February 1, 2005

Streaming video for free

Recently, I spent a lot of time struggling to get streaming video working properly for my wedding video. I wanted it to be good quality, high compression, require no special software to view, and be accomplished by me using only freely available software. It took me a while to figure out a solution that satisfied all these goals, but I was eventually successful. In the end, I used:

  • Darwin Streaming Server (for streaming)
  • mencoder (for encoding video)
  • faac (for encoding audio)
  • mp4creator from MPEG4IP (for multiplexing the stream)

Recent versions of Quicktime player support the MPEG4 format, the new standard for low-bitrate video. This means I could use Darwin streaming server to stream it, and Windows and Mac OSX users can use Quicktime and the associated browser plugin to view it (which most people already have installed). Windows Media Player does not yet seem up to the task of playing standard MPEG4, but hopefully that will come soon.

Once I found the various tools, encoding the video from high-bitrate MPEG2 (coming straight from our DVD master) into MPEG4 was relatively easy. For reference, here is the exact sequence of commands. stream.mpg is the input MPEG2 video and wedding_hi.mp4 is the output video that I simply dropped into Darwin Streaming Server's movie directory.

mencoder stream.mpg -vf kerndeint,scale=480:360 -ovc lavc -lavcopts \
      vcodec=mpeg4:vbitrate=600:vhq:v4mv:keyint=132:vpass=1 -nosound \
      -frames 143250 -o newstream_hi.avi
mencoder stream.mpg -vf kerndeint,scale=480:360 -ovc lavc -lavcopts \
      vcodec=mpeg4:vbitrate=600:vhq:v4mv:keyint=132:vpass=2 -nosound \
      -frames 143250 -o newstream_hi.avi
ffmpeg -i stream.mpg -vn -f wav out.wav -t 01:19:39.78
faac --mpeg-vers 4 --tns -o out_hi.aac out.wav
mp4creator -c newstream_hi.avi -hint wedding_hi.mp4
mp4creator -c out_hi.aac -hint -interleave wedding_hi.mp4
mp4creator -optimize wedding_hi.mp4

I used two-pass encoding with mencoder for maximum quality, but that is optional. Also, you'll note that I needed to trim some garbage from the end of the source video, so the commands to ffmpeg and mencoder use the 'frames' and 't' arguments to restrict the length of the input.

There's also a very complete guide to creating MPEG4 content here.

Posted by davemoore at 8:40 PM | Comments (6)

January 31, 2005

Intuit is costing you money

You may or may not be familiar with Intuit, the company that makes the popular personal finance software Quicken. You may be surprised to know that even if you've never used Quicken, Intuit is costing you money. I'll explain why.

If you do use Quicken 2005, you will have noticed that Intuit dropped the capability to import QIF files. The QIF format is a simple text file that financial institutions could generate and that you could download from their webserver to import transactions into Quicken. Although annoying, dropping this feature wasn't the end of the world since QIF is an out-of-date and error-prone format in need of replacement.

However, truly nefarious is their replacement for QIF called QFX. It turns out there is an open standard for financial data import called OFX. This is the format used by Microsoft Money. However, Quicken instead only lets you import QFX files, which are identical to OFX files, except that a small header is added to the file that identifies the financial institution where the data originated. When you import the QFX file into Quicken, it connects to Intuit's server and verifies that the financial institution has paid a license fee to Intuit. If the institution has paid, Quicken imports the data. If the institution has not paid, the import fails (even though you could open the file in a text editor and see the data yourself).

Effectively, all these banks and financial institutions have to pay the "Quicken Tax" to Intuit every year so that Quicken will import their data. And I've heard that the fees that Intuit demands are very large -- on the order of tens of thousands of dollars for a small bank. In the end, this costs us all money because these costs will be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher fees and lower dividend rates at your bank.

So if you are using Quicken, you may want to think about moving to something else in the future. Microsoft Money surprisingly seems like the better choice, or if you use *nix or Mac OSX, check out GnuCash. Finally, you may want to check with your banks and gently ask them to stop paying the Quicken Tax.

Posted by davemoore at 12:52 PM | Comments (2)

November 14, 2004

New Wedding Page

I have created a new section on my website dedicated to my wedding back in July. The primary addition is a full-length streaming version of the video we had produced of the event. It also summarizes the various photos and other details that have already been posted on my website for a while.

On a more personal note, I have to say that planning a wedding is quite an ordeal. One of the toughest aspects of it is that the vendors know that most people only have to do this once, so they take advantage of your general ignorance about the whole process. It's not that they are purposely trying to pick your pocket, but there's just not a lot of objective information available about what vendors are good and what vendors are bad. Since lack of information creates an imperfect market, there's not a lot of competition and the vendors generally don't strive to provide good value. Once you've paid your bill and the wedding is over, they have no incentive to provide good service to you because you'll probably never work with them again.

I'm being vague here, but over the next few weeks I'll post some of my specific experiences with our vendors, most notably the photographer and videographer, so you have an idea of what I'm talking about. Since it's hard to find objective information about these vendors anywhere, I can at least provide one data point by discussing my experiences with them. Hopefully this will be useful to future couples who search Google for information on these vendors. Although my searches came up empty, their's shall not.

Posted by davemoore at 12:20 AM | Comments (2)

September 30, 2004

Review: ABC's "Lost"

Lately I've been watching one of ABC's new shows, "Lost," on Wednesday nights. There have only been two episodes so far, which was actually the pilot episode split into two 1-hour pieces. I figured I would write down some of my thoughts into a mini-review. I won't give any spoilers.

