Monday, April 30, 2007

No More Local Apple Resources?

On Saturday I went looking, with Isaac, for yet another replacement power adapter for the otherwise-functional PowerBook G4. It is an original 400 MHz machine from 2000, but still works, and I find I can't bear to throw out working machines. Except that it has had endless problems with power adapters.

I went to CompUSA, where I have seem them for sale before. I was a bit shocked to find that CompUSA was having a going-out-of-business sale; most of the aisles were closed off, with only a handful of fairly useless discounted items. The Apple Store-within-a-store was completely gone. So, no power adapters for a PowerBook.

I went over to Best Buy. They no longer have any Apple machines for sale at all. Not too long ago they carried some iBooks and Mac Mini units. They seem to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Apple.

Does this really mean that there are no local resources for Apple owners at all in the Ann Arbor area?

There's an Apple Store in Troy. The last time I was there, they had nothing that would work in stock. They only carry new and very recent machines, I guess. They suggested I take a look at the Apple Store online.

They have an adapter that will allegedly work, for $79, but its customer rating is one and a half (out of five) stars "based on 1744 reviews." Wow, that's a lot of pissed-off folks. Given that I've gone through two "yo-yo" adapters for the G4 PowerBook and the adapter for Grace's iBook also fell apart, I'm not inclined to buy another Apple adapter. But I'm not too keen on third-party adapters either; the $45 replacement unit I bought for Grace's iBook is kind of cheesy. The adapter-to-iBook plug won't stay firmly in place. The wall-to-adapter plug won't either. Bump it just a little and one of the two, or both, will become disconnected.

I finally settled for ordering two MacAlly adapters, old/new stock from a seller on eBay. They were only $25 each, but he's charging me over $20 shipping. That seems excessive, but my hope is that this will keep both laptops alive until we can well and truly replace them.

MapleStory and the PC Gets a Makeover

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday trying to help Isaac with problems with his MapleStory online game. It would not work. He had tried installing updates and patches to no avail. I did a complete removal and reinstall and that did not help. In fact I eventually wound up doing a complete reinstall of my Windows 2000 system from scratch on a second hard drive, which involved hours of downloading and installing drivers for the audio, video, and network components of the Intel motherboard, BIOS updates, and then dozens of Microsoft patches including updates to Internet Explorer required to install the updates.

That didn't change anything; it still didn't work. The client would always claim that it could not contact the game servers.

It wasn't a total loss; I now have my partitions set up more like I want them. I also took the opportunity to remove my Fedora Core Linux configuration and install Ubuntu. I don't do serious work on Linux at home but every once in a while I try to do some work with various languages and tools: Open Dylan, GHC (a nice Haskell compiler), etc. I've been meaning to try Ubuntu. It installed very easily, so we'll see how it goes. Linux has too many distros. To really gain acceptance on the desktop one of them needs to garner a larger market share and a lot of momentum. Ubuntu seems to be the best candidate for that, although if I were running a server I might consider CentOS instead.

Anyway, I finally found on one particular forum an answer -- it seems that MapleStory SEA abruptly and without warning blocked access to all players outside of "SEA" (Southeast Asia).

A lot of players have put many months of effort into building characters, acquiring items, etc., and there are hundreds of messages from angry players talking about this.

Now, MapleStory SEA was free to download, and free to play, so obviously the people running the game don't owe these players indefinite free access. However, there's a twist on this. There are some items available in the game that you must purchase with real money -- via PayPal, I believe. We never actually put money into it, but apparently many players have -- sometimes spending hundreds of USD. And they are mad, and it seems to me that they have a right to be mad, since they have lost use of these game items that they paid for in meatspace.

There is another version of MapleStory -- a so-called "global" version allowing play by region. I downloaded that client and installed it. Where the SEA client always gave me a message indicating that it was unable to connect to the game servers, this one starts up, showing the splash screens and all that, but then displays a dialog that says (forgive my ASCII art):

| |
| |
| |
| ------ |
| | OK | |
| ------ |

That's it. No other information. When I press "OK," the client quits. Perhaps an error message that is missing a localized string? In any case, it's a bit hard to Google for that particular error message!

Anyway. I am guessing Isaac won't be playing MapleStory any more. It's a bit of a shame. He's merely disappointed, but some folks are mad!

Friday, April 20, 2007

New Blog

I am starting a blog on things related to guitar playing for music geeks, here. To be updated irregularly, with practice and playing tips and personal notes. We'll see how it goes!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another Guitar

This is a nylon-string acoustic guitar from Carvin, for playing classical-style, with the fingers. Why is it it interesting? But wait, there's more! It has a 13-pin output. For people who aren't guitar geeks, that means you can plug it into a guitar synthesizer so as to produce synthesized sounds that track your picking. Potentially very cool! As a bonus, it has controls to allow volume control of the hex pickups and a switch to drive patch changes -- so you don't have to stick one of the little GK-2A synth modules on the surface of the guitar, like I had to do with my Jag-Stang. It could be just the thing for using a guitar synth in a relatively unobtrusive way, particularly for producing background accompaniment, while performing live!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Some Guitars

