Last Call

afs_call_for_helpYesterday was one of the saddest days of my life. We put Call for Help to bed Wednesday. You’ll see the last episode on Friday, but for those of us who have been making the show for six years a huge and important chunk of our lives is over.
G4 is shopping the show and it’s possible another network will pick it up. I pray someone does. I’ll keep doing it if I have to fly to Sandusky twice a week. Somehow, somewhere, Call for Help has to live on, if only for the folks who have come to depend on the show for their computer help. I know so many moms and grandfathers and kids and just plain folks for whom Call for Help was an introduction to technology. The show helped get so many people on track, and I feel like we’re letting many more down by not doing it any more. Cross your fingers that some network executive somewhere is willing to take a chance on a funky little show that makes such a big difference in people’s lives.

Meanwhile G4 has asked me to keep doing the daily 90-second pre-taped tips on The Screen Savers indefinitely. I said yes, of course. It’s better than nothing, and it will leave me lots of free time to try to find somewhere else to do what I do. Vinnie Longobardo, the VP Programming for G4, also asked me to ask you to stop filling his inbox with mail. I appreciate your efforts but at this point it’s probably useless to keep harassing the poor guy. G4 is going for a different audience and my work is not really part of those plans. I understand that – I even agree with them. It’s time for all of us to move on.

Mostly I’m going to miss the people I work with. It’s going to be so hard to get up in the morning and not see their faces. You never met a nicer, harder working, more committed bunch of people. We loved what we did. And we hate not getting to do it any more.

Some will continue on with G4. I think Roger, Cat, and Ian will move to LA. George is getting his real estate license. Dan will be bagging groceries at the local Stop ‘n’ Shop. I’m not sure what Fawn’s plans are. The studio crew will continue working until July 2 when 535 York gets shut down for good. Then they’ll all go on to other jobs. They’re the best in the business and won’t have any trouble finding work.

We had six good years. That’s more than most TV shows get. And we are very proud of what we did. It’s just hard to let go, especially when the show was starting to click. We’d had our highest ratings ever in March – 500% growth over the same time last year. The December Call-For-Help-a-thon earned us a big article in the New York Times. We had finally made it back into prime time. So close. So close.

I’m not complaining. I have my family, my radio show, and my memories of an amazing little channel where I got to do pretty much whatever I wanted for way too long. I am just so grateful to have had that chance. And I’m even more grateful that so many of you seemed to actually like my work. I’m not giving up. I’m just going to take some time off to say a private good-bye. Then it’s on to the next thing. I’m sure it will be wonderful and fun and all that. But there will never be another TechTV. For all its flaws, it was pretty great, wasn’t it?

Happy Trails!

Comcast Fires TechTV Staff

I‘ve just learned that G4 has fired the entire staff of TechTV.
Per the WARN Act (governing plant closings) all the employees of TechTV have been given 60 days notice. The San Francisco operation will be shuttered by July. 100 of the existing jobs will be posted for those willing to relocate to LA.

Outgoing COO, Joe Gillespie will say good-bye to the troops tomorrow. Incoming CEO Charles Hirschorn will say hello (and good-bye) on Monday.

No word on which shows G4 will keep or which hosts will be kept on.

The Changeover is Beginning

I got this note tonight from a TechTV viewer who watches on his C-Band satellite dish:

I have been watching on C-Band satellite since the network started. There was a message on the screen tonight saying that the signal was going to digital and after some searching on the web, it will be using PowerVu technology and only available to cable head ends.

I had always taken it as a point of pride that TechTV was in the clear on the big dishes. And many of our first viewers were C-Band users. This is likely the first of many changes Comcast will be making as they assume control of TechTV and merge it with G4.

At least one Charter subscriber reports on the message boards that starting May 1 TechTV is being moved to digital channel 998 in his area – the cable equivalent of invisibility.

The Hart-Scott-Rodino regulatory period ends in the next few days. Things should start happening very quickly after that. No one at G4 has told us what their plans are but rumors are flying that there will be some serious changes to the lineup. I’ll keep you posted here as the story develops.

The People Have Spoken

ReloadedI‘m very pleased to say that thanks to your overwhelming show of support and to a strong desire on both our parts to come to an agreement, TechTV has improved its offer and I’ve decided to climb back aboard the good ship Call for Help.
I’ll be back on the air starting next Tuesday, April 20.

