Five Things I'm Diggin' – 3/27/14

  1. Rogers Family Coffee – This family-owned coffee company has addressed the two biggest issues I have with my Keurig 2.0. First, Keurig K-cups are indefensible from an environmental point of view. I didn't know this when I bought it, but it's true. Rogers has mostly solved this by creating their own pod which is 97% biodegradable. They're working on 100%, and unlike Keurig, they're serious about it and I expect they'll attain it in the not-too-distant future. The second issue Rogers solves is they give away with their coffee a little clip that defeats Keurig's infamous DRM system, which keeps the 2.0 coffee makers from working with non-licensed coffee pods (such as the Rogers pods). Everybody hates the Keurig DRM system. It's punitive to both customers and coffee vendors, and it's clear that it was crassly designed to drive licensing revenues for Keurig which is just plain greedy. But Rogers' clip installs unobtrusively and fools the 2.0 into thinking every pod is has the necessary DRM tag.  None of this would matter if Rogers Family coffee wasn't any good, but it is very good indeed. Perhaps not my very favorite coffee pod, but it's up there. The price is reasonable as pod coffee goes; definitely worth it for the environmental benefits.

  1. Flipside 3X wallet – The wallet reimagined. What I like about the 3X is 1) its small but rugged; 2) it organizes my wallet contents nicely; 3) it protects my credit cards from RFID scanning; 4) it forces me to not be a wallet hoarder; and 5) there are expansion attachments for adding capacity when I need it (like I'm going to a tradeshow and I need to carry business cards). I have to admit I'm lukewarm on the plasticky look, but from a purely functional point of view it's a terrific design. And no, the hard design is no more uncomfortable than a normal wallet.

  1. Tracktion DAW – I finally settled on Tracktion as my DAW. In the end, user interface won out. Tracktion's UI is exceptionally easy and fun once you learn just a few key concepts. In fact, I think the learning curve for Tracktion is shallower than any other DAW I've used, which includes Pro Tools, Sonar, Reaper, FL Studio, and Ableton Live. I love its consistent use of drag-and-drop; I like the modeless, all-from-one-screen interface; I love how it uses context sensitivity to hide irrelevant buttons and options; and I greatly prefer its flat UI design that doesn't clutter the screen with photorealism. The only mixed feelings I have about its UI concern the fact it doesn't have a traditional mixer view (a casualty of the single screen philosophy). It's easy enough to adapt to, but the vertical arrangement of channels means that you can't see as many of them on your screen at once. On the other hand, Tracktion's mixer is infinitely configurable which is really cool. For all its ease of use, Tracktion doesn't give up functionality. I don't claim that its a feature-for-feature match with those other DAWs, but it is their equivalent from a music capability standpoint. (Except for Ableton Live, which has some pretty unique features for live performance.) In other words, there is a reasonable way to accomplish virtually any task you need to do in recording music. I don't feel in any way limited by it. And since it was taken over by the original developer team, the support for Tracktion has been excellent. The only knock I have on Tracktion is that it doesn't come with many plug-ins.

  1. Aviator Smokehouse – This is the restaurant side of the Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay Varina. Their BlackMamba wings are some of the best wings I've eaten. The name sounds like they'd be scorching hot, but they're fairly mild. The name actually derives from the fact that the sauce is made from Aviator's BlackMamba Oatmeal Stout beer, which apparently makes a killer wing sauce. Of course the beers at Aviator are all excellent as well. The aforementioned BlackMamba stout is a favorite, but the HogWild IPA, and the WideOpen Red are good as well. Highly recommended.

  1. 3 Displays – My office mate at work opted to relocate early to our office in Durham (we're all moving there in a few months) and left his two computer displays. I commandeered one of them to supplement my own display. So including my laptop's built-in display, my system now has three displays spanning my desk and I've configured my computer to use them as one big desktop spanning all three. It feels positively decadent. The desktop metaphor for operating system UI has been prevalent since the late '80s. But I've always joked that its flawed because no one would use a desk that was as small as a computer display. Well, three displays is a right proper desktop! I think I'm forever spoiled.


Get A Grip!

I got my MB-D11 battery grip working again with my D7000. It had a problem with intermittent power losses, which caused the camera to stop working for a moment and sometimes lose a photo it had just taken. I reasoned that it was probably an issue with a faulty electronic connection between the grip and camera, or between the battery tray and the grip. So I removed the grip with the idea that I'd take some DeoxIT to the electrical contacts and see if that fixed it. But I never got around to it and I eventually just got used to using my camera without a grip. Yesterday – by coincidence one year to the day that I removed the grip – I finally cleaned the electrical contacts with DeoxIT and that did in fact fix the problem.

Wow. I'd forgotten how nice it is to have a grip! For big hands, it's really great to have something more substantial to hold. And it makes portrait-oriented shots less clumsy and more steady. It also makes the camera balance better with longer, heavier lenses. And of course, it adds extra battery capacity when you need it. The drawback is that it adds considerable extra weight and it makes the camera less stealthy, but for the kind of photography I do the benefits are well worth it.

I only wish I hadn't waited a year to fix it.


