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Archive for June 2003

box office antidote

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Katharine Hepburn died yesterday, at the age of 96. This is headline news around the world, and for good reason. It’s not quite correct, in my opinion, to call her a Hollywood legend. She didn’t really seem part of it, not bothering with the usual Hollywood vices (drink, drugs, big houses, plastic surgery etc.).

  • “Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.”

She used the “star system” to her advantage, and is still the only actress to hold four “Best Actress” Oscars. As well as the cover page of the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), the BBC have a good story.

  • “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, as long as I enjoyed it at the time.”

The American Film Institute ranks her as the greatest actress of all time, and I can’t say I disagree. We can expect the raft of DVD re-releases to mark this event, but Bringing Up Baby is scheduled for an airing here this coming Friday, and that will be a very good way to remember her. Not that I’m likely to forget.

Written by brian t

June 30, 2003 at 7:59 am

Posted in art, fashion, movies

night meets day

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I had the pleasure, last night, of re-watching the last-but-one episode in the most recent series of E.R., titled When Night Meets Day. It’s the 200th episode they made, and I get the impression that this is the one the producers see as a prime Emmy candidate, since everything about it is not only superior to the rest of the series, it’s superior to most things on TV at the moment.

I won’t describe the storyline, except it’s partly from the point of view of Dr. Carter, who is at this point in real danger of losing it, and the timeline is deliberately warped and non-contiguous to illustrate this. We have aftershocks from the gang warfare of previous days, his beloved grandmother’s funeral was disrupted, the same restaurant appears to catch fire twice, and he treats a Buddhist nun in her last hours, causing him to question everything about his job. By the end of a torrid couple of days he’s ready to drop everything and head off to the Congo civil war to treat patients who really need his help.

By contrast, Dr. Pratt is having a great time, saving patients and having fun, coming into his own as a doctor. He actually gets an appointment elsewhere, but refuses it at the last minute, preferring to stay where he is. Everyone thinks he’s mad, but this is his Day, and Carter’s Night.

It’s technically an excellent production, with jarring shifts in time and perception throwing Carter and us off-balance, and there’s one particular combination of crane tracking shots, cleverly edited together, that had me admiring the kind of technical expertise that you just don’t find in British productions. Even though it’s a TV show, it’s shot on film and benefits from many of the film world’s production values. Well worth watching.

Written by brian t

June 27, 2003 at 4:57 pm

Posted in america, television

BAF mode

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Where the hell has this month gone? It feels like just a couple of days ago that I was in England at that customer’s data centre at 5AM. Now there’s just over a week to go before my holiday, and I honestly can’t wait.

The same customer called in yesterday, about a situation on a different machine to the one I had worked on earlier and had little knowledge of. They scheduled a conference call with Microsoft and ourselves to discuss it, for 3PM. We found out about this at 2PM, at which point I had only heard vague comments about the system: it took another half hour to get some logs from the machine sent to me, leaving me half an hour to try to analyze the situation, nowhere near enough. The conference call was short, and another was scheduled for an hour later, in which I had some more information to offer. No-one was really happy with what I said: it pointed straight back at the customer’s inability to follow the instructions they had asked for and been given.

What really ticked me off was the way the whole affair was managed: it was hardly a new situation, and there was no actual emergency at the time: the situation had been improved by suggestions I made last week, and they were actually implementing suggestions made by Microsoft and ourselves to fix the damage. No, this was a combination of hand-holding and post-mortem; so why was I forced into BAF*1 mode? I didn’t lose it, but I came damned close. A whole afternoon lost to management incompetence?

Then, to add insult to injury, the account manager called me at about 5PM, asking what after-hours support I was going to offer them. The thing is: while the customer is treating these systems as “business critical”, the systems in question aren’t sold as such, they have a standard warranty. They haven’t bought a support contract for these systems either, but they’ve managed to get special treatment, such as my site visit, through a combination of whining and vague threats about future business.

So I wasn’t having any: the account manager’s request fell on deaf ears, despite ten minutes of badgering by phone. If the customer had bought the support contract, they would have people to call, but they didn’t, so they’re on their own. I got the impression he was going to ask for my home phone number; he didn’t, perhaps because I stomped on that idea before it started. Or was I supposed to somehow authorize special support measures and give the customer a back door, bypassing the contract validation process? I don’t know if that can be done; if it can, I don’t care to know how.

