Preserving my digital life

Hello again! I’ve been quiet for a long while (4+ years!) but have kept busy. I’m fortunate to have stayed fully employed, especially during the pandemic, and have had lots of time while working from home to realize the challenges I’ve created for myself over so many years of accumulating stuff.

Truth is, I’m drowning in media. I have amassed a large library of music, movies, TV, books, and photos. I also subscribe to most of the music and video streaming services, and pay for storage space from Microsoft, Google and Apple. I ran out of physical space for all of this years ago, and am living an increasingly cluttered life both in real and digital space. At the same time, there is more new content, especially in TV, coming out than I can possibly keep up with. I end up having nearly no time to enjoy any of this media I’ve collected.

Additionally, I’ve spent much of the last 3 years immersed in video streaming technology, prompted by my church (Grace Church Cathedral, Charleston SC) efforts to stream its many services. I am one of a small team of people that make sure that our services get streamed on YouTube, where we’ve got more than 1000 subscribers. I’m finally getting to use real video switching and streaming systems, 45 years after first trying video technologies in high school.

Ever since I worked as a library page in Glen Ridge (my second paid job), I’ve been in love with libraries. I probably should have invested my college years in library science, but always thought I would have a lifelong career in information technology. I see pictures of some people’s personal libraries and am envious. My relatively small home has no real space for this.

I blame my cousin Bill for surfacing my tendencies as a collector when I was perhaps 10, getting me into stamp collecting. It didn’t take much to realize I cherished all forms of published or recorded material as well. Over time, I’ve morphed into what might best be called a hoarder.

I’ve long considered what to do with all of this. The simple answer is just to get rid of most of it. After all, most of the music is online. Many movies and TV shows are available at least partially on-demand. Books are a special challenge, but most of the still-relevant books I have are available in libraries, or through an a la carte system like Kindle Unlimited. Photos – these are almost irreplaceable. The dollar value of what I have accumulated is very low, pennies on the dollar, so it really just comes down to the sentimental value of the content to me. A reasonable portion of the music, particularly choral performances and other niche music (e.g. drum corps, organ) are not available on any streaming system. I particularly resent paying for video services that constantly remove programs, even though paying for these services is the only way to catch new series. To that end, I’ve spent much of my free time converting stuff into digital files, stored on hard drives and cloud services. And, I’ve run into secondary issues, discovering that my drives decay over time, or fail outright with little warning, and that the precious tapes, CDs, DVDs and photos also decay or fail.

I plan to talk about my various efforts to organize and digitize this various content in separate articles. I’ve made forays into photo scanning, converting music into digital files, and recently converting video into digital files. This is creating large storage needs, and leading me to the next challenge – how to safely store this stuff digitally so that it will survive time and peril.

How listening to music has evolved

Listening to music has changed so much over the last 100 years, and has become highly individualized.  Think of the evolution:

  1. Live performance was the only way to listen to music for centuries.  Print music publishing  was born.
  2. Audio and film recording made performances available for posterity. Sound recordings were first available after Edison’s invention in  1877, but weren’t widely adopted until about 1910.  Edison also effectively started the movie business in 1893. Recordings allowed people to buy or borrow performances, and listen repeatedly from their homes, whenever desired.  Music sharing was born.
  3. Radio brought performances to everyone in 1920, essentially for free, supported by advertising.  Television enhanced the experience in the 30’s.  Broadcasting was born.
  4. Stereo headphones allowed people to listen privately in 1943, without bothering others.  High-quality listening peaked.
  5. BASF developed modern tape recording in the 30’s, . Recorders were relatively expensive until the introduction of cassettes in 1963.  Cassettes made it easy for people to copy and share performances.  Recording companies started to complain about theft.
  6. FM stereo radio brought high-fidelity broadcasting to everyone in 1961.
  7. MTV started in 1981, one of the early cable TV channels, and made video a part of the music experience.
  8. Portable players allowed people to bring the performances everywhere.  In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, and individuals listening using headphones surged.
  9. Digital recording allowed performances to be captured as files, using expensive equipment starting in the late 60’s.
  10. Personal computers made it easy for everyone to capture and share performances as files.  Compression technologies like MP3 made the files small, and made it possible to send them over personal connections (dial-up phone lines) in minutes.  Computer disks could hold massive amounts of content.
  11. The Internet became ubiquitous in the 90’s.  Sharing music and video was now possible almost instantly across the globe using digital files.  Anyone who shared content without paying the owner was possibly a pirate. a criminal.
  12. Digital media players were introduced in the late 90’s, and Apple introduced the iPod in 2001. People could carry hundreds of songs in their pocket.
  13. Sharing and delivery systems like Napster (1999), iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, Youtube, and many many others were developed and available free to everyone.  The iTunes Store (2003) in particular legitimized the sale and delivery of recordings in completely digital form.
  14. Smartphones like the iPhone were introduced in 2007.  While previous cellphones had media playback capability, combining the seamless media management experience of the iPod with cellphone technology and a touch interface made the technology universally appealing.
  15. In 2021, most content publishing companies have adopted streaming technologies for nearly everything. For music, four major players (Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal) have made nearly all music available on-demand for a “small” monthly fee of $10-20/month. At the same time, purchases of physical digital media have crashed, with most national chains selling only a very limited selection of music CDs.
  16. Oddly, the vinyl record has made a comeback as a preferred format for music fans!