Data Back-up, Revisted

Things have changed a little bit since I last wrote about data back-up. The basic principles are the same, but the migration to Lightroom and Tracktion have required me to adjust my process a bit.

Photo Back-Up

Capture  My camera provides two SD memory card slots. I've configured it to write the RAW file for each photo to both cards. So from capture I've already got a back-up.

Import – I import photos from one of the cards into Lightroom, at which time the RAW images are copied to an external USB drive that is my primary working drive for photography. Once imported, I try to keep the RAW images on the SD cards until that working drive is backed up. Otherwise I'd be flying without a net.

Post-Processing – While the RAW images are stored on the external drive, my Lightroom catalog is kept on my computer's internal drive. I do that in order to take advantage Lightroom's Smart Preview feature that allows me to edit photos even when the working drive is disconnected. To use Smart Previews, the catalog needs to be on the computer's local drive. However, I've configured Lightroom to back up the catalog to the external working drive every time it exits, so the catalog is always backed-up as well.

By the way, the default behavior in Lightroom is to back up the catalog once a day upon exit of the program. But I don't like that scheme because of the way it's implemented: it will back up your catalog the first time you exit Lightroom for the day, then it won't do it again until the next day. I'm likely to exit Lightroom several times a day. In event of a catastrophe, this means that instead of losing "at most" a  day's worth of edits, I'm likely to lose most of a day's worth of edits. So I have it back up on every exit. It doesn't take too long at my current catalog size and I'm assured at losing at most a single session's worth of edits. Maybe once my catalog grows really big, I'll change my scheme but for now while the catalog is small, this makes the most sense.

Off-site – After the RAW images and catalog backed-up are on the external drive, I will take the drive to work at the earliest opportunity and back-up its contents to another external drive I keep at my office. I use FreeFileSync for that. It works great and the only way it could be priced better is if they paid you to use it. So with this step I have an off-site back-up for both the RAW images and the catalog. I can now remove the RAW images from the SD cards.

Export – When I'm done post-processing my photos, I take all my favorites and export them as high quality JPEGs. These "Finals" are written to the external drive and to my Google Drive, which uploads them to the cloud and distributes them to all my computers that have Google Drive installed. The Google Drive also gives me ubiquitous access to them from anywhere on the Internet. Any new Finals photos are also backed-up to the drive at work whenever I do the off-site back-up. Honestly, I'm most concerned about the long-term preservation of the Finals photos, as they are the keepsakes in my mind, not the RAWs.

Audio Back-Up

My audio back-up strategy is much simpler due to system performance and data size constraints. The working copies of my audio projects are kept on my computer's primary hard drive for performance reasons. A single Tracktion project consists of lots of little files - audio clips, MIDI clips, rendered files, etc, During a project, I will regularly export an archive file (a Tracktion file format that stuffs all the various files associated with a project into a single file) to the same external drive I use as my working drive for photography. Then, when I do the off-site back-up of my photo files at my office, I include the audio project archive files as well. My final mixed and mastered audio files are put on my Google drive to provide online back-up of the audio "finals", similar to what I do for photo Finals.


All Your RAM Are Belong to Lightroom

Some more early impressions on Lightroom... One thing I've noticed is that Lightroom is not very efficient with RAM usage (compared to AfterShot anyway). My laptop has 8GB, which I would consider middle of the road in terms of RAM  certainly not loaded, but not paltry either. This laptop doesn't have many processes running in the background either since it's also my audio recording system; I went through and uninstalled or deactivated all the usual junk that ships with a computer. My Lightroom catalog currently has about 9,000 photos, which is well below what I understand to be the performance limits on catalog size.  So last night a 16MP RAW image with somewhat extensive editing got my system page thrashing badly. I tried exiting and restarting Lightroom with the idea that, if it was a memory leak issue, killing the program would free up orphaned RAM. But that particular image still caused excessive page faults after the restart. I am surprised by this because, although RAW images are big, they're pretty small compared to the cumulative size of multi-track audio projects and this system deals with those and hardly raises its pulse. Perhaps the sheer size of audio files forces DAW vendors to be a lot more clever about managing memory. Of course, it's not that simple. For instance, my system is 64-bit which is going to use more memory than a 32-bit system for the same data, and I'm not really factoring that here. In any case, I guess I'm going to need to upgrade to 16GB in the near future. Fortunately RAM is relatively cheap. This laptop has two memory slots, but I'm not sure how many of them are used by the 8GB that's currently installed. Hopefully only one, as it will make the upgrade cheaper.

[Update 3/10/2015 – The factory installed memory on my laptop did in fact only use one slot. So I installed an additional 8GB SODIMM for a total of 16GB. No more page thrashing. Problem solved for $70.]


God Only Knows How Geniuses Are Made

A wonderful video of two personal heroes exploring the nature of creativity while dissecting God Only Knows.  This is flat-out awesome.



