Tuesday, August 31, 2010

USB Powered BD-ROM

Plextor just debuted their USB-powered external Blu-ray drive that allows users to watch high-definition movies on any Blu-ray capable PC or laptop.

The device comes bundled with Cyberlink -high-quality Blu-ray and DVD playback software that provides a full Blu-ray experience in 3D, including the ability to upscale standard videos to HD-like and 3D-like visual quality.

The PX-B120U external BD-ROM is now available at the Plextor site for only $99.99.

posted by: jmet, 06:06, February 6, 2010
posted by: jmet, 03:14, May 18, 2010
posted by: jmet, 10:16, April 1, 2010
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Monday, August 30, 2010

Studios Open Up to Digital Content Safe

A new copyright system that protects digital content similar to way a bank uses an account number is coming that allows you to watch your movies on virtually any device.� It is being called:� UltraViolet.

The standard will be backed by most movie studios including Warner Bros. and technology companies like Microsoft so companies who lock buyers of video content to limited numbers of devices, such as the iPad or Apple TV can no longer corner the market.

The concept is to create a digital locker that stores tokens that are proofs of purchase of DVDs, Blu-ray discs and video downloads. When a consumer buys a video online or at a store, he can watch it anywhere else, including on any mobile device or TV set without the hassle of copying his personal files.

Movie studios are pushing the benefits of being able to buy video content once for use on any device to offset the decline in DVD sales.� Specifications for a proposed common file format will be released soon, and testing of the system with an unnamed retailer will begin by the end of the year.

Having a way to access your movies and TV shows anywhere regardless of hardware is sure to take off and become very popular.� Looking forward to hearing more about this...

posted by: jmet, 23:29, March 25, 2010
posted by: jmet, 11:13, January 13, 2010
posted by: DVDGuy, 15:01, December 13, 2009
posted by: jmet, 18:26, December 31, 2009
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Laser to Replace Blu-ray

Sony recently announced they are developing a new type of blue-violet ultra-fast pulsed laser for optical disks that would increase storage capacity up to 20X of current Blu-ray Discs.

This means that a blue-violet based disc could hold up to 50 movies or an entire season of a TV show on one disk.

The adoption process for Blu-ray is going at a snails pace, so I wouldn't look for this technology to come any time soon.� Just know it is possible.

posted by: jmet, 11:10, April 5, 2010
posted by: jmet, 06:06, February 6, 2010
posted by: jmet, 09:05, March 5, 2010
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XBOX 360 250GB HD for $79.99

Shop4tech.com is offering the Microsoft Xbox 360 250GB Hard Drive Module in Gray for $79.99.�

If you apply the coupon code "VIP18", it cuts it to $65.56 plus you get free shipping.� This is the highest capacity hard drive module available for the Xbox 360.

FYI - Coupon expires July 24.

posted by: jmet, 11:58, February 2, 2010
posted by: jmet, 05:18, June 19, 2010
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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Hotter than a Kenwood in a Cutlass

The Mitsubishi 3D TV starter pack starting to ship from Amazon this past weekend.

The Mitsubishi 3DC-1000 which includes a 3D Adapter with remote, two pair of Active 3D glasses with matching emitter an HDMI cable for a reasonable price of $399.99 (which is already sold out by the way).

Just for being an early adopter, Mitsubishi is throwing in a Disney demo 3D Blu-ray disc too (I know your excited).

posted by: jmet, 13:31, June 24, 2010
posted by: jmet, 04:17, March 23, 2010
posted by: jmet, 11:39, June 22, 2010
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Friday, August 27, 2010

YouTube Auto Switches Depending on Browser

YouTube has now started to test new code that will allow it to switch automatically between Flash and HTML5 depending on what browser you are using.

HTML 5 would be the first choice and then it will only force Flash when the video requires features HTML5 can't yet handle (like those annoying ads).

Unfortunately only the developers currently have access to the new code, but YouTube plans to roll it out to everyone in the future.

posted by: jmet, 13:19, June 30, 2010
posted by: jmet, 13:42, January 22, 2010
posted by: jmet, 07:12, February 16, 2010
posted by: jmet, 12:17, July 2, 2010
posted by: jmet, 14:54, February 3, 2010

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Google Bumps Recording Limit Cap

YouTube announced today that it has increased the time limit of uploaded videos from 10 to 15 minutes.

"Well, we�ve spent significant resources on creating and improving our state-of-the-art Content ID system and many other powerful tools for copyright owners. Now, all of the major U.S. movie studios, music labels and over 1,000 other global partners use Content ID to manage their content on YouTube. Because of the success of these ongoing technological efforts, we are able to increase the upload limit today"

Bumping up that limit also increases bandwidth and storage costs; theoretically the longer clips will also give the site more chances to sell more ads.

Ah hah!� The truth shall set you free!

posted by: jmet, 13:19, September 30, 2009
posted by: jmet, 13:51, December 17, 2009
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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Streaming Redbox Coming Soon

Rumors are floating around that Redbox is looking to expand its distribution method by adding a streaming movies service .

Some are speculating that Redbox will charge half of what Netflix does, bring it down to about $5.50 a month.

There's not much to more to share about the service itself at this point, but Redbox is expected to announce more details in October.

posted by: jmet, 06:29, April 8, 2010
posted by: jmet, 12:28, July 16, 2010
posted by: jmet, 11:06, March 9, 2010
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Dish Network has stopped selling its DTVPal DVR, after weeks of offering it at discounted prices.� Unfortunately Dish has no plans to replace it.

The DTVPal was the only affordable over-the-air ATSC dual-turning DVR on the market, but lacked some important features which I guess goes to show you sometimes price isn't the determining factor.

The method used to record programs wasn't very user friendly as you�had to schedule recordings by time slot and channel, rather than show not to mention you only received limited guide data over-the-air.

Hopefully something new and better will come along shortly.

posted by: jmet, 13:15, April 7, 2010
posted by: jmet, 14:48, November 3, 2009
posted by: jmet, 10:21, June 9, 2010
posted by: jmet, 12:08, June 23, 2010
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New XBOX 360 4GB for Under $200

Microsoft just announced that a shiny new 4GB Xbox 360 with 4GB internal flash memory, matte finish, and built-in WiFi will be selling for $199.99.

The built in WiFi and the ability to store and save games to a USB stick should make this console one of the best selling.

The new console will hit the shelves on August 3rd.

posted by: jmet, 05:18, June 19, 2010
posted by: jmet, 09:07, May 6, 2010
posted by: jmet, 10:28, July 15, 2010
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Firmware 3.41 Bringing New Feature to PS3 Store

Sony has revealed some details about an upcoming firmware update for the PS3 that adds game and video recommendations to the PlayStation Store.

Now when your researching specific titles,� there will be a new "You May Like" section which lets you browse similar content that may interest you.

Recommendations are based on purchases of other PlayStation Network members who have bought the same item you're looking at.

posted by: jmet, 10:23, April 27, 2010
posted by: jmet, 14:19, June 29, 2010
posted by: jmet, 03:59, April 10, 2010
posted by: jmet, 11:44, October 8, 2009
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Monday, August 23, 2010

3DS Launch Details Released

Nintendo announced today that the 3DS will launch on September 29 and could possibly ship out before 2011.

As for the other details, there wasn't much except the 3DS will have a much larger screen, an analog control pad and a gyroscope for tilt-sensitive game play.�� It will also be able to access the internet through the built in Wi-Fi connection.

As usual, Nintendo is pretty tight lipped on all the details.� I am actually surprised they said as much as they did regarding the 3DS.

posted by: jmet, 12:44, June 23, 2010
posted by: jmet, 14:00, January 7, 2010
posted by: jmet, 12:54, May 8, 2010
posted by: jmet, 13:34, June 16, 2010
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Disc Free Streaming for the PS3

Netflix is making good on its promise to bring a streaming service to Sony�s game console that doesn�t require a disc.

�Before our next call in October, we expect to be launching a major new version of our Sony PS3 user interface which doesn�t require a disc and is dynamically updated continuously with the latest Netflix UI improvements.�

Unfortunately for Wii owners, Sony hasn't commented when or even if the Wii console will have something comparable.

posted by: jmet, 11:43, January 14, 2010
posted by: jmet, 04:43, October 27, 2009
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

3D Camcorders Coming to Consumers

3D movies are now coming out left and right and 3D TVs are taking up alot of shelf space at electronic stores.� It was only a matter of time before 3D consumer camcorders would begin to hit the market.

That time was this week as two camcorder makers, Panasonic and DXG USA announced 3D camcorder products.

Panasonic HDC-SDT750
Panasonic HDC-SDT750

Panasonic's 3D offering, the HDC-SDT750, is a camcorder-lens combo expected to sell in the United states for around US $1,400.

When a user wants to shoot in 3D, they simply attach a 3D conversion lens to the camcorder.� Without it, the camcorder just shoots in regular 2D.

posted by: jmet, 11:44, February 2, 2010
posted by: jmet, 06:13, December 19, 2009
posted by: jmet, 07:37, July 11, 2010
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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pirate Party Starts an ISP

The Swedish Pirate Party has plans to start its own broadband ISP that gives customers that warm fuzzy feeling of being invisible while browsing those risqu� sites.

