NihAV: Progress Report

July 2nd, 2018

I’m still working (barely) on NihAV and I’ve managed to make my code decode both RealVideo 3 and 4. It’s not always correct, especially B-frames and some corner cases, but at least it produces a sane picture in most cases.

And this time I’d like to write about disadvantages of writing motion compensation functions in Rust instead of C.
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#chemicalexperiments — Cream

June 18th, 2018

So it has come to this. Let’s talk about a stuff one usually finds in sweets: various kinds of cream (and my experience with it).

I can divide the cream I’ve encountered or made so far into three categories:

  1. Swedish cream;
  2. Lazy cream;
  3. Custards.

Swedish cream is very easy to make: whip cream, optionally sprinkle cinnamon on top. It’s found in virtually every Swedish cake and serves as a base for some other cream variants. In Germany it’s common to use Sahnesteif—essentially a mix of starch and dextrose—that makes whipped cream stay thick and not runny longer.

Lazy cream is essentially a mix of some dairy product with powdered sugar and maybe something else for flavour (I use lemon juice): it can be butter, mascarpone, quark or something else. You simply mix those two ingredients together and use immediately. I believe the other term for this kind of cream is butter-cream.

And custards is the trickiest one since you have to cook it. It’s essentially a mix of egg yolks and milk with some thickening agent (can be starch or less commonly gelatine). When making it you have to keep in mind that if you simply put yolks into the hot milk they’ll curdle and you’ll end with a very runny omelette so you have to be extra careful and mix them (first you mix yolks with sugar and starch) by pouring a thin stream of one ingredient into another and mixing (some say you should first add some hot milk to yolks and then pour the mix back to milk, others claim it’s enough to pour yolks into milk). Afterwards you have to let it cool in a sealed container and maybe mix with whipped cream. It can be used in tarts, cakes, smaller pastry or eaten as it (preferably with something else though like berries or biscuits).

There’s a variation of it called Bavarian cream which you make by mixing yolks and milk, adding gelatine and mixing with whipped cream after it’s half-set (and then waiting even more hours until it’s fully set). The result is good as a standalone dessert but I heard it can be used in cakes too.

Overall I find all those cream varieties good but it’s better to eat them with something else and in moderation (or you’ll end having my shape).

NihAV: progress report

June 10th, 2018

Well, since I had no incentive to work on NihAV and recently the weather is not very encouraging for any kind of intellectual activity there was almost no progress. And yet now I have something to write about: NihAV has finally managed to decode non-trivial (i.e not fully black) RealVideo 3 I-frame properly (i.e. without any visible distortions). Loop filter is still missing but it’s a start. And it’s not a small feat considering one has to implement both coefficients decoding and intra prediction. So essentially it’s just motion vector juggling and motion compensation are all the things that are missing for P- and B-frames support. Maybe it will go faster from here (but most likely not).

And since doing that involved rewriting some C code into Rust here are some notes on how oxidising went:

  • match is a nice replacement for the cases when you have to partly remap values—in my case I had to adjust intra prediction directions in case top or left or bottom reference were missing and that means changing three or four values into other values, match looks more compact than several } else if (itype == FOO) { and does not lose readability either;
  • while in C foo = bar = 42; is a common thing, Rust does not allow this (I can understand why) and I’m surprised I ran into it only now (with intra prediction functions that assign the same calculated value to several output pixels at once);
  • loops in Rust are fine for basic use but when you need to deal with something more complex like for (i = 0; i < block_size; i += 4) or for (i = 99; i > 0; i--) you need either to write a simpler loop and remap indices inside or to remember it’s Rust and permute range in less intuitive ways like for i in (0..block_size).filter(|x| x&3 == 0) and for i in (1..99+1).rev(). While this works and even somewhat conveys the meaning it’s a bit unwieldy IMO;
  • and it might be a bit too esoteric but looks like I cannot easily write fn clip_u8(val: N) -> u8 that would take any primitive numeric type as input, do comparisons inside and return value either clipped to converted to u8. The best answer on how to do it I found was “you can’t, it’s against Rust practices”. I don’t need it much and I care even less, so I’ll just mark it as a neutral language feature and forget about it.

And now the small but constantly irritating thing: arrays. While slices are nice and easy to use (including extracting sub-slices), in my area I often need a slice with arbitrary start and end bounds. To clarify my use case: quite often you need a piece of memory that’s addressable with both positive and negative indices and those make sense on certain interval.

One of such common arrays is clipping array which essentially takes input index and returns it clipped usually to 0-255 range. So you have part [-255..-1] filled with zeroes, [0..255] filled with values in the same range and [256..511] filled with 255. I repeat, such clipping table is very common and useful thing that’s currently not easy to implement in Rust.

