Raising an Engineer

Katie Beth Lift Chair for Treehouse You don’t set out to raise an engineer, but you soon learn that you are raising one. You notice your tape disappears into masterly planned projects. You find in-progress projects throughout your house. You wonder if you should stop the more crazy ideas or in courage them. 

For her latest project, Katie Beth is designing and building a lift for her treehouse. She first started with a old chair’s seat bottom and attached a board to be a back. She drilled holes in the seat to attach a rope. She collected up all the exercise weights that she could find around the house. She searched around for a pail to hold the weights and proceeded to the treehouse to install her lift.  After she learned the pails is too small and weak, she found an old decorative plant basket, which was up for the job of holding the counter weights. 

It was wonderful watching the construction and testing of her idea, but best of all it is fun raising this wonderful daughter to be the best she can be. 

Funny with Arduino

Arduino BoardKatie Beth and I are having fun learning about Arduino.  We have been making diodes blink and other fun things.  We purchased the Arduino Starter Kit, which had everything we needed to get a basic understanding of Arduino and the cool things we could make.

I think Katie Beth likes the results more the building process.

U-Socket, weeee!

What wonderful addition to our kitchen! The U-Socket is basically a standard socket with integrated USB jacks for charging.

Now, we can get all the iPhone and iPad power adapters out of our kitchen while freeing up the outlets, too.

Life is good.

Fixing Web Site

You may or may not know that I use Macs. Some time ago, I switched to using Apple’s iWeb to develop my web site as it allows for easy posting of photos to the Internet.

My site is large on the order of 1GB. Well, the file/database of the site got corrupted. Apple is looking at my actual file to see if they can fix it, but I have stopped waiting for their help. (They may have a fix in future software update, but I can’t stopped updating my web site to wait for it.)

Well, I have completely rebuilt my web site from scratch. Painful is an understatement, but I am now in the process of uploading the results. It should look generally the same, but a few parts were dropped. After I confirm the site is working and iWeb is happy, I will have many more updates as I have been holding back updates.

Home Theater System Follow-up

We have had some time with our new Home Theater System and we have learned the good and bad.

To review quickly, we have the following setup:

PlayStation 3
AppleTV
Mac mini
Yamaha RX-V1800 Receiver
Knology Cable with 8300HD Cable Box
Pioneer KURO PDP-6010FD 60″ 1080p Plasma HDTV

(current shipping model Pioneer PDP-6020FD 60-Inch Class KURO Plasma HDTV)

I used all HDMI cables between all devices.

So, how is the system being used different from originally planned?

PlayStation 3: The PlayStation 3 just sits.  I don’t find us watching it at all.  We don’t go out to movies rental stores so we only have a small handful of Blu-ray movies.  I think this is due exclusively to having a 20-month-old daughter.  I will have to say that we have watched Ratatouille many times and not due to our 20-month-old daughter.  I didn’t expect to play games on the PlayStation 3 and I am not as expected.  The biggest complaint about the console is the lack of an IR remote.  I know that you can put something together using a PSX/PS2 Controller to USB adapter and an original DVD remote control for the PS2 with external IR receiver.  The bluetooth remote doesn’t function like a normal PlayStation 3 Wireless Controller, which would be nice.

Like I said, we don’t seem to be renting movies and we don’t generally purchase movies.  This could be the AppleTV covering our rental needs.  I may need to take the step to add an IR control capability to integrate the console into our system.

AppleTV: The AppleTV gets more attention based on the built-in screen saver, which will animate through our photos.  Everyone who comes by our house will say something about this capability.  We have rented a few movies, but our viewing habits don’t really work with a 24-hour rental.  (We have a 20-month-old daughter, which determines our viewing habit.)  If we could watch it over a longer period of time, I feel that we would rent more movies.  This is not to say that we don’t watch movies on the AppleTV.  I have converted all of our movies (DVD and VHS) into a format compatible with the AppleTV.  We listen to music with the AppleTV with the help of Remote iPhone software from Apple.  The Remote works for movie, pod casts, music, and more.

We mainly watch or listen to our pre-recorded movies, pod casts, and music.  I think if the rental period was different we would rent more.  I find that I am controlling the AppleTV from the iPhone application Remote more so than the included IR remote, because it is so much faster and costs only 99¢.  I do need to train the Yamaha RX-V1800 Receiver remote to control the AppleTV and Mac mini, which would remove the need for those remotes.

