brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


Cheap DVD players

As part of my preparation for the Hackers conference, I decided to use open source software to make a nice presentation, and instead of presenting it on a laptop, use a DVD player as my presentation medium.

I've been experimenting a bit with vcdimager, a VCD authoring system, and have made a couple of nice demo CDs that incorporate MPEG-1 video, sound files and high resolution MPEG stills. Overall, I was quite pleased with the result, and was looking forward to presenting some of this at Hackers.

I then began to wonder just how compatible this VCD would be with other DVD players. Most of my tests had been done with the Apex AD600A (widely revered in hacking circles because of its hidden menu that allows you to disable Macrovision and region coding). The VCDs that I made played just
fine in my son's Apex player, but failed in my old (but still very good) Panasonic 5 disc changer (I'm not certain that it could read CD-R media).

So I became nervous that perhaps I wouldn't be able to show this off at the conference, if by some quirk of fate their DVD player wasn't compatible. And I began to look for some insurance (but not too expensive).

I found it at Walmart, in the form of a $58 DVD player, the Apex AD1100W (the W stands for Walmart presumably). It's a cheap DVD player, but has a number of interesting quirks, err.. features.

  • There exist at least three different versions of hardware all which ship with the same model number. These are:
    • the old 1M version
    • The old 512kb version
    • The new 512kb version
  • You can upgrade the program memory by creating a special data disc that contains a new
    ROM image and booting it.

  • You can use the DVD player to show JPEG files burned onto an ordinary data disk.

You have to be careful in buying one of these, the new 512kb player will not play VCDs,
which is truly annoying. The boxes are nearly identical: when I went to Walmart there were stacks
of boxes of the new version, and a single one which bore the necessary Compact Disc Video
icon which told me it was an old 512kb machine.

The older 1M machines are ideal: they have patch roms available off the internet to disable both
region encoding and Macrovision. The 512kb machines only have patches which disable region
encoding, as yet the disabling of Macrovision seems to be unavailable.

Overall the unit feels really cheap. When I first hooked it up, I just had the video cabled in,
and verified that it worked by insertiing my Aliens DVD. Once I saw that it was playing, I tilted the
machine up a bit to hook the audio cables in, and the DVD that was playing slid out the front of
the drive. Not so good.

It also appears to have at least one problem from the viewpoint of VideoCDs, it doesn't appear to
have any key on the remote mapped to the returnfunction. This makes it more
difficult to make an interface which navigates simply via nested menus: only linear sequences are

I just have to remind myself it was very cheap. Still, it does have DTS and all that, I'll probably
use it to replace one of my older units, at least until the tin foil case that it has crumbles and
falls to dust.

Oh, almost forgot the mandatory link to information about hacking Apex DVD players.

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On disappointment….

Well, the World Series is over.


The Giants had their opportunities. Saturday's game was in the bag. And then it wasn't. And then they were behind. And then they lost. And then they lost again on Sunday. And just like that,
the Anaheim Angels were champions, and Barry Bonds was scowling.

Don't get me wrong. I've seen Anaheim play against the Athletics several times this year, and I
knew that they were capable. Early on I predicted that whichever team came out of the AL West would be the champions, because I felt that no NL team looked as good. I never envisioned the
Giants would make it out of the first round (as much as I hate Atlanta), sot hey weren't even on
the radar.

Still, after watching several great games against Atlanta, and attending the terrific game 5 against the Cardinals, I started to believe. And that seemed to make the ultimate fall all the greater.

It is perhaps the flaw of competative sports that for someone to win, somebody else must lose. In
this case the Angels simply outplayed the Giants. The better team (at least on those seven games)
did come out victorious. So after an evening of moping, I hope that I have gained a little perspective.
After all, these guys play a kid's game for a living. So Barry Bonds doesn't get a ring. He gets
to play a kid's game for a living. A very good living. We have no reason to feel sorry for him, or
for anyone lucky enough to entertain us for a living.

Besides, there is always next year.

Filed under: Rants and Raves 1 Comment

On the Public Domain…

I was toying around with GNU vcdimager this week, trying to make some nice interactive video CDs. I was looking for some video footage in VCD MPEG-1 format to use as a test, and came up with a couple of options

  • The Prelinger Archives offers many films in VCD format, including such classics as A is for Atom and Duck and Cover.

  • I could also convert some existing footage from another source, such as DVD.

