Sound Decision

July 13, 2013

tony-headphonesA while ago I borrowed a friend’s Beats Audio headphones to listen to the vinyl transfer of Sign o’ The Times another friend of mine made for me. The CD of the album is horribly mastered for some reason, and I had a dream about finding a vinyl copy at a flea market. Trusting my dream, I drove down the road to the local flea market (fortunately it was Sunday morning so it was open) and within five minutes found the record for $10 (a bargain, but I negotiated it down to $6 for the fun of it).

Anyway, while listening to that and all the other music I’ve been into lately I became spoiled by the quality of the sound coming out of those Beats. The clarity of the sound was way beyond what I experience from my trusty white Apple earbuds. With the seed planted I knew I had to start my research into that state of over-the-ear headphones. I didn’t want to buy a pair of Beats because they are far too trendy for me and way more than I wanted to pay ($250 for the model I sampled). After spending a few hours reading reviews (both professional and Amazon user) I decided on the Sony MDR-V6, which list for $100. Amazon had them a bit cheaper but I wanted an even better bargain so I added them to my wish list and waited. A few weeks later they came down briefly to $60 and I ordered straight away.

I couldn’t be happier with them. They sound a bit different than the Beats. Not better or worse, just different. The Beats boost the bass (naturally, considering their hip-hop origins), and I prefer a more neutral sound for my broad musical tastes. The sound field is a bit more “airy” on the Sony phones, almost as if it was on a wider stage or something, and the Sony matches the sound clarity that allows each note to be heard distinctly. The Beats are a bit louder, but that’s not a problem since I don’t turn the sound up all the way on the V6s anyway.

So why are Sony headphones such a bargain? After all, they’re not exactly known for undercutting the competition. Well, it turns out that Sony has been making these headphones for decades. They are used widely in professional audio and video circles (where the neutral sound is appreciated) and haven’t changed much in all this time. I remember over-the-ear headphones being popular during my childhood, but they went out of favor with the advent of Sony’s Walkman (ironically) and then the iPod craze.

Review Roundup

May 5, 2013

oblivionI’ve been to the movies recently to see two very different films…

Oblivion is a sci-fi film that, like many recent films in the genre (In Time, The Hunger Games, ) lets an interesting premise down with some plot holes and an ending that is a bit silly. Tom Cruise stars as one of the few people still on Earth. He works to maintain defense droids that protect giant water sucking machines (to be sent to Titan, where humans have been relocated after a war with aliens). His memory has been wiped out for security reasons but he dreams of his past and of his love, which leads him to some interesting discoveries. Worth seeing if you like sci-fi and/or Morgan Freeman. ★★½ out of 4.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a gritty film starring Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, though the two only appear in one scene together. The first part of the film is about Gosling’s character, a carnival performer who decided to try to take care of a child he just discovered he had. The second act follows Cooper’s rookie cop character as he struggles with corruption within the force. Finally, a 15-year jump in time brings the next generation together. It’s the kind of movie that makes you uncomfortable at times. It’s well made but not terribly enjoyable to watch.  ★★★ out of 4.

To prepare for a couple of upcoming releases, I’ve also read a couple of books in the last few weeks. Continuing the string of classics I’ve tackled the last couple of years was The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve been drawn to this book recently by a recent podcast about the author and his wife Zelda as well as their appearance in my current favorite “background” movie (something I put on if I’m working on something or having trouble sleeping), Midnight in Paris.

I’d never read the book before (an indictment of the Plainfield Public School System) and thought it was good, though I had to kind of make myself pick it up each night. I found Fitzgerald’s use of language to be interesting and will probably read it again after I see the film (starring Leonardo DiCaprio).

Literary purists will think me crazy, but World War Z by Max Brooks engrossed me in a  way that Gatsby didn’t. I just couldn’t put it down and read the whole thing in just a few days. It’s a big-picture Zombie story told as a collection of stories spanning the entire war told by survivors from around the world. The film, starring Brad Pitt, is surely not going to be faithful to the book since it will focus on Pitt’s character who presumably will be everywhere the action is, which is implausible even for a zombie movie.

