Reeling in the Tears

I recently came into possession of a rather curious looking spool of tape when going through some old things belonging to my Dad. This surprise discovery (which, amazingly, he never thought to mention when he was alive) was initially met with a mixture of curiosity and excitement, but then tinged with sadness as I remembered he is no longer around to ask about its origins or contents.

Of course the curiosity soon got the better of me and I felt I owed it to him to find out what was on it anyway, considering he had clearly safeguarded it for the better part of 50 years. I therefore set about finding a way to have it converted to some form of modern digital media.

I began by contacting a friend who had recently converted some vintage video reels of the same shape and size, and while he was able to confirm that I was in possession of a Reel-to-Reel Audio tape, he did not himself possess a suitable playing device and neither did any of his hobbyist friends. Fortunately, The Force is strong in this one and so we kept trying.

I then decided to try my luck on the I Am Waterford Facebook page (home to some 20,000 Waterford natives) and was greeted with a delightful array of helpful suggestions, a sizeable majority of which were directing me towards one person, Gary Burns (Audio Visual Technical Officer at Waterford Institute of Technology), who later chimed in himself and offered to do the conversion for me.

As we both live in the same town, I was able to hand over the reel the following day, and within a few days of that I found myself downloading an audio file with the contents of the reel in all its crackly glory – all 35 minutes of it!

Naturally, the anticipation at this point was sky high and indeed, I took a quiet moment to prepare for an emotional reveal. After all, no matter what was on this reel, it was put there for a reason and that reason alone represented an insight into a part of my father’s life that I knew nothing about until that very moment. I consider myself very lucky to have that opportunity, as those in my position will no doubt understand.

So what was on the reel, I hear you ask? Well, I had given this some thought during the previous few days and thought it might have been a recording of him (or his family) singing or playing the accordion, or perhaps a recording of someone describing some of the video reel footage I’d converted some years earlier.

In the end, it was actually none of the above and instead was a collection of 14 songs recorded from the radio, ranging from 1969 to 1974. There were occasional hints of the voice of Brendan Balfe along the way (a popular RTE Radio presenter at that time), so I’m assuming it was his radio show that was being recorded.

Here is a full catalog of the extracted from the reel, which was derived after several hours of painstaking listening for recognisable lyrics, against a backdrop of electrical noise and melodic crackling. I’ve linked each one to a YouTube video of the original song for you to enjoy also:

  1. No Matter How I Try (Gilbert O’Sullivan @ 1971)
  2. Goin’ Down (Jeff Beck @ 1972)
  3. Sing a Song of Freedom (Cliff Richard @ 1974)
  4. Soley Soley (Middle of the Road @ 1971)
  5. Softly Whispering I Love You (Congregation @ 1972)
  6. The Sunset Years of Life (Slim Dusty @ 1965)
  7. Cotton Fields Back Home (Credence Clearwater Revival @ 1969)
  8. Big Strong Man (The Wolfe Tones @ 1970)
  9. You Can Get It If You Really Want (Desmond Dekker @ 1970)
  10. I’ll Take Care of Your Cares (Frankie Laine @ 1967)
  11. I Will Follow You (Dana @ 1970)
  12. Sweetheart (Engelbert Humperdinck @ 1971)
  13. Banquet for the World (Freshmen @ 1970
  14. Which Way You Goin’ Billy (Poppy Family @ 1969

Apart from the curious variety in musical styles (and fashion), I was actually rather impressed with the coolness of some of the tracks, especially Jeff Beck and Credence Clearwater Revival. He certainly kept a few of those guilty pleasures quiet for all the years that he instead lauded the dulcet tones of Foster & Allen!

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable, albeit very emotional, few days that, thanks to the help of people I had never even known one week before, is now set to become part of a new chapter in our family memorabilia that I hope will last for another 50 years, and more.

Thanks Dad, and thanks Gary!

