Wednesday, October 10, 2007

HD Camcorder Technologies - October 2007

In early October 2007, a friend asked me about buying an HD (High-Definition) camcorder to replace their family DV camcorder. His primary application is shooting his son's football games for post-game analysis. He's an engineer, and our discussions reflect that.

CURRENT HD CAMCORDER RECORDING TECHNOLOGIES
  • Tape - We still like this. The consumer HDV tape format uses the old MiniDV tape format, and records MPEG-2 data at exactly the same 25Mbps (megaBITS per second) as standard definition DV. When you run out of tape while on vacation, you go to the store (even a grocery store, these days) or the photo booth at Disneyland to buy more. When you shoot to tape, it's a $5/hour archive of what represents 13GB of data. Camcorders can duplicate these digital tapes perfectly to each other over a FireWire cable, and footage edited on a computer can be written back to tape losslessly. Downsides: transferring footage to a computer for editing or transcoding ( i.e., for uploading to YouTube, putting on your cell phone) can only occur in real time. Also, tape is pretty mechanical, and may wear out in time easier than optical media (CD-R/RW, DVD-R/RW). Of course, optical media might fail eventually, too.
  • Hard Drive - Perhaps handy and tempting because you can shoot several hours of footage without managing tapes, but when it's full, you'd better have a computer with lots of hard drive space handy, and some time to transfer the data. (On that African safari, you'd better have a laptop and a couple of external hard drives and batteries to transfer footage while bouncing across the veldt in a Land Rover.) HD camcorders shooting to HD use MPEG-4 H.264 "AVC" codec, just like DirecTV's new transmissions. The AVCHD standard provides for potentially greater fidelity than HDV. However, current implementations do not yet match the quality of HDV. Unlike HDV, AVCHD camera offer user-selectable bitrates to balance quality and capacity. This is a new paradigm for computer editing, so we're in the first generations of editing software which handle AVC. Unlike tape, footage can be potentially transferred to a computer in a fraction of the recording time. Obviously, footage must be archived elsewhere, but I'm assuming that you can simply use existing computer data management concepts to copy and "burn" data to DVD-Rs. I don't know if any HD camcorders allow using the drive as a mountable hard drive on the computer - that could potentially save even more time (though you really want your footage archived in another location for safe-keeping).
  • Recordable DVD - This product may appear promising, but is pretty awkward in reality. Using either 12cm or 8cm optical recordable DVDs, these camcorders can produce discs which will play in a consumer DVD player without the need of a computer at any point. DVDs are inexpensive and as with tape, the camera creates a physical archive of the data. However, some mechanisms are slow to respond and ejecting a disc requires a several-minute "finalization" of the media - pretty unwelcome when they call your kid off the bench for the first time and you've just filled up your disc. I think all the HD camcorders recording to DVD-R are using AVCHD.
  • Memory Cards - Astonishingly, Japanese giant Panasonic has been promoting solid-state broadcast HD camcorders for three years (I attend media production trade shows regularly). These shoot to " P2" cards, which are basically the old "PC Card/CardBus/PCMCIA" form-factor containing a RAID-array of four, matched, high-speed Secure Digital High-Capacity (SDHC) cards inside. These are very expensive, but provide many interesting technical benefits to professional video production. Knowing about that has lessened the impact of seeing the recent growth of consumer SD and HD camcorders which shoot to single SDHC cards. Again using AVCHD compression, this promises faster-than-realtime transfer of footage to a computer for editing. As with hard drives, the expense of memory cards means having to archive to another media form. You also have to consider buying multiple $80 8GB cards which might each hold an hour or two of footage.
BACKING UP

A wonderful thing digital technology has brought us is the ability to make perfect duplicates of our video footage. In the past, we could only make lower-quality copies of originals, and copies of copies were nearly unplayable. Today, your consumer video footage can be copied infinitely without any loss whatsoever. So if your parents make a copy of a DVD you sent them to your uncle, and he makes copies for your cousins, everyone's copies are identical. I find this particularly appropriate for protecting the family legacy of photographs and video recordings - if every family member gave every other family member a copy of their precious archives in digital form, then the chances of them surviving into the future are very high.

As with all data, even chemical-based photography, if you don't have duplicates, you risk the loss of irreplaceable of any information. So even if you haven't practiced it before, there's no time like the present to practice "safe data handling." Make duplicates of anything you wouldn't want to lose, and store the duplicates "off-site" in the event of a disaster at your primary storage site.

