Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Music I Like Ubuntu

A professional musician switches from Mac to Ubuntu Linux?

I just read Linux Music Workflow: Switching from Mac OS X to Ubuntu with Kim Cascone, and I have to say I’m shocked, especially after reading Kim Cascone’s Wikipedia entry. Kim is a serious musician, not just some schmoe dinking around in his basement.

I’ve been a full-time Ubuntu user for a little over four years now, having switched from Windows XP. My wife switched around the same time but from Windows to Mac, as she uses Mac for serious graphic design work.

Even though I get annoyed when anti-Linux trolls make it sound as if no one could use Linux just because Linux isn’t great for certain niche commercial applications (AutoCAD, Adobe CS, certain graphics-intensive video games), I have to concede that Linux is not for everyone. And if someone had come up to me yesterday and said, “Hey I’m a professional musician who uses a computer full-time for audio stuff. Should I use Linux?” I would probably laugh in her face and tell her to go with Mac OS X.

Even though I don’t use Linux for serious audio work, I’ve seen enough of the Linux audio mess of Pulse Audio, OSS, and ALSA to know it can be an obstacle for someone seeking to use Linux primarily for audio work. After reading that blog post, though, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

And I also think that, even though there is a myth of meritocracy in the software world, arguing about how freedom is important isn’t going to win over the general public. If open source is really a better development model, it will create better software. There shouldn’t be a choice between functionality and ideology. If the ideology of freedom being better is true, then it should produce the best functionality eventually. And maybe it is slowly getting there.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that if Ubuntu (or some other Linux distro) fixes all its usability issues that all of a sudden hundreds of millions of Windows users (and Mac users?) will just download .iso files, burn them to CD, boot from CD, and install and configure a new operating system themselves. But why have extra obstacles?

Keep on bringing the improvements, Linux communities. This is definitely a cool development.

Music I Like

Building community around free stuff

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows I’m a fan of Ubuntu Linux, a free operating system. While many of its users celebrate the freedom in licensing Ubuntu (as is typical of Linux distributions) comes with, a lot of folks just like the fact that it’s cost-free. Quite an online community has been built around this free product.

Yesterday, I saw a different kind of “community” building (and then disappearing) around something else free—music. My wife and I were on the way to dinner, and we saw a huge cardboard box on the side of the road next to an apartment building. We looked inside and saw hundreds of audio CDs. We looked all around it to see if there was some kind of sign. As far as we could tell, this was someone’s garbage, free for the taking. Just as we’d decided this, three men in their early 20s came around, and all five us dug around through the collection and picked what CDs we wanted, often politely ceding our initial choices to each other if we saw someone else who wanted that CD more. An older Russian woman came by and started remarking on how there were probably hundreds of dollars’ worth of CDs in there that someone amassed over years, and now it was just garbage, and how we do the same thing (accumulate and discard) with clothes sometimes. She eventually had a look inside, too.

It is kind of an interesting idea. The CD you used to wait months for and save up for, the CD you were so happy to get and listen to over and over for weeks—years later, that CD is just a toss-away for strangers to rummage through.

What impressed me most about the whole situation is how polite and friendly people were with each other, as they picked up CD after CD. Folks were making small talk and reminiscing back to their own first CD purchases as kids. Even though everyone at one point or another audibly toyed with the notion of taking the whole stash and selling it to Amoeba (a local used music store), no one actually did. We all just picked the CDs we wanted and then went on our way. It wasn’t a madhouse. It was civil.

At that moment, scrounging around for musical scraps, I felt a part of a community, even though I didn’t know these people, I didn’t know their names, I probably wouldn’t see them ever again, and if I did I probably wouldn’t recognize them (“Hey, it’s you! Remember that time we were looking through the same cardboard box of CDs back in 2009?”). It’s amazing how a “community” can form around free stuff. It can even form for only a matter of minutes and then quickly dissipate. Almost like a flash mob. But less organized.

It’s also kind of funny how people would make remarks about the CD collection’s owner. Is it a guy? Is it a girl? Why does the owner have such eclectic tastes? You try to imagine, based on a collection of CDs, what this person is like. Would you be friends with her or him? Who owns a Rick Astley album, let alone two? Berlin had more than one greatest hit?

If I ever do get rid of the rest of my CD collection, maybe instead of selling it, I’ll put it in a large cardboard box and install a hidden camera, so I can see what people say about me while they’re taking my music. It’d be an interesting experiment.

