Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Jabber on the eMate

XO side-by-side with eMate
Originally uploaded by rikomatic

I've had a bit of the One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop envy as of late. The idea of an educational project based around this amazing, unique piece of hardware is very interesting to me.

As a graduate student I wrote a paper refuting Seymour Papert and Nicholas Negroponte's assertions that the OLPC project was not about the hardware, but rather the educational project that the hardware allowed. At the end of the paper I discussed the eMate, positioned as an educational computer, and how it was a good piece of hardware that could be extended to accomplish some of the same tasks as the XO laptop.

Word Processing, Spreadsheet, Calculator: handled by built-in NewtonWorks
RSS: Raissa is still actively developed and supported
Web Browser: Originally bundled with NetHopper (no longer developed). Courier is a text-only web browser that integrates tightly with Raissa. NewtsCape is a very powerful browser.
Email: Mail V is another actively developed and supported email client, handling POP and authenticated IMAP.
Collaboration: Jan Jan Janken, an adaptation of Rock Paper Scissors, can be used to settle disagreements.
Connectivity: a wide range of ethernet cards as well as the WaveLAN wireless card are supported.

So, back to the XO envy. I asked myself, after reading this cool post about hacking around the Linux on the XO and getting it to work on the XO Chat ejabberd server that XO users are using for "testing, experimentation and collaboration via the Sugar interface," is it possible to instant message on the eMate? After all, I had a good email client, RSS reader, and web browser running on it, so why not an IM client? I located NewtonIM, an amazing little application by Jake Bordens.

Fortunately, Chris Chapman did the heavy lifting with a decent how-to. There were a couple other emails on the NewtonTalk mailing list that were also very helpful:

ChatBuddy, NewtonIM and NewtJabber
Jabber and Newton - a HOW-TO

It took some struggle on the Mac to get my head around using Psi to create an account at Jabber.org then find the appropriate AIM conduit (since all my "buddies" are on AIM) over at aim.netmindz.net (update: I moved to jabber.meta.net.nz, which has an AIM transport as well). The Newton client was persnickety about getting the proper using name and password saved, but eventually I got it to authenticate.

This evening I fired up NewtonIM and managed to catch my sister on the AIM network. We IM'd back and forth for about 10 minutes. The eMate, which does have a memory upgrade card, worked great via wireless. I had it plugged into the AC adapter because the wireless card is active and moving packets and I knew I would quickly drain the battery. Even on a 25 MHz machine, it worked without too much delay. It was pretty nerdy!

I can add another comparable capability of the eMate when stacked against the OLPC XO laptop. It was a nerdy fun experience learning about the Jabber protocol. Hats off to Jake and Paul Guyot, who tidied up the source for NewtonIM and got it working great, in my opinion. If you have the means, give NewtonIM a shot!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Peter & Ians Sing!

Not since Ergo Phizmiz's "acoustic" version of The Velvet Underground's seminal "White Light/White Heat" (which, incidentally and unfortunately, no longer appears available on the intertubes) have I gotten so excited about a so-called "acoustic" album as I am about The Peter and Ians "Sing! Acoustic Renditions of the Lost Songs of Die Klammern." This EP has been on constant rotation on the CD player and the iPod and I find myself sometimes waking up with one or another of the songs jammed in my head. I am sure this would worry my friend Peter, who with his brother Ian make up this eponymous band. The comparison to Ergo Phizmiz is not that far off: not only do The Peter & Ians claim VU as an early influence, the eclectic collection of instruments on their album rivals Ergo Phizmiz's:

guitar, vocals, lap, hand claps, whiskey bottle, knife, cookie sheet, pot lid, cat brush, pint glass, little ceramic casserole dish, glass vase, cat toy bell, spoons, fingersnaps, dancin', ballpoint pen, cat toy stick, whistlin', cardboard boxes, ruler, mouth trumpet, glass wine jug, etc.

All of these instruments can be found on Peter's wonderful cover art, pictured above.

Peter played the album for me back in October when I went down to Portland to battle the brothers on Ian's Wii. I dug the eclectic sounds of the songs and the vocal stylings: one song, "Water," reminded me in particular of Alexander "Skip" Spence's sound on his haunting Oar album. So I was especially psyched when he visited in December and brought me a copy of the EP. I got so hooked on it that I asked The Peter & Ians if I could interview them about the album and their music. They obliged, and since they now live in Portland we used the intarweb to send a list of questions that Meg and I generated.