Actually making duplicates of video data is pretty time-intensive, because video takes up a lot of data space, and most methods take at least as long as the duration of the video. Here are some examples of how you might back up video data from the various digital forms:
  • Tape-to-tape: High-definition HDV, standard-definition MiniDV, and Digital-8 camcorders can "dub" digitally between camcorders and VCRs if both recorders are equipped with FireWire interfaces (Sony calls this "i.Link" and the technical standard is known as "IEEE-1394"). Typically, a "4 pin to 4 pin" FireWire cable is connected between the two camcorders, one is played and the other is placed into record (typcially in "VCR" mode, rather than "camera" mode). The resulting copy represents the quality of the original perfectly.
    • It's pretty awkward and impractical for most people to back up their videotapes while traveling, but if it's really a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you might consider packing along a spare camcorder or a couple of external hard drives for your laptop - never trust having all your data in one place.
    • NOTE: To dub from HDV to standard-def MiniDV or Digital-8, your HDV camcorder must be able to "downsample" or "convert" the HDV to DV during the dub. You can also dub from DV to some HDV camcorders, but the resulting dub will NOT be HDV.
  • Archive to hard drive: This might seem a bit expensive as a long-term archive solution, but hard drive prices continue to fall. At the time of this writing in October 2007 I just noticed a fairly compact 500GB external FireWire hard drive for $150 at my local "warehouse" store - that's over 35 hours of DV/HDV storage, and even more AVCHD. On the road, you could copy from tape to external hard drive in your hotel room at night, if for no other purpose than as a temporary backup until you archived back to tape later, or to optical media.
  • Archive to optical media: This process is typically performed by connecting a camcorder to computer via FireWire/IEEE-1394 cable and a video-editing program, then using a DVD-authoring program to "burn" the edited video to inexpensive recordable DVDs. Current technology encodes home videos as MPEG-2 video on recordable DVDs. This does NOT preserve the original fidelity of standard-definition DV, and so is certainly incapable of maintaining HD recordings. DVDs are "good enough" for most standard-def consumer applications. New-generation consumer HD camcorders that record HD video using the AVCHD/H.264 codec make files small enough to fit a little over an hour of their highest quality HD video on an existing DVD-R (4.7GB). At this time, AVCHD camcorders don't quite have the fidelity of HDV, but will likely change with time. In the next few years, we will probably transition to higher-capacity Blu-ray and HD-DVD recordable drives in our personal computers, and archiving to these may be able to preserve full fidelity of the original camera recordings.
  • Duplicating DVDs - If your camcorder records directly to recordable DVDs, then these DVDs (and any DVDs you make from tape, hard drive-based, or memory-card-based camcorders) can be duplicated in a personal computer with a DVD-burning drive.
VIEWING HD HOME MOVIES

Until recently, the only way you could view consumer HD footage on your HDTV was to play back on your camcorder directly connected to the HDTV via HDMI/DVI, analog component video cables, or (if your HDTV supports it) even 1080i over FireWire cable. Of course, you can watch HD footage in full resolution on a computer, provided it's powerful enough and you have a display capable of displaying 1280x720 or 1920x1080 pixels.

NEW HD VIEWING ALTERNATIVES?

I recently realized that it might be possible to put the files from an AVCHD camcorder (or converted from another HD format to AVCHD/H.264 files) on existing DVD-recordable media and play it back in a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player (which support H.264 as one of their codecs), but only if that player could read recordable DVDs, and if it recognized AVCHD files as being valid. I'd sort of automatically put out of my mind worrying about producing high-definition DVDs until we owned a Blu-ray or HD-DVD burner - but it's possible to make hour-long high-def DVDs now, provided you have a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player with these qualities. I found a couple of posts on Sony Playstation 3 forums where users had reported playing 8cm DVDs recorded in a Sony HDR-UX7 HD camcorder on their PS3 game consoles (which have Blu-ray drives and can play commerical Blu-ray movies). Here is a YouTube video of a user demonstrating this (we'll assume this is not a hoax). This blogger says that you can place H.264 files into a folder named "VIDEO" on a data DVD and the PS3 will recognize and play those files. Using this technique, it's possible to make and existing DVD-recordable which plays around an hour of HD content.

STREAMS VS. FILES

I had not really considered this until now - I have just sort of assumed we'd eventually have to bite the bullet and purchase a Blu-ray or HD-DVD burner for a computer (or buy a computer with a burner) *and* decide which of the HD DVD standards we'd buy into to match it. This is also a nice consequence of a rather obtuse concept I first became aware of over a decade ago - with the new tapeless camcorders, we're transitioning from "streaming" data forms (as with tape or live video and audio broadcasts, you have to be able to join in progress) to "file-based" data forms. To get footage from a tape to play on a DVD, you have to create a file from data captured from the tape. With AVCHD, there's the promise of using familiar computer file paradigms and just copying files from the camera media (RAM, HD, DVD) to some other place and having a piece of hardware decode it. This is pretty exciting to us, because until now getting footage from a camcorder to a (SD) DVD is a pretty painful process, including having to "transcode" from however the video was compressed by the camera to another way the DVD player recognized. Having cameras that record files that can be played directly by set-top high-def DVD players (if indeed they can) really makes the path short (provided you're not editing).

