Ultraportable laptops from Dell and Lenovo
Before continuing with this article, be sure you have read the first and second entries in this series.To recap, I will be specifying ultraportable laptops (under 1.5kg) with small screens (under 14"), 16GB RAM, and a reasonable collection of ports. I will avoid units with speciality video cards and touch screens. Prices will be provided from eBay sellers of refurbished units. The goal is to find a bargain in an older computer, since these are just as powerful as anything released today. I have personal history with laptops from Dell (2 models), Lenovo (2), HP (1), and ASUS (2). But I cannot be said to be an expert in this field, only someone adept at compiling information. From this experience I will only consider Dell and Lenovo units. Dell XPS 13I often recommend Dell laptops for general users, as a good compromise between power and visual appeal. The consumer-oriented Dell XPS 13 is thin and stylish. The 13.3" screen runs at 1920x1080 pixels, which is the 1080p video standard (also called Full HD). Being a consumer line, models vary almost infinitely in components and specifications. Read carefully before buying! Note that the XPS 13 units rarely include dedicated video ports, which is unfortunate.The XPS 13 9333 (2014) has two USB Type A ports (3.0 and 3.1 speeds), DisplayPort, and an SD reader. But maximum RAM is capped at 8 GB. Unless you are sure this won't be a problem, avoid this model. £275.The XPS 13 9350 (2015-16) upgraded video processing to either HD Graphics 520 or Iris Graphics 540. In addition, the processor was available in faster Core i7 variants. It pairs two USB Type A ports with a combo USB Type C / Thunderbolt 3. This is a "two lane" port, so not as fast as later 4 lane variants. As usual, a dongle allows you to use this as a DisplayPort. £725.The Dell XPS 13 9360 (2017) increases the graphics resolution on most units to 3200x1800 but is otherwise similar. £800.The Dell XPS 13 9370 (2018) has an option for a 4K touchscreen that supports the full sRGB colour space. The ports have been changed to two USB type C / Thunderbolt 3 (four lane) and one regular USB C / DisplayPort combo. Support for USB A has been dropped, so this is not optimal if you have any peripherals with this port. The card reader is now MicroSD, a pet peeve of mine. £800.Notice how little difference there is in price and overall performance of these units. Because they are sleek and attractive, garnering rave reviews, the Dell XPS 13 retain their value.Dell LatitudeLatitude is Dell's business line. Models starting with the digit "7" are their top-of-the-range laptops. The small form factor units have only a 12.5" screen, despite being about the same size as the XPS 13. The difference is made up by a larger bezel around the border of the screen. Latitude series 7 are made with quality materials like machined magnesium and carbon fibre. They will survive physical knocks and falls.Unlike consumer lines, you get full access to all components (RAM, drive, fan, etc.) making repairs and upgrades easy. These models are consistent in components and specifications, increasing dependability. The Dell Latitude E7240 (2013) has both HDMI and mini-DisplayPort for connecting to an external monitor. You get three USB A ports and an SD card reader, along with an Ethernet port (something you no longer find on consumer laptops). Note that the resolution on this model is only 1366x768 pixels, which might be a limiting factor. £200.The Dell Latitude E7250 (2015) improved the graphics to 1920x1080 (1080p) and bumped up the main processor. £200-300.The Dell Latitude E7270 (2016) was another incremental improvement. The DisplayPort was dropped but there's a SIM card slot. More intriguing, you get one open M.2 2242 expansion slot (there are three in total). But it's unclear what you can do with this. £350.In 2017 the Dell Latitude 7280 marked a distinct change. The ports have been reconfigured to two USB Type A and one USB Type C that doubles as Thunderbolt 3 and hence DisplayPort (with a dongle). Unfortunately the SD card reader was replaced with MicroSD. Ethernet is still present. £400.It's clear that these computers offer exceptional value. They are significantly cheaper than the used prices of the XPS 13, because they are 200-300g heavier and don't have the same visual appeal. But they are tougher, built more consistently, and have better port options. Lenovo ThinkPadI am still using a Lenovo ThinkPad X220 from 2011. It's an amazing workhorse that will become redundant long before it stops working. If you look at their line-up today, Lenovo offers a bewildering array of models. The ThinkPad line has long been the mainstay, so let's take a quick look at computers that meet our constraints.Even within the ThinkPads, there are several series on offer. The P Series are the most powerful mobile workstations, coming in 15" screens only. The T Series are the standard workhorse business line, with 14" and 15" screens. The X Series are billed as "ultraportable" but come in 15", 14", and 13" models. Besides these there's an E Series, geared to small business (whatever that means) and the L series of affordable units, which have 13.3" to 15" screens. You can choose ThinkPad Yogas if you need a foldable computer that pretends it's a tablet. As if this wasn't enough, the new line of ThinkBooks are positioned somewhere between consumer and business products.Of these many choices, the L390 and X390 meet our constraints. The L series is a discount line aimed at students. Unlike the business series, they have lesser build and don't offer docking stations. Though some models can be upgraded to 16 GB, they are not generally configured this way. Therefore there are no value propositions on the market.The X series is a venerable line that can be traced back to IBM computers in 2000. The current model X390 is the 22nd generation! As a business line, these are slow to adopt new standards. They all have the possibility of an expansion dock. The screens are 12.5" (1920 x 1080) with the advantage of being matte, so they don't have excess reflections. They are not known for being exceptionally bright or accurate, however. But for work indoors this shouldn't matter. This series is unusual in having an option for a second battery, though it's often easier to carry around the charger.I wouldn't recommend something as old as an X220 today, and will be looking to replace my unit soon... hence these articles! Starting in 2015 we find the Lenovo ThinkPad X250 had only two USB A 3.0, VGA plus Mini-DisplayPort ports, and an SD reader. £350.The Lenovo ThinkPad X260 (2016) was very similar in build, but had HDMI in place of the VGA and an extra USB A port. £350.The Lenovo ThinkPad X270 (2017) uses the same case as the previous models. It swaps one of the USB Type A ports for a USB Type C. The display is darker and the computer runs hotter than its predecessor. £300-600.It wasn't until 2018 that a significant redesign was made, producing a quieter and cooler laptop. The Lenovo ThinkPad X280 has USB A, USB C, and Thunderbolt 3 (though only the 2 lane capacity). It retains a dedicated HDMI port but has microSD. Strangely for a business unit, the RAM and Wi-Fi are soldered in place, so don't expect to upgrade them. Nonetheless this computer has a great balance of features. IN two years this will be great value! £750.I should mention that all of these models have the Trackpoint pointing device popularised by IBM, as well as a trackpad. One or the other can be disabled. Lenovo ThinkPad CarbonIn the category of light laptops the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 deserves consideration. Though this has a 14" screen (1920 x 1080) the units are almost as small, and even lighter, than other laptops in this article. This premium line comes with docking station options and higher resolution screens, though these are glossy. As a boutique line, the Carbon is not as upgradable as Lenovo's business computers; the processor and memory are soldered in place. But the Carbon does have a TrackPoint and includes MicroSD slots in the generations mentioned here. (The latest model has removed this.)The third generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2015) has only two USB A 3.0 / 3.1 Gen1 ports. £600.The fourth generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2016) increased the count to three ports, in a significantly lighter case. £600.The fifth generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017) has two USB A 3.0 / 3.1 Gen1 ports and two USB C 3.1 Gen2 / Thunderbolt. A USB-C PSU is provided, and USB-C docks are available as accessories. The laptop has a Mini-Ethernet port but comes with an adapter to full Ethernet. It also has an HDMI to VGA adapter for old analogue video gear. This model looks to the future while still allowing you to access the past. But the price betrays this premium heritage. £800.ConclusionsFor your convenience I have compiled the useful specifications into a spreadsheet. This omits features like processor and disk speed, since these vary so much across different computers. The table makes it clear that laptops a few years old are often more versatile than contemporary models (in terms of connectivity) and provide a better value proposition, with no loss of performance. Nonetheless, every model represents some sort of compromise in order to fit into the small form factor. If you don't need a portable computer you can take everywhere, then you can consider the wider array of offerings in the 15" screen size. But someone else will have to write that article. :-)
In my last article I laid out the problems and constraints involved with buying a laptop for audio production. In this article I will continue by describing hardware constraints and my purchase methodology. Going shoppingFirst, make a list of essential features. I begin by specifying 16 GB of RAM, which is often the maximum a model will accept. Applications will be happy with 8 GB, but especially when multitasking the extra RAM smooths performance. A 255 GB SSD drive is the standard for blazing fast boot times and general operations. If you can get more... great! But you will likely want an external drive as well, for backup if nothing else.With so many choices, choosing a processor is a complicated matter. An Intel Core i7 is not necessarily faster than an i5 or an i3. But an i7 will generally use more energy and generate more heat. This means less battery life and potentially more fan noise. I specified one particular i3 chip in my last computer, since it was powerful and energy-efficient. But there are hundreds of different chips, and they are all generally fast enough. However, if you plan on running a DAW with many channels of plug-ins, you should choose a processor with a greater number of cores. Though some software won't make use of multiple cores, a DAW in this scenario will. To give a specific example, Reaktor utilises only one core in stand-alone mode. But when run as a plug-in, your DAW can allocate a core to each instance of Reaktor.Avoid computers with specialised video cards. These speed up your games and video work, sure. But they also introduce driver incompatibilities, add weight, generate heat, and cost more money.Figure out your optimal screen size and resolution by experimenting with your primary programs on your desktop. Laptops come in 4K screens now, but this renders text impossibly small. It's a bling thing, not a practical feature. Instead, add an external monitor when you are docked at a desk. Touchscreens add weight and expense, besides being another point of failure. Avoid them unless you have a special requirement.If you can, try out a unit to see if you can live with the keyboard and trackpad. These are essential to enjoyable and productive use of a computer. Ports RevisitedIn the last article I gave out about proprietary ports and the lack of backwards-compatibility on recent computers. I should now be more specific, so that you will know what features to expect from a given laptop.USB C and USB A have different connector shapes, so the cables will not physically match different sockets. I have several MIDI controllers and other devices that use the older USB A standard, and so any computer I buy needs to support these. Unfortunately that is becoming