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Saving old memories

The school I work at will be 60 years old in 2017 – a pretty decent milestone for a school, though there are many older schools here in Cape Town. As with any institution that has survived this long, there are bound to be many old photos of events in years gone by. A school is a very busy place with hundreds of events each year: sports matches, outings, camps, tours domestically and/or internationally, dramatic presentations, musicals, concerts, prizegivings and more all lead to many potential photographic opportunities.

Unfortunately, for the last 30 years or so, the school has largely relied on one person to take photos and keep a visual record of the school: my direct boss. From when he arrived in the mid 1980’s through to today, he has been building up a massive collection of photos. Since 2004, all the photos have been taken digitally, so there is a good archive that has built up the last 11 years. However, prior to that, everything in the school was done on 35mm film and this is where the problem comes in. All the photos on colour slides are in a slow race against time to be preserved. All colour slides will discolour and fade in time, more so if they are not stored properly. Once the colours are gone (or shifted too badly to rescue,) all the unique memories on those pieces of plastic are gone forever. Colour negatives are a bit more stable if stored in the plastic strips they came from the photo store. Black and white negatives are probably the most stable of the lot.

At the end of 2014 through a chance discussion with the school librarian, I discovered that there was a batch of slides sitting in a box in one of her cupboards. I asked her if I could take them to start scanning them, as we luckily have a Canon scanner that can scan slides and negatives. I was thinking of having them professionally scanned by a specialised company here in Cape Town, but the price would quickly become prohibitive for the number of slides that needed to be converted. As such, I’ve been slowly chipping away at the first box of slides, scanning them at 4800 dpi and saving the resulting large JPEG file. My boss has promised to colour correct and touch up these slides in Lightroom/Photoshop Elements when I am done scanning, after which we can upload these photos to our dedicated Past Pupils page on Facebook.

So far I’ve managed to scan about 165 slides, most of which I’ve taken out the holders to do so, especially the glass ones. It’s become clear that many of the photos were soft or slightly out of focus when taken originally, but it probably wasn’t noticed at the time. Also, 30 odd years of age on the film itself also doesn’t help either. There’s still a pile of probably about a hundred to go, though I’ve managed to whittle out private slides of my boss or slides that were too far gone to bother rescuing.

With the end of that box in sight, I went back to the library last week looking for anything more. As many slides as there were in the first box, they only cover a small time period of the school’s history – 3 or 4 years at the most in the 1980’s. After some more scratching and an impromptu spring clean by the librarian, I took possession of another box of slides, as well as dozens of packets of negatives, both colour and monochrome as well as some printed photos. Once the initial box of slides are done, I can focus on the negatives. Thankfully, scanning the negatives will be a little less time consuming, for the simple reason that I no longer need to take the film out of holders. I simply mount the strip of 4 negatives and scan away, estimating a saving of about 5 minutes per batch.

The biggest downside of the 35mm products is that in today’s digital world, you cannot share the memories on those pieces of plastic if you don’t digitise them. Digitised, you can share them online as well as use them inside the school for projection during events. Projecting slides today isn’t impossible, but getting a slide projector isn’t easy, not to mention that the mere act of displaying the slides will reduce their lifespan even more due to the heat of the lamp. For archival purposes, having the photos in JPEG format allows the files to be replicated all over the show, avoiding any one point of failure. If the film is damaged and destroyed, there is nothing to fall back on, especially in the case of slides. While JPEG isn’t up to true archival quality or standards, in computing terms it’s probably the closest thing there is. Every consumer operating system since Windows 95 can view the files, which is a good 20 year track record now. It’s of course nowhere near film’s 130+ years of service, but for now, it’s a good enough solution.

DStv Explora Setup and review

Here in South Africa, one doesn’t have too many options when it comes to TV channels. The public broadcaster has 3 free to air channels, while a fourth free to air, e-tv, is a private business. On the pay TV side of things, there is either DStv, or StarSat (previously known as Top TV,) both of which are satellite broadcasters.

