Miscellaneous


This is part 2 of “Media Center on a Shoestring Budget” – you should take a quick read through part 1 before continuing.

So you’ve decided to attempt to mod an Xbox to make a media center. If I’m successful then this series of posts should serve as a decent central location for one of the techniques (and there are several) that will get you from absolutely nothing, to a full fledged media center with only a slightly lighter wallet.

Credit and acknowledgments

There is nothing here that I did other than follow the lead and use the tools that were developed by others. Most of these people still hang out on the forums in Xbox-scene and if anything here helps you get your media center up and running, then please take the time to thank those that put the tutorials together and made the real progress and inovations that made it possible.

Of course, a modded Xbox is useless without something to run on it. The “homebrew” developers of “Xbox Media Center” (XBMC for short) deserve a huge thanks for one of the most amazing pieces of open source software ever produced.

Disclaimer:

Following this procedure will void the warranty on your Xbox. This probably means nothing since there no longer IS any warranty (at least from the manufacturer) on Xboxes since they have been discontinued since the release of the Xbox-360 and since you’re going to buy a used one anyway.

That said, the following is certainly pertinent:

I will not guarantee that you will not suffer any of the innumerable potential setbacks and/or failures that can occur when following these steps. These include, but are certainly not limited to: burning out the motherboard on your computer, permanently damaging your newly purchased Xbox, burning yourself or the items in the immediate vicinity with a soldering iron, cerebral damage from banging your head against a wall in frustration, personal humiliation and feelings of inadequacy from not being able to do something several 12-year old hackers have been able to do (unless, of course, you are twelve when reading this).

Please keep in mind also that once your Xbox is hacked you should not attempt to use it on “Xbox Live.” While there are modes that you can run it in that will make it “Xbox Live” safe, if you make a mistake your Xbox Live account can be cancelled, since it is a violation of the terms to use a modified Xbox on “Xbox Live.” We have two Xboxes. One is a Media Center and the other is a game console. Only the unmodified game console is Xbox Live enabled.

There are conficting views on the legality of a modified XBox, or at least one that is running unsanctioned software (such as the XBMC). If you’re concerned, consult an attorney (I am not one). The issue, as I understand it, is that the development of software that will run on an XBox requires development tools whose licenses are tightly controlled by Microsoft itself. This makes the legality of the distribution of “homebrew” executable binaries, which require the Microsoft licensed development tools in order to be created, questionable. XBMC, in the form that it will run on your XBox, is one of those binaries.

Now, if after that you’re willing to give it a try, here are some words of encouragement. First, unless you opt for a replacement DVD drive, this doesn’t actually require a soldering iron. Second, it’s much easier than my former project to convert Super-8 movie film to a DVD, which I think only myself and a relatively small number of others have attempted, and even fewer with decent results. Third, like I did, you’re likely to learn something. Fourth, other than hardware failures, if you take a few precautions, there isn’t too much that’s not reversible. I managed to lock myself out of my Xbox several times in the process of the mod and still got it up and running eventually.

What you will get

If you opt for the minimum and purchase only an Xbox and a DVD Remote Kit, you’ll end up with a fully functional media center (minus any recording capability) that will, among MANY other things: play any digital video or audio format (I haven’t found one that it doesn’t play though I doubt that it will play DRM protected media), stream audio and video from another PC over a home network, play DVDs, display a photo slideshows while playing music, get weather over the internet, organize audio libraries, and .. Oh! … I almost forgot, it will actually play XBox games also … :-)

What you can get – optional components

Following is a list of optional components you can add to your media center. Keep in mind you don’t need to commit to any of these prior to getting it up and running.

HDTV support – By adding a component AV cable (IMO, a MUST for anyone that intends to hook this up to an HDTV), available for about $15 from Gamestop.com, you will get Hi-Def support up to 1080i (480p, 720p, and 1080i) (if these numbers don’t mean anything to you then click on the link; it’s a good introductory article on HDTV resolutions). *NOTE: please see the section “What you wont get” below for a clarification of HD support within the Media Center

HDTV support w/ 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound – Instead, you can opt for an even more functional AV cable with Hi-Def support and 5.1 digital surround sound available for $35 to $50 from Amazon (I bought one off of eBay). *NOTE: please see the section “What you wont get” below for a clarification of HD support within the Media Center

More Internal Storage – Another highly recommended option is a bigger hard disk. The native Xbox hard disk is only 8 or 10 Gig, which isn’t nearly enough to store any media. My modest CD collection, which is mostly ripped at 96 kbs (most rippers don’t go that low these days), is nearly 10 Gig itself. You certainly don’t need to upgrade the hard drive if you simply want to stream media from a computer somewhere else on you local network, but if you want to use the Xbox to actually store the media, you will need to upgrade the drive. This is done after the Xbox is modded and I will link to the appropriate tutorials in a later post.

