David's diary: November 1996
Depressed. Cheer me up. Someone.
Oh my word, what have I started?! See <LMD> for what I hope is just the tail-end of a rather heated, opinionated argument, perpetuating more than a few fallacies and misunderstandings. Censorship is a very contentious issue, and if I'd realised the passion of the ensuing discussion, I would probably have steered clear of fanning those particular embers. It started with the introduction of a definitive list of banned words for diary contributors, and my suggestion that there should be a function for checking whether one is using such words in ones diary, more to avoid incurring the wrath of the moderators than for any particularly moral high-ground issue. I then happened to state my feeling that given several hundred diaries to read, and limited time, one sometimes has to use a little discretion when making ones choice, and seeing as I don't really know 99% of the people involved, one of the only criteria I can apply is that of whether the diary is X-rated or not. This is not - and I repeat this is not! - because I am easily offended by any selected ripe language, but because I felt that in many cases, people who X-rate their diaries often did so without good reason, and therefore weren't really posting particularly well-considered entries, and I would prefer to read something thought-provoking. To all those people who X-rate their diaries in anticipation of the possibility of using bad language, they should perhaps look at the diary rules and see that X-ratings are not to be taken lightly; I think the new automated option-setting system is bad news in this respect, since at least in the old days, you had to argue your reasons for wanting an X-rated diary. In any case, as I said quite clearly, but strangely got ignored, one can be obscene and offensive without using any of the prohibited four-letter words; and similarly one can really be quite tame while cursing ones head off. However, I'm not going to dictate to anyone, and am not going to moralise about it; I was merely stating my opinion, and those advocating free speech but criticising me for exercising mine should really sort their values out. The X-rating system should stay; it's not a principle of the diaries, it's not even exactly a principle of Mono, it's more down to legally-enforceable acceptable use policies etc, and if Mono didn't enforce a firm but fair X-rating system, it would soon get taken off-line, and that wouldn't be good news for any of us. Glad I've got that off my chest...
Anyway, what else has been happening? Well I spent Friday in London, just for a change. The morning was spent at the London Language Show at Hammersmith. This was a showcase for all kinds of language education products and services, with representations from most of the major publishers, European organisations, and of course a few academic exhibitors, such as the Open University. It was surprising how few people were exhibiting multimedia products, and was perhaps an indication of how the current technology is not really sufficiently mature to support language learning, and especially skills testing. I have been asked to write a report on the show, and having given this some considerable thought, I will probably be writing something which will rather shoot down in flames what we are developing at the Open University, since it doesn't really advance on even the most dull applications being shown at the show. Multimedia is great for exploratory learning, but when it comes to testing, there is no currently feasible mechanism for anything other than the most elementary multiple-choice type tests, which are at best jerk-reaction exercises which no matter how much you dress them up with attractive multimedia elements will do little to inspire the students, and even less to really test their ability.
In the afternoon I whizzed over to the Res Rocket Surfer studios again, to have a meeting with Tim Bran (ex-Dreadzone) about some new web pages for the forthcoming PC version of their ultra-cool DRGN live internet jamming software. This was productive and got some really good ideas thrashed out, and they're hoping to have some pages ready within the week, which would be great. Then I had a brief demo of the new Yamaha VL70m physical modelling synthesiser module and the WX11 wind controller. The VL70m is the new affordable implementation of Yamaha's brilliant technology, which simulates real instruments like never before. Whereas most synthesisers work by simulating the sound of real instruments, physical modelling actually works by simulating the instrument itself, e.g. by defining a shape of tube, reed configuration etc, and doing some hefty calculations to determine the sound that the physical model should make. The WX11 is a MIDI wind controller, which looks like a futuristic plastic oboe, with saxophone style fingering, and allows incredible expressive control when harnessed to the VL70m. It is something quite special when you blow harder and the tone jumps up an octave, just as you would expect from a sax, clarinet or whatever. However the VL70m includes stacks of instruments, from saxes to oriental instruments, and Andean pipes to an absolutely incredible electric guitar. I later went on to Turnkey in Charing Cross Road, to test the module with a keyboard, which is better for some of the more synthy sounds, such as Moogs, Oberheims etc. All in all, absolutely amazing, and I'm almost certainly going to get the combination of the VL70m and the WX11. I went in Chappells in Milton Keynes earlier today, but they still didn't have the VL70m in stock, which is pretty abysmal seeing as they reckon to have all new Yamaha stuff basically as soon as it is available, and it's been on sale in London for several weeks now. Bummer too, as their pre-Christmas sale finished today, and I could have saved about 130 quid on the combination if they'd had tem both in stock. Should be worth a haggle though if and when they finally do get them in, though, since I would almost certainly have bought them during the sale if they'd had them available.
