I had last week off (so I’m hurriedly catching up this week on work) and Jenn and I decided to take a couple of days to head down to San Francisco.

We chose to take the train down from Portland since neither of us had been on a long train ride before and the train is kinda fun. It’s a 14-hour ride from Portland to Emeryville, CA and then a 15 minute bus ride into San Francisco. We got a sleeper car so we could have our own private space and have a decent bed to sleep in.

Travis in the sleeper
car

We had a good time on the train, but we learned two very important things to take forward with us:

  1. It is not as easy to sleep on a train as you might think. It sounds relaxing, right? The train will rock you to sleep, you’ll be like a baby in a cradle. This is a lie. Sitting up, yeah, you rock to sleep and it’s like a long car ride. Laying down, you wake up every half hour or so because you feel like you’re going to roll clean out of bed.
  2. It will take a day to get your land legs back. You know how you go roller skating and after you take your skates off you walk around on solid ground and you still feel like you should be skating? When you get off the train after 14 hours, you feel like the ground should still be rocking back and forth. It feels like a hangover where the room’s spinning a little and can make you sort of nauseous. You have been warned.

Issues aside, the train ride down was fun and was part of the experience.

As soon as we got down there, we dropped our bags off at the hotel and went straight to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz, as seen from the ferry ride
over

Broadway - the main row of cells down the center of
Alcatraz I’d been to Alcatraz once before with my dad when I was a kid but I don’t think I really appreciated or understood it at the time the way I did this trip. They really set up some interesting exhibits and things to tell you about the history of the island. There’s a wonderful audio tour that takes you around the cell house and is narrated by correctional officers and inmates who were actually at Alcatraz when it was a functional facility. It was pretty cool to see all of that.

There are several very lush gardens all over the island as well as some areas for birdwatching (there are a lot of marine birds like gulls and snowy egrets that nest on the island). We didn’t expect that, but it was neat to see.

It was also neat to call out various places we saw in the movie The Rock since that’s one of our favorites.

In all, we spent several hours walking around before taking the ferry back to the mainland.

After Alcatraz, we walked down to Ghirardelli Square.

Ghirardelli
Square

It was getting late in the day so several of the shops were closed, but we made it through the chocolate shop and got to see the general area.

We picked up some SF Muni three-day passes and ran down to hop on the cable cars to see Lombard Street - “The Crookedest Street in the World.”

Lombard
Street

We didn’t have a car, so we didn’t drive it, but we did walk down from the top and back up again. It’s a heck of a climb, particularly after walking Alcatraz, and it wore us out. Thank goodness for the cable cars.

Cable cars in San
Francisco

We rode those back to the hotel, took a quick nap, and headed out for dinner at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. I’d never eaten there before, but it was really good and the wait staff was really nice. I know it’s not, like, “authentic San Francisco seafood” or whatever, but we’re tourists so we did some tourist things.

And that's all I got to say about
that.

The next day we hopped on the cable cars and went to the cable car museum, which is not only a building that tells you the history of cable cars and how they work but also is where the engines that run the cables are. It was amazingly fascinating to see all the cables running all over and learn how that works. It’s free to get in, so if you are down there, that’s a definite must-see.

After that we hit Chinatown, which we thought was going to be… well, more Chinese and less tourist trap.

Entrance to
Chinatown

Unfortunately, it turned out that most of the shops were basically tourist junk shops, which is different from how I remember it when I was here years ago… but maybe I’m just not remembering right. Jenn was a little disappointed because, like me, we both expected to see… oh, I don’t know, like ducks hanging in windows and stuff. You really don’t see that. But if you want to buy some silk brocade pencil cases, Chinatown’s your place.

After Chinatown, we basically wandered around. We stopped by the old Del Monte Cannery, but it appears most of the shops have moved out of there and it’s primarily a hub for restaurants. After wandering for a bit, we took a quick break at Ghirardelli Square and had a strawberry hot fudge sundae.

Jenn and Trav at
Ghirardelli

We stopped a few times at Boudin Bakery and we even ate dinner there. The bread is worth having, and clam chowder in a bread bowl was fantastic. I literally ate until I couldn’t eat anymore and that thing bested me… but I wanted to keep eating because it was so good!

Boudin Bakery: Clam chowder in a bread
bowl

The next morning was basically spent packing up, checking out, and making it from the cable car to BART to the Oakland Airport. We flew home in about an hour and a half, which is a lot faster than our 14 hour train ride but not quite the experience.

It was a really fun trip and I’m glad we went. I have to say, though, that it felt a lot like Seaside, OR, which is not that far from our house. I think if Seaside had a lot more money behind it, it’d be San Francisco. Very similar atmosphere, similar kinds of shops, etc.

The full picture album is here:


2010 San Francisco Vacation

Check it out to see more of the trip. We didn’t get as many photos this time because most of the trip was on video, but you’ll get the idea.

