Review: ThisLife

As we grow older and experience life with all its twists and turns, there are often times of great storytelling and recollection — thinking of times gone by, reliving them in our minds and telling our friends about them. There are many aids to help us remember the past, but the one thing that has been with us for a very long time are photographs.

When you press the shutter release on your camera, time is instantly frozen and is forever materialized in that very photo. Taking that concept one step further, makes one realize that photos taken can never be created the same way ever again, which makes them all the more precious.

Even if you manage to keep all photos of your children from their infancy to adulthood, you will likely have thousands of pictures just laying in a folder on your computer, or even worse, kept on a memory card in the camera.

I have earlier talked about Crashplan, which seamlessly backs up your computer to the cloud, and can be a huge lifesaver in times of distress. There are however lots of other services focused purely on sharing and backing up your precious photos.

When thinking about photos online, most people will often think about Flickr, and rightfully so. It is probably the most used website for sharing photos today, and if you happen to have a Pro account, they will even let you download your original files. This can in essence work as a cloud backup for all your photos. Their photo organization however, is very old-school with sets and collections, but works very well. Since the website has been there for ages and rarely gets updated, it now starts to feel somewhat outdated and old-fashioned.

Another service you may have heard of is Facebook, which has probably passed Flickr on the number of uploaded photos per second. They offer free photo uploads, but images are compressed and may not look as good as you intended. They have become better though, and even show much larger pictures now that they have received some great competition from Google+. They do one thing right though — the Timeline.

Even though photos are grouped in sets, they will be displayed chronologically in your profile timeline, as they happen in your life and even have automatic highlighting of popular and important photos which makes it easier to browse the history.

The downside to sharing photos on Facebook is not being able to download uploaded originals, meaning that while Facebook may be great for sharing photos, they do not function as a cloud backup service for them, so you will still need to store your photos locally on your computer and manage backups separately.

ThisLife

There has since 2010 been a new photo sharing and backup service in the making, which has finally launched a public beta. They recently received funding from investors, which made it possible for anyone to sign up.

ThisLife is a photography website which takes strengths from many other similar services and puts them together to create a new kind of photo site.

Not only is the website visually stunning, it has the features discussed earlier, such as being able to download uploaded originals. They even have their own twist on the Facebook timeline. Instead of scrolling down to reveal older photos, think of it as a game of Super Mario – go left to reveal older photos and right to move into the future, which makes it very fun to scroll though photos with others.

There is also a bit of split-vision thinking going on, where all your photos go into the main library. From there, you can cherry-pick your favorite photos which best represent that particular time and place, and put them in the Timeline. This makes it easy to find all important photos from years back, and makes for a perfect photo album to show other people.

We like to think of your Timeline as the place to showcase your very best Moments, Milestones, and Notes. In other words, your Timeline tells your story; add Moments accordingly!

The notion of albums are gone however, and photos are instead searchable using activity, date, location and tagged people.

Want to find that picture while you were Surfing in Hawaii with Joe? Simply click icon of the magnifying glass in the upper right hand corner of your Library. Now you can sort by 3 different criteria – People, Place and Activity. Want to search by just one of those? Use the tabs in the lower right of your Library. We think of it as the “Needle in the Haystack” feature.

It takes some getting used to the notion of activities contra sets and albums. It is however very clever and has many strengths when searching for photos.

For the family

The founders of ThisLife, a couple named Matt and Andrea Johnson were not happy with any of the Flickr or Facebook clones out there, so they decided to create their own website to store photos of their kids and vacations. This means that there is a big focus on family and sharing, in contrast with for instance 500px, which is more focused on professional photography.

One of the family features is the ability to invite others into your account, which is perfect within a family where you can invite your spouse, and both of you can add photos of your life together to the now in common photo stream.

Face detection

A big challenge, especially when taking photos of children, is the fact that they grow up. ThisLife has gone to great lengths to account for the fact that people’s faces change as they get older. Since I currently do not have any children, it was hard for me to try out this very feature, but having uploaded lots of other albums, I can attest to the exceptional performance in the face recognition technology, as it got a near 100 percent hit-rate.

One central hub

Getting started with a new service usually means that one has to find photos on your computer, select the ones you want and then upload them. ThisLife does of course let you do it, and exceptionally well using their uploading software.

They do in addition to this however, have the ability to pull in images from Facebook and Instagram among others, which means that getting started filling your account is as simple as approving a few authorization requests.

Sharing

When it comes to showing your photos to the world, there are a few options to choose from. Sharing a single photo works as expected – you can either email it, tweet it or send if off to Facebook.

