Thursday, April 27, 2006

The House Among the Laurels

I'm done editing my first podcast, a reading of Hodgson's story "The House Among the Laurels." The text is out of copyright, and I am making my recording available under a Creative Commons license (anyone who wants to make a derivative work for non-commercial use is free to do so).

I'm not really satisified with the audio quality, and my voice was not at its best, as I had a bit of a cold, but if I don't get going and publish the first one, I'll never get to the second one... so better to put out a "1.0" and perhaps record it again later, if needed, when my technique has improved. Please keep in mind that this was recorded using a very beat-up laptop in my living room by a tired guy with a cold. (Is that a ringing endorsement or what?) Despite all this, I think it is a pretty good reading.

I tried various strategies for reducing the audible noise in the recording including using a noise gate filter, but that just made the speech sound bursty, and Audacity's noise filter, but that gave a strange phase-shift effect, even at low levels (I'm not sure why; it worked much better on stereo audio from a casette player digitized with the iMic).

"House" is considered number two in the Carnacki series. Why not start with number one? Number one, "The Thing Invisible," is quite a bit longer and the style is not quite as tight. I have not quite decided whether I want to record it as-is, or edit it, or perhaps do something more elaborate with it. "House" is a better introduction to the Carnacki stories.

The stories follow, for the most part, the same basic pattern. The "ghost-finder" Carnacki periodically sends notices to a small group of friends inviting them to dinner. The introduction is extremely brief and almost no information is provided about his guests, or the meal. After the meal, the group sits with him and listens to the tale.

Carnacki tells the story, in an informal and somewhat self-deprecating style, with occasional digressions about other ghost-finding incidents and references to ancient manuscripts or scholars. Carnacki usually conducts an exhaustive search for a natural explanation for the "haunting" by daylight, but ultimately winds up spending a night alone, or with a small group, in the haunted house, or room, often within the "electric pentacle," a protective circle of his own invention, that combines the traditional protective "magic circle" concept with technology.

In the end Carnacki discovers that the "haunting" has either a natural explanation, or does seem to be a supernatural manifestation, or in a couple of cases, has a bit of both. The dramatic tension consists, for the listener, partly of wondering what kind of story this will turn out to be. Getting to the bottom of the "haunting" seems to be Carnacki's primary motivation: he doesn't care that much, for example, whether criminal evil-doers that may be involved are apprehended. If a supernatural explanation is involved, if possible Carnacki tries to end it, by destroying the haunted artifacts that allow the manfifestation to occur.

Carnacki's audience is entirely silent until the end, when they might ask a question or two. When he is done Carnacki throws them out by saying "Out you go," and his guests wander home.

The framework is very scanty, usually consisting of less than half a page. The points at which we switch narrativer perspective to are indicated on the printed page only by a change in punctuation. This is a little bit difficult to convey in the podcast without actually using separate voices for the guest who narrates, or the questioners at the end. Since the story provides us with almost no information about the guests, I did not really come up with separate voices for them. Carnacki also sometimes includes extensive quotations by other characters that make up part of his story, and these are often written in dialect, to convey a distinct accent. These are much more amenable to a little voice acting, so I gave it a shot.

I'd like to pursue turning these into more of a genuine radio drama. I'll consider some ways to do that later.

I have set up a podcast specifically for the Hodgson stories. If you have iTunes, you can subscribe directly, by using the "Subscribe to Podcast..." command under the "Advanced" menu. Here is the URL:

I have also submitted my Podcast to the iTunes Music Store, so I may have a page there, but it has not been processed yet. I also need a piece of artwork (300x300 .png file) to represent the podcast! Any takers?


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Different Side of Hodgson

Last night I read aloud (as a bedtime story) the Hodgson story "The Homecoming of Captain Dan." This is also found in the Collected Fiction, Volume 2, from Night Shade Books -- if you want to buy just one of the volumes, I would recommend that one, since it contains "The House on the Borderland," the Carnacki stories, and a scattering of other adventure stories.

Hodgson is best known for his science fiction and ghost stories, many with a sailing theme. "The Homecoming" is a little bit different, though. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is primarily a character sketch, at least by word count, although it is also a conventional short story involving a treasure hunt with an ironic twist, in the mode of O. Henry.

Hodgson is frequently a bit weak on character development, and in particular does not often describe them in much detail, although he makes up for it a bit by giving characters various dialects and mannerisms. Captain Dan is richer than many of his characters. He's abrasive, hilarious, and contains elements of both broad and subtle humor.

NOTE: spoilers if you continue reading!

In the "broad" category, he's a heavy drinker, muttering phrases in gutter French, and he bellows like Yosemite Sam, firing off his pistols here and there to punctuate his orders. In the "subtle" category, he's actually a lonely romantic at heart, at least as far as his own slightly peculiar notion of romance goes, and we find out that he's actually smarter than everyone around him, as he manages to get the last laugh long after his death.

There is also some humor in "The Homecoming" which I think is not quite as fit for polite company as I would expect. When "Cap'n Dan" meets up with his former sweetheart, twenty years later, who presumed he was lost at sea, and married another man, he sums up his opinion of the other man by repeatedly calling him the "tip 'o my thumb."

I puzzled over this phrase for a moment, but then I help up my hand in puzzlement (with a closed fist) and realized that this was probably an insult to the widow's dead husband's manhood -- looking "something like a man's penis, only smaller!" (If you don't recognize that quotation, see Spider Robinson's story "Fivesight," from the Callahan's collection _Time Travellers Strictly Cash_.) There's also the funny detail that he fathered five daughters, another indication that his manhood was not all it could be (yes, I know this has more to do with chromosomes than virility, but consider when it was originally written, and the prevailing stereotypes).

Cap'n Dan gets his revenge, in somewhat sexist fashion, against the woman who had the gall not to wait indefinitely for him to return from the sea. But it all ends neatly, if a bit sadly.

Hodgson also uses the trick of apparently citing primary source materials from the time to back up his story, giving Cap's Dan a veneer of historical authenticity. That's doubtful, but it is a neat little bit of world-building and it does make the story feel more realistic.

Anyway, we all enjoyed the story, and I hope you will enjoy it someday, too!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Snowing Blue Balls

Thanks to those who commented on the microphone.

I did not hear back from either Sweetwater or Blue about the China manufacture issue.

It would be interesting to compare the Snowball made in Latvia with the Snowball made in China. Does the Latvian one have a metal housing?

I guess it was unrealistic of me to expect to pay $159 for what I thought I was getting, which was a mic with the build quality I've seen in the other Blue products.

Now that I have actually used the Snowball for recording, I find that the result seems to have more noise than I expected. In fact, recording digitally for podcasting by using a USB microphone is tempting me to just go back to a conventional microphone, record to casette tape, and then digitize that. It seems like the result might have less noise. I'm not expecting a completely professional result from my low-budget home setup, but it seems like it should sound better than what I'm getting.

The noise is not my laptop -- the frequency is wrong. It sounds like a blower, but we don't have forced air. It isn't my mouth-breathing or swallowing or my whistling stuffed-up nose (although the microphone picks up those unflattering sounds quite well). It doesn't sound like the cyclic digital signal "leakage" noise that I hear from the iMic.

Also, although the Snowball is very sensitive, I'm not really satisfied with the vocal level I'm getting from it. I am having to normalize after recording, which boosts the noise as well. I have tried using Audacity's trainable noise filter, but even on its lowest setting, the result (although it has much less noise) sounds really swooshy, like it is going through a flanger. Useful for a special effect, maybe, but not for an hour-long reading.

I may have to put the Snowball on a conventional mic stand to get it closer to my mouth. A conventional mic stand is an attractive nuisance, inviting the baby to pull it over, while the little mic stand that came with the Snowball is less so, and even if she knocks it over, it doesn't have far to fall. I thought I'd be able to use this design more like a tabletop mic, a little less intrusively, setting it a little farther from my mouth, and still get an adequate level. This is with the omni capsule (setting 3) which by experimentation seemed the loudest, although I should try the others again to see if they provide a more consistent level.

The software issue is becoming a pain, too. I'd like to use Audacity, but it behaves inconsistently and is lacking some mouse control features that make editing bearable. I've been testing Freeverse Software's Sound Studio 3, which edits quite nicely, but a license costs $80, and that is enough to make me think hard about it. That's more than iLife '06, although I don't think I could manage to get iLife installed on my ancient laptop.

I'm also trying not to let the perfect vanquish the good-enough. My goal is to get one or two recordings done and see if anyone likes them. To that end I'm not obsessing about editing my breath sounds, just my coughs. But I don't want possible listeners to delete the track as soon as it starts, because of terrible sound quality.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Here Come the ABCs!