Thoughts on Adobe Creative Cloud Photography

Well, I've finally made the leap. I've migrated from using AfterShot Pro and Photoshop Elements to using Adobe Creative Cloud Photography, which is composed of Lightroom and Photoshop. First, I'd gotten spoiled by the basic editing controls in the stripped-down version of Adobe Camera Raw that comes with Elements (which are the same controls found in Lightroom). I found myself using ACR more and more because those controls are just a lot more effective than the equivalent controls in AfterShot. Another problem was the dearth of third party plug-ins for AfterShot (although I loved that AfterShot plug-ins are non-destructive - that is one big advantage to AfterShot in my opinion). Most importantly, I was pretty dissatisfied with how slow Corel was to support FujiFilm X20 RAW files on AfterShot. They've recently added it to the new version of AfterShot, but it took them way too long. So when Adobe announced the $10 per month Photography package, I decided to make the move. I should point out that I was actually pretty happy with Elements, but since the Creative Cloud Photography package comes with the full version of Photoshop, I've upgraded to that as well which in the long run will offer a lot of benefits over Elements.

It's been a pretty easy transition because the tools are similar. I knew Photoshop would be a big step up, but I've been a little surprised about how much more robust Lightroom is than AfterShot. Lightroom is extremely mature in terms of capability and flexibility. It's obvious there's been a real focus on the needs of a professionals (or serious amateurs). There are so many thoughtful features designed to make dealing with large numbers of photos more efficient - things like Smart Collections, Compare and Survey views, Smart Previews, and ubiquitous presets. It's a great system and I'm glad I've made the move.

As an aside, and putting my product marketing hat on for a moment, Corel really dropped the ball when Apple ended development of Aperture. From a marketshare standpoint Aperture was the only real competition for Lightroom, and end-of-lifing that product created a huge void in the market. Corel should have made a marketing push to capture as many orphaned Aperture users as they possibly could. It was the best opportunity to gain marketshare that they will probably ever get and they did nothing really.  If I were their product manager, I would have: 1) Created campaigns with messaging that Aperture users have other options besides Adobe or the wait-and-see game with Apple; 2) Created some promotional pricing for Aperture users switching to AfterShot; 3) Built some automated tools to make the migration easier; and 4) Shored up some of the asset management feature gaps since Aperture was so strong in that particular area. Corel seems to be an expert at acquiring immature but promising products and then letting them die on the vine. [Update: Actually, it turns out that Corel did offer a pricing promotion to Aperture users and had some messaging about why AfterShot was a good alternative. From what I can gather, they didn't promote it nearly hard enough. You have to sing it from the top of the mountain for it to be effective. And it doesn't appear they did anything in the product to facilitate migrating photos from Aperture.]

Back to Lightroom and Photoshop... There's been a lot of handwringing over the subscription model of Creative Cloud. I get it. I really do. But the way I see it, the Photography package is a no-brainer. $10 a month - just skip a few trips to Starbucks every month and it's paid for. And here's the kicker: These are the same tools used by countless, successful pros. These aren't entry-level or also-ran products with immature feature sets that are "good for the price". These are the market-leading products that most of the pros we look up to - the guys who can afford to buy anything they want - are trusting with their work. I'm telling you, I've been in the business software world for a long time and there aren't that many high-end professional software packages out there in other industries that are so reasonably priced.


Bang the Drum All Day

Well here we are in 2015. I hope your holidays were enjoyable and restful. Mine certainly were!

Between Christmas and my birthday I accumulated a little bit of gift money. Which I quickly blew on Toontrack EZdummer.

One word summary: Wow!

A bit of history... Drums have always been the weakest link in my recordings. I don't have a kit and even if I did, I'm a pretty crappy drummer. I had a drum machine in the late '80s and early '90s - a Roland TR-626, Back then, drum machines didn't sound very realistic. The samples were really short and lo-fidelity, and the grid-based sequencers in those devices tended to yield repetitive, regimented, and mechanical-sounding patterns, rather than something that sounded like it was played by a human being. That kind of thing might work well in EDM, but it doesn't work so well for my more traditional rock/blues/jazz stuff. For me, the TR-626 was better as a metronome than as a drum track generator, although I used it for the latter purpose as best I could.

Later, I graduated to using software and hardware sequencers to compose drum tracks manually. That was my primary way of working up drum tracks for many years. With good drum sounds, you can put together decent tracks this way, but it's an incredibly tedious job. Keyboard controllers and piano roll editors are really clumsy and ill-suited for dealing with drum parts (I never invested in a drum or pad controller). For awhile I used a Roland XP-80 which didn't even have a piano roll editor; if you wanted to edit individual drum hits, you had to use an event list editor (the MIDI equivalent of assembly language) on a 320x80 pixel LCD screen! Ah, good times. Some DAWs have grid-based editors which make drum pattern editing very easy, but then you've dumbed down your badass DAW to a hardware drum machine and you're back to stiff, mechanical beats.

I've also used audio and MIDI loops, which are the closest thing I'd found to ideal. At a macro level, loops are dead easy to work with because it's just dragging and dropping drum clips into an arrangement in a DAW. This approach can also yield very realistic tracks since the loops can be recordings of actual drummers. But if a loop isn't exactly right and you have to edit it, things get tedious quickly. If it's an audio loop, then you have to slice up the audio and rearrange it, while trying to maintain its natural sound, which isn't easy. (By the way, FL Studio has a very interesting tool called Slicex for slicing and dicing audio drum loops that I've dabbled with, but it still seems like a hell of a lot of work.) MIDI loops are a better option in my opinion just because they're easier to tweak, but even then, you're still back to the creative buzz-kill of editing drum parts in a piano roll.

