Tag Archives: technology

A journey into sound

When I was very young, my parents owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It had multiple speed playback and twin tracks. My sister and I played with this thing for hours, making funny noises, over-dubbing sounds, and generally having a high old time.

I was hooked. As they often say, “the colours are better on radio”. Theatre of the mind, where your imagination fills in the images from the sounds alone. I have a particular fondness for sound effects records, and ambient sounds of real places in particular. It’s just another of those myriad creative pastimes I’ve developed through my life.

Have a search around the interweb and you’ll find numerous projects which aim to capture for posterity sounds of the every day mundanities of life. Things like birdsong in an urban environment, the sound of a stream trickling through a culvert, the 8.15 to Harpenden… that kind of thing. A favourite is the London Sound Survey. Sound, for many, is something we don’t often think about, and with most of us plugged into headphones or earbuds, blocking out the world around us, it’s easy to lose that audible connection with our surroundings.

Anyway, last year, Best Beloved and I invested in a modern digital audio recorder. We’ve owned various analogue and digital recorders over the years, but most were strictly linear in form. You recorded the sound, you played the recording back, and if you wanted to get the sound into another format you had to transfer it real time. No accessing a digital file in those days. Now, with the new toy, we could make a recording, and get it into the computer for editing with a few clicks of a mouse.

Long story short, we are steadily building a library of some commonplace sounds of our modern world—and some of our not-so-modern world. To that end, I’ve set up a SoundCloud account where we can share the edited recordings with the world. The first playlist I’ve created is of recordings made on the Severn Valley Railway, Shropshire, last year. For best results, play back through good speakers, or a good set of headphones.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/playlists/259485122″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

 

I think I’m getting too old for this

20140629-162948-59388675.jpg

I’ve been holding off updating my desktop Mac’s operating system for ages. This was partly inertia, partly “if it ain’t broke”, partly worries over an incompatibility with some hardware management software.

Having got an iPad, though, I eventually found my lack of interest in updating the OS was leading to incompatibilities. I couldn’t sync properly, and some of the apps I use were being updated but not supported on the otherwise happily working OS. Also, a new version of the OS will be with us quite soon.

I’d sort of made up my mind about how to do the upgrades a few weeks ago. I began the process of migrating photo libraries, and then forgot about the upgrade! This weekend, the news broke that my preferred photo management and editing software, Aperture, was no longer going to be developed by Apple.

My hand was being forced. I took the plunge. Better to be as up-to-date as possible, making a potential switch to new software less painful down the line.

As I type, a great chunk of iMovie updates are downloading. Numbers, Pages, iPhoto and Aperture all wait in the queue. Then another ton of OS patches.

If I am lucky, I’ll get to see if the hardware drive management software will be compatible after all. If it’s not, then the drive gets reformatted to Apple standards.

I’m getting too old for all this. Gone are the days when I wanted to be at the bleeding edge. I much prefer the comfortable, if worn out, slippers to the shiny, new, but toe-pinching ones everyone else is wearing!

Too. Much. Information.

Img_4195

I remember when I got my first serious 35mm SLR camera. It was a Zenit EM, carved from solid lead, and with an instruction booklet that had maybe 24 pages in total. From the booklet you learned about loading film, about settings, about taking a picture, about winding the film on a frame, and about all the natty accessories you could get to complement your camera.

All so simple. Even the Olympus OM10 instruction booklet was slim and to the point. Let’s face it, analogue photography was a much simpler affair all round.

Not that I don’t like my digital cameras. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love them, but I really enjoy using them to make images. The immediacy of digital, I think, has made me happier to experiment and play.

A downside, though, is modern digital cameras are just so eminently adjustable. Once you get lost in the maze of menus, it is very easy to lose track. This is my problem. I’ve owned my EOS 7D for about 18 months now, and I have it pretty much set the way I like it. I think. I can’t actually remember some of the settings I’ve adjusted, or why I adjusted them. I keep rummaging through the menus, vainly trying to recall whether it was C.FnIII-12 or C.FnI-4 where I set the noise reduction levels or AI Servo 1st/2nd img priority, and why would I want to register an AF point anyway‽

You might say I should read the manual more thoroughly. This is very true, but herein lies another problem. The manufacturer’s manual is great at explaining what Button X does when you press it, and what Custom Function Z does when you set it. It’s not at all great at explaining what Button X and Custom Function Z are actually for! It’s all very well being informed that pressing Button X makes a beep, but why and under what circumstances would I require a beep to be made by pressing the button? Take my beef about registering an AF point, mentioned earlier. Great. I know how to do that, but not why I would want to do that. I’m digressing, as I tend to when I am in full-on rant mode! Back to the theme…

All the while the camera seems to be working as I want I feel comfortable. There is a nagging doubt, though, that there is something I have neglected, or accidentally switched on when it really would be better switched off. So, the time has come for me to reset everything back to the way it was when Canon shipped it out of their factory.