The "Pirate ISP" is already beta testing in the city of Lund and all proceeds will be used to fund the group's anti-copyright efforts.

The unexpected news comes shortly after the party revealed a clever plan to protect the popular torrent site, The Pirate Bay, with parliamentary immunity by hosting the site from "inside" the Swedish Parliament.�

posted by: jmet, 13:30, August 26, 2009
posted by: jmet, 14:13, September 11, 2009
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posted by: jmet, 13:21, September 11, 2009
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Multi Functional DVR by Monsoon

Monsoon has introduced a suite of revolutionary TV place-shifting devices that allow you to watch and control live home TV from broadband Internet or data network connected PC or even a mobile phone.

Monsoon gives you the freedom to watch home TV whenever and wherever you want:

Personalize your TV viewing experience Enjoy your Microsoft Media Center TV experience in any room in the house without requiring a TV connection in those rooms Watch TV on multiple PCs, in multiple rooms, simultaneously Wirelessly watch TV on your deck or in the workshop Users can watch TV in the home and from the airport at the same time Turn Windows Vista or Windows XP PCs into PVRs. Pause, fast forward, rewind, record TV onto your PC�s hard disk or burn TV programs onto DVDs for later viewing No monthly subscription fees

You will never miss your favorite TV show again.

posted by: jmet, 12:03, September 29, 2009
posted by: jmet, 23:29, March 25, 2010
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Friday, August 20, 2010

Using a UK PayAsYouGo SIM when you are a foreigner

[Updated June 1st to correct ATM information and to add PayPal option]

Recently I had the need to buy and use a UK PAYG SIM card for my phone, so I could make calls and access the web in the UK without the gigantic costs involved with my US SIM card. As I am no longer a UK resident, this was surprisingly difficult, although I did succeed eventually. Although my experience was with Vodafone, a friend had similar issues with Orange.

Buying the SIM was the simplest part: went into Carphone Warehouse, gave them UKP10 and got a Vodafone�SIM with UKP5 worth of minutes on it. All I had to do was top it up with more money then add a �Web Pack� (cost: UKP7.50) which would get me data access for a month. I was told to do this online.

Got home to a web browser and went to register my new SIM so I could top it up online. This was not possible, as it requires a UK credit/debit card (which I actually do still have) registered to a UK postal code (which I do not: my card is registered to my US address). I called their phone support, spoke to a human being and was told the UK postcode was indeed required, so online top-up was not going to be possible.

The solution was to find an ATM (in English that�s a �hole in the wall�) with a green �Top-Up� logo, put a card with a chip on it�in there (see below), and top-up from that. I had to enter my SIM�s phone number (twice) and so I could add UKP10 to the account. That done I called �2345� which is the automated customer service number and turned UKP7.50 of that into a �web pack� so I was set for a month's worth of web access. Luckily I still have a UK card, else this option would have been unavailable to me: when I tried with my US card, all Top-Up options were absent from the list.

If you do not have a "chip" on your card then topping up can only be done in two ways: in a cellphone store, by handing them cash, or via a web site that will take something other than UK cards. I found this site that claims to accept PayPal for top-ups, but I have not personally verified it. Use at your own risk.

The lack of a smartcard (or "chip") on my US cards was not only a problem in the ATMs for top-up,�but was sometimes�a problem any time a human being was involved in a card transaction. The USA isn�t interested in reducing card fraud so our cards have no chips on them, but of course every card reader in the UK requires a chip. UK staff are often confused when handed a card with no chip, though they can usually find someone who knows what to do with it eventually. The only other places where my US cards didn�t work at all was at a petrol pump specifically marked as �chip&pin only� and a machines at cinemas to buy tickets.

Other things I learned: once back in the USA there is no way to top up the card (as no ATM offers it) and you can�t call �2345� to switch any outstanding balance from minutes to a web pack as that number doesn�t work when not on the Vodafone network. When I next visit to the UK I�ll know the drill to getting on the web a lot quicker than it took me this time.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Zune in my Boxster: Part 2

I've been enjoying my Zune installation for a while now, but I had one thing that bugged me: operating the touchpad with the player mounted in the ashtray was a bit tricky when stationary, but very tricky when moving. It was also time to post some pictures of my handiwork.

Zune in ashtray

Fortunately Soundgate have now released a remote control for their Zune car kit, called the Remcore, so I got myself one. Fitting it was easy enough: open up my dashboard (for the last time I hope) and insert the plug into the socket on the Soundgate box. Harder than that was deciding where to put the control: it had to be easily accessible while driving. After a little experimentation I chose a spot on the "batwing" - a dashboard piece�at the front of the center console so nicknamed due to its shape. This also allowed me to run the cable without having to drill any holes in anything. The remote comes with a little bracket that allows it to be removed and handed to passengers, I guess, as it has a long cable attached. As I can carry a maximum of one passenger, and they are sitting right next to me, I didn't use the bracket and instead stuck the remote directly onto the plastic with double-sided tape.

In Use

(Note in the picture the Remcore is the all-black control to the left: the silver switch in the center of the batwing is for my hands-free bluetooth kit). With the ashtray closed, the stealthy nature of the install is clear:

Stealth Zune

In use it is great: I can easily control play/pause/next/prev without taking my eyes of the road or even opening the ashtray to try and see the screen. If I want to change my music selection (when stationary) then I pop open the ashtray and navigate around. The remote takes a little getting used to as the middle button is play/pause and the top right button is equivalent to the middle of the touchwheel, but I can live with that. If I had more time and skill I would probably try and craft a nice tinted window in the lid of the ashtray so that I could see the screen without even opening it and yet keep it invisible when turned off. However I have neither required attribute.

View the original article here

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More HD DVD players than Blu-ray players in America. Still. In 2009.

It's crazy to me that the biggest reason that Blu-Ray had a luke warm reception in the first place, was down to the fact that Sony kept bringing out new profiles, and each time it was more than likely that your very expensive Blu-Ray player would need to be replaced with another player.

It's nice to see that Sony has given us a couple of years to invest in new profile 2 hardware, just for them to bring out a need to buy a new player all over again!!!

This is at the heart of what is spoilling Ble-Ray's adoption in to the market, with high prices being the second reason.

On the other hand, if Microsoft release a new Xbox, it would be stupid to not move to a Blu-Ray based storage system - lets face it, DVD is out of steam already, and not all the world has ultra fast broadband connections, and not to mention the fact that MS's movies are not available in many countries.

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Tricks and Tips for using the VMR9

A few months ago I did some work involving the VMR9, and I hit several brick walls. Many of these brick walls I hit about six months previously when working on a PC application for HD DVD playback (no, there were no plans to ship it, even then), but I hadn�t taken enough notes of the solutions back then and had to re-debug them all over again. In case you hit these same problems, or I do at some point in my future, here they are and how I solved them. I do not claim domain expert status in this area, nor should you treat my claims here as gospel. I also cannot explain why these changes fixed things. However they worked for me and might for you.

I was trying to build a graph that rendered video into a custom allocator/presenter, using the VMR in renderless mode. The issues were:

Failure to QI the VMR for IVMRMixerControl9No video output when the VMR is in renderless mode at all on Vista, identical code worked fine on XPWhen I fixed that above, I could get MPEG2 video to render on XP but not WMV, and Vista still rendered nothingThe solutions turned out to be:

QueryInterface on the VMR9 for IVMRMixerControl9 returns E_NOINTERFACE until you call SetNumberOfStreams on it.

If you ask the VMR to use YUV in renderless mode on Vista, nothing will render. The fix is to not ask for it. (Duh).

The order you set up VMR9 for renderless mode is critical. The original code that worked OK for MPEG2 on XP but not at all for WMV was as follows (error handling omitted for clarity):


spVMR->QueryInterface(IID_IVMRFilterConfig9, &spConfig);


After much experimentation the code that worked in all cases was:





I can only guess that when you add the VMR filter to the graph you must have already set up the custom allocator/presenter. Why Vista is more fussy than XP, and why MPEG2 behaved differently than WMV I cannot begin to guess at.

View the original article here

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why HD DVD Really Lost The Format War

NO... It is MY fault...

for the last 30 years I have pushed a string up hill trying to get the world to record video to optical discs.. My good friend Kilroy Hughes would listen to me, dirnk with me, and laugh we me at NABs etc.. but would not successfully learn from me that the BD medium is the right way to go... for reasons that:

1)its first and formost a RECORDING format (neat for download and burns of the future)

2)Toshiba does not know marketing

3)Microsoft thinks servers not burners

4)Hollywood has very few tech-heads... the last were working at Pixar, who morphed into Disney...who must listen to Sir Stevie Jobs

5)and the best... 50 gigs is a bigger number than 30 gigs.. and SOON 200 gigs is bigger than 50 gigs... now THAT should have been the killer issue for folks in Redmond.

YET... I have been strongly in the camp that HD-i is the RIGHT way to go on the puter side, the only mistake was to believe that CHEAPER is better...

If any of you who read this want me to help them through this recovery period, and to build a "compromise" that will work for everyone... You can rattle my cage at anytime

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Monday, August 16, 2010

The Sinclair QL is 25 yrs old today!