Last weekend I was at home for a while with the baby and I thought I would try to draw the animated hippo from the song "Clap Your Hands" on the _Here Come the ABCs_ DVD by They Might be Giants -- the best children's video I've ever seen. I started freeze-framing the DVD (which annoyed her) and doing quick drawings from it (which delighted her).

This became somewhat addictive and I spent an hour or so trying to see if I could capture each of the freeze-frames from the video in 1 minute or less, so before long I had 40 drawings!

I got Isaac to do some too, and was happy to find that with only a little coaching he is actually pretty good at capturing the characters. We'll have to put Isaac into a drawing class sometime, if we can find a good kid's class.

I did a few more drawings with colored crayons (probably spending 3 hours total) and now we have 50 or 60 TMBG drawings stuck around the house, including a series that I drew:

Frame 1: "Everybody's going to learn the ABC's."

Frame 2: "Except me!"

Frame 3: "No!"

Frame 4: "Even you!"

Frame 5: "OK!"

Anyway, it was fun at the time... our house now looks like some kind of
weird shrine or animation studio... ZYX, ZYX, WVUT... SRQ... SRQ... POMNLK... JIHGF... JIHGF... JIHGF... EDCBA... EDC... B... A!!!

Hodgson for Podcasting, Apple for Printing

We had a very busy weekend. I did a lot of cooking, along with Isaac. This morning workmen were prying the old shingles off our roof. It's a strange thing to be woken up by feet stomping around above your bedroom, when you sleep on the top floor. I'm very pleased that our roof is at last getting replaced, though. Maybe we can move Isaac back into his bedroom soon!

On Saturday night I set up my G4 laptop to try to record a Hodgson story, with a live audience consisting of Isaac, Grace, our friend Olivia, and Veronica, who was peacefully sleeping. I had installed Audacity for MacOS X, which worked a lot better than it did on Grace's iBook G3. I had found a tiny 1.5-gigabyte external hard drive at CompUSA (the type used in iPods) for cheap, and got a 10-foot USB cable to run my Snowball. I had done some recording and playback tests, and everything seemed to work fine. When I sat down to read the story, I just woke up my computer and hit "record."

I read "The House Among the Laurels," which is one of the better Carnacki stories. It went quite well -- the baby stayed asleep, and I'm told my bad Scottish accent was funny. However, when I went to play it back, I found that Audacity had screwed me yet again -- it had mysteriously set the input volume down to zero. It hadn't been set that way an hour earlier, when I had tested it. The Audio MIDI setup program didn't report that the input volume was zero -- it showed a normal level. Audacity seems to have made that decision unilaterally.

So the story was there, but recorded at an extremely low level. There was no hope of being able to fix it in post-processing, and using it to make a podcast. So, I entertained everyone, but failed to record my performance!

It probably wouldn't have worked anyway -- in using another program, I found that trying to record with the USB microphone to a USB drive apparently causes dropouts to appear in the recorded audio. The recorded audio file just randomly drops a second here, two seconds there, and three seconds somewhere else. This wasn't immediately apparent with short tests. It seems to me that with two USB ports, a mostly-idle CPU, and some buffering, this shouldn't be a big deal, but apparently it is. I don't know whether to blame the recording software, the OS, the microphone, the pocket drive, or the hardware (my PowerBook's USB ports are pre-USB 2.0; the little pocket drive likely has only a small buffer).

So, I had to record it again, in shorter pieces, to my internal hard drive, which is much noisier, especially when it seeks (the reason I love the tiny, external pocket drive is that it is almost completely silent). The internal drive is only a 10G drive, and there just isn't much space available, despite my best efforts at keeping it cleaned out.

I briefly considered installing iLife '06 to get GarageBand for recording, but most likely with the space I have left, I couldn't even install it. The iLive programs also want Tiger, and it doesn't seem likely I'd be able to upgrade to Tiger on the same 10G drive.

I wonder if anyone makes a 1394 (FireWire) pocket drive? I have an external FireWire drive, but it is quite loud, and I am trying to minimize noise. The 10' USB cable helps, but a clicking drive will be clearly audible.

I'm considering buying a new internal drive, since I could get a 40G drive for not much more than $50, and it might be quieter than the original, but this makes me wonder whether I should continue to try to nurse along my PowerBook. Opening it up is a pain, and the case is already coming apart. Despite my previous attempts at repairing it, replacing the power board and internal backup batteries, it doesn't really work as a laptop, and won't run off the battery at all, or charge the battery (or a different battery).

I considered bringing my PC and its 20" CRT monitor downstairs, but that started to sound like real work, not to mention an invitation to real back pain. Maybe a G4 Mac Mini would be quiet enough and cheap enough for this recording project? But then, there are more cables for the baby to yank on... and we don't actually have money sitting around, eagerly waiting to be spent on a new computer of any kind.

Anyway, late on Sunday night I managed to get a fairly clean recording, but by that time I was losing my voice. I had a tickle in my throat, and was congested and hoarse. I had to keep re-reading parts of the text, which means a PITA editing job lies ahead. I'm thinking I should just try again. Getting a dead-quiet room at home is not trivial. Isaac is sleeping in the living room, and he snores. If he's awake, he is squirming, or humming to himself. Even if he's in the basement hanging out with the washers and dryers, he whistles, and he is right below the living room. That might be appropriate for the Carnacki story "The Whistling Room," but not this one. This is turning out to be a big pain!

Speaking of big pains, my mom is trying to learn how to use Pages 2 on her new Mac. It doesn't come with much of a manual to speak of, but the proper manual is buried on the machine. I got the PDF file for the English manual extracted, and today took it to Office Max to try and get a printed copy made for her. The PDF, though, contains the following text:

(Copyright symbol) 2006 Apple Computer, Inc. All rights reserved.

Under the copyright laws, this manual may not be copied, in whole or in part, without the written consent of Apple. Your rights to the software are governed by the accompanying software license agreement.

So, Office Max won't print it. They suggested I print it myself. Isn't that incitement to violate the law, or something? And my inkjet printer isn't going to cut it.

Great move, Apple. Standard, boilerplate copyright text. You're keeping my mom from learning Pages 2. I'm sure that's what your lawyers had in mind, right?

There are some books on Pages available on Amazon, but nothing (yet) available that is specific to Pages 2. I'm thinking I should write to Apple to request written permission to make a copy of the manual. Whaddya think? Also, she needs some clip art, but I am not really happy with any of the collections I've seen, and so could use some advice for how to find her a nice collection of clip art to use in newsletters.

Friday, April 21, 2006

More Hodgson

This morning I am serving a special role as the guy who can get our software to fail. We have an intermittent bug and two engineers have been trying to get it to fail the same way it fails for me. They just tried it five or six times and were unable to get it to fail. Finally they asked me to come do the same thing. I did the exact same actions, and it failed for me immediately! I guess I can bias the collapse of the probability wave function towards failure. A useful skill for a software engineer!

I got a treat from Amazon yesterday... three more volumes of the _Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson_. I'm now missing only Volume 5, which I think may not have been printed yet.

The whole set has the same handsome midnight-blue covers and silver embossed artwork. It is slightly disappointing that the artwork for each of the volumes is the same, although the section headings vary slightly -- there are different mysterious figures floating around on the same background. The typography and printing are of the same excellent quality. One of the volumes is, strangely, slightly wider than the others, but only by a fraction of an inch, so this is only noticeable when they are lined up together. I am looking forward to eventually having some nice shelves in our living room where I can display some of my more attractive books. These will definitely be there!

The bindings seem, for the most part, quite sturdy, although one of the volumes seems like it didn't get enough glue during manufacturing. I can't tell if these books involve any sewing, or just glue. Binding technology is a bit of a mystery to me: you want to make a backing which will hold the pages in place securely, while still allowing the book to be opened flat, which means that the binding forms a steep arch. The binding thus has to be very flexible. You also want it to remain securely attached at both sides to the rigid cover, even though as it flexes, it must change width. Oh, and it also should withstand fairly regular handling for at least 100 years. It seems like quite an engineering challenge, and there is probably still room for improvement.

Hodgson wrote several novels and many short stories, ranging from somewhat traditional seafaring adventure stories through monster stories and ghost stories as well as creepy, surreal fantasies and more traditional ironic short stories and romances. He generally gets credit for inventing, or at least perfecting, the supernatural sailing tale. His character Carnacki is a kind of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Fox Mulder: an investigator of the supernatural who finds that sometimes he is investigating an elaborate hoax, sometimes a true "haunting," and sometimes a little bit of both.

