Fun with Multimedia

Now that my MBA course is over and I can, without guilt, dedicate my time to non-studying activities, I’ve thrown myself into a couple of multimedia projects which had been on the back burner for some time.

One is a yearbook CD for my daughter’s middle school class. I did one last year almost by accident. During the class plays I sat in the front row videotaping for posterity (and for my husband, who couldn’t be there). Several parents asked if I could make copies of the videotape for them, but tape would have been a major pain in the butt. So I digitized the video using the old FutureTel gizmo (sold years ago by Adaptec as VideOh!) and its included software. Not great quality, but good enough for a small window on screen.

I had originally intended to just throw the raw video onto a CD and make copies of that. But then my creative juices started flowing. I already had Illuminatus Opus, a fun and powerful (and cheap!) software which can be used to create self-running, royalty-free multimedia applications. So, many hours of work later, the class yeardisc included a page for each student with photographs and answers to a questionnaire (favorite food, singer, etc.). As each page opened, the application would automatically play a song which Ross and I had chosen to represent that kid. There were pages on the teachers, the class trip and other activities. Each theatre piece had its own page with the video window and still pictures; there was even footage from backstage and the audience.

I made a copy for each student, with a personalized label, and Ross gave them out on the last day of school. We came home that night to phone messages of awed thanks from the kids and their parents: “This is a unique memento which will last forever!”

This year, of course, it’s taken for granted that I’ll do it again. Fortunately, Ross has gotten interested in Opus and is having great fun laying out the pages herself. We’re using one of Opus’ included background templates with bright, jazzy colors, and we’ve conquered the use of transparency to get interesting effects when laying photos over them. This year the classmates are supplying their own photos, and we have many more shots from class trips and other activities. Ross and I still reserve the right to choose a song for each – that was the fun part.

I’m doing something similar for my own high school class, the Woodstock Class of ’81. I have tons of material for this, since I was an avid photographer during high school, have been class secretary for the last 15 years, and I’ve kept things like old school newspapers. A few classmates have also supplied photos; it’s interesting to revisit our school days from someone else’s point of view, with totally different sets of people represented. One of my classmates is a designer and he’s doing the graphic design for the disc. Tracking down the music we used to listen to is both fun and scary. That was the age of disco: Abba, Boney M, the BeeGees… good lord, we actually listened to this stuff? Daily?

I’m having so much fun that I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a way to make a living doing this kind of thing. The music would be a problem: if I was actually being paid for these projects, I’d have to find a way to include popular music without incurring the wrath of the RIAA.

Copy Protection Wars

This is getting entertaining; check out this article from The Register.

Another article mentions that: “White Lilies Island [Natalie Imbruglia’s latest] uses Israeli technology company Midbar’s Cactus Data Shield to prevent the disc from being played in a PC CD-ROM drive. The encoding process systematically corrupts the music stored on the disc. A hi-fi CD player’s error correction mechanism can compensate for the corrupt data and recreate the sound to a level that Midbar claims is undetectable by the listener. Put the CD into a PC, however, and the drive will pick up the corrupt and claim the disc is unreadable.”

Where was the record company’s head when they came up with this idea? This kind of copy protection flies in the face of how many people actually use audio CDs: they listen to them on their computers while working (or not), rip them to make personal compilations to play in their car or portable stereos, and rip-and-MP3 them to play in MP3 players. These days, how many of us actually listen to a whole original CD, as published, over and over again?

Interestingly, at least one member of the US Congress seems to be willing to take on the music industry over this issue.

Unreliable Rewritable Media

I admit it: working in the CD-R industry spoiled me. For the last eight years, I’ve gotten all my recordable media – and recorders – for free. So I didn’t have a personal stake when software bugs or system problems caused me to burn “coasters” which went straight from the recorder into the trash (no, not all those bugs were in released software – I frequently tested alphas and betas). I had been given some CD-RW (rewritable) discs for testing, but never used them much; my habits were formed before MultiRead, when very few CD-ROM drives or car audio players would reliably read CD-RW.

But now I’m paying for my own media, and I’ve been having system problems causing discs to be eaten at an alarming rate, so it was time to be a little more cautious and try some test runs with discs that I wouldn’t have to throw away if the burn went wrong. Also, I was burning MPEGs to VideoCDs to be viewed in the DVD player, and I’d heard that at least some DVD players like CD-RW better than plain CD-R.

I had on hand eight CD-RW discs, accumulated over the last four years, most of which I had written to once or twice, then never touched again. I burned the VideoCDs on those, using VideoCD Creator in Easy CD Creator 5 and 4 (that component of the software is identical in both versions). No problem; the DVD player played them without a hiccup.