For the last couple of years, I've sometimes used the Karma feature on my Korg M3. Even though Karma is really designed for live performance it has actually been a fairly decent tool for developing recorded drum tracks because it provides a way to get human-like variation in the drum part without editing notes individually. My approach was to find a drum kit I liked on the M3, then find a Karma drum pattern that was close to what I needed for my song. Then I'd map the Karma parameters that affect rhythmic, velocity, and timing variation, as well as note density to some sliders on the M3. Then I'd sync the M3 to the recording, play back the drum pattern with the song, while controlling the sliders to add fills and variation at the proper places in the song. I recorded '57 Fun this way and to my ears it sounds very natural.

But for my drum track purposes, Karma has some definite limitations. One, if I can't find suitable Karma drum patterns for my song, I'm basically hosed. It's possible to design my own Karma patterns using specialized software, but that process is incredibly tedious - especiallyh when the end goal is just to lay down a decent drum track. The second limitation is that sometimes the variations that Karma comes up with are not what I want. It's like having a drummer who has a fairly sizable repertoire of fills, but none of them are right and he refuses to learn any more. But the worst limitation of Karma for drum tracks is that Karma is just flat-out complicated! It has an enormously steep learning curve, even to get to the point where you can do the simply things I just described. Spending hours reading Karma parameter descriptions out of a manual is the ultimate creativity killer. But at least once I've put together my Karma patch, actually using the patch to create the drum track is very easy.

So, after over 25 years of doing this, all drum solutions I've tried have in one way or another been a pain in the ass. Enter EZdrummer.

At the most basic level, EZD provides libraries of drum samples and MIDI loops. But it augments that with some very clever searching and arranging features that make assembling drum tracks fast, easy, and actually fun. It also provides some Karma-like capabilities to add human-sounding variation to the loops, making the need to fire up the piano roll editor very rare. These features address pretty much all of the complaints I've had with drum recording solutions in the past.

I'll just say up-front that EZD's drum samples are excellent. There are two kits, but with several alternate individual drums to provide a lot more variety. The drums are pretty generously multi-sampled and there's enough variety in the instruments, the sample velocity layers, and the processing capabilities that you can cover a lot of tonal and stylistic ground.

For finding stuff in the libraries, EZdrummer has a nicely designed category- and filter-driven browser to drill down to sounds and loops. But even better, you can play a drum pattern into EZD live (with a mouse or with a MIDI controller) and it will find patterns in its library that provide the closest match to what you played. This sounds like one of those whiz-bang features that seems cool on paper but doesn't actually work very well. I can tell you - it works bloody great! It's much easier to play drum rhythms using a mouse than I imagined it would be. Once you find a suitable pattern, you can drag it into the "Song Creator" panel and EZD will present you with a bunch of complementary patterns - fills, intros, outros, and alternates - that fit aesthetically with your selected pattern. Its choices in that regard are very good and having easy access to complementary loops makes it really fast to find the material you need to flesh out the song. Song Creator can even spit out a full song arrangement for you if you want. Or you can create your song arrangement by stringing together selected loops, dragging them into a linear timeline called the Song Track.

The Song Track resides in EZD, not your DAW. It will follow and synchronize with your DAW's transport, so pushing play in your DAW will play back the drum track, at the right location in the song, and in sync with the rest of your recorded tracks. You can leave the drum track in EZD or export to a DAW track. You'd export it if you needed to edit individual notes. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle - once the drum track has been exported, you can't get it back into EZD. [Actually I've discovered that's not true. At the least, EZD's browser can incorporate your MIDI loops. But I don't know if the other features such as Edit Play Style can be used with your loops. I'll have to experiment and find out. I'll update this when I do...]

By keeping the track in EZD however, you're able to use my favorite feature of the program, called  "Edit Play Style". When working with MIDI loops in the past, if I needed to tweak the pattern even a little, I had to open up the loop in a piano roll editor and edit notes individually. Edit Play Style allows you to tweak the contents of a MIDI drum loop in a more musical and drummer-like way. For example, by simply dragging an icon from one instrument to another you can change a loop from being hi-hat based to being ride cymbal based. Or by turning a knob, you can adjust how busy the playing is and EZD will "busy up" the loop the way a real drummer would, by adding notes in a musical way. So if you want a more elaborate snare drum part with ghost notes and little ornamental rolls peppered in, you can just turn a knob instead of having to add the notes one-by-one in the piano roll. And you can go the other way too - if a fill is close but a bit too busy, you can dial it down and get a simpler variant.

Edit Play Style also lets you scale the velocity of drum hits up and down for the loop. Because the drum kits are generously multi-sampled and mapped to velocity levels, doing this gives you very easy control over the tone and energy level of the track. So if you, for instance, are working on an up-tempo country song and you find a fast drum pattern that's perfect except it's just a bit too metal-sounding because the drums are really being hammered, you can scale down the velocity and have it sound lighter and more relaxed so that it's more style-appropriate. And all of these things can be done individually for each drum, or on the whole kit all at once. With all the variation possible, Edit Play Style allows you to get a ton of mileage out of the loops!

