Blog: November 2009

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Sound editing on the Mac

Dani and I had been digitizing the albums and cassette tapes we still want that aren't available on CD. Then we both switched to Macs and things bogged down for a while until we figured out the new tool chain.

We're still doing the original ripping on a PC. This doesn't require real-time intervention, so the lag inherent in using VNC to connect to another machine doesn't matter. However, we needed to do something different on the editing side, as keeping a PC with direct monitor and keyboard connections around in addition to my Mac wasn't going to work.

Some of you gave me various recommendations, which I appreciate. In the end I bought Amadeus Pro for $40. The workflow is pretty easy: load WAV file representing one side of a tape or album; find the first track break; cut from beginning until there into a new file; edit that file (trim silence, fade in/out if needed); save; iterate. Once I have a directory full of WAV files, use the batch processor to convert to MP3, filling in most of the tagging as part of that process. If I have been clever enough to name the individual files 01.wav, 02.wav, and so on, I can feed file name (sans extension) in as the track number, saving a tedious step. So the batch processor can do everything except track name, which is fine. Finally, import into iTunes (in a "tmp" playlist created for this purpose) and type in the track names. Move the new tracks to the "to be verified" playlist. Done.

I can do almost everything in Amadeus Pro using keyboard shortcuts, including fade in/out. If I could figure out how to deselect without having to click somewhere else in the file, I'd be golden. I've used the program to do several tapes now and it's going very smoothly. This might even be faster than what I was doing on the PC (WavePad to edit, DAK software to batch-convert to MP3 (but no tagging built in), Tag & Renamer to tag, and then import into iTunes.)

We're just starting the early music now. For those who care, yes, Mt. Holyoke did eventually re-issue "The Medieval Lyric" on CD; they sell an upgrade for people with the cassettes. ("Upgrade" price excludes the books, which you are presumed to already have.) They have a web site but can't take digital orders, so we've just put an actual check in an actual envelope with an actual stamp. :-)

Interviewed by Devreux

The interview parlor game is back.

1. What's your favorite tea? Favorite coffee?

I don't have a single favorite tea, but there's a short list. I should clarify that my tea experience largely involves tea bags, not loose tea; I know you can get some really great stuff in loose form and I just haven't explored that world yet. (Where do you start? It's overwhelming.)

Stash makes an orange spiced black tea that I'm quite fond of. Most orange tea is decaf and non-black; this isn't. This is strong and bold and tasty and well-blended. I'm also fond of spearmint (not peppermint!) tea and chai masala.

I don't like the taste of coffee. I've encountered some nice-smelling flavored coffees but didn't like the taste (too coffee-y). I don't know if coffee is a lost cause or if there is some property of the bean or roast or something that is commonly used and that I don't like. (For example, I spent a long time thinking I didn't like beer, when what I really don't like is hops. I don't know if there's something like that going on with coffee.)

2. I don't know if your vision has ever been significantly better than it is now, and I've never seen you in contact lenses, presumably because they can't make 'em strong enough. Do you have any meaningful concept of what your own face looks like without glasses? (I had a post once back here on the subject.) Do you remember people's faces at all well, or do you recognize people more by some other method?

My vision has always been pretty bad. (For which I think, given the current state, I'm grateful; I'd rather have never had than have had and lost.) I have had two contact-lens episodes in my life, once in first grade (wasn't my idea, didn't work) and once in my 20s. The latter time required glasses as well; the advantage (reason to try the experiment) was that they'd be much lighter. This ended up being worst of both worlds, not a happy compromise, so when facing the prospect of contact lenses at Pennsic after nearly a year of wearing them at home, I instead punted and went back to my old glasses.

I don't really have a good concept of what my face looks like without glasses, no. Interesting question, and I enjoyed reading your post about it. My passport photo (for which I was required to remove the glasses) is horrendous, but that's because the guy said something to me and snapped it as I was responding. Bah. So I can't judge from that, other than that my face is rounder than I thought it was.

I am terrible at recognizing faces. The sooner someone speaks the happier I am; I recognize a lot of people by voice. I think there's a strong visual component to this, but I think there's a neural component -- I've heard of a condition that boils down to "face blindness", and it's a parsing or memory thing, not a vision thing. What I've read about it resonates a lot. You know how sometimes people will use Photoshop to put friends' or coworkers' or celebrities' faces on other people in photos for humorous effect? That never works on me. I don't know who those people are if you just take a face (often not even hair). Gah. And sometimes I fail to recognize even people I know well in an unusual context; for example, I once didn't recognize my own rabbi until he spoke, because we were in a grocery store and he was wearing a cap, t-shirt, and jeans. And I never, ever see the resemblance when someone says a baby looks just like its father (or mother, or Aunt Mabel, or whatever).

