Retro Computing Jam Session

Have you ever had that feeling that somewhere out there, people are jamming on a Vic-20, a PET and a Commodore 64, possibly in some kind of classroom setting?

The middle computer would be Petsnyth‘s first (I assume) public performance.

“The finest in 1-bit sound on the Commodore PET”

And now the Petsynth project has a website:

You have to record the program to an audio cassette tape to load it onto your Pet. But this home copying is fully legal: Petsynth has gone open source.


Broken Happiness Machines Are Go
PetSynth: A Superior Synthesizer for the Commodore Pet

The Long Road to Linux

I don’t remember the first time I installed linux. The earliest memories I can still call on are of installing a version of RedHat on the Dell laptop I used for the last year of undergrad. I was using the same physical setup I do today: a laptop plugged into an external monitor, with attendant mouse/keyboard and stereo system. I was having trouble getting it working with the external monitor, and hand-editing fstab files in root, and so on. At one point I pressed the FN-F7 combination to switch the display over from the monitor screen to the laptop screen, and heard a delicate “pop”, and the laptop screen flashed white, and stayed that way. I guess I had summoned a little too much current through the display adapter. Linux was willing to let me channel that extra power to my laptop screen, even if the screen couldn’t really handle it. Linux does what it’s told. My laptop screen never worked again, although I carried the damn laptop around for years, using it with an external monitor.

Every year or so since, I’ve checked back into the world of GNU/linux to see if the time has yet come when the evergreen promises of grandmother friendliness, or at least non-CS-student friendliness, have come true. They never have yet, although they really do get closer every year. Ironically, it was Windows XP’s inability to consistently link my laptop and monitor’s display that most recently drove me back into linux-land. These days, Ubuntu is the hotness, and it is indeed getting close to general-purpose usability. I have a list of must-haves before I switch fully over, and Ubuntu 8.10 (“Intrepid Ibex”) crosses several of those needs off the list:

A working “suspend” mode.

  • This capacity is not only present in “Intrepid”, it occasionally works, unlike previous releases. But not always.

The ability to use a laptop screen with an external monitor, preferably at the same time.

  • This is working a charm in Intrepid. And doing it better and more stably than Windows XP, in fact.

The ability to use an external soundcard.

  • Baked right in. I didn’t even have to configure it. The first time Ubuntu loaded up, it played the logon sound through my full stereo system.

So most of the hardware stuff seems to be getting ironed out. If only the same could be said for software.

Music management.

  • Not music playing, mind you. There are now plenty of open source, linux-native music players, many of them as good or better than the iTunes standard, and all of which will treat your system with more respect. I like Listen, Amarok, and Songbird very much for the playing of music files. But none of them seriously pretend to be music managers. What I need is something to replace MediaMonkey. To be fair, there is really only one software in the world that does persistent monitoring, user-controlled auto-file-organization and mass-metadata-manipulation of music files stored across disparate directories and harddrives well (i.e., MediaMonkey). But until linux has a MediaMonkey equivalent (or MediaMonkey itself), yo soy Windows-locked. Songbird, are you guys listening?

Photographic workflow.

  • Similar to the situation with music, there are good linux-based applications available to display (and edit) photos, but not to manage them. GIMP never stops improving as an image editor, although it still doesn’t seem to quite keep up with Adobe in that regard. But for workflow: cataloging, mass-editing of metadata, and so on, there just isn’t anything to replace or even touch proprietary, non-linux programs like Lightroom.

Easy software installation.

  • This is one where linux now wins, hands down, no contest. Once upon a time, installing software on linux was an overwhelming task. Lots of open source software build on bits and pieces of existing software to make something new: that’s one of the great advantages of working in open source, you can just do that. It’s encouraged. Unfortunately, if you want to install a little proggy that happens to depend on 4 other proggys, each of which depend on a few others… insanity lurks low over your poor head. But the linux-people fixed that years ago, and oh how they fixed it. The first time you try to install software in a linux environment can be confusing, because it’s so different than Windows (or Mac). But after that first time, it’s hard to go back. Trust me, try it. And you won’t have to reboot, either.

