What is a Luddite?

It’s difficult for me to write about a controversial topic like electric vehicles, cord cutting, or renewable energy without using the term “Luddite.” Recently, my wife’s cousin commented on one of my blog posts regarding Blu-ray players: “I am a real Luddite…I have to read directions to play a DVD…so, what is a Blu-ray?”

I explained that she isn’t a Luddite, but merely ignorant of the topic (a neophyte, if you will—although this label implies she’s already embraced the new system). I realized that, if I’m going to be throwing this somewhat misunderstood historical term around like a drunk college kid hitting on people at a frat party, I might want to provide a bit of definition and clarity.

According to Wikipedia, “The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-replacing machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work. Although the origin of the name Luddite is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, a youth who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers.”

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We’re living in a period in which the introduction of disruptive technology is faster and more pervasive than at any time in the history of the world. We used to call it paradigm shift. Now we love the term “disruption.” Whatever the label du jour, it’s a way of describing the merciless onslaught of myriad digital technologies, social media networks, next-gen transportation models, and brilliant biotech breakthroughs.

And then there’s the old guard. The folks who profit from and control the outdated legacy tech used by millions or billions of people; the corporate status quo and their political allies. They don’t easily release their grasp on our lives—or our wallets. Plain and simple, Luddites are protectionists. They’re the mob heavy standing on the corner who sneers, “Beat it, kid. This is our block.”

I’m sure the entrenched, wealthy powers that controlled horses and buggies were freaked out by the first automobiles. It’s clearly evident that television intimidated the hell out of film makers and cinema owners in the 1950s (it explains the plethora of experimental aspect ratio introductions to differentiate cinema from TV’s 4:3 format). Heck, I wouldn’t doubt if whiskey companies were a bit alarmed by the invention of the hypodermic needle prior to the civil war—fast-acting morphine being the disruptor.

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Luddites are everywhere. Ebook authors Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler write about the desperate and short-sighted efforts of those in the legacy publishing industry. Automobile industry Luddites have grabbed headlines recently for their successful campaigns to halt test drives and sales of electric cars in Iowa and Michigan. Cable companies like Time Warner and Cox are acting like Luddites in their attempts to keep you from cutting the cord and using only streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. And, of course, the very Ludditist Koch Brothers and Big Oil will do their best to prevent folks from obtaining new tech like electric cars and power from sustainable sources like solar, wind, and nuclear energy. Despite superior (and affordable) alternatives, fracking continues unabated.

Bloggers and writers, both professional and amateur alike, need to focus on how easily their communications are understood, not necessarily impressing readers with big words. But in a time of severe disruption and technological advancement—and the displacement of entrenched old-school corporate and political players—terms like “Luddite” are more necessary than ever.

Stay vigilant, dear readers. Don’t let the Luddites destroy the new digital looms.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Common Confusion in Home Theater: Part 1

3d1There’s quite a few topics in home theater that are confusing for the average consumer. From volume levels on modern AV receivers to firmware updates to distortion, these topics make the purchase, installation, and enjoyable use of home theater gear both intimidating and sometimes perplexing. In the next few posts, let’s clarify some of these issues.

The following is an excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. The other blog posts in this series are listed below:

  • Part 2: Speaker resistance, analog vs. digital amps in AV receivers
  • Part 3: PCM vs. bitstream, Blu-ray player upscaling/upconversion
  • Part 4: THX certification, DLNA network access, and distortion and THD
  • Part 5: HDMI (including cable length and controversial expensive cables)
  • Part 6: Closed-back vs. open-back around-ear headphones
  • Part 7: Understanding your room and room dynamics
  • Part 8: Room correction, speaker position, and room dynamics
  • Part 9: Ethernet, component separates, and broadband internet routers

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Curt Robbins


Volume in a Zero dB World

The volume, or intensity, of sound produced by a receiver or amp is expressed in decibels, or dB. The “bel” part of the term is in honor of Alexander Graham Bell, because decibels, as a unit of measure, were developed to objectively determine audio levels on the earliest telephone networks (and you thought it was all about jet engines and 1970s rock concerts by The Who….).

What is confusing about decibel readouts on today’s receivers—and has been in practice for only about the past decade or so—is the zero dB system employed. It’s inherently counter-intuitive. Basically, on the dB scale, zero (0) represents the receiver’s loudest output (if you turned up the volume to the maximum possible). You’d obviously have to decrease the volume to enjoy it at a reasonable level. These enjoyable volumes occur in the negative numbers. A reasonable zone might be -32, or maybe -25 (depending on the input source and your room). But it will always be expressed as a negative number. Because we’re talking about negative numbers, smaller numbers (ignoring the negative sign) equal higher volume levels (-10 will be much louder than -35). And this is where the confusion arises.

pioneer av receiverThere is a logic to this scheme, however. In the past, when higher numbers equaled greater volumes, the settings were entirely arbitrary, with wide variations among receiver manufacturers. One company might demark 1 through 10 (one being the softest, 10 being the loudest), while another would get more granular, adopting a 1 through 20 or even 1 through 100 scale. It was the wild west. The problem was that there was no objective way for a receiver to display to its owner the volume at which it was producing sound.

Zero dB originated in the commercial broadcasting and recording industries. On your home theater’s receiver, think of 0 dB as the tipping point for distortion and where you may begin encountering things like “clipping” (jarring cuts and dropouts in the sound) and other signs that the receiver is operating beyond its capacity to provide clean sound. Depending on the quality of your receiver, you may experience distortion at a volume below 0 dB. But a good unit won’t begin distorting until this point (a valuable litmus test when researching your purchase).

The specific dB level indicated by a receiver is still somewhat subjective. In addition to your receiver, your speakers and the room in which they reside significantly influence the actual volume at which you hear the audio reproduced. Take this number displayed on your receiver lightly, realizing that -25 dB with your old speakers or on your neighbor’s system won’t sound exactly the same on yours (but it should be in the ballpark).


Updating Firmware

A hardware component’s firmware is simply updatable software stored on a chip in the device that controls certain features and functions. Because players are basically audio and video-focused computers dependent upon complex decoding and processing software, manufacturers often release firmware updates that expand or enhance the functionality of their units—or fix existing bugs. It’s a good idea to keep the firmware of your home theater devices, specifically your Blu-ray player and AV receiver, up-to-date (check manufacturer websites on a regular basis).

The biggest reason to update your Blu-ray player firmware is to ensure that it can properly play the latest movie releases. Hollywood is continually revising copy-protection standards in an effort to thwart piracy. Sometimes new protection schemes can’t be recognized by a particular player (especially older models)—resulting in a movie that won’t play. Instead of having to purchase a new Blu-ray player (a ludicrous proposition at which consumers would obviously balk), you simply need to update your firmware to match the latest copy-protection encryption standards of new-release movies.

oppo bdp-103Depending on whether your Blu-ray player is connected to the internet, there are a variety of ways firmware updates can be applied. If your player features internet connectivity, simply follow the manufacturer instructions to obtain and install the update files. If your player lacks connectivity, you can download the files from the manufacturer website using a Windows or Mac computer and copy them to a USB flash drive. The USB drive is then inserted into the player to begin the installation of the update.


Disadvantages of Blu-ray

The biggest disadvantage of the Blu-ray format is that some discs can take a while to load (up to a minute or two), depending on the speed and quality of your player. This wait is so much greater than for DVDs that, on some titles, new owners sometimes believe they’ve run into a bad disc or that their player has locked up. More expensive and newer Blu-ray players feature faster processing chips, decreasing your wait time as the disc content loads into the memory of your player. If load speed is a concern, remember to demo, demo, demo. (For you geeky types, the Blu-ray video format transfers data at roughly 40 Mbps, which is why you can’t yet stream an uncompressed Blu-ray video over your internet connection.)

Models known for their speedy load times include OPPO’s $500 BDP-103, its $1,200 105 model, and the $400 Pioneer Elite BDP-62FD. Personally, my first choice would be the BDP-103 (pictured above). Those on a budget might prefer the BDP-62FD, which is very comparable to the entry-level OPPO (but not quite as powerful or refined).


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Streaming Music: The Types

You don’t have to be into home theater or an audiophile to love music (when was the last time you met someone who wasn’t into some type of music?). Whether you’re streaming on your smartphone or home listening to a full complement of surround sound speakers, streaming music goes everywhere.music (3)

Cost? Free to $10 a month. So what are you waiting for? Get on the streaming music bandwagon and begin enjoying the world’s largest jukebox.

[If you don’t have time for a 1,100 word blog post and prefer a slideshow, check out Understanding Digital Music – Part 1.]

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Curt Robbins


There’s two primary types of streaming music: “Radio stations” and on-demand services. Radio stations include the uber-popular Pandora, as well as iTunes Radio and Songza. These companies offer a bare-bones service that plays continual music (perfect for background listening and office settings). On-demand services, such as Spotify, Beats Music, Tidal, and Rdio, are much more full-featured, offering the ability to play the song of your choice whenever you want. These services all currently charge $10 a month for access to a catalog of roughly 20 million+ songs.

Music Discovery / Radio Services

As the name implies, streaming radio involves creating a “radio station,” or channel, that automatically cranks out songs related to the name you choose (but doesn’t let you choose specific songs). It’s like an FM radio station, except it plays only the type of music you enjoy and doesn’t feature obnoxious DJs. For example, creating a Steely Dan radio station will pump out songs not only from the jazzy light rock duo, but also related artists like Boz Scaggs and Fleetwood Mac. Likewise, creating a Lorde station may stream pop songs from Imagine Dragons, Macklemore, and Lana Del Rey. Most services allow you to create radio stations based on a genre, song or album title, artist/band name, or era.

Pandora, Songza, iTunes Radio, and any service that provides a radio function, specialize in something called “music discovery.” If you like jazz and create a Miles Davis station, a streaming service will introduce you to other jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins (artists with whom you may be unfamiliar).

On-Demand Services

“On-demand,” or “instant” music streaming is the ability to specify a particular song, album, or artist and immediately hear it. Combined with a large song catalog, these services are truly the world’s largest jukeboxes. Of course, as you’ve learned, there’s no guarantee that your favorite song is available from a particular service. But with a minimum of 20 million songs each, the major on-demand music streaming services have plenty to offer. Even if Rhapsody and Spotify don’t have your favorite Beatles or Metallica songs, what they do offer gives most users a feeling of solid value.

