Friday, November 2, 2007

The Zune, Surprisingly Enjoyable

I bought a Zune off of woot.com at a huge discount and tried it out. It's really a nice little box that compares favorably with the iPod.

The prices of Zunes have dropped to the point where I couldn't resist buying a 30 gig refurbished model off of woot.com the other day. (My 2004 vintage iPod is only 10 gig.) They've always seemed like attractive little devices to me, and lately the buzz has been that Microsoft did a pretty nice job with the latest software release.

Packaging and Out-of-Box Experience


Ever seen the parody of what Microsoft would do to the iPod packaging if their marketing had a chance? (I think it is here on youTube.) Word has it that Microsoft itself made that parody. Well, that bit of self-knowledge shows in the packaging for the Zune, which for Microsoft is surprisingly subtle, artsy and tasteful (except maybe for the silly "Come to the Social" slogan that appears on the inside). The Zune itself is in the center of the box, and the headphones, USB cable and CD-ROM are tucked away in clever little compartments of their own.

Hardware and Casing


It comes with no separate AC cord/plug...you use the USB cable for recharging.

Of course it has a big color display which you have to see to appreciate. When it shows pictures or movies, it flips to portrait mode, and the axes of the control buttons switch too (nice). There also many ways in which the display shows multiple dimensions of information at once (see my description of scrolling below), or overlays one set of information with another (like putting track information on top of the album cover). Very attractive.

It's lighter weight and has less heft than the iPod. The audio quality seems like it might be a notch better than my iPod, although in fairness my iPod is not a very recent model.

I deliberately chose the brown model. Although woot.com seems to think brown is absurdly ugly (and they slashed $20 off their price recently if you chose a brown one), I think the design is quite beautiful. The brown plastic is translucent and has green trim that is differently visible depending on how you hold it. As their marketing material shows, it is quite nice looking against a natural background (e.g. grainy woods).

Controls


The buttons pretty much replicated what an iPod has. There is a pause button that also turns the unit off (although you have to hold it down much longer than on an iPod). A left-arrow button replicates the Menu button on the iPod. There is a large center button, that resembles the iPod wheel. The left, right, up, down and center parts of the wheel are clickable like the ipod, but there is no wheel control itself (which must be patented on the iPod?).

While you are in track mode, right/left are forward/back one track, or fast forward/reverse when held down (but you can't hear the music in fast mode); up/down change the volume. Center button gives you more detail on the song and gives you access to ratings. It's nice that control over volume, track change and track location are always there for you, as opposed to the three-way mode on the iPod. On the down side, setting a rating (if you're into that kind of thing) is more of a bother, requiring more clicks than the iPod.

In other modes, the wheel-like button provides customary click-to-select, up/down, left/right navigation through the various menus.

At first I thought the lack of a wheel control would mean slower, more tedious navigation through a long list of songs or artists. Not so. Similar to wheel twirling on the iPod, the longer you hold the button up or down, the faster it goes (just like twirling the ipod wheel) and...here's a brilliant creative stroke...a large display showing the first letter of the item at the current scroll position, so you see the alphabet flying past as you scroll. It's a bit hard to describe. But I find it much easier to use than iPod's scroll.

The on/off functionality of the pause button has slightly different behavior from the iPod: one click turns the device back on in a neutral state, while a second click resumes to the track you were last playing before you shut down.

Pressing the next or previous buttons to change songs changes the audio right away, but leaves the information of the previous song on the screen for a few seconds. This seemed strange at first, but I appreciate it now as a smart feature: usually you change tracks after your player has been idle for a while, and therefore the screen is unilluminated; this way, you see where you were at first before switching.

The battery charge icon, when being charged, not only shows a "now charging" animation, but it shows the amount of charge currently attained as well; I haven't seen that on other portable devices.

The Zune gives you control over randomizing the same way as the iPod (randomize song or artist or album, etc.) but it improves on one thing that drives me crazy about the iPod. When you start a playlist, the iPod always picks the same starting song to randomize on; the Zune always picks a new first song.

