Monday, July 31, 2006

They Might Be Gifted. They Might Be Frustrating. They Might Be Giants.

Or, Can a Little Wry Humor and a Little Talent Make Up for Having Almost Nothing to Say? (And Look Who's Talking -- a Blogger Upon Whom the Irony of the Potts Calling the Kettle Black is Not Lost).

So we recently rented "Gigantic: a Tale of Two Johns" and I renewed my fascination slash love-hate-relationship slash disgust with the band.

The love part: what they did with a tape player, samplers, and other low-budget gear was really inspiring. I was inspired, really, watching Flans play the guitar solo on a live version of "Don't Let's Start." His anti-rock-star technique was hilarious, and he is actually a pretty decent guitarist. Decent, as in he can play as well as he needs to, but isn't trying to convince anyone he is a guitar god. It got me to pull out my acoustic guitar for the first time in several years and start toughening up my fingers again.

They Might Be Giants really did break ground for college radio, for independent acts, and probably launched a million bands. That's no small achievement. And they did it without an enormous ego presence. Watching this video I finally, after over sixteen years, figured out which one was which. That should tell you all you need to know about the way the band presents itself. Everything about the way they play, the way they perform on stage, and the way they promote their work says "we're not rock stars," while they did, in fact, become rock stars. Sort of.

They managed to produce some wonderful pop music on an absolute shoestring. I watched a little clip of the two of them performing "Lie Still, Little Bottle," with Flans playing a giant stick with a microphone on the end. The audience was in rapture at the simplicity and energy of it. Here are the lyrics. I'd put the first verse's lyrics up against just about, well, anyone's lyrics:
Lie still, little bottle, and shake my shaky hand
Black coffee's not enough for me, I need a better friend
One pill at the bottom is singing my favorite song
I know I must investigate
I hope that I can sing along
A great start... very evocative. A "little bottle" is a pill bottle, not a booze bottle. The bottle's shaking because the narrator's hand is shaking. But he still wants to shake that last pill's hand.

But here comes the hate part: God help them, they just can't help themselves, and succumb to an attack of cleverness:
"There's no time for metaphors," cried the little pill to me
He said, "Life is a placebo masquerading as a simile."
And I get a headache. This is cute, and smart people might enjoy arguing about whether it means anything, and all that, but ultimately it is irritating, and so the song will be remembered as a novelty song, not a serious song.

Or will it?

The disgust part: in interviews the guys themselves admit that a lot of their lyrics were bashed out in order to get the right number of syllables, as in this bit from Don't Let's Start, which doesn't even score points for clever and weird, but instead mainly reeks of a missed opportunity to put a real lyric to a great melody:
When you are alone
You are the cat, you are the phone
You are an animal
The words I'm singing now
Mean nothing more than "meow"
To an animal
Wake up and smell the cat food
In your bank account
Don't try to stop the tail
That wags the hound
So do They Might Be Giants care about the lyrics they write or not? It seems to vary. You have to take into account songs like "Purple Toupee," which does mean something about the world of the sixties, in a rather loose way:
I remember the year I went to camp
I heard about some lady named Selma and some blacks
Somebody put their fingers in the President's ears
It wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's wax
I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of Cuba
Now that's all I can think of, but I'm sure there's something else
Way down inside me I can feel it coming back
It has always seemed to me that in Flood the Johns reached their creative peak, and produced some wonderful intelligent pop songs. "Birdhouse in Your Soul" is a great song by just about any standards, whether you look at it as pop, rock, or jazz, and so is "Triangle Man," with its deadpan polka silliness. But even Flood had its share of songs without much real substance, but at least the quality of the melody and the arrangement made up for it, and I enjoyed trying to sing some of their tongue-twister lyrics (sometimes the cleverness is enough):
If I had a pair of eyes on the back of my head for each time
You forgot to take out all the things you forgot to talk about when you took a bite out of my spine,
I would have a lot of eyes on me by this time wouldn't I? Wouldn't that just be fine.
I probably sang more They Might Be Giants songs in the shower than all other bands put together. Even the grim and creepy lyrics sung happy were wonderfully fun to sing, and their jazz-influenced melodic lines improved my singing:
Did a large procession wave their
Torches as my head fell in the basket,
And was everybody dancing on the casket?
Now it's over, I'm dead, and I haven't
Done anything that I want
Or, I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do
OK. So then what do we make of their educational songs -- the history songs, their songs about painters, their songs about historic figures, and their songs about states? The problem is that while there are a few standouts. Sometimes the lyrics are good, and sometimes they are just cute. But they are for the most part just not very good songs. "Meet James Ensor" is a good, or rather a bad, example. It starts to remind me of Randy Newman writing the same lyrics to what sounds like the same music again and again.

The fascination part: they Might Be Giants, no doubt trying to avoid the tendency to make the same album again and again, have also shown their skill in picking out interesting collaborations. The Mono Puff albums proved Flans could do fun songs without Linnell, although that material never had much replay value for me. But we will probably look back on "Here Come the ABCs" as the best of these projects. It's the best kid's video I've ever seen, period, with an extraordinary replay value and great sing-in-the-shower quality. (In fact, I wind up singing "ZYX" to my baby daughter every time I wash her hair, and she has started to sing along).

In that capacity of collaborators, drawing on they experience they gained from their self-imposed songwriting "boot camp," the famous Dial-a-Song (which I admit I've called, but only once, many years ago), TMBG developed the ability to write a song about anything. Which is, unfortunately, almost the same as being able to write a song about nothing.

Which they've proceeded to do. Many times.

Ira Glass (host of This American Life) made a comment on how they appealed a great deal to the pre-teen and young teen set, because (I can't quote him exactly, but his words were to the effect of) "it's hard to believe that anyone could be that clever."

And yes, they're very clever. But very often too clever. It's a little bit like what happened to David Byrne when he started believing his own press and forgot that he wasn't really a very good singer.