Everyone became a content creator and consumer.  Music, movies, shows, books, news, training, correspondence, blogs, posts, tweets: it’s all content. Artists, authors, composers, recording companies, studios, publishers, teachers, universities: everyone has had to figure out how to stay relevant and get paid.

Personal computers, smartphones and today’s networks have made content creation and consumption completely personal and portable.  You can be nearly anywhere and read, write, watch, listen, talk, or perform.  AT&T’s 1993 commercials, “You will”, are fulfilled.

I focused primarily on music in this list, but most of the timeline holds for other forms of media as well: movies, books, news, art.

Our increasing disrupted life

“It’s Not TV, It’s a TV App” by Shelly Palmer

[This article is from 2016, and VR has not taken over the media world – yet. The rest, about being increasingly isolated from one another while being completely absorbed in “social” apps on devices very much applies in 2021.]

Shelly Palmer is a wonderful observer of technological change in our lives.  He has written extensively on the changes in the delivery of entertainment and media content, and particularly about television.  Today, he has made some predictions about the future impact of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and bots on the technology we all use today.

I worry that his predictions will make us even more isolated that we are today.  He foresees a world where people will wear some form of (presumably unobtrusive) VR glasses that will essentially replace using video screens, making televisions and movie theaters obsolete or at least fundamentally different.  I see rooms full of people having individual experiences, and not interacting with one another.

My wife hates when I put on headphones. It isolates me from her.  She retaliates by becoming completely absorbed in something online.

We’ve become completely social, frequently at a distance.  Experiences are shared privately and with masses.

Circling back to Shelly’s article, I see many people around me  already totally consumed with their devices.  As a technologist specialized in digital communication, I guess I’ve been working toward that. I worry that VR and AR will significantly aggravate this.  Content consumption has always been at odds with other activities in life like driving, walking, doing much of anything else.  Portable devices made doing and consuming content more compatible, but also made us more isolated.

We are overwhelmed with choices every moment of every day.  If you are connected, you literally have the world at your fingertips.  Time has not changed – there are still 24 hours in each day, 365 days in each year, according to our current Earth-centric measuring system.

Witnessed a shooting in 1991

One of the more sordid memories from my past:  On my 30th birthday, April 8, 1991, I witnessed the shooting of 3 men outside the restaurant where I was having lunch.

3 Men Are Shot On Parkway Cigna Executives Hit By Lone Gunman; 1 Critically Injured

I had just finished lunch at the TGI Friday’s near my office in Philadelphia.  I was sitting with a good friend near the front window.  I had a front-row seat as I watched a man walk up to 4 men on the sidewalk, point what looked to me like an enormous revolver at them, and shoot 4 times.  Then, he turned and left.  The men lay motionless on the sidewalk, their blood pooling under them.  They were executives from Cigna, out celebrating Peter Foy’s 48th birthday.  Peter died on the 9th from his injuries.  Two other men were injured, and a fourth escaped injury by diving into bushes.

I initially thought this might be some kind of film scene.  After a few seconds, it was clear there were no cameras, and what I saw out the window was real.

It was over very quickly.  When people inside the restaurant heard the shots, they dove to the floor for cover, except for me.  It was a beautiful day outside, the street was relatively crowded, and there were lots of witnesses.  The police arrived quickly, and I eventually was brought over to the police station to give a statement.  It was an abject lesson in the unreliability of eyewitness accounts – I think I remembered correctly the shooter’s general appearance and the shirt that he wore, but not what the gun looked like.  I wasn’t called back or asked to testify.

Later I noticed that a bullet had hit the wall a couple feet from where I sat.  It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that I might have been hit.

