FERDY CHRISTANT - DEC 2, 2013 (08:45:34 PM)
As of 2007, our home cinema setup has been fairly simple. Below our Philips Aurea TV we had a Philips soundbar. It's a nice and compact setup. The soundbar has FM radio and DVD player. There's a seperate unit hidden out of sight that acts as both the sub and the amp. It's a setup that has served us quite well, given our limited needs. Also, we never cared too much about true surround sound, it simple has failed to impress us.
About two years ago, I blew up the sub of the set. I'm still not sure what happened. It had it playing loudly on a home party, but not crazy loud. Probably a funky mp3 peaked it. We've actually been using the set still without repairing the sub, by using the front speakers only. Yet more problems came. The DVD tray of the soundbar is now leading its own life, seemingly making its own decisions. And then there was this gap in the setup: it lacks any kind of network functionality. For long that's been just fine by me, but now that I'm hooked on Spotify, I'd like to play that in the living room as well. It clearly was time to upgrade.
I haven't kept track of surround and audio possibilities for years, so it took a lot of research to come to the new set, but I'll save you that story and just say what it has become. More importantly, I'll tell you my early experiences, as I found little online about this particular setup.
So here's the main component, the Marantz SR5007. It's a surround receiver. It was launched in 2012 and is now available at a really good price, given what it can do. It has a million connections so it's an extremely flexible solution. I paid a little under 500 euro for it.
Here's the second component, the UD5007. It's a Blu-ray/SACD player, which also has some network functionality. If you're going for an ultra modern setup and stream everything, you probably don't even need this component. I bought it for completeness. As it comes to value for money, there are more functional players for a lower price, but I'm irrational as to wanting a matching set.
To complete the set, I obviously needed speakers. As stated before, I don't care for surround. I hooked up two 15 year old JBL LX4 3-way front speakers, generously donated by my dad who had them laying around in the attic. To top if off, I was also donated pro quality speaker cables.
So that's the setup. In the remainder of this post I'll share my early experiences
The first sound check
As my home setup is slightly more complex than mentioned above (it also includes a TV decoder and dedicated media player) I was looking to take this step by step. I first unhooked the existing sound bar, put the new receiver in its place and connected the speakers. With no network connection available yet, I could test with two sources only: cable radio and direct USB input.
Cable radio is somewhat of a shaky source to test audio so I quickly went for direct input. This simply means I connected my iPhone with the USB cable and feed the amp the sound. I used Spotify to play the music, after setting it to the highest quality (320kbps).
At this moment, my ears felt like they were reborn. In the past decade or so, I have grown so used to sub standard audio sources and equipment, that I forgot all about how audio is supposed to sound: with clarity, definition and depth, even when played loudly. I remember as a kid during the 80s how every household had big amps and speakers, and how much importance and pride people put into their setup. Somehow along the way many of us settled for degraded quality fueled by the rise of lossy digital music and cheap-ass all-in-one hifi sets.
I frankly still find it hard to believe how good this relatively affordable receiver and aging speakers sound. It's been a long time since I was excited about simply playing music and listening to it. But now I am. What a great start.
Hooking up the rest
With still no network connection available (I was depending on somebody else to drill a hole in our thick stone wall without damaging anything), I went on to rewire the other components. It was stupidly simple to do. Basically, you wire all outputs of your devices to the inputs of the receiver. In my case that meant connecting the HDMI OUT of my TV decoder and media player to the HDMI IN ports on the receiver, each having clear labels. Next, a single HDMI out goes from the receiver to the TV.
In this rewiring process, I got rid of a ton of connections that went from my TV to the other devices, so it has greatly simplified the wiring. Everything goes to the receiver, it's that simple. Next, you select the input on the receiver and off you go.
Some people may not like the receiver needing to be on for just watching TV. For that there's a solution as well, a special standbye mode in which it will simply pass your TV cable signal to the TV, without playing any sound over the speakers.
The receiver comes with a microphone which you can use to calibrate the audio in your specific room automatically. You put in on a tripod, starts the setup, and then move it to at least 6 strategic positions in the room. It is probably more useful in a surround setup, whereas I have a stereo setup), but I did it anyway. As the setup plays very loud electronic signals, our cat thought the world was about to end.
