Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Body at Rest Tends to Stay at Rest. Then the Asteroid Hits.

An asteroid just hit my house.

I am, of course, speaking metaphorically. Nothing has crashed from space. My house is undergoing a long-planned renovation, the first step of which is to demolish the existing den.

Emptying the room of its contents, as well as emptying shelves in an adjacent room along a shared wall, revealed how much custom cabinet space was unnecessarily allocated to the bodies of physical media that have been at rest for years, surviving only because there was nothing to threaten them.

Now the cataclysm has come. Which physical media species will go extinct and which will emerge to re-populate the new living spaces?
  • Extinct: Hardback Fiction. Read them all. Enjoyed them to varying degrees. Unlikely to read again. Now mere decoration, and I've held enough garage sales and visited enough estate sales to see how uninterested buyers are in fiction titles, even at deep discount. Resolution: donated to local library.
  • Emerge: Physical Music. All the CDs have been ripped to 16-bit WAV and nearly all of the LPs have been dubbed to 24-bit WAV. (Still working on the fringe titles.) Despite the fact that our library listening is exclusively weightless digital, these backup copies need a home. Resolution: rack them out of sight in the electronics hub (or "wiring closet,") planned for the new basement, alongside the wireless router, multi-zone audio distribution system, etc.
  • Extinct: Theater-Related Books. My interest in theater started at the University of Michigan and continued through my early career at Bell Laboratories, living adjacent to New York City. Now living in Detroit, my interest has waned and these books, having been shelved when I moved into this house, have rarely been disturbed beyond looking up character names for crossword puzzle answers. Resolution: donated to local high school drama department.
  • Emerge: Shakespeare. No home should be without a good set.
  • Extinct: Paperback Fiction. Most purchased as vacation and airplane reading, digestible in a few hours. Resolution: given to my sister to refresh the beach-reading collection at her cottage.
  • Emerge: Art, Design and Humor Books. These are the books that I often return to, that inspire me, amuse me, that guests at parties and family gatherings might idly thumb through. Resolution: devote reclaimed shelf space to them.
Scientists say that occasional cataclysmic events are necessary to foster future growth. That didn't work out so well for the dinosaurs. My new living spaces, on the other hand, will thrive.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #67             

Artist: Was (Not Was)
Title: Born to Laugh at Tornadoes
Genre: Dance
Year: 1983

Before he was a Grammy-winning producer and President of Blue Note Records, Don Was (with collaborator David Was) put out offbeat, eclectic dance records under the name Was (Not Was). Among the many pleasures of these productions were the guest stars the duo could lure into the studio. Born to Laugh at Tornadoes features Mel Torme, fellow Detroiter Doug Feiger (of The Knack), and Ozzy Osbourne. Mr. Torme is particularly pleasurable, playing it straight, crooning the ridiculous "Zaz Turned Blue" in his signature style. Give a listen.

© 2014 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bitcoin is a 21st-Century Virtual Beanie Baby

The "virtual currency" Bitcoin has been very much in the news and public consciousness of late. But the US Internal Revenue Service has now ruled that bitcoins are not currency at all; rather, they are an investment commodity. And the commodity Bitcoin most resembles is the Beanie Baby.

[Image credit: your humble author.]

In my world, currency is predominantly virtual. I carry and use very little cash. Wages are direct-deposited to a bank account. Credit-card purchases assume the existence of funds on deposit. Transfers between accounts and payments to creditors happen according to pre-defined schedules or with a single keystroke. The reason this system works is that all the transactions are denominated in dollars, the legal tender currency of the USA. No one can refuse my dollars.

In contrast, anyone can buy bitcoins, but merchants can choose whether or not to accept them as payment for goods and services. Bitcoin is not legal tender in any jurisdiction. It is a return to the barter system. When was the last time you paid for a latte or concert tickets with frozen orange juice futures? (Of course you wouldn't; according to the IRS, you would be forced to pay capital gains tax on the value of the bartered property at the time of redemption relative to the time of acquisition, just as it ruled for bitcoins.)

But why is Bitcoin like the Beanie? The answer is simple. A small group of individuals is slowly convincing buyers to exchange dollars for what amounts to "investment grade" transaction fees. And only Ty Williams could have convinced millions of buyers to exchange dollars for "investment-grade" plush toys. As a result, he has billions of dollars stored in accounts around the world (liquidity), while the storage locker space devoted to Beanie Baby collections without a viable exchange market is an industry unto itself. Bitcoins may not offer liquidity, but at least they don't take up space.

