Bermuda Cruise, Pt. 1 podcast

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One of the add-ins I had on my old Windows Home Server was a beta of Jungledisk that backed up my Photos folder to Amazon S3. To fill that role on my new WHS 2011 server, I’m trying Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server 2011.

Cloudberry offers a free trial, so I downloaded the Add-in package and installed. WHS warned me that the package was unverified, but I installed it anyways. After install, the app appeared in the navigation bar as “Cloudberry Online Backup” on the WHS Dashboard and in the list of installed Add-ins. The user interface of Cloudberry has five tabs that are easy to understand. Before I could do anything with it, I needed to give it the credentials for my S3 account in the Settings under “Set Storage Account”. It prompted me for a Bucket name, which I assumed it would create if necessary. It didn’t, and complained that the named Bucket didn’t exist, so I went into the AWS console and created it. After that, the account was added.

Because I’m not currently using this to back up critical system data, I went into Options and tuned the upload speed to 75KB/sec (about a quarter of my current upload bandwidth) and tuned down the process priority to Low. At this point, I was ready to Setup a Backup Plan, so I launched that wizard. I selected my S3 account as the target, and was given a choice between the Advanced (default) and Simple Backup Modes. Because these are just photos that I’m not keeping multiple versions of and don’t need encrypted for extra privacy, I selected Simple. I’ll probably use Advanced mode for documents or other sensitive data I might backup to S3 in the future.

I was pleased to see that the Backup Plan wizard defaulted to showing backup sources at the share level rather than at the physical drive level. There was an option to add the physical drives to the view.  I quickly selected just my “Pictures” share. I used the Advanced Filter settings to specify just to back up files with .JPG, .PNG, .MP4, and .RAW filenames, mainly to avoid backing up system files like thumbs.db and desktop.ini that Windows throws in to picture folders. However, it looks like the default selection of “Do not backup system and hidden files” would help me there. I opted for no compression, to use S3’s Reduced Redundancy Storage (RRS), and to purge deleted files after 30 days. I chose a weekly schedule with a backup at 1AM Saturdays to reduce the load on the server. The wizard then created a service to run with Administrator privs. I liked the email notification options, but chose not to use them at this time. Then the backup plan was created and I set it to run immediately.

I was concerned as I watched the initial phase of the backup.  Out of over 24GB worth of 10,000 picture files, the job status listed just 100 files and 1.8GB. However, the network utilization was on target and the performance impact to the server (an HP ProLiant MicroServer) was negligible. As I was watching the initial backup, I paged through some of the other tabs and found them straightforward and easy to understand. As the backup progressed, its number of target files and capacity increased, indicating that it wasn’t intending to cap out the backup job early.

I was very pleased to see that unlike Jungledisk, Cloudberry transferred the folder structure and files without putting them in containers. I was able to navigate the folders and see the pictures from the S3 web console. Very cool.

As I finish this entry, Cloudberry is plugging away at the initial backup and all indications are that it will work even better than my old solution! Recommended.

I’ve been running Windows Home Server v1 on a repurposed Dell PowerEdge 400SC for about 2 years now and it’s been a great filer and backup server. When I found out that WHS 2011 was going to be 64-bit only, I tried out the beta on virtual machines to get a feel for if I would like it. Would it really be worth setting up a new server to run this new version? My answer was yes.

Even though I was comfortable on WHS v1, the 400SC was maxed out internally with three hard disks and two optical drives. Being a mini-tower, it was using more power than I needed to just do WHS functions. I had originally considered building a mini-ITX-based pedestal server, but when the base components added up to over $300 I checked on the HP ProLiant MicroServer, which I’d been following since its release. For about $320 I could get the server with the first GB of RAM and a 250GB HDD included. I decided to go that route, adding a 2GB DIMM, HP DVD/RW, and 1TB HDD. With the other two HDD bays I would install the two 1TB drives already deployed in my original WHS. The hardware arrived late this week and as of this writing I have decommissioned the old WHS and moved all the data and the HDDs to the new WHS 2011 server.

