Home tech update…

Decided to take some time to revamp our HTPC (Home Theatre PC). Had Ubuntu 10.04 with XBMC on it. XBMC is a great idea but, like so many other things in free software these days, often doesn’t work out of the box. Updated Ubuntu and actually put a 64 bit build on the box (weirdly used a 32 bit image before – I think because I used the XBMC live CD to install) Decided not to bother with XBMC at all this time. We tend to use our TV and PC to either watch live TV or catch up TV, with the occassional Netflix/Lovefilm streamed movie. As it turns out XBMCs browser support sucks too. Decided to opt for just Myth TV on an Ubuntu box.

Myth TV is a great user interface, probably one of the best EPGs I’ve seen on any TV. I bought a PCTVSystems NanoStick DVB-T2 290e USB Freeview HD device which works out of the box with the latest Linux Kernel. This comes with a great mini antenna of its own, but also a normal aerial adapter. I was quite impressed with the reception of the antenna. Myth TV worked great with the backend (that records and received TV programmes) and the frontend (with the user interface and playback) on the same machine.

I hit a few annoying issues when running the frontend on a different machine. This is quite surprising when you think about it – a lot of the time these days you have multiple PCs and TVs in the house and if you don’t like being forced to sit through Coronation street it’s handy to relegate the missus to a different room! You would think Myth TV would support having remote Frontends out of the box. Unfortunately even though it configures 99% of the MySQL database backend it neglects the ability for the mythtv database account to connect remotely. Also, surprisingly, the mythtv db account fails locally when used from a transcoding perl script. This means logging in to MySQL as root and adding a ‘mythtv’@’*’ account and granting it all permissions on the mythconverg database. Plenty of websites with this on, just search for ‘MythTV database permission denied’.

Once those teething issues were sorted it worked well. Quite possibly the sexiest feature of Myth TV, and one that’s quite undersold in my opinion, is the ability for an Android phone to use the Mythmote application to act as a Myth TV specific remote control for a front end! Most people have their phones connected to their wifi at home, so this remote control app is a brilliant idea. It uses the local network rather than infrared to control a Myth Frontend. It also supports saving multiple front end locations, so the same app can control the living room (HTPC) frontend, my laptop frontend, or my mac mini front end. Great idea!

Also decided to set up the Myth Frontend for Mac. This was a massive, massive let down. Turns out the playback on Myth Frontend 0.25 on the mac has had hardware accelerated graphics disabled, meaning its nigh on impossible to watch any HD channels or HD recordings. This was done because the method Myth TV uses on the mac (DVADecoder) causes a kernel panic on interlaced playback. I logged a bug/feature request for them to use Qtkit instead for HD playback. This was immediately closed as invalid which bemused me. Their argument was that Qtkit wouldn’t give them a ‘Myth style playback’ i.e. pause/resume on live TV. My position is that HD playback without pause is better than no HD playback at all! They disagree. I managed to find a 32 bit build with DVA decoding enabled (at the moment even if you select it in the frontend, it will fallback to opengl!). This 32 bit build works great. A bit of an overreaction disabling all playback via DVA if sometimes it doesn’t work – you can always select a different playback option (and indeed DVA isn’t turned on by default anyway!) so their decision to do this is a bit bizarre.

I suspect a lot of the problem in linux born opensource projects is that the Mac is a second class citizen. A classic example of this is the way the bug closer responded to my bug. He said I should either install linux instead of Mac OS X or upgrade my hardware! Given I said I had a Macbook Pro and I use OS X because I don’t want to use Ubuntu (I use laptop for video editing), I found his reply utterly ridiculous. I’d expect better from a Windoze developer to be honest. It seems there is little appetite to work on Mac ports of mainstream software. If it ‘works on my machine’ they don’t particularly care about anyone else.

Managed to resurrect my Mac mini. This had a hard disk issue. Now got it set up with a new disc and Snow Leopard. I’ll use this to power the spare HD flat panel upstairs. I’m going to mount this on the wall between my two windows. I have a great view of the Peak District from the top floor here in my home office. I’ve often wondered if one very long window would be better, so am going to use the TV when not in use to displa the best HD photos of the peak district, and ones of myself and my fiancee climbing locally, so I always have a good weather picture to motivate me during the day.

Also looking at creating a live data feed set up for this screen. I’d like a mix of local (system, tv, network) and remote (stocks, news, email) alerts to show on it. Looking at using a web browser as the client. This would mean I can follow up on any news items from whichever computer I’m working on rather than be forced to use the mac. I want to keep the server side stuff to a minimum so am looking at node.js. Need to see if I can use that to access local system info, and mythtv (so mysql), as well as remote news feeds. Didn’t want to use a mix of programming languages as this would have meant at some point a complex mish mash of server side communication. Hopefully node.js has modules to do a lot of these facilities on the backend. I don’t need anything complicated really, just the ability to execute local commands (I can always write a script to do something) or fetch a remote URL.

Home Office 2.0 revamp…

Been rejigging the home office so it’s nicer to stay in and I don’t end up running all over the house for cables, computers, and to access music.

Now got the blinds cut to size and mounted. Required a bit of maths to figure out. Only a couple of mm out here and there which isn’t bad, especially as I didn’t use a spirit level. Below is a picture, although it doesn’t really do it justice! The Blinds are actually bright Orange from Dunelm Mill. Had to cut the width because the next size down was too narrow, so I’ve matched the width of the fabric on these larger blinds to that of the window sill. Also reversed the direction of the blind so the brighter Orange is on the inside, and it sits flush against the wall rather than an inch off the wall. Because the room is used as a bedroom also I wanted to be able to almost black out the room for the benefit of our guests.