Synchronizing and the Zune Client App


The Zune client app is not as easy to use as iTunes, or at least it seems that way to me so far. It has the ability to distinguish between songs that are in your "library" (i.e. the sum total of all your music on your hard drives) and what you actually put on your Zune, but controlling that is somewhat mysterious. With iTunes, adding new tracks to your library or the iPod defaults to being essentially the same thing; with the Zune, you add to the library by dragging files to one place, and add to the Zune by dragging to somewhere else. When something is on your Zune, and you don't want it there any more, exactly how you're supposed to remove it is also obscure. I tried to remove some tracks several times in a row...they appeared to go away at first, but then they came right back again. Eventually through trial and error I got the tracks removed, but the app is definitely lacking in intuitiveness.

Synchonization speed seems strangely slow compared to the iPod, even when I've confirmed that USB 2 is in use. Visually, the Zune app provides more information during sync, in the form of animated progress bars for each song, which is visually cool. But it made me wonder if iTunes batches its songs to sync, and Zune is slower because it does each one in sequence.

On the very first sync, the Zune copied my playlists from my iTunes...obviously it snuck into iTune's external XML file to do that...which was kind of a nice way for me to bridge my listening habits from iPod to Zune. But for this to work, you have to allow Zune to process your entire hard drive(s) of music into its Zune library, which is amazingly slow.

iTunes provides nice Finder or Windows Explorer style navigation panes and sorting capabilities. The Zune app seems to offer less information. For example, I can't see any way to sort by ratings.

Speaking of ratings, there are five stars available like the iPod, but only the iPod offers a "no stars" setting. So effectively the Zune has one less rating possibility than the iPod. For a new track, the Zune defaults to a three star rating, whereas the iPod defaults to no stars. I happen to be particularly attached to ratings...I use them to manage which tracks I want to eventually remove from my iPod...so I'm not excited about having to re-tool my habits for the Zune.

Radio and Wireless


The onboard FM radio is a nice touch that gives your player extra possibilities. I've noticed that when I show my Zune to people who are frequent radio listeners, they immediately begin coveting the Zune.

I can't quite imagine what Microsoft had in mind when they put on wireless capabilities on the Zune. All it lets you do is (1) find if there are other Zunes near you and (2) share songs with them. Their slogan "Come to the Social" seems to imply that they enivision people gathering at Starbuck's and squirting songs to each other...uh, right. It seems to me that they should have put texting ability on there as well; that way you could actually make friends with your Zune.

Am I Joining the Other Team?


The Zune is just about nice enough for me to make it my fulltime player. Certainly the cheap price, the 30 gig capacity and the nifty visual features are a temptation over my older 10 gig iPod. But when all is said and done, iTunes is a better app and makes more sense to me. I may use this experience as an excuse to upgrade to a better, and larger capacity iPod. But I wouldn't have any trouble recommending the Zune as a player of choice to someone who wasn't habituated by iTunes.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The SHARC Timbre Dataset v. 2.0: XML Format

SHARC is a dataset of musical timbre information that I collected by analyzing over 1300 orchestral musical instrument notes. Specifically, the information is amplitude and phase data from a selected steady-state portion of each note. The dataset is now available in XML format.

Some time ago, when I was a grad student, and while holding various fellowships after I got my PhD, I did research in music, human hearing and digital audio (see my publications). One of the projects I undertook was to compile a collection of information on musical instrument tones, which I called SHARC ("Sandell Harmonic Archive").

I've described SHARC in a few places before: in an article from 1991, and in the release notes from the original distribution. Briefly, though, what I did was this. I had a collection of CDs consisting of individually performed notes of all the standard instruments of the orchestra, one recording for each note in the respective instrument's playable range. For each note, I chose a middle portion of the recording, during the note's steady state, and performed a spectrum analysis. I saved the amplitudes and phases of all the harmonics of the pitch's fundamental frequency up to a ceiling of 10kHz.

In my first version of the distribution (which you can still download in compressed tar format), SHARC consisted of a series of files, one for each note that was analyzed, organized into directories by instrument. That was 1994; since then, XML has come into being and I've now released SHARC in an XML format.

I'm calling this SHARC's "2.0" release, and back-versioning the original distribution to "1.0" (even though I timidly referred to it at as version 0.921 at the time). In this blog article, I'll describe the design of this 2.0 version, for the convenience of anyone who would like to work with it.