In my collection, I have a DVD that contains three silent films by Buster Keaton: The General, Paleface and The Blacksmith. A brief websearch reveals
that all of these films are now in the public domain. So, the question to ask is, what am I
allowed to do with my DVD?

Initially of course, we know that circumventing the CSS protection on the DVD is a crime, regardless of whether the underlying material is public domain or not. This point was brought to my attention rather well by Andy Greenburg, and remains the single finest objection that I can see to the DMCA and similar legislation.

Ignoring that (at my own peril), let's assume that the film itself is in the public domain. Could the company that released the DVD have any copyright claims on the work? Well, it seems hard to tell. They may be able to make some claim that the menus and additional material on the CD are covered
by copyright, and therefore cannot be redistributed. Perhaps the music on the CD is not from an
original recording (how could I possibly tell?) and would therefore be covered by copyright.

What if the film has been colorized? There has been some precedent that claims that colorization creates a signfiicant derivation of the original work that could be copyrighted. What about digital restoration efforts? Do these create a significant derivation of the original work?

The DVD that I have carries a warning that copying of copyrighted materials is a federal offense. No where does it claim that any of the works appearing on the DVD are copyrighted (nor does it have to, given modern copyright law). How can I determine what my fair and/or unregulated uses of this film are?


Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Slashdot is currently running a thread under the rather sensationalistic title

The End of Minix
. It declares that since the XFree86 project has decided to drop support
for the Minix operating system, that it is dead.

Andy Tanenbaum wrote Minix to educate students on the construction of modern operating systems.
It is a microkernel system, where many operating system tasks are performed by user tasks, such as file system access and memory management. It is written in a clear, straightforward style, and is small enough that it can be reasonably understood by sufficiently motivated individuals.

If it has a flaw it is probably that modern PCs have all moved beyond the initial 8088/80286 level that Minix was originally written for. It would be good to have included real memory management and stronger networking support from the very beginning.

Ten years ago, Andy Tanenbaum declared that
Linux is obsolete
, because Linux reverted to a monolithic kernel design instead of the microkernel design, and that Linux wasn't designed with portability in mind. I think that both of these points are correct, and both are wrong. Tanenbaum viewed the debate over monolithic versus microkernels as completely over, but the fact is that microkernel operating systems are still uncommon, nearly a decade after he first made his comments. There must be some reason why monolithic kernels continue to be the norm, beyond simple inertia. In discussions with Tom Duff on the matter, we basically arrived at a similar point: that regardless of where the code for the filesystem is, it needs to be written. It doesn't matter that much whether that code lives in the kernel or in user space. If it does live in user space, there will by necessity be overhead of calling remote procedures that is absent in the monolithic kernel case. This limits performance, and operating systems to date have been entirely about delivering performance.

Anyway, is Minix dead? Of course not. If you want to learn about how to construct a nearly practical example of a microkernel operating system, Minix is without a doubt a good place to begin. it doesn't need to support Xfree, or even be popular to achieve that goal. I keep a copy of the Minix 2.0 source code checked into a CVS repository just for same keeping, and have pondered the idea of constructing an operating system around similar ideas. Every software project doesn't need
to achive dominance or even acceptance to be worthy of preserving. Tanenbaum puts it this way:

As most of you know, for me MINIX is a hobby, something I do in the evening when I get bored writing books and there are no major wars, revolutions, or senate hearings being televised live on CNN.

It's a creative way to murder time. And nothing has changed about that.


The Giants Win the Pennant!

After the Giants came from behind to beat the Cardinals on Sunday in a brilliant and exciting game, my wife decided that we needed to go to Game 5. Carmen and I have been to quite a few playoff games in the last three years with the Athletics, and have yet to see a victory in a game where the other team was facing elimination. With some trepidation, I laid down my Platinum card and got two bleacher seat tickets in section 144.

The game was incredible

Reuter was flirting with disaster all through the game. He'd get two out, and then let two on. He walked batters on 3-2. It seemed like the Cardinals were getting hits off him at will.

But looks can be deceiving. He worked six scoreless innings. The Cardinals left ten men on base for the game. They couldn't get the big hit to bust the game open.

Matt Morris was incredible. He was perfect through three, and seemed to have brought his best game. In the 4th he hit Lofton with a pitch, and the Cardinals wouldn't get a chance to get
him out again.

Felix Rodriguez came in as a reliever in the 7th inning for Reuter, who was getting pretty high in the pitch count. He gave up the only Cardinals run, a sac fly by Vina that scored Matheny.