We’ve had DStv since 2008, when we purchased at that time, the top of the line SD PVR decoder. The device could display 2 different TV channels at the same time, while also recording a 3rd channel in the background. The resolution was standard definition, which wasn’t a problem when all the TV’s in the house were small CRT based things. However, since I got the large TV in the lounge a few years ago, putting up with SD quality on that screen has been slowly driving me nuts. Throw in the at times instability of the PVR and I found myself itching to upgrade.

DStv introduced some HD decoders a few years back, but apart from one device that offered the same features as the SD decoder, they were limited to 1 view, 1 record. Throw in the fact that these decoders were even more unstable and I decided to wait a little longer.

Last weekend, I finally ended up purchasing the new DStv Explora. The Explora is a new and modern HD decoder, although still sadly limited to 1 view, 1 record. The interface on the decoder is a lot more modern than any other decoder DStv has ever produced, and it has a 2TB hard drive inside, which ensures much more space for recordings. With the SD decoder I found myself often butting up against the recording limit.

The Explora is securely packaged in the box, wrapped in a nice layer of bubble wrap. The device isn’t too heavy, but feels solidly built despite being mainly plastic. There were no creaks or other defects out the box. Unfortunately for whatever reason, the power supply has now migrated from being internal to being a power brick. I suppose it makes sense that if there is a power surge or something, it’s much easier to replace a power brick than the whole decoder. Still, power bricks are often unsightly and contribute to cabling clutter.

The old SD decoder is quite noisy, with a very distinct fan drone emanating from the machine at all times. The Explora is a lot quiter, and seems to run cooler as well, despite it’s vastly upgraded internals. Hard drive noise is also far less evident, thanks to modern drives which are a lot quieter than the 250GB model in the SD decoder.

I chose to install the Explora myself, without making use of an installer. There was no need to pay someone to do the job, since we already have a large enough dish and have a twin cable feed coming in from the dish. From there, the process is simple:

  • Screw cables from the dish into the top inputs on the included multi-switch.
  • Connect one output cable on the side of the multi-switch to the Explora.
  • Connect two cables from the bottom of the multi-switch into the inputs of the existing SD decoder.
  • Use a F connector splitter to split the feed from the RF output of the SD decoder. One cable goes to the RF input port of the Explora, the other cable runs to the secondary TV that was always hooked up.
  • Use HDMI cable to hook up Explora to my amp, which in turn feeds the TV.
  • The reason to interconnect the 2 decoders is to enable DStv’s Extraview feature. With this feature enabled, you are able to use 2 interlinked decoders on the same subscription for a nominal amount every month. With my particular setup, we can theoretically watch 3 completely separate TV channels, whilst recording 2 different programs at once.

The installation really isn’t difficult if you already have a previous DStv in your house and it meets the requirements for the Explora. The rest is just an exercise in patience as you connect multiple cables. Depending if you are making use of Extraview to interlink 2 decoders or not, you may need to purchase 3 extra co-axial cables and a F connector splitter.

So far, so good. The Explora has been running a week with no problems that I’ve detected. Most of the channels are still SD resolution, but they are being upscaled better than the old SD decoder could ever do. HD content on the other hand looks lovely, if not quite Blu-ray lovely. Still makes a huge difference in things like live sport though.

Overall, the Explora is a worthwhile upgrade. From any SD decoder it’s a big leap, while the increased space and stability puts it above the older HD decoders. Time will ultimately tell how stable the Explora will be, but I am strangely optimistic the device will hold up well over the coming years. Although the device is quite pricey, it has been on special a few times already.

Dying hard drive woes

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

There are few things more annoying or scary to an IT person than a dying/dead hard drive. Annoying because you are often expected to make the drive magically come back to life when often it’s beyond any help; scary because if it’s an important drive that was never backed up, the contents of said drive may never be recovered.

Last week it seemed a perfect storm hit me. On Friday morning I checked our school admin server for errors in the Event Viewer for an unrelated matter. I then noticed that there were warnings in the log that the hard drive controller reported imminent failure. This was a Seagate 500GB model that was about 2.5 years old. I installed SeaTools on the drive and it confirmed that the drive was not healthy. I made the snap decision that I would virtualise the server to our XenServer that afternoon. While I had backups of the school admin server, the server could not afford any down time as we needed to enter and process academic marks.

