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The age of adapters

Two disparate conversations got intermingled in my head this week. One was a long discussion about the days of AM radio and only AM radio in cars, and the other was a day where multiple people asked about various dongle issues, USB-C vs. USB3 vs. Thunderbolt or Thunderbird or whatever the hell Apple calls USB-C now. Anyway, both of these things make me think of how in general, we’re so adapter-free now, and can generally shoot music and videos and photos straight through the air at each other, at the cloud, at machines like TVs and printers and coffee machines. I promise this isn’t the usual “these damn kids don’t know what it’s like to hunt for the right DB-9 to DB-25 RS232 cable” old man rant, but these two things made me think of the ubiquity of adapters in the seventies and eighties as the landscape of tech rapidly changed.

* * *

Example one: car stereos. For decades, the standard was AM radio, and that’s it. In the US, the AOR FM stations started their reign in the late 60s, but it wasn’t until 1978 that there were more FM stations than AM, and a lot of them were simulcast stations of the same programming. I think by the time I was sentient enough to have my own radio and listen to my own music, the top-40 stations in my area were FM, but FM radios were still an upgrade option for most cars back then.

I remember my former stepdad had an old Buick, maybe a 71 or 72, and it had the stock AM radio. But he’d upgraded this for the bold new future of AOR programming by buying a little Radio Shack box, a Realistic FM tuner. It sat below the all-metal skull-crusher dashboard of this giant beast of a car, somehow spliced into the old wiring, so it would pump high-fidelity FM stereo sound into a single three-inch paper speaker. Seems like it would have been easier to rip out the stock radio and slap in a Krako tape deck with an AM/FM tuner, but maybe that cost an extra ten dollars. Also, leaving in the old radio wouldn’t lower the value of the vintage $500 vehicle, I guess.

Another big thing was that in the late sixties/early seventies, nobody could decide on what physical media format was the king of mobile applications. Spoiler alert: the cassette won, and there were suddenly millions of vehicles on the road that couldn’t play them. One “adapter” approach was to go to Radio Shack or K-Mart and pick up an under-dash tape player, much like the external FM tuner, and wire that up so you could play your Barry Manilow cassettes through your stock sound system.

What I always found funny, although I never saw one in person (I did read a lot of Radio Shack and JC Whitney catalogs as a kid, so I knew of them) were the 8-Track to cassette adapters. If you were an early adopter of the bigger and quickly obsoleted tape system, you could buy a plug-in adapter, which looked like a really long 8-Track tape, but the part that stuck out of the dash had a cassette player mounted horizontally in it.

(For a quick look at all of these options, take a gander at this 1976 Radio Shack catalog.)

I never really bought into this adapter madness — I either went to the junk yard and bought a tape deck out of a junked car for twenty bucks, or just brought a jambox and put it in the passenger seat. But that was when I was still spry enough to crawl around under the dashboard of a subcompact. Maybe I’d think differently now that my back is out, who knows.

* * *

Much later, the cassette was dethroned from the top of the heap of the physical media world, and then the argument resurfaced on how you get your various iPods and DiscMans and whatever to talk to your tape-only car stereo.

The very first time I bought a portable CD player in 1992, it actually shipped with the solution in the box: a little fake cassette with a cord dangling out of it that plugged in the headphone jack of the CD player. I used a system like this for years, first for that CD player, but later for the MiniDisc and iPod. I didn’t have a car during the heyday of in-car CD players in the early 00s, but I rented cars quite a bit on vacation. And of course, I’d always forget that damn adapter and would have to buy another one for twice as much at an airport. So I have a big collection of those things in storage somewhere.

There was also a much worse adapter for cars that didn’t have tape decks. It was basically a Mr. Microphone but it took the signal from a headphone cable and broadcast it over channel 88.1 with like a milliwatt of power, so you could tune in a car radio and magically listen to your CDs.

I got stuck with one of these when I was Hawaii in 2003. It was basically like this scene in Spinal Tap. I’d be driving around the island, happily listening to an album on MiniDisc, and I’d zip by some volcano park or whatever the hell that would blast out weather advisories at a million megawatts on the same exact channel as the adapter, interrupting my song for the next few minutes. I finally gave up and bought a Skynard CD at a gas station and listened to that for the rest of the trip.

* * *

The adapter thing was also big in the beginning of personal computers. Both Atari and Mattel had popular game systems, and then Apple and Commodore came out with home computers. The popular thinking of parents at that time was that kids needed to learn about computers so that by like 1995 when paper was obsolete and the world was run by artificially-intelligent mainframes, the kids would be able to get good jobs to afford flying cars and robot butlers. So why buy a gaming system and later buy a home computer, when you could take your existing gaming system and magically turn it into a home computer with a plug-in box like that FM radio tuner?

Atari had a few different approaches. They came out with a BASIC cartridge, which was laughably bad, given it could only use 64 characters of memory for programs, and you had to type in programs with gamepads. Next they tried to release the Atari Graduate for the 2600/VCS gaming console. It plugged into the cartridge port and had a membrane keyboard that sat on top of the 2600, adding 8K of RAM and the ability to hook up peripherals like a tape deck, a modem, and a printer. This was supposed to be a $79 add-on, but never shipped because (allegedly) of some arguments between Atari management and the third-party team developing it. There was also a third-party thing called the CompuMate that shipped, but didn’t take the world by storm, probably because you can’t do much with a 10×12 character screen.

Mattel was a bit more infamous about this, because they promised a computer add-on and never delivered, which got the FTC to slap a $10,000 a day fine on them, and lit the fire to for them to come out with anything that could legally be called a computer and dumped on a small test market at a loss, which is exactly what happened.

The Entertainment Computer System was an add-on home computer for the Intellivision, which was a small external chicklet keyboard and a box that plugged into the side of the Intellivision, and was probably 75% the size of the actual Intellivision, and had its own power supply. The thing added BASIC, 2K of RAM (but you couldn’t use all 2K for your programs), another sound chip, extra controller ports, and the interface for a cassette recorder. They also came out with an add-on synthesizer keyboard — this was the heyday of Mattel’s Synsonics instruments. The whole thing got the FTC off their backs, but didn’t entirely catch on, and then Mattel imploded a year later.

