Helvetica II: Vengeance

… actually, not really Vengeance. I already put the RAM in.

Last week we had to leave Helvetica without a processor when it turned out we had the wrong one. It was a bit of a disappointment having to go home again without seeing it start up and work… but anyway, one fairly quick Amazon exchange later and we were ready to have another go.

Gavin unwraps the replacement CPU while Alex looks on. A nearby tiger is so overwhelmed by the awesome power of this machine that it deflates on the spot.

This time, it fits!

Building the “Arctic Freezer” cooler.

Surely in the arctic you don’t need a freezer? They clearly haven’t thought this naming through.

We cannibalised the BluRay drive from Gavin’s old, much dustier looking PC. Sorry Inara!

The moment of truth. Installing Helvetica in its home under the desk. Will it work??


Gavin had to prepare for a job interview the next day so he didn’t have time to install Windows and we had to content ourselves with seeing the BIOS setup screen for the moment. That was probably just as well as after a busy few days in York and here, I really needed to get home and sleep!

National Railway Museum, York

A few of us went down to York at the weekend.

I’d never been to York before, not properly (just changed trains there a few times), but I’d heard good things so was looking forward to seeing it. Even though it’s right on the main line from Edinburgh I ended up driving us down… partly because there were engineering works on the line that day making the train slower than the car, partly because we couldn’t find anywhere cheap to stay in the city and had to book into a Travelodge by the M1 about 40 minutes away instead. Anyway I quite like long distance driving, generally I prefer it to the train except if I’m going to London, and with 3 or 4 people it usually works out much cheaper as well. (Though I didn’t much like the return journey this time, for reasons I’ll get onto).

The journey down was fine. After finding a car park and meeting the rest of our group at the station, our first port of call was the National Railway Museum.

I liked it more than I thought I would. I have to admit I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to transport and things, though I’ve never actually been a proper trainspotter… exploring semi-abandoned canals is more my thing. Even so the vast building and yard full of gleaming steam engines was pretty imposing and gave me a good chance to use my new camera to its fullest.

Seemingly, someone with similar political views to me had already been round the display:

After all the walking around we were starting to get a bit tired and hungry so we headed (via a picturesque walk along part of the city wall) to the food festival that was going on nearby. I can’t remember which stall I got my burger from, but it was very good. As we ate we had a pretty church and some Indian musicians to look at.

Whenever I go to a new city I seem to end up in Wetherspoons and today was no exception. In theory I like the idea of small local pubs better than chains but in practise you often can’t beat it for good, cheap beer. Not that I was allowed any of that tonight, though… I had to drive us to the hotel afterwards. I’m never quite sure what to drink when I’m not drinking alcohol as I find most soft drinks quite uninteresting as well as getting through them too fast and ending up spending a fortune. So I had a cappuccino and then some Becks Blue which is actually surprisingly drinkable. I also tried to avoid seeing the ending of Doctor Who, which was on the TV but with no sound or subtitles, so wasn’t making a great deal of sense.

Here's a picture of Oona and Mari in Wetherspoons instead of a picture of me, since I don't want to be unnecessarily cruel to my readers

The rest of the night took a bit of a turn for the worse due to (a) my car nearly getting locked in the car park, (b) ending up in a loud bar where I was probably the only sober one and didn’t feel comfortable at all, and (c) injuring my shin by walking into a bench on the way back to the car (yes, it was my own fault, I was looking at Google Maps on my phone instead of looking where I was going. But if the bench had been properly marked on Google Maps as it should have been, I still could have avoided it). I was relieved when we got to our hotel, glad that the man on reception didn’t notice there was one more person than I’d booked for, and pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the sofa was. I also enjoyed watching “You’ve Been Framed” which is one of those things that always makes me think “this is just rubbish, I shouldn’t find it funny”… yet somehow I do anyway.

It was lucky the settee was comfortable… I needed a good night’s sleep to prepare me for the horror of… The Journey Back.

It started off pleasantly enough. I’d fuelled the car up with plenty of petrol and myself up with plenty of coffee and we were making good time. But then, just before Scotch Corner, I felt the car losing power and the engine warning light on the dashboard lit up. I knew what was wrong instantly and was already cursing myself by the time pulled into a handily placed service station and switched off the struggling engine. Exactly the same thing had happened once on my way to work. I’d called the RAC man who diagnosed an ignition coil failure. He told me the Volkswagen Group ignition coils fail so often that the RAC carry spares of the common ones in their vans… and he had had the right one so I was on my way again pretty quickly. “Hmm”, I’d thought to myself afterwards. “If they’re that unreliable, maybe I should buy a spare one to keep in my boot so I can pop it in if this happens again”.