Even his stories that are told perfectly straight always seem to me to contain just a bit of deadpan humor. It is a bit hard for me to judge whether this was always intended, or whether it just appears that way because I've become conditioned to see irony everywhere. For example, one of his more conventional stories is about a "haunted" water tank. It turns out to contain a giant snake, or eel -- it is unclear exactly what it is -- which crawls out and kills people. The mystery is eventually solved, and the last line in the story is one of the characters saying something about the "importance of cleanliness." That's it -- that's the moral of the story!

It seems deliberately silly to me, but it makes me wonder whether the contemporary reader would have laughed, or would have had a more thoughtful response, with the creature serving as a metaphor for germs, infection, horror of disease, fear of the unknown, horror of empty spaces, or some other response that I just can't appreciate almost 100 years later.

Volume 4 consists mainly of a very long, strange fantasy novel called _The Night Land_. See the Wikipedia entry here.

_The Night Land_ is written in a forced archaic style, with strange word usage (for example, Hodgson frequently, but inconsistently, uses the word "eat" as a past-tense form, as in "I drank some water and eat some bread." To achieve an ancient feel, I think it would have made more sense to use the archaic form "et," but he didn't.) The sentences are extremely long, with many semi-colons and prepositional phrases. Some parts are worse than others in this regard, but in general, it has the effect of forcing you to slow down and read very carefully, or you will find that you've quickly lost track of subject and verb. Here's a small taste, from the framework story:
Mirdath, My Beautiful One, lay dying, and I had no power to hold Death backward from such dread intent. In another room, I heard the little wail of the child; and the wail of the child waked my wife back into this life, so that her hands fluttered white and desperately needful upon the coverlid.

I kneeled beside My Beautiful One, and reached out and took her hands very gentle into mine; but still they fluttered so needful; and she looked at me, dumbly; but her eyes beseeching.

Then I went out of the room, and called gently to the Nurse; and the Nurse brought in the child, wrapped very softly in a long, white robe. And I saw the eyes of My Beautiful One grow clearer with a strange, lovely light; and I beckoned to the Nurse to bring the babe near.

My wife moved her hands very weakly upon the coverlid, and I knew that she craved to touch her child; and I signed to the Nurse, and took my child in mine arms; and the Nurse went out from the room, and so we three were alone together.

Then I sat very gentle upon the bed; and I held the babe near to My Beautiful One, so that the wee cheek of the babe touched the white cheek of my dying wife; but the weight of the child I kept off from her.

And presently, I knew that Mirdath, My Wife, strove dumbly to reach for the hands of the babe; and I turned the child more towards her, and slipped the hands of the child into the weak hands of My Beautiful One. And I held the babe above my wife, with an utter care; so that the eyes of my dying One, looked into the young eyes of the child. And presently, in but a few moments of time; though it had been someways an eternity, My Beautiful One closed her eyes and lay very quiet. And I took away the child to the Nurse, who stood beyond the door. And I closed the door, and came back to Mine Own, that we have those last instants alone together.

And the hands of my wife lay very still and white; but presently they began to move softly and weakly, searching for somewhat; and I put out my great hands to her, and took her hands with an utter care; and so a little time passed.

Then her eyes opened, quiet and grey, and a little dazed seeming; and she rolled her head on the pillow and saw me; and the pain of forgetfulness went out of her eyes, and she looked at me with a look that grew in strength, unto a sweetness of tenderness and full understanding.

And I bent a little to her; and her eyes told me to take her into mine arms for those last minutes. Then I went very gentle upon the bed, and lifted her with an utter and tender care, so that she lay suddenly strangely restful against my breast; for Love gave me skill to hold her, and Love gave My Beautiful One a sweetness of ease in that little time that was left to us.

And so we twain were together; and Love seemed that it had made a truce with Death in the air about us, that we be undisturbed; for there came a drowse of rest even upon my tense heart, that had known nothing but a dreadful pain through the weary hours.

And I whispered my love silently to My Beautiful One, and her eyes answered; and the strangely beautiful and terrible moments passed by into the hush of eternity.

And suddenly, Mirdath My Beautiful One, spoke,--whispering something. And I stooped gently to hark; and Mine Own spoke again; and lo! it was to call me by the olden Love Name that had been mine through all the utter lovely months of our togetherness.

And I began again to tell her of my love, that should pass beyond death; and lo! in that one moment of time, the light went out of her eyes; and My Beautiful One lay dead in mine arms ... My Beautiful One....

This has a maudlin feel, perhaps, but a certain beauty to it as well. From the narrator's wife's death, the story slips into a dream, or vision, which forms the bulk of the text. It is a strange, strange journey. Here's another excerpt, describing the preparations as the narrator prepares to leave the fortified redoubt and venture out into the Night Land:
And three days and three nights did I abide within the Room of Preparation; and upon the fourth day was mine armour brought unto me; and the Master of the Preparation stood away from me, silent and with sorrow upon his face; but touching me not, neither coming anigh to aid me; nor having any speech with me; for none might crowd upon me, or cause me to answer.

And, presently, was I clad with the grey armour; and below the armour a close-knit suit of special shaping and texture, to have the shape of the armour, and that I might not die by the cold of the Night Land. And I placed upon me a scrip of food and drink, that might keep the life within me for a great time, by reason of its preparation; and this lay ready to me, with the armour, and was stitched about with the Mark of Honour; so that I knew loving women thus to speed me.

And when all was done and made ready, I took up the Diskos, and bowed in silence to the Master of the Preparation; and he went towards the door, and opened it; and signalled that the People stand back; so that I might go forth untouched. And the People stood back; for many had crowded to the door of the Room of Preparation, so that I knew how that my story must be to the heart of all, in all the Cities of the Great Redoubt; for to come unbidden anigh that Door was against the Lesser Law, and that any erred in this matter, betokened much.

And I went out through the Door; and there was a mighty lane of people unto the Great Lift. And about the Great Lift, as I went downwards, did the countless millions stand; and all in a great silence; but having dear sympathy in their souls; yet loyal unto my safety, in that none in all the Mighty Pyramid did make speech unto me, or call out aught. And as I went downward through the miles, lo! all the aether of the world seemed to be surged with the silent prayers and speedings of those quiet

And I came at last unto the Great Gate; and behold the dear Master Monstruwacan did stand in full armour, and with the Diskos, to do me honour, with the Full Watch, as I went forth. And I looked at him, quietly, and he looked unto me, and I bent my head to show respect; and he made silent salute with the Diskos; and afterwards I went onwards towards the Great Gateway.

And they made dim the lights in the Great Causeway, that there should no glare go forth into the Land, when the Gate was opened; and behold, they opened not the lesser gate within the greater, for me; but did honour my journey, in that they swung wide the Great Gate itself, through which a monstrous army might pass. And there was an utter silence all about the Gate; and in the hushed light the two thousand that made the Full Watch, held up each the Diskos, silently, to make salute; and humbly, I held up the Diskos reversed, and went forward into the Dark.

The full text is available from Project Gutenberg here. You might initially love or hate the style in the excerpts above, but it grows on you, and the story, although ponderous and slow-moving, is quite fascinating. There is a strange, sentimental heroic romance interwoven in _The Night Land_, but it is also a bleak fantastic/science fiction-ish story, as if "The House on the Borderland" was played on a record player at too slow a speed. Later, Hodgson revised and edited _The Night Land_ into a much shorter, tighter piece called "The Dream of X," which should be in volume 5; I am looking forward to reading it.

Hodgson wrote this amazingly varied and interesting body of work, which contained both popular commercial successes as well as intriguing stories that were not commercially successful. He did all this over the course of about ten years. He was then killed, rather pointlessly, near the end of World War I, like so many of his generation. I'd like to believe there was some higher purpose to this, but I think he probably had a lot more writing in him. He turned his years of experience as a sailor into an amazing number of works with sailing themes and sailor characters. If he had survived the war, and been able to draw on that experience in his writing, what kinds of stories, or even entirely new kinds of stories, could have have told?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Reading, Brief Updates

I read _Alterned Carbon_ by Richard Morgan. It has been out for a few years and I have looked at it in bookstores, but it finally appeared in a small-format paperback, so I took it home.

The writing is pretty good, and I enjoyed bits of the world Morgan has built. However, I don't think this is actually great work. I like his morally ambiguous and intuition-driven main character, for the most part. In Morgan's world, most forms of death are recoverable: wealthy people's personalities and identities are backed up. People without backups can be killed, permanently by destroying the small electronic module in their skull. This is "RD," real death, and it is a very serious crime compared to just killing someone's body, or "sleeve," which is just classed as "organic damage."

