Parícutin: The Mexican Cornfield Volcano

When I was in elementary school, I had this series of books profiling the natural wonders of world that I probably picked-up at a garage sale. Most the entries were unsurprising — Mt. Everest, the Grand Canyon, etc. However, mixed in the bunch was this volcano named Parícutin that emerged from a Mexican cornfield in the 1940s. This books didn’t offer any pictures of the volcano, but it did feature some stylized drawings. The thin narrative described a volcano that unexpectedly emerged from a farmer’s field and quickly grew into a mountain. It was the sort of story that fascinated me for years and lead me to believe the ground we stand on could come alive with smoke and fire at any moment. Well it turns out this childhood book left out quite a few details that paint a more accurate picture of what happened on February 20th, 1943. First of all, the region surround the cornfield volcano is dotted with extinct cinder cones, so this is an area with a history of frequent volcanic activities. Another piece of information my old book left out is there existed a shallow pit for decades in the cornfield. It was from this pit that first fissure appeared on February 20th. The pit should have been a warning sigh since it was always warm, it could not be filled in, and strange noises were often reported coming from deep within the ground. Leading up to February 20th, there had been numerous earthquakes. On the 20th, the quakes were so frequent, villagers feared the local church would be destroyed. Dionisio Pulido, the owner of the cornfield, had headed off to burn some branches around 4:00 PM on the 20th when he noticed a fissure had opened up in the pit. He poked at it a bit, lost interest, and returned to his work. Moments later, all hell breaks loose. Smoke starts to shoot out of the pit accompanied by a piercing whistle. Not surprisingly, Dionisio, along with his field hands and family, fled the area. By 6:00 PM, a small group from the local village had approached the cornfield to investigate. By now, rocks were being blasted into the air from the pit. By the next day, lava was flowing from the small hill that had replaced the pit. The volcano was now well on its way to nine years of continuous eruption. Soon to be a mountain, Parícutin would reach a height of 9,000 feet (although it was only 1,000 feet above the original cornfield). Parícutin is believed to be a monogenetic volcano, meaning that after eruption stops, the mountain volcano becomes extinct. While there were no fatalities from ash or lava, the volcano did force many local residents to relocate and lava flows spread out from the base of Parícutin. Some interesting period film footage can be found on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website

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Add comment July 19th, 2013

Requiem for the Netbook

2012 is the year the netbook died. Netbooks are, or were, mini laptops with a footprint similar to that of a tablet. But unlike tablets, netbooks can run either Windows or Linux operating systems and have numerous ports for SD cards, HDMI cables, and USB peripherals. I bought my first netbook, an ASUS Eee PC, around 2006. It was cheap and it ran Windows XP. I needed a MIDI capable device for sequencing, and the ASUS was a perfect fit since I could balance it on top of a keyboard. Even with a lower end processor, I was still able to use the ASUS to record multi-track audio. But late last year, my netbook finally gave out after years of use and abuse. Many keys had been ripped out by my cats and the battery was providing poor performance. I guess I’ve been out of the loop a bit on consumer electronics, because I was surprised to discover there were few options for replacing my ASUS. Up until late last year, there were only two manufacturers left making netbooks: ASUS and Acer. Few retailers stocked netbooks in early 2013, but I was able to find a new Acer for pretty cheap after a long online search.

The only real advantage netbooks had going into 2012 was price, but that quickly changed as manufacturers started to offer traditional laptops at netbook prices. I suppose I’m one of the few people out there who prized the small form factor of netbooks and didn’t mind the tiny keyboard and display. For me, the only portable device that might work as a netbook replacement would a tablet running Windows 8. Something like the HP Envy X2 might fit that bill, but it’s expensive and I’m not sure it has all the ports I would need. Of course there is the Chromebook, but all of my music apps are Windows based, so that’s not an option. I’m hoping in a couple of year ultrabooks will come down in price since I’m sure my Acer will be used and abused by then.