Edit Play Style provides the sort of thing I was doing with Karma, but unlike Karma, it all works out of the box without having to configure anything, and with a few intuitively named controls so that you don't have to pour over a user's manual to figure it out.

There is also a simple but sophisticated mixing and effects processing system. It cuts some corners in terms of routing and control, but it strikes a great balance balance between control, ease-of-use, and sound quality. In other words, ToonTrack has cut the right corners. Based on what I've experienced so far, I think the onboard mixing and processing facilities are good enough for 99% of what I do. And for the odd project where I need more granular control, EZD supports individual outputs for the drums so I can route them to separate mixer channels in my DAW for independent processing.

Toontrack sells a bunch of sound expansion packs but I don't see myself buying more than a couple because the kits in the base package sound great, and can cover a lot of ground. The way I see it, if I were a drummer I would probably only own one kit and I would use it for whatever music I needed to. So I don't feel like I need a whole bunch of different virtual drum kits; a handful of good ones will do. But where I do need variety is in the loops! There's no escaping that. Loops are the core building block in EZD and even with all the features that stretch their utility, having a wide variety of them is necessary to keep parts fresh and to tackle a lot of styles. In fact, on the first week I had EZDrummer, I recorded a song with measures of 5/4 and 6/4 time that EZD didn't have loops for (I ended up reworking some 4/4 loops into the other time signatures using my DAW). I also set out to record a blues shuffle and couldn't find an appropriate loop in the stock set since its selection is rather thin on shuffles. So I hit the loop selection wall pretty quick with the base package. I ended up buying a 6-pack bundle of loops to augment the standard set. On the other hand, I know people who never play anything other than straight 4/4 time and could work with just the standard loops for a long time.

Realistic drums without enormous effort - that's been the holy grail for me and I think I'm now there.


Of Dogs and the Afterlife

I had a dream last night. My wife and I were in our kitchen and Edison appeared on our patio. I was so happy to see him. In my dream I knew he was dead and I kept thinking, "This must be a dream. This must be a dream."

Oh, but what a dream! My wife and I went onto the patio and greeted him the way you greet a dearly loved one who you haven't seen in too long, which he is. The dream was vivid - he looked, felt, and smelled like Edison. He was maybe slightly more subdued than he was, but other that, Edison was in my dream. My wife said, "Go get the boys." And I got up to go get them and then I woke up.

I was crying when I woke. A combination of dream-enhanced happiness, knowing even in the midst of it that it was going to be a fleeting moment, and being so vividly reminded of how much I love and miss him.

I'm a non-superstitious person and I'm familiar with the rational reasons behind dreams. Perhaps the dream was the result of my missing Edison so much. Maybe I've been dreaming about him a lot over the months since he died and I just happened to remember this one because I woke up during it. Or maybe my mind manufactured the dream to help me deal with the recent stresses and worries I've been dealing with.

The rational reasons fit the available facts and might be satisfying intellectually, but emotionally they really fail to deliver. There was something so moving about this dream that makes the rational explanations ring false. Despite my rational self, I prefer to believe that Edison actually visited me in a dream. That he sensed the stress and worries I've had lately, and he visited me from his well-earned afterlife of endless walks and doggie treats, to help me feel better. Pretty much the way he did when he was alive  by just being there and making me feel, for just a little while, like I'm the most awesome person in the universe. Or maybe he just wanted to let me know that he thinks of me too, the way I do him, and that in the end  whether the rational me believes in those kind of endings or not  it's all going to be okay.


The Nerd's Tenor


The theremin is one of those instruments that's generally a lot more fun to play than to listen to. But this performance is inspired listening. He's got a gizmo called an Electro Harmonix Stereo Talking Machine that applies a vocal formant to the theremin's audio signal, which in this case makes it sound like a human voice singing "ah". It gives a wonderful sound, but mad props to the musician, Peter Pringle! Controlling a theremin is the instrumental equivalent of wrestling a greased monkey. His ability to control pitch, volume, and vibrato so precisely and expressively is downright astonishing. Also, the retro film look on the video is a great touch!


New Wheels

I received an e-mail from Lenovo today saying that the laptop I ordered has (finally!) shipped. This will be the first time in a very long time that I've had a personal computer that was reasonably up-to-date. For many years, I've been limping along using either my work laptop or an ancient personal laptop that I had. That was sufficient when I used a standalone recorder in my music studio. But when I decided to go the software DAW route, I knew I'd need a machine I could tune for performance, which is a joke with my ancient laptop and not feasible on my work machine. My employer's IT department very reasonably wants to install security and support software on my computer and they don't give me access privileges to disable it, even temporarily. For multitrack audio recording, you need a machine where nothing runs in the background, stealing CPU cycles and hard drive access. Also, it was always risky using a work computer for music because I never knew when I might need to turn in my laptop to my employer and leave myself high and dry in the middle of a music project.

