Friday, October 14, 2016

Homage Au Bob

Becoming a grand old man of American letters ...

Celebrating the canonization of someone who has long been deified might seem a bit anticlimatctic to those of us who came of age in the era of Bob Dylan, but it's nonetheless welcome. The awarding of the Nobel placed the definitive stamp of history on our favorite troubadour, who is still out there, daily challenging every assumption about him.

In a wonderfully ironic twist, on the evening after the announcement the new laureate was to perform in -- of all places -- Las Vegas. When is the last time you heard Vegas and Nobel Prize in the same paragraph? But surely after all these years such a radical juxtaposition of images is what we should have learned to expect.

And so Dylan has finally become what we always knew he would be, the grand old man of American letters, much as Allen Ginsberg (another Dylan fan) followed in the wake of Walt Whitman. Alas, if only Jack Kerouac had lived so long.

Just last year I wrote about Dylan's latest project, Shadows in the Night, where he put together yet another unorthodox band to give his treatment of material from the American songbook frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra. And in case you're wondering what he's done more recently, there's a sort of sequel out in the form of Fallen Angels, featuring more of the same material, but with the backup sound tweaked a bit to make it stronger. I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that we'll never catch him putting out consecutive albums that actually match.

What's next? Stay tuned for Blame It On Rio, soon to be released, featuring a song list that hearkens back to the bard's early period of the 60s as recorded live in Brazil in 1990. One's head spins.

Let me just leave you with this final thought, my own perspective on what it's like to have reached this point in my life and have so far to look back...

Remembering Bob

They’re playing Bob Dylan in the bank --
nice cocktail piano bar version,
the Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind --
but as the jazz guys used to say,
it don’t blow, man, it just don’t
make it, you might as well do it
on an accordion like Lawrence Welk,
and I know what it really means
is we blew it. No matter how many roads
we walked down the answer never came,
Baby Blue, and it’s all over now.

Down at the mall it’s 101 Strings
doing Mr. Tambourine Man --
will you play a song for me?
Will you make me a new one, one for now,
grab me again with your rusted iron voice
in the jingle jangle evening of the soul?
But Oh! Mama! it’s a Nelson Riddle medley:
The Times They Are A-Changin’
and a Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

No Br-Exit

Time for another modest proposal…

So Britons have Brexited, and all hell is breaking loose. My thoughts are with you 48% of UK voters who have had your EU citizenship canceled without your consent, with no way back in. What’s a person to do? But never fear, I have a modest proposal for you.

Of course, for some of you, there are actions to be taken. Scotland may vote its independence in order to join the EU on its own, finally achieving the lasting European alliance it has searched for after centuries of struggle against its long time foe to the south. And in Ireland the unthinkable may happen as the North re-unifies with the South to form a free and monolithic Irish state (within the EU) -- again, after centuries of struggle against the imperious English. This could be the biggest thing since the re-unification of Germany. I hear some of you in England are even trying to get Irish passports.

Dire consequences are being predicted for the remainder of poor old England (and poor old Wales, seemingly too wedded to the status quo to contemplate divorce). The pound crashes, poverty ensues, and the brain drain commences as the young and cosmopolitan intelligentsia flees for distant shores in search of greener pastures.

It’s easy to imagine a shift in public opinion if the worst occurs, but it will be too late. After causing all this disturbance, England will not be welcomed back to the EU fold in the imaginable future. Not to mention, if they have started a trend and the whole alliance unravels, there may not be an EU to come back to. Now what’s an entire country to do?

Here’s my proposal. One word: Statehood.

I know this might not sit well with some, including the Monarchy, but England has a big resource to fall back on in the form of its former colonies across the water. We’ve got money, a kick-ass army, a space program, Hollywood, the Internet, and -- if truth be told -- a global empire. Wouldn’t you love to be part of that?

True, you might have to give up a few things, such as socialized medicine. But according to us, that was bad for you anyway. You’ll just have to learn to pay up when you get sick. And there’s a language barrier to be overcome, but in time you might learn the proper distinction between football and soccer. We can agree on “fridge,” but “tele” is not negotiable. It’s clearly TV.

So, with these hurdles out of the way, the path is clear for England to apply for statehood in the US of A -- which brings us to one final obstacle. As with any merger between giant multinational corporations, there’s a name and identity crisis to deal with. What’s the new combined entity to be called?

I’ve got a modest proposal for that, too, and it comes from the mind of a great English author, so there should be no objection from that side of the negotiations. Henceforth, the United States of America, in recognition of the fact that it extends beyond the sphere of the Americas, will be known as “Oceania.” And the country formerly known as England will be renamed “Airstrip One,” in recognition of its role as an important airline hub on route to Europe and Russia. I realize George Orwell predicted this for 1984, but better late than never.

Of course, there’s one possible snag. The US could elect Donald Trump by a margin of 51% to 49%. In that case, all bets are off. We’ll have enough problems of our own. Canada, is that door still open?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Finding the Forbidden Planet

The music detective strikes again ...

