DIARY 2003















Fri, Apr 25

<01:49> More on the movie Equilibrium: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

The premise was a society where human emotion had been suppressed chemically. Oddly enough, the use of the drug was not directly enforced, but violators (sense offenders) would face capital punishment when found guilty. From our current scientific point of view I found this premise implausible, as it has been shown (albeit not 100% verified) that emotions are an essential factor of human intelligence.

For a simple example, why would the main character get up and go to work every morning? If he didn't feel any satisfaction, responsibility or the like, why bother? In fact the point does come up in the movie: there's no point in living if you don't feel anything. [There's a pause in my writing as I consider my current situation. *sigh*] However, this example should show that, even disregarding our current scientific opinion, the premise for the movie is rather contradictory.

On the other hand, it was an excellent parallel (rather, a mild exaggeration) of the way many people seem to live right now. They don't necessarily question their will, they just live by rote, as if programmed. There are some interesting moments in the film where phrases like 'sorry' and 'good night' are used. The characters admit how meaningless these words are, yet they accept them as a tradition that must be carried on just for tradition's sake.

Here, another interesting contradiction comes in: I tend to associate traditions with an unskilful emotional response (see also: luddite). I believe mankind would be better off if we could control our emotions better. But control is not simply suppression, and the point of societal improvement, perhaps at the expense of temporary stress due to change, is to make life more enjoyable in the long run.

<23:50> There's a strange but well known phenomenon in audiophile circuits, relating to the innumerable tricks and fancy equipment that is believed to improve sound. Even if there is no scientific basis, for instance when it is shown that tube amps have much higher distortion levels than solid state devices.

The strangeness is that more often than not, the change in the equipment is perceived as beneficial to sound. It's not surprising as it's just one example of delta ideology, or the thrill of novelty. I've noticed it in the past few days as I've altered my system between plain old stereo, Ortoperspekta, and stereo enhanced with full or partial (no center channel) surround. Each time I've changed to a new system the experience has been interesting. In the end I've noticed that the best setup depends on the kind of music.

Full surround sounds surprisingly good, considering the inherent diffraction problems. But the most stunning effects have come from Ortoperspekta. It's a very subtle setup, compared to the brute-force method that is surround. As if adding more and more speakers is going to make 2-channel music any better.

Now I'm back to poor man's surround because of practical limitations. And I note how stunning even that can sound, at least when I'm on the central axis or sweetspot -- not if I'm somewhere else. This is why I'm musing on building an OP system if I ever have a decent apartment with a spacious living room to invite friends into. Which of course goes somewhat against my ideals of leading a simple life and maintaining high mobility mentally and physically.

Thu, Apr 24

<23:05> Watched Equilibrium last night. It was a Cube Matrix 1984. That is all that needs to be said. If you enjoyed those three, you will enjoy this one too.

The film is a great example of one style of SciFi: a portrayal of grim future which serves as a warning message about our current society. The basic story is very much inspired by 1984, but it's still quite original. The main character's strive for freedom and enlightenment is presented in way not unlike that of The Matrix. In fact, Equilibrium borrows way too much of visual action from Matrix. What makes this worse is that the world is supposedly real (as we now know it) but the action goes almost to Matrix scales. This is explained via the main character's training in the 1337 force, but I still find it quite OTT. Fortunately it's the only annoyance in an otherwise excellent movie. I don't worry too much about Matrix plagiarism, as its action style didn't come out of vacuum either, but borrowed heavily from John Woo et al.

I can't overemphasize the ideas presented in Equilibrium, 1984 and related stories (that includes nonfiction), and the importance for us to maintain our freedom to think and feel. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." (This has become somewhat of a Slashdot meme, and I'm not a big fan of Franklin in general, but the message still holds.) However, the common fallacy these stories make is that a central authority holds the power, and the individuals want to free themselves from the oppression. On the other hand, our society seems to be a self-organizing entity where individuals have gradually painted themselvews into a corner. There is no need for conspiracy. The supposed authority is the general opinion, a lowest common denominator. While people themselves are really different, nobody wants to stand out. Authorities and conspiracies are only made up for the same reason as a god: to explain away things for the insecure and intellectually lazy people. In a sense, they are created as scapegoats.

Mon, Apr 21

<02:36> After installing the product of my latest hacking, my speakers vanished.

