It’s the spring of 2020, and we are all quarantined. Video conferencing tools, like Zoom, are being used daily for work and play. Family chats, games nights, and parties are a regular occurrence in the Cross family.
One of the challenges with family video conferences is when you have multiple people in the same home using separate devices. People scatter to different areas of the house so they can be seen and heard without echos and feedback, which defeats the purpose of gathering together. In the business world, people sit around a conference table and use a conference phone. Everyone uses a single microphone and speaker placed in the center of the table. You can setup the same configuration using a USB conference microphone.
At my home, we all sit at the dining room table with our computers or iPads connected to the Zoom call, and one computer connects to the audio on the Zoom call. All others connect to Zoom video-only. The audio designated computer connects to a USB conference microphone and uses that as the microphone.
I have a mic from MXL, the AC404 USB Conference Mic. It’s one of those things you don’t use often, but it’s very handy when the time comes, such as, a Football Fantasy Draft and Quarantine Party. There are a variety USB Conference mics available from $30 to $100.
This website, stephencross.com, has mostly been a place for me to play with new technology. Moving forward, I’m going to play somewhere else, and use this location to share information.
This time around I’m using WordPress. I picked a simple theme, and copied a few posts from the previous version of stephencross.com. I haven’t used WordPress in many years. I’m impressed how quickly I was able to put this website together and feel comfortable publishing the first draft.
I have forty-six tapes with home videos that cover family events from 1996 to 2005. These tapes have been stored in a box for as many years. I recently took on the project of moving them to a format we can enjoy. My two challenges: how to get them off of the tapes and how to make them accessible to everyone in the family.
Camera to Computer
The camera used to take these videos, a Sony Digital HandyCam DCR TRV 120 , is still operational. I made that discovery after purchasing a power cord from Amazon. Then I needed cabling to connect the camera to my computer. This was hit and miss because it wasn’t clear to me which cables would work. I’m thankful Amazon has a generous return policy. I had three cable attempts fail. I settled on a combination of two cables that allowed me to go from a 1/4 inch camera output to composite and then composite to USB. The composite to USB came with drivers and software to capture video on a Mac.
The capture process requires each tape to be played from the camera and recorded on the Mac. A 45-minute recording takes 45 minutes to capture. I learned the capture process is a bit fragile. After recording eighteen videos (aka eighteen hours of recording), I discovered eleven videos had no audio or the audio was out of sync. I made some changes to my process to ensure the remaining recording would go well.
The video capture software should be the only application running on the Mac during the capture process
Play the audio through the Mac, not the camera, to verify the audio is getting to the camera
Rebooted at the start of each recording session or after every four tapes
Some tapes had sixty minutes of content while others had thirty-five. The best process for me was to let the 60-minute tape run through and edit out the blue screen when it completed. This allowed me to do other things while capturing the video. When the recording was complete, I would open the resulting .mov file in QuickTime and trim out the blank recording from the end.
Serving Home Video
I chose to serve the home videos through Plex. Plex allows you to store, manage, and stream your personal media. I expect I will be using Plex home movies and maybe photos in the future. Plex is an open source application that requires a central server to stream content to Plex clients. A Plex client can be almost any device. For me it will be Apple TV, iPads, iPhones, a Roku, and Fire TVs. Content can be streamed in and out of my home network. With grown-up children, having remote access to the video content is important.
After a bit of research, I learned that a Raspberry Pi could be used as a server, but it may not be powerful enough. Since I had a Pi 3, I decided to give it a try. Comfortable with Linux and the command line, I had a Plex server running on the Pi in 15 minutes using a resource like How to set up a Raspberry Pi Plex server. I connected a USB external drive to the Pi to store the 140GB of home videos.
It worked! The quality of the video is fantastic. When streaming a 30-minute video from a device, it will stop a few times and buffer. A “your server is not powerful enough…” type message will also appear, but it works. (See Update 12-31-18 below)
Plex Server Upgrade – My next project is to upgrade the $35 Raspberry Pi to a more powerful single board computer (SBC). I’m looking at a RockPro64 or NanoPC T4 with 250GB m.2 storage. I think this will deliver my minimal needs and not break the bank. And more importantly, it’s a fun tech project. Stay tuned. (See Update 12-31-18 below)
Video Editing – I discovered that the 19-year-old video labeled as Christmas 1999, was really four events starting in December, 1999 and ending in July, 2000. Now that I have the videos on my computer, I’ll be breaking them into smaller videos. No commitment on when this will be complete.
Moving forward – We all take lots of video with our smartphones. For me, it’s not intentional, long-form video, like my Digital 8 tapes. It’s short bursts of interesting things. Moving forward, I need to figure out how to aggregate that video in a format my kids can enjoy in 25 years.
It turns out, I don’t need to upgrade the Raspberry Pi, I just needed to educate myself on video formats, transcoding, and Plex. As I utilize more features of Plex in the future, I may need more power than a Raspberry Pi 3 provides, but for now, it will work fine to serve my fifty home movies.
The power of Plex is its ability to transcode video for the device viewing the content. When converting my video from tape to digital, I create .mov files. When viewing these videos on Apple TV or iPads, they are transcoded from MPEG to H.264. This is a CPU heavy process.
Plex provides the ability to pre-optimize videos and save them on the server. For my videos, that format is H.264 at 480p resolution. When viewing a pre-optimized video, Plex doesn’t need to transcode the video, just stream it, which is not CPU intensive. This is called Direct Play.
When you have a low powered Plex server, like a Raspberry Pi, the goals is to Direct Play all videos by pre-optimizing them for the devices they are viewed on.