Don’t let the sheer volume of a catalog have too much sway over you. What matters is that it features most of the artists and songs that you want and are going to actually play (for example, some reviewers claim that Rdio is the best option if you’re into jazz and classical). When Beats Music debuted in January 2014, it criticized competing services for stuffing their catalogs with karaoke tracks and other obscure and unpopular songs simply to boost their numbers.

On-Demand Features

The major on-demand music services provide a standard set of functions to help you organize, revisit, and enjoy your favorite music genres, artists, albums, and songs. Playlists, music lockers, and offline listening all round out the power and convenience of any on-demand service.

Playlists

Playlists are simply lists of songs that you store on a music service. Playlists are nice for building a personally curated collection of songs that you can listen to at any time. You can continue to customize a playlist over time by adding, removing, or rearranging songs. Playlists are great for parties, cleaning around the house, or focusing on a single artist, genre, or time period. Most services allow you to shuffle a playlist to get a bit more variety, especially cool for large lists. Playlists are perfect for collecting current pop hits by a wide variety of artists or your favorite one-hit wonders from over the decades. With playlists, you no longer need to burn CDs or program your iPod to hear an exact song list.

Music Lockers

A relatively new feature of some on-demand streaming music services is a locker function that allows you to upload your own music. Unlike a peer-to-peer sharing scheme (like Napster from the old days), the files are available only to you (the “locker” analogy). Take my personal situation: I like Led Zeppelin, but, as you’ve learned, the group is available for on-demand streaming only on Spotify. I subscribe to Google Play Music and Pandora. What to do?

Despite the fact that I really like Spotify, I’m not going to switch from my current service just to get Led Zeppelin. I’d lose all my playlists, have to start from scratch at teaching a new service my preferences, and there’s no Chromecast support (something I use on a daily basis). Because I own most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog on CD and have already ripped them to 320 Kbps MP3s, I simply uploaded my entire collection to my music service’s locker. Now, when I log into Google Play Music, my personal Led Zeppelin collection is seamlessly woven into the other millions of titles from Google and available to me via all of its functions (radio, playlists, and on-demand).

This works so well that I also uploaded my AC/DC and Beatles collections, legally filling the gap of what’s not available due to artist refusals. Also, if you enjoy a few small local bands that sell homebrew CDs at their pub shows or music festivals, you can upload them to your locker, integrating their songs with your favorite service and giving them the presence of the big acts. For music lovers, the locker feature available from all major on-demand services is very practical—and something that’s commonly overlooked.

Offline Listening

All major on-demand music services offer a form of offline listening. This allows you to listen to your favorite songs and playlists when you lack an internet connection (handy for flights, subway rides, and your in-laws’ rural home). Most services allow you to download thousands of songs (that cannot be transferred to other devices or shared). For example, Google Play Music permits 20,000 songs to be “pinned” on your device. Thus, the only practical limit is the storage available on your smartphone or tablet. Of course, this is of marginal value to home theater owners.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater: Surround Sound Formats

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from Chapter 7: Surround Sound in Home Theater for the Internet Age. It will help you understand Dolby, DTS, and the multitude of surround sound encoding/decoding standards used for so many TV shows and movies and available in most modern AV receivers.

Also part of this mini-series is Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics and Home Theater: More Surround Sound.

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Curt Robbins


Surround Sound Formats

There’s a small handful of popular surround sound formats. The only reason you really need to understand them is so you can apply the most appropriate decoding standard to a particular TV episode or movie. Most modern receivers decode all surround formats that have been in popular use for the past twenty years.

Two Dominant Formats: Dolby & DTS

As you’ve learned, Dolby and DTS are the two dominant audio surround standards in use today. Both companies are based in the United States and work closely with both Hollywood studios and home theater equipment manufacturers to ensure that the encoding/decoding cycle works the way it should.

You’ve probably heard of Dolby. Many remember it from the old days when most cassette players featured Dolby A and Dolby B noise reduction. Today, both Dolby and DTS represent a competing collection of encoding technologies designed to enhance the audio of all forms of entertainment. Thankfully, these two vendors aren’t offered on an either/or basis; both are available on receivers of all price ranges. (SRS, which has marketed software and hardware designed to create a “3D” immersive sound field using only two speakers, was purchased by DTS in 2012.)

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The following surround formats are in popular use today, from the oldest (and most primitive) to the newest (and most advanced).

Dolby Pro Logic II

The oldest standard currently built into receivers, Pro Logic II turns a stereo soundtrack into “fake” 5.1 surround. As you learned, this matrixed sound is created on-the-fly by your receiver based on sound information pulled from the two-channel stereo signal. Just like the plot of the popular movie The Matrix, the additional channels in the mix aren’t really there (at least not in the original content). Dolby Pro Logic II works well at taking standard stereo signals and making them sound like legitimate surround sound on your system.

The Dolby Pro Logic (DPL) standard has been revised slightly to Dolby Pro Logic IIx, a format that is nearly identical to DPL II, except in 7.1 channels. There’s also a DPL IIz, with the “z” denoting the addition of the front height channels in a 9.1 setup.

DTS Neo:6

Similar to Dolby Pro Logic IIx, DTS Neo:6 takes two-channel stereo content and creates a matrixed 6.1 sound environment. It’s nearly identical to Dolby Pro Logic IIx in function. If your receiver supports both standards, try comparing DTS Neo:6 with Dolby Pro Logic II the next time you have a stereo signal that you wish to hear in matrixed surround. Standardize on whatever sounds best to your ears, in your particular environment and with your equipment.

Dolby Digital & DTS Digital Surround

Both Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround are 5.1 channel discrete lossy formats. Dolby Digital is currently the most common standard for surround sound encoding (although most new release films on Blu-ray embrace newer lossless formats). Most receivers manufactured for the past several years, at all price ranges, include both Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround decoding capabilities. Many movies are encoded in Dolby Digital (including a big chunk of the Netflix catalog), some in DTS, and a few are released in both, allowing you to choose one from a disc’s setup menu.

Why are Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround better than Dolby Pro Logic II and DTS Neo:6? Because your receiver doesn’t have to play a game of creating matrixed sound channels from the basic left and right channels of stereo. Instead, Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround simply decompress and decode the six channels provided in the content and route them to your speakers, plain and simple. You hear the surround in the exact way that the content producers intended. From a surround sound perspective, this is perfect. From a fidelity perspective, however, it still involves lossy compression (it just happens to be pretty good lossy compression).

Unfortunately, Hollywood and media outlets aren’t always on the ball in terms of providing the best surround sound format possible, and are sometimes inconsistent. For example, if you check out the popular TV series Dexter on Netflix, you’ll find that the first two seasons are encoded in Dolby Digital (providing six separate and discrete sound channels). Season 3, however, is delivered only in stereo—meaning you’ll have to employ Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 if you want to experience “fake” surround. Season 4 of Dexter? Encoded in Dolby Digital again. Unfortunately, this lack of consistency and concern for the audio quality of content is all too common. Audio is typically a small percentage of the production budget for TV shows and films.

Dolby Digital Plus

Dolby Digital Plus, decodable on any hardware that features Dolby Digital, is a slightly enhanced version of Dolby Digital that’s designed for mobile devices and streaming boxes where bandwidth might be limited or fluctuate. It enhances audio somewhat by making vocals easier to discern in muddy soundtracks. Dolby Digital Plus is fairly new and beginning to appear in devices that stream media, like receivers and Amazon’s Fire TV streaming box. It’s also common on many Netflix movies and TV episodes.

Dolby Digital EX

Dolby Digital EX is a small bump up from Dolby Digital, adding an additional rear surround channel (for 6.1 and 7.1 systems). It’s still a lossy compression scheme, and, in all other respects, very similar to Dolby Digital. This format, co-developed with THX (and sometimes identified as THX Surround EX), involves discrete channels, meaning your equipment reproduces the sound in exactly the manner intended by the content producer.

DTS-ES

DTS-ES (for “Extended Sound”) is the DTS answer to Dolby Digital EX, providing an additional rear center channel to achieve a 6.1 surround sound audio stream. It’s available in two variants, matrixed and discrete. Conveniently for consumers, video encoded in either type is backward compatible and interpretable by nearly all devices (AV receivers or Blu-ray players) that include basic DTS decoding but lack DTS-ES. This encoding format is also sometimes used to produce disc-based high-resolution music (Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions, T. Rex’s The Slider, and Bjork’s Volta are examples).

DTS Neo:X

This unique format takes stereo, 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 content and creates a matrixed 11.1 surround sound mix. DTS Neo:X goes largely unused because there are so few 11.1 home systems in existence. Until you save enough money and are able to convince your spouse to install a slew of additional speakers to achieve your dream 12-channel setup, this format will be happily waiting for you. When you make the jump to home theater hyper-hobbyist, ensure that the receiver you’re considering includes this format and 12 speaker terminals.

Dolby TrueHD & DTS-HD Master Audio

Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio are both lossless 7.1 channel formats currently found only on Blu-ray discs (afforded by the higher storage capacity of the format). These compression schemes are presently the best available, producing the richest sound possible from movies.

What makes Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio unique is their lossless compression quality. They are the first mass-market movie audio encoding standards to feature lossless audio. The sound produced by films with these formats is truly impressive. The difference can be heard on home theaters of all price ranges and sophistication, but it really shines on better systems that are capable of reproducing high-fidelity audio with both wide dynamic range and an expansive soundstage.

Eventually, video streamed from the internet will also be encoded in TrueHD and DTS-HD (or similar lossless formats). Currently, however, most people’s internet bandwidth—even “broadband”—is simply too limited to pull this off. These high-end surround sound formats are supported only by Blu-ray players and AV receivers manufactured within the past few years.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater: More Surround Sound

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. It further explores home theater surround sound (also check out Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics), diving into discrete vs. matrixed audio and lossy vs. lossless compression—topics that continue to confuse both casual fans and enthusiasts alike.

