Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is it the 51st century already*?

I got an unexpected email from Ian Potter the other day, with some very good news. For those unaware of Ian, he - along with Phil Purser-Hallard - is one of the main reasons that I wish the BBC Doctor Who book range had either (a) kept going a bit longer or (b) been more receptive to talent over nepotism.

Put simply, Ian is the one great discovery (for me, at least) of the Big Finish short story collection, and I think it's a great shame that he never got a chance to write a full length Who novel. For Big Finish, he never disappointed and wrote the first truly excellent Short Trips story, "Still Lives", which uses a minor detail from Inferno to create a subtle and genuinely moving tale of alternate universes. If you haven't read it, hunt down a copy of the collection on eBay and give yourself a treat.

Anyway, the good news is that Ian has had a comedy series commissioned for BBC radio, in seven fifteen minute parts and called No Tomatoes , to start later this year. I've never seen any of his non-prose work (although he was short-listed for the Alfred Bradley Bursary Awards for one of his plays recently), but if his prose is any measure, the series should be more than worth tuning in for ('tuning in for' - how old does that make me sound? Someone get me the wireless, a pair of comfy slippers and a copy of 'Dick Barton - Special Agent').

Between this and little hints that the likes of Simon Forward and Mark Michalowski have dropped on their blogs about mysterious new commissions, it looks like this year could finally be the one in which the cream of the Who crop stage a great breakout from the tie-in ghetto and launch mainstream careers.

And not before time, frankly.

* Do I win a prize for most cumbersome and geeky blog post title ever?


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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How to Make a DVD from avi files

Just a quick suggestion for those who download torrents but don't want to watch them on a PC or buy a DivX dvd player. This program (which you can try a demo of) is, I discovered the other day, the easiest and most intuitive DVD creation program ever.

It took me half an hour to make a full playable DVD of the 1975 series of Sykes, with menus and extras and the like.

Step 1: Converting your avis

So you've been to your favourite torrent site and on your PC you have a big folder full of episodes of season 28 of Doctor Who that you want to make a DVD out of (to watch just now, obviously and then buy the official DVD when it comes out* ).

Avis are no use for DVDs so the first thing you have to do is convert them to MPEG-2 files (with an .mpg extension). I use ImTOO MPEG Encoder, but any similar program will do, just ensure that the audio sample rate is 48000 and the video size is 704 x 576 (other settings may well work but those definitely do).

Once you've got the settings right, choose a directory for the mpeg output file and click encode. Ten minutes later - voila, a nice shiny mpeg-2 file, ready for use.

DVDLab Pro Window

Step 2: Importing your files into DVDLabPro

  • When the program starts up, it will present you with a pop-up window headed 'Default Project'. Click either PAL (UK DVD) or NTSC (US DVD) and hit OK.
  • In the bottom pane of the main program window which then appears there is an icon liek the 'Open File' icon in Word. This is the Import button, used to..well, import...your mpg files into the project for use on the DVD. Click it and import as many mpg files as you expect to fit onto your DVD.
  • Once a file is imported, the program will demux the file - basically split it into its audio (.mpa) and video (.mpv) components. Let it finish doing that before you do anything else**.
  • Once the file has been demuxed, you can drop it into your DVD. To do this, click on the top left hand panel, where it says 'Movie1'. Doing this will fill the top right hand panel with a sort of timeline affair, headed Movie 1.
  • Simply drag the newly generated .mpv file from the bottom panel into the row in the timeline which starts with a film cell icon, and then the .mpa file onto the row which starts with a green box titled 'Audio 1'.
  • Repeat with as many files as you wish, placing each set of mpa and mpv file sint a new Movie tab (to generate new movies - eg Movie2 - hit ALT-M).

Step 3: Creating a Menu

  • Click on the left hand panel on the button which reads 'Menu 1'. This will open a black box in the right hand panel - this is the starting point for your menu.
  • You can leave it black if you want, but if you want to add a background, either use one of the pre-configured ones (available by selecting the 'Background' tab at the very bottom of the screen) or press ALT-2 to bring up the Preview window, which shows the currently selected video file. To use an image form the video file, select Movie1 again and then drag the mouse along the video until you find a suitable still. Then select Menu1 again and hold down the shift key while dragging the Preview onto the menu.
  • Once you're satisfied with your background, select the Text button at the side of the Menu screen and, one at a time, type in the names you wish to give the various video files you want on your DVD (eg Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3 etc).
  • Finally, drag each of your Movie buttons from the left hand panel (e.g. Movie 1, Movie 2 etc) and drop them onto the appropriate text box.***
  • Add any other text you want - a title, for instance.
Step 4: Making the DVD

  • Now that you have everything in place, all you need to do is actually make your DVD.
  • As a first step, you can compile the DVD by clicking on the Compile DVD button ont he program taskbar.
  • In the Compile DVD pop-up window, select an output and temp folder for the compiled DVD and then click Start.
  • In five minutes or so, the DVD will have compiled and can be burned for use. The safest thing to do is select Project->Burn DVD from the toolbar and then, in the pop-up window which appears, tick the box 'Create ISO image on Hard Drive'. This creates a .img file on your hard drive rather than directly burning the DVD. You can then change the extension to .iso and use Nero or a similar program to burn the disc, just by opening the iso file.
You can do all sorts of other things, like have animated menus, add sound and mix radio and video files, but I'll leave that as an exercise for you to figure out for yourself (as slightly lazy and stupid teachers tend to say).