Tell me about Die Klammern

Klammern is an old family name from Luxembourg which we chose in honor of our great-grandfather who was a tuba maker there. In old diaries we've inherited we also found out that he was a religious man (he liked Jesus) and organized tuba concerts on Easter and Xmas and the like. He described one Easter tuba concert where he and his buddies got wasted and started stuffing sausages down his tuba, like 50 pounds of this shit, until it finally squirted out the mouthpiece and they were able to use the tuba valves as a sort of sausage dispenser: just press one down and a little sausage nugget would squirt out. He said if you pressed the first valve, the sausage would be bratwurst, but by pressing the third valve, more of a liverwurst would emerge. He didn't say what the second valve yielded. Anyway, when our present day family decided to carry on the music making tradition of our great-grandfather, we felt we should honor him by naming ourselves after him: Die Klammern Family Singers...

Did you and Ian play music together as young kids? When did you start performing together? Was your sister ever involved in your music?

...Die Klammern Family Singers began in our teenage years, and it did include our sisters. In addition to learning songs like "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "My Favorite Things," we mainly used the "band" as an excuse to be able to sing the Velvet Underground classic "Sister Ray," mainly so we could sing the immortal lines: "She's busy suckin' on my ding-dong!" and "Whip it on me Jim! Whip it on me Jim!" In fact, "Sister Ray" was the only song any of the Family Singers ever sang. Years later, after the sisters had left to pursue baby-factory economics, the remaining Klammerns decided to form a "traditional" rock band. The name was shortened to Die Klammern (there could only ever be ONE sausage-stuffing Jesus/tuba aficionado), and we began to write rock 'n' roll ditties and perform at empty dive-bars at one a.m. on Tuesday nights.

I love the characters in this album. It seems to me that each song has a different narrator, a different voice, which is emphasized by the fact that each song sounds distinct. Yet there are common threads of emotion throughout the album: longing, desire, possession, loss. Can you talk about the characters in your songs, where they are coming from, what their stories are?

The songs on "The Peter & Ians Sing! Acoustic Renditions of the Lost Songs of Die Klammern" are exactly that: songs we never got around to recording while lugging amplifiers around while in Die Klammern. So these characters you mention were born out of the beer/3 a.m./Nintendo days of yore. When The Peter & Ians decided to unearth these lost songs, the songs got filtered through our sense of selves in this day and age: more of a whiskey/2 a.m./Nintendo vibe. As far as the specifics of a song, the legend of old tuba-stuffer Klammern lives on in the pious attention to Jesus in songs like "Water" and "JC." Since everyone in this world is a Christian by onslaught anyway, we (subconsciously?) decided to add our Jesus commentary to the mix. Either that or it's all we could think of as we frantically scribbled our lyrics on the back of our hands on the way to our first gig, straining madly to think of a word that rhymes with "dues."

For an album that purports to be acoustic, there is quite a complex mix to this album. Listening to it on headphones or in my car I really have the sense of the room in which the album was recorded, and you did an awesome job panning sounds around the mix. Can you tell me about the recording process and production for this album?

We are quite flattered that you describe aspects of our recording as "awesome." The photograph on the cover of the album is very true-to-life: we set up an old shit-box laptop one open window away from death on a desk in a tiny apartment, downloaded the free recording program "Audacity" off this world-wide-web of ours, and made some sounds. We were sad not to have these old songs to listen to so we could stroke our little egos, no, BIG egos, stroke our BIG egos, not that we NEED to stroke them, mind you, so we got set up in about five minutes, did a level check, and pressed record. Don't nobody go stealin' our secrets now!

You have a strange collection of instruments on this album. What was the inspiration to use things like cat toy, whiskey bottle, or cookie sheet?

The inspiration found in using instruments like cat toys or cardboard boxes stems from the same spirit we had going into the recording described above. If you need that "cookie sheet" sound, well, there's a dirty, crusty old cookie sheet in the kitchen just waiting to be banged on. It may be the old "Necessity is the mother..." thing, but a regular drum kit can be boring. Cookie sheets and ball-point-pen drumsticks are far more exciting. Plus, a drum kit was too "Die Klammern." If the guitars were to be acoustic, then somehow the percussion should be as well. Plus, we don't know how to play the drums. We decided to use hand-claps and snapping because those are things we can manage. We decided to use a whiskey bottle because we like to drink whiskey. "Whiskey is the father of invention".

How did this project differ from previous recording efforts?