How nature outsmarts your Smartphone

There is no doubt that modern technology is getting smarter, smaller and cheaper all of the time, and the modern smartphone is to the fore in how most humans (that own one) access these advancements in technology.

However, it’s also refreshing (and a reassuring in a strange kind of way) to know that such humble and innate everyday objects, found in the most non-technical and un-advanced parts of our world, can still outsmart us all!

The Joint Photographic Experts Group – JPEG

A significant majority of modern smartphones (and digital cameras) use the JPEG image file format to store the photographs taken by the device. This file format is named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group, which published the first version of the specification in 1992.

The file format was famed for introducing 3 main features:

  1. The possibility of more than 16 million different colours for each pixel in the image.
  2. Varying levels of image compression, reducing the size of the files and making them ideal for use on websites.
  3. An ability to store additional meta data (known as Exif data) inside the image file (e.g. date, time, location, shutter speed).

Digital Compression

By recognising repeating patterns of colour within an image, the JPEG compression algorithms are able to reduce the size of the file containing that image, usually without any significant (or noticeable) loss in image quality. However, with the ever-increasing storage capacity of smartphones, digital cameras, memory sticks and computer hard drives, how many of us ever really take any notice of the size of image files that we are dealing with?

Nature’s Patterns

As it happens, I did just this on foot of a recent family occasion in our back garden where I took rather a lot of photographs featuring grass (plus family members, of course). While syncing the photos to my computer later that evening, I noticed that it was taking much longer than usual so took a closer look when the transfer was complete.

What I discovered then lead me to take a number of other photos of nature scenes the following day, underpinning my theory that nature was clearly outsmarting my smartphone in a variety of very interesting (and surprising ways). Here is what I found.

The Evidence

Each of the following photos were taken using the same smartphone, using the same unmodified Camera app, over the course of 2 days. For the most part, they are shown in order of size (smallest to largest) with some exceptions along the way.

Part Ocean, Part Sky, Part Rocks – 1.5MB

Clearly, the proliferation of grey/dark colours here has lead to a very high level of compression, resulting in a much smaller file.

Very Cloudy Sky – 2.4MB

This very consistent pattern of grey yielded a very high compression rate also, but with perhaps with slightly less dark colours causing a marginal increase in file size.

Semi Clear Sky – 2.6MB

Surprisingly, this quite different skyline (with a lot more blue) was only marginally larger than the very cloudy scene above, but it still compressed very well due to the consistency of regions of blue, grey and white throughout.

Part Sky, Part Ocean on a Grey Day – 3.4MB

With around 60% of this shot featuring some random sea waves, the level of compression achieved is slightly less than others.

Rippled Water – 4.2MB

While featuring a mostly blue/green hue, the degree of randomness to the ripples prevented a higher level of compression here.

Beach Stones – 5.2MB

So now it begins to get interesting, with nature fighting back. This scene features a large selection of pebbles and stones, of differing shapes, sizes, colours and orientation. Overall, quite a random scene which is duly borne out in the largest file size so far.

Plant Leaves – 5.3MB

There’s quite lot of the same shade of green in this shot, which should yield good compression, but the random shape, size and orientation of the leaves is clearly confusing the compression algorithm, resulting in a larger than expected file.

Cliff Rock Closeup – 5.7MB

Large rocks are normally quite uniform in their colour but a couple of thousand years of being battered by the elements is bound to introduce some character in the form of random edges, wear & tear as well as other inclusions, all reducing the amount of compression the camera was able to achieve.

Forest Ferns – 6.6MB

This scene features predominantly green elements of generally the same shade. However, the size, orientation and varying shape of the leaves and branches across the full spectrum of the shot result in a very confused (and highly random) panorama for the camera.

Regular Garden Grass Closeup – 7.2MB

Surprisingly, the most ordinary patch of grass (somewhat close up) causes the most havoc and lowest level of compression for our camera, with the utter chaos that is the size, shape, length, colour, orientation and depth of the blades of grass resulting in the largest file size. The camera even struggled to retain it’s focus in the outer regions of the shot (see top left), further proving that nature always has the upper hand.