GeekSpeak comments edit

This whole thing started out because I was trying to get Logitech SetPoint to use the built-in Windows Aero Flip 3D task switcher rather than the built-in one (I like the Aero one better). SetPoint doesn’t have an option to use the built-in one, so I thought I might be able to use the “keystroke assignment” function. (I didn’t figure out how to get SetPoint working, but I learned a lot of other things.)

Windows Aero Flip 3D task
switcher

The first thing I discovered was that while Winkey + Tab brings up Flip 3D, Winkey + CTRL + Tab will bring it up and let it sit there so you don’t have to hold the keys down anymore. That’s what I wanted to do with the task switcher.

I tried to assign Winkey + CTRL + Tab to the mouse button for task switching… but it turns out you can’t assign Windows key combos to mouse buttons through SetPoint. Fine.

A little more searching and I found that you can also bring up Flip 3D in a persistent fashion by running the following:

C:\Windows\System32\rundll32.exe DwmApi #105

That got me wondering if I could have the mouse button execute an arbitrary program.

You can’t. You can only assign a keystroke.

So can you have a global shortcut key that doesn’t involve the Windows key? Turns out you can. You can create a program shortcut on your desktop (or in your Start Menu hierarchy), assign it a shortcut key, and that becomes a global shortcut.

First, create a folder in your Start Menu. I created mine at C:\Users\tillig\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs\Tools. (That’s on Windows Server 2008/Windows 7 – you’ll need to adjust that for your Windows version appropriately.)

Set your shortcut to execute that rundll32.exe command line I gave you earlier.

Give your shortcut a nice name like “Aero Flip3D Task Switcher.”

Name your
shortcut

So now you should have a shortcut like this:

Shortcut in the Start
Menu

Now right-click that shortcut, select “Properties,” and on the Shortcut tab, click in the “Shortcut key” field and then press your shortcut key combination. Your shortcut key will show up in that box. Click OK to save the changes.

Enter your shortcut key in the shortcut
properties

Now you should be able to use that new shortcut key combination to run the shortcut regardless of where you are. Nice!

Note that this order appears to be pretty important. I had to make sure the shortcut was in the Start Menu hierarchy before setting up the shortcut key or it wouldn’t work. The first time I tried it, I set the shortcut and shortcut key up in some other folder not on the desktop or in the Start Menu… and it didn’t work. If your shortcut key isn’t working, make sure you put the shortcut into the Start Menu and then set up the shortcut key.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, I still couldn’t use this to hook Logitech SetPoint up the way I wanted. I’m not sure why, but it just wouldn’t issue the key right, or maybe it wasn’t being issued the same way it does with the keyboard so Windows wasn’t handling the key.

Regardless, I learned a lot about some long-time Windows features and it looks like it could be useful in other situations. Hopefully it helps you, too.

gists, windows comments edit

I develop on a daily basis on a Windows Server 2008 R2 machine. I do that because that’s my target deployment environment and it’s really helpful to be able to actually run the full product and debug right there on my “workstation.” As such, I have the full “desktop experience” enabled - Aero, themes, the whole bit.

One problem I noticed was that the drop shadows under the icons on the desktop… they just don’t stick around. I set my visual effects settings to “best appearance” and everything looks correct, but if I log out and back in, the setting remains checked but there’s no drop shadow. That doesn’t sound like a big deal except… well, I have a theme on the desktop that changes background images periodically and the icons get impossible to read without that shadow.

Visual Effects in Windows Server 2008

The only way I’ve found to get the drop shadows back is to go all the way into the control panel, select “Adjust for best performance,”click “Apply,” and then select “Adjust for best appearance” and click “Apply” again. Basically, reapply the settings.

I’ve tried just modifying the registry values corresponding to these settings, but those values don’t get applied when they change. You actually have to inform the desktop engine somehow to “refresh.” I couldn’t figure out how to do that… so I went about it a different way.

UsingAutoIt v3, I wrote a little script that automates this for you: it actually opens up the dialog and does the whole re-application of the settings. In the event you’re in the same boat as me (both of you still reading), here’s the script:

#RequireAdmin
ShellExecute("sysdm.cpl")
WinWaitActive("System Properties")
ControlCommand("System Properties", "", 12320, "TabRight", "")
ControlCommand("System Properties", "", 12320, "TabRight", "")
Send("!s")
WinWaitActive("Performance Options")
Send("!p!a")
WinWaitActive("Performance Options")
Send("!b{ENTER}")
WinActivate("System Properties")
ControlClick("System Properties", "", 1)

Running that will prompt you for admin credentials if you’re not already an admin (because changing system settings requires admin privileges) and clicks all the right buttons to switch you to “best performance” and back to “best appearance.”

vs, downloads, coderush comments edit

Visual Studio allows you to specify different code formatting rules for different languages it understands, but in many cases the formatting only applies to new code you’re writing. For example, C# lines generally get formatted when you hit the end of the line and type the semicolon… but the only line that gets formatted is the one you just completed.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole document would adhere to the same formatting without you having to pay attention to it?