Also check out Surround Sound Basics and Surround Sound Formats.

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Curt Robbins


Standardized System

Surround sound isn’t merely a speaker arrangement for your living room, but rather a standardized system by which content producers can compose, or “encode,” their content so that consumers, with the proper equipment, can decode it to simulate a more realistic, immersive audio environment. The intent of surround sound is to create audio that radiates from all around the seating positions of the viewers, while giving content producers the ability to specify from which of those speakers a particular sound or audio stream is projected.

While basic surround sound involves three speakers in front and two in back, more sophisticated systems employ between eight and 12 speakers. The more speakers involved, the more immersive and “surrounding” the sound becomes (and, relatively speaking, the more expensive the speaker system and receiver).

Discrete vs. Matrixed Surround

This book strives to avoid the overly technical and speak in plain English. However, it’s helpful to understand the difference between discrete and matrixed surround sound formats. Discrete surround involves sound information that’s specific, or dedicated to, particular channels and speaker positions (and fully independent of other channels). Thus, if a movie features a 5.1 soundtrack, it means the producers recorded and mixed six separate sound channels, each intended for a particular speaker position in your living room.

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Matrixed surround, on the other hand, involves your receiver producing sound information for six or more speakers that’s derived from a two-channel (stereo) signal. While not as good as discrete formats, matrixed surround can take standard stereo and make it pretty amazing—depending on the quality of your system. Assume you’re watching an old episode of Law & Order on cable TV and it’s encoded in stereo. If your AV receiver features a matrixed surround sound format, such as Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 (nearly all models for the past several years do), you can apply it to the stereo signal to direct sound to the other speakers in your home theater, not just the mains.

If a film or TV program features an audio mix that’s designed for surround sound, it will offer discrete channels. Dialog will be directed to the center channel, background noise like traffic, the din of a crowd, and sirens will come from the rear speakers, and the non-speech sounds and primary action will be directed to the main speakers. Because so much legacy content—be it music, TV episodes, or movies—features audio encoded in only stereo, you’ll find great benefit in applying matrixed surround filters to take advantage of those other speakers sitting in your living room. This is especially true for those who consume mostly TV content.

Lossy vs. Lossless Compression

When the audio portion of a video is created, it’s digitally compressed to make it smaller. Reducing the size of the data helps it stream smoothly from an internet video service (like Netflix) or fit on an optical disc (DVD or Blu-ray). However, there are different types of compression that impact the quality of the sound produced by any equipment, especially nicer systems.

Lossy Compression

Traditionally, data compression for audio has been lossy. This means that, during the compression of the audio, some information is lost—resulting in less data to play back. In a nutshell, less data equals lower sound fidelity. Different compression schemes produce distinct results in terms of sound quality. Overall, lossy compression is viewed as a bad thing. Music in MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) formats are good examples of lossy compression standards (and avoided by audiophiles). All music sold on standard compact discs (in CDDA format; see the Disc-Based Music chapter for more info) involves lossy compression (although of significantly higher fidelity than MP3 or AAC).

Lossless Compression

Lossless compression, on the other hand, is, well, lossless. It reproduces the original audio bit-for-bit, with no reduction in data or quality whatsoever (any decrease in fidelity reflects a deficiency in your equipment, not the audio itself). If you know an audio source is lossless, you don’t really need to learn anything else (except maybe the encoding standard employed to ensure that you can decode it on your particular Blu-ray player or AV receiver).

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The downside of lossless compression is that it results in significantly larger files than lossy schemes. This is why lossless audio is currently available only on high-capacity optical disc formats (like Blu-ray, which sports six times the storage of a DVD), but not in the form of internet streaming, where even the fastest broadband connections typically lack the bandwidth to support such high bit rates. Examples of lossless audio include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (both covered below). There are also internet-based download services that sell lossless music files in popular formats like FLAC and AIFF (higher quality than even regular music CDs, let alone MP3s).

Compression Levels / Bit Rate

Content compressed in a lossy format can be encoded at a variety of quality levels (measured in “bit rate” or bits per second, and sometimes called “compression levels”). For example, a 128 Kbps (kilobit per second) MP3 of Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield won’t sound as good as a 320 Kbps MP3 version. The 320 Kbps file contains nearly three times the data of the 128 Kbps version, enhancing the sound quality.

This is one reason that Blu-ray discs are so popular. While the video quality of Blu-ray (1080 lines of resolution) is certainly better than that of DVD, the audio improvement is even greater. Currently, there is no better sound that you can pump through your home theater than the lossless audio track of a Blu-ray movie or lossless music files like FLAC. (When it comes to audio only, there are also high-end music formats such as SACD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray Audio, which are covered in the Disc-Based Music chapter.)

Based on Standards

To clarify how this compression/decompression cycle works, it’s important to understand that content producers must encode their audio to a particular standard (like a United Nations interpreter choosing a language in which to speak). As you’ll learn below, for movies, this is typically a format from Dolby or DTS. Encoding makes files smaller for transport or distribution, regardless of whether it’s lossy or lossless. Your receiver or Blu-ray player incorporates a bunch of decoders. When you play a DVD or Blu-ray disc, the receiver applies the proper decoder, basically reassembling the audio data. In this respect, your AV receiver is just a specialized computer. (Some people will tell you that the audio on a Blu-ray movie is uncompressed, which isn’t necessarily true. Typically it’s compressed, but sometimes it isn’t. Even compressed, Blu-ray involves a lossless scheme.)

No Guarantees

It’s important to note that, simply because an audio source involves a lossless compression format, this doesn’t guarantee high-end fidelity. Technically, lossless compression simply means that the file reproduced by your playback equipment exactly matches the original, before it was compressed. If the original music file was of low quality to begin with (many movies and much music are poorly mastered or recorded in less-than-optimal live venues or studio environments), the best lossless format won’t make it sound good.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Iowa DOT Engages Regarding Tesla

As part of my ongoing beratement of the seemingly clueless bureaucrats and politicians in Iowa involved in the cancellation of part of the September test drives conducted by Tesla Motors, I recently emailed Paul Steier, the Director of Iowa’s Bureau of Investigation & Identity Protection, part of the state’s Department of Transportation.

Below is my email thread with the Iowa DOT (I apologize for the length of this post, but I wanted to include each volley out of respect to the Iowa DOT, Paul Steier, and Mark Lowe).


Dear Mr. Steier:

Because you’re mentioned in the following blog post, Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson, I wanted to share it with you. Although I don’t mention you in other blog posts regarding the issue of the legitimacy and legality of Tesla test drives and sales in Iowa and Michigan, you may be interested.

This issue isn’t going to simply disappear. Consumers deserve options and Tesla deserves to sell in the state of Iowa (and offer test drives). Allowing foreign companies like Toyota, Kia, and Range Rover to conduct test drives and sales, but not a company like Tesla that employs 6,000 hard working Americans, is really short-sighted. Citing existing laws is endorsing stupidity. You folks are establishing a legacy for yourselves—and future generations won’t view it in a positive light.

Regards,

Curt Robbins


In response, I received the following email from Mark Lowe, Director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the Iowa Dept. of Transportation [I apologize for the lack of paragraph breaks]:

Dear Mr. Robbins,

Paul Steier, Director of our Bureau of Investigation & Identity Protection, shared with me your recent blog regarding cancellation of the Tesla sales event in Iowa.  Although you have every right to debate the merits of Iowa’s motor vehicle sales and dealership laws, I feel compelled to defend Mr. Steier against your suggestion that he lacks intelligence or ethics.  Mr. Steier is a highly intelligent, ethical person who provides valuable service to Iowa citizens every day by helping to model s and solar panelsprotect them against identity, vehicle, and other consumer frauds.  In this instance, Mr. Steier was interpreting Iowa law exactly as it was and is currently written — Chapter 322 explicitly prohibits engaging in the business of selling vehicles without a dealer’s license, and section 322.2(7) of the Iowa Code defines being “engaged in the business” as “doing any of the following acts for the purpose of the sale of motor vehicles at retail: acquiring, selling, exchanging, holding, offering, displaying, brokering, accepting on consignment, conducting a retail auction, or acting as an agent for the purpose of doing any of those acts.”  In this instance, Tesla was clearly engaged in the business of selling motor vehicles  — in addition to displaying vehicles by offering test drives for the purpose of inducing sales, Tesla representatives were encouraging and helping customers to complete actual sales transactions.  In addition, section 322.2(14) specifically prohibits a manufacturer from acting as a dealer in Iowa.  When contacted during the event, neither the Tesla representatives at the event nor Tesla’s counsel disagreed that Tesla was engaged in the business of selling motor vehicles without a required dealer’s license in contravention of Iowa law.  The provisions of Chapter 322 that prohibit engaging in the business of selling motor vehicles without a dealer’s license are mandatory and may not be waived by the Iowa Department of Transportation, and Mr. Steier is obligated to explain and enforce the law as it is currently written.  Thank you.

Mark Lowe
Director, Motor Vehicle Division
Iowa Dept. of Transportation


Unlike Iowa Senator Matt McCoy and Rep. Peter Cownie, Mr. Lowe has actively engaged me in constructive dialog regarding the cancellation of the September test drives conducted by Tesla Motors.

Below is my response to Mr. Lowe:

Dear Mr. Lowe,

I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my email to Mr. Steier and my blog post regarding the cancellation of Tesla’s test drives in West Des Moines in September.

Apparently it is Iowa’s antiquated laws that are hurting consumers and unfairly penalizing Tesla Motors, not Mr. Steier’s actions. However, I respectfully argue the issue of whether Tesla was “selling” vehicles at the test drive event. If Iowa’s law is so backward and poorly phrased that it illogically defines “displaying” as sales, then I suppose you have me—and thousands of Iowa citizens who desire to learn more about Tesla’s vehicles—on a technicality.

Thus, I’ll cease picking on Mr. Steier and instead pester you and Governor Branstad. When will Iowa’s leadership do the right thing for its citizens, economy, and environment and change its archaic laws, allowing tax-paying voters to do something as simple as test drive a 21st century all-electric vehicle?