EDITING COMPLEXITIES FOR CONSUMER HD

Having said that, the algorithms used to store all that HD data in *less* space (some current AVCHD camcorder record up to 1920x1080 pixels@30fps at a data rate of only 15Mbps, while standard-def DV records 720x480@30fps at 25Mbps) have to resort to some devious strategies - namely using inter-frame as well as intra-frame compression. This means that unlike the old DV standard, these cameras don't record every frame. They record periodic full frames followed by the differences between the full frames and the current one. This makes editing pretty tricky, since trying to go forward (or worse, backward) one frame will likely land you on a frame that doesn't actually exist. Early HDV editing solutions (from just 2 years ago) required capturing all the footage at real-time, then waiting hours while the computer created temporary files of intra-frame compressed frames. At the end of editing, if you wished to record back to HDV tape, you waited for hours again while software re-created the long-GOP (Group Of Frames) stream to put back on tape.

MAYBE DVD-BURNING CAMCORDERS AIN'T SO BAD

There is some argument for using a DVD-burning camcorder if all you want to do is, say, review football plays without editing. As long as you strategized disc-changes at non-critical times (assuming the tales of long DVD-finalizing waits are true), you'd be able to pop these in a [compatible HDTV player or personal computer with AVCHD decoding software] without any intermediate steps. Plus, you get archival media right from the camera (which you can duplicate in a computer with a DVD burner).

MORE CAMCORDER INFO

Camcorderinfo.com is a site which attempts to provide objective reviews of available products through scientific process. Founder Robin Liss was 12 years old when she founded the site a decade ago.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Termite Tome: We Have Termites?!?

In May of 2000, we had our first encounter as home-owners with termites. Our home is in the Los Angeles area. This article is extracted from email to friends and family.

Last Wednesday, while cleaning out our garage to install shelving, we discovered three cardboard boxes which had been partially consumed by still-present termites. I (stupidly) sprayed the boxes and area with insecticide and carefully disposed of the boxes, once again soaking them with Raid. The next day, I removed a layer of sheet rock from that part of the garage wall and discovered some small mud tubes, and that the termites had eaten a thin bit of the surface of the studs where they met the drywall, and some of the drywall paper where it met the wood. No termites were visible.

My wife found a couple of hundred termite services in our Yellow Pages. We called Terminix and Orkin for inspectors, deciding that we'd start at the top, and see how expensive it could get. I also reasoned that if there were such things as warranties against damage (I didn't know if they actually existed), then the huge companies would have the most clout to actually cover a claim. We know, too, that when you buy the biggest companies, you pay for their advertising budgets. Which, based on television airplay alone, must be enormous. For whatever it's worth, there were ten full-page Yellow Page ads in the San Fernando Valley Yellow Pages, only two of which were Terminix and Orkin. My wife remembered that Yellow Page full-page ads in our home town in North Carolina were $10,000 to $15,000 a year ten years ago - you can imagine what time and this location's impact has on rates.

We're still discussing this, but we've had inspections/quotes from the Big Two, Terminix and Orkin. Bottom lines are basically $1800 for treatment, which includes repair guarantees on structure and property within. Ongoing maintenance of their more expensive plans are $268 and $416/year, respectively. If there's good news, it's that the Orkin inspector/salesman found no significant termite problems in our home. On the negative side, we have termites within the structure. So what to do?

Keep in mind that these reps are selling something. Also keep in mind that termites are almost everywhere (Alaska is the only U.S. state unaffected), and are necessary to the planet's ecology.

The following text is partly information from the pest control reps. Much of it I've learned since Wednesday via the Web. So as always - Do Your Own Research.


TERMINIX - www.terminix.com

The Terminix rep, Greg, came on Thursday an hour and a half after their two-hour scheduled window. I took him immediately to the garage and showed him the site where we'd discovered the termites. I'd also removed a sheet of drywall in the garage and found some mud tubes along the joints between the studs and drywall. So obviously, there was nothing to sell to the customer for the rep - the customer discovered live termites and called the company for and inspection. We were informed that we had one of the two main termite pests, subterranean termites (the other kind are drywood termites). Subterranean are the more dangerous to structures, because they live in underground colonies numbering from hundreds of thousands to millions of termites. They must enter a structure from the earth, and can not be exposed to air or sun, as their soft bodies require constant moisture. If a piece of wood is in contact with the earth, it is at great risk. Subterranean termites will also exploit any crack in cement foundations leading to edible wood. They require a moist environment for their colony, and form the colony near the water table, as deep as 150 feet underground. So quickly killing subterranean termites in a structure only cuts off a single source of food from several they have likely established. The colony will continue to feed elsewhere. Greg said that subterranean termites averaged 5 colonies per acre.