The shooter was quickly found and arrested.  Dr. Jean-Claude Pierre Hill, who was scheduled to start a psychiatric residency at a nearby hospital the next month, was arrested on the 9th near his parents’ home in Virginia.  In short-order it was reported that he was mentally ill, and that he thought the mafia or the CIA were following him.

Doctor Arrested In Shootings Had No Known Ties To Cigna Executives

After this, there wasn’t much more information.  In fact, I don’t remember hearing about the trial or sentencing, even though the shooter’s name was permanently burned into my memory.  I just looked it up today, and found he received a life sentence on December 12, 1992.

Hill To Start Serving Life Sentence At Farview Psychiatric Facility

The account of his sentence includes details of how the shooter lied on a federal form 10 days before the shooting in Virginia to buy guns, including the murder weapon, and had purchased two Colt .45 pistols, four gun clips and 270 rounds of ammunition.

I didn’t know any of these people, and can only imagine the pain all of the families and victims experienced.  It was a random, tragic crime.  I’ll never forget.

You can probably guess how I feel about gun control now!

Bond, state assassin

I started to think about this when I saw Spectre, the latest James Bond film back in November: He is a most amazing public servant.  I work in public government also, and wondered what it would be like if James Bond worked for the kind of agencies that I’m familiar with:

“I don’t know how I’m going to kill my suspect today. There have been so many cutbacks. We have to make do with half the staff we had a couple years ago. Yet somehow, there are too many managers, so I keep on getting requests for progress reports and meetings.  And they get paid 25-50% more than me. Are they getting shot at? I had a superior review this past year, but had to settle for a 1% COLA increase.”

“Government intelligence?  How can I track my suspects if I can’t view regular public websites through our firewall?  My computer is 7 years old, still runs XP, and half my agency is ahead of me on the system refresh queue!”

“Travel?  I need to fill in a travel authorization, giving precise amounts of what I plan to spend in order to be reimbursed. Of course, my spending will be through my personal accounts until after the trip.  Blowing up buildings is really going to be tough to get through on my expense report.  Somehow, tuxedos, champagne and expensive women have to fit in there too.  At least I get to use a fabulous agency vehicle – a late model 2008 Taurus, as long as I track the mileage and only use fuel stations on the agency fuel card system.”

Anyway, you get the idea.


Have you tried listening to podcasts yet?  Don’t know what a podcast is?

Podcasts are similar to radio or TV shows, but you download them to your device to listen/watch later, or stream them.  There are podcast programs built in to most smartphones, and devices like Apple TV.  There are many excellent and mostly free choices available for whatever computer you use.  The podcast program keeps track of the list of episodes currently available for each show, downloads or streams them to you, and plays them for you when you are ready.  It’s sort of like a digital video recorder for radio.

I use Downcast on my iPhone.  I use that instead of the Podcast app that Apple provides because it works better, or at least did when Apple split podcasts from its music player app.  Downcast keeps up with the list of episodes available for each podcast, and downloads each new episode onto my iPhone as it becomes available.  Later on, usually in the car, I listen to the unplayed episodes in the order that they came in.

There are podcasts about just about everything.  In my case, I’ve followed shows about drum corps, classical music, technology and news.  Some are available in video form – I save those for watching via Apple TV (which I love, BTW.)  Most are really well produced, professional shows, and they vary in length from a minute to more than an hour each.

Most podcast programs include a way to search for shows. Perhaps the easiest way to find them is using iTunes and the iPhone to subscribe and listen.

Here’s the one’s that I currently listen to:

  • Freakonomics Radio – “The hidden side of everything.”  This one makes you think.  I can particularly recommend the latest episode, This Idea Must Die, which presents several discussions of commonly accepted ideas that should be retired.
  • NPR’s Story of the Day – a 4-8 minute story selected from the day’s broadcasts on NPR.
  • POP ! TECH ! JAM – “The independent audio magazine devoted to mashing up pop culture, technology and more.”  A fun show by two NY Times writers.
  • Reply All – “a show about the internet.”  Short (<20 minute) segments about various things happening on the Internet.
  • Serial – “Serial tells one story – a true story – over the course of an entire season.”  The first season was investigated a murder and conviction in Baltimore, and caused a national sensation.
  • StartUp Podcast – “A series about what happens when someone who knows nothing about business starts one.”  This was started by Alex Blumberg, of This American Life and the business-economics series Planet Money.  Relatively short (<20 minute) episodes, with an almost no-holds-barred discussion of real issues facing people getting started in business.
  • This American Life – “This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners.”  The podcast is the same hour of material, usually uncensored.  Consistently excellent story telling.
  • APM: Composer’s Datebook – “Reminding you that all music was once new®”  A short (2 minute) presentation of classical music and/or composers that were premiered or born on this date in history.
  • APM: Marketplace Tech – a daily rundown of (computer) technology news.  5-8 minutes each.
  • HDTV and Home Theater Podcast – “a podcast about High Definition TV and Home Theater. Each episode brings news from the A/V world, helpful product reviews and insights and help in demystifying and simplifying HDTV and home theater.”  About 45 minutes per episode.
  • Kim Komando Live – Kim is a syndicated columnist who calls herself “America’s Digital Goddess”.  I mention her podcast last because I like it and dislike it.  You’ll have trouble finding a direct subscription link from her site, because she is more active than any of the above at “monetization”, working to get money from subscribers.  The podcast is short (usually 1-2 minutes), but almost half is a commercial for something that she is selling.  She is also more paranoid, maybe justifiably, than most of the other techies I listen to.  Use the search function in your podcast program to subscribe instead of paying, unless you  want to support her financially.

