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2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

FCP X Parody Ads

Inspired by this Parody FCP X ad, but realising I’ll probably never make them at all, and certainly not while it’s still topical, I decided to script up my two ideas for an FCPX “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC”-style ads and release them under Creative Commons so someone with more time could make them (you know, if they wanted to).

Being freed of the need to be able to shoot them, the second one got a bit elaborate. The first one is quite short.

FCPX Parody ads

Preliminary notes on Apple malware protection in an enterprise context

(As a lot of the search traffic coming here seems to be trying to find out what XProtectUpdater is, let me answer that: it is the agent installed by Apple as part of the 2011-003 security update. It handles downloading new “signatures” for apps which should be regarded as malware)

For the first time ever, we have an official Apple malware protection mechanism (and also some actual malware, although it is totally human engineering and requires gullible admin users and it only tries to get their credit card number, so the actual infrastructure damage is nil).

But the threat’s there, and so is the fix, and a responsible admin user should look at deploying it. See: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4657 (which links to several more pages which contain actual info)

In short, we now have a new mode for the “you’ve never run this file before” warning (aka File Quarantine) where known malware elicits a “don’t run this, trash it!” warning.

Malware dialog (deep-linked from support.apple.com)

To go with that we have a malware definitions file and a means of updating them (at some unspecified interval).

But of course, as-is it’s all single-usery and it runs an auto update which may not be appropriate in, e.g., some critical on-air or video editing contexts. And it talks to the outside world via some protocol. So, wanting to deploy it in a managed way, I dug around and found out the following:

Auto updates do not work via a preference plist, the security update installs a launchd item and enables/disables this (via the overrides db à la launchctl unload -w) as you toggle the preference.

The launchd job is called com.apple.xprotectupdater and itself calls /usr/libexec/XProtectUpdater . The interval is every 24 hours (every 24 hours after it’s run, not at any particular time).

XProtectUpdater appears to talk on port 80 and know about system proxy settings (including .pac files). It talks to the proxy and returns 0 if run when I’m on the corporate LAN and 255 (with an error message) if I have the ethernet unplugged. At the Apple end, the definitions file lives here:

http://configuration.apple.com/configurations/macosx/xprotect/1/clientConfiguration.plist

There are defs for quite a few nasties already!

Looks like the defs are locally stored in /private/var/root/Library/Caches/XProtectUpdater/Cache.db, an sqlite3 database. So you could simply push that file out, though that seems more likely to break in the future – but it may be your only choice.

So, it appears in an enterprise situation you can:

  • install the pkg in the background via ARD (or shell)
  • enable or disable the auto update by calling sudo launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.xprotectupdater.plist (or launchctl load etc. to enable)
  • Manually trigger an update of definitions by calling /usr/libexec/XProtectUpdater (probably with sudo).
  • You could also manually update by enabling the launchd job (it runs immediately) and then switching it off a few minutes later. This might be less likely to break in the future
  • Presume if you have ports open to configuration.apple.com (or *.apple.com) already, this will just work.
  • Or, you could manually push out a new Cache.db file (permissioned correctly) as and when you saw fit.

I’ve yet to do any of this and you should, of course, only try it yourself if you understand what it means and are ready for anything unexpected.

Update:

After getting the more-than-unusually cryptic error: “An operation failed in launchdadd for reasons that you probably can’t do anything about. Maybe you should reboot.” I’ve found that: if you try to change the “auto-update” setting more than 30 seconds after you open the prefpane, it will fail to actually take effect .

Hope that helps someone!

Half-arsed postal-code-derived location info on websites (rant)

The Post-Code (“ZIP”) I live in covers three actual suburbs – and while this is certainly not the norm, neither is it in any sense a freakish one-of-a-kind geobureaucratic calamity.

Tonight, smh.com.au popped up a little (by their standards very unobtrusive) window saying if I wanted more accurate weather info I could enter my postcode. Now, over the years a considerable number of websites have offered to simplify my whole “input where you are” experience with the “just enter your post code” text box. And for a lot of people, it probably is nice and simple. But the experience I had with smh is all too familiar, and tonight I rail against it!

I entered my postcode – 2044 – and after a second or so of AJAXian information transfer, I was asked – yet again – whether that meant Sydenham, St Peters or Tempe.