1 comment April 23rd, 2013

Winter NAMM 2013

I occasionally blog about the seasonal National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show when interested stuff is exhibited. Like a less nerdy cousin to the consumer electronics CES show but with more ponytails, NAMM is crack for gear junkies who are always interested in new musical instruments and associated products. While most attention is lavished on what new variation of the Les Paul electric guitar is in the pipeline, I’m always curious to know what kind of new synths are on the horizon. The winter NAMM this year was pretty interesting from an electronic music perspective. The synth to receive the most attention was without a doubt the reissue of the MS-20 from Korg. The MS-20 is an analog mono synth from the ’70s that has been a popular item on the second hand market. Korg basically kept all the original electronics intact, but added MIDI, USB, and shrank the physical dimensions by about 15%. While I’m not crazy about the smaller form factor of this remake, I’m 100% buying this synth when it hits stores in April. The MS-20 has always been an aspirational synth for me, since it’s featured on some of my all-time favorite albums like Air’s Moon Safari, Daft Punk’s Homework, and Goldfrapp’s Felt Mountain. The release of the new MS-20 didn’t come without some backlash though. Many smart folks lamented the lack of imagination on the part of Korg, since this synth doesn’t break any new ground. That’s a fair complaint, since the only new features are MIDI and USB. But I’m just happy to see a brand new MS-20 I can buy for a reasonable price and comes with a warranty.

There were some other cool synths on display at NAMM in other booths as well. Moog has a new mono synth which sounds great, but has a name that escapes me (something phatty?). Dave Smith Instruments (DSI) had a new poly analog synth on display which looks and sounds fantastic. It costs a fortune, but people now can’t complain about not having options for new analog poly synths. I suppose this sets the stage for Moog and everyone’s hopes for a poly synth from them. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Add comment February 8th, 2013

Mini Review: Nexus 7 Tablet

Trying out the Nexus 7 tablet this week and thought I would share first impressions. This is Google’s answer to Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, a product not intended to complete directly with the iPad, but rather fill a niche in the content delivery category. So far, I’ve been really happy with it. For those unfamiliar with this diminutive tablet, it’s manufactured by ASUS and retails for $200 through various outlets (I bought directly from Google). Mine also came with a $25.00 credit for the Google Play — which is the online space Google uses to sell media like books, music, and movies. I really like the fact this tablet arrived pre-installed with all my Google account information. Basically, all I had to do was turn it on and enter my Google password. One of the things that really attracted me to this tablet over the Kindle Fire HD is the fact it runs an unaltered version of Android. The Amazon tablet is built on Android, but it has a custom operating system that sits on top and doesn’t allow the user to run standard Android apps. No worries about that with the Nexus 7. I also like the design and construction. The iPad has a smooth metal back, which I’m not crazy about. The Nexus 7 has a textured rubber back, which I think makes the tablet easier to hold. The screen is not quite as nice as the iPad, but it’s IPS, so viewing from an angle works fine. Here’s my quick list of pros and cons for the Nexus 7:

Pros
1. Solid construction
2. Fast processor
3. Good integration with Google apps
4. GPS and mapping

Cons
1. No HDMI out
2. No rear facing camera
3. No SD or micro SD card slot
4. Bad internal speaker

Despite the negatives, I think the Nexus 7 is a great product. I’ll even go so far as to say I like it a little bit better than the iPad (although Apple has a better selection of apps). We had a Samsung Galaxy Tab here at work a while back and I really enjoyed using that tablet as well. There are probably some folks who are just going to prefer Android over iOS and I’m beginning think I might be one of those people.