Not convinced? Business Insider summarized essential elements of the Beanie Baby phenomena. Those that apply equally to Bitcoin include:
  • Privacy. Despite world-wide fame, Ty Williams has only given a handful of interviews, creating a sense of mystery about the Beanie Baby brand. No one knows definitively who created Bitcoin. The commodity's reported inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, denies the claim, deepening its exotic allure.
  • Scarcity. Ready availability undermines collectability. Williams controlled customer demand by creating a shortage of toys. Mining new 25-unit blocks of bitcoins requires banks of computers running complex algorithms 24 hours a day, at high cost with no guarantee of success.
  • Surprise. Without warning, Ty would retire a Beanie Baby line. When an animal was retired, all production of it was halted, making it instantly more valued and highly desired. Without warning, stories appear about famous individuals or institutions that are investing in bitcoins — the Winklevoss twins and Fortress Investment Group, to name two — giving the commodity greater credibility and buzz to drive up value.
  • Death Rumors. Williams leaked a (false) rumor that Beanies "might be retired" in 1999, setting off a buying frenzy. Bitcoin exchanges are unregulated and unstable. When Mt. Gox collapsed, its bitcoin holdings were lost. Whether sudden disappearances make the remaining supply more valuable or more suspect is not yet clear.
Buying bitcoins? Maybe I can also interest you in magic beans.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #66            
Artist: Gary Burton Quartet
Title: Real Life Hits
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1985

I've always been ambivalent about the vibraphone as an instrument. Gary Burton is among the few vibists in my album collection. This title, containing two Carla Bley compositions and featuring Bley's paramour Steve Swallow on bass, is among Burton's best. "Like the cover art, it is something of a collage that makes for a complete portrait of a time and place, a snapshot with a living soundtrack. This is real life." (ECM Reviews) Give a listen.

© 2014 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mere Adequacy is Never Adequate

There are five fundamentals of high-quality digital sound archiving and preservation for analog source material: accuracy, appropriateness, adequacy, consistency, and explicitness.

Previously we examined accuracy (with regard to the source).Today we tackle the next two fundamentals, appropriateness and adequacy (with regard to your processes).

[Image Credit: Sarah Tehan, Aporia, 2013.]

The process of sound archiving and preservation is like scholarly editing. Just as the scholarly edition's basic task is to present a reliable text, the sound preservationist's basic task is to present a reliable digital record of an analog source. In both pursuits, decisions have to be made concerning (re-)construction and representation of the original material to achieve reliability.

Reliability in digital construction and representation of analog sound is a direct result of:
  1. Appropriateness: the extent to which a particular process (step) advances accurate sound representation, and the extent which the listener is satisfied with the sound produced.
  2. Adequacy: the extent to which a particular process (step) can be shown to be as good as necessary for its purpose or requirement.
The appropriateness and adequacy of the major function groups in the audio archiving and restoration pipeline can be characterized as follows:
  • Digital Recording
    Appropriate: Critical first step in the archiving process
    Adequate: 48 KHz minimum sampling rate; 24-bit minimum encoding depth
  • Audio Import/Export
    Appropriate: Advances sound data through the processing pipeline
    Adequate: No information lost in transfer
  • Format Conversion
    Appropriate: Ultimate sound output in format desired by listener or required by tools
    Adequate: No information lost in conversion; minimal information loss in compression
  • Automated Clean/Repair
    Appropriate: Algorithmic processing of common audio artifacts
    Adequate: No artifacts introduced 
  • Manual Clean/Repair
    Appropriate: Processing of artifacts unique to a given recording
    Adequate: Minimal audio loss; clipping eliminated; no artifacts introduced
  • Track Isolation
    Appropriate: Facilitates playback of individual songs/chapters/passages, etc.
    Adequate: Envelope of silence before and after track
  • Volume Normalization
    Appropriate: Addresses volume differences on playlists incorporating multiple titles
    Adequate: Target sound level -0.1 dB for all titles
  • Metadata Editing
    Appropriate: Captures relevant information about the original recording
    Adequate: Accurate, and without typographical errors

Another way of characterizing appropriateness and adequacy is that every step in your process must be necessary and your process as a whole must be sufficient. For a step to be necessary, eliminating that step would produce a less-reliable result. A process is sufficient if it is not a failure for having omitted other steps. All magic formulas for success break down on one or both of these criteria. Don't let it happen to you.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #65            

Artist: Miles Davis
Title: Porgy and Bess
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1958

To quote Dan Epstein: "Take George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess, add Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans, and what do you get? A classic jazz album that--despite the fact that the material has been rendered almost overly familiar due to countless interpretations--still sounds remarkably fresh four decades after its initial release. Miles' soft yet piercing trumpet style is perfectly suited [TGD: appropriate] to Gershwin's melancholy melodies, Evans' musical direction of his 18-piece orchestra is impeccable [TGD: adequate], and their version of 'Summertime' may well be the finest ever waxed."

© 2014 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Surface to Air 2013 Retrospective

2013 marked my second publishing Surface to Air.

I have often been asked what is the editorial stance this site. With two year's worth of writing behind me, I can safely answer that this site stands for three things: 1) good science; 2) solid technique; and 3) reasoned opinion.

That said, here is our 2013 index.
Thanks for reading. Looking forward to continuing the conversation in 2014 and beyond.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #64            

Artist: Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Title: Christmas Album
Genre: Christmas
Year: 1968

Among my many $1 estate sale finds in 2012 was this kitschy Christmas album. There was no reason on earth for my parents to have owned this title, but own it they did, and the songs bring back pleasant memories of childhood Christmases.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.