Let's consider the XML that specifies a single instrument and all of its notes, and their harmonics. The rough outline of the XML is:



<instrument>
<note> <!-- first note -->
<a/> <!-- harmonic 1 -->
<a/> <!-- harmonic 2 -->
...etc...
</note>
<note> <!-- second note -->
<a/>
<a/>
...etc...
</note>
...etc...
</instrument>



The <instrument> element has the following attributes:
  • id: the instrument's short name, containing no spaces, suitable for variable names and querystring parameters
  • name: the instrument's longer, more descriptive name
  • source: the cd from which the tone originated
  • cd: the volume of cd
  • track: the track on the cd
  • numNotes: the number of notes for this instrument


Here is a sample <instrument> element:


<instrument
id="CB_pizz" name="Contrabass (pizzicato)"
source="McGill" cd="1" track="18"
numNotes="41">


The <note> element has the following attributes:
  • pitch: the notes pitch and octave number, e.g. c4 = middle C. Sharps are specified with the letter s, e.g. 'fs4' rather than 'f#4'.
  • seq: the sequential order number of the note in the series (i.e. starting at 1 with the first note)
  • keyNum: numerical location of the pitch on a piano keyboard, where middle C = 48
  • fundHz: the frequency of the note's fundamental (e.g. a4 = 440)
  • numHarms: the number of harmonics (i.e. the number of <a> elements to follow)



Here is a sample note element:

<note pitch="cs1" seq="2" keyNum="13"
fundHz="34.648" numHarms="287">


Finally we have the harmonic data itself, contained in the <a> element. The harmonic amplitude value is the text node of the element, expressed as a linear value (i.e. not in dB). The attributes for the <a> element are:
  • n: the sequential order number of the harmonic in the series (i.e. starting at 1 with the first harmonic)
  • p: phase, expressed in the range between negative and positive pi


Here is a sample sequence of a few <a> elements:

<a n="1" p="-1.686">32.91</a>
<a n="2" p="0.309">2131.69</a>
<a n="3" p="1.764">5878.0</a>


Using the brief names 'n' and 'p' keeps the size of the XML document lower. For similar reasons, the frequency of each harmonic is not given. To obtain the frequency of the harmonic, you simply multiply the value of the "n" attribute by the value of the "fundHz' attribute of the 'note' element.

As I said, that is a rough sketch of the XML; to simplify the explanation I left out some of the detail. In addition to what I have discussed so far, each instrument element, and each note element, has a sibling element <ranges> which contains useful metadata. Here is a sample <ranges> element for an <instrument> element:


<ranges>
<lowest>
<harmonicFreq harmNum="1" keyNum="12"
pitch="c1">32.7
</harmonicFreq>
<pitch
fundHz="32.7" keyNum="12">c1</pitch>
<amplitude freqHz="8449.15" keyNum="22"
pitch="as1" fundHz="58.27"
harmNum="145">0.0</amplitude>
</lowest>
<highest>
<pitch fundHz="349.22"
keyNum="53">f4</pitch>
<harmonicFreq harmNum="151" keyNum="25"
pitch="cs2">10463.69</harmonicFreq>
<amplitude freqHz="261.62" keyNum="48"
harmNum="1" pitch="c4"
fundHz="261.626">15389.0</amplitude>
</highest>
<pitches>c1 cs1 d1 ds1 e1 f1 fs1 gs1 a1 as1
b1 c2 cs2 d2 ds2 e2 f2 fs2 g2 gs2 a2 as2
b2 c3 cs3 d3 ds3 e3 f3 fs3 g3 gs3 a3 as3
b3 c4 cs4 d4 ds4 e4 f4
</pitches>
</ranges>


The logic behind the <ranges> element is mostly convenience for applications that will be constructing graphic plots from the data. For example, having the highest and lowest frequency specified here, rather than making it necessary to traverse through the data to find it, makes it easier for a program to set up the minimum and maximum for a graphic plot. The <pitches> element is another convenience that keeps the user from having to issue a thorny xpath query just to get a list of all the instrument's pitches.

Let's drill down into the details of this <ranges> element. The text node of the ranges/lowest/harmonicFreq element is the lowest frequency of any harmonic in the entire instrument's collection. Obviously, this is always harmonic 1 of the instrument's lowest note. The attributes for harmonicFreq convey this, as well as the pitch (c1) and keyNum (12). The element ranges/lowest/pitch contains the same information, but described in terms of the lowest pitch and its fundamental frequency. This redundancy has little impact since it is occurs just once for the instrument. Information about the lowest amplitude harmonic to be found in the instrument is given in the ranges/lowest/amplitude element. For the instrument in question, this honor goes to a#1 (keyNum of 22, fundamental frequency of 58.27 Hz), 10 semitones above the instrument's lowest note, the 145th harmonic (frequency of 8449.15 Hz).