Coleco also did this with the Adam computer, which was available as a standalone or as an adapter that plugged into the ColecoVision console. I don’t know the architecture of the add-on or how well it worked, because the only things I ever heard about were the Adam’s other major shortcomings, like the gunfire-loud printer; the fact that the power supply was in the printer so when the printer died, the whole system died; and the slow cassette system built into the main unit, and a burst of EMF at start-up would nuke any tape in the drive, even though the instructions told you to put the BASIC tape in the drive when you booted.

The more interesting one was that Coleco came out with an adapter that would enable your ColecoVision to play Atari 2600 games. This wasn’t some kind of sophisticated emulator or anything; it was functionally an entire reverse-engineered Atari 2600 that hooked onto the front of the ColecoVision and used nothing more than the video connection and power from the ColecoVision. The expander has a 6507 CPU, memory, and the whole deal. You had to unplug your Coleco joysticks and plug them into the expander (or I guess buy some Atari sticks, if you wanted the same feel.) Coleco got sued by Atari about this and Atari lost.

Likewise, Mattel also had an Atari compatibility “adapter” that was also a near-complete 2600 that plugged into an Intellivision. And Atari did the same thing themselves with a near-complete Atari 2600 that plugged into the Atari 5200. These were major marketing coups in that they radically increased the other systems’ library size. The downside was they increased their libraries with really bad games. I don’t think people remember how bad Atari 2600 games were, even compared to the 5200 or Intellivision.

The whole thing is bizarre though. It reminds me of in the 1950s, the Air Force built this giant B-36 bomber, and when they decided there was no way to bolt enough guns onto the 200-ton behemoth, they thought, “hey, let’s just hang entire fighter planes on the big plane and have the best of both worlds.” (That never really worked out, BTW.)

* * *

Now we’ve solved the upgradeability problem: everything is sealed shut with glue, and when you want a better version with newer features, you throw the old one in a landfill. Sometimes I wonder if this adapter fetish of last century was some holdout to the days when a TV or a radio was a piece of furniture you kept forever and serviced with in-home repairmen, like a furnace or a car. Maybe people thought they would invest in a system and then it would slowly grow and evolve over time.

(Oddly enough, Apple embraced this for a time, and you could upgrade early Apple machines with an upgrade kit that replaced the logic board, but kept the old case. For example an Apple IIe could be upgraded to a IIgs, or a Mac 128 could be upgraded to a Mac Plus. I don’t know who did this, and you were basically replacing the entire machine but keeping the old yellowed case, so why not just pay more and get the whole thing. Maybe schools did it. I could see a school administration making a bone-headed investment like that. I bet I’m still paying off tax bonds from when my local school did this in 1977.)

I think these various false starts caused the adapter appeal to dwindle. The last one I really remember is the Sega 32X, which was a stopgap measure to put two high-speed CPUs, a GPU, and more memory onto the 16-bit Genesis, which allowed it to run… well, virtually no games, because nobody supported it. Anyway, it seems like now the thing is to own one of every console, or just run the things on your phone. People aren’t as up in arms about o “teaching computers” to kids like they did when they thought “computer technician” was a vocational skill like a cabinet maker or TV repair person. Everyone seems to know how to use a computer off the bat, or instinctively know how to move a mouse or swipe a screen. And our homes are filled with computers, whether we know it or not. The webcam sitting on my monitor probably has a CPU orders of magnitude faster than some of the mainframes I used in college. Just let the kid screw with the old iPad, and they’ll figure it out, I guess.

* * *

Anyway. Dongles: USB-C is a subset of Thunderbolt 3. They use the same size connector, but TB3 can be twice as fast and use half the power, depending on the device and the cable. That’s all. Enjoy not having to buy another device that costs 90% of your first device to play another manufacturer’s games.

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Day 167

I don’t really know how many days into the lockdown we are. I suppose I could figure it out. I also suppose I could update more here, instead of just when something breaks. But there’s not a lot otherwise going on.

So remember last year when my iPhone 8 blew up? Almost exactly a year later, the replacement started swelling again. I wasn’t planning on upgrading for a while because I was fully paid up on the old one, and I figured the year-old replacement would last until Apple came up with a reason for me to get a 12 or a 13 or whatever. Well, there’s my reason. I bought an iPhone 11 Pro, and paid far too much for it. The Apple Store near me is open in a limited fashion now, so I did an in-store pickup, where I showed up at an appointment time, stood out on the sidewalk, and got the phone brought out to me. I bought it straight-up instead of dealing with any of AT&T’s byzantine payment plans. That part was easy enough.

The migration, which is supposed to “just work” did not work. It took me four tries, about a half day. I thought I’d just sync the old phone to my Mac, then plug in the new phone and restore to it. I don’t know why it took so many tries to get this to work. One thing I noticed after my first fail is that the cable I bought a year ago and the cable that came with the phone were different. They are both Thunderbolt (aka USB-C) to Lightning, but there’s some internal difference. The same thing happened with the laptop last May. There’s some subtle difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt, or there’s some difference between data cables versus charging cables versus fast-charging cables versus… whatever. And of course all of the cables are white, and look identical. I found out that some of the newest cables have a very light gray number on them, like instead of the RGB value of #FFFFFF for white, it’s #FEFFFF, and you need a jeweler’s loupe to read it, and then you have to google the value, and it’s on the seventh page of results because the first six are rumors about the next iPhone or something.

The new phone has a larger screen, but is about the same size. It has Face ID, which is fairly useless. First, it can’t identify me with no glasses, or with a mask on. Also, I’m in the habit of grabbing my phone and unlocking it while it’s still in my pocket or on the way up, and that’s impossible now. I also can’t unlock it while it is on the dashboard of my car. Also, I bought the battery case, so the phone is far too heavy and thick. I am almost sure I will drop it in the near future. And the gestures to use it with no home button are annoying.