I got back home for Saturday and Sunday, which was a nice break. As you may have noticed from my last entry, I was not too happy towards the end of last week, so two days at home and the day out in London really gave me a chance to think things over a fair bit, and decide where I'm really going. On Saturday I met up with the guy who got me my last job, and discussed a few business and recreational ideas with him. Basically we're both more than a little unhappy with the situation at our old company, and wanted to find ways both to help them forward and promote our own interests as best as possible. Sadly, we felt the old company was probably a lost cause, with the blinkered approach it takes, but we discussed some ways we might be able to carry forward the flame that was once burning in the company, ranging from setting up a new business covering similar ground to what we were involved with there - but doing it sensibly and diligently - to getting together and making some slamming Christian dance music. Either way, we seem to have some future working together, which is really good news. Not so long ago, and thanks to some malicious gossip being bandied around, I thought he was a lazy self-centred hypocrite, but having now heard him explain his position - I believe straight from the heart - I begin to understand his feelings and would feel happy working with him again in whatever capacity. Of couse anything we did wouldn't come to fruition for at least a couple of years yet, so would be supplementary to our day-jobs for the time being, but who knows at some point in the future? After all my job with the Open University expires in 1999, and it might well be that by that time we would be ready to earn our livings working for ourselves.
So things are kind of looking up. I can't yet quite see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there's a glimmer shining down a service-shaft, which is at least temporary good news! Anyway, since I have a busy day tomorrow preparing to demonstrate some vaguely working version of the software I'm developing for the university, I'd better call it a day here for the moment and get on with writing this show report.
Hmmm... Today was one of those funny kind of days in a weirdly everything-linked-kind-of-way. Toolbook played its usual silly-devils, resolutely refusing to load any of my sound clips any more, without which the application is basically stuffed. Rufus at work was of the opinion that what I was trying to make Toolbook do was bad news indeed, that it was never designed for the kind of job we're trying to extract from it, i.e. basically make a user-configurable authoring tool. This feeling that maybe what we were doing with Tollbook was not reasonable, was later confirmed by an e-mail from the Toolbook discussion e-mail list suggesting it was in fact illegal to use Toolbook to create further authoring environments under the terms of its run-time redistribution licence, for obvious reasons of revenue protection, since the run-time modules can be distributed free of charge. I found the relevant clause in the licence and it certainly seemed clear we had something to worry about, and my concerns were added to by those of the commissioning department, who asked that I look into the use of alternative implementation languages without such restrictions. I made a posting to the mailing list quoting the licence agreement clause, and was then shocked later to receive a highly libellous reply accusing me of all kinds of deceit over the last few years, which left me thoroughly bemused since I had never heard of the guy or his sorry tale before, and, to be honest, had little interest further than how any relevant licence clauses might affect the execution and delivery of my current project. I have requested a clarification and apology; it will be interesting to see what happens. I'm sure it's just a big misunderstanding, but it was the last thing I needed at the end of a long day. As far as the possible illegality of distributing the authoring tool I'm developing, I can't say I'd be sorry to see the back of it, certainly as it is currently being done in Toolbook. Pyrotechnics and urination came to mind... I have always maintained that Toolbook was a bad choice of development language and quite honestly everything today, from failing audio, to Rufus's advice, from possible legal hitches to libellous accusations, makes me ever stronger in my feelings! The fact that the project had, apparently, long before I arrived, been widely known in our department as "that bloody French thing" adds nothing to my enthusiasm.
Well that was about it for today really... actually my day hasn't really finished because I said I'd look into alternative implementation languages this evening. Time is of the essence, you see - the project is already long overdue, thanks to previous incumbents' lack of commitment, and the possibility of having to start over (even though I still maintain it would be quicker to do in Visual Basic or Delphi, even now, regardless of any legal issues with Toolbook) was obviously not one that filled them with delight, so I'm prepared to put in a bit of my own time to speed things along a little.
Anyway better go and make some room on my hard disk to re-install Visual Basic to do this assessment, specifically how long I reckon it would take, bearing in mind they are (rather optimistically, it has to be said) expecting the Toolbook one to be basically complete by Easter.