Chances are that you have never heard of the Sinclair QL. However if you are as old as me and European then you may have a soft spot for this 68k-based machine launched twelve days before that other 68k machine from the fruit company. It was my first 32-bit multitasking machine, with a real operating system (shame about the keyboard and storage device though).

I got one of the fruit company's 68k machines not long after the QL as an advance from my publishers and used it (running MacWrite 1.0)�for my two QL books (one of which is quoted on the wikipedia page!) and wrote assembly language code for both platforms. My University 3rd year project was a debugger for the QL and I wrote an assembler too, which eventually turned into HiSoft Devpac for the QL, Atari ST and CBM Amiga once I got a proper job. So I guess I can thank the QL for my decades of work in the�development tools�field.

My parents attic still contains my disassembly of one of the QL operating systems (FB I think), though I know they would like me to dispose of it and much of the other detris from my past, though my QL hardware stayed at HiSoft as I recall. I think I still have some microdrive cartridges somewhere.

For the nostalgic see this page�for the 25th Birthday rememberance, thanks for the info Urs, I would have no idea otherwise.

View the original article here

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Andy's Random KIN Tips Page

Both my wife and I are happy KIN users so I thought I would share some information that might be useful to others about the KIN phones. Note that I am not attempting to replicate or duplicate the official support pages, but instead share additional information. As things come to me I'll try to add then to this page.

Caveat: this page is not condoned or endorsed by Microsoft or the KIN team. Your mileage may vary. Void where prohibited. Etc.

The built-in hands-free car kits we have used successfully are the Sony Ericsson HCB-30 (very old but that's what I have) and the Parrot CK3000. Although the KIN supports audio-over-bluetooth, neither of these do as the S/E is too old and the Toyota that has the CK3000 is incapable of accepting a useful�aux input (can you believe it? Toyota's in-car-audio story has been broken for a while).

We love the iGo range of chargers and cables, and the A97 tip (micro usb) works fine on our KIN ONEs. On a KIN TWO (which neither of us have) it is a tight fit though. With the splitter we can charge both phones with a single cable. We can also charge our Zunes with a different plug of course.

I don't have a part number but Verizon stores sell a hard case for the KIN ONE. I have the transparent one but noticed that the hole used for the external speaker is covered up, greatly reducing the ringtone. I carefully used a Dremel to make the hole that someone forgot to, to make sure I can hear it when my wife calls :-)

I don't usually edit comments on my blog but I will be making an exception here. Please don't rant about KIN or anything else, and please don't ask about things until you have tried the official KIN help pages first.

View the original article here

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Two Fixes You Must Have for Visual Studio 2008 SP1

The SP1 release of VS08 regressed some functionality compared to the original release, in a couple of critical areas. As a result it is highly likely you'll need the following two patches for it. I know many of our team who hit these issues, cursed, came to me (because I am the "VS guy" on the team) and then became happy when I pointed them to these:

Update for Debugger Stepping and Breakpoints�- note if remote debugging be sure to patch those binaries too.

Update for Crash/Hangs when undocking windows or changing layouts

Hope you find these as useful as we did.

Please note it has been many years since I have worked on VS itself, so don't go crazy asking all sorts of other VS-related questions in the Comments. This is what I know. And that is it: I'm just a customer like you these days.

View the original article here

Friday, August 13, 2010

You Know You're Getting Old When: The Copyright On Your First Book Expires

According to British law the copyright on my first book expired last year, after twenty-five years. Not only does this make me feel ancient, but it compels me to recall the heady days of 1983, when I created my tome�"Master Your ZX Microdrive".

I was a nerdy University student who spent most of his time in Central London hanging out around the publishers of the early computer magazines & books. In the summer of 1983 the magazine Popular Computing Weekly got a scoop on some new Sinclair hardware: the ZX Microdrive. As with several of their scoops (e.g. the�QL)�it was a leak from the printers who were making the user manual. They got me a copy of the maunal, and I wrote a "review" of the ZX Microdrive that was published in July without even a sniff of the actual device. The�magazine appeared�on the very day the product was launched, which made the publishers very happy. I used a pseudonym of "Bill Hoskins" for the review, the surname coming from the family whose house I lived in during my student days. (The internet does not appear to contain a copy of this fine piece of journalism, which I will try and fix when I find my copy).

By this time I had done a bunch of articles and reviews for PCW and other magazines, and had built a rapport with the small staff of Sunshine Press who published PCW. To my complete surprise they suggested I write a book about the Microdrives for their rapidly expanding computer book business. This was despite that fact that�I had never written a book before and of course there were no Microdrives yet to be had. Naturally I said yes.

Around the beginning of August 1983 Sinclair shipped a review sample of the Microdrive and its Interface 1 to Sunshine, who sent it on to me. It was the summer, so I was living with my parents in their small hotel and I spent the next four weeks feverously working on my book. I had already read the (leaked) user manual numerous times but wanted to know so much more, so I took the next step: disassembling the ROM. There was 8K of Z80 assembler, which I dutifully printed out then analyzed, byte by byte, to figure out how the hardware did its thing and how the system was modified to support it. I have to say the design was cunning: no bytes of the original 16K BASIC ROM were modified. The book itself was written on the Spectrum, using what passed for a word-processor (Tasword). Each chapter was saved to a pair of alternating cassette tapes as I edited them, then printed on my dot-matrix printer every once in a while for more serious editing. Apart from writing the text, I was simultaneously writing sample programs to go along with the book. I felt it needed something meaty, so I modified a database originally written by another Sunshine author to work against these new "advanced" storage devices.

After four weeks I did the final printout, made a couple of photocopies and mailed them to Sunshine. Less than four weeks later the book was on the street, and proved pretty successful. I produced a 2nd Edition when the first run sold out, and in the end it sold around 10,000 copies and was translated into seven foreign languages. I made about ten grand out of it, which was about the same as a year's salary for computer graduates of the day. Someone in the old eastern block (Poland I think) once wrote to me and asked to translate the book into his native tongue, but he apologized he had no hard currency to pay me. Instead he proposed sending me some records (those vinyl things) of Polish music: I declined the music offer but said he was welcome to do it for free, so long as he sent me a copy. I never did see one.

Computer books were rather simpler back then: mine had about 140 pages and was about a centimeter thick: that helped me write it so quickly of course. The way the books were typeset was also primitive: the manuscript had to be manually re-typed into green-screen terminals at the typesetters. I did take my Spectrum there to see if we could somehow get the text out of the parallel printer port into their gigantic mainframe, but without success. The listings were entered as scans of my master printouts to avoid errors.

Eventually after some years the book got remaindered, and as per my contract I was offered the chance to buy the final copies on the cheap. I bought two hundred for a quid each, then did a deal with Your Spectrum magazine: they would advertise, sell and ship the books, having been autographed by me first, and we split the profit. A sweet deal, we sold 192 copies in the end.

The book opened useful doors to me: apart from publishing two more for Sunshine, I sent early proofs of the more technical chapters to some software companies so they could add Microdrive support to their programs. One of them, HiSoft, hired me for a summer job in 84 and I ended up staying there for seven years. As an advance for the second book I asked for an Apple Macintosh (which had just been released) and I wrote both other books using MacWrite 1.0. I contracted with Sinclair themselves to write some software that shipped on Microdrive cartridge: I was so green they had to tell me what to charge them, and I couldn't believe it when they suggested five grand. I should have haggled...

About a decade after the book came out I somehow ran into the artist who did the picture for the book's cover (and many other Sunshine covers). I asked if he still�had the art, and he did, so I offered to buy it. He gladly accepted, then told me to go to some bar the next night, give the money to the barman and I'd get the picture. Despite my skepticism I turned up at the requested location and got the original art, no questions asked.

A quarter of a century later (OK now I really feel old)�I still have the cassettes containing the chapters and the programs, but no way to read them. I somehow lost the original manuscript, which is very annoying, though�I recently discovered a PDF of the book that some unknown person has created. I have no idea why, but whoever you are, I thank you. Also when did I change from "Andrew" to "Andy"? I seemed to use both versions at this time. Who came up with the book's title? I have no idea. These and other mysteries will likely never be solved, ah well.

View the original article here

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Personal Guide to Ripping CDs with Zune

Over the holidays I ripped about sixty CDs with the Zune software, and it wasn�t as smooth as it should have been. Here is what I learnt, which I hope will save others time and frustration.

It had long been a plan for the holidays for me to manually compare the substantial CD collection my wife and I have accrued over the years with the collection of MP3s we have on our home server. Over the space of many hours I worked my way through the physical collection (only recently did all our CDs migrate to the same room) and compared it to the collection of bits we have. Having determined which discs were missing, I then ripped them using the Zune software to MP3s. Note that these notes were based on software version 3.1 running on Vista Ultimate 64-bit. YMMV.

The bulk of our collection was ripped in the past�using various versions of Music Match. It wasn�t flashy, but it worked at a reasonable speed with good results, so much so I paid some dollars for the Plus version that ripped things faster. However in recent years the software got bought out twice by other companies and messed with, and today it calls itself Yahoo! Music and is remarkably useless to me. That, combined with my recent Zune-love, made me try our own Zune software for the large task ahead of me. Turns out there are some issues with how and when the software works out the metadata for the rips (metadata is the extra information associated with the album such as its name, artist, the track details and the album art) and here is what I learned.