The new camera is interesting. It has a portrait mode, which simulates a low depth-of-field lens, which is nice. It also has a wider lens, which is good for landscape photos. There is a night mode, which might be useful if I ever leave my house at night again, which won’t be any time soon. Overall, the camera stuff is neat, but for this price, I could have bought a nice DSLR or mirrorless camera.

* * *

Another Apple semi-fail is that the Airport Extreme I bought a few years ago was showing its age, or maybe having Sarah work upstairs full-time was requiring better WiFi coverage. I have bad luck with routers and they always seem like a perishable product; after two or three years, they just go rotten, and no firmware update or restore will make them better. Apple doesn’t make routers anymore, so after much research, I ended up with a Ubiquiti Amplifi HD. It works, but I’m not in love with it. First, it took a few tries to get it started. (They insist that you reboot your cable modem during setup, which makes no sense, but it didn’t work until I did, so I guess that’s my fault.) It uses a cutesy phone app for all configuration, and I’d rather have an actual browser-based admin. I also wouldn’t mind better logging or something (I’ll get to that in a second) but it seems to work fine. I have the router downstairs, and the mesh stations in the living room and upstairs, and it has roughly doubled performance up there, so mission accomplished.

* * *

On to the next problem. Right after I got the new phone set up, Comcast started complaining that we were close to our data cap of 1.25 Terabytes. They’ve waived the cap for the last few months because of COVID-19, but now that COVID is completely cured and everyone has returned to the office, they’ve started charging people for going over again. Wonderful.

This started the anxious exercise of trying to figure out how we’re using so damn much bandwidth. Of course, plugging in a new phone meant it automatically had to redownload every app and a bunch of big updates, so that’s probably fifty gigs. And as I looked at my machine, I realized my Backblaze cloud backup was then uploading that fifty gigs of updates, so I got double-taxed on it. I installed a copy of Bandwidth+ and Little Snitch to try to figure out where all of my data usage was coming from, and man that is horrible.

First of all, Apple is downloading monster updates constantly. Every little point release of iOS or MacOS is at least five gigs of data, and on my desk, I’ve got three different devices. And like I said, those are all getting backed up. (I stopped doing that, so that’s some savings.) But it’s also amazing how much a Mac will change over the course of a day. I started scheduling my Mac to back up at midnight, and it would send a few gigs of data up. Then I’d wake up, do nothing for nine hours, and Backblaze would say it had a half-gig of updated files ready to back up. I’d look, and it was all crazy iCloud stuff, the Mac recording Siri suggestions even though Siri was deleted, tons of deltas on files in the calendar and email programs that had been doing nothing. I have no idea how to stop any of this, but with two Macs in the house doing this, there’s like ten percent of the 1.25 TB right there.

Another thing with Little Snitch – ok, so this is a program that will fire up an alert every time anything tries to make an internet connection, and then you can set up automated rules to allow or block certain things. It also shows you what programs are using the internet, and tracks their usage. (My router problem: I wish I could do this for every machine in my home, like at the router level. I know if I spent two grand on a pro Cisco router, I could do this. But my little consumer one won’t.) Anyway, it is amazing how much some programs hit the outbound connection. Like if someone in my house even says the word “Adobe” I get a dozen outbound connection requests. Creative Suite is basically a piece of malware that happens to have an image editing program in it.

Facebook is also particularly bad. Even though I think I’ve disabled whatever video auto-play is in FB, it will hit this one video CDN continually, preloading things it isn’t showing me, to a tune of a gig per every few minutes. I know, quit Facebook. But it’s amazing how blocking that CDN saved me a ton of grief. Even better, I spotted the CDN that auto-loads those annoying videos that pop up any time you go to any news web site. Life is much better after I blocked that thing.

Oh, about the data cap. After much research, I found there are a few options to remove the cap. One is to straight-up pay them $30 a month. The other is to lock into their new xFi router ecosystem, and rent a new modem, and they will remove the cap for $25 a month. I currently rent an older modem of theirs for $14 a month, so they sent me a new router, which I will immediately put into bridge mode and ignore all of their new features, which probably don’t work. I hate to pay that $11 a month, especially with how high the bill is already, but $11 versus obsessing over this every time I launch my browser is worth it.

* * *

Not much else is up. I’ve spent a lot of time walking at NAS Alameda and have a ton of photos I should probably organize someday. Other than that, it’s been work, work, work. I have another “vacation” coming up, so maybe I can do something productive that week.

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bronchitis, editing, speakers, rumored

At the start of every year, I have the grand idea of writing every day for the next 365 (or in the case of this year 366) days. This year’s excuse is that I brought back acute bronchitis from Wisconsin, and I’ve been fighting that since Christmas. It’s the kind of thing where I can sit down for five seconds and be deep asleep, and even getting ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day doesn’t help. I went to the doc last week, got antibiotics and instead of my beloved Permeth, she gave me some garbage cough pills that didn’t work. I’m mostly okay now.

You probably can’t tell, but I’ve covertly been going back into old entries and cleaning things up, adding tags and fixing broken links and boneheaded spelling mistakes. I’m always surprised by the amount of writing on this site, and I always like when I stumble upon an old entry and read it and have totally forgotten about it or the events that transpired that caused me to write it. I never know what I should be writing here on a daily basis, and that critical thinking, obsession over what is my “brand” causes a horrible self-censorship that stops any writing. But I look back at various eras when I was writing every day about nothing, about killing time or various thoughts and obsessions, and that stuff is always gold to me.

(It opens the obvious questions about “why don’t you write books like that” or “why don’t you turn those posts into articles” or whatever the hell. I did an anthology of early posts from this site, and it sold close to zero copies. And what I do here is exercise, not writing. It’s like telling a person who jogs five miles a day that they should really look into being an NFL running back. No.)

I forgot to write about this, but when I was gone over Thanksgiving, the studio monitors on my desk died. They were an old M-Audio model that had a known issue with the amp, where it was a bit of a perishable item and the capacitors would eventually blow. I got six or seven years out of them, but I’d been looking to buy something else for a while. And that’s a huge wormhole, shopping for audio equipment. I get to the point where I can almost justify buying some expensive tube amp and bespoke speakers, then remember I have no room in this office. But I also don’t want to buy the $20 speakers you usually get for free when you fill out a credit card application at Best Buy.