Regards,

Curt Robbins


In response, Mr. Lowe sent the following:

mark lowe iowa DOTI think there are several things to consider. One is that the purpose of displaying an auto is of course to encourage and facilitate its sale, but beyond that, and probably more importantly, the law has tried to protect consumers by helping them know who they are dealing with and where to seek recourse should something go wrong, either with the mechanics and operation of the vehicle itself or the clear title to the vehicle.  Vehicles, particularly in a rural state like Iowa with fewer public transportation options, are a major investment for most citizens and a key to personal and professional mobility — obtaining a vehicle that is not fit for operation of that cannot be registered can be a major disruption personal and professional disruption for most people [sic].  Much of what is in Chapter 322 is designed to protect citizens against someone blowing into town, unloading mechanically unfit vehicles and/or vehicles that cannot be titled clearly, and then vanishing into the night.  This is not to suggest that Tesla was doing that, but only to say that broadly defining sales, requiring persons selling vehicles to have a license and requiring them to declare their places of operation has helped protect consumers from unscrupulous sellers. (Consider, for a moment, the prospect that someone wholly unassociated with Tesla could obtain a hotel conference room, display a Tesla vehicle from the hotel room and offer test drives to perspective customers, and then induce down payments for orders never go be delivered on [sic]. These are the kinds of activity our dealer laws have long sought to protect people from.)

None of this is to say that laws long in place cannot be reviewed to determine whether they are keeping pace with current markets and means of doing business, but is only to say that there are important consumer protection issues that should not be overlooked in the review.

Best regards,

Mark Lowe
Director, Motor Vehicle Division
Iowa Dept. of Transportation


My response:

Dear Mr. Lowe:

I appreciate your quick response and attention to this issue. I agree wholeheartedly that consumer protection is of paramount concern. You and every one of the appointed or elected officials with any influence whatsoever over issues concerned consumers in the state of Iowa should take this issue seriously. I’m glad to see that you do.

I agree that Iowa—and every state in the U.S.—should have laws that, as you state, “protect citizens against someone blowing into town, unloading mechanically unfit vehicles and/or vehicles that cannot be titled clearly, and then vanishing into the night.” Bravo (none of my trademark cheeky cynicism implied). This is exactly what government and persons such as yourself and Peter Steier should be working to achieve and maintain.

However, your next statement reads, “This is not to suggest that Tesla was doing that, but only to say that broadly defining sales, requiring persons selling vehicles to have a license and requiring them to declare their places of operation has helped protect consumers from unscrupulous sellers.” I would agree. But do you, Mr. Steier, or anyone else at the DOT perceive Tesla Motors to be an “unscrupulous seller”? This award-winning and revered company has sold tens of thousands of its vehicles around the world. From what I’ve learned in my research, most of Tesla’s customers are not only satisfied, but many are evangelists or zealots.

However, I take issue with your statement that, during the test drives, “Tesla was clearly engaged in the business of selling [my emphasis] motor vehicles.” I noted your opening volley: “…your recent blog regarding cancellation of the Tesla sales event [my emphasis] in Iowa.” You label the test drives a “sales event.” But no vehicles were sold. Not only that, but Tesla didn’t attempt to sell vehicles. I recognize, understand, and respect your role and duty in protecting the consumers of Iowa, Mr. Lowe (such protection is part of what makes America one of the greatest nations on earth). Truly.

But to label Tesla’s West Des Moines test drives a “sales event” flies in the face of logic and reality. Simply because Iowa’s old school laws define such an event as “sales” doesn’t necessarily make it so. Why would one of the world’s most innovative and intelligent companies purposefully sell vehicles in violation of Iowa’s laws? Should we suppose that Tesla employs no corporate attorneys or never consults them prior to promotional activities in conservative states like Iowa?

Closing on a positive note: Thank you for your engagement on this issue. Bruce Anderson, president of the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association, as well as Senator Matt McCoy and Rep. Peter Cownie, haven’t responded to my numerous attempts to engage them in a constructive dialog regarding the rationale behind the cancellation of the September Model S test drives. I understand Mr. Anderson’s refusal to respond: He’s the hired gun of Iowa’s auto dealers and clearly a special interest. I’m disappointed, however, that Senator McCoy and Rep. Cownie remain silent (although I understand that, as a citizen of Ohio, I am owed nothing by them). Mr. Anderson owes nothing to the people of Iowa. Senator McCoy and Rep. Cownie, however, are beholden to their constituents and the voters who elected them to office.

Regards,

Curt Robbins


Bravo. Really.

It seems Mr. Lowe is the only one with the integrity to actually engage me in a dialog to, hopefully, push Iowa’s laws into the 21st century and better serve its citizens. While the protection of Iowa’s consumers is critical, the penalization of those same consumers (who might desire to test drive or purchase an electric vehicle) is both harmful and highly ironic.

I applaud Mr. Lowe for taking the time from his day to engage with me and describe the rationale behind the decisions of Paul Steier and the Iowa DOT.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a constructive dialog that will eventually result in the revision of consumer protection laws in the state of Iowa and the advancement of the state’s transportation infrastructure.

Are you paying attention, Michigan?

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics

3d1Today’s blog post continues our look at home theater, following yesterday’s Home Theater Basics. Below you’ll find an excerpt from my new book, Home Theater for the Internet Age, regarding surround sound. Most people understand that surround sound involves a speaker arrangement in your living room or dedicated home theater that “surrounds” you (duh).

This is a pretty radical departure from the common arrangement to which most of us (unless you’re a millennial) are acclimated: Sound that emanates from in front of us—typically from the display device, the TV, itself. The old method of projecting sound from the display was rife with deficiencies. First, the speakers built into even the best, most expensive, TVs suck. Period. There’s no physical room in a relatively thin panel for real speakers.

Modern home theater has introduced a more complex audio arrangement in which dedicated, much higher quality, speakers are positioned to the sides or even behind viewers. Because the sound is being projected from locations other than the display panel and is generated by real speakers, surround sound is the cornerstone of true home theater. However, because there’s so many types of surround sound arrangements, the topic can quickly become confusing for non-enthusiasts or those new to home entertainment.

Today we’ll address surround sound configurations. These are the physical layouts of speakers and the logical dispersion of audio channels from TV shows and movies. What’s 5.1? What do the “5” and the “1” mean? Why does your buddy at the office lust for 9.1? Read on to eliminate your confusion.

Also check out Home Theater: More Surround Sound and Home Theater: Surround Sound Formats.

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Curt Robbins


Surround Sound Configurations

As you’ve learned, there are several different physical configuration standards for surround sound, ranging from five to twelve speakers (and sometimes more). Arrangement shorthand is indicated by a decimal number, such as 5.1. This indicates five surround speakers and a single subwoofer. The number of subwoofers is always indicated to the right of the decimal (5.x). A 5.1 AV receiver is capable of outputting to a maximum of five speakers and a single subwoofer. A high-end 9.2 receiver, on the other hand, is capable of driving nine speakers and two subwoofers. If a friend says she has a 6.1 system, you know she has seven speakers total and that one of them is a sub. While uncommon, it’s possible that someone might have, for example, a 5.3 system, in which they have a basic surround complement and three subs (yes, some videophiles install multiple subwoofers).

You’ve already learned the basic role of a subwoofer, or “sub.” In surround sound, the sub carries the LFE, or Low Frequency Effects, channel. Most movies and some TV programming feature an LFE channel (identified as such on your AV receiver). Capable of emitting ultra-low frequencies below 80 Hz, subwoofers are as much about what you feel as what you hear. This low frequency speaker plays in the zone where sound goes from audible to tactile. If a movie indicates that it features “x.1 audio,” it means there’s a dedicated LFE channel (regardless of whether you have a subwoofer to bring this channel to wall-shaking life).

Typically, surround configurations range from 2.0 to 11.2. The most common config is 5.1 (although 2.1, while not providing any surround effect, is also very common). Try not to get surround envy. 9.1 and 11.1 systems are very rare and, arguably, complete overkill for the average consumer. Also, relatively few films and basically no TV shows are encoded in a standard above 7.1 (although this is rapidly changing). Thus, even if you had a fancy 9.1 system, a small percentage of the content you consumed would support it, making it a very expensive upgrade. (I have a 5.1 system and rarely lust for the two additional rear speakers of a 7.1 configuration. If I was going to upgrade, based on the size and layout of my living room, I’d probably never go beyond a 6.1 layout.)

It should be noted that all of these surround configurations are backward compatible, meaning that a 7.1 or 9.1 soundtrack will play just fine on a 5.1 system (or even a 2.0 system) or via headphones. That’s part of the magic of Dolby and DTS and modern home theater receivers.

2.1 & 5.1

Because this book defines home theater as having a minimum of five speakers, a 2.1 setup involving three speakers (two mains and a sub, with no rears) isn’t covered in detail. This type of configuration includes soundbars (see the Soundbars & Theater-in-a-Box section of the Speakers chapter for more info). While this setup doesn’t provide “surround” sound, it can—with even basic equipment—greatly enhance your time with music, TV, movies, and games. It will perform remarkably better than your TV speakers (those built into even high-end display panels are basically an afterthought, producing really crappy sound).

5.1 systems involve two mains (typically floor standing models, but sometimes bookshelf units), a center channel, two rear surrounds (called the left side surround and right side surround), and a subwoofer. Sometimes consumers opt to skip the subwoofer to save money (or because they underestimate the effect it will have during Blu-ray movies). Most videophiles consider 5.1 the entry-level setup for true home theater. If your AV receiver supports 7.1 speaker outputs, a 5.1 system gives you room to grow; simply purchase two additional speakers and you’re in business. While your front three speakers should always be from the same series to ensure timbre-matching, it’s less important for your rear and side surrounds to be from the same line (but still preferable for a variety of reasons).

6.1 & 7.1

Moving up the ladder, more complex surround configurations are 6.1 and 7.1. These involve one or two additional rear speakers, positioned directly behind the viewers, called the left back surround and right back surround—not to be confused with the left side surround and right side surround positions in a 5.1 or larger system. Should you go the extra mile and install one or two extra speakers between your existing surround positions? If you’re a big movie buff and your room is large enough to justify it, maybe. You won’t have trouble finding movies to fill this many speakers; most films today deliver a minimum of 7.1 surround audio channels (even some high-res music albums feature a 6.1 surround mix).

