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<nettime> Reviews of Technologies and Books I like
Alan Sondheim on Sun, 8 Jan 2006 08:01:12 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Reviews of Technologies and Books I like


Reviews of Technologies and Books I like

This is a mixed bag - I'm including devices as well as the usual.

Understanding the Linux Kernel, O'Reilly, Daniel P. Bovet and Marco Cesati
3rd edition - I'm close to totally ignorant in relation to computer
science; on the other hand, I'm quite enjoying this - which for me can
only be considered a simultaneous autopsy and archaeology. The book is
enormous - around 900 pages - and it gives an indelible picture of even the
commonest computer tasks - creating a file for example. But it also
provides a picture of an unbelievable architecture, which occasionally
gets metaphorically translated - for example, the appendix on System
Startup, which moves through such things as 'Prehistoric Age: the BIOS' to
'Modern Age: the start_kernel() Function.' I can follow most of this text,
which says a great deal about the authors and the clearness of the
exposition. Highly recommended to anyone interested in open software,
linux, operating systems, or the vagaries of non-human inordinate
complexity. (There are sections on signals, interrupts, process
creation/scheduling/killing, program execution, and so forth.)

NASA INSPIRE VLF-3 radio receiver kit. This kit - for building a very low
frequency radio - costs around $80 and includes around 75 components.
You'll need a low-power soldering iron and other (minimal) tools; the
assembly takes about four hours - afterwards I felt I could build anything
(not true of course). The radio is very high gain, has a built-in filter,
data and audio outputs, and mic input on one channel (in order to describe
time and location for example). VLF is fascinating; I'm using the signals
in my work (spherics, whistlers, moans, insects, passing bikes, dawn
chorus, etc.), modifying them with Audiomulch or some such. Check out the
INSPIRE site - it's terrific. A VLF-3 is also online; you can pick up the
signals through the Net.

Unix in a Nutshell, O'Reilly, Arnold Robbins, 4th edition. The nut has
grow to the size of a coconut; this handbook is huge, covering not only
Unix, but GNU/Linux, Mac OSX+, and Solaris, as well as numerous programs,
shells, editors, and package managers. While one can always do an
'apropos' and/or 'man' to access online help re: commands, the handbook is
useful for browsing through options and examples; it gives excellent
overviews of the systems. As usual, lots of stuff on sed, awk, vi, vim,
etc. (although the Sed and Awk book - if for no other reason, the title -
is still my favorite). One of my favorite deprecated commands seems to be
no longer listed - 'fold' - which can split a text various ways. On the
other hand, the six and a half pages on 'stty' are invaluable (necessary
when accessing a shell account with the Sharp Zaurus, which runs on
linux). This is one book I use pretty constantly.

WWII EE-8 field telephones. I found two of these ten-pound units, which
run on magnetos (for ringing up) and 3 volts worth of batteries (for
actual talk).The circuits are incredibly simple; I had to do some repairs,
but it was worth it. The lines are half-duplex - either I talk or you
talk, but not both at once. The phones have a switch on them, much like CB
radio. I've been using these for audio pieces, and eventually they'll end
up in an installation in Los Angeles. Check out
http://www.asondheim.org/fieldphone2.mp3 for an example.

Speaking of old equipment, I'm also playing around with an 1895 telegraph
receiver; this is similar to a morse-code key, except that it's activated
by two solenoids. The result - send 1.5 volts through it, and you'll hear
a click. That's all. It's small and can be placed on all sorts of
resonators. The 'down' click has a different sound/'feel' from the 'up'
click and the telegraph operator had to tell the difference.

Linux Multimedia Hacks, Tips & Tools for Taming Images, Audio, and Video,
O'Reilly, Kyle Rankin. I _still_ am frustrated with linux, although I've
temporarily given up on it, in terms of multimedia. Blender and Gimp work
incredibly well, even ImageMagick can be a kind of murderous fun. But I
really want to work more intuitively, closer to WYSIWYG, which is usually
possible even in Premiere. This book is unusual, and when I return to
linux (after the full-speed ahead media stuff I'm chained to at the
moment), I'll be working through it. There is an entire chapter on broad-
cast media - TV, podcasting, ripping audio/video, etc. There's neat stuff
as usual on transforming video into ASCII, stuff on Audacity (one of the
cooler sound editors around), and stuff on the Web. What's missing for me
- and this is _really_ me, not the OS - is the multi-media environment;
this book goes a long way towards creating one. Why use linux at all for
media? Because it's fun, because it's more or less open-source,because
there are things you can do that you can't with more typical editors,
because if you get serious with, say, animation, there's nothing like a
render farm. But for quick-and-dirty, for patching stuff together quickly
that still's amazing, the standard OS 10* or WinXP work quicker. I want to
explore this book (and my own system) thoroughly; on the other hand, I
don't want command-line interfaces for A/V.