I've been playing guitar on and off -- mostly off -- since I was about 17 years old, when I got my first garage-sale acoustic and a hand-me-down Fender Mustang. I believe this was a 1968 "competition" Mustang; it had the "racing stripe." I wish I had that Mustang now -- they have appreciated in value considerably! Although as an adolescent tinkering without any adult supervision I didn't quite know what to do with it, and beat it up pretty badly, dropping it onto concrete garage floors and messing with the truss rod trying to get perfect action. It actually held up to all that abuse pretty well -- the hardware was quite tough, and had a "fit and finish" (including fret dressing) to it that, I have since learned, tends to no longer exist outside the realm of high-end guitars. I eventually sold it at some point while I was in college, which was a uniquely stupid thing to do. But so says the comic collector who laments the loss of his millions when his mom threw his Superman comics away.

The Mustang is so prized in part because it has a wonderful thin, short neck, especially good for guitarists like me with small hands. I learned to play scales, barre chords, and However, the stock Mustang has relatively weak and puny-sounding pickups. I was constantly struggling to try to get hard rock and heavy metal sounds out of that guitar. It wasn't just my technique or my amplifier. Newer, inexpensive Peavey guitars simply produced tones that were much louder and more harmonically rich, because they had stronger pickups. I also did not realize at the time that a heavier string gauge would have helped; I was always using sets starting with nines, to try and make the fingerings a little easier on my hands.

The Mustang also had what was at the time a somewhat innovative whammy bar arrangement, although this gave it rather poor tuning stability. Touch the whammy bar and you were almost guaranteed to go out of tune.

I've gone through a couple of other guitars. One was an Aria Pro II, a Japanese Stratocaster copy built with reasonably good fit and finish, but which eventually became pretty unplayable because of a warped neck. I also had a black Yamaha Pacifica with a fixed bridge, an inexpensive guitar which I now consider an extremely good student guitar giving excellent value for the money, although all the parts are relatively cheap and the whole thing lacked hand-polish.

I've owned a couple of acoustics. My first was a Yamaha acoustic with a warped neck that my mom found at a garage sale. That guitar almost turned me off guitar altogether; it went into the shop a couple of times, but could never be completely straightened out. I have a vague memory of eventually attempting to smash it, and finding out that it is a lot harder to smash a guitar than certain rock stars have made it look. I owned an inexpensive Fender acoustic that might have been an earlier incarnation of the Malibu; it had an electric neck with a strat-like headstock. I owned an Epiphone 12-string acoustic that I was largely unable to play well; 12-string acoustics are just a little too hard on my hands, although it had a nice tone. That guitar also got damaged in a fall when another student knocked it off my bed onto a hard floor. I was surprised to find that my friend Bill Louth still owns that guitar and at some point it was repaired!

At some point I purchased a used (and somewhat battered) Ovation acoustic because I needed an acoustic guitar i could plug in. This guitar has a nice, light body and a punchy sound. The electronics sound pretty good. I used it, along with an electric, for nearly all of my playing with the St. Francis church band. The neck is buzzy, though, and it needs a little bit of setup and fret work.

My current electric guitar is a Fender Jag-Stang. This falls into the category of things that "seemed like a good idea at the time." I bought it at a guitar show. The Jag-Stang is a bit of a white elephant. Rushed into production, it feels like a cheaply made Mustang with a Jaguar body -- which it pretty much is. It lacks the body contouring of my old Mustang, which makes it less comfortable to play. The hardware has a cheap feel to it, the color is orangish instead of Mustang red, and the fretwork is mediocre. However, it does have the Mustang-shaped neck, which I like. I originally tried to do my own rewiring job, with some Seymour-Duncan pickups. Having screwed up some guitars in my teens, I thought I could probably get one right this time. But wiring a guitar was more difficult than I thought it would be, especially since I wanted to configure the switches to bypass volume and tone, which involved a lot of extra wires. The result didn't work out very well -- the ground wasn't quite right, and the finished guitar had a tendency to pick up radio stations -- just like the Air Force base concert in This is Spinal Tap! So I eventually ripped the guts out, stuck them in a plastic bag, printed out a wiring diagram for the setup I wanted, and paid Elderly Instruments in Lansing to put it back together for me, gritting my teeth and nodding politely when the tech gave me his "what kind of an idiot could even _do_ this to a guitar?" look.

Elderly did a great job with the wiring, and permanently installed my Roland guitar synth pickup. The pickups sound quite decent now, but there was only so much they could do for the setup.

So, there's not all that much that can be done for the Jag-Stang. They are quirky instruments, loved by some but not really well-built. The pickguard is coming apart. The whammy will never really be functional. I switched to heavier strings -- starting with 11, for more tone, and the guitar then sat upstairs while we had months of problems with our heat. Now the neck needs adjustment; the action is terrible. I'm assuming it can be straightened again, which may be a false assumption. To do that on this guitar, you've got to take the neck off, and possibly the pickguard. I could try to do that myself, or I could take it back to Elderly. But in either case, even assuming I can get the action to a good point again, it's still always going to be a mediocre guitar with a comfortably familiar neck. I've been contemplating trying to build up a new Jag-Stang pretty much from scratch, with a neck and body by Washburn, trying to retain my customized electronics. But I'm not a luthier, and I'm not going to be a luthier, at least not with so little free time available at this point in my life.