The crowning achievement in irrelevance is probably "Fingertips" from the Apollo 18 album. I've come to loathe this song. For starters, it isn't a song, but a collection of very short, jingle-like clips. Individually, they are clever; but they were put together on Apollo 18 so that when you put the album on shuffle, you would hear a lot of cute and strange little intros and outros. OK. Cute. Amusing. After you've heard them all a few times you lose interest, turn off shuffle play, and listen to the songs, with shuffle off.

Somehow, God help us, they decided that they had to perform this so-called "song" live. Which they've proceeded to do, for years now, from beginning to end. I suspect that's the point at which they crawled so completely up their own asses that they were impervious to outside opinion over whether what they were doing onstage had any entertainment value whatsoever.

So, I have to admit, I haven't listened to much recent They Might Be Giants music. I bought the re-release compilation "Then," which I am enjoying, but most of what I've heard of their work post Apollo-18 has only reinforced my frustration with the band. Today I listened to one of their podcasts that featured a version of "A Pretty Good Year." Self-indulgent and weakly humorous at best.

I hope Linnell is not playing that track on tour. I'm guessing their live show is really quite good. I'll take a bathroom break if they launch into "Fingertips." It looks like we missed their 2006 tour. Love, hate, fascination, disgust... all those things, but I'd still like one day to see the Johns play live, and get all those buttons pushed again, and be inspired as well.

Party Weekend and Bike Crash Aftermath

Saturday saw Isaac's 12th birthday party. A number of friends came. We polished off a mini-keg of Virgil's cream soda. Too much pop and not enough kids to drink it, so I had to pitch in. Yes, grow-ups can get tummy-aches from eating too much sugar, too! Isaac made a very fine cheesecake. I think I need to fast for a few days to recover.

We had one classic gross-out baby moment: Vera was climbing all over an inflatable globe, bouncing on it, when I noticed that she seemed to have gotten bean dip all over the globe and her hands. Then the smell hit me, and I realized that wasn't bean dip! She had blown out her diaper. Ewww... after that, I was not hungry for any more of the bean dip for a while. Well, for a few minutes at least.

Sunday was mostly a day of rest and recovery and more cleanup. It seemed to me like I spent most of the weekend cleaning up the kitchen, dealing with round after round of dishes. It was quite warm yesterday, and we barely got out of the house. Veronica has been a challenge -- she is very resistant recently to going to bed, instead climbing all over us, or running around the room insisting that it is still time to play. Grace sometimes sleeps right through her "midnight madness," but I'm a light sleeper.

Vera is 21 months old, or just a quarter shy of 2 years old, but she is getting started on her terrible twos early -- she occasionally throws kicking, screaming tantrums, usually when we won't let her play more. Mostly I am trying to extinguish that behavior by ignoring it, and just giving her a supportive hug when her rage has burned itself out.

My hope is that the training we've given her in baby sign language will help out here, and she won't have quite so much reason for frustration. The theory is that babies at this age aren't quite verbal yet, and tend to fall into frustration when they can't communicate what they want. She knows some signs that can help her out: signs for "more," "nurse," "water," and "help." She's got a few words and short phrases too. So maybe some meltdowns can be averted, although it isn't going to help in those cases where we know exactly what she wants (for example, to play at 2 o'clock in the morning), but just aren't going to give it to her.

It's very warm today -- Weather Underground says "record highs between 94 and 98." It isn't Washington, DC in August, but it is warm and unpleasantly humid. Grace is in month 7 of this pregnancy, moving slowly, and is very uncomfortable in this kind of heat, so she is staying inside near one of our creaky old air conditioners. The upstairs unit damaged a number of my books last week by dripping water all over a bookcase underneath it, while I slept. Maintenance came and unclogged it, but last night it started dripping again. Fortunately I did not believe it was really fixed and had not put the bookshelf back. So, the carpet is wet again, but no more books were ruined.

My big fear is that the power will go out, since post-deregulation, no one seems interested in putting money into infrastructure, only extracting money out of it. "Record highs" means record energy demand. If that happens we'll lose the contents of our fridge and our freezer, and be unable to cook besides, and Grace will have to try keeping cool in the bathtub. I have a nasty feeling that an outage is imminent.

I have the car today, since a series of unfortunate events have left me without working transportation. The van needs major brake work before it is safe to drive again. I was biking to work, but my bike was damaged (like I was) in the crash three weeks ago. I'm still healing -- there was some hidden damage in my left shin. I remember hitting it in the crash and it hurt briefly, but it didn't visibly bruise at all on the outside. Just recently I became aware that there was more damage there when I felt a hard lump on the bone and realized it was very painful when pressed on. So, it probably not a fracture of any significance, or I most likely wouldn't be walking around on it, but there seems to be some damage like a shin splint. Ugh.

This morning I took my bike in to Two-Wheel Tango -- my favorite bike shop. First, I had to remove some of the decaying skin from my calf which was stuck to the chain-ring... eeewww. The bike was attracting flies!

My Marin aluminum "Bobcat Trail" model is about ten years old now. I customized it a number of years ago with a front shock, upright handlebars and bar ends. It has been a great bike, and I would only consider replacing it wholesale if the frame was damaged. That doesn't seem to be the case, but a number of parts were damaged. I'm having the bar ends removed -- one is seriously bent, and not repairable, after the crash. It's getting a new seat -- the old one is bent and chewed up. I hope that the seat-post is not bent as well, but I don't think it is... that would take a pretty heavy impact). The rear wheel was bent slightly in the crash, so they will true it.

One of my co-workers asked "how fast were you going?" Well, let me tell you. I must have been going at least seven or eight miles an hour... in other words, "not very fast." Seriously, it isn't so much how fast I was going, but how fast I came to a halt, which was rather abruptly, and what I crashed onto. In this case, sharp limestone gravel, and the bike itself.

