Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Art of Noise

In my last post to deal with the gravely important subject of headphones, I argued that despite all their shortcomings Bluetooth headphones are the way to go. All their issues fade in comparison to the comfort and ease of use. Now I will, yet again, change my mind.
I gave Bluetooth headphones a fair go over numerous months, but as nice as they are they do have their own issues. First, there is that matter of poor sound quality. Then there is the cost: if you want better quality (but still not hi-fi quality), you will need to open your wallet wide to the tune of $500 or even more for the latest Parrot 3 or Sennheiser Momentum Series 2. That's very poor return on investment given they will be eclipsed in less than a year. And third, Bluetooth has its own issues, notably interferences often meaning it is not just a matter of switching them on and pressing play on the phone but rather, and all too often, having to go through a bit of a debugging ritual.
So for now, and at least until the iPhone deprives us of a headphone jack, I'm back with wired headphones. But not just any wired headphones.

Noise cancelling UI #parrot #zik2.0

My experiments with noise cancelling headphones have been quite revealing, to the point of revolutionising my perceptions on all headphone matters.
To sum it up in a nutshell, noise cancelling is an incredibly effective technology, at least by the standards applying to the Sony cans I am using. If you can afford the far more expensive Bose Quietcomfort 25s then you're in for an even better treat. [I verified that last point with an extensive A-B-A-B-A-B testing session, courtesy of Costco.]
I now see myself in need of two sets of headphones to satisfy two significantly different use cases.
The first set is a hi-fi grade one for use at home, in that controlled and quiet environment where bulk, usability and weight are not an issue. This is where I seek the ultimate headphone experience, and when done right it is a very rewarding experience.
However, it is the second use case that is far more important and where the bulk of my headphone music action lies. This is all to do with listening to music outside my home, through my phone (and definitely not through any sophisticated amps and DACs), in uncontrolled environments that are guaranteed to have background noise, often a lot of it: the train, the street and the office.
I can argue about the merits of hi-fi headphone listening as much as I'd like, and I do like to philosophise on such matters, but the reality is that at those environments there CANNOT be a hi-fi experience. It is physically impossible, period.
Which is where noise cancelling steps in. Sure, my noise cancelling headphones are a far cry from hi-fi standards, and at home when pitted against the hi-fi they feel like a badly tuned violin. But, and that is a very important but, on the street or on the train they allow me to completely switch off from the environment I'm in and focus on the music. They allow me to enjoy the music to unprecedented levels, and in the end that is all that matters. And they do so without making my ears bleed and even over extended sessions.
So yeah, one does need to be careful and switch off noise cancelling when crossing a road and such. But at the office they allow me to disconnect myself from the eternally ongoing chitchat that comes with an open office setting (and enable me to focus on work instead). And on the street they allow me to take part in the debate that podcast I'm listening to is offering or get to truly feel for the character in this audiobook I'm listening to.

It is a truly wonderful experience to be able to enjoy sound regardless of the environment one is at. I give noise cancelling technology full credit there.

Image by Lunasea., Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Sunday, 22 May 2016

We don't need no [private] education

We already know a lot about Australian private schools. For example, we know they often get more tax payer money funding for each of their students than state schools in the same area do (and that's aside of the money parents pay out of pocket). It's getting to the point one can argue one is saving tax payer money by sending their kids to private schools.
The number one question with regards to private schools remains the same, though: is it worth it? Can this huge parental investment of around $20K out of pocket per student per year (Catholic schools cost less) show a decent return on investment? After all, there is a whole galaxy of private tutoring one could purchase with that same amount of money.

