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” /]

 

Have we peaked?

This isn’t a terribly well organised or thought through post. I just wanted to get the idea out there, so please forgive the somewhat random nature of what follows.

I have come to the conclusion that our civilisation has peaked.

What do I mean by this? Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the progress of Western civilisation has been steady. Yes, it took bloodshed to give us the rights we hold dear, but conflict has also driven progress, particularly in the technological sphere.

A couple of centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution brought mass production of goods, massive improvements in transport and cities that began to grow exponentially. We began to explore our world, to learn about its limits, and—sadly—to exploit much of it. Natural philosophers discovered gravity, how light works, and made the first stumbling steps into understanding the very building blocks of our universe. We looked up and out, beyond our own planet and dreamed of distant places.

In the 20th century, two global conflicts drove technology. We could fly in heavier-than-air-machines, we could dive below the surface of our oceans. We could destroy cities instantly. After 1945, things began to change socially. Here in the UK we created a welfare state, so no-one would need for a home or food if they should find themselves out of work. A national health service, free at the point of delivery and paid for through taxation, meant illnesses and diseases of poverty were virtually eliminated. Life was still hard, but it was getting easier.

We lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, it is true. A stalemate between two opposing forces, which came almost to blows on many occasions, yet which didn’t prevent society making progress. Civil rights, gender equality, all started in the years following the end of the Second World War. We put men on the Moon!

Yet, as I sit here, tapping away at this keyboard into the ether of another of mankind’s inventions, I can’t help feeling we aren’t making progress any more. Despite the evidence of science, religion is still here. Superstition still has a hold over many millions of our species. Diseases once thought extinct are making a comeback. A world population that’s grown by over four thousand millions since I was born half a century ago is beginning to take its toll on ecology and diversity of our home planet. We were warned about the harm we were doing to our planet, and now it’s virtually too late to stop its effects.

That was a bit depressing. Sorry about that.

I now think, despite iPhones and Internet and jet aircraft and microwaves and organ transplants and space stations, our society has peaked. I think the pinnacle was reached in July 1969, when three men left their home planet, landed on and explored another world, and came safely home to Earth. That, my friends, was the apogee of Western civilisation and Western science. Ever since, for better or worse, we have been in steady decline.

I don’t have an answer, even if I thought there was one. Was there even a question? As I said, this thesis hasn’t really been thought through.

Is it really that difficult?

There’s been another round of updates and refreshes to the digital TV services here in Blighty. New channels have arrived, old channels have gone, and others have been shifted about. It seems the Freeview HD services have had a shuffle about; it seems the standard definition and FreeSat services are unchanged. As ever, I got the phone call from my neighbour to help her sort it out.

That got me thinking. Why should anyone need help to sort out tuning on their TV?

The answer, really, is quite simple: the manufacturers make it too complex.

Between us we have around five digital receivers of one kind or another. As things happen, they’re almost all from different manufacturers. Consequently, although they’re all aimed at the British market and designed to receive British free-to-air digital transmissions, they all have completely different and generally incompatible user interfaces.

Most people aren’t geeky. They buy a telly, plug it in, step through the initial set-up (which is usually painless these days—at least some things are getting better) and never bother to change anything ever again. When they get messages similar to the one above, it might as well be in Mandarin. I spent a good 20 minutes with my neighbour, stepping through two utterly different menu systems on her TVs in order to retune them. I don’t mind admitting on one of the systems even I was confused about where the tuning menus were. To make it worse, we haven’t seen the messages because we don’t have a Freeview HD receiver.

Would it be difficult for the manufacturers to come to some kind of agreement about making things easier? Why can’t tellies just pop up a message that says something like “I’ve detected some changes to the TV channels I receive. Would you like me to retune and set them up for you now? [Yes] [No]“. One message, one button to push. No hunting around the fiddly remotes to work out where the designer hid the Menu button this time, no fumbling around a software engineer’s idea of how a user interface is supposed to work, no confusing the bejeezus out of the elderly.

