Archive for March, 2012


One of my favourite paintings…

Christina's World

from one of my all-time favourite 20th Century sites:

Christina’s World at Mark Harden’s Artchive

…. and for the InfoGraphic generation…

Christina’s World


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I’ve not blogged in a while owing to the hours spent at work lately – it seems that fewer people equals more work, apparently – and the amount of time my evening course has required of me. This latter has now ended and I might post some of it at some future date. Another ongoing thread has been the impending house renovations and the knock on impact from that, principally the need to find somewhere else to live for 6 months.

We are having our loft converted and that means we need to find a new home for the junk that is up there. Other than purely seasonal stuff (e.g. the fake Xmas tree from Woolworths circa year 2000) then the greatest density is occupied by obsolete technology:

as well as books, George’s postcards, my comic collection (20+ years of 2000 A.D.) and yet more books.

The obsolete technology bracket also includes semi-obsolete stuff like a component Hi-Fi system, cassette tapes, mini-disks, film cameras plus 200-odd VHS tapes that I accumulated over the course of 20 years, starting in 1984 and ending (last I remember) on F.A. Cup Final day 2004, when Cambridge’s Roll On Blank Tape Centre closed to foot traffic. A good proportion of these tapes are loaded with films, especially a lot of black-and-white stuff such as Hitchcock, Bogart, “Rathbone and Bruce” Holmes, etc., After the house is renovated it is unlikely we will have the room to retain half of the current loft contents, hence I have spent the best part of 6 months trying to organise some sort of VHS to digital conversion. This has not been going well and is worthy of a story.

We have a Sony DVD / HDD recorder that is fairly efficient. I’ve successfully hooked up the VCR to this machine in the past and copied stuff. The problem is that it is a pain to actually manage the media once you have it on the machine. Trivial tasks such as entering a name for the programme you’ve just recorded are achieved using the numeric keypad on the remote control and take a few minutes each time. Similarly, the process of writing the recorded programme onto a blank DVD is a little uncertain. Generally it bashes a compressed version of the original pretty quickly – 5 minutes or so – however if you modify the settings slightly (e.g. to get a 4.7 GB recording onto a 4.6 GB DVD) then the process starts occurring in less than real time. Additionally, certain factors such as the siting of the machine make a big difference to how efficient it is to do the tape-to-taping. If I have one TV to monitor it and someone else wishes to watch cable or TV then the process breaks down. So I should either remove the DVD/HDD box from the living room – which is undesirable if you actually want to record something off of the cable – or adopt an alternative approach.

The alternative initially took the form of me looking at the price of dedicated VHS to DVD machines. Approx 180 quid to buy something slightly second-hand from Amazon that would do the job (or a lot less than that from the local Cash Converters). I was just about to click “buy” when a few things suddenly occurred to me.

  1. A DVD recorder is simply a cut down PC with a TV tuner card available to it.

  2. I have two powerful functional desktop PCs in the house.

  3. I have a third desktop PC in a cupboard. It had become unreliable (BSOD) with what looked like motherboard failure hence I retired it in April 2011.

  4. The third PC had a TV capture card in it…

So, let’s see what we can do in terms of recycling old kit. The list of actions… deep breath…

  1. Buy a new motherboard for the old PC. The CPU was fine but inevitably superseded (approx 2007 or 2008, I think). It requires a Socket 775 motherboard which are becoming a little scarce to buy new. I picked one up for approx £50. Unfortunately, the existing RAM modules I had would not work with the new mobo, so…

  2. Buy two new RAM modules. Quite cheap but still another £30.

  3. Buy thermal paste.

  4. Wait 3 months until I have time to work on it.

  5. Replace the motherboard. This is theoretically quite easy, however… Intel came up with this thing called push-pin technology to manage CPU cooling fans placement. Push-pin means that you secure the CPU-cooling fan to the mobo by pushing plastic pins attached to the CPU fan through holes in the board. The pins have something like a rawlplug around them, that flares out on the bottom of the mobo to keep the cooling fan secured in place. A weakness of this is that the flared pieces of plastic are not durable. So, during the migration of the cooling fan I managed to break off a couple of the pieces of flared plastic. The CPU cooler looked a bit wobbly but generally OK.

  6. It needs a keyboard to boot. Find an old wireless one and wireless mouse.

  7. Now, need to be able to watch it boot. Would prefer not to disconnect my desktop monitor. Ended up using a TV with a VGA input.

  8. So I try booting it up, Windows Vista being already installed.

  9. Here we go… eh? Nothing displayed on the screen.

  10. Fiddle with TV settings. Eventually get approx one third of the start-up screen displayed.

  11. Here we go again. With each power-up, it would nearly start… however …

  12. The sequence. Vista tries to boot. BSOD occurs before login screen displayed. Re-boot starts. Windows points out that it failed to boot last time and asks me if I would like it to repair itself. That’d be a good idea, say I.

  13. Windows Vista fails to repair the problem (tries for about 5 minutes). It says “oh well. That’s that then.” Power off.

  14. Start again. Nearly load, BSOD, try to repair, fail, power off.

  15. Repeat. And repeat. Change the repair settings slightly, to make it run a diagnostic, which takes about three hours and finds no errors.

