red echo

A web journal by Mars Saxman: my life, reflected and filtered

March entries

Archived Entries for February, 2004

February 29, 2004

Goodbye, Belltown

Back in 2001, Brian Robinson hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and finally the Appalachian Trail - a total of 7,371 miles in 300 days. Of course I went straight for the gear list; this guy is a true ultralighter, carrying about 20 pounds in the winter and half that in the summer. I was particularly impressed by this entry: "Sheet metal screws (#6 hex-head, 3/8") & nut driver (instead of crampons), 4.6 ounces." Now that's ingenuity.

February 27, 2004

On the side of a building on Bellevue Avenue, there's a little doorway, roughly five feet tall, blocked by a chain-link gate. It leads to a tunnel through (underneath?) the building and apparently on to some courtyard behind. It looks like something left over from the last time the building was remodeled... ahh, it's details like this that make a city feel like it really exists and wasn't just slapped together yesterday from prefabricated components.

February 25, 2004

It's been about a year since we shipped REALbasic 5, and today we released the next major version.

AUSTIN, Texas (February 25, 2004) REAL Software, Inc. announced today that REALbasic 5.5 is shipping. This powerful, easy-to-use development environment has been substantially improved to help REALbasic users increase productivity and speed software creation. Among its many new and improved features, REALbasic 5.5 adds the ability to build Linux applications.

I'm glad to be done with it; it has been a long year. I am proud of the code I have written, but it is hard to sustain one's motivation when the project is not also personally interesting. I hope that the next development cycle will include more compiler development work: an optimizer stage, perhaps, or maybe that refactoring-support parser engine we keep talking about. That's the kind of thing I'm in this business to do.

Seven glowing Apple logos in a row at the Bauhaus

February 21, 2004

GarageBand is living up to my hopes so far. I spent the afternoon recording and editing a brand-new song, and it was a fun, stable, frustration-free experience. The software actually supports my creative impulses instead of thwarting them. I came up with the basic piano riff last night, fooling around with my synth over a looped drumbeat. I went back to it today, expanded it, and came up with a chorus. I found some words that fit the mood from my "spare parts file" and fleshed them out into a full song. Now I'm cutting and splicing half a dozen vocal takes into a finished track. Once that's done, I plan to revisit the instrumentation, spice up the percussion a bit, and finish building out the structure of the song.

It's a weird style for me - not industrial at all, or even particularly electronic. It's just a simple, laid-back, wistful sort of alt-rock piece. Maybe it will sound more normal by the time I'm done with it.

February 20, 2004

Here's a long article in The Atlantic focusing on a U.S. military representative in Mongolia. It's a fascinating peek inside some of the changes happening in the modern U.S. military and its relationship to the global U.S. empire, told through an engaging tour through Mongolia's Chinese border.

February 17, 2004

I signed up for a gym membership when I got my new apartment, thinking that I should do something to stay in shape until I can return to my pursuit of wilderness. I have been visiting a couple of times a week, and spent an hour over there earlier this evening. It just dawned on me that working out for an hour gives me the same kind of buzz I feel when I'm out in a kayak grinding back up Lake Union against a stiff autumn wind, or when I'm climbing Mt. Si and haven't stopped moving for the last mile. It's great to feel strong, feel active, feel the blood running through your veins and the heat of your muscles working and the thrill of pushing just a little farther than last time. I wonder how much of my love of the outdoors is really just a love of physical exercise, associated with the only environment where I usually experience it? Why did it take me so long to figure this out?

All set up - now, about those blank walls...

February 15, 2004

Electrical work

Along with my new apartment's lovely hardwood floors, thick moldings, and classic design come a few less-appealing details of its 1920s heritage, such as the appalling dearth of electrical outlets. When I moved in, there were exactly four outlets in the living room, and as far as I can tell none of them were part of the original construction. There are two lamps, one on either side of the bay window, that appear to be original equipment; the fixtures themselves are recent but the mounting boxes look like they have been there for a long time. They may actually be later additions, though, since the room used to have a ceiling chandelier. You can still see the painted-over screws for its conduit box, and there's a blank switch panel by the door. In any case, years ago someone apparently decided they needed some electrical outlets in the living room and ran conduit down the surface of the wall from each lamp, terminating in a matching pair of odd little round boxes each containing a single two-prong outlet. Later still, sometime in the last twenty years, someone else extended the conduit from one of the outlets around the right side wall and added a modern three-prong outlet pair.

Of course four outlets is nothing like enough for a home office and music studio, and a power strip was one of the first items I moved in. But I don't like littering the floor with extra cords, and the only usable phone jack is on the opposite side of the room from the only grounded power outlet. I decided to dig up some skills I haven't used in years: after an hour laying on the floor poking around with screwdrivers and an x-acto knife, I have another pair of grounded outlets on the left side of the room, conveniently located near the phone jack and cable TV terminal.