GIS tools.

  • I could be wrong about this one soon enough. I know there are many smart people working days and weekends on moving open-source GIS towards being the ESRI-killer we so desperately want and need. But for a general purpose spatial analysis workstation, you still today need ArcGIS, and that means you still need Windows.

Science and stats tools.

  • R runs in linux of course, and so if you have the R skills, statistics is covered. But if you don’t have the R skills (and who does?), you’re screwed. And for all those random sciencey applications for habitat modeling, or PCR analysis, or radio collar telemetry, or what have you, there’s only a chance that someone will have released a linux version.

For many of these complaints there exists an active project holding out hope of an eventual solution. For none of them is that solution going to arrive in the next point release. In some cases, the solutions are probably several years away from being equal to the respective Windows options.

This is not a pejorative complaint about GNU/linux. I understand that the entire ecosystem of open-source software is an extraordinary volunteer effort and an exemplar of non-profit capacitance, and it has not ceased to blow my mind that linux exists at all, never mind whether it fulfills my personal computing needs. And I think it will happen: a few years ago basic configuration and operation of linux was still an esoteric enough excercise that it wasn’t great even for basic internet and word processing, and that has since changed. But it looks like a few more years until I can freely download a full bodied multimedia processing and scientific analysis workstation. The road is longer than I had hoped a decade ago. But we’ll get there one fine day.


I should link to muxtape, in part to celebrate it’s brilliantness as the best-yet incarnation of a potent concept, in part in appreciation for it’s effective design (design in the good sense) and in part to remind myself to make better use of it in the few remaining days I have umbilically ubiquitous internet connectivity.

2005 Is Old In Internet Radio Time

Turns out wcbn’s digital archive stretches all the way back to 2005! Apparently, it went live at 7pm on the 3rd of July, ’05. Unlike these heady days of fat pipes and hi-fi, back in 2005 radio was stored in 19kbps .ogg format. Here it is, as a vaguely historical curiosity.


It sounds as though the DJ was not aware of his involvement in that historic moment. Probably nobody told him.

Chances are your player can’t play .ogg. Because chances are you use wonderful itunes. It’s not that it would cost money for Apple to license .ogg and build it into itunes. Ogg is free. It’s not that .ogg is inferior to .mp3 or .mp4 or whatever. In fact, it’s probably better. Apple just doesn’t like things which are open and thus can’t be artificially constricted as a business model. Or maybe it’s just the Apple personality. As Steven Levy famously lied in his 1984 book Hackers, the hacker ethic of openness and sharing has always been central to the Apple Computer corporation.

Man, did I get onto a radio format rant there again? How does that happen.

Anyhow, I would put an online player in to play it for you right from the post, except my player doesn’t play .ogg. Because it’s flash-based, and flash is made by Adobe. It’s not that it it would cost Adobe anything to build .ogg in….

Fiddling While the Music Burns

From When Pigs Fly: The Death of Oink, the Birth of Dissent, and a Brief History of Record Industry Suicide, by Demonbaby:

In this sense, Oink was not only an absolute paradise for music fans, but it was unquestionably the most complete and most efficient music distribution model the world has ever known. I say that safely without exaggeration. It was like the world’s largest music store, whose vastly superior selection and distribution was entirely stocked, supplied, organized, and expanded upon by its own consumers. If the music industry had found a way to capitalize on the power, devotion, and innovation of its own fans the way Oink did, it would be thriving right now instead of withering. If intellectual property laws didn’t make Oink illegal, the site’s creator would be the new Steve Jobs right now. He would have revolutionized music distribution. Instead, he’s a criminal, simply for finding the best way to fill rising consumer demand. I would have gladly paid a large monthly fee for a legal service as good as Oink – but none existed, because the music industry could never set aside their own greed and corporate bullshit to make it happen.