Early Electroedutainment

April 19, 2013

Quiz-Wiz-1

The Smarts! That’s the “incredible” prize you get for playing Quiz Wiz, according to the memorable television commercial. This toy was probably a Christmas present for us in 1979 or 1980, and I remember we played it quite a bit back then. Fast forward 33 years later and it still works fine.

Basically it’s a computerized (a big time buzzword in 1979) multiple choice trivia game. You type in the number of the question you want to answer, then the answer letter (A, B, C or D) and hit the answer button.

Sample Questions from Book #1

Sample Questions from Book #1

I rediscovered this toy recently while searching for a board game to play with my nieces at my parents’ house. I only found the original questions book (#1) and the “Book of Lists” (#8) book. The system is designed to use cartridges that presumably hold the “answer key” for each book, but the #8 book seems to work fine with the #1 cartridge. I’ll need to find more books in order to determine whether the “cartridge” actually stored anything or whether it was simply a marketing gimmick (cartridge systems were considered more advanced – think Atari VCS vs. Atari Pong).

Since I suspect the cartridge may not be storage, I tried to see if there was a pattern to the answers. I answered the first 100 questions and couldn’t find one. Memory was incredibly expensive in 1979 and storing 1001 answers on a 4-bit system requires 1.5K of ROM, which was an awful lot in those days. Far more likely is some sort of algorithm that determines the answer based on the number inputted. It would have to be fairly simple like multiplying the question number by some constant and then using the last two bits to determine the answer.

I did an experiment in Excel where I multiplied the question number by 8 and divided that product by 5 and then converted it to binary (base 2 number system – all 1s and 0s). Using only the last two digits of the product and converting to letters (00=A, 01=B, 10=C, 11=D) I get this for the first 50 answers:

BCABDABDACDACDBCDBCA BCABDABDACDACDBCDBCA BCABDABDAC

It’s a pattern that repeats after the first 20 answers. Altering the constants changes the length of the pattern, so I’m sure with enough experimenting I could create a pattern over 100 letters in length, as they probably did. As an additional experiment, I typed in a number greater than 1001 (3256) to see if there was an answer for that number. There was, and that answer did not correspond to the answer for either 325 or 256. Therefore I’m almost certain that the “answer key” is algorithm-based. The cartridge could serve as a “key” that could alter the pattern somewhat though. I’ll post an update if I find another book/cartridge.

Quiz-Wiz-3

The final step in my investigation was to take apart the Quiz Wiz to see what was inside. As you can see at left, there wasn’t much there. The other side of the board is where the keys connect and since it’s glued on I decided not to break the unit just to get a look. There is one small chip visible on our side that could be a simple processor (most likely purpose-designed to do the above calculation).

Coleco went bankrupt in 1989 but Quiz Wiz lived on, it seems. Tiger came out with its own Quiz Wiz in the mid-90s that used the same buttons and booklet format. And judging by this cringe-worthy commercial it was not lacking in street cred.

94C16AB2-0B1B-4071-AC81-83F9C2DEAEBAMy music kick has subsided a bit and I’m listening to podcasts again when I have longer drives. In the last couple of days I’ve listened to a good one about zombies by Josh & Chuck (Stuff You Should Know) and an equally gross one about the Great Stink.

Th zombie podcast dealt with real life zombies in Haiti first and then the enormously popular fictional zombie. The real zombies are a product of the cultural belief in zombies and some interesting “medicine” that creates a paralyzed state in the victim. Being “zombified” in Haiti is usually the result of angering your family (refusing to marry someone they picked for you or refusing to agree to sell jointly owned land were given as examples). A bokor (sorcerer) would then apply a powder to your skin. This powder contains toxins that irritate the skin an allow access to the bloodstream, where another toxin (from the pufferfish) induces paralysis. You are then buried alive and though you appear to be dead you are fully conscious of what is happening. After a few hours you are dug up and “resurrected.” Through the use of hallucinogens combined with the trauma of the experience you are kept in a trancelike state, sometimes for years. Fortunately, doing this is now against the law (yes, there’s actually a law that states that you cannot make someone a zombie).

The podcast then discussed George Romero’s popularization of zombies, which has led us to excellent television like The Walking Dead. Incidentally, if a zombie epidemic actually happened it’s unlikely we’d be able to stop it according to scientists.