Remember that your AV receiver must support the number of speakers to which you want to expand. If you have a receiver capable of only 5.1, you’ll not only have to purchase one or two additional back surround speakers, but also a new receiver (as you’ve learned, this isn’t cheap, especially if the unit produces clean, robust amplification).

9.1 & 11.1

The average home theater owner probably shouldn’t pursue a 9.1 or larger surround sound configuration. However, it’s important to know one’s options. For very large rooms—or hyper-hobbyists who are pursuing the most realistically surrounding audio environment possible—one of the layouts involving more speakers than a 7.1 system might be appropriate. Of course, it will cost you. You’ll either have to increase your speaker budget or downgrade the quality of your candidates. Those additional speakers—especially if they match your other models—don’t come cheap.

A 9.1 system adds front height channels to the mix (the left height and right height positions), giving—as the name indicates—a taller and seemingly wider front soundstage than a 5.1 or 7.1 system can deliver. 9.1 is the first standard to address the expansion of the front soundstage (whereas 7.1 adds audio imaging to the rear area). Not only would you need to purchase additional speakers to satisfy the needs of a 9.1 system, but you’ll probably need to upgrade your AV receiver to handle the additional amps and terminals. And it hardly makes sense to upgrade without pursuing a few more watts or maybe going Class D. Cha ching.

An 11.1 system goes even further by adding left wide and right wide speakers, positioned at roughly 60 degrees from a forward-facing viewing position (to the left and right of the front height speakers, but closer to the central seating position). This setup results in seven front and four rear speakers. While relatively few movies have been released in 11.1, some of these leading edge films include Rise of the Guardians, Man of Steel, The Croods, Elysium, Turbo, Ender’s Game, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and How to Train Your Dragon 2.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Home Theater Basics

3d1The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2: Home Theater Basics from my new book Home Theater for the Internet Age. This book isn’t for audiophiles or videophiles. If you’re an average middle class person who doesn’t know much about this topic, you outnumber the “experts” and home theater nerds by about 10,000 to 1.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people understand and embrace modern technology. In the case of home theater, this tech can bring together families in front of a big display panel for a new movie release on a shiny little disc—or, increasingly, streamed from the internet. You can enjoy family photos, MP3 songs, or home videos stored on a computer that resides nearly anywhere on your wi-fi network. All using nothing more than a decent Blu-ray player (playing discs covers only one-third the functionality of modern Blu-ray players, as you can learn here).

If nothing else, please understand that you can enjoy full surround sound, high-definition video, and all the glory of modern home theater on any budget. The most common misperception of home theater is that it’s too expensive and you can’t afford it.

But you can. Trust me.

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Curt Robbins


As consumers, we’re in the middle of multiple transition periods within the home electronics and entertainment industries. These changes are in the form of rapid advances in both hardware and services. It’s no longer uncommon for one to have a 60-inch display panel hanging in their living room, to be one of the 50 million people who watch movies and TV shows on Netflix, or to be among the 76 million consumers who listen to music on Pandora each month. These don’t constitute early adopter status in today’s world of home entertainment.

Since Apple introduced its iconic iPod line of portable music players in 2001, the human race has been slowly transitioning from entertaining itself by purchasing physical media, like optical discs, to instead downloading songs from iTunes or streaming movies or TV from services like Hulu or Vudu. Today the average consumer has more home entertainment options than ever—along with a more detailed and potentially confusing array of technologies and media sources.

What Defines Home Theater?

Let’s define a few things. First, a home theater isn’t mobile. It’s not a laptop with a set of headphones (even if the laptop features a Blu-ray player). Home theater is four basic components:

  • Display panel
  • Audio/video receiver
  • Blu-ray player
  • Five+ specialized speakers

These are the elements necessary for full-on home theater and how it’s defined in this book. Anything short of these elements doesn’t cut it in terms of home “theater.” While it could be argued that a set top box for bringing audio and video content into your home theater is a necessity, some cord cutters are perfectly happy with physical discs from Redbox, the Neflix disc-by-mail service, or a local video store.

One of the most common configurations for consuming TV programming and movies is a display panel TV with two input devices: A Blu-ray player and a cable/satellite set-top box (using only the speakers on the TV). Maybe there’s a game console or DVR thrown in the mix. But this also isn’t home theater (where’s the audio/video receiver and rear surround speakers?).

pioneer av receiver

Connecting Components

In the past, the task of connecting home theater components was confusing. Different components connected with different standards and there were separate connections for audio and video. For the layperson, connecting components was a headache and typically resulted in either a frustratingly botched job, professional installation (planned or unplanned), or scouring web-based forums desperately seeking help from others. Today it’s different. Now it’s all a single standard that transports both audio and video, and does it in Blu-ray-quality high definition: HDMI. Say it with me: H-D-M-I. It’s all you need to know.

Surround Sound

In terms of audio, the difference between a “stereo system” and a “home theater” is surround sound, which has been relatively common for well over a decade. Without a collection of surround sound speakers, home theater can’t exist. Today, a significant portion of broadcast and cable TV programming—and nearly all movies produced in the past decade—are delivered with a six-channel or greater audio mix that requires a surround speaker configuration and compatible audio/video receiver to be fully appreciated.

Discrete Channels

Surround sound isn’t just about adding more speakers in your living room. It’s about discrete channels of audio information coming from specific locations within your listening environment. In other words, the producers of a TV show or movie can purposefully make, say, the voices of the characters come from the speaker directly below your TV, where they’ll be the most realistic.

Meanwhile, background noises—such as barking dogs, slamming doors, and guns firing—can be directed to the rear speakers. The ability of content producers to utilize between five and twelve speakers in your living room, in a predictable arrangement, is why affordable home theater systems now rival the experience of going to a movie theater (and why commercial theater chains have to install football field-size screens with vibrating chairs just to get our attention).

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Content Services

Content services that deliver streaming audio, video, and even games to your living room home theater have proliferated like crazy during the past few years. What’s interesting is that most people have labeled this the evolution of the internet, not home theater.

It’s all convoluted today, part computer and part stereo system. We’re in the middle of the convergence of computing/internet technologies and the hardware, software, and standards on which video and audio are affordably reproduced in the home. Home theater simply does not live up to its potential without the internet and broadband connectivity. Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, Pandora, Hulu Plus, Spotify, iTunes, and other internet-based services offer more content than you can ever consume. While your local liquor store might not sell you bourbon on Sunday, online streaming services are available on-demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

EV Enemies: Michigan Luddites

I’ve written at length about Tesla Motors and its ongoing fight with several state governments and automobile dealer associations for the right to sell and simply test drive its vehicles. Unfortunately, a bill that would prohibit Tesla from selling its svelte all-electric cars in the state of Michigan has passed. It is currently sitting on Governor Rick Snyder’s desk, awaiting his signature to become law.

Tesla on October 16 published a blog post, A Raw Deal in Michigan, in response to this pending legislation. While model s and solar panelsattention needs to be focused on soliciting Gov. Snyder for his veto of the bill, preventing HB5606 from becoming law, it’s also critical for electric vehicle fans, environmentalists, and progressive thinking consumers to focus on the source of this legislation: The Michigan Automobile Dealers Association (MADA).

Today’s blog post is my email letter to MADA’s president, Randy Wise, its Executive Vice President, Terry Burns, and Summer Kniss, the group’s Communications Director. If you’re concerned about climate change, true open market capitalism, or simply a fan of electric cars, I encourage you to contact Michigan Governor Snyder (his Twitter addy is @onetoughnerd) and urge him to act in a pro-consumer (pro-voter!), logical manner.

But don’t stop there: MADA and other state automobile associations (like the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association and its president Bruce Anderson) are working to block Tesla and impede fair competition and consumer rights across the country. Let them know that crony capitalism and playing the role of the Luddite is anti-consumer and anti-American—and will eventually put them out of business.

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Curt Robbins

[10/23 update: On 10/21, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed into law Michigan’s HB5606, which outlaws the direct sales model of Tesla and other electric car manufacturers.]


Dear Ms. Kniss, Mr. Burns, and Mr. Wise:

Governor Rick Snyder is garnering the attention of electric car proponents in the state of Michigan—and nationwide—who are attempting to persuade him to not sign HB5606 into law. While Gov. Snyder is the current focus, the genesis of this anti-consumer and unfair bill was your organization, the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association.

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Randy Wise, MADA president (2014)

Social media is allowing consumers to learn of such crony capitalism in real time and to counter strike with more force than even lobbying groups and your organization can muster. In the end, government serves the people—not corporations or non-profit associations like yours. Citizens (and voters) are learning about and craving all-electric personal transportation that delivers to them a cleaner environment and less expensive fuel and maintenance.

I understand, and even theoretically support, an organization like MADA that represents auto dealers to serve their best interests. However, it’s sad, unfair, and pathetic that your group must penalize consumers to accomplish its overly self-serving, anti-consumer goals.

Dealerships across America are intimidated by Tesla Motors. They may cite how they don’t like the direct-to-consumer sales model of this innovative company, but their true fear is Tesla’s vehicles themselves. They’re disruptive and, arguably, a paradigm shift. Your members sell products based on a 155-year-old technology (internal combustion). They’re loud, expensive to fuel, relatively slow, and contribute to climate change. Meanwhile, Tesla’s vehicles are the opposite. And your members don’t have anything to compete.

Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to their personal transportation options. Efforts of groups like yours and the Iowa Automobile Dealers Association (headed by another legacy Luddite, Bruce Anderson)—while they may cause temporary setbacks for companies like Tesla and headaches for progressive-minded consumers—will not stop the electric car movement. Nor will they stop Tesla Motors.

You and your members are desperate. Instead of competing fairly with Tesla and similar 21st century companies, you and your affiliate dealerships want to call on political friends to outlaw them! Your members know that their products can’t compete with those from Tesla.

Maybe the service you should be providing to your members is recommending that their source manufacturers, like Ford, GM, and Toyota, hire forward-thinking engineers as CEOs instead of MBAs, accountants, and lawyers. Because without better vision and strategy, you—and your members—are destined for the dinosaur graveyard (along with those 12 MPG Hummers no longer for sale).