difficult. USB C was introduced to provide a more versatile single connector. This standard supports higher currents and can hence charge a laptop and other large devices. Hence laptops no longer need proprietary power connectors.The number after the USB designation indicates the speed. USB 3 is ten times as fast as USB 2, and 3.1 is twice as fast again. However, for most practical purposes to which these connectors were put, it doesn't matter.When Apple introduced their own Thunderbolt interface, it used the mini-DisplayPort physical connector. Very few companies followed suit (Dell were one exception). Apple then switched to using USB C connectors. Thunderbolt began by supporting the same speed as USB 3.1 (10 Gbps). But then came Thunderbolt 2 which doubled this, and Thunderbolt 3 which doubled throughput again. If you remember from the last article, I pointed out that RME sound devices support up to 70 channels of audio by using old-fashioned USB 2. In the audio world there's no pressing need for all this throughput. But video is different. The main advantages of Thunderbolt 3 are that you can throw video streams from one device to another. So you can purchase an external GPU that your laptop can use to accelerate video processing. The ramification is that manufacturers can now omit video ports from their laptops. Instead, they provide a USB C connector that will also function as a DisplayPort, assuming the correct dongle.Once upon a time a computer would come with 3 USB ports that could all be used for external devices (keyboard, mouse, audio interface). A monitor could plug into the HDMI and the whole thing would be powered from an adaptor. Now, a computer that has 3 USB C ports forces you to use one for the monitor and another for power). This leaves only a single port for everything else. Some call this progress!MethodologyI choose to buy lease-end computers, refurbished by established companies. If you wish instead to buy from individual sellers, you can often get better deals, with a concomitant increase in risk and variability. But either way, buying used means that you are doing your part to re-use technology that is poisonous for the planet. You generally get more ports and greater flexibility on older models. And you save money at the same time. It's win-win-win!I will provide prices in pound sterling, as determined from eBay. These prices depend on the condition, processor, and storage capacity, and so will vary. I will also provide a link to Notebook Check for each model. That website provides extensive reviews and feature lists. This doesn't mean that I agree with their opinions or recommendations. But it's an easy way for you to find out more about a particular model.Continue ReadingThe third part of this series is now online.
Buying a Laptop for Audio Production - Part 1
I regularly get asked to recommend hardware, and so have recently been looking once again at the annoying world of laptop computers. This article will summarise the state of the art and make certain recommendations for those who want a portable audio workstation. The assumption here is that such a laptop will supplement, not replace, a desktop computer. For this reason I am most interested in small and light computers, realising that they can be connected to external monitors and audio interfaces for increased usability. First, SoftwareIt should go without saying that your software environment comes first. A computer is only a way of running the software you need to be creative. So, before you start looking at hardware, make a list of your essential software and pay attention to the minimal specifications. Actually, that's rather old advice. Today, computers are commodities and specifications for most software are similar enough. If you have a 255 GB SSD drive for application storage, 16 GB of RAM, and any decent processor, you will be fine. The Component ProblemLaptops in consumer lines are commodity products, made up of numerous components that the manufacturer changes regularly, in order to have the lowest total cost of manufacture. Within the life of a product line, the processor, RAM, and even screen might be upgraded to stay competitive. This means that even if you buy the same model computer as me, you won't necessarily be getting the same computer. To add to the confusion, reviewers often have tweaked systems (better than what you will buy), or pre-production models (often less optimised than what goes on sale). So, ultimately, you cannot trust the specifics of what you read, only the broad strokes.This rarely impacts the general user, but smooth audio functioning is highly reliant on the specifics of components. This means it's impossible to know if a laptop will or won't function properly, without latency spikes and other problems, until you actually try it out. This is one reason to purchase with a return deal, from a store that will honour this warranty. But I am going to take the opposite approach in this series, recommending used models that risk less of your cash in the first place. Another way around this quandary is to purchase from retailers specialising in the audio production market. There are few enough of them remaining, but they do exist. The problem here is that you will be paying top dollar. On the up-side, you can stop reading this article and instead break out your plastic!For the purposes of testing, grab LatencyMon. If there are problems with the results, disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, plus any unnecessary drives. (CD-ROM units were once a big issue for audio compatibility, but laptops no longer include them.) If you still have a problem, look forward to long hours of reading internet fora.The Version ProblemI won't be recommending Apple computers for a number of reasons, including ethics. Regardless of your stance on a company that refuses to pay taxes and support the communities they are exploiting for labour (ahem), Mac computers are contra-indicated for practical reasons. The first is the lack of backwards compatibility in their operating system versions, any one of which is likely to (perhaps only temporarily) break applications you rely on. For this reason it's common to put off upgrading until the manufacturer forces you to, risking security problems and losing out on newer features. Windows doesn't have this problem to the same degree. I still have an application from 1995 that runs just fine. (Though it does look rather dorky.)The second reason is that I rely on software that runs only on Windows, namely Samplitude, the best DAW for audio editing that I have used. (And I have used them all.) Most software is cross-platform, so you might not have this restriction. Reaper, Reaktor, Max, etc. will run on MacOS or Windows. This is why it's critical for you to list your requirements and constraints. Increasingly, manufacturers force upgrades on you in order to minimise the number of platforms they must support. With Windows 10, Microsoft has unfortunately copied this tactic. However, there are ways of delaying upgrades until you wish to make them. (The simplest is to set your internet connection to "metered".) The last thing you want is for a ten minute long reboot process to start in the middle of a live set!The Port ProblemApple's love for inventing new "standards" -- dictated by themselves and not by standards organisations -- has resulted in yet another minefield. Buy a new model and your computer might well require a chain of three dongles, just to get devices to talk. That's multiple points of failure and a maintenance nightmare. I perform live with my laptop and refuse to countenance any such jury-rigged nonsense.Very few of us relish replacing our expensive digital interfaces, but Apple in particular don't care, jumping from USB to FireWire to Lightning for no good reason at all. If you believe otherwise, you are either a video professional (and have valid reasons) or you got suckered by the marketing. USB 2 is still a perfectly good connection standard. RME sells converter boxes that support 70 audio channels over USB 2. Need more than that? Thought not.Newer laptops have also done away with dedicated video ports like HDMI and DisplayPort. Everything's going USB C, which means... more dongles. Apple has successfully shaped the market so that it is driven more by fashion than reason. Other firms have followed their lead. This is terrible for those of us who want consistent features and reliability in our computers. One way out of this trap is to purchase computers designed for business users, not consumers.The Advantage of OldNow for some good news. Although models keep proliferating, you can buy a laptop up to ten years old and still get a capable workhorse for audio production. There is absolutely no reason to get this year's model. In saying this, I recognise that a laptop is always a horrible compromise compared to a desktop unit that you can customise to your heart's content. As I wrote at the top, a small portable laptop is a supplement for a workhorse system back home. (If you need a desktop replacement, this article is not for you.)There are several advantages to older computers, including the fact that you will get a wider variety of ports, extending the life of external devices. I am still using an IBM laptop with a PCMCIA slot (AKA "PC Card") into which slots a FireWire interface with a high-quality Texas Instruments chipset. My next computer won't have this flexibility, and I will lament.Because fashion and marketing go hand in hand, the latest models make poor compromises to be more visually appealing. Apparently the only attributes that matters these days is for a computer to be as slim and silver as possible. It's a strange technological twist on the body image problem. To be fashionable is to be slim. For example, compare the 2018 Dell XPS 13 (model 9370) with the 2017 version (model 9360). The 2018 model has fewer USB ports, a MicroSD slot (useless) instead of a full-sized SD slot (compatible with my field recorders and cameras), and a dongle instead of a proper USB type A slot. The computers weigh the same, which is the main metric of portability. But the new model is 3mm thinner. A great deal of usability is sacrificed for that meaningless 3 mm. Your audio interfaceMost of the potential problems with running audio on a laptop derive from your audio interface. There is only one company who writes their own drivers from the ground up. Every other firm purchases software stacks and uses generic components. This means that there is only one firm whose products are guaranteed to be rock solid, who have incredible converters, tank-like construction, and exceptional customer service (I can tell you stories).Yes, I am talking about RME. If you are not using one of their sound cards, you are basically doing it wrong. This is not to say that other gear won't work, and at a fraction of the price. But it's a lottery. Once you upgrade your laptop you might find your sound crackles or you get drop-outs. You might blame the computer, and you might be right. Or it could be that you just found a weakness in the audio drivers. How would you ever know? What's your time worth?With RME you know that if something is wrong, it's the computer to blame. Every single time someone has followed my advice and purchased an RME device, their audio problems have vanished. Most people spend 1000 clams on a computer and 300 on a sound card. That's backwards. A Babyface Pro is €700. A FireFace UC is €870. The FireFace UCX is €1170. Buy one of those if you haven't already. It will last you a lot longer than the computer itself. As a bonus you will now be able to record directly to your computer without a DAW, with the highest possible performance. You get a full software matrix mixer, the most powerful in the business. You can set audio channels to be mixed in any combination, even looped back to inputs. You no longer need additional software to route audio between applications. TotalMix is fantastic!In my next article I will provide further hardware details and outline my purchase methodology. Continue ReadingThe second part of this article is now online here. And the third part examines specific Dell and Lenovo laptops. CorrectionUpdated the statement of how many audio channels RME interfaces support to 70. Reference here.
