Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My New iMac

I have no problem admitting that I have been absorbed into the Cult of Mac. It started with the iPod. I, as did many of my coworkers, received a 30GB iPod as a sort of bonus for a significant product release a couple of years ago. As a result, I started to use iTunes and paid more attention in general to Apple's products. A few months later I found myself picking up a used 12" PowerBook G4. I was impressed with how small, yet functional the device was. No Windows laptop I had ever used came close. I was pretty much hooked. Even though I had a Windows PC that was superior, in terms of speed, to the PowerBook, I used the Mac almost exclusively. I've long been a fan of BSD UNIX and fundamentally that is what OS X is... but with a much nicer GUI than anything else out there. As I've previously documented, I then took the plunge and purchased an iPhone earlier this summer. And now, my conversion is complete; I bought a new 24" iMac. I decided to go all out and purchase the model with a 2.8 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. I then upgraded the memory to 4GB after receiving it (memory upgrades are generally a rip-off from the manufacturer, whether it be Apple or Dell).
The screen is BEAUTIFUL and the machine is very, very fast. Unfortunately, I haven't found CD ripping and transcoding software for OS X that I like as much as EAC and foobar2000, so I use VMware Fusion to run Windows XP in a VM when I need to rip a CD. Even running in a VM (and only allowing the VM to use a single core), the process of transcoding from FLAC to AAC is roughly 10 - 15% faster than it was when running XP natively on my Windows machine that had an Athlon 64 3200 and 1 GB of memory. I no longer have any computers natively running Windows at my house and I doubt I ever will again.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How To Rip A CD

This might seem like one of the most mundane and obvious tasks, right? You just stick the disc in your computer and let iTunes or Windows Media Player do the rest. Sure, you can do that... if you don't care at all about the quality of what you put into your ears. I don't consider myself to be an audiophile, but I am very concerned about making sure the song I'm listening to via my iPhone, iPod or computer is indistinguishable (to me) from the way it was intended to be heard directly from the CD. This is not as simple of a goal as it may seem.

Here is a nice description of the problem. If you want a bit perfect copy of a track (meaning, exactly the same data that makes up the song on the disc) as starting material for whatever compression format you choose, you have to use software like CD Paranoia or EAC to rip the track to a file. I use EAC v0.95 beta 4 as my ripping application of choice. It, when combined with AccurateRip, virtually guarantees an exact duplication of the audio data. Basically, EAC reads the data from the disc as reliably as possible and then compares the result on a track-by-track basis with the version obtained from other AccurateRip users. If the version of the file you obtain compares exactly to the version obtained by someone else using a different computer and different disc, it is safe to say that file truly is an exact duplication of the data from the disc.

Okay, so now that I have an application to use to rip the data, what do I do with it? I rip the tracks from the CD to FLAC files. If you think about it, ripping the track is the most important part of the process. Once you've extracted the song from the CD and are confident it is a perfect version of the source material, you can convert it in any way you want later on. If you rip directly to a lossy format, like AAC or MP3, you are counting on the fact that you never damage or lose your original CD. I prefer to have the FLAC files as a backup. It also makes it MUCH easier if I should decide to re-encode to a different lossy format or better version of the same lossy format down the road.

I don't just encode directly to a lossy format from the FLAC source. This article summarizes the problem nicely. First, I use foobar2000 to perform a ReplayGain analysis of the files. It stores both track and album gain adjustments to the metadata in each of the FLAC files. I then apply the album gain adjustment to each track when finally encoding it to a lossy format. The reason for applying the album gain is that some tracks are meant to be quieter or louder in relation to the other tracks from the same album.

I have tried both MP3 and AAC compression. I originally decided upon MP3 since that format is virtually universally playable and if you use LAME as the encoder at one of its transparent settings, the result is virtually indistinguishable from the original recording. However, I have found problems with MP3 concerning the way various applications (Windows Media Player) can mess with the tags in the file. The problem stems from the fact that the tag format has multiple versions and not every application seems to play nicely when it comes to using them. Furthermore, MP3 is an aging format. Even with an encoder as good as LAME, there are technical limitations to the standard. I performed my own ABX listening test using a variety of source material with my Shure E2c earphones (the best "speakers" I have). I have found, for my own purposes, that I cannot tell the difference among the original FLAC file, a 160 kbps VBR AAC version of the file or a 225 kbps VBR MP3 version of the file. What does that mean? I now use AAC since it sounds identical to the original recording and doesn't take up much space. Again, not just any old AAC encoder will do. I have done some research on the topic and it seems that the free Nero Digital Audio Codec does the best job of producing high quality AAC tracks.