Turn off auto-rip
The most important option turned out to be to disable the "Rip CD automatically when inserted" option. With it enabled, I would stick a CD in, the rip would commence seemingly ok, but I happened to notice a bunch of "01 Unknown Track.mp3" files sitting in multiple "\Unknown Artist\Unknown Album" directories, like this:

Usually it was just the first track, and it happened on about 20% of the CDs I had ripped. Further investigation revealed that the rip appeared to start before the software had actually finished reading all the metadata from the internet. This made the files as described, which had to be manually renamed, moved to the correct location and the MP3 Title tag set correctly (using Explorer�s Property page for the file). What is weird is that usually the rest of the MP3 tags would be correct (Album and Artist), so I could figure out which album it should be to fix it. Anyway, turning off auto-rip allows you to verify that the software has figured out the metadata, before you click the �Rip now� button. Judging by postings on the Zune forums I am not the only one with this problem.

Wait For the Metadata
With this learned, I started to really watch the software after the initial CD insertion, and I noticed that often it would display UNKNOWN ARTIST and yet have the correct album name, track names and album art shown. My solution for this was to eject the disc and re-insert it: this would cause the software to actually get the artist name correct. Again turning off auto-rip ensures all the data is there and correct before you start the rip.

Missing Album Art
Even with this regimen, I was noticing that some album art was failing to show up at all. Ejecting the disc didn�t help and trying the same disc in Windows Media Player would also fail to show the album art, so I guess the database has some inexplicable holes in its album art collection. I even had one album where the art was shown successfully for Disc 2, but not for Disc 1. The fix for this is to wait for the rip to complete, view the album in the collection then right-click it and select "Find Album Info". Try and do this on as large a monitor as you can, as the Find dialog is not movable, and you�ll want to be able to see at least some of the Track list in the main window (or have the CD case to hand) to make sure it matches the choices offered. Although the art might be missing on the initial search, it will often show up in the Find dialog, so look through it to see if you have a "better" match to your album and if you find one with art, select it, click Next then Finish. Be sure the number of tracks is the same and also the names of the tracks match the ones on the CD case.

Compilation Metadata
Compilation CDs require additional care in my experience. In every case for me the initial metadata pull had correct track names, but showed no Artists for the tracks. If I brought up the Edit dialog on the album I would sometimes see data for the Composer (which I could care less about frankly), but the Song Artist would be "Various Artists". This is highly annoying, but the fix is to use the "Find Album Info" as described above, and usually the track data it pulls will contain the correct Song Artists. Sadly the Find dialog does not display the Song Artist info, so the only way to tell if you got some is to try each likely suspect in turn. Be sure to use the Find option before any hand-edits you make to the metadata as any changes you make before pulling new info with Find will be lost.

Random Annoyances
There is another annoyance with the software that I hit with one particular torture-test compilation, a set from the UK in 1993 called "Young At Heart". It is four compilation CDs, so I had the Song Artist troubles described above on every disc, plus there are about a million �Young at Heart� albums in the world so the Find dialog was unwieldy, and the Zune UI appeared to have no way to display titles longer than around 18 characters. It truncates long names with a sexy-looking fade to grey, but offered no way to see the full name short of actually switching to the item. You can see how well this works in the screenshot below:

If I didn�t like this compilation so much I would have saved a frustrating hour of my life and given up trying to get an accurate rip of these particular discs. [In the process of writing this very post I discovered that tooltips do actually appear if you hover over the text itself: hovering over the album art, which is what I was trying in vain for the last few months, gets you nothing].

When a rip finishes the Zune software makes no effort to tell you via a sound effect or anything. This means if you have a busy life and can�t just sit in front of the PC watching it rip, you have to keep coming back to check on progress to see if it�s done yet. A simple sound effect on completion would have been much appreciated.

Frankly I miss the old Music Match as a CD ripper. I could try another program, but many of the programs out there that�I have tried in the past choke on my collection due to its size, so I figured I�d try the Zune software for ripping as it does an acceptable job of tracking my collection (though its performance is poor). In retrospect I guess I was crazy to persevere like I did, but now I have learnt the tricks I�ll stick with it, and maybe others in a similar position will have an easier time in the future.

View the original article here

Converting Zune playlists into Windows Media Player playlists

For some inexplicable reason Zune playlists (ZPL) are different from Windows Media Player playlists (WPL). I foolishly made a Zune playlist and wanted to burn a�data CD with it, but the Zune Burn feature only makes audio CDs.�I tried loading the ZPL�into WMP, but it failed. After 60 seconds of comparing two files, here is what worked for me. YMMV:

Open the ZPL in your favorite editor (e.g. Notepad). In the first line change

zpl version="2.0"


wpl version="1.0"

Save As the file�with a�wpl extension.

I could then load the new WPL file into WMP and easily burn a data CD, for use in my car.

WPL files at least are somewhat described on MSDN, I can't find any definitions for ZPL files though they appear to be identical save for the header and the file extension. ASX files are yet another Microsoft playlist format which I have had some experience of.

Note that this shold not be considered Official Microsoft Documentation. But its the best I can do, hope someone finds it useful.

View the original article here

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My First Commercial Software: Kempston Joystick Conversion Tape

1983 were much simpler times in software. Here is how a student turned a quick hack into his first commercially released software and made his first money in the business. That student was me.

Back in 1983 Kempston Electronics produced a joystick interface for the ZX Spectrum, which allowed Atari-style joysticks to work with the most popular computer of the day. However, existing software had no way of working with this new hardware so in these early days it was cool hardware that honestly couldn�t do much. I picked up a joystick pretty soon after it came out, and found myself wanting to use it in my existing games. My favorite game of the day was the Psion Flight Simulator, a wire-frame �3D� representation, so I fired up my debugger of choice (Devpac) and searched for the IN instruction that read the keyboard. Those found I disassembled the keyboard code and figured out how to replace it with IN instructions to map the joystick movement to the game code.

For some reason (and I can�t honestly recall why) I decided to call Kempston and tell them of my achievement. Turns out they were very excited too, and offered me �250 for it right there on the phone. To give an idea how much this seemed to me, as a comparison the government was giving me a Full Grant of �1400 to cover my living expense for a year, and I actually had trouble spending it all! Naturally I was giddy at the idea of more money and proceeded to produce similar hacks for six other games, along with loaders that circumvented their copy-protection (so that I could patch the code), and created Joystick Conversion Tape 1. In due course I did this for a few more times and produced Tapes 2 and 3. I got royalties for these and I forget how much this totaled, but it was definitely a great time-taken vs reward result for me. (There are few things that you can�t find anywhere on the internet, but a picture of Tape 3 is one of them).

In due course the Kempston Joystick came to dominate the market and was a huge success, and I distinctly remember a notable sight when I was helping set up at a trade show once. Kempston�s owner, Ab Pandaal, was emptying a surprising amount of joystick boxes from his shiny red Ferrari parked in between the wooden folding tables that made up most of the �stands� of the day. I got to know Ab pretty well over the years: I did software for his Spectrum printer interfaces and scanner software for the Atari ST. He was the first person I knew with a Ferrari, and the only person I knew with two Ferrari�s until I got to Microsoft in the crazy 90s.�I do know that at one point Coin Controls, who made the actual joysticks, offered Ab �2million for his company and he turned them down, which I'm sure he regretted later. Software development is a lot more complicated these days, Kempston Electronics are long gone now and I often wonder whatever happened to those early entrepreneurs like Ab.

View the original article here

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Playing Ripped DVDs with Media Center Extenders

At last I have succeeded in getting ripped DVDs to play from my Xbox 360's Media Center Extender, and here is how I did it. First off let me explain my goals:

I want to be able to play my kid's DVDs via my home network, so they can avoid trashing the shiny discs any more than they already havePlayback needs to be from something other than my PC, so my kids don't trash thatI also want to avoid transcoding the DVDs into another format, because my time is extremely limited (thanks to having two kids)I'd like the original DVD menus and Extras to be available.

Ah well,�3 out of�4 ain't bad: the last goal is still unattainable.


Media Center on Vista SP1Media Center Extender (I use an Xbox 360, I assume the 2nd gen extenders will also work but I don't have one)The ability to edit XML files (e.g. Notepad)Ripped DVDs

How I Did It

First off I ripped the DVDs to my file�server. I'm not going to tell you how to do this.Next I enabled "DVD Library" which lets you play ripped DVDs on the Vista machine itself in Media CenterNext I got my Xbox 360 to see my Media Center on my Vista (64-bit) box. This was substantially harder than it is for most people as I run a Domain Controller on my home network, plus the files are on a file server, not on my Vista machine (here is a link to the magic for those with their own domain controller). Once I got it working I was crucially disappointed to see that "DVD Library" did not show up on the Xbox.The trick to getting "DVD Library" to show up is revealed here. This took me longer than it should because although "DVD Library" showed up on my Xbox soon enough, the only content was the Apollo 13 and Vertigo clips that come with Vista. No amount of me messing with the Extender Settings could change this. However, turns out I was an idiot: pressing the Info key brings up a sub-menu with "Add Movies" on it. Once I did that and added the share from my server, I was in business.Getting rid of Vertigo and Apollo 13 proved impossible except by removing the files physically from my Vista machine.