Well I finally bought my VL70m and WX11 today - for those not in the know, together they make a rather nice MIDI wind synthesiser system. Full report shortly, this is one hell of a bit of kit!
Greetings, diary readers. What a week! Work went from bad (loads of technical problems), to good (when the licencing issue reared its sweet head), to bad (when most of my colleagues said it was nothing to worry about), and then back to good again (read on...), right at the end. Basically the director of the modern languages department has taken a long hard look at the software I've been developing and has rather decided that it's a waste of time, which as those of you who have followed my trials and tribulations will know, is actually extremely good news. It's tinged with sadness though, because a lot of people have put time and effort into this, but if it's all for nothing, then it's far better we deal with it right here and now, rather than regretting it years down the line - they would be looking to use with software for about the next five years... Also she said something about probably getting rid of this woman, who's had quite a bit of input to the project, but isn't considered particularly useful any more. I would tend to disagree with that, but I suppose they have budgets and things to worry about, and in any case I think they prefer the idea of having a very small number of actual developers and consultants, liaising more directly with the various course teams. Anyway, the upshot is that I have said I'll essentially turn the computer off for a few days (yeah right!) and sit down with pen and paper and plan out what I really think this system should be doing, i.e. a specification. Having got that specification, we can seriously look at whether it is possible, how long it will take, or if, as the case may be, there is an existing product out there which will do the job as well if not better, and probably cheaper.
Then there was the fun and games with Chappells. Chappells is the one and only music shop in Milton Keynes, and sometimes seems a bit of a Dixons - complete with besuited and moustached store manager, you know the type. I had been looking in there whenever I went past, hoping to try out the new Yamaha VL70m tone module, but they were being pretty hopeless. Well as I said in a previous entry, I went in last weekend and still no joy, but they were having a pre-Christmas three-day sale, where I could have saved about 130 quid if they'd had them in. They didn't suggest putting a deposit down or anything, but did take my number and promised to call Yamaha to find out if they were going to be shipped any. Sure enough, they did ring back, but apologised that they were not likely to be getting any before Christmas, and that Yamaha UK had just received a shipment of one, which they were understandably hanging on to. All very strange when Turnkey in London have had them as stock items for several weeks. Anyway so I thought I was out of luck, until they rang again on Friday to say they'd been caught completely surprised and received a couple! I wandered across after work, but of course found that Chappells are about the only store in Milton Keynes that shuts at six on a Friday, so I went back bright and early Saturday morning and parted with the cash forthwith. They even agreed to backdate the price to that of the previous weekend's 15% off sale, so I'm now the proud owner of a VL70m virtual acoustic tone generator and a WX11 wind MIDI controller, to use their proper designated names. I'll probably call them the VL and WX from now on, you have been warned...
Put bluntly, the VL and WX are absolutely amazing! The WX is quite an old design, originally made to partner the WT11 FM wind tone module from the late 80's, but the VL is bang up to date, the very latest in Yamaha's line of physical modelling synthesisers, which make other synthesisers' attempts at simulating real instruments - especially wind ones - look frankly rather silly. I had tried the VL and WX out before I went to Chappells, so I knew roughly what I was letting myself in for, but having now had the stuff for a couple of days, I'm really starting to get used to it. It's a completely new, yet strangely familiar, way of doing things, that feels completely natural. OK so you don't get the true resonance of an instrument vibrating in your hands, but once you have got used to the detachedness of the sound - actually it's not too bad through headphones - it feels just as living and breathing as a real sax or clarinet. I used to play clarinet, so it was quite easy to get used to, though the fingering is based more upon the sax, so it's going to take a little while to completely master, and in any case, it is unavoidably a new instrument with its own quirks...
The VL sounds themselves are amazing. There's a wide selection of saxes - not only plain boring soprano, alta, tenor and baritone ones some really nice artificial, yet convincing, breathy ones amongst them that have an almost flute-like character - beautiful. The pan pipes etc are very responsive and gentle, though I'm not sure exactly what you would use them for - they're a bit cliched unless you're making relaxation tapes. There's stacks of other western and oriental instruments, inclusing some grungy guitars, plus a load of purely synthetic sounds. Some of these are based on classic analogue synthesisers like Moogs and Oberheims, but with natural response from the WX, whilst others are completely manic noise attacks like nothing else on earth. There's a limited number of user memories on the machine - I think there's 64 memories for saving edited versions of the factory presets, plus a further half dozen for saving completely new sounds. There's a variety of computer-based editors, the main one for the PC being the Visual Editor, which lets you build together instruments from a selection of pre-defined components - remember, with this physical modelling business, the sounds are defined in terms of the actual instrument construction, i.e. whether it is a bowed, plucked or blown sound - if blown, whether it is a flute-like jet, a single, double or even triple reed, etc etc - the shape of the main bore of a wind instrument, etc. There's a lot to it, believe me, so a nice PC editor that lets you drag and drop the components you want sounds just the ticket. I understand it's free too, though perhaps a rather slow download from Yamaha's Japanese website...