Mac mini: The computer has had limited usage, because a 60″ of screen is still not large enough to read the screen from across the room, but I still use it for digitally recording movies from the cable for iTunes.  The bluetooth keyboard and mouse are a pain, because of the limited usage.  The batteries always need replacing by the time need to use the computer if they are left in the ON state.  Turning the keyboard and mouse off adds steps into using the computer, because you have to wait for the computer to detect the devices.  I have replaced the keyboard and mouse with a standard USB setup.

I do like having a computer in the den, and I expect its usage will increase as our child grows.  A resolution change to the computer would improve the visibility of the screen from further away.

Yamaha RX-V1800 Reciever: The receiver has generally been perfectly fine.  I would like an audio decoder setting that auto tracks the source and picks the best decoder setting.  It could exist, but I have not found it.  All receiver are too much in the sound affect like making the movie or music sound like you are in a stadium, which I am at a complete lose for why.  The receive has a “feature” of turning OFF/ON the television.  I say OFF/ON, because the receiver remote is helping you by sending the OFF/ON signal to the television during the turn ON and turn OFF process.  This is bad, because it is a toggle command which will bite you every time the television is already off when the receive tries to help turn it off.  Bummer.  I have not fully programmed the universal remote that came with the receiver.  I think programming it could over cover many shortcomings of operating the overall system.  The lack of “Guide” and “DVR” controls associated with the cable box is the biggest capability missing, but I believe that I could program this ability if I had more buttons.  We only watch the recorded shows on cable box with very little live action so these functions are very important.  The remote works fine for live action control of the cable box.

I think this receiver is working out as I hoped, but it could be contributing to the television’s delay in syncing to cable box signal.  I plan on changing out the HDMI cables with component cables to see if that improves the syncing delay.

Pioneer KURO PDP-6010FD 60″ 1080p Plasma HDTV: The plasma screen has worked out great except for the syncing delay as stated above.  The screen does present a problem that any system will have in terms of duplicate features throughout the system.  The television and the cable box can scale the video image (that is standard definition to high definition).  The receive can too if the source is in component video format.  First, what unit does the best job?  Second, how to fix the scaling after someone touches more than one remote to scale that is scaling on scaling?  Also, you may need to pick the device based on things other than quality.  The receiver can only scale component, but I have an HDMI cabled system so it is out of the end solution.

I think the plasma screen has worked out well.  I still need to mount it on the wall, because we have a small child loose in our house.

What would I do different?

I think I would set aside more time for the setup and configuration.  There are many features that could be better if I had spent more time configuring the system, but how many hours can you stop everything to setup and program an audiovisual system.  A better study of usage habits would improve the process of selecting equipment and system configuration, but you can only guess as to how the system will be used in the end.  I would suggest planning for making adjustment after everyone gets use to the system.  Everyone will have features that they do and don’t like about the system.  This adjustment will allow you to address many of the things that are not liked or improve access to commonly used features.

Word of Warning

When you talk to people, you should understand they know nothing.  The cable company is just selling what they have.  They really don’t know what they have.  The “Best Buys” of the world are full of people that know nothing and all of their displays have a great signal from the back room that is making all the displays look their best.

You have to take what everyone says with a grain of salt including this, because your situation is different from mine.  Many of these capabilities and standards are still evolving and stabilizing.

HD Video Camera Plunge

Well, we have made the big step into video.  Karen and I have been kicking around this idea for some time now, but we have always been more of picture takers.

Digital Cameras

We have had a digital cameras for years starting with a simple Sanyo camera with a 640×480 resolution. We moved to a Canon Powershot G1, which we loved.  We initially started with memory cards, but Karen had a trip to Italy for work and we didn’t want to take a computer for downloading pictures.  We made the leap at this time to big storage, which was a Microdrive at the time.  We spent around $250 for a 512MB drive, which was huge at the time.  Now, you can get a 4GB Microdrive for 27 bucks.  (Big change!)  We could shoot 300 plus shot without filling up our storage.

We moved up to a Canon Digital Rebel XT, which was a gift.  The camera is great at taking quick shots, because of it’s fast response time.  But, it was not a point and shot camera, which Karen hates and I dislike.  The flash was very bad on the XT.  It either didn’t light the subject or washed them out.  Also, the Canon Powershot G1 had a LCD that could flip around to the front of the camera, which allowed Karen to shoot pictures over her head (Karen is short).  We were moved up to a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, which was a another gift.  It improved over the XT, but it still was not a point and shot camera.