Well, not all of them, and certainly not in the material sense. I soldered together a quick n' dirty Orthoperspecta matrix. For OP I needed the sum L+R for the center speaker (where most of the physical power goes) and the difference; L-R for the left satellite, and R-L for the right. The satellites should actually be further apart than your usual 2-channel stereos, but for now I'm testing with a rather crappy pair of computer speakers for satellites. It still sounds damn good, spatially speaking.

As I expected, OP solves one big problem of 2-channel systems (remember, stereo means spatial and has nothing to do with the number of channels), namely that the central voices are split over two speakers, which gives nasty interferences when you move away from the sweetspot. There's a good reason why cinema sounds need a center speaker. For more info on OP, check the above link or ask me in person.

However, I was pleasantly surprised how the system maintains spatial position information, in fact enhances it compared to my usual setup. The speakers vanish in the sense that it sounded more like a live source with complex positions than two distinct point sources. It makes some sense if you think about the possible interferences from the sum at center and the differences at edges.

So far, OP sounds excellent for classical recordings with authentic spatial sense, and ambient soundscapes. It's not so good for some studio mixes, including my own pieces, that are designed for 2-channel stereo.

<04:24> The fact that OP requires manual setting of the relative levels (L-R versus L+R) has some interesting consequences. It's symmetric unlike the bichannel equivalent of balance setting, so the changes are less drastic and not that bad for the sound. In other words you can choose how wide a stereo effect you want, adjusting for those studio pieces that need it.

With OP I've discovered many new details out of old pieces. Unfortunately, some MP3s have revealed a huge amount of distortion this way. Probably a poor implementation of joint stereo, and all I get from the difference channel is artifacts.

I definitely cannot avoid 2-channel stereo altogether. Neither should the recording industry; OP is just an alternative playback method. In addition, headphones still need those plain old L and R. But there's something rather interesting going on here, it seems that two point sources are not the best way to play back something that was recorded with two point sinks.

Thu, Apr 17

<03:28> Seen two David Cronenberg movies lately: Crash and eXistenZ, both of them disturbing in an intriguing way. Not surprisingly, I liked the latter a lot more. I can't be the first one to compare eXistenZ to The Matrix (not that they're the only ones of a class). E isn't as serious/straightforward as M but it's probably a good thing, it leaves you more baffled in that sense. More importantly, I think the biggest problem with the Matrix is that the reality is strictly binary; as if ascending just one level would mean enlightenment. E makes it more apparent that there are several levels of realities. Even if they can be ordered -- you jack into a pod and go to a sub-reality -- there isn't necessarily a fundamental truth about one special level or one single transition.

<20:35> Adding a point about eXistenZ: there was a brief exposure to the problem of free will in an interesting context of layered realities. When entering a sub-reality, the player often gained some extra freedom, but he also went there to play a character with lots of predefined thought patterns. It looked to me not so much about reality paranoia, but more like a critique of our current society and roles there.

Wed, Apr 16

<03:37> After getting the Voodoo 2 3D card to work on Friday night, I got addicted to playing Tux Racer for a few hours. It wasn't so much about the gameplay as the scenery. It was great to slow down at certain places and look around. One reason for this is that the card isn't the fastest possible OpenGL renderer in the world, and going fast in complex sceneries gets a little stuttering, though not excessively bad for playing. I've also tried Doom and a few other games. I should comment something about not enjoying violence, but there's something more about FPS games than the killing. But that something is probably found in other, more adventure-oriented games too. A first-person Nethack would be very nice indeed, even with the turn-based limitations.

Last Sunday's Avaruusromua provided a cool session of film soundtracks. It was interesting considering my recent moviewatching binges and the thought that my music might some day find proper use as a background track, more likely than being the focus of listening. I should also remind that films are one place where Tangerine Dream has gone the most mainstream, especially in some 1980s action pieces.

<03:54> Last night I spent several hours gathering info about minimalist amplifiers, and I've found something pretty cool: power op-amps. People use these to make power amplifiers with just a couple of extra components, and they tend to sound good too. The trick is (just like in general minimalist philosophies) that you can really focus on getting good individual parts, tweaking power supplies, cabling, etc, and the low component count naturally reduces noise. Here is one such project page with additional links.

It seems that only in recent years, these power opamps have gotten good enough for audiophile quality. In fact one thing I liked about my Latvian miracle (bought 1996 in Tallinn) is the use of discrete transistors, as I used to be wary of too much integration in audio circuits. And seeing a few Soviet ICs backed up this attitude a lot. Moreover, with good power amp chips there used to be a need for extra electronics, as they were not exactly good, linear opamps.

