Seriously, tell me that you don’t get a huge smile when you watch this:

How damn cute.

I’m pretty sure I figured out a nearly-failsafe test for whether or not someone is a parent: get them to sit down in front of this video, and see if he or she can get through the end of it.

In the utterly non-scientific survey of people in my office, the non-parents were able to watch it, whereas the parents got excruciatingly uncomfortable by about 30 seconds in and had to stop it. Of course, when I extended that survey to some friends online, I found an outlier (a friend without kids who got squirmy and had to stop it around the same time)…

Update: the YouTube vid was killed, so I updated the embedded video above with the copy from LiveLeak (and downloaded a copy of it just in case this happens again!).

OK, so most of you who know even the littlest bit about me know that I’m a not-so-small space nerd, which means that the following video clip doesn’t really need a justification for being here on QDN. It’s a series of still frames taken from 31 million miles away from Earth, looking back at our wee little planet, and capturing the moon transiting the frame. It’s breathtaking — and given that whole 31-million-miles-away part, it’s a true feat that the geometry worked out just right to get the shots.

The shots were taken by the Deep Impact spacecraft (which was renamed EPOXI after it finished its primary mission of smashing a little drone into a comet); Phil Plait, over at Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog, explains the whole thing a lot better than I ever could.

I am incredibly excited about the launch of Flickr’s new video uploading abilities — what a welcome addition to an already-awesome online service! (I also love Heather Champ’s silly little intro video to the service… nice work, that.) With the new kiddo at home, we find that we’re taking a slew of both pictures and videos; we’ve shared all the photos with our people via Flickr, but have had to do a bit of custom work to get the videos online in a way that let us exercise a bit of control over who could see and reuse them. No longer!

Well, MSNBC has now joined the esteemed group of websites with home pages that play audio and video on page load, without any user intervention, one of the more user-hostile things I can imagine a site doing. When added to the awful embedded IntelliTXT ads that are now appearing throughout most news stories, it seems that the entire site took a major turn to brazen suckery sometime over the past few weeks. That actually makes me sad — I used to use CNN’s website as my default for news but moved to MSNBC when CNN decided on providing most of the news on the website via video snippets that can’t be played on non-PCs. The video-without-my-requesting-it problem was enough to get me to stop using ESPN’s website for all but a scant few things; now it looks like I’ll have to find a replacement for MSNBC, as well.

A few weekend short takes:

There’s been a bit of press given lately to Amazon Unbox, the internet behemoth’s move into the video download business, and I’d imagine that between it and Apple, the online video market is going to explode over the coming months. It’s for that reason that I’m grateful to people like Cory Doctorow, who put quite a bit of effort in Friday explaining how godawful the terms of service are for Amazon Unbox, and why people should treat the new service as they would an ebola-infected colony of monkeys. Summarizing any of the salient points of Cory’s analysis doesn’t do the whole thing justice; suffice it to say that the terms of service dictate when and where you’re allowed to watch any downloaded videos, prevent you from deciding how and when Amazon’s software runs on your computer and updates itself, and prevent you from recourse if and when Amazon decides that you’re no longer allowed to watch the things you’ve paid for and downloaded. If you had to find a single pullquote from the piece, this is it:

So this is just like renting a movie from Blockbuster, except that while you can give your Blockbuster movies to your boyfriend to watch after you’re done with them, these movies are only for you. Oh, and they cost more. Oh, and you have to pay for the bandwidth to transfer them to your home. Oh, and you have to wait for them to download. Oh, and you have to let them invade your privacy.

Given that Amazon has precious little independent interest in enforcing most of the the restrictions placed on users by the terms of service, it becomes clear that what’s being enforced are the desires of content producers like the MPAA, and by using a service agreement, the whole setup avoids the need for an actual legal basis for the demands placed on Unbox users. Most of my tens of readers know that I’m not one to tilt towards tin-foil-hat conspiracy land — the terms of service for Amazon Unbox are purely awful, and I couldn’t recommend more strongly that people find another way to spend their entertainment money.

Two weeks ago, I expressed some amount of happiness that SightSpeed was releasing the latest version of their video chat software, a version that ostensibly improves the quality of the video enough to perhaps put it on par with that of Apple’s iChat/iSight combo. I’m now here, with four or five lengthy SightSpeed chats under my belt over the past week, to say that the company’s claims are completely true — SightSpeed 5.0 video chats are just plain awesome. The quality held up not only on Mac-to-Mac (iSight-to-iSight) chats, but also on Mac-to-PC chats, and I had not one lick of trouble using SightSpeed through the home router firewalls that existed at both ends of all the chats. I’m ecstatic… it seems like it took way too long to happen, but cross-platform video chat appears to have finally made it to the big leagues. This means that my parents are now going to get to video chat with my sister and her family in London — and that tonight, Shannon and I got to spend an awesome half-hour chatting with our best friends in Brookline and their twin five year-old sons. Life is so much better!