In the middle of this, Karen has been wanting to get back to the point and shot cameras so she picked up a used Canon PowerShot S300 for $50 at Unclaimed Baggage.  She loves it, but it doesn’t take pictures that well.

Video Camera

During all of this, Katie Beth (our baby girl) has come into our lives.  We now have actions that we want to capture like blowing out her first birthday cake’s candles or her first steps.  All these things are best captured with video.  But, video brings some headaches like the following:

  1. You have to edit the video, which is not like just deleting a photo.
  2. You have to store the video, which is a lot more demanding than photos.

Well, the editing has improved with the release of iMovie 8 from Apple.  One of the key ideas behind iMovie 8 is to provide quick editing of movies with a focus on creating simple short videos from larger videos such as the one hour of birthday video that you shot last year and still haven’t edited down to something bearable like 60 seconds.

The storage problem is solvable.  You simply buy what ever you need and stop trying to save money on your storage and backups.  I love the LaCie Big Disk Extreme+ 2 TB.  I have two of the earlier version of this drive.  The 3 Year Limited Warranty is great, too.  On Mac, you have Time Machine so you purchase the largest drive for your computer and a huge drive to be your backup.

With both issues addressed, what camera should we purchase.  First, there is no super/prefect video camera. Every camera is a compromise.  Canon’s video cameras have a single CCD, while Panasonic’s video cameras have three CCDs.  Sony’s video cameras can take 10 mega pixel still pictures, while Canon’s video cameras can take 3 mega pixel pictures.  Some have viewfinders while other don’t.  Some use their own type of memory while others have more standard memory.  Some record to tape, disk, internal memory, hard drive, or memory cards.

End the end, I decided on the Canon VIXIA HG20, which captures video to an internal 60GB drive or to an SDHC memory card.  I don’t like the video cameras that record to tape because it is very slow going through the tape.  Hard drive or memory card storage can be jumped through quickly.  But, you could have a problem on a long trip, because you can fill up your memory cards and hard drive before the trip is over. You can always purchase another tape or memory card, but tapes are cheap.  With the 60GB drive, the Canon VIXIA HG20 can record anywhere from 22 hours of video at 1440 x 1080 resolution with LP quality, which more video than I want see of any place that I visit.  Remember, you have to edit down what ever you shoot.  While shooting the highest quality video, you can still get 5.5 hours at 1920 x 1080 resolution with MXP quality.

The DVD variety of recorders typically get about ½ hour on one 3 inch DVD.  The tape variety of recorders typically get about 80 minutes on one High Definition Minidv Videocassette.  These times increase if you lower the quality, but why did you buy a high definition camera if it not to get high quality video.

The Canon VIXIA HG21 has a viewfinder while the Canon VIXIA HG20 does not.  Karen doesn’t want to be behind a viewfinder.  She like the LCD, which is very similar to the Canon Powershot G1‘s LCD.  The Canon VIXIA HG21 has a twice as large internal drive, but like I said, “you have to edit down what ever you shoot.”

The Canon VIXIA HG20’s 3 mega pixel still picture capability is about the right resolution for our web site and typical 4×6 prints.  So, this camera may replace the need to take the Canon PowerShot S300 on trips.  

Like many HD video cameras, the Canon VIXIA HG20 has Mini-HDMI output for connecting directly to our high definition television.  But, you can also use the include component cable, which all high definition televisions should support.

I am looking forward to testing the camera on our next trip to Colorado Springs, which will be via Amtrak train.  You can expect to see more video on our web sites.

Learning Something New: Ruby on Rails

I have decided to learn something new. I have been wanting to learn more technologies related to developing and deploying databases to the web.

The hottest technology going for doing just that is Ruby on Rails. So I have had Karen order me the two best books on the subject: Agile Web Development with Rails and Rails Recipes.

As I understand, Ruby on Rails is built on the idea of build a little, test a little. The framework builds a shell, which gives you a minimal working structure that you can slowly replace with your own specifics.

The key negative that I have seen so far is that every example has depended on the specific version of Ruby and of Rails that you have installed. This does not look good, because it means the APIs and methods must be changing between every version.