Why am I apprehensive about doing this? I don’t know. Part of me worries, I think, that I might forget to switch back on a feature I use a lot. A larger part figures it is a Good Thing to start afresh occasionally. After all, I’m still discovering new things about the machine, and a reset may well let me learn something else new. 

You couldn’t say that about the Zenit or Olympus. Once you’d mastered the basics, you just got on with things. Digital cameras are a whole new species in comparison.

It ain’t pretty…

Img_4109

…but it works.

The ongoing saga of my ancient laser printer entered a new chapter today. The network card has been squiffy for a while, essentially randomly disconnecting itself whenever it felt like it. 

Fed up with marching to and fro, cajoling and applying percussive maintenance, I decided to get to the bottom of the problem. I reasoned the issue was with the RJ-45 connector alone, and I looked at the possibility of replacing the component.

That proved impossible, and another repair also looked unlikely, namely tweaking the little sprung contacts. After about an hour of further investigation, it became apparent that once connection was made, any movement of the printer—even just the movement made when the print engine kicked in—was causing the cable connector to shift micrometres and disconnecting.

In desperation, and not wishing to buy another used JetDirect card which may end up with the same “fault” I resorted to wedging the connector in the socket with folded bits of paper. This survived the “thump and bash” test to my satisfaction.

As I said, it ain’t pretty, but it works. Old Faithful lives to fight yet another day.

Related: Hello, old friend! / Farewell, old friend

Progress | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

Media_httpfarm6static_dcezb

The price of progress. Twenty gigabytes today is roughly equivalent to a 1.4MB floppy diskette in terms of what it can hold.

There seem to be lots of homeless hard drives about my studio at the moment. Some are of sensible sizes, around 80GB, salvaged from busted external enclosures or defunct laptops. Others—like this one—are mere doorstops, as their capacity is just too small in this day and age. I haven’t the heart to destroy them.

There’s a mouse loose…

Img_0395

For some reason, this Apple Desktop Bus Mouse II has found its way onto my desk. I guess I was absent-mindedly rummaging in our Techno Drawer for something, and pulled the mouse out with a view to using it on the ancient and creaking Macintosh SE/30 stashed in the other room.

It’s fun to play with old tech occasionally, but it soon becomes apparent just how limited such things are in a modern context.

Reliving the past

I’ve just taken a trip down Memory Lane. It’s not at all like I remember it.

They say the past is another country. If you remember my saga about the ancient AppleTalk printer a while ago, you will recall the machine used to be partnered with an elderly Apple laptop, running an obsolete operating system. The sole reason for this was the proprietary Apple networking protocol, and my odd refusal not to purchase an ethernet-enabled printer in the first place all those years ago.

_mg_3626

The laptop in question is a PowerBook G3 Series, one of the first of the original curvy and rather sexy laptops that Apple created just after Steve Jobs returned as CEO. Further investigation into the machine’s provenance leads me to believe it may be one of the first Wallstreet models available, which dates it to around May 1998. It also appears to be the baby of the range, cheekily dubbed “Mainstreet” by the pundits! Geekily, this means it doesn’t have the L2 cache which its more expensive brethren had, which meant it was a bit of a slowcoach all told. 

_mg_3628

The official specs, therefore, look like this: 233MHz PowerPC G3 CPU, no L2 cache, 13.3in TFT screen, 6GB internal hard drive, 128MB RAM in two 64MB modules, running Mac OS 9.2.2 – the last of the “classic” operating systems before OS X muscled in. The ’Book can have two batteries installed in the module bays either side, but only one of the batteries I acquired with the machine holds any charge, and that for about a minute! There is a CD-ROM (20x no less!) in the right bay, and I have a floppy disk drive module. There is a double PCI card slot, so in theory at least, it could be enhanced with USB and FireWire connectivity if I desired. It has a modem, as well as the then regulation AppleTalk socket, and a high-density SCSI socket. Finally, a VGA monitor output rounds off the equipment.