But I was getting new MPEGs in at a rate which would eat up 2-3 discs a week. (No, I am not confessing to a major pornography habit; this is all family viewing.) We want to keep this stuff around to watch again (until the same is available on DVD or VHS, when we’ll buy it), but it would be expensive to store it all on CD-RW. So I figured I’d copy the same VideoCDs to CD-R discs, and see if the DVD player liked those all right.

I copied the first disc (using CD Copier from ECDC 4) and tested it immediately on the DVD player. No problem. So I copied the remaining shows onto CD-R, then erased the CD-RWs so I could use them to transfer the original (450 MB) MPEGs from my laptop to my desktop computer for safekeeping. It seemed logical to re-use the same couple of CD-RWs over and over for this process, erasing each time.

Surprise, surprise! I was only able to re-use each CD-RW once or twice. After that, the CDs burned in one recorder became difficult to read in the other recorder (on the desktop), and then they all became unerasable. I tried three different brands of CD-RW, on two different systems, with three different recorders. On the advice of my elite gang of CD-R experts, I tried SuperBlank, a blanking utility from the makers of WinZip. “If SuperBlank can’t do it, give up.” It did manage on one or two, but the rest I had to give up for dead.

Eventually I came to the conclusion (backed by my expert witnesses, Mike Richterand Aldo Bazan), that, except maybe for some old slow-rated discs written in non-high-speed recorders, CD-RWs simply die after a few months. Mike says: “Every time I’ve written about this in the newsgroups, I’ve expected someone to come along with a contrary story, but so far all I’ve had is a few saying that they last long enough for their needs – say, a month or two.”

So… CD-RW may have its place as a short-term form of sneakernet (to transfer large quantities of data between two machines). But if you have anything important stored on CD-RW, copy it off to hard disk or CD-R right now! Otherwise you may find that it’s gone forever.


Pop Quiz

Q: How is CD-R related to a Mel Brooks movie?

Edward Idell answered: Well, there’s always “High Anxiety” as to whether the disc will burn or be a coaster. So, you’re always wondering if the disc is “To Be or Not to Be”.

We’ll give him an “A” for sense of humor and familiarity with Mel Brooks’ movies! But the real answer is that Rock Ridge was the name of a committee formed in the early 1990s to create an extension to the ISO 9660 file system standard for CD-ROM which would better support UNIX by allowing longer filenames and greater directory depth.

This committee named itself after the fictional town in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. A later committee, aimed at created a standard format for bootable CDs, called itself “El Torito” after the chain Tex-Mex restaurant in which the idea was first discussed over lunch.


Software Poetry

Shakespeare updated by a friend in the software business:

Th’ expense of software in a waste of time
Is bugged in action; makes users savage, bloody, murderous, extreme, rude, cruel;
Used, software is perjur’d, not to trust, full of blame,
Enjoy’d no sooner, but despised straight;
Past reason purchased or pirated; and no sooner licensed,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose developed to make the user mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof,–and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a solution propos’d; behind, a corrupted data stream:
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the software that leads users to this hell.

 –  By William Shakespeare (1564-1616), (revised 2001)

Digital Photos – Display and Storage

“WILL BAKER’S digital camera has helped solve quite a few problems around the house. Several old PC’s that Mr. Baker would otherwise have placed in deep storage have been put to work in the capacity of dynamic photo frames or, as Mr. Baker likes to put it, “picture flippers.” Mr. Baker, a 46-year-old entrepreneur, cut holes in walls throughout his house in Corona del Mar, Calif., installed monitors and used the old computers to display slide shows of the 15,000 or so digital photos he has collected. The pictures change every three seconds. The frame in the dining room generates the most conversation among family members and guests.”

Every Picture Still Tells a Story, but ‘Family Album’ Is Redefined By KATIE HAFNER, New York Times

This is an interesting idea, though of course it works better in flimsy American houses where you can easily cut holes in the walls. Even if we had any space behind our walls, cutting holes in them would involve drilling through concrete blocks and brick. So instead I’m experimenting with one of WinOnCD’s features, making slide shows that run automatically from a Video CD disc which will play in our set-top DVD player. (A great way to embarrass our daughter at parties!)

I would add a word of caution about storing the family mementos on disc: recordable CDs will not last forever. I’ve been archiving both work and personal files on CD since about 1993, so I have hundreds of discs, containing many duplicate copies of files. Every now and then I get into a housekeeping frenzy. To reduce the piles of old stuff, I recopy sets of files from CD to hard disk, consolidating the multiple copies from various backups into one final copy of each file Then I burn a new CD.

Recopying data from old discs has been a kind of ad hoc testing, with extremely mixed results. I have the uneasy feeling that recordable CDs are not reliable beyond about five years. There are many variables, such as the brand of disc, the recorder used, the recording speed, and the drive you read it back on. But it boils down to this caveat: if a digital photograph, file, or other data is really important to you, recopy it to a fresh disc once a year or so, to ensure that you don’t lose it.