Yearly Archives: 2008

The echo chamber, or are you listening?

I spent most of today remixing and remastering a number of songs I posted to Facebook. I wonder if it's worth the effort putting these songs up on my profile. Only one person really comments on them and not often. I bet if I were to ask any of my Facebook friends in person whether they heard anything I posted, the answer would be no.

And why shouldn't it?

From last I heard, about 35,000 albums get released every year. That

34,999 more people than I, trying to get someone to listen to their

work. And what about the unknown number of people working in their home

studios, putting their stuff online? I'm just saying I have a realistic

expectation about the number of people who listen to me. It's probably

some asymptopic number. (But plotted on what kind of graph?)

Or perhaps my friends are truly courteous and don't want to hurt my feelings. Yes, I am human, and criticism can be hard to take. But I like to think I'm a bit more left-brained than the temperamental types so stereotypical of creative individuals. I'd rather hear why and how I suck to see whether it matches up with my own perceptions of why and how I suck.

(Aside from my singing. That's plainly obvious to me. And to my family. My friends, though, don't seem to bring it up. Politeness? Or just a higher threshold for crap singing?)

Perhaps part of the conundrum is the fact I'm limiting my distribution channels. I'm not a very active member of Metafilter, and my audience on Facebook is, at present, only 86 people. Maybe I should post to more places. Such as this site …

Eponymous 4 – 星に願いを

(This is a cover of a song by one of my favorite Japanese singers, Cocco. I bet no one is going to comment here either.)

Copyright, copyleft, copycenter

When I decided to experiment with releasing a CD earlier in the year, I became a member of ASCAP, just to be thorough. I'm nowhere near the point where I could start using ASCAP's services, but I didn't see the harm in signing up.

A couple of weeks ago, I started receiving a e-mail newsletter from ASCAP containing some pretty good links analyzing the changing paradigms in the music industry. One thing that struck me was the vitriolic tone of the newsletter's author against Creative Commons.

In fact, ASCAP gives some pretty confounding advice about Creative Commons. From what I can tell, ASCAP thinks Creative Commons encourages creators to give away all their rights, leaving no recourse for compensation or protection. But I don't get that sense from Creative Commons at all. Lawrence Lessig, of course, answers ASCAP's claims, and in doing so confirms a few things that makes me skeptical of Creative Commons as well — but not to the degree of ASCAP.

When I read that CC licenses are non-revocable (see the quesition "What if I change my mind?"), I had to stop and think about it. If I slap a CC license on some music files I post to the web, anyone who grabs that file can use it under that license. If I take that license off, the next person who downloads the file can't use it under that license, but the previous person can. So, uh, how do I make sure that distinction is explicitly noted? That would be up to me, the content creator, to figure out, and I have enough to think about with creating content.

But for the most part, I don't see much harm in Creative Commons, and I don't see how it would interfere with the mandates of ASCAP. ASCAP doesn't deal with mechnical royalties, and Creative Commons seems more applicable to tangible products — i.e. recordings — than to live concerts and broadcasts. If I screw myself out of mechanical royalties because of an overly-generous CC license, what business is it of ASCAP's? Maybe in the realm of podcasts would ASCAP's involvement be an issue, but putting a file on my web site does not constitute a broadcast or performance. It's distribution of a physical product. And ASCAP clearly stays out of that business altogether.

At the same time, I'm not going to slap a Creative Commons license on everything I create. In fact, I really don't have any plans to use Creative Commons at all. CC licenses are good for people who want to encourage derivative works, and I'm really not that generous. Every time I think about using a license, my instinct always seems to lean toward more restrictive language. If that's the case, I may as well slap on "All rights reserved" on my work and be done with it.

Honestly, I'm just trying to get things finished. I'm almost reaching the point where I need to consider these options more seriously, but I'm going to put that off for now.

Still, Creative Commons doesn't strike me as the bogeyman ASCAP would like me to believe, and at the same time, I'm not convinced it's the panacea for an aging and sickly commercial music model.

My idea of a good time does not involve …

  • Trying to figure out if I'm doing something wrong or if I've found a bug.

For the last two days, I've been trying to figure out how to use the getid3 library. I integrated it with CodeIgniter and build a simple interface to edit Eponymous 4 MP3s online. There's no documentation, and the demo scripts included in the package are minimal and not very instructive.