In the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson “How hard can it be?”

Getting the Chimp off Your Back

The digital era truly revolutionized photography. While most of the advancements were positive, I think the instant gratification that the LCD provides also created a stumbling block. In the days of film, you either got it right or you didn’t. If you were smart you bracketed your shots, and if you knew your way around a darkroom you could make certain fixes, but when all was said and done, you either got it right or you didn’t. Digital, however, changed that– allowing us to cast away our light meters, dive right in, and check our work as we go. A good thing, right? Not entirely, because new-found convenience has also, to an extent, eroded our confidence. One photographer went so far as to tell me recently that LCD actually stands for “Lowers Confidence Dramatically.”

So, what do we do about it?

Excellent article at Digital Photography School.

The only thing I slightly disagree with is the instruction to go completely over to manual mode. I see this a lot, and I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. It’s almost as if we’re being told you can’t be a “proper” photographer unless you control every aspect of the process. I disagree with this because, while it is valuable to understand when and how to use manual controls, the camera is often much smarter than the person using it. I prefer to let my camera work out some of the hard stuff while I get on and capture that light.

Backing up

As you may know, I am one of the four people on the planet still using Apple Aperture for processing my photos. Aperture has a feature that lets you create what the developers call a “Vault”. Essentially, it’s a locked down database of your library, including all the information such as ratings, meta data, and processing. The idea is should your main library (or libraries) become corrupted due to disk failure or similar, you can reload your library from the vault.

Which is all fine and dandy. I’ve been maintaining a vault for a couple of years. Since my library contained virtually everything I have shot since I started seriously shooting with digital, it was getting a bit unwieldy, and when it was about to outgrow its current home I made a decision to create a bunch of smaller libraries and to archive the stuff I don’t need to access regularly.

The problem was I couldn’t get Aperture to make new vaults for the new libraries. Whatever the reason for the failures, in the end I gave up and developed a new backup strategy.

Having a pair of almost matched 500GB drives available, I decided to use them as backups for the RAW original image files. I plan to copy new images from the CF cards directly to Drive A, then import them into the relevant Aperture library. At regular intervals, I will use a utility to copy new files to Drive B, which will be pretty much an identical clone of Drive A. One can then be stored off-site. As the archive grows, I’ll acquire new matched drives and continue to archive to them, leaving the old ones in storage.

Now, obviously, I want all my old files on this archive. Which means I have been patiently plodding through my old library exporting originals to Drive A. I am not bothered about saving processed images. Processing originals again is easy: I may even find I process them differently if it happens. What isn’t so easy is taking the photograph again. If you like, I am backing up the negatives for the twenty-odd thousand images I have taken since 2002 or so.

Interestingly, having this opportunity to sift through my back catalogue has made me realise one or two things. First, I’ve got some awesome shots I have forgotten about, which I really ought to revisit at some stage. Second, I keep an awful lot of rubbish images. I think I will be a good deal more choosy about shots in the future, rather than just dump everything from the card into the library.

So, what’s your backup strategy for your digital photography? Do you even have one?

Too. Much. Information.

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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…

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…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

Spot the difference

Let’s play a nice game for a Sunday morning. See if you can spot the difference between these two social media web pages.

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Screen_shot_2011-07-10_at_09

Okay, the content is different, but otherwise there’s not much between them is there? The first is from my Diaspora* stream, and the second from my Google+ stream.

As you may be aware, my experiment with Facebook ended with deleting my account there. I was unhappy with the arbitrary changes to my security, the constant fight with advertising, and simply trying to keep up with everything going on. Facebook has become mainstream in the past couple of years, to my mind jumping the shark. Every manufacturer wants us to “friend” them, to keep up with all their advertising nonsense. I fell for that at first, but eventually I found I was spending more time fending off requests to join silly games, or managing my interaction with groups I had joined, than doing anything useful. I had entered into my Facebook world with my eyes wide open, knowing my presence there was simply to be sold on as advertising fodder, and even though I had locked down my account as far as possible I could’t ignore the sense of looming paranoia that simply having a Facebook account engendered. I left, and felt much happier for it.

