Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Goodbye MediaPortal Hello XBMC

Posted: February 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

When I was about 12 years old my cousin had a Sinclair Spectrum with rubber keys, 48K of ram and a tape recorder for loading and saving programs. He had bought it second hand and it came with tapes containing programs that the previous owner had written, or more likely transcribed from some or other magazine.

One that fascinated me was a simple database of music singles. Lots of old stuff, Elvis, Buddy Holly etc. What really interested me was the notion that in the future with a database like that you could actually play the songs, rather than just look at information about them like Record Label, Year, Songwriter etc.

When I got my first PC years later I tried creating a database that had all that information and the music too. I think I copied about 3 songs to WAV format before I realised that the whole process would be too tedious.

Today you can rip your CD’s to your hard drive. The software can pull in all the tedious information from the internet. It can display cover art, even the lyrics of the songs. We have reached, and passed where 12 years old me wanted to be.

A few years ago I had another vision of the future. Instead of getting up off my ass and finding a particular DVD I should just be able to select the movie I want on my computer, just like I do with music. It should have all the extras that a DVD contains. In short I wanted my DVD’s available at the click of a button.

Naturally, I didn’t want to be stuck watching DVD’s on 15″ PC monitors. I saw myself plonked on the couch in front of my TV, with surround sound, nice lighting, and all my DVD’s available through a snazzy user interface.

Back then the technology for that still wasn’t around, and to the extent that it existed it was as tedious as my early experiments with music were. But, technology has caught up, and as of today my entire collection of movies is now residing on a couple of hard drives. TV Shows are next up.

I’m sitting on my couch as I type this (on a laptop). My TV is just over there. Surround Sound? Check. Proper lighing? Check.
All my DVD’s available through a nice user interface. Check.

After that long meandering introduction, here’s the details of what I’ve done. There was a bit of trial and error and a lot of miss steps along the way, and if this post saves someone else some time It will have served it’s purpose.

I started by trying out Microsoft’s built in media center. I very quickly got tired of it. I didn’t like the look. It seemed to hang fairly regularly. And I couldn’t figure out how to get it to do the things I wanted, like play a DVD from my hard drive, or download details about movies and display nice cover art etc. It may be that it can do all these things, but it can’t do them out of the box.

If I want to go down the road of third party plug-ins etc then I might as well go the whole way and see what alternatives there are to media center.

One of the first alternatives I found was MediaPortal

It seemed to do much of what I wanted. I installed the wonderful StreamedMP skin which also gave me the fantastic MovingPictures and MyTVSeries plugins. I also used Daemon Tools Light which allowed me to play ISO files. I could rip my DVD collection to ISO files and they would play within MediaPortal.

I was living the dream.

But there were problems. MediaPortal was slow. My machine was well above the suggested spec, but it was damn slow. It would also freeze A LOT. It was virtually impossible to scroll through the list of movies without it locking up. If the machine ever went into sleep mode you might as well give up and reboot.

I upgraded to Windows 7 and the freezing seemed to be less of a problem, but the remote control no longer worked.

Also, from time to time when I would try to play an ISO file it would take literally minutes to load. Up to 7 or 8 minutes.
It was as if MediaPortal was copying the entire ISO over a network before playing it, even though the ISO was a local file.
Other times it would start playing immediately. Really annoying.

I upgraded to a Beta version of the latest Media Portal release and the remote started working but it was all still very slow and buggy.
To be expected from a Beta, and I waited patiently for a more stable release.

The MediaPortal guys seem to have shifted attention to MediaPortal 2 which seems to be a complete rebuild. It might be fantastic, but in the meantime I’m trying to get my PC to play movies. Eventually a newer release emerged and I upgraded. It had a few improvements, but in fairness it wasn’t dramatically better. Still very slow. Still the occasional freeze up. Now when an episode of a tv show ended MediaPortal would vanish. it was still running, but you had to hit Alt-F4 to shut it down, then restart it.

Around this time I had lunch with a friend who suggested Boxee. As soon as I got home I installed it. It was a revelation. It was fast. It was pretty slick looking. It would play ISO files without needing to mess around with Daemon Tools or virtual drives. Did I mention that it was fast?

Sadly, Boxee requires you to create an account. There’s a whole social network thing going on. The problem is that Boxee is commercial, and I’d really prefer not to have a commerical company watching me log in and keeping track of what I watch. I see no reason for it. By all means create a social layer if you want, but if I don’t like it then let me use the software without logging in.