There is however no way to share a collection of photos, which is a huge downer, since I would imagine wanting the ability to share an event with others. That is something that will surely be added in the future.

Bugs

In the settings menu, there was a link to enable the Flash version of the site. I clicked it, and it reloaded as expected, and this time the whole interface was Flash powered. There is one problem though, it seems to be impossible to revert back to the excellent HTML5 version of the site, once the Flash button has been clicked. After a quick response from their friendly Twitter support account @ThisLife, I managed to revert back adding “/html5” to the URL.

There are other minor annoyances as well. For instance, when clicking on an image, you are expecting the image to show up and display comments, export options etc. The image does indeed popup, but sometimes the interface locks up and it doesn’t finish loading, leaving the website unusable. It is then impossible to close the image, and a full reload is required. Since this only happens sometimes and is not critical, I can definitely accept that will be expecting an update addressing this in the future.

iPhone and iPad

There are free apps available for both iPhone and iPad, which connects to your account and presents the same fantastic graphical interface one is used to now in the website. They share the same features, and enables you to view, share and upload new photos on the go.

Price

When trusting a photo service to store and display your photos, you will have to pay for most of them. The only free service mentioned earlier is Facebook, but since it will not allow downloading the uploaded originals, it is disqualified.

Left is Flickr, where a one-year commitment will set you back $24.95, but provides unlimited upload of photos and videos, in addition to statistics and an ad-free browsing experience. 500px has a similar service, where you pay $19.95 per year and receive similar benefits as Flickr.

How does ThisLife stack up? Since the free plan only allows for 1000 pictures or 1 hour of video, you will likely need to upgrade if you plan to use it seriously. The medium plan sets you back $79.99 per year, and allows you to upload 20,000 photos or 10 hours of video. Their biggest plan allows you to upload 50,000 photos or 25 hours of video and costs $149,99 per year.

Conclusion

It is hard to argue against using beautiful software and websites, and this is not an exception. This is a user-friendly website which will suit most people just fine. Supporting a bundle of platforms using different technologies like html5, Flash and iOS applications is an excellent way of making the people who try out the service, stay there.

ThisLife supports uploading of text snippets in addition photos and videos using email, but I could not figure out how to do this via the website. Presumably, this is a feature which will be implemented in future versions. I could see this being built out as more of a personal log or diary, and with accompanying photos and videos, it could be a potential killer in that market as well.

The one thing I found to be somewhat restricting is the ability to share albums. While ThisLife has no notion of albums, being able to publish a specific event at specific time would be fantastic.

When comparing prices for different photo sharing websites, ThisLife came out on top as being priciest of them all. They are rumored to use Amazon S3 for storage, so that price-point may be a bit over the top for pure storage, but the fantastic website and all services do cost to develop, run and maintain.

I have not had extensive contact with their support, but asked a simple question over Twitter. The response was prompt, very friendly and helpful, so kudos for having a fantastic support channel.

ThisLife definitely fills a space which recently has opened up, I guess mostly due to Facebook’s Timeline feature, which was released earlier this year. Other similar websites have been starting to crop up, such as Months of Me, so there are exciting times ahead in the personal memory websites.

Offsite backups using CrashPlan – review

With the World Backup Day in our rear-view mirror, giving a second thought to our backup needs become utterly apparent. Most computer professionals probably have some kind of nagging voice inside their heads reminding them of creating backups, which works fine to some extent, until realizing that all backups are in-house and will be lost in case of a fire.

People tend to have no backup at all however, and adding a cloud based backup solution would greatly benefit these kinds of users. There are a lot of options though, and finding one that suits a particular need is not the easiest thing to accomplish.

Given that modern age files are quite large, with photo libraries containing 20 Gb worth of pictures every year or more, having a solution with unlimited storage, or as cheap as possible per gigabyte, is crucial. Not only that, setup has to be minimal and it should by default backup everything in the normal documents folder, music and other type of user-created content.

Needs

Having a DSLR camera that outputs raw files at about 10 Mb per photo, which within in a year amounts to 10 to 40 Gb worth of pictures, a remote backup solution with plentiful of storage is desperately needed. Other types of media include captured HD video files of irreplaceable moments and bought music, which together amounts to hundred of gigabytes worth of precious and irreplaceable data.

This means that my storage needs are quite large and increasing by the day, which means that a reasonably cheap and fast service is needed, which in addition is reliable and as secure as possible. These demands might sound like an oxymoron, but finding the perfect backup solution should encompass all these properties in some way.

I would also like a service which is reasonably priced for at least three computers backing up to the same account, but preferably being able to use at least five computers would be optimal. This means that backing up my parents’ computer to the same account will be a breeze and with no extra cost.