Anyway, I bought a pair of Vanatoo Transparent Zero speakers. They’re actually slightly smaller than the old M-Audio ones, even though they have a bigger woofer (four versus three inches), and it’s made of aluminum. The case is wood instead of plastic, and has neat magnetic grilles that are easily removed to see the goods. There’s also this passive radiator which is supposed to add better bass response. It has its own DSP, so I can plug it straight into the computer via USB. It has a variety of neat options like a subwoofer output and various limiter and sleep and crossover options I will never figure out. It also has a bluetooth receiver in it, which I will probably never use. Same with the wireless remote. Nice to have them, though. The sound is very transparent and clear and nice at volume. They are near-field monitors, so not great for filling a room, but perfect for sitting at the computer. There’s no goofy “voicing” to them, just straight-up reproduction of what’s on the track. My only complaints are there’s no headphone pass-through jack (but I can just plug into the computer, I guess) and they could probably use a subwoofer. I actually have one sitting in the next room that’s not hooked up to anything, but I have no space in the office for it. Anyway, they are perfect for that price point, and a great solution between the cheapie $20 speakers and blowing a few grand on an audiophile set of bookshelf speakers and amp.

Not much else going on. I took some time off writing during the holidays, which I never do, and it took some effort to get back going. I have two big books that are on the vine and need some serious work to get going in the right direction. One of them is essentially a sequel to Rumored to Exist. It’s currently about 350 pages and totally directionless, with no real through line or “rails” to it. And based on the sales of December’s book, it’s hard to get enthused about packaging up a book that’s about four times as big and trying to get people to read it.

But it’s fun to dabble with it. The big secret is I enjoy the process of writing, the actual meditative action of getting lost for a few hours putting words on the page. I hate everything else, the sequencing, editing, packaging, marketing, production. I’ve been going back and trying to figure out how the original Rumored happened, what kept me going on it. It took almost seven years to write, and it was essentially completely rewritten seven times. I recently went back and skimmed the annotated version (which like only four people have read) and it has a lot about it was written. Always fun to look back at that, but my writing process is completely different now. And you can never reproduce how things like that happened.

Birthday in a week. It lands on a Monday, but we have the day off of work for MLK day. I’m doing another superfloat in the isolation tank. I’d go to Denny’s, but Denny’s is so horrible now. I vaguely thought about leaving town for a three-day, but prices are probably jacked up, and I just want a weekend without anything.

I’m still sitting on my reading list from last year. I rated everything, reviewed nothing, so I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to share it, but maybe I will later this week.

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iPhone grenade; Sundays; the life and death of long reads, etc

This week’s excitement was that my iPhone 8 blew up after about a year and a half of service. I’d noticed a bit ago that the 3D touch feature wasn’t consistently working, especially on the left side of the screen, but chalked it off to the fact that iOS has far too many tricky gestures and oddities where if you don’t click exactly at the right thing in the right direction for the right fraction of a millisecond, instead of fast-opening two apps, you delete one, or open the camera, or start playing music, or whatever. And the battery did slowly lose its mojo, but that’s every product with a battery these days, and I have a battery case, so it didn’t bother me.

Well, suddenly the other night, the phone doubled in thickness, like a double-stuff oreo, and the screen split from the rest of the case. The phone still worked, but my immediate fear was that it would catch fire or grenade. I was out when it happened, so I powered down, drove home, carefully fired it up, and then backed it up to my machine. I went to the Apple store (with a paperback book to kill time) and within an hour, they replaced it with an identical model. The swap and restore seems to get less and less painful each time I upgrade, and the only pain was copying over 120 gigs of music, which took a few hours, along with other sync and backup activity.

A few takeaways: before I drove to the mall, it was impossible to get ahold of anyone at the store on the phone. You have to go through a ridiculous phone tree for support; you can’t make an appointment online, at least within fifty clicks. I put the phone on speaker, and after saying “manager” a dozen times, the phone rang for five minutes straight. Once a human answered, mentioning the battery situation got me in fast, though.

The other takeaway is that it seems that as Apple products are in this war to get as thin as molecularly possible, they have developed some serious reliability issues. It’s all anecdotal, and I’m sure Apple’s annual reports to investors show that 99.9% of people have no problems. But I had a brand spanking new MacBook Pro fail, and my iPhone 6s had a slow battery death, and now this. This is timely with the departure of Jony Ive, who was apparently the one responsibility for this thinness race. I honestly wouldn’t mind a phone or laptop a few millimeters thicker, if it meant it would not bend in half under minor use.

(And yeah, “BUY A REAL COMPUTER SHEEPLE.” Whatever, grow up, etc.)

* * *

It’s Sunday, which is always depressing. I’m not sure why half of my weekend is always spent in a dour mood over why I’ve wasted half of my weekend. I also get into this bad cycle of thinking I need to majorly course-correct everything, usually on Sunday night. I need to get off my ass and devote my life to learning (guitar | some programming thing | a writer’s works | obscure history of film | electronics | how to fly a jumbo jet | whatever). I wish instead of Sunday, I could have two Saturdays. There must be some mindfulness technique to fix this. Maybe lobotomy. (Do they still do those? Great, I’m going to fall down a k-hole researching this.)

I was thinking about this, because my Sunday routine used to be much different when I was in college, or just after. I used to make a lot of phone calls on Sunday nights after dinner, usually because that was when people were around the most. And I used to love the phone, to a fault. My long distance bill, back in the pre-cell days when that was still a thing, would end up being a colossal amount, catching up with people across the country.

I also have this strange little gap between maybe three and five, when I’ve already written in the morning and finished my errands in the early afternoon, and I feel some overwhelming need to do something in that time period, but I’m never motivated to do anything. The answer is that I should write more then, but I never can. And doing anything else — taking a nap, playing video games — makes me feel completely unproductive and horrible. I’m not sure if it’s my anxiety of the upcoming work week, or the fact that I never use the phone any more and my only human interaction is clicking a screen that causes my current dread routine. Or maybe I need to eat probiotics. Whatever.