Audio Recorders July 2019
It's been some time since I have updated my digital recorder comparison. Though much has changed in the meantime, I have continued to recommend the Olympus LS-10 and LS-11 (basically the same unit), alongside the Sony PCM-M10. But none of these models have been on the market for years. It's time to reconsider! So read on for my updated recorder comparison table.BackgroundI classify recorders by size, as either pocket (less than 200 cubic cm), hand (200 to 500 cubic cm), tripod (500 to 1000), and shoulder (over 1000). This last category I won't consider in this article, but you can read my reports on the Zoom F8 starting at the Field Recording landing page. This is also where anyone who wants more information on microphones and related topics should start reading.When solid state recorders first entered the market, they were targetted to audio professionals. But most models are now marketed to musicians who want to record band practice, podcasters, students taking notes in class, and amateur film-makers who want better sound than their cameras provide. None of these potential customers need the highest quality pre-amps, and so companies have learned they can compromise on audio quality, expand their feature sets, and appeal to a wider market.For example, Olympus once offered the excellent metal-body LS-10 and LS-11 units, both of which I own. (There's also the obscure LS-5, which is practically the same.) Then they shifted to manufacturing a line that included the plastic LS-12. These were less dependable; my unit failed quickly. Then they released the LS-P4 and LS-P1, which have relatively poor sound. But what do I mean by "poor"?Sound QualityThis article targets field recordists. We need the best possible sound reproduction, in particular a low noise floor. Of all the possible performance metrics, I consider the Equivalent Input Noise (EIN) as the most relevant. The EIN indicates the noise level of the pre-amp, as a value below zero dBu. In the table, I've provided the positive quotient. So the larger the number, the quieter the pre-amps. For these measurements I rely on the good work of Raimund Specht at Avisoft Bioacoustics. Those units not measured can be assumed to be significantly poorer, as confirmed by users.To be clear, it is over-simplistic to consider the EIN in isolation. If your microphone is noisier than the pre-amp, then improving the EIN won't help your recordings. In addition, this value will change based on how the pre-amp is gain-staged. It is worth experimenting with your recorder to find the optimal settings. This is especially true if your unit has a switch to change sensitivity from low to high. Do not assume one or the other is better until you test.Nonetheless, I have found that EIN is a good indicator of performance. It agrees with my practical experience of using various recorders. Your mileage will vary, but I have a hard time using a model with an EIN worse than -120 dBu. FeaturesWith the exception of the MixerFace, all of the recorders in this list have built-in microphones. However, I recommend you always use external mics. This way you can reduce handling noise, get the mics closer to the source for hotter signal, experiment with positioning, and improve overall quality. Since I never use built-in mics, the quality of these does not effect how I evaluate a unit.In this day and age, there are very few features that differentiate units. High-pass filters, pre-record buffers, and digital limiters are now standard. All recorders support 24-bit recording with sampling rates up to 96 kHz. Thus, of the many features that might be compared, I have highlighted only two. The first feature is the type and amount of storage. This includes built-in RAM, SD cards, and microSD cards. I dislike the latter as being too small and fiddly to effectively use in the field, but you might not mind. (Good luck swapping them with gloves on!)While all the units can run off some sort of DC adapter, the table indicates the mobile power options. I much prefer recorders that take standard AA batteries. I have a large supply of these in high-capacity rechargeable form. In a pinch, disposable AA cells are available worldwide in even the most obscure locations. Whereas built-in Li-Ion batteries are not only wasteful, but represent a point of failure if you are venturing far from wall power. Yes, you can bring along portable battery banks, but that's more weight and bother. It seems to rather defeat the purpose of using a small recorder.I will not attempt to evaluate ergonomics, even though this is one of the more important aspects of using a recorder. You should try to get some hand-on time with a device before committing to it. I very much prefer solid dials for recording levels, as opposed to those units where you need to press buttons multiple times to achieve the same ends. It is critical to have a strong confirmation of when you are in recording mode, plus a visible indicator of input overload. Small icons on screens are nowhere near as functional as bright LEDs. ConclusionThe table makes it clear why I continue to recommend discontinued recorders. In the pocket size there are no contemporary models that are as quiet as the older Olympus and Sony units. If you wish the versatility of standard batteries, a good choice might be the Roland R-07, even if this is marketed to mobile phone users.In the handheld category, the Tascam DR-100 Mk III stands out. This recorder can use standard batteries, has both PIP and XLR inputs, and includes a dual safety track recording feature. I find this so useful on the Zoom F-8. If I had to buy another recorder, this would be my choice. If you don't need built-in mics or PIP, you should take a good look at the MixerFace R4R from CEntrance. It's optimised for use as a recording interface, working with desktop and phone operating systems, and as such has high impedance inputs for instruments. So it's possibly easier to describe as an audio interface that, as a bonus, can be used as a capable field recorder. It's good to see a fresh approach in this market! Unfortunately, I do regularly use electret mics that require PIP. It's a real shame they overlooked this feature, though suitable XLR adapters do exist. Disclaimer: I am not associated with any manufacturer mentioned here, and have received no merchandise or other payment for my unsolicited opinions. I am open to reviewing gear, but will make it clear when any exchange of goods or services has been conducted.Download the PDF version of the table.