Pre-Optimizing is very easy. You simply choose one or more videos and select the Optimize option. Since this process is CPU intensive, it may take a long time for each video, but it’s only a one-time process.
his blog, on 8/14/18, is static HTML generated by Sculpin, a static site generator written in PHP. Sculpin converts Markdown files, Twig templates and standard HTML into a static HTML site that can be easily deployed.
What is a Drupal guy doing with a static HTML website? Truthfully, just tinkering with technology. I like the idea of simplifying and minimizing. For simple blog, is it necessary to have a sophisticated content management system using a database and generating a website dynamically? That’s the question I’m exploring with Sculpin.
Why Scuplin? There are many frameworks available for generating an HTML website, the most popular is Jekyll, like Sculip, it’s open source, but built on Ruby and Liquid. Sculpin is a built on PHP and Twig, which pairs nicely with my Drupal experience. It was an easy decision to start with Sculpin. I may take a look at other Ruby and Python options in the future.
I’m not a Sculpin expert, but I’m learning. I downloaded the sample blog implementation to use as a working reference. Following the Sculpin Getting Started instructions, I quickly had the sample website running on my local computer. After looking through the sample website code and documentation I started a new website. I used a simple bootstrap theme, converted it to TWIG and had my blog running in a few evenings.
Content resides in a markdown files (.md). In my blog implementation, the content is either a blog post or simple page. In Drupal terms, this content is known as an Article or Basic Page. To create a new blog post, I simply create a new markdown file with some meta data at the top of the file. The example below is a blog post with meta data.
title: At home on July 4th
author: Stephen Cross
primary_image_alt: Mantle with patriotic HOME sign
list_image_alt: Mantle with patriotic HOME sign
It's July 1st. In most parts of the US, that means three days until a day off to celebrate the nations birthday. In Bristol RI it has a very different meaning. The 4th of July is a significant event, it's THE event. Planning for July 4th, starts on July 5th the previous year. The celebration begins in June and climaxes with the oldest parade in the country.
We are days away from our second 4th hosting. It's exciting to have family and friend join us for this purely American, hometown celebration.
Sculpin uses Twig for a templating engine. Twig is straight forward and there is an abundance of references on-line.
When your templates are setup, and you have some content, you then generate the website. Scuplin use the markdown and templates to output a stand alone HTML website.
Sculpin also provides a web service to view your website locally as you work on it. The command below kicks off the service, which monitors your source code and automatically refreshes the HTML as you update markdown and templates. I can view the website at http://localhost:8001.
Detected new or updated files
Generating: 100% (221 sources / 0.00 seconds)
Converting: 100% (232 sources / 0.08 seconds)
Formatting: 100% (232 sources / 0.01 seconds)
Processing completed in 0.13 seconds
Starting Sculpin server for the dev environment with debug true
Development server is running at http://localhost:8001
Quit the server with CONTROL-C.
When development is complete, you generate HTML to a new folder, /output_prod:
vendor/bin/sculpin generate --env=prod
You can then push the HTML to the webserver with an scp or rsync.
After the website is built, the daily workflow is:
Create new post in a markdown file, ie. _post/2018-08-01-Hello-World.md
Push HTML to Server
For me, these are manual steps, but I plan to change this workflow to use a continuous deployment strategy. As I push updates to my git repo, the HTML will be automatically generated and pushed to the server.
Although I’ve recently started using Sculpin and my knowledge is limited, I see the benefits as:
Performnace – HTML websites are super fast.
Low powered production server – The website can run on almost anything. The only runtime requirement is a web server. It have StephenCross.com running on the smaller Digital Ocean VPS with only apache install. I look forward to trying a Rasberry PI.
Low maintenance – I don’t have to worry about frequent stack updates.
Backup – While I’m backuping up the server weekly, it’s not necessary. The content and tools are on my local computer and in a git repo.
Cons I haven’t found many drawback yet. I do find the documentation sparse with few online examples and resources.
Over the past year, I’ve prioritized exercise in my life, most days spending an hour outside or at the gym. I take advantage of that time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks. It took two devices to make this work for me, a health tracker (Fitbit) and phone (iPhone).
While I had wanted an Apple Watch since it’s introduction, having the ability to leave your phone behind made the Series 3, released in October 2017, a compelling product. I upgraded my Fitbit to an Apple Watch, Series 3 Cellular, shortly after its release.
My dreams of untethering from my iPhone during my 3.5-mile walk vanished quickly. While the Series 3 Cellar Apple Watch works well without my phone, it doesn’t support podcast playback from Apple’s Podcast app, and Apple has not made it easy for developers to create podcast apps. In fact, the podcast app I use, Overcast, removed their support for Apple Watch with the release of watchOS 4. Also, there is no Audible playback on the Apple Watch.
I was happy with my move from Fitbit to Apple Watch, but I was still talking my phone with me, which is frustrating when I have a capable computer on my wrist. I tried a few apps claiming to support podcast playback on the Apple Watch, but they were too hard to use and very unreliable.
Then along came Outcast! While not perfect, the folks at Crunchy Bagel battled through Apple’s developer limitations and created an app that works. While Outcast allows you to search and enter podcast feeds to the app manually, I was able to import my existing podcast list from my podcast App Overcast. In a few minutes, I was running the bike path, listening to the Vector with Rene Richie podcast while my iPhone was on the charger at home.
A $.99 app lifted the value of my Apple Watch, to me.
I now wait for Apple to provide the watchOS features developers need to create a quality experience. Hey Audible, what up?