Drywood termites can enter a structure anywhere when in their flighted reproductive stage. (Termites "swarm" to propagate the species - when some males and females born to a colony have wings and eyes - they are normally eyeless - and fly off to mate and establish new colonies. The swarmers have no mouth parts, and do not eat. Ants also have a flying reproductive stage.) Drywood termites live within the wood itself, and get all their moisture from the wood they consume. The colonies are much smaller, numbering only up to a few tens of thousands. However, the only treatment method for dwellings with drywood termites is fumigation - requiring "tenting" of the structure. Prevention against drywoods is not practiced, and reinfestation can occure the day after a fumigation. Drywood colonies grow slowly (reaching destructive sizes in four or five years), so they are not as great a threat as subterraneans, which can feed on multiple sources simultaneously and can grow massive colonies. The only method of treatment for drywood termites is fumigation once they have been detected. Fumigation is not effective against subterranean termites because the colony is safe far underground. Greg did not address whether or not we had drywood termites, nor did he inspect our home. While he measured the exterior perimeter of the home, he let us watch a 10 minute promotional video about the Sentricon product (see below). I accidentally dubbed this tape while we were watching it. We could accidentally dub a copy for you, as well.

We talked about treatments - he offered two:

  • BAITING - Terminix uses a DowElanco product called Sentricon. This is Terminix' main termite product since its inception two years ago. The active ingredient is hexaflumeron, an insect growth regulator (IGR), or chitin inhibitor (pronounced kite'-en, this is the material with which most arthropods make their exoskeletons) which inhibits the molting process which some insects (like termites and ants) use to grow. Unable to accommodate their increasing size by molting their old skin, the worker termites die. The installation surrounds the property with foot-long tubular plastic bait stations, placed both in the ground near wood structures and, if necessary, in holes drilled in cement pads. Indoor stations are available to attach to existing termite mud tubes, to reduce the time that the agent is introduced to the colony. Small vents in the side of the stations admit termite-sized guests. Initially, plain wood is placed within the bait stations to attract and detect termites. Terminix claims that it typically takes 30 to 40 days for a termite colony to discover the wood and begin feeding upon it. Terminix reps return periodically (two weeks to one month) and check the status of every bait station. Data about bait station progress is recorded by bar-code readers on-site and set back to DowElanco, who maintain a database of termite activity and regulate dispensing of their Setricon product. When a bait station if found to have active termite activity, the termites are carefully removed and saved. The the wood is replaced with Sentricon-treated cellulose fibers (termites eat only cellulose - which is actually digested thanks to microscopic protozoa in their gut - this is how most of the dead plant fiber on the planet is broken down into soil constituents). The live termites are replaced in the bait station on top of the treated fibers. They eat their way through the fibers and eventually return to the colony. There, they share their food with the rest of the colony, including the queen and king. In doing so, they pass along the hexaflumeron. Eventually, the workers are unable to grow, and die. Because only the workers leave the colony and forage for food, eventually the entire colony starves. Dow calls this "colony elimination," though Terminix literature reads "eliminates or substantially reduces" colonies. (Some sources claim that it is difficult to determine whether a colony has in fact been eliminated, or merely stopped feeding at a particular site.) Once the bait station shows no live termites, the treated cellulose is replaced again with plain wood and monitoring begins again. The Sentricon video was careful to note that there was little or no drilling in and around the foundation involved, and frequently presented images of technicians from "other" companies using jackhammer-sized drills in people living rooms, etc.
Terminix' warranty for Sentricon treatment covers any structural repair and the contents of the structure beginning six months after Sentricon treatment begins on "qualified homes". (Though Greg did not mention or explain this qualification, the Orkin rep which came the next day was careful to point out that not all homes qualified, and that ours did because he had performed an inspection and deemed our home "clean" enough to warranty. Which is a bit of a comfort - considering the reason for having termite folks at the house.) The warranty is transferable - it belongs to the address, not the owner. Greg said that most exterminators only offer re-treatment warranties. Rates are based upon linear feet of the wood structure's perimeter - doorways, for instance, are not included. Greg measured our home at 214 linear feet. The quote was $1785, which is a year of treatment and monitoring. The program does nothing else but manage Sentricon bait stations - which indicates Terminix' faith and/or commitment to the product. Ongoing maintenance of the program, which maintains the repair warranty, is $268/year for our house. The initial price was rather shocking - we'd seen website quotes of less than half as much for more conventional treatments. I'm impressed that the company offers a repair guarantee. Yes, they are entering into the insurance business preying upon a very vulnerable spot among consumers. But the risks are substantial in warrantying home repairs, so it's also rather convincing. $300 a year for termite insurance is really pretty reasonable, as far as I'm concerned - the $1800 startup is harder to take - my wife is much more hesitant about this figure than I. Greg said that he thought that Terminix was the only company to offer repair guarantees - this is not true, as we'd find out from Orkin the next day. I asked Greg if there were any cautions or indications about hexaflumeron, and he told us that the DowElanco rep would chew on a treated pad as a demonstration. Then again, I remember a DuPont rep pouring Freon on her dress in 11th grade in Mrs. Carter's chemistry class, telling us how inert the product was. Right.
  • LIQUID TREATMENT - Greg quoted $1313/$150 (startup/annual) for the more traditional "barrier treatment," which injects liquid termiticide into ground on the inside and outside of the foundation every foot. This may require drilling holes in cement pads or inside floors every foot. But Terminix does NOT offer a repair warranty for this this program, only a "Re-treatment" warranty - meaning that if you get termites, they keep treating. But he "recommended" the Bait program. As both Terminix and Orkin reps said, these termiticides are temporary, and dissipate into the soil with weather and water to ineffective concentrations in under a year. A long-lasting termiticide, Chlordane, was banned from use almost a decade ago. They require continuous re-treatment, and depend upon the efficiency of the installers to completely cover any possible access to animals sized about a third of a grain of rice. "Efficiency of Installers" is a concept I consider unrealistic.

