Behind the scenes!


On many DVDs you have a "behind the scenes" documentary - where the director prats on about how he was inspired by Alfredo Masicciano, or some guy most people have never heard of; how his primary influences were Metropolis and Plan 9 From Outer Space; and uses lots of dumb phrases like postmodernistic impressionism.

This page is where I get to prat on it much the same way... though if I made a movie I'd like to think my inspirations were Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, and Masamune Shirow. Never mind...


In the beginning

Having received an unused Digibox from a friend, I was used to watching MTV in German. Actually, a lot of stuff - Punk'd, Jackass, Scare Tactics, etc - was mostly presented in original soundtrack with small on-screen subtitles. And as for music, well, music is music isn't it?
I think the main thing was that the SkyDigital FTA channel lineup then did not interest me. Okay, there was BBC. But it wasn't Buffy time. Oh the joys of watching EastEnders... not!

So I wanted to turn my attention to the digital offerings on the older 19.2°E satellites. Suddenly there was a whole plethora of channels - in French and Spanish (of which I understand more words than in German!).

Oh the excitement! Canal Canarias (as it was called then) showing a gameshow with a girl getting overexcited about winning.... a toaster.
And there is something uniquely quirky about the Italians, and some of this shows through on RAI Uno. And as if it was living up to a cliché, most of the adverts on the only Italian channel available at 19.2°E were for Dell'Prado magazine collections and pasta sauces. Yes, really.

But, looking online, there was precious little information on the Digibox, and it seemed that looking at the channels on other satellites was a voyage of self discovery. So, naturally, I decided to rectify the situation. After all, if I am going to go through this learning process myself, why not write it down to share with others - to share with you?


Writing methodogy

This entire area (and much of my website) has been written by hand. This does not account for the lack of visual 'bangs' or the fact that some pages seem to go on forever. It is my personal style to group things together on a page, and also I feel that a few well-placed pictures are better illustrators than a fancy frames-bordered site with lots of colour and animation. About the only exhuberance that I have allowed myself is a little 'Flash' sequence at the top of the index.
I wish to apologise if you find this 'boring', but I strongly believe in the phrase "content is king". You are here, I presume, because you feel this information could help you, or perhaps Google felt that this information could help are not here to look at my artwork!
So while I may never win a 'best of the web' award, it doesn't bother me. I've looked at some sites that win awards. Sure, they are visually impressive, but just you try finding information...

One final thing is my 'chatty' style of writing. I want you to enjoy browsing through the things that I have put together here. If I wrote it in a terse cookbook style, I feel it would be much less enjoyable.


Alyson - the RiscPC

The site was originally written on a RiscPC, using !Edit (a lot like Notepad, only with a lot more intrinsic power). Pages were 'tested' with Fresco.
The specification is 32Mb memory, 1Mb VRAM, ARM710 processor (40MHz), 80486 co-processor (33MHz), and RISC OS 3.70 (with extensive modifications).
Because of the small amount of VRAM, I mainly used 800x600 in 32K colours. To be honest there doesn't seem to be much in 32K and 16M for a lot of things!

The screenshots came from two sources - either the Digibox itself (or, sometimes, a VHS recording), or from my video camera.

My Sony HandyCam, a standard 8mm model.

The images were digitised using an HCCS monochrome digitiser. A later version of the digitiser software required only minor edits to make it suddenly capable of full colour! :-)
It takes about forty seconds or so to make a colour image. This is because the digitiser is actually only a framestore. A big chunk of memory into which the video frame is sampled and written. The hard work, the detection of frame and line syncs, sorting out the luminance and the colour... all that is done in software. In between, the slight bottleneck of an 8-bit interface with a 4K addressing space (for the digitiser dates back to the earliest days of the RISC OS expansion bus). In PC terms, it is rather like having an ISA card in your machine...

The vertical resolution is restricted due to my only having memory to buffer one field (so every other line is a copy), but this is not a big problem as all the pictures are scaled half-size before being presented here...

