Friday, April 30, 2010

Grant Does the Propellor

"Look Daddy, I'm Batman!"
(And yes, he came up with that on his own...)

So we're at the tail end of what we believe to be our 2nd case of the flu this year. Three of the four of us has had fevers, sore throats...the whole nine yards. But despite his illness, each night about an hour after the Tylenol, Grant would begin to dance. Please ignore the various tubes of ointment on the floor around him. We're a house in distress.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Children's Museum

There's not a ton of stuff in Indy that is enviable. There are no great scenic views. No mountains.

We've got the Colts. We've got Hoosier basketball (kind of). And, we have the world renowned Children's Museum.

Here are a few pics.

A Windy Day at the Park

And now back...

to our regularly scheduled programing...

oh, and the pacifier is just a toy. Trust me, if she'd take it, I'd let her have it until she was 15 (if it'd stop the screaming), but alas, it's just a bath toy!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Complete Video Geekout

Fair warning -- this entry is not for the faint of heart. This is going to be a whole lot of geeky crap that nobody in our family will really care about. My only purpose in writing it is to document what I've discovered in the past few weeks, and perhaps it will help someone else who's trying to do something similar. You've been warned.

As I mentioned a while back, I've begun streaming shows to our Samsung LED TV, which is DLNA capable. This allows us to easily select a movie on our PC, right click on "Play To" and select the TV. It's great when we need a few minutes to get ready in the morning, and we want the kids to watch a few minutes of something. And it's easier than resetting the PC to output to the TV, using it as a monitor. The DLNA stuff just spits the movie over the network and plays the movie on the TV automatically. No channel changing, no video card settings, nothing. It just works.

This worked so well, that I decided to also do something similar with our TiVo. I wanted a program to stream DVDs to our TiVo without actually downloading the movie to the box. (Downloading is fine, but it's slow and fills up the already tight hard drive on the TiVo.)

I discovered a great piece of add-on software for the TiVo called Streambaby. This allows me to do exactly what I wanted -- stream DVDs and movie files to the TiVo. This is a great find, because it allows us to not need the actual DVD discs for the kids to watch their movies. I can box the DVDs up and never find them on the kitchen floor covered with peanut butter ever again.

So what I did initially was create a DVD image of each movie using DVDFab. I then used either VOB2MPG or VideoReDo to create an MPEG file of the DVD movie. I could then stream this MPEG-2 file (including the Dolby Digital surround sound) to the TiVo, and it worked great with the DLNA on the other TV. I would also use Handbrake to create an H.264/MPEG-4 file with AAC audio for the iPods using the iPod preset. (There's really no way to create one version of each movie which looks good on a 61" TV and a 3" iPod. This doesn't really bother me though, as the iPod files are very small in the end.)

The downside is that this process takes up tons of hard drive space -- several GBs per movie. And while I'd love to keep perfect images of all of our DVDs, I really don't have the money to buy scads of hard drives for our DVDs and CDs. So I need to compress.

I decided to start converting the original MPEG-2 DVD files for the TVs into H.264 files using Handbrake, similar to what I do for the iPods. Only I would use a different level of compression so that the videos still look great on the big screen. I also decided that I still wanted to preserve the Dolby Digital (AC3) surround sound, so I used "AC3 passthrough" mode rather than converting the audio to AAC, as one would usually do in an MPEG-4 file.

Since I started doing this, I've encountered several problems. The first was that I have some DVDs with 2 channel LPCM audio. What I discovered is that the TiVo can't play LPCM audio, so I needed to convert this to something else usable, namely AAC. This worked great.

The second problem I discovered is that I could not play my new MPEG-4 videos with AC3 using the DLNA features of our Samsung TV. In researching this, I discovered that Windows Media Player would play the video, but not the audio in these files. Apparently using AC3 within an MPEG-4 file is a somewhat strange configuration. It was started by Apple who packaged movies in iTunes this way, but now it's becoming more common.

