Tuesday, July 29, 2014

State of Software Amateurism

OSuseage2014During the winter months, I was wrapped up in more than a couple discussions with kids who consider themselves to be computer experts (by profession, at the least) who believe that if you aren’t using the latest OS, you are a hillbilly. As of March 2014, the above chart reflects US computer OS use, per a pretty large sample survey.

The statistic that most interests me is “Other,” the 1.99% of users whose technology was, apparently, unimportant to the surveyors. On a recent trip to New Mexico, I met a surprising number of people who run their businesses on old versions of Windows: all the way back to a law office using Windows for Workgroups 3.11, a graphic artist using windows 98, a collection of small business owners who network and advertise their group on the web using tools from Windows 95, and several people still on Vista. While we were camped at Elephant Butte State Park, I met a 60’s rock star and I listened to his music recorded on a 1970’s TASCAM 80-8 1/2” reel-to-reel in a camper trailer. He gave me a copy of the soon-to-be-released CD bounced down to MP3 on a free version of studio editing software long-ago-absorbed by Adobe.

The OS-users’ pie chart chart sort of reflects my own experience, although a bit optimistically. Microsoft has been working overtime to convince WinXP users to evacuate the building since the company has ceased “support” of XP. Of course, real computer IT and user types know Microsoft is bullshitting us. Support for business XP users will continue for a while and you can tag on to that gravy train easily. Less obvious is the fact that hackers write hacks for the biggest bang for the buck. The real reason Apple’s OS X is fairly “safe” from identity thieves is that a scant 6-7% of computer users are Apple computer owners. If you really want to be hack-free, Windows for Workgroups 3.11 might be your best bet. Running MSDOS might be the closest thing to total security possible.

Soon, it won’t matter much what sort of PC computer OS you run because the majority of computer users will be tablet and phone nerds. The industry expects tablet sales to almost double desk and laptop PC sales by 2017. Mobile phones are already selling at 5X the PC rate and will approach 10X PC sales in 2017. The smart hacker is already up into your phones’ butt right now and heading for the digestive system.

The kids who run computer companies, especially the technologically inbred CEO/CFO/COO types, could care less about security, since they are in no way obligated by law for the incredible financial losses their companies are responsible for creating. While you have to marvel at the royal way these blessed-by-corruption organizations are treated, as a consumer we need to be more than a little bit suspicious of anything they tell us. The fact is, I believe, the only reason for owning any sort of computer is practical. These instruments are nearly useless as educational devices, incredibly limited as news distribution sources, and as inclined to continue the dumbing-down of our degraded and degenerating species as television. So, worrying about whether we are using the latest version of some half-baked, user-hostile bullshit software or hardware is self-destructive.

It is valuable (and economical) to constantly remind yourself that a whole lot more great art was created on considerably less sophisticated technology that whatever you’re working with right now than you are likely to produce in seven lifetimes. If you can accomplish whatever work you need to be doing with whatever tool you have in your office, closet, classroom, or business, you are sufficiently up-to-date. Do work and forget about the color-of-the-designer-magazine-week bullshit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Genuine People Personality

There is new level of user-hostility in all current and popular computer operating systems--OS X, Android, and Win 7/8--that astounds me. I suppose it’s the result of hacking, identity theft, and the fact that most current computer owners do not qualify as computer “users.” That does not make it right, useful, or something we should learn to tolerate.

OS Market Share CP 2011-04 530 2011-05-03 For more than a decade, I’ve said, “The first company that designs an OS that pays attention to the users’ input, first, and the programmers’ background maintenance bullshit, second, will blow Apple and Microsoft out of business in less than a month.” For thirty years, Microsoft’s mantra has been, “We don’t have to be great, we only have to be better than our competition.” Since Apple and Google are the only other game in town, and those two companies suck, Microsoft’s game has become soft. In a competitive world, that would mean that the market is ripe for a new kid in town. This is not a competitive world. The various incarnations of open-source UNIX/LINUX have, for example, not exactly shaken the ground the Big Boys play on.

In trying to “upgrade” my two laptop systems—a Dell Latitude E6400 and a MacBook Pro 2,2—so that I can abandon both of my desktop systems—a Dell tower and a Mac Pro G5—as part of our downsizing attempt, I am re-experiencing the pain of both Windows and OS X. The upgrade mostly consists of moving both machines to SSDs. When I put an SSD in my little Dell Netbook, that sluggish machine became my go-to computer on our trip because it was fast, reliable, small and light, and durable. The MacBook Pro was the opposite of all of those characteristics, so it mostly languished in it’s bomb-proof Pelican case and wasted valuable space for five months. When I did need it, it required several hours of maintenance because the poor layout and cheap fans gummed up with New Mexico dust after a few hours of use. I ended up rebuilding the fans, with actual bearing grease instead of the fish oil Apple’s suppliers used. They have been working for a few hundred hours, quietly and dependably, since.

The SSD installation went quickly (about 2 hours) and, mostly, flawlessly on the Dell laptop, thanks to Samsung’s installation software. My old Dell Latitude E6400 runs like a brand new machine. Pro Tools 10, Sonar X3, Vectorworks, and the usual Office suspects flawlessly and instantly. So far, I consider this move to be a success.

macbook heatsink2 The MacBook installation was as painful as most Apple software/hardware experiences, made even more difficult by the fact that I decided to dig into the physical MacBook to clean and reinstall the heatsink thermal grease, since MacBooks are notorious for overheating and failing in moderate temperatures. (In case you are interested in making this repair, it is only possible on the older MacBook Pro laptops. Apple has not only made the newer models, especially the Retina models, unserviceable and considerably more fragile.)

macbook heatsink Counting the disassembly hassle (massively more difficult for the Mac than the Dell), I have about 9 hours invested in the Mac and after the 3rd failed Disk Utilities software installation attempt, I took the excellent advice from other Apple product owners, I gave up on the Apple OS X built-in cloning software and used Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC). Three hours later, my MacBook was up and running. In fact, running considerably more reliably (after downloading a “trim” enabling utility, since Apple only supports its own overpriced SSDs in its usual user-hostile customer disservice manner).