Really, Fairfax, not only is the weather for adjacent suburbs perceptibly different, but you actually have the separate forecasts for them? Call me cynical, but I don’t think so.

In fact, I can’t think of many times when the specific suburb has actually mattered – obviously when you enter your whole address it does, but for “find your nearest outlet” or various real-estate searches, or a whole host of sites where the actual suburb does not matter in the slightest, the “simple” process of entering 4 digits turns into a frigmarole. I can’t find documentary proof, but I’m sure at least once I’ve gone through this for something that only needed to know what state I was in!

It happens so often I can only assume some code snippet from the intertubes is getting used and reused. And, FFS people, it could use some refinement!

If you want to reuse code snippets, why not ask me to OK a Google geolocation lookup? That will give my location to within about 20m – surely accurate enough for even the most fine-grained weather forecast?

Quick Notes on Magic Lantern for 550D

UPDATE: work has progressed rapidly on ML for 550D, you should head to magiclantern.wikia.com/wiki/550d for the latest, or go to the bleeding edge at groups.google.com/group/ml-devel/

i.e. – probably not worth reading what’s here …
(ENDOFUPDATE)

I’ve just got this working (my camera is not bricked!), my forum membership has not been granted, so I can’t update the various wikis. Instead here I’ll just detail what I had to do to.

  1. start with the wiki installation notes
  2. Where it says “newer autoexec.bin available” – download it, but bear in mind that the manual gain does NOT work, due to a small bug. Until I can get a new build on the wiki or whatever (GPL means I can’t conveniently distribute my build), you’ll have to build it yourself. More on that later
  3. The OSX auto-boot notes at the end are accurate, but incomplete. You will need to have the card unmounted but not ejected. You do that via Disk Utility, which will also tell you whether your card’s FAT16 or FAT32. To find out whether it’s disk1s1 or not, use diskutil on the command line
  4. To un-make the card bootable under OSX (where you don’t have CardTricks) simply rename it. Without a bootable card called “EOS_DEVELOP” your camera is exactly as it was before.

You should now have a bootable card which display magic lantern message, slightly redundant extra ISO/shutter info and, crucially, you get on-screen audio meters. But you still get audio auto-gain.

To defeat the auto-gain, this thread mentions a new autoexec.bin but if you read to the end, you’ll see it’s been discovered that the name for the config file, “magiclantern.cfg” is too long for the 550D’s brain. You need to shorten it to an 8.3 filename, and put that name into the 5d-hack.c file (e.g. I went with “magilant.cfg“, others favour “magic.cfg“), then build your own. Again, there are build instructions but I had to deviate from them. My notes are below, they’re terse and this will only work if you have some idea of what you’re doing:

• need newer gnutar to run summon-arm script (and make script use it)
• need to get mercurial (via MacPorts)
• makefile patch out of date. Only had to: modify arm path, gcc version (I get 4.5.2, they’re talking about 4.3.2)
• link problems – zero-byte .lds file causing trouble. deleted it. got rebuilt

But the reward is this: audio meters onscreen and silence when there should be silence.

own build of ML on my Kiss X4

The Rise and Fall of .. things

In the past week, I’ve read three separate peices comparing either the US, the “Developed World” or broadcast TV to the Roman Empire just before it fell (well, I skimmed a few, there was a lot of detail). Finding parallels is a fun game to play, but I couldn’t help thinking:

I read them in the Roman alphabet, over two months with Roman names, most of the words over two syllables were Roman (well, French) and my state Premier and Federal Opposition Leader regularly consult with representatives of the Roman Pontifex Maximus.

So, provided they’re prepared to change a little, uncle Sam, the first world and the networks might not have so much to fear.

(BTW here are two of the articles:

)

Panasonic FZ35 for semi serious video – reviewette

For a long time, I’ve been looking at the resolution of cheap digital cameras and wishing they’d get some video capability. And, much more slowly than I’d like, we’re getting there. While DLSRs are well into killer territory, I’m not quite ready for that kind of investment. Down the cheaper end, “stills” cameras are getting closer to really usable video, while “video” cameras are slowly taking better stills, but either involves some compromise. At the end of the day, stills cameras have vastly higher resolution sensors and it is there that I’d like things to end up.