If there's anything more annoying than trying to remember how a certain song goes and being unable to, then it has to be knowing how the song goes but being unable to listen to it because you can't find the recording.

I've written about a couple of previous attempts to track down lost music from the past. I located Space Escapade by Les Baxter, and discovered a whole genre of music called Space Age Pop in the process. And I tracked down Purple Moon by the Paul Desmond Trio -- something I remembered from my teen years and had been unable to find for over fifty years. But there was one more item that still eluded me.

This latest hunt was greatly complicated by not being able to remember either the name of the song or the group that had recorded it. What was left? Well, everything else. I could sing it for you, though it had no words. I could tell you the instrumentation: piano with string orchestra and some brass, plus a theremin. And I knew for certain that it had a science fiction motif.

At first I thought it had been called "Forbidden Planet," so that's what I searched for. There is indeed an album of the soundtrack to the 1950s movie by that name. It's a classic based on Shakespeare's The Tempest that inspired the original Star Trek series. This sound track was the first -- and still one of the very few -- to consist entirely of electronic music. In the era before synthesizers, that meant a laborious process using oscillators and recording tape. It was truly groundbreaking and interesting in its own right, but of course it does NOT include any pianos or string orchestras, nor even any traditional melodies, so I decided I must have been mistaken about the title.

Thinking it must have been the theme from some other sci fi flick, I looked through all kinds of collections. Unfortunately there are LOTS of them by now, and most of the material on them is from more recent things like Star Wars and Close Encounters. Nothing even close.

I gave up on this more than once when the Internet failed to deliver its usual instant gratification. We get so used to quick Google searches taking us directly to a download that when it fails we hardly know where to turn.

One night I got into it again with more time on my hands. Still no luck, but I did turn up some other interesting items. There's an entire suite of music to Destination Moon by Leith Stevens, for example, another 1950s classic. And some other choice examples of Space Age Pop, like Fantastica - Music from Outer Space by Russ Garcia. Then I got off track, looking for the original version of the Route 66 theme.

Noticing how many others besides Nelson Riddle had recorded things under this name made me wonder about "Forbidden Planet" again. What if someone else had recorded something and called it that? It turns out they did -- lots of them. Way too many of them. Most of them rock bands and homebrew electronic music buffs. But I kept looking, and finally noticed one that said "David Rose and his orchestra." Could it be?

The listing was on Amazon, but it was only available on a vinyl LP and was "out of print" as the saying used to go. That also meant there was no audio preview to confirm it was the one I was looking for. But let's see ... where can you turn for things that are not available new?

I typed the composer's name and the title into eBay, and lo and behold. multiple matches. Not only the full LP, most of which didn't interest me, but also the 45 rpm single which was exactly the one I used to own. There it was, staring me in the face, the yellow label with the big hole in the middle. Should I place a bid? Let me read about it first, see if it sounds like the right one...

Sure enough, the paper cover said, "inspired by" the MGM film. To my amazement, the seller included a link to a Youtube upload of the audio so buyers could listen first. I clicked, clicked again, and there it was. Pops and hisses characteristic of the medium, even a wavering from a slight warp, but all the same ... the familiar opening swoop of the theremin, a blare of brass, and the strings burst into song. Ahhh.

Here you go -- you can listen to it.

The only thing better would be finding a pristine CD or mp3 version, but for now this will serve me just fine. I fired up VLC to save myself a copy of the video (with audio only), and then convert it to an audio flac. Just like that, it's part of my library. Ain't life good?

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Writing In The Clouds

We interrupt this novel in progress to bring you a word from our sponsor ...

Ever since I traded my little netbook for a Chromebook I've been experiencing an interesting migration. Mostly I'm happy with the Google cloud-based computer. It boots in 30 seconds, shuts down in about 3. (Don't you wonder why it takes Windows PCs so long to turn off? What are they doing?) The only time I've been aware of the invisible updates is when I noticed a tiny text message in the lower right corner that said softly, "Reboot to finish update." And I have never had to bide my time while staring at a screen warning me not to turn off my computer.

The adjustment came when I tried to determine the best way to use this as a writing machine, which is its main purpose in my life. I like writing on my desktop, too, but sometimes there's nothing like a comfy chair and a lap full of keys. Not to mention travel.

First thing I did, being an inveterate geek, was to use Crouton to install a full Linux system under the hood. Lots of online guides make this a pretty simple process. You still start up in Chrome's online world, but with a few keystrokes you can boot into a full Linux desktop. The only disappointment in my case was that I have not been able to get one of the features to work. You're supposed to be able to quickly flip back and forth between the two environments, but it doesn't happen on my HP. Not a big thing, though, since if I go into Linux I expect to stay there.