I ran into a problem with URL information getting wiped out when I make an update. I managed to fix the URL writing, only to discover the year went missing. The only way to get both to work was to set the library to write ID3v.2.4 tags, which is not a widely adopted version of the specification. My dealings with ID3 tags are all abstracted through software. MP3Tag is my editor of choice, and it pretty much shields me from the minutiae of dealing with the specification. It's only when I'm trying to build my own tag writing tool do I find the differences between the versions confounding.

Let's take the example of Sony Sound Forge.

Sound Forge would sometimes complain about MP3s I would open up, and I would just pass it off as a Unicode thing. Sound Forge 8 supported ID3v2.2, which uses an ISO-8859-1 (Latin-1) encoding, and I have a lot of files with Japanese tags in UTF-8. Sound Forge 9 supports ID3v2.3, but sometimes, it still would complain, even with English-tagged files. I discovered today that files I tag in MP3Tag wrote v.2.4 tags instead of v.2.3, and that would make Sound Forge complain. (Thankfully, an option in the preferences allows me to write out v2.3.)

I'm not sure what kind of problems might pop up if my online tag editor writes only v2.4. tags, but I would prefer to use v2.3, since it seems to be the most common. I'm fairly sure the problem I encountered today with AWOL tags is a bug, because I went into the library, moved a line and fixed the problem with URLs and years writing at the same time. If I can hack a solution, then it's a pretty serious problem.

  • Overly long Christmas concerts, especially on an empty stomach

At noon, I went to the state capitol to hear a large crowd of tuba players perform Christmas carols. I was hoping it would be a half-hour set, because I was getting hungry. Around 12:20, I wasn't concerned about the length of the concert. But then they players kept playing and playing and playing. Toward the midpoint of the concert, the carols got a bit more obscure, and the playing got murkier. When I checked my watch again, it was 12:45, and my stomach was rumbling. I had started to make snide remarks at the 12:15 mark, but when I saw the concert had really gone longer than I expected, I let that hipster snark fly.

People started clapping in tempo with "Jingle Bells", so I had to be a dick and clap at a faster tempo. When the conductor attempted to address the audience, I critiqued his inability to project by calling him not a singer. I hummed a pedal tone at the fundamental during "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", because really, no performance of that carol can go without one. I joked that I'd pay to hear these players do "Carol of the Bells", only to eat my words when they got around to doing it.

I didn't really want to tear away from debugging the ID3 thing, but we were going to lunch afterward. We were out for three hours. I don't ever stay late in the office on a Friday, but I didn't want to leave till I had a solution for the ID3 problem.

Also, the server at the restaurant took his sweet time with everything. He maybe earned 15 percent of that compulsory 18 percent gratuity.

I think I would have had a better time if I had not gone at all.

  • Waiting for UPS to fish out a package

The moment I saw a notice on my door that UPS tried to make a delivery yesterday, I groaned. I wondered why my mom would send a package through UP(O)S, and this time of year, they're worse than ever. The slip indicated I could leave my signature, and the package would be delivered even if I weren't present. So that's what I did.

Of course, I came home hours later than usual, having battled an ID3 problem and attended a too-long concert, and I found another frakking slip on my door. The deliveryman (intentionally sexist to remain grammatically correct) used the slip to create modern art, because I couldn't figure out heads or tails what he'd do next. He marked that a third attempt would be made but scratched that out. He marked the package would be left at the office but scratched that out. Then he circled that a third attempt would be made and marked a time I would not be at home. Fuck — make up your mind.

My mom left a message on my answering machine asking if I got the package, and I called her back to say yes and no — they kept delivering it, and they kept taking it back. I told her she would get better service from the Post Office. Man — how bad do you have to be that the federal government can do a better job than you?

I decided to call UPS and do the dreaded will call. That meant heading out in the middle of nowhere, then waiting in a cramped lobby while the drivers unload the truck to find the package in question. I got there at 7:25 p.m. and didn't get my package till 8:10 p.m. I should be thankful — some people showed up only to be told the driver wouldn't be back till 9 p.m.

Showing up on Saturday at 9 a.m. would have been another option, but I've had packages get back on the truck before. As Double-A would say about her dog, "Not the brightest bulb on the planet."

UPS reminds me of software with such rigid, bad interfaces that any deviation from a set procedure produces unwanted or no results. Kind of like Finale. Or Internet Explorer 6. I don't think I've ever encountered a delivery service that does so much to make receiving packages such a difficult endeavor.