ORKIN - www.orkin.com

"Jeff" showed up at the scheduled time. I showed him the garage site, and he told us that we had subterranean termites. He then said that he'd measure our property and crawl under the house, then talk to us about possible treatments. He spent nearly a half hour in our two-foot high crawlspace. When he returned, he told us that it looked fine, except for a single site where he found evidence of drywood termites. The site had been previously marked with the letter "K," an exterminator code for drywood termites. He saw termite "pellets," fecal matter pushed out of the burrow by drywood termites, which he thought were probably recent. He didn't know whether the site had been marked and never treated, or simply re-inhabited coincidentally. In any case, he said that "he wasn't worried" about the drywood discovery. He indicated that we had some plumbing problems in our 3/4 bathroom (we had our master bath's new toilet sitting in the hall, as part of fixing a plumbing leak which had caused some bulging in our bathroom floor and peeling of paint at the baseboard). And he pointed out that we had wood-to-eath contact in our rose bed in the front of our house, where the soil had been shifted or added. Subterranean termites can gain access unobserved at any wood-to-earth point.

When we sat down and discussed treatment with him, he outlined their plan, which included:
  • Liquid barrier treatment (termiticide) for ten linear feet on either side of the site I'd discovered in the garage. This involved drilling holes in the cement pad inside and out.
  • Liquid barrier treatment under our cement front porch and walkway, and back porch; where termites can build mud tubes from the earth to the wood foundation unobserved.
  • Liquid barrier treatment injected through holes drilled in the mortar between the bricks at the front of our house. These bricks apparently provide unobservable access from the ground to wooden structure.
  • Direct treatment of the lumber where the drywood termite evidence was found with liquid termiticide, injected through holes drilled into that lumber only.
  • Treatment of all lumber under our home where it contacts cement foundation blocks with Timbor, an inexpensive sodium borate solution which makes wood inedible to termites. Termites can climb up cracks in cement as narrow as 1/64 of an inch. (This treatment is advertised by many of the hundreds of termite ads in our Yellow Pages.)
  • Installation of bait stations, similar in application to the Terminix/Sentricon system, but using FirstLine, a product of FMC Corporation. This bait is not a growth regulator, but a toxin. The Orkin rep and DowElanco literature comparing their Sentricon product and FirstLine both call it a "stomach poison," but the University of Nebraska page below calls its active ingredient, sulfuramid, a "respiration inhibitor." In any case, this is also intended to affect the entire colony, though both the DowElanco (competitor) literature and U of N page suggest that the product does not eliminate colonies, it only suppresses them. These bait stations are also loaded first with wood, then monitored much as the Sentricon product. The Sentricon literature mentions (as a negative aspect of FirstLine) the necessity of also applying liquid barrier treatment for effectiveness.

