Category Archives: OPINIONS

2015 LA Auto Show

ONE WORKING MUSICIAN’S TAKE ON THE L.A. AUTO SHOW

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I think this photo really illustrates how much more bulky cars have become over the last 50 years

I’m definitely a car guy, but over the years my taste has evolved; away from super cars and luxury barges, towards efficiency, practicality, affordability and reliability. Perhaps that is just another way of saying I’m getting old, but nevertheless I remain a car nut, and the LA Auto Show is turning into an annual pilgrimage for me.

I get a kick out of going to a car show by public transport, so I park and ride from Redondo Station where I take the Green Line to the Blue Line and about 50-60 minutes later I get off at Pico Station, which is right in front of the LACC.
Sure, even in typical LA traffic driving may still be (a little) faster, but getting to and fro downtown is a hassle, and with the insane parking fees in and around the convention center, I don’t bother.
And did I tell you, taking the train from Redondo to downtown costs $1.25? That’s right, a roundtrip for two whole dollars and fifty cents! My car would probably burn about two gallons of gas, which currently works out to around seven bucks. Add $20 for parking and taking the train becomes an unbeatable value proposition.

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the possible future of urban transportation according to Toyota

But really, I’m a car guy. No, really. I keep up with auto industry news, know quite a bit about the history, and most importantly, I love to drive.
My current ride is a 2005 Infiniti FX35, which is basically a Nissan 350Z on stilts. With its higher center of gravity (and 4000+ lbs. curb weight) it’s not quite as agile as a proper sports car, but it’s closer than you’d think.
The best part is you can haul stuff in it, which is great for a working musician like me. I have to schlep keyboards and amplification to and from gigs, so a hatchback with collapsible rear seat is all but a necessity for me.
For the most part, the FX has been an enjoyable mix of brawn and practicality, but after ten years and 132K+ miles, the clock is ticking. Also, averaging 15-16 mpg around LA is becoming unjustifiable, so this year’s Auto Show was to be my opportunity to check out a bunch of potential replacements all in one place.

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Toyota’s RAV4 Hybrid left me unimpressed

I was most looking forward to the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. I had previously driven a 2013 RAV4 rental, and the experience had been a pleasant surprise. Stop and go traffic is pretty much the norm in this town, so from that perspective the hybrid thing makes a lot of sense. You don’t burn any unnecessary fuel while idling. Unfortunately, the RAV4 Hybrid’s batteries are stowed right behind the rear seat. Not an issue with the seats up, but with the seats down there is an ungainly and impractical bump right in the middle of the floor, which is pretty much a deal killer for me. I have (part of) the rear seat down 60% of the time, and with that bump my keyboard would be seesawing. So without ever having driven one, my enthusiasm for it has cooled considerably. For good measure, I checked the cargo hold of a Toyota Prius V with the seat down, and that was a lot more even.

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the RAV4 Hybrid’s utility is compromised by this hump

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with the seats down, the cargo area of the Prius V is nicely level

Market leader in the segment is the Honda CR-V, which just about ticks all boxes except for its looks. Maybe other people love it, but I sure don’t. Then there is the Mazda CX-5, which purports to be a sportier alternative, and my personal favorite, the Subaru Forester. I got to take one for a spin around the block at the show, and it seems like a perfectly agreeable companion for the LA grind. Domestic contenders are the Chevy Equinox (or GMC Terrain) Ford Escape and Dodge Journey. I have driven all of them as rentals, and while they were decent, I would not consider owning any of them. Then there is the Jeep Cherokee, but I have yet to get my paws on one.

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the Subaru Forester remains my favorite in its class

Direct competitors for my old FX would be the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLC300, Lexus RX and maybe the Volvo XC60, but I don’t think I’ll be shopping in that price bracket. Not on a working musician’s income, anyway. Of those models, I think I’d like the RDX the best. It is basically a luxury version of the aforementioned CR-V, with a V6 and minus the ugly.

These days I don’t pine much for unattainable exotic sports cars, and a vehicle has to make economic sense for me to be interesting. The Buick Cascada does just that. In Europe it is sold as an Opel, and it has just the right mix of affordability, luxury and style. If I didn’t have to schlep gear all the time, this would make my shortlist.

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Buick Cascada, semi-affordable luxury convertible

I did walk through Porsche’s room, but that was no fun. It is like walking through a jewelry store, where everything is locked up in glass displays; look but don’t touch. Based on that, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to give Porsche a sale, even if I had that kind of money.

