3/30/15

Geek Day Off - 2015 Emerald City Comicon

All technology all the time isn't healthy. Everyone needs to look up from their screen every once in a while and enjoy life by doing something fun and different. In the past I've blogged about going to the Seattle LEGO Brickcon with the son, I've done some woodworking and I've attended the Seattle Emerald City Comicon. Here's links to my 2013 ECCC and 2014 ECCC posts. This year I went again and it was bigger and better than ever.




So here are some photos from this year's Comicon to help you through another Monday.





Over the past 3 years Comicon has grown. This year it was packed and tickets sold out weeks in advance. When you finally get through all the lines the show floor is huge and filled with artists, artwork and people.






First and foremost ECCC is about comics, the artists that draw them and the artwork they create. There are a lot of booths filled with awesome comic book art and great artists. 











There are also shops filled with fun cosplay items as well as everything comic related. 






All the cool artwork and kitsch aside, what really makes Comicon fun are the people who attend. Everyone who goes has some passion or inner-geek that they hold in (some more so than others) for 364 days of the year. But on this one day they let their hair down, dress up and have a lot of fun. Some of the costumes are amazing. 

This year "Marvel's Agent Peggy Carter" lead actress Haley Attwell was was a guest of ECCC. The show is very popular and dressing up as Peggy was the thing to do. Here are just two of what must have been 200 versions of the character.



People also dressed up as characters from their favorite animated movie or TV Show



Gaston & Harley Quinn


MegaMind and My Little pony


Attendees also dressed up as comic book characters even if they don't have a movie or TV show. Although he may be popular in the Marvel geek community I bet most people have never heard of Sub-Mariner. Marvel is set to milk the cash cow one more time with a Sub-Mariner movie so stand by to learn his back story. 


Then there were just tons of characters from past movies and shows. 


Here's Barf from Spaceballs as well as Black Widow and Hawkeye from the Marvel movies.


Captain America Dancer


And of course Captian America himself


Here's Lady Thor and her ... friend?


Maleficent!


Character from that never ending movie, Never Ending Story


There was even a visit from a Northwest native and his handler. Glad they finally decided to get out of the forrest attend the Con. Gotta love the ability to wear furry Sasquatch costume inside a heated building. 


The Riddler holding Court


I must say that this is the first Snoopy I've seen in the 3 years I've attended.


Wonder Woman!  Hey DC Comics, where's HER movie! 


I had a great time this year and will be heading back next year. So just like this Storm Trooper, a nice day off is always appreciated. Hope you enjoyed the photos.


3/23/15

Pixar's Renderman is now Free!


I fell in love with Pixar long before they made their first movie. In the early to mid 1980's Pixar was owned by Lucasfilm and created a great piece of Mac software called Renderman. Ultimately Pixar was bought by Steve Jobs then sold to Disney but the software continued to shine regardless of who owned it. Renderman software was used in movies like Titanic, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and other Hollywood blockbusters.  


By today's standards the early versions of Renderman were a bit crude but it had a lot of power and the results were spectacular, even by today's standards. It was used to make the the Genesis Effect in the 1982 movie Star Trek II

Although the software runs on most OS's today back then Renderman ran on a Mac I would have bought a copy but it would have been a very expensive toy. Today I just got a notice that the non-Commercial version is now free. Looks like Pixar just made a lot of budding animation directors very happy.


Renderman isn't a simple application. You will need to have a way to create your model files using an application like Autodesk's Maya, Katana or other 3D CAD or meshing application. If you don't already have Maya, you can try a free trial. Maybe you can create your own movie masterpiece like the one below. 



So, if you want to try your hand at the next great animated movie go to the Pixar web site and download your copy.  If it sounds like too much work, then just head over to YouTube or Vimeo and watch some of the great Pixar Short films like Geri's Game, Day & Night, Paperman & my personal favorite Presto. All of them were rendered using Renderman, a professional quality tool that's now free. 




3/21/15

Geek Day Off - The Tardis Box

A few weeks ago I posted about my woodworking hobby and how I occasionally let my inner geek loose on some of my designs. Because my daughter now works at a game store and also likes the BBC show Doctor Who I decided to make one additional box; a Tardis card box. I hope you like the results as much as I do!


The color, the addition of the decals really set the tone. It took a while to find the right font and designs for the Tardis signs but my daughter is really happy with the results.  





3/13/15

Geek Day Off - Woodworking Edition

In 2013 and 2014 I've rested the tech side of my brain and embraced my inner geek by attending the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle. I do plan on attending again this year but I do let my inner geek loose in other ways. 