* especially since it's going to be a normal shape and not a stupid looking bloody Police Box which doesn't fit on any normal shelf
** If you get a warning about GOPs, just ignore them, they're not terribly important and won't stop your DVD from playing fine.
*** You can also make a text link which leads to another menu, for Extras**** say - just create a seocnd Menu and then drag that onto the text link.
**** By which I mean addiiotnal material, like interviews, and not the woeful TV show starring the smug and curiously one-note minor talent, Ricky Gervais


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Monday, January 15, 2007

How to Download and Play Real Audio Streaming Media

I recently wanted to listen to a BBC 7 radio show that I'd missed, but with three kids and two jobs there's not a lot of time in my life for sitting about in front of my PC with headphones on.

So I had to find a tool which allowed me to download an rtsp file to my hard drive and from there another tool to convert the resultant .ra file into .mp3 format for putting on a disc or mp3 player for listening to in the car. This, for anyone interested, is how you do it.

Step 1: Saving the Real Audio File

First right mouse click on the Real Audio link you want to download and save the file to your hard drive.

Second, open the saved file in Wordpad or similar. All it is is a text link to an .ra file, generally with a rtsp protocol (e.g.rtsp://server/coolplay/play.ra). Copy the link to your clipboard (CTRL-A then CTRL-C)

Next download a copy of Streambox VCR Suite 2.0.

Open the latest version of Streambox in the suite, and select 'Paste in URL' from the Edit menu. Check the download location is one you want and then hit OK to start the file downloading. All being well you will see the file download in the progress bar and log window and, quite quickly, the complete .ra file is on your hard-drive.

Step 2: Converting the ra file

To make your ra file into an mp3, simply download any of the Real Media to mp3 converters currently littering the Freeware market.

I used this one which was incredibly straight-forward, but there are others around.

If you download the program I did, then to convert your newly saved .ra file to .mp3:

Open the program, click on Add Files, select the real audio tracks you want convert and then click Start.

Apart from that all you might want to do is check the settings, where you can decide on bitrate (don't bother making it huge as .ra files aren't brilliant quality to start with) and the sample rate (44100 Hz is the correct setting).

Couldn't be easier...
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Friday, January 12, 2007

Judas goes to Castle Greyskull

Sad to see that Rangers have agreed compensation with the SFA over their blatant tapping of Walter Smith, our erstwhile manager. While it would have been a source of some tension to have the governing body of football in this country taking one of our top teams to court, it would have made a refreshing change to see the SFA standing up to one of the Old Firm bullies just for once.

It would also have been nice to see the SFA hit Smith with as many problems as possible, because the man is no more than a hypocrite and a disingenious charlatan. I'll ignore with but a passing snigger the fact that Smith lambasted the Hibs contract rebels just last week for attempting to break contracts they had signed to focus instead on Smith's pathetic claim that, had the SFA offered him an extended contract, he'd never have left.

That sounds fine until you read his next sentence, where he says that they did in fact approach him and ask if he wanted a new contract and he said no, he was fine with the situation as it was! OK Walter, if you say so (it's maybe not his fault he makes so little sense - maybe he's growing senile).

I don't really expect Smith to be a huge success, in any case - taking over an already successful Rangers team with far more money than anyone else in the league is one thing, but he was quickly found out at Everton where he had little money to spend and therefore failed to drag the team into the top half of the league and, one fortunate result against France aside, his success at Scotland has been wildly exaggerated IMO. Christ, I'd look good if I took over a coaching job from the utterly inept Berti Vogts.

Meanwhile, and just to demonstrate that my loathing for Judas Smith is not an anti-Rangers thing per se*, best of luck to Ally McCoist, a player I always had a lot of time for.

* Although I actually do loathe both Rangers and Celtic as a shower of bigots, bullies and cheats, supported in significant numbers by knuckled-dragging halfwits. And I admit that I laughed like a drain at the SFA banning Andy Webster, the baby Judas, from turning out for Rangers following his clearly underhand 'tranfer' to Wigan and subsequent loan to the Hun.


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Monday, January 08, 2007

It's a Material World

Did I mention I got tons of stuff for Christmas? Absolutely tons, to the extent that I had a pile approaching the size of the kids'. It was, frankly, ace.