This new machine won't be completely dedicated to music. It will also be my primary photography computer. I don't think those pursuits will interfere with each other because my photography workflow doesn't require any software to be running unless I'm actively working on some photos. (Well, except for backup, and I can work around that.) So the music software should always have maximum computing resource available when I'm recording without much fuss and bother.

I'm still vacillating between using Reaper or Tracktion as my DAW. I will probably use both for awhile and see which one I like best.

When I get the new laptop I will probably use it as an opportunity to buy a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud Photography. That means I'll be migrating from AfterShot Pro to Lightroom, and I'll get to use the full version of Photoshop rather than Elements. So, there will be a lot of migration work to do with my photos. But it will should a major upgrade in capability and I'll be using the industry standard for photo software which will reduce a lot of software investment risk for me.


Five Things I'm Diggin' – 12/1/14

Back by popular demand (of one)!  Five Things I'm Diggin'.

  1. Fall in North Carolina – It's over now, but I really dug the falls colors in NC. I spent the majority of my life in Texas and the Southwest, so having a real autumn with knock-out colors is a such a treat. Unfortunately I didn't have a feel for the timing and the peak of the season so I really didn't photograph the colors at their best this year. (The photo you see here is not mine!) Next year I'll do a better job of it!

  1. Gerber Dime – I've been getting into EDC lately. Not the survivalist/weapons flavor of EDC, but the one concerned with optimizing what and how you carry the stuff that you are likely to need everyday. I'm fairly minimalist, so small, light, and pared down to the basics is what appeals to me. The Dime is pretty much perfect for that. It's tiny, about the size of a pair of AA batteries. The tool set is pared down to the stuff I would actually use. Great for carrying in my pocket, backpack, or messenger bag. All the tools are usable, except the file which sucks. It's built reasonably well for purpose, meaning it's okay for my light duty IT, photography, and home tasks, but if I've got a heavy duty task I still need to break out the proper tools. Best of all, it's also only $15 or so depending on where you get it.

  1. Master Magnetics Stud Finder – I had a cheap magnetic lever stud finder for years. The magnet in it was really tiny so it could take a long time to find a stud with it, but it worked reliably if I was patient. I bought a fancy electronic studfinder, but it wasn't as accurate, so I generally preferred to use my cheapy finder. I recently found the Master Magetics finder and finally retired my old finder. It solves the one problem I had with the lever finder – it uses a wide magnet that covers a larger area as you sweep it across the wall so it finds studs quickly. The magnet is strong enough to stick it to the wall so you don't have to mark the stud. And you can even tie a line and weight to it for a simple plumb bob, if you want.  $8 and highly recommended. 

  1. Citizen Hyper Aqualand – I bought this watch almost 20 years ago when I was dabbling with diving. Diving never really took hold with me, but I always liked the watch because it was rugged, waterproof, and kind of cool looking. Even if I wasn't diving I did have a boat and it was nice to have a watch that I didn't have to baby. However, about ten years ago, it needed some servicing. It worked fine, but I'd scratched the crystal, the band had broken, and it really needed to have its seals replaced to ensure water tightness. I'd bought a nice titanium Seiko that was a little more dressy and I started using that and never got around to repairing the Citizen. It sat in a drawer for a decade. Right before moving to NC I finally got inspired and sent it in for the needed repairs. Ah, now I remember why I like this thing so much! Now the Seiko needs a little work (the capacitor that stores the kinetic energy needs replacing; and it too could use a new crystal). Hopefully it doesn't take me ten years to get around to that.

  1. Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 – This is the audio interface I finally settled on when my Tascam recorder went south. I like it because it has been reliable (so far), the build quality exceeded my expectations, it's expandable, and it has a nice, transparent sound. It also pairs well with my mixer so I can augment it's inputs easily and record a full band. Now if only the new laptop I ordered would arrive I'd have my studio 100% ready to go.



On The Road, Again

So in my last post, I talked about why the Man abandoned the bunker in the book, The Road.

Spoiler Alert! Don't read this or my last post if you haven't already read the book!

In a nutshell, my interpretation is that the Man, knowing he will soon die, leaves the well-stocked bunker so that he can find other good people to take care of his son.

If you buy that, then it brings up an interesting dilemma.

The Boy is highly concerned about good and evil and which side his father and he are on. He constantly questions the Man about the actions they have taken, or might take, in order to survive. He seeks reassurance that they are "the good guys". The Man doesn't see good and evil as a black and white choice, but as a continuous gradient. Shades of gray. He will bend his morals in order to survive, but there are limits to how far he will go.  He is above cannibalism, but refuses to risk their lives to help the feeder humans imprisoned in the basement pantry. He won't steal from other people (living ones anyway), but he'll punish those who steal from him with certain death.

In the context of the story, the Man is a good guy, but just barely. His love and compassion is remarkably deep, but reserved solely for his son. He's highly concerned with the Boy "keeping the fire", a metaphor for maintaining his goodness and innocence. But the Man's own fire is just about extinguished. I posit that the Man takes on morally questionable actions done in the name of survival, and shields the Boy from them, in some measure to preserve the Boy's fire at the cost of his own. The Man looks at the Boy in a messiah-like way (the book is peppered with these references), and he sacrifices himself to protect not only the Boy's life, but his core goodness as well.