More Info

I created a new share on my server, called DVDs, to separate the kids rips from the general pool. For each desired movie, I made a new directory (whose name is what shows up in the "DVD Library"), and into it I placed:

Folder.jpg - disc artwork borrowed from Amazon, cropped to DVD-shape when requiredVIDEO_TS.IFO - zero length file requiredThe hardest bit: working out which VOBs are the actual movie. For each one, I created a hardlink MPEG from the VOB in the original rip directory.Foo.wvx - XML file as described in the link above. Only a few elements are supported, described in the Playlist section of this page. The name of this file makes no difference, the extension does though. For each VOB you worked out above, add an Entry/Ref section as described.

Hints & Tips

When playing DVDs this way, there is no trick play, and chapter skipping just seems to jump 30 seconds or so. Also when there is a transition of one MPEG to the next, there is a few seconds of blackness. Anamorphic DVDs look great, 4:3 ones as well as expected, but non-anamorphic widescreen titles have black bars on all sides.

If you find the ASX spec you will see all sorts of goodies, but they are mostly ignored unfortunately. Its hard to find the spec, but this link works sometimes and this one at other times.

Don't use Windows Media Player to work out which VOBs are which: it is too smart and recognizes its a DVD rip. I used Nero's Showtime instead. You can use WMP to check the WVX file works, but note that it will choose a seemingly random audio track for each MPEG file. Don't be alarmed, MCE chooses the right track when it plays them, WMP is broken in this regard.

I had problems using a VIDEO_TS directory: just placing the listed�files directly into a suitably named directory worked much better for me.

In an ideal world you could play ripped DVDs on Extenders out-of-the-box, but you can't and some hoops are necessary. These hoops are worth it for me though. I can dream about DVD menu support I suppose...

View the original article here

How Do You Debug A Movie?

How do you debug a movie? Before I get too old and forget, here is the story of one bug that I had to find when playing King Kong in the Xbox HD DVD player. It concludes with yet another reason I am so glad we�re not doing a Blu-ray player.

The HD DVD team originally wrote the player software for what became the Toshiba A1 series HD DVD players. Those players were basically x86-based laptop boards with an optical drive and video decoding hardware added, running Linux. Toshiba wrote the audio/video pipeline and we wrote the rest of the player. After that initial Toshiba release we really got going on a version for the Xbox 360, which shared much of the codebase but had some notable differences, plus we got to write our own AV pipeline. Progress was rapid (thanks in no small part to the ninjas that the Xbox team had lent us to get things going) [and yes Ninja was their official job title] and soon the Test team were running real movies from shiny discs through the player.

I ended up with a particular bug in King Kong which involved picture-in-picture (PIP). I got it because I owned PIP and its positioning logic, and the bug was that at a particular point in the movie (12:08) when PIP had been enabled, the PIP window was supposed to disappear. Well the video disappeared, but a black PIP-sized rectangle was left behind for about 12 seconds. This was a Universal title and used one of the earliest versions of U-Control to cause certain things to appear and disappear from the display at certain times. There were other times when this same weird rectangle would show up, but this was the first one.

The first thing we did with a problem like this was to look at the source. HDi used ECMAScript (aka Javascript) and the source code was right there on the disc. The .js files were usually packed into an .aca file (think ZIP file without the compression) and sometimes it might be AACS encrypted, but as a player manufacturer we legally had "the keys to the lock" so that was not a barrier to us reading the source. (The .aca file was also multiplexed into the audio/video stream so that usually the player does not have to pause playback to load a script, or a bitmap, which was important as seek times on optical discs are generally terrible).

The U-Control code got a lot more sophisticated over time, but the basic premise was that there was a list of timecodes and a list of actions to perform when those timecodes were hit. These actions included things like fading PIP audio up and down, showing and hiding PIP video, displaying overlay graphics and the like. The first place I look was the most obvious: add some logging to the PIP alpha code and see what and when it was being used. If PIP video was present in the video stream it was always run through the secondary video decoder, but you couldn�t see it as it started with an alpha value of Transparent. In order to see it, the js code would change the alpha value to Opaque (or in the case of U-Control it faded up the alpha from one to the other over a few frames). The logging revealed that in the failing case at 12:08, the alpha API was being called with 255 (opaque) instead of zero (transparent). As there was no actual secondary video stream at that time, we rendered an empty stream (ie a black rectangle).

At some point we learnt that King Kong was going to be bundled with the HD DVD drive itself, so we had to make very sure every aspect of the title worked perfectly on our player. Pressure: I can handle it.

I next spent a while poring over the U-Control logic: this was the first such title I ever had to debug, but it was made a bit easier because there was a bunch of debugging in the .js file itself, put there by the original authors. All I had to do was change a debug variable to true, and a bunch of debug spew was printed as the title ran. In order to "edit" js files on a read-only disc packed into an .aca file we had debug code in the player that allowed us to substitute "our" version of any .js file (read from the Xbox hard-disc) instead of the one from the optical disc. That way we could play with the title code to add debugging or change logic, and see the effect on the movie immediately.

The logging showed that there was a problem parsing the timecode: The�JScript function parseInt("08") was returning zero (it was parsing the seconds part of the timecode), and clearly the code was expecting it to return 8. Further investigation revealed that our JScript engine (cloned from the IE one) treated zero-prefixed numbers as octal, and as �08� is not a valid octal number it returned zero. Toshiba�s ECMAScript engine (which they wrote from scratch) didn�t think it was octal, so returned 8. (In the early days all HD DVD title development was done on Toshiba A1 Emulators: special players with all kinds of extra, like hard discs and debug tools. Only later did authors start using Xboxes to test, and very much later to develop against). This confusion over parseInt and octal was not new to web page designers it turns out.

So I changed the parseInt function code in the script engine to default to decimal, and now King Kong worked fine. The player was released and shipped along with a copy of King Kong and everyone was happy. Well, for a while. At some point the Test team ran an ECMASCript compliance test on the player, and discovered that my "fix" to parseInt actually caused a test to fail, so the code was revisited and a better, more compliant fix was made, that kept King Kong working and also conformed more exactly to the ECMAscript spec (and hence to the HD DVD "gold standard", the Toshiba A1).

This particular bug was a player bug, as were many. However there were other categories of bugs, some caused by the title authors themselves. Often we would identify them at "check-disc" time (ie a pre-release copy of the disc some of the studios would send us) and we could tell them what to fix in their code before the disc was mastered. However sometimes we would be too late, or it would be from a studio that didn�t send us check-discs, so we would have to add specific modifications to the player that only kicked in when a particular title was played, and then push a player update out over Xbox Live.

Over time our methods for debugging title problems got more sophisticated, and much of what we learnt ended up in the HD DVD Emulator that I created. That way title authors could themselves debug issues with their code and content without having to burn and rush us a check-disc. Of course if there was a suspicion of player bug then we�d have to get involved in the investigation.

I am so glad we didn�t do a Blu-ray player. The poor folks who have to work out why BD-J titles don�t work correctly don�t have the luxury of seeing the original author�s source code, with comments and debug info. All they have is compiled Java bytecode: ug.

View the original article here

Monday, August 9, 2010

Using a Zune 80GB as a Car Video Player

Following on the theme of trying to make it easier for my kids to watch movies in the car but without the hassle of the pesky shiny discs, I decided to try using a Zune 80GB as a car video player. This is clearly outside its design parameters, because the Zune Car Kit has no provision for video output as one example. Despite this "outside the box" usage, I persevered anyway, and here is my story.

Our family vehicle is a 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with the touch-screen nav system and in-car DVD system. While it works, the DVD system was designed by a team that did not have any young children between them, and as a result has severe usability issues with that specific scenario. I'll spare you the details, but if you have young kids you can imagine how much fun it is to have them yelling at you because they can't see the screen (as the remote to turn it on�doesn't work from the front seats) or because the screen is obscured by a huge dialog box with an OK button (which inexplicably appears every time you start the system). The only good news about the Toyota system is that it has an external AV jack at the rear of the center console. Even if the DVD UI had been not been designed one night down the pub, there is still the hassle storing and tracking the physical discs, keeping the kids away from them, and the impossibility of changing them when on the move (unless an adult is in the rear seats). A friend recently had his kids manage to stuff�four DVDs into the single DVD slot in his Honda: there's an expensive repair in his future.

The First Zune Trip (30GB version)

I started by borrowing a friend's Zune 30GB which handily came preloaded with a bunch of kid-suitable content as he'd already ripped a bunch of stuff for his young daughter. I bought a program to convert my DVDs at his recommendation, though I'm not going to name it here becauses it's not exactly legal or reliable. I used said software to add a few more movies to his Zune for our forthcoming July 4th trip. I used the Zune Cable Pack to connect the AV output to the car, and the usb cable to our 12V "cigar lighter" socket via an adapter we already had for our cellphones, and embarked on a 7 hour roadtrip. In retrospect I should have tested this on a short journey, or at least got it going before we left. I did neither, which is how we came to pull off the highway to deal with unhappy kids.