It often gets said (including in the above article) that the music industry sleep-walked through a major moment of fate selection when they blew off Shawn Fanning’s offer to legalize napster and chose to sue him instead. It usually goes on to say that since napster’s demise, and because of the technical requirements necessary to avoid repeating napster’s fate no single filesharing network has ever grown up to be as comprehensive or user-friendly. If Oink truly was “unquestionably the most complete and most efficient music distribution model the world has ever known”, maybe we blew another one of those moments, a few weeks ago when Oink was cease-and-desisted.

I didn’t have an Oink membership, but I nagged a friend to dig stuff up there when I couldn’t find it through my own sources. It was indeed scary fast and scary complete. One thing the Oink raids demonstrate: the ‘piracy’ police or their corporate puppeteers may be more clueful than previously assumed. Oink was not a well-known thing, if the cops or the music industry types were aware of the special place it occupied in the music distribution ecology, then maybe they have their fingers closer to the pulse than most of their behaviour suggests. Does that mean they’ll be attaining late ’90s awareness eventually? Time, and probably lots of it, will tell.

As Cory Doctorow tells us again and again (and again) bits are only going to get easier to copy. Any business model which depends on limiting copying of files is contra-indicated. Networks are not getting smaller, computers are not getting less efficient. Music executives tell us that DRM is there to “help keep honest users honest” (actual quote). I made the mistake of buying my files from an online music store once. Just listening to the music on the devices and in the places I wanted to required applying esoteric and illegal unlocking software, the effectiveness of which depended on the time since the last DRM version release. Years later I discovered I couldn’t burn the damn things to a CD, just in time to not play them on a radio show. Both then and now, the lesson I learned wasn’t to keep buying music, it was to keep not buying music, since the free stuff is better.

I listen to a lot tracks once or twice to decide if they’re keepers. Imagine if I had to pay for each one! At the online store rates (which, by the way, are ridiculous) I would be paying literally thousands of dollars a year for music I would never again listen to. Therefore I wouldn’t, therefore I wouldn’t find the music that I do love, and music would be a much smaller part of my life. Lord knows 99.99% of the radio stations aren’t auditioning anything I might want to hear again. And if they did, it isn’t as if I could find it at the pop-craptaculous music stores I’m sometimes startled by in malls. The system is, in a word, borked.

The saving grace of this capitalism thing is supposed to be a emergent genius for innovating to meet consumer desires. In 10 years of turmoil the only genius innovation the music industries have debuted is the assembly-line litigation of music listeners. When someone finally did get around to, imagine this, attempting to distribute music as files (which is not quite the point actually, but probably a precursor to the point), it wasn’t even a music industry player, but a computer company that did it. And now that company is focusing mostly on locking in customers to their little music ecology through restrictive licensing and vertical integration of formats, software and hardware. Cheers. In a sense, they are coming back around to the music industry they used to challenge. Leveraging monopoly status to force customers into purchasing inferior or actively antagonistic products seem to be the real genius of modern capitalism.

(Hey, didn’t I predict some of this like 4 years ago? Why don’t people listen to me?)

While it was still operating, the heaviest Oink user I knew was a member of an up-and-coming pop band signed to a major label. The buzz in the file-sharing scene now seems to be: 1) Oink? What was that?, 2) I was part of Oink and I’m fired up to build the next, bigger one, and 3) Oh yeah, how do I get to be a part of that action? Users are going to keep on building these castles up and the industry is going to keep on knocking them down, but they’ll get bigger every time. And each time they do, the standard for how well an industry replacement would have to function to draw users back into a paying model will get higher. We need to figure this out. Artists have to get paid. As the conventional distribution channels crumble the necessity of finding a stable income for artists grows. Each year the industry fiddles while their weird little Rome burns, the more I hope that a solution comes soon, and the more I hope that the contemporary industry has nothing to do with it.

