Welcome to the TeraStor

For years I’ve been slotting 2-terabyte drives into a droboPro to store my media collection and backups. While it worked well, the droboPro never entirely fit the bill:

  • I could never get Ethernet to work reliably, and tended to leave it connected via USB.
  • The drobo is a “dumb storage device” and couldn’t run apps.
  • It took up a lot of desk space.
  • The drobo’s fans tended to run loud, especially with seven drives installed.

As I pondered filling the last of the droboPro’s slots with another drive, I was also considering other options; in the end, I made the plunge and built a full custom NAS system. Doing so was an excellent challenge and learning process… so I decided to write about it here.

What’s a NAS?

Network Attached Storage is usually a purpose-built computer operating as a home server: in this case, a server used to store and share media files. A NAS typically runs “headless”, i.e. without a monitor, keyboard, or other peripherals, running on your network 24/7.

MotherboardC2750D4I motherboard, shown at an angle

While there are an increasing number of all-in-one pre-built NAS solutions available, I decided to build mine from scratch. This is not for the faint of heart: you should have some familiarity with computer assembly and the command line before attempting a NAS build.

Brian Moses’ 2015 DIY NAS was a big inspiration for the build. I used a ASRock C2750D4I motherboard rather than Brian’s C2550D4I due to the C2750D4I being the same size with double the number of cores (useful for transpiling video and running background apps). I chose FreeNAS as the server, as the Debian OS was comfortable and familiar.

The AsRock mini-ITX board packs a lot of features into a diminutive package:

  • 12 SATA ports (4 × SATA2, 8 × SATA3)
  • Dual Onboard Intel Gigabit Ethernet with teaming
  • Max 64GB RAM

My only issue with the board was the fact that it was limited to just three USB ports (two at the rear + 1 header on the board), and that they were USB 2, not 3. This made the FreeNAS installation slightly tricky (see below), but I could always add a USB 3 card via the single PCI-E slot if I needed to.

Storage

Three hard drives, shown overlapping

I wanted to start big in storage to contain the files from the drobo and leave the new device alone for as long as possible. I invested in three Western Digital 6TB Caviar Red drives, designed specifically for NAS applications; the 2 ~ 4TB drives out of the droboPro would be used for physical offsite backup.

FreeNAS can be installed and run from CD or USB. Not needing an optical drive I would use only once, I opted for the latter. That meant buying a small, dedicated USB stick to store and load the OS (I used a SanDisk Cruzer 16GB low-profile USB stick)

RAM

FreeNAS needs 8GB of RAM to operate, with 12GB total usually recommended for plugins or “jails” (FreeNAS apps). 12GB of RAM provides coverage for up to 32TB of raw storage; as hard drive pool size increases, so too does the need for RAM. A very rough rule of thumb for FreeNAS recommends adding 1GB of RAM for every terabyte of added storage.

This was complicated by my discovery that ASRock boards are somewhat particular when it comes to RAM. Looking at the Qualified Vendor list for the board, I found that Memphis Memory made 16GB DDR3L ECC SODIMMs that were recommended; I bought two, leaving two slots free on the board, which should provide me with enough RAM for 64TB of storage.

CaseAluminium case, shown at an angle

For the case I went with Silverstone’s tiny DS308, which offers room for up to 12 drives, eight of them hot-swappable 3.5″ devices, and sits neatly on my desk.

Power

Since the NAS is usually running 24/7, the build needed a cool, efficient power supply. I settled on a Silverstone 80-plus certfied Gold 450W ST45SF-G.

Quirks

I’ll go into more detail about how I set up the NAS in the next article; for now, I thought I’d mention some oddities to the setup, just in case others follow this build:

  • The AsRock board takes a surprisingly long time to POST: about 30 seconds. Be patient.
  • The board also assumes the first time it is run that it is doing so remotely: it won’t start without a cable being plugged into its IPMI port. (After the machine is configured, you can detach the cable from there and move it to one of the standard Ethernet ports).
  • Deciding to install FreeNAS from USB presented a quandary: both rear USB ports were occupied by the final USB storage for the OS and a keyboard. I had to purchase a USB header for the second USB stick, attach it directly to the board, and tell the machine to boot from that in order to install.