One of my other hobbies is woodworking. I wrote about one of my past projects, a stand for my MacPro that I built that to help prevent future issues with coffee spills. Today I'd like to take a break from my Mac blogging and show you my latest woodworking project: Boxes to store my kids collection of Magic, Pok√©mon and other cards. 



To earn some extra money my daughter got a job working at Uncles Games. Suddenly her interest in, and collection of, card games exploded. As a gift for her I decided that I should design and make a box for her to store all her cards. Being the engineer that I am I figured if I was going to design and make one box then making a bunch at a time wouldn't be that much harder. Several of my kids are into cards so why not give them each a couple of boxes. 

I made a prototype that fit a standard card (including protective sleeve), I added a small compartment for dice and after I fiddled with the construction a bit I turned out 8 boxes. I changed the finish on each and even made a special version that I'll post about later.

Take a look at the results. What do you think?





3/6/15

Cutting the Cord - Recording Over the Air HD TV

With cable TV bills approaching $200 many people are fed up and looking for alternatives. The so called "Cut the Cord" movement has been going for a while now and as people realize that alternatives are available cutting the cord is picking up steam. So how do you do you watch you favorite show once the cable is gone? 

What many people don't realize is that over the air broadcast TV is all digital and in many cases the picture quality is actually higher than cable! I'd like to walk you through my method for using your Mac as a DVR and recording your favorite shows.




First a little history: When the FCC & ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) switched the television signals to all digital in 2009 your old analog TV wouldn't work. The trade-off however was a very clear digital HD signal that makes for crystal clear HD television. In order to watch an over-the-air (OTA) TV show you will need to buy an HD TV tuner that works with your Mac. 

Companies like Elgato, Hauppauge & SiliconDust all make TV tuner boxes that can be used by a Mac to record broadcast TV and some of the boxes can also record Digital Cable. Since we are cord-cutters here I'm going to save us some money and concentrate on OTA (Over the Air) TV tuners only. 

The tuner I have is a SiliconDust HDHomeRun. I found it on a steal of a deal from Woot so make sure to look around if you decide to buy one. It's a two-tuner Ethernet attached version so once you have it connected to your home network you can access it from any computer in the house. Because it has two built in tuners you can watch TV on one channel and record a second at the same time. 



You will need to have an antenna attached to get the best signal so your next move will be to head over to Amazon or your favorite online retailer and grab some bunny ears. 




OK, maybe not bunny ears. For great reception pick up one of these flat wall antennas that work very well in most urban areas. Once mounted, you hardly notice it's there. That's all the hardware you need to get things started. Now on to software.

To access the tuner and record you shows you will need some software that works on your Mac. There are free versions that sort of work but for me, Elgato's EyeTV is the best solution. It will cost you some money (currently $80) but it's worth the investment. It's easy to use, and like most Apple products, it just works. 




What's even better is that there's also an iOS companion application that lets you watch live TV on your iPhone, iPad or iPod. Nice!

Once you download and load the Mac application you will need to setup & configure your tuner. First up is scanning the airwaves in your area and figuring out which channels you can receive. After the scan you can choose which of those channels you want to display and which you would rather hide. Since some channels are foreign language, of no interest or duplicates just uncheck the boxes for the channel you want to hide.

Now comes the fun part, recording a show. From the built in program guide select the show you want to record. The application will automatically start at a predetermined time before the show starts and start recording. EyeTV has a lot of features so make sure to set your preferences to the way you want it to work. Things like Sound, TV Buffer Size, Display, Export PreSets, Sharing & Parental Controls are all available in preferences.

Once the show is recorded the first thing I want to do is use the software and edit out the commercials. It makes the show much more fun to watch and it saves on disk space. Just select your show from the recordings and choose "edit" from the drop down menu.


A window with you show will appear and all you need to do is insert a marker and set the tabs to the start and end of each commercial. 


When you are finished editing select "Compact" from the "Gear Menu" in the lower right corner. This will permanently remove the selected sections of your show so make sure your edits are correct before you proceed! Now your HD show is ready to watch!  If you want, you can use an application like HandBrake to export your show and load it on iTunes. 

Being a cable cutter can save you money, a lot of money but you still need to invest a little if you want to record your favorite over-the-air TV show. But if you are willing to do the work it's easy to do and makes for a commercial free way to watch your shows when YOU want to watch them. Let me know how it goes in the comments.