The ranges/highest element provides equivalent data for the highest harmonic frequency, highest pitch and highest amplitude.

Here is a sample <ranges> element for an <note> element:

<ranges>
<lowest>
<amplitude freqHz="6475.19"
harmNum="198">0.0</amplitude>
<harmonicFreq
harmNum="1">32.7</harmonicFreq>
</lowest>
<highest>
<amplitude freqHz="98.1"
harmNum="3">2335.0</amplitude>
<harmonicFreq
harmNum="303">9909.0</harmonicFreq>
</highest>
</ranges>


This element provides data similar to instrument/ranges, but in terms of the highest/lowest frequency and amplitude harmonics for the note in question.

The XML was designed in a way that the entire SHARC dataset could be combined into a single XML file (i.e. as a series of instrument elements), and this file is in fact available for download in zip format. However, this file is quite large (nearly 3 meg), which will put quite a burden on parsers, and especially DOM parsers. For more efficient processing, I have placed each instrument into its own dataset file.

For a summary, here is a shorthand showing the overall design of the xml, with attributes shown in red and text nodes in blue:


tree

instrument (id, name, source, cd, track, numNotes)
ranges
lowest
harmonicFreq (harmNum, keyNum, pitch) [frequency]
pitch (fundHz, keyNum) [pitch]
amplitude (freqHz, keyNum, pitch, fundHz, harmNum) [amplitude]
highest
(all same as lowest)
note (pitch, seq, keyNum, fundHz, numHarms)
ranges
lowest
amplitude (freqHz, harmNum) [amplitude]
harmonicFreq (harmNum) [frequency]
highest
all same as lowest)
a (n, p) [amplitude]


I'm not attached to this particular XML design, and I may come out with a 3.0 version some day. One change I expect to make in a future version is to move a lot of information that is in attributes to elements, which means that more queries would return element nodes that could be further processed. Another idea I have is to make a secondary, "bare bones" release, that would have no metadata, for quicker processing.

Enjoy playing with the data!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Syncing a handheld with Vista

I own an iPaq rz1710 running Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition and I have been syncing it to Outlook data on Win XP for several years now. Before that, in the Win2k days, I had Win CE devices that I synced up. With Vista I couldn't get the Outlook data to sync up...at first. After fighting with it for a while, I finally figured it out.

A few basics: ActiveSync on the desktop has been replaced by "Windows mobile Device Center" (WMDC), while ActiveSync remains on the handheld. Your Vista machine may already have WMDC, but there is a critical upgrade you need to get from Microsoft (easily found if you search on WMDC). Whether you're installing WMDC or upgrading it, have your handheld connected by USB (or whatever you use) during the upgrade.

After getting WMDC upgraded, my desktop and handheld formed a parternership right away, but the Outlook data was not coming over. I may be a special freak case because I maintain multiple .pst files. My main .pst file actually resides on a jump drive, while the .pst that resides in the conventional location on the C: drive is just an empty shell. I noticed that when I added a new contact on the handheld and then sync'd up, the new contact did show up on my desktop Outlook, but in the C: drive .pst file. That's because Outlook regards the C: location of the .pst as primary and anything else secondary.

So I fixed it by (1) setting the jump drive .pst file as the primary; that wasn't enough to fix it so I also had to (2) delete the reference to the C: drive .pst file from Outlook. Microsoft has you do (1) in a funny way. You go to outlook, tools menu, email accounts, view or change existing accounts, then select the preferred .pst file from the dropdown titled "Deliver new email to the following location". Step (2) is done by navigating: Tools -> Options -> Mail Setup -> Data Files, select .pst file to remove reference to, and click Remove.

After that I had to shut down WMDC and Outlook, then restart WMDC. Now, when I pressed sync, I saw the little bugger go to work and download all my Outlook contacts, calendar items, notes and tasks to the handheld.

One other annoying thing about the Vista approach to handhelds is that the client software is really split between two areas, the "Sync Center" of the Control Panel, and WMDC itself. A lot of tasks seem to start in the Sync Center, but the real work (such as selecting what items you want sync'd up) is done in WMDC. Microsoft makes it hard for you to launch WMDC from the Sync Center, but here's the secret: go to View Sync Partnerships, then double click on your device.