We recently got some sort of an answer from Brighton Grammar, a prestigious private school in the Melbourne area. It published a guide on bullying which claimed, among others, that kids who get bullied have themselves to blame. I don't think there is a need for me to go on and explain just how bad a claim this is; suffice to say it reeks of the same victim blaming we tend to hear with rape cases, stuff along the lines of "she brought it on herself by wearing a short skirt".
The school itself, a boys only affair, only provided a half hearted non-apology following all the protests.
If Brighton Grammar hadn't already demonstrated where it is standing by virtue of it being a boys only school, this latest educational message clarifies affairs firmly: it is stuck some hundred years or so ago, providing an education system not unlike that depicted in Pink Floyd's The Wall. It does so in a very flashy manner, offering Olympic swimming pools and precision cut grass on the oval (it is truth universally acknowledged that the standard deviation of the grass' length requires NASA grade laser tools to measure). But it is still archaic.
This is what parents, as well as tax payers, are getting for their money. A status symbol that has little to do with 21st century education.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Fools on the Hill

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
-An ancient Chinese proverb that's probably not Abraham Lincoln's

Less than three years ago, the Australian people have voted for the Liberal & National coalition to build a government headed by Tony Abbott with which to run Australia. It took less than a year for disenchantment with that government to take over, as indicated by the overthrowing of single term Liberal state governments in Queensland a and Victoria. It took a year longer for the Liberals themselves to get the point and demote Abbott.
If we examine the state of mind that had Aussies choose this failure in the first place, we can find its roots in what turned out to be false claims regarding the state of the Australian economy. Essentially, the Liberals claimed the then minority Labor government is stagnating affairs and that they'd do things so much better that everyone would be better off. It was the definition of a negative campaign, with its Juliar slogan and everything that went with it.
Fast forward a year, and all the Liberals had achieved in their term of governing was the cancellation of Labor's Carbon Tax. An amazing achievement for a country that deems itself an advanced 21st century society, I am sure you'd [dis]agree. That, plus a budget that declared an emergency (two years later we are still searching for that emergency) and tried to kidnap our Medicare and plenty of other things that do make Australia an advanced 21st century society.

Another way of telling this story is to say that the Liberals fooled most of the people some of the time before the previous elections. Alas, I cannot avoid drawing a far more damning conclusion.
With polls suggesting this year's elections has the two sides tied at 50%-50%, I do wonder what this is implying with regards to the Australian people's ability to learn from the past. Perhaps it is not the case at all that the Liberals fooled people; maybe, instead, it is us Australians that are simply foolish.

Monday, 9 May 2016

There are many things that I would like to say to you but I don't know how

One of things I've been blamed with, recently, is my lack of transparency. The argument stipulates that since figuring out the things I say here are open for the whole world to read, I stopped discussing the things that would allow my friends [in particular] to know what's going on with my life.
There is much truth in that. I will also add that, on my side, there are a load of things I would like to tell the world about but wouldn't (and not necessarily because lately I don't have time for anything anymore).
At the core, things come down to this. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually do share a lot of private stuff online, and way more than your average person does on Facebook. It's just that, over time, I have learnt restraint. For example:
  • I try to avoid security compromises,
  • I try to avoid infringing the privacy of others (as opposed to mine),
  • I try to avoid inflicting damage on the future prospects of my professional career, and
  • Sometimes I even try to avoid hurting others' feelings.
On my side, the "problem" is really how to share the things that invalidate the above rules without the potential damage that can come as a result. Most of the time, that comes to how I can best ensure that only the people I want to discuss these matters with hear what I have to say. Since Google changing its privacy policy back in 2012 I became aware of commercial espionage on everything I do online; since Snowden came out in 2013 I became aware of governments sticking their noses into everything online as well as the not so online (e.g., phone calls, SMS).
Encryption comes to my rescue, but it can only go so far. There is that much praise that I can bestow upon the Signal application, but at the end of the day it is just an instant messaging app and not a nice medium with which to convey complicated messages; as unpopular as it is to state, there are many occasions when an email will outdo an instant message.
I dipped my toes into the realm of PGP, but frankly it is a pain and it is even worse when trying to inflict this pain on friends. Nowadays there are friendly alternatives, like Proton Mail or Tutanota, but the feedback I've been getting so far is that none of my friends can be bothered to open an account with those. Personally, I cannot see what's so hard about doing exactly that: with the aid of a password manager, we're talking about two minutes worth of an effort to set things up. But hey, that is a perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice on behalf of my friends, and who am I to wonder why.
Don't get me wrong, I truly mean no disrespect here. I'm the one who always complains there's not enough time in my life to do the things I really want to do, so who am I to tell the people I consider friends that they should stop what they're doing and do what I'm asking them to do instead? I hope I'm not that narcissistic asshole yet.
I am also the first to admit that whatever it is I feel the occasional urge to say is, in the grand scheme of this universe, trivial bullshit. Indeed, In some twisted way, that reluctance to cooperate with me actually solves my problems: Not only does it save my time, but rather, given no one seems interested in what I have to say, perhaps it is best for me to learn how to talk less.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Musical Foundations

