Monthly Archives: December 2008

Converting a 4:3 screen into a 16:9 widescreen

Filed under Hack of the Day, Media

Some time ago, I picked up a Draper motorized projection screen off CraigsList. The price was right, the size was good (70″ width, 80″ diagonal 16:9 ratio), the screen was in decent shape (the very bottom was a bit warped, probably from being stored on its side, grrr), and it was motorized, so I could retract it when I wanted the living room to look like a living room.

Several months later, I found a projector and finally mounted the screen. We’ve been really enjoying it ever since.

But one thing kept bugging me. The screen was originally used for presentations in a lecture hall at Texas A&M, so it was a 4:3 ratio screen. Actually, the reflective screen material wasn’t masked at all on the top and bottom, and the screen itself is so long, I’m not exactly sure how tall it is!

Since the very bottom 6″ or so was warped, I’d just set the projector image to just above the bottom of the screen, and, for a 16:9 picture, it ended up about 39″ tall, leaving lots of white screen above the picture as well.

A relative, who’s a tad more into home theater than me, had once commented that having the screen black-masked on all 4 sides can dramatically improve the perceived picture quality, because of the increased contrast between the background and the image itself. I’d kind of doubted that until I saw his setup. Big difference!

But, I had a problem. How to black-mask the top and bottom of a vinyl projection screen that’s a good 8′ across and weighs a ton, without completely ruining it?

I toyed with several ideas, including constructing a black-velvet drape set (to mask the screen without doing anything at all to it), and rolling a second, black, layer of vinyl, up onto the drum, among others.

I ended up deciding that the best approach was likely just to spray paint the screen black.

But how, and with what?

I called Draper and talked with a very cooperative sales rep that knew exactly what I was wanting to do and understood why. Unfortunately, he said, they don’t sell the paint they use to mask the screen, and even if they did, he said, they apply it when the material is off the drum, via something akin to printing press rollers.

imageLong story short, I found Dupli-Color Vinyl and Fabric Coating (it’s not paint, apparently), at the local Pep-Boys auto parts shop for $6.49. A test spray on the back of the screen proved it wouldn’t melt the thin vinyl (a really BIG concern for me!). Plus, since it’s designed for vinyl, it remains flexible and won’t crack up when I roll the screen up and down like a normal paint would. But now the problem was how to mask it off.

I tried masking tape but it was so sticky, when I pulled it off, it puckered the screen material where it was stuck. You can still see the effect even now. That wasn’t going to work.

A trip to Home Depot and I had several varieties of low tack painter’s tape, but, alas, all were far too sticky as well.

imageSeveral months passed and I was in a FedEx Kinko’s when I came across this.  That’s right, PostIt notes as a tape! Who knew? I picked up a roll and sure enough, it had just enough tack to stick, but not enough to mess up the screen when I pulled it off.

A few hours of masking and spraying later, and I ended up here (the screen is set far lower than normal so I could mask out the very top portion, normally it’s raised about a foot and a half):


Be sure to mask everything and open windows because the spray goes everywhere and the fumes are terrible.

Also, at least for this particular screen, once I’d sprayed the top portion, it started to wrinkle, bad. I thought I may have actually damaged the screen, but there wasn’t much else to do so I just waited. It took about an hour, but eventually, the wrinkles stretched taut again and screen looks great.

Because of the popularity of the widescreen 16:9 format now, it’s pretty easy to come across older, 4:3 ratio screens with very attractive prices. Using a few cans of paint, and some careful masking, it’s pretty easy to end up with a nice 16:9 screen for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

And the picture?

The improvement was definitely worth the effort!

Tivo and the Dead MP3 Subsystem

Filed under Tivo

image image I’m a big Tivo fan, so it was with more than a little dismay that I was getting ready to trim our Christmas tree a few weeks ago and I could no longer play MP3’s through Tivo on my home theater. The Grinch had apparently just nested in my Tivo.

What was very strange though, is that I could completely navigate through my MP3 collection, via any one of the services I run (Tivo Desktop, Galleon, and J River Media Center). But when I’d select to play a track, Tivo would show the “Playing” screen and get stuck at the 0 position. It’d never actually play anything, though in all other respects, it was working perfectly.

Reset Media Center. No dice.

Reset Galleon. Still no dice.

Reset the Tivo. Ack. You get the picture.

I gave up after spending about 2 hours on it and decided that both the Tivo and me needed a little cooling off period.

I was starting to think that maybe a Tivo firmware update (one of those “happen automagically in the middle of the night” upgrades) was responsible. Anyway, after some research and a posting on the Tivo forums, someone suggested actually hard-rebooting the Tivo. Apparently, the mp3 subsystem can get hosed every once in a while.