Orkin also offers a Repair Warranty, guaranteeing against damage or they cover home repairs. I asked Jeff when the coverage began (Terminix was six months after treatment began), and he said it began with installation of the program. Interestingly, Jeff said that in his opinion, there was no reason to continue the program once the bait stations stopped getting termites. He said that termites never stop using a food source, so if they stopped visiting a station, they were dead. I remarked that it was unusual for Orkin not to encourage ongoing income by selling this as an ongoing program - and Jeff said that this was "his opinion, not Orkin's." Considering what a gold mine termite insurance surely is, I find this a bit odd. Of course, it's not exactly in these companies' best interest to eradicate termites. Nor the planet's for that matter.

Orkin's quote for our house (based upon 210 linear feet) was $1795 for installation and the first year of bait station monitoring. He indicated that if we never got a "hit" on a bait station in the initial year, we'd could choose to continue monitoring, with full repair warranty, at $416 per additional year. Again, he indicated that if a bait station ever got a hit, then received FirstLine treatment and stopped getting termites, he didn't consider it necessary to continue the program with Orkin. In fact, he told us that once the termites stopped feeding on the FirstLine bait, they'd remove the bait stations and fill in any holes in the cement pads, unless the customer opted to continue treatment. Terminix made no such suggestions (nor would you expect any company to).

Jeff also said that Orkin offered a Money-Back Satisfaction Guarantee - if for any reason a customer was NOT satisfied with service at any time, a full refund was offered.


CONCLUSIONS

Well, we're still thinking about it. Memorial day Monday is coming up, so we don't have to choose for a couple of days. I guess I'm impressed enough with the idea of repair warranties that I'm willing to pay more for a big-name company than a mom & pop shop. Halfway through writing this, I was leaning toward Terminix and Sentricon, despite the fact that the sales rep for Orkin did much more work (including detection of the drywood termites) and was generally more thorough (and pleasant), and despite the fact that Orkin would treat the drywood site. I may ask Terminix whether they would treat that site as well. The University of Nebraska page below makes Sentricon sound like a more effective product - and I also appreciate that it's actually managed and monitored by its manufacturer, Dow Agro Sciences/DowElanco. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of re-shelving our garage when we discovered the termites eating a couple of cardboard boxes. So we're stalled on that project (fortunately, we put up a vinyl shed before we started the project, so all the garage contents are packed in there for the time being) until we know whether we're going to use a company that needs to drill in the garage floor. And my wife starts teaching Summer School in a couple of weeks.

After reading much of the links below (while I was composing some of this letter), and after half a day of thinking about it (before finishing this letter), I'm now leaning toward the Orkin side. Several apparently impartial academic sources on the Web (I'm always cautious about Web sources - after all, I'm thinking about posting this letter on the Web, and the Web has been my only source) made positive arguments for sulfuramide, used by Orkin under the trade name FirstLine. (We did eventually do an Orkin treatment and one year of maintenance contract. Whether we needed to do either is debatable.)

(You can buy sulfuramide bait systems over-the-counter, and for 25 per cent of the price of FirstLine, but you wouldn't necessarily have the expertise to administer it, and you definitely wouldn't have a repair warranty. Since termite control is difficult to verify, it would be hard to know whether you were doing anything useful. Of course, the same is true for commercial services - except for guarantees.)

Since the rate is nearly identical for the initial treatment, Orkin appears to provide greater service (though I think the point is that Terminix has to pay a great deal of money to DowElanco for Sentricon) - addressing our drywood issue as part of the service, and performing some preventative measures.

I guess I'm leery of trying smaller shops to save money. This Dallas company claims that $8/linear foot is a national average, and that rates can go as high as $12/linear foot. At $1795 for 210 linear feet, Orkin quoted us at $8.55/linear foot, and Terminix' $1785 for 214 linear feet puts them at $8.34/linear foot. So I guess we're supposed to feel lucky.

Doing nothing at all, or thinking that we can control termites ourselves is out of the question now. Perhaps that's because I've been reading termite control propaganda. But some of what I've been reading is straight-up termite academia - and fact is, we build homes out of termite food. Why we don't build with anti-termite treated lumber is beyond me. By all accounts, treatment of lumber with sodium borate would be inexpensive.

When we first saw how many ads there were in the Yellow Pages, I kept saying, "Why would you open up a termite business? Why would you want to go head-to-head with the big guys?" Now I guess I know. Once a homeowner is shocked by the rates of the major companies, the smaller shops can under-price them for whatever service they want to provide. It's so hard to know what's actually going on with termite control, even for the exterminators. Much of the business can be so much snake oil. It's easy to eliminate the currently noticeable nuisance and blame future recurrences on "swarming" or "another colony." I'm considering paying Big Money for the backing of a major company and their repair warranties as a result.

Sorry if I've made some of you paranoid. But I hope that this helps some of you in future termite endeavors.

ONE MORE TIME...

In 2005, we had another termite encounter, this time with drywood termites.