Good luck!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

IDEA with Tomcat 6 Integration

If you like running Tomcat from within IDEA and you want to be a Tomcat version 6, you need to stick with Tomcat 6.0.10 for a while. Any later version causes this complaint to come up when you launch Tomcat: "Error running Tomcat6: Cannot find configuration of jsp built-in servlet in C:\Users\greg\.IntelliJIdea60\system\tomcat_Unnamed_7dbqbe5b1\web.xml". I noticed just the other day that Tomcat 6.0.14 came out and I confirmed that this version has the problem too.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Vista Guinea Pig

I just bought myself a Lenovo desktop machine for my home office, and it came with Vista Business. This is the first time I've submitted myself to being a guinea pig for a new, pre-service-pack OS. Here are a few reactions, gripes and maybe even some left-handed praises.


It started out of the box okay, after answering all the usual first-time-start questions of name, timezone, etc. Early on, I started transferring files from one of my USB drive to the new disk, and I was appalled how slow it was going. Despite being a 7200 rpm disk drive, the time it took for the file transfer seemed about four times longer than it would have been on my Toshiba laptop, which is a 5400 rpm drive. Eventually I figured out that indexing was turned on for optimizing search and the disk was churning constantly. Since turning it off, file transfers copies are must more reasonable, although I have yet to try a side-by-side comparison. You can find instructions on disabling indexing on the web.

In the course of loading up my customary developer software, I had to use the Explorer a lot, set environment variables, etc. (Note that whenever I say 'Explorer' I always mean the file browsing app 'Windows Explorer', not the web browser 'Internet Explorer.') The customary alienation that one gets trying do to routine things in a new OS's GUI was running pretty high for me. Like every MS-Windows incarnation before it, if you don't want to blindly follow Microsoft's vision of where your files should be (i.e. "My Documents"), you have to work a lot harder. After a few evening's work, I know how to get around, in the course of which I learned two disappointments about Vista.

Disappointment 1: Vista is just a big shiny wrapper around MS Windows XP. Once you've dug deep enough, you find that the Explorer does little more than it did before, and all the Control Panel applets offer all the same functionality as before.

Disappointment 2: I'm guessing that the motivation for the Shiny Wrapper came out of a need to "keep up with the Jobses" :-) and give Windows a glassy, 3-d look like the Mac. But the imitation is so shallow and naive. I get the impression that it was designed by people who don't actually "get" the Mac. It's like they made decisions like "the Mac uses shiny red buttons in the lower corners, let's do that and then they'll like us too"...but the end result is an incoherent mess. With the clever GUIs that Apple makes for iPods, Macs, iPhones and the like, you immerse, understand and say Wow. The Vista folks wanted Wow, but all they're going to get is, "Sigh. Why?"

Okay, having gotten that gripe out of the way, I've noticed a few good things. I'm having no trouble loading open source and developer software on the machine. I've got Tomcat 6 with JDK 1.5 running. Ant, Vim, Cygwin, Gimp and Intellij IDEA are fine. I installed all of Office 2003 and so far Word, Excel and Outlook run correctly. But I've had some problems too. My cheap-o Visioneer scanner won't load. A favorite convenience app of mine, Shortcuts Map, will load and run, but I can't close the app without using the task manager.

My user 'home' directory are now c:\Users\greg instead of the old, space-character plagued c:\Documents and Settings\greg. As far as names go, I can see actually using that as my 'home' directory, except that it is filled with the usual junk that is unrelated to what I actually use my computer for: 'My Documents', 'My Music', etc. And not surprisingly, Microsoft still presents it in Explorer as though its a special entity, like Desktop and My Computer, and not just an ordinary folder, which it is.

Another good thing is that Explorer is now remembing recently used locations. It makes it much faster to get to your stuff that way. Nice to know that Microsoft finally found a way to do something the Mac has been doing for 20 years already.