I decided not to try to use the MicroServer’s limited RAID. I’ve only got about 500GB of data (not including client computer backups) on the server right now, so I’ve spread that out between the first three disks, and I’m using the extra 1TB drive for server backups. Eventually I’ll add a USB or eSATA external disk for that function. I also plan on setting up Cloudberry Backup for WHS2011 to export my photos to Amazon S3. I’d been using a beta JungleDisk plugin for that on my old WHS. A review of Cloudberry Backup is coming.

My second backpacking trip with members from my team at work was last weekend in the beautiful Sproul State Forest near Renovo, PA. The crew this time around was five of us from my team in the US, as well as another employee from the Czech Republic who’s residing here for a while. We all signed up for a 23-mile, 2-day hike, but what we got was a lot more interesting.

We gathered early the morning of Saturday, June 4th, and set out on the nearly 3-hour drive to the trail. By 9:30AM we had found the parking lot for the Chuck Keiper Trail, had a celebretory drink, strapped on our gear, and hit the trail. We had both a topographic map (with elevation profile) and a first-hand description of the Chuck Keiper East Trail, and in the beginning it seemed to match what we were experiencing. However, about 7 miles in it was becoming apparent that the elevations we were hiking weren’t like what the map said. Two of us were tracking our progress via GPS-enabled devices and our courses weren’t tracing out in shapes similar to the map. Also, our GPS coordinates were slightly off the topo map we had. We continued marching on: we knew we were on the “Chuck Keiper Trail” since it was orange-blazed and signed occasionally. However, cabin locations and individual trail names weren’t matching up to the map; in fact, nothing we saw along the way indicated that this was the East loop. Until we got to the merge with the West-East Cross Connector trail!

At that point we completely stopped and tried to get our bearings. It turned out that between all the maps we brought, there were at least two versions. We scrambled to find one that showed this cross-connector trail. One of us had it, and it indicated that that trail met the East loop about 2 miles from where we thought we had started the day. We then realized that we hadn’t parked at the correct parking lot; and had never verified our starting position with GPS or another indicator. It was time to make a decision about how our day and weekend was going to play out. It was about 5PM, we had already hiked though about an hour of thunder showers (it was drying out now), and we faced the prospect of hiking back 12 miles to where our cars were parked; we had hiked about 15 miles in at this point. Instead of stopping to eat dinner, we decided to trudge up SR 144 to the parking lot we should have used (the parking lot we used was ~10 miles up the same road, on the same side of the road). This part was particularly grueling for me, walking on a mix of gravel and pavement, but the old man of the group made it OK.

Once at the closer parking lot we figured we could set up camp there and then hike back to our parking lot in the morning, or try to flag down a ride and shuttle back for our cars. Although SR 144 isn’t a very busy road, We managed to get a kind woman named Linda to stop for us. Once we explained our situation, she agreed to shuttle me back to my car. I was one of the two drivers on the trip. Linda is a nurse at the Renovo Hospital who was headed to work and I let her know how kind she was to offer us help. It wouldn’t be the last help we’d need this weekend. Keep reading!

I got to my car and drove back to the other parking lot. Linda had driven back up there and stopped to talk to some of the other guys before resuming her trip to work. At some point I had found out that one of our group’s family had a cabin about 45 minutes away from where we were, and we had decided to trek up there to camp for the night. Since I had brought marinated chicken for our dinner, I was given the decision as to whether we’d eat our camp food or go into town for dinner. Exhausted by this point, and the clock at close to 7PM, I opted to go to town.

We shuttled back for the other car and trekked about 20 minutes up to Renovo, which our “semi-local” was familiar with. He directed us to Yesterday’s Restaurant, and we settled down for cooked meals. The place was dead and we had the full attention of our friendly waitress, which was welcome!