The Ancestor's Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Richard
Dawkins, in which we go on a journey back through time. I love this book
and most highly recommend it; after I ran out of James Lee Burke, I wanted
something for late-night reading in the comfort zone. This is it! Over 650
pages of evolution, brilliantly written, with all sorts of information -
for example, I had always thought amphioxus was primary in vertebrate
development - but now there are new discoveries from China. A lot of
molecular information is also provided. There are 327 sources in the
bibliography. Minor phyla - anything on the way back to origins - are
covered in some detail. This is one of the best 'comfort books' I've read
in a long time.

Speaking of the Sharp Zaurus, although they're difficult to get hold of in
the US, you can find them on Craig's list or Ebay. I have two, and use
both. They're linux-based PDAs, and there are literally hundreds of
programs available - not only that, but you can download perl and other
languages to use on their terminal windows. They're quirky - the only
linux OS I've seen to crash, but I've found them excellent for working/
producing on the run; a lot of my diagram-work was created on them. If you
have the chance and patience, check them out.

Parlor guitars - they're on E-Bay, from the late 18th- through the early
20th- century. I want to argue for their comeback; they're unique in their
small size half-folk half-classical resonance. Everyone I've seen has an
incredible tone, providing you stay away from the popular brands. Look for
something without a label, or a Stetson or old Washburn or Howe, or Larson
or whatever. I tune low, use nylon strings (they were made for that), and
find the small neck allows for incredible reach; most of my playing now is
either on the would-be Larson I have or the 1949 Di Giorgio classical
complete with a hyperbolic wooden inset to channel and cool the bass. Both
guitars are unbelievable.

Then again, there are all those Casio keyboards. I was recently given a
CZ-101, a relatively early portable keyboard synthesizer, and the tones
produced are fascinating; there are 'solo' and other switches that allow
for fast improvisation as well. I use two other keyboard by the way - both
highly recommended - a Victorian pump organ that has a really rich tone
and a lot of dynamic possibilities (a lot of the music I've done for
Foofwa d'Imobilite has been created on it) - and an Ensoniq Mirage. I ran
into the latter when I had a group, Damaged Life, in the 80s. Now they're
old-fashioned, heavy, clunky. They're half digital, half analog, and have
an uncannily realistic feeling to the touch (keyboard) and sound (MIDI or
analog). I've been using one constantly for two years now. When I've had
residencies at the Experimental Television Center, I've used theirs -
which made me aware of the possibilities. Takes floppy disks. Weighs a
lot. Sounds unbelievable.

Digital Video Production Cookbook, O'Reilly, Chris Kenworthy. This is an
odd book; the subtitle is '100 Professional Techniques for Independent &
Amateur Filmmakers.' I love 'Filmmakers' - everyone uses this word, even
though film is nothing but a whisper. Some of the photographs show what I
think is a Sony 150 (or thereabouts). The techniques are extremely useful
and the book is valuable if you don't know them (for example pull focus,
miniature worlds, how to pull a punch). Most of the techniques reference
those moments in the plot which call for effects ranging from lasers to
silhouettes - in other words, standard narrative production is emphasized.
Some of the effects - for example using shadows or camera flow - are
relevant to stylistic considerations in general; I wish there were more of
these. In this regard, the Camera Movement section is the most useful. In
any case, if you _are_ working in narrative or commercials, this book is
invaluable. The material on pull-focus is something everyone should know
(one of the first things I demo when teaching video). On the other hand,
if you're more interested in the fine points of genre, experimental work,
'bending the rules,' etc., this doesn't have much information (for example
breaking the '180 degree rule' in shooting an interior). I should note
that all of the O'Reilly books on digital video are useful - they waste
little space, get to the point, and show you the way to everything from
holding the camera to DVD distribution. Everyone can learn from them - or
their equivalent; I've seen far too much bad video, video that could have
been a lot better if just one or two things were changed (most of the
problems are usually with sound - good sound carries just about everything
- and the Digital Video Production Cookbook has little information on
this).