In Fairness to Songbird

After damning Songbird with some markedly faint praise back there, I started to feel guilty. I should at least point out that Songbird’s stated central mission has always been “playing the internet”. Thats a cool idea, and one at which even the current preview-grade software is very successful. Loading a music blog webpage into your music player and playing it like an album or a playlist is actually a bit of a head-bender. Do it once and you might start convincing yourself that the songbird folks are on to something big.

For me it’s almost the ideal music exploration model. Music blogs are awesome, but they require your focused attention, whether each track is interesting to you or not. You have to download the songs one by one, and either download them all and queue them all up into your player, or else read over the musicblogger’s post about each of the them to choose which you’ll download. Then choose which you’ll delete. It’s a more natural experience to load the site into Songbird’s hybrid browser/player and leave it playing in the background, then read the report for just those songs that catch your attention. Songbird turns a static music blog into a dynamic experience that combines the best of music blogs with the best of radio… high quality music, chosen to a purpose and theme, with skipping and replaying and pausing, and commentary that is both comprehensive–every song is contextualized–and also optional if you aren’t interested in reading it for that song. I’m in in in.

There are also features for integration with online music stores and I believe streaming and network music sites, which is probably cool too. So let’s get this thing out of alpha and into beta or something.

Songbird: the Music Player Best at Being Under Development

On my list of “quality blog posts I may someday get around to writing”, is a comparison of music playing software. I stormed out of iTunes a while ago and I’ve gone through a lot of possible alternatives in a search for a replacement (reasons for ditching iTunes and replacement I’ve settled on will be all be told in that much better post in the putative future).

One tantalizing possibility is Songbird. Songbird is mostly from Rob Lord, a guy who is famous for building music players. (Remeber winamp? That guy. Well, the other that guy.) And man does the music-software-developing wisdom show. Never was a software treated to a more practically perfect in every way mandate and development process. In addition to being an aggressively open-source project spearheaded by a comfortably-funded team in a loft space, it’s built on the same platform as firefox, designed explicitly to interoperate with web2.0 stuff and is documented drip by drip in a voluminous and articulate blog.

The results so far are well… it’s a great development process. Trying to actually run the thing is an exercise in patience more than music listening, especially if you’re packing a big music library. The code needs some tweaking, shall we say. And the features, they’re in planning.

But oh boy are they getting the UI down. And here’s the thing, despite still being at way-early-development stage 17 months after their first preview release, there is a super active user community. Users of what, I wonder? The thing’s practically vaporware. But people still flood them with thoughtful responses to every blog-request for comment on every nitpicking detail of UI polishing. I guess they feel engaged. Open-source truly is a wonder.

We’re coming up on 2 years since they announced this thing. A distributed team of programmers has spent 2 years cranking on it. And it still won’t connect to an ipod without a 3rd party extension, burn a cd, or efficiently navigate a medium sized catalog of music. But nobody beats them at development process.

Apple flexing it’s little tentacles, gazing at music industry

The LA Times is reporting that Apple is planning to buy, if it can, Universal Music Group from Vivendi. That’s Apple Computer Inc. For, oh, say 5 or 6 beeellion dollars.