Obviously I'm 37 now and I'm assuming that one day soon I'll suddenly get all grown-up and, like my dad when asked what he'd like for his sixtieth birthday, I'll point at the £8 from Asda t-shirt I'm wearing and say 'this is a nice comfy t-shirt, you could get me another one of them'. But at the moment, I continue child-like in my love of shiny wrapping paper, toys that go bink and big piles of new books.

So what did I get, I hear you ask excitedly?

Let's see, on the book front I got Songs in the Key of Z, the companion book to the double cd of outsider music I got last year, and the latest Terry Pratchett from my parents; the Doctor Who Annual and five of the Big Finish short story collections from J (the only way I'm ever likely to get hold of these, given their price and general quality); and Scott got me the latest Lucifer Box novel by Mark Gattis and Bignall and Day's biography of Terry Nation..

Audio-visually, it was bit of lean year - my lovely mother updated my tatty copy of Grit with a nice new shiny cd and Scott, the generous lad, came through with the Special Edition of The Big Lebowski and that's about all (not that that's not plenty, you understand).

And I also got a ton of Doctor Who related toys and gadgets, including an action man-sized David Tennant from the kids; the toy Tom Baker with K9 that I really wanted when I was 12 but couldn't afford from J's mum; the mini figure Regeneration Pack; TARDIS, K9 and Dalek key-rings; Doctor Who bubble bath; Top Trumps and much more. It's like there's a new series to peak manufacturers' interest or something. Whatever the reason, it apparently makes buying me presents very easy.

Plus, best of all, J got me this, which is now in pride of place above my PC.

Oh, and I got some cash too, with which I bought the Torchwood novels (rubbish series, I know, but the books looked like a better use of the concept, such as it was) and Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser, Britain's greatest living novelist.

All in all, a satisfyingly materialistic Christmas all round*.

* That doesn't make me sound shallow, does it?


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Saturday, January 06, 2007

True Grit


It's the perfect name for this album., on so many levels.

First off, it's about taking the grit of old, almost forgotten music and burnishing it, turning it into something new and beautiful, like an oyster turning some speck of dirt into a pearl. Then it's the grit which Martyn Bennett must have needed to produce the finished product, seriously ill as he was and apparently unable to play the pipes, only capable of taking other people's work and mixing it with his own visions. Finally, the source material - the collection of Lomaxian field recordings which lie at the heart of the album - are as gritty as it's possible to imagine in these modern shiny days.

It's probably not to everyone's taste, not even those who bought Bennett's previous albums. I have those too, bought on the back of hearing Grit and, Glen Lyon apart, they're not quite the same kind of thing at all. There's some good stuff on there (particularly 'Tongues of Kali' from Bothy Culture, which is a mad whirl of an instrumental track), but they're more musicians' albums than listeners, made to dance to in clubs where techno tracks with no apparent names on white labels are the thing.

There are a couple of similar tracks on Grit, but primarily it inhabits a whole new astonishing world. The most obvious touchstone for anyone considering buying the album is Moby. Swap American spirituals sung by big throaty black women for recitations of the Old Testament by Scots patriarchs and you're in the right area. Which makes it sound a bit serious and religious - and at times it is - but that's not the entire story.

Where something like 'Liberation' (the aforementioned Old Testament track) is stark and black, anchored by the booming voice of some Island Minister intoning the 118th Psalm over a techno beat, and the track 'Chanter' with its repeated refrain 'You play the melody on the chanter' sounds like something from Bothy Culture, the album also contains almost fragile pieces like 'Wedding' and 'Why'.

It's all good, but it's a trio of tracks which raise Grit from the realms of the merely great to that of the utterly magnificent.

In order of appearance, 'Nae Regrets' hits the speakers first. It's an amalgam of two seperate tracks - Edith Piaf's No Regrets' and a Scots-Romany traditional song sung by Annie Watkins. The two songs run into and bounce off one another like punks pogo-ing in the mosh pit to create a final product which, to quote one review, "kicks ass like ass is going out of style".

Next comes 'Ale House' sung by someone famous on the Scottish folk scene, the traveller Jeannie Robertson. The song used as the basis for the track is presumably the 'Ale House' of the title, but whatever its provenance, the voice is powerful and filled with humour, detailing the adventures of a 'bonnie wee lassie who never said no'. In some ways it's a similar trick to that employed in 'Nae Regrets' as the Romany voice unexpectedly finds itself underpinned by the heavy drums of a dance beat, but it's just so incredibly well done and so filled with genuine joy that it doesn't matter in the least.

Finally, 'Storyteller', the track which closes the album, is amongst the oddest mainstream tracks ever to make its way to release. Over ten minutes long and using as its base a poem from 1955 recorded by a tinker, the fact that the poem is called 'The Maiden Without Hands.' tells you most of what you want to know about the wierdness but fails miserably to explain the power of the remastered whole. It's stunning, that's the only word for it.

Martyn Bennett died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2005 after recording only five albums, Grit being the final album released before his death.

It is the finest album ever to come out of Scotland - in the words of the speaker on 'Liberation', it is "the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes."


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