Better DVD support – The Xbox comes with a minimally functional DVD drive. It doesn’t (typically) handle DVD-home recorded media (DVD-R/+R/-RW/+RW). It’s nice to have a large selection of content on home burnt data DVDs that you can pop into the Media Center and play directly, however, in order to do this you will most likely need to replace the DVD drive. This is NOT AN EASY TASK as it requires a very specific replacement drive (Samsung 616T or 616F – NOTHING else will work) and some significant soldering iron work.

There are several other options for playing DVD-R/+R/-RW/+RW recorded media the details of which I will provide in a later post.

Wireless game controller – Finally, I’d recommend a wireless controller. The remote that comes with the DVD kit works, but the game controller actually provides a much better (IMO) user experience and ease of control of the Media Center. Before you make up your mind, you can experiment with the wired controller that comes with the Xbox and compare it to the experience using the remote, and then make your own decision.

What you wont get

As I mentioned several times, what you wont get is the ability to record television as the Xbox doesn’t have the necessary hardware.

Also, and in my opinion more importantly, the Xbox CPU at 733 MHz is incapable of handling true HD source material. It works great upconverting 480p/i source to 1080i for output to an HDTV, but if the actual source is HD (for example, 720p), then the CPU cannot keep up and repeatedly drops frames.

To continue my recent theme of a-political posts consisting of descriptions of recent hobby projects; I just built a “stereo component” that I had been thinking about for a couple of years. Since my entire CD collection along with a significant collection of sermons and lectures sits on my computer I had been thinking about how to add a stereo component that would play the MP3s over the network.

Since then things have come pretty far. No longer is audio the only consideration but you can build/buy a full multi-media appliance that supports video, audio, and still pictures along with internet connectivity and the ability to stream content over a home network. People are beginning to buy and build “media center” computers and incorporate them into home theaters.

XBox

What I have recently “built” (actually, more like “assembled” from various hardware and software components following tutorials on the web) is a full featured media center (minus the recording ability of some), packaged in a component smaller than a stero CD player, and all for under $200.

What’s made this possible are several clever individuals that figured out various ways to hack an XBox video game console and some industrious open source development of media center software.

The hardware you will need includes:
1) An XBox video game console [under $100 on eBay, $110 used from Gamestop]
2) An XBox DVD kit [under $20 on eBay]

Optional Hardware:
1) Hi-Def XBox cables [recommended for an HD TV – $15 at Gamestop]
1.5) or Hi-Def XBox cables with 5.1 digital surround sound[$35 – $50 at Amazon]
2) Replacement DVD Drive [very hard to find. I paid $30]
3) Replacement hard-disk drive [the Xbox drive is ony 8 to 10 Gig]
4) Xbox wireless controller [ about $30 (you can probably find it cheaper) ]

Tools:
1) A set of Torqs
2) A PC with a bootable CD drive and an empty primary IDE controller slot
3) A PC CD Burner
4) 1/2 a brain [optional but recommended in order to have less trouble than I did.]
5) To replace the DVD drive, you’ll need a soldering iron and some skill with it [optional].
6) Blank CDs

Follow up posts will contain some details on the steps to take to build your own, including links to tutorials and free software.

to be continued …

Our latest stop motion entry includes an automatic Christmas tree and the return of the voracious laundry basket.

The Automatic Christmas Tree

 

When I was a kid of twelve (or so), I discovered that my dad’s super-8 movie camera could make movies one frame at a time. For a few weeks my friends and I had a lot of fun experimenting with stop-motion animation. I wish I could find those old films but they seem to have disappeared.

More recently (much more recently, actually) I developed a scheme for converting old movie film to DVD using a flatbed scanner. It still needs some refinement and a better scanner, but one of the more useful applications that born of this effort was a program that converts a series of images into a playable movie (for anyone that’s interested, the source code is in the Source Forge project, Legacy Film To DVD Project.

So now my kids decided they wanted to try their hand at stop motion movies and claymation. Instead of using an old super-8 movie camera where you only get one shot (unless you want to reorganize the frames with a splicer), they used a digital camera and my software (and a little but of help with the software).

Josh’s first claymation Danny’s Claymation
“Jim” is the name of Danny’s character

 

A friend of mine pointed me to “Tony vs. Paul;” an absolutely amazing stop motion video hosted on YouTube:

Tony Vs. Paul – This one is not ours

 

After playing with these claymations, and being inspired by the above, we gave it a shot. Here is a crazy laundry basket eating my entire family :-) :

Hungry Landary Basket

 

Lukas’ first claymation

And finally, with a little help from all of us, Lukas (currently eight) made his claymation.