The whole reason for having a cloud based backup is to have my precious data available off-site, and to make things easier, the service should preferably have reasonable download and upload speeds and its agent should be able to operate without intervention when everything is configured and running.

Alternatives

When deciding to use a cloud based backup solution, there is a wide array of applications and services to consider. There are different types of backup services, and the most common ones are probably file synchronization services such as Dropbox and box.net.

While their goal is to synchronize files between different computers and other devices, they also have the ability to backup versions of the file when they change or are deleted. This provides an excellent solution for sharing document and other files when collaborating with other people, or when working on the same content using different devices. Storage is however not cheap if you plan to store more than a couple of gigabytes worth of data.

On the other side, there are backup software which usually do not have the file synchronization capability, but are more focused on keeping backups of your files, with no bells and whistles. The benefit of using something like this instead, is that cloud space is usually cheaper, with many backup providers claiming “unlimited” space.

There are a lot of players in this market however, such as SpiderOak and BackBlaze. While SpiderOak could possibly be a descent service, it would be too expensive for my storage needs. At the rate of $10 per 100 Gb, with how many computers you like, it however becomes apparent that this is an excellent service if your storage needs do not exceed that first tier of 100 Gb.

Backblaze on the other hand has a native Mac client and offers an easy plan of $5 per computer and month for unlimited storage. One of the key features however is their restore service, which means that they can overnight you a hard drive or DVD with your data for a fast restore. There is just one problem with this service — the data on the chosen media is sent unencrypted!

That brings me to the topic of security, and that no one of the services above have (to my knowledge) support for using your own encryption key. This means having to trust the provider to keep your password and key secure, instead of knowing that your own encryption key never leaves your computer.

CrashPlan

Another option I considered was CrashPlan, which was featured on the World Backup Day website. Having never tried it or even heard of it before, I was reluctant to consider it. The client is also written in Java, making it easier to run on multiple platforms, but memory and performance issues are usually lurking.

The user interface is quite pleasing to the eye, and once the client is initially launched and an account is created, a backup of the home directory is started automatically. Most people would be satisfied with leaving the application in its default state, since their entire account would be backed up. There is however a lot more than meets the eye at first glance.

Destinations

The most prominent feature when starting the application is the destination selection, providing the ability to backup using different storage endpoints. While backing up to “CrashPlan Central” will cost you money, the other backup options are free.

If you have a friend running CrashPlan, you can add each other as destinations for the backups, giving both parties the benefits of off-site backups while still using the free version. You will however need to provide enough storage for each others’ backup needs, which is not free in itself.

The same procedure can be used between different computers within your own account. They can act as destinations as well, potentially providing you will off-site backups if you have computers at different physical locations.

Speed

As mentioned earlier on, having an online backup together with a large backup size requires plentiful of bandwidth to work properly. Having backed up a considerable amount of data to the CrashPlan servers, there was a big difference in how fast the server nodes were able to receive the data.

Before measuring the upload speed, the settings for CPU and bandwidth usage were tweaked to allow maximum throughput. My internet link is a 100 Mbit fiber connection, so if there are any delays or bandwidth issues, they reside on the server side.

I started backing up my music collection on my Macbook Pro, which performed at a fairly constant rate at 3.2 Mbit/s. Even though this was fairly slow, it was bearable, give my not so large music library on this particular computer.

Backing up on the NAS was a completely different story however. Another server was chosen as the target for the backup (this is done automatically), but this time around, the throughput maxed out at about 700 Kbit/s at times, which is terribly slow if the data to be backed up exceeds 100 Gb, which it did in this case.

Security

Having a backup solution in the cloud inherently raises privacy and security concerns. A lot of people will be uneasy giving up their data to a third party without knowing their data is safe from prying eyes.

CrashPlan uses Blowfish with a 448 bit key to secure the data at rest, and the communication is additionally encrypted using normal SSL connections with AES and a 256 bit key. The Blowfish key is then escrowed together with your data on the CrashPlan servers, encrypted with your account password.

For most people, the above solution is perfect, given the simple nature of the setup. The end user never has to touch the encryption key or remember anything more complicated than their own account password. When restoring files on a new computer, it is just the matter of logging into the account and restoring the files from the server.

The downside of this solution is that there is no way to partition the associated computer within the account, meaning that any computer logged into the user account can restore any file from any computer to the local computer.

There is another security mode which separates the encryption key with the user account. That way, you still have the CrashPlan user account, but the encryption key is protected with another password. The benefits of using this mode is that different computers can have different passwords, and thus separate encryption keys. This fixes the problem with all computers being able to access all information on each server associated with the account.