* * *

Not much else here. I fell down a Chuck Klosterman rabbit hole in anticipation of his next book, and ended up re-reading almost all of his output. It sort of amazes me how it feels like Grandland was around forever, but it only lived between 2011 and 2015. Much shorter than The Awl‘s almost-ten year run, but same thing — they came out of nowhere, got huge, and died. Meanwhile, I’ve been plugging away here for decades, with no ideas, no traction, etc. Anyway, I read like four or five of the Klosterman books, which led me to reading music critic Robert Christgau’s memoir, which is… interesting. I guess he sums it up himself at the start of the book by saying most biographies are about astounding people or people who have some trick to sell or some story of overcoming adversity, and he doesn’t, but here you go, let’s get into 200 pages of his unremarkable childhood. It’s still interesting to me, but holy shit, people on Amazon hated it. Anyway, we’ll see if I can finish this one up without coming up with the stupid idea that I need to start writing record reviews again.

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More Film, and digiFilm

I got my first batch of film back from the shop the other day. I sent in six rolls, 36 exposures each, for a total of $76 for developing and a quick scan to CD.

The shots from this Vivitar I bought are tremendously weird. I mean, they look like they were all shot in like 1994. They have this weird, faded quality to them, a perfect vignetting, and just look old, way more than Hipstamatic or Instagram could make them. Like they all have this dreamlike, lo-fi quality to them, much more so than my old old 35mm gear does. The Vivitar has really good Series 1 glass, but a plastic body. It also has all-auto, no-adjustment shooting, but a modern motorized drive system to it. If it was just slightly smaller, it would be a perfect camera.

I wish I still had the original one. Or I wish I had an exact model number, another copy. This one is very similar, but not exact, which bugs me. But what’s weird is sometimes I forget it isn’t the same camera. I was walking around the Port of Oakland the other day with it, and thought how strange and nostalgic it was that the same camera I had for most of the Nineties was with me now, but then realized, it isn’t the same camera. That old camera went to a lot of strange places with me. It moved from Indiana to Seattle to New York. I have pictures from the Trinity test site where the first atomic explosion happened, from Vegas, from the Empire State Building, the Milwaukee Metalfest, Kent State, Bloomington, New Mexico, Boston, Disneyland, Washington DC, and hundreds of points in between.

Anyway, I dumped a few shots on Flickr here. That album also includes some old 120 film shots taken with a Diana F+.

Another topic: the Yashica digiFilm Y35. So a group in Hong Kong bought the Yashica name and did a kickstarter for a digital version of the old Electro 35 camera. The gimmick was that it was going to have this stuff called digiFilm, which was a little film canister you could swap out and change what kind of pictures it would take. Like you could switch to B&W, 1600, 6×6, whatever. You could also put a switch or button on the camera to do this, but they thought it would be a neat thing to make it “like” film. I thought it might be a fun toy, and the camera looked cool, so on a whim, I backed the Kickstarter.

Ugh, I hate Kickstarter. I’ve backed maybe a dozen things in the past, and maybe two have turned out okay. And I always feel like I get burned, and I always vow to never do it again, and then something comes up. And like clockwork, they met their goal, got their money, and then said, “Ok great! Now we’ll go design it!” and the wait began. There were a few sketchy updates, but it looked like this thing would never come to fruition.

Well, it showed up the other day. My verdict is that the camera is garbage. I think the appeal of the old Electro 35 was that it was metal and compact and had a certain tactile feel to it, like old rangefinders of that era. This camera is all plastic, and very cheap plastic. It’s light, and feels like one of those toy squirt guns in the shape of a camera you’d get from the Archie McPhee catalog. It has a non-operational film wind knob that’s molded into the top of the camera. The viewfinder has no optics, just a clear piece of plastic. The doors feel like they will break off in the next fifteen minutes.

The camera uses two AA batteries (not included) and an SD card (not included), plus the digiFilm thing, of which I received four. You then “wind” each shot with an advance lever, and press and hold a really cheap shutter button, and have to hold it and hold still for like a second and a half. The pictures look roughly like what my Windows Mobile cell phone took back in 2008. The B&W looks okay. The others, just use your iPhone and Hipstagram. It does marginally look okay from a distance. If I ever put my cameras on display on a shelf, it would look okay next to my Trip 35 and Canonet QL17. But, ugh. What a waste of money.

I’ve got another four rolls of film to shoot, and might stock up on more for the holidays. I should probably get some 120 film at some point and try that one again, too.

Categories
general

New/Old Camera

So, in the “buying old crap I had twenty-five years ago and threw out at some point,” I found another Vivitar camera that is (almost) the same as the one I had from 1993 to about 2000.

I talked a bit about my history with analog film a few years ago, when I last fell down the analog film k-hole. I bought this Vivitar camera during the summer of 1993, after not having a camera at all for about three or four years. I was working at Montgomery Ward that summer (in addition to another full-time factory job) and had an employee discount, so I picked up the most camera I could get for about $100 at the photo counter in their Electric Avenue department at the Concord Mall.

That hundred bucks bought a 35mm point-and-shoot. It had a plastic body, but a decent Series 1 glass auto-focus lens. It was a power zoom, so it could zip from 38 to 70mm focal length with motorized control. The film load/wind was also motorized; you dropped in a film cartridge, closed the door, and the camera automatically sucked the film into the takeup reel. When you hit the end, it automatically rolled it back into the canister. The camera also had blue-teal accents to it, which was Nineties as fuck.

I bought this camera with the intention of documenting shows. It was the height of death metal and the zine scene, and I wanted something I could sneak into concerts. I was going to a lot of shows with Ray, and getting free passes to stuff to interview bands. In practice, I never got to take pictures at shows, because security was always really shitty about it, even when a record label gave me a photo pass. And this was a fairly worthless camera for taking pictures of bands, except maybe candid, backstage stuff at a close range with a lot of light.