Recent publicity from my church

I was honored to be the staff member profiled in this month’s “Words of Grace“, the parish newsletter for my church, Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston.  The article starts on the bottom of the front page, and continues on page 4.

I am a parishioner, choir staff singer, and the IT guy for Grace, so am pretty heavily invested in everything that goes on there.  This is one of the big reasons why I am so sensitive about the ongoing conflict between the breakaway “Diocese of SC” and The Episcopal Church.  Grace remains steadfastly part of The Episcopal Church, which is absolutely where I want to be as well.  Grace also currently houses the ongoing official diocese of The Episcopal Church here, The Episcopal Church in SC (which is actually not allowed to call itself the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of SC” or other variations that make sense, thanks to legal aspects of the schism.)

Most of the time I think I have a great handle on the issues dividing the groups, and then other times I get confused because of various spin and intertwined feelings about the role of “sin” in life.    I am convinced that it comes down to whether women and LGBT people should be allowed to participate in ordained ministry, due to perceptions of biblical direction and sin.  I see nothing in women or LGBT people’s gender or sexuality that determines their spirituality (other than general rejection from those who believe the bible clearly orders these matters.)  In conservative, bible-belt South Carolina, I am in the minority.

Anyone who has read my previous posts may remember that I’m not particularly convinced that the Christian (or Jewish) Bible should be used as THE definer of “sin”.  As a “recovering Catholic”, I am well familiar with the role of sin and guilt in trying to live a good life.  I have been indoctrinated with the notion that something will happen to my soul after death, perhaps including judgement by God and/or St. Peter, or I will need to atone for my sins.  I don’t know if I buy that – certainly I have lots of doubt.  The conflict between the factions of the Episcopal church, and the many, many Christian denominations and other major religious systems have convinced me of only one thing – that religion is largely a creation of men.  Some people have had spiritual experiences, and some believe to have heard God speak to them.  Some people have dedicated large parts of their lives to the recording, analysis, and propagation of their beliefs.  I don’t know if it is possible to validate any of that.  Much of the beliefs of Christians are recorded in The Bible, which I understand to be a collection of inspired writings, but not necessarily a historical record.  I do think there is plenty in the book to learn and live by.

I strongly believe in science and reason.  My training in philosophy is relatively weak, and I tend to get lost on matters like exegesis.  I feel that religious discussion enters into a mystical realm where reason and judgement become intertwined.  I hate being judged, unless I’ve willingly entered into a competition.  I don’t think life is inherently a competition for salvation after death.

I usually avoid expressing my opinions about religion or politics on Facebook or other social media.  I suppose this space is technically social media, but it is mine, and I have some control over the dialogue.  I actively avoid becoming flame bait, and am also concerned about professional backlash.  Too many people that I am connected with on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. have widely divergent views.  Some of those feel the need to proselytize when they disagree with me. So, I hope it is understood that this space represents my opinion only.  I welcome comments here, but will stop them if I need to.

Besides the links above, I strongly suggest looking through these two for much more detailed analysis of the TEC schism in SC:  Warning: They are from the “liberal” view of the conflict.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that I am also a Democrat …

Thinking about religion

This post on Salon got me thinking once again about my beliefs, or lack thereof. I find this a very difficult subject to address even privately, except with my wife, because so much judgmental behavior can come from discussions. Yet, I have significant doubt of my own faith.