That afternoon I started the process and got the server virtualised. It took a long time, but luckily everything worked ok in the end. All the files transferred. I shut down the sick server, booted the copy in Xen up and went on getting that server up to speed. One of the side effects is that I now have one less old server taking up space in the rack, and the virtualised copy is more robust than it had been on the physical server. Big sigh of relief, problem solved!

On the weekend, I booted up into my Windows 8 drive at home to do some work in Hyper-V. I’d noticed in the preceding week that this hard drive had vanished a few times during boot up, but I wasn’t too concerned. I did my work in Windows 8, but when I was shutting down, I started noticing some noises coming from the drive, like the motor powering down and up. Not the usual click of death, but a fatal wound anyway. This is a Seagate 250GB model.

The next day when I tried to boot into Windows 8, it wouldn’t get past the sign in screen. It would simply sit spinning around endlessly. More noises started coming from the drive. Boot back into Windows 7, run SeaTools. As suspected, this drive was on death’s door. I wanted to save my Windows 8 drive so that I wouldn’t need to reinstall and end up downloading all the updates again. There’s luckily no special data on that drive, besides the OS. I don’t have many spare drives laying around at home, so I ripped out the only other 250GB I had, which was in my old PC.

I was determined to clone the drive, but I had no luck. Drive Image XML would bum out after a minute as it hit problems on the drive. ImageX would also crash when it hit those problems. Clonezilla would crash when hitting those areas as well. The Unix DD command copied about 30GB before it crashed out, despite being told to run through errors. ddrescue managed to go through the whole drive, but it too crashed at the end. Perhaps I should have tried again. When I booted back into Windows 7, checkdisk took almost 45 minutes repairing file system damage to the cloned drive.

Unfortunately, said cloned drive refused to boot, despite all the files being there. Booting up off the Windows 8 DVD didn’t help, as it didn’t recognise the drive as a valid Windows 8 install, so I couldn’t run any of the automated repair tools. Then the cloned drive started making noises! Ran SeaTools and it failed that drive as well. Oddly, after I changed SATA ports and ran SeaTools again, the clone drive passed this time. However, I don’t trust this judgement.

As it stands at this moment, the original 250GB hard drive will boot, but will hang when trying to log into Windows and it is definitely a dying drive. The clone drive works but looks like it is terminal as well.

The scary part is that we are always taught to back up our data. Hard drive sizes have shot up in recent years, currently up to 4TB. Backing up to DVD is not really worth it or feasible anymore due to this size jump. The cloud makes sense for documents and a small photo collection, but becomes impractical for OS level type backups. External hard drives are probably the easiest, but they too can fail. It’s an interesting problem I don’t think we’ve yet managed to fully wrap our heads around.

Rant Mode–EA’s Origin platform redux

It’s not often that I end up ranting about something twice. EA’s Origin unfortunately has now earned my wrath for a second time. You can read about my previous grumblings here.

Last week, the Humble Origin Bundle went on sale. At the price the bundle was offered, I couldn’t resist ordering. Of the lot, Dead Space 3 is the newest game (Feb 2013), while the other games are anything from 1-4 years old. A lot of people have purchased this bundle, since it is great value and the proceeds are going to charity. More cynical people acknowledge that part, but state that the real idea is to draw people in to use EA’s Origin platform.

Unfortunately, it seems EA were not prepared for the influx of new users. Keys could not be redeemed as the servers had for all intents and purposes, melted under the load. Luckily I didn’t suffer this problem. What has been a problem however is downloading the games. I’m on a paltry 1Mb/s ADSL connection at home, and seeing the size of some of these downloads made it clear I couldn’t do it at home. Luckily I have the capability of doing so at work. I installed Origin and started by trying to download Dead Space 1. Starts off well enough, but then the download simply hangs after a while. Clicking the Pause button does no good, as the download never pauses. At this point I have to hard exit or kill the Origin task with Task Manager.