3. Have you ever seriously considered a vegetarian lifestyle?

Vegetarian, no, though "no meat except fish" would work well, I think. I'm practically there now, though we do eat meat for Shabbat and occasional other meals. I eat fish three or four times a week.

Part of the challenge of any dietary change is that I'm not the only one who's affected, unless I want to cook two different dinners each night. But Dani isn't the only reason I don't go straight veggie; my perception is that it's a lot more work to eat vegetarian and healthily than it is to do what I'm doing, and I don't have the offsetting commitment to some ideal (health, ethical, religious) to motivate me to do that work. Once I get past "vegetarian 101" (rice + beans = complete protein; so does tofu; dairy is good but the doctor says to go easy), I find I don't really know just what I'm supposed to eat day to day. I grok the veggie part; it's the other things (protein, calcium, iron, ...) that bring me up short.

4. What would you be doing with your time if you weren't in the SCA?

Probably more of what I started doing when I began to back off from the SCA -- stuff with my congregation, religious studies, maybe a little more board-gaming, possibly a little more TV-watching (well, Netflix). The barony choir is much more interesting to me than my synagogue's choir, but if the former weren't available to me I might join the latter.

5. If you could eliminate one negative aspect of your personality by sacrificing one positive aspect, would you do it? What characteristics would you give up/lose?

In thinking about this for a while, I think the answer is "no". I don't think traits can be so easily isolated; I think it's all, good and bad, tangled up in one big ball that makes "me". I do try to work on the things I see as negative, but since that's a gradual process there's time for the system to adapt. And as for the positives, well, I want to hang onto the things I'm getting right, even though there are also things I'm getting wrong. So while I can certainly identify negatives I'd like to lose and there are some positives that seem minor enough that I'm tempted to think I'd win that trade, I'd be too chicken to actually make the deal. I'd rather keep the warts I know than find out I have new warts to get acquainted with.


Originally a locked post.

There is, of late, a process initiative in my company to investigate "mass software customization". The idea is that if you make a product line with a bunch of different flavors of output, you instrument your source instead of maintaining separate branches, projects, etc. You put your variation points right there in your source code and then say "make project A" or "make project B" and out pops a source tree for project A or project B that you can then build as normal. That's the theory. Their canonical example is a web site that you're going to use for a bunch of similar products, e.g. you're selling your services to both Ford and GM. You build it once with variation points instead of building it once, copying it, and changing some things (clone and own). We, by the way, don't tend to do either; we use explicit configuration files and it works pretty well for us.

So someone (who IMO will benefit if it happens) wants to spread the MSC meme, and he has a favorite tool, and we were picked to do a pilot study. I was the software developer who actually did the implementation work during that pilot, though there were half a dozen people on the team and everyone contributed to the planning and analysis. But I was the one who got up close and personal with the tool, which is actually a pretty good tool in a lot of ways if you accept the premises. Me, I'm nervous about trying to do significant variation points in source code; I think there are usually better ways to handle that. But it's not just about code; you can do the same thing in XML, documentation, your requirements database, your graphics (think branding, for instance), and so on. I went into it with an open mind and, I think, recorded a lot of useful observations, both positive and negative.

I don't know who picked the team for this, by the way, but I was surprised to find that I was the least skeptical during the meetings. I suspect that someone wanted to make sure that all the usual "hard sells" were on the team; if Mikey likes it that's a strong endorsement, and if not they can write us off as hard to please. Perhaps I am too Machiavellian in my analysis of corporate decision-making.

So anyway, we raised some issues that would require mitigation were we to go forward. Some of the problems could be addressed by scripting. (For instance, important meta-data is stored in binary format, which means you can't analyze differences in the revision graph in your source-control system. That's completely unacceptable. But there is an API for exporting it as text, so a possible mitigation is to write that text file as part of any check-in that modifies the binary file. We know how to hook things into the check-in process; we already do it to enforce copyright updates.)