Regards,

Curt Robbins
Technical Writer / Author
https://middleclasstech.wordpress.com
Stow, Ohio


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Understanding Password Vaulting

securityIn my continuing series of excerpts from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security, I’m covering password generators and password vaulting. In the previous post, Password Basics, you learned that not only should you have a completely different password for each of your online accounts, but that you also should change those passwords on a regular basis (every six months, actually).

Nobody does this. And it’s understandable why. Most of us have a dozen or more online accounts—from Facebook and LinkedIn to our office workstation, bank accounts, email, and Dropbox. How can one possibly maintain strong passwords that are necessarily complex (and, therefore, difficult to remember) for each and every online account? And then change them every six months? If this is what’s necessary to properly protect our data, accounts, and identity from malicious hackers, how can we achieve such a daunting, impractical goal?

The answer lies in password vaulting. Apps that perform this function are also known as password managers. I’ve thrown in a section on password generators to help ensure that you’re vaulting a strong, difficult-to-crack password in the first place.

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Curt Robbins


Password Generators

Password generators are websites, applications, or mobile apps that help you create strong and randomly generated passwords. Good password generators follow all the rules of strong passwords, including length, sophistication/complexity, and uniqueness.

Examples of good password generators include Norton Identity Safe Password Generator, random.org, the Strong Password Generator, PC Tools Password Generator, Sticky Password, and the Free Password Generator.

The password generator at random.org, when instructed to create a strong password of 20 characters in length, produced “KAm3S6DFSwra2w4z8mVt.” Note that this password contains no recognizable words or number segments (such as “sandwich” or “78910”). The problem with this password? It’s difficult to remember. This is where a password vault app that remembers for you is an indispensable tool.

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If you have to choose between a difficult-to-crack password and one that’s easy to remember, always choose the strong password and leverage either your memory or a software tool to help you. A password that’s easy to remember but cracked with little effort is basically worthless. Let me say that again: Basically worthless.

Password/Passphrase Vaulting

Password vaulting is the practice of storing many different passwords or passphrases behind a single, strong “master password,” typically via a software application (sometimes called a password manager). This is good practice because it’s a security compromise to use either the same password—regardless of its strength—on multiple accounts or to write them down on physical paper.

Consider installing such a password vault app on your smartphone, because this is the device you will typically have with you at all times. Some password management software and services offer cloud-based syncing across multiple devices, meaning you can access your passwords from any device, including a laptop or tablet. However, this also potentially compromises your security because your passwords are being stored in the cloud (personally, this makes me nervous and is something I don’t do).

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With a password vault, you need remember only a single strong password to access all of your others. By not having to worry about your ability to remember all of these complex passwords, you can create much stronger and completely unique passwords for all of your accounts. Many security experts would say this is the only practical way to ensure strong passwords on all of your online accounts—especially those that you update religiously every six months and that are truly complex.

Recommended password vaulting apps include LastPass (free or premium accounts available for all platforms), Password Genie ($15/year for desktop computers, mobile apps available), Dashlane (well-reviewed, with both free and $30/year premium editions), RoboForm (which offers both password management and form filling functions for $10/year), KeePass (freeware), DirectPass (from Trend Micro, free for up to five passwords, $15/year for unlimited), Sticky Password ($12/year), and Norton Identity Safe (warns of weak passwords and is free).

Your Password Challenge

Your challenge is creating and using passwords and passphrases that are easy for you to remember (or easy to access, such as with vaulting) while being very long or complex and difficult to crack. The use of password vault software obviously negates the need to remember passwords.

However, not all passwords need to be easy to remember. For example, your home wi-fi network password can be very difficult and long, because you input it only once, for the most part. A workstation login ID and password you type into your computer at work a dozen or more times per day, on the other hand, needs to be easy to remember and practical to type in at a moment’s notice (like with your boss hovering over your shoulder asking for data). These are very different types of passwords in terms of your need to memorize them and the frequency with which they are input.

Stanford University Password Rules

Stanford University in 2014 revised its password rules, encouraging students, staff, and faculty to utilize passphrases, not passwords. I’m a big fan of the Stanford password rules. They’re a great compromise between practicality (your ability to actually remember the password) and effectiveness (how well the password/passphrase keeps out hackers). If everyone simply followed these rules, their data and accounts would be much more secure.

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In a nutshell, Stanford relaxes the strictness requirements of passwords/passphrases as they increase in length. For example, shorter passwords (eight to 15 characters) must include a mix of letters, numbers, and punctuation symbols. Passwords longer than 20 characters, however, feature no restrictions (they don’t require the use of mixed case, numbers, or symbols) because their length alone gives them the strength they need. Stanford’s standards are listed below.

  • 8-11 characters: Mixed case letters, numbers, and symbols
  • 12-15 characters: Mixed case letters and numbers
  • 16-19 characters: Mixed case letters
  • 20+ characters: No restrictions

According to tech site Ars Technica, “By allowing extremely long passcodes and relaxing character complexity requirements as length increases, the new standards may make it easier to choose passwords that resist the most common types of cracking attacks.”


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Personal Data Security: Password Basics

securityThis post is an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security, which covers centralized data, backups, strong passwords, and malware protection. The following is from Chapter 4: Passwords.

Also check out the previous posts in this series, including Personal Data Security: Backups, 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite, and Personal Data Security: NAS.

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Curt Robbins


Basic Password Rules

There are some basic rules that will help prevent hackers from stealing your passwords, gaining access to your online accounts, or stealing your identity. While following these rules doesn’t guarantee that your accounts won’t be compromised, it vastly improves the resiliency of your online accounts and protects you about as much as possible.

You’re creating what is known as a “strong password,” meaning it has a mix of letters (both lower and upper case), numbers, and symbols and is of a minimum length.

  • Make a Strong Password: Use a minimum of 16 characters that are a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use easy-to-guess phrases, such as “iloveyou” or “MaryHadALittleLamb.” While “MaryHadALittleLamb” has both upper and lower case letters and is of appropriate length, it lacks numbers and symbols. Also, hackers look for common phrases, using dictionaries and even terabytes of Wikipedia and Bible content as a “check against” list. Guess it’s time to change that “yabbadabbado123” password.
  • Change Your Password Frequently: You should change your password/passphrase every six months. This is the rule few people follow (simply because it’s a hassle), especially if all of your online accounts feature unique passwords. Nobody ever said protecting your accounts and data was a total cakewalk.
  • Use a Unique Password on Each Account: Nobody likes this because it’s such a pain (especially when you should change all passwords with such frequency). This is where password vault software comes in handy. In 2014, nearly no one has only one or two online accounts. A dozen or more accounts is not uncommon. As you’ll learn below, password vault apps that store all of your passwords in a single password-protected program or app are a solid strategy for keeping several long, strong passwords at your fingertips.
  • Tell Nobody: This means nobody. Putting effort into creating strong passwords that are difficult to crack and then simply giving them away to a friend or co-worker is stupid. Even if your friend/family member has no malicious intent, they can easily get sloppy and expose your password to others (like by writing it on a sticky note and slapping it on their computer monitor!). There’s no reason for anyone else to know your passwords. It’s simply antithetical to the cause!

Even if a hacker doesn’t get your password from you or your devices, the bad guys can compromise a password database held by a service provider (your bank, email service, large retailers like Target or Amazon, social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, etc.). Once the hacker has gotten into the password database (often by breaking its encryption), they then have to guess the passwords. Something like “P@ssw0rd1” will be guessed in mere seconds. Regardless of the quality of your home or office firewall or the security of the individual devices you use to access your accounts, the password itself must stand up to the most robust cracking attempts that will most likely be perpetrated on the organization with which you have an account.

Strong Passwords

You have already learned that the strength of your passwords is determined by their length, complexity, and lack of predictability (why you don’t want “maryhadalittlelamb” or “ILoveNY”).

The password “Tr0ub4dor&3” seems like a relatively strong password on the surface. Although it’s too short (only 11 characters), it features both lower and upper case letters, numbers, and a symbol. However, a hacker with a computer capable of producing 1,000 guesses per second (an old computer can do this) will require only three days to guess this password. Compare this to “correcthorsebatterystaple,” a passphrase that requires 550 years to crack (at the same rate of 1,000 guesses per second). And this passphrase doesn’t even include upper case letters, numbers, or symbols! By adding these elements, you would have a passphrase that, for all practical purposes, is nearly impossible to crack (unless it’s the NSA trying to get it) and relatively easy to remember.

Longer, more complex passphrases are also more difficult for others to steal through simple observation. Sometimes, passwords are nefariously obtained by the act of observing the owner type them. Short, simple passwords and passphrases can be learned by watching the owner input them only once or maybe a few times. If someone really wants your password, they may even use a wi-fi-based webcam or security camera to record your keystrokes! Don’t underestimate the lengths to which a hacker or enemy will go to steal your information, identity, or money.

One of the best ways to understand strong passwords is to consider weak examples. Weak passwords include those that:

  • are shorter than 16 characters
  • include personal details such as your name or the name of a family member, a pet’s name, your street or address, your birthday, etc.
  • include complete words or sequential number strings (like “qwerty” and “12345678”)
  • lack a mix of upper and lower case letters
  • lack numbers
  • lack symbols

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Personal Data Security: NAS

Today’s blog post is another in the theme of personal data security and an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. We all have lots of data. Statistically, however, nearly half of us never back it up. As in never. But part of the reason for this might be that our data is scattered among many different computers and devices, making the task of backup difficult.security

Part of the solution is to centralize your data. You don’t have to be a Buddhist like Steve Jobs to understand that simple is better than complex. In the case of your personal data and media files, storing and accessing them from a single location on your home network can make the task of backup that much easier. And the best way to centralized your data is with Network Attached Storage.

You might want to also read my previous blog posts Personal Data Security: Backups and 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite before diving into this one.

