There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Software and Scorpions - I

The scorpion implores the turtle to carry it across the river on its back. The turtle is reluctant because of the scorpion’s unsavory reputation. But after many promises from the scorpion the turtle relents and halfway across the river is stung by the scorpion. The scorpion’s answer to the turtle’s agonized queries as to why he was so betrayed “You knew I was a scorpion when you took me on.” This well known fable is an apt analogy to the world of software users (turtles) and software manufacturers (scorpions). Not only do we continue to take on the scorpions, we have helped the scorpions to evolve into more and more venomous varieties.

In 1986, after a flurry of early computers with high prices, limited software and obscure operating systems, the arrival of IBM’s XT/286 computer combined with MSDOS made personal/business computer use practical. In these early days, software manufacturers just scrambling to get off the ground had to convince consumers not only that their product performed a job, but that the consumer actually had a need for it. In this environment products like Lotus 123, WordPerfect, dBase and the like each performed one well defined task and did it well. Software had to run in 640K (K, people, not M) so code had to be small, efficient and optimized for speed. Computers running under MSDOS (or DRDOS or IBMDOS – competition kept companies on their toes) could perform but one task at a time so through MSDOS 6.0 the operating system was tweaked and optimized to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of the 286 processor, the 640K of program space and the new slow and expensive 20M hard drives (that’s M not G). But on the horizon loomed a new product, Microsoft Windows, that was about to change all that.

In May of 1990, after five years of versions that were buggy and added nothing to productivity, Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0. Having introduced Microsoft Office for Windows in January, Microsoft now had an operating system and office suite that had eye appeal, could run programs above the 640K barrier and could (sort of) multi-task. In a very real sense, everything that has happened since in the Windows world has been tweaking of the 1990 product. The long bug plagued history of Microsoft products has been so well documented that I won’t beat this horse myself except to note that Microsoft has now fallen into the business model of selling a product that no one expects to live up to advance billing until months, sometimes years, after the initial release when enough service packs have been supplied to make the product behave. It’s like buying a new car and being resigned to the fact that the seats, air conditioning and heater will be made available at some future date.

Since the first release of Windows 98 in May of 1998 we have known that Microsoft breeds scorpions yet we continue to buy them and continue to squawk when they sting us. Some light seems to have dawned recently when Windows Vista proved to be a premature release similar to Windows ME only this time people stayed away in droves waiting for until the less bug filled version arrived with Windows 7 (Does Microsoft deliberately avoid a naming convention for the versions of Windows just to confuse us?). Still Microsoft hauled in huge amounts of money for an operating system that was universally panned. Why do we do this? What makes us collectively plow billions of dollars into products we know and accept will be flawed? Got any ideas? I’ll pursue this and point out that Microsoft isn’t alone in the scorpion filled world of big software in the next edition.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blisterpack Clusterfreak

What in the name of Beelzebub is up with packaging? This morning as I nurse a nasty late winter cold I get into my desk drawer pharmacy and attempt to get two softgels of daytime cold medicine. For the next 10 minutes I fight the following battle: 1) attempt to tear on the perforation to separate the individually packaged two softgels from the card containing their compatriots. Fold back and forth, attempt to tear, repeat; 2) give up on the dysfunctional perforation and search my desk for a scissors – I know I have a pair, I’m sure I saw it somewhere before the presidential election; 3) OK I have the two objects of my quest separated on their individual little card topped by a blisterpack otherwise known Plastic Containment Device From Hell (PCDFH); 4) being careful not to puncture my fingers with the exposed edge of the PCDFH I now attempt to “peel at arrows”. Peel?! I scratch ineffectively at the corner of the card as the paper adhered to the PCDFH clings with the tenacity of a barnacle; 5) Paper at last removed in tiny shreds I now must “push product through foil”. The analogy to a barnacle becomes more apt as it takes both thumbs and some muttered cursing to collapse the shell of the PCDFH causing the foil to at last give up its prize. I can scarcely suppress a cry of triumph as I toss down the pills.

It seems that we have reached the point where any item smaller than a bread box needs to come from the factory in the hated PCDFH. (Sidebar: Is there such a thing as a bread box anymore? In my youth almost any guessing game would include the standard question “Is it bigger than a bread box?” The question even appeared regularly on TV panel shows. But I digress.) When and why did this PCDFH ubiquity happen?

I’m sure I don’t have to go into much detail on this. Who among us has not suffered an unkind cut rendered by the sharp edge of a partially torn PCDFH? Though some manufacturers attempt to ameliorate the terrors of opening such a device by using the technology of a snap-apart clamshell PCDFH, manufacturers of small tools and hardware generally found in large discount home improvement chains scoff at such wussification of the genre. Want to use your new (insert name of small tool or appliance here) right away when you get home? Not so fast. Better get your machete, small hatchet, bowie knife or bayonet out first. Should you attempt to extract your prize using your bare hands, small pen knife or box cutter you are going to shed some blood as the PCDFH uses all its defenses to keep you from your rightful plunder. In the category of “let’s create a need for something that shouldn’t be necessary at all" we now can purchase heavily bladed PCDFH opening devices created solely for that purpose. So long common sense, we hardly knew ye.