From a practical point of view, I’ve long ago stopped taking my video camera anywhere, but the 640×480 video on my Fuji S5700 is not great, depsite the you-never-go-back convenience. I needed a new stills camera with decent video, and the more decent, the better.

The Lumix FZ-35 piqued my interest as, on paper, it ticks quite a few of the critical boxes:

The good

  • HD recording at 18Mb/s H.264. Not your first choice for keying, but for talking heads or superior home movies plenty good.
  • European and Au/NZ versions do 25fps video – this has been a MAJOR drawback of all the cheapies: 29.97/30 fps only (well, I have a Kodak that does 13). Not good for web delivery or broadcast to over 50% of the world’s population (or for cinematic release, however implausible that might be anyway).
  • manual everything – ISO, exposure, shutter speed and focus. Everything you need to shoot something without the damn camera hunting mid-shot
  • No godless Sony media formats. Good ole SDHC, class 6 prefferred
  • A pretty serious 27 – 486mm equiv lens with OIC, plus the usual auto-focus, face detection
  • Like most/all current Pannie’s, a “record” button that lets you record video in any mode, not just the one movie mode – no more missing stuff while you futz with the dial on top.
  • HDMI output.
  • Cheap – less than half the price of the Canon Vixia HF10 (an amazon now they’re $310 vs $750)

the bad

As specified, you can spot some drawbacks straight away – but I need to make the point that I was expecting drawbacks, this is a cheap camera, so this is not an exhaustive list

  • no external audio in
  • only 720P – “AVCHD Lite”, a Panasonic term which means “720P only video, using H.264 but in such a way it doesn’t play on any pre-existing system”. (VLC 1.x, iMovie 09, FCP7 – to name but 3 – can now play it
  • no higher frame rates
  • reasonably high compression but should be pretty good on undemanding footage.
  • other usual “it’s not a camcorder” stuff: no flip out/down viewfinder. No palm-strap, …

At the end of the day, the only bona fide task the camera will be doing is replacing a seriously ancient Canon 4:3 DV camcorder (so ancient it doesn’t like to load tapes), so it can be a little rough around the edges, it’s still going to be a huge improvement.

the … stuff I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere

Most reviews have dealt with the FZ35 as” a stills camera with video, but who cares about the video?” So, specifically wanting the video, what can I add?

Where’s the 25fps?

First off, the frame rate disappointment. As a patriotic Australian, I grey imported the FZ-35 from eBay (at not far off half the recommended AUD price). Turns out Panasonic lock the frame rate to the region sold in, and charge more for the EU and AU models (the aust/NZ model is in fact suffixed GN).I had a squabble with the ebay vendor, but at the end of the day it’s Panasonic that I’m disappointed with – they’ve made this thing cost more everywhere in order to make specific models, what a waste of time..

Now, you can get to the service menu on other Lumix cameras. The service manual for the FZ50 says you can change region, but only if your camera was not Japanese to begin with. I’ll keep digging on this – 25fps is something I really don’t want to go without, and there can be no technical reason not have lower frame rates such as 24 either. I’ll get my hands on a service manual eventually…

Picture quality

It’s pretty good, but definitely below what 720P can do. Colours are great, but pics are both slightly soft and show quite a bit of “ringing” from some sharpening algorithm. Why this should be, with a 12MP sensor is puzzling – no doubt cheaper but, as with many of my small gripes with this camera, I can see no hard technical reason why it should be so.

To illustrate this, below is a detail of a paintbrush taken from a movie, compared to a plain ordinary still photo of the same, downscaled by Apple Preview to the same resolution (note that you have to click the pix to see them full size, below is a shrunk preview). The video one shows a huge dark line around the white hair, as well as quite a bit less resolution. (You can also see some of the compression artefacts you get with AVHCD Lite). I actually did this comparison last in the review and it’s pretty terrifying – I wouldn’t have thought the video was that far below the stills.

The sharpness can be adjusted ± 2 (units of what I don’t know) from the default, but at -2 I could see no less ringing (or, in fact, any difference at all. This setting may be applied “upstream” before downscaling) nearly all the video on this page was taken with the sharpness at -2. On less contrasty material, the results are closer to perfect.

Here’s a quick compilation of what I’ve been able to snap in the past month, accompanied by something I threw together in Garage Band. (see note below regarding FCP black crushing – I’m hoping this will be fixed in the future)

Film’s fast … almost too fast!