Back to what I wrote about at the top, the indexing that slowed down the hard drive by a factor of four...I guess Microsoft, showing its usual insecurity over competitor's innovations, figured they needed to make Vista like Google, i.e. searchable. And they bet the farm on it to the point that they hoped that users wouldn't mind if the first 7 hours of their Vista experience with a disk drive constantly churning and taking away productivity. Can they really be so clueless? Indexing, whether for a 160 gigabyte drive, or a giant corporate website, should be done in the early morning hours, when noone is at work, or at least on dedicated machines. Oh, they could have included some instructions to this effect: "After you finish using your new PC for the day, we suggest that you run Index Manager (tm) and leave your machine on overnight. The next time you use your machine you will find that you can search the entire computer quickly and easily." But I don't think that fits in with Microsoft's estimation of their user base's intelligence.

The conventional wisdom I've read on the net about Vista, and which I now agree is: don't be a guinea pig, stick with XP until Vista's first service pack comes out. But if you're buying a new machine, and Vista is forced upon you, and you can afford a few days to re-tool, Vista is fine. You'll just be that much more on top of things when the first service pack comes out and you'll be wanting to switch...because presumably Vista has a bunch of features that we'll be wanting. As I discover what they are, I'll write another blog entry about it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Zappa Plays Zappa" in Chicago 2007-07-20

Friday night I went to hear Dweezil Zappa's show, "Zappa Plays Zappa" at the Civic Opera House in Chicago (the home of the Lyric Opera).

The concert opened with no announcement other than a simple "hello" from Dweezil, and they launched into "Echinda's Arf", an energetic, progressive, hard rocking and difficult ensemble piece that ranks in the top five of my Zappa favorites. It was a pretty remarkable replication of the album, they had all the necessary personnel...which was true of most of what they did...while understandably lacking some of the soul and edge of the original recording.

Dweezil appeared to be handling all the guitar parts of the ensemble and looked pretty loose doing it...another thing that was true throughout the concert. This created a big impression on me because although I knew that Dweezil had accomplished much in capturing his father's lead-guitar solo style, I hadn't known he gained such high musical chops in general.

Echidna's ended bluntly right where it would have gone into "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" on the 'Roxy and Elsewhere' album. Dweezil's words to the audience were brief and very non-scripted. He gave some props to the people who had been at previous Chicago shows and other shows in general and then "well, shall we play some more?" That was as detailed as the audience dialog got the entire evening...no reminisces, nothing about what an honor, or great responsibility, etc. it was to play Frank's music. Simple, and natural.

I was expecting more, and perhaps many more might have felt more like the old days if we'd gotten a reminder of Zappa's barbs and wit. Or a reminder of his challenging insults...as I remember from a Bongo Fury concert where he suggested that we were a bunch of stooges and should just leave...or the the beyond-raunchy humor, as I remember from a concert from the Flo & Eddie period. But I'm grateful that Dweezil didn't try to recapture any of it, and I think many others were too. Even with the genetic privileges, no one is Frank but Frank; imitating his raunchy or satirical style would have fallen flat. And if Dweezil made no "pay respects" speeches, well, maybe he couldn't find a way to do it that didn't sound insincere, compulsory or scripted. So hats off to Dweezil for showing class, keeping the mood relaxed and showing best respect he could have paid...doing kick-ass music with a top notch band.

I didn't write down the set list but I got the following from this web site:

1) Echnida's Arf
2) My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama
3) Dirty Love
4) Black Napkins (w/FZ video)
5) Suzy Creamcheese
6) Brown Shoes Don't Make It
7) America Drinks & Goes Home
8) City Of Tiny Lights (Ray White joins band onstage, and remains for duration)
9) Pygmy Twylyte
10) Montana (w/FZ video)
11) Cheepnis
12) Advance Romance
13) Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy
14) Dumb All Over (w/FZ video)
15) What's New In Baltimore
16) Dupree's Paradise (40 minutes long, featuring individual solos by each band member);
17) Uncle Remus
18) Willie The Pimp
19) Joe's Garage
20) Wind Up Workin' In The Gas Station
21) San Berdino
22) IL Enema Bandit
23) Wild Love
24) Yo' Mama
25) Cosmik Debris (w/FZ video)
26) (1st Encore) Muffin Man (w/FZ video)
27) (2d Encore) G-Spot Tornado

"My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" mimicked the "Weasles Ripped My Flesh" version mostly. Dweezil's voice was leaden and off-pitch on this, but I think it must have been performance jitters because it was much better for the rest of the concert. He doesn't sound much like Frank, although at times he may have been trying to.