At a couple of points in the book the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, goes on killing sprees. He doesn't just kill one or two people: he kills a dozen. He doesn't just kill the bodies of his victims, he inflicts RD, melting down their "cortical stacks," the devices that hold his victims' conscious minds.

There's no real justification for this in the storyline. We feel some sympathy with this character, and perhaps start to like and understand him, but then we're supposed to accept that he is someone who can go on a killing spree like this without remorse. If we do that, how can we continue to see him as a sympathetic character? Also, within the story there seems to be no serious consequences for these actions, although as he investigates the matter that frames the whole storyline, supposedly all of this takes place as elaborate vengeance for another "real death."

It's weirdly inconsistent. Either death has great significance, or it doesn't. What we get instead is that it apparently has no significance when Kovacs does it, but when other people do it, the act is enough to drive Kovacs' actions for hundreds of pages.

The story also lacks some focus: props and sets appear and disappear without further reference. There are some big issues at play involving human consciousness and what death means if you can be stored and resurrected later, or even if there are duplicate copies of you running around, but for the most part Morgan doesn't go very deep into these issues.

The consciousness-in-a-machine themes have been handled much better by Greg Egan in his books such as _Permutation City_, and in some of his fantastic short stories, where the little device in your head that holds the real "you" is known as a "jewel" instead of a "stack."

For surreal and grotesque science fiction crossed with the classic detective novel, I'd recommend instead _Noir_ by K. W. Jeter. It's darkly comic, full of wordplay, although I should caution you that it is quite grotesque, very uneven, and will be too weird for many readers.

If you're interested in some of the philosophical ideas brought about by copying human consciousness into a machine, see the classic _Rogue Moon_ by Algis Budrys. For another darkly comic cyberpunk-y vision, one that is a fun ride, if not all that well-written, see _Signal to Noise_ by Eric S. Nylund and the sequel, _A Signal Shattered_.

When compared to these books Morgan's novel doesn't seem very original. He seems to be inspired by secondary sources: more by _Blade Runner_ than by Philip K. Dick's spooky _Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep_, and more by _The Matrix_ than Baudrillard. I'd be willing to give Morgan another try, but I don't really recommend this book.


I'm also finally getting back to Susanna Clarke's _Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell_. This is a long novel about an alternate past where magic was real. The style is engaging and funny, and it is peppered with interesting footnotes. It is slow reading, though. I'm currently at about the halfway point.

Setting it down for a number of months hasn't seemed to harm my enjoyment of the book, in part because it is somewhat episodic. There are a couple of plot lines happening in the background and returned to now and then, but much of it is really in the form of short adventures within the framework, as if it had been written on and off over the course of several years and then fit together (which, in fact, I think it was).

The author's vision of magic is really beautiful, and has a magnificent kind of internal logic to it. Jonanthan Strange, one of the two magician characters, seems to operate entirely by intuition, rather than planning, and I get the feeling that the author does too. Highly recommended if you like long novels and discursive storytelling.


So, roofers have been out and there is some kind of temporary patch on our roof. The ceiling has not leaked in the last couple of storms. That's good! We also found out that we are, in fact, going to get a substantial rent reduction. So it looks like when the carpeting is replaced and the paint dries, Isaac will be able to return to his room! My hope is to be able to get some new shelving and storage space in there before he does so, so that it never becomes quite as messy as it was.

That is predicated on money, though, which we still don't seem to have a good grip on, as far as making our expenses predictable.

We have to pay a chunk of money for state tax this month. We're also getting a series of baffling notices from Blue Cross and from Isaac's counselor. Blue Cross says they aren't paying. Grace has her insurance license but she can't interpret these statements; they don't make ansy sense. The counselor says, though, that Blue Cross has actually reimbursed them for the remaining cost of the sessions.

Neither Blue Cross or the counselor's business office, though, seems at all capable of giving us any kind of coherent account of (a) the charges, (b) what we've paid, (c) what Blue Cross has paid, and (d) what we have left to pay (or to be reimbursed for, if we've overpaid).

Of course, we know what _we've_ paid, but although they've cashed the checks, the counselor's business office can't seem to show us an account that agrees at all with reality, which should be quite simple. So despite our best efforts to stay on top of this, we don't actually know if we're going to have an unpleasant billing surprise or if in fact we have already paid all we need to pay and then some.

I fear we're in for a similar situation with Credit Counselors of America and our consolidated debt payment. We are supposed to be done in the fall, but the statements from our creditors don't seem to reflect this, and we don't have copies of the agreements that CCOA made with the creditors. They are supposed to be taking care of that part; we're just supposed to make our fixed monthly payments. But something tells me it is not going to end well, and my plan to be completely debt-free by my fortieth birthday is going to be profoundly screwed up.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Mystery of the Blue Chinese Snowball

Blue ("Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics") seems like a pretty cool company. Their web site says they are "Headquartered in Westlake Village, California... with engineering and manufacturing facilities in Latvia."

I was recently looking for a microphone for recording podcasts. I have a nice microphone, but no longer have a decent mic preamp and analog-to-digital converter, so after seeing the Blue Snowball on Sweetwater's site, I decided I wanted one. It's a microphone with a USB port instead of the usual XLR output. It has a built-in preamp, takes its power directly from USB, and has two capsules for different pickup patterns, as well as a pad setting for recording loud instruments. It sounded cool, so to speak, and the Blue designs look cool as well. It comes with a stand, although not a shock-mount. Sweetwater had it for about $160 with free shipping.

Before purchase, I examined the manual for the microphone, which is available on Blue's site. The manual is funny, with cute fake endorsements by Frosty the Snowman and other gags. Right after "Don't store your Snowball in the freezer," it says "Made in Latvia." This is the manual I looked at, along with the images of the mic, before buying it.

So, I bought it. From Sweetwater, a company I generally like doing business with. They have good prices, they have real people working for them, and they always send me some candy along with whatever product I buy. I'm a sucker for candy. MacMall never sends me candy!

When the microphone arrived and I unpacked it, the first thing I noticed was that it said "MADE IN CHINA."

The box also said "Made in China."

The printed copy of the manual that came in the box was missing the "Made in Latvia" line. It didn't say anything about the country of manufacture.

The microphone has a metallic band wrapped around the middle of the mic. If you are facing the front, the text is upside-down. If you're facing the rear (where the USB cable plugs in) it says, running clockwise, "(c) BLUE MICROPHONES * THE SNOWBALL * S/N (my serial number) * MADE IN CHINA (CE logo) (trash bin logo)[see end note 1]."

However, this isn't what you see when you look at the pictures on Sweetwater's web site, though.

Take a look at the images. Go ahead -- I'll wait. See anything strange?

The images have been altered to hide the country of manufacture. Do you think I'm just being paranoid? Look closely.

In the first image, the portion of the metallic band around the middle that says "MADE IN CHINA" on my microphone actually shows no text, although the CE logo is still visible.

But then look at the other photos, supposedly of the same product. They aren't consistent. The fourth image shows the same part of the metallic band as the first image, and you can see the end of the serial number and the CE logo. But the space in between, which is blank in the first image, now shows "BLUE MICROPHONES" again, upside-down relative to the serial number.

Look at the image that shows the opposite side. Someone took the "BLUE MICROPHONES" portion of the text from that side, flipped it over so the curvature would be consistent with the opposite side, and pasted it here.

Not only was the image doctored, but the first and the fourth images are inconsistent with each other. They don't show a real object.

Here's my theory: the photographs originally read "MADE IN LATVIA." According to the Blue forum, some of them were manufactured in Latvia, and this is what the rest of Blue's microphones read, at least according to the the photos of the other Blue microphones on Sweetwater's site. I suspect that Blue did not want to take new pictures, and it would have been a lie for the photos to say "MADE IN LATVIA," so they doctored the images.

The cardboard box the microphone arrived in, by the way, also has the doctored image of the microphone (the same as the fourth image from the Sweetwater site) with the "BLUE MICROPHONES" text occurring twice. This tells me that the doctored images probably came from Blue, not Sweetwater.

I like the microphone, but I have a bad taste in my mouth now. The material I studied prior to purchase misled me into believing that the microphone was made in Europe, by employees with legal protections against human rights abuses.

As far as I'm concerned, "MADE IN CHINA" may as well read "MANY BOTHANS DIED TO BRING YOU THIS PRODUCT AT THIS UNNATURALLY LOW PRICE, WHICH COULD ONLY BE ACHIEVED BY USING SLAVE LABOR AWAY FROM THE PRYING EYES OF HUMAN RIGHTS OBSERVERS." It's why I don't shop at Wal-Mart, ever. I'm not particularly impressed by whatever the American companies say about how modern and safe those factories are, and how well the workers are paid. Wal-Mart says that, too.