Another less common case is the block of pixels we process may require information from its top, left and top-left neighbours—and those are addressed as src[-stride + i], src[-1 + stride*i] and src[-stride - 1]. Or a whole frame of GDI-related codec (no, not from Westwood) or even simple BMP/DIB that stores lines upside-down so after you process line 0 you have to move to line -1.

I currently deal with it by keeping an additional variable pointing to the current position in array that I use as a reference and from which I can subtract other numbers if needed, but it’s a bit clunky and error-prone. Since Rust checks indices on slice access I wonder if extending it to work with e.g. negative indices is possible. IIRC FORTRAN and Pascal allowed you to define an array starting with arbitrary index, it might be possible in Rust too.

Oh well, I’ll just keep using my approach meanwhile and waiting to see what rust-av does in this regard.

Rust: Lifetimes Sugar

May 27th, 2018

One of the Rust language features is explicit object lifetimes that help compiler correctly track memory usage and free objects without using garbage collector. A neat idea but it leads to lifetime specifiers being used everywhere including places where compiler should be smart enough to deal with them without explicit mentions in every place.

Maybe I’m using Rust wrong but in most of the cases I create objects that have no need for lifetime specifier or the objects that have the same lifetime for both its members and itself. Thus I argue that in addition to generic lifetime specifier 'a (or whatever the name you give it) and obviously named 'static there should be 'self that specifies the lifetime to be exactly the same as the object itself.

So, instead of current:

struct Foo<'a> {
  myref: &'a [u8],
  subobj: Bar<'a>,
}

impl<'a> Foo<'a> {
  pub fn new(myref: &'a [u8], subobj: Bar<'a>) -> Self { ... }
}

it should be possible to write:

struct Foo {
  myref: &'self [u8],
  subobj: Bar,
}

impl Foo {
  pub fn new(myref: &'self [u8], subobj: Bar) -> Self { ... }
}

I am not sure whether compiler needs to perform some additional things in such objects compared to objects without no lifetime specifier but it should be easy to assign proper lifetime after parsing the structure definition anyway and I’m pretty sure the compiler does something like this anyway.

And I see only these reasons why this has not been done yet:

  • Considerations for compiler simplicity (i.e. parsing process should be kept as simple as possible)—I still think it should be easy for compiler to recognize the lifetime definition by the time structure declaration parsing is over and it’s used externally (i.e. for objects using this one);
  • Considerations for language clarity and consistency (i.e. it’s immediately obvious when you look at the object that it deals with lifetimes but not with the proposed change). I’d argue that explicit lifetimes should be kept for complex cases only, when you have to juggle lifetimes from several complex sources, and the objects with references not outliving themselves should be fine;
  • Simple oversight (i.e. “we did not think of such simplification”) or developers’ bias (i.e. “we got used to writing lifetime specifiers everywhere that we didn’t think it annoys anybody”). You should be able to guess what I have to say about such argument.

So all in all I’d be happy to either hear why it cannot be done (beside the compatibility with the existing code) or see it implemented. But most likely this will be ignored (and I’m fine with that too).

BeNiLux Railways: An Impression

May 22nd, 2018

So I had a chance to visit Belgium and Netherlands and what I’ve seen there makes me write this post.

Luxembourg

I visited it some years ago and it looked quite decent to me, nothing particularly strange.

Belgium

Previously I only went to Brussels for FOSDEM but this time I travelled around a bit and saw places outside the capital too.

So, they have nice touches like typeface used for station names, various kinds of trains (though I haven’t seen their outdated train that used to go between Liege and Aachen) and very interesting rail station in Antwerpen.

The only strange thing is that they hang out timetables for workdays and weekdays separately (at least in Bruxelles Nord).

The only stupid thing I saw is ticket machines having a special button for international trains and when you press it it tells you that you can’t buy an international train ticket there. And Belgium is such a small country that it’s hard to travel in any direction for an hour and not cross some border (or get into the sea). One would expect that buying tickets to neighbouring lands would be easier, especially for such close countries like Belgium and Netherlands.

Netherlands

Now this country looks like everything there was designed by idiots.

First, trains. By themselves they are not that bad but they have the best counterintuitive designed door open buttons. First, they are labelled the same: half-opened (or half-closed) doors with small arrows showing opening or closing. So if you have not a very good sight (like me) you’ll be confused. But buttons are colour-coded! Yes, and while on German trains it’s intuitive green—open, red—close (or just a single button for open/close), Dutch trains have yellow button for opening doors and green (or blue for random Japanese) button for closing. Honestly, it should be intuitive to have green button to open doors so you can go. And I’d like to hear a reason behind this beside “well, cannabis is legal in Netherlands”.