It’s been two months with the build now, and I couldn’t be happier: media streams to every computer in the house, seamlessly. There are some improvements to make, however… I’ll leave the details of those, together with more information about FreeNAS and Plex, for the next article.

 

What Do 2000 Movies Look Like?

My movie collection has grown to over two thousand films, which still doesn’t include a lot of the bad 80’s movies I’ve seen.

My movie collection has grown to over two thousand films, which still doesn’t include a lot of the bad 80’s movies I’ve seen.

In an effort to catalogue them all, I’ve turned to letterboxd, a service built by my friend Matthew Buchanan and his company, Cactuslab. Matt was kind enough to provide me with a Pro account to do so.

letterboxd can import a CSV file of movies, which are very easy to export from a Mac folder with a Terminal command:

ls > movies.csv

letterboxd has an excellent movie-matching service, although spelling errors and foreign films will occasionally confuse it; I had to spend a few minutes correcting a few titles before the import was completed. The site also boasts also a strong community of cinephiles, who recommend, critique, and anticipate films. I intend to keep my catalogue of movies updated there; in the coming months, I’ll also be detailing the construction of a media NAS to replace my aging drobo Pro

Words & Pictures: Four Typography-Obsessed Directors

Movie directors, notorious for dominating sets, sometimes take their obsessive control into every aspect of their films, including the way the titles appear on the screen. Of these, a special few stand out in their use of fonts on film:

Stanley Kubrick: Futura

Directed some of the greatest films of the late 20th century, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket. Writing, producing and directing almost all of his work himself, Kubrick fixated early on using Futura for many of his features, starting with Killer’s Kiss in 1955.

Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite

However, he didn’t use Futura exclusively, or even in the majority of his movies: many film titles where hand-lettered, while others used different typefaces between the trailer, film title and poster, or used fonts more relevant to the period (Barry Lyndon being one example).

John Carpenter: Albertus

John Carpenter's The Thing

The director of Escape From New York, Big Trouble In Little China and The Thing found Albertus early on, and has used it consistently in titling almost every movie he has ever made, where it appears as fixed white text on a black background. Interestingly, Albertus is also the brand font for The Hobbit film series directed by Peter Jackson.

Woody Allen: Windsor

Woody Allen movie titlesSince 1977’s Annie Hall, Allen has used Windsor Light Condensed in white against black for titling almost exclusively.

Wes Anderson: Futura

Anderson has a particular, model-maker’s attention to detail in each of his films, which echoes in his choice of typography: like Kubrick, he has used Futura extensively since his first feature, often combining it with unique hand-lettering (such as the wonderful work by Jessica Hische on the credits of Moonrise Kingdom). Notably, he switched to Archer for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

More Resources

Christian Annyas runs an excellent blog focusing on all things typographic in the cinema. I’d also consider Art of the Title and Typeset In The Future to be required reading for anyone interested in fonts on film.

Interstellar Movie Review

There are, broadly speaking, two different audiences for science fiction movies. The first group is impressed by epic scale, for whom the “science” is incidental; in this way, Star Wars is simply a fairy tale of knights and princesses in space. The second kind of audience takes science seriously: the more grounded in reality the film presents itself, the greater the expectation of accuracy.

Both audiences can exist in one and the same person: I can enjoy a space western like Firefly alongside a hard science fiction movie like 2001. Enjoyment of a film is a question of the rules the movie sets up for its audience, and the ambition of its creators.

Christopher Nolan is a director who has never been short of vision: the man rescued and resurrected an entire franchise from camp and morbidity. But while breathtaking, his latest work, Interstellar, has exceeded his grasp of science and storytelling.

From Hardscrabble To Hard Vacuum

The film’s opening is excellent: a series of vignette interviews with septuagenarians blurs reality, making it unclear if they are talking about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or the ecological disaster faced by humanity in the movie, set some 50 years into the future. Blight is killing crops worldwide, forcing even highly qualified pilots like Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) into a dirt-poor farming life in Texas (in reality, filmed in various locations around Alberta). Prompted by his daughter, Cooper discovers a message written in the layered dust on the floorboards of his house, which leads them to the coordinates of a hidden launch site where the remnants of NASA live and work. There, Cooper learns that the messages are from an extraterrestrial intelligence, communicating with earth for the last four decades. This same intelligence has somehow formed a wormhole in orbit around Jupiter, which leads to a location in a distant galaxy: habitable worlds, orbiting a supermassive black hole. Probes have been sent through, together with the first explorers, but all of these journeys have been one-way trips: the data that comes back has been tantalizing, but inconclusive, in part due to the spacetime effects around the black hole, where time moves much slower, relative to time back on Earth. NASA convinces Cooper and an assembled team to take one last voyage out of the solar system to find a future home for humanity, not knowing how long the journey might take, or what they might return to.

