Something for the Weakened

Archive for November, 2011

Progress

November 19th, 2011 by Alastair

That up there is the result 19 days worth of upper lip growth. Look, see, it is actually visible at that distance! Should anyone else like to contribute to the charitable cause it is attached to my face for, please go here. Many many thanks to those who have already chucked a few quid in. Ta.

What I Did (& How I Did It)

November 19th, 2011 by Alastair

What follows was originally written on October 9th and culminates with events that occured the previous day. It is only really relevant to four people, for which I vaguely apologise. Still, the rest of you might potentially find some of it mildly interesting, so here’s a spot of background. For the past six and a half years, myself and some chums have been swapping compilations on given themes once a quarter. The process of the swaps has evolved to the point where we now gather at the home of the person that has chosen that quarters theme, where we listen to all 240 minutes of ‘music’ over the course of an afternoon/early evening. This quarter’s swap occurred on the Saturday just past. I was the host and finally had the chance to put into operation the ploy that had been gestating in the back of my mind for over a year.

The seeds of the idea were first planted when I last hosted a swap. Not being in possession of anything resembling a decent stereo or set of speakers, I had planned on playing all the discs from my DVD player and through my telly. As is the tradition, the host’s disc is the first to be played on the day, so I hit play and prepared to listen. My opening track was Come In by Peter Wyngarde which, as I’m sure you’re all aware, features a certain amount of stereo panning. What I was unaware of at the time was the fact that one of my housemates was using the scart for his Playstation, so the DVD player was plugged in using the connectors that one might use to create surround effects. Knowing nothing about this, I was surprised to only hear two thirds of Wyngarde’s meisterwork coming out of the TV. I monkeyed around a bit, but couldn’t get the full extent of the sounds to come through, so had to resort to using a discman and the speakers from my computer. Everything was a bit tinnier, but at least every note on all the records were audible.

I don’t think the idea struck me on the day itself, but within the next couple of days it occurred to me that this could be something I could use to my advantage. I had a means of playing a CD in only one stereo channel. Therefore I could conceivably play just that to my guests when next I hosted, and hide all manner of goodies in the other for them to discover when they got home. Double the length of the compilation I was making. Plus it would be nigh on impossible to review (yeah, we review each other’s compilations, something I’m still against as I am all forms of competition, namby pamby weakling that I am (I’m not against it because it’s sad – that’s you that is)). Effectively create a side two.

So that’s what I did.

To create a decent 160 minute playlist I had to choose as broad a theme as possible, so decided on television. An afternoon was spent compiling a sizable longlist, comprising of songs with titles relating to the TV, followed by a few more hours whittling that down to what I deemed good enough and would fit onto the disc. This was then divided into two playlists, an A and a B. The A would be the one I was presenting as 80 minutes of compilation, the B about 77 minutes that was to be hidden. There were two reasons for my making it that little bit shorter. Firstly because I was rather keen on having a period of just the A side playing on its own before B came in, lulling the listener into a false sense of security. Secondly so I could create an audio tracklist for side B. The jape would of course be destroyed if I were to make any mention of any extra tracks on the disc’s packaging, so an audio description seemed the best way to go. I considered recording it myself, but as the deadline loomed ever closer, it seemed more sensible to acquire a programme that would do it for me (I used TextToWav in the end, fact fans). This was doubly beneficial as it was possible to speed up the file to better achieve the length of silence I wanted at the start of side B.

With this sorted, it seemed like it was time to check that the technology worked. I bought cables similar to those my former housemate had used (we’d both moved in the intervening 15 months) rammed them into the appropriate holes and had a test run with a couple of tracks from We’re Only In It For The Money.

Disaster.

I’d remembered the stereo panning of Wyngarde being complete. But playing the Zappa only resulted in a partial pan. Yes, I was predominantly hearing the left or right channel, depending on which output I connected the wire to, but so much of the other side was bleeding through that it would be impossible to hide another side there without anyone spotting it. I feared that I’d have to abandon the entire plot.

A couple of days after the failed experiment I happened to be rummaging through a cupboard at work. There I found some aged computer speakers that I’d stowed there a couple of years before hand. I had used them to play music in my office, they had broken and, horder that I am, I’d evidently decided not to throw them out. Racking my brains, I couldn’t recall exactly what it was that had gone wrong with them, so decided to take them home and perform another test.

I plugged them in. The light came on and there was a faint buzz. Evidently the power supply was fine. I stuck the Mother’s into my discman, plugged in the jack and pressed play.

The right speaker played Absolutely Free.

The left was silent.

The pan was perfect.

I squealed with smug glee. I was going to follow the plan through and could abandon the back up of buying some new speakers and purposely breaking them (which I had been seriously considering).

The next part turned out to be more laborious than I’d expected. All of the tracks I was using were in stereo, some with panning of their own. To get them onto the compilation sounding as they were supposed to I had to convert all of them into mono. Using Audacity as I was, there followed a fair amount of Googling until the right wording finally took me to a forum that gave me instructions (their own online help pages completely miss out any guidance on how to do this). Unfortunately the program is unable to create the mono files within itself, so each track had to be imported, then exported. Thankfully this was made marginally easier by my just creating two eighty minute long tracks. With that sorted, I then had to import everything again to sync the tracks up. The length of silence I was going to have to use at the start of the B side became obvious after I’d spotted that the last track on side A ended with a short gap before a fuddley dumf. As the end of side B cut off quite sharply, I simply bumped the silence forward until the cut off preceded the fuddley dumf by a split second.

