Thursday, October 30, 2008

va3bay update, ide hd media player review

Haven't been posting to this thing in a while.  That amateur tv station va3bay that I mentioned before seems to have gone offline within the last couple of weeks, which is too bad. Since I first posted on it, the station switched to a more detailed powerpoint-style broadcast on the physics of radio signals and the ionosphere and other topics related to amateur radio. Later, it switched to what looked like a satellite feed of a nasa space mission. This was cool in a way but not really that exciting to watch. The earlier broadcasts were at least educational. I may try to get in touch with the guy who was doing this and find out what happened. Hopefully it wasn't that nasa shut him down.

I thought I might try a little product review for a media player/usb hard drive enclosure (model HM2-U2TV) I picked up a few weeks ago. It's made by a company called mediasonic which does a line of similar enclosures; the 2.5" IDE version I got is the cheapest (C$50) and offers the lowest resolution (480p.) It has coaxial sound and component outs but I use a tv of the era with regular rca a/v jacks so I have not made use of these. 

I had a 160gb IDE wd hard drive around from a laptop I had that died, so that is what I used. There were already some movies and tv shows on there so I had thought to just leave things more or less as they were, but the media playing capabilities only work when the hd is in FAT format so I used partitionmagic to change the format from ntfs. As far as I know even FAT32 will not work, so longer file names will end up being truncated and I believe the size limit is 4gb.

When I first hooked the machine up to a tv I was not impressed at all with the startup time (5+ minutes.) When it starts up it seems to do a scan of all the files, so when I deleted the windows folder and everything else other than the movies it started up in only a few seconds. The compatibility with the video files I had was decent but not amazing, as some xvid files will refuse to play, including whole seasons of shows. I haven't had much luck figuring why this is but in some cases (not in others) it seems to have been solved by deleting the files and re-copying. Another thing that happens occaisionally is that the names in a directory will be garbage characters, which was definitely the result of a copying error as re-copying always fixed the names.

Overall I'm reasonably happy with this device for the price I paid (and considering that the company was one I'd never heard of): for playing downloaded video on a tv it has advantages over the two main alternatives, using a computer tv-out (much less portable, even with a laptop) or re-encoding and burning to dvd (time-consuming and wasteful for one-time use). The 2.5" SATA version is only a little more expensive and offers more resolution and potential storage space, so it probably makes more sense if you don't have a reason to use IDE like I did.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


My new baby, this was on consignment at capsule music on queen st.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pirate TV, part 2

Ok, this was really weird. I turned on the TV last night (one of the 5" minis) and I came across this powerpoint-like broadcast about "amateur television" that was coming in really clearly. I looked up the call letters of the station ("va3bay") and it turns out it is only a few hundred meters from my house! It was saying that a few channels that can be picked up with a TV actually fall under the ham radio range, so all you need is a ham license to legally broadcast tv.

Very interesting. That TV tunes with a dial so it is hard to tell exactly what station it is, but I think it is around the beginning of the UHF range, so somewhere around 14-17 like my daveco box does. The powerpoint thing was also saying that when the station is operational it will function as a repeater, so if it picks up your signal on one frequency it will send it out on another.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Went down to the local thrift shop today to pick up this stovetop espresso maker someone had won in the auction but hadn't come to claim. It's a pretty good sized one, couple sizes up from those little ones that do enough for one or two people. The bid on it was ten bucks, which I thought was a nice deal already, but it turned out the lot included one of the minis as well. Excellent. I am thinking that this is a good strategy for getting good deals in those auctions too: you are just paying the highest amount someone else bid instead of having to go a step higher than that, plus there is no worry of being overbid. Another bonus at that place I dicovered today is that the lady is happy to take rolls of nickels as payment.

I already have a plug in machine that works on the same principle as the new ones — steam pressure pushes the hot water through the grounds, so I guess it's not technically doing espresso — but that one is pretty clunky and its plastic exterior makes the new ones look pretty shiny in comparison. Too much junk. I'm thinking I might pass the plug-in one on to a friend who got me onto the stuff in the first place but only has a drip setup going right now.

I think a good way to look at junk is to say it's something that is so bulky or inconvenient somehow that it may be hard to say whether it's worth keeping around. Those coffee machines are a good illustration of this: the stovetop ones are compact, versatile (you could bring them camping) and they work so simply that there isn't too much that can go wrong with them. The cheaply made plastic version I picked up at a small town garage sale also for $10. It makes good coffee, but the internal heating element is an unnecessary extra, making the unit bulky and susceptible to breakdown.

The stovetop machines represent compact value: they are small, durable and well-designed. They also sell for a fair bit new, and I think they could probably easily be resold for at least as much as I paid for them if not more; in other words their value is also liquid. I'm trying to get away from the bulky useless junk as much as I can, small useful things are the way to go. The plastic machine was great to have around when it was the only thing going, but if I am going to be keeping around extra coffee makers they might as well be small, well made ones.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mission: Mobile pirate TV station on the cheap

I've always wanted to get a pirate radio or tv station going. Throw on some tapes of b scifi and horror, maybe a bit of televangelist-style banter in between. OK, maybe it would be best if I wasn't the only one doing the programming. Anyway, from my understanding this is what you need to do it up (a lot of this can be found by the curb or at thrift stores):

Basic Equipment:
Video sources: cameras, vcrs and dvd players are the options that spring to mind. My new favourite vcr is a portable hitachi (model vt-8a) that records in stereo, dubs over audio or video, and has a footprint of maybe a foot square. All that for six bucks! They have a very similar one at the same thrift shop designed for playback only, but you can't go wrong at that price (assuming it works of course).