Timeline of audio devices
As a by-product of my research, I have compiled the following timeline of audio devices from numerous sources. Accreditation here is not meant to deny previous contributions, including those obscured by the historical record. In fact, one of the reasons to put this together is to highlight the variety and proliferation of this idea that sound can be recorded and even played back. We take it for granted today.1850 Claude Pouillet (1791–1868) publishes Notions générales de physique et de météorologie à l’usage de la jeunesse, a book which contains visual representations that have subsequently been reproduced as sound.1857 The first sound recording device, the phonautograph, is invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (1817–1879) in Paris.1877 The phonograph, the first sound reproduction device, is invented by Thomas Edison (1847–1931) at Menlo Park, New Jersey. This used tinfoil on a spinning cylinder. 1881 Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) and Volta Laboratory introduces the graphophone, a wax cylinder recorder. (Later also known as a phonograph.)1887 Emile Berliner (1851–1929) patents a flat disc gramophone record.1898 Valdemar Poulsen (1869–1942) invents a wire recorder, the Telegraphone.1913 Edison demonstrates the Kinetophone, synchronising sound to film.1914 Eric Tigerstedt (1887–1925) demonstrates optical sound-on-film.1919 Lee De Forest (1873–1961) patents optical sound-on-film in the USA while the Tri-Ergon partnership do the same in Germany.1925 Western Electric makes the first electrical recordings, using a microphone with vacuum tube amplifiers. 1925 Victor introduces the Orthophonic Victrola acoustic player.1927 Coin-operated phonograph jukebox introduced by Automatic Music Instrument (AMI).1929 Ludwig Blattner (1881–1935) invents a steel tape recorder, the Blattnerphone.1931 Alan Blumlein (1903–42) invents stereophonic recording system at EMI. They later forget to renew the patent. 1935 AEG demonstrate first tape recorder (Magnetophone Model K-1) at Berlin Radio Fair. First magnetic tape created by BASF.1942 First stereo tape recordings made by Helmut Krüger at German Radio, Berlin. 1946 Soundmirror BK 401, the first commercial tape recorder, released by Brush Development.1948 Ampex Model 200 tape recorders (serial numbers 1 and 2) record the Bing Crosby Show.1948 Columbia introduces 7-inch and 12-inch 33-1/3 rpm microgroove vinylite records. Becomes the standard for long-players (LPs).1948 Magnecord PT-6, the first tape recorder in a portable case.1949 RCA Victor introduces 7-inch 45 rpm microgroove vinylite records. Becomes the standard for single-players (SPs or singles).1950 Les Paul (1915–2009) invents sound-on-sound recording with a modified Ampex 300. 1951 Portable tape recorders introduced by Amplifier Corporation of America, Nagra (Switzerland), and Uher (Germany).1952 Emory Cook (1913–2002) releases the first in a series of binaural disks.1954 Ampex Model 600 portable tape recorder introduced. 1954 First stereophonic tapes released by labels including Bel Canto and RCA Victor.1957 First stereophonic demonstration record made by Sidney Frey (1920–68) of Audio Fidelity. Side A: Dukes of Dixieland; side B: railroad sound effects.1962 Compact Cassette magnetic tape format introduced (Philips).1964 8-Track Tape created by consortium of Ampex, RCA, Ford, GM, Motorola.1965 Dolby Type A noise reduction system.1967 Mini-Cassette magnetic tape format (Philips).1969 Microcassette magnetic tape format (Olympus).1972 First commercial digital release, Something by Steve Marcus and Jiro Inagaki (Denon).1977 First consumer digital recorder, Sony PCM-1 Audio Unit, a 14-bit PCM encoder using Betamax tapes for storage. 1979 Kane Kramer (1956–) prototypes digital audio player IXI.1980 EMT Model 450 hard-disk digital recorder.1980 Sony portable cassette player marketed as Stowaway, Soundabout, and Walkman. 1982 Compact Disc (CD) digital optical disc format (Philips and Sony). First title marketed: Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. First CD player: Sony CDP-101.1982 Compact Disc (CD) digital optical disc format (Philips and Sony). First title to market is Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. First CD player is the Sony CDP-101. 1984 Sony Discman D-50, first portable CD player. 1987 Digital Audio Tape (DAT) helical-scan digital magnetic tape (Sony).1991 Alesis Digital Audio Tape (ADAT) helical-scan multi-track magnetic tape.1992 MiniDisc (MD) magneto-optical disc (Sony).1992 Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) magnetic tape (Philips and Matsushita).1994 First software MP3 encoder released by Fraunhofer Society.1994 Nagra ARES-C, the first solid-state audio recorder, which uses MPEG-2 compression to store data on PCMCIA cards.1997 MPMan, the first portable MP3 player (Saehan Information Systems).1999 Samsung SPH-M2100, first mobile phone with MP3 player.2001 Apple iPod introduced.
Talk Talk cover versions
Here's another post in the wake of Mark Hollis' passing. Four cover versions I found that might intrigue you.Shearwater from Austin, Texas recorded at the Crocodile Cafe, Seattle, 2005. With special guests Minus Story. "It's My Life" by Mint Julep (Keith Kenniff and Hollie Kenniff)"Myrrhman" by Raising Benzine, Concert à la Menuiserie, Pantin, 2013."Runeii" by The Last Dinosaur, from the anthology Spirit of Talk Talk, 2012Post any others you like in the comments.
Mark Hollis and Talk Talk rarities
This article compiles the extant rarities from the career of Hark Hollis (1955-2019).First, if you are unaware of this music, you are in for a rare treat. I am not going to repeat here the story of how a synth-pop group with rare sensibilities morphed into one of the most incredible expressions of pure music imaginable. Instead, just obtain the following catalogue. I've even indicated my suggested purchase order, which defers the first rather slick albums until after you've heard the masterworks. 5. Talk Talk: The Party's Over (EMI, 1982)6. Talk Talk: It's My Life (EMI, 1984)1. Talk Talk: The Colour of Spring (EMI, 1986)2. Talk Talk: Spirit of Eden (Parlophone, 1988)3. Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (Verve, 1991)4. Mark Hollis: Mark Hollis (Polydor, 1998)Two compilations are also valuable: Talk Talk: Asides Besides (EMI, 1998)Talk Talk: Missing Pieces (Pond Life, 2001)If you already have all those records, here are the rarities...This is a rehearsal cassette from "Eden", posted online by Tim Friese-Green, Talk Talk collaborator and producer. "Recorded shortly before going into the studio, probably at John Henry rehearsal rooms. This is Mark on guitar, Lee on drums, and myself on piano and organ (the bass was always addressed in the studio once the basic track was down, which is why it doesn't feature here)."The remainder are all links to music on YouTube, so I won't bother embedding code. Demo by Mark Hollis, from 1979 (!) Might have been recorded at the time of The Reaction.Crying in The RainThe Reaction was a pre-Talk Talk band with radically different arrangements of familiar songs. These three tracks are from a set of nine recorded as a demo at Nashville Rooms Studios, 1979.CandyHave You Heard The NewsRenée 300 Cubs was another version of the same band. More synths now. RenéeStrike Up The BandFurther information would be much appreciated in the comments. At least eight additional early demos plus three BBC Sessions are out there somewhere.
Monarch versus Extinction Rebellion: iconography
Monarch is a secret government organisation that studies kaiju in the film series that incorporates "Godzilla" (2014), "Kong: Skull Island" (2017), and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" (2019). These films are predicated on an ecological theme. Godzilla is a primordial creature who feeds on radiation, returning to the surface world to restore the so-called "balance". It is unclear what the symbol itself represents, but it could be the wings of a butterfly. Or, indeed, Mothra.Extinction Rebellion is "an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse". The symbol incorporates a circle, representing the Earth, and an hourglass "warning that time is rapidly running out for many species". Their position on Mothra remains unclear.
