Turn your PC into a media hub

For those who have not yet come across this awesome software, here’s a shout-out to all those who donated (and still do!) their minds and heart to the Open Source XBMC project. The project involves developers and programmers who have poured their collective creativity and “mind power” into turning your Personal Computer (PC) into a slick and user-friendly “media and entertainment” hub. This means that you are able to install the software and enjoy watching your favourite movies or browse your picture collection.

The first thing you need to do is to grab a PC that has been gathering dust since its hardware requirements simply do not “stand up” to the requirements of the modern memory and processor-hungry software. Make sure you find one with:

  • A decent graphics card – one which knows what “24 bit” graphic display resolution is.
  • A decent enough processor, one that’s just above the 400MHz+ range. I suspect anything slower, with at least 256+ RAM will find the going a bit tough. Processing video is no mean feat, thus the higher the specs of the machine, the better it will perform – the graphics will be smoother, little or no movement drag (jerky pictures) and the sharpness will be greatly enhanced. On the other hand, since it will only be used as a “HUB”, it won’t be smart to use your latest PC for this. It would be like using a fighter jet to do cropdusting – complete overkill.
  • A hard disk of about 10G for the installation only. Make sure there are some USB’s on the motherboard since you’ll need them to plug in that terabyte USB drive with all your picture and movie files on them.
  • A LCD (or equivalent) flatscreen. The rule of thumb here is, the bigger the screen size, the better. A word of caution though … if you want to go HD (High Definition), you’ll need a HD capable video card and screen.

I scratched around a bit and found an old PC with a  VGA (yep, they used to be top of the line way-back-when) and installed the Linux Version of XBMC. My 32 inch HD Ready (.. not full HD 🙁 ) has never looked better. Original DVDs play like I’ve never seen them – the software allows you to “zoom in” and get rid of those pesky black bars on the top and bottom of your widescreen movies. So, you lose some of that “widescreen” details but you get the full screen experience. The software also allows you to adjust the ratio of the display. Have you noticed how some screens “stretch” your videos and the faces become “squashed” – this one has a handy “square” tool that will let you “correct it”.

Linux install

There are two versions, Windows and Linux (and others for the XBox, etcetera). Having given both a whirl, my vote goes to the Linux installation. The Windows version works fine but is best described as “moody”. It  was installed on an XP and Windows machine and a number of the functions simply refused to work or would lock up the Windows PCs. On the Linux box, for which it was originally written, it’s been running without any hitches (yet). Hopefully this will continue to be the case over the next couple of week.

I salute all those who donated their time and know-how to produce this awesome piece of software. You’ve got all three thumbs up from me – if I had three. Keep up the good work!

Now… back to watching my video collection all over again….! I’ll start with the Matrix trilogy, full screen, with surround sound.

To the real heroes out there ….

Met a hero today … not someone who can leap tall buildings in a single bound or is faster than a bullet. But, someone who stares death in the face … every day. Someone diagnosed with a degenerative and incurable neurological disorder eating away at his nervous system.

Neurologists made it clear … the best to do is go home, not tax yourself, and told Paul (*not his real name*) to spend as much time as possible over the next 3 to 6 months with family and friends.

However, fate underestimated Paul. Struggling to speak, mouthing the words with obvious effort, Paul started to tell his story – as a “test case” for medical students.

From the moment Paul walked into the room, grabbed my hand and looked me straight in the eye, I had a sense that someone extraordinary has crossed my life path. About 1.8m tall, walking with the help of a cane, Paul’s wicked sense of humour softened the mood in the room.

Paul said that as a retired salesman, he went home with the message of “taking it slow” on his mind, and the added risk factor of high cholesterol. “But, just sitting around is not for me. I decided that I’ll start to lose weight, while I’m waiting for death. Besides, I want to look good in my coffin,” he said with a throatylaugh.

Amid the jokes and wit, Paul’s story of courage and endurance emerges. “Despite what the doctors told me – not to exercise, I now go to the gym and spend about 1 to 2 hours doing various exercises. So, far I’m going strong and some of the symptoms are already there.

Some days are better than others. My family is very supportive. (Eyes tearing) It’s tough on my kids and wife but they’re wonderful. I’ve also got two lovely dogs that follow me everywhere. They expect me to take them for walks every day. When it time to go for a walk, they pester me until I do,” he explained.

“One of the main reasons for telling my story is to tell people not to give up on life – to life your life to the fullest, no matter what,” said Paul. “Follow your heart in what you want to achieve in life and go for it!”

Listening to Paul’s story, a lump was stuck in my throat and my eyes were misting up behind the video camera. Sensing my mood, Paul let rip with some of his risqué jokes and sharp wit which soon had me in stitches.