Music I Like TV

The lone dissenter on Susan Boyle

Okay, everyone I know is crazy about Susan Boyle. I see Facebook postings about how great she is and how people are amazed by how good she is. I see news stories about how mean people are for laughing at her. I see feminist critiques citing her as a champion for how women especially should not be judged by their looks.

Am I the only one who isn’t caught up in all this? I saw the YouTube video. The instant she appeared, I knew exactly what would happen. She would be awkward and ugly, people would laugh at her (and the camera would linger for that extra moment on each sneer), and then she would blow everyone away with an incredible voice, and the judges and audience would recant their disdain and embrace her.

Do people really think she just walked right on stage like that? Everyone was surprised? No. The producers planned it. She had to audition, and at that moment the producers knew they had it made (“It’s Paul Potts… but better… this will be ratings gold!”). They would let the camera crew know to highlight certain things (if audience members are laughing in disgust, linger longer on those folks), they would let the hosts know to make extra fun of her beforehand. Maybe the judges wouldn’t be let in on it, so their surprise will seem more genuine.

This was carefully plotted, folks. Make no mistake about it. And even though people were surprised, I think they had a right to be surprised (they didn’t have a right to make fun of her, though). It’s not that she’s ugly (even though she is). It’s not that her dress is frumpy and unfashionable (even though it was). It’s her demeanor. It’s her seeming obliviousness. It’s her seeming lack of stage presence.

There are good singers, and there are good performers. If you’re lucky you’ll get a good performer who is also a good singer. If you see someone who seems physically awkward and doesn’t command the room when she walks on the stage, you think you’re not going to see a good performer. It actually makes sense. For the producers and Britain’s Got Talent ratings, it’s just trimming on the tree that she’s also physically unattractive and unfashionable.

But people’s expectations that she would not be a good performer are perfectly in line with how she walked on stage, how she made that awkward little dance while talking (as if she were a three-year-old girl). So stop judging yourselves for misjudging her stage presence and performing abilities.

The worst part is that all of these people who say “Shame on us for judging her by her looks and laughing at her” will still judge people by their looks and still laugh at them. I may be the most cynical of them all when it comes to the Susan Boyle phenomenon, but all I see are Britain’s Got Talent exploiting an ugly duckling, and people congratulating themselves on guilt that won’t lead to real character change. You haven’t learned your lesson, general public.

Christianity Music I Like

I miss Acoustic Shack

I don’t really listen to much contemporary Christian music these days. I’m still in love with some Christian bands from the 90s (Dakoda Motor Co., PFR, Caedmon’s Call). As a matter of fact, even with non-Christian stuff, I’m still in love with the mid-90s (Poe, Portishead, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Fugees).

I still remember the first time I heard Acoustic Shack. It was after some youth group meeting on a Friday night, and one of our youth group counselors was going to give me a ride home. Before we drove off from church, though, he asked me to listen to something. I liked what I’d heard, and when he told me it was a Christian band, I was like, “What?!” (At this time, Michael W. Smith, DC Talk, and Amy Grant were pretty big; and Petra and all the Christian “heavy metal” bands were just cheesy).

So I got the CD (Fret Buzz) from the nearest Christian bookstore (which was 45 minutes from my house), and I loved the whole CD. When a friend of mine lent me a tape (yeah, what we had before CDs and right after records) of Acoustic Shack’s first album (which was self-titled), I loved them even more. Yes, the drums were all pre-programmed on the first album, but I liked the guitar solos and melodies a lot better than on the second one.

For years I listened to those two albums over and over again. I wasn’t too impressed with the third album A Distant Bell, and I never got to hear the fourth album.

Recently, I got nostalgic for Acoustic Shack and tried to track down more information about them. I found out that Michael Misiuk formed some band called The Kreepdowns, and I wasn’t able to find much about it at all online, so I gave it a shot.

I found a used copy of it for sale on Amazon (clearly no one else cares about The Kreepdowns, because the CD was less than the price of shipping, and the shipping was only a couple of dollars).

Well, I finally got the CD today, and it’s okay. It’s no early Acoustic Shack. It’s actually quite a bit heavier (a lot more electric guitar and screaming). I just gave it a quick listen, and so far “Cello” (the second track) is the only one that’s half-way decent.

If, like me, you’re nolstagic for a bit of good mid-90s Christian rock, there are a couple of YouTube “videos” (watch the album cover while you listen to the music) of Acoustic Shack:

“Radio Play”
I love the little multiple-guitar dance that happens between 2:10 and 2:50.

“It’s Good to Know”
2:15 to 2:50 on this song has a nice little acoustic guitar solo.

“Torment Party”
No real guitar solo here, but the song just has a nice sound to it overall.

