Archive for October, 2009

Running Windows on a Mac still to be considered harmful

October 27th, 2009 by Reinder

Reader Kitchenbutterfly asks:

Why have you burst my bubble? I've been living in paradise, claiming the MAC and all things APPLE to be the next best thing to sliced bread, or at least windows! And I know about buying computers in a hurry.

Well here's the thing: I loved my first iBook. I never had any serious problems with it. But it was getting old, it was a G4 and there were certain things it couldn't do that would come in handy for my long-distance work. Like run Windows in some form or another. So for Christmas, Aggie, who is sweet and loving and obviously completely crazy, gave me a new MacBook. I immediately started messing around with both Boot Camp and Parallels Desktop to figure out which setup would work best for me (there is a third option, VMWare Fusion, which I haven't tried and right now don't have the heart to). It is now turning out to be the answer that neither work well enough for real work, and both are harmful to the safety of my Mac hardware and my data.

The Boot Camp arrangement did not survive the first five weeks of long-distance work over the summer. The final week was spent doing whatever I could to get work done on one of Aggie's computers. Since one of them did not want to work with the Logoport online translation client, and the other did not want to let me install SDLX*), this took a lot of moving back and forth between computers. Then I took my bricked Macbook home to Groningen to see what I could do about it.

Meanwhile, some changes in our company's VPN software allowed that to work with a Parallels virtual machine, which it hadn't done before. Wonderful! I could run Windows in the VM, keep all my data safe on my Mac folders, and access my Mac software while working in Windows.

Well, I could, right until I upgraded to OS 10.6 Snow Leopard. Parallels 4 is supposed to work with it and the company even has a nifty new upgrade to make it work even better. It was while checking my Parallels VM while preparing to upgrade to that nifty new upgrade the day before leaving for the US that my MacBook became seriously bricked again.

I took the bricked MacBook with me to Tennessee to see what I could do. Three thirty-mile drives to Murfreesboro later, we had a diagnose of OS corruption, which the repair guy said actually happened quite often. They offered to wipe and reinstall for a mere $130, I said no, we'll do it ourselves, thanks, and we took the bricked box home, wiped it, reinstalled it, and restored it to its state of October 13, 2009 using the magic of Time Machine. Time Machine is excellent, but I'm finding myself using it a little too often.

I went to work using the Virtual machine and all was right with the world. I spent the Sunday before I was due to get back to work installing my software on the VM, and it was good. On Monday, I went to work, and all was good. What I didn't realise was that the reason all was good was that Parallels was unable to download its nifty new update over our slow internet connection (see previous post). But at the end of the first working day, it had somehow snagged all 110 or so MB of it and prompted me to install it. Foolishly, I did. The installation ended with an error (something about a required file missing - even though this was an automated download that should have got everything) and my VM no longer worked well. Using Time Machine, I tried to restore the software to its last version, which worked, but restoring the actual VM file (an 8 GB monstrosity) turned out to be harder. This is probably because the VM had been running whenever the Time Machine back-ups were made, so what ended up in the back-up was not a workable file to boot the VM from. After repeated attempts, running Parallels caused the Mac to hang again.
So now I'm restoring it again to the state it was in on October 13, 2009. After that, I will turn off all update functionality in Parallels, reinstall the software I need and hope for the best until the new PC arrives here (working on Aggie's machines has become problematic for other reasons that I don't want to go into as this post is already quite long and nerdy).

And that is the tale of my MacBook woes. Some of my woes are clearly the result of human error (upgrading anything that works is risky and with the Parallels upgrade, there was already a known risk factor), but I'm beginning to think that the main human error here is wanting to run Windows on a Mac in the first place. I get a lot of joy from using that machine (and I do mean actual pleasure in using it as opposed to merely finding that work goes smoothly and the computer isn't an active obstacle) whenever I use Mac software on it, whether commercial and actively developed for the Mac, or open source and ported to the Mac. I get nothing but grief and a great deal of learned helplessness from working with Windows on the same Mac. So the lesson here is that Macs should be used to run Mac software; score one for the Cult of Mac, I guess.

I'm stuck with Parallels for a few more days. When the new PC arrives, it will be gone, and good riddance.

*) Incidentally, if you love well designed software, translation software will open your life to forms of horror beyond the imagining of mortal men. If translation software can be said to be designed at all, it is designed based on the interests of anyone but translators. SDLX Suite, at least until its most recent version released this year, was not designed at all - it was a Frankensteinian patchwork of previously unrelated programs that the SDL company had bought over the years, that had no single interface vision and which only worked together through filters and a gigantic super-interface for project management and bundling. I have heard that the new release is better integrated, but its backward compatibility is nonexistent. This is relevant here because the installer alone is half a gigabyte and requires several steps of pre-installation taking several minutes before it even begins to try to install any of the component programs.