Ultimately, I didn’t take that many pictures with this camera. I think maybe two dozen rolls went through it during those seven years. I took a trip across the country in 1995 and shot maybe six pictures total. A Disney trip in 1997 was about two rolls. The 1999 cross-country trip was another three, maybe. Getting a camcorder in 1996 reduced the amount of film I shot. Getting a digital camera at the end of 2000 relegated this thing to the back of the closet. I don’t know when I got rid of it; maybe when I moved in 2005.

Ironically, the most-seen photo from this camera is one you may be familiar with.

I was hunting for this camera online, and found this 5500PZ on eBay for seven bucks, including postage. When I got it, I realized it’s not exactly what I had. Mine was slightly thinner, with the zoom controls on the back, not the front. I’m sure it’s optically the same. But it bugs me that it’s not identical, and scanning through other eBay auctions, I can’t find the model that is exactly like mine. Maybe Vivitar sold some oddball model exclusively to Wards. Anyway, for seven bucks, close enough.

I put a battery in this one to test it. It uses a small lithium battery that was hard to find online. The zoom motor is much louder than I’d expected, and the zoom itself is not smooth and very slow. It’s not exactly the auto-focus that my new Canon has. I didn’t have any film in the house, so I ordered a few rolls, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also gone back and started scanning some of the old photos I didn’t have scanned from this era 25 years ago. It’s a reminder how much of a pain in the ass film was. It also makes me think too much about exactly when and where photos were taken, since EXIF wouldn’t be invented for another half-decade. Trying to not get into too much of a nostalgia backslide, which leads to the regret that I didn’t take more pictures back then. But it’s understandable when I go to pay for film developing. Anyway.

Categories
general reviews

360 Photos, Ricoh Theta V

I bought a new camera recently, a Ricoh Theta V. It’s a 360 camera, which uses two fisheye lenses on a small thing about the size of a TV remote, and software inside stitches together the two images into a 360-degree sphere, which can then be hosted on various online things like Facebook or Flickr or whatever, with a viewer where you can drag around your viewpoint.

The camera is neat; it’s a small form factor and easily pocketable. It’s very good at removing them seam from the two images it glues together. It can also do video, and does the stitching on-the-fly, so you could also stream these spherical images to YouTube or some VR app. The camera has no removable battery, no video card, just a USB connector to charge or tether, and a mount for a tripod.

One of the reasons I wanted this camera was to port images into Google Street View. If you look at google maps, and drag the little GSV guy onto a map, all the roads Google has traversed will be blue, but you’ll also sometimes see little blue dots, which are where people have taken a spherical photo and uploaded it to Street View. I like to take these with my phone sometimes, which works but is not optimal; you have to spin around and take a bunch of pictures in each direction, and the stitching is slow and distorted. One of the cameras recommended by Google is the Theta V, so that’s what I got.

The workflow for using the camera is a bit goofy. It tethers to your phone by becoming a WiFi hotspot which you connect to, and then you can use an app to take pictures. Then you transfer the pictures to your phone or PC and post them elsewhere. You can take snapshots or recordings without a phone, but there’s no viewfinder, and the camera doesn’t have a built-in GPS; it only geotags when connected to a phone. The connection process is a bit goofy, and it takes a few seconds, but it mostly works.

The big problem is it’s impossible to take a 360 photo without ending up in it. If you hold the camera, your thumb ends up in the bottom of the shot, and looks gigantic and weird. There are tricks to get around this, like if you put the camera on a tripod and go hide behind something, using your phone as the remote. Or take two pictures and stand in different places, then merge them in Photoshop. You can also just be in the picture, but that’s not an option for me, because I look like a goofy idiot.

The other problem is that I bought this camera with hopes of taking a lot of great outdoor photos in the bay area, and almost immediately, we went into the dark gray sky season where it always looks dreary outside. And we’re getting a hint of the smoke in the air, too. So the light is all wrong and it’s time for seasonal depression to kick in. Time to drag out the light box.

I do think this will be a good camera for vacations. Of course, there are none on the horizon. I wish I would have had it when I was in Alaska last spring. I also would love to get out to the land in Colorado, which is very sparsely mapped – there’s a road about a half-mile from my place that did get captured by Google, but they didn’t turn down the dirt road, so maybe it’s time to get back there (when it’s not freezing out.)

Categories
general

Oculus Go

I tried out the Oculus Rift last January (see Oculus Rift Impressions) and I was impressed, but not convinced enough to drop the cash on building a two-grand PC to run one. Now, the Oculus Go is out, and I picked up one last Sunday. Now I’m convinced.

The Oculus Go is a free-standing VR headset. It looks similar to the Rift, except it doesn’t hook up to an expensive computer. It is self-contained, with the Qualcomm CPU from a cell phone contained inside the headset. It’s like a cross between those headsets that require you to put a phone in front of your eyes and a Rift. For $200, you get the headset and a single handheld controller, and are ready to go.

I’ve been wanting to write a long article on this, but every time I start, I go back to playing with the Go. So here’s a quick bullet list of impressions.