The Giants were down 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth, but the top of the lineup was coming around.
Dunston struck out looking, but then Lofton and Aurilia both singled. Kent steps in and is hit by a pitch to load the bases for Barry Bonds.

The place went nuts.

Bonds flies to deep left to score Lofton. The game is tied The chants of "Barry! Barry!" change to "Benny! Benny!" as Santiago steps in. Unfortunately Santiago grounds out to second, leaving the score tied at 1-1 going into the 9th.

Worrell pitches a good top of the 9th, as Vina makes it to first on a bunt only to be stranded. Suprisingly the Cards could have put a pinch hitter in for Morris, but they decide to allow him to
bat. The bottom of the ninth...

Morris is still pitching. Martinez pinch hits for Worrell, and fouls out. Snow then flies out to left center. Things are looking grim with two outs. Carmen is leaning up against me, afraid to look. David Bell then singles to left center. Dunston comes to the plate, and singles to left center.
Lofton comes to the plate, and Cards pull Morris and switch to Kline.

Lofton singles. David Bell takes a belly first Superman slide into home. The throw in from Drew is 15 feet wide, and he goes in untouched.

The place really goes nuts. Much celebration. Much cheering.

It was the most amazing game I've seen. A come from behind victory in a decisive game of the NLCS for the home crowd. Awesome. I guess we'll be seeing Bonds in the big show...

Filed under: Baseball Comments Off

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Since my wife has endured so many of the movies that I wanted to see (mostly having the words ninja, vampire or cheerleader in the title), it was finally her turn to pick a movie, and she selected My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Despite it's lack of gunfire, explosions, criminal masterminds or supermodels, I must admit that it is a great movie with many fine performances and some sharp writing. It represents an interesting view into a world which is quickly disappearing from the American landscape: the unashamedly ethnic family. Michael Constantine does an especially fine job as the slightly eccentric patriarch of the family, Gus Portakalos. His performance seems effortless, and conveys the kind of rich warmth that one would hope the head of a large family would possess. Lainie Kazan does an equally fine job as his wife Maria. Nia Vardalos plays their thirty year old husbandless daughter Toula, who undergoes an ugly duckling to beautiful swan transition, and falls in love with Ian Miller (he's not Greek, and played by John Corbett).

This movie conveys a rich sense of family and love, where the idiosyncrasies of family members are celebrated rather than mocked. I found it to be a very pleasant Sunday afternoon diversion.

If it only had a couple of ninjas, it would be perfect...

Filed under: Movie Review Comments Off

Eldred vs. Ashcroft Oral Arguments Heard

Today the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Eldred vs. Ashcroft, a challenge of the Constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This act extended the term of all current copyrights by an additional 20 years. The net result of this is that no currently copyrighted works will enter the public domain for another 20 years. There is many things wrong with this state of affairs, not the least of which is the inability for individuals to make copies or derivative works even when the copyright holders have no plans or incentive to do so. Many books and films of historic or cultural importance are decaying on shelves and in film cans because they have no substantial economic value. Organizations such as Project Gutenberg can make these economically unfeasible sources available for the benefit of the public.

You could do much worse than to read Lawrence Lessig's webpage which will contain links to many sources of information on the case.


Wooden Periodic Table Table

Thanks to Wayne Wooten, who sent me to this Ig Nobel prize winner. Surprisingly decorative and informative!


Small OS for Small Media?

While tinkering around the house the other day, I remembered that my wife's old laptop had suffered some kind of win98 related meltdown (it claimed it was missing a dll and could no longer boot) and was in need of a new operating system. Simultaneously, I realized that I had some of these little 3" CD-R blanks lying around. They hold 185Mbytes, and I thought to myself that surely there must a useful unix distribution that will fit on them.

An hour of two later, I had Debian installed on my laptop. Unfortunately I am not very comfortable with Debian Linux, preferring FreeBSD to Linux in almost every respect (hey, call it personal preference). I'd tinkered around with PicoBSD a bit when FreeBSD 3.2 was around, so I've begun working on resurrecting that idea to create a customized FreeBSD boot CDROM
that fits on one of these small CD-R blanks, and enables me to interact with the network via ssh, ftp and lynx, mount NFS drives, and generally just tinker.
Once I figure out some mysteries relating to the behavior of vnconfig, I think it will be pretty straightforward. Stay tuned.

Filed under: My Projects 1 Comment