Behind my RiscPC.
In the picture above, the digitiser is in the top podule slot - with the yellow phono plug connected. Below that is the SCSI podule used for making CD-Rs, as I have Internet access at the library, and their floppy drive is not working correctly. The bright orange cable at the bottom of the machine is 10baseT, though sadly my laptop doesn't have Ethernet, so files are transferred using a tediously slow serial link! I could do with a large partitioned harddisc. As it is right now, I have a collection of smaller devices - a 540Mb internally (ADFS), a 1Gb internally (IDEFS), and the 2Gb one that you see in the picture (IDEFS). Beside it is a 512Mb drive used for making up CD images.
If you are wondering about the power leads going into the computer, the internal IDEFS drive is powered from the external power supply. The power supply within this RiscPC is the 'smaller' type, and shouldn't be used for much more than the motherboard, harddisc, and two podules. As it is, it is running the motherboard, harddisc, CD-ROM, and three podules (the IDEFS podule is 'short' so it doesn't have a backplane connection). I figured two/three extra harddiscs and a CD writer would be too much, so they are powered externally. If you look really carefully (under the SCSI ribbon cable) you will see a heavy duty earth wire joining the two power supply units, so hopefully the 0v reference will be the same throughout the system.


The 486 laptop

When I was ill, I sat in bed with the really crappy laptop (aka "craptop") and wrote some stuff in the XTGold text editor. I used Arachne (!) to make sure it looked roughly correct, and discovered Arachne understands <div align="center"> but doesn't recognise <center>!
I won't tell you the specification of this laptop - you'd wet yourself laughing...


Angelique - the PC laptop

Writing the web pages.
Offering a Celeron clocked at 466MHz, 64Mb RAM, 2.5Mb of VRAM, a DVD reader (yay!), and Windows98 SE - this machine is the one that I am using now.
It is rather ironic that some things absolutely kick ass, speed-wise. Zipping up 32Mb of files in one go doesn't faze it, and it gets it done pretty quickly. It can play MP3s without undue lag on the rest of the system...
But as far as general responsiveness goes, it seems on par with my RiscPC! In fact, sometimes the mouse moves a fraction of a second after you move it - this is a little jarring to me as mouse movements are always completely fluid in RISC OS. Even when the system is choking on an MP3 (of which the 40MHz processor can manage a snippet every couple of seconds!), the mouse is still totally fluid in its movements.
And you have no idea how frustrating and annoying it is to encounter an operating system so backward that it cannot cope with the active window not being the one on top - same goes for XP. I have to think to arrange windows so that they are side-by-side and not layered. That way, I can select and drag things without unwanted bits of windows popping up.

But even with all of this, I am using the real-PC now and the RiscPC very much less (usually an hour a week, to make the CD session for the web site upload). I am getting to grips with VisualBasic (ever heard of a language that couldn't binary shift a number? All the VBs up until something like 2002-ish couldn't do it!). I am enjoying some interesting games from cover CDs. I love having hours of music taking up a mere 200Mb on my harddisc (and the same on a CD-R). It can play DVDs.
And best of all, it runs OvationPro, so I'm totally not losing! :-)

The web pages are, usually, written in Metapad. The standard Notepad editor was used for a while, but it is very lame (won't touch files over ~58K). So a friend found me a program that looks and feels like Notepad, only so much more capable. It rocks. Find out for yourself at
The site is tested using MSIE 6.0.2800.1106CO (SP1; q240308; q313829; q883939).


Because the laptop does not have a video digitiser fitted (has anybody seen such a thing for PCMCIA?), the photographic input has been via three digital cameras. The first, a rebadged Achiever ADC-65 - a little 256x256 pixel camera connected via a parallel connection. So far the connection has baffled me, and several other people too. The main reason that people wish to 'hack' this camera is because the supplied software grossly overprocesses leading to rather weird colour effects at times.

But that isn't an issue now. The second digital camera, with USB connection, is a Fuji iX-1. Offering up to 26 pictures at 640x480 (or 107 half size), it is an improvement over the original camera. Though it, too, has its quirks. It copes badly in 'low' light conditions (its idea of low doesn't even approach matching my idea of low), though this can be overridden by firing off a few shots in 'movie' mode (as movie mode appears to just take pictures and ignores the light settings). Unless the picture content is 'bright', you can see banding in the picture.
And, finally, if the camera is 'cold' it will write junk to memory. I cannot for the life of me understand why a solid-state camera cannot operate at 5°C, but the solution is pretty simple - I just keep the camera in my pocket so that it stays warm!