But the will to survive has an unanticipated cost. The Man is unable to trust anyone. He is paltry in helping a pitiful old blind man they encounter on the road, and only provides the meager help he does to appease his son. If the Man were to encounter actual "good guys", who could look after his son after he dies, his fear and distrust of everyone would not allow them to get close to him and would blind the Man from recognizing or acknowledging their goodness. So the Man himself is a showstopper impediment to his own mission.  The mission only succeeds because the Man dies. It's an interesting irony in the story.

The movie drives this point home a little more directly by implying that the Veteran (the guy with the shotgun who offers to take the Boy in) had been tracking the Man and the Boy for awhile (and may have been responsible for the sounds that spooked the Man out of the bunker), but had not been able to connect with them because the Man eluded him so well. It is only after the Man dies, that the Veteran is able to find them. Hope requires faith, and salvation is only possible when there is enough trust to reveal it.


The Road, the Bunker, and the Meaning of It All

I recently finished reading The Road. I've been on a Cormac McCarthy kick the last few months. What a remarkable book! Absolutely unrelenting in its bleakness, and yet at the same time, an incredibly moving testament of a man's love for his child.

Before I go on, I should say right here:  Spoiler Alert! If you haven't read The Road  and you have even a passing interest in doing so, don't read any further. You've been warned!

Okay, so you're still with me.

One plot point that really lodged itself in my brain was when the Man - out of food, on the run from cannibals, and near death - finds the bunker. Or rather when he leaves the bunker. It was such a game changing, no, life saving, find. It could have sustained the Man and the Boy for a long time. Why in the world would he leave it? I thought about that question a lot while reading the rest of the book and formed many thoughts, which I've written down here. [This discussion only applies to the book! The movie adaptation adds a scene at the bunker where the Man gets spooked when he hears something outside and is afraid they are going to be discovered. The movie uses this as the pivotal event that motivates the Man to leave the bunker. No such thing happens in the book. To me, there are a few problems with this added scene which weaken the story, but I won't delve into that here...]

In the book's narrative, the Man's reasoning for leaving the bunker is that it's too dangerous to stay. He acts like this is a given. The bunker is too exposed and easy to discover. They could have cannibals searching for them. And with all the bunker's provisions, they are an easy and extremely attractive target.

It's hard to take this explanation at face value because it doesn't make much sense. First, the story has already proven that the bunker isn't too exposed. After all, it's been hidden since the apocalyptic event which I reckon to be about ten years previous based on my estimation of the Boy's age. It remained undiscovered despite all survivors being in constant search for these kinds of caches. It would be relatively easy to cover the trap door close to as well as it was covered for those ten years. And given how resourceful the Man is, with some thought and effort he might have been able to conceal it better while also improving its accessibility for himself and his son.

I've read some folks on the Internet say that the cannibals would sniff them out in the bunker using dogs. I'm pretty sure this reasoning comes from seeing the movie, not reading the book. In the book, dogs are only mentioned once in passing and in a context that has nothing to do with the cannibals. It's implied that the dogs are feral, not domesticated. If you think about it, it's unlikely that anyone, including the cannibals, would have dogs since dogs are yet more mouths to feed and are themselves too easy of a food source for desperate starving people. The dogs certainly wouldn't have lasted past the first time the cannibal owners got really hungry, which is an almost constant condition in this post-apocalyptic world.

Second, basic wilderness survival (yeah, I was a Boy Scout) teaches that the most important priorities are water, shelter, and food. The bunker provided all three in abundance, plus clothing, equipment, and tools. It would have been totally worth any risk of discovery to take the time and effort to figure out how to hide, secure, and defend the bunker.

Third, and most importantly, it's an illusion that the road is safer than the bunker. The Man has no idea where the bad guys are, what lies in wait on the road, and whether he'll be able to find food and shelter when he leaves the bunker. Every day on the road is a deadly crap shoot. For all he knows, he could turn a corner and walk right into a village of cannibals. If you're trying to avoid being caught, instead of going out into the open of the road, it makes more sense to hunker down in a good hiding place (like, say, a bunker!) and wait for the danger to pass (even if temporarily). This is born out in the ending when the man with the shotgun offers to take in the Boy after the Man dies:

You can stay here with your papa and die or you can go with me. If you stay you need to keep out of the road. I don't know how you made it this far.

Given how meticulously crafted McCarthy's books are, I can't believe that he didn't think of all of this. I also can't believe that the shotgun man's conflicting assessment of the road's safety was an accident. McCarthy's not sloppy and everything seems to be written with a literary purpose. My thinking is that the Man's stated rationale for leaving the bunker isn't the true reason and that we readers are supposed to work out the reason from context.

Okay, so why then does he leave the bunker? Here's my theory...

The Man's sole reason for carrying on and not following his wife into suicide is his son. It's mentioned several times in the book and one of the main themes of the book is his love and devotion to the Boy.

