Moar Will Have To Wait

In the mail this week was a letter from my ISP, Suddenlink. They had Good News!™ They were magically increasing my Internet speed for FREE! FREE!!!!! I should have known something was awry when the letter said that I was going from 150 Mbps to 200. I never had 150. It also noted that I now had a 550 GB monthly allowance on data.

Whoops.

When I signed up for my original plan, there might have been a cap – I honestly can’t remember – but it was high enough, especially compared to the maximum theoretical speed, that I wouldn’t ever realistically run into it. I certainly never have.

But still… A cap. A meter. A pair of digital handcuffs. Something that restricts me. I hate that. It’s like the speed governing chip on my car. Am I ever really going to drive more than 135 mph? Not on purpose. But knowing that the engine could do much more and is being artificially limited because of some nanny-minded bean-counter just itches. I do the occasional Netflix binge. I move big data files to my remote servers. I work from home on occasion. Add to that the newly announced Wi-Fi calling from AT&T and my shiny new 1TB Dropbox plan, and this data-cap thing gets a tiny bit worrisome, even beyond the itch.

Yes, I will have another, please.I hopped online to read about the change (burning my now precious bandwidth to do so) and learned that Suddenlink has rolled out Gigabit ethernet to my town. Huzzah! Never mind that my router would probably cook an egg at those speeds or that I doubt I’d ever use the burst (or be talking to a server that could provide it), it’s more. It’s more than more, it’s MOAR in the parlance of the day. And moar is better. And it’s only $100 or so a month.

Whoops.

I’m already paying $100 or so a month.

I called Suddenlink. The automated system can’t connect my phone number with my account. Doesn’t matter, the service people always make me repeat all of that information anyway. I say “representative” five more times until I stop to listen (because options have changed) and say “add or change services.” Ten minutes with something worse than hold music. It’s hold music interspersed with cheerful people shouting the wonders of Suddenlink.

Martin answers the phone. Martin looks up my info. Martin tries to sell me the cable and phone bundle for $60 or the cable only bundle for $50. “Now which of those sounds better to you?” Nice try with the sales psychology, Martin.

I tell Martin that the last thing I need is another thing in my house ringing and that I haven’t had cable for 5 years. I hear the three-ring binder softly close with a whuff of disappointment. Martin looks at my account again and says it looks like the plan I’m on is no longer offered and that for only about $20 more each month, I can get Gigabit ethernet with the 550 GB cap. I note that the letter I got says I already have a 550 GB cap. Martin tells me, no, it’s actually a 450 GB cap.

Whoops.

I tell Martin that I’ll have to research my actual usage with their system and then decide what to do, but in the meantime, what is the new price of my 200 Mbps service? “About $75.” “Great, let’s do that for now, then.” “I’m sorry, but I can’t change that for you, I’m going to have to send you over to our retention department.”

The hold music and Stepford community players return.

Jared answers the phone. Martin has told Jared… nothing. I go through the entire story again. Jared says he can get me Gigabit for $120 or 200 Mbps for $75. I clarify the data caps. He notes that I can buy additional data up front for a small additional fee. I pass. During the hold music I’ve done a quick scan of my usage history and it’s not so bad. I can probably deal with 450 GB, especially for $30 less each month.

My inner CFO and CIO teamed up and hit my inner geek with a bar of soap wrapped in a sock: “$30 a month is $360 a year. That’s a big chunk of a PS4.” “Ok, 1GB speed. Do you have the backbone in place? How many devices are going to need that speed? Most of the house is on Wi-Fi. The 550 GB cap is silly for a connection that fast.”*

My inner geek slinks away in defeat. Moar is better, but moar will have to wait.

*I have more to say on both the data cap and how I decided I was probably ok within it, but that’s a story for another post.

When I Was a Child

Once or twice a year, I get the urge to install some variant of Linux or Unix and set something up. What something? No idea. Which is why, of course, the experiment is typically abandoned within a week or two.

Well, that’s not always the case. Abandonment still occurs, but sometimes it’s because I discover that my project, let’s say “build a super secure personal firewall using OpenBSD,” wasn’t worth the effort given other tools I already had in place. Ok, maybe also a tad over-ambitious.

Other times, I have some vestigial Silicon Valley idealism resurface, making me want to move away from Mac OS or Windows, angst-ridden over all of the things going on that I don’t know about. I’ll compile my own kernel! I’ll run wireshark and review source code! I’ll shut down all of the unnecessary services! I’ll make a personal media serv… no I won’t.

It’s not that I don’t have the desire. It’s more that the *n?x communities I end up in still haven’t moved away from the Nick Burns stereotype. There’s an elitism that permeates much of the culture, despite the best efforts of some really helpful distro teams and well-meaning benefactors. It’s hard to RTFM when you don’t know where TFM is or even what it is that you don’t know. There’s more often than not a tone of “I’m not going to hold your hand” in the community forums.