Meetings most inappropriate

At work, I'm one of two people heading up an initiative to improve a web-based tool used day in and day out by our department. I don't know why, but they're some of the rowdiest meetings I've ever attended at work.

I've been in a lot of meetings (who hasn't?) and most of them are very cordial, mostly serious, very business-like. Then you attend my meeting, and it just gets inappropriate. At some point, someone turns into a 12-year-old boy and reads something into the phrase such as "getting her carpet cleaned." Today's meeting went 39 minutes before someone mentioned a pharmaceutical popular among the spamming sect.

A number of people in the meeting have been at the company for a long time, and trips down Amnesia Lane are not uncommon. Most of the time, these excursions are triggered when we explore the interface of this particular web-based tool and run across names of long-gone employees.

The attendance of the meetings has been pretty good, mostly because it really doesn't feel like a meeting. And I'm the person who schedules them, so ultimately, they're my meetings.

It makes me curious what factor makes this particular group so relaxed. I was talking to one of the other people who attend, and he says no one acts that way in the other meetings they share. I don't even act that way at other meetings. So what's happening here that's not happening elsewhere?

It's probably because I never lead any meetings, and I don't know what the hell I'm doing. It's not like I've never led meetings before. I held them all the time when I was an editor at the college paper, and I took that role way too seriously. I haven't really taken up any leadership positions ever since because, well, they make me cranky.

It's part of the reason I was reluctant to be a point person for this initiative. I know my tendency to be … particular about how things should be done, and my coworkers have so far been spared from that. Thankfully, I have an experienced manager in the group who is far better at this kind of stuff, and I'm often more than glad to step back and let her run the ship. If anything, she's probably setting the tone for the meetings more than I am.

(Yeah. That's it. It's her fault.)

I can't rule out the mix of right personalities in the group either. Get some like-minded people in a room, and things get done without losing a sense of humor.

But I still wonder how the rambunctious tenor of these meetings reflects on my leadership ability. Does it portend good things or bad things? It might make me look charismatic, or it might make me look unable to take control.

Well, I'm not particularly fired up to find out.

The creaming method

Tomorrow, my work group is holding its first holiday potluck. Our department held a potluck before Thanksgiving, but this one is just for us. For the past few years, I've become something of an ambassador for Filipino cuisine, which is odd since I don't really eat much Filipino food.

I've brought in chicken adobo, lumpia and bibinka to the office, and because no one has ever eaten these foods before, they all think it tastes really good. But I'm not much of a cook, Filipino or otherwise, and I know when things don't come out right. I'm the only one who knows.

I'm bringing bibinka for this potluck, and tonight I experimented with method I've seen time and again on Good Eats — the creaming method. I started watching Good Eats in 2002, not because I was interested in cooking but because I thought Alton Brown was hot. I kept watching because the show uses humor as an instructional tool. In other words, I watched it because it entertained me. Your run-of-the-mill cooking show usually bores the crap out of me. But throw in cheap props and comedic acting, and I'll watch an egg boil.

The creaming method involves mixing room temperature butter with sugar first. Then mixing the flower with the butter-sugar mixture. Once the dry components have gained a bit of volume, the wet ingredients — for this recipe, vanilla, eggs, milk — are mixed together, then put on top of the dry ingredients. They're all combined, then baked.

In the past, I'd just toss everything into the bowl and hope for the best. Sometimes the bibinka came out surprisingly crisp. Other times — particularly when I didn't let the butter soften — it came out greasy and gooey. Tonight, I was wonderfully surprised by the results. The creaming method mixes air into the mixture, so essentially, I lightened up the batter. The batch I baked tonight had a light color but a crispy exterior. It was still chewy but easy to bite.

I think I may have found the secret to my aunt's bibinka. She took my mom's recipe and made some changes, improving it to the point where my mom started using my aunt's recipe. My mom only gave me the ingredient list and just told me to mix everything together. She never really makes note of a process. But now I have the creaming method, and I have the most surprising and pleasing results to show for it.

I knew all these years of oggling at Alton Brown would pay off. I just wish now he'd get a haircut.

rm -r

rm -r

In UNIX command prompt-speak, it simply means "remove recursively". More verbosely, it means "nuke everything on this directory and every directory under it."

The rm command only removes files, not directories. To remove directories, you can use the rmdir command. But I was raised on graphical user interfaces (Windows Explorer, anyone?), and I'm conditioned to expect widespread damage from a click of a delete button. It gets tiresome typing rm and rmdir separately, especially with lots of files and directories.

rm -r is the lazy way out — it removes files and directories. It's fast, convenient, and like any other delete function, deadly if you're not careful.