Most recordings having to do with Die Klammern or the Family Singers were done on our own. We have to have complete control over our music: writing, producing, recording, mixing, blah blah, packaging, distributing, etc. Everyone should do it this way because we say so. Letting any of these aspects fall to anyone else is bad for the soul. These are your ideas and you know how to execute them. And if you don't know how, you'll find out. So there.

You can check out four of the six tracks from the "Sing! Acoustic Renditions of the Lost Songs of Die Klammern" EP over on The Peter & Ians' Myspace page. They will soon be selling the EP, which you really ought to buy simply for the liner notes and album art. The Peter & Ians are currently holed up in a studio apartment with a bottle of Inventing Whiskey working on a full-length album to be released in late spring/early summer. Until then I'm keeping The Peter & Ians EP in rotation; you should, too!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Creating a Better Rat Trap

Mr. Krishnan Chinnapayan, the Christian Science Monitor reports, is the proud new recipient of a better rat trap. Mr. Chinnapayan, a member of the Irula Hindu caste, has the unenviable job of catching rats, a pest endangering the crops of more than 100 million small farmers in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Traditionally, Mr. Chinnapayan and other members of his caste would use a hand-operated air pump to flush the rats from their burrows using smoke. The work was dirty and inefficient: four or five rats could be caught a day using this method. This hardly makes a dent in the rat population, with a female rat producing upwards of 1,000 offspring during her lifespan.

The new steel rat trap, shown above in a photo taken from the SFGate.com, uses a hand-operated air pump that reduces the risk of burns and respiratory problems caused by the old pumps. The Development of Disadvantaged People in Chennai introduced the new traps in 2004. Using such traps, catches have increased to between 15 and 20 rats a day.

Using a World Bank grant, Sethu Sethunarayanan, was able to provide 4,000 Irula families with the new traps. He plans to some day provide the traps to all Irula families through a credit installation plan.

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Favorite Place: A Multimedia Narrative using Google Earth

This week I worked on a project with a couple of second grade classes to identify the students' favorite places on the island on which they live. You can read about the project over on my work site.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Love for Sale: The Jerri Miller Interview

On January 1, 2008 finally I was able to release the podcast I made out of an interview with a dear family friend, Jerri Miller, who, under the name Jerri Adams, recorded 27 singles and a number of jazz vocal albums during the 1950s.

Meg and I had gone to Jerri and her husband Art's house a while back and recorded about an hour and a half of footage of Jerri talking about her career. It was pretty free-form; I asked her to start from the beginning and tell her life story, and she had conveniently brought out press clippings, articles, albums, and other mementoes to help guide the conversation. The four of us (and the Miller's dog, Muff) had a great time talking and looking at the photos. The music, some of which I had listened to on the drive over, but most of it unheard by Meg or me prior to the interview, was amazing and fun.

I got pretty overwhelmed by the amount of the footage we had: what was I going to do with an hour and a half of recordings that would be engaging, would tell a story, would make a good podcast? I returned to the book Gary Stager suggested we read in Pepperdine's OMET program when we learned to podcast: Radio: An Illustrated Guide by Ira Glass and Jessica Abel. An illustrated primer to how Ira Glass and others produce "This American Life" for National Public Radio, the book contains invaluable advice for anyone wishing to make a podcast, too. In it I found the solution to my problem: creating a log of the interview. I played the footage (recorded in GarageBand on my Mac) back while I used my eMate to write one word or short phrase descriptions of the conversation. Transcribed this way, the conversation was ten pages long. Now I was able to get my head around what was said and a story emerged: how one woman, through dedication, talent, and hard work, achieved her dreams. I was then able to create a three page outline that combined my ideas with the dialog from the interview.

I had to go back and edit the dialog I recorded: there was too much of me in the interview saying, "Uh-huh," or agreeing. In future interviews it is important to keep this in mind: keep the person you are interviewing engaged, but do it through body language, not by saying "yes" or otherwise getting oneself woven into the recording. Editing myself out of the footage gave me all of the clips of Jerri and Art I needed, clarified some of the outline that resulted in reordering some of the clips, and prepared me to write my narrative, a three page transformation of the outline to include what I would record to go between the clips, to bring together a narrative, and to ask the questions that propel the narrative.

I was extremely pleased with how the final podcast turned out: it sounds really polished, like I know what I am doing. I like the way I was able to incorporate Jerri's music, through the CD I have as well as the music Jerri played for us and which recorded well enough to use. If you are at all into jazz, give it a listen: it is a very interesting piece of jazz history.