I noticed most of my recent [and sadly, rare] posts on this blog deal with music. I can see why; music represents something nice to fall back on in times of stress. But I can also see another reason: music acts as a pillar on which my identity rests.
When I ponder this last point, I can conclude there are several distinct eras in my life, as far as music is concerned. These are firmly defined by available technology and the financial means at my disposal. In this post I want to focus on the second of these eras. That was the era when I was still too young to have my own music but old enough to be able to play the music available to me, through my older siblings, to my musical pleasure.
Given those were the true heydays days of vinyl (unlike the current pseudo retro resurrection with all the cool folk), I didn't have that much to play with. But my siblings did have a substantial collection, by the era's standards, and I did have much to listen to.
It is important for me to emphasise how important this collection and its substantial nature were to me and my personal development. Nowadays we are all spoiled by streaming, but up until a bit more than a decade ago people's musical tastes were dictated primarily by one single factor: scarcity.
Think and rethink that point, as we acknowledge that scarcity problem was solved by one single factor driving the industry to change: piracy. Blessed are the pirates!
OK, back to the main theme. Of all the albums in the collection available to me, there were three albums that stood apart, the albums I kept listening to again and again. I am here to name and praise them.

1. The Police: Reggatta de Blanc
Many things conspired to attract me to this album. The cover, for a start, or rather the back cover depicting the backs of the heads of the trio that was The Police. The ongoing discussions about the gibberish record titles The Police liked to pick. (Which, now we know, was not gibberish at all. Allegedly, Sting never liked rock music, and decided to come with with white people's reggae - Reggatta de Blanc - as an alternative). To this budding science fiction fan, the lure of Walking on the Moon was also a substantial factor.
But most of all, it was the music that stood out. I recall having arguments with my sister, who liked to complain I listen to this album way too much. I should, she argued, listen to proper reggae instead, "like UB40". To which I will say, with the benefit of hindsight: In your face!

2. Dire Straits: Making Movies
To give credit where credit is due, Dire Straits were probably my overall biggest music love at the time. I loved all their albums I had available at the time, Dire Straits, Communiqué and Making Movies; it's just that I deemed, and still deem, Making Movies to be the best of the lot (including the albums that came later).
I think it is obvious to say that it is Mark Knopfler's fault that I love the electric guitar as much as I do. No other instrument comes close.