After the meal we found our way out of Renovo and up Summerson Mountain Road — way up — to get to the cabin, which was about a 15-minute drive from the main roads. At this point it was close to 9PM and we started setting up camp by the cars’ headlights. The other car had some music mixes playing from its stereo for a while. Several of us, including me, settled down quickly. The others hung out for a bit before turning in.

I woke up first on Sunday morning and began preparing for breakfast. I had brought pancake mix for the group and started getting those cooking as the others were rising and starting to break camp. After we had all eaten and started the final pack-up around 8:15AM, the other driver tried to start his car. It wouldn’t turn over. Too much of the power had been drained from the headlights and radio the night before, and neither vehicle had jumper cables. My car started OK, so our “semi-local” and I went down to town to try to find a place to purchase jumper cables. Several places weren’t open yet, but we stopped at the local Weis Markets right around 9AM, when they were opening. The manager said they didn’t have jumper cables, but she immediately offered to loan us hers. The people in the town of Renovo were exceptionally helpful and friendly.

Jumper cables in hand, we drove back up to the mountain to get the other car fixed. Getting the vehicles in place and connected, we noted that we weren’t getting a spark from the cables even after confirming that they were correctly connected to my car’s terminals. Taking a closer look, it appeared that one of the two cables had been cut and re-crimped on each end without any of the wire actually making contact with the terminal connectors! Luckily, we had enough tools with us and on-site to fix this (hey, we know passive electronics, right?) and a few minutes later, had a spark. It took a while for the dead car’s battery to recharge, but we did finally get it going and were back on the road a bit after 10AM. We dropped off the cables at Weis and headed to our lunch destination, Selin’s Grove Brewing Co. in Selinsgrove, PA.

This was my first visit to the Brewery, and their selection of beers and organic foods was great. It’s definitely a great reward after a weekend of challenging one’s endurance. We’ll be stopping there again. After enjoying our lunch and confirming to share this tale, even with all its warts, we headed back to Harrisburg with a desire to come back and hike the trail we had originally targeted later this summer or in early autumn. Thanks to the guys for making it fun even with all the unexpected situations. After driving over 400+ miles that weekend, I’ll let someone else drive next time!

We were wrapping up watching some stuff on our DVR when I saw NBC’s live special report around 11pm EDT yesterday. The president came on at about 11:30, I think. While I’m glad Osama bin Laden was found, I hope that the authorities have enough physical evidence to convince his followers that he’s been eliminated. Supposedly there is indisputible photographic and DNA evidence, but his body was reportedly “buried at sea”. Unfortunately, I think his campaign had much of its intended effect. Post-9/11, the government has spent more on travel-related security in the last 10 years than in the entire history of our country combined, our Department of Defense has ironically been playing on offense halfway around the world, and our military spending has heavily contributed to the debt that threatens to wreck our economy even worse than it already is. I think about how much productivity our economy has lost due to security-related fears and I get depressed.

I pray that OBL’s death leaves a leadership void that destabilizes global terrorism enough to reduce global violence, decrease the perceived need for war, increase the peace, allow governments to unwind the security theater that’s choking our freedom and productivity, and help us to get back on the right track. Make love, not war, indeed. Let freedom ring.

As a corollary to my last post, here’s an analogy for you:

The difference between 16-bit (CD-quality) and 24-bit (“HD”) audio is 8 bits, and 2**8 = 256. That means that 24-bit audio can provide up to 256 times the amplitude “depth” of 16-bit.

Let’s compare audio bit depth with water depth. The surface of the water is analogous to unity gain, 0 dB. Unity gain is the loudest representation of sound a digital audio signal can provide. When multiple successive samples hit unity gain, the signal isn’t describing anything during that time. It’s just being loud. Severely brickwall-limited audio can have lots of samples whose value is 0dB. Think of this audio as a swimmer that stays on the water’s surface. They always swim on the top of the water, regardless of the depth.