Pebble Dashed Wall – 6.2MB

For good measure, I also sampled this man-made creation with a reasonably high degree of randomness. While the colour and dispersal of the pebbles was most definitely random, the camera did still manage some level of compression, most likely based on the consistent colour of the background cement.

Disclaimer

The level of scientific analysis conducted during this impromptu experiment was minimal at best and no pixels were harmed during the gathering of evidence herein. But you’d be amazed what other surprises mother nature is likely to throw up so get out there and discover your own flavour of randomness!

Muhammad Ali and My Grandfather

Edmund (Neddy) Mernin

One of my most prized possessions is some very old VHS footage of my Grandfather, Edmund (Neddy) Mernin (1893-1983), being interviewed for an Irish history documentary in 1969. It really is such a privilege to be able to share this tiny slice of family history with my own children, where they can see real-life footage of their Great Grandfather.

The documentary, entitled Gift of a Church, tells the unusual story of how (in 1965) the church in his home village of Villierstown, Co. Waterford, had been donated by the Church of Ireland to the Catholic people in the village so that they would not have to walk several miles to the nearest village to celebrate Mass on Sunday. The church was in need of some repair and was seemingly no longer needed as the Protestant population had moved away.

The documentary was first broadcast on 30 October 1969 as part of an RTÉ programme called Newsbeat and was reported by the renowned Irish history documentary maker and TV presenter, Cathal O’Shannon (well known for this distinctive voice). And with huge thanks to the team at RTÉ Archives, an excerpt (showing Neddy speaking) is now available online.

Muhammad Ali

So what’s the connection with Muhammad Ali, I hear you say? Well, it turns out that the very same broadcaster that interviewed my Grandfather in 1969 also went on to conduct an infamous interview with boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, when he visited Ireland (to fight Alvin Lewis in Croke Park) in July 1972.

That visit was also chronicled in another Irish documentary from 2012 by Ross Whitaker, entitled When Ali Came to Ireland.

Two Legends, One Story

So it turns out that Muhammad Ali was not the only legendary world figure that Cathal O’Shannon had the privilege of interviewing. He also interviewed Neddy Mernin!

 

Injecting Data into Scanned Vintage Photos

In a previous post, entitled Vintage Photo Scanning – A Journey of Discovery, I shared my experiences while digitising my parent’s entire vintage photo collection.

As part of that pet project, I also took the liberty of digitally injecting some of the precious data I had learned about them (i.e. when and where the photos were taken, and who was in them) into the photo files themselves, so that it would be preserved forever along with the photo is pertained to. This article explains how I did that.

Quick Recap

My starting point was a collection of around 750 digital images, arranged into a series of folders and subdirectories, and named in accordance with the following convention:

<Date>~<Title>~<People>~<Location>.jpg

So the task at hand was how to programmatically (and thus, automatically) inject data into each of these files, starting over if required, so that sorting them or importing them into photo management software later becomes much easier.

Ready, Steady, Bash!

In order to process many files at a time, you’re going to need to do a little programming. My favourite language for this sort of stuff is Bash, so expect to see plenty of snippets written in Bash from here on. I am also going to assume that you are running this on a Unix/Linux-based system (sorry, Mr. Gates).

Setup

While each photo will have a different date, title, list of people and location, there are some other pieces of data you like to store within them (while you’re at it), which you (or your grandchildren) may be glad of later on. To this end, let’s set up some assumptions and common fields.