Upgrade House with Kick'n Theater System

Karen and I upgraded the home theater system. Back on my birthday in August, Karen gave me an AppleTV, which gave me the green light for upgrading the home entertainment.

So, the search began.

I was looking to have a setup that would support the current standards for video. I focused my attention on the HDMI standard 1.3a, which would provide me with an integrated video and audio experience on a single cable. This HDMI standard handles all of the capabilities of the Blu-ray and HD DVD players. According to Joseph D. Cornwall of Impact Acoustics,

“The HDMI 1.3a standard increases single-link bandwidth to 340 MHz (10.2 Gbps), which will support demands of future HD display devices incorporating higher resolutions, Deep Color and high frame rates. Keep in mind that previous versions of HDMI are fully capable of 1080p performance.

HDMI 1.3a incorporates automatic audio syncing (lip sync) capability. This is a system that will automatically adjust for the difference in electronic latency between the processing circuits of the sound and image. This discrepancy sometimes manifests itself as a slight delay in the sound compared to the image.

HDMI 1.3a supports output of Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio streams for external decoding by AV receivers. TrueHD and DTS-HD are lossless audio codec formats used on HD DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. If the disc player can decode these streams into uncompressed audio, then HDMI 1.3 is not necessary, as all versions of HDMI can transport uncompressed audio.”

What does all that mean? It boils down to one thing. You get more with the latest standards. So, I started looking around for devices that support HDMI 1.3a, which turns out to be not that many.

I started with the A/V receiver thinking it would be the center piece of controlling the system. I started reviewing the high end Sony receivers, but I saw too many bad reviews. A friend put me onto the Yamaha receivers and I liked what I saw.

I wanted either the Yamaha RX-V1800 or the Yamaha RX-V3800. The key difference is the network capability of the Yamaha RX-V3800. But, the Yamaha RX-V3800 only has a RJ-45 jack and I am running 802.11n around my house. Plus, I have a AppleTV, which gives me more than the capabilities of the Yamaha RX-V3800.

With receiver selection out of the way, I moved onto the screen. I had decided that I didn't want a projection based system. I work with them at work all the time and I think highly of them, but I don't want to spend the kind of money required to get the brightness desired. LCD screen don't have size and price that I am looking to get. My father was pushing the Pioneer plasmas. At work, I have Panasonic plasmas. The Panasonic don't have blacks as black as the Pioneer. And, I have had failures on some of the Panasonic units. I focused on the Pioneer KURO PDP-6010FD 60" 1080p Plasma HDTV and Panasonic TH-58PZ750U 58" 1080p plasma HDTV when doing my comparisons. The blacker blacks won out especially since the price difference is so small.

With the screen selected, I wanted to decide on getting a Blu-ray or HD DVD player. I decided to hold off after looking at the players in the marketplace. Every player is limited in capability or over priced given what you are getting. But, a deal did come available after I had given up. A number of Blu-ray players were being sold with a rebate providing you 5 free Blu-ray movies. The straw that broke my back was Amazon would give you 2 more free movies. Well, I picked the Sony PlayStation 3 (60GB), which is cheap so I wouldn't mind upgrading in the future and I get 7 Blu-ray movies. You can't beat $499 and 7 free movies.

I ordered the HD cable box with integrated TiVo with the limited selection of HD that you can get in Huntsville, Alabama on the Knology cable system.

The whole integrated system includes a Mac Mini for Internet access; a PS3 for movies and games; an AppleTV for music, shows, podcasts, and photos; a Scientific-Atlanta Explorer 8300HD cable box for TV and HD recording; a Panasonic DVR for recording; and the Pioneer 60″ plasma for viewing all with wonderful stuff.

Sweet!

Got my iPhone

I have had it for little over a week. Overall, I have enjoyed it, but it does have issues. The readability of the screen is super. The size and weight are great. The battery lasts longer than expected.

The bluetooth is a big bummer. You can't use it for anything beyond headsets. You can't even send a contact to another phone. (I haven't found any way to send a contact to another phone.) The headset functionality is very limited with no voice dialing.

The WiFi has issues with connecting to some networks. I switched one network from a 40bit to 128bit key and then the iPhone could connect. On some WiFi networks that it connects to, it can not get a DHCP assigned address.

The GSM signal reception is very weak compared to the T68i and W300i by SonyEricsson.

I just hope updates come soon for the phone.