Monthly Archives: April 2007



Bonus points for getting the reference.

Anyway, everything on Avaragado Pictures is now available on my thoroughly exciting YouTube channel. Sound and vision may even be synchronised. I’ll probably retire the page on my web site shortly.

Soon I’ll start to add more stuff to YouTube: the longer movies that I didn’t bother to add to my web site. These include, and are limited to, Malta 2003, Agde 2004 and Rome 2005. (Oh, hang on, I might put Courchevel 2002 up as well. I don’t think Alpe D’Huez 2001 is worth doing as it’s way too long.)

And I realise I still need to produce Les Arcs 2007. I crave forgiveness and dry roasted peanuts, not necessarily in that order.



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ZX Spectrum+25

Yesterday’s YouTube excitement meant I was unable to bring you my scheduled blog entry, on the anniversary of the Speccy.

I was at the show where the Spectrum was launched: the Computer Fair at Earl’s Court. I went on the second day, which I think is 25 years ago yesterday, with my chum Mr Golds and my Dad. Young Mr Golds (note: not Jewish (family joke)) was at that time waiting for his BBC Micro to be delivered; he’d ordered it a few months before.

The Sinclair stand was, predictably, packed (here’s a review, including stand photo, from Sinclair User, June 82). A large panel showed the Spectrum in all its glory. TVs showed real, live software – I remember watching it draw the Sinclair logo and the Speccy’s rainbow flash. I don’t believe you could actually touch one, since I think they only had wooden dummy models at the launch.

A Negotiation took place, as I recall. The result was my Dad lending me the money to order a 16K Spectrum there and then. There was a wait, as many others were doing the same thing. (I did pay my Dad back.)

My order slip was number 1151 I think. I still have it somewhere.

I took home one (or two) of the fold-out advertising brochures, showing a full-size Spectrum on one side and full of clearly mocked-up screenshots and oodles of technical specs for me to memorise (JPEGs at the bottom of this page). I kept it in my school bag for months. Yes, I’ve still got at least one copy of that brochure (it fell out of every computer magazine for months).

Naturally my Spectrum wasn’t delivered within the specified 28 days. I think it arrived at the end of June. A plain brown cardboard box.

Already cynical, I didn’t believe it was going to actually work. But it did! I set it up in the living room, plugging it into the big family telly for a couple of hours, at least.

Ordered so early, it was what later came to be called an Issue 1 machine – one of the first 60,000 or so to be manufactured. Light grey keys, none of yer latecomer blue-grey nonsense. Serial number 0000036.

Spectrum number 36. It staggered me then, and staggers me even more now.

At some point I upgraded to 48K, which for an issue 1 machine meant opening up the case and plugging in a daughterboard. And of course I got the Interface 1 and Microdrive when they were eventually released. While I was waiting for those to appear (28 days? Bah!) I managed to break the Speccy by stupidly messing about with the edge connector. I got it fixed, but I don’t remember now whether they fixed it simply by replacing the entire motherboard, which happened quite a lot, or by actually fixing the problem. If they replaced the motherboard then I’m just left with Spectrum number 100,000+ in case number 36, which isn’t quite so exciting. I could fetch it out of storage and take a look, I guess. (Yes, it’s in its original box.)

Breaking the Speccy more or less coincided with moving house and starting at a new school. On my second day there, one of the teachers got wind of my predicament – by then I’d got the Interface 1 and Microdrive but had no working computer – and lent me one of the school’s for the weekend. Mr Machin, that was. Great bloke. (That’s not the teacher in the “backup software” business who I mentioned last year.)

And here I am, 25 years later, still going on about it all. I even edited the Wikipedia ZX Spectrum entry a few nights ago. Only to mention the light grey keys, though; I didn’t think they’d be interested in Mr Machin.


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It doesn’t show up amazingly well here, but the white-on-black text says:

“Industry Highest1 15,000:1 Native Contrast

Delivers True Black without any loss in brightnests”

What’s a brightnest? Is that what twitchers call it when a bird lays an egg on top of a lamp post?

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On the unsolving of problems

Oh, it’s supposed to be so easy. And it is, until it doesn’t work properly. At which point it becomes a Living Hell.

Yes, I know that’s not narrowing it down in the slightest. Let me elaborate.