February 13, 2004

I've finally started playing with GarageBand, and so far it's nothing but fun. I feel mildly frustrated by the limits of my own musical ability, but so far not by the limits of the software. Of course there are all kinds of things Cubase could do - in theory, at least - that GarageBand can't, but so far they are all features I never used anyway. The program is designed for people who don't really know what they're doing, so it's sometimes necessary to dig around a bit until you find out what's really going on underneath, but there's a genuinely powerful audio engine underneath the newbie-friendly UI.

The loops aren't something I'd want to use in a real song but they sure make it easy to improvise. It takes five minutes or less to set up a 32-bar backing loop with drums, bass, and a synth pad. This will be a powerful new weapon against "writer's block".

The famous Steve Jobs demo, involving a guitar plugged directly into an audio line-in, didn't work for me; there's something wrong with the levels. It sounded OK if I dialed the pickup volume down to about 10%, but an any normal volume the signal was far too hot and came out distorted. Maybe it's because I'm using a Griffin iMic instead of a motherboard line-in.

I did fine with the classic "stick a mic in front of the amp" kludge (and yes, I know it's been the standard way to record rock guitars for decades now, but it's still a kludge), and it was fun to hear my first little guitar recording along with some drums and a bass line. It's amazing how much Cool you can get from an overdrive circuit and a bunch of fifths, but it's also clear that I need a lot more practice before I am ready to do anything but fool around with this instrument.

February 12, 2004

My new apartment's eastern aspect sacrifices the view of the Sound I used to enjoy, but so far it works well as a piece of climate engineering. I get about an hour of direct sun in the morning, then an hour of shadow, followed by reflected light for the rest of the day. Inside temperatures in this unseasonably warm Seattle February stay just on the chilly side of comfortable, which is exactly how I like it. Summers are always tough, but hopefully the pattern will hold and I'll be able to avoid the worst of the heat.

My new place is starting to feel more like home; its features are becoming ordinary, and the acute sensation of place has diminished. Nothing stays new forever, alas. Still, I have other pleasures to replace that one: I suddenly feel that I have more time and space than I know how to use. I have very little furniture, and my living room is mostly empty. I'm sure I will fill it up eventually, but right now the emptiness is a pleasant change. It is the look of all beginnings.

February 11, 2004

An Information Week article that just showed up on Slashdot talks about a trend toward free wireless access in public areas instead of the subscription services usually offered. I've been predicting all along that paid wireless access would give way to free bandwidth, and I'm happy to see the change beginning. Internet access is already more or less free for the taking where I live; there are no less than three coffee shops within walking distance that offer unrestricted access, and from my apartment I can pick up four unsecured 802.11 base stations (not counting my own, which I have left open on purpose as a community service).

In another few years, perhaps we'll be able to re-establish the Internet as a broad, distributed, peer-to-peer network via "WiFi" instead of the hierarchical, backbone-driven mess it has become.

I've been thinking about buying an iMac, for dedicated use as an audio workstation. It'd be nice to create a wider separation between "work time" and "play time"; it's too easy to pause for a moment to go check my email, get distracted, and come back ten minutes later having completely lost whatever musical idea I was developing. I'd probably still do that with a separate machine, but hopefully the fact that I'd have to get up and walk across the room to do it would make such breaks less frequent.

It's going to be a Mac, since all my software runs on Macs, and anyway they are the only computers pretty enough to leave out on display - this is important when you live in an apartment and can't just shut all the ugly grey boxes off into their own room. I'm just not sure whether to go for another laptop or a more firmly-rooted machine like the iMac. Laptops are great because they're lighweight, unobtrusive, quiet, portable, and minimal - they solve all the aesthetic complaints I normally make about computers. But I've found that you pretty much have to tie a laptop down before you can use it to make music: between the MIDI interface, audio input interface, line-out, external firewire drive, and power supply, I can't move my PowerBook more than three inches while it's in studio mode. Since part of the reason to get a dedicated machine is to make it easy to just sit down and play, without having to spend ten minutes converting it from a work machine to a play machine, I'd have to leave the new computer wired in all the time anyway.

With the 17" or 20" screen, the iMac would also perform a nice dual-duty as a DVD player... and since it'd already be wired into my mixer, the audio would run through my existing monitors.

With that round base, I'd simply have to put an iMac on something like this or this.