While standing on our back porch, I realized I was hearing a faint, semi-regular sound. Our barbecue grille was under our porch roof, and on the grille's side-burner was a paper plate from a recent cookout. The plate contained what appeared to be about a half-teaspoon of sand scattered on its surface. Every few seconds, another "grain" or two would fall into the plate. I remembered the word for termite droppings, "frass," and looked it up. I then used a hand-held microscope and inspected the "sand." It looked like this:


Drywood Termite Frass

Actually, this image is cropped from the very photo I found online. And unfortunately, the particles in the plate were exactly these hexagonal granules. Drywood termite poop.

We once again called Orkin and they came out and locally treated the outdoor rafter from with the frass was falling, plus some adjacent wood. The Orkin rep determined that the problem was probably isolated to the single piece of wood (drywood termites generally stay within a limited volume of wood). We did nothing else.

MORE TERMITE LINKS

My favorite termite website is Dr. Don's Termite Page. Don Ewart is an entomologist in Australia, working as a research scientist specializing in termites. I trust his data mostly because I can't imagine someone without his credentials making such a page.

Here's an informative page from a Dallas/Ft. Worth exterminator.

Here's a link to a Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station.

See this fact sheet from the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County about termite bait programs.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

DirecTV's Programming Packages Chart

DirecTV's website is a bit less-than-clear when it comes to comparing the different programming packages. I've created a comparison chart to make it easier to see what channels are available for the offered packages as of October 1, 2007.

Monday, October 01, 2007

DirecTV Does 100 High-Definition Channels, But My HD TiVo Doesn't

The satellite television provider DirecTV has been promoting "100 HD Channels!" for the better part of this year (having offered only nine HD channels for years), and the rollout has already begun. Owners of older DirecTV HD TiVo HR10-250 (discontinued) will not be able to receive these new channels. DirecTV offers a $99 upgrade to a new DVR which can record all the new HD channels - alas, there will be no TiVo-branded interface.

DIRECTV LAUNCHES NEW HD CHANNELS
I was somewhat startled this past week (late September 2007) when, on a whim, I visited the DirecTV website and discovered that a number of new channels had already been added.

We have been DirecTV and TiVo customers for six or seven years, and high-definition DirecTV TiVo users (with the aforementioned HR10-250) since February 2006. We knew at the time that DirecTV's transition to MPEG-4 transmission was in the works, but reasoned that DirecTV wouldn't alienate customers, and would replace our hardware if they "pulled the plug" on MPEG-2 transmissions.

DirecTV has only provided us with seven (7) HD channels (see "DIRECTV'S NEW PROGRAMMING LINEUP" below) for these past 20 months (this "HD Access" package adds $10/month). The HR10-250 also pulls eight local off-air HD channels from a roof-top UHF antenna and seamlessly integrates program listings into the TiVo's two-week program guide. We're still relative HD newbies, so we've been willing to take what we could get (though we didn't subscribe to HBO HD or Showtime HD).

The promise of dozens more of our favorite channels in high-def has us considering what what may be a painful switch from the relatively elegant TiVo interface to DirecTV's own DVR software.

WHAT ARE MPEG-4 AND MPEG-2?
MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 are codecs - short for "COmpressor/DECompressor." They are different schemes of encoding video information in a way that conserves space and reduces transmission burdens but preserves the fidelity of the original footage. MPEG-2 is an older codec, used in DVDs and (until now) digital television transmission, plus other applications. MPEG-4 is more recently developed, and leverages modern computing power to provide high fidelity at significantly lower data rates that previous algorithms. DirecTV is apparently using the H.264 standard, also known as Advanced Video Coding (AVC), a variant of MPEG-4 which promises even further efficiency over earlier MPEG-4 standards.

Before the digital media revolution of the past decade, carriers were not motivated to offer a high-definition (HD) television channel if it displaced as many as six standard definition (SD) channels - neither advertisers nor consumers would be willing to pay a 500 per cent premium for each HD channel. Because HD television contains several times the visual information of SD, modern video and audio compression schemes are enabling media carriers to provide similar numbers of HD channels using the same mechanisms (i.e., FCC broadcast frequency, copper cable, satellite transponders, consumer broadband Internet) they previously used for SD channels. They can also choose to use their existing bandwidth to provide many times the number of SD channels as with legacy analog transmission. (Digital carriers can also potentially change the data rate, and therefore the image quality, of any given channel - food for thought.)

If not for the bandwidth economies offered by digital compression, we probably wouldn't have HDTV. We've just arrived at a nexus of software and hardware technologies which enables us to finally move forward from a six decade-old television standard.