“But we need to (in the case of pills) make sure they are tamper proof.” You already have another DFH for this purpose, the child proof cap with inner seal. Yeah, if I have arthritis there will be some suffering involved but it won’t involve actually incising my epidermis. “But we need to prevent shoplifting”. That’s just so much bull output. A determined shoplifter is going to shoplift a small PCDFH as easily as a small unpackaged item. If you want to stop shoplifting then get on the phone to your legislators and ask them to stop coddling criminals. 30 days with free meals and lodging might not stop shoplifting but 30 days at hard backbreaking labor overseen by Strother Martin might. “But PCDFH allows the shopper to see fancy graphics, advertising hype, usage warnings and the like.” What a steaming pile! I know what a can opener is for; I can see your hype just as easily on a card if you staple or twist tie the product to it. Bottom line, packaging using the PCDFH is easier for robots to apply. To hell with that – people need jobs. I’ll pay 10 cents more for an item packaged by a human and save the petroleum it takes to make the PCDFH at the same time.

The inventor of the blisterpack needs to suffer the death of a thousand cuts. Inflicted, of course, by the torn edge of a PCDFH.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Do I Really Sound Like That?

Last Sunday afternoon the orchestra I am a member of gave a concert. The concert was one of our regular series but in this instance it was dedicated to the memory of a former conductor of the group recently deceased. We commissioned a new work for this concert in memory of this man, a tribute not lightly undertaken for a semi-amateur group that struggles mightily with the funds necessary to stage free concerts in order to make classical music more accessible to those whose financial circumstances don’t allow $50 tickets to hear the “pros”. So we had the composer in attendance at what was a world premier of a new work. The widow of the honored conductor flew in from the east coast to attend and many former orchestra members were in attendance as well. The orchestra more than rose to the occasion and rendered a memorable afternoon of music which was warmly appreciated by the audience.

Twenty minutes after the concert ended our current director took me aside to inform me that the student staff of the concert hall we rent from a local university had failed to record the concert. To those of us who help maintain a recorded archive of the history of the orchestra, who planned to provide the widow with a recording of the concert as a memento, and to the composer who rightly expected a recording of the first performance of her new work this was a disaster.

Last night as I began what will ultimately be a long and somewhat disappointing effort to produce some sort of acceptable recording from a fragmentary dress rehearsal recording made with a digital recorder’s built in mikes from an acoustically poor location on the main floor, I began to think about how unusual the performer’s experience is now compared to 90% of the history of Western music over the last one thousand years. It is only since 1877 that the recording of sounds has been possible and only since around 1930 with the development of the electronic microphone that recorded sounds have been more than a sketchy representation of what an actual performance sounds like. And there are still theoreticians who claim that the “fidelity” of modern recordings still require the brain to complete the analogy between what emanates from a speaker and what it heard at a live performance.

Reflecting on Saturday afternoon when my wife and I listened to the dress rehearsal recording of the second movement of Schumann’s “New England Triptych”, where we have slow exposed extended duets between oboe and bassoon, while mentally making notes about balance, reed strength, and other minutia I wondered how, for that 90+% of music history, performers knew how they sounded.

With the advent of recording technology that could be used in the home and small studios from the 1950s on, listening to recordings of oneself or one’s group has been a huge part of the process of a performer’s education and a valuable tool for conductors. Previous to this revolution, a large part of the job of one’s teacher would be to verbally try to mold the sound the performer produces to conformity with what recognized virtuoso class performers produce. The individual himself was, and still is, not able to accurately evaluate how his performance sounds to others. The phrase at the head of this essay “Do I really sound like that?” is almost universally uttered when one first hears one’s recorded voice and points out how sounds that we produce ourselves sound differently to listeners. For the players of wind instruments this may be more pronounced than keyboard or string performers. (Although I have heard a recording of myself on keyboards that I completely failed to recognize as my own performance.)

It makes me wonder about the “original instrument” school of performance. They want to sound like the original performance. How in the world do they evaluate their efforts? No one knows what the first performance of most of the classical library sounded like. Not even the performers. Beethoven never heard, even once, most of his later works and when he did have his hearing he would be extremely fortunate to hear a composition performed anywhere near adequately a single time. If you wanted to hear a new piece of music, either you found a live performance or you did without. Hearing a major work like Beethoven’s Ninth was a once in a lifetime event and far more people read reviews or heard hearsay than ever experienced the actual music. As a result, every town of any size whatsoever had an orchestra and maybe an opera house as well. Live music flourished everywhere. Quality had to be questionable in smaller towns, but there was no alternative. Now we can listen to music written hundreds of years ago whenever we want, we can compare performances of major works as rendered by dozens of major symphonies. We can hear almost immediate replays of our own performances due to the quality of consumer electronics. But live performances not so much and certainly at a premium price. For those who own a library of recorded music what would the cost be of attending a live performance of every selection owned?

In the last 30 years much has been made of the computer revolution because of its economic impact. But the impact to our leisure, hobby, entertainment and general enjoyment of life because of recording technology is incalculable.

Just sayin’

Thursday, March 4, 2010


So I'm moving my blog over from multiply since it requires people that want to read it to become members. People think this is bogus and it is. I'll move my infrequent entries gradually. Maybe this tactic will actually bring me some readers.