There was a bunch of aftermarket stuff, like custom RV’s or van-based executive limos, but as far as new models go, the show wasn’t all that exciting.
Still, I look forward to doing it all again next year!

LOUD

Why do guys out here in LA play so loud?!?

It is the nuttiest thing I have ever seen. Brilliant musicians, all turning their amps up to 11 and jamming with earplugs in! Why?!?

Just turn it down!

Hints:

– Play at a volume that is acceptable over a sustained period of time. If your ears can handle it, the audience can, too. If you need earplugs, you are playing too loud!

– Play to the room. Let the drummer play alone, without amplification, for a few minutes, so he can gauge how loud to play before the room starts to resonate uncomfortably. Have other players adjust to that level. Make the drummer understand that he should be playing at an average level below that, so there’s some room for crescendos and fortes.

– The bass is extremely room-sensitive. There can be lot of build-up and standing waves at high volume, which can effectively alter the way we perceive the pitch of the instrument. This has happened to me many times. In some rooms, at high volume the bass will sound almost a semi-tone higher than what is played. It is excruciating to try and play along in what sounds like a different key!

– When a player turns it up a little for his solo, remind him to turn it back down when he is done with it. It is amazing how often people will forget to turn it down (and that includes me, yes).

– To get an idea of what music sounded like before we brought 5 kW amps to the gig, do a couple of acoustic gigs. It is amazing how much difference that can make. Remember, there was a time when an entire big band would play with an unamplified double bass.

 

Really, guys, who are we kidding? I don’t know about you, but I can’t even play well with those earplugs in. I will use them on occasion when I fear the sound pressure could cause hearing damage, but it changes everything, and it feels and sounds unnatural to me. That is NOT how music is supposed to be made.

 

Turn it down, people. There is no need.

 

 

Microsoft faces karmic debt

It has been all over the news, at least in the geekosphere, Google has blocked Microsoft’s new Youtube app for Windows phone.

Microsoft’s official statement here: http://blogs.technet.com/b/microsoft_on_the_issues/archive/2013/08/15/the-limits-of-google-s-openness.aspx

Google has yet to respond publicly, but I think Microsoft’s statement is a remarkably uncharacteristic display of transparency. And I’m surely not the only one who has had a chuckle at this ironic turn of events. The mighty Microsoft of yore routinely attracted antitrust lawsuits with its unapologetically monopolistic practices, so it is not without glee that I see them at the mercy of their heir apparent.

But Google needs to not be evil. Period.

computers (or how a boy became a geek) pt. 1


I was 10 years old when a very exciting event was about to take place. My father, a high-school math teacher, had followed a course in computer programming and he was going to put his newly acquired knowledge to good use and buy a computer.

Nobody really understood what computers were, or what they did. but everybody knew that they were the future, and that one day everything would be done by computers. What we kids knew, was that you could play games on them, and these games were totally cool and fun.

Handheld video games (as they were called then) were in vogue, and the Arcade was the most exciting place in the world. That was the extent of my knowledge, so the prospect of our own personal computer at home was one that kept me awake at night with anticipation.

The day came. In our sleepy rural town there was only one computer shop. We drove down there, and dad looked intelligently at a number of models. Other people were pecking away at the keyboards while strange indecipherable words appeared on their screens. It was nothing like the Arcade.

Dad talked at length with a salesperson and finally we walked out with a brand new Commodore 64, plus Data Tape recorder and -woohoo!- a cassette of Crazy Kong.

At home we could barely contain our excitement as pops unwrapped the machine and connected it to our black and white TV.

**** COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 ****

64K RAM SYSTEM 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE

READY.

…and a blinking cursor. What did it all mean? Basic is the programming language, dad explained. And 64K RAM means that there is 64000 bytes of memory. One byte consists of eight bits, which are either a one or a zero, and from long strings of ones and zeros commands were created and eventually these commands could make the machine do something.

Wow, dad. Can we play Crazy Kong now? It was a poor imitation of Donkey Kong (the most popular game of that day and a precursor to SuperMario) and disappointed we left it for what it was.

Dad got into programming, explained the fundamentals to me, and soon I got into it as well. but my ambition came to a premature end one day when I managed to create a rather advanced multiple choice program (for a 10-year old anyway) only to run out of memory before I was even halfway. And when the memory was full you could not save your work to tape. I was stuck and in frustration I switched the damn thing off. Bye bye programming, forever.

Dad stayed at it, even got some of his creations published, left his teaching job and went corporate. The new job meant a new PC. This time a real computer. By now I had come to understand that the Commodore was not a ‘professional’ machine but rather a ‘toy for consumers’.

