Mstation Book Reviews
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Mon, 31 Oct 2005

Sound Recording

Bruce and Jenny Bartlett, Practical Recording Techniques:
The step-by-step approach to professional audio recording, Focal Press

I haven't looked at one of these sorts of books for a while, not since an early edition of John Borwick's Sound Recording Practice which I'll have to look at again some time. Times have changed quite a lot since then. Nowadays, through computers and software, quite reasonable recording facilities are available to most everyone. Going for broke will still cost a small fortune. Just a proper sound-deadened, accoustically treated room would frighten most bank managers especially when you need to keep out wandering bass frequencies.

This book is aimed squarely at the home or small studio market and does a very good job of that. Nicely, the first topic is about the joy of music and what it is and does. There's no doubt at all that having a feel for music will help anyone trying to record it, and while mentioning it certainly won't give it, it's a help.

The book looks at the recording chain, sounds and signals, studio accoustics, equipping the studio, monitoring, microphones and their techniques, digital recording, effects and DSP, mixers, computers, session proceedures, and a whole lot more including a section on surround sound. There's even a little bit about putting your music on the web.

It's all presented in an accessible way and there's an accompanying CD with all sorts of audio examples. If there any criticisms, they relate to places where a little more depth might be useful. In the computer section, for example, there is only a basic sketch of what a minimum setup might have and really, in that world, things are very software oriented. If you want to be semi-pro, you will need to be able to swap files with Pro Tools and Logic users, and you'll need to know the software. And if swapping doesn't matter much, it's worth mentioning some of the Linux applications which could be an absolute boon to someone who wants to get started say, recording their own band, and doesn't have much cash floating about. If you are interested in the Linux option you can check out my article at O'Reilly's on the subject.

Anyway, that is a little beside the point. This book takes you through the basics very well and its real strong point is that it shares numerous nuggets gleaned from experience to do with all sorts of little things that become quite big things when you're faced with a problem.

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Games: Developing Racing Games

Jim Parker, Start Your Engines: Developing Driving
and racing games, Paraglyph Press

Vroom, vroom, or if you're Mr. Toad, Toot, Toot! Anyway, this book starts out with basic design elements put together in C and then moves on to Open GL for graphics, Open AL for audio, and AI. We start with a simple platform game and work our way up to to the more sophisticated things you'd expect with Open GL. Along the way there are lots of implementational things like a messaging system and a finite state machine complete with code.

There is also time spent on the physics of the thing and commonly used simplifications to make the game doable and playable.

This is a pretty good starter book for someone who is serious to get coding. The lessons learnt can apply to all sorts of other game situations as well.

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Motion Blur

Shane Walter + Matt Hanson, Eds motion blur: onedotzero 
graphic moving imagemakers + DVD, Laurence King
ISBN 1-85669-465-8

There are several groups of people who might be interested in this book. First of all, animators could use it for inspiration. People looking for animators could use it as a style guide. Ordinary folk can look at the cutting edge videos on the DVD, and browse the book.

The book gives a section to each animation team, shows some frames and pictures to give you some visual clues, and then has an interview asking about aspects of their work.

As you'd expect from Laurence King the book is a graphical treat and the DVD has some very cool stuff on it together with quite a lot of music. Some of the tracks could be used as a sort of moving abstract art on your big-screen TV.

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Make 3

Make magazine, vol. 03

Another fun issue of the quarterly from O'Reilly. This time we have a feature on doing interesting things to automobiles which includes fitting a Mac Mini to a VW and has a nice little primer on the basics of diodes, relays and the like. There's a lot more though: a Haloween garage with all kinds of tricks and treats, a VCR modified to be a cat feeder, a potatoe cannon, VOIP phone wiring, installing Wikipedia on a Sharp Zaurus, and even a small feature on welding.

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Jane's Addiction

Brendan Mullen, Whores:
an oral biography of Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction,
Da Capo

I was at one of the last concerts of the first incarnation of Jane's Addiction. Banshee Farrell, hyper-guitar Navarro, the intricate thunder of Avery and Perkins: it was post-punk art theatre with a decadent beauty that attracted the most beautiful crowd I've ever seen. There were drugs and pain and a peculiar sort of redemption and release that shone like thin beams of light through cracks in the dark, dark sky. You were insanely in love with the wrong girl? You had bad habits but a redeeming poetry somewhere in your soul? This was the place for you, buried in shards of mega-guitar, thundering rhythms, and non-linear thoughts.