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Curt Robbins


Network Attached Storage

Typically the best way for home networks to centralize data is using a dedicated hard drive that attaches to your home network, usually via your internet/wi-fi router. Called Network Attached Storage, or NAS, this is a special hard drive (or enclosure that holds multiple drives) that has just enough hardware and software wrapped around it that all of the other computers on your network can recognize it and copy, modify, and delete files. A NAS drive, sometimes called a NAS server, is nothing more than a big storage space into which all of your computers dump their data. You can’t install or run applications using such a device. It’s not a full-fledged computer, but simply intelligent network-accessible storage.

NAS servers have been around long enough that prices have fallen to where consumers can easily afford such a device to centralize their data storage. Some NAS devices include backup software, most of which can perform automated incremental backups (you’ll learn more about these topics in the Backups chapter that follows). Personally, my family and I store all of our data on a NAS, giving us a single drive volume to backup.

There are two primary types of NAS devices, each with a different target audience and cost. Entry-level NAS units have one or two fixed hard drives, meaning the disk drive(s) can’t be swapped out and, thus, the capacity of the device can’t be expanded. If you purchase such a “fixed” NAS, you’ll have to purchase a new one when you either run out of space or one of the disks fails. The other, more robust type of NAS features between two and eight open bays, each of which holds a single, removable disk drive. Some multi-drive (also called multi-bay) NAS models are sold diskless (no pre-installed drives), allowing you to use existing drives or purchase your own. It should be noted that there are a few two-drive NAS models on the market that feature fixed disk drives, meaning both drives can’t be replaced when they die.

One of the best solutions, which strikes a nice middle ground, is a multi-bay NAS that is sold pre-populated with removable drives and even preconfigured for data mirroring. This approach allows you to avoid the hassle of purchasing, installing, and configuring hard disk drives for your NAS, but still allows you to upgrade all drives to achieve more storage capacity or replace a single defective drive unit.

Some manufacturers, like Western Digital, offer a NAS solution for nearly every need and budget. For example, the company’s My Cloud Mirror features two fixed drives and a single USB 3.0 port. The My Cloud EX2 (sporting two bays) and My Cloud EX4 (four bays) both offer removable storage and ship with Western Digital’s NAS-optimized Red drives pre-installed and configured for data mirroring (a real-time data replication scheme described below). The EX series also features two USB 3.0 ports, allowing you to create your offsite backups that much faster and reliably (in real-world performance, USB 3.0 is roughly four to ten times faster than USB 2.0). You’ll learn more about reputable NAS models later in this chapter.

RAID

While more expensive, multi-drive NAS devices offer greater flexibility in terms of how you store and backup your data. For example, most multi-drive NAS servers (including both fixed and removable drive models) offer the ability to run a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). There are a variety of types, or “levels,” of RAID. According to Wikipedia, “each scheme provides a different balance between the key goals: Reliability and availability, performance, and capacity. RAID levels greater than RAID 0 provide protection against unrecoverable (sector) read errors, as well as whole disk failure.”

It should be noted that a multi-drive RAID setup can also be installed in a PC. The best route, however, is a dedicated NAS plugged into your internet router or Ethernet switch. This saves you the headaches associated with maintaining a full computer and the risks that come with operating it. The likelihood of failure for a PC is greater than for a dedicated NAS server that quietly sits attached to your home network. The NAS will also consume much less power.

Although there are seven levels of RAID multi-drive configuration, only one—RAID 1—is of concern to consumers with home networks. RAID levels 2 through 6 are more performance-oriented and appeal to enterprise organizations trying to do things like optimize database queries and speed real-time online transactions. While your nerdy niece may advocate one of the higher RAID levels, RAID 1 is really all you need.

RAID 1

RAID 1 incorporates mirroring, in which data is written to two or more drives simultaneously to create a “mirrored set.” Thus, if you had a NAS device that supported RAID 1 and featured, say, four drive bays, you could install three drives (leaving one drive bay empty), one of which would be your primary storage and the other two of which would function as your local (onsite) backups that were always current.

RAID 1 illustrates the power of using multiple hard drives in a single drive enclosure (or computer) to protect your data. Think of RAID 1 as a real-time backup system. The disadvantage? This popular RAID standard gives you great onsite data redundancy (and, thus, backup), but does nothing to get your data offsite.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite

HBK11Render (1)In my previous blog post, I provided an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. It was about an element of data security that pertains to everyone, not just power users: Backup. Future blog posts will cover other areas of the book, including viruses and malware, centralized data storage, and strong passwords.

Also check out Personal Data Security: BackupsPersonal Data Security: NAS, and Personal Data Security: Password Basics.


As middle class consumers, we create, collect, consume, and archive a relatively massive amount of data. From our digital photos and high-resolution videos to our music collections and work or school documents, it all resides someplace. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are the home of most of this data. More often than not, our personal bits and bytes are scattered across multiple devices. It’s typically a mess.

Which means that a solid backup scheme is even more important. Getting all that data archived on a reliable storage device and safely stored is a goal most consumers don’t achieve (or even attempt). Whether through ignorance or just plain laziness, the majority of us (yes, I’m talking about you) don’t have a current and complete backup of our personal data.

As in other areas of life, like dieting, exercise, or even homework, we need a routine. A system. A habit. For personal backup, this digital discipline is embodied in the 3-2-1 Backup Rule.

The 3-2-1 Backup Rule involves three simple steps that will help ensure the integrity and resiliency of your personal files:

  1. Maintain three copies of any important files (a primary and two backups).
  2. Store the backup files on two different media types (such as hard disk + optical media or Dropbox + hard disk) to protect against different types of hazards.
  3. Store one copy offsite.

First, let me make things even easier: You can forget about Step 2. It’s much more important that you focus on adhering to your backup schedule like a religious rite. Backing up digital data is like dieting: Everyone cheats. So instead of attempting to emulate an enterprise organization and worrying about different media types for your multiple backups, let’s step back and simply worry about creating your backups with regularity in the first place.

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Three copies? Why three copies, Curt? Isn’t backup about the main data and a backup copy—used to restore the main data if it becomes corrupted, accidentally deleted, or the device on which it’s stored craps the bed? Yes, at a high level, that’s the goal. However, the reality is that you must store a copy offsite. Get it the heck out of your house or office.

Why? Because the event that destroys your primary data could very likely also damage or destroy your backup copy. Have you or anyone you’ve known suffered flooding? How about a fire? What about theft? While less common, what about tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons?

During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, hundreds of businesses were severely compromised because their backup copies resided in the same location as their primary data. When buildings were severely damaged or even collapsed, both the primary and backup copies were destroyed. As a result, many of these businesses went bankrupt. One simple deficiency affected the jobs of thousands of Americans and service to millions of customers.

3-2-1-back-rule-get-offsite-3

Most consumers, when considering the backup of their personal data, erroneously think that offsite backup is only for enterprise organizations. It’s not. Offsite backup is essential for anyone. Fire, flooding, and theft is simply too common. And your personal data too precious.

Everyone creates or collects data at a different rate. Some people (like me) take photos or videos on nearly a daily basis. Most of us do so several times per week. Thus, the frequency of your backup schedule is subjective. But regardless of that schedule, you need to stay true to it. If our doctor said, “If you don’t stick to this diet, you’re going to die in a month,” most of us would stick to the diet. Likewise, if I told you that, if you don’t stick to your backup schedule, you’re virtually guaranteed to lose some or all of your valuable data, how would you respond?

When considering an offsite storage location, ensure that it’s far enough from your house that it won’t be affected by whatever takes out your primary data. Thus, a shed in your backyard isn’t an option. Neither is the glove box in your car that’s sitting in your garage or driveway. Consider a safety deposit box, your office or school, or the house of a friend or family member. But just get it the heck out of your house and out of your neighborhood.

However, don’t go so far offsite that it becomes difficult to maintain your offsite swap schedule. Assume you make a backup once a week. Thus, you would also need to take a copy to the offsite location once per week. If that site is three hours away at your parents’ house, it becomes impractical and simply won’t happen. Think practical. Think doable.

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Consider your lifestyle and personal habits. Don’t allow theory to overtake reality and craft a backup strategy to which you’ll never adhere. Remember: You have to maintain your backup scheme forever. Being diligent for only a few months and then gradually forgetting or getting lazy means you’ll still eventually lose data. It’s just the sad reality of how it works.

Surveys and studies reveal that 35-40% of Americans never—as in never—backup their data in any way. According to Pivotal IT, 140,000 computer hard drives fail every week in the United States, destroying data. Losing precious memories of loved ones or special events sucks (let alone tax records and work documents).

You may or may not suffer from OCD, but in the case of the backup of your personal data, you might want to start getting obsessed. If not, you’ll be crying in your beer because those kindergarten photos of your kids or that novel-in-progress just got sent to digital hell.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Personal Data Security: Backups

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my book Understanding Personal Data Security. It’s straightforward and a very quick read. It covers four areas of personal data security: Centralized data, backups, passwords, and viruses/malware. Below, you’ll find a section from Chapter 3: Backups.HBK11Render (1)

Future blog posts will provide excerpts from the other core chapters of the book, including Chapter 2: Centralized Data, Chapter 4: Passwords, and Chapter 5: Viruses & Malware. Also check out Personal Data Security: NAS and 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite.

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Curt Robbins


Scary Stats

In 2011, website Backblaze conducted a data backup survey, learning that only 7% of respondents performed daily backups. It also found that 35% of computer owners never backed up their data. 51% of owners backup less than once a year. 31% of PC users have lost all of their data files. According to photographer Peter Krogh, a vocal proponent of regular backups, there are two groups of people: Those who have already suffered a storage failure and those who will experience one in the future.

In 2012, anti-virus company Trend Micro released a study of 1,000 Americans that revealed that 40% of them never—as in never-–backup their data (results very similar to those revealed by the Backblaze survey). If their hard drive crashed tomorrow, nearly half of all people would lose everything. Interestingly, half of respondents reported being married. Yet, 83% of those married didn’t have a backup of their wedding photos (they can’t all be on the verge of divorce)!

In August 2014, it was reported that Russian hackers had amassed a database of 1.2 billion (as in billion) stolen user names and passwords and had gained access to half a billion email accounts. According to Hold Security, the combined attacks reached every area of the web and more than 400,000 websites. The New York Times hired an independent security expert, who verified the authenticity of the stolen account information. “Before, we were amazed when 10,000 passwords [went] missing,” said Alex Holden, Hold Security’s chief information security officer. “Now we’re in the age of mass production of stolen information.”