If you’re interested in high-quality, cross-platform video chat, then grabbing SightSpeed is pretty much mandatory for you. And in my experience, the crap that has been passed off as reasonable-quality in the PC-to-PC video chat world pales in comparison to what I’ve experienced over the past week, so if that’s your world, then moving up to SightSpeed is probably worth it for you as well. Feel free to share your experiences!

Continuing with what’s slowly becoming an obsession for me, the task of finding a video chat solution that actually works worth a damn between Macs and PCs, it appears that the folks at SightSpeed are releasing their newest version tonight. Why do I care? Because rumor has it that version 5.0 brings with it a huge improvement in the quality of the video, an improvement that might hold cross-platform promise. (That PC Magazine review is a bit over the top, though, with comments like “No other services, not even those from the big guys (AOL, Microsoft, Skype, and Yahoo!, among others), have developed their video codecs to the degree that SightSpeed has” — the author’s prior experience is clearly limited to PC-only apps, and has neglected to see the remarkable quality and performance that comes from an iSight-to-iSight conversation over AIM.) As before, as soon as I can get my hands on SightSpeed 5.0 (and a little chunk of time), I’ll give it a test and report back.

Hallelujah — Skype has finally released a beta “preview” version of its Mac chat client that includes video support. I’ve complained in the past about the shameful state of online video chat between Macs and PCs, and wondered whether Skype’s eventual entry into the world of Mac video support might provide a decent alternative to the crap that’s currently out there; I’ll be sure to report back once I get a chance to test this out. (My most trusted tech-savvy video chatter is currently vacationing in Germany!)

Update: OK, without my trusty buddy with his PC and webcam, Matt and I gave the Skype preview a shot between two Macs, and I gotta say I’m not all that impressed — his words were that it feels like iChat 1.0, and my observation was that the video was choppy and stutter-prone, and the audio had a lot more echo than I’d think would be tolerable for long. The big caveat is that I’d have to imagine there’s a lot of debug code (and lack of optimization) in this preview release, so we’ll see where things head.

Apparently tired of having parts from their bikes stolen all the time in New York City, Casey and Van Neistat set out to document how easy it is to actually steal a bike in the Big Apple. The result is a five-minute video during which Van steals a bike four different times, in front of dozens to hundreds of people (and even a NYPD van!), and isn’t told to stop once. (He is approached one time, but I don’t want to spoil what happens.) One time, he elects to use a hacksaw which takes eight minutes to cut through the chain — and the whole time, people walk right by without a care in the world. It’s worth a watch, especially if you’re a New Yorker who values your bike. (via Gothamist)

Today, my kid sister and her family moved to London, for at least the next two years. She has a great husband and two awesome kids, and even though they lived in New York City up until now, we’ve gone down to visit a ton over the past few years and have had a blast watching the kids grow up. So, needless to say, the idea of the whole bunch of them being so far away makes Shannon and me pretty sad, and we’ve been putting a lot of time into figuring out the best way to be able to video chat with them. When we’re just talking about us — Shannon and me chatting with Rachel and her husband and kids — things are simple, since we both have Macs with iSight cameras, and iChat couldn’t make things any easier. Of course, it’s now grown into more than just us; my parents and my brother and sister-in-law would also like to partake in the chats, and all of them are on Windows-based PCs. And as things turn out, it’s much more difficult to setup a Mac-to-PC video chat, and for it to match the quality of a pure Mac/iSight chat.

We started out by buying my parents a Logitech Quickcam for Notebooks Pro and installing AOL Instant Messenger. (We’re thinking about a Creative Live! Voice webcam for my brother and his wife.) I figured that things would just work fine, but quickly learned that that was an idiotic assumption; my first sign that there would be problems was when I noticed that the latest version of AIM, AIM Triton, is an enormously bloated bit of crapware that shares almost nothing in common with the application that we all know and tolerate. After getting through its painful setup process and ignoring all the entreaties to sign up for new services, I found the instant messaging component of Triton and added my sister to the buddy list. And despite being in the same house — and on the same network — as my sister’s Mac, I was unable to establish a video session between the two computers… because it turns out that Triton breaks all compatibility with iChat. Sigh.

Next, I tracked down and grabbed the older (and more compatible) version of AIM, and installed that. It had no troubles using the camera and establishing a video connection with my sister’s Mac, but the quality was middling at best (remember that we were even on the same network!), the video window was tiny, and there was no way to enlarge it. Double sigh.