The network arrives
As of yesterday, I finally have the wired connections in order. Both the receiver and the Blu-ray player have an ethernet port which I connected to the output ports of my router. Both devices flawlessly got their own IP via DHCP. As a final step, I did a firmware upgrade over the network, which took 26 minutes. Be sure to execute this step, as important functionality has been added after the initial release of this receiver.
Time to put it to the test. Let's the review the additonal options:
This is not a network content source but I'm just mentioning it for completeness. In case you are unable to wire up your receiver, there's a direct input port on the front of the receiver where you can plug in your smartphone or other device. It will then play whatever sounds is played on your device. This works just fine, but obviously it is clumsy given the short cable.
To access network services, you set the input to "network". On your TV the first option appearing is internet radio. You can browse and search through a ton of online radio stations. It works fine.
Personally, I don't care too much about internet radio. I tend to give up after trying 20 stations that i don't like, it's just too hard to navigate and find something, so I generally stick to FM/cable radio, tuning into stations that I know.
I can be really short about this one: it's not available in my country, so it simply ends there. Luckily I don't care.
As a nice touch, one can play Flickr slideshows on the TV. This is particularly great for example if you store your holiday photos there and want to show them on a big screen. I'll rarely use it, but it works nicely.
Now we're getting into important territory, as Spotify support is one of my primary reasons for selecting this receiver. After an initial signin action, which takes a while to do using the remote, you get a pretty basic yet functional UI. Most importantly, you can easily access the playlists you created at Spotify. Select and play, and as it is played, you see album art passing by, or you can just turn off the TV. Combined with the audio quality I mentioned earlier, this is a killer functionality upgrade for us.
The built-in Spotify option is ideal if you don't own any Airplay capable devices, yet we do. We both have iPhones and Henriette has an iPad. As the receiver has Airplay support, the Spotify experience becomes even more awesome. Instead of navigating the service using the remote, you just use your iDevice natively, and the receiver will follow. Particularly on an iPad navigating Spotify this way is simply awesome.
Marantz remote app
Whilst on the topic of iDevices, Marantz has a "remote" app in the app store. In theory this app can replace the remote, which is functional yet large. I still have to get used to this idea, but so far it works just fine. That said, the UI of the app isn't great.
Web browser and Itunes support
This is just to mention that you can also control the receiver using your browser, now that it is available on your network. In addition, you can play your iTunes library on your PC or Mac, and directly stream it to the receiver. I haven't tested either of these options because they serve no purpose in our case.
Streaming from a NAS or media server
This is the final network function of the receiver. I haven't gotten it to work still. On my desktop PC I have tried both XMBC and Windows Media player to share video and music libraries. The receiver is able to see these media server and can also navigate the folders of the library. However, each folder is empty from the perspective of the receiver. I'm still investigating this one.
Audio quality, part 2
Before I move on the network functionality of the Blu-ray player, let's come back to audio quality. As mentioned, I was hugely impressed by the receiver playing a CD quality audio source. The resulting quality is a combination of the source, the receiver, and the speakers used.
This new player however had support for SACD, so I decided to buy a SACD just to see what it can do, I went for a Dire Straits SACD. As I was waiting for it to arrive, I did some reading on the SACD format. One article explained the different sampling technique and frequency, and how this led to sound that is more true to the analog source. It sounds less digital, less lossy, as if you are there, right next to the artist.
The SACD arrived and I played it as a test. I was blown away again. The problem is, however, that likely the idea of even further improved quality is largely in my head. One of the largest studies testing the quality of SACD over normal CDs did a blindfolded test involving hundreds of people. The success rate in determining the CD type was about 50%, which means people can't hear the difference.
Likely the idea of SACD being superior was planted in my head, and my mind simply wanted to see it confirmed. Like a placebo effect. Likely, I was still impressed with just playing CD quality on my new setup. Whilst the SACD experience may not have been that much better, in my mind it still was incredibly good.