The setting is epic in scale, and very reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan and science consultant Kip Thorne have received plaudits for accuracy, particularly in the depiction of the black hole Gargantua. The movie even shows some of the exterior space scenes in silence, as they should be, there being no atmosphere in space to transmit sound.

However, this is counterbalanced by several serious mistakes in the movie. Against the silence of space, Hans Zimmer’s score is almost punishingly loud, as if the composer suffered a heart attack while playing a pump organ: the sound is so bombastic that it obscures the film’s dialog at several points. The plot suffers from the usual “aliens can only communicate cryptically” trope, which leads to several questions:

  • Why wouldn’t the vast alien intelligence communicate how to fix Earth’s environment, rather than the far more complex challenges of quantum gravity and interstellar travel?
  • When our own Milky Way has 100 million stars, most of them with worlds of their own, and an equal number of suns floating in a halo around the galaxy, why do the aliens lead humanity to the supermassive core of another galaxy, one of the most zones most inimical to life?
  • Black holes do not give off light or heat, aside from their accretion disks. So where does the daylight come from on the planets the explorers discover?
  • Gravitational tidal forces absolutely stretch time, but not over the distances the film portrays: it’s not possible for descent from orbit to a planet’s surface to change subjective time by years.

Presenting a hard science fiction film is very much like presenting a scientific hypothesis: the creator is allowed one “blue fairy” – a complete supposition, without any supporting evidence. Add more fairies, and the hypothesis melts into fantasy; the same is true of hard SF.

Why Is This Important?

Many will object to this view of “it’s just a movie”, but this is more than that: it’s a movie with pretensions of hard science. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there is always a certain degree of artistic license that can be granted, but communicating the facts of science is important. Science is awesome: interstellar travel doesn’t need the impossibility of frozen clouds on extraterrestrial planets to be awe-inspiring.

Heart Over Head

Emotionally, the film explores themes of love, loss and yearning very effectively, although it dips into nonsense new-age speak a few too many times; this is particularly jarring when the words come from the mouths of scientists who should know better. (To his credit, Nolan places women with important science roles in almost equal proportion to male roles, but also plants some of the dumbest “woo” dialog in their mouths). In the end, the movie ties itself in a paradox without an answer, placing emotion over any sense of logic.

Anne Hatheway in a spacesuit in the movie Interstellar

Conclusion

I’m sure there are audiences who will simply enjoy the movie for its sense of scale and spectacle – particularly on an IMAX screen, as I saw it – but to me the movie was a disappointment. Visible, under its skin, is a glimpse of what could have been done, if Nolan’s ambition had not pushed the movie to ever more-dizzying heights.

The Hobbit: A Technical Review of IMAX 3D HFR

As a general rule, I go to theatres to see films that offer what movies do best: imparting a dramatic sense of spectacle. I can appreciate human emotion at any scale, but action requires a certain grand perspective.From Cecil B. deMille to today, directors have pushed film technology to create ever more spectacular productions, while making what is shown on the screen more realistic and immersive: black and white film transitioning to color and then 3D, silent films to stereo and surround sound.

The Limitations of 24 FPS

One aspect has remained unchanged throughout the development of film: its frame rate. Since the inception of motion pictures, 24 frames through a projector every second (a speed chosen to sync with sound in the first talking pictures) has been perceived as “good enough” for the general audience. While this does fool the eye at sedate speeds, the standard film rate breaks down whenever action takes place: a swift sword thrust, or the camera whipping around to reveal a new scene. The result is a juddering blurred mess during on-screen action, an effect that cinematographers have fought for years.
In the second decade of the 21st century a number of film auteurs, including James Cameron and Peter Jackson – the director of The Hobbit – have moved to filming their visions in 48 frames per second. Combine this with the seven-story projected height of an IMAX screen, 6.1 surround sound and 3D, and you have the definition of film spectacle.