They're replacing the brake pads and chain. I think everything else is still in pretty good shape. I'm getting a new pump that mounts on the water-bottle cage mount and a new lock so I can try taking it to the gym. So I will have my own transportation again! If I can bring myself to bike even the short distance to work when it is over 90 degrees out!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Escape Pod

If any of my readers, both of you, haven't discovered Escape Pod yet -- go check it out! Available through iTunes, or at

I have worked my way through the last year's worth of stories. There are some wonderful stories, some just good, and every one of them rises above mediocre. That's quite an achievement!

I can't review them all, but there are a few that really stand out in my mind as I skim through the list of sixty or so full-length episodes, plus a number of short reviews and "flash" stories.

1. Shadowboxer, by Paul Di Filippo. A wonderful, subtle, chilling first-person story about the limits of morality!

2. Tk'tk'tk, by David D. Levine. A terrific story about a human trying to do his job among an alien race and the more mundane form of culture shock. As in all the best science fiction, it is really about this planet, and the problems of truly understanding other cultures.

3. L'Alchemista, by N. K. Jamisin. This one tilts more towards the magical/fantasy genre, but don't let that discourage you even if you generally like your science fiction on the harder side. It's a beautiful story of cooking and temptation. The account of a a woman whose true love is crafting perfect dishes will have you drooling.

4. Craphound by Cory Doctorow. A low-key but engaging story about an alien whose great love is finding treasure amid trash. Particularly funny if you have a love of yard sales and flea markets or if you have ever climbed into a dumpster.

5. The Girlfriends of Dorian Gray by Gregory Frost. A funny and sadistic twist on the Oscar Wilde novel.

6. The Malcontent, by Stephen Eley. Eley is the host of the show and it took him until episode 50 to include one of his own stories. It's one of the more strange and surreal stories of all of them, which is saying a lot, but highly imaginative, and it invokes golden-age authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs.

7. The Clockwork Atomic Bomb, by Dominc Green. A dark but realistic story about the aftermath of high-tech weaponry. Manages to portray people in an impoverished and desperate population without seeming racist (at least, as far as I'm qualified to judge such a thing).

There are lots more great stories that Escape Pod has made available for free download. What a wonderful concept. Go listen to one!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Podcast Progress

So, although struck with a nasty case of hay fever, with Grace's help I
was able to put some time into the Boats of the Glen Carrig podcast this
weekend. Chapter 4 is published, chapter 6 is finished save for metadata,
chapter 5 needs only a short clip with Grace's voice, and chapter 7 needs
only a music credit clip. I should have seven chapters completed and
published in a day or two, out of seventeen -- that's not quite the
half-way point, but getting close.

I was able to get through these so quickly because the raw recordings were
complete, and so I just had to do the editing and mixing. It's a good
thing that I didn't have to record much text, because my voice wasn't up
to snuff, what with a packed head, dripping nose, and itchy throat.

I had also previously selected some thunderstorm, wind, and water sounds
from the Freesound project for use in Chapter 5, which features a
tremendous storm at sea, and that worked out quite well. I'm hoping to use
more of the Freesound clips in the future. My only problem with using them
is the question of how to properly give credit for the clips. I used three
of them in Chapter 5, in addition to the music and boat sound effects. I
could try to record that in the music credits, but although this is pretty
easy for the artists, albums, and web sites, I don't want to try to
pronounce attributions for three sound clips like this:

"By SpeedY (

I also can't fit the URLs into tags in the MP3 file -- they're just too
long. So I have to refer listeners to the show blog, that gives the
details. That doesn't seem quite right, though -- I'd like to guarantee
that the credit stays with the file. Those URLs, and the URL for the
project blog, should all be considered ephemeral -- what happens if
blogspot goes out of business, or the Freesound project closes down?

Creative Commons has a tool that allows you to add additional tags to your
MP3 file and link them to a web address containing the specific license,
but the fields aren't the de facto standard fields, and clients like
iTunes won't show them. Do I promote that emerging standard and use it,
even though most people won't be able to make use of it? Do I retrofit my
older files? For now, the answer is no... it already takes me far too long
to produce a finished MP3 file. But I'll keep it in mind.

I said I was able to just edit and mix the recordings I made previously.
That's true, but those recordings are not without problems. I was
horrified to find out that the Logitech headset, which I used without
problems for the first few chapters, has apparently started generating
audio dropouts. The raw recordings for chapters six and seven are littered
with glitches. Did I sit in the wrong position? Was it because I left the
wireless hub on in the same room? I don't know. Or is it just so cheaply
built I can't expect it to operate correctly for more than a few weeks?

This is incredibly aggravating. My earlier chapters recorded flawlessly
with this headset -- in fact, I bought the headset because of the endless
problems I was having with the Snowball microphone -- and my software and
hardware setup has not changed at all since.

I would try to re-record the trashed sentences, but that never gives good
results. I am very happy with the performance I got on those chapters -- I
was on a roll, and getting into the material. That's not always easy to
achieve. I'm generally trying to record when I'm tired, in the wee hours.
That's not very conducive to an energized vocal performance.

Re-recording also tends to sound quite blatantly "patched in." The
microphone position differs slightly, which changes its response; the
humidity and termperature varies (yes, this really has a noticeable
effect!) and the timbre of my voice differs slightly from session to
session, due to the state of my vocal cords, nose, and throat.

I really want this project to sound as good as possible, but I just can't
bear trying to re-record the trashed phrases, at least not now. Maybe I
will try it later. I'll probably have to redo whole paragraphs, and I'll
lose the flow of the original recording. Is it worth it? I don't know. So
far the only audience I'm trying to please with this project is myself.
I'd like to be able to look back on the project and say that I did the
best job I could, given my budget and time constraints.

I'm starting to think that the entire category of USB audio devices must
be fatally flawed. Is USB just not suitably reliable for audio?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Podcast Process

I've been working diligently away, as my free time permits, at the Boats of the Glen Carrig. It's a good-sized project -- if the average chapter size holds, it means it will eventually clock in at about 350 minutes of final audio, or almost seven hours. (By comparison, if I tried to record The Night Land in unabridged form, it would probably be about three times longer than that).