Too bad Lisa and Michael Misiuk aren’t making any more music. I wonder what they’re doing these days.

Music I Like

Misheard lyrics – I never beat anyone, though

I’m more or less a non-violent individual. I’m generally a turn-the-other-cheek kind of Christian. I punched a friend of mine once in high school by accident when I thought I was chucking him on the shoulder. I also threatened a bully in middle school, and he scared me a bit, because I thought he was actually going to call my bluff, but it never came down to actual fisticuffs.

Still, I am the master of misheard lyrics, and at least on two occasions I heard something about beating someone. Is it just me?

Misheard lyrics: Well, you done done me in, you bet I felt it. I tried to beat you, but you’re so hot that I melted.

Actual lyrics: Well, you done done me in, you bet I felt it. I tried to be chill, but you’re so hot that I melted.

[from Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours”]

Misheard lyrics: ‘Cause then I would let you know that I love you so, and if I was your man then I would beat you. The only lying I would do is in the bed with you

Actual lyrics: ‘Cause then I would let you know that I love you so, and if I was your man then I would be true. The only lying I would do is in the bed with you

[from Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By”]

Of course when you actually look at the context, the real lyrics make a lot more sense in both cases. Chill is the opposite of melting. Beating doesn’t really figure into it at all. And why would you say you would beat someone if you were trying to win that person over in a love letter?

My aching ears. Excuse me while I kiss this guy, Jimi.

Computers Linux Music I Like Ubuntu Windows

The Songbird has hatched

When Songbird first appeared on the scene (I think it was version 0.1 or something), I remember the Ubuntu Forums community getting really excited about it. It was supposed to be like the Firefox of music players, the iTunes-“killer.” It seems as if it’s been years, and people have been hyping it up all along the way.

At intervals, I’d try it out and see how I liked it. Meh. I was never that impressed.

Recently, though, I came back to it on my work computer. Ever since newer versions of iTunes have broken compatibility with third-party efforts to set up global hotkeys for iTunes in Windows, I’ve been on the search for something very simple: a music player that will keep track of how often I’ve played songs in my library and give me global hotkeys. It’s not as easy as you’d think. I’ve tried Foobar2000 and XMMS. No go. So for a while I was just sticking with iTunes without the global hotkeys, and I decided it was too annoying.

For any of you who wonder what global hotkeys are for, I have a job where I do a lot of office work (filing, processing mail, running reports) and also answer the phone and sometimes talk with people in person. While I’m doing office work, I like to listen to music. I have my own office (not a cubicle), so I’m not bothering anyone. But if the phone rings or if someone walks in, I want a quick way to pause my music so I can give that person my full attention. And if I’m doing office work, I’m too lazy to create playlists, so I want to often skip songs I don’t feel like listening to at the moment. Global hotkeys help me do this without constantly having to Alt-Tab back to my music application.

Well, my return to Songbird has been a good one. I’ve now completely remove iTunes from my work computer, and I’m sticking with the bird. I’m very impressed that Songbird not only gives me global hotkeys and keeps play counts per song but it also has so many nifty little plugins. There’s an on-screen display when I change songs. There’s a plugin for looking up concert info for artists. There’s a lyrics plugin. There’s a play queue plugin. All great stuff that iTunes doesn’t have.

I feel as if there’s now a little bit of Linux functionality on my Windows work computer, and it’s great. Go, Songbird!

Life Movies Music I Like Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

On consumption and censorship

The recent news about Wikipedia being blocked in the UK (not totally but mostly) because of album cover art in an article about a 70s band being possibly child pornography got me thinking about censorship and consumption.

Generally, the debates I’ve heard about censorship are polarized. On the one hand, I hear the “decency” folks saying there are some things that cross the line and shouldn’t ever exist. On the other hand, I hear the “freedom” folks saying if you don’t like it, don’t look at it or buy it.

But what if you don’t like it and you still look at it? If I watch Deep Throat in a Women’s Studies class in college for the purposes of dissecting it and analyzing it, is that different from watching it at home for sexual stimulation… or laughs? This goes back to a debate I used to have with some of my fellow department members when I was an English teacher. Some English teachers think the job of an English teacher is to expose students to “great literature.” I disagree completely. I don’t think The Scarlet Letter, for example, is well-written or even interesting any more from a literary perspective. It is, however, historically significant, and it, like any work of fiction, can be analyzed and argued over. The point of teaching English is to get students to think critically about what they consume—not to consume blindly, but to see that every work of art (visual art, comic book art, music, film, novels, poetry) conveys its author’s worldview or agenda, even if the author herself is not conscious of that.