As you can see I now have a blank space on the house outer brick wall which is conveniently slightly larger than the 26 inch flat panel HDTV you see on the left. 8o) Next trick is to mount a 180 degree left/right, 20 degree up/down, extendable arm to the wall and attach the flat panel.

Found the bracket at 123brackets.co.uk . Bought it from here because their site is absolutely fantastic at telling you exactly what options you have for your specific TV. Also tells you if you need a vesa adapter bracket. Great site, good fast delivery, highly recommended.

Having trouble finding the correct screw to use for the wall bracket. The bracket assumes a 1 3/4 inch screw will suffice. Problem is modern British homes’ external walls have 1/2 inch plaster board with a 1/2 inch cavity before a breeze block and brick outer. This means I need four 3 or 3 1/4 inch screws because the first inch isn’t going to provide any support. You don’t want any longer screws because you don’t want to weaken the breeze block. They are however a pig to get hold of. They need to be 6mm / size 12, so bit of a pain really. Tried Wickes, B&Q and Screwfix. Wickes had the screws but no plugs for them, and B&Q had a space for the screws, but none there, and again no raw plugs that would work.

I think I’m going to have to risk getting the screws from wickes and 2 inch raw plugs, and push the plugs through the plasterboard down to the brick layer, so this should work well.

After this I have to fix the Mac Mini and use it as the controller for the HDTV. Idea is I’ll have the Mac act as a Myth TV client for my HTPC down stairs, as well as accessing iTunes movies, music videos and albums. I can use it then for work to entertain me or have the news in the background whilst working. Can’t stand a silent room.

Another cool idea I had was getting an external web cam and placing it on the outside wall directly behind the HDTV. That way I can have the HDTV as a virtual window, giving me a full panorama of the National Park! Might be a bit over the top given the hassle of getting a cable from the outside, and mounting the thing on the top of three floors! I could always take a photo as a stop gap measure to see what it looks like.

I’ve ordered a nanoStick T2 which is a Freeview HD (DVB-T2 for non brits!) USB receiver. Got it for only 55 GBP on Amazon.co.uk. I’m going to set up Myth TV with it to record freeview shows. I can then copy them to t’other halfs Macbook Air so she can watch soap operas when at the outdoor centre (and so I no longer have to endure them!), or stream it to the HTPC in the living room, or just watch it on the HDTV in the spare room. Should be an awesome set up, especially as Myth TV on the Mac supports the Apple Remote.

Upgraded the old Mac Mini Solo (Feb 2006) to have more RAM, also replacing the (unsurprisingly) knackered Seagate HDD which are notorious for dying. Should get decent performance then. Also means I can use iTunes natively on that machine to play music in the home office rather than stream to my work pc, which is a bit of a pain at the moment.

There are some great projects out there for inspiration. I think most people have seen Stefan Didak’s home office set up. From his site he links to many other people with high end office set ups. There are some pretty awesome offices. Check out this list of the Top 96 kick ass home office set ups. My favourite weirdly is the Hacker set up. Reminds me of the faraday cage from the film Enemy of the State. I’m normally a more modernist clean design person when it comes to the house.

There are some set ups out there with 10+ monitors. Some people have criticised them, but as a developer I can totally understand these set ups. I’ve always had a mix of 4 to 6 virtual desktops on my Linnux and now Mac OS X machines. (Although Lion has screwed up the 2×2 by enforcing a horizontal ribbon for reasons passing understanding). A typical set up for me is to have media playing in the background, so that’s on the top left virtual desktop 1. Development environment typically on Virtual desktop 3, maximised for greatest code editing area. Next to this on desktop 4 is web browser. I open up any documents for reference then on virtual desktop 2.

I hate paper. I’ve worked in pre-sales for Enterprise Content Management (ECM) companies and have a visceral hatred for paper, printers, box files, and anything with ‘Iron Mountain’ written on it. Not because I hate the company, but because it’s a solution to a problem which should no longer exist. Just ditch the paper! </rant>

Anyway, that’s 4 desktops without even trying. Ideally I’d like to offload the media from the machine I’m working on – it tends to just sit in the background anyway. Also I always end up reading one thing whilst writing another. A portrait orientated monitor on the left for docs would help. Centre monitor would have to be for writing and the main work area, mainly to minimise turning or neck strain. Maybe a right hand monitor for reading something else too or refering to something.

This would give me, for example, a tutorial or dev guide on the left portrait monitor, development environment in the centre, and firefox test instance showing me what crap I’ve just developed/broken on the right. Only other thing I’m missing which would be handy are alerts and notifications. Sold (or tried! LOL) enough Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) solutions in my time to know that the concept is a very powerful one.

Stock brokers often rock 4-6 monitors for watching activity and trading. I’d like to see my own stock portfolio with a 15 min delayed view of prices, maybe visual alerts for ‘sell them and retire’, that sort of thing! Also handy would be an updating news feed incorporating twitter (which for some reason doesn’t update itself – which astounds me why it requires a click), facebook, news RSS (because the BBC ‘news’ website main page doesn’t update, but the RSS feed has many hidden gems).

Housekeeping items like todo lists from the missus (maybe sourced from Evernote), calendar upcoming events, home network usage (probably at 0.3% – it’s a Cat 6 gigibit Ethernet with hardly anything traveling over it). Thinking of creating a simple (for me) local web page that uses DoJo / jQuery and JavaScript API to load the information and display it. Should be easy on today’s Interwebs (coff, splutter).

If anyone has any cool ideas or photos for inspiration do let me know. More to follow.