How I crave real Internets

October 26th, 2009 by Reinder

Reader Branko asks: "Reinder, how is life in the new fatherland? Have they internets there?"
Well I don't know about the rest of the USA (it'll be a while before it's really my new fatherland as I won't even be getting my fiancé visa until early next year) but here in rural middle Tennessee, life is pretty good except that the answer to the question about the internets is "yeah, kinda sorta". We're way out in the boonies and that means that what internets we get come with conditions that the civilised world has long since forgotten about*): data limits, bandwidth throttling, overage charges and dropped connections when the weather is bad or the moon is in the house of Jupiter. To be able to do my long-distance work at all, I need to switch between two internet connections, both of which we pay through the nose for. We've got Aggie's satellite dish connection that throttles you to slow modem speeds once you've reached the daily data limit of about 500 MB - an SDLX translation memory file for one of our larger clients will get you halfway there. The satellite service also limits the number of separate connections that can be made and if I'm sharing it with one of Aggie's sons playing World of Warcraft, it gets pretty slow.
The other connection is the cellular internet connection that I pay more for than I do for high-speed bandwidth and cable combined back in Groningen. It too has a data limit, which is even more draconian at 5 GB a month, but at least I have it all to myself and it never actually artificially lowers the speed. Out here, the reception is pretty poor though and rare is the day that it shows more than two bars out of four. The closest thing to a credible competitor that Verizon has here, AT&T, is not reachable at all and the only time I can read messages on my AT&T cell phone is when we drive out to Manchester or Tullahoma.

This is the biggest obstacle I am facing to working long-distance: the connectivity simply isn't good enough to push around the files I am working with. There is some prospect for improvement as there are still a lot of houses being built in the neighborhood and the demand for broadband will eventualy be there. Still, it's a pity that all the Federal stimulus money seems to have gone to repaving the roads that were already there instead of building new infrastructure such as broadband cables.

Anyway, I hope that this explains why posting here may be even slower than usual: on working days, I am being throttled and on weekends and vacations, there's things to do in meatspace that after a week of dealing with this sort of thing, I'd much rather be doing.

*) Belgians take note: you are not living in the civilised world, and unlike the people out here in the boonies who simply don't have the infrastructure, you have yourself to blame for tolerating the limitations your ISP's impose. A few well-aimed bricks through the right windows will help you shed your data shackles.

Just for once in my life, I’d like to not have to buy a new computer in a hurry

October 16th, 2009 by Reinder

With 36 hours to go before my next flight to Tennessee, the Macbook dies. That means that
a) I get to buy a new hard drive for my Macbook just to have access to my files (music including my vinyl album rips, scans - the paper originals for many of which I have recently thrown out) minus the ones added since I last ran Time Machine;

b) I get to take all my installation materials to Amsterdam and install them at the address where I am sleeping over so I can catch my plane in the morning. If that doesn't work, I get to take a bricked laptop to Tennessee and try again while I'm there;

c) because Apple can't be relied upon to make hardware that survives even a short period of intensive use, instead of doing it all through Parallels Fusion on the Macbook, we get to buy a Dell box in a hurry for the long-distance work I will be doing. We do not get time to think about what precisely we want - we get to order quickly and hope it's up and running before my . Just like with the current desktop at home in Groningen, and the studio machine before that, and the studio machine before that. Other people sometimes get to ponder their aging systems and say "Gee honey, maybe we should save up a bit of cash so we can replace this old box." I have not been in a position to do that for five or so years. I get to replace dead machines in a mad rush to meet the next deadline;

d) I get to stay up late to complete the preparations for my trip that I was working on at the time the laptop gave up. Obviously I don't get to do the ones that involve installing software on the laptop, but I did lose 90 minutes just trying to diagnose the problem (see: opaque operating systems and why they're a bad idea even if they're pretty);

e) I get to lose all the money I saved through 5 weeks of stepping up the frugality. Isn't it wonderful to be me?

Well at least I'll be seeing Aggie again in two days. So it's not all misery.

4 Mijl results not so good

October 12th, 2009 by Reinder

29:37... 3/4 minute slower than last year. Then again, almost everyone in my team was considerably slower than last year, by a similar margin. Perhaps it was the damp, chilly weather, perhaps it was that everyone was dressed for even damper, chillier weather. Whatever the cause, it's a bit of a dampener on a great running season for me.

This year, I did 5 competitions in total, including one in May that I forgot to write up. Or if I did, it got lost in the blog's categorisation. That was a 7K in Groningen, the Nacht van Groningen and my time there was nothing to write home about: 32:40.7 net. I had to bail out of a competition in Manchester, Tennessee because Aggie's cat, Pyewacket, had to be taken to an emergency vet in Murfreesboro, and I couldn't get to the starting line on my own steam. I hope I have better luck this fall.