3. Pink Floyd: Animals
I hear you asking why, of all the Pink Floyd albums, did I pick Animals in particular? The answer is simple: that's the best Pink Floyd album I had available on vinyl.
Many things attracted me to this album. Again, the cover played a factor, with that pig hovering over the big power station (when the time came and I visited London, I made sure I took all the photos I could of that rather ugly blight). There were the pig oink sounds that opened the song Pigs ("wow, is that music?"). And there were lines along the lines of "hey you White House, charade you are"; I mean, this was the first time I was exposed to such a blatant anti authoritarian call.
Over the years, Pink Floyd grew to be my favourite band, by far, and the makers of my favourite album, by far (an album that preceded Animals, but not for me). It was that last point, the political, that probably touched me the most. Given this piece is written under the assumption music is a pillar to my identity, the point is worth elaborating on.
What are our political opinions made of, anyway? Let us be honest, most of us shape our views from ideas we gather along the way. In other words, we are influenced by the political opinions of others to whom we are exposed. In the case of Pink Floyd, one can argue that the person I am today shares the bulk of his political views with Roger Waters, the band's main creator during its peak years and a guy often accused of owning up to scandalous views. I think I owe Waters a lot, particularly for The Wall in the worldview department and The Final Cut in the political department.
To the point of wondering whether I agree with Pink Floyd because of mere coincidence, a case of great minds think alike, or whether it was actually Pink Floyd that shaped me to be the person I am today. It's probably both.

Copyrights for the album cover images belong to their matching labels; reproduced here under the assumption of fair use

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Going Out with a Bang

One doesn't need to spend much time in one to figure out hospitals are a horrible place, depressing and miserable. Being underfunded they seem to act as society's trash can for those of us who can no longer contribute to our society of mass consumption. Alas, barring some sort of an apocalypse, most of thee gentle folk reading this text are destined to die at a hospital.
I, for one, argue this is the wrong way to die.
When my time comes, assuming it doesn't come in the surprising manner of a heart attack / stroke / truck, I would like to die at a place that feels like home. Better yet, at home.
Here's hoping that by the time my time comes, human euthanasia will be as acceptable as it is for pets.

It occurred to me, while working on my previous post, that the soundtrack to my death should probably be Led Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks. The song has a lot going for it: it is one of my favourites, and in the lyrics department it finishes off with "crying won't help you, praying will do you no good" and "going down now" (although in the song down means Chicago, not hell; or maybe Chicago is hell?).
Which, in my book, is yet another reason to pick euthanasia. Instead of dying at a depressing hospital, I want to die at home, sitting in my hi fi's hotspot, with When the Levee Breaks' drumming shaking the very foundations of the earth at the volume levels this song is meant to be played at.
That's the proper way to die.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Dream Band

More than a year after their remastered albums started popping out, Led Zeppelin still represents the bulk of my music consumption. I enjoy surveying the new releases, especially in the less publicised genres of jazz and classical music, but when the time comes for some afternoon delight it's Led Zep time.
Oddly enough, my mates Robert [Plant] and Jimmy [Page] have hit front page news this week through the lawsuit claiming, 45 years later, that Stairway to Heaven stole its core theme from another song. I won't comment on that matter for two reasons, one being my lack of objectivity on the matter and the second being my general views on copyright matters.
This state of affairs did get me to think, though. As I argued last year, there is this objective scale with which one can claim that certain music is superior to other music. I claimed this is the case with Led Zeppelin, and as proof I offered the superiority of the band members' skills as musicians. This led me to contemplate: if I was able to design the band of my dreams, who would be its members?
Interesting thought. So without further ado, here is the long version of this 2c thought of mine.

That's a tough one. Technically speaking, everyone claiming to be an expert argues Hendrix is the best ever, but - with all due respect - Hendrix never "did it" for me. The ones that did, in ascending order, peak with:
Mark Knopfler: By far my favourite guitarist during my youth, I find that my taste has changed and Dire Straits' style, though still good, is now outdated.
David Gilmore: Pink Floyd's is probably the guitar I listened to the most. That said, Gilmore lacks the virtuosity of the true masters.
Jimmy Page: Winning by points, but still winning, is the versatile guitarist from this band called Led Zeppelin.

Another hard one with two very equal nominations.
John Paul Johns: Frankly, I tended to dismiss this member of Led Zeppelin's rhythm section. Until, that is, opportunity let me listen to his skills properly over remastered versions and good hi fi (try In My Time of Dying for a fine example). The guy's a genius!
Jack Bruce: Still my vote for Cream of the crop, by virtue of coming up with the tribal theme powering Sunshine of Your Love and me seeing him in live action.