It looks like a nice synchronicity that I've played with opamps before, after all they're the essential building blocks for analogue electronics, and now that I'm seeing a need for simple power amps I could leverage the experience.

After this exposure to the current state of DIY audio, I think I should plan a lot more before starting to build anything. For example, I've regained an interest in ortoperspekta as an alternative to 2-channel stereo. Incidentally, it also needs two channels of amplification so it could use the same power amp, but needs a third speaker and some extra hacks at the input stages.

Fri, Apr 11

<23:52> I smelled a conspiracy yesterday. Well, not really anything like the Illuminati, but several coincidences. Some of them nice, some frustrating.

A nice synchronicity was when Lauri's Voodoo2 vintage graphics card arrived on the mail, and there was a Wes Craven voodoo movie to be played in the evening. I had some hacking to do, and I'd seen that before, but it was a neat incidence anyway.

I'd decided to do something about my amplifier, as the volume control was not very balanced. I happened to have stereo potentiometers of the same resistance (not that it was planned, they're from some old wreckage), but there was something very wrong with the component in my amp. You know how a (mono, I'm talking per channel here) potentiometer has three poles? Well, my Soviet miracle had four.

It struck me as an analogy between software and hardware hacking, that it's nice to hack your own things when you have some standardized interfaces. My Latvian system was like Microsoftware, easy and relatively neat on the outside, but a horrible mess on the inside. I knew this basically after doing other hacks in there, but this was the worst possible thing so far. I found out how the fourh pole works (it's like another slide, but fixed to the middle), but it seems hard to replace by other parts. So I accepted my fate and put it back together, but I must ask: why, oh why did they have to invent their own kinds of component? Is that only to annoy the hackers?

I thought there's not much point trying to optimize that amp much further. I may even build my own some day, to make it just like I want it. I only want a clean, simple power amplifier with volume control and a few inputs, and I almost have all the necessary parts salvaged from various sources. But it's something that needs more planning.

Back to the Voodoo2. I've now got it working, I had some problems compiling Mesa with Glide. Mandrake's Glide package had versions 2 and 3, and Mesa couldn't decide which one to use until I removed one. I only have one slight annoyance: the passthrough cable is too short. The integrated Matrox is too far from the PCI slots. I could always extend the cable, but it's probably quite sensitive to noise, so I'll try and find a proper VGA extension cable somewhere. Anyone got a spare? :-)

For more hacking, I've put together a LIRC serial port receiver today. I've tried it to control XMMS and MPlayer with an old remote, and it seems to work well, but I can't imagine any extensive usage for that. It's quite limited after all. But the hack value and bang/€ are pretty high :-).

Thu, Apr 10

<03:29> Watched Star Trek X: Nemesis. The cropped, low-res DivX was massive lossage, but my monitor can't do much better an experience even with DVD quality recordings. I'll try and see it on big screen if the copy ever reaches Varkaus. Or buy a video projector when I'm rich an famous ;-).

So I probably missed a lot of the visual impact. The story was enjoyable enough, but not really that special. It did present good points about change and personal improvement, but on a SF side it wasn't more than a typical, good ST:TNG episode. I will likely have a better overall experience in the cinema, as the film seems to rely on the imagery a lot. There was also something slightly wrong with sound, I think the copy was a screener whereas the best AVIs seem to be DVD rips.

One problem with Star Trek is that it's become a huge institution with certain traditions over the decades. That way it's bound to have lost some SF appeal. In fact I tend to count ST separately from SF/fantasy, it's more like a genre of its own. Which of course is not a bad thing. But it leaves a fan of Real Sci Fi like me craving for some more. There was plenty of RSF in ST movies I and IV, as well as many episodes. This is why I wouldn't label ST under the space opera genre, it's more than just drama that takes place in a new environment. I'm just a bit disappointed that it seems to be going more in the SO way than SF.

Well, I still have ST IX, Insurrection to see of all the movies. Anyone got a copy?

Tue, Apr 8

<00:39> Excellent Japanese film called Postman Blues last night. It's a yakuza/conspiracy farce with an innocent postman as the main character. Also an ode to cycling. There's probably something about the ultraconformist Japanese society that must be balanced by outrageous, yet subtle humour in arts like this.