Default Data

If you only know the year of a photo, you’ll need to make some assumptions about the month and day:

DEFAULT_MONTH="06"
DEFAULT_DAY="01"
DEFAULT_LOCATION="-"

Reusable File Locations

Define the location of exiftool utility or any other programs you’re using (if they are located in a non-standard part of your system), along with any other temporary files you’ll be creating:

EXIFTOOL=/usr/local/bin/exiftool
CSVFILE=$(dirname "$0")/photos.csv
GPSFILE=$(dirname "$0")/gps.txt
GPS_COORDS=$(dirname "$0")/gps-coords.txt
PHOTO_FILES=/tmp/photo-files.txt
PHOTO_DESC=/tmp/photo-description.txt

Common Metadata

Most photo files support other types of metadata including the make/model of camera used, the applicable copyright statement and of the owner of the files. If you wish to use these, you could define their values in some variables that can be used (for each file) later on:

EXIF_MAKE="HP"
EXIF_MODEL="HP Deskjet M4500"
EXIF_COPYRIGHT="Copyright (c) 2014, James Mernin"
EXIF_OWNER="James Mernin"

Data Injection

List, Iterate & Extract

Firstly, compile a list of the files you wish to process:

find "$IMAGE_DIR" -name "*.jpg" > $PHOTO_FILES

Now iterate over that list, processing one file at a time:

while read line; do
 # See below for what to do...
done < "$PHOTO_FILES"

Now split the input line to extract the 4 field of data:

BASENAME=`basename "$line" .jpg`
ID_DATE=`echo $BASENAME|cut -d"~" -f1`
ID_TITLE=`echo $BASENAME|cut -d"~" -f2`
ID_PEOPLE=`echo $BASENAME|cut -d"~" -f3`
ID_LOCATION=`echo $BASENAME|cut -d"~" -f4`

Prepare Date & Title

Prepare a suitable value for Year, Month and Day (taking into account the month and day maybe unknown):

DATE_Y=`echo $ID_DATE|cut -d"-" -f1`
DATE_M=`echo $ID_DATE|cut -d"-" -f2`
if [ -z "$DATE_M" ] || [ "$DATE_M" = "$DATE_Y" ]; then DATE_M=$DEFAULT_MONTH; fi
DATE_D=`echo $ID_DATE|cut -d"-" -f3`
if [ -z "$DATE_D" ] || [ "$DATE_D" = "$DATE_Y" ]; then DATE_D=$DEFAULT_DAY; fi

It’s possible the title of some photos may contain a numbered prefix in order to separate multiple photos taken at the same event (e.g. 01-School Concert, 02-School Concert). This can be handled as follows:

TITLE=$ID_TITLE
TITLE_ORDER=`echo $ID_TITLE|cut -d"-" -f1`
if [ -n "$TITLE_ORDER" ]; then
 if [ $TITLE_ORDER -eq $TITLE_ORDER ] 2>/dev/null; then TITLE=`echo $ID_TITLE|cut -d"-" -f2-`; fi
fi

Location Processing

This is a somewhat complex process but essential boils down to trying to determine the GPS coordinates for the location of each photo. This is because most photo file only support the GPS coordinates inside their metadata. I have used the Google Maps APIs for this step with an assumption that you get an exact match first time. You can, of course, complete this step as a separate exercise beforehand and store the results of that in a separate file to be used as input here.

In any case, the following snippet will attempt to fetch the GPS coordinates for the location of the given photo. Pardon also the crude use of Python for post-processing of the JSON data returned by the Google Maps APIs.

ENCODED_LOCATION=`python -c "import urllib; print urllib.quote(\"$ID_LOCATION\");"`
GPSDATA=`curl -s "http://maps.google.com/maps/api/geocode/json?address=$ENCODED_LOCATION&sensor=false"`
NUM_RESULTS=`echo $GPSDATA|python -c "import json; import sys; data=json.load(sys.stdin); print len(data['results'])"`
if [ $NUM_RESULTS -eq 0 ]; then
 GPS_LAT=0
 GPS_LNG=0
else 
 GPS_LAT=`echo $GPSDATA|python -c "import json; import sys; data=json.load(sys.stdin); print data['results'][0]['geometry']['location']['lat']"`
 GPS_LNG=`echo $GPSDATA|python -c "import json; import sys; data=json.load(sys.stdin); print data['results'][0]['geometry']['location']['lng']"`
fi