Black hole image and science reporting
Many times I have wanted to write about the atrocious way in which science is misreported by journalists, how this is complicit with capitalism, feeds an anti-science agenda, and confirms conservative biases. You wouldn't think that the astounding new images of the M87 black hole would be the place to start. And indeed it's far from the worst example. But maybe it's useful to consider for precisely that reason.Journalism is fixated on the story. It needs to turn a chaotic world of interactions into a simple, linear narrative that an eight-year-old can follow. But your life is not a story. It is not linear, with clear demarcations of good, evil, and so on. A moment's consideration will realise that no life is a clear progression from A to B, because even if this path is indeed one of the "journeys" (another word journalists love) you are "on", that's far from the only dynamic.A focus on the story must omit everything that doesn't fit. It must heighten drama, find (and then simplify) conflict, and so on. It must validate the heroic or brilliant individual that is the engine of change. Science reporting is a perfect example of this. Time and again the Great Man fallacy is advanced. Although, whenever possible, journalists will do all they can to find an attractive person for their headline article.This focus on individualism is complicit with two myths in the neoliberal world: democracy and capitalism. Because each has, at its heart, a focus on the individual who must be in conflict with everyone else around her, in a battle for supremacy in which "there can be only one". Only one athlete can be victorious. Only one party can win the will of the people. Only one movie is "the best". It doesn't matter who you step on to get to the top. Resources are there to be consumed. Etc.This myth denies social structures, cohesion, collaboration, and sharing. It undermines everything that is good about people, every ethos except the self-serving need to beat out the competition.Hannah Devlin is Science correspondent for The Guardian. I'd like to highlight her article “Black hole picture captured for first time in space breakthrough,” because it's a good example of what science journalism can be. But it also highlights the biases I've only briefly sketched. In this case the lead is the image itself, as it so often is with astronomy. We have had plenty of confirming data about black holes over many decades, but until one is imaged (transduced into visual light frequencies) it's not really compelling to many readers. That is understandable. Ocularcentrism is alive and well. (A matter for another post.) This is why astronomical agencies spend so much time and money on producing still and moving images. Early on we find out that “The breakthrough image was captured by the Event Horizon telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes spanning locations from Antarctica to Spain and Chile, in an effort involving more than 200 scientists.” This confirms that the venture was collaborative, spanning borders, and is not a matter of nationalism or any other petty self-interest. In the fifth and sixth paragraphs we get quotations from individuals, but it's clear they are spokespeople. The article focuses on the facts and is easy to understand for a general audience. So far, so good.Further down the page we get the story. Here's an individual to focus on. Katie Bouman, as a student, developed a crucial algorithm. With no outside data, it's hard to know how important her contribution was. The NASA press release makes no mention of her by name. Neither does the home page of the Event Horizon Telescope. Scientists operate with a very different ideology. Everyone on a science team makes a “crucial” contribution. Bouman's own statement confirms this: “We’re a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that’s what it took to achieve something once thought impossible.” This is not just being modest. It's a statement of a truth that, as a scientist, she would know well.Two facts confirm the narrative bias at work in the article. The information comes with a picture of a young, smiling, attractive woman. And her appellation is the diminutive “Katie”, though in her scientific work she is Katherine L. Bouman. I'll let you determine how sexist this is.So, bound up in one article we get an excellent “explainer” for the general public and an example of the fallacies at work in science journalism.For the record, these are the 218 individuals who make up the The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration Team. You won't see this list in any reporting. Every single one of these researchers was “crucial.” Kazunori AkiyamaAntxon AlberdiWalter AlefKeiichi AsadaRebecca AzulayAnne-Kathrin BaczkoDavid BallMislav BalokovicJohn BarrettDan BintleyLindy BlackburnWilfred BolandKatherine L. BoumanGeoffrey C. BowerMichael BremerChristiaan D. BrinkerinkRoger BrissendenSilke BritzenAvery E. BroderickDominique BroguiereThomas BronzwaerDo-Young ByunJohn E. CarlstromAndrew ChaelChi-kwan ChanShami ChatterjeeKoushik ChatterjeeMing-Tang ChenYongjun Chen Ilje ChoPierre ChristianJohn E. ConwayJames M. CordesGeoffrey B. CrewYuzhu CuiJordy DavelaarMariafelicia De LaurentisRoger DeaneJessica DempseyGregory DesvignesJason DexterSheperd S. DoelemanRalph P. EatoughHeino FalckeVincent L. FishEd FomalontRaquel Fraga-EncinasPer FribergChristian M. FrommJosé L. GómezPeter GalisonCharles F. GammieRoberto GarcíaOlivier GentazBoris GeorgievCiriaco GoddiRoman GoldMinfeng Gu Mark GurwellKazuhiro HadaMichael H. HechtRonald HesperLuis C. Ho Paul HoMareki HonmaChih-Wei L. HuangLei Huang David H. HughesShiro IkedaMakoto InoueSara IssaounDavid J. JamesBuell T. JannuziMichael JanssenBritton JeterWu Jiang Michael D. JohnsonSvetlana JorstadTaehyun JungMansour KaramiRamesh KaruppusamyTomohisa KawashimaGarrett K. KeatingMark KettenisJae-Young KimJunhan KimJongsoo KimMotoki KinoJun Yi KoayPatrick M. KochShoko KoyamaMichael KramerCarsten KramerThomas P. KrichbaumCheng-Yu KuoTod R. LauerSang-Sung LeeYan-Rong Li Zhiyuan Li Michael LindqvistKuo LiuElisabetta LiuzzoWen-Ping LoAndrei P. LobanovLaurent LoinardColin LonsdaleRu-Sen Lu Nicholas R. MacDonaldJirong Mao Sera MarkoffDaniel P. MarroneAlan P. MarscherIván Martí-VidalSatoki MatsushitaLynn D. MatthewsLia MedeirosKarl M. MentenYosuke MizunoIzumi MizunoJames M. MoranKotaro MoriyamaMonika MoscibrodzkaCornelia MüllerHiroshi NagaiNeil M. NagarMasanori NakamuraRamesh NarayanGopal NarayananIniyan NatarajanRoberto NeriChunchong NiAristeidis NoutsosHiroki OkinoHéctor OlivaresGisela N. Ortiz-LeónTomoaki OyamaFeryal ÖzelDaniel C. M. PalumboNimesh PatelUe-Li PenDominic W. PesceVincent PiétuRichard PlambeckAleksandar PopStefanijaOliver PorthBen PratherJorge A. Preciado-LópezDimitrios PsaltisHung-Yi PuVenkatessh RamakrishnanRamprasad RaoMark G. RawlingsAlexander W. RaymondLuciano RezzollaBart RipperdaFreek RoelofsAlan RogersEduardo RosMel RoseArash RoshanineshatHelge RottmannAlan L. RoyChet RuszczykBenjamin R. RyanKazi L. J. RyglSalvador SánchezDavid Sánchez-ArguellesMahito SasadaTuomas SavolainenF. Peter SchloerbKarl-Friedrich SchusterLijing ShaoZhiqiang Shen Des SmallBong Won SohnJason SooHooFumie TazakiPaul TiedeRemo P. J. TilanusMichael TitusKenji TomaPablo TorneTyler TrentSascha TrippeShuichiro TsudaIlse van BemmelHuib Jan van LangeveldeDaniel R. van RossumJan WagnerJohn WardleJonathan WeintroubNorbert WexRobert WhartonMaciek WielgusGeorge N. WongQingwen Wu André YoungKen YoungZiri YounsiFeng Yuan Ye-Fei Yuan J. Anton ZensusGuangyao ZhaoShan-Shan ZhaoZiyan ZhuRoger CappalloJoseph R. FarahThomas W. FolkersZheng Meyer-ZhaoDaniel MichalikAndrew NadolskiHiroaki NishiokaNicolas PradelRurik A. PrimianiKamal SouccarLaura VertatschitschPaul YamaguchP.S. Here is the series of science articles announcing the research results.
Mark Hollis (1955-2019)
I happened across Talk Talk as they released their first EP, Talk Talk, which included the single "Talk Talk" (their second). I wasn't expecting much from the linguistic paucity displayed in these titles. But the band's brand of synthpop had a lush core, anchored by Paul Webb's roving bass. Lee Harris' drums were more inventive than most. Hollis contributed a lot to the melange, his mellifluous singing molding the presentation into something worth returning to.The 1982 album was entitled The Party's Over, a strange announcement to begin a career. Perhaps the band was signalling that their music was more appropriate for an after-party. But it was also as if Hollis was already tired of the industry, already post-pop. On the title track he sings of "this love of masquerade" and other allusions to his place as a pop star. The chorus is notable for its delivery. "This crime of being uncertain (of your love) is all I'm guilty of". Purportedly a love song, as all pop must be, Hollis places the central phrase in a lower register, in parentheses. In fact, his "crime" is a more existential malaise, uncertainty in the main, not indexed to any particular (constructed) subject of love. The refrain that echoes out the song is a take-home test for the listener. The words have now morphed to "Name the crime I'm guilty of?" Elsewhere priests lose faith and Hollis retires from the outside world ("I don't like to read the news"). His future path was written here. It's fair to judge the 1984 album It's My Life as a sophomore slump, and by this time my own attentions were on music far removed from synth-pop. Internally, keyboardist Simon Brenner had been replaced by Tim Friese-Greene, who would become a long-term collaborator. It's worth noting that "It's my life", as a statement of purported autonomy, is lame. This declaration is tautological only, free of content. When The Colour of Spring was released in 1986 I hardly noticed. But something wonderful had happened. The music had opened up, actions had become precise, no longer hidden in reverb. Friese-Greene's production highlights a jazz-inflected core, perhaps always implicit in the fretless bass and Hollis' legato. As the melody winds around the complex arrangement of "Happiness is Easy", it's apparent we're in different territory. The title too conflicts with Hollis' earlier malaise. And the choir of children sings about Jesus, with not a hint of irony. Nonetheless, it's easy to find connections with Talk Talk's previous repertoire. "I Don't Believe in You" returns to a languid negativity, the singer caught in crisis. Musically, it updates first album motifs. "I'm trying to find the path ahead" sings Hollis, and it doesn't seem that he has, not yet. The music is beautiful, however; soaring guitar (courtesy Robbie McIntosh), organ and other textures sum to a wonderful organic sound. The single "Life's What You Make It" inverts the egotism of "It's My Life". The subject might still be the singer, caught in a trap of commerce and expectation, but the title addresses a second person. The spectacular guitar figure from David Rhodes scores a bounding optimism, represented in the music video by an abundance of animal life, both great and small. The nature motif was also apparent in the moth-themed album cover (designed by the appropriately named James Marsh). Animals were to become a Talk Talk visual trademark, despite being an unusual choice for music often subjective. Talk Talk were, after all, "Living in Another World", not the earthy realm of beetles and antelope. The commercial success of the band was created through songs such as these, though they only went Top 40 on initial release. But the 1990 compilation Natural History sold over a million copies, and catapulted re-issued singles ("It's My Life", "Life's What You Make It") higher into the charts than ever before.But the band was off the radar, spending a year with producer Phil Brown. Hollis and Friese-Greene assembled an ever-changing musical configuration to explore a retrograde method of making music as pure expression, free of expectation. The template here is "Chameleon Day" from The Colour of Spring, but extended to forty minutes of changing moods. The result, Spirit of Eden, is rightly heralded as a landmark in music. It's rooted in modal jazz and singer-songwriter solipsism, but the result is totally "other". It's also far noisier than usually credited, giant crescendos of harmonica, guitar, and massed woodwinds battering at the ears.Hollis himself judged that "It’s only radical in the modern context. It’s not radical compared to what was happening 20 years ago." But context is everything. To completely ignore context and expectation, to court lawsuits with your record company and dissipate a band... these are brave acts. Despite influences, no-one had ever heard anything like Spirit of Eden. Though a single was impossible to imagine, EMI edited "I Believe In You" and even produced a music video. The song is chilling even before you decode the line "I saw heroin for myself". Then it becomes a remarkable exercise in all those things we are told don't exist any more: catharsis, redemption, love. Hollis hated making the video (his last) and you can see why. He's falling apart right there, in front of you. "I just can't bring myself to see it starting."I find it significant that the downer "I Don't Believe In You" has become an optimistic "I Believe In You". Especially now that a song title is all we have as semantic placeholder. Hollis' use of indecipherable diction and extended legato strips language of its indexical function. The name Talk Talk has become ironic.So, there's no longer any point writing about Talk Talk. If I say nothing about Laughing Stock (1991) the Hollis solo album (1998), a long track "Piano" (credited to "John Cope") on the Allinson / Brown record AV1 (1998), it's not because these deserve to be ignored. Indeed, quite the opposite. They are genius for which I have no words. Twenty years ago Hollis retired from the music industry. "I choose for my family. Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time."A few days ago, he died, age 64. This remembrance is for his family, friends, and others he left behind. Take care. Please take care. The music? The music speaks for itself.