So far, I have raw recordings of chapters 1 through 7. The first three chapters are completed and released. Chapter 4 is mastered and mixed with music, and is nearly done.

In terms of chapter count, I'm not yet at the halfway mark, or even the quarter-mark. That's a little discouraging! However, since the process is becoming more standardized, I'm getting considerably faster at it. Even if this podcast never attracts very many listeners, I will have learned quite a bit and improved my podcasting skills considerably by the time I'm done.

Each chapter goes through roughly the following steps:

1. Raw recording of the chapter text. I can't record more than two chapters at a stretch without going hoarse; if I try to record too late at night, my concentration and my eyes start to fail me, making it hard to keep my place in the text. But the best time I have is after everyone else is asleep and there isn't much noise outside or inside the apartment, and that's usually between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.!

2. Editing. This is sometimes quite time consuming. Hodgson wrote very long and complex sentences and they often trip me up. One example is a sentence where he used both the word "ladder" and the word "latter" a few words apart. That sentence took several takes to get right -- I have to unnaturally emphasize the words so that the listener will be able to hear the difference. Hodgson also loved commas. Sometimes I try very hard to respect his commas, because if you don't get the pauses in the right place, the sentence's meaning becomes unclear. At other times I run a little roughshod over them -- if a characters is being attacked by a giant crab, it ought to sound like the narrator is a bit breathless! Occasionally in the editing phase I'll have to re-record a phrase or sentence that just came out wrong, and then try to paste it in, which might involve very tedious tweaks to the levels and even pitch-shifting a bit to try to make it sound like it was part of the original take.

3. Mastering. This means running the edited vocal track through the master effects strip in DSP Quattro, configured with a compressor, de-esser, equalizer, and peak limiter. Each recording is slightly different, but I've settled on compressor effects that I'm mostly satisified with, so I no longer have to tweak and tweak. I don't seem to be able to apply the mastering effects at faster than real time, though -- the compressor doesn't sound right if I do that. It would be nice if I could improve on that.

4. Music selection and mix-down of the main chapter. This part seems to be the most time-consuming. I use iTunes to convert music and sound effects files from MP3 to AIFF. I open up all the music or sound files that I'm going to use in DSP Quattro, and set up an output file on a separate hard drive. Then I do the mix-down "live," adjusting levels, pausing and playing the vocal track when I feel like it needs to pause for atmosphere, and fading in and out the music tracks. Sometimes I get it in one, and sometimes I screw it up and have to do several takes. Because this is in real time, if I'm interrupted with some concern from the real world I have to start over. Then each chapter needs a separate, short music and sound effects credit recorded and mixed with audio.

5. Assembly. I make a playlist in DSP Quattro, and put in the pieces -- the standard intro, the chapter, the standard outro, and the per-chapter music credits. Then I set up fades between them, and tweak them until I like the results. Then I have DSP Quattro write this all to one file. The result is the final AIFF file.

6. Conversion, markup, and upload. The way I'm doing this now is to import the final AIFF file into iTunes, hand-convert it into an MP3 file, and fill out the info fields. Then I drag it into an upload directory, renaming it to the filename I want for the finished product on the server. I edit the XML file for the feed, adding the new entry, setting the date, file size in bytes, file length in minutes and seconds, and writing an entry description. I also add an entry to the index page (or, now, to this blog). The audio file and the feed file then gets synchronized with my FTP client. Uploading to my web host is often very slow.

When it's done, I test out the feed, updating my podcast description, and confirm that it looks OK. If there's some minor metadata correction I want to make, I re-upload the file and try again. On one occasion I had to replace the whole file because I accidentally had left five seconds of silence at the beginning. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, although sometimes I have to just grit my teeth and go ahead and finish the file, even though there is something I'd really like to fix, on the grounds that I just don't have endless free time. I'm not trying to do this in a sprint, but if I don't maintain the goal of finishing the whole novel, I'll never complete it.

There are some improvements I'd like to make. The testing could all be done with a local FTP and web server running on the same machine. There are workflow tools that would let me do step 6 more easily. I've contemplated writing some Ruby code to merge the metadata into the XML file. I certainly should learn how to use DSP Quattro better -- It has batch processing, keyboard shortcuts, and all kinds of other goodies. But for now, that's how I do it! How long does it take? Well, you can't really count the first few -- they would throw the curve completely out of whack. I think I will spend less than five hours on chapter 4. I expect to get that down to perhaps two and a half hours per chapter. Not too shabby! Of course, that doesn't count the time I spend blogging about it!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Microphone is Coming Back to Haunt Me

I heard from BLUE that my Snowball microphone has been shipped back. I am eager to see if it works better. If not, it will be time to cut my losses and give up on the Snowball.

I took a little time last night to see if I could re-master some of the older podcast recordings I made with the Snowball.

Although the Logitech headset doesn't have great sound quality, it does have the advantage of giving a very close-miked sound, and picking up very little room ambience. The Snowball hears much more of the room. In some of my earlier recordings, in a small carpeted office, I sat the Snowball on the table a few feet in front of me. When recording a couple of feet away, the result is a lot of room reverb, including reflections from the tabletop. The result doesn't sound very good -- it sounds like I'm speaking from far away, even after compression, instead of in your ear. Compressing with a tight attack and release and a downward expander can help strip off some of the room ambiance, but if you make it too tight, the words become fuzzy as the soft consonants get shaved off. I played around with EQ'ing to see if I could make it sound a little closer -- boosting the lows to give a fake proximity effect, adding some "presence," but didn't get very far.

I thought adding some background ocean sound would help, but it doesn't help very much. One thing that seemed to help a little bit is a "Stereoizer" plug-in, although even on a low level, although the voice sounds a little closer, I wind up with the voice quite a bit off-center in the audio field, so it sounds like it is coming from somewhere up and to the left.