The Stuff You Missed in History Podcast was almost as gross as zombies. The Great Stink of 1858 in London was caused by the river Thames being overloaded with human waste due to the widespread adoption of the flushable toilet. Before the use of toilets people emptied their chamberpots into cesspits, but that only worked with (relatively) dry waste. The rapid population grown of London from 1800-1860 (the population went from less than a million to more than three in that time) also made this system untenable. The summer of 1858 was particularly hot and for a couple of weeks anyone near the river dealt with an unbearable smell. This, of course, led to the creation of a proper sewer system that is mostly still in use today.

seI’ve recently seen two movies with a focus on psychology. The first was the new Steven Soderbergh release, Side Effects. Rooney Mara is amazing as a young woman who takes an experimental antidepressant (the fictional Ablixa, which has its own website). The first half of the story exposes psychiatry for the pseudoscience that it really is at this point, as well as the influence of pharmaceutical companies over doctors and a bit of the ridiculousness of our pill-popping culture. They movie takes a twist in a more conventional direction from there but is still enjoyable. I also admired the cinematography; there are some interesting focus effects that enhance the mood. ★★★½ out of 4.

admA Dangerous Method I saw at home on my own theater. This David Cronenberg picture is a semi-historical take on the early days of psychoanalysis. The film focuses on the relationship between Carl Jung, his patient (and later colleague) Sabina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud (well played by Viggo Mortensen in an atypical role). The screenwriter didn’t have to embellish too much since Jung actually did have an affair with Spielrein in real life (though I have no idea if the kinky sex was part of the real life relationship). They highlights to me were the discussions between Jung and Freud about the nature of emotional issues. The influence of Otto Gross on Jung was also quite interesting, as it made clear that the psychologist has to figure himself out as he evolves while trying to do the same for the patient. ★★★ out of 4.

SLP

Update: Last night (3/9) I saw Silver Linings Playbook and absolutely loved it. This movie has it all: bipolar disorder, romantic obsession, OCD, dysfunction families, Halloween, football and dancing. The acting is terrific across the board, but Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Tiffany is especially compelling. Her character has a habit of calling people out with remarkable insight, defying social convention by speaking hard truths. Bradley Cooper’s Pat is less constructive with his social issues, and is solely motivated by trying to win back his wife (which under the circumstances isn’t realistic). The chemistry between the two is palpable and makes the movie sing. My only criticism is that Pat’s mental issues seem to magically resolve themselves late in the movie, but that doesn’t stop this from being a totally charming, intelligent movie. I can’t wait to see it again.  ★★★★ out of 4.

Addicted to heroines

February 10, 2013

heroinesI’ve recently noticed that my favorite characters is popular fiction tend to be similar in a lot of ways.

1. They’re almost always women or girls.

2. They are usually the smartest characters.

3. They are highly capable.

4. They don’t really fit in / they aren’t popular.

5. They don’t care that they aren’t popular.

6. They challenge societal norms and follow their own paths.

7. They have their own personal belief system.

Lisbeth, Hermione (doesn’t follow #6 as well) and Arya generally fit these criteria. Dagny Taggart (Atlas Shrugged) is also a good example as she’s bright, capable, principled and liberated. Elizabeth Bennett (Pride & Prejudice) also fits this mold, as does Lyra Belacqua (The Golden Compass).

Shortsighted

January 22, 2013

tony-pool

This morning I read an article on Ars Technica about something called “revenge porn.” Essentially it’s when someone posts nude or erotic photos of a former girlfriend (or boyfriend, though this is less common) on sites designed for this purpose. Amazingly, they also often post the name of their ex and sometimes even phone numbers and email addresses.

So what is the matter with these people? This is a ridiculously classless move. If you’re not going to delete such photos upon breaking up it’s the least you can do to keep them as secure as possible. Sharing them online should certainly dissuade other women from dating such men. Perhaps someone needs to create a site where women post the names of men who post the photos and names of women (or even better, people could be less bitter and not post in the first place).

I would think these types of sites would dissuade the fairer sex from sending or posing for such photos, though apparently this isnt the case as it’s alarmingly common amongst young people these days (from what I hear). My generation seems to be wise enough to avoid this trend for the most part (swimming pics don’t count).