My recording of Avaruusromua had actually worked this time (not that last time's failure was my fault, it was the server). In addition to the usual fascinating soundscapes, there was an utterly trippy piece by Hans Reichel with a seriously hacked-up string instrument. It sounded very electronic and human-like, as if there was low bass murmur and high-pitched giggle among some nonsense chatter. Easily goes among the most trippy music I've ever heard.

Sun, Apr 6

<03:59> Watching Cube2: Hypercube was a pretty nice mindfuck. It's quite on par with the first, tridimensional Cube, being another story instead of a sequel. Considering the ending of Cube, you couldn't really expect a sequel anyway.

Since it's a different story by a different film team, the connections to the first film are potentially annoying. For example, the cast of characters seems like a refined or twisted version of the first. Of course there may be good reasons for this, if you really get into the conspiracy theories within the stories.

To avoid spoilers I won't tell much of the details; if you enjoyed the first one, you'll enjoy this one as well. In fact it's more technical SF than Cube, but there's plenty of psychological thrill left. The ending leaves something to be desired, but it's a good way of leaving you baffled with questions, just like the first one did.

As much as the two Cubes provide mindfuck while you watch them, they are not very profound experiences. They don't necessarily leave you thinking about reality and society for several days. One reason might be that the setting is very distinct from our familiar reality. But the same reason also explains why I enjoy films of this kind very much: they expose the human psyche and interaction into their bare bones, and show the variety of adaptive responses to an utterly weird environment.

Thu, Apr 3

<05:07> Reading Leena Krohn's Oofirin Kultaa while listening to some Tangerine Dream live takes yesterday made me think about a comparison between music and writing. It must have helped that the book was like a piece of ambient, not unlike some other stories by Krohn. The emphasis is on the moment with occasionally very poetic writing, and there's not much happening in the long term.

On the other hand, in a more 'active' novel with a sequential plot, you can always go back if you notice you're not following it well, and you think you missed something in the beginning. Such complexity is not desired in music, neither it is in film. This point has come up in the discussions concerning LotR's film adaptation by Peter Jackson.

However, it is a nice feature of music, particularly in long pieces in the style of 'progressive' rock or Tangerine Dream, to be able to find some familiar bits towards the end. Having some parts of the piece go a full circle. It's a quite subtle thing to do, if you want that a-hah! joy of recognition. The melody, sound or whatever should balance between the obviously simple and the obscurely complex.

I dunno if there's a decent development or conclusion for this comparison. Anyway, while novels and music are massively different media, they have some interesting similarities and contrasts which could be exploited in novel ways.

Wed, Apr 2

<00:18> Today's X-files episode had a really sad mood overall. The grainy, overexposed filming was a rotten cherry on the dried-up cake. It's hard to find any deep meaning behind it though, the mood was all about the setting and the people. It struck me how much of that feeling was contained in my last piece of music, with its distantly Mexican-like guitar formations and a sense of hidden aspirations. I hate to analyze that piece (or anything creative I've done) but I can't say I planned or composed it with much conscious guidance, it just came out of me. It was something waiting to get out, and I'm sure there's a lot more down there.

For some cheering up I have a few nice videos waiting. A Slashdot story introduced me into BitTorrent which, while being a great tool for combating the slashdot effect, also lends itself to good old-fashioned warezing. I've now seen an episode of Naruto, a new anime series with some meta-anime ironic overtones. It's not quite Miyazaki but good quality anyways, here are the episodes and some more anime. The site seems to be down right now, it's probably an April joke about piracy. And I'm pretty sick of the many April jokes on Slashdot and other places. It's just too much, it ruins the idea. It works much better in the newspapers where the one joke is hidden besides real news; like today's Warkauden Lehti that announced a free beer feast on the main street in celebration of springtime. :-)

<20:20> I'd almost forgotten that Prkl (the desktop) has power management: it can be suspended into sleep mode just like Willow. I recompiled Linux with APM after I'd turned the machine off for the night, to see if I myself could sleep() better. When I got Prkl, among the first things to do was turning off the automatic suspend; it was so blatantly a desktop workstation that it would suspend after ten minutes of user inactivity. However, I believe a smart machine can do work even when nobody's watching, especially server stuff but things like SETI@Home too.

I didn't think it had anything to do with laptop-style APM, so I'm quite glad it works now. It leaves the power supply fan on, as the RAM needs to be powered, but it's very quiet compared to the main fan. I'm leaving Willow on as the homepage server, as it can do that without any fans and the HD is pretty mute.

Risto A. Paju