I hadn’t, of course. I’d filed it away in the “might-be-nice-to-do-someday” part of my brain and not done anything about it. So our only option was to call the RAC again and pray that they had the right spare part again. (If I’d been closer to home I might have just pressed on… the car is just about drivable on 2 cylinders, but no way was I driving from Scotch Corner to Edinburgh with no acceleration). The bad news was, the RAC had a 2 hour wait time and for once they weren’t exaggerating. The good news was, we were right next to a petrol station with toilets and a coffee shop and sweets and Sudoku books so it could have been worse. I played Chrono Trigger on my DS and got quite a bit further, but then annoyingly died before I could get to a save point. Thankfully when the RAC man arrived he did have a spare coil. I watched with nerdy interest as he hooked up a little ruggedised laptop to my car and got all the engine performance data up on the screen. I kind of wanted it but I think he’d have noticed if it had gone missing. Anyway I think I have more than enough portable computers already now.

So we were on our way again, only 2 hours behind schedule (though long enough for Oona to miss her train home, unfortunately), and I vowed that I really would buy a spare coil this time, ready for whenever the final one decides to die. (Of course it probably never will once I’ve spent the money). It was a sunny day and I was impressed by how nice the scenery is by the A66 across the Pennines.

Biggest Loser!

Junk mail that comes through my door normally goes straight in the recycle bin. Especially if it’s anything to do with a health club or weight loss or similar. But this one actually made me laugh…

It’s partly because I can’t work out whether “Biggest Loser” is intentional or just unfortunately worded. But mainly because of the choice of “Before” and “After” pictures. I want to re-caption it as: Derek lost 95lbs, 100cm and his happiness! Clare lost 29lbs, 37cm and her baby!

Ahem. Ignore me, I’m just easily amused sometimes. I don’t mean any harm… I’m only laughing at the people who design unintentionally hilarious flyers, not people who really are struggling to lose weight (or have lost babies).

(Weight loss is over-rated in my opinion. Over a few years I’ve lost nearly as much as Clare has, but the only real difference I’ve noticed is that my trousers now keep falling down. Even the new ones fall down because my poor stress-addled brain finds clothes shopping an ordeal and hasn’t yet caught up to the fact that I need to go back to buying 32 inch waist jeans again after years of buying 34).

Building Helvetica

I work with computers all the time, but usually just on the programming side… I don’t often get to mess around with hardware much. Especially not since I switched to laptops for my personal machine about 5 years ago… much less potential for fiddling about inside. (I used to do a lot more. My first PC lasted me coming up for 10 years but during that time almost every component was replaced and upgraded at least once. In the end literally the only original parts left were the case and the keyboard. I’d probably still be using it now if I hadn’t decided I wanted something portable instead).

So when Gavin asked me to help him assemble all the bits for his new video editing computer, I was actually quite excited.

Why “Helvetica” you may ask? Isn’t that a font? Well yes, but it’s also this…

The Helvetica Scenario

…which is way cooler and more bonkers. (If you’ve never seen “Look Around You” before, you should check it out because you’re in for a treat… it’s one of the most awesome things ever).

The parts all arrived speedily from Amazon, so Alex and I took a trip through to Glasgow last night. There, being careful to ensure there was no possibility of the Queen Atom leaving the nest, we set about putting it together.

I love the over-the-top, way too exciting names they give all this stuff. “Alpine”, “Freezer”, “Sabertooth”…

… but the name of the RAM has to be the best of the lot.

(I’m not very sure that “vengeance” is really what I want from the memory in my computer. I think I’d prefer it just to be solid and dependable, so if it was up to me I’d probably name it “Mahogany” or “Concrete” or something. This is probably why I don’t work in marketing).

The case looked very empty apart from the bundle of front panel connectors inside, and the rear cooling fan.

The power supply was the first thing to go in. I love the big fans, they’re so cool. Some people think they suck, but in my opinion they do the opposite ;).

The motherboard was the hardest thing to install. But after a bit of cajoling, it was in place.

Always use an anti-static wrist strap.

And then we hit the problem. We knew there’d be one. There always is when you try and plug a load of separate bits together. We just hoped it would be something more minor than this, like maybe a missing screw or, oh, we forgot to buy thermal paste.