  • The Go is roughly the same size and weight as a Rift. The fit and finish are not bad; maybe the straps are a bit more cheap-feeling. But it fits well, and once I put in a spacer piece, it worked great with glasses.
  • You can’t change the PD (width between lenses) or focus at all, but they are fine for me. I’ve noticed the focus is really, really finicky depending on the fit and angle. Sometimes it is 100% blurry, and I adjust my glasses or the angle by like less than a percent and it’s completely in focus.
  • The sound is amazing. There are small speakers built into the strap mounts that aim right into your ears, so you can hear perfectly. (There is also a standard headphone jack if you need to be silent to everyone around you.) The spatial sound is also amazing. If you are listening to someone speak in front of you and you turn your head to the right, you will hear them mostly in your left ear.
  • I thought the lenses and graphics would be a big step down from the Rift, but they are very close. I’m not saying it is exact, but it would take a serious A/B test to demonstrate that they are very different.
  • The basic interface — the home room, the control menu, the store — are all fairly identical. I think that’s a big selling point, that someone can start on a Go and then easily transition to a Rift or whatever future model.
  • The Go has 3DOF (degrees of freedom) while the Rift has 6DOF. That means on a Go, the three axes of your head movement are tracked; on a Rift, it additionally tracks your position. Big difference for activity games; not a big deal if you’re sitting around watching 3-D videos.
  • There is a single controller with a touchpad where your thumb is, a trigger at your index finger, and two buttons (back and home) below the touchpad. It will sense the position of that controller inside the Go. It usually looks like a laser pointer, which you use to point at various items in the interface. The Rift has two controllers, one on each hand, which is really amazing, but the Go’s controller is pretty handy, too.
  • I’d say the generated graphics quality is maybe on par with a PS3. I haven’t done the math; that’s just my impression. With pre-rendered items, like 360 videos on YouTube or Facebook, it is phenomenally good, incredibly realistic, and when you turn your head and look at another view, it is instantaneous.
  • Generated graphics vary, though. It just doesn’t have the horsepower a PC with a GTX-1080ti does. The best comparison here: an iPad retina has a screen that is as good or better than a high-end gaming rig. Pixel-for-pixel, it’s going to look better, and watching a movie on either one, the iPad screen will probably win. But the iPad doesn’t have the GPU power to run a AAA game at max settings. It’s for casual gaming, and isn’t going to run Overwatch. But you aren’t going to bring your water-cooled tower computer on a plane to watch movies for a cross-country flight, either.
  • The game situation is at best casual on the Go. Not enough horsepower, and the controls and latency won’t work for a Call of Duty type thing. Where it really shines is media consumption, and “experiences” – moving through 360 environments and looking at things.
  • Battery life sucks. It gets maybe two hours at most. It charges from a USB jack.
  • A phone app is used to initially connect to WiFi and to do basic management of the headset, but you don’t need a phone nearby after that point. The phone app is handy for browsing the store and checking your battery level when it’s plugged in and put away.
  • Oculus is Facebook, so it’s somewhat tied into its ecosystem. It’s very easy to view your FB photos, livestream to FB, etc. It could use better integration, though. I’d love a way to check Messenger without going to a web browser.
  • Yes, there’s a web browser in the interface. It’s really weird to be in a room, looking at a big screen with web pages on it.
  • You also have this concept of having a room where friends can meet you and you can chat, watch videos, and play simple board games. I don’t know anybody else with an Oculus, so I haven’t tried this, except to go in my room and change all the artwork and colors and stuff.
  • My favorite game so far is Ultrawings, which is a sort of cartoonish flight simulator with very good simulation. The graphics and music sort of remind me of Diddy Kong Racing on the Nintendo 64, but the flight control is very good, and it works well.
  • I’ve also wasted a lot of time in Viso Places, which is an app that lets you wander around Google Street View data and see everything in 3D. Very strange to be wandering around Bloomington in this, completely immersed.
  • There are two Blade Runner experiences. One has an intro where you are flying in a spinner in downtown LA 2049 at night, when it’s pouring rain. Someone is talking to you on the video phone, the rain is dripping on the windows, and the neon lights are whizzing by next to you, and below you in the windows by your feet. You can look all around the car as it flies, and it is truly incredible.
  • I’ve had no nausea problems, although doing a quick look to the side while doing a barrel roll in a flight game does make me half-dizzy for a second. I’ve also had zero fogging problems with the lenses, a problem I did have on the rift.
  • One strange side effect is you cannot really multitask in VR. If I had a writing program in it, it would be ideal, because I couldn’t open a second window to look at FB, or pull out my phone and start checking stuff. When you’re in it and watching something, that’s all you’re doing.
  • The biggest plus to the Go is that it’s self-contained, and instantly on. No cables, no Windows 10 Updates on the host computer, no power-sucking gaming tower in the corner. If you have a Windows PC, it’s a big ritual to get the computer started, then get the headset plugged in and started. With the Go, you put it on, done. It’s like the comparison between a PC and an iPad. The iPad isn’t going to do everything a PC will, but it’ll be on instantly, and if you just want to mess around, the convenience is amazing. Maybe they could come out with a more expensive model with more horsepower, but they really hit the sweet spot for market penetration here.

Overall, this is the best two hundred bucks I’ve spent on a computer gadget in a long time. Very exciting stuff. I’m not sure if Best Buy is doing demos of the Go, but if they are, check it out. Or go get one on Amazon. And if you have one, drop a line and we can connect inside there, play a game of Boggle or something.

Categories
general

The 8

It’s that time again – the iPhone no longer holds a charge, and is slower than slow compared to the new ones, so it was off to the Apple store on Saturday for the next iteration of the handheld computer gadget. I got the iPhone 6s in December of 2015, and was thinking of doing the thirty-dollar battery replacement deal and limping along until summer, or maybe when the 8s or the 8+ or whatever comes out. But, whatever. Easier to start new, I guess.

This time, there are more decisions to be made, since there are three different front-line iPhones available: the 8, the larger 8 Plus, and the X. That’s a bit confusing, because it seems like the X would come out after the 9, and the 8 would be long obsolete. Nope. The X is a “special edition” or something. I have no idea what will happen when they go from 8 to 9 to 10. Or maybe they’ll need to do something else. Anyway, I can’t deal with the larger size phone, so the 8 plus and the X were off the table, and the 8 it is.

I still don’t entirely understand how AT&T Next works. I am on some weird plan or sub-plan that required me to turn in my old phone in the next two weeks, and keep paying the $40 a month or whatever for the next 24 months to pay for the new one. I bought AppleCare, bought a new battery case (mostly so I can hold the phone without it slipping out of my hands) and assorted taxes and fees.

What’s odd is that this is the first time I’ve upgraded and had the same screen size, the 4.7″ screen. Each prior upgrade (3G to 5S to 6S) had a change in size. This one is the same, which is slightly underwhelming. In many ways, it feels like the same phone. I even had both phones on my desk the other day, and grabbed the wrong one. It’s not as dramatic as going from a tiny screen to a bigger one of a different aspect ratio.