 

When I listen to great guitarists like Joe Satriani or Rik Emmett I’m occationally struck by a modicom of jealously. A friend once called it “Guitar Envy.” I think ‘man! I wish I could play like that.’ Of course, I never will; I don’t really work at it.

There are times when the futility of a particular endeavor strikes me somewhat harder than that. I’ve wanted to be able to write for a while now, but I constantly struggle to make myself clear in prose. So when I read master wordsmiths like Beryl Markham’s in her West With The Night or Charles Dickens, rather than being motivated, I’m all too often discouraged; nothing I write would ever come close.

It’s been a while since I’ve read the aforementioned authors but last night, while reading the English translation of an ancient Latin text, I found myself in the same situation.

There the gently rippling wave was smoothing the outside sands as if it would level them for a promenade; and as the sea is always restless, even when the winds are lulled, it came up on the shore, although not with waves crested and foaming, yet with waves crisped and curling. Just then we were excessively delighted at its vagaries, as on the very threshold of the water we were wetting the soles of our feet, and it now by turns approaching broke upon our feet, and now the wave retiring and retracing its course, sucked itself back into itself.

From the writings of Minucius Felix, an early (200 AD or so) Christian. Interestingly, the introduction states:

the primary place in Latin Christianity being necessarily adjudged to the commanding genius and fertile mind of Tertullian, while it is no discredit to assign to Minucius his proper but secondary credit

Second maybe in importance. But I’ve read much of Tertullian and in style and skill in prose, Minucius, in my mind, is primary.

Schaff, the writer of the Introduction does say:

but in Minucius we find, at the very fountain-head of Christian Latinity, a disciple of Cicero and a precursor of Lactantius in the graces of style

In our author’s style and thought there is a charm and a fragrance which associate him, in my mind, with the pure spirit of “Mathetes,”

Finally, a late 2nd century or early third century description of a familiar pastime – some things never change :-):

And when we came to that place where the little ships, drawn up on an oaken framework, were lying at rest supported above the (risk of) ground-rot, we saw some boys eagerly gesticulating as they played at throwing shells into the sea. This play is: To choose a shell from the shore, rubbed and made smooth by the tossing of the waves; to take hold of the shell in a horizontal position with the fingers; to whirl it along sloping and as low down as possible upon the waves, that when thrown it may either skim the back of the wave, or may swim as it glides along with a smooth impulse, or may spring up as it cleaves the top of the waves, and rise as if lifted up with repeated springs. That boy claimed to be conqueror whose shell both went out furthest, and leaped up most frequently.

Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.

– H.L. Menken

I’ve been thinking about my next post. I’m not sure what exactly to write about. It’s not for lack of topics (e.g. I think the editors of the NY Times and the LA Times ought to be brought up on treason charges even though I’ve been a conservative opponent of the war from the beginning).

Dinosaur CO

In any case it’s been too long since I’ve gotten some good air time so tomorrow I’ll be off to Highland Aerosports in Ridgley MD (the site of this year’s East Coast Championship) for some practice towing and approaching in preparation for an upcoming trip out west. (See some great pictures from my previous trip out west here). The plan is for flying in Utah (Salt Lake City area), Colorado (Dinosaur), Idaho (King Mountain), and Jackson Hole Wyoming. They are apparently closing down the mountain tram at Jackson Hole after this season so this will be the last opportunity to fly from the peaks there.

On the foreign aid our government spends, which is up to 20 billion this year, Representative Ron Paul writes:

The greatest “foreign assistance” we can give to other countries is to demonstrate to the rest of the world that limited government and the rule of law ensure freedom and prosperity.

source: The Annual Foreign Aid Rip-Off

I just heard a story from a friend that I found rather disturbing. My friend is a man that had opened his home to the homeless, raised foster children when he was asked to, and regularly gave to various charities and volunteered for various charitable causes. One day he arrived home from work to find a stranger in his house, sitting in his living room, and eating food from his kitchen. Needless to say, my friend was aghast. The smugness of the visitor was what struck my friend most; the intruder barely acknowledged my friend was there until he was confronted. In response the visitor insisted that he was within his rights – after all, my friend had the room and the food, and his need outweighed any perceived wrong.

