

The low capacity of 8cm DVDs, and the need to make them compatible with DVD players, means that DVDs have the worst video quality (among hard drives, DV tape, and DVDs at least – some of the flash recorders are toys). The compatibility of DVDs is their greatest asset. Hit “done” on that camcorder, and two minutes later you can be watching your home movie on a big screen. Not so with tapes.

DVD format does have an inherent flaw – lossy compression.

Tapes still exist for every high-capacity recording system in use today. High-end video recorders use tape. High-end data backup systems use tape. The reason is simple: high density at low cost.

If the video was recorded to the DVD as an uncompressed video file (like the DV standard used on tapes), you’d swap disks every six minutes. Also, the DVDs would be DVD-ROM format, and wouldn’t play on your DVD player – which is the selling point for most DVD recording camcorder users.

When you export a DVD format video to edit it, you are taking an MPEG (with I, B, and P frames) and editing it into a different compression scheme for whatever your target system is. If it’s DVD again, you compress an MPEG to MPEG, each generation producing another set of MPEG compression artifacts.

So, you can get high capacity and high quality on tape. You can get easy compatibility with DVD. You can’t get both. If you want DVD-player compatibility, then the DVD camcorder format has an inherent flaw – MPEG.

The hard drive recorders, at least those that you see marketed for typical consumers, use compressed video because they don’t generally have removable hard drives. With a fixed disk, you want more capacity than a single tape, obviously. So, the JVC Everio and others have MPEG-compressed video and the same issues with editability as the DVDs.

To me, the DVD camcorder is to video what the point-and-shoot camera is to photography. Just because we geeks want the best quality and ease of editing, doesn’t mean that “good enough” matched with “really easy” is a bad thing. So, if you know what you want to do with your video, that makes all the difference in the world for what type of camcorder to buy.

Miles Per Dollar

Back in 1987, when I first started driving, I had a 1967 Dodge Coronet. It got 17 miles per dollar (mpd). That car had horrible mileage, a cranky carburetor, and generally drove like the tank it resembled.

When I got back from my first tour in Korea in 1992, I got a cheap Toyota. With advances in technology, I was able to average 25 mpd. Of course, I had rare need for air conditioning in Monterey, but that 25 mpd was mostly city driving.

My next car, the Dodge Neon, was a victim of a slight rise in gas prices, so I only got 23 mpd when I first got the cute little thing in 1995. By the time I moved on to the next car, I was only able to squeeze 17 mpd from the Neon.

The Ford Contour (crappy car, don’t ever get one) I got saddled with in 2000 made a then-sad 15 mpd. Power locks, air conditioning, but otherwise a simple auto.

Now we’ve got these insane fuel prices, and I drove to and from Dallas this weekend. The previous week, with commuting the primary fuel usage, I only made 7 (seven!) mpd. The highway trip made things slightly better, with a massive 11 mpd.

Of course, even a Toyota Prius would only average around 15-17 mpd nowadays. I don’t even want to do the math on that old Coronet (OK, fine – it would be five mpd). I think my “Check Economy” light is flashing…