The Effect Of 48FPS

Rivendell, as portrayed in The HobbitIt was a pleasure to see a film set that I’ve toured projected on the screen. The movie is deeply enjoyable, and the cinematography appropriately epic, but perhaps a tad self-indulgent, with a number of unnecessary callbacks to the earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. The dreaded Tolkien singalongs make several appearances, and their removal could have reduced the running time of the film to two hours, although the current length is hardly an endurance. It’s also very pleasing to see the criminally underrated Martin Freeman have a headlining role in a major motion picture, and interesting to note that he and Benedict Cumberbatch – who both appear in The Hobbit – have experienced such spectacular career arcs since playing in Sherlock together.

From a technical perspective, the film is particularly interesting:

  • There’s much more detail packed into each frame (in a series, and with a director, already noted for verisimilitude in regards to source material). The result is that the film can appear super-saturated with color and texture. This painterly, pre-Raphaelite effect can sometimes be a bit too much to take in. Notably, many of the criticisms levelled at the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in the 19th century – that their work was jarring, “too real”, and disorienting – are the same as those used by film critics against The Hobbit today.
  • On the upside, this sensitivity to color more than compensates for the dimming associated with most stereoscopic 3D film projection.
  • Photograph of a dwarf in The HobbitIt also means that HFR is highly responsive to texture: insides from the Weta prop, costume and prosthetic makers reveals that physical elements must be made more true-to-life in order to “pass” on screen: real wooden buttons used on shirts rather than painted plastic, for example.

This implies that HFR film production will be much more detail-oriented (and by association, expensive) than films in the past… and that is not a bad thing.

Conclusion

While IMAX tickets sell for a premium ($20 per person here in Calgary) I would strongly urge moviegoers to experience The Hobbit in 3D HFR, if only for the opportunity to see the first film with a technology that will become increasingly common over time, with UltraHD high frame rate television transmissions due late this decade. I would provide a warning to the vertiginous, or those particularly susceptible to motion sickness, as the combination of techniques may prove visually overwhelming to some.

A Brief Exegesis On The Political Class Conflicts Of The Alien Movie Series

The enemy in the Alien series of movies is not the eponymous xenomorph. The enemy is ourselves.

(Obviously this post will discuss each movie – Alien, Aliens and Alien 3 – and will include spoilers. If you haven’t seen the films yet, go watch them, then return here).

Inspired by HR Giger’s biomechanics designs, the nameless alien of the three movies of the original trilogy is purely animalistic and evolutional, in the same way that the life cycle of the parasitic wasp is pure: the alien exists to reproduce and survive. The alien uses other living creatures as hosts for its life cycle, and protects itself. Morals cannot be applied to it, and it is the human conflict in each movie that causes the majority of harm and destruction.

Parker: “If they find what they’re looking for out there, that mean we get full shares?”

Ripley: “Don’t worry, Parker. You’ll get what’s coming to you”

Politics is merely human conflict and interests writ large, and I would argue that each of the films encapsulates a different political experience: classical Marxist struggle inAlien, capitalist colonialism in Aliens, and anarcho-syndicalism in Alien 3. It is this very human conflict that draws us into each film: as much as a modern audience may enjoy watching explosions and ichor-dripping threats from the Big Bad, what makes us care about a movie are other people.

In Alien, those people are divided into several political classes. Dallas, the captain of the Nostromo, is nominally in charge, although his appearance of command is a facade. What is actually in control – leading the ship into danger and bringing a dangerous (but potentially profitable) unknown entity onboard – are the forces of capitalism, in the form of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, represented on the ship by the calculating bourgeoisie android Ash.

Sweating as they work in the humid bowels of the ship are Parker and Brett, the proletariat. Constantly complaining about overtime and extra pay, they are contemptuous of the command structure above them.

The crew of the Nostromo are betrayed for the possibility of profit, just as in the sequel,Aliens, naive colonists are sent to investigate the alien wreck on LV-426 when Weyland-Yutani knows that a threat exists on the planet.