I have always been a fast reader; ironically, this means that I rarely buy books. Considered as a form of entertainment, they cost too much and take up too much space for the amount of time they fill. But I've just moved near a store called Half Price Books, which lives up to its name and may address the first of those reasons. I stopped in on my way home and picked up Henry M. Stanley's Through the Dark Continent, in two volumes, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and A Short, Sharp Shock, and Larry Niven's Ringworld, all for $21.65. I don't know much about the latter two, but I like most of Robinson's books, several people have suggested Ringworld, and for three bucks each, why not give it a try? This changes the whole equation. Now I just have to figure out where I am going to store them...

February 10, 2004

A rant, to be read with a pinch of salt

I hate computers. I hate networks, operating systems, ISPs, and networking hardware. I hate programming tools, programming languages, operating systems vendors and their pathetic excuses for documentation, and the general failure of the state of the art to advance past the late '80s. I hate version control systems, file transfer protocols, shared libraries, two-pronged power outlets, and the vast wasteland that is the post-Canter-and-Siegel Internet. I hate Mac OS X. I hate Apple. I hate Windows. I hate Microsoft. I hate these golden handcuffs.

My hatred faded rapidly once I got working Internet access at my new apartment. Apparently the shiny new 802.11b base station simply doesn't work; the old and supposedly obsolete base station I've been using for a couple of years now, by contrast, worked just fine the minute I plugged it in.

February 8, 2004

Moving day

Today I hired a truck, rounded up some volunteers, and moved (nearly) all of my remaining possessions over to the new apartment. It was fun and easy - I don't own very much furniture, and so many people offered to help that the work was done before it started to feel like work. We had some beer and walked over to Hot Mama's Pizza afterward for a mid-afternoon snack; altogether it was a nice excuse to spend an afternoon with my friends. It is a nice feeling when people are willing to give up whatever they could have spent their afternoon doing to help you out.

Now comes the fun part: designing the new space. My apartment is full of boxes, and I am carefully working out where each item should go before I get it unpacked. The main room will have three functions: it is an office, a music studio, and a place to relax and read or watch movies. I don't want the computers to dominate the room, or it will be hard to stop working when work hours are over. I want the musical instruments to be prominent, so that they will be easy to pick up and play; but the various amplifiers, processors, and synthesizers all have power cords and need to be connected to each other and to the computers, which limits my choices. Finally, I want to be able to have friends over to listen to music or watch movies, which means the "conversation nook" needs to be facing the speakers. The speakers turn out to dictate the whole layout of the room, since I need to use them as monitors while practicing or recording, and I want to listen to music while working.

The project is complicated by the fact that I don't yet have a lot of the stuff I am designing the room around. I currently do my recording and mixing on one of my work computers, but I expect to buy a separate machine sometime this year. When I do, I'd like to have the work machine and the music machine physically separate, so I can't easily switch from one to the other and thus keep working after-hours. Someday, I'll need to buy a rack case to house the audio gear, and it'll need to stand somewhere within easy fiddling reach of the keyboard. I also lack a couch, or much in the way of seating at all; so I have to leave space for these items, but it'd be nice if the room doesn't simply feel half-empty in the meantime. Ah, well - it's a fun sort of complicated.

February 7, 2004

Washington state Democratic caucus

February 5, 2004

My new studio apartment begins to look like a music studio

February 4, 2004

I've just finished rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Antarctica. In one of the last chapters, a character remarks that the New Zealanders "redrew their county lines to match the watershed boundaries a long time ago". This is such a clever idea that I want it to be true. Robinson obviously drew heavily from his own visit to Antarctica for the book, and most of the history the characters talk about is actually true, so it's at least plausible. Unfortunately, I have had a hard time finding any other references to the idea, or any maps of New Zealand's watersheds or its counties, or in fact any confirmation of the idea that New Zealand has counties at all. Maybe it would be easier to look up the author's email address and just ask him.

postscript: This page suggests that New Zealand did away with its counties in 1989, though it doesn't explain what the current division system is, or whether it has anything to do with watersheds.

post-postscript: Aha! It's true! They're not called counties anymore, but the Kiwis did reorganize their regional government around watershed boundaries back in 1991, which would have been about four years before Robinson visited Antarctica.

It's hard to type when the "I" keycap on your keyboard has broken off.

February 2, 2004

Tainted Love, the Soft Cell hit from 1981, staple of '80s new-wave synthpop compilations everywhere, was a cover of an old Motown song by someone named Gloria Jones. I had no idea. I'm sitting in a cafe, and what is apparently the original version of the song just came on over the speakers. It's a bit creepy - not that there's anything particularly profound about the song itself, but it's weird to have been hearing it for some twenty years without a hint of where it apparently came from.

Via rimrunner's livejournal, here's a helpful article called Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do). Looks like a nice reference to keep handy.

January entries


photo © 2001 Stacie Mayes

Current entries


2004: Jan

2003: Nov Dec

Wanderings in Black and Red (previous site)