The Fuji iX-1 digital camera - a self portrait!

To most recent camera is a Trust Powerc@m 350FS. It offers 640x480 (or half size), and can save between 40 and 80 pictures (VGA size) depending on content. It has a built-in flash and a useful macro mode. The only downside is there is a tiny scratch on the glass covering of the CCD imager, which can show up as a fuzzy blur in photos. Still, I only paid €12 for it at a vide grenier (boot sale) in Summer 2005.

Though all of this, the off-air pictures still come from the Digibox connected to the HCCS Vision digitiser.



You might want to skip the paragraph - it is a geekfest!

The updates are put into a Zip archive on the PC. Because my floppy drive, also, is unreliable (what is this - after the year 2000 all the floppy discs stopped working?!?) the updates are transferred to my RiscPC using a serial link. The machines talk to each other at 115200bps.
Though, for all I might get annoyed by this, it does have a distinct advantage. The files are not restricted in length. I can make up, say, a 3Mb update without having to think to split it for putting on floppy discs.
On the RiscPC, I use SparkFS to create a TAR archive from the stuff in the Zip. I can't make a TAR directly on the PC because the Windows software I have seen that understands TAR files is limited by the rudimentary file permissions provided within the operating system. About all that makes it through is the Read only setting, and that is applied locally so permissions are rw----. As the HTTP server runs as another 'user', you need group or world read access to your files (i.e. rwr-r-) if you don't want the server to return an error - David Pilling's TAR module within SparkFS does the job perfectly, and has been able to do so for about twenty-odd years... not to mention that it can cope with the creation of arbitrary subdirectories, something I've still not managed to get WinZip to do!
This, eventually, gets committed to CD-ROM along with some emails and other junk. I use CD-R much like a floppy disc, with stuff being added session by session; though I tend to 'retire' the disc by the time it reaches twenty or so sessions. I cannot use CD-RW as I don't have capabilities on the RiscPC, it is an old 4X max SCSI CD writer.
For what it is worth, I'm an old-fashioned purist. I write CDs at 1X.
The CD writer in the library operates at 4X on it's slowest setting and this irritates me, but I'd use 4X way before I'd ever consider using 48X!!!

So at the library, I log into my host via ftp and upload the file. Because of the differential data rates, I can download to the library computer at speeds up to 16M, but it appears as if uploading runs around 256K.
I then enter into the old host with telnet. Because Glenn is security conscious, and because I do not have permission to add a single program to this (library) computer, I cannot ssh directly into my host. It is no big deal - the old host has ssh so I use that.
A quick mv and the file is in the ~/heyrick directory. For some reason this directory is not visible in ftp, possibly the Windows ftp cannot 'see' symlinks? It's just a quess, and no big issue.
The next step is tar -x -f <filename> to extract all the files into the correct places. The tar file is then erased.
Following this, I fire up MSIE and view the 'live' updates on a special URL that links directly to Glenn's machine. This is just to ensure I have not done something really silly like mess up the permissions. I do kinda wish netbsd could be told "this is my web served content in here, make it world-readable always". It is probably possible, but if you've ever bothered to read the manpage for something 'simple' like chmod or stty, you'll realise why I don't plan on wading through a tonne of gobbledegook in order to figure it out!
The final step is to use the touch program to create a "changes" file. This instructs a task that is running on Glenn's computer what needs to be updated on my site. I do not know exactly when the task runs, but chron calls it something like every six hours. The changed files are copied over to the primary site where it is globally available, like this page you are reading now.

Glenn's own computer is running at something like 8 Mbit - which is the 'expensive' flat-out-turbo-charged consumer option in the UK. It is somewhat ironic that my local library, which is basically "out in the sticks" in a nowhere part of rural France has given me a speed of slightly over 16 Mbit!
Glenn's sorted it, though. He has a provider of a 100 Mbit backbone connection for his primary server, so no matter how fast your broadband is, HeyRick won't seem like looking at the hard-shoulder of the motorway (where you'd now find cars driving, it seems...).


Thanks to...


Now go press your red button! :-)
Press your red button...


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Copyright © 2006 Richard Murray