The first issue is simple movie selection: an adult in the front negotiates the movie choice with the kids in the back, then selects it on the Zune, hits Play, then immediately has to go to the Settings menu to turn on the TV output. At this point the LCD goes dark, and while the kids can see the Zune UI on their screen in the back, the adult in the front is left literally blind. If your kids can read this is probably workable, but mine are 2 and 5 so this is not an option. The trick at this point is to just hit Play on the device. Fortunately this much had been figured out before we left.

The second problem, which caused us to exit the freeway to fix, was that there was no sound. I hadn't bothered to read any documentation for the Zune, so it took me a little experimentation before I discovered how to change the volume on it. This feat acheived, we resumed the movie (with sound) and hence our roadtrip.

During playback the kids were very happy: picture quality is of no concern to them, so the 320x200 default Zune resolution is just fine on their 7" LCD in the car. At some point I hope that the children of an HD DVD veteran will truly understand what picture quality is all about, but at 5yrs old its not the time.

We were on our second Zune movie when the next problem occurred: the Zune battery died. Despite using the USB sync cable with our 12V adaptor, the Zune had not been charging at all. It looks like the Zune requires a high-power USB port, and our car adapter fakes up a low-power USB port. Oops.

We reverted to our well worn and well watched DVD collection for the remainder of our trip.

Switching to Zune 80GB

The Zune 80GB that we had ordered (a bargain at $234 via this offer) showed up the day we returned from our trip, so I proceeded to copy the converted movies to it. However, instead of just copying them (which takes almost no time), the Zune software insisted on transcoding the videos. This takes about 1x time (ie a 2 hour movie takes 2 hours to transcode�on my PC). What was weird is that the exact same videos copied without transcoding to his 30GB Zune. I'll spare you the details of how I figured this out, but the Zune 80GB only accepts WMV video in WMV9 format: formats such as WMV7 and WMV8 (which the converter software creates by default as its a lot quicker to convert) have to be transcoded. The Zune 30GB accepts these formats directly. The Zune documentation�lacks pretty much any technical information, and video is no exception, the best I could find was this KB article which you'll note doesn't actually tell you about which formats will copy directly and which require transcoding. The WMV9 format at 320x200 seems to take around 300MB per hour, which is reasonable.

General Zune Observations

I love the device itself, but I am not a fan of its PC software (a very dumbed down Windows Media Player-like clone) or its lacking documentation (see this page for an example of telling you less than the actual UI does).

When categorizing video files you can set certain metadata (Type, parental rating etc) for the files (though I took some time figuring out exactly how), but the edits you make don't get written in the WMV files themselves, they are stored in the Zune database somewhere. WMV metadata is read by the software if you have managed to set it, but never AFAIK writes it back to the file. This means that if you copy the files somewhere else, those metadata edits won't be copied.

The Zune software only offers primitive filtering on the metadata anyway: its support for TV series is good (you can give it the Series and Episode numbers and navigation on the device consumes this), but although it will display the parental rating�it won't let you set it, nor can you filter by it. In order to separate the few non-kids movies from the kids ones I left ours categorized as "Others" (the default) and marked the kids either as TV Series or Movies/Family. In general Microsoft's support for editing WMV metadata is very poor, Vista's Explorer Properties tab is about as good as it gets (and that isn't very).

Zune only supports playlists for audio files, not video files. This is a weird restriction, as Microsoft have at least two formats for playlists (ASX and ZPL files) either of which would suffice for video. This would allow the easy creation of "edited" movies by skipping the scary bits, for example, without having to resort to actually editing (and then re-encoding) the video.

I got a different 12V-to-usb adapter which was claimed to be Zune 80GB compatible but in fact was not. The Zune appears to have very special requirements for its usb charging, and I'm still looking for a solution that doesn't require $$$.

Requests for the Zune Team

If in-car video becomes a supported scenario for the Zune team, here's what it needs to be successful IMHO, and it isn't much really:

Let the LCD stay on when TV Out is selected, at least until you Play a movieHave a car dock kit that supports 12V charging with AV output

An actual Zune car dock that fits the latter specification is shown here but its an annoying Flash site ie looks great but is content-free. Its also not for sale yet, but it looks promising and the price is good (considering the Zune Car Pack costs an amazing $80).


If your kids are old enough to operate the Zune�themselves then its a good choice for in-car video. If your kids are too young for that, then the Zune is not a perfect choice for in-car video, but its usable. You need a bit of patience to set it up and have to cobble together sufficient hardware to connect it. It is better in every respect than an in-car�DVD player, as there are no discs to carry around or trash, plus its portable and can be used out of the car too of course.

View the original article here

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Blu-ray on Xbox 360: Never. Thank goodness for that

OK, I get all of your points as to why MS supporting Blue-Ray is a bad thing Andy. �But what your (MS) doing, is making me buy a PS3, because the stand alone Blue-Ray players are an unknown quantity if Sony choose to roll out a new profile.

MS offer downloads, but they are only for American users, the rest of the world has 2 choices, buy a PS3, or take a gamble on a stand alone player, either way, this is not a win for us consumers, nor is it a win for Microsoft.

I love my Xbox360, and I love the HD-DVD player, and I would love a Blue-Ray player to make my Xbox give me the best of all worlds.

I fail to see why you think this is a good situation?

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Secret Project is no longer secret: the KIN phone

Since the demise of HD DVD (RIP) I have been working on the secret �Pink project� at Microsoft, which yesterday had its coming-out party under the name of KIN. Microsoft is usually not good at keeping secrets, so it has been a unusual two years of development for me for that reason.

Many Microsoft projects cannot be secret because they are part of a (often gigantic) third-party ecosystem, and those third-parties must have timely access to said projects well before completion. I mean it wouldn�t be much good to keep Windows releases secret once they get to the alpha stage unless Microsoft wanted to break piles of existing Windows applications and drivers�(or as I like to say �do an Apple�).

A few Microsoft projects did stay secret until almost the end, Xbox and Zune being the most obvious examples, and they happen to be in the same division as KIN (Entertainment & Devices). They also share other similarities, such as consisting of hardware, client software and server software. It is not easy to keep such a wide variety of information secret, and the problem gets worse as the team size increases. This is one area where Apple clearly have it figured out, although by taking things to extremes (e.g. red lights above office doors to indicate when a device is exposed to the air)

For example until Monday morning most of the KIN engineering team did not know the actual name of the product. All daily client software builds up until today announced themselves as �ZZZZ� and used a fake logo, so we could develop the entire software stack (and build pre-release hardware) without knowing the actual product name. A select few engineers were entrusted with the secret: a special branch of the source tree was created into which the actual brand name changes were checked in, built and tested, but only those lucky few had access to it. That all changed with Monday�s build which had the final text and graphics changes of course.

Microsoft has had a varied track record of product names, with some not so great (�Windows Live Search� anyone?) and some much more successful (�Xbox�, �Bing�), so I am pleased that our product name is short, sweet, and easy to remember. It even works as a verb (�I kinned that earlier�) which is the Google test of a decent brand name I guess.

Keeping the name secret is one thing, but keeping actual hardware secret is quite another, especially when that hardware has to be used out�in the real world as a part of development and testing. To this end both models had �ugly kits� made for them, large black rubber cases that completely disguised their form factors. For the KIN Two it also made the device very bulky in one�s pocket, but these were necessary to prevent leaks, and it worked out well. The only leaks we had were CGI renderings of prototypes and a very fuzzy screenshot.

As of today so much that was secret is now public: not just the name and the hardware, but the capabilities and the feature set as well. There are a few things that are not yet public, such as the exact release dates and pricing, but these are for our partners to announce in due course. I am very excited that the product is now announced and folks can get an idea of what we have been up to. I�m looking forward to seeing production devices in stores next.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Who doesn't take credit/debit cards in 2008? Washington State Licensing, that's who

Normally I renew my car tabs online with a credit or debit card, but that wasn't possible this week so I visited an actual License Office. Much to my amazement there was a sign stating "We do not accept Debit or Credit cards". When my turn came to speak to an employee, I asked why. She said "we don't have the machines". I emailed the Customer Service and they responded:

We do not accept debit or credit cards in any of our licensing offices, only check or cash. �We only accept the credit cards online only.

When you visit an actual office for tabs you pay an additional $4 for the privilege compared to the online price (where you can pay with plastic). Those $4s are insufficient to buy a few card readers I guess.

I remember being amazed in 1995 when finding my first local liquor store to discover it didn't take plastic either. In WA state liquor stores are run by, you guessed it, the State of Washington. It took them a few years but they did eventually get with the program.

Meanwhile here we are in 2008 and for some reason this particular piece of local government is still stuck in the 1980s. I guess they want folks to pack large wads of cash to their facilities, along with the security issues that result, both for us customers and for the offices that handle them. I mean who uses checks any more? Maybe their plan instead is to make us use the no-name ATMs in their licensing offices, which I assume they make a nice commission on.

Please WA licensing, get with the program. Let us use plastic to buy things in your offices.

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Zune Installation in my Boxster

Following the recent success in using a Zune for the kids to watch movies in the family vehicle, I decided it was time to update the music system in my car. I was a very happy customer of a Kenwood Keg which had been professionally installed in my Boxster years ago, but frustrations with that system, combined with my new-found Zune-love led me to an upgrade path.