The third option is to provide the encryption key directly instead of using passwords to encrypt the key stored on the server. This means that it is impossible for someone without knowledge of the encryption key to decrypt the data. The downside is that the key needs to be kept secure, since it needs to be provided when doing a data restore. Having the key on paper in a safety deposit box or some other secure location will be necessary, since losing the key means that it will be impossible to decrypt the data on the CrashPlan servers.

Security conscious people will undoubtedly distrust the implementation of the client handling the encryption key. Who knows if the key is secretly transmitted to CrashPlan without the user’s knowledge?

Conclusion

Having started the trial of CrashPlan only a few days ago, I have yet to uncover severe behavior and inconsistencies. It has been a fairly smooth ride so far setting up my own encryption key and backing up three computers.

There was however one weird kink when creating and using keys for encryption. When the key was created on the Windows platform, it could for some reason not be validated on the Mac, which at first made me doubt the service. However, when I created a new key on the Mac, it could successfully be used both on the Mac and in Windows, as well as my Linux server.

If you are planning to use CrashPlan on the Mac, you may experience an unusually high memory load, which is partly the result of CrashPlan being executed using 64 bit Java. There is a simple way to change to 32 bit execution however, which involves editing /Library/LaunchDaemons/com.crashplan.engine.plist and adding “-d32” to the ProgramArguments section. For other memory optimizations and a discussion, have a look at the Reduce memory usage thread on the CrashPlan forums.

Another thing which could be improved upon are upload and download speeds, which are abysmal compared to the available throughput. The speed when backing up my Mac seemed to stabilize at about 3.2 Mbit/s and the speed on my NAS is running at about 1 Mbit/s. Extremes ranged from about 500 Kbit/s to 20 Mbit/s, which is basically all over the place. Not that this is usually a problem once the initial backup has completed, but it could be a lot faster. This is also one of the reasons I am hesitant to become a member once the trial has run out, but I may change my mind, since it is extremely convenient.

The other reason however, is privacy. While I am confident that CrashPlan does not “backup” my encryption key once I have chosen to use my own, there could be programming errors or other problems, exposing this key in some manner.

The alternative would be to setup a backup server at some location with plenty of disk space to mirror all my data, including changes made to file and using some kind of rsync snapshot solution. This requires a somewhat hefty investment on the hardware side however, while CrashPlan is ready to backup anything I throw at it.

When the trial expiration starts to creep up, I will hopefully have some more insight into reasons to stay or quit. Until then, I am staying with CrashPlan.

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother is a series about five close friends living in New York. We follow them as they struggle through their lives, helping and supporting each other. They all have their own unique personalities and it is amazing to see them develop and enrichen during the course of the five seasons that have currently passed.

I had high hopes when starting to watch this series. Friends and reviewers have all said that it is one of the best sitcoms ever made — and after watching all five seasons, I agree wholeheartedly. The script is genious and well thought out, dealing with work and personal issues as well as love and relationships. Since the characters are so diverse, it is easy for anyone to identify with at least one of the main characters.

This series can easily be compared to Friends and Seinfeld, and exceeds them on many levels. If you are into these types of series, I strongly recommend you to start watching How I Met Your Mother today! You will not be disappointed.

Score: 8/10 (Great)

Up in the Air

Up in the Air (2009) is a romantic drama about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who makes his living traveling around the US firing people for executives who are too afraid to do it themselves. He lives a simple life with few personal possessions and is happy about it until one day — the day his company decides to ground him.

I think Clooney did an outstanding job with this movie. The first half was filled with his usual better-than-everyone-else kind of way, which is fun in itself. The second part however, he was in a completely different state of mind; vulnerable, showing true emotion and like the tagline of the movie says — “ready to make a connection”.

This is definitely one of the better movies in this genre of the 2000’s.

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is a post-apocapolyptic western movie about Eli (Denzel Washington), who has been on a 30 year long journey, heading west. During this tremendous journey though a wasteland full of thugs, robbers and killers, he tries to stay true to his mission to transport a very important artifact to the west-coast.

Continue reading

Green Zone

The Green Zone is the common name for the International Zone of Iraq — a 10-square-kilometer area in central Baghdad, Iraq, that was the center of the Coalition Provisional Authority and remains the center of the international presence in the city[1]. This movie is a political conspiracy thriller set in the beginning of the Iraq war and the politics surrounding the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Roy Miller, played by Matt Damon, is the leader of a team searching for WMD’s at strategic locations around Iraq. These locations came from from a well-protected and highly regarded source in the US army, but after several operations without success, Miller starts to question this intel and begins digging. He finds an ally at the CIA which pushes him in the right direction and gives him the means and authority to execute his plans to capture the Iraqi General, Al Rawi, who is believed to be the key to the whole war.