Yesterday the person driving this called me to ask for clarification on those comments. He said he's including the need to do that scripting in his return-on-investment analysis, and that there's a tools team in his part of the organization that can be assigned that work. I asked why the tool vendor doesn't provide things like this (since we learned that we're not the first to ask for it); he said it hasn't been important enough to them (customers can roll their own) and anyway, since each customer's situation is a little different, there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

I don't think he realized what he said. I let it pass.

But then we were talking about how different locations within our company are also different. For example, we use Perforce but others use ClearCase; I told him he should get the tools people to write one script that is configurable for the source-control system, not two different scripts that will diverge in functionality over time. (There are other differences too; that's just an example.) And then I asked, oh so casually, if he thought these scripts would have significant commonality, say 80% (the number that kept coming up in conversations), and he agreed that they would. So then I suggested that this was a job for "mass software customization"; instead of doing that variation manually they should write one script and inject variation points as needed. Using this tool. They should use the tool to set us up to use the tool. Ha. And he didn't see it coming! (That concerns me, actually...)

He agreed that this was a good idea. I wonder if we will hear from him again. :-) (Later update: we didn't.)

I am not actually trying to kill the tool or the initiative; I'm just trying to do damage control. There are places in the company where it would probably work well; there are possible cases within our own group where it could were we to prioritize it and do some up-front architecture work first. If that work isn't done then this will do damage, and I don't have a lot of faith in the people making funding/staffing decisions in our group to prioritize this. And I am pretty concerned about some of the things you can do with this tool; it would be easy to turn a code base into an incomprehensible mess. (More than usual, I mean.) Embedded conditionalization, which is essentially what this is, can be quite obfuscating. I want this to be carefully scoped and managed if it happens -- or at least if it happens to us. :-) So if his tools team can't make it work well for a project a ten-thousandth the size of our typical project, that's important data.

How do you take a cat's blood pressure?

The typical way:

Erik, orange tabby, with cuff on front leg

Resistance is futile:

Embla, tortie, flattened on table with cuff on leg underneath (the vet reached under to apply it)

If you fight you get a different indignity:

Baldur, gray tabby and white, with cuff at base of tail

Guys, we are not going home like that!

all three cats fled into one carrier

The lentil-stew incident

Some of us were discussing this week's parsha yesterday morning, specifically the incident where Esav sells Yaakov his birthright in exchange for some stew. The question is: was Yaakov behaving evilly, or was this ok (if un-brotherly)?

The plain reading (p'shat) provides the following facts: Esav the hunter came in from the field famished, found Yaakov cooking stew, and said "give me some of that stuff please". Yaakov said "sell me your birthright". Esav said "I'm about to die here; what good is it to me anyway?". They completed the transaction, Esav ate, and he went away.

Ok, let's dissect that a bit. Esav seems prone to drama -- he's about to die from hunger when he just came in from the field? Really? It's impossible to determine tone from this; I read the text as "gimme" from a bullying older brother, possibly influenced by the rabbis who see Esav in a negative light (equating him with Rome), while a fellow congregant saw him as asking nicely and being taken advantage of by the scheming brother who started trying to displace him at birth. Both possibilities are valid, I think. The plain text just doesn't tell us whether the request is sincere or a demand dressed up in a "please", or what anyone's motivations really are. To my surprise, the only midrash on this point in Sefer Ha-Aggadah is one that has Esav opening his mouth and saying "shovel it in" and eating like a camel. Nothing about events preceding that point.

Regardless of whether it was a request or a demand, Yaakov named a ridiculous price. After Esav took the deal the text tells us he "despised" his birthright, presumably because he sold it for a mere bowl of stew (and some bread that Yaakov added in). Surely Esav had options; he could have gone elsewhere for food or cooked his own stew. Yaakov is not his servant or his mother; it is not his job to cook for his brother. On the other hand, we learn from Kayin and Hevel that the answer to "am I my brother's keeper?" is "yes, actually, sometimes". I think if Esav were really about to die then it would be absolutely incumbent upon Yaakov to take care of him, but I don't think mere discomfort (possibly due to Esav's own bad planning) counts. So we're back to whether he was really at death's door, or just catastrophizing.

We also don't know whether Yaakov had cooked for just himself and giving food to his brother meant he wouldn't eat (or eat as much). In that case he might name a ridiculous price that he didn't expect his brother to actually pay. One is not generally compelled to give (or sell) one's property just because someone else wants it, though in Esav's defense, the rabbis do settle on a requirement for fair pricing if you do sell. So under halacha (which post-dates this incident, but still), Yaakov could have said "no" or sold at a fair price but couldn't do what he did.