Out With The Keg

The Kenwood Keg was a great hard-drive based system in its time (I think I got mine in 2003) and I got the 20GB system along with a new Kenwood head unit to drive it, speakers and a sub woofer. The original Boxster head unit (a CDR210) had no provision for aux-in (did anything in 1997?) though could connect to an over-priced CD changer (which I did not have). This, combined with the trashing of the factory speakers (due to excess volume I guess) led me to replace everything. The Keg software was primitive but did work, and was required to get MP3s onto the hard-disc. It served me well for several years, but since upgrading to Vista 64-bit the software was unavailable to me. It looks like it is possible to get it to work on Vista so long as you have a USB 2.0 cradle for the hard-drive (as it requires no drivers), but I was stuck with a driver-less USB 1.0 cradle. The newer cradles go on eBay for around a hundred bucks, which I did consider for a while, before my affair with Zune started.

Before I could go further I needed to get an aux-input on my Kenwood head unit. This turned out to be a $5 cable that plugged into the same connector the Keg used, the CD changer input. I also needed the magic tool that pulls Kenwood radios out of dashboards, and Frys Electronics in Renton just gave me a set when I asked, gratis. [Frys rock]. So far so good.

Zune Car Kits: Not Much Choice

I knew it was tricky to even get a car charger that worked on a Zune, so I relented and bought the Microsoft Zune Car Kit, and instantly regretted it. Although it could at least charge a Zune, it used an FM transmitter to get the audio to the head unit, which I didn't want. There is no other audio-out mechanism, I even checked the internal pictures on the FCC web site to see if there was a "secret" audio-out but couldn't see one, so I stopped short of breaking open the car kit to investigate further. I had forgotten that my cigarette-lighter outlet was Always On, and that the outlet was close to useless anyway after wearing it out with my Valentine One years ago. From what I can tell the Monster car kit is no better. Fortunately some heavy web searching led me to the Soundgate site, and they have what I consider to be a real Zune car kit. It did recently show up on the official Zune web site, but its still hard to find (here's an Amazon link).

There appear to be exactly zero Zune car kits that offer a remote, or an external�screen that can show anything, with the exception of the Ford Sync stuff (buying a new car was way out of the budget for this plan). The Soundgate kit does have a socket for a remote and several Sony wired remotes are claimed to work. However my anti-Sony feelings remain, plus the model that looks decent costs $100, so I'm holding off on that for the moment.

As I need to see the screen I couldn't hide the Zune away somewhere under the dash, but on the other hand I couldn't leave it out for all to see as its a convertible and would be too tempting a target for some miscreant. I explored some options, like getting a cassette holder and putting the Zune in there, but that looked like it would be too small (plus Boxster cassette holders are hard to find in 2008). However the perfect location exists in every Boxster: the ashtray, which is in the center console so easy to get to while driving, and it has a very cool motion-damped flip-up lid on it.

I'll spare you the nasty details but I spent many hours dremeling away the ashtray itself and the dashboard part it plugs into, and I reasonably successful. The Zune is hidden under it, but the cool flip-up action is not quite as smooth as it was, due I think to the loss of weight of the [bakelite?] ashtray (3/4ths of which I removed to make room for the 16GB Zune). The good news is I still have all my fingers, which was looking to not be the case a couple of times with the dremel.

Soundgate ZNCBLPAK Installation

The electrical install of the Soundgate kit was relatively painless, once I got comfortable with dismantling chunks of my dashboard: I got the aux-input cable from the head unit down to the lower front console by dremeling a tiny hole in the dash (under the left-hand panel), and mounted the Soundgate box on top of the airbag control box. Power came from the spare carphone socket that hides in Boxster dashboards - details of the dashboard mechanics can be found here, though I only found this particular site after I figured most of it out myself. I wired the Soundgate to the ignition-power cable, giving the benefit of an automatic Pause whenever the car is turned off. The Soundgate comes with a cigarette plug power cord�too if you aren't able to hard-wire it, plus a bunch of audio cables I didn't need to use (the aux-in cable ended with a 3.5mm jack which went straight into the Soundgate box). If you have the requirement for in-car video the Soundgate will give you that from the Zune too, but I don't (in this vehicle anyway). As the Zune connection is via the sync plug and not the 3.5mm AV jack, no messing with volume on the Zune is required to get a decent level into the head unit.

Keg vs Zune

Although I was pretty harsh on the Zune software's handling of video�in my previous posting, for audio I am much happier with it. Its easy enough to find things, can handle large collections (after the several-hour painfully-slow�initial sync time) and is easy to buy music (I stick to MP3 format tracks�so I can play them on my various other devices). Zune wins.

In the car the Zune is pretty good, but it's harder to see what's playing on the screen compared to the much larger text display that I had from the Keg. The Keg also had the great ability to announce the names of playlists as you cycled through them while keeping ones eyes on the road. I haven't even figured out�a way to cycle through playlists on a Zune (without looking), so Keg wins.

To sync the Keg I had to pop the front trunk, remove the HD, plug it into the cradle and use the crappy software to get the songs on there at USB 1.0 speeds. To sync the Zune I have to pop the ashtray cover, unplug it from the car and plug it into my Vista machine and use the much better Zune software at USB 2.0 speeds. I can in theory sync it while its still in the car using my home WiFi network, but I get no coverage in the garage so I need to fix that first. Zune wins.

I disabled the Touch feature of the Zune pad as it was impossible to use it accurately while keeping my eyes on the road. With the recent Zune 3.0 upgrade you can tag songs from FM radio stations for later purchase online, which is a fabulous idea. However I can't get very good radio coverage from the ashtray area, as I think the Zune uses the headphone cables as an antenna and I don't have any plugged in of course.


The Zune is generally poorly supported in the car integration area by Microsoft and 3rd parties, but the Soundgate system is better than anything else and is reasonably priced. Dismantling your dashboard and dremeling your car can be nerve-racking but resulted in a pretty nice installation for me. I miss the voice prompting of the Keg, but for everything else the Zune rocks in comparison.

[Updated 10/2/08 as I got the flip-up action�working a lot better by re-routing the cable that was fouling it]

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

What did you do in the Format War, Daddy?

My kids are 2 and 4 yrs old so have little concept of what Daddy does, though they do know the words DVD, Xbox, and Lightsaber. However in a decade or so they might be able to understand what Daddy did in the format war, so here�s how I plan on explaining the last three years of my work:

In early 2005 Daddy joined what was then called the Professional Content Group at Microsoft, who were working on the replacement for DVD. At the time the team was mostly program managers who were working on the advanced interactivity aspects of the formats, then called iHD. There were two competing formats, one mostly from Sony called Blu-ray, and another mostly from Toshiba called HD DVD. Blu-ray was originally a very primitive high definition recordable format, while HD DVD was created by the same forum as DVD as a high definition replacement for it.

While the program managers worked on the standards committees specifications themselves, us developers started implementing iHD. It was designed based on certain tenets from studios like Warner and Disney, with features to match. Before I got to the team it had produced a demo with Disney called �WayVD� [strange name, that�s another story] that had helped convince the DVD Forum to accept iHD. However not long after Disney switched to the Blu-ray camp, for reasons never made public. The BDA (the cartel of Blu-ray supporters) voted to accept iHD as well, but due to complications this decision never stuck, and in the end they went with a Java-based solution called BD-J instead. For this and other reasons Microsoft ended its format-neutrality and became HD DVD-exclusive.

Toshiba licensed the iHD code that Daddy�s team produced and used it in every HD DVD player they shipped, starting with the HD-A1, which became available in April 2006, at a reasonable price of $499. Along with the three launch titles it got rave reviews, which surprised many as Blu-ray had been talking a lot of smack in the years before release and fooled many people into thinking HD DVD was dead before it even launched. The A1 proved a lot of people wrong.

A few months later the first Blu-ray player appeared, the Samsung BD-P1000, along with launch BD titles, for $999. The reviews were not so great for this player, as it deliberately softened the picture and its 1080p output was really the same 1080i output the Toshiba had, but put through a de-interlacer. It was also twice the price of the Toshiba competition. The poor BD launch continued when Sony themselves released The Fifth Element on BD, and it looked terrible, worse than the same title on DVD. Over a year later on AVSForum the BD folks admitted they launched BD about a year earlier than they were ready to, because they couldn�t let HD DVD be alone for that length of time. The Fifth Element proved such an embarrassment for Sony that they eventually re-mastered it in 2007 and offered the poor owners of the original free replacements.

While some of Daddy�s team continued work on the Toshiba code, Daddy moved on to help�out with�the Xbox version of the software. This was a full end-to-end solution, where we owned everything (unlike the Toshiba which ran their Audio-Video-Network stack), which was over 5 million lines of code. The Xbox HD DVD drive shipped at $199 and proved very successful: it quickly became most popular HD DVD player and remained so for over a year.