In all I trained less this year but compensated in competitive miles. That's more expensive to do but I do enjoy it a lot. Before this year's 4 Mijl, I was getting a little fed up with running, which may be another part of the reason I didn't do all that well. But I still got a big buzz out of taking part and in a month or so, I'll get the itch to do it again. For now though, it's time for a break.

Groceries for October 10: pre-travel week

October 11th, 2009 by Reinder

This week's groceries bill: €5.66. I only bought half a loaf of bread, a litre of milk, some bananas and a kilogram of tangerines.
It's gonna be an unusual sort of week though. I'm leaving for the United States (staying in Amsterdam overnight) on Friday, and the odds are I'll be doing stuff in preparation leaving little time to cook. At the same time, I do want to empty out the pantry some more, and that played a big part in my decision to buy very little. By Thursday, I'll probably be eating lentils for breakfast and canned food for dinner (keeps stuff to clean that last day to a minimum) and then on Friday and Saturday I'll eat mostly on the go, spending more on food and drink on those two days than I have in a month.

After that, ultra-frugal eating will go out of the window as I'm not going to inflict it on Aggie and her boys... but for me doing this the past few weeks has not felt like deprivation at all. I haven't missed more expensive food and have in fact enjoyed getting creative with what I had in the pantry and with the smaller amounts of food I bought at the € 15 limit. And with those tax bills coming in, and the cost of travel, plus the urgent need to save up for a wedding, emigration and a chance to get off the salaryman treadmill at an early age, it's very much a good thing that I can live for a month and a half of that little money (even though I did fall off the wagon a bit last week - but even then I merely went from being ultra-frugal to being frugal).

The one thing I didn't get rid of was the occasional craving for salty snacks. Apart from that, I adjusted well to snacking a lot less and not eating meat unless someone else paid for it. I think I ate a whole lot healthier as a result of simply being more mindful of what I bought and brought into the house. Like I mentioned last week, I lost quite a bit of weight as well, in combination with my increased running schedule. In fact, I lost so much that I began to worry about it and am now making myself eat a little more.

I'd do it again. Maybe I should have done it from the moment I came back from the US and saved a little more money that way.

Sound sponge mystery

October 7th, 2009 by Reinder

A friend of mine recommended a Mac program called Sound Sponge for automatically marking and cleaning out clicks and other problems from recordings taken from vinyl records.. but the only program called Sound Sponge (or technically, Sponge, but it's located at soundsponge.org) is a small tool for converting audio file formats and is not what I'm looking for. I think my friend mixed them up and I'll ask him, but just in case he doesn't remember, does anyone else know what he might have been thinking of?

Groceries and tenthousandaire status

October 5th, 2009 by Reinder

Before I forget: Grocery expenses on Saturday totaled €23 - more than in the past month but I decided to relax the standards a little. Which is just as well because I found out on Sunday that I'd lost 4 pounds in a week. The good news there is that I'm now back at the weight at which I ran the 4 Mijl van Groningen last year in time for this year's event. The bad news is that 4 pounds in 7 days, without any fresh changes to my diet (and indeed with less training than last week in order to recover from my latest running/walking adventure, is a scary amount of weight for me to lose in one week and may have had something to do with why I hadn't been feeling that great last week.

I didn't know that on Saturday but I let myself spend a bit more because on Friday, I had looked at my bank account and realised that I'd become a tenthousandaire for the first time in my life. my assets (cash only - nothing else I own is worth much of anything) exceeded ten thousand Euro. And me at only 38! Clearly I have a bright future ahead of me. Of course, on Saturday afternoon came a notice from the rebates division of the tax authority informing me that yes, now that I'd mentioned it, they do really want those rental subsidies paid out over the year 2009 back, and they want them within the month. That's a thousand Euro, putting my assets back into the four-figure category and making my membership of the upper crust very short-lived indeed. But at least, thanks in part to a month of enforced frugality, that repayment will be relatively painless.

A standard procedure for digitizing LP’s.

October 4th, 2009 by Reinder

I'm really happy with my USB preamp for digitizing vinyl records and kinda wish I'd bought it years earlier. It'd have saved me a lot of money in CD remasters and other forms of buying-the-same-damned-record-again. What it allows me to do is remaster the records myself according to my own requirements. I find that I can get a very clean, dynamic sound out of most records I own, without having to worry about the digitized end product being clipped or overcompressed due to the Loudness war - even though I do normalize them to be pretty loud.