My friend was so upset that he immediately called the police. This didn’t seem to deter the visitor at all. To my friend’s surprise, when the police arrived, they refused to remove the visitor from the premises. Even though they acknowledged that what was being done was illegal, they claimed that removing the intruder would cause too much of an uproar – apparently, the rantings of the visitor about his “right” to be there deterred the local police from acting; the Chief of Police in this community had fired police officers who acted in similar situations. My friend was told there was nothing he could do.

This emboldened the intruder who immediately began to lay claims on my friend’s property, sustenance, and money. My friend was speechless and beside himself with anger. When his family came home the intruder began to eye-up his daughter while making more noises about his rights, my friend decided on another course of action. He called the local press.

The press came in interviewed my friend and then interviewed the intruder. To my friends surprise the local radio news that evening lead off with the story about how an “uncompassionate” and “intolerant” resident was berating the homeless in the township. As shocking as this was, some of the members of his immediate family started telling him that he should feel guilty about how much he had, and that the right way to assuage this guilt was to allow the visitor to stay and eat what he wanted, for as long as he wanted.

Throughout the course of this ordeal, the visitor saw fit to remind my friend of his rights and how evil and intolerant my friend was for trying to get him out.

Does this type of presumption on the part of individuals make you angry? This little ficticious story is to give you a taste of what I feel when I see those draped in the Mexican flag demanding their right to the benefits of citizenship and the services provided by our tax money.

Joe Satriani

Last week was a rare treat for me. Two of my favorite guitarists were in town. On Wednesday night my son Danny and I went to see Joe Satriani at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia (actually Upper Darby, but close enough). Satriani’s been a favorite of mine for years; I saw him play the same venue on his “Flying in a Blue Dream” tour in 1989.

Several years ago I was in Florida on vacation with my family and our trip coincided with Joe Satriani’s appearance at “The House Of Blues” in Orlando. Since my wife doesn’t really like him and my kids were too small to go, I passed. I regretted it later; the venue is great (I had seen Kenny Wayne Shepperd there a year or two before that while on a hang gliding trip to Wallaby Ranch). The next year we were in Florida again on vacation and Joe Satriani happened to be playing in Clearwater. This time Danny, at eight years old, went to the show with me.

Danny is tough to read; he rarely gives away what he really thinks about something and this time was no exception. When the show was over I wasn’t sure how to tell if he liked it or not (asking him would have elicited a simple ‘yes’ regardless of whether or not he actually liked it). This time, however, I didn’t need to say anything. He looked up at me as we walked back to the car and asked, “can I get a guitar?”

This past Wednesday, with Danny turning 10 in a few weeks, we went again and Joe didn’t disappoint. As a matter of fact this was, by far, the best show of his that I’ve seen (and I saw the first G3 tour). My biggest complaint of his music has been the narrow range of style within which most of the songs fall. If I don’t mix his music in with that of other musicians, I usually get tired of him in about 20 minutes. But in his latest album he’s somewhat more varied and definitely more refined. I really like the course his latest album is taking and I think it will be his most popular yet.

Rik Emmett

That leaves me with the second guitarist. Rik Emmett has been my favorite guitarist for a number of years now. I wrote a review of a show that my wife and I went to in 2004 (which can be found here). Where Joe Satriani’s range of styles is narrow, Rik Emmett’s is so diverse as to cover everything from jazz to rock, classical to blues. There are some songs that defy classification like most of those on his “Swing Shift” and “Handiwork” albums (“Handiwork” is my personal favorite) being a fusion of different genres. On Saturday he played in the Downingtown High School auditorium. It amazes me whenever such a talent produces such a small turnout; but it didn’t seem to dampen the quality of the music. Rik and Dave Dunlop accompanying him on the guitar put on a fantastic show. My wife and I took the entire family.

Ginger, Mr. Emmett, and me

Some time back, my wife and I had been talking about getting away to a Bed-n-Breakfast for a weekend, when we heard about a special event that was being scheduled around an appearance of Rik Emmett in Concord New Hampshire. We decided it was a perfect opportunity to get away. The event included a “fireside chat” with Rik scheduled for Friday night and the Concord show scheduled for Saturday. It will be one of the most memorable events we’ve attended. Rik sat in the lounge of the Inn and played guitar and answered questions until late in the evening. I took a bunch of pictures and always inteneded to do a page and a writeup but never got to it. So here is a link to the photos I took that weekend.

Finally, I had heard the Joe Satriani is always trying to get Jeff Beck to tour as part of G3. I love Jeff Beck and have seen him a number of times but I’d like to see Joe tour with Rik Emmett. I think an ideal G3 would include Rik Emmett, Joe Satriani and Jeff Beck – although I’m not sure either Joe Satriani or Jeff Beck could handle not getting the top billing … :-)

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