The future is still a little cloudy, however. Comcast assumes ownership of the channel a few weeks later and I have no idea what will happen after that. I am certain they’ve been impressed by your support for the show, however, and if that doesn’t convince them to keep it on the air, I don’t know what could.

I can never thank you all enough for your incredible outpouring of encouragement and support. You really made a difference. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!

[UPDATE: Vulcan doesn’t want me in the studio until the contract takes effect so I won’t be back until a week later: April 27. Wil Wheaton will guest host Friday, April 23 and Monday, April 26. UPDATE to the UPDATE: Never mind. It’s April 20 again. But Wil will still guest host Friday and Monday. Welcome to my world.]

A New Deal

A new deal!I’m pleased to announce that TechTV and I have reached agreement and a new contract will be in place when my old contract runs out March 31.
The new deal allows me more scope for outside opportunities, like the KFI gig, book publishing, public speaking and seminars, and features a vastly improved work schedule (at least from my family’s point of view).

In July I’ll be celebrating my 10th year with the company. We’re looking forward to many more years together making great geek TV. Thanks for your support!

Hop on the bus

Thanks to Paul Gans for this wonderful image…
The Leoville Bus

The bus has arrived. We’re back with all live shows Monday!

On The Cover Of The Rolling Stone

Well, not exactly, but the Call-For-Helpathon did make the cover of the Sunday New York Times television section, and that’s even better as far as I’m concerned. This is from the NYC local editions:

The national edition had a black and white picture, plus the title screen from The Screen Savers and a picture of Martin Sargent on page 12 of the Sunday Sports/TV section. You can also read Michel’s excellent article about us in at the New York Times online, free registration required.

National edition article

The 12 hour telethon is this Friday, December 26, from 11a-11p Eastern. Don’t forget to watch as I slowly melt into a puddle!

They Might Be Finished!

I‘ve been working here and there on setting up a Linux based Dial-A-Song answering machine for They Might Be Giants. I promised it to them in April, really buckled down in October, and I’m finally (almost) done today. If you want to follow the saga read my previous posts explaining the project and detailing some of the issues.
I did finally find a voice modem that works with vgetty – an old US Robotics external Voice/Fax/Data modem. After some trial and error I discovered that if I resampled the MP3s to 16-bit, 8Khz, mono sound files they’d work with the modem. It was such a thrill to dial up and hear a TMBG song on the other end.

The basics of the shell script follow – minus the extensive error checking code. If an error occurs anywhere (no CD, can’t read the disc, etc.), the script falls back to a default message stored on the hard drive.

#! /bin/bash
# -----------------------------------------------------------
# newsong - Leo Laporte, April-December 2003
# -----------------------------------------------------------
# this shell script is designed to be run hourly by cron
# it pulls a random MP3 off a CD in drive, combines it with the
# outgoing message (message.mp3) on the same disc, then
# converts it to the appropriate RMD format and moves it
# into the outgoing message directory for vgetty
# requires:
# pickrandom - a perl script to pick a random song
# SoX for the MP3 to WAV conversion
# vgetty's PVF utilities to convert the WAV to RMD
# Written for They Might Be Giants Dial-A-Song
# -----------------------------------------------------------

cd /var/spool/voice/work/
touch /var/spool/voice/work/startrun

# mount CD
mount /dev/cdrom /mnt/cdrom
ls /mnt/cdrom/*.mp3 >/var/spool/voice/work/files

# call an external perl script to select a random title from files
echo "$tune" >currentsong.txt
cp -f "$tune" tune.mp3
cp -f /mnt/cdrom/*message.mp3 message.mp3

# convert the MP3s to raw audio (signed, 16-bit, 8khz, mono)...
sox -V tune.mp3 -s -w -r 8000 -c 1 tune.raw
sox -V message.mp3 -s -w -r 8000 -c 1 message.raw

# combine the raw files...
cat message.raw >>tune.raw

# convert to RMD via SoX and PVF tools...
sox -V -s -w -r 8000 -c 1 tune.raw -s -w -r 8000 -c 1 standard.wav
wavtopvf -16 standard.wav standard.pvf
pvftormd US_Robotics 1 standard.pvf standard.rmd

# copy converted file to messages directory...
mv -f standard.rmd /var/spool/voice/messages/standard.rmd

touch /var/spool/voice/work/endrun

The little randomizing perl script:

# picks a random song from the file list
my $tune;
open(TUNES, "files") or die 1;
do {
rand($.) < 1 && ($tune = $_) while ;
} until $tune !=~ /message.mp3/i ;
print $tune;
exit 0;

A cron job will run the script hourly. I’ve been running it every ten minutes for several days and it’s been working without a hitch. (Here’s a cool little cron feature I’ve not used before. If you define a MAILTO environment variable in the crontab, cron will mail the output of each job to that address every time it runs. I’ve added MAILTO=root to the crontab, and now I can use pine to check the results of each run. Very handy for checking up on problems after the fact. )

Since this is a headless machine I’m planning to add audio error messages using pre-recorded WAVs on the hard drive. That way John can tell how the thing is working just by turning up the speaker.