I like to think I can analyze and distance myself from anything I consume, but sometimes I can’t. I’m not a big fan of visual or audio displays of torture, for example. It’s very possible that these could be presented within the framework of a well-crafted artistic work with a good social agenda. Nevertheless, I am human and not an intellectual machine. I still experience human emotions and horror.

This is also why I find it hard to believe politicians (especially male ones) who actively campaign against pornography and even show “exhibits” in hearings on pornography are able to fully distance themselves from the material they’re criticizing, especially since they’re usually criticizing it by arguing that it affects people’s morality (so it affects other people’s morality, but not your morality?)

When confronted with works of art that are controversial, we all should remember that we are both human and intellectual. We can be subject to raw emotion and gut reactions but we can also distance ourselves and analyze what we see. I don’t see enough of that tension in discussions about censorship. I’d like to see it more often.

Apple and Mac OS X Asus Eee PC Computers Music I Like Ubuntu

How my own stupidity killed my Sansa Clip

So my last MP3 player (the much-lauded but ultimately disappointing Cowon iAudio 7) died because of a manufacturer error (even though Cowon claimed the repair was not under warranty). This time, I killed my MP3 player (my 2 GB Sansa Clip) with my own stupidity.

The long story
I love Ubuntu, and I keep coming back to it, but every now and then I get distro cravings and have to try something else. I hadn’t had a distro craving in probably over a year. I kept reading all these great things about Mandriva, though, and how well it works with the Eee PC 701.

So I tried downloading it to my bootable USB “key” (i.e., the Sansa Clip) and extracting the .iso the way I did for Ubuntu and eeeXubuntu. No go, though. I got a boot error of some kind (I think it was some busybox thing). When I read up online about how to install Mandriva on the Eee, I found out you have download some premade all.img file and install via FTP. So I dd‘ed the all.img to my Sandisk player, knowing all would be overwritten and thinking I could restore anyway. None of my Ubuntu adventures had affected the Sansa Clip adversely, so I wasn’t worried.

As a sidenote, Mandriva’s installer made me really appreciate the simplicity and speed of Ubuntu’s installer. The Mandriva installation took literally hours, and the first mirror I selected for doing the FTP install kept having trouble fetching packages (with no easy way of switching to another mirror). It also had this annoying Windows-like habit of asking you a question, doing some processes that took an hour or so to execute, and then asking you another question, and then doing more processes. Why can’t it just ask you all the questions up front and then do all the processes?

After Mandriva finally installed, I wasn’t that impressed, but I thought I’d at least give it a go (and I will). Even though resume from suspend worked with the prepackaged Xandros, I couldn’t get it to work with any *buntu flavor, and I’d heard it would work out of the box with Mandriva. Not so. When I try to wake up the computer with a keystroke, nothing happens. If I press the power button quickly, it looks as if it’s about to wake up but then shuts down completely. Very disappointing.

So my next task was to get my Sansa Clip back to its previous state. I realized that the all.img file I dd‘ed over was extremely small, so even though the Sansa Clip was officially 2 GB, it made my drive appear to GParted to be only a few MBs in size. GParted couldn’t recognize the full size, so I thought if I deleted the entire partition and created a new one, that’d be fine. But Mandriva’s GParted, for some reason, doesn’t let you create FAT32 or non-Linux partitions (I’m sure there are packages that could be installed that could add that support—I had no idea what those were).

For a quick fix, since it was nearby, I opened up my wife’s Macbook Pro and used the Mac Disk Utility to erase the Sansa Clip drive and format it as FAT. Bad move. The Disk Utility wiped it out completely, including the firmware!

So when I finally ejected the Sansa Clip and then tried to plug it into my Eee PC, it would not be recognized. It was totally dead. It wouldn’t turn on. It wouldn’t show a little display on the screen saying it was connected to a computer. fdisk -l on the Eee side also showed nothing connected. Same deal when I plugged it back into the Macbook Pro. And finally, same deal when I plugged it into my Windows PC at work.

The real shame of it is that it probably still works… or would work if I were able to get the firmware back on there, but without the firmware installed, the Sansa Clip doesn’t know when it’s connected to a computer, and I need to connect it to a computer to get the firmware installed.

It’s official: I’m a moron. Mandriva, I hope you appreciate all I went through to get you installed.

The short story
I erased the firmware off my Sansa Clip, and now it’s totally useless. Good thing it was cheap.