Boxee also had serious problems matching up my movies and tv shows with information from the internet, and had no way of allowing me to manually override it’s mistakes. Boxee’s reign on my HTPC was short. The end was swift and brutal.

It got me thinking though. I checked out XBMC which is the daddy of all these programs. MediaPortal branched from XBMC. Boxee branched from XBMC. I’m sure half a dozen other media centers have their origins in it.

So I installed XBMC.

The clouds parted, the sun shone on the TV, and god himself sighed with pleasure (I later discovered that was my hard drive groaning, but that’s a different story). XBMC loaded fast, it was really responsive. It matched up my movies pretty well. I could manually overwrite it’s mistakes. It loaded and played ISO files blazingly fast. I really can’t stress this enough. To test it I tried running XBMC on a laptop connecting via WiFi (G) to the network. It loaded an ISO file over the network and played it instantly and flawlessly.

best of all when I played a movie using XBMC my AV Receiver would flash up Dolby or DTS in all the right places. Somehow, without me having to spend days on forums and hack my registry, XBMC just seemed to work. Glorious surround sound, movies like they should be. I added the Transparency skin, which improved the whole look of things.

I installed no plug-ins. I installed a few skins which literally could not have been simpler.

I can’t stress strongly enough how much easier the whole process of setting up and using XBMC has been compared to MediaPortal, or even Boxee. It is genuinely a classy piece of software.

It’s not perfect. I have a few problems with my remote, but as far as I can tell I’ll be table to get to the bottom of those.
It seems to me that XBMC doesn’t upscale DVD’s as well as Boxee, but I might be imagining that.

XBMC doesn’t do Recording or Timeshifting of Live TV, infact it doesn’t do TV at all, other than playing pre-recorded episodes. That isn’t a problem for me, my cable set top box never played nice with computers in any case so I wouldn’t have been using that feature.

XBMC is the first media center application that I can honestly suggest to non techie users (The so-called Wife and Kids (WAK) demographic).

Sargent Major Trouble

Posted: February 25, 2010 in Uncategorized

Before the last general election Trevor Sargent told the country that he would not lead the Greens into government with Fianna Fail. We should have paid very careful attention to his wording. He didn’t say he wouldn’t go into government with Fianna Fail. He didn’t say the Greens wouldn’t help Fianna Fail stay in government. He said that “HE wouldn’t LEAD the Greens into government with Fianna Fail”.

As we now know he was true to the letter of his word if not that spirit. He stepped aside to allow John Gormley LEAD the Greens into government with Fianna Fail. And he didn’t step aside in protest. He accepted a job as a Junior Minister.

When a government is founded on a lie what chance does it have?

If there is any justice in the collapse of the economy it is that the Greens by pulling this bait and switch ensured that the architects of the collapse (Fianna Fail) had to be in power when it inevitably happened. One can only imagine the spin that Fianna Fail would have dreamed up if Fine Gael had been unlucky enough to with the last election.

Prior to the election people inside Fianna Fail were saying that it was “the election to lose”. Make no mistake, they knew what was coming down the line.

The other great justice of course is that by swindling the voters, the Greens ensured that they are right there in the middle of it and being wiped out. The Greens don’t deserve the blame for our economic woes, but they do deserve the blame for allowing Fianna Fail to remain in power, and boy are they getting what they deserve on that front.

The Irony is that if the Greens had been in opposition when the country was falling apart they would have had more “I told you so” moment than they knew what to do with. They would certainly have done well in the local elections and would have picked up seats when the next general election came along.

What a price to pay for keeping Fianna Fail in government. Justice isn’t usually served this efficiently in politics.

And so to this week. I jump in the car to drive to the accountants and I hear murmurings about Trevor Sargent. By the time I leave the accountants to drive home he’s gone, resigned.

I don’t buy the notion that Sargent is some sort of saint or wronged man. It’s quite interesting to hear people praise him for leaving office without a fight. Or praising him for donating his payoff to charity. Or praising him for just trying to help out a constituent.

I can’t get my head around the notion that ministers can write to Gardai on department headed notepaper, and lobby on behalf of a person that is the subject of an investigation or prosecution. When we hear people calling radio shows to defend such actions we get a real insight into how bad legislators keep getting elected to the Dail. It’s hard enough to keep lobbyists from influencing politicians, but in this country there is an acceptance that it’s ok for politicians to lobby the gardai.