RF modulator: something that changes the source video signal into a radio signal that can travel over the airwaves. Most vcrs can put out a signal on channel 3 or 4 (VHF), and there are stand-alone devices that do the same thing (say if you want to watch dvds on an old tv without a/v inputs.) When I last checked you could get these for around $15 or so.
For this purpose I am thinking to use a "daveco video sender" that I have around somewhere (need to find that again.) It looks like it was made in the 1980's or so and as far as I can tell it sat on the shelf of the radio shack until I picked it up last year. It takes a composite video signal (the yellow connector) and one channel of audio (oh well), and it puts out a signal on channel 14-17 (UHF) over an antenna (you set which channel using a screwdriver and can even pick something in between if you want!) I couldn't find much on these devices on the internet, so at the time I figured its rarity value warranted shelling out 50 bucks for the thing. I like the idea of a UHF station better anyway: I figure channel 3 or 4 is likely to have something on it already, but 14 is probably pretty safe.

RF (wideband) amplifier: Chances are your modulator is not putting out a very strong signal, so you want to amplify it before sending it to an antenna. You need an amplifier designed for this purpose (a radio frequency or "wideband" amp); from what I gather audio amplifiers are similar in general principle but they are meant to work with much lower frequencies. They sell these new at places like radio shack (I think for about $40+) but they don't seem to be very common in the wild from what I've seen.
A VCR will amplify antenna signals too, not sure if you could get too much range this way though.
I have an "Archer amplified TV/Video selector", part #15-1262, which I think cost me $5 (the shop owner asked 10 but I buy enough of his crap at asking price). It has five coax inputs, three outs, and a dial corresponding to each output to select from the 5 sources. I am thinking it might be best to use it as an amp instead of as a switch, since most of my gear uses rca a/v cables, not coaxial.

Antenna: I don't know too much about antennas but I would guess that an antenna that picks up tv channels in the appropriate range (i.e. VHF [2-13] or UHF [14-?]) will work adequately. Obviously some more research and experimentation here would be helpful. My feeling is the bigger the better. Placement is something to think about too; a high spot is probably a good idea.

Cables: You'll need a bunch of rca type a/v cables to connect everything together. Female to dual male rca adapters would come in handy for splitting signals (e.g. from the vcr to both the monitor and the rf modulator, so you can broadcast and watch at the same time.)

Mobile power source: Probably a lot of your gear will be designed to run off house current (AC). You can get power inverters designed for car use (12V) at pawn shops for around $10 sometimes. I don't have a car, so I am thinking a battery designed for a motorcycle or similar might work best for portability. I think I might have one around somewhere but I haven't tested it. Chargers for car batteries or similar are pretty easy to find used too, think I've seen them for about $10 as well. A power bar bar would be handy too.

Video monitors: It's hard to imagine running a tv station without at least one monitor to see what you're sending out. I guess you could go fancy and get little lcd monitors but I'm cheap. You can get inexpensive 5" b+w tv's at thrift stores ($10-15 is common.) These come under different labels (including Curtis, Sylvania) but most of the recent ones have identical cases and minor feature differences. The only thing you really have to look out for is a/v inputs, some don't have this feature. An extra monitor or two means you can be cuing up up the next clip on a second vcr, but it would be nice to have a slick way of switching which source you send to the modulator.

Video mixers/switches: Some sort of switching device is a big step up from plugging and unplugging cables. I saw an a/v switch at active surplus for about $20 (new) with 3 inputs, I figure that's more or less reasonable. If you're thinking to get a mixer to do some fancy wipes and fades, I'd say don't bother. Most require the two sources you're mixing to be "synchronized" which requires additional expensive equipment, otherwise you will get that weird screen rollover effect when you try to do your fancy star wipes or what have you.

OK, more on this later, I will try to get some pics up too.

Further reading: A commercially made tv broadcast setup that sells for 160+ euros (the UHF version is more expensive.) Just putting this up for reference. Apparently with 3 watts of power you can get from a few hundred meters to 5km of range depending on antenna and conditions.

Edit, March 2011: I have now relocated the Daveco device I mentioned so I can get some pics up soon. Probably the simplest way to actually accomplish mobile broadcast would be  to use it with a laptop with S-video out. I have an old PIII Thinkpad with this capability and interestingly it takes about the same input voltage, 16V for the Thinkpad vs 18V for the video sender. At 900 MHz the laptop has enough cpu power to handle xvid decoding at a reasonable enough resolution for the purpose. Overall though I believe it's better not to tempt fate with unlicensed broadcasts, making wifi an attractive alternative.


We tend to get offered shittier consumer goods all the time; someone sources a cheaper part, the chinese get it made, and big retailers can offer it for a fraction of what you would have paid for the equivalent a few years ago (even when you correct for inflation). The shorter working life is a bonus for the manufacturer anyway. Building a toaster today to last 20 years would be unthinkable: once everyone's got a toaster, you're out of a job. It's no wonder that Value Village got bought up by that big american bargain outfit: thrift and bargain stores now compete against each other directly.
Assuming all this is true though, is there really any reason for me to be shelling out good money for this stuff and then having to store it? Maybe not. Usually I have some kind of theory of a project I'd like to do with something. Later I might lay out a few ideas/plans for some of these planned recycling projects, and hopefully that will help me get motivated to actually get on some of it. I'll try to throw in some links as well.