Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute: Part VII

"When I bought my bike last August [2012] and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks." [edit: and some fantasy]

The Book: 
Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars is the finest piece of science fiction I have ever read. It really is. It's so good that I actually began to hate it (and its sequels). Let me try to explain...

Most of the science fiction I've read is either space-fantasy, space-opera stuff, or gritty techno-future stuff. Red Mars is neither. It's far more rooted in reality than what I'm used to. It presents a research-based look at a near-future event. It is tightly tethered to our own scientific reality. When we do colonize Mars, this is exactly how it will happen.


Yes! Exactly.

And that's the problem. Red Mars is so comprehensive, so ridiculously plausible, that I can't imagine the colonization process happening any other way. It's like it already happened. And when it did happen it was kind of shitty and depressing. It was all greed, nationalism, politics, religion, environmental destruction, and war.

So here's to you Mr. Robinson, for the Tharsis Bulge in my underpants. And damn you all the same for the Midas-in-Reverse reality check.

The Ride:
I’ve had to cut back on the number of days I can ride to work. This has a lot to do with having a baby that doesn’t sleep very well. I find I often need every last second in the morning, and it’s too convenient to steal those seconds from my bike commute. Driving gets me to work fifteen minutes faster (and is no faster coming home in traffic). But on many of the days I don’t ride, I’m just using the morning chaos as an excuse. Which is completely baffling. 

This is why commuting by bicycle is great:

1. I don't use any gas (it costs me about $100 to drive 400 miles in my truck)

2. I don't have to deal with any Los Angeles traffic

3. I get a good workout twice a day

4. My ride takes me along the ocean, beach, and the costal wetlands

5. In the winter there are stars and meteors and moonsets

6. There is fresh ocean air, which is a big deal in polluted Los Angeles

7. There is a nice camaraderie with other bike commuters (not with the "cyclists", those sneering self-important dickwads in their goofy Lycra bodysuits)

8. Wildflowers

9. Seabirds

10. Marine mammals 

Despite the daily reality of these life-affirming benefits, my own laziness reigns supreme. Laziness is tricky. It's a deceptively benign concept. You wouldn’t name a battleship the USS Lazy. But if you wanted to invoke true power, and threaten your enemies with the destruction of everything good they believe in, the name would certainly fit.

The Confluence:
Riding to work in the wintertime is nice from a sci-fi perspective. I can see the moon and stars, then the sunrise. Occasionally, while listening to Red Mars, I was able to look up at the planet itself while I pedaled. This, it seems, is one of the scenarios that makes me so enthusiastic about audiobooks. They allow you to transport the narrative experience into a particular setting, ideally a relevant one. Sure you can do this with books – read John Muir on the banks of the Merced River or something – but you still have to tear your eyes from the pages to fully experience your setting. I was literally staring at the red planet, listening to Red Mars, and this gave the story tremendous force and power. Size, scope, distance, as described in the novel, were there for me to visualize in a completely literal sense.

Elsewhere on my ride, passing the refineries, the power plants, the sewage processing plant, the airport, the towns, colleges, roads, house, etc. I started thinking about how much crap we need. Red Mars is largely about setting up camp. Throw in the additional complications of the Martian environment and it gets overwhelming. Ultimately the book is about baggage. We are such a messy, dirty lot - physically, socially, and personally. It takes so much for our societies to flourish, and at such a great cost, to the land and ourselves. We carry this burden wherever we go. Looking up at all the stars, imagining the exoplanets we will one day inhabit, doesn't exactly fill me with a sense of boundless hope. Ultimately, when we get there, it'll still be us. 