The last step in this process is to obtain high quality album art and embed it in each file. I have found that the iTunes store is generally one of the best places to get art. Most of the art obtained from there is 600x600 pixels in size and suffers from very few compression artifacts. The problem with iTunes, however, is that it doesn't actually embed the image in the file. This is fine if you only use Apple software or hardware to listen to the music since it will move a copy of the image with the songs for you, but I tend to prefer to have the art actually contained within the metadata of each track. I use iTunes to retrieve the art; then I extract the art from iTunes and save it off as a separate image file. I then use iTunes to embed the art directly into the metadata. If iTunes doesn't have the art, I have found that Amazon is the next best place to look. They offer 500x500 size images at the highest resolution, but they can still be of very good quality.

The end result is a portable, album gain adjusted, virtually indistinguishable from the original version of each track from a given album that contains the highest possible quality album art I could find. Here is a summary of the process in stepwise form:

Using EAC with AccurateRip:
1) Rip CD to a collection of FLAC files.

Using foobar2000:
2) Perform ReplayGain analysis of FLAC files.
3) Apply album gain and encode to AAC using the Nero Digital Audio encoder.

Using iTunes:
4) Find the album art and embed the art in each file.
5) Enjoy the music.

If you want to know more about any of the settings you should use for EAC, foobar2000, Nero, LAME, etc. I suggest first reading the forums at Hydrogenaudio. It is an excellent source of information and many of the developers that work on this software actively participate in discussions there.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Coffee Time

I bought a French press when I was in Germany. I have considered buying one for a while and noticed this one in a window while walking to dinner. This one liter model was less expensive than I was able to find similar, smaller presses for on Amazon. The press is just one piece of the coffee making puzzle. I didn't have a coffee grinder or a thermal carafe to hold the coffee after brewing, so I went out yesterday on a hunt for the appropriate equipment. I wanted a red coffee grinder since I use red as the primary accent color in my kitchen. Yes, it's all about the color. I found this KitchenAid model at BrandsMart USA. While there I also picked up this black thermal carafe. They only had black, white and steel carafes, but I'll keep an eye out for a decent red one at a good price.

This morning was my first occasion to put all of the equipment to use. I don't doubt that the placebo effect had something to do with it, but I found the coffee I brewed to taste much better than the coffee produced with my automatic drip coffee maker. I enjoyed several cups along with my breakfast of multi-grain bread and butter, and a bowl of mixed fruit. While dining I listened to Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine. I picked it up yesterday along with a few other discs from Rowan's while I was on my expedition for equipment.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Whirly Ball

We had a company outing of sorts yesterday evening. Several of us from work went to play Whirly Ball. I didn't really have high expectations; in fact, I thought it wouldn't be much fun at all, but I went along anyway since I didn't have anything else particularly interesting to do. It turns out that Whirly Ball can be a lot of fun, but the game is more difficult than one may at first think. I was pleased to be the first person in the group to actually score a goal, but my athletic performance really only had nowhere but down to go from there. Near the end of the evening we were forced to change courts due to a technical difficulty concerning a broken floor. We took a vote and decided that Squeak probably did it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pictures From Karlsruhe And Athens

After working through two days of Comcast cable modem problems, I was finally able to post some pictures to my Flickr account. Curtis has some photos of me taking some of these photos. Namely, this one and that one.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Athens - Day 2

I woke up this morning to see that they seem to have the fire mostly under control now. The helicopters are still dropping water on it, but I think that may just be cleanup work to keep it from flaring up again. Yay!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Athens - Day 1 (Update)

Aside from the burning mountain, all is well at the end of Day 1 in Athens. As you can see from the picture above, I was able to visit the Acropolis before dinner. I think the site seeing helped to lift my colleague's spirits as well. It was very, very hot walking amongst the ruins, but it was worth the effort.

On a more serious note, at dinner we learned that our Greek host actually lives on the burning mountain. She had to evacuate her family this afternoon, but she still found the time to meet with us. We are very grateful for her generosity as I think it would be difficult for anyone to entertain guests when their home may be at risk for a disaster. We also learned from our hosts that there was another large fire a few weeks ago on a different mountain. These fires have been consuming large portions of the forest land remaining in Greece. Let's all try to pitch in a few prayers (or thoughts, if prayers aren't your thing) that the fire is contained soon.

Athens - Day 1

We just arrived in Athens and were greeted by quite a bit of adventure. The adventure actually started on the plane ride. It was one of the bumpier rides I've been on recently. It almost reminded me of the plane ride one takes when getting up to altitude for skydiving. Getting through the airport was actually quite easy as we were arriving from another EU country. Instead of taking the train system, we opted for a taxi to take us to the hotel. He wasn't really sure where it was (and I don't blame him now that I'm here), but fortunately I had multiple maps. On the way we noticed a fire on the mountainside. The picture above is from the balcony outside my room at the Hotel Nafsika. You can see a fire fighting helicopter in the scene. It's really, really windy here. I hope they have some luck containing it.

And this is a view of my room. The beds are a bit firm and I have yet to find a way to turn on the air conditioner, but the view is nice and they offer free WiFi. I don't think my colleague is too pleased with the environment just yet, but I'm sure she'll suck it up and adjust. I'm going to head out to get some pictures of the Acropolis, Parthenon, etc. I think she'll enjoy Athens much more after a little scouting. Maybe I'll find a way to turn on the AC, too. That should help.