Let’s say 16-bit audio is like a part of an ocean where there’s a 16-foot-deep coral reef. If a swimmer holds their breath, they can swim down below the surface and explore a bit, and find lots of neat stuff. There’s probably more interesting stuff under the surface of the water than at the top. When audio waveforms steer clear of unity gain (i.e. by not being clipped), more of their original resolution is present.  They can be heard more accurately, just like diving below the surface of the water helps the diver to see the objects that are under water more accurately.

Now, let’s say 24-bit audio is water that’s 256 times deeper than that 16-foot section: about 4100 feet deep; almost a mile. Again, the swimmer could stay on the surface, but they’ll be able to find much more life underneath. Putting on some scuba gear or deep-sea-diving equipment, they’ll be able to go even deeper than when they hold their breath, and potentially find lots more stuff. When audio waveforms don’t hit unity gain and can use at least some of the extra resolution that 24 bits provide vs. 16, they can be played back with even more accuracy. However, if the swimmer (in the case of recorded music, the mastering engineer) stays near the water’s surface, they won’t find much.

Mastering engineers need to learn to swim below the water’s surface before the music industry moves to 24-bit formats by default.

With the CD medium nearing its 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking about what formats and tactics much of the recording industry is using to pull us away from it.

When originally introduced, I don’t think the industry expected that less than 15 years later, it would be possible for users to digitally extract the audio data from the media and compress, tag, and file it on computers. Because there’s no security in the format, the CD is a great compromise of potential audio quality, durability, and accessibility. The only things that hold it back are its resolution (which isn’t as limiting as some in the industry make it seem) and the fact that it’s a stereo format. Since multi-channel, higher-resolution, secured formats like SACD and DVD-Audio haven’t taken off in the market, I think it’s fair to say most users are happy with what the CD delivers. I think if either of those newer formats didn’t include copy protection, more users would embrace them. Especially SACD, which can include a CD-compatible layer.

But the industry shows contempt for the CD and its users. Originally introduced at a higher price point than LPs and cassettes, presumably due to higher quality and to subsidize investment in new manufacturing capabilities, their average price has never decreased. Many of the CD’s of the 80’s were mastered with the ideal of preserving the dynamic range of the original recordings, but over the years, the loudness war has made the audio quality of most popular music a joke.

They’ve tried to kill the jewel case with the Digipak and its ilk for years. The only way that cases with less plastic can be sold as a sustainability issue is if it’s assumed that CD cases are throwaway items. I don’t know anyone that ever bought a CD with the intention of throwing it or its case in the garbage.

Listening to the excellent Home Theater Geeks podcast the other day, guest Steve Guttenberg (no, not the actor) made the point that the industry is building up a catalog of high-resolution masters of up to 24-bit, 192kHz quality. I think they’re hedging their bets on possible successors to the CD. Think about it: in many cases, they’re not even trying to use the full resolution of the CD format. Brick-wall limiting shaves significant chunks of available dynamic range off the content. Many users have migrated from home, speaker-based listening to mobile car- and headphone-listening, which makes the dynamic range issue less noticable. Those are noisy environments. Instead of leaving the dynamic range intact on the recording and letting playback devices handle dynamic range compression (DRC), such as what is available on DVD players, TVs, and set-top boxes, the industry chooses to dumb down the product for the greatest audience.

I think this is all a play to upsell the next disc-based and digital-file formats. Higher quality will be available and may actually be realized, but at a higher price point. Blu-Ray discs with high-res stereo and multi-channel audio along with videos are going to be sold at a premium, probably at least 25% more expensive than the comparable CD. This will help drive up the cost of digital-file versions of the higher-definition content that will most likely use some form of DRM. Even though the industry might have convinced consumers that it caved in when it allowed the sale of unprotected MP3, it didn’t. MP3s aren’t of equal audio quality to CDs, but they’re priced similarly. The industry has the opportunity to make a lot more money selling single digital tracks as well: those offer less profit in physical form. Consider the case of a multi-channel lossless file of the future, with DRM, purchased from a service that restricts the applications or hardware it can play back on. It may be cheaper than its physical counterpart, but the lack of playback flexibility will cripple the benefits of not having to worry about the media.