Next, timetables. Those are confusing as well. At least in Rotterdam timetables are hanged separately for each fork (well, it should be a line but most of them are drawn as forks which probably means the train parts separate at some point and head in two different directions)—maybe it’s this convoluted system made them invent InterCity Direct too (don’t ask me how that’s different from normal InterCity). And the separate timetable for international trains. Confusing.

And since that was not enough stupidity, they decided to install turnstiles in Rotterdam Centraal so in order to enter or leave the station you need to scan your ticket (yes, it’s like what you have in underground systems but in this case for rail station). And it might be the only station there with such a feature, I saw nothing like that in Amsterdam C when I visited couple of years ago or in The Hague two days ago.

Speaking of The Hague, they have the stupid station name—Den Haag HS where last two letters stay for Hollands Spoor or Dutch Rail. I know only two cases where such naming makes sense:

  • you have a station in the same town belonging to different railway operators e.g. in Basel you have the main station operated by CFF and so it’s called Basel SBB, French railways have their own section there called Elsässerbahnhof or Bâle SNCF and there’s a station used to belong to Baden Railways that is still called Basel Badischer Bahnhof;
  • you had a competing rail operator and the name stuck (a variation of the above really)—e.g. stations on track Bullay (DB)—Traben-Trarbach(DB) are called so because there was another rail line (on the other side of Mosel) with the same stations and when it was closed nobody wanted to rename stations just because;
  • you’re SNCF and you want to mark your stations because they’re yours and no foreign train should set wheel there!

And as far as I know none of this applies to The Hague. I suspect it happened because they have built a new station later (more than a century later) that they designated as central one and could not make a good name for the old station. It’s like in Germany they’d rename station Hamburg-Altona to Hamburg Hbf and Hamburg Hbf to Hamburg DB. In other words, pointless and stupid.

Overall, it was an interesting experience travelling Belgium and Netherlands but I did not expect that much stupidity from the latter. Anyway, the next post should be about Rust.

An Impression on Rhaetian Railways

April 25th, 2018

Since I don’t have enough time to visit proper country I went to bad substitute of Sweden that’s much more accessible—Switzerland (it should be obvious why I cannot call it poor or cheap substitute). Since it happened on Easter (April 1-2), the environment was resembling Sweden: snow, mountains, deer and log sheds. And of course I could ride trains in new locations!

Rhaetian railways is a narrow-gauge railway system in canton Graubünden (which symbol uncannily resembles the one from Gävle), a fractal part of Switzerland occupying its south-east corner (fractal in the sense that canton shape looks almost exactly like the shape of whole Switzerland). Trains run in a picturesque scenery with dreadful names like Fhtagn (or Ftan in Swiss-Cthüelsch) or SaaS (they really have a station with such name!), going up to the mountains (in 1-2 km above sea level range) and I spent couple of days travelling around.

But while the scenery is okay, the railways are some unholy mix of Berlin S-Bahn, Czech and German railways:

  • There are German ICEs running there all the way to Chur (so I could travel home without any transfers);
  • The tracks are curvy and trains are as slow as in Czechia (i.e. no matter where you go it will take you at least an hour or two to get there);
  • Prices are like in Czechia too except they use Swiss Francs instead of Czech Koruna—but numbers are about the same (so it seems I can ride with ICE here cheaper, faster and on much longer distance than with RhB);
  • Another thing like in Czechia: buying a ticket with a card involves 1,5€ surcharge. No such thing in Sweden;
  • Narrow-gauge trains are a weird mix themselves: they can put locomotive in the front of the train, in the end (maybe), in the middle (very common) or just couple a typical EMU with a number of conventional rail carriages (I’m not sure I’ve seen that anywhere else);
  • Weird station names: I can understand when you name a station after two places at once like Reichenau-Tamins (that’s common in Germany too) or even if you name it after the same place twice like Disentis/Mustér (it’s Confoederatio Helvetica, natives can’t agree on a single name for anything) but Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels is definitely too much (it’s a station between those two mentioned earlier BTW);
  • It’s afraid of snow: after even insignificant amount of snow they stop going on some routes: on my stay there the trains on Pontresina-Tirano and Disentis/Mustér­-Andermatt routes were cancelled for indefinite amount of days. In Germany trains are more punctual—if they are late they’re late for dozens of minutes, not days. And if something bad happens and trains can run some route for days then you can see information everywhere including how to get around and such. No such thing in Switzerland;
  • And another thing that’s taken from German S-Bahn is timetables and tickets. This requires a separate rant.