The Book:
Green Mars deals with life on Mars after the initial colonization phase and a disastrous attempt to establish Martian independence. The story is often lumbering and tedious, as it checks in with all the little factions and camps. At times the approach feels journalistic. The story continues to be outrageously plausible and fascinating, but I had trouble mustering Red Mars levels of enthusiasm. For me, the honeymoon was over. Green Mars isn't packed full of fascinating factoids about the geology and geography of the planet. And, again, I find the basic premise that humans can't escape their nature, to be ultimately depressing. I'm sure Robinson is right that evil, multi-national corporations will exploit Mars and its resources. I'm sure he's right that there will be insurrections, revolutions, and then inept leaders to fill the power vacuums. I'm sure he's right that idealism will always lose out to pragmatism. But I'm not sure if it's fun to read a book hell-bent on reenforcing such a bummer of a notion. I still love reading about the characters, the technologies, the brazen tactics of the revolutionaries (crashing moons?!?!), and the rise of the true Martians. And the final scene, though I did see it coming, is stunningly dramatic, and would look great on a movie screen.

The Ride:
One of my favorite things about riding to work is observing certain natural cycles. The time and place of the sunrise, the moon phase, the smell and color of the ocean, the bird populations and the variations of species, the ebb and flow of beachgoers. One section of my ride takes me along a jetty that is flanked on both sides by dense growths of Brittlebush.

I've watched this stuff for two years now, usually while zoning out listening to my audiobooks. For most of the year it's just a tiny, nondescript bush. It's colorless, featureless, and ordorless. Then in the spring it comes to life, growing and blooming. The flowers are brilliantly yellow and the plants smell pungent and earthy. For an entire month I ride through a gauntlet of the stuff. It's staggeringly beautiful and entirely surreal. Due to the drought in California, the Brittlebush only grew half as high as it did last year. I'm not sure why I find that observation so interesting. 

The Confluence:
Plants on Mars. Green Mars is full of plants (and animals), though the title is a bit misleading. The Mars in the novel is not a planet covered in forests. It's still very much a red planet. The humans involved have figured out how to construct enormous greenhouses where they grow crops and trees and generate artificial atmospheres. The abundance of life in the novel is often juxtaposed brilliantly against the harshness of the true Martian outdoors. How do they slaughter pigs on Mars? They just let them run outside (while placing bets on which one will get the farthest). One of the core ethical debates in the novels has to do with humans and their environment. How much do we have the right to alter? What are the consequences of these alterations? Was there anything good and unexpected? Like Brittlebush forests on paved rocky jetties?

The Book:
Where's Blue Mars? WellI just couldn't do it. Not now at any rate. I needed a change of pace. 

And boy did I get one. This book, this Dreamsnake, is one of the strangest books I have ever read. I wouldn't recommend it. I can't believe it won the Hugo award. And apparently a lot of people can't believe it either. It's one of the most controversial award-winners and it's certainly the only award-winner to go out of print. It's not exactly a bad book so much as a pointless one. The best part of the book was the narrator. Her name is Kate Fleming (aka Anna Fields). I was so impressed with the sweetness of her voice that I looked her up to see what other books she narrated. That's when I discovered something horrible. She drowned in her basement in Seattle when flood waters broke through her house's foundation. Descriptions of the event can be read here and here. The tragedy had interesting implications in the same-sex marriage debate, as her partner was initially denied permission to see her in the hospital. The whole thing is just awful. I should have read Blue Mars instead.

The Ride:
Lets talk about WD-40.

I spray my chain and gearing components with WD-40 at least once a month. The results are astounding. Nothing squeaks or rubs, and I swear my pedal pushing becomes more efficient. This is a cheap and essential product for anyone riding a bike near the ocean. Yet many people don't use it, or anything like it. I'm no gear-head, and I take no part in the cycling community. And I'm not big on giving or getting advice. But I feel like the world needs to know. For five bucks and thirty seconds of your time, your bike will run like it's brand new. Plus you can catch a buzz on the fumes.

The Confluence:
What do Dreamsnake and commuting to work on a bike have in common? It would be too easy to say the book could use a good dousing of WD-40, to get the rust off and rejuvenate a clunky narrative. But the metaphor doesn't fit. It's not a bad, or clunky book at all. A better comparison would be to say reading Dreamsnake is like getting up, showering, riding all the way to work, only to realize when you got there that it was Saturday and you could be home in bed, or drinking Mimosas, or playing with your kid, or doing all three at the same time. 