Probably the easiest category to pick a winner from.
Phil Collins: I mention him in here because his work with Genesis has been the first time I took special notice of the drums.
Stewart Copeland: The Police's was probably the first to make me notice drums can do more than just set the rhythm.
Ginger Baker: Cream's drummer clearly stands out. I would recommend his jazz work, where his brilliance continues to shine. Pretty much the only drummer that comes close to our winner.
John Bonham: The reason why the drumming category is so easy to pick a winner for. The guy was so capable I often still think I'm listening to an entire band of drummers. Most notable is his performance in one of my all time favourite songs, When the Levee Breaks; and if you were to argue the drums there stand out just because of the way they were recorded, I will simply answer back: "Exactly".

Genesis' Tony Banks is worth mentioning, but to Doors' Ray Manzarek go the spoils. I mean, when was there a time other than his when one would go "wow, listen to this organ solo"? I mean Light My Fire, mostly, but there was plenty more where that came from. Not to mention the fact Manzarek did the whole of The Doors bass (the band did not have a bass guitarist).

John Coltrane, whom I love supremely.

Miles Davis, not for his skills with the trumpet as much as for his ability to invent brand new genres of music.

And so we reach the category I have the most doubts on.
Robert Plant: I can't point out what it is, exactly, that renders him a good singer. I will note, however, his ability to manage both the soft and the hard with Led Zeppelin (since which he's mostly been focusing on the soft).
Sting: Because he built a fortress around my heart.
Jim Morrison: Oh, that hypnotic voice!
Alas, with all due respect to my male colleagues, the best to be found in the human voice charts belongs to the females of the species. There are plenty, literally tons, of women whose voice can and has mesmerised me; standing at the top of these ranks are:
Kate Bush: She seems to have always been part of my existence. I prefer her earlier work (The Kick Inside is one of those albums I'm always glad to pay a visit to), but hey, what a voice throughout.
Chrissie Hynde:
Aside of having a wonderful voice that has been with me for years, Hynde is personally responsible for what has probably been my most exhilarating live music experience ever. And all the while she was just a few meters away (and from time to time looked me in the eye!).
PJ Harvey: One of the most talented musicians ever. A special corner of heaven is reserved for her old strident work, with pieces such as You're Not Rid of Me. My all time favourite is To Bring You My Love, where it sounds as if the microphone was planted in her belly. So powerful!
Bjork: I cannot say I like her more experimental work, but I will say I like her voice. A lot. Her debut solo album, Debut, is one of my reference albums for sheer quality and versatility. In the personal memories department, I cherish the moment I bought it, at a shop that doesn't exist anymore in a cinema building that doesn't anymore in my childhood town, accompanied by two of my best childhood friends whom I am still very proud to call my friends. I know, this has nothing to do with Bjork herself, but who cares.

16/05/2016: List updated to reflect further contemplation.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

People Don't Read

I wonder if this has anything to do with the dumbing down of our written communication in this age of Facebook and Twitter, but it seems to me as if somewhere along the way people have lost their ability to read. Or, to pinpoint, their ability to comprehend the written word.
Things are fine as long as one sticks with writing a simple, non nuanced message. Dare write something more complicated, with arguments and counter arguments, and maybe even delve into finer detail? Get lost!
It happened to me several times with the past fortnight that I wrote detailed emails, expecting the addressees to appreciate the fact in order to supply me with the exact answer I needed. But no, each and every one of those people failed their reading comprehension: one totally ignored me, another came back with that most stupid "I respect your opinion [but won't do shit about it]", and the third had me attend in person just so I can say exactly what I wrote down in the email.
No, I do not think today's people are dumber than older generations. I think it's clear it is exactly the opposite. However, I suspect that a modern day's brain is so flooded with messages that there is no room for anyone to accept the complicated anymore. And that's sad, because life is complicated.