Overall, FFS or RhB is not very friendly to a traveller: you should have a definite idea where are you going to, when (at which time and such) and how (i.e. where to transfer) if you want to buy a ticket. For example, I was at the station Chur-West and wanted to go to Scuol-Tarasp. The ticket vending machine offered me to choose from three options: via Samedan, via Chur-Samedan (i.e. go first to Chur main station and from there to Samedan and then to Scuol) or via Vereina. The last option is actually a tunnel and not a station name!

In Germany when you travel with long distance trains you actually choose one of the provided connection possibilities (e.g. InterCity from A to B, RegioBahn from B to C and ICE from C to D or InterCity from A to E and then from E to D) or you can use the provided functionality for route planning even if you don’t buy a ticket. SBB ticket machines simply allow you to buy ticket from A to B maybe with cryptic route midpoint and that’s all! That’s exactly how German ticket vending machines for regional transport work. And there’s yet another point of annoyance: Swiss rail timetables fail to include arrival time for the final destination so if you care about it (like I sometimes do) you have to find it out via other means. It’s plain stupid.

Oh, and the snow-related problem: when you buy a ticket you can’t be sure the train will go there because the only cryptic warning I got is when ticket machine said my ticket will be valid on April 1st-April 9th period (and much later in the train too). In Germany it actually shows warnings when there’s some problem with a train or it’s cancelled entirely (since you can use it later). I actually had a situation when one segment of my travel was served by a train that broke down and I had to take another train later instead. So it feels like you should rather use smartphone and buy ticket online where you can see the actual route and warnings (and probably use bahn.de instead of cff.ch too where possible).

Overall, travelling with Rhaetian railways was both a pleasant and exciting experience in some aspects (i.e. when I was inside the train) and confusing and frustrating experience in others (i.e. when I actually tried to buy a ticket). They also boast how some parts of the system are the third railway in UNESCO World Heritage Railways (the second after India, I guess) and how picturesque some parts are (they are almost as interesting as Sauschwänzlebahn indeed) but as I’ve seen it all there’s no reason to return there (and the reliable source says there are better places in Switzerland to wait over heat waves too).

#chemicalexperiments Dough and Pancakes

April 14th, 2018

Since I don’t have any urges to work on NihAV at this moment (big surprise, I know) I’ll talk about cooking instead.

Since I don’t know how to cook and never had any kind of culinary education, I divide dough into three main categories: puffy (the one that expands while baking), non-puffy (the one that keeps about the same volume) and runny (usually used for pancakes but we’ll talk about them later).

Non-puffy dough is the easiest to make: just mix flour and water (take either boiling water or very cold water for good results). Ideal for simple filling dishes like вареники or Karelian rice pasty (I made both and shall probably make again). The next level is to make so-called shortcrust pastry which is used for pies, quiches and such. Here you usually mix flour with some fat and/or filling (called shortening).

And there we have a variety of what to use for shortening:

  • classical recipes use butter—I’ve cooked stuff using it and it works fine except that it takes too much butter to my liking;
  • French people obviously prefer margarine (since it’s their invention)—I see no reason to try it;
  • Brits prefer some weird animal fat called suet—I feel queasy just thinking about it so it gets definitive no from me;
  • USians use chemically processed vegetable shortening; I’ve tried it once: ordered a can of Crisco shortening, followed the recipe for pie crust and the result is bad. I’d stick to other two recipes listed here. Fun fact: while searching for it on Amazon most offers were from sex shops where it’s apparently offered as a lubricant. I can see why—that stuff is sticky and slick and not fit for baking. Also since one of the sellers offers it along with various sweets (and what passes for them in the USA) I’ve ordered some of those and tried it—I was not impressed by that stuff either.
  • and finally there’s German variant that I find very good called Öl-Quark Teig (dough made from oil and quark—in this case lean homogenous cottage cheese). You mix flour with several spoonfuls of oil (you can choose different oil for different flavouring of course, which is a nice feature) and magerquark (lean homogenous cottage cheese) and that’s all! You can add an egg and/or baking powder too but it’s fine as is too.

Puffy dough is the trickiest one—the puffiness comes from bubbles in the dough and it takes extra effort to do that. The easiest way is simply to add baking powder (or baking soda reacting with vinegar) to the dough, the other conventional ways are to prepare yeast (cultured or uncultured, either way it takes time and some effort) or make bubbles from eggs which requires some skill that I lack (so I stick to baking powder). There are two recipes that work for me: mixing flour, eggs, butter and sugar (aka the usual cake mix) or öl-quark dough with sugar, egg and baking powder.