The first few minutes of the movie felt like being on the battleground in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — There were the same weapons, clothes and similar enemies. After yet again coming to terms with the Green Zone not being a Bourne movie, it could be enjoyed for what it truly is.

The movie is suprisingly fast-paced, and gets going immediately and holds the viewer in its grip right until the very end. There are plenty of hand-held shaky camera scenes, which most of the time enhanced the experience, making the terror and drama more intimate and real.

There was a scene where there was a sniper in a tall building were shooting at the team, which immediately brings a similar scene to mind — in Lebanon, there is the exact same scenario, however, since this is an American movie, there is no fear and everything always goes as planned.

Since this is a movie about the Iraq war and the controversies surrounding it, there are lots of facts thrown in there (like former president Bush holding a speech) and fiction are interweaved to make the story more real. Even though the movie is a fiction, having real facts and people brings a whole new dimension to the genre itself.

To conclude, if you go in expecting to see a Bourne blood-bath, don’t bother, but if you are expecting a combination of politics and moral dilemmas, you are in for a treat!

It is said that the movie is supposedly based on the novel Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a journalist for The Washington Post.

Cargo

Cargo (2009) is a Swiss movie about a cargo ship called Kassandra, which is to transport construction material. A doctor named Laura joins the crew to fund her trip to be reunited with her sister who lives on another planet.

On the way to their destination weird things start to happen, and as they investigate the problem, they become prey of a deadly cat and mouse game.

The first thing that popped into my head when watching this movie is that it touches on similar issues as Moon, loneliness and isolation. No only that, there are many similarities to another recent space movie called Pandorum, not to mention the Cube movies to some degree. The biggest similarity however, is the ripoff of the Matrix concept, which will be blatantly apparent when you watch this movie.

The biggest problem with this movie however, are plot holes the size of Uranus. Not to mention a weird and totally out of place off-camera sex scene, and of course seeing the same woman walk though the same dark corridor a myriad of times.

A for effort though, as one can tell that the director and the writers have poured their heart into making this movie.

Lebanon

Lebanon (2009) is a Lebanese war movie set in 1982, right in the beginning of when the real 1982 Lebanon war started. The story is about a tank crew accompanied by paratroopers and their journey in their mission to searching a bombed and broken city with desperate people fighting for their lives, and their children.

The characters soon find themselves in a nightmare situation where they don’t know who to trust or what to do. People are dying everywhere and the human psyche shows its true face, and their humanity is stretched to the limit when forcing to make horrible decisions and do unspeakable actions.

One of the first thoughts I got in the beginning of this movie was the immense feeling of claustrophobia. The portrayal of the tank crew was excellent when they struggled with the dangers and morals of war, and between themselves. The “external” group of paratroopers did not break up much of the human dynamics of the tank crew, except for the major in charge.

There were some parts where the movie lost its momentum and became a bit stale. It picked up quite well though and was joy to watch, but somehow there was this feeling of the director trying to make this an “artsy” movie. While that is totally fine, it felt a bit forced and unnatural, but don’t let that deter you from watching this excellent movie.

Skins, season 4

I just finished watching the last episode from season four of Skins, the British teenage drama about life and everything going on at that age.

Just as the previous seasons, this brings the same amazing characters back to new adventures. The “Skins concept” still holds true, but becomes more real and in-your-face than ever. There is one episode for most of the main characters, where most things are centered towards them, and there’s the “everyone” episode at the end just like before.

There is sadly no way of discussing the highlights without ruining the story for those who still haven’t seen it. The emotions of all characters are exceptionally well portrayed like they always have been, with all the drugs, sex, various disorders and general chaos that ties the bond between the characters.

If you just heard about this series and want to start watching it, I strongly urge you to start from the beginning in season one, since everything builds up from there.

RocknRolla

RocknRolla (2008) starring Gerard Butler among others, is a complex story about a gang of local British gangsters, a man with connections and the Russian mob. This is the typical Guy Ritchie movie, but with higher stakes and rewards. The story has many threads which are intertwined, and all threads eventually touch the main storyline and makes for a thrilling, exciting, entertaining, albeit complex movie.

If you have seen Ritchie’s other movies like Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, you will already know the setting and the feel of the movie. This inception brings nothing new to the table, but still manages to grip the viewer and hold that grip all the way to the end.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, and you should definitely go see it.