Hey Rube, Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of
Dumbness, Simon and Schuster, Hunter S. Thompson. I just love the combo of
spot-on thought and football, 9/11 and titles like Honolulu Marathon Is
Decadent and Depraved. This was done for ESPN.com I think, who cares? it's
wonderful.

Speaking of that I know I mentioned James Lee Burke somewhere above, but
you really should read him - half history, half mysticism, half depth
analysis of the unpretty USA, half mists, half accurate, and probably one
of the best 'story-tellers' around. His books are deceptively easy, give
great pleasure of the text, ring true, contain fury repressed.

Wireless Hacks, Tips and Tools for Building, Extending, and Securing Your
Network, O'Reilly, Bob Flickenger & Roger Weeks, second edition. Any
wireless information amazes me - the world is filled with information flux
that just about anyone can pull down. Wireless hacking ranges from
building focused parabolic or cylindrical antennas to using Kismet (by the
way, available for Zaurus) or Netstumbler (by the way the MIDI output can
be used as a sound/music source). If you're working with WiFi in any way
at all, this book is absolutely necessary. Now what I find interesting -
WiFi, just like VLF radio, re-presents the world - your mapping, percep-
tion, is different. For example on page 91, WiFi power levels around
Kingston, Rhode Island, and on page 144, a section on graphing wireless
performance, with a chart indicating signal fade in the middle of the day.
Radio reorganizes our experience, in other words; an online community
obviously possesses different geographics than an offline one - and WiFi
is somewhere in the middle - obviously networking, but just as obviously
situated. Because of this, the Wireless Hacks themselves can range from
programming to gadgeteering - often both at the same time (similar in some
respects to Make magazine). The book by the way goes way beyond the
Pringles can waveguide - there's a lot of antenna information.

If you don't have a Sony 2010 shortwave, try and find one. The design and
circuitry (there were minimal changes) held for over ten years, and it's
one of the most compact useful radios around. I've recorded from it,
experimented with it, listened for hours. The sound's not that great, but
the separation and signal processing - including synchronous tuning - is
superb. Almost all the Sony shortwaves are good; I also have an old and
cheap analog one that has terrific sound and gets low-wave as well (both
units go down to around 150k).

Open Sources 2.0, The Continuing Revolution, O'Reilly, edited by Chris
DiBona, Danese Cooper, and Mark Stone. I wish I could review this book in
detail; I've been skipping around in it forever. If you join Safari, you
get a 'free 45-day online edition' which might be worth it, since O'Reilly
books are expensive and it's an easy way to read a lot of them. In any
case, you might want to try the library. There are articles on Linux
of course, Mozilla, open source and entrepreneurs/business, biology,
Nupedia and Wikipedia, Europe, China, India, etc., and a few columns from
Slashdot as well. There is also an 'Open Source Definition' and various
open source licenses. I have to admit, first, I haven't been reading in
detail, but for 'fun,' which it is, and second, I want to mention it in
any case, i.e. without a detailed analysis (it is fun, relevant, part of
an ongoing paradigm shift that is somewhat unprecedented, Lautreamont etc.
notwithstanding), because you should somehow take a look at this book, as
well as at its predecessors.

Poems of the Masters, China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty
Verse, Copper Canyon, translated by Red Pine. Wow! RP is my favorite
translator of Chinese texts - for one thing, he almost always gives the
original, so if you want to examine the characters, you can. For another,
as I've pointed out before, there's no punctuation - the lines are open-
ended, which parallels the Chinese. I like his Stonehouse and Cold
Mountain Han Shan and Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra and Tao te Ching
translations, as well as his work on mountain hermits. Except for the Tao
te Ching (which exists in various forms) or Gary Snyder's Cold Mountain,
these seem perfect to me.

Finally, Scenes for Mandarins, The Elite Theater of the Ming, Columbia,
Cyril Birch - translations of scenes from Ming drama. The scenes are
described and commented upon in detail. Ming drama is classical, highly
polished, and the book is a great read.

Why do so many books today have subtitles? The Brothers Karamazov, an
Unfunny Family. Madame Bovary, or the Railroading Life and Times. They go
on and on.

That's about it. I hope you find this useful in some way. If nothing else,
check out the Burke.


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