To complete the illusion it was then just a matter of exporting the now joined stereo tracks as WAVs (you can’t do them as mp3s unless you pay for some sort of Audacity upgrade). By cutting and pasting them into another Audacity window, I could slice them where the tracks changed on Side A, thereby making everything appear perfectly normal if anyone happened to look at the discman while it was playing. This all went perfectly well until the very last track. I exported that without cutting and pasting and had forgotten that the original window was panned to one side. I’d also not been saving the files as I’d been going along as I A. like that little sense of danger and B. was worried that the size of the file might kill my computer (it is poo). It wasn’t until I was checking a test disc I’d burnt that I discovered that the last track only contained a mono recording of side A. As the tracks weren’t of the same length, the fast tempoed last track on side B now stopped abruptly half way through. An hour or so followed of me trying to sync everything up again, cutting split seconds here and adding them back there, trying and trying to get the beats perfectly aligned. Eventually I got them to a point where they sounded as close together as they could be and exported that last file. Listening back on disc, I’ve done a pretty decent job and there doesn’t seem to be much, if any of a jump. I am great after all.

Everything was in place. All I needed to do now was to keep a poker face throughout the event and make it appear as if nothing odd was going on. Obviously I couldn’t play anyone else’s discs through the partially broken speakers, as that would have been a massive giveaway. I toyed with the idea of faining some sort of dead battery issues and putting everyone else’s through the television, but concluded that that might bring too much attention to things, or there was the possibility that someone might have some fully charged Duracell about their person. That being out, my only other option was to position two sets of speakers next to one another. My rechargable batteries being as old and tired as they are, there was enough of a chance that they wouldn’t play constantly for 160 minutes that I’d have to change them after each disc finished. This would facilitate the perfect opportunity to switch speakers without arousing too much suspicion. All I’d then have to do would be to make up something convincing if anyone questioned the presence of four speakers.

Which they didn’t.

The fools.

The sting was made. At time of writing I await their responses. At time of posting, I believe they are all aware that something is wrong, but are possibly unaware of what I actually did. Perhaps they do now.

No No No, November

November 8th, 2011 by Alastair

This is the first November in four years where I haven’t been attempting to write 1500 words a day. Regular readers will have seen my annual attempts at competing in NaNoWriMo, as can anyone else if they care to wander through the site’s archive. The first year was pretty successful – I managed to get the 50,000 words down within the time limit and was reasonably happy with what I had at the end (which I’m still yet to edit into something I’d be properly happy with). 2009 didn’t go as well. That time I had no real story, so just started throwing up ideas and hoping that if I kept going a story would emerge that would bring them all together. It didn’t. That, combined with some lurgy, falling massively behind on the daily deadlines, the fact that I had no one that I knew to compete against (that competitive aspect really did help the first time around) and a general sense of malaise caused me to abandon that year’s go. 2010 wasn’t a lot better. Again, I didn’t have much in the way of a plot going in, but kept going at one core story rather than just starting lots of threads that I could weave together when an idea struck me. Things coalesced a little bit better when I struck upon the idea that actually one of the protagonists was God, but it became harder and harder to write as both of the principal characters were so bloody nice. Word counts began to conspire with an absence of known competitors and I once again found myself bailing.

This year I’m not even participating. Not because of the past two years failures. I have (to some degree) worked out what went wrong on those occasions and should be able to take measures to not fall into those same potholes. Not because of an absence of known competitors – I know of a couple of people having a go at it this year, both of whom I’d have happily sparred word counts with. I’d even got as far as putting together the beginnings of a plot outline, which is where the start of my reasoning comes in. To do any justice to the idea would involve my conducting some level of research, which I’d not even started by the time October was winding down. Another potential issue would be the fact that around 30% of this particular story would have to be utter filth, which of course my pure white brain would find near impossible to process. But by the start of this month the idea was not fully formed enough for me to really believe I’d stick with it for a whole month. Plus I’m still in the midst of collaborating on a project with someone and dread to think how much further they’d cock that up without my participation.

I am however participating in another month based task which involves using my head in some way. I will assume that you are all aware of what Movember is and its endeavours to raise money for prostate cancer, but here’s some more info if you’re curious. My father was diagnosed with said canker around two years ago. Thankfully it was spotted pretty early, so was whipped out before anything really unpleasant developed, but the operation still left him hopelessly zonked out for several months, which was actually pretty unpleasant. Mercifully he’s pretty much back to normal now, but it was a worrying, hard going time for me back then. It must have been so much harder for him and the way he dealt with it all has increased my love and respect for the man colossally. Though research doesn’t show that it’s a hereditary condition, I’m still hedging my bets, paranoid little worm that I am.

If anyone should wish to chuck some money at a good cause (and I don’t just mean my looking like a tool), please donate here.