Little processor, big socket. Oops.

We learned too late that not all Core i7 chips will fit on all motherboards that say they support Core i7 chips. So Gavin looked up Amazon’s returns policy…

… while I got on with installing the RAM, hard drive and graphics card. That was as far as we could get today.

To be continued…

There’s a glockenspiel on my coffee table…

… a freakin’ glockenspiel!

(It’s actually Alex’s).

There is also the score for the glockenspiel part of the next Sonic Triangle song, sitting there inviting me to practise it. Just when I’d finally got used to having the keyboard, viola, tin whistle, bamboo flute and stylophone here. (This is actually the first time we’re using a real acoustic instrument in one of our songs. Previously everything was either keyboard, drum synth on the computer, or vocals. Plus a few weird sound effects such as me impersonating a station announcer, and Heather and me screaming on Oblivion at Alton Towers).

I can probably say goodbye to getting anything useful done at the flat as long as this situation persists. I’m supposed to be working from home today but c’mon… this is like shutting an eight year old in a room with a bouncy castle in one corner and a fully functioning chocolate making machine in the other and expecting them to get on with their homework unsupervised. By the time I’ve finished hammering out the tuned percussion parts from every song I can think of, there won’t be much time left for programming.

It’s also reminded me that I always wanted a set of tubular bells to play with, not just because I love the album of that name but also for the sheer coolness. I’m guessing they’d be expensive though. Especially if you take into account having to find somewhere else to live after I get evicted for disturbing the neighbours.

Impressions of the new Ubuntu

Recently I had to re-install the OS on my little red HP Mini.

It came with Windows 7 originally, which was ok, but always felt pretty sluggish on such a small machine, even after I upgraded the RAM to the maximum of 2GB the day after buying it. I wondered if it was time to give Linux another try. I’d used it as my main desktop OS years ago, but eventually got frustrated by all the things it couldn’t do and went back to Windows XP, which seemed to Just Work in comparison. Though I kept on using it on servers at work and then on my Android phone, so I wasn’t completely out of touch with it.

I decided it was time to give it another go. After all I wasn’t going to be doing any heavy gaming on a netbook and other software seems pretty well supported by Linux these days. So I downloaded the newest version of Ubuntu, made a bootable USB key, tried it out for a while and then installed it on the hard drive.

The verdict? Very impressed, overall.

  •  Hardware support is excellent. It seems to have come on leaps and bounds since I last installed Linux. Everything in the machine and everything I plugged into it works and I didn’t have to manually install a single driver. Wi-fi, a notorious weakness of Linux, just worked straight away. My little T-mobile broadband dongle, which is what I was most worried about, came up in the available networks menu as soon as I plugged it in and I was able to connect to it without any of the faffing around with a flaky, unstable driver that I had to do on Windows. It was also better than Windows in another way: my scanner, which refuses point blank to do anything on Windows Vista or 7 (even 32-bit), and which I thought I was going to have to replace, is supported as well. Yay! All the rest of the hardware – printer, webcam, sound, external drives, etc. – similarly just worked.
  • Speed is much better than on Win7. Despite the fact that Ubuntu seems to have all the fancy desktop effects like transparent windows turned on (which Windows won’t even let you attempt with such a low powered graphics card), the machine isn’t struggling anymore. Boot up, shutdown, starting applications, general web surfing are all much faster and less annoying than before.
  • All the software I wanted works fine as well. Partly this is because I’ve got in the habit of using mostly open source software even on Windows – Firefox for web, Thunderbird for email, OpenOffice for documents, GNU Emacs for text editing, The GIMP for image editing (though by god I wish they’d change the name), VLC for playing music and movies, etc. – partly because other programs – Dropbox, Skype, etc. – often have pretty good Linux versions these days. I haven’t needed to fall back on trying to get Windows programs to run using Wine at all yet. The software installation and update system is much better as well. On Windows every program has its own separate installer, and often its own separate agent that runs in the background and checks for updates. This can get pretty annoying at times, especially when so many programs STILL need (or think they need) a reboot after updating. But on Ubuntu it’s all centralised – you can install new software from one place and update everything you have with a single click (hardly ever requiring a reboot).
  • Ubuntu can fully encrypt your personal files as standard. Admittedly I had to use a more advanced and complicated version of the installer in order to enable this, but it’s still better than Windows where you need to either spend a fortune on the “Ultimate” edition or install extra software (I use Truecrypt). I consider this an absolute must for laptops, especially after having had one stolen. It was a big comfort to know that even though someone had got hold of my hardware, they weren’t getting into my files unless they succeeded where the FBI failed. (Technical note: a normal Windows or Linux account password will stop someone from logging into your computer if they don’t know the password, but won’t stop them getting the files by putting the drive in another machine or booting a different operating system. Disk encryption makes the data effectively impossible to get at without the password).
  • There were some annoyances too. If you encrypt your files, hibernation doesn’t work, so you can’t suspend what you were doing to disk and resume it later. I’m kind of surprised at this and hopefully they’ll get it fixed soon. On the plus side it’s much less of a problem when boot up and shutdown are so much faster (Windows used to take an AGE to resume from hibernation on this computer, probably longer than Linux takes to boot up from scratch, so on balance I think I still prefer it this way). Also, the default GUI was a bit too weird and experimental for my liking… though thankfully it was very easy to switch back to something more traditional from the login screen.