Hudson: “Hey Ripley, don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you.”

James Cameron deliberately paralleled the American military experience of Vietnam in the sequel: well-armed, arrogant and cocky, the Colonial Marines, tools of capitalism, are sent to protect an outpost that is already lost, taken by a force that they do not understand. Firepower and bravado are no match for a tenacious enemy who does not share your strategy, goals, or ways of thinking.

Screenshot from Aliens

Probably the weakest movie of the series in terms of plot (not helped by the fact that the script was a hodgepodge blend of multiple drafts penned by different writers), Alien 3 moved to a prison planet. Neglected by the cosmos outside and largely self-sufficient, the prisoners on Fury 161 have formed their own monk-like social structure, complete with shaved heads and cowls, in which the warden is little more than a conduit for a trickle of supplies. They organize their own resistance against the alien, and succeed; the escape of the alien is due to the actions of one disturbed convict, driven out of his mind by encountering savage alien life in the context of his apocalyptic millenarian belief system.

Screenshot from the movie Aliens 3

Seen in this way, the original trilogy (and potentially the prequel, Prometheus, currently being filmed by Ridley Scott with artistic input from H.R. Giger) is a progression through a Marxist view of history, an evolution through political forms, as well as being great science-fiction horror.

“What’s my motivation?” Rules for movie villains

  1. If you have henchmen under your command, kill one. The reason for said henchman’s termination may be entirely arbitrary – talking back, failure to achieve a goal, looking at you funny – but the resulting diminution of your forces will surely be offset by the motivational effect of the increased fear and awe in which you are held.
  2. Further divide your forces by sending only small groups after your enemy. Respond to defeat by incrementing the next team by a few men, rather than significantly reallocating your resources to deal with the threat.
  3. Your mood setting should, at most times, be surly, angry, and egocentric. To keep people on their toes, it is optional to occasionally switch to an icy charm.
  4. Rather than attempting to motivate your henchmen with greed, rely on the force of your personality, combined with threats.
  5. It is absolutely required that when your enemy is finally in your grasp you indulge yourself with a long soliloquy, rather than immediately killing him.
  6. If you do attempt to kill your enemy, don’t hang around to make sure they are actually dead. Remember, out of sight is out of mind.

On The Linear Relationship Between the Number of Villains and Sequel Iteration

So the publicity machine for Iron Man 2 is beginning to spool up, with Scarlett Johanson revealed as Black Widow. She is the second potential villain for the film (in the Marvel universe Black Widow swapped sides several times, and it is unclear how she will be introduced in the film). Of course, Mickey Rourke has been known to be Whiplash for some time.

Cover of Entertainment Weekly promoting Iron Man 2 And here we encounter what may be the last major challenge facing superhero movies, after Tim Burton finally began to treat the genre semi-seriously with Batman: resisting the temptation to introduce a larger cast of characters with each sequel. Batman Returns yielded to this, adding the Penguin and Catwoman, and the process has remained largely unchallenged since.

It is not clear why directors and writers tend to complicate sequels this way, other than the obvious fact that more names on the marquee potentially add to box office draw. Inevitably, something has to give: characters are less fleshed out, dialogue becomes stilted and rushed, major themes lie untapped. The industry does not seem to have taken to heart the back-to-back lessons of Spiderman 2 and 3: one of the things that made the former a great sequel is that it limited itself to a single antagonist, Doc Oc, while keeping the frame large enough to hint at others waiting in the wings (James Franco in the process of becoming the New Green Goblin, Dylan Barker (Dr. Curt Conners) with the potential to turn into The Lizard). Spiderman 3, in addition to its myriad other faults, forced both Venom and Sandman center stage, as well as the New Green Goblin, and altered a major plot point of the original film, turning the entire movie into a confusing and indulgent mess.

Just because they are based on comics (or toys – did we really need 22 new Transformers introduced in Transformers 2? Were any of of the new additions actually memorable, aside from the inevitable stereotyped minority midget-bots and beardy-Blackbird former Decepticon?) doesn’t mean that these films aren’t worthy of doing well, or lack compelling characters.

So, a plea: writers, producers, directors, resist the temptation of more names and a bigger range of stars. Concentrate on great story, and success – together with critical acclaim – will follow.