In looking for a way around this, I knew that Streambaby on the TiVo would only look at the first audio track in a file, so this HAD to be the AC3 track if I wanted my surround sound. So I got clever and tried using Handbrake to put the AC3 track first and also add a second AAC audio track to each file to make the DLNA stuff (and Media Player) happy. I thought this had worked great, as the files played fine in Media Player. But unfortunately the Samsung TV still wouldn't accept the file. D'oh.

In the end, what I've decided to do is use AAC audio on DVDs without surround sound -- lots of kids movies are just good old stereo, so this is fine and plays on everything. For the bigger productions which feature surround sound, I'm sticking to my MPEG-4/H.264 with AC3 sound. This works great on the TiVo, and if they want to watch these on the Samsung TV in the other room, they can do so by playing the movie out to the TV using the TV as a monitor. It's not as convenient as using the DLNA connection, but it works.

So for anyone who is interested, here is my basic command line in Handbrake for creating Streambaby-capable movies for the TiVo:

handbrakeCLI -i "Kids Movie.mpg" -f mp4 -O -e x264 -b 2000 -a 1 -E ac3
-x ref=2:bframes=2:me=umh --strict-anamorphic -v -o "Kids Movie.mp4"

Basically this says, "Take the MPEG-2 file, use H.264 to compress it at 2000 kb/s (because the TiVo likes a constant bitrate), optimize it for streaming, pass along the AC3 surround sound, and spit out a shiny, new MPEG-4 file." The only real variations on this are changing the "ac3" to "faac" for the 2-channel stereo movies where I want to use AAC, and if the movie was originally NOT widescreen, I take out the "--strict-anamorphic." I won't go into what that means, but you can read about it here.

In the end, this compresses my movies by more than 50%, and they still look perfect on the TiVo. I could probably even reduce the 2000 kb/s to something smaller, but much like my music, I'd rather not see/hear any reminders that I've compressed my files.

Hopefully eventually the Samsung TV will let me pass an MPEG-4 file using AC3 audio, and this solution will work perfectly for every scenario. But for now, it works with Streambaby on the TiVo, which is where I need it to work 99% of the time.

And the kids can always watch the 2-channel stereo files via DLNA on the Samsung TV, or use the Samsung TV as a monitor for the other files by playing them using a video player (like VLC) which can play MPEG-4 files using AC3 audio. Either way, I can make this configuration work for any movie.

Hopefully some other poor schmuck will find this via Google and save himself some time. And if you read through this looking for pictures of the kids, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Week One

If you see a guy on your street out washing, waxing, and detailing a giant white Kia mini-van that looks like it should belong to the Disabilities Ministry at the local church, it's a good bet that he's unemployed.

So far this week, I've weeded all the flower beds, cleaned up Erin's van, and done a host of other household chores that have been getting the brush off. Erin's van was, by far, the largest task. It took almost three hours to get the outside looking decent. After that was completed, I opened the doors and began work on the "under seat buffet" that is always present in our cars. The special this week was raisins, fruit gummies, and three month old milk. It was delightful.

When Erin got home from work, she asked, "Did you happen to find my iPod in there?" Alas, the iPod is still MIA. I suspect it is being enjoyed by whatever youth discovered it sitting all alone someplace, waiting to be picked up. Hopefully they're a fan of 90's indie rock. If so, they hit the jackpot.

In between projects, the job hunt is progressing, albeit slowly. For now, I'm just going to enjoy the break.

Friday, April 16, 2010

So, an unemployed couple walks into a bar...

Since it's now official, I guess we can let everyone in on what's going on with us. As many of you know, Erin and I made the decision a while back that Erin should stay home next year with the kids. We just felt like it was the right time, and with plans for a third at some point, we figured we should quit dumping money into day care sooner than later. So several weeks ago, Erin didn't renew her teaching contract for next year.

Additionally, many of you know that my job has been somewhat unsteady for a long time. But finally today, after working for essentially the same company (under various names) for 16 years, I was let go.

So, does anyone have any suggestions for what an unemployed couple with two kids can do? Our answer, in the short term, is to enjoy some time as a family. We have a trip to the beach coming in a few weeks, and who knows after that. I've been blessed, yet again, to be given a financial parachute that will last us for a little while...hopefully long enough to find a good job, wherever that may be.