I've written Blue about this. I've have also written a note to Sweetwater. I haven't heard back from either, yet.

I'm willing to believe that the Snowball, being the lowest-end model, can't be manufactured in Latvia and sold at the target price point. But by building mics in China, Blue is diluting its brand -- and the deception is disturbing. Shouldn't they be manufacturing their microphones somewhere that they, and their distributor Sweetwater, are proud of?

I'll leave it to your own conscience to decide whether you want to buy a Snowball of your own. It's a nice microphone. I know that I wouldn't have bought it, if I had known where it was made. I don't like being lied to. I don't think I'll be buying anything else from Blue Microphones.


[Footnote 1]: this little logo seems to show a recycling bin with a line under it and an "X" through it. I'm not sure what it means. Don't recycle the microphone? Don't throw it away? It may have something to do with the mic containing toxics such as a mercury battery. The manual doesn't say anything about this, though.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Digitizing Casettes with the iMic

So, I picked up a Griffin iMic, an inexpensive device designed to allow stereo audio input and output via USB. The purpose was to digitize some casettes. The marketing copy for the iMic says:

"iMic shines as the essential tool for converting your old LPs and tapes into MP3s and CDs. Griffin's audio recording software Final Vinyl for Mac OS X (provided for free exclusively to iMic owners) makes recording old records and tapes super easy, with several advanced features such as waveform-based cue editing and built-in 10-band EQ. Final Vinyl can also equalize LPs without having to connect a turntable to a pre-amp. Just hook the turntable directly to the iMic, and Final Vinyl will record your LPs perfectly."

So, how well does it actually work (for casettes, at least)?

First off, a word on subjectivity. Human ears are incredibly versatile. We can carry on conversations on the back of a motorcycle, or next to a jackhammer. We are really good at filtering out signal from noise. Our default setting seems to be to enjoy reproduced music, even if it is quite low-fidelity -- the recorded music really only has to _suggest_ the original, and our imagination does the rest. We're very forgiving.

That is, until you start training your ears _not_ to be forgiving. Several of my jobs have required me to work on multimedia production. I've had to try to get the best audio possible out of low-end equipment. I did this as well for a somewhat serious hobby, when I was setting up audio systems for deejaying, or setting up music gear for a church band that played weekly.

Training yourself like this removes some of the fun of listening to music. You stop thinking of it as just music and start thinking of audio as a technical problem to be solved. Hum becomes your mortal enemy. Distortion makes you grit your teeth. You find out that there is such a thing as "better than CD-quality sound." You learn to hear the difference.

With my ears now, the iMic sounds reasonably good -- about as good as I was hoping for, in a $40 interface. However, compared to something like a Mark of the Unicorn A/D device, there is a lot of compromise involved to make the price that low.

There are some basic audio problems, but they are not severe. More importantly, there are some usability problems, most of which have more to do with documentation and software than with the iMic hardware itself.

The near-complete lack of documentation makes this device somewhat inappropriate for a less technically knowledgeable user, even though this is the apparently the target audience. So be aware of that -- if you buy it because you aren't a super-critical listener, but just want to get better sound out of your computer than the standard microphone input, you are going to need to tweak and mess with the device a little. After you do this for a while, you may find that you aren't a technical beginner anymore, and then you may want something that aounds better!

The iMic is a little round "dongle" with a USB cable on one end, two 1/8" stereo jacks (one input, one output), and a switch on it that allows the user to switch between microphone and line levels. it comes with a cable with two female RCA connectors on one end (for phono-plug inputs) and a 1/8" stereo male connector on the other end. I say this because it is NOT clear from either the ad copy or the package what cabling is actually included -- I had to open up the box at CompUSA to figure this out.

The wiring as supplied will connect nicely to a consumer casette deck. If you want to connect it to a turntable, you will probably want Griffin's specialized cable for this purpose, which comes with a separate grounding wire. There are also cables available for XLR microphone input and 1/4" instrument input.

This doesn't mean you can just buy the cable and plug in your microphone. The microphone I own is a low-end professional microphones, like the very popular Shure BG 4.1 (made for recording instruments like acoustic guitar), and provide balanced XLR outputs. A balanced or "low-Z" signal won't work with the iMic; although it has a preamp, it expects a "hi-z" unbalanced signal and is made for consumer-type or "computer" microphones. The iMic also does not provide phantom power, which quite a few microphones need.

The iMic will also supposedly support an electric guitar or other high-impedance instrument, but I don't think I would be satisfied with the results [see end note 1]. I might give it a try later, but for now I am going to stick to using it to transcribe casettes.

My setup was to simply run the output from a Yamaha Natural Sound casette deck into the supplied cable. I should point out that the USB cable is annoyingly short -- only 1.5 feet -- and the supplied patch cable is even shorter. You will need a regular stereo male-to-male RCA patch cable. The cable you normally use to plug the tape deck's line outputs into your stereo receiver should work fine.

I first tested the iMic on my wife's original iBook, running MacOS X 10.3.9, then with my PC, which is a 2.8 GHz box running Windows 2000.

First off, the device comes with almost no information for setting levels, and also doesn't come with software, or a manual, aside from a few notes printed on a piece of cardboard in the packaging. There is a downloadable manual for the Final Vinyl software, but it is pretty light, and I gave up on Final Vinyl, so I was left with pretty much no usable documentation.

On my wife's iBook, Final Vinyl was a disaster. It crashed repeatedly. I kept getting audible drop-outs in the recording. It lagged painfully far behind in drawing the waveform it was recording, and it didn't provide a useful guide to setting levels. It supposedly provided equalization, but the settings were dimmed out. I heard digital clipping all over the place, but the "clip" light did not come on. About this point I was wondering if I could return the device to the store.

One basic problem is that I wanted to be able to choose a reproducible input level. The analog slider on the control panel does not provide any numeric indication of the level you have chosen. MacOS X supports the iMic directly, but the Sound control panel and the built-in Audio MIDI application don't provide very much information about the device. Final Vinyl displayed slightly more meaningful information about the input level, but this wasn't helpful because I just couldn't get it to work reliably.

An iBook, even a very low-end iBook with a relatively slow G3 processor, should have more than enough CPU power available to record a stereo signal. It can, for example, easily handle iTunes with the visualizer on, pulling music from a shared library on our wireless network and sending it out to an Airport Express. Griffin's specs only require a Mac with a USB port capable of running MacOS X, but clearly this is not sufficient.

I next tried Audacity for MacOS X. Although this seemed to perform better, it also crashed constantly, and kept changing its own settings. In addition, each time it crashed, the next time I ran it, Audacity thought that it had never been run before, and the various settings I had chosen were lost.

On either platform, there is no information on what the optimal settings for audio input should be. You have a lot of choices, though, even before you try to set an input level. I wound up selecting 16-bit, stereo, 44.1 KHz, because that represents a common CD-quality sound level supported in most software. However, after reading some of the somewhat cryptic notes on Griffin's web site, I also tried configuring the device for 16-bit, 48 KHz, which may be the device's "native" format (the documentation is unclear on this subject; do the A/D converters digitize at 16-bit, or 24-bit?).

The reason for using 48 KHz is not because I think the source justifies using this much resolution, but because using a non-native setting probably causes sample-rate conversion to happen while recording, in the driver. This could cause performance issues and reduced quality while recording. In theory at least, it is always better to record at a native format and then down-convert the final product _after_ any post-processing, using a higher-quality sample-rate conversion algorithm that doesn't run in real time. In addition, giving the post-processing stage more of the original data to work with should minimize aliasing effects that can be introduced when applying filters.

After the painful experience on the iBook, I decided not to test the iMic with my PowerBook G4/400, although this might have done a little bit better. Instead, I decided to just go ahead and try it on my PC.

Things went considerably better on the PC. Audacity on Windows 2000 is rock-solid. The software that came with my sound card actually allowed me to control the input level and shows me a number for my chosen level. I spent some time listening critically and found that the best balance between dynamic range and the onset of digital clipping occurred at an input level of 50 to 60%. Tapes are mastered at slightly different levels; if you have a really not one, you may want to lower the input level even further. This is a far cry from an Amazon review where a user reports getting great results after setting the input level to 100%.