I did learn that the technical content source does not tell the full story though. For example, I'm liking a recent song by "ImagineDragons". If I play that on CD quality, it actually sounds horrible compared to Dire Straits CD quality. They have the same theoretical technical quality, yet the difference is night and day. I don't know what the ImagineDragons are doing, but I'm guessing they use a cheap study or simply aren't that good in producing, unlike the DireStraits team.
Anyways, enough about this. Let's finish up by reviewing the network functionality of the Blu-ray player. It has its own network cable and functionality...
Not a network function, but mentioning this for completeness. You can plug in a USB storage device and play files that way. Not tested, as the receiver has it on board already, making this redundant for us.
This one surprised me positively. I was expecting a poor UI and experience as often seen on Smart TVs, but this service actually works quite nicely. You sign in to Youtube (optional), and go through your playlists. The navigation interface is quite nice showing large thumbs. By default it will filter on Youtube HD videos, so that the quality does not suck badly on the big screen. You can overrule this though. Pretty good.
But it gets better. Using a code on screen, you can pair your iPhone or iPad with the Blu-ray player. Once paired, you control Youtube on the TV from your iPhone or iPad. This makes it far more usable. Note that you're not really streaming the video, instead over the network the control commands are sent. The net effect is the same, you're playing Youtube from your device to the big screen. I did not expect that. You can even add videos to a queue.
Netflix has only been launched in the Netherlands for a few months now. To test it I took a test month (first month free of charge). It works beautifully. The experience is clearly optimized to be controlled from a TV. Very intuitive. I was expecting a way to control it from an iPhone though, yet haven't found a way to do that yet.
Just like the receiver, the Blu-ray player can stream content from a media server. Here I'm struggling with the same problem as described for the receiver, so no verdict yet.
This covers the exhaustive range of options and my experiences with them for this new set. I'm thrilled with the purchase. It has skyrocked our audio quality standard and added a ton of modern options for accessing the content that we want. That's two major improvements for what I think is a very reasonable price.
As no setup is perfect, a few small caveats of this setup, but mostly caveats of our total setup:
- Both the receiver and the player are quite bulky, particularly wide. Be sure to measure up before you purchase to see if things fit
- The UI of some (but not all) network functionality is slightly ugly and slow. As I'll do most of my controlling from a phone, that's no real issue. I do find some other actions to be slow, such as switching inputs or turning on/off the receiver. It's a petty complaint, yet a small annoyance.
- Particular to our setup, I hate that we still have this seperate, ugly TV decoder. The only way to get rid of it is too replace our TV with a new one that has a decoder built-in. That's not going to happen, so tough luck.
- I was hoping to be more succesful with streaming from a media server, as that could replace our dedicated media player. I don't have too much hope here, there's simply so many things that can go wrong with media servers. It's too delicate. I need something that just works.
FERDY CHRISTANT - DEC 1, 2013 (09:53:56 AM)
Today the JungleDragon Wildlife Photo contest of November 2013 is officially ended, time to announce the winners. Note that the formal statement can be found here. It's been a contest with some controversy, as well as a contest with great success.
Prize 1: best photo
First, the controversy. Prize #1 was 100 USD for the user submitting the best photo, judged by karma. Unfortunately, this prize has been manipulated. Hundreds of users signed up, voted on a single photo, produced fake comments, to artificially boost the karma of that photo. The behavior completely overshadowed genuine users and genuine behavior.
I've observed the behavior for a few weeks, pondering about what to do about it. However, as it was even hampering the normal usage of the site, and after having received several complaints from long standing users, I decided that I'm not going to reward such behavior with cash. Instead, this prize is cancelled, the prize money will be donated to a wildlife cause instead.
After posting my decision, several members agreed it was the right thing to do. And as a compromise, we let one of the members who was destined to win, decide on the donation target. In the end, it looks like we have a positive outcome after all. The Tiger will be the winner of this part of the contest. There's other positive things to note: 921 new photos were submitted and we have attracted several new genuine members.
I'll obviously take this as a lesson in organizing contests. If I am to organize "best photo" contests, it will be based on a jury, not on voting. There's another lesson that I consider more important though...
Prize 2: most new species
The 2nd prize in the contest is also 100 USD, for the person introducing the most new species to the site. Throughout general usage, I had already learned that the species system of JungleDragon is what makes JungleDragon unique, it is what makes the site go around, it even creates a culture.
