Monday, August 29, 2011

Stupendously stupid slideshow software

In preparation for Eliza's upcoming birthday, I've been working on assembling a video slide show of the past year of her life. You've surely seen the type - photos and video clips, with captions and smooth transitions between images, all set to music. Pretty commonplace and straightforward to create, right? WRONG. This project has been unbelievably troublesome and frustrating so far, and there's probably more to come since I'm not done with it yet.

My first attempt was to create the slide show using Picasa. All of our photos and video from the last year are already in Picasa, and it offers slide show creation as a feature, so why not give it a try?

We have video clips from four different sources:
  • Our video camera produces HD video clips in .MOV format.

  • Hannah's video camera produces HD video clips in .MOV format.

  • My iPod Touch produces video clips in .MOV format.

  • Heather's iPod Touch produces video clips in .MOV format.

Guess what format Picasa doesn't handle properly in the slide shows it generates?

That's right - while the .MOV files play just fine from within Picasa, when splicing them into a slideshow, the video file becomes just a single still frame in the slide show. Naturally Picasa doesn't give you any warning or error message about this, either - it successfully creates a new video file of the entire slide show; only when playing through this video can you see that that 30 second clip of Eliza taking her first bath at home has been replaced with a single blurry frame of the back of Heather's head.

Seriously? It's 2011, folks - I thought the whole incompatible audio/video file formats situation had long since been solved. I remember dealing with this kind of problem back in 1998, for goodness sake! The .mov format has been around a LONG time - this is like having a photo program that doesn't know how to handle .jpeg files or something.

It gets better - searching the Picasa user forums, this has been an issue for at least two years. I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but Google doesn't provide actual tech support, nor does it provide ANY way for you to actually get in touch with its employees. If you have a problem with a Google product, your options are:

1) Read whatever documentation pages Google has provided just in case it was user error or something. (It wasn't)

2) Check the Google user forums to see if others have seen the same problem (they have, for several years) and if anyone has managed to come up with a workaround (nothing definitive, but various solutions). Again, these are USER forums - all of the questions and answers are coming from people like you. No one from Google who actually knows anything actually reads these forums or replies to them. For all I can tell, Google might have no idea this bug even exists (how would you bring it to their attention, after all, since there's no way to contact them?).

So I found a couple of possible workaround ideas on the user forums. First - "Just rename them from .mov to .mp4 to fool Picasa, it handles .mp4 much better" - no luck. Second - "Install this megapack of third party video codecs from a dubious website" - hmm, well I think Heather's PC's antivirus software is up to date, so what the hey, let's try it - interesting, when I start creating the slideshow, about 40 little icons get added to the Windows side bar, but they go away when it's finished - hey look, the slide show now includes video clips - but not the associated audio. Oh well, it's not like it would be nice to HEAR Eliza giggling at her Pops or anything...

At the same time, I was also getting frustrated with other limitations in Picasa's slide show creation - most notably, the fact that all of the picture captions were rendered in white text, regardless of the background color. White text on a pale grey background doesn't exactly make for readability.

So surely this is just a matter of Picasa's slide show functionality being an afterthought - Picasa is after all primarily an application for image importing, retouching, and organizing - and some other program would be much better? I did some searching online and found some sites that spoke highly of the Windows Movie Maker program, which is free with Windows. Surely a "Movie Maker" program would have all of the necessary functionality to make home movies with, right?

So, not having learned my lesson, viz., that free applications are often worth what you paid for them, I began trying to recreate the slide show in Windows Movie Maker. First problem? You guessed it - Windows Movie Maker doesn't natively support .MOV either. @#^#$^%#%!!%#^%$^#$$$$!!!! How can it be that three different models of consumer video camera output this format, yet neither of these apps supports it?

Time to do some more web searching. Oh look - here's a free program, with lots of glowing reviews, that can convert between many different video formats, including from .MOV to the .avi or .wmv formats that Movie Maker prefers. So I download it and feed the video clips into it. Ooh, nice GUI, very polished looking. It runs for 15 minutes or so and produces a batch of .avi files, just what I needed! Only not. I open the files and the video within is complete garbage, just a mosaic of randomly colored squares and shapes. Apparently this app doesn't like my video files. Why did it run to completion producing garbage instead of giving me a simple warning message that the format wasn't supported?

Time to do some more web searching. All of these video clips use the H.264 codec, which is not specific to .MOV versus .avi - .mov and .avi are just two different kinds of containers for the actual video data within. Maybe there's some way I can use that? I stumble across a site that provides a simple plugin to allow programs that can read .avi to read the video data out .mov files too. I install it and it actually works - Movie Maker can see and play my videos! The one caveat (which nothing on the site warned about) is that videos played through this plugin have a little badge (sort of like a TV station identification logo) superimposed on them. Ah well, at least it's pretty unobtrusive...

Okay, I've got all of the pictures and all of the video clips loaded into Movie Maker. Let's try constructing a test video to make sure it's all working - I don't want any more surprises with clips turning into stills or disappearing audio! I tell the program to publish the video. It starts a progress bar, showing that it'll take about an hour to render. I leave it alone, checking back periodically on its progress. It finally finishes - but what's this message?

Windows Movie Maker cannot publish the movie to the specified location. Verify the original source files used in your movie is still available, that the publishing location is still available, that there is enough free disk space available, and then try again.


Time to do more web searching. Apparently this error, too, is a frequently encountered issue, and naturally, no one seems quite sure what the trigger or triggers are. Possibilities include not enough RAM (Heather's computer has 4 GB, which should be enough for a 20-minute video!), not enough disk space (unlikely, there's 60+ GB free), incompatible codecs or file types (hmm, perhaps?), or perhaps just that the project is "too complicated" for Movie Maker to handle (maybe also...). After some further investigation, it appears that the latter is to blame. By splitting the project in half, each half is able to render successfully. Supposedly it will then be simple to just splice the two halves back together to create the final video... I haven't tried yet, but I'm trying to be optimistic that it will really be that simple.