And I'm also finding that, because my records are for the most part very clean, it's dead easy. Here are the steps I take to digitize an LP side. These steps assume you have Audacity and a reasonably clean, modern lawnplayer:

Start Audacity with the USB preamp hooked up (doh) and the correct preferences set.
Put record on turntable and start. If necessary, clean record with antistatic brush.
Hit record button on Audacity. Drop needle.
Wait 20 or so minutes, listening to the record to make mental notes of bad clicks or other rough spots.
When the needle lifts, stop recording.
Using the visual representation on screen, delete the bits before the needle drop and the bits after it is raised. Keep some of the "silent" parts before and after the end of the music.
Save file with the naming/folder sorting scheme of your choice. I sort by artist and album but give the actual files basic names such as "Side A" or "Side B".
In the main menu for Audacity, go to Analyses menu and select Silence Finder. Accept the default settings and hit OK. A label track will appear marking silences of a second or longer with an "S". Usually, the mark appears right where the next track begins. Go through the markings, checking them as necessary and editing them so they show the names of the songs.

While doing this, if you know any spots where there are major clicks, or you spot them as you go along, mark them on the label track as well, so you can cut them later.

In the main menu under File, go to Open Metadata Editor. Fill in the Artist name, album name, year and genre, but nothing else, and hit OK.

These steps should give you a raw recording with everything properly labeled. The reason I do the labeling first is because I don't want to endlessly repeat listening to the album. I also don't like cutting the album into separate songs until the final stage. But if you want to do that, that's fine. The next few steps affect what is actually in the recording. Because Audacity does not support non-destructive edits, now would be a good time to save.

Next up, I usually normalize. You don't have to do that, but I want the tracks to hold their own against the tracks I already have in iTunes. "Loud" tracks get normalized all the way to 0 dB - after which I check for clipping. "Softer" tracks get normalised to -0.5 dB, the default value.

Then, go back to the clicks you've marked, zoom in on them until you can see their own wave form. Select it and delete it - it is usually just a few thousandths of a second, and no musical information is preserved in a major click, so no one will notice it. It pays to use your eyes - select so that the waveform you get after deletion looks uninterrupted.

Next, select some of the silent bits from the beginning or end of the record and go to the Effects Menu -> Remove Noise. In the window that opens, hit Create Noise Profile. Next, select the entire recording, go to Effects Menu -> Remove Noise again and start experimenting. You may want to try with the default values first, but I think that removes too much noise at the expense of the overall dynamics of the recording - after all, it uses an algorithm to guess at what is and what isn't noise, and sometimes gets it wrong. I usually end up taking out 10 dB or less - especially if for some reason I haven't been able to normalize all the way up to 0 dB. You're going to have to use a lot of trial and error here, and this is where you're most likely to get it wrong and have to redo the work. When in doubt, skip the step entirely and live with the noise floor.

Once you're satisfied, select individual songs using the markings you made earlier, and export to the format of your choice using File -> Export Selection. You'll be prompted again with the metadata editor window, and this is where you enter the track name, number and the year if it's not the same year as the other recordings on the album. Don't use Export! It will export the entire LP as one track.

After that is done, I usually close without saving so I keep the unedited music in case I'm unhappy with the results later. This sometimes happens, but by this time I usually have a recording that is clean and loud without being clipped or smooshed. And because the normalization and noise reducing steps are really macro steps that don't require close interaction with the recording, I can reproduce them easily.

This is my approach; there are others and I may change mine as I learn more. If you like separating the songs out early, you can do so. Noise removal is more important if you use headphones a lot; I find the existing noise levels to be less of a problem on speakers. Because I expect to use headphones more in the future, I am hedging my bets here.

Gallery fundraiser for Yonaka!

October 1st, 2009 by Reinder

My friend and sometime collaborator Yonaka Yamako has her eye on a property near her home in Fort Valley, Georgia to turn into a studio gallery in which she can show her own work and that of other artists to the public and hopefully help breathe some life back into the town. To raise the $ 20,000 she needs, she is (among other things) selling her artworks and craft items, including prints, original pencil art, felt dolls, hand-carved crochet hooks and other carved items, textiles and jewelry (no category listing but this is an example. Yonaka's hooks are particularly highly prized and she has hooks in museums and collections around the world.
Prices aren't listed with the art at the links above, but she does tell me that she's planning to sell out her inventory for this, so whatever is not sold is for sale. She needs to get the money together in the next few weeks, and while she's been planning for the event for some time (see this post on DeviantArt), she's been taken by surprise by this opportunity so she's in a bit of a rush. She tells me she is also open to commissions, within reason, and as someone who has some of her work in his own art collection I can tell you her art is well worth paying for (see Krakatoa with riding crop, Ottar and Norla in my fan art section, though I have more.)

If you are in the market for some art in any of the categories above, or would like to commission some art for your wall or for publication in one form or another, please take some time to check out Yonaka's work at http://yonaka-yamako.deviantart.com/. She's got some beautiful stuff in there that you'll just want to have.