Via Scott: Slashdot: Apple in Talks to Improve Sound Quality of Music Downloads:

Apple and music labels are reportedly in discussions to raise the audio quality of of the songs they sell to 24-bit. The move could see digital downloads that surpass CD quality, which is recorded at 16 bits at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. It would also provide Apple and the music labels with an opportunity to ‘upgrade’ people’s music collections, raising extra revenue in the process. The big question is whether anyone would even notice the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit files on a portable player, especially with the low-quality earbuds supplied by Apple and other manufacturers.

The recording industry can’t even use 16 bits effectively, and they want to make consumers think that 8 more bits is automatically better in quality. I can just see the ads now: “New 24-bit iTunes HD; it’s 8 louder!”

Louder is not better. Demand better quality CDs. Take a seat and listen on speakers or nice headphones every once in a while. There’s still music out there that sounds great; purchase it and perhaps the industry will realize there are still people who demand a quality product, not just one with higher resolution. A brickwall-limited recording won’t sound any better with 8 more bits.


Update (2012-Mar-10):  Chris Montgomery (Monty @ posted a fine essay about this that blows mine away.  Go read his take!  Monty is a personal hero of mine, having developed the Ogg Vorbis codec.

As noted here several times since it’s release (and most famously by Rip Rowan on ProRec), Rush‘s 2002 comeback album, Vapor Trails, was poorly mixed and mastered compared to their earlier albums.  In certain circles it became the poster child of the downside of the loudness war; in fact, it’s referenced as an example on that Wikipedia page I just linked to.  Many Rush fans have begged for a re-release with more dynamic range that’ll allow the music to “breathe” as opposed to being just a wall of sound.

The 2009 release of Retrospective III featured remixes of “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” from Vapor Trails that showed the benefits of re-treating the album.  To my ears, much of the mud from the mix has been drained out.  I think the individual instruments can be heard better and there’s a bit more ebb and flow in the different movements of each song.  They are more of a joy to listen to.

Here are some short samples of the original and remixed songs that might help the reader to compare:

One Little Victory (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC
Earthshine (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC

Now that there’s concrete news of a remixed Vapor Trails from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, the promise of the 13-song epic being cleaned up for good is palpable.  I will gladly buy the new CD and keep the old one as a collector’s item.  However, based on the two remixed songs from R3, I’m concerned that a reissue with Richard Chycki‘s mixing and Andy VanDette‘s mastering might not be as optimal as it could be.  A few humble suggestions:

1. Don’t master the reissue with any digital clipping whatsoever.  Audible or not, clipped waveforms are a symptom of audio that’s had it’s amplitude increased beyond what should be the maximum.  The Replay Gain values of the already-remixed tracks are less than 1dB different than the originals, which indicates that their overall loudness is similar.  I’d rather the loudness and dynamic range resemble the Rush albums of the 90s, the Rush MFSL releases, or Porcupine Tree CDs.  Heck, use Steven Wilson as a sounding board.  Which gets me to my next point:

2. This CD is for the fans.  It’s to right a wrong.  It shouldn’t be meant to compete with other CDs in a changer or other MP3s on an iPod, both in terms of loudness and price.   Release it cheaply, without a bunch of marketing.  Rush has one of the largest audiences on the internet; believe me, the word of the re-release will get around with much advertising.  And the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of us that want to buy it will think twice if it’s priced like new material.  $10 seems good.  One suggestion to keep the price low: offer a packaging that’s just a cardboard sleeve, meant for owners of the original CD to swap the replacement CD into the original case.  Also, consider an online release option that uses losslessly-compressed FLAC files.

3. Please use this an opportunity to reassess what “quality sound” means when associated with Rush music, whether it’s on CD or DVD.  Using the “Caravan” single as a harbinger of what we can expect from the next Rush album, Clockwork Angels, it’s due to be just as loud as the original VT was.  We have volume knobs and aren’t afraid to use them.  Radio stations and many playback devices have dynamic range compression.  Geddy, Alex, and Neil, please use your influence to improve the audio quality of your band’s product going forward.  I’m looking forward to the next decade of Rush music.