  16. And repeat.

  17. Did I mention the BSOD? This flashed on and off instantly and you had no chance of seeing the message.

  18. Spark of inspiration! Use a camcorder to record the screen as the o/s loaded. By this means, I could capture the start sequence and replay and pause the video at the BSOD. Doing this I learned… absolutely nothing. The error message was just generic.

  19. “Oh, there’s a setting in the BIOS which will pause everything once the BSOD appears? Let’s try that then.”

  20. Well, that worked but the BSOD message is still unhelpful. Something is broken but who knows what. Probably Vista, but it’s not telling.

  21. Think about it. The machine has a bunch of components in but is not booting.

  22. Hang on… I just need the TV card. Let’s put that in my newer PC and move the VCR in under my desk.

  23. Oh dear… my new machine does not like the TV card. Must be faulty then. Excellent, let’s try re-booting the old machine…

  24. BSOD. Something else faulty? Graphics card, perhaps?

  25. Perform a step-re-build. Remove all components, start with just RAM modules in. Try booting.

  26. BSOD still, every time.

  27. Move the components to the working PC, one at a time (graphics card, sound card).

  28. At least the graphics card works.

  29. Put graphics card back into refurbished PC.

  30. BSOD.

  31. Hmm… overheating perhaps. Remove new motherboard. Check wiring. Apply huge amounts of thermal paste.

  32. Rebuild and try it again.

  33. It is constantly rebooting itself…. does nothing but power up, power down, power up.

  34. “Oh, the cable from the power button to the motherboard has a polarity, does it? And I have got the polarity reversed, have I?”

  35. Open case. Fiddle. The machine is no longer constantly re-booting itself.

  36. BSOD every time, however.

  37. Check the internet. Ah, there’s a setting in Vista’s registry. If a flag is set, Vista thinks that it has problems so will not start. Under certain circumstances, the flag never gets unset.

  38. I cannot find a way to unset the flag short of a full o/s reinstall.

  39. Now, what did I do with the Vista installation disk that came with it in 2007?

  40. Up in the loft, through the boxes. Nothing. Found some great old stuff though!

  41. Lie in bed. Despondent. Gaze at wardrobe, full of assorted junk. Hang on: what’s that bag lying there on a shelf, that I placed there in 2009 and have looked at every single day since, that has something inside with the PC manufacturer’s logo on?

  42. Found the Vista repair disk. Reinstall. Re-boot…..

  43. BSOD. Sod this for a game of soldiers.

  44. Buy a new keyboard, monitor and network card on impulse whilst passing through PC World. Cost: approx 180 quids all in.

  45. Download Ubuntu Linux. Boot the PC using Linux.

  46. Hurrah! It works!

  47. Oh. It crashed.

  48. What to do now. Think logically!

  49. Hear a “clunk” noise from inside the PC case. Very carefully open it. The CPU cooler is hanging off. The CPU is not being properly cooled, therefore as temperature rises it closes down.

  50. Down to Maplin. Do you have replacement plastic push pin thingies? No, but we’ll sell you a new fan for £25 quid..

  51. Send off for new CPU cooling fan. Cost: £10.

  52. New fan arrives. Install it. Push-pins work beautifully.

  53. Machine boots first time. Stays running whilst downloading 5 years worth of software updates from Microsoft. Meanwhile, I am smacking my head against the lamp-post outside owing to the fact that I should probably have just bought a new fan rather than £100 worth of new motherboard, RAM etc.

  54. TV card works first time. Picks up one hundred plus digital channels.

  55. Great! Move PC to new position, in back bedroom. Hoick VCR up there as well. Network reception non-existent but there you go.

  56. Attach antenna cables into VCR, then from VCR to PC.

  57. Find 100+ TV channels. Find zero VCR output.

  58. Oh FFS… Windows Media Centre will not deal with both digital TV and analogue VCR output. The VCR does not appear as a digital channel.

  59. Remember that I found an old analogue external TV tuner (Hauppauge Win TV) whilst poking around in boxes earlier. Get that hooked up to the VCR and to the TV.

  60. Nope. Media Centre cannot deal with two tuner cards (one digital one analogue) at the same time, it seems.

  61. Download latest version of Hauppauge WinTV software, to interpret the signal. It’s free, of course.

  62. It’s free provided that you have your original installation CD-ROM available when you want to install it. Otherwise it’s £50. Oh dear.

  63. Do some research. Is there a freeware program that can do the same thing? Yes! Does it work on Vista? Yes!

  64. Start downloading it. My isn’t the network slow? Not even getting dial-up modem speeds.

  65. Eventually downloaded OK. Oh wait: it needs to get some additional files for the install.

  66. It needs DirectX version 9.0c. That’s fine, Vista already has version 11. Oh… I still need to download it?

  67. It needs Windows Media Player version 11. That’s fine, WMP v11 is built into Vista.

  68. No, the software won’t install without an installation package for WMP v 11. A specific install file.

  69. Go to Microsoft Website, which says “You have Vista. WMP 11 is already built in, you fool. You don’t need an installation package. Go away. Quickly.”

  70. Lose the will to live.

So as we stand, I am resigned to not being able to get my VHS copying engine up and running as I would like. I am also wary that with house building work due to start within 3 months, there are just not enough hours left to copy all of my VHS archive to disk.

Anybody want 100 tapes ? Cheap?


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