The line at work could have finished Dead Space over the weekend, but since the connection simply wouldn’t stay alive, I’ve had to baby sit the download in chunks. Not fun, and not the way Origin used to work. Origin didn’t have this problem with Mass Effect 3, so I don’t know if it’s one of their updated releases that did it or what. Numerous reports on the EA forums bear witness to the fact that I’m not the only one suffering this problem. All I want to do is download the game at work and transfer it to my home PC, something else Origin is woefully inept at doing. Steam makes this process idiotically easy.

Also, the latest Origin update has now decided it wants to download and reinstall all my Mass Effect 2 DLC, which for whatever reason it can’t pick up the fact that it’s already installed. The previous version of Origin finally fixed that problem, but it now appears to be back.

Digital downloads keep being trumpeted as the future of how content is distributed, but experiences like this only make me want to cling onto my physical media all the harder. Add the fact that internet speeds here in South Africa are simply not great, and the situation becomes somewhat painful. I can’t help but feel that part of the reason EA offered the bundle was to load test Origin to the breaking point, and then finally get sort out their service. Some commentators have said that we should look at what Steam was like after its first two years on the market, but I’m not sure that is a valid point. EA would have seen Steam’s problems, and could have worked to avoid it from the start. Everything Steam does wrong, EA could have done right, but it seems that this will never happen.

And to think, PC gaming once used to be simple and enjoyable mere minutes after buying a game….

Rant Mode–EA’s Origin distribution platform

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

In the digital game distribution world, there are many products that have come and gone over the years. Some have managed to survive with a small audience base, while others came, shone brightly for a while and then died. One name stands above all others however: Valve’s Steam. I’m not the biggest fan of Steam in the world for a few reasons, but it works well and has changed the industry probably for the better.

EA sold their games through Steam, but starting with The Old Republic and Battlefield 3, they no longer provided their games on Steam, but were instead forcing people to use Origin, their rebranded attempt at taking on Steam. For the most part, Origin has worked ok for me, but its features are lacking compared to Steam. In particular, the one that is grating me the most right now is the lack of a proper game backup/restore option.

I’ve recently just built a new computer for myself (more on that soon), and one of the things I needed to do was to set up Steam and Origin again on the new PC. With Steam, restoring backed up games off of my old PC was a piece of cake. Click on the Steam menu button in Steam, select Backup and Restore Games and follow the prompts to easily restore your games. Worked like a charm.

Origin has no such ability. A search found out that you could try copying the existing folder off the old PC onto the new PC and run some setup file in a specific directory to reinstall the game, but this file didn’t exist on my PC. Reading through other links revealed that other people also didn’t have this file. In the end, I was able to get Mass Effect 3 reinstalled by pointing the location Origin uses to install games to the new correct directory. I right clicked on the Mass Effect 3 game art in Origin and said Install. This proceeded to reinstall the game using the existing folder I had copied earlier.

However, after installation, it kept trying to download all the DLC I’ve purchased for the game, which is a multi gigabyte affair. After forcing enough cancels, it seems to have settled down a little.

Just when I thought I would be good to go, Origin wanted to start downloading every piece of Mass Effect 2 DLC I own and install it. I registered Mass Effect 2 with Origin, so that if my game disks are ever damaged, I can download the game for free. However, I already have all the DLC packs downloaded and saved, so I don’t need Origin to download and install them for me. I cancel every time I open Origin, but it keeps attempting to download the DLC files.

Origin has potential. I like its interface, as well as its speed. As a launcher of games, it’s pretty decent. However, many of the games that it supports managing in return have no idea Origin exists, so there is a disconnected feeling when playing an older game. Contrast that with Steam, where every game on the platform is Steam aware. If EA want to seriously compete in the digital download market, they need to ramp up the quality of the Origin client. They don’t even need to copy all of Steam’s features – just get the rest of the basics in place. It really isn’t too much to ask for. After all, the more competition there is in the industry, the more we as customers benefit.

Origin

My Origin collection of games. Note that only Mass Effect 3 fully supports Origin. The others were “redeemed” games in case my physical disks ever get damaged/lost/stolen

Windows XP at 10 years old

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I must admit that it is sometimes hard to believe that XP is 10 years old now. In those 10 years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen its various set up and progress bars, fought with infections, bad Windows Updates, incompatible software and many other things lost to the mists of time.