CAN I REALLY UPGRADE TO AN MPEG-4 DIRECTV DVR FOR $99?
Yes, sort of. "Sort of," because you don't actually own a DirecTV DVR - it's a lease - and you are contractually bound to return it to DirecTV if you discontinue service (read their Terms & Conditions). You also have to commit to a new two-year agreement. Though I haven't yet ordered a new HR20 DirecTV Plus HD DVR ($300 from retailers), I went through most of the process on the DirecTV website and confirmed that an existing customer can upgrade to a new MPEG-4-compatible HR20 for $99, including professional installation. If you want to see for yourself:
  1. Browse the DirecTV website and log in as a DirecTV user (you must have previously established an online access account).
  2. Click on "Upgrade Equipment."
  3. In the resulting "Upgrade Your System" page which displays your account information, click "Continue."
  4. On the next "Online Equipment Ordering" page, click the "Add to Order" radio button next to "DIRECTV Plus® DVR – up to 100 hours of digital recording."
  5. At the bottom of the page, click "Continue Making Selections."
  6. The next page informs the user that they can opt to self-install or have a professional installation at no additional charge. Select one and click "Continue Making Selections."
  7. This page lists the price of the "DIRECTV Plus® DVR" as $99. It also explains "As part of the standard installation included in this offer, you are entitled to relocate one of your existing receivers to another room. If you want the newly purchased receiver to replace one of your existing receivers, please choose "NO" next to "Relocate My Existing Receiver." If you require a receiver to be relocated to another room, please choose 'YES.'" In this interview, a DirecTV spokesman says the professional relocation of the existing DVR to another room is included with the upgrade upon request - a checkbox is provided for this option.
In the research and writing of this article, I've pretty much mentally made the commitment to the upgrade. We haven't yet decided whether to keep our original SD TiVo along with our original HD TiVo and new MPEG-4-ready DirecTV HD DVR, but we've still got our original dish installed to accommodate all six tuners (each DVR has two), so it's a matter of paying $4.99/month more for an additional receiver. (Fortunately, TiVos and their remotes can be programmed for nine possible codes.)

BUT IT'S NOT A TIVO...
In April 2006, after a long dispute over patent rights, DirecTV and TiVo agreed to a three-year extension of a commercial agreement where DirecTV continues to support TiVo-based DirecTV DVRs (we pay DirecTV for "DVR service" rather than having to pay a separate bill to TiVo). DirecTV has never produced another TiVo-based DVR, instead partnering with another firm, NDS. TiVo has struggled for a market position, notably making a deal with cable giant Comcast to provide PVR and program guide technology for set-top cable boxes.

Though not perfect (nothing is), TLinkiVo's product is robust and elegant. From brief encounters, I've expected DirecTV's PVR to be inferior to the TiVo in terms of interface and functionality, and a conversation I had today with a former DirecTiVo owner now using a DTV DVR seemed to confirm that. Alas, we have no choice if we're to remain with DirecTV. We've been pleased with our DirecTV service, and lingering memories of smug cable companies will probably keep us putting our TV programming dollars there.

DIRECTV'S PROGRAMMING PACKAGES
I've posted a chart of DirecTV's programming packages to make it easier to compare channel offerings than DirecTV's website.

DIRECTV'S NEW HD PROGRAMMING LINEUP

Here's DirecTV's current and future high-definition lineup:
  • Existing MPEG-2 HD Channels
    • Discovery HD Theater, ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, HDNet, HDNet Movies, TNT HD, Universal HD, Showtime East HD, HBO HD
  • MPEG-4 HD Network Channels (from LA- and NY-based broadcasts in eligible markets)
    • ABC HD, CBS HD, Fox HD, NBC HD
  • MPEG-4 HD Channels Available as of September 26, 2007:
    • A&E HD, Animal Planet HD, Big Ten Network, CNN HD, Discovery Channel HD, History Channel HD, NFL HD, SHO TOO HD, Showtime West HD, Smithsonian Channel HD, Starz Comedy HD, Starz HD, Starz Kids & Family HD, TBS in HD, The Movie Channel HD, The Science Channel HD, The Weather Channel HD, TLC HD, Versus HD, Golf Channel HD
  • MPEG-4 HD Channels Coming in October:
    • Bravo HD, Cartoon Network, Cinemax East HD, Cinemax West HD, CNBC HD, Food Network HD, Fox Business HD, Fuel HD, FX HD, HBO West HD, HGTV HD, MGM HD, MHD HD, NBA TV HD, National Geographic Channel HD, SciFi HD, Speed Channel, USA HD
  • MPEG-4 HD Channels by the End of 2007:
    • Bio HD, CMT HD, MTV HD, Nick HD, Spike, VH1 HD, College Sports Television, Tennis Channel, The 101™