Towards a Platial Phenomenology of Sound
Place-bound and time-bound in evening rainAnd bound by a sound which does not change,Except that it begins and ends,Begins again and ends again-- from "Human Arrangement" by Wallace Stevens In English we have a simple adjective, "spatial", that means “of or relating to space”. But there is no similar word that means “of or relating to place”. This article will briefly explain why space gets so much attention in Western philosophy, while place falls by the wayside. I will conclude by proposing the neologism "platial" as a useful corrective. We could begin with the Classical philosophers, but let's cut to the chase and skip to the birth of modernism. The inestimably influential ideas of René Descartes (1596–1650) deserve primary attention. His Principles of Philosophy (1644), was the summation of his thinking on nature and its laws. It's generally considered the founding text of modern physics. In this book, Descartes conceptualised matter in two categories: thought ("things pertaining to the mind") and extension ("things pertaining to extended substance or body"). In this reductive scheme, objects have no qualities other than "extension in length, breadth, and depth". Space too is only extension. And place is nothing more than “situation”, the relative positioning of objects in space.Isaac Newton (1642–1726), John Locke (1632–1704), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) developed these ideas by imposing a measurement grid on the three dimensions. For them, space is an isometric, homogenous substrate in which objects exist at distinct and measurable locations (specified by coordinates). Place has no special qualities that might distinguish it from space; it's a concept reduced to insignificance. This Cartesian rationalism became the bedrock of modern thought, providing a philosophy that remains dominant in the popular imagination today. Rationalism went hand-in-hand with an ocularcentric view of the world, largely created by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), who developed our modern concept of perspective. Consider also how our language privileges sight. An “eyewitness” is to be trusted, whereas conversations merely “overheard” are suspect. We know that “seeing is believing” and use the phrase “I see” to denote understanding. As McLuhan noted, our wisest thinkers are called “visionaries” or “seers”.As a sound artist, I am interested in challenging ocularcentrism. Others do this by promoting the ear as somehow "truer" than the eye, more embodied, more interior, more relational. I prefer to overturn this entire hierarchy, by calling into question the very idea of a ranking of the senses. In fact, I deny the accepted knowledge that there are individuated senses (see Tim Ingold). For example, we hear not only with our ears, but our skin. We localise sound with the aid of our eyes (consider the ventriloquist illusion). Balance and hearing are intimately related in the inner ear. And so on. To challenge Cartesian rationalism, I foreground place over space. Edward Casey has termed this radical belief, that “place is the first of all things”, the Archytian Axiom. He has traced a line of thought from Archytas of Tarentum (428–347 BCE) through Aristotle, to Bachelard and other contemporary thinkers. For some years my works have highlighted engagements with place, through diverse practices that include field recording, creative writing, and image-making. An example is my installation "In that place, the air was very different" (read more here). In these pursuits, I prefer to use sound as a verb, to emphasise its ephemeral temporality, it's always-just-coming-into-being. And its fading away again, into the imperceptible. "Sounding place" is a way to activate place in my own perception, so that the qualities of my situation vis-a-vis place are heightened. This activity is not only about sound. But it's nice, for a change, to employ a term that doesn't derive from the visual. Places are formed by the accretion of my perception, and of others before me. At the same time, the physical and social parameters of place constrain the activities I am likely to engage in. Neither force has precedence; they work in a complex, a matrix.I might imagine that I am the first to chart a course through the long grass. But the lie of the land, the strength and play of wind from beyond, the swirl of tree branches on my horizon, the knowledge of a destination somewhere ahead... these all tend my path to follow other footsteps. On later excursions, when the trail is more obvious, any other route might seem like too much effort. At these moments the constraints have the upper hand. Until the path seems too familiar... and I am once again encouraged to deviate. Can this phenomenology of place be reduced to "extension in length, breadth, and depth"? No. Place is not simple measurable space. Place is not homogenous, isometric, infinitely extensible. This idea is, frankly, ridiculous. And its persistence only points to a long-standing desire to promote the simplest possible solution to a problem, despite all evidence to the contrary. To return to our departure point: the word "spatial". Since "space" is insufficient to describe our rich, multivalent experiences with place, a new adjective is needed. I propose "platial" as a simple, comprehensible alternative. (And if it's a homophone for "palatial", that's OK too. Place is the palace of being-in-the-world.)Research reveals that Platial was a collaborative cartographic website that existed from 2004 to 2010. Since then, the term has been used only infrequently in information science (an example being McKenzie et al. 2016). But the earliest occurrence is in a paper by Stuart Elden, in a discussion of Heidegger and Plato's Timaeus. Elden remarks: "There is something to be said for working with 'place' and 'placing', coining the neologism 'platial' to reflect its use in adjectival forms". This seems eminently sensible. And coincidentally (?) both writers figure heavily in my continuing research (of which this is only one gloss).We will sail our ship from here, from a place we can never fully apprehend. Our platial voyage will create encounters that are different for everyone, yet constrained by the community we form. No matter our velocity, we will not escape this embedded relationship with our world. Because our world is what we live through. ReferencesCasey, Edward S. 1998. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.Descartes, René. 1983 (1644). Principles of Philosophy, trans. V. R. Miller and R.P. Miller. Dordrecht: Reidel.Elden, Stuart. 1999. "Heidegger’s Hölderlin and the importance of place". Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 30.3, 258–274. Grant McKenzie, Martin Raubal, Krzysztof Janowicz, and Andrew Flanagin. 2016. "Provenance and credibility in spatial and platial data". Journal of Spatial Information Science 2016.13, 101–102.Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2005 (1962). Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith. London: Routledge.