Meanwhile, I had been following the progress of a new kid on the block. Diaspora* was launched as an open source community project to provide a better and more secure alternative to Facebook. Rumours of this new social media site began circulating more than a year ago, and eventually it entered what the developers call a “public alpha” stage. I registered my interest in joining, and finally got my invitation. It made a refreshing, if somewhat spartan, change to the cluttered, overbearing and frankly noisy space inhabited by Facebook. It’s been spartan ever since. While many of my online friends wanted invitations, and signed up, activity is rare. The problem, I think, is while Diaspora* is trying to be a better Facebook, the things that attract people to the latter simply don’t exist in the former.

The other problem is since Diaspora* has been in development, and has made some welcome improvements over the past few months, a big blue gorilla has entered the room and started throwing its not inconsiderable weight about. I’m talking about Google.

In a very short space of time, Google+ has taken the tech world by surprise. Initially only open to join by invitation, Google+ is now open to anyone with a Google account, be it Gmail, Blogger or just the web tools. I signed up yesterday, even though I had intended to sit on the sidelines and let things settle. 

Like Diaspora*, Google+ is still in a field testing phase, but it has already gained more traction in a week than Diaspora* has managed in a year. I can only attribute this to the fact that Google is a well-established—one might even say ubiquitous—presence in the online world. Google has video and photo sharing, maps, web stats, email, a web browser, office applications, and of course web search, already firmly established and available to back up a social media site. Crucially, it also has a growing mobile space with Android. Social media works best when it can be accessed via a smart phone, and Google knows this. Diaspora* has none of this to back up its venture, relying instead on developers taking such projects on and adding them to the pot as they mature. As I write, the sum total of such projects in the Diaspora* world is one, and I’m not even sure what it does.

Google tried a similar social media toy a while ago, launching what they called Buzz. On the surface, it seemed a good idea, but in practice, people found it simply too intrusive and confusing in many ways, and Buzz was consigned to Google’s digital Techno Drawer. You can still sign up for it if you want, but I don’t know anyone who has. But Google is one of those companies that exists to innovate. Ideas spread from Mountain View like sparks from a sparkler. Some fizzle out, others live briefly, yet others manage to hit the mark and grow into something bigger. I think Google+ is one of the latter.

Since the Google gorilla has so much weight to throw around, I wonder what will happen to Diaspora*. Sadly, I don’t think they will be able to muster the resources to overcome Google—Google has literally lifted the best features of Twitter and Diaspora* and built them into Google+. Diaspora* simply doesn’t have the momentum to take on such a behemoth, and I suspect the best outcome will be that Google simply buys them out, for good or ill.

Such an outcome would be sad, albeit inevitable. Diaspora* was launched on a wave of disaffection with the Facebook hegemony, and worries over personal online safety. Facebook has since grown ever larger, and seems unstoppable right now. If anything can take Zuckerberg’s empire on and have a chance at winning, it’ll be the other tainted empire of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Should I be worried? We’ll see. 

Tethered Shooting

Generally, the fastest way to get images from the Canon EOS 7D is a case of popping the CF card out of the camera and into a reader attached to my Mac, then getting Aperture to copy the files into its library. If most of my photography has been out in the field it’s the only sensible method of downloading, especially if there are several cards involved.

Sometimes I find myself working in a studio environment, where seeing the results without recourse to pixel-peeping on the camera’s LCD would be beneficial. If I’m doing some model or macro work, where focus can be quite critical, or if I’ve got a bunch of products I need to shoot where the lighting and framing is all but identical, tethered or remote shooting — where the camera is connected to and controlled by software on a computer — is the way to go.

Canon ships a bunch of software* with their DSLRs, including a utility that lets you set up and control the camera from the computer screen. Combine this with the camera’s Live View feature, where the viewfinder mirror is locked up so you see exactly what the sensor is seeing, and you can perform critical focus and framing while seeing everything as large as your computer’s screen will allow.