To my mind, Yaakov took advantage but wasn't evil. The situation was not entirely under his control -- Esav could have walked out easily enough. This is different from, say, predatory lending where the only loan the guy with lousy credit can get is usurous. Contrast the stew incident with the later blessing incident, where I do think Yaakov was being unambiguously evil in tricking his father to steal his brother's blessing. (While I don't understand the apparent value of the blessing, that's a separate matter. It was valuable to all involved and Yaakov stole it through treachery.) Perhaps the later incident causes some to see the earlier incident in the same bad light, but that feels like a questionable reading to me, saying that, essentially, once a thief always a thief (projecting back in time). I find the Yaakov story more interesting as an arc, descending from sibling rivalry to theft to running for his life to then getting some of what he dished out at the hands of Laban to finally reconciling with his brother. But an interesting reading isn't automatically a correct one.

What say you?

There is a lot of interesting discussion in the comments.

Shabbat services

Our rabbis and cantorial soloist are all away at a convention this week, so I led services both Friday night and this morning. It went really well. Read more…

Cats: life is never boring

My vet suspected from his weight loss and high heart rate that Baldur was joining the hyperthyroid club (the other cats have it; why should he feel left out?). While the relevant measure is technically within normal range (T4 of 3.9; normal caps at 4), it's been going up and he has other symptoms, so she's inclined to treat and I don't disagree. I have the relevant drug on hand (the pharmacy long ago switched the text on the label to "use as directed" :-) ), so that's easy.

The vet was concerned about my giving him pills. At the office all the cats needed a de-worming pill (because one had evidence of a problem), and he fought it pretty hard. (And due to his size he needed two pills.) I was afraid he was going to bite someone. But I told her I wasn't worried so long as I could mix the medicine into food as I do for Erik. Baldur never met food he didn't like. :-) (Well, once. Iams, years ago.) As predicted, I had no trouble at all giving him his first dose this morning.

Erik's results were pretty much what we expected. His bilirubin is high (and high for him); my vet speculates that this could be related to the suspected gallstone he has. Dealing with it would require surgery which is risky (especially for him); she is waiting for a call back from a specialist on whether other factors could be causing that. So long as he's eating and eliminating normally, and not turning oranger than usual, we're just monitoring for now.

And then there's Embla. Embla, my "basically no problems (now)" cat... apparently has kidney disease. There have been absolutely no symptoms, like litterbox problems; my vet said the first sign is usually in the bloodwork and you don't even get that until it's fairly far along. Whee. So there are two toxins, "BUN" (?) and creatinine, that the kidneys are supposed to filter out, and she has high levels of those so the kidneys aren't performing up to spec. The good news is that this can often be controlled by diet, so I'll be picking up some prescription food for her. (They'll give me samples of all the options first so we can find out which ones she'll eat before I buy big bags of the stuff.) My vet said there will be no harm (other than expense) in the other cats eating this too.

The less-good news is that I am to start giving Embla subcutaneous fluids to help flush things out. Embla is less skittish than she used to be and I can even hold her for short periods, but holding her to stick needles in her will be new.

There is the remote possibility that this could be caused by an infection; we'll get a urine sample to test. But my vet seems doubtful, particularly as (she says) weight loss is consistent with kidney problems. (I'm not sure why that should be and didn't ask.)

Meanwhile, all the cats seem basically happy and comfortable (aside from Erik's problems), so it sure doesn't seem like things are about to go pear-shaped or the like. This is why we do routine maintenance -- so we can catch these things as early as possible. I'd rather catch them than not, but I'd be thrilled if there were fewer things there to be caught. :-)


I've been enjoying FlashForward, a new TV show this season. The premise: one day in October everyone in the world blacks out for two minutes and change. (Lots of people die during this time in accidents.) During the blackout people saw visions of the future -- the same specific date in April for everyone. Some of those futures were disturbing, leaving people with the question "what do I do now?". The show follows a core group of characters, including several FBI agents who are investigating the phenomenon because one of them had a vision of him doing so, raising questions of causality that I hope will be taken up as the show progresses.

Not everyone saw flashes, and the common belief is that those people didn't see their futures because they would be dead before that date in April. One of our POV characters is in this situation. Another saw something that "could not be true" -- he saw someone known to be dead. Another claims to have seen someone who didn't have a flash (so presumed to be dead).

I had my suspicions, and tonight's episode backs me up. Read more…