It's the email that's stupid, not you, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and agree with the underlying sentiment. Point someone toward the bait store instead of handing them a plate of sushi and they’ll be better off in the long run. But many of the experts I’ve come across online are just that: experts. They’re not teachers, mentors, or guides. They have the knowledge, but they came by it via years of effort and struggle, value it highly, and often hold onto it like a dying Skeksis emperor.

I am... still... emperor...
I am… still… emperor…

Years ago, I was a decent programmer. I only knew one language, BASIC, and I only wrote for three platforms: Apple II, TRS-80, and my beloved Commodore 64. I even wrote an assembly program once to see if I could do it. I know I have the aptitude, the creativity, and access to the necessary tools. What I no longer have as much of are time and dedicated focus.

So how do I resolve those self-imposed limitations, an arcane ecosystem with a long history, and a cultural group that values DIY and distrusts tourists, with my goal to learn a new programming language? As usual, there’s a quotation that applies.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

This time, however, I am reversing the lesson. What is needed is not the abandonment of childish ways, but rather the adoption of them. I need to forget what I’ve learned over the last 25 years, to abandon what I “know.” I need to ignore the tweaking and the tribes and, above all, to seek out the education culture instead of the expert culture to help me learn.

In recent searches, I rediscovered the Raspberry Pi’s simplistic beauty. It’s powerful, but accessible and affordable, just as my Commodore 64 was. More importantly, the communities are full of projects and lessons geared toward the beginner. Toward the new mind. Of course, a new model has just hit the market, so everything is sold out, but that will pass.

This time, there won’t be a nebulous project. I know exactly what the end result should be. The project is to learn.

Let’s Try That One More Time

2013 was a forgettable year. While there were a few personal high points, for the most part it was either neutral or negative and I’m not all that sad to see it go. I do have some resolutions for the coming year, but they consist more of objectives and goals than planned behavioral changes.

Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.

In a sign of the times, many of them (if not most) are aimed squarely at my social media presence and habits. When I looked back at the year, social media had taken the place of “old media” as the source of much of my unhappiness. As Louis C.K. once said, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” I’ve been part of that problem, primarily because I provide the audience and demand for it.

So… here are some of the things I’m going to work toward:

 

Publish an album and charge money for it

I’m not sure what will be on it, but I’ve said I was going to do this for years and years. Time to make it happen before CDs go away entirely. It may amount to nothing more than a vanity project, but I’ve heard far worse vanity projects in the past, so I’m not afraid of it any more. I may even do a micro-run of vinyl just because.

 

Significant reduction in Facebook presence

Facebook has kept raising the temperature of the pot… no change is enough to make me just drop it altogether, but I realized that I’ve been spending a lot of my time being unhappy about things. The advertising, the video auto-play, the snooping, the app spam… I’m tired of it. I’ll still check in and post things that I think friends will find interesting or helpful, but this will no longer be a primary platform for me.

 

Significant increase in blog presence

I’ve said this many times in the past, and it goes in fits and starts. I’m not holding myself to any specific metric like “post every week,” but many of the things I want to say now violate some rule or anger the social media etiquette security forces. Am I stealing? Do I need to tip my hat? Did I just cross the picket lines of the “curators” union? We used to call putting a link on your page… uh… putting a link on your page. Now it’s big business and everyone’s out for this ephemeral cred because they shared it from someone else first. So to hell with it – I’ll write about it here. A corollary to this is that I want to write good content , not just the ramblings I’ve ended up with in the past. In this regard, I’ll be working on patience… more editing, less immediate posting.

 

Near-fanatical adherence to my 2013 “No Negative Comments” rule

I’m pretty happy with my performance in this regard during 2013, though I slipped a few times with some irresistible snark or reaction. This year, I’m not even going to start to write a comment and delete it before pressing “submit.”

 

Less overall online consumption

I spend too much time online that I later think of as being wasted. It’s a bad habit, so I’m going to try and drop that, focusing instead on content that helps me do or create something. I can best sum this up with a line from Wayne’s World:

Turn it off, man! Turn it off! It’s sucking my will to live!

There are some specific article types that I’m going out of my way to avoid in the future, notably anything that has a linkbait headline along the lines of “13 Weird Things Robots Do” or “Her husband died in a fire. You won’t believe what she did next!” I’m tired of the manipulation and the story is never as interesting as you hoped it would be.

 

Ruthless dropping, uncircling, defriending and more stringent categorization

A big part of my unhappiness in 2013 came from other people being unhappy and doing little more than venting about it. So why am I so eager to read it? It’s like eating junk food… it’s a quick high, but has bad long-term ramifications. My Google+ circles have gotten a bit wooly, so it’s time for some clean up. I don’t plan on these purges and shifts to be entirely online, either.

Also, anyone using played out phrases in their posts or comments ( ‘Murica! or “curated by” ) are fast tracked to the chopping block. It was funny three years ago (or annoying as in the case of “curated by”) but now it just sets me off and… you know… ain’t nobody got time for that.

 

Make more stuff

I like making things. Mostly music, but other things as well. This year, I want to get myself set up to do more video work, maybe try painting, write some tips & tricks for things I know about, and so on. I did make an attempt at some creative writing this year and while it was more enjoyable to write it than it is to read it, I’m keeping Ira Glass’ “working through the suck” comments in the back of my mind. If you’re curious about that, please see my Walking Long Enough post from back in 2008 (which was an even worse year than 2013).