The idea is that adult, conformist society, basically sucks. That doesn't mean, like the manipulated, psychopathic punks that you had license to shit on anybody's head that was going past. It meant that technical crimes were bullshit. It meant that rules invented by bossy-boots do-gooders were also bullshit. And it meant that people who were so clueless as to buy it all were bullshit. Who would believe that in the time since then and now, things have actually got much worse?

But it actually takes wisdom and discipline to cope with that degree of licentiousness, or liberty, if you will. The band and their immediate hangers-on merely constructed a different prison for themselves and being around them can't have been much fun.

Where did this band come from? What interesting place brought them together? In this book, through a series of quotes from the band and the people around them, you can find out. Where did Perry Farrell get his name from? Peri-pheral he says. Someone else says he just took his brother's name. The place was LA and the vibrant scene one of those things that springs up at a certain time, blooms, spreads its seed upon the winds and disappears completely.

There is a lot of talk of drugs in this book but you'd have to be a complete fool to take any of it as an advocation. As Dave Navarro says "Heroin ruined my dreams. It turned the thing I had worked for my whole life into the thing I wanted to get away from the most." Farrell is more equivical but with the image he likes to project, I guess that's par for the course.

It's a wonder that the band ever got beyond the seedy clubs of LA. As the band was being signed, Farrell demanded 50% of the money, putting the others on 12.5% each. Somehow, the others, who were certainly not just sidemen, were made to agree, but it was the beginning of the end. Farrell, in fact, comes across as a bit of a monster, and the Porno for Pyros guys took a financial beating as well. Never mind, it's the music that counts.

If you're a Jane's fan, this book is probably essential.

And I'm glad that Jane Bainter somehow made it through. XX.

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Future of Tech

Ed. Tom Standage, The Future of Technology, The Economist

This a collection of articles from the UK weekly, The Economist and whether you'll be blown away by the wisdom might depend a little bit on how close you are to the subject.

In this sort of line, going through the wishlists of big companies can give us a clue about possibilites. In the software line, Microsoft might have wished that we'd all been using decentralised systems with lots of Microsoft scattered about... which is what a lot of people did and do.

A company wishing that the network is the computer will be hoping for lots of thin clients and distributed services. These days that looks very much like Microsoft also, and Sun. In those particular cases you'd have to say the odds were probably with the latter ... which ties in with the idea that the whole shebang will become totally service oriented, which is pretty much what commercial Linux is about.

What this book is really about is the present. It is an informed view of what is happening in software development and distribution, security, gaming, home computers, and artificial intelligence, amongst other things. And what is happening suggests a near future. Looking at the far future, would be, of course, science fiction.

One interesting present idea I came across recently in Dr. Dobb's AI newsletter was that modern computers don't actually need operating systems. They are there for reasons of backwards compatibility and commercial needs. What do you make of that one?

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Asterisk: telephony

Van Meggelen, Smith, Madsen, Asterisk: the future of telephony,

Maybe you've already heard of Asterisk, which is basically an open source PBX (private branch exchange) that runs on a computer. For purely PBX use, the user is freed from proprietry solutions that cost a bomb and are usually retarded in development and operational senses.

So, at the beginning you can run a PBX with basic sort of equipment but as you progress you can do all sorts of interesting things including having interfaces to VOIP and wifi.

This book takes you through the initial equipment selection (Asterisk will need its own machine unless you're just playing), installation, and setup. Because the app has a lot of adjustables, there is a lot of configuration to be done and this book seeks to help you out. And it will.

There are all kinds of possibilities here that will continue to be explored. One of the best is VOIP over wifi -- no wires, no phone company. Those of us who live in places with greedy telcos can hardly wait.

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Mon, 03 Oct 2005

Geek Chic

Neil Feineman, Geek Chic, Thames and Hudson

While the words "Geek" and "Chic" might at first thought have some difficulty inhabiting the same sentence, the author would have it that this geek thing is now everywhere, and it is, dare we say it, cool.

The geek world has always been inclusive but it was never a matter of just wearing the wrong fashions. The substance of the thing has to do with real learning and sometimes badly executed enthusiasm which might well be totally impervious to the disinterest of those surrounding.

This book isn't about clothes fashion. It consists of a whole bunch of paragraphs in a tiny font which are joined by arrow paths to a timeline. The paragraphs deal with books, music, people, some hardware, and some scientific principles and who brought them to us.

Such an approach is necessarily simplistic at times but it is successful in the way it is supposed to be: to present a list of things in a graphically interesting way that is fun.