Add comment October 4th, 2012

The Golden Era of the SLR

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I was thumbing through some old Popular Mechanics magazines recently and came across a bunch of ads for Japanese SLRs from the late ’70s. For those only versed in the language of megapixels and memory cards, there was a time when cameras captured images on film (how novel!). SLR stands for single-lens reflex — basically, a camera with a mirror in front of the shutter that would flip up when a photo was taken to expose a frame of film. SLRs were a big deal back in the day since they allowed the photographer to see through the same lens that was capturing the image. You see before the SLR, the rangefinder was king. The rangefinder didn’t allow a person to see through the lens taking the picture, so the photographer had to rely on a parallax viewfinder to get a shot in focus. SLRs gained in popularity among professional photographers in the late ’60s, but the amateurs were largely ignored until the mid ’70s. One of the early consumer SLRs was the Minolta SRT-101, but this was still a fully manual camera, meaning the photographer had to set the exposure time and f-stop using dials and rings. But with advances in technology, microprocessor computing power was harnessed for use in SLRs. The real breakthrough came in 1976 when Canon introduced the AE-1. This camera allowed the photographer to shoot automatically by letting the camera choose the appropriate shutter speed and/or f-stop based on data from the light meter. The AE-1 also incorporated copper plated acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) in the camera body, which reduced the overall weight and brought manufacturing costs down. Interior mechanics were also given a modular treatment, bring the total number of internal parts down and further reduced manufacturing costs.
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My favorite SLR of the late ’70s and early ’80s is the Minolta X-570. This camera is similar in many respects to the AE-1 which I also like very much, but I feel the Minolta has a more refined designed. In particular, I like the simple arrangement of controls on the top of the X-570 which are well marked. The viewfinder is also nicely implemented with an LED display for shutter speed. Also, while Canon made great FD mount lens for the AE-1, I like Minolta’s MD lens just a little better. Plus, with an adapter, I can use M43 lens on the X-570. If you are looking a great SLR, both of these cameras are worth considering.

Add comment October 2nd, 2012

SpaceX: You Rock

A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty unflattering post regarding SpaceX, the private outfit working to put cargo and people into low Earth orbit (LEO). Today marked the successful launch of their first cargo vessel to the International Space Station. While the mission has not been successfully completed yet, I’m willing to concede I was wrong about Elon Musk and his company. In my original post from 2008, I portrayed Musk as naive. But after watching the 60 Minutes profile of him and SpaceX a while back, I’ve changed my tune. SpaceX has bounced back from their failures. What is really remarkable is how the company has stayed on track and has maintained a clear vision of what they want to accomplish. I’m not sure how much of this is Musk and how much of it is his leadership team. Whatever the case, I’m really excited to see how their future spaceflights change the LEO game. Hopefully, continued SpaceX success will mean NASA can focus on deep space exploration. I would love to see NASA move on to exploring near Earth asteroids.

Add comment May 22nd, 2012

Cold War Links

Declassified US Cold War Spy Satellite
http://www.space.com

Scouting An Abandoned Cold War Missile Base
http://www.scoutingny.com

Driving Inside the Soviets’ Secret Submarine Lair
http://www.wired.com

China Turns Soviet Aircraft Carrier Into Hotel
http://www.wired.com

Add comment April 12th, 2012

Digital Bolex

For the most part, I find Facebook to be a complete waste of time. I equate it to gold mining — you have to sift through yard after yard of dirt and rock to find that tiny fleck of precious metal. I found one of those rare nuggets last week as I was digging through the frozen tundra of Facebook. One of my “friends” posted a news article about a Kickstarter effort to create a new digital video camera. I would generally ignore this, except the headline mentioned “Digital Bolex”. Being a fan of small gauge filmmaking, this sparked my interest and I researched a bit further. It turns out there are two filmmakers who are trying to resurrect the Bolex name, but to grace a digital camera. What they are planning is not your average low-fi digi-cam though. One of the things I don’t like about my Canon T2i is the compression it applies to video. The compression is not terrible, but it puts one at a disadvantage if you plan on doing any serious post production work like color grading. The Digital Bolex will shoot uncompressed 1080p HD footage using an off-the-shelf Kodak(?) sensor roughly the size of the super 16 frame. Actually, it sounds like the footage is a sequence of RAW images instead of a tidy little .mov file like those generated by my DSLR, but turning those individual images into a video file is pretty easy. I do this all the time with the time-lapse footage I shoot. Right now it looks like the makers of the Digital Bolex are way past their fundraising goal, so I think the project will actually come to fruition. I can’t wait to see what the early adopters have to say (note: I will not be an early adopter). I the closest competition would be the A-Cam dII, which I think uses the same c-mount lens system as the Digital Bolex. However, the A-Cam dII uses a proprietary memory storage solution rather than something more conventional. The Digital Bolex uses more practical CF cards, which are relatively cheap and plentiful. There are a couple of things that don’t excite me when reviewing the Digital Bolex’s specs:

Audio Inputs: Two XLR inputs, which is great, but no phantom power. To me it seems pointless to offer XLRs without phantom power. And those inputs should also offer channel switching so either channel 1 or 2 can be routed to both channels. My DVX100 use to do this and it was a great feature I used all the time. Maybe the Digital Bolex will do this via software?
HDMI Outputs: Needed for an external LCD monitor. I think there is an adaptor that allows you to do this, but there should be a dedicated jack for a standard HDMI or HDMI mini cable.
Ergonomics: To be perfectly honest, I never really liked the way my old 16mm Bolex felt in my hands. The only saving grace was the brick-like weight. Some of the old super 8 camera makers made cameras that felt wonderful in the hand, like Eumig and Nizo. Not a big deal though, since I shot using a stabilizer rig a lot these days.

Of course the cost of the Digital Bolex won’t be cheap when they finally start building them. Sounds like they will be in the $3k neighborhood, which isn’t all that bad considering a Canon D5 Mark II DSLR runs about the same. I still have a bunch of great c-mount lens, so this camera is totally something I would love to have. But I’m not sure I’m ready to make that kind of investment for my minimal documentary work. If the audio options are improved and if an HDMI jack is added, I might consider a stretch for the camera though.

Add comment March 19th, 2012

Mini Synth Review: The Plugiator

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a synth, but honestly, I haven’t bought much lately. Typically, there’s a revolving door of music gear in my life. Normally, I’ll pick-up some old digital synth via Craigslist and then sell it six months later after deciding I don’t like the way it works and/or sounds. But my current line-up is pretty stable. Most synth work is handled by my faithful Kurzweil K2000. The Nord Micro Modular has been used quite a bit as well now that I’ve finally got my head around the software editor. And even my lowly Yamaha TX81Z has seen some regular talkbox use. One other piece of gear that I’ve been trying to dive into is my Use Audio Plugiator synth module, which I purchased used off eBay about a year ago for around $250. First off, I hate the name “Plugiator”. I like the way companies named synths back in the ’70s — Plugiator leads to smirks when people see it emblazoned on the case. Anyway, the name is suppose to provide a hint as to how the module functions, since it’s basically a host for computer plugin similar to what the Muse Receptor does for VSTs. Unfortunately, the Plugiator isn’t an open-ended host like those boxes from Muse, rather, only Use Audio plugins can be slotted into the available plugin destinations, of which there are eight. So I should back up a bit and explain that Use Audio was born when the German company Creamware crashed and burned around 2006. Creamware had developed a number of successful software based synths during their run, so basically the Plugiator is a standalone host for these. In the Plugiator, four of these softare based synths are preinstalled out-of-box: A Moog Mini emulation called the Minimax, a Hammond B-3 emulation called B4000, and a completely new synth called Lightwave, which doesn’t apparently emulate any historic synthesizer of note. The fourth slot is for a vocoder plugin, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. The remaining four slots are empty, but are reserved for plugins available for purchase from Use Audio. These include a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and ARP Odyssey emulations along with a rudimentary FM synth and a drum machine. Here’s a rundown of my impression of the plugins I currently have installed:

Minimax: As mentioned above, this is a Mini Moog emulation. It’s a nice sounding clone, although nobody would likely mistake this for the real thing since it sounds pretty sterile. As with all the plugins, there are two digital effects that can be applied to a plugin and those are limited to delay and chorus. Unfortunately, nearly all of the presets have effects applied to them. I went through and turned the effects off for all of the sounds and resaved, since I felt they really detracted from the overall punch of the Plugiator. Here’s what a I really like about the Minimax plugin though: polyphony! The real Mini Moog is single voice, meaning; only one note can be played at a time. The Minimax doesn’t have this limitation, so you can play chords, so it’s more like a Poly Moog or Memory Moog.