I followed it up with a strongly-worded email that got me into an argument with my boss this morning. I managed to placate him, but I think he got the message too; in any case, he had already left by the time the phone call came through last night, and missed all the fun.

I don’t think that I would have had the self-confidence, a few years ago, to put my foot down the way I did. I just have to watch that I don’t go too far in the opposite direction, to the point of arrogance. I’m sure that the account manager thinks I’m a prima donna, but the customer doesn’t. They got all the time I could give them last week, but the situation was under control yesterday, it’s just management incompetence on both sides that led to this artificial emergency. Fine: the customer is carrying the costs, after all, whether it’s the inflated prices we charge – because all this support costs money – or in work lost due to system outages because they can’t RTFM.

*1 BAF = Blue-Arsed Fly. Do I need a holiday, or what?

Written by brian t

June 26, 2003 at 7:55 pm

Posted in work

synth delay

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I may have forgotten to mention, in all the dashing around last week, that my trip to Germany is off: we have new travel restrictions in place for cost reasons, and this trip hardly qualified as essential. Besides, my involvement with Vmware seems to be declining, because of the renewed Storage focus in our department. We knew this was coming, but it’s been arriving in fits and starts, then with a bang, as I found out last week.

I’ll spend the first week of my holiday just pottering around at home, recharging my batteries and catching up on the film backlog that’s built up. Not only do I have several DVDs that I have bought in the last six months and never watched, such as The Big Sleep, I have films such as Cookie’s Fortune and Citizen Kane that I recorded from TV and have put aside for months.

It looks as if I won’t be getting the K5000S synthesizer until I arrive in Scotland in the second week of July. The COD delivery is turning out to be problematic, and I’ve discovered it will be possible to meet up with the seller in Stirling the day before I head up to the Highlands. If I buy it – highly likely, as long as it’s in working order – I’ll take it with me, even if I don’t get a chance to play with it much. It’s quite heavy (15kg), but not too much for my baggage allowance when I return, and I’ll save on carriage costs.

It’s now the height of Summer Time, and it’s not getting dark before 11PM. This is playing havoc with sleep patterns, and I’ve been awake until well after 1AM every night since last week. This happens whether or not I got up for work at 4AM (last Wednesday) or 7AM, or could lie in till 10AM at the weekend. As a result I’m slightly zonked out as I write this, despite stealing an extra half-hour this morning and being a little late for work.

My job does not require clockwatching, but that’s a disadvantage in some ways: I’m not penalized if I arrive late, but neither am I rewarded if I need to stay late, which is far more common. I was working late last night, but that’s not going to happen tonight. No way.

Written by brian t

June 24, 2003 at 1:53 pm

Posted in music, travel, work

additive painting

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In the next week or so I should be taking delivery of a Kawai K5000S synthesiser. I’ve never owned a proper synthesiser before, the closest I’ve come before was a Casio home keyboard that had some synthesiser-type control over waveforms and a filter. More recently, I’ve been working with virtual synthesisers, mostly two programs from Native Instruments:

  • FM7 starts as a digital recreation of the Yamaha DX7, which can use original DX7 programs, but it then goes much further. Some additional features were not possible with 80’s technology, e.g. total flexibility in modulation, or not considered suitable for a digital synth, such as the distortion and the analogue-type filter.
  • Reaktor is effectively a synth construction kit, allowing me to put together any combination of components that will get me the sound I want. This is the platform on which I built the whippet synthesizer.

With both these synths, real-time control will be a real help, since moving things on screen with a mouse takes too long and is too clumsy for live use. While it is possible to buy a separate MIDI controller box with knobs on it, all the models I’ve looked at seem to be lacking in some way or too expensive for what they do. The K5000S has some excellent real-time control facilities, including a 16-knob control bank and a much better quality keyboard than the cheap “master” keyboard I have currently. This is all in addition to the primary reason for buying a K5000S: its Additive Synthesis engine, which will need a little explaining.