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Sat, 01 Oct 2005

Smartphone Hacks

Michael Juntao Yuan, Nokia Smartphone Hacks, O'Reilly

This stuff is fun. Take your Symbian Series 60 phone (and there are quite a few bits that refer to the less-smart Series 40s) and make it do interesting things that you hadn't thought about or had time to think about.

Things like using it as remote control for your Mac or PC, playing with the GUI and ringtones, reading blogs, playing DVD movies and music, and lots more. It even tells you how to set up a mobile phone friendly web portal.

The book starts out with phone choices and then gets into data plans before exploring the phone itself and then having a look at the various aspects you can play with. More to the point, it might give you ideas to do things that haven't been done yet.

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Podcasting Hacks

Jack D. Herrington, Podcasting Hacks, O'Reilly

This will tell you pretty much all you need to know about podcasting including the basics of sound recording. As such, it is more of a manual than a hacks book, but it can still be delved into in a random way to yield all kinds of interesting information. If you're starting from scratch, then this is as good a place to go as any and reading straight through will be rewarding.

When Mstation is out about we quite often have to explain what a podcast is, even to people you'd suspect would already know. A podcast is usually an mp3 audio file which is tagged in RSS 2.00 format (which adds an enclosure tag). The original idea was that they would be played on iPods or similar but they can just be downloaded and played on anything that will handle it, an ordinary computer with a soundcard, for instance. The RSS 2.00 feed is added to a blog or auto generated with a script and the feed is subscribed to by people with "podcatchers" like iPodder or iPodderX. These programs automatically download new episodes as they become available.

The whole idea of the thing was to bring broadcasting to anyone who wanted to try it -- no government licences to worry about and no big, expensive studios to buy. Grass roots voices could be heard without the filters of corporate agendas, or government regulation (so far). None of that guarantees quality, wisdom, or fairness, but then neither does the other system. In any case, it's a big, new, and interesting world and you could easily be a part of it if you liked.

Oh, and by the way, Mstation podcasts can be found here.

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Linux, Moving to and a Guide to

Marcel Gagne, Moving to Linux,
Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye!,
2nd ed., Addison Wesley, with CD

Readers of the Linux Journal will know Marcel from his regular column there which, I think it's fair to say, some people find amusing and educational while others find it annoying.

This book is not annoying though. It is a straightforward trip through the process of leaving Windows which is made easier by the inclusion of a CD with Knoppix Linux on it.

You are guided through the hardware situation and then on to working with Linux as a substitute for Windows -- what do I use to get my email, browse the web, play with graphics, play my toons and DVDs? etc. It's a sensible approach that is aimed at a reasonably sensible person. People who want to go on to become gurus will need another book as well.

Peter van der Linden, Guide to Linux, Prentice Hall,
 with CD

I'm not going to compare this book and Marcel Gagne's. They both cover much the same ground but with a different emphasis and a slightly different audience in mind. This book, for example, is slightly more detailed, and uses the Linpire Live CD for Linux.

It starts out looking at the desktop (KDE) and then X Windows, and then onto the internet and home networking. After that, there's email and web browsing, package handling and compiling. There are sections on burning and playing DVDs and CDs as well. There's even a section on encryption of files and emails.

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Hari Kunzru, Transmission, Penguin

The main protagonist is an Indian comp-sci grad who seeks fame and fortune working in the USA. He lands a slave visa job and things proceed to get humourously, disastrously, complicated.

If there's a problem, it's that technically knowledgable people will feel the author has absorbed a good bit about the subject but that it's all veneer and liable to fall into holes. It's like dumbed-down geekness. Another thing is the sheer unlikability of most of the characters. We can probably blame irony for most of that.

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iPod Shuffle

J.D.Biersdorfer, iPod Schuffle Fan Book, O'Reilly

Mstation hasn't seen the Fan Book series before. It has a small, graphically rich, format with lots of colour. This book goes through the cheapest iPod, the Shuffle, and tells how it works, what it does, and how to make things happen on it as well as dressing it up. The book could be useful for people thinking of buying a Shuffle to find out more about it or it might be a nice companion present if you're giving someone a Shuffle.

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Wrong About Japan

Peter Carey, Wrong About Japan, Faber and Faber

A nice but slight little book about the author and his son exploring the Japan of Anime and Manga and meeting some Otaku along the way.

People interested in the detail of Japanese Culture (and the detail is the point) will find little nuggets of interest on the way through.

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