 

So. Those are the important things… or at least the important things that I could think of before finishing this first cup of coffee. I may come back and add to this post later if I decide something else is worth posting for all the world to see.

I wish everyone, and I mean everyone, a joyous, safe, peaceful, productive, and prosperous 2014.

Buying Your First Synth

One of the music sites I read most frequently is Gearslutz. Over the last year or so, I’ve seen several people opine that someone buying their first synth should go for something simple, going so far as to say things like, “that’s not a good synth for a beginner,” and “never pay $3,000 for your first synth.”

To which I say, “poppycock!” One of the things that a beginner has in abundance is curiosity and enthusiasm. Another thing a beginner has is limitation, both in terms of knowledge and tools. These things are an absolutely fantastic combination.

My first synth was a Korg Poly 800. It is relatively simple, and learning to program it didn’t take much time. I remember coming up with my own crude bouncing method involving a boom box, cassette deck, and some RCA Y-jacks so I could do multi-tracked recordings. By the third or fourth track, it was such a hissy mess that you could barely hear the first part, but I learned a ton about the composition and recording process, as well as the rudimentary beginnings of how different sonic textures fit in a mix.

When I graduated from college, I got an Ensoniq EPS as a graduation gift. By today’s standards, it’s a relatively easy-to-use piece of gear, but it had lots of capability and a reasonable amount of depth. Multi-timbral, an 8+8 track sequencer, multiple patches per instrument, and all of the sonic potential that a sampler brings.

I dove into it with abandon and entered one of the most productive musical periods of my life. A year or two later, I was gigging in clubs with a DJ and doing live remixing. To speed up the creation of loops on the fly, I had worked out the exact loop lengthsfor all BPMs between 65 and 140 in tenth of a beat increments, and at multiple sampling rates. A well-worn three ring binder housed the output of my spreadsheet with all of these calculations and more.

If you compare my early work processes to the tools available today, you’d laugh as you fired up Garage Band or Ableton Live and had the computer do all of that for you. But that’s missing the point. The point is that my enthusiasm and desire to create were far more important than the complexity of the instrument. I learned the methods or developed workarounds to achieve everything I wanted to do.

I quickly outgrew the Poly-800, although I still find it useful for specific sounds. I never outgrew the EPS and still use it and its sibling the Ensoniq ASR-10R as my primary samplers. They’re probably the most “comfortable” synths I have in the studio.

I’ve since acquired lots of other gear with widely varying levels of complexity. Some of them I’ve never really learned, and others were just immediately accessible. But I am confident that if any of them were my only equipment, I would learn it backwards and forwards in a reasonable amount of time. Certainly in less than a year.

There’s really only one thing that I would advise against buying as a first synth, and that’s something with a really terrible user interface. I would never recommend the Yamaha FS1R as a first synth, for example, not because it’s got an amazingly complex synthesis method, but rather because it’s so difficult to program with just a few tiny buttons and a cryptic display panel. The Poly-800, for that matter, is a very simple synth, but is kind of a pain to program. Contrast these with the Kurzweil VAST synths like the K2000 and PC series or the Access Virus line – amazingly deep, but quite decent user interfaces. The Virus, in particular, has lots of knobby goodness that is inspiring and makes happy accidents a common occurrence.

Ok, there’s one other thing I’d advise against: cheap analog. I only advise against this as a first synth, and only because low polyphony counts will become frustrating very quickly. It’s obviously much easier and cheaper to do multi-tracking these days, so it’s not an absolute, but the first time you want some big lush pad, you’re going to be sorry you’ve got a mono-synth as your only option. I don’t recommend anything with less than 8-note polyphony for a starter piece of gear.

So if you’re thinking about buying your first synth, don’t shy away from more expensive or complicated equipment. If you can afford quality, buy quality – you’ll never regret it. Spend time learning it. Dig into the manual. Give yourself programming challenges. Take full advantage of your enthusiasm and revel in the contradiction of your limitations providing you with an amazing amount of creative freedom.

If I was buying my first (and, for the time being, only) synth today, these are the ones that would be on my short list in no particular order:

What’s on your list?

Puffery & Pontification

I’ve been trying really hard for the last year to get out of the habit of making negative posts on message boards and social media. It all gets so depressing, especially when I see people that I otherwise respect deeply just parroting the latest talking point to come from whatever media outlet they happen to watch the most.

Rather than pointless argument, I’ve decided that posting opinions here might be more useful if someone stumbles across them as part of a search. One could argue that I’m simply trying to voice my opinion without having to defend it, but I actually welcome thoughtful disagreement (or agreement) via comments here. I’ve just gotten tired of the endless trolling and griefers that seem to inhabit every forum from “Bob’s World of Cheese” to the Wall Street Journal.

Posts of this nature will be categorized as closely to what they’re related to as I can manage, but I will also be adding a new category to connect them all: Puffery & Pontification.