I decided it was about time to migrate my videos to the bandwagon that is YouTube. Their Internet tubes are gallons more voluminous than mine, and everyone’s got a Flash player these days. Plus people can rate and comment and make video responses and make it a favourite and embed it and do all those wondrous things that don’t actually make anyone more productive or useful but ooh, isn’t it exciting! and please blog me and make me famous and so on and so forth.

First problem: you’re limited to 10 minutes and 100 MB per video upload. Hmm… OK. I don’t have many videos longer than that; I can split those. I’m sure by tickling the codecs I can limbo my way under the file size restriction. (By “I’m sure”, I mean “I think/hope”.)

Wearing my bestest geek hat I perform a test run. I’m not going to start with one of the manky WMVs currently available under the Avaragado Pictures banner, though – I’m returning to the source material, or as close as I can get without installing video editing software from the dark ages or resucking gigs of raw footage from DV tape. The test run is with the Alpe D’Huez 2001 trailer: 2 min 30, for which I have a DVD-quality MPEG.

YouTube recommends you upload at 320×240, MPEG4 (DivX or Xvid video, MP3 audio). Note that this has already confused 95% of the world, for whom that reads “wah wah wah wah MP3 wah”. But anyway.

I am equipped with: sundry codecs (Xvid, DivX, etc); VirtualDub-MPEG2 (for transcoding the DVD MPEGs into AVIs with the codecs of your choice); and Adobe Premiere Pro (cos I is a professional amateur, innit).

Right. Raw MPEG into VirtualDub, deinterlaced, resized, DivX, MP3, save. OK, it’s an AVI not YouTube’s recommended MPEG4, but let’s try it. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I upload via the crummy Flash-based uploader (it could really do with a makeover, but it works). Meh, metadata stupidity: I must enter a description and at least three tags, and it doesn’t grok multi-word tags. It then processes the uploaded video, slicing and dicing into the correct format for playback, giving me no indication of progress but at least letting me do other things. Some time later…

I play it. The sound and video are out of sync. Not by much, but by enough: the video leads the audio by five or six frames. Well, this won’t do. The file I uploaded is fine.

Casting the runes, Google leads me to a page that suggests manually shifting the audio track by my best guess and re-uploading. You’ve got to be kidding me. Nope, not doing that. Other sites tell me that this is a common problem, and suggest various combinations of codecs and container formats. (“It worked for me!”)

This is nonsense, right? I’ve got free software here, there and in the other room that will happily transcode anything into anything inside any container format and preserve synchronisation between the audio and video. I’ve got a Quicktime player, a Real player and a Windows Media player that’ll stream live feeds over the Internet to my desktop and preserve synchronisation.

Why can’t YouTube do it? Is it the player? Their back-end? Their conversion process? Flash itself?

I know that most YouTube videos are in sync. But mine isn’t. Anyway, this shouldn’t be guesswork, or semi-random. And given the size of the videos I’ll be uploading, trial and error is simply not practical.

For this test run, I try various combinations. The best I find – but still not perfectly in sync – is an AVI with Xvid and MP3. Bah.

I proceed to the smaller collection of videos – mostly short clips, some with a bit of editing. For these, the synchronisation doesn’t matter much and it’s often hard to notice when a video’s out of sync anyway. Some of them I transcode as AVI/Xvid/MP3. In some cases I’ve got the original source videos handy – from my digital camera at the time – and the Premiere project file. So I generate bog-standard MPEG2 files from these, and they end up perfectly synchronised in YouTube. In one case I just upload the WMV I have handy, as it would take too much effort to recreate from source; again, this is acceptable quality.

A mental model begins to form. Maybe MPEG2 is the way to go. Tried, tested, etc.

On to the first “proper” video: one of the Ireland ones. With music and that (and therefore sensitive to synchronisation issues). AVI/Xvid/MP3: 45 MB upload, out of sync. No good.

I find and download a program called SUPER, with the UI sensibilities of a deformed cabbage (you pick something from a menu and the window moves around the screen) but with the ability to generate MPEG container files and much else besides, unlike VirtualDub. It’s a hideous front-end to ffmpeg, MEncoder, etc, but at least it works.

I spend the best part of a day trying different combinations. MPEG2. MOV/H.264/AAC. WMV/MPEG4-v2/MP3. All no less than 30 MB. I even transcode to AVI/DV/WAV (880 MB), load into Premiere (it loves that combination) and get it to spit out MPEG2 (as the MPEG2 files I built from Premiere for the shorter clips worked fine). They’re all out of sync. (I say all: at the time of writing, one upload is still processing. It has been for several hours now; I’ve given up on it.)