The result isn't awful, it just doesn't sound much like the close-miked voice sound I'm getting with the headset microphone. So, I'm debating if I want to release the old recordings at all. Maybe it would be a good question for Bruce Williams of the Sine Language podcast!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hodgecast Blog

I've created a new blog just for the Hodgecast project. You can find it at

Monday, July 17, 2006

Nasty Hematoma

While most of the bruises from my bike crash are fading, the worst of them, on my right quadricep near the knee, has formed a lump. I'm learning all kinds of things about hematoma, which is a basically what a bruise does inside the tissue. Ick.

While it looks and feels disturbing, apparently this is common in injuries and should heal up on its own. It is probably healing slowly in part because it is in a muscle I can't really rest very much, although I will not be biking or walking much until it heals up.

The doctor did not seem to be concerned, and was looking more for signs of possible infection on the scraped parts. I've been soaking my leg in hot water in the tub, and fluid now seems to be leaking out and into the surrounding skin, giving it a purple halo. Heat is supposed to help, but it it also causes more swelling, so you can alternate hot and cold.

The lump seems to be subsiding, so I guess that's good. I don't want to think too hard about what gross processes are going on under the skin. OK, well, I do, actually, but only in the abstract. Having to think about your own body in terms of smashed-up pieces of meat you probably wouldn't want to eat, if you saw them for sale under plastic wrap, is a bit disturbing!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Chapter Two of Boats of the Glen Carrig

Is finished! I'm editing chapter 3. I'm imagining I'll be able to release two to three chapters a week, when I get my process smoothed out a bit more. Perhaps that's optimistic, but it is my goal. That should have my finishing the novel sometime before my birthday!

Meanwhile, I may interrupt the flow of Glen Carrig chapters with remastered Carnacki or Captain Gault stories, just to change things up. Since they are already recorded and edited, if I can get a decent voice sound with the compressor, EQ, and the rest, I'll go ahead and do those, or at least those that sound the best. I think I'll hold off on tackling any more of The Night Land, at least until fall, but who knows? Maybe I'll get inspired. Andy Robertson of suggested I consider excerpts, rather than a full reading, and that seems like a good idea, but picking out excerpts that fit together is itself a big job!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Not Broken?

Strangely, moments after I got fed up with the itching and ripped off the temporary splint, I got a call from the urgent care center. They had heard from radiology, who apparently said my wrist was "normal." Does that mean "normal" as in "there's nothing wrong with it" or "normal" as in "that's the way a broken wrist generally should look after a bike crash?" (Because the bruising and swelling, at least, was clearly visible on the x-ray). The nurse wasn't quite sure. She said I should follow up with a hand orthopedist or my doctor. I'm taking that to mean "go by how it feels," so I'm leaving the splint off for now. I'll leave it off for a while and decide by how it feels whether I need to start planning now to see an orthopedist sometime in 2008...

My Computer Doesn't Crash, but my Bike Does

I'm trying to remember what I wrote Monday on the subject of my bike crash, before the posting mysteriously vanished. I've set Blogger to e-mail me my posts in case this happens again. Hmmm...

I'm typing a little more slowly than usual, although not quite as slowly as I was on Monday. I'm pleased to announce that my right leg has been accepted into the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art! It shows an amazingly colorful set of bruises and abrasions, in colors ranging from pale pink through dark red scab color, along with purple, blue, green, and a swollen, jaundice-colored yellow. The subject is "the chainring on my mountain bike," and the technique is best described as "impactful."

To set off this composition, on my right wrist I'm wearing a splint in contrasting colors of natural cotton ace bandage and white gauze, over a formed-plaster wrap. My left elbow is covered with a network of cuts and gashes, but these are healing rapidly. Completing the ensemble are a scattering of additional bruises on my left leg, hip, and shoulders.

How did I come to create such a powerful, you might even say forceful, piece of visual art?

On Saturday afternoon I went out biking with Isaac in County Farm Park, which is very close to my apartment building. It has some easy trails through a combination of woods and open fields, and allows biking.

We were having quite a good time -- Isaac was doing very well, and I was trailing behind him -- until, as he put it, "it got a little crazy at the end."

County Farm Park repairs the erosion damage on the dirt trails by laying down gravel. And not your nice, smooth, eroded sedimentary pebble gravel, but sharp, large, irregular limestone gravel. It would look nice in a garden border, but this gravel is not really a good surface for bike tires, even the knobby, fat tires on my mountain bike. It makes me wonder whether they intentionally set out to punish cyclists!

Approaching the top of the first descent (not even a very big hill, but a bit steep), I came upon a woman walking with a CD player and headphones on. I called out "on your left," but I'm not sure she heard me. The net result is that I gave her some extra clearance, and slowed way down. Now, if you've ever ridden a mountain bike on loose gravel, you know that you don't really want to try to slow yourself down and do a lot of steering, especially not right at the start of a descent.

You have to kind of compromise with gravel, and basically agree to give up most of the control of your bike, relying on your basic intertia and gravity to do the rest, while you try to relax, bend your knees and get up off the seat so you can react to shifts in balance, and keep your hand from gripping the brakes too tighly. If you do this, the gravel will generally reward you by saving your skin (literally). If you anger the gravel, it will have its vengeance upon you.

While a crash takes place very quickly in objective terms, subjectively you have quite a bit of time to think. I had thoughts like "I'm glad I'm wearing a helmet," "I hope I don't go over the handle bars," "I hope I don't shred my leg on the chainring," "I hope I don't tear open my forearm on that gravel," and "I hope I don't break my wrist," and "I hope my bike is not badly damaged."

Well, these hopes didn't really pan out for me. Although I was able to walk home, and ride the bike a bit, although it needs some work: at the least, a new seat, and some work on the handlebars; there may be other damage, although it is a tough little thing -- a Marin Bobcat Trail, aluminum-frame bike, and it has been extremely reliable and serviceable.

I didn't quite go over the bars, but instead more-or-less landed on them. Whether this was actually better or worse is subject to debate.

