Maybe this was Ted Kaczynski’s real fear

My knowledge of computers and operating systems is fairly pedestrian these days, but as a kid I was ahead of the curve for a while, learning BASIC when I was 10 or 11 and later writing some baseball- and running-simulation programs on an IBM PC Jr. (It helped that my dad was a programmer.) My earliest efforts were on an Atari 400/800.

In those days, it was a rare thing even for relatively “with it” adults to know anything about computers that didn’t involve playing games. If someone saw you punching keys with a screen in front of you and called out “Hey nerd,” you probably looked his way with an expression not of hurt but of pride. Only nerds knew how to *really* use computers. (I wasn’t a nerd myself, though. I was extremely suave. In addition to spending summer vacations running endless simulations of 5K races involving fictional runners on nonexistent teams at imaginary schools, I could solve a Rubik’s cube, play chess, create my own scaled-down rip-offs of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and execute a variety of other social maneuvers that 13- and 14-year-old girls found irresistible.)

I remember wondering, maybe aloud but perhaps to myself, what would happen if one were to somehow locate a tribe of prehistoric cave people and furnish them with computers. (This was in addition to, of course, furnishing them with well-cooked food and reliable shelter, but only after they reached a certain level of proficiency with Astrosmash and Zork.)

35 years later, I don’t have to wonder anymore. It’s called Twitter, and it has a lot of first-degree relatives.

In Search of the Elusive Volume Control

Did you ever find yourself asking the question “How did I get here?”

The first pro-quality drum kit that I had was a Gretsch five piece with birch shells, Ludwig hardware, and Avedis Zildjian cymbals. It was purchased second hand in the mid 1970s. After being overly influenced by Bill Bruford, a set of six Remo Roto-toms was added a few years later. As much as I enjoyed the set there were two problems associated with it. First, in spite of some nice Shure and AKG mics, it was difficult to get a decent sound out of them in my home recording studio. Of course, being that the “studio” was a basement with scant acoustical treatment and a seven foot ceiling, the kit could hardly be blamed. The second and perhaps more confounding problem was the loudness level. In fair consideration to the rest of the family and neighbors, there were limits on when I could play. I simply could not afford any manner of “sound proof” room and unlike the ubiquitous guitars, basses, and keyboards that my friends played, there was no volume control on a drum kit. As I was finishing my degree in electrical engineering at the time, I was hopeful that there might be a technological solution down the road, something more advanced than the “beep-boop” Syndrums of the day.

Continue reading “In Search of the Elusive Volume Control”

Civil disobedience in the high-tech age: the BART protests

I don’t like using terms such as “high-tech age” or, even worse, “age of technology.” What’s high-tech today will appear quaint in a decade or two (not so long ago, it was considered marvelous to have a computer that didn’t take up an entire room that required supercooling to keep the whole apparatus from fricaseeing itself). But every societal undertaking been affected by the trappings of the Internet, cell-phone service and skilled hackers — even potential confrontations between law enforcement and protesters.

For those of you who have never visited San Francisco or (egad) Oakland, the two cities are joined by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which runs under San Francisco Bay via the 3.6-mile long Transbay Tube and extends south on the San Francisco side and in all directions on the Oakland side. It is a very pleasant commuter experience. The family of of Oscar Grant III would probably not agree, given that Mr. Grant was fatally shot in January 2009 by a BART police officer who was later convicted of murder (reduced to involuntary manslaughter on appeal). Ditto any associates of a homeless man named Charles Blair Hill, who was shot dead on July 8 by a transit cop. Hill came at officers with a vodka bottle and a knife, but Grant was unarmed and face-down on the ground when he was shot in the back. This shooting, which was caught on numerous video cameras, qualifies as an execution by any standard.

Continue reading “Civil disobedience in the high-tech age: the BART protests”

Smart move

I’m not surprised that this post at Run Angry has garnered a huge number of comments already. Many people feel the way she does, and since similar minds tend to cluster together in the blog world, the effect of her post about smartphones and babble-technology in general there is predictably amplified. If I were plastered right now, I would post something akin to the following. Continue reading “Smart move”

DIY Bass Trap

So I’ve been busy lately.  Built a new recording/practice studio this summer/fall and I’m finally getting a few finishing touches done. One of those “touches” is acoustic treatment.

One of the more important aspects of studio acoustics is making sure you have a reasonable reverberation time. At the bass end of things, most untreated rooms are filled with the acoustic equivalent of mud. Trying to mix in such an environment is difficult at best. So, the front line treatment is something called a “bass trap”. You can find decent bass traps from a variety of companies such as GIK. The job of the bass trap is to absorb low frequency energy thereby reducing the sonic mud for a more clear and detailed response. Many bass traps are little more than a frame filled with a rigid fiberglass or rock wool material (denser than typical house insulation) and covered with a fire-rated acoustical cloth (such as loudspeaker grill cloth).