So, Paul this one’s for you (and the other heroes out there) … compliments of  Mariah Carey

"And then a hero comes along,
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fear aside
'Cause you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong ...
And you'll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you."

Call a spade … a spade!

Straight-talking

Wordsmiths know that words you choose “paint” a picture in the mind of the reader. Therefore, writers choose their words carefully, especially if they want the reader to “see” (visualise, if you insist) something from a certain angle or perspective. Marketing gurus also know this. In fact, it’s their bread and butter (literally) to know which words or images they use make you want to “get-out-there-and-buy-one” or which ones are likely to turn you off. Journalist, especially those in the finance industry have “developed” a whole arsenal of “neutral” words when they talk about issues related to the financial markets. One which caught my attention recently is the use of “austerity measures” whenever there is talk about what is going on with the finances of a country such as Greece.

In a “wait-a-minute” moment, the expression elicited a smirk, and this post. What are they really talking about?, is the million-dollar (pun intended) question. Not being a financial guru, my take on it is that they are actually talking about issues which affect people’s lives. In fact, they are talking about a shortage of money and the measures taken by the government and the EU to manage Greece’s debt. These “austerity measures” are similar to the “tightening-of-belts’ concept- one which conjures up hunger, poverty and tough times ahead for all. Unsurprisingly, the expression is not used. The “austerity measures” basically means that the government, and its sidekicks such as the IMF, World Bank and EU Parliament are putting the squeeze on the ordinary citizens of Greece – that for those struggling to make a living, conditions will become tougher.

Straight-talking

Think back to the “sub-prime” lending crisis which rocked the US economy a while back. “Sub-prime” was the “tag” used by the banking industry to describe their practice of lending money to those who, due their financial situation, would not be able to get a loan using the normal “screening” criteria. Instead of calling it “risk lending”, a more “truthful” description, it became known as “sub-prime” lending in “finspeak” (jargon used in the financial sector).

The result of such reckless behaviour by the banks? Those who received the loans “defaulted” – could not pay back the interest plus the money, and the country’s economy took a nosedive. And since markets are linked nowadays, the rest of the world’s markets went into a spin. Another one was “poisoned assets” which emerged during this crisis time. These were basically bad investments made by the banks – spending money on assets such as stocks and property which were not worth the money spent on them. It means someone went on a shopping spree without doing their homework as business leaders. And now, after the fact, these became known as “poisoned assets” – a nice way of saying we invested in a “dud’.

How we talk about things, the words we use, the expressions used, help us to understand what we are really talking about. Talking about a spade, calling it a “specialised digging tool” only serves to hamper communication. Speech and text (now video) are already such crude tools to represent, convey and share human concepts and ideas. Putting such “creative spins” on words and phrases diminish the true understanding of their meaning and impact.

Say what you mean .. which is what I hope I’ve done.

The Missing (upgrade) Link

Sandboxes are useful places where you can fool around in and not do any real damage. In upgrading this version of WordPress, running it on a “SandBox” LAMP server sitting in my basement, saved both time and money. Installing it on a live site can have serious consequences if mistakes are made and your web server or site’s security is put at risk.

LAMP, short for Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP configuration of a web server, is an Open Source solution maintained by developers from around the world. The idea is to keep technology running the web open and accessible to those who wish to install and tinker with it. The development and implementation of a site like Facebook, for example, would have been nearly impossible to develop and troubleshoot without access to technology like LAMP and its various plug-ins. There are various”flavours” of LAMP – from the “enterprise” (high-end) to the low end, entry-level sandboxes.

Easy to install

TurnKey Linux was the flavour best suited for the task at hand. An old piece of hardware with a 800MHz Processor, 128MB of RAM and a 10G hard disk and network card (plus keyboard and mouse) was dusted off and the web server installed. Booting it from the CD, the hard disk was formatted (wiped clean!) and the screen prompts were followed. A root password is required during the setup – don’t skip it and don’t get it wrong otherwise you won’t have access to the configuration afterwards. For those new to Linux (LAMP) this a good place to start  BEFORE attempting an installation.

Once successfully installed, web-based software using the LAMP configuration can be installed and put through its paces – to discover if or how well it works. Usually, if there are too many issues with an installation it turns out to work “not as claimed” another solution is found.

Before installing WordPress 3.2.1 on this site, it was put through its paces on the local web-server, off the internet. Configuration was tested, plug-ins installed and tweaked and the posts and comments imported to see if (and how well) it would work. After some hours of testing to see if everything works, it was time to “go live”.

The upgrade of WordPress now enables the use of the latest developments and improvements, necessary to keep up with the web’s evolution.

Update:

One of the main reasons for the upgrade was to enable mobile devices to access the blog. If anyone is not able to do this, please let me know. I’ve tested it on my “non-smart” (dumb?) phone and it looks fine.