Isaac was hot on my trail and managed to avoid crashing into me by veering off the trail and into a tree. He is not damaged, but his bike needs work -- something came loose in the rear casette. So we'll have to take both bikes to Two-Wheel Tango this weekend.

When I got home, I got into the tub. I first soaked off a little of the gravel dust, then gritted my teeth and got out a bottle of Cetaphil soap and a plastic scouring pad. The wounds needed to be cleaned of all chainring grease, dirt, and dust the hard way -- by scrubbing them all out until everthing was cleaned out and, in some spots, bleeding freely again. Then I asked Grace to Wipe down the worst of it with rubbing alcohol, and then go over it all again with the scrubber, including parts I couldn't reach or see clearly.

Finally, it was time to dry off, and last, to have Grace drench the deepeset wounds in alcohol and bandage them. Aaahhh. My back and neck were a little bit wonky, too, but I could function.

Twenty-four hours later, my right wrist was still pretty swollen, and I couldn't move it freely without some disturbing sensations, so I asked Grace to take me to an urgent-care clinic so I could have it x-rayed. This was done. I took a close look at it along with the doctor. It is often hard to see hairline fractures, but it looks like there is a small crack in one of the bones in my wrist -- hence the splint. They also checked over the various wounds and basically confirmed that they had been thoroughly cleaned, and that nothing seemed infected. I got a tetanus booster shot, which made my right shoulder ache to match everything else. As an undocumented side effect, I could sense colorful auras around people for a few hours, which changed with their moods! But that went away by the next day, sadly.

I'm supposed to follow up with an orthopedist, but after Grace spent a couple of long waits on hold before giving up, I'm half-inclined to just forego the long wait for an appointment and the long waits in the waiting rooms and dealing with time off work and just wear the splint for a few more days and just leave it off if I can, and try to go easy on the wrist according to the feedback it gives me. Although it does have the advantage of reminding me to do that "going easy" by getting in the way.

So there it is -- my computer doesn't crash, but my bike does. Now if I just had MacOS X for my bike, I'd be all set!

Reading and Writing Audio Data

So, I was able to do the mixdown on chapter 2 of "Boats" without using a RAM disk, without glitching. The key seems to be using a different drive to write the mixed track. In other words, asking DSP Quattro to play three different audio files and mix them to an output recorder which writes the result to a file on the same drive will result in glitched audio. I thought that perhaps the problem might be streaming multiple files like that, so I tried putting the files in a RAM disk. This worked, but it seems this is unnecessary. The real performance problem seems to pop up when reading and writing to the same drive.

I'm not sure if it is because the 80 GiB internal drive in the Mac Mini is slow, or if the same problem would likely occur with my regular "benchmark" drives, which are Seagate Barracuda 7200 RPM drives with an 8 MiB cache. (I've purchased several of these in different sizes and they seem extremely reliable and fairly quiet).

It probably has something to do with the ability to safely do read-caching but not write-caching, if that makes sense. It leads me to wonder whether I could make a simple configuration change that would allow writes to the drive to be cached. And then that leads me to wonder whether I would really want to do that, or whether that starts to risk data integrity problems in general, given that the same drive is holding the OS, my applications, my logs, etc.

In any case, it starts to become clear why you see recommendations to use a separate drive for audio files!

Smoothing Out the AUDynamicsProcessor

I'm editing, compressing, de-essing, Eq-ing, and peak-limiting chapter 2 of The Boats of the Glen Carrig tonight. I have listened to chapter 1 on several different systems: PC speakers, my home stereo, and my Sony MDR-V700 headphones (closed-back, deejay-style, with a lot of bass). I am pretty content with it, although I'm getting a little experience with this compressor and how it sounds on the results of a dry recording of the Logitech headset, and I've decided there is further room for improvement.

I'm not tweaking the sound dramatically, since I want the chapters to sound basically the same (for example, I'm not touching the EQ), but I have changed the compressor settings as follows:

Compression threshold: -65 dB. Setting it lower allows the compressor to start working with a little less abruptness. This interacts strongly with attack time, which I have lowered to 0.010 seconds. This helps a bit with the tendency to lose some of the opening consonants of words.

I've changed the head room setting to 12.5 dB, which seems to smooth out the degree of compression (I still wish this was a "ratio" setting so I could undertand a little bit better what it does). This setting interacts strongly with the master gain, which I've reduced to 9.5 dB.

The complete settings are: threshold -65 dB, head room 12.5 dB, expansion ratio 2.5, expansion threshold -84 dB, attack time 0.010 secs, release time 0.100 secs, mastergain 9.5.

The result keeps the visual indicator a little less "pegged" at either and, but stretching a little more actively, like a rubber band, as the audio runs. It gives me a finished RMS level of about -21.97 dB. That's a bit lower than chapter 1's compressed voice track which comes in at -19.28 dB, but still pretty close, and it is still a big improvement over the starting point at -35.11, so we'll go with it for now.

Chapter two will be available shortly.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Music Store Updated

The Apple Music Store page for my podcast has updated itself to show the new content. Excellent!

Links to the feed, the music store page, and the MP3 files themselves can be found at

Podcast Refreshed, Other Updates

So, _thought_ that I wrote a weblog entry Monday describing my mountain bike crash. I have a vivid memory of writing it... but it does not show up in Blogger. Not as a published posting, not as a saved draft -- not at all. This has never happened to me before. Very strange. Did I hallucinate it? It isn't in Google's cache. It's just gone.

Netflix, which has so far delivered movies as regularly as clockwork, has suddenly not sent anything in two weeks. According to their site, they never received the last two movies we returned. Lost in the mail? Stolen? I asked one of our family friends who also uses Netflix and she says that she, also, has suddenly stopped getting any new mailings. Coincidence?

FOLLOWUP A FEW WEEKS LATER: it turns out we had the discs... they had just gotten lost. Not the fault of either Netflix or the P.O. Oops...

Anyway. I crashed my bike on Saturday, while out riding with my son, and my injuries are mostly bruises except for a possible fracture in my wrist, so I'm wearing a splint. I can't bear the idea of rewriting the whole story, so that's the capsule version. I was wearing a helmet. My bike is damaged, and needs some repair work. So is Isaac's, although he was not hurt.