Runny dough (is it called batter?) can be made by mixing flour with a lot of liquid and some eggs and then used to make pancakes. Since it’s the only thing I’ve done with it so far let’s talk about them.

There are several kinds of pancakes that I know and tried so far:

  • French-style thin pancakes (aka crêpes) that are better eaten fresh with something rolled in;
  • Dutch laughably small pancakes (that have a name almost like an Australian word for gay—probably the words have the same origin);
  • common pancakes—thicker than crêpe, plain, good to eat with something on top or with some filling rolled in;
  • slightly thicker pancakes with something embedded in them (like bits of ham).

And of course Sweden has nice varieties of pancakes in wide range: ordinary pancakes, pancakes with bits of ham, pancakes with potatoes (I tried those and approve) and pancakes for people like me who can’t do anything right with their hands (including flipping pancakes)—ugnspannkaka, i.e. pancakes baked in oven. Obviously that one is much thicker than the rest but it’s easy to make (even I baked some) and it can embed various stuff too which makes it interesting (bits of ham, fish or even fruit). Also this way you’re more likely to end with rectangular pancakes which I find to be a nicer and more versatile shape than usual round ones.

I forgot to mention one local thing—in Baden-Württemberg they have plain pancakes shredded into thin stripes, dried and then they add it to the served soups. It’s called Flädle and you can buy it in every local supermarket (even Aldi). It’s a nice addition to a soup IMO.

Okay, now back to doing anything but coding.

Rust in multimedia: unwieldy features

March 18th, 2018

Today I wanted to talk about two features that are quite important for multimedia decoding but are quite inconvenient in the current state.

First, macros. I know that macros in Rust are both very powerful and quite flexible but they are hard to use for data definition and I ranted about it before. The problem is that quite often you have tables with some internal structure that would benefit from macro substitutions: if you have a codebook constructed from entries following patterns like a, b, -a, -b and a, b, a, -b, -a, b, -a, -b it would be easier and less error-prone to represent them as e.g. FLIP2#(a, b) and FLIP4#(a, b) inside the data definition. The problem is that macro! does not allow you to do that easily since it’s supposed to expand into valid statements (i.e. code or full data definitions). Of course you can work it around by making a set of macros to define the whole array and some bits inside it but that’s what makes it unwieldy. And that’s why I believe there should be another macro substitution mechanism, maybe named macro#, that would work just on data but it’d be much easier to use in that particular case.

The second issue is assembly integration. Despite Rust being fast and such it’s still better to write small critical functions in assembly. And obviously it would be better if Cargo supported including assembler files into crate. You can point out there’s stdsimd for using the power of SIMD without much hassle. I can point out that compiler-generated code is still far from being perfect even with intrinsics and assembly is still better; supporting querying SIMD capabilities via standard package is good though. And you can point out that there’s a special crate for supporting various files with various compilers/assemblers already. I’d say that it’s a bit too generic but at least it can serve as a base for what I need. Again, there’s more or less standard way to deal with assembly files so making a common standard is not hard.

And in the unlikely case somebody reads this and asks why I don’t form an RFC—from what I heard it involves proposing code as well and I don’t want to study the compiler nor waste days compiling it.

NihAV: Aten’t Dead

March 3rd, 2018

Surprisingly, there’s still some life in NihAV and some progress time from time.

So I’ve debugged RealVideo 2 decoding and verified B-part of PB-frame reconstruction in Intel.263 decoder against the binary specification. Mind you, the latter is not likely to be seen supported by libavcodec ever. First, it’s a fringe feature for extremely old video codecs nobody cares about any more and, second, unlike later codecs, B-part is stored along with P-frame data (i.e. first you have macroblock header for P- or I-macroblock, then macroblock header for B-macroblock, then macroblock coefficients for P-part and then macroblock coefficients for B-part). Other codecs simply pack B-frame along with reference frame but here data is interleaved. I’ve added some support for skipping B-part in libavcodec H.263 decoder (exactly nine years ago!) but decoding two frames in parallel would require some serious hacking of infamous MpegEncContext-using core so it’s very unlikely to happen.

And directions for near future still include RealVideo 3/4 and all RealAudio codecs. Fun fact: two of those are patent-free now—ATSC A/52 aka DNET and AAC-LC (but probably not SBR extension used in racp version). So if you implement them now you can flip a middle finger to both D*lby and Ferkel-herzen-Gesellschaft since new decoders can’t be covered by patent licenses. Not that I cared about it before.

Chiariglione Is Right

February 7th, 2018

I guess everybody else has reacted on his post about MPEG crisis so I can do that as well. So, $postname—most people just don’t understand his outlook. If you interpret his words from his point of view it’s clear he’s right for most of the things.
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