Karlsruhe - Day 2

This picture gives you some idea of what downtown Karlsruhe is like at night. Sidewalk cafes line many of the streets and the lights invoke a warm and inviting atmosphere. I think everyone dines outside since apparently there is NO AIR CONDITIONING. Sure, some places have it, but in general it isn't very common. Now I understand why when our German colleagues visit us in Atlanta, they think the office is too cold.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Karlsruhe - Day 1

Our first day in Karlsruhe turned out well. I have many, many more pictures but I'll post those to my Flickr account next week. We arrived in Frankfurt at roughly 7:30 AM on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately for me, I did not sleep even for a little bit on the flight. This was very odd for me as I can usually sleep anywhere at almost any time. I think the problem was that I had the LCD on the bulkhead directly in front of me and movies played most of the night. The constant change in lighting was a distraction.

After arriving in Frankfurt we took the train to Karlsruhe. I was impressed by the scenery. I first noticed from the plane on the approach to the airport that Germany, at least this area of it, is much more heavily forested than I had imagined. This impression was reinforced by the train ride; we passed through what seemed like tens of miles of sparsely populated forest land.

As impressed as I was with the "green-ness" of the countryside, I was even more impressed by the city of Karlsruhe. It is clean, feels safe, has a diversity of appealing architecture and sustains a bustling feeling of life and exuberance well into the night. The city is filled with restaurants sporting outdoor dining, good beer and excellent food. The people are friendly and I just have an overall good feeling about the place. Perhaps it would be different if I lived here every day, but with the eyes of a foreigner it seems like a great place to be.

The picture above is of the centrally located palace. Most of the roads lead to this structure. It is surrounded by parks and fountains. I will spend much more time strolling its grounds should I find myself here again.

As an aside, Rich was singing "The Final Countdown" at work prior to our departure on Monday. He suggested I continue to hum / sing the song to make it stick in my traveling companion's head (we are kind to each other at work). Well, the FIRST song that came on the radio in the taxi when we arrived in Karlsruhe was "The Final Countdown". The odds of that happening have to be amazingly small. I love when stuff like that happens.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pool Party 2007

Yesterday was a coworker's annual pool party. Drinks, fun, heat and sun were all had in abundance. Unlike for some of the other previous parties this summer, I restricted myself to mixing one type of drink: the Blue Hawaiian. It seems to be one of the more popular libations that I have offered, although I found Grant's Wai Niu to be more refreshing in the hot sun. By limiting myself to a single cocktail I was able to premix. This relieved me of the need to stay sober enough to be able to accurately measure and remember any recipes. I managed to keep my wits about me against my best efforts, but I was rewarded by the opportunity to view two new (to me) games. First, we see the illusive game Cornhole played in all its glory. Yes, Dave brought it for us all to enjoy.

Cornhole looked like it would be easy to play; it wasn't. I played twice and both times I was on the losing team. I think I may have been mostly responsible for those losses. And next, after he was much more intoxicated, we see a crowd enjoying Basket Grant.

There didn't seem to be a shortage of folks waiting to throw things at his head.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Advice From A Squirrel

Kim brought in a shirt for me this morning. As you might be able to tell, my friends at work feel the need to keep me well stocked with squirrel related paraphernalia. And what is the advice from a squirrel?
  • Look both ways when you cross the road.
  • Plan ahead.
  • Stay active.
  • Eat plenty of fiber.
  • Spend time in the woods.
  • Go out on a limb.
  • It's OK to be a little nuts!
I'd say that is all sound advice.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Quick Work

The professional wallpaper installer / remover has been here for less than 1 hour and already she has both of the largest walls done. Yes, removing wallpaper is definitely something best left done for people that really know what they're doing.

As a side note, never try to move a dryer without shoes on. I tried it. I dropped it on my foot. Ouch!!!!!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

For Sale

Finally, my house is now officially for sale. I decided that waiting until I had all of the wallpaper removed, rooms repainted, deck washed, house washed, etc. would not be wise. It's already late into the summer selling season. I have a wallpaper remover coming in next Monday and a painter coming in next Wednesday to help me take care of the inside work. I'll attempt to do the outside stuff myself. Now I just need a buyer.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Burned Coffee In The Morning

Would you care for a cup?
The elevator doors opened to my floor and immediately I knew what I would find upon entering the office; the stench of smoldering coffee hung thick in the air. In some ways leaving a coffee pot sitting on a hot burner all night is worse than leaving an empty paper towel roll on a paper towel holder. I usually clean up the pot when I find it like this, but I'm not going to clean it today. Maybe the folks down at the end of the office that use this particular coffee maker will start self-policing if they find themselves having to clean up.

UPDATE: On the bright side, even having to deal with the charcoal once known as coffee, my morning started out better than Grant's.