For anyone living in a cave for the last couple of decades, or living outside of a cave but not really caring for music, or living outside of a cave and caring for music but not cognizant of the utterly shitey state of the music available in the mainstream and wondering why that would be, the music industry has for 10 or 20 years been undergoing a series of incestuous buy-outs which heated up into a giant orgasm of incestuous buy-outs over the last 5 years which have left us with, oh, say 4 actual big music companies controlling all the music available to you or me through conventional channels. And yes, the length of that sentence was justified. If you like art, passion, and music, the behaviour of the music industry is important to you. The people who run these companies have ridiculous amounts of control over what you listen to all the bloody time in stores and on the street and from other people’s stereos and even from your own radio if, god help you, you turn it on. The music industry is a big flaming heap of crap stoked by so much money and consumption that it generates temperatures near the sun’s and fortunes almost as big as the sun. Big. Big. Flaming heap of crap. The music that gets selected to play to you is carefully designed to appeal to the widest range of ADD suffering listeners due to it’s lowest-common denominator status and the generation of a rigid radio-freindly format to which all songs must comply. Once that music has been generated, the artists responsible lose all their rights to it thanks to, in the past, slimy small print and nowadays, official US legislation describing any and all music industry contracts as determing the art as a “work for hire” and thus allowing the industry to screw artists up front and in the daylight and in big, normal 12 point font. The companies then engage in a mutually parasitic relationship with the big radio companies (1 of which, clear channel, own fully half of all the radio stations in the US), a relationship in which play time is bribed and bought off without regard for what may pass for “better” or “worse” music given the state of music generation. Then you have to listen to the goddawful results of all this bullshit.

Except, maybe you don’t. In fact, increasingly you don’t. New information technology has allowed indie labels to, if not thrive, at least survive, and even newer developments in information technology can allow bands and artists to bypass music labels completley. Result: artists and music-listeners who are willing to do some extra work both have extra options for making that all important artist-listener link. Except, of course, that the music industry hates that with a blacker passion than you can possibly imagine, and has launched a vast and rancourous campaign to fight this cancer, spearheaded by the RIAA. The battle rages on around you, I promise.

So. The stage is set. Enter the Apple.

Just last night, I was having a friendly chat with my IT support guy about the culture of Apple. We both agreed that we like their computers for our own reasons, but given a little thought, that we don’t trust them. Apple has demonstrated as strongly as it was capable of given it’s crippled market share, a tendency towards control-freakism that would give Bill Gates a shiver of envy if he could work up a damn. Just this morning, I was lieing in bed thinking that it would be best if Apple could grab about 30% market share in the (small p, small c) personal computer market , meaning that sofware developers would all be obliged to create versions of their products which run on superior apple hardware, without being large enough to allow Apple to run wild in flexing it’s hegemonic tendencies.

Leonard Cohen on Apple:

“Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned:
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”

Steve Jobs has some massive original sin complex or something, which manifests itself in a desire to micromanage every part of personal computing, from the GUI to the apps to the hardware to the marketing to the distribution to the colour of the shoes the guy who sells you the shiny white box is wearing. So that’s point 1.

Point 2: Jobs also seems to like art. He also runs Pixar, the animation movie studio that brought you, um Toy Story I think and definitley some other films that excel in the “managing to be solid entertainment without actual doing anything challenging” department that hollywood attains to. So he likes art, but maybe not art as change or force. Which means of course, that he is an enemy of art.

Point 3: Apple to date has had an ambivalent relationship with new forms of music distribution. Their “rip, mix, burn” slogan is a practical rallying cry to music piracy, but at every chance they carefully demonstrate that they really mean rip mix and burn music that you already bought from legitimate conventional sources. Also they manufacture the Ipod. Same story. They ease the convenience and enhance the cool factor of music piracy, but literally wrap it in a plastic label that says “don’t steal music”.

Point 4: It was widely reported a month or so ago that it looks like Apple will be the first company to successfully negotiate deals with the music industry big 4 to start a direct-download-for-pay music service. So they obviously think there is a profit to be made in music distribution.

Point 5: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Conclusion: Apple as a music industry player frightens me.

I’m all for developing a for-pay connection between artists and listeners. File sharing is fantastic as a medium-term tool for destroying the rancid stagnant music industry status quo, but it doesn’t pay the artists and that should be fixed. And there is inevitably going to be some techy intermediary who facilitates the movement of music from artists to listener, even if it’s a miniscule scale compared to the huge capital resources of the the cd-duping, 18 wheeler full of cds and poster wielding, record store owning traditional industry. I just don’t want that connection to be made by Apple Computer Inc, maker of the one button mouse and potential fresh dictator of crappy musical style.