With this plugin, you can automatically have Visual Studio apply code formatting to the entire document you’re working on when you save. That way you don’t have to think about it - your documents will always be formatted.

(You used to be able to do this in VS2008 using PowerCommands, but that doesn’t exist for VS2010 and this way you don’t need to install PowerCommands just for the one functionality.)

You also have the ability to choose which types of documents you want formatted on save:

It’s free, right now, on the DXCore Community Plugins site. Go get it!

media comments edit

This weekend I took Saturday from about 11:00a to 7:00p installing and configuring my new Onkyo TX-NR3007 receiver.

Onkyo
TX-NR3007

This replaces a Yamaha receiver I had from probably 10 years ago from The Good Guys (a now-defunct consumer electronics store that used to be everywhere locally). The primary driver for the upgrade is that I have a Bose Acoustimass 16 speaker kit that will support 6.1 surround, but the Yamaha receiver only has 5.1 outputs… so there’s a speaker that’s been sitting idle in a cabinet for a few years, yearning to break free. This Onkyo supports 9.2 surround, so plenty of room to upgrade.

I compared several options before settling on this particular receiver. My initial criteria:

  • Between $750 and $2000.
  • At least four HDMI inputs.
  • At least 6.1 surround support.

I started looking at models from Denon, Onkyo, Yamaha, and Pioneer, but quickly came down to Denon vs. Onkyo. From there, I compared:

  • Denon AVR-2310CI
  • Denon AVR-3310CI
  • Denon AVR-4310CI
  • Denon AVR-4810CI
  • Onkyo TX-NR807
  • Onkyo TX-NR1007
  • Onkyo TX-NR3007
  • Onkyo TX-NR5007

All of those have at least 5 HDMI inputs and 7.1 surround, and all are in the price range.

I ruled out the AVR-2310CI based on the fact it was the only one that didn’t have network connectivity and all the others did - I have a lot of music on my Windows Home Server and I want to have access to it if possible. I ruled out the TX-NR807 based on the very few component inputs, lack of discrete channel inputs, and no USB port. So the lower-end items in the list got ruled out.

I then started looking at the expandability of the speakers and ruled out the AVR-3310CI and AVR-4310CI. Both of those are 7.1 outputs while the remaining Onkyo units have 9.2 surround and the AVR-4810CI has 9.3.

After that, it was a bang-for-the-buck comparison. The remaining contenders price out like this (roughly):

  • Denon AVR-4810CI: $3000
  • Onkyo TX-NR1007: $1200
  • Onkyo TX-NR3007: $1500
  • Onkyo TX-NR5007: $1900

Again, that’s rough pricing - you can find sales and such that’ll save you a couple hundred, give or take, but that’s around the average price I saw.

The Denon, then, was well beyond the pricing of the Onkyos. Like, double. I can’t justify that much price difference, especially given my original budget constraints, even if the brand is potentially more reliable.

Of the remaining Onkyos, I went middle-of-the-road. The TX-NR3007 has a USB flash drive port, which the 1007 does not, and has one more HDMI input than the 1007, for a total of seven HDMI inputs. The TX-NR3007 has one fewer HDMI input and one fewer optical audio input than the 5007, and the 3007 has a 24-bit DAC while the 5007 has a 32-bit DAC… but I couldn’t justify the additional price for those features.

So: the Onkyo TX-NR3007. I got a screamin’ deal on it through some friends (big thanks to them) which got me the receiver and the three-year warranty for $1400. (Yes, I got the warranty. I’ve had the warranty save me on electronics purchases twice now, so pretty much anything over $750 I’ll consider getting it. Did you know that geomagnetic forces affect large-tube TVs?)

Anyway, thanks to Alex Scoble for helping me figure some of the receiver stuff out. That guy is an A/V king.

The Wiring Rat's
NestSince I was able to use HDMI to connect audio and video at the same time (my old Yamaha receiver only had audio inputs), I had to tear out pretty much all the wiring I had so I could rewire using HDMI. That’s actually what took me all day - the rewiring effort. I’m pretty anal about my cable management, so when all is said and done, it’s nicely bundled using velcro ties and cable wraps. But that also means it’s a pain in the ass to take apart if you’re redoing the whole system, so… much un-velcro-ing ensued. This picture to the right is of some of the wiring as I was in the process of ripping things out. Painful.

I also found that the receiver is 18.25” deep and my entertainment center is 18.5” deep, so there wasn’t enough room to plug anything into the back of it. That meant “cut a flap in the back of the entertainment center so you can plug stuff in.” That wasn’t too bad, but I wanted to do a nice job so it was time consuming and involved a couple of X-Acto knife blades. (The back of the entertainment center is a thick paperboard, not wood.)