We’re ordering the parts and plan to build the machine this week. I’m going to put it in a small case with a Celeron, small hard drive, and 256MB RAM. It’ll probably run SuSE Linux – my current favorite. Total cost well under $500. I’ll set it up so that I can SSH into the box if something goes wrong, but it won’t normally be connected to the network.

John and John live in Brooklyn so Joshua Brentano and I are hoping to fly out and deliver this to them for Christmas. With any luck it will run without maintenance for years.

TMBG Day 4

Back to work on the TMBG answering machine. The clock is ticking down. John and John are going to be on the show on Tuesday, so it’s now or never.
I’m going to post my work notes, in case there’s some interest. I’ll turn them into an article for The Screen Savers web site that might be a little more readable. I imagine most of you will want to skip along to the next post, however.

I have borrowed a “voice modem” from Roger. It’s a Zoom Model 3049 – PC V.92 56K external modem with voice capabilities. I have no idea if vgetty will work with this thing at all, but I’m willing to give it a try.

I’ve modified /etc/inittab as indicated in the (sparse) vgetty documentation to start vgetty on boot. I’m kind of guessing here but this seems to work:

S1:S3:respawn:/usr/local/sbin/vgetty modem

Checking the vgetty log file (/var/log/vgetty.modem – which is very helpful and complete) I see that indeed something is happening. Vgetty seems to be starting (amazing) and can even communicate with the modem. But I also see that I’ve put voice.conf, the vgetty configuration file, in the wrong spot. I’m moving it to the correct locale: /usr/local/sbin/mgetty+vgetty/.

Still not seeing voice.conf. I’m chmod’ing it to 666 to give world r+w privileges. That worked.

Now a new error message. There’s no group “modem”. So I’ll create one. I’ll make the root a member of modem. I think the system will always run as root anyway since there’s no net access and no way to hack it. Done. Error message is gone.

The log also tells me that the modem is a “generic Rockwell” voice modem. That’s very encouraging, since vgetty supports the Rockwell chipset. The log says it’s seeing the modem on /dev/modem and the config strings are going through. I’m getting an error however when vgetty tries to initialize the voice modem functions. Uh oh. Sure enough, the modem will not answer the phone. It sees it ringing – the AA light comes on – but it doesn’t pick up. I’m thinking it has a proprietary voice interface. Wish I had a ZyXel lying around.

While I’m pondering that problem, I’ll start working on the scripts to convert the MP3s on the CD into the answering machine message.

First I have to convert a TMBG MP3 into a form the voice modem understands (rmd) using the following programs, SoX, wavtopvf, and pvftormd. The last two come with vgetty, but I have to guess which rmd format to convert to. Probably Rockwell 8-bit, right?

# convert to 16-bit wav at 11,025 bps (that's all wavtopvf understands)
sox happy.mp3 -w -r 11025 happy.wav

# converts to pvf, an intermediate format
wavtopvf happy.wav happy.pvf

# final conversion to modem audio format
pvftormd -Rockwell 8 happy.pvf standard.rmd

This all seems to work, but there’s no way to verify it until I can get a voice modem that works with vgetty. I’m so close, but… that’s enough for today. Time to trick or treat.

Help-A-Thon II

We’ve set the time and date for the second annual Call For Help-A-Thon. We’ll be doing it the day after Christmas, December 26 from 11a-11p Eastern (8a-8p Pacific).
Last year Chris Pirillo went 18 hours, but there’s no way these old bones could do that. Twelve hours will do fine, thank you. Cat, Sarah, and Kevin will be helping out. There will be lots of surprises, too. I know Alex Lindsay has agreed to do a Photoshop hour with me. More will follow, I’ll fill you in as we book the show up.

So set aside some time December 26 to join us for the Help-A-Thon. It’s going to be even more fun than last time.