My near-death experience happened this afternoon when I typed rm -r [path redacted] to remove files I mistakenly checked out of source control. The instant I pressed Enter, I realized I was at the wrong directory level, and I was in fact deleting a folder containing source for five of my sites — and the Smarty templates for all of my sites — from my production server. That is, from my publicly accessible sites!

I could have just checked it all out of source control again, but some portions of the sites weren't put under source control for very specific reasons. Thankfully, I mirror everything in a test environment so that I can iron out bugs before moving changes to the production environment. So I just copied the test files over to production and was up and running again.

Aside from a few oddities, which were cured by clearing out the Smarty cache, I was maybe borked for about 20 minutes.

Nonetheless, rm -r is one of tho most dangerous keystrokes someone in my field can type. As vigilant as I try to be, sometimes quick fingers prevail.

In other news, I have managed to move the Eponymous 4 official site — and it's "audition" sister site — over to CodeIgniter. They don't look or act any different, which is the point. The sites should act and feel like nothing has changed, even though a lot have. That's how I measure a successful launch.

I find your lack of initiative disturbing

Tonight, I broke a policy of mine I pretty much instated in the last three or so years — never to work on web development at home.

There was a time in my life when I would go to work and code, then go home and code. It was the early part of the decade, when I had just been trained on the intricacies of web development, and I wanted to automate everything. I reinvented wheels all over the place, justifying the effort as "learning experiences" and "coding to exact needs".

And I built some pretty big sites in the day.

It's kind of weird to think my first scripts were written in 1999 — nearly 10 years ago. Have I been at this for that long?

The policy not to work on web development at home arose after I started paying more attention to home recording. Sure, I could have used my free time to learn Ruby or Python or to keep up with frameworks and whatever else gets tongues wagging on dzone. But web development has always been that job that I could do that doesn't annoy me. I can do it, and I can do it well. I can even do it for years to come. But I will never love it.

And if all the blog articles about what makes good developers are any indication, then I'm on my way to becoming a bad developer. It's not like I hide my predisposition. I don't try out every new language. I don't subscribe to any development blog feeds (but you should see the number of music sites I follow.) I code at work — sometimes — and I always leave it there. It never comes home with me.

I made a choice to learn more about audio engineering than software engineering, and I unleashed a torrent of creativity that built up because I let code get in the way. It's a choice that may not serve me well in the long run as a programmer. It wasn't a few days ago that I started working with jQuery, even though I had seen it mentioned time and again, day in and day out on dzone. And while I learned about MVC years ago, I didn't really start seriously working with it till now.

The oddest part of tonight's infraction was the fact I didn't even use my local files — I logged into the office through VPN!

I must admit working with CodeIgniter has gotten me engaged again, and perhaps that excitement tickled the part of my brain that really does like code. At the same time, I don't want it to get in the way of music again. I let a lot of things get in the way in the last decade or so.

Imprint, vocals, RC1

Tonight, I moved all the vocal tracks I've recorded for Imprint, the album on which I'm working, to release candidate 1. For me, that means I've recorded versions of the songs that don't totally make me wretch. There is one track that might slip back into beta, but I'll need a few days of listening to the entire album to see if that's the case.

Just now, I marked the "mixing" column of the Imprint tracks on my spreadsheet to alpha. There seems to be a subtle difference between mixing and arranging, but everything I've read makes me think they're partially the same process. During the mixing phase, raw recorded tracks get woven together to create the final song. My method of writing, however, combines the composing and arranging at the same time, and when I record tracks, the arranging and mixing happen simultaneously as well.

In this case, mixing is pretty much pre-mastering — applying effects processing, achieving tonal balance, balancing levels. I usually do some preliminary mixing and mastering every time I create a new vocal take, just so I can hear something close to final product as possible.

I have to say, though, it's nice to be close to an actual mixing phase, where I can fine tune everything. I'm encouraged by what I'm hearing — it's a far cry from the first few recordings I did in 2005, when I didn't know one whit about decibels, frequencies, equalization, compression, limiting. And while I still don't think I'm much of a singer, I'm at least a half-step within tune, instead of singing in an entirely different key.

(Let me also say the new headphones I bought back in September really make a difference. That, and reading the manual of my mixer to figure out how to work the auxiliary buses.)