I have put up some new content in the William Hope Hodgson podcast: some explanatory clips, and then the first chapter of The Boats of the Glen Carrig, set to Creative Commons-licensed music and ambient sound. Chapter 1 features music from the dark ambient album The Laurentian Divide, by Samsa, which you can download at, and canoe sounds from Very cool stuff! You could call the result "ambient horror."

If there is interest I will produce all 17 chapters. If there is no interest I will probably produce the next few only. I have recorded the first five but not edited and mastered everything yet.

I have also updated the category tags and removed the old material -- I wasn't happy with the audio quality of my earlier work. I still have the dry recordings, so it is possible I will re-master them in the future, although some of the original files have the snowball crackling problem evident, despite my best attempts to edit it out.

If you are already subscribed, you should be able to just see the new material show up when you update the podcast. If you suscribe fresh, you will only see the new material. The podcast home page in the iTunes store still shows all the old files, and none of the new files, although I sent their server a "ping" request asking it to update the podcast. This might fix itself; if not, I'll see if I can get technical help.

I also submitted my audio review of A Scanner Darkly to the reviews editor at Escape Pod, but so far have gotten no reply. I am disappointed, because my own opinion is that I made an entertaining and weird little review, which I thought would fit Escape Pod quite well. I should just be patient, I guess, and remember that "no answer yet" does not necessarily mean "you suck."

No more for today -- typing is painfully slow with one wrist in a splint! And I'm not so aggressively fixing typos. With luck maybe at my followup appointment they will tell me I can get by without it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I Want a New Car

The van needs close to $1,000 in repairs: seriously bad brakes, a problem with the suspension, a shot battery. We're currently dedicating a chunk of our available income to improvements to the apartment, so the van is sitting there waiting for repairs. I'm biking to work, and we're trying to adapt to the reality, at least for the time being, that I'm not quite so mobile.

What I'd like to do is get rid of the van, and buy a small vehicle that I can use to commute. The distances I travel are low enough that a full plug-in electric vehicle would be ideal. I'd consider a full diesel, especially if I could run it on bio-diesel. I'd consider a hybrid, especially if it was a diesel hybrid.

I am just baffled by the lack of offerings in this area. There's absolutely no technical reason why I shouldn't be able to find a car like this that gets at least 45 mpg. They are widely available in Europe, and even in Canada. The auto vendors claim there is no market for them -- but they set this up so that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as anyone who has studied the EV-1 fiasco.

Ford has a hybrid diesel concept car with solar panels but it is still a prototype.

Ford Focus Diesels are available in Europe -- in fact, they are extremely popular -- but there is some regulatory issue over particulates. This is pretty ridiculous, given that most SUVs apparently don't have to meet the exhaust regulations that govern cars, on the grounds that they are supposedly trucks.

"Smart Cars" are being used all over Canada -- an hour away from us, here in Ann Arbor! But we can't buy them legally here; or we can, but only through gray-market sellers that modify the vehicles, which will cost us a huge premium, and some of whom Mercedes-Benz is actually in litigation with.

And don't tell me that there's no market for this kind of thing. There are millions of people who work in this country every day in order to _create_ markets for things people don't start out wanting. They are good at their jobs, too. Twenty years ago people would have thought it was weird, obnoxious, and tasteless to drive a Hummer, which looks like an emergency vehicle, handles like a barge, is dangerous and prone to roll-over, and gets a whopping twelve MPG. But it makes GM a lot of money per unit.

If I'm going to make a statement with my vehicle, it is this: it is basic transportation, not a NASCAR racer; it is as efficient as I can manage; I have arranged my life so that I have a short commute and often don't use a car; I don't need to drive 100 miles an hour, as a matter of course; and it doesn't reflect the size of either my penis or my ego. Oh, and I want other people to be intrigued by it and realize that there are alternatives to basic sedans or compacts which still get apallingly low gas mileage. Wasn't it twenty years ago that you could buy a Civic that got 50 mpg?

What an absolute failure of the American auto industry!

Things I Still Regret, Part 1

While I'm reminiscing, I feel I should talk about some things I've done wrong, which in retrospect I know where mistakes.

Once I invited some friends over to my apartment for dinner.

Except that I didn't have any food in the apartment.

I don't recall the exact details, but think we couldn't agree on what to order, so we decided to order out using "Food by Phone," which let us pick a la carte items from various restaurants that offered take-out, and then delivered it.

Except that I didn't have very much money.

It didn't quite hit me at the time, but the net result was that I invited people over for dinner, and then made them chip in for a good chunk of the cost of their dinner!

This was nine or ten years ago, but I still think about it, and still regret it. I was a bachelor, living alone, not managing my money very well, having split up with my girlfriend of six years not that long before, and was living a somewhat troubled and lonely existence, depressed and taking medication to try to stay functional.

I had clearly lost my sense of what was decent hospitality and what wasn't. I'm sorry, guys!

Things I'm Still Mad About, Part 1

In early 1993 I was doing Newton software development for a company outside Cincinnati, OH. A couple of the developers were sent to an Apple development conference, but I wasn't (I was actually working for the testing department, although I was working on a little code as well).

The developers e-mailed to report. I found that Apple was selling custom-made MessagePad 110 units with transparent plastic cases. I asked one of the developers to please buy one for me, saying that I would reimburse him for it when they got back. I got back a message saying that one of them had purchased a clear Newton for me.

A few days later, though, the developer who purchased the device and brought it back had decided _not_ to sell it to me. I can't remember the exact series of events -- I think that first he wanted to charge me more than he had paid for it, because it was a rare, limited edition, collector's item, or whatever... blah, blah, blah.

As I recall, he wanted to charge me _significantly_ more money. He started talking about how he could get more money for it from someone else. I can't recollect what he eventually did with it, but the upshot was that I walked away disgusted and didn't get my rare, limited edition, collectible blah-de-blah.