If you're still reading this, my apologies. I just had to get this off my chest. I do really like how the video is coming along - it won't be a professional production, and there's always going to be room for improvement, but I really do think the end result will be fun to watch and will be a good summation of the high points of the last year. Hopefully it'll be done soon!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Time for some more pictures

Fortunately we didnt see much of Irene this weekend. Quite breezy and just a few drops of rain. Eliza didn't really seem to care about her first hurricane either. We enjoyed the cooler weather in the wake of it though! 

We are really over due for some blog posting around here since there has been a lot going on, but then lots-going-on leaves little time for posting. :) I do want to take a few mins to share a few recent-ish pictures. 
Eliza striking her philosophical pose:

Pasha wondering what all the fun is about:

Daddy gives good kisses!


I love these pictures of her! Such pretty eyes!

Oh yeah gotta love some baby drool! 

You can tell what time of day it is by what Eliza is wearing lately. Naked=End of the day. By afternoon I've given up on changing spit-up-on clothing and opted for wiping at naked skin instead!

Completely shocked when I saw these pictures. These are the first ones that I realized how long she is getting,wow! She really is growing up even if some days/weeks it seems like shes staying in exactly the same place. One year old in less than 2 weeks...

Classic Eliza pose. Tongue hanging out, eyebrows raised. "Whats happening dudes?"

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sleepy time

Our big thing the last couple of weeks with Eliza has been sleep. Specifically, of course, Eliza's sleep.


As Heather has mentioned previously, Eliza still just plain isn't a very good napper. She has a very strong tendency to wake up after half an hour, no matter how exhausted she might be, and it's a real challenge to get her back to sleep afterward even if she's still clearly tired when she wakes up. She also is not at all able to start or continue a nap in her crib - the only way to get her to nap is to swaddle her, rock her to sleep in her dark room, and then continue to hold her until she wakes up. This was something we just accepted, and mostly embraced while she was younger (especially given that being a preemie tends to lead to more difficulties with sleep - hello NICUitis!) but now that she's getting to be a big girl it's time to start working on this - fewer, longer naps; more time awake between naps; and being able to nap in her crib. The ultimate goal is really just quality sleep that we don't feel she is getting now. Wish us strength - we're gonna need it!

“Why would I want to take a nap? There's so much going on to see and interact with!”

Nighttime sleep

Since we started using the feeding pump for continuous feeds overnight (from about 9 PM to about 5 AM), I don't have to get up at 3 AM to feed her any more. That's great! However, it doesn't always translate into all of us getting to sleep through the night. While Eliza still usually sleeps very soundly once she is asleep, there are three problems:

1) She's having a lot harder time falling asleep at bedtime most nights than she used to. Time was she'd always be passed out completely by the end of her dinnertime feed and it would simply be a matter of laying her in the crib and turning out the light afterward. She still often falls asleep during the feed, but now she tends to wake up when we lay her down in the crib, and it can take an hour or much more to get her back to sleep after that.

2) The feeding pump, oh the feeding pump. It seems to be very sensitive about the consistency of the formula passing through the pump - at seemingly random times, the pump will start beeping and display an alarm about "check for clogs in the line". The beeping won't stop until you go in there and push a button to continue pumping, and there's no way to adjust the sensitivity or disable this alarm. We need to have the monitor volume turned up next to the bed all night so that I can hear the alarm and run to turn it off before the beeping disturbs Eliza (and Heather - night time is my responsibility and she needs her rest after handling baby all day while I'm at work!). Some nights the pump alarm has gone off at fifteen-minute intervals for several hours until we finally got too frustrated with it and simply turned the pump off for the rest of the night. Hoping that the pump was simply defective, we arranged to exchange it with a replacement model, which has helped a little but not completely gotten rid of the alarms. I've also been making an extra effort to ensure that the formula is as thoroughly mixed and blended as possible before feeding it into the pump, and that seems to help somewhat - here's hoping that continues to improve!

3) Eliza is now waking up between 5 and 5:30 AM every morning. She's still sleepy when she wakes up, and can often be soothed back to sleep for an hour or and hour and a half more if we pick her up and continue to hold her. We're not sure why she's waking up (and staying awake!) given that she is still sleepy at that point and that she's still not getting as much total sleep each day as she really ought. Getting her to go back to sleep at that point is essential because if she stays awake from 5 onwards, she can't make it to even 7am (her next scheduled feed), much less 8 AM (when her physical therapist comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays) without being utterly exhausted, and from the books we've been reading she really should be up till at least 8:30 before her next morning nap.

One thing that's been essential since Eliza first came home, and is even more essential as we work on improving her sleeping, is our video baby monitor. It's so helpful to be able to not only hear whether she's fussing or crying, but also to SEE if she's tossing and turning in her sleep, playing quietly instead of napping, or (as has been unfortunately common lately) vomiting her last meal all over herself and her bed. We're not too happy with this particular model (we had to return the first one for a replacement after two months of use, and now we're having to do so again after about three months with this one, but at least it's under warranty!) but the technology itself is absolutely indispensable.

We were going to start working on some "sleep training" tonight to get her to start being able to fall asleep in her crib instead of in our arms, but she "cheated" tonight by passing out before the end of dinner and staying asleep even after I moved her to the crib. Funny baby! We're not complaining about that (!) but it's a bit of a letdown after we psyched ourselves up to start working on this with her. Just goes to show that she's got a mind of her own, our baby!