Update (2011-Feb-07): Rich Chycki comments on the issue [via]:

A while back, I remixed ‘One Little Victory’ and ‘Earthshine’ from RUSH’s 2002 release ‘Vapor Trails’, to be included on their 2009 release, ‘Retrospective 3’. The remixes were very well-received so the band has decided to let me move ahead and remix the remainder of the CD.

To put rumors to rest, there was no re-recording or performance correction done on the first two tracks and that will continue for the remainder of the CD. The reason ‘new’ details may seem to have appeared in those songs is due to the fact that I listened to the multitracks and interpreted the mix structure without first analyzing the original [deliberately] — so tracks either muted or turned down in the original mixes may shine through differently (the acoustic guitars in ‘Earthshine’ might be a good example of this). As well, the same technical tweaks will continue for the remaining songs and I still will not have a buss limiter on the mix set to stun.

In any case, both the band and I are really excited to re-visit ‘Vapor Trails’ and hope you’ll all enjoy the remix.

The “buss limiter … set to stun” quote gives me some hope, but the mastering engineer needs to play along as well to get better quality than the mixes that were on R3.

…right now, not so much.  It’s shaping up to be the choice I made between MP3 and Ogg Vorbis: MP3 makes the most sense to use for compressed storage and playback on devices, and Vorbis is preferred for streaming.  In this case, H.264 is like MP3 and WebM is like Vorbis (appropriately, since WebM includes Vorbis audio).  Right now it’s not as easy for me to create WebM videos as it was for me to create Vorbis files back in the day.  I remember using the “spinning fish” applet that Xiph published before there was more embedded support for Vorbis.  Miro Video Converter has a WebM output mode, but it doesn’t appear to be tunable.  Spelunking with the ffmpeg or vpxenc parameters tp create WebM videos doesn’t appeal to me.  It’s one thing to get into the LAME and OggEnc parameters when you’re dealing with a single audio stream.  Add video with its more complex set of parameters to that and it’s scary.

I really like being able to crunch out H.264 videos of decent quality from Handbrake that I can use on my iDevices and computers.  While I would like it if the Handbrake developers would provide similar support for WebM, I really don’t have a reason to use WebM videos right now other than for computer playback in certain scenarios.

Google’s decision to remove native H.264 support from Chrome (and hence, Chrome OS) is going to be great for the web because the trickle-down effect of this will be to:

  • Force MPEG LA to choose whether or not to sue Google for patent infringement over the technologies in WebM and finally get some resolution to the same argument that has always prevented companies like Apple from supporting Ogg Vorbis: the lurking possibility that patented techniques are embedded in the open-source media solution.  I don’t think this will happen since it appears that some of the On2 patents have been infringed by MPEG LA’s solutions.
  • Incent hardware makers to add support for WebM because websites, led by Youtube, will make it their native format.  There were (are?) several makers that supported Vorbis decoding in hardware, and I’m not aware any of them got sued.
  • Make H.264 a completely free implementation for all uses because if it isn’t available for free, software and hardware makers will favor the lower-cost WebM technology.

As far as VP8 video not performing as well as H.264 at similar resolutions and bitrates: it took quite a while for MP3 encoding to catch up to, and in some cases surpass, Vorbis.  There no reason to think that with more development, VP8 won’t catch up.  I look forward to using WebM when I have an easy way to encode to the format and I can use it in as many places as I can H.264/MPEG-4.

I see this decision more like HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray; different logical formats that could be equally supported by hardware and software.  In fact, until Toshiba killed HD-DVD I thought that (playback of both formats) was the solution that was going to win out.  There’s no reason other than these licensing issues that support for H.264/MPEG-4 and WebM couldn’t co-exist.

How about this?:  Google will continue to ship H.264 support in Chrome if Microsoft and Apple agree to support WebM in their browsers.