If you haven’t suffered a data failure (and with it, forever lost some precious memories of loved ones and special occasions), try to avoid being one of the sad people who are good at conducting regular backups because they have experienced such digital disaster. If you haven’t suffered a loss, take it from one-third of your friends, family, and co-workers: It sucks. The relatively minor investments of time and money you will make in educating yourself and securing your data can prevent all of the heartache of those who have suffered “catastrophic data loss.”

external USB backup drive

Regardless of the efficiency of your backup plan, don’t be afraid to spend some money on the best hardware you can afford (in the case of backups, this would be the NAS [Network Attached Storage] and internal and external disk drives). Again, you’re protecting your cherished digital photo albums and home videos—not to mention other important files, like legal documents, school papers, and heirloom family recipes.

Secure Backup Rules

Following the simple rules below will help you create a successful backup plan that can be executed on a regular basis. Should disaster strike and your primary hard drive craps the bed, these rules will also help ensure a smooth and successful restoration of the data from the backup device or service.

  • Backup either daily, weekly, or bi-weekly (depending on how frequently you create or acquire new data).
  • Create two backups, one for onsite storage and one for offsite.
  • Determine and strictly adhere to an offsite storage schedule.
  • Do not encrypt or compress your backups.
  • Automate your backup(s). This is child’s play with the available software. Do not assume you will run a manual backup with regularity and passion. You won’t.
  • Even if you have very little data to backup, don’t use a USB flash drive, which is slower and less reliable in the long run than hard disk drives.
  • Perform incremental backups (described below).

Assume the hard drive (or drives) on which you store your important personal data crashes tomorrow. Will you lose data? How much? This is really the litmus test. If your primary data storage (called your master data or primary copy) crashed and burned an hour from now, how would it affect you? If this happened to the majority of people, they would lose most or all of their data. In other words, most people have either zero backup or an old, out-of-date copy.

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Local vs. Cloud Backup

There are two primary types of backups: Local (comprised of both onsite and offsite copies) and cloud-based. Local backup simply involves copying your primary data to a hard drive hanging off a computer sitting on your home network or a redundant drive in a RAID 1 NAS. Cloud backup means using your broadband connection to upload your data to be backed up to a remote server somewhere on the internet. Dozens of companies offer consumer-grade online, or “cloud” based backup services. To learn more about cloud-based backup, see the Cloud Backup section below. [Sorry, you’ll have to buy the book for that one.]


Curt Robbins is a technical writing consultant and instructional designer who is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Tesla Test Drives: Responding to Bob

My blog post entitled Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson from October 4 is gaining a bit of traction and has actually garnished some feedback (always exciting for new bloggers like myself). Below is a comment received from this post and my response.model s and solar panels

I also sent a Tweet to Anderson (@IADA_Bruce), the president of the Iowa Auto Dealers Association, asking him for a public dialog allowing us to debate the validity of his successful effort to cancel Tesla’s test drives in early September. In addition, I copied Senator Matt McCoy (@mccoyforsenate) and Rep. Peter Cownie (@petercownie) in an attempt to involve these Iowa politicians in the dialog.

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Curt Robbins


bob
Submitted on 2014/10/06 at 5:59 pm

So according to this decisions all expo, conference & trade shows should now follow this decisions and not be allowed. Be careful what you wish for.

curtrobbins
Submitted on 2014/10/06 at 6:05 pm | In reply to bob.

Hi Bob,

I’m confused. Can you elaborate? I honestly don’t understand exactly what you’re getting at. I enjoy—and seek out—an intelligent and honest dialog regarding any consumer tech topic. But can you clarify your comment?

In terms of being careful about what I wish for: I wish simply that a disruptive, game-changing company like Tesla would be permitted to at least demonstrate its technology first-hand. It’s sad enough that this company can’t actually sell in the state of Iowa due to…I know, I’ve said it so many times before…antiquated laws from a bygone era. Those laws served 1950s-80s America really well. But no more. (Technical clarification: Anyone, in any state, can purchase Tesla’s vehicles from its website.)

tesla model s replacement for blogPlease note that I’m not suggesting Buick, Ford, or Hyundai be prohibited from conducting test drives. I believe healthy, fair competition is what has made America great. But to prohibit an American company as promising as Tesla from simply demonstrating its product to prospective customers is really Neanderthal thinking. I want the voters of Iowa—and any state in this great union—to be able to test drive, purchase, sell, and service vehicles involving a wide variety of technologies from a multitude of companies.

Politicians like to cite patriotism. Ok. How patriotic is to allow Toyota (Japanese), Kia (Korean), and Range Rover (Indian) to conduct test drives on American soil, while prohibiting Silicon Valley-based Tesla from not only selling cars, but even test driving them? Tesla employs 6,000 hard-working Americans, and is expanding rapidly. I’m not suggesting Tesla deserves any special treatment. However, for American politicians to state that they are pro-American companies and pro-economic growth and then oppose—at any level: municipal, state, or federal—an American company embracing these very principles is, well, both illogical and hypocritical. Not to mention short-sighted.

I wouldn’t vote for them. Would you?

Now, back to your point of me being careful what I wish for. I wish that every one of my fellow Americans could understand, test, and have the ability to purchase any reasonably safe personal transportation vehicle on the market. Especially if it comes from an American company. No sane politician would disagree with me so far.

I’ll do my best to help people understand electric car technology and their product options (that’s what I do for a living). But if consumers know what they want and can’t even get it, how well are any of us serving them?


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ello? Are You a Product?

ello logo for blogTim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently spoke out—in a thinly veiled jab at Google and Facebook in the form of an open letter to customers—regarding the fact that Apple doesn’t sell customer data to advertisers or other third parties. In a similar vein, a new social network has emerged that directly challenges ad-supported social media by claiming to never sell user data.

The service? Ello.

Ello is getting quite a bit of media attention. It’s an ad-free social media site that’s being labeled a potential “Facebook killer” and the “anti-Facebook.” While no competing social network will likely kill—or even put a significant dent in—Facebook in the near future, Ello’s emergence and the serious attention it’s garnering are a sign that social media is maturing and beginning to serve different niches.

Ello, still in beta, is a free service launched by artists and designers in Burlington, Vermont (where, symbolically, roadside billboards are illegal). It has been described as a hybrid of Twitter and Tumblr. On its website, the company states, “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate—but a place to connect, create and celebrate life,” adding the Applesque, “You are not a product.”

Currently, Ello membership is available only via invite (although the service is still gaining 35,000 new signups and 45,000 invite requests per hour). New users are permitted to invite several friends. Unlike most social networks, Ello allows members to follow others as either “friends” or “noise” and doesn’t reveal how you’ve categorized them. Said one newspaper review, “Whatever the online version of ‘new car smell’ is, Ello has it.” This tone suggests that this relatively novel social network is special simply because it’s the new kid on the block—not because it’s truly disruptive in the evolution of social media. Which, of course, remains to be seen.

Echoing Cook’s message regarding customers versus products, the Ello Manifesto, posted on the company’s sparsely designed website, states, “Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”

Further indoctrinating potential users into its customer-focused, David-meets-Goliath culture, the company adds, “We believe there is a better way. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.” I love the sound of that—and sincerely hope Ello survives past its startup phase. I’d also like to know what Vermont verde these guys are smoking.

Media response to Ello has been mixed, but typically cynical or pessimistic. England’s The Guardian wrote, “We’re turning to the new thing because it’s new, not because it’s good.” CNET reviewed the nascent service with a similar tone: “Plenty of folks are dubious.” AL.com, although supportive of the site, reported, “It’s pretty likely, however, that Ello is a flash in the pan.”

Unlike competing services from LinkedIn and Facebook, Ello lacks a “Like” feature. No doubt this is in response to the fact that it’s one of the most efficient ways in which Facebook and LinkedIn collect user preference data to sell to advertisers. It also currently lacks user blocking and a mobile app. In fact, there’s plenty of features you might be habituated to using on social media that aren’t available in Ello—at least not yet.

If this service is free and there’s no ads, how does it pay for server farms and employee salaries? The company plans to begin offering supplemental “special features” to enhance the user experience. Surely they’re hoping that all of your friends will purchase some of these features and, if you don’t, you’ll suffer feature envy or be incapable of engaging in certain types of communication. Gizmodo said it well: “Think of [Ello] as a freemium social network.”

In the end, Ello might turn out to simply be a relatively short-lived phenomenon. At worse, it could disappear in a few months (after its initial venture capital runs dry). At best, it might gain tens of millions of users and subtly influence services like Facebook and the resuscitated Myspace. Some are speculating that interest in Ello doesn’t necessarily reflect an affinity for this new, hip social network, but rather a disdain for old entrenched players. As The Guardian’s Jess Zimmerman wrote in late September, “Entrenched social networks like Twitter and Facebook would do well to pay attention, because they’re the ships we’re trying to abandon.”

Time will tell if enough people abandon—or, more likely, simply supplement—networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to ensure Ello’s survival. Just the fact that it allows members to use alias names will surely help it gain a few million followers (aliases violate Facebook’s recently introduced “real name” policy that has infuriated members of the LGBT community seeking to avoid harassment). In the meantime, if you’re really curious, stop by Ello’s website and drop your name in the hat, praying to the hipster gods of this new social network for an invite to the party.

It’s refreshing that this newbie service isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to its competitors. “We’re not interested in ruling the world. We think people that are motivated to do things like that have unresolved psychological problems.” Well alright now.

But don’t assume that meteorological success for Ello would hamper the explosion of Facebook, which—at 1.2 billion global users—hasn’t even peaked yet. Also, if a sufficient number of members don’t buy extended features to feed the company cash, this hip service will die before it even gets a chance to appear on the radar of most Facebook or Twitter users.

Probably the best way of describing this quirky social network was provided by a commenter on Gizmodo: “THERE’S A NEW SOCIAL MEDIA OUR PARENTS HAVEN’T RUINED YET!”

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Curt Robbins

[Also check out a follow-up post: Ello in Real Life.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.