I’d never had that happen, and I was always under the impression that resetting the Tivo via the menus was the same as an “Unplug it, and plug it back in” reboot, but, what the hey.

Lo and behold, it worked! Media Center, Galleon and the Tivo Desktop can all play MP3’s again. I guess there might be some traction in the old tech support saw “Have you rebooted the machine?” after all<g>.

At any rate, it’s a Merry Christmas again!

And have great New Year!

A Better Email Notifier

Filed under Utilities

Well, it happened.

I didn’t think there was any better Email notifier out there than ePrompter. It’s been a stable staple on my desktop for what seems like eons.

But I just recently discovered PopPeeper:


It’s free (they do ask for donations though, and that’s cool), it works with just about any Web/Pop3/Imap email service you can think of (I’ve even got it connecting to an old GroupWise server!), it’s very customizable (you can even skin the thing), shows any number of accounts, has a rotating tray icon that indicates how many messages are new (just like one of my favorite features of EPrompter), and can read HTML and RTF emails much better than EPrompter (and you can still tell it to not grab images/attachments if you want).

If you grab it, be sure to also grab their PopTweaker. It’s an addon dll that lets you configure a whole lot more settings than the default. Not sure why they decided to make that a separate DLL, but it works.

*Sweet* Explorer Replacement (w/qualifications)

Filed under Utilities

I’ve looked for a long time for a decent Explorer replacement. You know, what once was called a “File Manager”.

Funny how that entire class of application seems rarer now than a graft-free politicians office. The built in Windows Explorer is good enough for most, though it’s generally woefully lacking in virtually all aspects that make a good File Manager. This is an area where I actually have real commercial experience, too. I wrote the Windows version of the venerable WindowDos file manager in another lifetime. It’s actually still up, though I don’t believe it’s really being sold anymore. And that was back in the days of WFW3.11, and Win95, when 8.3 names were still very much in-yo-face, and NT was this weird OS that nobody had the hardware for. OS2 was a much better choice<g>.

Anyway, I’ve checked out a number of them over the years, including Directory Opus (very good, but $$$$), XYPlorer, Explorer2, Total Commander, and plenty of others, but, with the exception of Directory Opus (Dopus to those in the know), they all came up short for me.

But I recently came across AccelMan, by FlexigenSoft.image

Wow. Very cool, highly customizable, fast, nice and “keyboardy” for those that like to leave the mouse behind when browsing.

It does multiple pane browsing (and not just your Commander-style 2 pane, oh no, you can pile ’em on baby!), has a built in file viewer, hex viewer, graphic viewer, plus a command line and console view, customizable filters (show all Document files, or VB Source files, or Graphics files, for instance), and easy to edit bookmarks (files and folders). It’s its own app, so it’s not an Explorer addin, nor does it attempt to replace the built in Explorer, and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t muck with your system, at least not much.

But the best part? They’ve decided to make it freeware. When you download, be sure to grab a license key (it’s right there on the same download page). Then, after installing, register the app with the key and you’re set.

Just to be fair though, the app isn’t perfect. I’ve noticed a few crashes when mucking with some of the more esoteric customization features, and there are several things I wish they’d do different, as well a few features I’d love to see. Given the freeware nature of the product, who knows if there’s updates in the offing, though it appears to have been updated as late as June of this year.

That said, the basic functionality appears quite stable (so far anyway) and you can’t beat the feature/price ratio!

(UPDATE 12/20/08) I’ve submitted a number of comments to Flexigensoft about AccelMan, but to date, haven’t received any response. Granted, it’s the holiday season, so I’ll definitely give them that.

AccelMan is a product I’d +really+ like to see continue, even if just to get a few minor fixes in. Hell, I’d be happy to pay their original posted price if they’d get back to me about whether there will be any updates in the near future.

At this point, the biggest issues with the app that I’ve seen are:

  1. Inconsistent startup. Sometimes, it’ll start right up. Sometimes, you click to start it and nothing appears to happen. A quick look at taskman reveals that the app started and is running “hidden”. Kill that process and start it again, and, so far, anyway, it always starts up properly then. This is probably why I’ve seen more than a few posts about the 3.5 version simply “Not working” on people’s machines. I’m guessing it’s some internal window positioning code that’s wack. Can’t be too tough a fix.
  2. Even more bothersome is that if you copy files, delete folders, create new folders, etc etc, the Tree/File List isn’t immediately updated. I can replicate this behavior consistently, and it’s unbelievably annoying<sigh>.
  3. No command line parameters. Minor issue, but it sure would be nice to create shortcuts on the desktop to start in a particular folder, or with a file highlighted, but there is no support for that. Even Explorer can do this!