When Daddy was young there was a similar format war, between VHS and Betamax, but it was different in an important way: all the movie studios produced tapes for both formats. Only the player manufacturers �took sides�. Betamax (from Sony) eventually lost, so to make sure that didn�t happen again, Sony bought Columbia Studios. When the high definition format war came around, Sony didn�t want a level playing field like last time, as they knew they would have serious trouble competing on disc and player costs with HD DVD if everything else was equal. To avoid this they made their studios Blu-ray exclusive and then started trying to �persuade� other studios to do the same. They had some success, but Warner Bros, the biggest, stayed HD DVD exclusive for a while, though eventually produced discs for both formats. In the end it would be Warner that brought the war to an end.

Another thing that was different for this format war was the internet: the format war was a very hot topic on discussion forums and web sites, and news & rumors spread very quickly indeed (even when they weren�t true), generating huge amounts of discussions, taunting, abuse and FUD. Daddy participated in AVSForum, as did several of his co-workers and his VP, and so did a bunch of BD folks. However while us Microsofties were proud to show our names and employer, the BD folks all hid behind anonymizing screen-names, not revealing who they were, what they did or even who they worked for. While we all took great care in what we said and used respectful tones, they were free to say whatever they liked, how they liked, with no comebacks on them or their employers. The Industry Insiders Thread on AVSForum lasted for just over a year and ended with around 13,500 postings on that single thread.

The second Blu-ray player to come out was Sony�s PS3 which was really a games console with a BD drive in it. At $499 it was substantially cheaper than the other BD player and remained so for about a year, until BD player prices started to fall once the original ones started to become obsolete. Not only was the PS3 the cheapest player, it was the only one that could run the BD-J software at a vaguely decent speed, as well as play PS3 games of course. Although the attach-rate for PS3s (that is movies-per-player) was low, the sheer number of PS3s substantially helped the overall sales numbers of BD discs.

Due to the premature launch of Blu-ray, there were a bunch of features missing from the original players. They became known as Profile 1.0 players, and had additional problems when discs using BD+ appeared. BD+ was an attempt to add another layer of protection onto the discs, pushed mostly by Fox, but when the discs appeared many BD players had serious trouble playing them. The BD folks then created Profile 1.1, which added picture-in-picture, audio mixing, and persistent storage to Profile 1.0, in an attempt to catch up with the HD DVD feature set, but players didn�t have to conform until late 2007. They also created Profile 2.0 which made a network jack mandatory. Yes kids, I know it�s hard to believe, but in 2008 the BDA didn�t think that internet connectivity was important enough to include in every player. Of course HD DVD had all these features back in 1.0 and that was done in late 2005, with every player supporting every feature.

During 2007 things got a lot more interesting: new players from both side, with BD players consistently being around twice the price of HD DVD players, and still all Profile 1.0 (the most primitive version). Similar numbers of movies came out for each side, and much time was spent talking, ranting and misleading about the format war on the web. Daddy spent much of 2007 working on an HD DVD Emulator, which was a special version of the Xbox player that made it much easier for content creators to make cool HD DVD titles. I also helped out on the various updates that were done for the Xbox player itself. As a "thank you" to the team everyone got a special black Xbox HD DVD drive, and Universal also gave everyone a boxed set of "Heroes Season 1" (which Mummy & Daddy had previously missed on TV but got to really enjoy from those HD DVDs). Another perk of the job was access to the team's HD DVD library, which contained every HD DVD there ever was worldwide. Daddy so enjoyed his work that he even changed the license plate on his car to "HD DVD".

One surprise was that Target announced they would not sell any HD DVD players except the Xbox, as a result of a deal with Sony. This was weird, as Sony were paying for a store to not sell a competitor's stuff. While Microsoft has been in trouble a bunch of times for anti-trust issues, no-one seemed bothered by this highly unusual behavior. Sadly it would not be the last time that Sony would do this.

In August 2007 we got another surprise: Paramount, which had been supporting both formats, announced that they were dropping Blu-ray and going to only produce HD DVDs, which also meant Dreamworks would do the same. This was fabulous news for us, but it got Sony very worried indeed. So worried that the Sony CEO (Howard Stringer) personally called up a bunch of other CEOs and tried to "persuade" them to ditch HD DVD. As the format war had just entered a new phase, a phase where the underdog (us) suddenly looked like it stood a chance of winning, everyone passed on his kind offer. However, about five months later, it looked like many of those same CEOs would return the call to Howard and see if the offer was still open.

Christmas 2007 went pretty well for HD DVD, with Toshiba reducing their 3rd generation player prices further and even forcing the BD companies to cut their heavy prices a bit. Rumours began to emerge that Warner was going to make a decision and pick a single format: as the largest studio they had some serious clout, and they knew it. After a lot of high-level wrangling among various CEOs, Warner was close to picking HD DVD (along with Fox, a long-time BD supporter), but Sony got wind of this and came calling again with their check book. After a rumored $300-$500 million deal (along with $120m for Fox) both companies decided instead to dump HD DVD on Janury 4th 2008, the day before CES opened. This was Daddy's Black Friday, a real shell-shocker of a day for him and his team. It was pretty much all downhill from there. CES was a glum affair for us and the cool demos the team had been working on never got a public showing.

In the weeks that followed we were told privately of what Toshiba's (and the HD DVD Promotion Group's) response would be, but only the first phases of that ever came about: both Toshiba and Microsoft cut hardware prices, but it wasn't enough. One by one other companies started dumping HD DVD (coincidentially it was the same companies that Sony's CEO had called in August after the Paramount deal) until the pressure got too much, and in February 2008 Toshiba had a board meeting and cancelled HD DVD. After that the remaining studios (Paramount and Universal) had no choice but to give in too.

In the weeks that followed Daddy went out and bought up all the best titles on HD DVD and another Xbox player as a backup, so he could be sure of playing those titles for as long as he could. He also decided to add certain companies to the family "No Buy" list (which had consisted of just Apple for years up to that point), as well as adding Amazon, Universal and Paramount to the family "Favored Companies" list.

After doing HD DVD in,�Blu-ray's next battle was with DVD. Unfortunately for them Sony couldn't just write checks to get people to stop making DVDs,�so that battle proved to be a lot harder.

And that is how it all happened kids.

[with apologies to the Blake Edwards movie]

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Celebrating the first Apollo Moon Landing

In a matter of days it will be the 40th anniversay of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, a seminal moment for humanity, at least as far as I am concerned. Less than a hundred years since man figured out he could fly, three men travelled to another celestial body and came back to tell us about it.

It bugs me greatly that I cannot recall the first moon landing. I'm pretty sure I didn't watch it live (it was around 3am in England, not a good time for a youngster to be up) and my Dad was away (in the Navy) at the time. We had a tiny black & white TV, and I can remember watching non-specific moon landings, but not the first one. There's not much I can do about it now except grumble.

I am very familiar with the JFK "moon" speech, well at least I thought I was until I watched it recently on http://www.wechoosethemoon.org/�which features a longer version. I had no idea JFK included some reasonably funny lines in what I had always assumed was a very serious speech.

Last year, before I realized the anniversary was coming up, I tried to explain the moon landing to my kids (then 2 and 5). Hand waving wasn't much good, so I dug out "Apollo 13" on HD DVD and "From the Earth to the Moon" on DVD and played the best bits, which got their attention. I then bought the Space Voyagers "Ultimate Saturn V" at the Museum of Flight and was very impressed. Although not quite age appropriate, my 2yr old son took to it immediately and demanded I recreate the mission several times a day for about a month. The toy is a great size and pretty accurate, and kid-proof except for the lunar module adaptor which breaks very easily. The rocket also emits a good countdown sequence and vibrates when it "launches", all very fun for me and the kids. This proved to be a good introduction to the Solar System too, and by the time he was 3 my son could list all the planets, in order, and recognize their pictures.

In my twenties I got to visit Cape Canaveral and it was the highlight of that USA visit. Here in Seattle we have the Museum of Flight which has a reasonable Space section, but nothing beats standing next to an actual Saturn V rocket. Right before I moved from England it was the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11 and I bought some fabulous large-scale�Revell plastic�kits of the Saturn V and the Apollo hardware. Those kits now sit, mostly unbuilt, in the garage, awaiting a moment when I have the time to build them and the kids are old enough not to immediately trash them when I do. I also have re-purchased Airfix kits at a smaller scale, kits that I�originally built when I was about ten years old and which I hope to build again one day.

I set my TiVo to record anything with Moon or Apollo in it, and have been very disappointed with the results. American TV doesn't seem to give much of a rip about this anniversary, which I think is a great opportunity missed. By the time the 50th anniversary comes around some of the participants might not be around any more, which would be a shame.

I have bought some kids' books on the moon landing and the NYT reviewed three more this weekend which I need to investigate. I've also read a couple of grown-up books on the technology behind Apollo, and its even more amazing they made it given how primitive the computers were that they relied on to get there and back. However for the bigger, non-electronic hardware Apollo remains the reference implementation in many areas. It is still the largest, most powerful rocket ever, and parts of it are being used to assist those working on current NASA projects in order to get to the Moon again (and further), even digging old Lunar Rover tires out of closets for closer inspection.

Will man ever do something as amazing�with technology as the Apollo missions again? I'd like to think so, but its looking less and less likely, at least in my lifetime. Maybe my kids will get to see it, and hopefully they'll watch it live and remember it. It won't be in black & white, that's for sure.

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