Song of the Year 2018
I can't say I enjoy contemporary pop music. Every now and then I work my way through someone's top 100 albums, to find that one or two products are listenable. This is not the fault of the internet or GarageBand or MP3s... it's a symptom of late capitalism, where everyone (in our parts of the world) is spoiled and no-one has a compelling reason to do any one thing or the other.(So, yeah, it is the fault of the internet and GarageBand and MP3s.)Music is not the vital force it was when I grew up, when there was still room to play with the difference between the orders of simulation. And when, for many, pop music was the only way to escape a trap laid by society, to express an outsider relationship to politics and culture. Today, it's a career choice. Most pop music is produced to give the listener what they want. Hence, most pop music is crap, valuable only for a few moments of escapism. But there have been times when it has operated as a disruptive force. The post-punk period (1976-1982) was one such, and I am glad to have lived through it. I am sure the original hip-hop scene was another, and had I been in NYC, living in the right community, at the right time, I'm sure I'd love it all. (As it is, my love doesn't extend too much outside classic albums from Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, with a smattering of Grandmaster Flash, Coldcut, etc.)For some time, there's been no point evaluating pop music apart from its artifice. For years, that meant the album cover and follow-on advertising, including the pin-up poster. Today, that still means the music video, a rather tired format that only sometimes recalls the possibilities of the medium. For decades, pop music has not been made to operate on its own, but rather within the warm embrace of this televisual spectacle. Simply listening to music is to miss the point. Given this, I have no doubt that the most important song of the year was "This Is America" by Childish Gambino, composed and produced by Donald Glover and Ludwig Goransson (a Swedish film composer). Immediately on release of the video (directed by Hiro Murai) the internet went crazy, viewers searching for hidden symbols and references. And there's plenty to find, from the Jim Crow dance to the Confederate trousers, the 17 seconds of silence and the horseman of the apocalypse. This analysis is proof of the visual literacy of today's voyeurs. I've watched at least ten reaction videos and there's one thing they have in common. I'm in tears by the end.Hope. After all. (For a certain ironic displacement, this post should be read in concert with the last one, "Today's Music is Crap, Reports Old White Guy".)
Today's Music is Crap, Reports Old White Guy
Jon Henschen has just published the article "The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)", an atrocious compendium of well-intentioned ignorance. You can read it here. This article is full of errors and misconceptions, designed to promote a conservative musical agenda. The author associates the ability to read the Western European stave as indicative of quality music. This instantly ignores traditions from the rest of the world that generate music of extraordinary sophistication. (Coincidentally, the Irish gamelan orchestra is currently performing in Java. I wonder if Henschen is even aware of this music?)Ignoring the cultural bias, Henschen is entirely genre-bound in his likes and dislikes. He exemplifies jazz musicians (Coltrane, Baker, Montgomery) before silently switching the topic to popular music, something he obviously feels at home denigrating. But if he was interested in pop and rock, he'd know that Hendrix, The Beatles, Townshend, Dylan, Marley, Clapton, Presley, Jackson, etc. etc. couldn't read music. I can only conclude that he considers all of their output as somehow unworthy. If so, perhaps he would have a go at explaining Irving Berlin, who couldn't read or write music, tracing out melodies only in the key of F#. Or Miles Davis, who dropped out of Juilliard because school was limiting his music. Henschen also doesn't mention jazz notation or tablature. Many musicians have used those systems while remaining unable to read the classical stave. Does this make them better? Worse? Or what about those improvising musicians who don't produce fixed works of music at all. All worthless?Here's something Henschen might want to understand: Music is not notes on paper. Music is sounds in the air, organised (more or less) into patterns for enjoyment. Notation is only a limited means of capturing and reproducing music, basically invented by the church for easy replication of the same tunes over and over.But back to the article, though it is painful to continue.Henschen uses a single study of musical analysis as evidence of decreasing musical variety. He reiterates the tired complaint about dynamic range compression in recordings. Naturally this says nothing about musical composition. It's only indicative of how music is presented, which is a different topic entirely. Next, the fact that two people have written a lot of pop songs in the recent charts is considered to be a problem. Well, Vivaldi wrote 500 concertos, all more or less the same. Telemann, Saint Saens, and other composers must really have sucked, given their enormous output... if you follow Henschen's logic.I need hardly consider his rants against autotune, digital delays, and other electronics, which do nothing but demonstrate complete ignorance of how these technologies are used creatively. Auto-tune graduated from being a rather poor effect to being a musical signifier, in and of itself. Not that Henschen would understand signification as a genre-binding process! Why doesn't he complain about the microphone, a totally artificial means of amplifying the singing voice, which resulted in an entirely new style of crooning (Sinatra)?The author is blissfully unaware that the piano, clarinet, etc. are also technologies, mechanical tools constructed within particular economic and political contexts. Each restrict what is possible musically, while opening up potential avenues for creativity. None are value-neutral. None permit the variety in pitch, timbre, and loudness (to use his indicators) that Pierre Schaeffer discovered in musique concrète, or Stockhausen in sound synthesis.Henschen should hear how technology is used by Aphex Twin, Bjork, and Ikeda. Or how Luc Ferrari, Pauline Oliveros, and Xenakis produce timbral variety. Or how Scott Walker, Cindytalk, and Diamanda Galas test the limits of their tools. These artists have done stuff with sound his poor ears can't imagine. But back to pop music. In the last two days I have heard nine young acts in concert, no two of which sounded the same. Likely none of them could read scores (I didn't ask), yet all produced music worth listening to. Next Friday I am presenting a day of music in all its forms. No, I didn't ask any of the participants to bring sheet music.I agree with Henschen that music should be taught and encouraged. But there is no need to use the arcane, broken, stave system. And absolutely no reason to denigrate those who won't conform to its limits. In the real world, music is not constrained to the blinkered views of Jon Henschen, registered financial advisor.
Angst and Beans: How Food Ideology Feeds Despair
We live in the Anthropocene, an epoch named for the decisive changes our species has made to species diversity, biogeochemistry, geomorphology, and climate of the Earth System [Crutzen and Stoermer 2000]. It is long past time that we questioned our assumptions about our place in this system. Each of us needs to start with their own discipline, to perform a radical ("from the root") reappraisal of fundamental beliefs and assumptions. For myself, this starts with interrogating ideologies of nature. I am currently writing a paper on acoustic ecology that critiques the foundational text of this discipline. It's not easy work, but it's necessary. So what should arrive in my Facebook stream but an article from The Atlantic, "If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef" [Hamblin 2017]. While I am sympathetic with those who call for a re-appraisal of our diet and land use, it is regrettable to read arguments such as these, which feed the very system they mean to challenge.Being practical, our first question might be whether beans are a perfect nutritive substitute for beef. What would the knock-on effects of such a change be? But there is no discussion here of dietary needs, which is odd considering the purported subject of the article. This is already the first hint that the author's argument is about something else entirely.The article is based on a single research paper, that considers whether the greenhouse-gas emission goals of the USA could be met by eating beans [Harwatt at al. 2017]. The answer is... no! But this is written up instead as a positive outcome, that the country would "almost" meet the goals. This is not only self-serving, but ignorant of research that has more successful hypotheses.For example, the family dog has more impact on our air than the family car [Hickman 2009]. If we stopped keeping animals as pets, the benefits to the environment would be immediate. No doubt this is a contentious proposal, but by considering the benefits, one might also question the value of infantilising animals and placing them in submissive roles as servants to our interests and desires. Alternatively, consider the single-largest change we could take to help the planet. If each family had one less child, the result would be more effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than switching, not just to beans, but to an entirely plant-based diet [Wynes and Nicholas 2017]. How much more effective? Seventy times. Seventy. So it seems the facts are not at all on the side of the bean-counters. This makes me curious. What is the ideology behind this article? What thinking underpins a call for a change that even the subheading admits isn't effective enough?Dietary edicts have historically been the product of religious prohibitions. These govern which foods may or may not be eaten, and how they must be prepared. Islam divides foods into haram and halal, Judaism has the Kashrut, Hindus the prohibition on beef, and so on. These rules are cultural products, based on historical necessity, mythology, or simply disgust with certain foods. (For example the prohibition on slaughtering horses in the USA.) All such rules are symbolic orders constructed within particular cultural constraints. Is there any value in adding to these prohibitions? Does an absolute restriction on a food mark a positive way forward? This question can be considered first in terms of the known facts, and then in terms of ideology. Factually, the call for a pure vegan or vegetarian diet has little basis in the historical record or what we know of food production. Detailed studies have shown that dairy and a certain amount of meat are entirely sustainable, and in fact make the best use of land [Lang 2007]. A comparison of ten different diets found that a vegan diet was the third-best in land carrying capacity, behind two omnivore diets, one of which calls for replacing only two in five meals with an ovo-lacto vegetarian content [Peters et al. 2016]. Agree or disagree, but such articles at least provide a good basis for debate on the issues.But facts are not the primary concern of The Atlantic article. Instead, the author focuses attention on psychology. We live in "dread and helplessness" but can reduce our "ecoanxiety" through food-based "empowerment". The strange thing is that this anxiety is not itself food-based. The article does not discuss bulimia or anorexia. Nor does it address the squeamishness surrounding meat, itself an aesthetic construct of our privileged position in a "first world" culture. Instead, this anxiety derives from the realm of politics. We are deeply disturbed that President Trump has not