Bottom line: AccelMan is still definitely usable, but the above glitches are enough to make me think twice about moving to it completely as my FileManager of choice, which is terribly unfortunate.

If Programming Languages Were Religions

Filed under Rants

A friend of mine just pointed me to a pretty funny post about if programming languages were religions.

Can’t say I necessarily agree with his stand on Visual Basic<g>, but it’s a funny post, none-the-less.

Actually, that post has a link to a similar post about if languages were cars. Not quite as good, but worth the look. However, one comment there had me rolling. Best geek bumper sticker candidate I’ve seen in a long while!

                                          from a posting here

Tiny PC

Filed under Arcade, Games, Hardware

image Here’s a slick little gizmo.

The VIA ArtiGo mini pc.

It’s a full PC, with space for a 2.5″ HD, onboard graphics and audio, and up to 1 GB ram. And it fits in a 5.25″ harddrive bay.

I know, I know, there are case modders out there making still smaller PC’s, but this one’s 300$ at Fry’s, no added bother, headaches, or a Dremel necessary.

The specs are decent, but I wouldn’t want to code on it. However, you could probably make a decent Mame cab out of just about anything you have lying around and I’m guessing this would be plenty powerful enough to drive it, not to mention it’d fit just about anywhere without even a second glance.

Panoramas with Microsoft ICE

Filed under Panoramas, Photography

I’ve played with panoramic photography and photostitching in the past and always found the process interesting but the results pretty hit or miss. Depending on the subject matter, the stitches might be virtually invisible or blatantly obvious. Worse, slight changes in exposure can result in odd “banded sky” situations or worse.

I happened upon a link to a new Microsoft Research project called ICE (Image Composition Editor) a few days ago and finally got time to take it for a spin.

Color me impressed!

I ran a few old panoramic sets through it, and with virtually no adjustments at all, it did an absolutely amazing job at stitching the images together.

Check out this set of six, admittedly terrible, lousy-camera-phone photos of a building in Philadelphia I took while there on business.


Note that the images aren’t really in order and represent two rows of 3 columns. I took them standing on the street just panning the camera across the scene.

Here’s the composited shot (I’ve left the edges intact, but you can easily crop them from within ICE).


It’s not readily apparent from the scaled down image, but there’s virtually no visible seams. What’s more impressive is that I didn’t even tell ICE how the images are ordered. It figured out where to lay down each picture. Also notice that the color balance in the originals does not match (Camera phones tend to not have exposure locks<g>), but ICE compensated remarkably.

With a good camera and a tripod, I could really imagine doing some incredible panoramas with it.

Grab it while you can.

XAML editor crashes Visual Studio 2008 SP1

Filed under Uncategorized

A week or so ago, I decided to try my hand at a little XAML, so I loaded up VS2008, started up a simple project and created a few forms (or whatever they’re called in WPF speak).

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten but maybe 10 minutes in when VS crashed. Hard crash. No error message, or dialog of any sort, just closed out.

I reloaded the project and tried again. Immediate crash as soon as I loaded up any XAML file.

I let it sit over Thanksgiving (I believe it’s always good to give a system a chance to think about what it’s doing before you really lay into it<g>) and tried again today.

No joy.

So I started researching the issue and came across a pretty active thread about just this problem.

Long story short, uninstall Power Commands for Visual Studio 2008 if you’ve got it installed and have VS2008 SP1. It doesn’t look like PowerCommands has changed since April and there definitely seems to be issues with it and SP1.

Command Line Email

Filed under EMail, Utilities

Every once in a while, I’ve run into the need to send an email via the command line. Often, this is during make scripts, or other long processing batch jobs. I’ve almost always ended up succumbing to “net send” and being done with it, but that’s not an option anymore with Vista. The good ol’ (and much maligned) Messenger service is no more under Vista and Server 2008.

So, I need to send an email via command line.

There’s piles of little email apps like this floating around, but most don’t support TLS, secure sockets or authenticated smtp access, which, for better or worse, is what GMail requires now.

After a good deal of searching, I ended up coming across the very nice (and free), MailSend utility by Muhammad A Muquit.

Sending email from the command line is a simple (albeit a tad long winded) command, all on one line of course:

mailsend -from -to +cc +bc -d 
    -smtp -v -starttls -auth-plain -user -pass "yourpassword" 
    -sub "Test Subject" -M "This is the body of a test message"

Quite handy.