But the real clincher in this whole endeavor is that when I finish, the resulting work is still just a demo recording. In reality, I picture this album performed by live musicians with a singer who isn't me. That's when I would consider this album actually created. For now, I'm pouring in a lot of time and effort to make a very detailed blueprint.

And it's actually coming together.

So not rock ‘n’ roll

This is how I'm going to get my work done — a spreadsheet.

I did it before, when I was first laying down vocal tracks for 65 songs. I organized them by range, tackling songs with a broader distance between highest and lowest notes first. That spreadsheet is two songs shy of completion. (The remaining holdouts are some covers, which don't get as high priority as my own stuff.)

This time, I'm breaking out the steps of the recording process — recording, mixing, mastering and, ultimately, releasing — and using software terminology to indicate progress on each track. Alpha, beta, release candidate, even no development. For now, I'm limiting myself to working on one album.

It's so not rock 'n' roll.

But that's what happens when a person spends 40 hours a week immersed in code. Some of that stuff just spills over into other things.

Seeing this work laid out visually, however, gives me better appreciation of how insane it would be to work on all those tracks at one time, as I've pretty much doing for the past few years. That screenshot shows only the first 34 songs on the first sheet. The scroll reveals another 49. And that doesn't count the additional tabs — songs that haven't even been recorded.

Yeah, I'm a busy bee.

I have an idea of how I want to release all that work eventually. Putting enigmatics out on CD was educational, but  even when (not if!) I finish, I'm not sure what I've produced merits the expenditures to make another CD. I may be recording my own vocals, but that doesn't mean I'm qualified to be singing these songs.

For now, I should just concentrate on getting this first album done. With any luck, my new organizational technique will be unstoppable.

Bad smoker

A long time ago, I learned the difference between a good smoker and a bad smoker. The good smoker can smoke through packs of cigarettes a day. The bad smoker can make that pack last over time. I am a very, very bad smoker.

A few months ago, I went to a doctor's appointment and had to fill out a health history form. I answered the question about smoking in the affirmative, but I left the number of packs I smoke blank. Instead, I drew an arrow to the question about drinking, to which I had answered, "Socially".

Back in 2006, I had surgery to have my gall bladder removed. For that same questionnaire, I crossed out the word "day" from the line asking "packs a day" and replaced it with the word "month". My answer? "1".

I pretty much smoke only at work and only once in the day. That means I can literally make a pack last a month, at the end of which it's pretty awfully stale. The only time I may ramp up my consumption is during the SXSW music festival, which happens only once a year. Times of tremendous stress might make increase to two a day, and I may sneak in extras when I'm hanging around people willing to supply. And I befriend a lot of smokers.

But when it comes to being a bad smoker, I'm not sure you can find anyone who is worse. A former co-worker absolutely marveled at my restraint.

The tobacco industry didn't get its hooks into me till I was 20, and those hooks never went very deep. I also never say I'm going to quit. I will always say I'm a smoker, even during times when I stop. This past March, I came down with a cold and fever, and throughout most of the spring and summer, I didn't light up once. I picked up again around July or so.

I also try not to buy my own pack of cigarettes. I will bum off my friends who are more than willing to supply, but they also have enough conscience not to encourage me to ramp up. In fact, one of them gets disappointed when I do break down and buy a pack. (Although I bet she feels a bit of relief knowing I won't be raiding her stash.)

I mention all of this because yesterday, all my suppliers were out of cigarettes. I had been bumming pretty much everyday for the past four or five months, and it was time I pay back and ensure a steady supply for the future.

So I bought a carton of my friend's brand of choice.

And holy crap is that shit expensive!

Since I've never let my habit get to the point where I would be buying cartons, I had no idea how much they would cost, and holy fuck! I have even more incentive not to escalate. (Yeah, that should be "incentive to quit", but I'm being realistic here.)

My friend was impressed and aghast that I would sink that much money into paying back my supply, and we sort of concluded that it would be my ghetto Christmas gift of the year. You know what I could have bought for the price of that carton? About two Japanese import CDs. Maybe 2 1/2 weeks worth of gas at current prices. (1 week and 3 days at prices during the summer.) One of the Season 2 DVD sets of Battlestar Galactica.

Even as I was buying the carton, the pinch I felt in my wallet was acute. But I dropped the cash anyway because really, I have been a leech. Five months is pretty much five packs that I've taken from my friend, and half of that can be made in the carton.

I'll probably smoke the other half of that carton in the next five months.