Music I Like Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Gender in bands

It doesn’t really surprise me when I see this in Christian churches, but the phenomenon also spills out into secular society as well, and that does surprise me. I’ve seen a lot of bands with a woman lead singer who sings and plays no instrument (except maybe a tamborine) supported by men playing bass, guitar, and drums. This gender dynamic is odd.

Of course, there’s nothing terrible about being the lead singer. I don’t want to make it sound as if that’s an example of gender oppression, to be in the spotlight, but why aren’t there more women guitarists, bassists, and drummers? I know they exist. I’ve seen them before—just not in great numbers.

When my wife and I saw Sara Bareilles in concert, the opening act was a band called Raining Jane. They weren’t bad. They weren’t amazing. But she and I both agreed that it was pretty cool to see an all-female band—vocals, sitar, guitars, drums, bass. I also saw only once an all-female worship team at a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts (don’t know if they’re still there). Doubt I’ll ever see that again.

I wonder what the sociological factors are that go into band gender dynamics. If women do play instruments, they’re far more likely, it seems, to play piano and rhythm guitar than solo guitar, bass, or drums. Is there something deemed by the women themselves (or by society discouraging women) supposedly unfeminine about these instruments?

A while ago, I went with two women to see the documentary Girls Rock, about a one-week rock camp for girls. The girls didn’t have to have any previous musical experience, but within the course of one week, they all formed bands, wrote songs, practiced, learned instruments, and gave final performances. Even though there is some musicianship involved in the camp, a one-week camp can’t really train you that much on playing instruments well. A lot of the camp has to do with self-confidence and self-expression. Both women I saw it with loved the film and found it empowering. Neither particularly wanted to follow up by forming a band or learning guitar (or bass or drums) themselves, though.

I’m curious as to what other people’s experiences have been around bands and gender. If you’re a man, do you feel any particular affinity toward guitars, drums, or basses? If you’re a woman, do you feel any particular affinity toward singing, piano, and guitar? What messages of encouragement or discouragement in the realm of instrument-learning and musicality have you experienced?

Life Music I Like

Celebrity Performers

I’ve been to a few rock/pop concerts over the years, and I find the celebrity performer phenomenon intriguing. The word celebrity I’m using rather loosely here to refer to anyone the audience is a big fan of. So, for example, at a Dance Hall Crashers or Hoi Polloi concert, the performers are “celebrities”—even though most people have never heard of either group—just because the audiences attending the concerts are fans of the group. It’s usually the opening act that is the group of non-celebrity performers.

With audiences and celebrity performances, the energy and gratitude and applause are mainly for celebrity, not musicianship. If the opening act is unknown to the audience and walks on stage, there will be courtesy applause and clapping, and the opening act really has to prove itself with musicianship and showmanship. If it makes reference to the headliner, that’s a sure way to get the audience riled up (Thank you. We’re so grateful to be touring with [name of headlining act] tonight). I love, though, seeing the audience get won over by an opening act. I love it when the audience starts off thinking Who are these people? and ends up thinking Oh, my God! I love these people!.

The converse reaction for a headlining act is sad, however. I love Liz Phair’s studio work, but her live performance left much to be desired (she’s also openly admitted to having stage fright, and it shows!). When she came on stage, the audience was really excited and, naturally, cheered her walking on stage, even before she played any music. When she walked off stage, the audience was still cheering (I guess for the honor of being in her presence?).

Recently, I saw Sara Bareilles in concert, and she was good. She was good at playing music and singing, but she knew how to play that crowd, too. Every mention of San Francisco (or even the much-reviled abbreviation ‘frisco in her cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ by the) Dock of the Bay”) whipped the audience into a frenzy. She kept thanking all of her fans, and while she needs her fans more than her fans want her, she’s definitely the one, as the celebrity performer, with the power in the relationship. She could suck as a musician and probably still work the crowd. The mere mention of her name at that event got people excited. It’s all about her. When she said, “I want to give you all a hug,” some random guy in the audience screamed, “Hug me, Sara!”

This is in direct opposition to the non-celebrity performer who walks on stage nervous and with absolutely no power. The non-celebrity performer—unproven, unknown—gets no whoops and hollers for merely walking on stage or having her name mentioned. She has to start from scratch and hope her musicianship and showmanship alone can win the crowd over.

I will say as an audience member, my most satisfying concert experiences have always been from watching a non-celebrity performer become a celebrity performer for several hundred people in the course of half an hour. The least satisfying experiences are, of course, when my own personal celebrities fall from grace… apparently tone-deaf and lacking in showmanship. If you can’t sing in tune, at least know how to work that crowd.