12/30/14

Tagging in iTunes - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

If you have a lot of DVD's that you back up, record a lot of TV shows to watch later or just have a ton of files in your iTunes library, you know what a pain iTunes tagging can be. You don't want TV Shows to show up under movies. You don't want Movies to show up under Home Video and why do all the episodes of Doctor Who show up in 5 separate places? The fix for all this is to use a dedicated tagging application.



Some people ask me why I don't just edit the file after I add it to iTunes. Yes, you can do this and change the file so it's a TV show rather than a movie, add in all the TV show data and save the file. But here's the first problem. If you ever remove the file from iTunes and re-add it, all your work will be gone. That means re-editing the same file again if ever want to move the data to a new iTunes library. Not a good use of time. So the question is what can you do to permanently change the tags of a file? One answer is to use a dedicated tagging application.

There are a bunch of applications & scripts that will tag your iTunes files: MetaZ for example. These apps are free but most aren't easy to use or have other shortcomings. Whatever you use, make sure to have a plan before you start. The application that I found works best is called iFlicks 2



The Good

If you have ripped a movie from a DVD and want it to show up in iTunes with all the correct metadata then just open or drag the video file to iFlicks. The app will automatically search online movie databases to find the right movie, add the metadata as well as the movie poster artwork.

If you wish you can edit any of the data yourself and when you have it just the way you want it hit the start button at the bottom of the screen to write the metadata to the file. Here's a nice feature: If you want to, you can select to just update the metadata or you can update the metadata and transcode it at the same time. Cool!


I won't bother to go into all the bells and whistles that iFlicks has. Their website has some great information and tutorials. 

In the iTunes tagging world movies are easy to deal with. So what about TV shows? As I've learned over the years they can be a real pain.  

The Bad

Let's take the new CW TV show "The Flash". I've always loved DC comics and love the TV show. I'm also old enough to know that there was another TV show called "The Flash" that aired in the early 1990's.  If you drop your video of The Flash (that you just finished recording, editing out the commercials and encoding for iTunes) onto iFlicks you may end up with something like this.

If you are new to the tagging world you might not know what to do next. The answer is to know that the accepted norm is to add a year to the Show title. So in this case if I manually change the show title from "The Flash" to "The Flash 2014" and hit the small reload arrow my data will update and look much improved.

Another "Bad" point about tagging is what to do with special files. My family does the majority of their workouts at home and love AppleTV to view their workout videos. So how do you handle something like that? 

With any video file you have to decide how you want to categorize them. In my case I decided to collect all workout videos as TV shows. If I did them as movies you would have to scroll for miles to get to the video you wanted. Because iTunes concatenates TV shows by season you can group similar videos together. 

Looks great but there's a lot of manual work on my part to get things to sort and display the way I want. I had to make up a show name for all workout videos. In my case I decided to name them "Exercise" and then the name of the person leading the exercise or by the type of exercise. If I wanted I could also create faux-seasons by naming groups of the same 'video sets' as a specific season and they would then display within a show as a separate group.

It's a great deal of work to make it all work out. In the case of these exercise videos all of the metadata is added manually including cover art and this is where the Ugly part of the article comes in.

The Ugly

Recently I ran into a problem with my AppleTV. My recently encoded workout videos would not work. They played fine on my Mac both in iTunes, Quicktime and any video player I would try them in but they wouldn't play on my AppleTV.  I know that there are video bit-rate and resolution limits to every AppleTV and I knew I haven't exceeded them. So what was the problem?



After 2 days of encoding, re-encoding, re-re-re-enoding and using every trick in my video ripping arsenal I finally found the answer. It was the cover art. WTF?!?!

Because my family is a visual bunch I try to exactly match the DVD cover art of the DVD I just ripped to the file I create. Most of the time I can find the cover art online but in some cases it's easier to just scan the cover in myself. 

In past I've never had a problem dragging my JPEG file to the iFlicks Artwork frame, writing the file, loading the file into iTunes and watching it on AppleTV. It was only after exhaustive tests and problem solving that I found my problem. 

If my JPEG or PNG cover art was too big the video would cause the AppleTV to display an error. WOW! Who knew? I didn't want to spend a lot of time figuring out just what the maximum (file size, image size or resolution) was but just know that smaller is better and if it fails to load on your appleTV redo it with an even smaller file. 

Conclusion

I really like Apple products and love the built in integration between them, but nothing is perfect. Organizing iTunes to display the information I want, the way I want it takes work. At times a lot of work. If you don't have a large video library or special files you may want to just manually edit your files or use a free application. But if you're like me an application like iFlicks 2 can be a great addition to your tool box. But like I said, nothing is perfect.