My first exposure to XP came in in my Grade 10 year at high school – 2001. It was a few weeks after XP came out and someone I knew in the computer room had managed to obtain a copy through a friend – illegally of course. We were all dying to know what XP felt and looked like, so we tested it on a spare computer in that lab. Of course, that’s when we ran head first into issues: The Novell Netware Client we were using didn’t run on XP, the Pegasus Mail version also didn’t run on XP, we couldn’t send and receive email using our crazy dial up modem solution. And of course, despite being based on Windows 2000, XP crashed a lot in those early days. Not nearly as much as ME or 98, but I saw plenty of blue Stop Screens in those early years. Oh, and the whole activation business was also a very new and untested step, with only Office XP before it being a wide spread product that required such a new and drastic step.

Eager to move away from the terrible ME at home, I got a copy of XP and installed it on our family pc. Suffice to say, I ran into the same sorts of issues with blue screens, incompatible drivers and software and just general irritations at how XP did things. In particular, I remember the Nvidia drivers giving a lot of grief, causing many random blue screens. Funny enough, that happened again at Vista’s launch. Food for thought…

Still, once it was coupled with Office XP, Windows XP became the base of my computing career. XP was a brilliant OS, but time has caught up with it. Malware, exploits and lack of features drove me to Vista initially, then Windows 7. These days, using XP is almost painful: no Aero Snapping, no Start Menu search, no DirectX 10/11 for increased visual fidelity and more. Imaging it across a network is painful as you need to maintain multiple images because you can’t make the image easily hardware independent.

Microsoft have been doing their best to get people to move from XP and with good reason – XP is a pretty insecure OS now in 2011. The firewall in XP is incredibly primitive, which requires a 3rd party piece of software to really do the job. All user accounts are created as Administrators on the initial set up screen, even if it’s SP3 integrated. There’s no User Account Control, no ASLR and DEP is primitive. 

I’m not sad to see XP start to fade away to be honest. It’s almost 2012, and while I will always have a fond spot in my heart for XP, it’s time for it to take that well deserved retirement now.

Handbrake and MP4

When it comes to watching videos on a computer, there is one thing that can be really annoying: different video formats. Over the years, the number of formats have increased, leading to some confusion and incompatibility. Whether it’s DivX, XVID, WMV, AVI, MPEG2, MPEG, Quicktime MOV, Ogg Video, Flash video and others, it can be downright confusing. The other problem is that since some of these formats are proprietary, they don’t easily play outside of their own players. Of course, there are universal players like VLC or codec packs, but these come with their own cons as well.

The other downside is that some of these formats are quite old, and as a consequence eat up large amounts of hard drive space due to less efficient compression schemes.

A couple of months ago, I discovered HandBrake: a free and open source video transcoder that uses the free and open source x264 encoder. In simpler terms, HandBrake is a graphical frontend to the x264 encoder, which outputs MP4 videos.

Handbrake

HandBrake main window

Speaking of MP4, I learnt that both the older DivX format as well as XVID use an older MP4 standard, called Part 2 ASP. The MP4 output by x264 is called Part 10 AVC, and is more modern than the older standard.

What this boils down to is that with HandBrake, you can convert almost any video format into the standards based MP4-AVC format. The end result is a file that can be played by hundreds of devices and the output file is quite possibly a lot smaller than the source file.

I have managed to shave off over 80GB on my video collection by converting the files into MP4-AVC. Some video files refuse to convert, and some others end up larger in MP4 format than what they originally were. This however is the vast minority, with the majority converting exceptionally well.

One of the more interesting things about the x264 encoder is that it is multi-core and multi-processor aware. Simply put, once you start an encode, x264 will max out your CPU. If you plan to convert many files, make sure you have decent cooling on your CPU. x264 does not use the GPU in graphics cards, which means that encoding takes a lot longer. From what I read, the reason for this is that graphics cards don’t output the same visual quality or have the flexibility of what a CPU based encoder can do.

It takes a while to understand how HandBrake works, but once you figure it out, the reward is worth it. You can download a copy from http://handbrake.fr/ and start saving on hard drive space now. Be sure to spend some time reading the wiki and user guides first however.