Finally, I remembered that Trillian Pro, the alternative Windows instant messenger multi-client, had video chat abilities, so I downloaded and installed it. (Fortunately, I still have a license from back when my primary laptop was a PC.) It too was able to set up a video connection between the PC and Mac, and while the quality was equally middling, the window could be resized so that at least my parents didn’t have to squint to see that video. After a bit of optimizing the camera settings, we got a usable connection set up, so for now, that’s the solution we’re going with for all the non-Mac users.

But this begs the question: what are we missing? There have to be better options out there. For now, Skype only offers video on its Windows client, so that’s out. There are a couple of free video chat apps that work on both PCs and Macs (SightSpeed and Yak have been mentioned here and there), but I have no idea if they work any better than AIM’s offering. Likewise, there are a couple of commercial cross-platform clients (iSpQ, iVisit), but I’d have to know a lot more to recommend spending money on either to my family. And most importantly, any other solution needs to be reasonably easy to set up and to use when starting or accepting video chats.

So, does anyone have any thoughts?

Now this is cool: a video of yesterday’s controlled demolition of the Landmark Tower, a 30-story skyscraper in downtown Dallas that is one of the tallest buildings ever imploded. According to a description that accompanies the Star-Telegram’s simulation of the implosion, a 20-foot trench was dug at a corner of the lot, and the tower was purposely brought down with a slight lean so that it would fall both into its own basement and into the trench. Pretty damn keen.

The release of TiVoToGo has raised my interest a bit in the processes of video encoding and DVD authoring, and wow is it all complicated! In my searching and learning, these are the apps that have popped to the top of my hit list, as well as the apps that have annoyed me a bit; I figured that this might be helpful to at least one other person out there.

ffmpegX: This is an awesome OS X app that serves as an easier-to-use interface to a bunch of command-line video and audio manipulation utilities. For me, it fills in the step of “transcoding” (converting) video files between various formats, which is necessary if I want to write pretty much anything to a DVD that can be used on set-top players. The only downside I’ve found is what I’d call merely decent documentation — it’s definitely not good enough for people like me who don’t have a ton of knowledge or experience with bitrates, codecs, framerates, and the like, but good enough to be used in concert with Ye Olde Google.

Auto Gordian Knot: This is a similarly awesome great but spyware-laden app for Windows, similarly interfacing with a bunch of command-line utilities to do its thing. It reads from a few video formats (including physical DVDs), and writes into DivX and XviD, making it ideal for taking full-size MPEG files or DVDs and crunching them down to more manageable files for taking on the road. (This is the role AGK is serving in my little production line.) Given that, on various forums, the author is relatively unrepentant about including spyware in the app and doing little to notify users that it’s there, I’d be hardpressed to recommend AGK to anyone; I’m now using ffmpegX on my Mac for this.

Sizzle: This OS X app comes highly-recommended on most Mac video-related sites, and while I like the fact that it makes writing set-top-playable DVDs pretty easy, I’m less than wild about the menu format that it imposes on the resultant DVDs (what can I say, I’m a stickler for usability!). Notable is the fact that Sizzle doesn’t do any transcoding, so after I use ffmpegX to do the conversion, Sizzle steps in to write the DVD.

XRay, HandBrake and forty-two: These are three OS X apps for ripping backing up DVDs; they take a DVD and create video files viewable by apps like QuickTime, Windows Media Player, mplayer, or your viewer of choice. I have played with them a little bit, and they seem to do what they claim to, and do it well. (XRay will also handle a few other formats, like QuickTime and XviD, but it’s also the one of the three that isn’t freeware.)

GraphEdit: This is a Windows app, part of the DirectX SDK (or downloadable alone here), that shows you the chain of codecs that are used on your machine to decode and display a video (and audio) file. A lesser-known feature of GraphEdit is the ability to create custom chains of filters that do more than just displaying the file (for example, transcode it, split the audio and video into separate streams, or any of a thousand other things). This is a must-have on Windows, if for no other reason that debugging codec problems.

DivxToDVD and The Filmmachine: These are two Windows apps that convert AVI files (DivX, mainly) to DVD-format files, suitable for writing back to a DVD. I use the former, DivxToDVD, when I want to write AVI files back to DVD so that we can take them to friends’ homes and watch them with their DVD players. OK, it’s not an app, but the website is way more helpful than any app could be. Between explanations of the various terms and formats, tutorials for common tasks (much more Windows-centric than Mac, but that’s understandable), details about formats supported by various pieces of equipment, and well-visited forums (including a Mac-specific one), you can find information about whatever it is that ails you over at VideoHelp.

I’ve left comments open on this post, so if there’s anything that anyone else has discovered that’s useful to someone like me (in the beginning stages of learning), feel free to share!