The five songs with Zappa video were brilliantly done. If it contained a solo, the audio of the video was cued out and the band played the music, with Dweezil performing a note-perfect re-performance of what Frank was playing on the screen. If it had Frank singing, the original vocal track was used, with the band handling the back up. Not that I'm an expert on Zappa video clips, but they seemed to be less-well-known clips...selected I suspect, because the audio available was pre-mixed and allowed for the isolation of the vocal track. I think everyone in the audience found the videos and synchronized performance very gratifying. The labor of love it must have taken Dweezil to learn those solos was the greatest tribute he could have paid.

Which got the crowd pumped, of course. The crowd was a real trip. Age 45-55, male, and eternally young is how I would have described the typical member. And there were the requisite number of "rock ladies" of a similar age group, but carrying off their role in style nonetheless. For these fans, this was their night. Even though the majority of them probably came from the burbs via the Ogilvy train station, that didn't stop them from standing, playing air guitar, shouting "Chicago-ooooo", and pumping their fists whenever Dweezil's solos got loud and fast. And there was the familiar fragrance in the air that was a pleasant reminder of the rock concerts I haven't been going to for many a year. I can't wait until I'm at the Lyric later this year for Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten and see if some of the fragrance is still in the air.

I was the most impressed with the medley of songs from "Absolutely Free", which Dweezil announced was new for this show, and "for those of you who go WAY back". 'Suzy Creamcheese' was fun, and 'America Drinks and Goes Home' was played with the appropriate piano playing and lounge sleeziness (with a word-for-word replication of the lounge singer's patter...including the beloved 'Caravan with a drum sola?'), but who dares take on the mini-opera "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" without risking utter failure? At the end of "Little House I Used to Live In" on "Burnt Weeney Sandwich", Frank acknowledges how hard it is to play. But play it they did, with nothing left out and as note perfect as you could expect that ensemble could do, in that performance space. Wow. Wow not just for the stellar performance, but for the guts to take on an item in the catalog that is a pretty distant memory in even the staunchest of fans.

The only period of Frank's output that I thought lacking in the performance was from the "Flo and Eddie" period. Like Frank, noone can be Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, but they certainly had capable singers to handle the high falsettos and the gritty rock singing. I wonder who else finds this an obvious omission, because few among Zappa fandom place their era among the top three greatest Zappa bands ever, as I do. In fact, to my amazement, many are willing to put them in the bottom three. But besides loving the music and humor of that period, I will never forget watching Frank at Bridges Auditorium (Pomona, CA) while they performed the premeire of 'Billy the Mountain', lounging against the procenium arch with a cigarette in hand and Gibson SG around his neck, unguardedly laughing and being tickled pink by Flo & Eddie's carryings-on.

Ray White was the only guest from the actual Zappa past that appeared for this show, and he performed songs typical of his era. This is where I got schooled by Dweezil on some music I should really get to know. Like most Zappa fans, I've got my preferences and I'm far from an expert on the entire corpus of Frank's works. But I realize now that I've really got to get to know "Carolina Hard Core Ecstacy," "What's New in Baltimore?" and "Dupree's Paradise" a little better.

A performer who was a real standout is the multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez, who amazingly handled several woodwinds, including the important Napoleon Murphy Brock sax parts, keyboard and lead vocals. She also dressed up like a waitress to "serve drinks" to the band during the playing of "America Drinks and Goes Home."

My wife Carol Ann, who came with me, played her role of a typical male Zappa fan's 'old lady' quite well, asking me playfully every few minutes if I was "getting goosebumps". I'll admit to that happening twice: once when the first Zappa videos came on the screen, and again after the concert, when I found a picture of Dweezil playing what is probably one of his Dad's old Gibson SG's, its vintage easily recognizable from the beat-up humbuckers and ancient-looking tremelo-bar hardware, and very possibly the very instrument I saw back at Bridges Auditorium.

Bottom line: did I enjoy it? I'd give it a 3 out of 5. Why such an average score? Playing note-perfect transcriptions has its down side...it's one thing when a group blows your mind in ten other ways, and for one of their songs, blows you away with their accuracy on imitating one song...but a whole evening? You get the picture. I think maybe also the feeling was in the air that we were all wanting to feel like we were back in the day, listening to Frank live...but for me at least, the intenseness of those concerts and albums are best as a memory and revived by the original recordings.