Canon’s software hasn’t really been designed with a third party application in mind. I’ve used Digital Photo Professional (Canon’s RAW image management and editing suite) in the past, but let’s just say I was only too happy to move to something better when I could.

01_setup

The ‘Studio’ setup. Black card forms the backdrop, with battery LED lamps to fill in, helped by a reflector on the right which is bouncing the desk lamp light into the scene.

I’ve been an Aperture user for some years now. Apple’s flagship image management and editing software has always supported camera tethering of some sort, but my previous DSLR was not supported. My current camera, the EOS 7D, is supported by Aperture 3. Keen to cut out the comprehensive but rather clumsy Canon control software, I tried it out.

01_aperture_tethered_start_session

With the camera on and connected, choose Tether > Start Session… to begin using Aperture’s tethering controls.

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You are asked to choose some basic settings before you begin…

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…and here’s your control panel. A button to capture the image, and a button to stop the session. Any camera settings must be performed on the camera itself. Aperture tethering is simply a way of downloading the images directly from the camera.

It was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. True, the 7D can be linked to Aperture. But that’s about it. You have some control over the EXIF or IPTC data embedded with the image, there’s a button that lets you fire the camera’s shutter and it does download the resulting image directly into your Aperture project, but for everything else you have to work on the camera itself. There’s not even a way to preview the shot, or activate the autofocus, or change the other parameters on the camera, as far as I can tell. Compare this with the complete remote control of the camera—save zooming in and out or moving the tripod—which is available if you use the EOS Utility.

The task, then, is to work with the Canon software to set up and control the camera, but make sure the images are downloaded into Aperture, neatly sidestepping the rather clunky Digital Photo Professional. Ideally, this should happen automatically, so I can concentrate on the work at hand, but still be able to review images if I need to.

Step forward a handy little free script, built using Apple’s Automator scripting package. Called Aperture Hot Folder, it’s a tiny application that monitors the folder where the EOS Utility is downloading images from your camera, and tells Aperture to import them. Easy.

Aperture Hot Folder is free, which is even better. (It’s for Mac OS X only. I’m sure there are similar things available for Windows and Linux, and Adobe Lightroom, too.)

So, here’s my workflow. Firstly, I set up the camera and connect it to the Mac with the USB cable. Once Aperture is running, and I’ve set up a project for the shots I’m taking, I launch Aperture Hot Folder and step through the instruction screens.

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The first screen explains what the script does, and what to do next.

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Select a folder on the hard drive to watch and click Choose.

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Aperture Hot Folder then asks you to choose an Aperture project to which it should import the images that arrive in the watched folder selected in the previous step. If your Aperture library is large, with lots of projects, this list will be very long!

18_ahf_image_file_choice

Next, you’re asked whether the imported images should be referenced (Aperture-speak for leaving them where they are in the hard drive) or imported into Aperture’s managed library. I choose the latter because I like to work with a managed library and not worry about where originals are.

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Finally, a confirmation screen and instructions on how to stop the script running when you’re done.

With the camera connected, switched on and mode dial set to manual, the next application in the sequence is EOS Utility so we can control the camera.

EOS Utility itself initially shows a main screen where you can choose various functions. It’s a launch pad that gets you into a variety of software for downloading images from the camera, setting the downloads folder and all that kind of thing. 

05_eos_utlitity_main_screen
The part I’m interested in, though, is Camera Settings/Remote Shooting. Clicking this launches the control panel proper.

06_eos_utility_camera_controller

I’m not going into detail with this control panel. As you can see, it’s pretty comprehensive, with plenty of data showing how the camera is set up, battery condition and other information. The round button near the top right is the shutter release button. Before I start, I click the tiny folder icon below the shutter to select the destination folder being watched by Aperture Hot Folder.