In simple terms the Irish demand wiggle room when it comes to laws and ethics. The same wiggle room perhaps that Sargent used to get into government in the first place. The notion that “we get the government we deserve” seems more and more apt with every passing day. Perhaps it’s better to say that we get the government that listeners to Liveline deserve.

Sargent’s greatest sin wasn’t lobbying the garda. Thankfully the garda was sensible enough to ignore him. There was no real harm done by Sargent’s intervention. The real damage was actually done in the past few days as the story came to light. The real damage was fostering the myth that Sargent was honest and just trying to help. Perpetuating the notion that this sort of behavior should be ok and Sargent is a wronged man.

And of course, the man who became a minister on the back of a lie left office on the back of one too. He spoke outside the Dail on his resignation and gave the clear impression that this was something in his past, he had forgotten about it. We then learn that he had written letters as recently as last week.

I haven’t parsed his resignation speeches to see if he stuck to the letter of the truth, but he definitely showed scant regard for the spirit of the truth.

So. No change there then.

As for giving his payoff to charity, surely the question we need to ask here is why someone to resigns after breaking the law is getting €50,000 of a payoff. It would also be nice to know when happened to minister O’Dea’s payoff. It looks now like the taxpayer actually paid a good chunk of the damages in is defamation case.

Oh dear.

RTE’s latest effort at a topical quiz show ‘That’s All We’ve Got Time For’ will undoubtedly be compared to ‘Have I Got News For You?’ and that’s a shame, because it won’t hold up well to that kind of comparison.

Have I got News for you has been running for 20 years, it has lost it’s long term presenter and kept going, and you will get more laughs and bigger laughs in 30 seconds of ‘Have I Got News For You’ than in an entire episode of ‘That’s All We’ve Got Time For’.

It would be wrong to say I had high hopes for the new show. I didn’t. A lifetime of seeing RTE suck the funny out of comedy has left me with low expectations, but I do always hope to be surprised. ‘Paths To Freedom’ from a decade ago is a lonely high point, but what a high point.

‘That’s All We’ve Got Time For’ was painful to watch. Here’s hoping that somebody takes all concerned aside and explains that this is supposed to be a news comedy show, not a farce of a news show.

There were so few laughs in the show that at one point towards the end a genuinely funny line prompted a cheer from the audience.

The panelists quite often gave the straight literal correct answer rather than engaging in the few minutes of surreal humor that would provide the editors with enough material to make the show entertaining. At least I hope that’s what happened. I can’t quite shake the notion that having seen the attempts at funny, the editors decided the straight literal answers were the more entertaining options.

None of the panelists seemed to be enjoying themselves. None of them seemed to find much of any of it very funny. The very short bursts of laughter from the audience suggested that they were reflex laughs, the result of years of training on where and when to laugh. It appears one or perhaps two seconds is how long it takes the average Irish audience to realise “oh, that wasn’t actually all that funny”.

Please, Please, Please RTE. Rethink this show before it’s too late.

Kevin Myers just doesn’t get his role. He’s supposed to be the straight guy, bemused at the ways of the modern world, and with enough of a grasp of comedy to play the part for laughs. There are lots of guys and girls who have the chops to do the job. On paper Myers might appear to be up to it but he just isn’t as is painfully clear from even one episode.

Mario Rosenstock is a funny guy, but he just didn’t do it for me. On the whole the entire show was restained to the point of being boring. Myres should be dropped immediately, Rosenstock might work out but only if he and the whole show lets it self go and really pushes the limits of taste, decency and even libel.

If Rosenstock doesn’t improve RTE could kill two birds with one stone by cancelling the awful Val Falvey and roping Ardal O’Hanlon into a team captain job.

Finally, in getting Barry Murphy, a comedian to play the host, RTE completely screwed up the formula. Murphy seemed unsure whether his job was to follow the BBC model where the host sits in the crossfire of jokes coming from the teams, or whether he is supposed to supply some of the jokes.

It’s telling that a show like a ‘Question Of Sport’ is consistently funny despite the fact that none of the team captains, guests or the host are comedians.

That’s the difference. The BBC can take anybody and make a funny show. RTE can’t make a funny show regardless of who they have at their disposal.