When shooting stills, you can choose an ISO setting from 80 up to 1600, with video it’s a much higher 400 to 6400 – which is also the ISO of the lower-resolution “Hi sens” mode. That may be a clue to the soft pictures: the downscaler for the hi-sens and the video modes may be being multi-purposed. While the high film speed might seem like a plus, it does have the downside that (as others have discovered) if you want to shoot in daylight at 1/50th or 1/60th for the ol’ film look (or at least the 180º shutter look), you’ll need a multi-ND filter (panasonic sell an 8ND, but it is a vanilla 46mm mount). You particularly want the ND if you want to shoot at f/4, which is reportedly the sweet spot for sharpness with this lens. People are also using NDs to prevent the sometimes extreme smear this (CCD-based) camera exhibits. You can set the ISO to auto,and it seems to go below 400, but the problem is it jumps in 100 ISO increments, which you don’t want in the middle of a shot.

As should also be evident from this: if you scale down to some kind of “web” resolution, like a nice round 640×360, you do have some pretty schweet web video.

Manual Everything?

Apart from the frame rate, the camera delivers in full: as well as focus, aperture and exposure, you can lock the ISO, white balance (which you can set manually beforehand). Full proper manual shooting. If you had a really solid tripod, you could pull focus and zoom (using double system of course to avoid all the clunks the microphones would pick up as you push teensy buttons). The manual focus features a little zoomed-in focus assist, just like a real camera!

Lens

There are any number of demo movies on the interweb: this is a frigging long lens! (or rather, there’s a long way between fully wide and fully tele). Google “FZ35 zoom test” – and check out all the closeups of the moon on flickr.

The OIC works very well, but you’re not going to be able to do free handheld at the long end. When I took the shot below, I was pretty impressed, taken handheld on a ferry, but back on a monitor, it’s a little bumpier that I thought (you can also see that I didn’t have the ISO on manual and that my very old polarizer was a bit dirty).

Pictures still look pretty sharp at the long end, too. And, you can get some shallow depth-of-field at the far end – though often you have to get a long way away to actually fit what you want in.

Compression

Could be my use of Class 4 cards, but the movies I’m shooting are running at about 13Mb/s – the blurb does say it’s VBR, so maybe 18 is the absolute max? Not sure. It would be nice for them to really be 18Mb/s.

Editability

iMovie 09 happily opens the card in the SD card reader – coverts to AIC of course. FCP 7 is similarly at home – mount a card and L&T sees it straight away. VLC 1.x will play the raw MTS files (but still with some shifts on what I assume are I-frames), and that ole workhorse HandBrake will happily convert these into various other formats (None readily editable, but it beats the hell out of QT X for delivery encoding.) And, the raw .MTS’es upload directly to YouTube as well

IOW no editing issues at all for me. I did notice that FCP was showing the imported footage using the full luminance range (i.e. blacker-than-black, whiter-than-white) – whether the camera’s wrong or whether FCP’s interpreting it wrongly I can’t say. (You may have noticed a little more black-crushing than was necessary on the clips above). I tried one of the same clips thru Handbrake and the gamma’s quite different (and better IMHO) so we’ll blame FCP’s implementation of AVCHD Lite for now.

Audio Quality

I ran across this clip while looking for other stuff, so it can do a pretty OK job under the right conditions. For anything serious, you’re talking double system.

HDMI Out (conjecture)

I can’t directly comment on the HDMI as I don’t have the mini-to-fullsize HDMI adapter needed to actually plug this in to a TV. But I did note that the composite SD video is not active when shooting – so there’s a pretty good chance you can’t capture over HDMI while live shooting to get uncompressed HD.

Conclusion

I’ve listed a pile of negatives, but I’m pretty happy with the camera – it cost 1/5th the video camera it’s replacing and it slaughters it. If I could get into the service menu, and set it to 25fps, that would be really good. And if something like CHDK came out for Panasonic, and we could get that dreadful sharpening turned off on the video, and any frame rate we liked, and all the other benefits, that would be super great. Based on the FZ50 manual, I also think a skilled hardware hacker could get external audio in.

The camera’s just about a quantum leap at the cheap end of the market. There are several more to go.