After slotting that 65-pound beast into place, it was a matter of connecting everything up. There are a lot of inputs on the back, so this was mostly just trying to figure out which one(s) to use. Luckily, it turns out they’re all totally assignable, so you can say “The ‘CABLE/SATELLITE’ input really corresponds to HDMI input 3.”

So many connections, so little
time...

And the final step, before strapping all the wires back down, was to test out the various components and make sure everything was connected correctly. I had a minor issue in that the HDMI inputs are numbered right-to-left instead of left-to-right, so what I thought I had plugged into HDMI input 1 was actually in HDMI input 7 (and so forth), but that was easy enough to straighten out. Chalk it up to me not paying close enough attention.

I got all the cables strapped down, pushed it all into place, ran the Audyssey MultEQ auto configuration utility, and watched me a little TV!

The Onkyo TX-NR3007 in the entertainment
center.

We also tried out some of the cool internet features, like listening to vTuner radio (free through this receiver) from around the world and logging into Pandora and listening/rating tracks right through the receiver. My sister and brother-in-law are living in Malta right now so we listened to some Maltese radio just to hear what they’re listening to. Very neat! It also detected my Asset UPnP installation on my Windows Home Server and I was able to browse and play my music library right through the receiver. (I did have to switch Asset to stream using WAV rather than LPCM, but WAV seems to work for both PS3 and the receiver.)

In playing some games and watching some movies, I found that my previous configuration had the rear surround turned down way too low and things were just not balanced as well as I thought. The surround after the Audyssey MultEQ configuration is much richer and more defined. I did notice that I had to mess with some of the “listening modes” to find the best one for standard stereo TV content and stereo streaming Netflix over Xbox 360, but the “THX Games” mode for Xbox 360/Dolby Digital games is really sweet and had Left4Dead 2 sounding phenomenal.

I was surprised at how cool the receiver runs. I figured this behemoth would run hot, but it’s actually not too bad. Warm, but not hot. I’m sure the big ol’ flap I cut for the cables in the back of the cabinet helps to keep the air circulating. Might have to consider doing that for the PS3, which sounds like a damn jet engine all the time it runs so hot.

Another surprising and cool detail was that my media center PC (running Windows 7) detected the new “display” as “TXNR3007” - it knew the kind of “monitor” it was hooked to. It also knew that the display “supported” several different HD-compatible resolutions, while connecting to the TV all it registered support for was 1920x1080. This allowed me to turn down the resolution a tad (I don’t watch full HD video through the media center) and hopefully save some video processing cycles.

Only negatives I’ve found to the new receiver:

The remote control situation. The remote it comes with doesn’t have enough buttons to replace my current universal and support all of the things my TV, cable box, etc. does… but the receiver remote also has two separate power buttons - one for “on” and one for “standby” - and my current universal remote only has one power button that can either turn the receiver on or off, but not both. The receiver remote also has a ton of stuff that I won’t be messing with once I’ve got everything set up to my liking, and Jenn’s got the current universal mastered… so I may just have to use the “learning” capacity on the current universal and teach some button to be the “off” for the receiver. Kind of kludgy, but them’s the breaks.

The “click.”It has this “click” noise that it makes as it switches from stereo to surround inputs. For example, if you’re watching HDTV and you’re crusing along great in Dolby Digital, then the local affiliate jams in a standard-def stereo signal, the receiver goes “click” as it switches from processing surround to stereo… then “click” again as it switches back. Not a deal breaker, but I kind of wish it didn’t do that.

Video processing warmup time. Turn on the TV, turn on the receiver, switch to the Xbox input, and turn on the Xbox. You hear the sound of the Xbox starting up, but the video signal takes three-to-five seconds to show up as all the internal signal switching goes on and everything filters through to the TV. Again, not a huge deal, but it was kind of scary the first couple of times as I was caught thinking, “Whooooooa… where the hell is my video?” That said, my TV (Samsung LN52A750) is not entirely blame-free - when a single input switches resolutions, it takes a couple of seconds to reacquire the signal for display. Found that out while messing with my media center PC resolutions.

None of those negatives is a huge issue, but something to be aware of. I don’t think I’d make a different purchasing decision based on them. I like the flexibility, the power, and the price of the unit, so no regrets. As things unfold, like if I find new or interesting things with it, I’ll keep the blog posted.

(I’m actually thinking of starting a wiki site dedicated to my home theater/media center setup - not really “community contribution” like a usual wiki so much as my notes on things I discover, how I set things up, etc., so interested folks can learn from my mistakes. Does that sound interesting to people?)

UPDATE 4/27/2010: I’ve posted about what I’ve learned two weeks in with this receiver.