January 18, 2013

gotye

I’ve been craving more new music lately after being exposed to Gotye and Kimbra. Today I came across this easy to navigate Amazon top 100 of 2012 and listened to each preview and purchased the ones I thought were interesting. Here’s what I chose:

Ho Hey by The Lumineers
Thrift Shop (feat. Wanz) [Explicit] by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Myth by Beach House
Little Talks by Of Monsters And Men
Till Death by Barcelona
It’s Time by Imagine Dragons
Counting by Autre Ne Veut
Adorn by Miguel
Radioactive by Imagine Dragons
Sleep by Allen Stone
Fineshrine by Purity Ring
Poppin’ Off [Explicit] by Watch the Duck
Lost In The Light by Bahamas
Tessellate by alt-J
Faithful Man by The Expressions Lee Fields
Madness by Muse
I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz
Begin Again by Taylor Swift
Let Her Go by Passenger
Henrietta by Yeasayer
Writer’s Block [Explicit] by Brother Ali

It’s an eclectic mix, and I’m curious how many of them I’ll like enough to listen to repeatedly. I might go through the Top 100 Selling Songs list too after I’m done with these, but I suspect I won’t like as many in that list.

Pail Punting Preliminaries

January 6, 2013

bucketlistI finally got around to watching The Bucket List the other night and enjoyed it (could Morgan Freeman possibly be more likable?) and like every other soul who watched that movie got to thinking about my own such list. I’d never written anything like this down before so I was curious to see if I could quickly list 10 things worthy of inclusion. That’s a long bucket list, I know, but I figure I have plenty of time (hopefully) to get them all done. So here’s my list (subject to change as I consider in more depth over the coming days/weeks/years/decades):

Tony’s Provisional Bucket List

1. Learn to speak another language proficiently (not Klingon)
2. Spend a significant block of time overseas living as a local (goes with #1)
3. Learn to play the guitar reasonably well (simple songs) and sing on key
4. Learn enough construction skills to renovate a house
5. Write a book good (lucky?) enough to be published
6. Take or audit at least one philosophy class
7. Learn to board surf
8. Design and build a house or building of some kind
9. Take a bar tending class and/or a cooking class
10. Learn to sail at an intermediate level

Feel free to share a list (or a partial list) in the comments section. Don’t be shy – life is short, after all.

die-hardMy family celebrated Christmas on Sunday this year, so when the time came for the actual Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there was no anticipation of the gathering that makes the holiday special. But even though that gathering is 90% of the total for me, I do have a few other minor traditions that complete my Christmas. I don’t bother with a tree or anything like that (bah, humbug) but I do watch what I consider to be Christmas movies.

On the 24th I started with the Kulla family Christmas classic, Die Hard. While it may not seem right for the part, it does take place during the holidays. Yes it’s a violent action movie, but it’s also very funny. Who can forget “Ho-Ho-Ho. Now I have a machine gun.”

The closer that night is also non-traditional, though perhaps less so. Love Actually gives the holiday a larger role than Die Hard, and I like the loosely connected multiple story lines. It has the usual romantic comedy silliness about fairy tale style love, but also some depth. My favorites are Colin Firth and the Portuguese girl and the little kid’s crush. Normally I despise little kids in movies since they can’t act and tend to be annoying, but this time it works.

Yesterday was the big day, and I treated myself to a trip to the theater to see The Hobbitt. I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga so I knew I’d like it. The theater was full and the movie didn’t disappoint. One thing I really like is that they didn’t try to “one up” the original trilogy visually, a mistake almost all sequels and prequels make. There were a couple of scenes clearly meant for 3D (I find 3D a bit distracting rather than enhancing) but they were brief, and one scene recalled the absurdity of Jackson’s dinosaur stampede in King Kong, but otherwise it was excellent and I look forward to next year’s installment.

To complete the double feature I fired up the projector last night for The Holiday. Yeah, another romcom (no, I’m not handing in my guy card). I’m a bit surprised that I like this movie so much considering I generally don’t like Cameron Diaz or Jack Black, but they’re both pretty good in this one. But what I really enjoy is the interaction between Kate Winslet’s character and old Hollywood writer. They give each other strength (or in her case, gumption) and that truly is a gift.