So, I'm at a bit of a turning point. I've recently, after watching some concert DVDs, felt the urge again to work on my playing. My fingers still work pretty well. While it is often a beginner's excuse, at some point it becomes true that a poor instrument can prevent you from progressing further. It occurs to me as I approach my fortieth birthday that I've never actually owned a truly fine guitar. So I find myself wondering whether it would be possible and reasonable to get one, or if I'm just approaching a midlife crisis.

So what would I consider a "truly fine" guitar?

There is a Fender Mustang reissue, but I really doubt whether it measures up in the fit-and-finish department, and I'm not really all that interested in all the customization I'd need to do in order to make it sound like a modern guitar.

Right now, the guitar I admire the most -- having never actually played one, mind you -- is the PRS Custom 24 in "whale blue" on flame maple: Elderly instruments site.

I am in love with that subdued blue color. I'd like the opportunity to try out this instrument and determine if my hands can handle the neck. I'm interested in trying out a 24-fret neck, at least in principle, for soloing. The buzz on the parts quality of recent PRS instruments seems to be mixed, though. I don't want to pay an extra thousand bucks when accountants, not luthiers, are choosing to include cheap Korean tuning machines.

There is a used 24-fret bolt-on PRS at Elderly also. The color is a little garish for my taste, although it isn't fair to judge the color via the web site, but it is a little more affordable and could be a good compromise between cheap and "the hype is included in the price." There's a 22-fret Swamp Ash Special that costs even less. It's had the stock pickups changed out, which interests me, and it is black -- it is hard to go wrong with black -- but I have my heart set on at least trying a 24-fret instrument.

There are also some Ernie Ball Music Man models with 24-fret necks, but Elderly doesn't have any in stock at the moment.

While this isn't my preferred color, I also really like the body contouring on this Ibanez instrument available at Sweetwater.

This Peavey also looks pretty fine, although it also isn't my preferred color, also available from Sweetwater.

Here's a Valley Arts model that is probably a fine guitar, with that lovely faded blue color, although it isn't a 24-fret model.

Some of the Parker Fly guitars are 24-fret designs, in particular the Parker Fly Mojo, but I have not studied them much. So my choice of scale length and number of frets will have to pretty much come down to playability. And, of course, I won't really have money available for this kind of purchase for some time, if indeed I can ever actually prioritize such a purchase high enough to actually do it.

I used to get Carvin catalogs, and the prospect of ordering a custom-made Carvin guitar seems interesting.

Do you own any of these guitars? Like them? Recommend something else? I'm trying to avoid getting hung up on brand names; I don't want to be sold on something crappy. How about for someone with small hands who gravitates towards the Mustang neck but a hotter-pickup sound? Comments welcome.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Simon R. Greene's Nightside Novels

I've finished the first seven Nightside books by Simon R. Greene. Verdict: entertaining, although by the seventh book, Hell to Pay, they are getting a bit repetitive. The story arc of the first six books concluded, and the seventh is more of a standalone story. Greene raises the stakes and things get even more gruesome and dark. Not recommended for anyone offended by the notion of magic and evil powers that roam the night, but despite the grotesque trappings, Greene's world is actually rather mild, so I didn't hesitate to let Isaac read these. In Greene's world, while there a lot of dark forces at work, there is also right and wrong, even if the hero of the stories falls somewhere in between.

Two Noir Films

So, after watching some modern noir-inspired films, like Dark City, I decided to use the magic of Netflix to explore some more noir films. This is a very cool "long tail" phenomenon; I never would have been able to explore an interest like this so easily and so cheaply!

Anyway, we've watched two noir films so far: the first one was T-Men. With cinematography by John Alton, this looked promising visually, but aside from a couple of visually interesting scenes it was largely unremarkable, even kind of dull. We did get a good laugh out of the line "Ever spent ten nights in a turkish bath looking for a man?" Hidden homoeroticism; intentional or unintentional? Who knows?

The second one was He Walked by Night. This one features considerably better acting. Several scenes in particular are really stunning: a firefight in a darkened building, a chase through the sewers, with leaping shadows, and the final stake-out where the bad guy is lit by lights shining through Venetian blinds. These are noir cliches now but they are just gorgeous. Although the second film is much more engaging, it is also marred by a weak ending, and all the interesting details we've learned about the bad guy are just left hanging. I guess in 1948 audiences didn't demand to understand the motivations of their villains.

So far these two noir films have confirmed my initial suspicion that most noirs from the 1940s were more influential than they were truly good films. But we've got several more lined up. I'm mostly interested in the films John Alton worked on -- his use of lighting is absolutely amazing -- but if anyone has other specific recommendations for interesting noir films I'd be happy to hear them.

You can see some images from both films here.