Convert any negative Latitude and Longitude values to North/South or West/East so that your coordinates end up in the correct hemisphere and on the correct side Greenwich, London:

if [ "`echo $GPS_LAT|cut -c1`" = "-" ]; then GPS_LAT_REF=South; else GPS_LAT_REF=North; fi
if [ "`echo $GPS_LNG|cut -c1`" = "-" ]; then GPS_LNG_REF=West; else GPS_LNG_REF=East; fi

Inject Data

You now have all the data you need to prepare the exiftool command:

EXIF_DATE="${DATE_Y}:${DATE_M}:${DATE_D} 12:00:00"
echo "Title: $TITLE" > $PHOTO_DESC
echo "People: $ID_PEOPLE" >> $PHOTO_DESC
echo "Location: $ID_LOCATION" >> $PHOTO_DESC

if [ -n "$ID_LOCATION" ]; then
 $EXIFTOOL -overwrite_original \
  -Make="$EXIF_MAKE" -Model="$EXIF_MODEL" -Credit="$EXIF_CREDIT" -Copyright="$EXIF_COPYRIGHT" -Owner="$EXIF_OWNER" \
  -FileSource="Reflection Print Scanner" -Title="$TITLE" -XMP-iptcExt:PersonInImage="$ID_PEOPLE" "-Description<=$PHOTO_DESC" \
  -AllDates="$EXIF_DATE" -DateTimeOriginal="$EXIF_DATE" -FileModifyDate="$EXIF_DATE" \
  -GPSLatitude=$GPS_LAT -GPSLongitude=$GPS_LNG -GPSLatitudeRef=$GPS_LAT_REF -GPSLongitudeRef=$GPS_LNG_REF \
  "$line"
 else
  $EXIFTOOL -overwrite_original \
   -Make="$EXIF_MAKE" -Model="$EXIF_MODEL" -Credit="$EXIF_CREDIT" -Copyright="$EXIF_COPYRIGHT" -Owner="$EXIF_OWNER" \
   -FileSource="Reflection Print Scanner" -Title="$TITLE" -XMP-iptcExt:PersonInImage="$ID_PEOPLE" "-Description<=$PHOTO_DESC" \
   -AllDates="$EXIF_DATE" -DateTimeOriginal="$EXIF_DATE" -FileModifyDate="$EXIF_DATE" \
   "$line"
 fi

Cross your fingers and hope for the best!

Apple iPhoto Integration

Personally, I manage my portfolio of personal photographs using Apple iPhoto so I wanted to import these scanned photos there too. And so the Data Injection measures above I took above simplified this process greatly (especially the Date and Location fields which iPhoto understands natively).

While I did then go on to use iPhoto’s facial recognition features and manually tag each of the people in the photographs (adding several weeks to my project), the metadata injected into the files helped make this a lot easier (as it was visible in the information panel displayed beside each photo) in iPhoto.

Return on Investment

Timescales

In all, this entire project took almost 9 months to complete (with an investment of 2-3 hours per evening, 1-2 nights per week). The oldest photograph I scanned was from 1927 and the most precious one was one from my early childhood holding a teddy bear that my own children now play with.

Benefits

The total number of photos processed was somewhere in the region of 750. And while that may appear to be a very long time for relatively few photographs, the return on investment is likely to last for many, many multiples of that time.

Upon Reflection

I’ve also been asked a few times since then, “Would I do it again?”, to which the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” as the rewards will last far longer than I could ever have spent doing the work.

However, when asked, “Could I do it again for someone else?”, that has to be a “No”. And not because I would not have the time or the energy, but simply because I would not have the same level of emotional attachment to the subject matter (either the people or the occasions in the photos) and I believe that this would ultimately be reflected in the overall outcome. So hopefully these notes will help others to take on the same journey with their own families.

Free Mobile apps for LEGO fans

In my endless pursuit of different ways to enjoy LEGO products, I found the following free mobile apps in the Android app store (a.k.a. Google Play).