The premise of the series is simple: A airliner inexplicably breaks apart mid-air and crashes on a desolate tropical island. There are numerous survivors who struggle to get their bearings and cope with their environment until they can be rescued. That's basically the entire plot, except for the added drama of some sort of beast that inhabits the island -- seen by the characters but only heard by the audience. It's clear that the show would never take off based on its simplistic plot elements alone. "Lost" instead focuses distinctly on character development. Its case is also helped by the high-budget production values: The picture is simply gorgeous in high definition and the sound is well-produced in 5.1 surround, a rare treat on network television. The $5 million pilot episode has the feel a Hollywood film. I suppose all the money they spent on special effects in this episode will be recovered by the fact that future episodes won't require many sets to be built.

Back to the character development. "Lost" spends nearly all 2 hours of its pilot episode partially introducing the characters while still holding enough back to make room for new surprises in the future. The characters are indeed compelling, but the time spent introducing them leads to a very slow pace of the pilot. It also doesn't help that seemingly 40 minutes of those 2 hours are spent in commercials. Hopefully once we know the characters better in future episodes, the plot can take a slightly faster pace. However, despite these flaws I'm still left with a positive impression of the show due to the depth being hashed out in the characters. An exciting plot with vacuous characters would be far worse.

One thing that bothers me is the behavior of the characters after the crash. Their primary concerns seem to be food and finding a radio transponder. No mention is ever made of obtaining fresh water, and although they clearly aren't acting thirsty, no source of fresh water is ever visible on-screen, except for a few leftover water bottles from the airplane and a brief rainfall. There also does not seem to be much interest in finding shelter. Instead the characters spend their days and nights lying on the beach. Although it's plausable that in a real life situation, people might be too stupid to realize the proper priorities at first -- after one full day anyone would feel the need for water and shelter.

It's too early to tell whether the show will be good or not. The first episode was engrossing albeit lackadaisical in pace. If it does turn out well, the cause will surely be the depth of the characters and their interactions. The only question remaining is if there is enough plot material available to make a full season or more out of the premise.

Posted by davemoore at 5:22 PM | Comments (3)

September 20, 2004

Unidentified Body Found in Charles River

Looking outside from our Cambridge, MA apartment on Sunday, Helen and I noticed a flurry of police and fire department activity on Memorial Drive near the Longfellow Bridge. We walked over to get a closer look and found a crew in hazmat suits carefully inspecting the shoreline of the Charles River right next to the road. They eventually recovered what looked like a body and loaded it into a truck to be taken to the coroner's office. Today, a report appeared on the Channel 5 News website:

There's no word yet on the identity of a body that was reportedly found wrapped in plastic in the Charles River. The body was spotted Sunday afternoon between the Longfellow Bridge and a boathouse on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. A spokesman for the Middlesex District Attorney's office said the body was taken to the medical examiner's office but no other details were provided.

Update 4:20pm: Again from a report on Channel 5:

A body pulled out of the Charles River has been identified as a missing woman from Malden, police confirmed Monday. Julaine Jules, 26, was reported missing in late August. Her car was found torched in Revere, Mass., shortly after she disappeared. Her body wrapped in plastic was recovered from the river Sunday.

Posted by davemoore at 1:28 PM

September 9, 2004

Things Change

Last weekend, Helen and I visited New York City for the Labor Day holiday. We toured the city whirlwind style, cramming as many things into our 3 and a half day trip as possible. Naturally, one of the items on the top of my list was to see the World Trade Center site. Being as young as I am, tragedies such as September 11, 2001 have less personal effect on me than on the average person who has spent a lifetime without seeing any comparable event. Nonetheless, finally seeing the site in person makes a larger impression on me than the detached viewings on TV ever could. I was personally affected by this serendipitous photo I took of Alexander Hamilton's grave from the grounds of Trinity church. I had remembered having taken a similar photo in the past, but I had forgotten the significance, which struck me as soon as I dug up the old photo from my archives at home:

July 16, 2000
September 4, 2004

After taking that original photo on July 16, 2000, never in my wildest imagination would I have guessed that such a gaping wound in the skyline would be possible. I am also struck by how little the rest of the scene changed: Even the small pine tree to the right has all the same branches in all the same places, yet one of mankind's greatest structures is gone forever. The modest monument of Alexander Hamilton persists, yet the grand monument to commercial enterprise does not.

I'll be sure to return in a decade to take the same photo with the new skyline that appears.

Posted by davemoore at 4:35 PM

September 1, 2004

Getting into the RNC

Tomorrow afternoon I'm going to leave Cambridge with my wife to spend a few days in New York City to celebrate Labor Day weekend. Although our main purpose in going is to do the normal touristy things, we'll also probably drop by Madison Square Garden to see if there's any excitement outside the Republican National Convention. Apparently, it must not be too hard to get valid credentials for the floor, because according to CNN, eleven protesters managed to do it:

Eleven protesters were arrested Wednesday on the floor of Madison Square Garden, site of the Republican National Convention, law enforcement officials said.

The protesters were members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP and will face trespassing charges. They shouted and carried signs on the convention floor during a speech by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

All the hecklers had valid floor passes. The U.S. Secret Service said the screening process is working and no one who has demonstrated inside the convention has had a weapon or posed a threat to anyone.

So if some credentials happen come my way, maybe I'll stop in to take in the scene. It worked at the DNC for Keith Winstein of MIT's student newspaper, The Tech.

Posted by davemoore at 5:31 PM