Brrrrrrr! Winter certainly seems to have come to Milton Keynes. Even the concrete cows have their scarves and bobble hats ready for the first snows. I haven't had to do anything too drastic to get the car started in the mornings, just scrape the rear window a couple of times, but I expect it won't be long. I gather Milton Keynes does get very cold indeed. This reminds me of what we used to learn in geography about cold continental interiors and all that. This is probably the most inland I've ever lived, and I'm sure that's a factor.
Anyway better be going and warming myself up if nothing else... A kebab sounds a nice idea, one of the distinct advantages of having a kebab van at the top of my road, just a couple of minutes walk away. It's a bit early though - these dark evenings are so depressing - I'm sure I suffer from that Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I make no apologies, but I suddenly feel compelled to confess the truth that is in God. I'm not going to beat around the bush if I can help it, because that kind of pussyfooting is normally done to avoid coming out with the truth, and that helps no-one. I have been a Christian for about the last three years; it started when I was going through quite a rough patch, and whilst I'm not going to claim that God has made everything rosy ever since, I have certainly found a lot of comfort with Him and with His people. Many of us would view success in life as earning lots of money and having a nice big house and car etc, but if that is true, then only a few small fraction of us will ever manage it. In God's eyes everyone is equal, and everyone can find spiritual happiness and fulfilment through Him and Jesus. Jesus died a hideously painful death that we might be spared the suffering from our sins and burdens, and in Jesus I certainly find a considerable amount of peace.
I'm not a particularly pious individual. I don't spend every waking moment in prayer. In fact I actually find it very difficult to talk to God, and even harder to listen to Him, though I'm working on it. However, God works in ways that are not always entirely obvious. God I think has a big part to play in what might otherwise be called luck - and I think I've had a fair bit of that lately, though not without a little attempted intervention from the Evil One.
First I applied for a job with the Open University, which was to start within a couple of days of the termination of my previous contract - though while at my parents' house, stopping overnight on the way to the interview, my car was stolen from right under my nose, which shook me incredibly and could have put paid to my getting the job I so wanted. Nevertheless, I got a lift up to Milton Keynes, and, admittedly still somewhat rattled, got the job. Then I discovered a good friend had a spare room which he wanted to let, so that solved a big problem, making my move so much easier - then add to that the fact that unknown to me, he and his girlfriend were both Christians. Then there was the work itself - as you will know if you've been following, the current project has been depressing me a lot, and at times I had considered throwing it all in, and worse - but I stuck it through, and now it seems it's going to be all right after all.
Oh and the fact that only five minutes after almost being in tears about not yet having found Christian fellowship in Milton Keynes, I bumped into a lively outreach event in the shopping centre and was immediately welcomed by what I have since found to be one of the most loving, caring communities I have ever experienced. I have seen people who despite bereavements have found comfort through God and Jesus, and who can be positive about life as a result where otherwise they would have had nothing. None of us are ever going to experience true happiness through money or material possessions, so if we are to live life to the full, it has got to be in the company of Jesus, in whom we can be assured of an eternal happiness if we confess this fundamental truth.
I hope this hasn't bored you. I hope it hasn't made me out to be some kind of nutter. Quiz me, challenge me, it will only make me grow stronger. I could recount reliable reports of demon possessions and other incontrovertable proof of the existence of the supernatural forces of both Good and Evil, but this is enough for one evening - I just hope for the moment that you too can find the comfort I have found through Jesus, and before it is too late. He's coming, you know...
Good news: the C++ course I'm on at the moment is cool and useful.
Bad news: my car got done over a bit last night, costing me to fix.
Well the C++ course is over now, and was well worthwhile, though I see little immediate prospect of getting to capitalise upon it, i.e. get to do anything much in C++ project-wise. There's time yet though...
Going up to London for a few days next week - should be great, meeting with more net friends and making music at the studio again... I need the break after this course, believe me - I'll totally knackered!