What's great about this contest is that it lies close to the heart of JungleDragon. It brings out all the desired behavior in members: to actively contribute photos, and to actively identify the species on them. Hopefully this will get those members hooked. Also, this part of the contest cannot be cheated. It's also fair: it relies solely on the member's effort, not on anybody else, to decide who wins.
This part of the contest has been a resounding success. 386 new species were added in the course of only a few weeks. After several changes in the leader board, ultimately Wildflower took the prize with 78 new species added. Congratulations!
The "new species" challenge is definitely a keeper. I'm planning to do another contest in January.
FERDY CHRISTANT - NOV 14, 2013 (10:12:16 PM)
As I do pretty much every day, today I opened the JungleDragon homepage and had an unexpected moment of reflection, and above all, pride. Click to enlarge:
Why the pride? Look at what this small piece of web real estate has going on:
- A beautifully exposed flower (it is hard to photograph a flower in an interesting way)
- Three stunning wild landscapes from the US, with perfect composition
- A macro shot of a beautiful butterfly with a focus and depth of field that is rarely seen, so perfect
- A classic butterfly shot of a butterfly species you probably do not know, yet you'll know what it is from JungleDrago, as over 80% of photos have their species identified
- A totally weird pair of caterpillars, I'm a sucker for weird species
- A great bird capture from down under
- A milky way shot from Indonesia, a very hard specialized thing to do
- My personal favorite tropical bird, the Lourie
- Three incredible butterfly species in a single photo
- A very educational post on midges (pests for trees)
- A strange composition highlighting the weird branching of Acacia trees (ahem, by myself)
- A common looking yet beautiful purple flower, of which you would never find out the species name, except here
- An artistic and emotional portrait of a common species, the Zebra
- An abstract and timeless piece in the form of a jelly shot
This single screen packs beauty, diversity, international wildlife, photography lessons and wildlife lessons across every major photography discipline. It has interestingness, something for everyone. This single screenshot is what I envisioned JungleDragon to be when I started working on it years ago, and today I see the vision being a reality.
I am never done with JungleDragon, but this moment somehow stopped me to write this. It is a lot of things coming together and falling into place. The screenshot you're seeing is entirely made possible by the awesome community, and that is where I am most proud of. Building a website like JungleDragon next to a day job is hard, but not as hard as building a community.
FERDY CHRISTANT - NOV 8, 2013 (01:24:38 PM)
JungleDragon V3 has now been live for over a month and it seems to behave quite well. Meanwhile, I'm running a contest to stimulate activity, and am considering doing another one in December. So this part covers running, managing and promoting JungleDragon.
Meanwhile, I'm always thinking about feature development for JungleDragon. What new things to add or existing things to improve. There is no shortage of ideas here, I have a long list of ideas at hand at all times. Ideas are not the problem. Focusing on the right area and finding the time to develop it is where the challenge is.
In this post, I want to discuss an area where I am going to focus development on. JungleDragon has no shortage of features, so instead of adding features, I am going to focus on making existing features better. That areas is the species feature of JungleDragon.
The species revolution
The introduction of species functionality in JungleDragon (in 2012) has turned JungleDragon upside down. Identifying species on uploaded photos is now a sport, a culture in JungleDragon. You cannot escape from it. If you don't identify the species on your photos, somebody will chase you in doing it, or they will identify the species for you. This culture even maps to the real word: photographers are much more aware of what it is that they are capturing, or even actively "collect" species not yet found on the site.
I am truly proud of this culture as well as the feature in itself. Over 80% of JungleDragon photos have their species identified. That means that on almost any photo you see, there is a strong connection with rich specie data, including various text descriptions, other photos of the species, videos, maps, and a browsable tree of how the species fits into the larger tree of life.
This experience is what makes JungleDragon different from other (wildlife) photo sites. Photos are rich in context and educational.
Given how fundamental the species system is, it makes sense to invest in making it even better. After 1.5 years of experience in using it, it has become quite clear what is good about it, and where it is lacking. Therefore, in this post I am going to explain how it currently works, and how it should be improved. I'll do so by taking you through the process.