He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

The book also establishes that the Man is aware that he is dying. He has a chronic, blood-tinged, and ever-worsening cough and his strength and stamina is in steady decline. From the description it sounds like tuberculosis, but more probably it's lung cancer or something similar caused by the inhalation of whatever foulness is in the air. Anyway, my theory is that the Man can't stay in the bunker because he knows he's dying and his son is clearly not ready to fend for himself even in the bunker and especially when the bunker's supplies finally run out, which they will eventually. So the Man's best bet to ensure his son's long-term survival - which is his only reason for living - is to find a better situation where somebody trustworthy can look after his son and continue to teach him what he needs to know to survive and to "carry the fire". Perhaps a community of "good guys" (as the book calls decent people), if such a thing exists. He knows he cannot find that situation staying in the bunker and with his worsening health he has limited time to do it.

I like this theory because it fits the available facts of the story, seems logical, and works well with the literary devices in the novel. The road becomes a symbol for the suffering born of perseverance in the pursuit of hope. The road is unforgiving and unknowable, but it must be endured because to not do so is to give up all hope and resign the Boy to certain doom. And similarly then, the bunker represents the temptation to end the suffering by abandoning hope, A sort of suicide of the spirit. Like suicide, the bunker is tempting because of its immediate comfort. But also like suicide, staying in the bunker is abandoning hope because the Man knows that doing so would doom his son when the bunker's supplies run out and the Boy is utterly unprepared to deal with it on his own. In fact, the easy abundance of the bunker would leave the Boy even less prepared to deal with the harsh reality outside it.

When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up.

The road, being unknowable, at least offers the prospect of hope, however dim. Yes, on the road they could walk right into a village of cannibals, but they could also walk into a village of good guys. So as tempting as the bunker is, the Man and his son must leave the bunker and endure the road.


Last Dance

Fall colors are getting pretty amazing in NC. I've got to get out there and get some more shots this weekend because I have no idea about the typical curve for fall colors here - how long they last, when they're at their best, etc. Everything could fall off the trees in one night and I will have miss it if I don't hurry up...


The Spoils of Early Rising

Another morning commute shot. Left for work early this morning and the sky was spectacular. I was pressing on though because I needed to do some work at the office before everybody else arrived. But when I saw the church it was just too good of an opportunity to pass.


Greetings from North Carolina

We've now been in Raleigh just shy of two weeks. The move itself was stressful. First, the movers underestimated how long it would take to box up our belongings. They budgeted 2 workers for 2 days, but after the first day they'd only completed maybe 25% of the work. The next day they brought in an extra person, but still didn't catch up. They were still packing when the moving van arrived on the 3rd day. That final load-in day was a long, 14-hour slog. It was exhausting for me and all I was doing was supervising. The movers also underestimated the weight, which is how they determine price. But that was their problem as I'd gotten a "not to exceed" estimate. So they had to eat the extra cost.

We finally vacated the house at about 10:30PM on that third day.  I'd booked a hotel on the other side of Houston so that we wouldn't have to drive across the city in commuter traffic when we started for NC the next morning. In the hour-long drive to the hotel, one of our cats freaked out and peed in the back of my car!  This despite the fact that I'd put a litter box in the kennel with them. So that was an additional hour of very unpleasant cleanup when I'm already exhausted. And of course it's very difficult to get rid of the smell entirely. The wife and I seriously considered dropping off the cats at the nearest animal shelter, but cooler heads prevailed. The next couple days driving across the South were less eventful, but stinky. Luckily for my wife and kids, they were in the other vehicle so I'm the only one who had to deal with it. 

We got to Raleigh the day before we were to close on the new house and everything went very smoothly with the closing. In fact, since they don't use title companies in NC, the closing event can be anywhere and my realtor chose a posh country club. Gorgeous lake view with multi-million dollar homes all around. Nice, and they didn't make us enter through the servants' entrace. Despite being new mortgage home owners, we had to stay in the hotel a few more days waiting for the moving van to arrive. And because you can never really have enough bodily fluids to clean up, my oldest kid vomited on the floor of the bathroom one night during our stay. He was in the bathroom but hurled on the floor instead of into the toilet! I cleaned it up but I also lost my cool on that one and threw my own little tantrum. I had some apologizing to do the next day. Sigh. I think I'd just had my fill of cleaning up stinky messes. I thought for sure I'd catch whatever bug he had, but somehow I dodged that bullet.

The move into the new house was blissfully uneventful. The wife and kids like the house and the kids seem to be taking to their new school well so far. So far nobody has thrown up or peed on the floor; then again we've only just moved in! We spend most of our free time emptying boxes. But the neighbors we've met have been wonderfully friendly, and the weather here has been simply gorgeous.

So it's all good.

Except for the smell of my car. I may end up having to cut the carpet out of the cargo area of my CR-V. Fortunately it's a 12 year old vehicle so I'm not that worried about it. Just glad the cats weren't in the other car which is a lot newer and more expensive.

Yesterday I was coming into work and noticed how beautifully the trees were reflecting in the river that I cross over as I near the office. So I pulled over to snap a few photos. It's a great commute actually. Compared to Houston, the drive is shorter and there's a lot less traffic. And since most of it is on beautiful, wooded country roads, it's actually a pleasant drive. I open the sunroof, turn up the podcast, and just enjoy the downtime. 

I think I'm going to like it here.