I should point out that I never was able to get my PC to drive the output of the iMic, but according to some notes on the Griffin support site, this seems to be a known issue with Windows 2000, and may be fixed on XP. In any case, I already have a reasonably good headphone out on my PC, so I just used that. (And yes, it is somewhat noisy).

Let me say a word about distortion. Audible distortion in devices like this tends to be of two types. Distortion in the analog realm tends to make a signal sound fuzzy, or squashed, or grungy, but it is not all that unpleasant (think heavy-metal guitar). A small amount of that is acceptable, even expected, in a low-end device. The difference between "audio quality" is often actually not in the amount, but in the _quality_ of the distortion that is introduced. Some devices with poorer paper specifications actually sound better because they err in ways that sound better -- more musical -- than the device with the better paper specs.

To my ear, the iMic does not sound all that musical: it seems like the frequency response is not quite right by default. It seems to have a slightly unnatural "edginess" on vocals and high-pitched instruments, adding some un-musical hissing distortion, and a similar bulge in the bass. It is common for consumer-grade devices to have an slightly unnatural highs and lows because this makes stereo components with poor frequency response sound a bit better. It isn't unbearable, and I could probably clean it up (the frequency emphasis, not the distortion) with a little bit of equalization in post-processing.

One thing to avoid, though, is digital distortion. While analog distortion can sound bad, if you manage to overdrive the inputs to the point where digital distortion occurs, you will immediately notice. Digital distortion involves waveforms that are completely chopped off, when they exceed the dynamic range of the analog-to-digital converter. They are turned into square waves. On playback, these clipped waveforms sound like painful "glitches" and have a fingernail-on-the-blackboard quality. They can also damage your speakers. If you're looking at the recorded waveform, you can see this chopping-off.

Note that digital clipping does not always happen in the context of a visibly loud signal! That is, you don't get digital it only on signals that are obviously filling up the whole dynamic range. It is not adequate to set levels by just looking to see if the waveform is getting visibly truncated at the top, and backing off a little bit. If your input level is too high, you will get them on transients that occur even in what appear to be relatively quiet passages. When you zoom in on the waveform, you can still see the clipping.

This happend for me on one tape in particular, which was produced from a live recording, and which did not seem to have adequate low-frequency filtering on the microphones. The result is that there were occasional "rumbles" of low-frequency noise that could barely be heard, and which didn't look high in the recorded waveform, but which would "spike" the signal enough to cause digital clipping. So don't rely entirely on your eyes to tell you if the levels are set correctly. You have to listen.

After getting the levels set, and some music recorded, it was time to try to minimize the noise. Casettes don't have the dynamic range of CD. Even with Dolby, tape hiss is audible in very quiet passages. But most of the problems you will hear in practice when listening to a casette, especially an older casette, take the form of worn tape, dropouts, wow, and flutter. Worn tape sounds muffled, since a lot of the high-frequency details have literally been worn away. Dropouts are the loss of some of the magnetic material as the tape becomes worn and manifest as sporadic volume drops or brief loss of part of the frequency response. Wow and flutter are variations in speed that comes from the tape stretching unevenly or from irregular motor speed. "Flutter" is more noticeable; it sounds like unwanted vibrato in vocals and instruments, and can be particularly annoying on sustained piano chords. Keeping your tape deck heads clean and demagnetized is of some help, but nothing will help a stretched tape, and with such a flawed source, the best you can hope for was to get as musical-sounding a picture of what is actually on the tape as possible, without adding too much additional noise in the process.

In addition to the noise inherent in the casette and the player, all components in the audio chain can add noise. The iMic marketing copy boasts: "iMic's audio is superior to most computers' built-in audio because it uses USB for the audio signal. USB isolates the audio signal from the noisy electronics in your computer, giving you higher quality sound when you record, and higher quality sound output for external speakers."

Well, this is true when compared to the built-in 1/8" audio jacks built into your Mac, or perhaps available on your PC's sound card. The environment inside a computer's case is full of high-frequency electrical noise and thus a terrible place to try to run an analog-to-digital or digital-to-analog converter, or an amplifier. Using an outboard device helps a lot. However, there is still a noticeable amount of audible noise that the iMic adds to the recording. You can hear it on playback or play-through, when you turn up the volume on your headphones, and you can see it on Audigy's input meters. It is kind of a periodic "whine" that indicates digital signals are bleeding noise into audio circuits.

You might be able to ameliorate at least some of this. For example, you can make sure that the casette deck is plugged into the same AC circuit as the computer. This can eliminate "ground loop" as a possible source of hum. You will want to have the iMic unit as far away from devices that project an electromagnetic field. This includes the computer and the computer monitor. Unfortunately, since the cord is so short, if you want to experiment with this, you will have to try a USB extension cord. You could try wrapping the little iMic in tinfoil, too, but by this point you may feel like you need a break and go and take a walk until you regain some perspective.

Regarding noise and other matters of signal quality, Griffin's iMic help pages have an amusing answer on this subject:


What are the exact technical specifications on the iMic –
slew rate, transient response, voltage, impedance, etc.?



[Explanation about how they reserve the right to change
components to maintain the low price removed]...

Having said that, we feel if exact specifications are that
crucial to your project, you might be better served with
one of the products costing hundreds of dollars more.

They're right... and I had to keep reminding myself to re-calibrate my expectations. It does indeed sound pretty good for what I paid, which was in fact $39.95 + tax.

Anyway, since I had gone this far, I decided to see if Audacity could help me remove some of that audible noise. It could -- in fact, it could help quite a bit! First, I tried to figure out how to apply a filter to remove a bit of the microphone "rumble" from the tape, but I was not really satisified with the results. I did not put a lot of time into this, though.

To get rid of the iMic's "whine" as well as tape hiss, I decided to try Audacity's noise filter, which has a "training mode." I selected a couple of seconds of the audio track recorded from the casette lead-in, with no music playing, and told Audacity that this was the noise I wanted it to filter out. That noise was tape hiss, a little bit of low-frequency motor noise, and the quiet but audible digital "whine" of the iMic. Then I told it to apply the trained filter to the audio track, at a level two clicks left of center (another case where a digital readout of what I was doing would be a lot more useful than an unmarked analog slider, so I could make notes and reproduce the same result later).

The result was impressive -- the background noise, especially the tape hiss and irritating "whine," dropped to nearly unnoticeable levels. Some of the low-frequency noise seems to have disappeared as well. There is always "collateral damage" done when applying filters like this -- a bit of the music gets filtered out too -- but in my opinion the result was worth it.

I didn't have a lot of time to put into experimentation with other post-processing such as equalization, so I decided this was good enough for now. Using Audacity, I selected ranges from the resulting audio file that represented individual songs, then exported these clips as 16-bit, 44.1 KHz AIFF files. From there, I imported them into iTunes, typed in some meaningful track information, converted them to Apple Lossless files to reduce their size, put them on a playlist, and then burned a CD. The result, with the filtering applied, actually sounded "better" (or at least cleaner) than the original casette.

So what is the final verdict?

After my terrible experience with Final Vinyl, I can't recommend it at all. I gave up, at least for now, on using the Mac. If you have a more modern system with an audio application like GarageBand, it might work considerably better.

I can't vouch for attempting to transcribe records, which Final Vinyl is designed for -- there are some equalization issues unique to turntables that you will need to handle somehow. You also might want to consider Griffin's special cable with an extra ground connection.

If what you want is to digitize casettes, the iMic provides a reasonable and very inexpensive means to do this. Casettes don't sound that good to begin with, so when you scrutinize the results on headphones, you will probably notice the flaws in the source more in the flaws introduced by the iMic. I was also able to improve the noise situation somewhat using Audacity's noise filter. The results don't sound spectacular, but they sound approximately as good as the casette does, and maybe even a little better.

More importantly, although your casettes are deteriorating with the passage of time, once you have them in digital form, you can play the resulting files as often as you want without degrading the audio further. If you plan to experiment with post-processing later, save them in the original resolution as well as the clips you export for listening or burning to CD. And make sure to keep a backup!


End Notes

[1] On the subject of recording electric guitar and other instruments with the iMic, and why I don't want to try it: while doing live performance and home recording of voice, various electric and acoustic guitars, guitar synthesizer, and Chapman Stick (tm), I have spent quite a bit of time with headphones on, scrutinizing the sound of various preamps, direct boxes, and instrument inputs available on equipment in the under-$1,000 price range -- and I've become very critical of the sound.

The preamp circuit in the iMic is not going to be better, for example, than the well-regarded preamplifiers in the Aardvark DirectPro Q10. That preamp provides phantom power, which the iMic does not, and has a "guitar switch" which changes the impedance and frequency response to provide a quite decent-sounding input channel for an electric guitar. It is _designed_ to handle guitar. It sounds musical. You have to spend quite a bit more to get an audibly better solution for directly recording an electric guitar.