I had the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison between my newly enabled MacBook Pro and a 2013 MacBook Pro with Intel's Haswell-based Core i5 processor and an Apple-installed SSD. On every functional “benchmark,” we found my old duo-core MacBook was as quick, in practical terms, as the far more expensive, less-featured (except for Thunderbolt) newer model. Counting the Samsung SSD, I now have $500 invested in my MacBook Pro. After the heatsink repair, the main and video processors are running about 50F cooler at max fan speed and 15F cooler at the lowest fan speed. Of course, some of that could be due to the extreme air-path cleaning I gave the laptop. It wasn’t all that dirty, though. On the other hand, Apple’s cheesy heatsink compound was dried into a crumbling thermal insulator that probably did more harm than good.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Proof in Pudding

IMG_0003 A while back, I referenced new knowledge (to me) about owning an acoustic guitar that I’d discovered in Allen St. John’s Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument. If you look at the picture of me playing my new guitar and if you’ve read St. John’s book, you’d have to assume I learned absolutely nothing from Wayne Henderson. You might be wrong. I’m not a good enough guitarist to know much about the intricacies of acoustic guitars, but like all pedestrian art lovers “I know what I like.” I can’t describe it well enough to put forward any intelligent theories or descriptions, but I am reasonably sure I could put together a list of important criteria that might provide someone with a bigger brain some insight into what matters to me as a guitar player.

IMG_0004 The guitar I ended up with is a Composite Acoustics Cargo, that company’s entry into the environmentally indelicate travel guitar market. Here’s what CA has to say about the Cargo, “A travel size instrument that sounds like a full size guitar? Impossible! Our Cargo is comfortable to play anywhere, from the forests of Oregon to the foothills of the Catskill mountains, and even in your favorite armchair. Finely appointed and incredibly durable, the Cargo is ready when you are. It easily fits airline overheads or anywhere space is tight. It's a portable guitar with the playability, sound and satisfaction of a full size guitar.

  blackbird riderOddly, other than the exclamation marks, I pretty much agree with CA’s self-assessment. A friend called, knowing that I was looking for a replacement for my all-around-miserable Martin Backpacker travel guitar, saying that he’d found a used Cargo at a local guitar store and wanted to know if I was interested in tagging along to play it with him. We went to Willie’s American Guitars, first, to check out the Blackbird Rider (steel string). The Rider was pretty impressive, but at $1,600 I decided to wait until I’d sold the Martin 00016C before I plunked down another pile off money on a guitar I might not play. On we went to the next guitar shop where we played a used and purple 2008 (pre-Peavey) Cargo non-electric. The shop was asking $1,000 due to the “collector value” of the pre-Peavey status and Tim and I decided to pass for a while to see how the day’s comparisons sat. When I got home, I looked up current prices on the Cargo and found that $999 was a pretty common street price for the electric-capable version of the “raw carbon” version. Tim ended up ordering one from Sweetwater. About the time he ordered his, I found a used one with the “high gloss carbon burst finish” on Craig’s List. We ended up getting out hands on our new guitars at about the same time, same day, and damn near the same place. Tim’s is new, mine is pre-Peavey used. To my ears, they look and sound pretty much the same, except for string differences and the gloss finish on my guitar.

IMG_0003Ellis Seal, an aerospace engineer, began Composite Acoustics in 1999 and after a couple of wrong steps, over-optimistically anticipating the market for the company’s products and under-pricing their products (at least pricing them so the company didn’t make enough profit to survive), CA went bankrupt in 2010. That same year, Peavey bought the remains and began marketing the carbon graphite guitars, pretty much unchanged, in early 2011. Since then, Peavey has refined some manufacturing processes, but kept the guitars themselves most intact; in spite of the fear-mongering some “vintage guitar” dealers are promoting.

The Cargo is an interesting work in acoustics, psychoacoustics, nearfield design, art, engineering, and ergonomics. After I got my Cargo, Willie’s picked up another Rider and I went to the store with my guitar to compare the two. The Rider has the “advantage” of a smaller body, which makes it a slight bit easier to store. Some of that turns into a disadvantage when you are playing the guitar, though. It does not side in your lap like a guitar, unlike the Cargo. While the body of the Rider is more narrow, it is also deeper so the total stored volume is pretty similar. From a distance, the two guitars sound remarkably similar. From the player’s position, the Cargo has it all over the Rider. The sound hole is high and right under the player’s face, providing more low end to that listening position than the Rider. The body shape of the Cargo puts a very resonant part of the guitar’s back right against your chest and rib cage, providing low frequency bone conduction. Just holding the guitar away a fraction of an inch or wearing a coat is enough to lose this portion of the bottom end. It is a brilliant solution to an otherwise unsolvable problem with a small body guitar. Both guitars have excellent pickups; the Rider the Fishman MiSi pickup electronics, with a tone control, and the Cargo has a less featured LR Baggs pickup. With a half-decent acoustic guitar amplifier, the Rider’s tone controls would be unnecessary.

Your mileage may vary, but I am more than satisfied with my Composite Acoustics Cargo electric and expect to be playing this guitar for years. When a friend first saw the CA guitars at a NAMM show, the company had three of their instruments on stands under a running waterfall. The demonstrator just pulled a guitar out of the water, shook it off, and started playing. That’s not all that far from the kind of environment living in an RV can be.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.