There are little changes, though. No more headphone jack. I can plug in the included Lightning headphones, which I’ll probably use 99% of the time. There’s a small dongle to plug in standard headphones. I’m not really into Bluetooth earbuds, so I’m not doing that. The only other real change is the home button is slightly different – it isn’t an actual button, but a little dimpled area the size of a button, with haptic feedback. It feels like a button, but won’t get gunk or liquids in there. Oh, stereo speakers are on the bottom now, although I don’t spend a lot of time listening to audio on my phone without being paired to my car or with headphones.

One big difference is that the new phone is much faster. My old one was getting throttled because the battery was dying. The 8 is about twice as fast in benchmarks, but because of the throttling, it’s roughly four times as fast. So scrolling and app launching and whatnot all feel much more responsive. I’m sure I will get used to that in a few days and not notice it anymore, though.

(And I don’t want to get into the argument of “why doesn’t Apple have removable batteries.” Because it’s not 1997. Does the new Samsung Galaxy have a removable battery? Does any phone under a centimeter thick? Does any phone that is even vaguely spill-resistant? It doesn’t come with a floppy disk or S100 expansion bus capability, either. Sorry.)

The other difference is that I optioned up to a 256 GB capacity, up from 64. With 64, I was always within a percent or two from capacity. I also had a byzantine system of playlists to sync only part of my music collection. Now, I have synced all the audio in my iTunes collection, and still have half the phone left. So, time to get more music.

The swap was a bit of a pain in the ass. They activated it as a new phone at the store, then I came home and tried to sync a backup of my old phone onto it. But my phone’s OS was a version newer, so I had to reinstall a new OS to the phone, then wipe it and set it up from backup. I also had to back up, wipe, and restore my watch. All that took a few hours, and syncing over 16,000 songs took a few minutes, but it was otherwise up and running that afternoon.

The strange thing for me is that it’s become slightly easier to let the old phone go. I remember when I replaced my first iPhone, it was bittersweet to return this machine that I’d spent so much time with. But now, it’s like the soul of the machine transfers to the new phone after an upgrade. I’ve still got the same documents, backgrounds, settings, and so on, just in a more robust body. It’s some real Altered Carbon shit.

Anyway, new laptop, new phone, and the iPad is only a year out. The watch is probably the next thing to go, although there’s still a small part of me that thinks I should just get a typewriter and a bunch of index cards and spend the money on a cabin in the mountains or something. The toilet situation is the only thing holding me back, really.

Categories
general

Podcasting Tools

Now that I’ve done a few episodes of The Koncast, I can give you a rundown of the tools I’m using.

I use two different methods for recording: remote and in-person. Face-to-face is best, but I interview guests all over the place, so I have to do some remotely.

Remote Recording

  • I am using a site called Zencastr to handle remotes. I fire it up in my browser, give the other person a link to open in their browser, and then we talk away over a VoIP connection. At the end of the session, both browsers upload their copy of the audio to Dropbox, and I can later mix the files together.
  • You’ll need Dropbox for this, so go sign up for a free account.
  • A good USB headset works well for this. We’ve been using a few of the Logitech H390 headsets. The quality is decent, and they’re only 25 bucks online.
  • I’ve heard of people using Skype or Facetime with a plugin to record the calls, which would be easier for the other person, but it would sound like skype.
  • The ultimate way to do this would be to set up Skype to use a real microphone and headphones, then have each person record their end of the conversation, but that’s way too complicated for the casual user.

Face-to-Face Recording

  • I’m using a Zoom H5 recorder. It records four tracks, and has a decent X/Y mic built in, plus handles two XLR inputs with phantom power, so you can use real microphones. One thing that’s nicer on this new version versus the previous H4N is that the built-in mic is removable, and you can swap it out for a different Zoom mic, or an attachment to add two more XLR inputs.
  • For microphones, I use a Shure SM-58 per person. It’s a cardioid mic, which only picks up sounds in front of it, and won’t pick up background noises. I’ve messed with a few different condenser mics, and they seem to pick up everything, so every little bump and rustle and background noise is crisply present. The SM-58 is also pneumatically shock-mounted inside. It’s pretty close to its sibling, the SM-57, but it has a pop filter on it. And after a total nuclear war, the only thing that will be left are cockroaches and SM-58s. They can really take a beating. The only caveat on the Shure mics are that there are many counterfeit Chinese ones floating around eBay, so only buy from somewhere reputable.
  • There are a lot of options for mic stands. I wanted a boom mic, so I got two of this Neewer stand. It seems to work okay, although the clamp can be an issue with table thickness. I recorded a few sessions in a hotel that had a table too thick for the c-clamp and I had to find another table. I have a few other stands as backup, but the Neewar ones are decent.
  • I also use two XLR cables, but the SM-58-CN package from Shure includes those. Oh, don’t forget an SD card for the recorder. And I had a pair of Sony headphones already, but you’ll need something similar.

If you want to cheap out, you could get a Zoom H4n instead, or spend $150 on a Focusrite Scarlett interface and record straight into a laptop. I’m sure Behringer has a knock-off version of the SM-58, but I think the microphone makes the difference, and $100 is a good investment in a mic that’s going to last longer than you will.

Mixing/Production

  • I use Logic Pro X to mix together my individual audio tracks and master them down to an MP3 for hosting. Logic costs $200, and is probably overkill, but I already had a copy, so that’s what I use. The Mac comes with Logic’s little brother, GarageBand, which works similarly. You could also use another DAW like Reaper, Reason, Ableton, or Adobe Audition. If you bought an audio interface, it might come with some bundled software. The Zoom H5 comes with Cubase LE, but I’m not sure how the LE version is kneecapped. Audacity is free, but you will end up deleting an entire episode or finding out it isn’t what you want.
  • I used Band in a Box to record my theme music. Also had a copy of that laying around. BTW, the song is the Thelonius Monk jazz standard “Let’s Cool One.”

Hosting

  • I’m using LibSyn to host. You get a monthly upload quota, and then it’s unlimited downloads for everyone. It creates an RSS feed of your episodes, which you can then submit to iTunes or Google Play and tell people to go subscribe. You can also connect Facebook and whatnot, so it puts the links there. And it provides a basic blog of your episodes, so people can go there and see them.