Using a microphone input to handle an unbalanced electric guitar signal just does not sound very good, and in fact _cannot_ sound very good. The microphone preamps available on mixers made by Mackie or Carvin will handle instrument inputs, but the results aren't all that musical, even in conjunction with a decent direct box to handle the impedance mismatch. For decent reproduction of an electric guitar, you really need a preamplifier circuit that is actually designed for a guitar's frequency response.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A Really Hot Babe, and the Sky is Falling (the ceiling, at least)

Veronica's got a fever. Last night before going to bed she was at around 103, and it continued to climb during the night; it must have been at least 105. I guess this is common in very young children (she is 17 months). The strange thing was that she didn't really seem to have any other symptoms, besides being a little crankier and clingier than usual -- she continued to nurse, wet diapers, dance, giggle, climb, play with toys, and do her usual baby work. Apparently the actual temperature is not as significant an indicator of overall sickness as behavioral changes.

I know what I feel like when I have a fever of even 102, so I am pretty impressed that our baby Squeaker is still so squeaky! She picked up a virus yet again at a church-related event with other children. Grace and I have a lower-grade version of the same thing. I am half inclined to just stop going to any of these potlucks altogether until it is summer. I am really tired of getting viruses from every child in the neighborhood courtesy of baby (and virus vector) baby Squeaks-a-lot, a.k.a. Typhoid Baby.

Meanwhile, we're experiencing a situation of mind-boggling stupidity with our apartment complex, Ann Arbor Woods. It makes me want to shake someone and ask "were you born a moron, or is idiocy something you've worked hard to achieve?"

The roof of our apartment is leaking, and has been leaking for over a year. We've reported problems numerous times. Eventually the water came through the plaster in Isaac's room, first staining the ceilng, then pooling in the light fixture (occasionally blowing a breaker or causing light bulbs to blow out in other rooms on the same circuit).

After complaints about that situation, management sent out a contractor to repaint the stained ceiling. He told us at the time that he knew there was not really any point to this, because it would just leak again unless the roof was fixed. This was perhaps six months ago.

Of course, it did continue to leak. Eventually the plaster couldn't hold any more water and formed a big wet open crack running the width of the bedroom. (I wonder if the phrase "big wet open crack" is going to lead to any unintentional search results?)

Despite our efforts to catch the drips, we couldn't always be at home when it rained, and Isaac was not always conscientious about removing the bucket after the rain stopped, so the carpet where the drips landed and the catch-bucket sat has become moldy.

Roofers have been up there a couple of times, but have not yet managed to fix the problem; water continues to come in with each rainstorm. Management decided that now was the time to have the ceiling in the bedroom repaired. (It took a demanding letter, but they finally did it).

We moved Isaac out of his bedroom -- all his things are in storage. There is a lot of mold in that room, and sleeping there has aggravated his asthma, so he's actually been sleeping on the living-room couch for the past month already. Getting his room emptied and packed up was quite an ordeal in and of itself -- Grace is pregnant, and sick, and I can't take days off work for this kind of thing (I am saving my days to take off when the new baby is born). Isaac was a trooper, and did a lot of the packing and organizing himself, but it took a full week and a lot of tears.

There's a problem, though. The leak in the ceiling has not been fixed. So, yesterday morning, a contractor came and tore out a chunk of the ceiling and replaced it with new plaster. He did a nice job, and helped disassemble Isaac's bunk-beds, carefully wrapping them in plastic -- going above and beyond the call of duty. I just want to make clear that none of this is his fault; he is not a roofer, and has told management this, and told them that if the roof was not fixed it was just going to leak again; management had him do this anyway, apparently preferring wasting money and effort to actually firing up brain cells.

It being April -- April showers and all that -- it rained again last night and this morning. The contractor came by this morning and we saw that, not unexpectly, his brand-new plastering job was getting saturated and stained with water again. He apologized profusely (although again, none of this is his fault!), removed the light fixture, and capped off the wiring to help make sure there was no more electrical shorting.

This repair has probably just succeeded in making everything worse. Now that the original crack is sealed up, the interior topgraphy of the ceiling has changed slightly, and the water is looking for new ways down. This afternoon Grace told me it was dripping through again already, in a new spot. The leak is getting worse, because the water has chewed through the ceilin and formed a new hole in only a single day of rain. It could be headed for the hallway and may wind up migrating across to my office, where I have my computers set up, and a lot of valuable technical books. We can't tell yet, but I have an uncomfortable feeling water is probably running down inside an interior wall and getting ready to leak into the kitchen. Brilliant. Awe-inspiring. Dare I say it -- genius!

I have not been this, ummm, impressed by a landlord since my former girlfriend's apartment was invaded by an entire hive of bees, which eventually chewed through the window frame and swarmed in the living room. coating everything in bee crap. Management's response to the numerous reports that there was a hive of bees in the bedroom wall -- you could put your ear to the wall and hear them -- had been to send a maintenance man out to stand on the balcony and shoot a can of bug spray at the corner of the roof where they were flying in and out of the wall, but he complained that he kept getting stung. Just as now, that landlord had a year's warning to do something about the problem. His lack of promptness meant that eventually it was necessary to fill the wall with pyrethrin, prompting the swarming of the sick bees, then tear it open and cart out wheel-barrow loads of melted honeycomb while the tenants lived temporarily in a tiny basement apartment in the same building. The situation was eventually fixed, but at great cost and frustration all around.

Anyway, back to our apartment. A more sensible approach might have been to just open up the ceiling and leave it open with some fans going to dry the crawlspace, while the roofers put up a tarp and got the roofing work finished. Leave it open so that we can _tell_ when it no longer leaks during a storm, and until it is dry in there. Apparently there's a lot of water damage in there; Grace saw it, but it was closed up by the time I got home. This is not terribly surprising. It presumably took a lot of water up flowing up there there before it wasn't just seeping through the plaster, but actually ate a big crack through plaster, paint, and all. And what do you get when moisture sits in an enclosed space? Mold. Mold and asthma are not a good combination.

Our financial plans center around us not moving until at least the end of the year. I guess we have to be prepared to write off this place, which was a good place to live until management changed a few years ago, and move earlier. Not the aggravation we need. We'll see if they actually come through with something, and keep prompting them. What a pain!

Update: the roofers have been back out and have put some kind of a temporary protective covering on a section the roof. We haven't been told whether this means they have isolated the problem area and are starting work on it, or whether this is in place as a test the next time it rains. My past experience, although somewhat limited, with roofs of rental properties tells me that the water is most likely coming in via leaky flashing around the chimney and running down inside the crawlspace, but what do I know?

Linda's Eulogy

This is the text of the eulogy my cousin Linda Joy read at my grandmother's funeral:

I feel an emptiness that Grandmother is gone. Not so much for the woman who lost her sight and her hearing and of simple pleasures that brought her joy. She is free of the limitations and frailty of being a centenarian. Rather, I feel the loss of the woman who is at the center of my happiest family memories:

  • Sunday dinners often shared when we lived in Hamburg;

  • Birthday celebrations and holidays when I was a child. If need be, we would travel to be with Grandmother and Grandfather, or they would travel to visit us.

  • Remember the toy drawer in her hallway cupboard? It was closest to the floor so we could reach it easily.

  • I can picture her table, her dishware with the red apples, the table laden with side dishes, Granddad serving a pot roast.

The aroma of coffee brewing at dawn while I’m still in bed or of fresh home baked bread transports me back in time to her yellow kitchen on Haskell Road where she worked hard to prepare family meals, where she watched birds through her picture window, where I watched and learned from her how to bake pies.

Until now, there’s never been a time that we’ve not known her among us. She lived a lifetime’s worth of memories before I was even born. My aunt recently showed me photos of her when she was a girl and a young woman. She swam, played basketball, rode horses, dressed in the fabulous fashions of the 20s, had lots of friends, lived on a farm. The photos spoke of the happy memories she carried from a time we never knew.

As a child, I both feared her – she could be stern—and loved her. She always stood waiting for us at the door when we came to visit. She greeted us with an embrace and a big kiss.

She took pleasure in such simple things, cardinals red against the snow at her bird feeder, her Chihuahuas Chap, Cheeta and Teena; books; her work as editor of the church newsletter and church librarian, her family.

She often said that family is the most important thing. I know she wished we all lived closer to each other. She regretted how television changed the dynamics of family conversation and life, though she did love the Lawrence Welk show.