All out of sync, that is, except one. One magical upload works. Which one? The crummy low-quality WMV sitting on my web site.

My mental model now adjusts. Maybe I just need to lower the quality. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Maybe when I wake up in the morning the sky will be blue, the birds will be a-twitter and the kid currently walloping his football noisily against a wire fence every five seconds will have been given a clip round the ear and told to pack it in.

Maybe I’ll try Google Video or somewhere else.

Aha. Hang on. That WMV/MPEG4-v2/MP3 combo that’s been processing for about four hours has finally finished. And guess what? It’s in sync.

Mental model #3: WMV? WMV?

MENTAL MODEL DOES NOT COMPUTE. [Emits smoke, sparks, explodes despite containing no explosives]

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That was the twenty minutes that was

Remember the week that was, back in February?

No, I haven’t had another one. But said person from that week today created a new profile on the web site where we originally got chatting. I know that because he visited my profile, which leaves a trace, and ‘nodded’ – a sort of one-click ‘hello’. (Other greetings are available.)

And then in the space of about twenty minutes, he logged out; logged back in again; looked at my profile again; and deleted his account. (I didn’t visit his profile at all – I can tell all that from the way the web site shows my own visitors.)

Whatever can it all mean?

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Sunshine, birthday and Sunshine

In Blair’s Britain, summer lasts all year long. It’s been about 10 degrees C warmer than average for the last few days so bare white legs, sandals avec socks and tins of lager were much in evidence on Saturday afternoon in town. As is my habit, I spent an enjoyable half-hour watching tourists flail about with punt poles on Madgalene Bridge. There was one accidental swimmer, who received a very generous round of applause from assorted diners and gawpers upon clambering back onto his punt.

It was a gentle prelude to the evening’s entertainment: a couple of hours at the Pickerel, wherein Pimms was dispensed in jugs, and then a meal at Edwinns to celebrate my birthday (photos). The waitress impressed us with her dislike for the decor: twigs in pots, that sort of thing.

Avaragado’s rating: eleven lemons

Some of us returned to the Pickerel until closing time, whenever that was, after which Chef and Andy came back to mine to eat chocolate cake (as supplied by Andrew; four portions down, about another twelve to go). Chef jabbered away and we also edited an article on Wikipedia (drunken encyclopedia authoring, it’s what the 21st century is all about). They left, uh, at some point, I forget.

Sunday was my birthday, and the gods smiled upon me: no hangover.

I pootled around for most of the day, then wandered in the sunshine to the Zebra for pre-cinema pizza. The Zebra’s now run by the people who used to be at Sino Tap (which is now being turned into a posh restaurant, apparently), but they’ve just taken over the County Arms – so they’ll be moving again. Andy and his orchestra mob follow them everywhere for their post-rehearsal booze-up. I think, actually, the rehearsal is just the excuse for the booze.

In keeping with the sunny theme of the weekend we saw Sunshine at the Vue. Reviews seem to be mixed, at least the ones I’ve read. Mutterings about sub-2001 psychedelic endings. It’s sadly inevitable that a film like this will be compared to 2001 – ooh look, a long journey in a space ship, a talking computer, general mayhem. Cue blither about Kubrick, iconic cinematic blahdom, men in monkey suits beating up other men in monkey suits. I think that’s quite lazy. It’s like comparing it to the Matrix because some people wear sunglasses.

What’s true is that this isn’t a by-numbers blockbuster. It’s an effects-heavy movie with some Hollywood names and it’s about The End Of The World, but it ain’t a Hollywood film: hooray for that. A Hollywood film would, let me see, have scripted some love interest, and would have had an American not a Chinese commander. And surely a different ending. It would also have cost more than £20m.

The producers did make the actors speak with an American accent, since, I guess, non-Americans are all commie pinkos and villains. The actor playing Trey, the ship’s navigator, was in the second series of Look Around You. Apparently the film was made in the East End of London, by the River Lee. Insert other Wikipedia-derived factoids here.

I came away from the film feeling generally cheerful, determined only ever to use Patrick Moore-approved protective devices when looking at the sun, and happy that Andy didn’t spaz out when lights started flashing in the film.

Avaragado’s rating: cress

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