Better sounding music

Neil Young has a new venture called “Pono“, which is marketing a high-resolution portable audio player and online music store. This got a warm reception on Kickstarter, raising more than $6 million. I don’t expect most casual listeners will care, having been lulled into the cheap convenience of MP3, iTunes and streaming music. What HAS surprised me is the “audiophile” response, which is generally negative. The reaction seems to either be “Meh!” or “snake oil salesmen!”.

My first surprise came from the HT Guys, who run a terrific podcast about home theater.  These are ex-Sony guys who worked on (I believe) digital theater sound systems, so I think they know something about high quality audio.  When they talked about Pono, their basic question was “why?”  What we have is good enough, you probably cannot hear the difference, what’s the point?

I figured the folks at, an online forum that focuses on high quality digital audio stuff, would be all over it.  They were, but in a very negative way.  I haven’t really found anything positive yet.  Here’s one thread.  The general objections seem to be this:  uncertainty about music pricing; emphasis on 24/96 or higher recordings won’t really show people better sound, but will cost more; will the recordings actually be better quality that what is available now; why won’t they sell us non-lossy music now for a reasonable price?

Here’s another review:

So, what’s the big deal?  Did you know that you are used to listening to low-quality sound?

People have different ideas of “best” sound.

  • For some, vinyl records will always be best – pure analog, warm sound, plus more space to print art and notes.  Sorry, not for me.  That warm sound is RIAA equalization, which bumps up the low-end of the spectrum to account for shortcomings in the playback.  Turn up the bass on lots of stuff, and it sounds better.  Plus, ticks, pops, warps, skips – remember those?  Remember having to clean your record before you played it (if you cared about that sort of thing?)  For awhile, though, people actually spent money on decent turntables, receivers or amplifiers, and quality speakers.
  • CD.  Very high quality copies of recordings, perhaps limited depending on how they are produced.  Not “master” quality, but pretty good.  Oddly, CD brought with it compact size, and portable players and earphones became the rage.  Now you didn’t need big speakers and a receiver, just a CD walkman.  People had great quality in their hands, and were already getting used to lower quality.
  • High bitrate MP3 or AAC.  This is today’s digital download standard (iTunes, Amazon), although a surprising amount of lower bitrate stuff (128k) is still sold.  This uses generally perfected algorithms to remove “unneeded” parts of music recordings and shrink the size of the recording file to a small number.  Many people cannot hear the difference, or don’t know what the deficiencies are.  If you listen on earbuds, or even in most cars, this is probably good enough.  But, you have the world at your fingertips with an iPhone, iPod, computer or little digital player.  Convenience trumps quality.
  • Lossless digital files.  FLAC, APE, WAV, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and others.  These created a smaller digital copy of a recording, without removing any musical information.  These are available in a number of quality levels, from CD (16/44.1k) to “audiophile” (24/96k, 24/192k, etc.).  The two numbers express how the audio is sampled; higher is supposedly better.  Engineers will quibble about the “best”.  The rest of us may not be able to hear the differences.  There are a small number of online sites that let you buy lossless music: is one good example.  However, it is hard to buy mainstream, CD quality lossless music.  People like me end up buying the CD, then make the lossless digital files from the CD.  There is no good standard for getting copies of the album art and liner notes that come in the CD case.  Everyone does it a different way.  Lossless files take much more space on a listening device, another drawback.

Music streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio use lower quality lossy streams.  Kind of AM Stereo quality – not quite FM.

An interesting wrinkle is that the recording industry doesn’t always sell us the best copy of their work.  It took years for them to figure out how to “master” CDs that wouldn’t sound like fingernails on a blackboard for some people.  Sometimes, the original tapes they had were in rotten shape.  So, when they have an incentive to go back and re-do an old recording for new technology, sometimes they find better source tapes, or spend the time to eliminate noise and distortion, or otherwise produce a better “master”.

I hope that Pono is great, and causes some people to return to caring about higher quality music reproduction.  I’m not holding my breath.

If you’ve gotten this far, maybe you care.  I avoid buying digital music from iTunes or Amazon because it is lossy.  I buy CDs and rip them using iTunes into Apple Lossless format.  Some music goes on my iPhone, the rest is played on our main music system using Apple TV.  I’ve experimented with FLAC, but find a fair amount of uneven support for it on different devices that support DLNA (my TV, audio receiver, Blu-ray player).  Most of the IOS DLNA or FLAC apps I’ve tried haven’t been very good, but I haven’t tried most and don’t like to pay.  So, today I convert the FLAC files I get into Apple Lossless using dbPowerAmp.

Another cruel reality – as humans age, their hearing range decreases on the high-end.  They can still appreciate good sound, but can’t hear some of the detail that younger people can, if the recording includes it!