I should mention that although I did not work very closely with this guy, and only worked at the particular company in question for three months, I remember his name thirteen years later -- not because of his code, or our work together, but because of this particular incident.

Of course, these kinds of things rarely provide the gratification that you hope for, and this little incident _did_ save me from indulging my spending tendencies. However, I was doing freelance Newton development, and getting paid for writing a series of articles on Newton programming. I had an original MessagePad, and a MessagePad 110 too. I can't recall if at that time I was planning to buy a MessagePad 110, or had already bought one, but in any case this would just have meant having a cooler, if possibly redundant, unit.

Now, I claim that the guy I asked who did this was, to use the technical term, an asshole. A jerkwad.

What do you think? Is this just capitalism at work? Or if I ask a favor from someone -- whether they are a co-worker, or acquaintance, or close personal friend -- and they agree, am I right to be offended that they want to make a chunk of money -- I can't remember for sure, but I think it might have been $200 over what he paid, which was something like $600 -- off the arrangement?

If he had said "you know, I bought this for you, but you know, it is really very cool, and I'd actually really like to keep it for my own use," I think I would have understood perfectly, with only a case of mild annoyance, quickly forgotten. But "you know, I've decided instead to see if I can extort some money out of you" _really_ stuck in my memory, and serves as a constant counter-example of how _not_ to do someone a favor!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mastering the Podcast

So, I am in the process of finalizing episode 1 of _Boats of the Glen Carrig_. It should accelerate a bit as much of the material is intro and outro and will be reused in each episode. I've got five chapters read, out of seventeen, a great trove of music from, and a small cache of sound effects from, so I'm just about ready to launch this puppy.

I found a solution for mixing the background music on the fly. Using a RAM disk for all the source files didn't really prevent glitches in the master recording. The problem seemed to be the destination drive, although I'm not sure what it is doing that would defeat write-caching and result in the loss of a half-second or more of audio. Maybe the caching is configurable somehow? Anyway, if I use the RAM disk for the source files and an external FireWire drive for the mixed file, all goes smoothly. It would go a little bit more smoothly if I had a control surface with sliders and a pause button that I could configure for the different audio sources, but the project budget doesn't allow that right now, and I'm not certain if DSP Quattro supports such a thing.

I'm excited about the new _Boats_ podcast. If I had to describe it in a few words, I would choose "ambient horror!" I hope someone besides me will enjoy it too!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Ikea Goodies and the Chaos that is the Potts House

We had a big day Sunday -- we went back to Ikea and bought Isaac's new loft bed, two bookshelves, and some miscellaneous items. It was quite a challenge to get this all into the station wagon along with two kids, but the Escort was a real trooper! It's a good thing it is still running, because the van is not. On Saturday I took it to a mechanic and they found that it needs a lot of brake work, some suspension work, and a new battery. It isn't safe to drive: the brake pedal is dropping. I am biking to work for now and the van work is on hold until the money is available; this is another stressor, and I'm not sure I'm going to keep to my gym schedule, but we'll work around it for now. We have to re-think how we're going to spend the money for rearranging the apartment.

We got one of the bookshelves built last night. The model is the tall, narrow "Markor," in a dark brown stain. It looks very nice, although of course we put a shelf in upside-down and then had to very gingerly take out all the screws and pry the sides apart to remove it, hoping we weren't going to tear the backing, and reverse it, but it finally went together nicely and feels very solid. You have to drive a lot of small nails into the back: they go into the edging and into one shelf.

You are supposed to mark where they go so that you drive them properly into the shelf -- but you can't really see what you are doing, and sometimes it is hard to drive them absolutely straight. One nail wound up coming through the shelf, but I pulled it back out and used the age-old trick of hiding the damage by just coloring it with a black marker... almost unnoticeable!

I've put together quite a bit Ikea stuff over the years and I am pretty familiar with their tricky ways, but still, I almost always make at least one small mistake! Sometimes the mistake is "following the directions exactly." For example, their directions have you nail on the backing while the thing is upside-down as soon as you get the fixed shelf in. If you instead save the backing for _last_ you can verify that everything else is correct before driving nails. Screws are a lot easier to remove than nails!

Grace is getting some additional help -- a guy is coming by this afternoon to assemble Isaac's bed and put up some shelving. It makes me too nervous to drive screws into the walls of a rented apartment -- I've had far too much trauma with damaged plaster and difficult landlords for one lifetime, although I can happily drill holes in someone else's walls. I'm glad someone else is doing it!

Towards the Perfect Podcast

Friday night I worked out an audio draft of chapter 1 of "The Boats of the Glen Carrig" using music from Samsa, via Dark Winter records, which is CC-licensed. I converted these MP3 files to AIFF files to start with, so that DSP Quattro could open them.

Lacking mixing automation, I came up with a strategy to mix the music on the fly: I opened up all the source files in DSP Quattro, and then start up an output recorder. Then I play them sequentially and mixed the background sound as the recording progressed.

The result sounded pretty good, although it seems to be a little problematic to be playing two or three files and recording a file on the same hard drive: sometimes I'd get a dropout of a second or two, usually just after the point where I would stop one file and start another. I think I'm going to try working around this by putting the source files for the chapter into a RAM disk. I'm also going to pre-make intro and outro clips with background sound added so these sound consistent across the chapters.

I think I'm also going to re-record the text of chapter 1, in order to slow it down slightly. When the text is paired with beautiful background sound, I want to let it breathe a little bit, especially for chapter 1, which is largely descriptive.

I'm going to re-launch the podcast with a new feed and take down the old material, possibly putting it back up after I've done some compression and other processing to make it sound better.

I'm hoping to have the first chapter of "Boats of the Glen Carrig" available in a day or two, depending on just how much chaos is happening at the Potts House! The goal then will be to complete the novel. It is a short novel, but I can't imagine finishing more than two or three chapters a week, so the 17 chapters should take me through the next couple of months.