In the mean time, I've been brainstorming some ideas for Erin & me, since we're both unemployed as of this summer:

1. Comedy Duo -- Nothing is funnier than watching a couple try to make it on stage when there is a slight undercurrent of uneasiness (see Sonny & Cher after the divorce).

2. Ice Cream Truck or Hot Dog Cart -- For ages, I've said that either of these things could make it in the large office park where I curr, er, used to work. I think this is our big chance.

3. Open a CD Store -- I realize that the use of a physical medium for music distribution, such as the CD, is going the way of the dinosaur, but we could live for a while selling off the extra copies of each Beach Boys or Kinks album that I have in my collection. Or at least we should recycle the plastic.

4. Late Night Office Cleaning Team -- Now I realize that my fear of germs would prevent me from doing most of the cleaning, so that would fall to Erin, but I could straighten the chairs in the conference room and empty the occasional trash can. Perhaps I could even do this for my old company. For a fee.

In reality, we're glad that one of our big unknowns is finally a known and that we can start moving forward with our lives. And what better time of year to get to spend some extra time together. We know the rest of the loose ends will come together in their time.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sorry So Slow

Sorry that it's been such a slow week on here. The reality is that we have LOTS of things going on, not the least of which is enjoying the beautiful spring weather.

There are big changes coming for us, but I can't really update everyone just yet. Lots of unknowns and lots of unanswered questions. Hopefully by next week I'll be able to do a more complete post. My doctor informed me yesterday that you can get a time line for what's going on with me right now from a chart of my blood pressure over the past two weeks. Nice.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Beautiful Days

After the hardest winter in Indiana (at least that I can remember), we're enjoying gorgeous days. Here are a few pics!

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Conversation with Grant

Grant: Mommy, jiggle for me.
Mommy: What?
Grant: Jiggle for me.

Mommy does crazy jiggle dance.

Grant: No, not that. Jiggle for me.
Mommy: What do you mean? Like this?

Mommy does another crazy jiggle dance.

Grant: Not like that. With the oranges.
Mommy: Do you mean juggle?
Grant: Yeah, juggle for me.


Monday, April 05, 2010

A Few Pics from Easter Morning

The morning started off with a few goodies and an egg hunt around the living room.

Here's Grant sporting his new fishing puzzle game.


Here's Grace with her prized possession: jelly beans!

Here are the cuties before church!

Shaving Overkill

A few days ago, I wrote a quick blog on Get Real Family regarding the gear I use when shaving. Admittedly, this doesn't seem like a very interesting topic, and I suspect the majority of Erin's readership simply sighed and muttered, "It's a shame that girl married such a loser."

But then last week, I made an additional shaving related discovery that has proven that I am only a micro-geek in the shaving universe -- Badger and Blade. This is an entire web universe devoted to old-timey shaving gear and a new brand of officiando dubbed the "retrosexual." Egads.

I called Erin immediately and informed her that I wanted some of the stuff they were discussing on the site. She asked how much time I'd spent reading the site that day and when I wouldn't tell her, she assumed the worst.

Even more frightening was the discovery of this dude codenamed "mantic59." He has a "shaving journal" and a series of shaving videos on YouTube.

Personally, I found all of mantic59's info highly valuable, and I picked up some tips for my own shaving. But I did feel sort of funny spending an hour watching this dude shave himself, nicks and all. I fear that perhaps this puts me in the same creepy league as people who dress up as animals and groom each other.

And finally, I was most intrigued by multiple discussions on Badger & Blade's forums regarding "wet shaver meet-ups" at various locations around the country. What exactly goes on at one of these deals? Is that a code name for something I don't get? Does BYOB suddenly mean "bring your own blades?"

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Hard at Work

On Tuesday, Grant (upon getting out sidewalk chalk for the first time all year) said, "So much to do, so little time." Maybe he's heard Mommy say that a time or two (or 436).

Pic to come.