As part of the construction, I wound up with a box of 12 two-by-four foot sheets of two inch thick Owens-Corning 703 rigid fiberglass left over. So I purchased eight yards of Guilford of Maine fabric from GIK and sew-on Velcro from Industrial Webbing, made a pattern that is essentially a two-by-four foot box with a lid, six inches high. The Velcro covers the three edges. I dropped in three sheets of the 703, closed the lid, and bingo, four nice bass traps. The photo below shows one of the units open, ready to receive the 703. Note that there is an extra 3″ of fabric beyond the Velcro to help keep any stray fibers contained.

Opened bass trap

Bass traps are most effective in the corners of the room. These units are stiff enough that they stand up by themselves so I simply propped them in each corner. Here is one sitting behind my drum kit:

Bass trap in corner

These were relatively inexpensive to make, especially considering that the 703 was surplus from the construction. I can barely sew on a button, so a faithful family member did the sewing duties for which I am extremely grateful.

FYI, a thread about the studio was started on the VDrums forum this past summer. You can find it here.

Non Essential Sound Products

A while back I offered my thoughts on a particular type of over-priced and over-hyped audio snake oil, namely power cables. So today I get my new issue of Bass Player magazine and what do I see? Why it’s an add from Essential Sound Products hawking their MusicCord AC power cord with the headline “Your stock power cord is choking your sound!” If you go to their site (which I won’t link to) you will find unsubstantiated claims about other AC power cords producing “Thin, One-Dimensional Tone; Attenuated, Gutless Bass Response; Hiss, Buzz and Noisy Backgrounds;  High-Frequency Roll-Off; Blurred Imaging; Bloated, Sluggish Bass Response” and other issues. Geez, I certainly wouldn’t want my bass guitar to suffer from “Bloated, sluggish, attenuated, gutless bass response”. Granted, I always thought that “bloated” was rather the opposite of “attenuated and gutless” in this sort of situation, but perhaps normal AC power cords are worse than I thought. Of course, you won’t find anything on their site in the way of serious double blind listening tests to validate these claims. As I offered a light critique in the afore-mentioned post, I won’t rehash it here. I only have three things to say regarding this company right now:

1. Apparently they have discovered (or are at least hoping) that naive musicians offer a profitable new market beyond tweak audiophiles. And hey, given that higher end basses are in the multi-thousand dollar range these days, maybe $100 for a power cord is well within the budget of the “tone paranoid”.

2. Not to be outdone by the power cord, the company also offers a six outlet power strip. With surge suppressor mind you! On sale, the bargain price of just a dollar short of $500. Why, you save $100 compared to the normal price! Gee, I can think of an alternate route: Go to the local hardware or electronics shop, pick up their most rugged surge suppressor power strip, give $100 to charity, buy a new stomp box, fold up a bunch of $20 bills and stuff them under the leg of that wobbly table in the back room to level it, and you’ll still be ahead.

3. They are not the worst offender. Look at this. That’s right, $3500 for an AC power cord.  This is nothing short of vile.

While searching for some material on this topic, I came across this article discussing whether or not there are audible differences attributable to power cords.  When I got to this part I just had to laugh:

To many in the engineering community, blind ABX is an accepted experimental design. Using the blind ABX protocol, we failed to hear any differences between an assortment of generic power cords and Nordost Valhalla. Therefore, we cannot conclude that different power cords produce a difference using the blind ABX protocol. However, we also cannot conclude that there are no differences. We simply failed to prove that differences can be detected to a statistically significant degree using a blind ABX protocol.

So in other words, if a proper double-blind test doesn’t reveal any differences, the only thing you have shown is that a double-blind test doesn’t reveal any differences. Apparently, there are no further consequences or conclusions to be drawn and it has nothing to do with what humans can or cannot hear. Brilliant!

Hot Water Heat Pump

For most folks, the second most energy intensive activity in the home (after living space heating/cooling) is heating potable water. For a great many people the obvious choice is storage-based or on-demand fired by natural gas. But lots of folks (like me) don’t have natural gas service so we usually rely on storage-based electric water heaters. They’re relatively inexpensive to purchase (maybe $300-$350 or so for a halfway decent 50 gallon unit) but expensive to operate. Standard government estimates run around $500-$550 per year. This figure depends a lot on your usage and local electricity rates.

By themselves, electric resistive water heaters are relatively efficient in simple terms. Generally, between 90 and 95 percent of the electrical input is translated to heating water. This, of course, does not account for generation and transmission of said electricity, and as the average consumer is many miles from a generation plant, the system efficiency is much, much lower. In other words, bringing the fuel to the consumer (e.g. natural gas) and having them burn it on site achieves a much higher system efficiency.

Ultimately, an electric water heater is not much different from a toaster or space heater: You pass current through a resistive element, the element heats up, which in turn heats the water (or the bread, or the air).  So how do you make a system like this more efficient and less costly to operate?

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