ratified the Paris Climate Accord. The State is not moving forward to "mitigate environmental degradation", so we must take matters into our own hands. By eating beans. Now, I am quite sure that our actions as individuals do a great deal to develop our ego structures in positive ways. I also have no issues with the ideology of "think globally, act locally". But I am not so sure we should be making environmental decisions based on our fragile ego structures. This self-centred view doesn't seem to have worked so well in the past. Put another way, geopolitical negotiations seem a strange place to look for personal life goals. But there is something far more unsettling in this formulation. The author has abandoned politics. The article takes as axiomatic that the political process is hopeless and angst-forming. We cannot rely on a "regressive federal administration" to represent our interests. Rather than trying to change such policies, we should enact simple (simplistic) life choices. These won't actually meet our desired goals, but boy, will we ever feel better! This is a retreat from the social, from compromise and negotiation, from the only sphere where any true change can be enacted. This withdrawal actually emulates Trump's narcissistic inability to engage. And this is to be our solution?Granted, the USA has no equitable political process. "Democracy is coming to the USA", sang Leonard Cohen in 1992, ever the optimist. But it is possible to recognise the desperate state of Usonian politics without losing the will to do anything about it. This article proposes hiding in a bag of beans, abandoning the political realm to those who have, since before we were born, actively worked to destroy our world.My counter-proposal is to question absolutist ideologies, no matter how well-intentioned. Instead, adopt a healthy diet that feeds political protest and change. Facts should be enlisted as our aids, and not dismissed, hidden, or reduced to sound bites (beans good, beef bad). Let us march on our stomachs and know what we are marching for. It's not for our own self-involved policies. It's for each other, and our shared place here on a solar-powered bubble.BibliographyCrutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. "The 'Anthropocene'". Global Change Newsletter 41, 17-18. Available.Hamblin, James. 2017. "If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef", The Atlantic, 2 August 2017. Available.Harwatt, Helen, Joan Sabaté, Gidon Eshel, Sam Soret, and William Ripple. 2017. "Substituting beans for beef as a contribution toward US climate change targets", Climatic Change 143.1–2, 261–270. Available.Hickman, Leo. 2009. "Britain's problem with pets: they're bad for the planet", The Guardian, 13 November 2009. Available.Lang, Susan S.. 2007. "Diet for small planet may be most efficient if it includes dairy and a little meat", Cornell Chronicle, 4 October 2007. Available.Peters, Christian J., Jamie Picardy, Amelia F. Darrouzet-Nardi, Jennifer L. Wilkins, Timothy S. Griffin, Gary W. Fick. 2016. "Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios", Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 4.116. Available.Wynes, Seth and Kimberly A. Nicholas. 2017. "The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions", Environmental Research Letters 12.7. Available.
A crash course in project management
IntroductionA project starts as soon as you have a team of people working towards a goal. The naive approach is to start emailing backwards and forwards. This results in a mess of transactions that hides important patterns. Adding in some shared documents, say using Google Docs, only creates greater confusion. This quagmire is avoided by structuring work through project management software.But which app? There are several overlapping categories of software, and within each category are dozens, if not hundreds, of potential solutions. This article will help simplify, by explaining the core concepts and defining terms. If you are new to project management, this article should save you a few dozen confusing hours. What a project is... and isn'tLet me start by giving an overview of different classes of software. Individuals often start the process of organising their work by using a time management app. This software helps you track deadlines, make to-do lists, etc. These apps are focused on small tasks, on individuals.Workflow software assists you in tasks that do not have a definitive end date. For example, I decide I want to write a blog. I am going to start now, but the work will be ongoing. Writing a blog is not a project, but can nonetheless benefit from management.The most popular example currently is kanban, a method that began in Japanese automobile manufacturing. The core component of kanban is a visual representation of your tasks as cards on a surface of fixed size. Every card represents a task. Because the space is limited, you can only have so many tasks in front of you at a time. This focuses your attention on the tasks that have the highest priority, preventing cognitive overload. Typically the surface is divided into three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. As work happens, a task moves from left to right and is then archived. Kanban is also an example of collaboration software, since most implementations are designed for teams. Specific individuals are assigned the tasks and they have dependencies. This is reflected in sophisticated kanban implementations in two ways. First, custom columns allow you to monitor tasks that are Blocked, At Risk, etc. Second, tasks will be divided into different rows, termed swimlanes, usually representing different team members. The overall kanban is hence a grid. It's perfectly suited to managing ongoing work.Collaboration software generally focuses on communications. This includes discussion threads, live group chat, audio and video meetings, document stores, annotation of documents, versioning, etc. Intranet software extends these tasks into a full social network for employees, facilitating sharing and collaboration. These huge programs are designed for large companies where the up-front costs and ongoing maintenance can be justified.Time management, workflow management, collaboration software, and intranets are not project management. Nonetheless many PM apps include some or all of these useful features, in order to create a unified workspace.Projects are different in having a specific beginning, end, and goal. For example, though a blog itself is not a project, writing a specific blog article is. I might begin the article today (Monday) and need to have it finished by Friday. Every article is on a specific topic and has specific resources assigned to it.Compared with the other tools, PM apps are more highly structured. This structure requires some setup time, but pays off. So, what elements make up a project?Project team and rolesEvery project has a team. Experience has demonstrated that small teams work best, though how small depends on many factors, including the proximity of the members, the scope of the goals, and the importance of individual tasks. For software development, 3 to 4 people might be best. If you examine the contributions to open source software, it often turns out that three or four people do most of the work. But for design projects you might instead see a team of 6 to 8 people.The Ringelmann effect shows that if there are too many people on a team, contributions for each individual become lower. It's easier to hide on a big team, and defer work to others.Of course many projects are much larger. This requires that the work be divided up into smaller teams, each with a tighter scope and more limited goals. These small teams then aggregate into a complete workforce.Even in a distributed and collaborative environment, it is best if the project has a manager, a person tasked with keeping everything on track. Though every contributor should help with management, "the buck stops here" is nonetheless a good principle. If you wish to be more egalitarian, a given team can rotate leadership roles with each new project. There are other important roles on a team. For example, one person might be an expert on core technology. Another could be the documentation writer or chronicler. A third, the presenter and main point of communication. Sometimes it is best if these are explicitly assigned; in other cases this is not necessary.It is a principle of many design processes, including Agile methods, to include the client in the process as an active agent. PM software often allows the creation of guest accounts, and the ability to restrict permissions and manage privacy. Time and task managementThe second chief resource is time. A project must have a realistic completion date, with provisions for overrun. The more projects a team has done, the better they will get at estimating this date. The time factor is also a matter of how much work each member will be expected to do each day/week/month. This depends on whether they are devoted solely to this project, or have other obligations. The natural tendency is to wait for a deadline before working flat out. This is why numerous small deadlines, or milestones, need to be set. Plan on incremental development towards quantifiable goals.These milestones will have dependencies. Some work can be done in parallel, but in other cases one task (e.g. testing) must wait for another (development) to be complete. It follows that tasks should be assigned priorities.It is convenient to be able to schedule recurring tasks, or create templates that can quickly be re-used. Subtasks allow simple hierarchies to be notated. An individual should be able to see their tasks in various ways, including a kanban display. Meanwhile, managers require dashboard views that integrate the entire team's work, flagging any important delays or missed milestones.A Gantt chart is a particular bar chart that summarises a project schedule. Required tasks are listed vertically, with time on the horizontal axis. It's easy to tell from the width of each bar how long a task will take. Important milestones are marked. Dependencies can be indicated with connecting symbols. Furthermore, the colour or shading of each bar indicates progress to date. Gantt charts were once an essential part of project management, and are still likely the single best visualisation of a project's path. However, many apps have adopted more casual approaches. As a result, Gantt charts might only be available in the most expensive version of a given app. Other resourcesOther resources include computer hardware and software, office support, and so on. A budget itemises all of these. It is important to cost out all expenses before you begin, since the last and most important resource is... money. For this reason time tracking and costing might also be included in PM software, even if this is not, strictly speaking, a project management function. Timesheet software requires every team member to allocate their time (usually in quarter hour increments) to a given project and task. A manger can then see which projects are going over-budget, and also what percentage of time is billable, what percentage is overhead. If required resources are not available, there will be productivity bottlenecks. Sometimes these are unavoidable, but it's important to know where they are and when they fall in the timeline. Managing a project is all about managing expectations. Every project is a success or failure on its own terms. A project that achieved a lot in one month with 50k budget is more successful than a project that missed its goals over a year after investing a million and change. ConclusionAs you can see, everyone means something different when they talk about project management, a potentially vast area that touches upon every business function. This summary has introduced the key terminology. Future articles might summarise feature sets and examine the available apps.