Ubuntu effortlessly scans sheet music using the scanner that might as well be an A4-sized paperweight to Windows 7. Come on Microsoft, get your act together

So yeah. I love my netbook even more now.

(I wasn’t even planning to buy a netbook at all. When I had my old laptop stolen last year, I was feeling thoroughly fed up by the next day. Instead of spending the night at a hillwalking club social night and the morning getting useful work done as planned, I’d spent an hour shivering on the front steps waiting for a locksmith, then what seemed like countless more hours calling the police, waiting while they dusted for fingerprints, recounting exactly what happened what felt like a hundred times, and scrabbling around looking for details for the insurance company. So I needed something to cheer myself up. The next day I went straight to PC World to buy myself a shiny new replacement laptop, having decided my credit card could eat the cost until the insurance money came through.

But when the insurance money came through a couple of weeks later, it wasn’t actually money. It was Comet vouchers. Oops.

At this point any normal sane person would have phoned up Tesco insurance and said “um, look… I’ve kind of jumped the gun a bit here and I’m really sorry… these vouchers are very nice but could you possibly pay off my credit card bill instead? Pleeeeease?”. But being me I didn’t do that of course. What did I do? I shrugged my shoulders, went to Comet and came back with a flat screen TV and a netbook that I hadn’t really planned on buying. So it worked out in the end I guess).

Sonic Triangle: how it’s done

What better way to inaugurate this new blog than with a post about how our band records our music? (Well actually, there are probably lots of better ways… but this is my blog so I’m just going to do whatever the hell I like 😉 )

We’ve done 8 songs and a video so far. In the video you get to see my flat, my office and most of my drive to work as well as some random locations around Edinburgh. We’re a bit of an unusual band. It’s difficult to say what our style is or who we’re similar to, so draw your own conclusions. For those who are interested, the music (apart from the drums and vocals) is all played on one of these:

…my faithful Casio WK-3000. Considering Casio isn’t exactly a renowned synth company I’ve been continually amazed at how nice it is. The sound quality and number of features are excellent, far better than I expected when I bought it. With touch-sensitive keys and a proper sustain pedal plugged in it even works as a decent portable piano. The one drawback of that is that the keys aren’t very weighty compared to a proper piano’s, but you can’t have everything.

There are typically up to around 10 keyboard tracks per song. We record them one at a time in high resolution using an external SoundBlaster box connected to my laptop and a free program called Audacity (though currently switching to Goldwave instead due to Audacity’s infuriating tendency to crash suddenly right at the end of a good take of something long and difficult). Then Alex fiddles with them and mixes them using Magix studio (I think… or maybe he’s switched to a Sony studio now), imports the drum track which is done in a program called iDrum, and mixes in the vocals. None of the software or hardware we use is particularly expensive but we’re pretty happy with the results. (Mostly… the bass lines could be better. The keyboard bass voices aren’t its strongest point. Maybe we’ll find a way to improve on them).

We’ve never played live yet. It would be a bit of a challenge but I’d really like to. Alex has recently bought himself one of these:

which I’ve had a play with and I reckon we could do passable live versions of some tracks with the 2 keyboards. He has a glockenspiel now as well, but that isn’t used in any of the tracks so far… those are all-electronic apart from the vocals.

(My own taste in music is pretty much as weird as the band’s style. I expect I’ll say more about that in future posts).