The Dropbox Snag

As I did with my netbook before, this let me install LibreOffice for document editing. Then I hit my first snag. I use Dropbox to make my documents available to me everywhere, but the HP has an Nvidia Tegra Arm processor -- and Dropbox, though it supports Linux, does not have a Linux client that runs on Arm chips. This meant I had to start out in Chrome, copy whatever files I wanted to edit into the Download folder which is also available when running Linux, then start Linux and open them from there.

A similar process would have been needed to copy the modified files back to Dropbox, but clearly this whole exercise would have seemed more trouble than it was worth. Someone has written some command line tools to do one-time Dropbox syncs in this situation, but I didn't care for that either.

Back in Chrome, there is support for Dropbox through a third-party app that integrates it into the file manager. The files are not synced to the SSD drive on the Chromebook, which would quickly eat up the limited space, but you can find your files and copy them or open them. Editing apps don't seem to be able to write directly to Dropbox, however, so you still have to save them to the Download folder, then copy them from the file manager.

What To Do?

Mentally kicking myself for not discovering this shortcoming in advance (and making a mental note to choose one with an Intel processor next time), I set out to explore my alternatives. Google, of course, would love for me to use their Docs suite for everything, and to save it all in Google Drive. But I've never been happy with the way Drive pushes you toward Docs, and vice versa. If Microsoft were in that driver's seat I'd be equally displeased. But they've actually done a better job at openness with OneDrive. And Docs is woefully lacking in formatting features, even for something as simple as fiction.

I played around with editing some of my Open Document text files (.odt) in Docs. You can do it, but it requires you to upload your file to Drive first. If you're trying to start a new Doc you can only do it in Google's own format. If you want to convert it so you can edit with LibreOffice too, you have to Download As .odt and save it back to your Drive, which is available in the file menu, then open that version of it. Are you kidding me? I think there used to be a Save As option that would let you change the format of the original file, but it's been removed.

With Docs eliminated, and still favoring Dropbox for storage, I looked for alternatives and found two options.

ZOHO To The Rescue

Zoho Office, a project started in India, was my first choice. It has a much more full set of editing features, including the ability to save named style sheets. It has Dropbox integration built in, though the free version (yes, it's free) is limited to syncing only a single folder with no subfolders. It will edit Open Document formats and save them as such. If you're creating a new document, you still have to do Export As, but you can save it directly to your shared Dropbox folder and then continue editing it there.

About the best endorsement I can offer Zoho is that I quickly went from experimenting to writing. I forgot entirely about what tool I was using and entered into creative work. And isn't that what good tools do? They disappear, and let you get something productive done.

The only glitch I found was the first time I went into Dropbox on my desktop and discovered 187 versions of the chapter I'd been editing. Apparently Zoho automatically saves every sixty seconds, and Dropbox treats each one as a new version. But I found there is a choice to do one-time syncs to Dropbox, and that alleviates the replication issue.

Zoho also offers their own cloud storage that will sync to your desktop, with 5 megabytes under the free plan. So if you're not wedded to Dropbox like I am, that might be an option. 

The OnlyOffice Route

I also explored OnlyOffice, which has a similar set of cloud based apps and storage. The initial attraction was the beautiful and complete Dropbox integration it offers. But there were downsides. You can edit Open Document files, but it has to convert them to Microsoft Office format for editing. There is an option to "also save in original format," but I didn't see any evidence that it did that when I selected it.

OnlyOffice uses HTML5 and Canvas to render your work on screen. While that sounds very hip and contemporary, I found it takes a long time to open and display anything. And on my Chromebook I couldn't find any resolution or zoom combination that would render the text in anything other than a fuzzy gray, which was intolerable. 

Anyone Else?

OnlyOffice has a 30 day free trial, but no free version. After that it costs $5 per user per month, with a minimum of two users. Do the math. Zoho has the free version, or you can upgrade for $5 per user per month, with no minimum. Combined with my pleasant user experience, I know which one I prefer.

We might well ask at this point, with Microsoft offering Office online, where are the LibreOffice developers and what are their intentions as everything moves to the cloud? At the moment, the only option is RollApp, which lets you run LibreOffice on a remote server -- as well as dozens of other open source apps like Gimp. There is a free version that offers read-only access to Dropbox. The paid version with read-write access is $7 per month, or $6 if paid annually. It sounds like a bargain compared to the option of just an office suite, but it seems a cumbersome way to go about it. And there's no way to use the apps offline since they're not really running on your own computer.

To Sum Up What We've Learned

Though some of this experience has been annoying and frustrating, it has demonstrated to me that the basic idea of the Chromebook is the future -- or the present, if you're already using one. With files in the cloud already, and an OS that updates from the cloud, why not apps in the cloud too? Increasingly, the bulk of what we do is destined for the online realm, and fully interdependent with it. 

Take this blog, for example -- composed entirely in Blogger, automatically saved and backed up so I won't lose anything, and instantly published everywhere. Excuse me a moment while I click the button...