On a personal note, the tickets I got were a present for my recent birthday, and we closed off the evening in style by eating at Rosal's on Taylor.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Maven2 Introduction part 1: the Coordinate System

Maven is gaining traction as the premiere form of Java code organization and managing builds. The entire world won't convert overnight, but adoption is likely to steadily increase once more people get over the learning curve and conceptual difference with ant scripts, the previous prevailing model of build management. In this article I'm going to try to take a bit of the steepness off of the learning curve for you.

The big sell for Maven is the dependency management and the coherence it brings to both your individual projects, and your code development overall. And by dependency management, I mostly mean where and which jar files you use. For ant users reading this, this is a way more than what the "depends" attribute of an ant target gets you. It's a way of:


  • Avoiding confusion between different versions of the same jars

  • Maintaining only one copy of the same jar on your computer (instead of having one copy for each of your projects that use it)

  • Having a mechanism that retrieves jars (and making sure it is the right version as well) from the internet for you without you having to think about where it should be stored



Maven does this my having a highly structured approach to dependencies, and importantly, the adherence to this framework by the community who uses Maven. In this part of the article I'll start by covering the cornerstone of the Maven approach, the "Coordinate System," then we'll move on to Maven repositories.

The Coordinate System: groupId, artifactId and version


At the core of Maven 2 is its method of identifying resources (mostly jar files) by a strictly followed practice of file and directory naming. The goal is similar to that of XML namespaces and the java packaging conventions: to define items as distinct points in space according to a unversally followed set of conventions. It's simply these four identifiers:


  • groupId: usually a reversed domain name such as com.lowagie.

  • artifactId: a common name for the resource, such as itext.

  • version: a version indicator such as 1.4. Numbers and decimals are typical, but not required, values for the version.

  • packaging: the type of end product which could be ear or war, but is most often jar (and therefore the default, so packaging need not be specified)



(A side note about the groupId: there are many jars out there that do not use their organization's reverse domain name. In fact, they comprise some of the most widely used jars out there: log4j, jdom, ant, and xalan to name a few. All they use for their groupId is their simple well-known name (log4j, jdom, ant, and xalan for the examples just mentioned), and their artifactId is the same. These famous jars just happen to have been on the scene during an earlier version of Maven before the convention of using reversed domain names took hold; they held on to their old coordinate locations instead of updating.)


  1. Here is the location of a jar file named itest-1.4.jar in a proper Maven repository. The initial part is chosen by the individual user (c:/.m2/repository) but everything following that is dictated by the coordinate system:

    c:/.m2/repository/com/lowagie/itext/1.4/itext-1.4.jar

  2. In the same directory as itest-1.4.jar, you will find the file itest-1.4.pom. This is an XML file containing the following:


    <project >

    <modelVersion>4.0.0</modelVersion>

    <groupId>com.lowagie</groupId>

    <artifactId>itext</artifactId>

    <packaging>jar</packaging>

    <version>1.4</version>

    </project>




  3. In the project's root directory, you will find a file called pom.xml, and that file will contain the same lines as above, but wrapped inside a <dependency> element:


    <dependency >

    <modelVersion>4.0.0</modelVersion>

    <groupId>com.lowagie</groupId>

    <artifactId>itext</artifactId>

    <packaging>jar</packaging>

    <version>1.4</version>

    </dependency>




  4. Retrieval of resources over the internet is integral to maven. A jar can be referred to by its URL on a known repository. The first part of the URL is specific to the repository, whereas the rest follows the file structure of the coordinate system. Here is a URL for the location of a jar at the well-known repository ibiblio:
    http://mirrors.ibiblio.org/pub/mirrors/maven2/com/lowagie/itext/1.4/itext-1.4.jar

  5. Now here is a Maven command line statement. It's purpose is to install a jar in a repository, but don't worry about that right now; just notice how the coordinate system manifests itself on a typical command line statement.


    mvn install:install-file -DgroupId=com.lowagie \

    -DartifactId=itext \

    -Dversion=1.4 \

    -Dpackaging=jar \

    -Dfile=itext-1.4.jar


  6. Occasionally a point in space is referenced with a single line of text, using the format

    groupId:artifactId:packaging:version, as in:

    com.lowagie:itext:jar:1.4


These 5 situations show you most of the ways in which jars are referenced in the Maven world. There is a maddening consistency and pervasiveness to the Coordinate System throughout Maven. The more you learn about Maven, the more you discover you've already learned it.