Step 0 - Identification help
So you have uploaded a photo to JungleDragon and want to identify the species. Before you will, you obviously first have to know the species name. In many cases people will know it, but sometimes they do not. There are a lot of cases where either the uploader has limited knowledge, or the species is simply hard to identify. Examples of categories hard to identify are fungi or dragonflies, but there are many other difficult categories.
In other words, we need identification help. JungleDragon has various useful sites mentioned in comments and forum posts, but no single place to collect them all in a convenient way.
The idea of this improvement therefore is to offer that help, by means of a page with categories. This in itself isn't hard to make, but ideally I'd like users to be able to maintain the page. I have to think about how to implement it.
Step 1 - Identifying the species
Once you know the species' name, you identify it in JungleDragon, like so:
This truly is a groundbreaking feature that feels almost magical. You enter the species name, by common name or binomial name (even minor spelling errors are accepted), after which JungleDragon will starts its search.
In case it is a known species to JungleDragon, the match is instant. In fact, you would have probably already selected it from the auto suggest list. In case the specie is not known to JungleDragon, the real magic happens. JungleDragon will query the Wikipedia API for a match. If a match is found, JungleDragon will intelligently parse the Wikipedia page. It will extract both text blocks and taxonomy data for the species, and a species distribution map (if available). This is a highly complex parsing action due to the unstructured nature of Wikipedia content.
The fact that this mechanism works for 80-90% of cases is astonishing. In many cases, only seconds after identification you will see a beautiful specie block right next to your photo, allowing you to learn about the species or explore other photos of said species:
What what am I going to improve about this species search and matching mechanism? Absolutely nothing. The 80-90% success rate cannot be improved much further, instead I am going to improve the handling of failures.
Step 2 - Missing Species
As said, the species matching system is working really well. However, it is not perfect, and it can't be. In 10-20% of cases, no match can be found. The primary reason for this is that no Wikipedia species page exists for the species. Whilst Wikipedia is very rich in common species information, it lacks depth. For example, there are 30,000 known snout beetles, yet you will almost none of them to have a page at Wikipedia.
In practice this means that a few times per week, I have to manually create a species entry in JungleDragon. And that process really sucks. I have to go directly in the database and create several entries and link them together. Next I have to copy and paste taxonomy and text information from other sites. It can easily take 10 minutes or more per species.
This is an area that really needs improvement. The improvement will come in two areas:
- Manual species creation should have a proper UI, instead of directly hacking the database
- Manual species creation should be opened up the community
Creating the UI should not be much of an issue, unlocking the screen to the community requires more thought. There's a lot of things one can do wrong in creating a species manually. Key risks are in creating duplicate entries or by placing the species in the wrong node of the "tree of life".
My thought is to introduce a new moderator role in JungleDragon, which is assigned to trusted and skilled identifiers. They will be given a screen to create a species manually, designed in such a way that the risk for error is as small as possible.
Step 3 - Species maintenance
So JungleDragon species record are usually auto parsed from Wikipedia, and sometimes created manually. In case of Wikipedia-based matching, matching is not exactly a yes/no question. There's a lot of data quality differences between matches. This covers 3 areas of the species record:
1. Species common names versus binomial names
Where possible, JungleDragon tries to show the species' common name, as it is more friendly to people. In about 30% of cases, only the binomial name is detected. I then manually edit the record to include the common name.
2. Incomplete or wrong taxonomy
Species are placed in a taxonomy (tree of life). Often this information is available from Wikipedia and JungleDragon will detect it. However in many cases, not all nodes are detected. Sometimes none are detected, and sometimes Wikipedia uses inconsistent values. It doesn't help either that science knowns various taxonomy systems and that even within a system, they disagree on the nodes quite often.
The effect of incomplete nodes in the taxonomy is that the species will not appear in the wildlife browsing feature of JungleDragon, which allows you to drill down hierarchically through species.
My current solution is to manually edit these incomplete taxonomy nodes. I have a reasonable UI for doing so. It's not fun, but it works.
3. Limited text blocks
Other than taxonomy data, Wikipedia species page also have blocks of descriptive texts. These are entirely unstructured. However, JungleDragon will try to bring structure in it. For example, if a page on Wikipedia has a heading called "Food", "Diet", "Prey", JungleDragon will map that to the "Diet" text block in JungleDragon.