Our first real PC came. It had a whopping 640 Kilobytes of RAM, a floppy disk drive and a hard disk drive! What? That is a large-capacity disk permanently mounted inside the computer, explained dad. But what if it gets full? That won’t happen, dad smiled, it can hold 40 Megabytes of data, more than 100 floppies! And it can access this data much faster than a floppy disk drive can.

New games came. Adventure games from Sierra. Our favorites were Space Quest and Lazy Larry. Unlike the Commodore, our new PC did not do Basic but ran on MS-DOS. It also had an easy-to-use interface called Windows 2.0, but dad removed it because “it does not serve a purpose”. The games were grrrrreat, fun with just the right amount of irreverence for political correctness and loveable 8-bit graphics and sound. Adventure games weren’t as fast-paced and exciting as the arcade stuff, but they were every bit as involving, perhaps even more so.

Yeah, computers were totally cool, and soon I’d discover that even cooler things could be done with them!

to be continued

Rig Upgraded: Hello Nord, it's been long :-)

It’s been here for more than a week already, but I’m loving my Nord Piano more everyday. It has that “more-than-just-the-sum-of-its-parts” thing that characterizes a great instrument.

When the original NordLead came out, I was one of the first people in the Netherlands to buy one. It was my main axe (next to the MPC) and I loved it to bits. One night, after a long session at another studio, I took the train home and fell asleep. Upon reaching my stop, I woke up with a start and made a dash for the door just in the nick of time. Inexplicably, I did not realize I had left my NordLead on the train until the next day, when I needed it for a session at my home studio. I called the railways, only to find out that the train I had left it on was the international train to Paris…

I bought a NordLead 2 as a replacement, but had to sell it when I moved to Kenya in 2002. I always missed it, though, and kind of regretted not having held on to it.

Although I always dug the Rhodes sound of the Electro, I found it waaay too expensive for what it was, and the Stage didn’t change that opinion. But when this particular Nord Piano went up for sale, I decided to give it a try, even if I wasn’t in the market for one.

I originally wanted to get a Yamaha MO-X 8 as it seemed to meet all my requirements (except for aftertouch), but the more I played the more I disliked it. So I decided to pass on it, great value though it was

Although it was far more limited than what I thought I’d need, something about this NordPiano just convinced me to buy it. I don’t think would have pulled the trigger at its original retail price, but the seller gave me a reasonable price, and that sealed the deal.

As it turns out, I’m very happy with it!

Hello Linux

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After solving my Windows Vista64 problems, I decided to give Ubuntu 11 a try. Contrary to what I had been hearing on the net, the download and installation were absolutely painless. Ubuntu does take a bit of getting used to, but the installation was a lot faster and way more user-friendly than anything I have ever experienced with Windows.

The positives: This here Asus laptop came with WinV64, and the [function] keys don’t really work. For example, adjusting display brightness, volume control etc. have to be done with the trackpad and GUI.

However, with Ubuntu 11.04 it just works! Hold the [function] key and press the corresponding icon (F5-6 for display brightness, F11-12 for volume). Really a kick in Windows’ (or Asus?) face, considering this laptop came with WinV64 pre-installed.

I also like Ubuntu’s battery icon and power management better. Finally, it makes dual-booting easy for the layman enthusiast (me).

On the flip side: getting the hang of it is a different story. Maybe it just takes time, but for now I find WinV64 generally easier to use – except for the things noted above.

Nevertheless, considering Ubuntu is available for free, I would heartily recommend anyone with some spare hdd capacity to give it a try!

http://www.ubuntu.com/download

edit: another win for the linux team: fast and straightforward installation of HP network printer drivers.

A minor negative would be the aesthetics: I’m a Mac user and I find the Ubuntu GUI not the most pleasant to look at. I’ve downloaded a few different themes, but they don’t make much of a difference. It’s not a dealbreaker, though. It looks decent enough, just not great. I hope someone will develop a slicker GUI, as long as it is not detrimental to performance.

WinPC – AVS = better user experience

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My Asus/Vista64 laptop annoyed me. For some reason Firefox was unable to connect to the net. One day it just stopped working. After some mucking about I found out it was caused by some Anti-Virus Software that came with the computer.

I deactivated the AVS, installed Microsoft’s free Security Essentials and problem solved. This reinforces my belief that AVS is largely redundant if you exercise some caution. As a bonus, the computer runs much better now.

I still like my Macs better, but I don’t consider Windows Vista to be the suckfest it is generally made out to be.