_mg_3627

For something approaching its 13th birthday, it stands up pretty well. Okay, the screen is pretty dim by modern standards, the keyboard horribly clattery, and the hard drive is noisy and sounds very fragile indeed. Since the machine was only ever intended to act as a bridge between my wired network and the printer, I only bothered with the barest essentials of software beyond the standard OS installation. There’s a copy of AppleWorks on there, a freebie copy of Corel WordPerfect 3.5 Pro, and a copy of Microsoft Word 5 — probably the best version of that long-lived word processor that ever existed. (Interestingly, the full copy of Word 5 weighs in at a staggering 895Kb on disk. Yes, under a megabyte. The decade-old copy of Word X I also own comes out at over 13MB, and I really don’t think it was an improvement.)

_mg_3635

So, how does the old warhorse perform? If you want my honest opinion, I’m rather like Marvin the Paranoid Android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. When asked what he thought about humanoid brains, the robot with a brain the size of a planet opined he couldn’t imagine how anything could live in anything that small. It would definitely be hard to survive with 6GB of hard drive in this digital photo, high-def video and MP3 collection world. If all I wanted was a clackety typewriter, and wasn’t overly fussed if I knocked it off a table, then it would be fine. Of course, there’s the added complication of how to get any text files off the PowerBook and into the 21st century, but let’s not get sidetracked by small details!

The other thing of note is just how heavy the critter is. Did Apple road warriors really lug this machine about with them in the real world? It weighs about as much as my car, and it is supposedly lighter and slimmer than the PowerBook model it replaced. I can’t see where the weight comes from, unless the motherboard or frame is made of some base metal. With the G4 PowerBook and the MacBook Pro, you can easily pick the machine up with one hand. I daren’t risk it with the black behemoth, without having a hand spare to take the weight before it slips to the ground! I’d not want to spend any time with the thing on my lap, if I’m honest.

The old tech hard drive is abominably noisy. It whines and squeaks, and sounds like a dying animal when it spins down or back up again. It does feel very fragile, especially when compared to the battleship construction of its host machine. From experience, though, I know it’s dead easy to replace it should the need arise.

_mg_3631

The keyboard is clunky, yet all the keys are where my fingers expected them to be. This, in my opinion, is one of the things Apple has always got right, and it’s nice to know they haven’t really changed the pitch of the numerous keyboards that have come and gone since 1998. 

_mg_3622

The TFT screen is very dim. At first I thought it was purely down to being cold, but it didn’t get better after an hour of running. It also displayed a distinct yellow tinge, rather like a nicotine stained window in an old pub. With the machine sitting in front of my current machine, the newer screen is much, much brighter.

I’m led to understand the Wallstreet was capable of running OS X. While the idea of installing OS X 10.3 — the latest version it should be capable of supporting — would be interesting, I don’t actually think I’ll bother. The hard drive isn’t big enough, realistically, and I’d like a good deal more RAM installed to make it even a viable proposition. I also own the replacement G3 PowerBook model, the bronze keyboard 400MHz machine, and that only just copes with Panther installed, so I don’t know how well the Wallstreet would cope.

In conclusion, while it’s lovely a teenaged laptop Mac is still reasonably usable, it isn’t usable in any real world sense any more. The modern world has moved on apace since the late 1990s, and while it’s true you can still connect to the internet, the experience is not one that could be said to be enjoyable in any meaningful way. When compared to modern kit, it’s painfully slow, but when it was new it was one of the fastest and best-equipped laptops money could buy. We just expect more from our kit these days, I suppose. The past really is a different country.

As an interesting saunter down Memory Lane it’s been fun, but as a usable machine in today’s online world, I’m afraid the PowerBook G3 “Wallstreet” is a very much a museum piece.

 

Related posts: Hello, Old Friend; Farewell, Old Friend.

DNA

This article by the late great Douglas Adams cropped up on Twitter earlier. It’s still remarkably cogent.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this: 

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; 
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; 
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really. 

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Thanks to Adam Banks and others for jogging the brain cells.

Incidentally, I can’t actually believe it’ll be ten years since Adams died in May next year? How time flies. Sadly, although the world is a smaller, shabbier place since he left us, I am kind of glad he’s not been around to see the spiralling madness since 9/11.