B4000: This is a pretty weak imitation of the Hammond B-3, but it also doesn’t sound terrible in its own right. I typically use it for dirty organ sounds by running it through a distortion preset in one of my effects boxes.

Lightwave: I use to have an Ensoniq SQ-R, which was a hardware synth from the ’80s. This plugin reminds me a lot of this old synth. The Lightwave is not really a wavetable synth like my Korg Wavestation, which is a disappointment, but like the SQ-R, the Lightwave has a bunch of waveforms you can select for the four oscillators with all sorts of modulation options. It’s an extremely fun plugin to play around with, but I haven’t programmed any fantastic sounds with it yet, which was also true of my old SQ-R. I think I just need to spend some more time with this plugin.

Pro-12: Being someone who has never used a Prophet 5, I can’t say the Pro-12 is a good emulation. This plugin sounds great though — once the effects are disabled. I really like some of the bass presets the plugin came with. Haven’t had a chance to try my hand at programming completely new sounds, but I think this will be a pretty useful plugin. This one did cost extra money and was not included in the module I purchased. How could this plugin be better? An arpeggiator would be nice. And a spring reverb option would be nice for this, and any of the other plugins.

One of the great things about the Plugiator is there are no latency issues — something that can be a complete nightmare with VSTs running on a laptop or on the Muse Receptor. Latency is related to the time someone hits a key to when the sound plays. In some VST plugins, you have to reduce the number of notes you can play to get acceptable latency. No worries of that with the Plugiator, which is great. One of the things that really sucks about the Plugiator is the unclear process required to purchase additional plugins, like the Pro-12 I downloaded. The software that comes with the Plugiator also includes a connection to the Use Audio online store where plugins can be purchased. My expectation is once you complete the transaction via PayPal, the needed activation codes would show-up in the interface. Not so in my case. It took multiple emails to Use Audio support before I was able to install the plugin in the module. This should be seamless and simple, but was anything but. Because of this, I would caution anyone considering buying a Plugiator since Use Audio seems a bit scattered and possibly not long for this world (the Creamware curse). Unlike some other small companies I’ve dealt with, Elektron back when I had my Sid Station comes to mind, Use Audio is not very responsive. And they don’t seem to offer any user forums. Hell, it doesn’t even look like they’ve updated their website in the past couple of years. Even the modest Meeblip synth is better supported. On the plus side, the physical construction of the Plugiator is quite nice. The rotary knobs are solid and don’t feel cheap and the all the audio connections are heavy duty. I’ve lugged my Plugiator back-and-forth between work and home and it’s held up well.

Add comment January 31st, 2012

Remembering the Scotts Mills Quake of ‘93

With the (sort of) recent earthquake in Virginia, I was reminded of our last significant shaker here in Oregon, the Scotts Mills (or “Spring Break”) quake of March 25th, 1993 with a registered magnitude of 5.6. It was my junior year of college and our school observed spring break a week before most schools. I happened to be extremely sick at the time, so when the rumbling started in the early hours (5:34 AM to be exact), I remained in bed. Really, the shaking didn’t last all that long — I’m guessing just 10 seconds. It sounded like a freight train was passing by my window though. I had one of those cheap chipboard shelves in my dorm room and had a TV sitting it. It really freaked me out to see it swaying dangerously back and forth. Overall, the quake did little damage and there were no serious injuries. In Salem, the State Capitol building needed repairs due to some cracks in the wall of the rotunda. There was a bridge in McMinnville that was damaged and an elementary school that had to be condemned. In total, FEMA reported 16 residences and 54 businesses sustained major damage. There are no known faults in the Scott Mills area; however the Mt. Angel fault is not far away. As a side note, while I was researching a history project in college I came across an article from the late 1890s about strange geological occurrences in Scotts Mills — something like liquefied sand spurting from the ground. Not sure if this might be related to a fault line in the area, but it made me wonder about the unknown dangers lurking under that part of the Willamette Valley.

The only other time I experienced a significant earthquake was in 2001, when the office building I was working in shook pretty hard from a quake in Washington. That quake was probably more like the one experienced out on the East Coast.

Add comment September 14th, 2011

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