I know she felt the loss of loved ones deeply. It was one of the biggest hurdles she faced—greiving and going on after losing her husband Richard, her brothers Joe and Harrison, her sister Clara, her sisters-in-law Ella Grace and Ruth, and so many others. She faced the challenge of growing older and her losses bravely. She was always a role model and inspiration for me, an independent woman who was involved and active as long as she was able.

She used to travel alone to Washington, DC, for Daughters of the American Revolution conventions well into her 80s. She was proud to attend high school and college graduations of her five grandchildren.

She let me know that she was proud of me, proud that I choose a writing career, and that I was active in my church. She lent me support and encouragement during my divorce. I know that she loved me no matter what I did. I often told her that I got my writing talent from her. She was too humble to believe that.

I have letters and cards from her that I will treasure. Until she was over 100 and writing became too difficult, she corresponded regularly with family and friends.

Now she is gone from us. We were so blessed to have her with us for so long. I’m sure that she is once more surrounded by loved ones and that Heaven is having a big party to welcome her.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Less Sugar, More Code

Another 14 hours yesterday. I am limiting myself to two cups of coffee or two shots of espresso per day. I worked about 10:30 a.m. to nearly 1 a.m. All the action is back on the trunk. Subversion performed quite admirably as the merges got more complicated and the diagrams sprouted lines and arrows. There were a couple of functions it kept screwing up upon merging, but most of them went fine, and we're testing.

The plan had been to go to the gym again after I left work, but on my way out my co-workers asked me if I could be in at 8:30 a.m. today for testing. I hadn't eaten anything much since lunch of cold leftover pizza eleven hours earlier. The gym just wasn't going to happen for me unless I ate something sustaining first, and the amount of sleep I was going to be able to catch was getting pretty short, so I blew off the gym, went home, ate some cold meatloaf that Grace had kindly brought home for me, and caught a relatively luxurious six hours of sleep. I got to say goodbye to baby Veronica this morning when she got up to brush her teeth with me and give me baby hugs.

I'm really digging this living close to where I work thing. No more three hours of round-trip commuting a day. More like fifteen minutes! And I want to see if I can find a reasonably safe bike route.

Breakfast today was a more sane cappucino and a turkey sandwich, and I'll follow it up with a fruit smoothie. If things go well this morning and we get our build out, I could be mostly done for the week and get some time at home. Even if that doesn't happen, it should still look like a more normal work day, which should feel short by comparison.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Today's Breakfast:: Sugar, Caffeine, and Subversion

A Trader Joe's chocolate bar with hazelnuts. A wasa cracker. A two-shot Americano in a large cup with one shot hazelnut flavoring (I wanted it a bit watery today). A piece of frosted lemon-poppyseed bread. A passably good low-fat roast chicken sandwich with stone ground mustard. A "Naked" brand pomegranate/blueberry juice. 1 gram of niacin. 900 mg. St. John's Wort. A handful of licorice allsorts candies.

As this strange breakfast shows, I'm a bit out of whack, pounding sweets and playing chicken with blood-sugar crash as well as courting an eyestrain headache. Yesterday was a 17-hour work day, from 8:45 a.m. to 1:45 a.m. the following morning, followed by a trip to the gym at around 2 a.m. (Yes, I left work shortly after the time and date hit the mysterious "01:02:03 04/05/06" mark). Yesterday's food intake was also a bit irregular. Breakfast was a capuccino, scone, and fruit smoothie. Lunch was mostly some cashews and walnuts eaten at my desk. Dinner was pizza provided by my boss, and some soda, which I rarely drink. Late night snack (after getting back from the gym) was a yogurt, crackers, and some cheese.

There was way too much refined sugar, a distinct lack of vegetables, (un-juiced) fruits, and (un-refined) grains. I should have skipped the candy bar, the lemon poppyseed bread, and the candies, and added a piece of whole-grain toast with peanut butter and maybe a banana. The large number of calories is not too abnormal after a very long night. I'll be trying to improve on that in the days ahead, but I guess it could be worse.

What am I working on? We are preparing to deliver a software build, and trying to integrate a number of new features. This involves some heavy lifting using Subversion, merging several branches, including merging several distinct changes sets from one branc and several more from a branch-from-a-branch, and merging this with with another branch from the trunk, while the trunk itself has undergone some major restructuring while we were away. This means a considerable number of files with conflicts, and getting some of our developers to do the required three-way merge with tools they haven't used before.

Typically, when you want to merge a branch back into the head, you might start by merging the changes made onto the trunk into the branch. This will get you a working copy of your branch that includes the changes that happened on the trunk while you were away. You can test this, and commit it, without messing with the trunk, and when you are satisified you can merge with the trunk, which should produce a working copy of the trunk that adds only the changes you made in the sandbox, then test again and commit. This is perhaps the most conservative strategy, but other strategies are possible, such as merging your changes directly into the trunk, or merging into a different branch.

You don't merge _files_ -- a merge means generating a change set, or set of diffs, and then applying it to a working copy. So you specify a series of revisions. Let's say again that you want to merge changes from the trunk into your branch. Typically, you would specify a range of revisions that included changes made on the trunk from just after the revision that created the branch up to the present, or head. This gives you a set of diffs.

Subversion then attempts to apply these diffs to your working copy of the branch. At this point I do a little hand-waving and say "and then a miracle occurs." I think that it may make a second set of diffs, or at least one diff between the starting file and the head of your branch, and then try applying both sets of diffs to the file to see what happens. If it can figure out unambiguously what changes to make, it just goes ahead and makes them, and you have an uncommitted file with both sets of changes (although whether the two change sets still create a completely sensible piece of code, Subversion can't tell you). If Subversion finds a place where it can't apply both changes to the file because they overlap, or at least because the context-sensitive patch process thinks they overlap, that file will get confict markers showing the parts that Subversion could not figure out how to merge.

Conceptually, you then have the original version of the file, a temporary version made by applying patches to the trunk, a temporary version made with the patches applied to the branch, and you're trying to produce a fourth file that combines these three -- a three-way marge. TortoiseSVN provides a nice graphical tool to help you pick which changes to apply and tell it when the conflicts are resolved. It does its best to make sure you really have gotten rid of the conflict. It won't let you commit the file until you've told it that the conficts are resolved, and it warns you when it thinks you haven't really removed the conflict markers.

Most of the time the conflicts make sense, but because the tool uses a somewhat conservative context-sensitive diff, it can get out of sync. If the identical patch has been applied in both places, it does not seem to recognize that this is not really a conflict and just pick one. Changes in line endings, problems with editors that insert NULL characters, or changes involving tab characters or spaces can also cause grief, so it is important everyone has the same idea of what the basic file format should look like.

For a decent-sized project, you might have hundreds of files that are merged automatically without conflicts, and perhaps dozens of conflicts. The fact that it is even possible to do this in a coherent, controlled, and fairly well-understood way (in fact, I was able to give a more-or-less clear explanation of what we were doing to Grace, who has never programmed a computer, and she seemed to understand it), means I want to give some major props to Subversion. Armed only with a few doodles showing the trunk and branches and direction of merge, it is mostly finished. The developers have done a fantastic job. The TortoiseSVN tool is also very nice. We've had only a few glitches (for example, identical binary files from the branch and the trunk flagged as conflicted, some directories getting stuck locked and svn's cleanup feature won't fix it), but nothing major.

I'd still like to experiment someday with darcs and some of the "fully distributed" paradigm revision control tools, but as far as I'm concerned, for production work, svn rocks! I could do this kind of thing with CVS, but I'm glad I don't have to. Subversion has handled all our rearranging of directories and adding and removing files flawlessly. Rearranging the project structure is downright painful in CVS. And trying it with tools like RCS or SourceSafe that don't support the general CVS paradigm would be incredibly painful.

So, to bed around 3 a.m. Some difficulty getting to sleep. About five hours of somewhat broken sleep. Woken up for good by 9:30 a.m. by the contractor who showed up to start tearing out the ceiling of Isaac's bedroom. There's a leak in the roof we've been complaining about for a year, and subsequent water damage has been working its magic in the ceiling. Isaac has been sleeping on the couch for some time now because of mold in the ceiling and carpeting (although we usually catch the water). Building management in its wisdom seems to be repairing the ceiling _before_ successfully repairing the roof.

The good side is I've been at the gym Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday (if you count 2:00 a.m. Wednesday morning as Tuesday). I am trying to establish the habit of going to the gym for at least a half-hour on a treadmill every weekday.

Back at work by about 10:30, with calls and voice-mail messages waiting for me as I come in. Ah, the joys of a build crunch!