Additive synthesis is a way of constructing sound by building it up from its fundamental harmonic elements, i.e. sine waves of different frequencies and amplitudes. A Hammond organ, believe it or not, is a primitive additive synthesiser since, by manipulating its drawbars, you are adding tones together to build up a complex waveform. The K5000 series uses digital signal processors to do this, but with far more precision and detail than any organ or analogue synthesiser could ever manage.

This is the opposite of the subtractive synthesis found in most synthesisers, in which the filter is a primary influence on the final sound. Whatever the sound source is used there, the filter selectively boosts or cuts frequency ranges. The SOS review (see below) of the K5000W, the first in the K5000 family, describes the differences by analogy with the visual arts: sampling as photography, subtractive synthesis as sculpture, while additive synthesis, by the same analogy, is like oil painting. Painting with sound: where have I heard that phrase before?

All synthesised sound can sound boring if the method used to produce the sound is “static” over time, unchanging. A Hammond organ is rarely seen without a huge rotating “Leslie” speaker attached, or electronic simulation thereof, to add some life to the results. My own attempts at additive synthesis by calculation, over the years, weren’t very interesting because of this, but the K5000 engine has been designed with the modulation facilities to get around this. It isn’t the most fashionable of instruments – they were only made for a while during 1996-7 – but they have a cult following, and are only going to get more expensive as time goes by.

Sound On Sound magazine have two useful reviews: the K5000W is a different model in the same family, but the review includes a good explanation of the Additive Synthesis engine common to all models. The K5000S review covers the model I’m buying, with more on performance features such as the excellent Arpeggiator. The SonicState page for the K5000S has mostly positive user reviews, some quite comprehensive, a few of the “it rocks | sucks” school of (un)thought.

Kawai were to Additive as Moog were to analogue synthesis and Yamaha were to FM synthesis; the pioneer in practical applications for a technology that would otherwise have stayed academic, unusable in a live musical setting. What I’ve heard of the K5000S so far sounds very lively, while more recent reviews I’ve seen have friendly warnings about potential speaker damage, while extolling its benefits as a creative instrument. I don’t mind admitting it also appeals to the math geek in me, but there’s no shame in spending hours playing with sounds, as long as I get to use them live or on record too. We’ll see.

Written by brian t

June 22, 2003 at 6:53 pm

Posted in art, bass, life, music

longdays

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The days are getting longer. I don’t just mean the daylight – we have the Summer Solstice on Sunday, I believe – but my working days are too long too. Another major case is following close on the heels of the last one – which isn’t actually over yet, since more testing needs to be done, but it’s looking a lot better. I’ve given them a lot to think about, and they haven’t bothered me for the last two days.

The other case is looking equally stupid, of course. When I was asked for my opinion earlier today, by someone in the same company, the response that came back was something like “I’m wary of accepting your advice”. OK, be wary – that’s understandable – but don’t expect me to give you guarantees.

In this new case, the problem lies somewhere between the servers and the storage, which are linked together by hardware from four different manufacturers – a combination I have no first-hand experience with, and have a snowball’s chance in hell of replicating here.

They’re looking for complications where there aren’t any. I like complications – they can make life interesting – but this is business, not life, and business complications are an expense both we and the customer could happily do without. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Written by brian t

June 20, 2003 at 6:51 pm

Posted in work

jabberski

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The following is from a Jabber conversation with a colleague from Moscow a few minutes ago:

  • [17:41]<comrade> Hello, is (manager) left completely?
  • [17:41]<me> Yes, he’s completely left.
  • [17:42]<me> He must be left, because he is never right.
  • [17:42]<comrade> not good to tell it about manager…. he’s always right :o)
  • [17:43]<me> Oh. Now you tell me…
  • [17:43]<comrade> this is my opinion
  • [17:43]<comrade> :o))
  • [17:43]<me> Left or right, he’ll be back tomorrow.
  • [17:43]<comrade> agree
  • [17:43]<me> He might be front tomorrow, too.

I can’t say I’m losing it: that would imply that I actually had it in the first place.

Written by brian t

June 19, 2003 at 5:50 pm

Posted in humour, work