From the control panel I can literally control every parameter of the camera, short of physically moving it on the tripod to frame my subjects. With the camera set to manual (M), I can set shutter speed, aperture, ISO, colour balance, file format, etc, by clicking on the relevant element and using the left and right cursor keys to change them incrementally. Remote control also works for aperture and shutter priority, but for full control manual is preferred.

From the menu buttons below the data panel I can pop up the camera’s built-in flash (where I can also control flash exposure levels) and, with the Live View shoot… button, crucially kicking the 7D into Live View shooting mode. 

09_eos_live_view_grid_and_moved_focus

Once in Live View mode, rather than peering at the image on the camera’s LCD, I see it in a larger window on my computer screen. I see exactly what the sensor is seeing. In this new window, I can turn on grid overlays, move the focus block about and set the colour balance to my liking. I can even turn on selective focus and exposure points. Almost every part of the camera’s operation can be controlled from my computer. If the lens is set to autofocus, pressing the shutter release button focuses the lens before the shot is taken—though this is a little hit and miss. If the focus misfires, the resulting shot will still be taken, which is why I prefer to work with manual focus for tethered shooting.

Ae_point

For critical focus, I click the zoom magnifier below the main image or double-click the white rectangle in the image. This area can be dragged around the screen, and once clicked opens an enlargement window zoomed into the defined area. 

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I can drag the image about for a better view, and zoom to 200% to allow really fine manual focus if desired. Closing this window returns me to the main window, although most of the settings are available in both windows. If I have chosen a small aperture, I can also turn on depth of field preview to see how it will appear in the final shot. There is also a mode where the Remote Live View Window will simulate the exposure settings to give me a better feel for the final image. 

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Depth of Field preview off. The lens aperture is wide open, allowing critical focus.

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Depth of Field preview on. This shows me how the image will appear with the aperture set to ƒ/16. The software brightens the image artificially, unlike when you squint through the viewfinder when pressing the DoF preview button on the camera itself!

When I’m happy, I can click the faux shutter button on the control panel, or the real thing on the camera or remote release, and my image is captured and downloaded to the watched folder. I can, of course, check it for focus and colour balance without leaving the Canon software suite if I wish. I’m going to do my reviewing in Aperture, so I will have to wait for a few seconds.

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EOS Utility downloads the captured image from the camera to the watched folder.

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The original downloaded images remain in the watched folder, so they’ve been copied into Aperture’s library rather than moved.

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The captured image appears in Aperture where I can review and work on it.

Once the image has been downloaded to the watched folder, Aperture Hot Folder notices the new arrival and pokes Aperture in the ribs. The new image is imported as a copy to Aperture—leaving the original capture in the hot folder for later disposal, just as when downloading from a CF card—and after a short pause I can study the image in greater detail in my preferred image management software.

While Aperture Hot Folder and Aperture are sorting themselves out, I can carry on and capture further images. Each will be dutifully imported into Aperture while I work. If not seamless, at least it lets me avoid the step of importing the images to Aperture later. Theoretically, I could be capturing the shots on my laptop, controlling the camera settings, while the images are downloaded and then perhaps copied across a network to an assistant working in Aperture who can then process the shots. The potential for a busy studio workflow is there.

I should also add that the EOS Utility and Remote Live View Window let you record video as well as stills. Ideal for the director who simply must see everything as it’s being filmed. I plan to use this feature soon for a short video I have in mind.

It’s definitely not a perfect solution, but it allows me to use the full control Canon provides while still working in my preferred RAW management software. Aperture’s tethered shooting mode comes up a long way short.

 

 

 

*The full list of software Canon provides is Digital Photo Professional (management and RAW editing), EOS Utility (download and camera control), Picture Style Editor (allows the user to edit and create new picture styles which can be uploaded to the camera), PhotoStitch (for creating panoramic images for multiple shots) and PhotoStitch Viewer (to view the resulting panoramas), and CameraWindow (I have no idea what this is for: when you launch it, it launches EOS Utility for you…).

 

 

 

Progress | Flickr – Photo Sharing!

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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.