  • LEGO Creationary – Excellent series of build and guess games, created by the LEGO Group themselves. A bit heavyweight in terms of performance though.
  • myBrickset: LEGO Set Guide – Allows you to search for LEGO sets by number and create a catalog of the ones you own (or want to own).
  • LEGO Instructions – Lots of simple LEGO sets for younger children, complete with interactive step-by-step instructions.
  • LEGO Scans – Quickly peruse through over 4,000 LEGO sets by name or theme (but no instructions included though).
  • LEGO Minifig Collector – Search and browse through the full series of Minifigure collections. You can also tell the app which ones you have and it’ll then tell you which ones you’re missing (a potentially expensive feature).
  • Lego Mini Figure Identifier – Very clever app for helping you identify which minifigure in inside the package before you buys it. However, LEGO have made it a lot harder to use this app since Minifigure Series 5 onwards so bring a microscope with you if you intend to use this app.
There are loads more, some of which are just mobile games inspired by the LEGO brand and others are for much younger children or for specific LEGO sets.

Food & Wine Tasting Evening

If you’re around the Waterford area on Wednesday, 14 December 2011, why not come along to the annual Food & Wine Tasting Evening at the Grand Hotel and sample a wide variety of beers, wine and local food – all for just €8.

This is a fundraiser in aid of two local schools (Gaelscoil Philib Barún and Holy Cross National School) and is sponsored by Hickson’s Centra, Tramore.

Remember: Grand Hotel, Tramore – Wednesday, 14 December 2011 – 7:30pm – 10pm – €8 per person

Hope to see you there.

Over 915 million ways to combine just 6 LEGO bricks

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about my favourite toy, LEGO, so I thought I’d correct that with a crazy LEGO fact that stuck in my mind this weekend while watching National Geographic’s special MegaFactories: LEGO. So here it is:

The number of unique ways you can combine 6 classic (2×4 stud) LEGO bricks of the same colour is an incredible 915,103,765

That’s over 915 million different ways! So, if like me, you had to find out how they came up with this number, there’s a great story behind it here, along with some great numbers regarding combining of larger numbers of bricks.

Other great facts from this same programme were:

  • Over 50% of LEGO’s entire annual sales take place in the 2 months before Christmas each year
  • The LEGO factory in Billund, Denmark is technically the largest manufacturer of tyres in the world (great table quiz question!)
  • Worldwide, 7 LEGO products are sold every second

1848 Tricolor Celebration in Waterford, Ireland

Some friends of mine are part of a group that are organising a formal celebration of the history and origin of Ireland’s national flag – more commonly known as the Tricolor – in the city where it was first unveiled – Waterford.

Jonathan Brazil has also written an excellent piece that introduces the planned celebrations far more eloquently than I ever could, so feel free to read his post too.

For more information check out http://www.1848tricolour.com and join in the festivities.

Elizabeth “Lily” Mernin and Michael Collins

I’m often quizzed about a lady called Lily Mernin who features in many historical journals relating to the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 and to Irish independence generally. It seems that she worked as a spy for Michael Collins back in the early 1920’s (perhaps earlier).

The Irish Times printed another article about her recently, which is actually a repeat of a similar article from 1996 (around the time that Neil Jordan’s movie of the same name was released).

In terms of her relationship to the current generation of Mernins (based out of Villierstown, Co. Waterford), it seems that she was a first cousin of my Grandfather, Edmund (Neddie) Mernin. She (and her heroic exploits) is often cited when the nationalism of my family name comes into question (mostly in jest, I should add). And indeed while Mernin isn’t generally considered a very Irish name, Lily certainly was.

Reference

I’m often quizzed about a “Lily Mernin” who worked as a spy for Michael Collins. This article is a repeat of a similar one from around the the Neil Jordan’s movie of the same name was released some years ago.

Of course my family’s patriotism is also often question (Mernin isn’t a very Irish name) but this article puts paid to that theory I think!