This is an area that fails quite a lot. Quite often the text nodes of a species in JungleDragon are very limited. This can be due to the unpredictable content in Wikipedia, but also because many species pages in Wikipedia are very light on content. Many are stub pages that have only a brief description.
So these 3 areas are basically data quality challenges. The parsing engine has reached its limits of what it can do, so instead my idea is to make species maintenance easy and accessible. So next to species creation, moderators can also edit species' data. They can add missing common names, correct taxonomy data, and include additional text nodes. I'm thinking of building some kind of data quality dashboard, so that it is clear to moderators which items need attention.
Step 4 - Species browsing
It is very powerful to see rich species info right next to a photo, but there's another powerful way to enjoy species info. It's called species browsing:
Look at that. It's basically a tree of life, a very visual and friendly way to dril down into all kinds of species categories. The result set will show both species entries and species photos. I am proud of this idea. I want it to be simple, beautiful, usable and educational. This is a tree of life not for scientists, it is for us mortals. I want your 8-year old to use it, and have him/her walk away entertained and educated.
There's more greatness to this system: the species photos you're seeing (both for species as well as groups of species) are entirely user-driven, meaning they are the best photo of the species judged by karma. This means that JungleDragon users have thousands of opportunities to have their photo appear as the cover image of a species, or even a group of species.
The current solution somewhat works, but is far away from the ambition mentioned above. There are various problems and challenges:
The performance problem
The way I designed the data model for species info basically does not scale when browsing it. Browsing through the tree of life should be snappy, but it is not. The primary cause is the real-time calculation of the cover photos for species. This problem really is a showstopper, since you lose interest soon when each click takes several seconds. I have to find a better and faster way to handle this.
The hierarchy problem
It's proven an enormous challenge to make the tree correct. This is more than just a data quality problem, the problem lies directly into the taxonomy system itself. In particular, the levels in hierarchy are variable. Where most species are placed in a 6 level tree, there are in-between levels such as "sub genus", "super family" etc. And as Wikipedia is not consistent and complete in this area, the tree can get "corrupted". And it gets worse, some species have a special kind of taxonomy, for example many fungi are organized by "clades".
I actually have no idea yet how to solve this, but I have to do something.
To make the tree friendly to browse, the nodes preferably have a common name. "Bats" instead of "Chiroptera". This information is not available on Wikipedia species pages, so the "translation" has to be done manually in JungleDragon. Therefore, this part should probably also be included in the moderator's data quality panel.
The following aren't actually problems, they are ideas on new and improved features to add to species browsing to make it better:
- Some layouts fixes are needed on the taxonomy nodes, they don't always align
- Species searching should be reintroduced (temporarily dropped in JungleDragon V3)
- Add a simple alphabetical list of species as an alternative way to browse
- "Species near me" - For now a far-fetched idea to match species in your area :)
- Include counters on nodes so that it is clear how many species are below a node
Species 2.0 - how?
All of the above is basically my wish list for JungleDragon's species 2.0 engine. Unfortunately, many items are difficult to address. I am not sure which ones I will pick up, how I will solve them, and how long it will take. You can be sure though that I will try hard.
I will take my time for it though. I want to find a balance between managing and growing the community and developing new features. As such, I expect this total initiative to take a few months, where I will release bits and peaces iteratively.
To be honest, I'm not at all excited about developing this. It touches the heart of JungleDragon, which is very complex and took a lot of time to develop. It will be a painful heart surgery. But all of it should be worth it, I do look forward to making JungleDragon's key strength, the species enginre, even stronger.
FERDY CHRISTANT - NOV 1, 2013 (10:37:30 AM)
Today we're starting a great new photo contest at JungleDragon with the following prizes:
- 100$ for the best photo (by karma points)
- 100$ for the person introducing the most new species to JungleDragon
The details, prizes and rules are here. The contest is open to all and free for all to join. Even if you don't plan on participating, I appreciate if you'd give the contest some love by spreading the news. Please use the below link if you do so:
Thanks and good luck to those that will be joining!