Coming up next next time on the Sci-fi Bike Commute : zombies, hermaphrodites, and soulcasting bridgemen!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Camping in Yosemite with a Baby

We recently spent two nights tent camping in Yosemite with our eleven-month-old daughter. This trip was largely about managing logistics and I hope this description is useful to anyone planning a similar trip.

Going into the experience we had three main concerns:
1) Is our daughter going to be eaten by a cougar or a bear?
2) Is anyone (mom, dad, kid, other campers) going to get any sleep?
3) Is our daughter going to be able to crawl around anywhere?

Day One:
We woke up in a hotel room in Bishop and drove over Tioga Pass. We parked at the Gaylor Lake trailhead just past the entrance station. The plan was to take this short hike while we were at the road’s summit so we could access the Yosemite High Country without having to take a long hike. Lila has been on hikes before, but never at this altitude. We packed our lunch, layered on the sunscreen, put Lila in the hiking backpack and set off. I used to be in good shape. In fact, four years earlier my wife and I hiked the Muir trail from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Things change with a kid though, obviously. The hike was steep and beautiful, with incredible views to the southern peaks and passes leading out of the park. The trail flattens out after a mile or so. We spent a few moments on the saddle taking pictures. We found a sandy area and put Lila down so she could crawl around. She likes to pile things up and then unpile them and then repile them and then unpile them, so the small rocks scattered about kept her busy. But the ground was uncomfortable for her to crawl around on. Then we continued down a short steep slope to the lake. We found a patch of  grass to sit and eat lunch. Lila was able to crawl around a bit, but she kept putting her hands and feet in ground squirrel holes which made her topple over, which was cute and funny. The view was spectacular and the weather was perfect. I highly recommend this hike. It’s short and intense. On the way back we saw a marmot, which made Lila very happy. She slept in the backpack for the last bit of the hike. When we got to the car we were worried about just strapping her into the car seat without giving her a chance to move around. With the car seat, the stroller, the backpack, and the highchair, it seemed like we might end up moving Lila from one restricted environment to the next. Eventually she would get annoyed by this and unleash her wrath. There was some grass at the trailhead so we let her crawl around. Then we loaded her back into the car and drove for an hour to our campsite at Crane Flat.

I stopped at the Crane Flat market to get a box of firewood and a bag of ice ($21.00. Yikes!)

I had reserved the campsite online. I spent a good deal of time studying pictures of the sites trying to make sure I picked a good one. I failed. Our site was on a steep slope (Crane Flat?) with a small level area for the tent cut into the ground. Having seen the other sites now, I would recommend sites 302, 304, 306, 308, and 310, as they are flat and back up on a pretty meadow. Fortunately, Lila was asleep in the car so we were able to unload, unpack, setup (and drink ice cold beer) without having to find a place to put her. The ground at the campsite was mostly dusty dirt and pine needles. It quickly became obvious that the only place she could crawl around freely would be in the tent. Fortunately, we just bought a big new tent.

At dinner time we put her in her high chair and all ate together. Bringing the high chair was a great decision. Then we pushed her around the campground in her stroller. At some point my wife started a campfire, but Lila was too restless to sit and enjoy it—though she was fascinated by the flames. We then all went into the tent and spent far too long trying to get Lila to sleep. There would be no campfire time for Mom and Dad, apparently, while Lila slept peacefully in the tent. As far as sleeping arrangements for Lila, we had a snug little sleep sack for her – an attachment for the stroller – but she wasn’t interested. In the end we just piled on blankets and sandwiched her between us. She tossed and turned all night, but didn’t cry.

In the morning I put her back in her high chair and she ate breakfast while I made coffee. At this point it had been about 24 hours since she’d had a chance to really move around freely like she is used to doing at home. Our priority for the day was to find a place where she could stretch her legs and tire herself out. We drove down to Yosemite Valley and parked next to the river across a meadow from Yosemite Falls. I’ve been to Yosemite a million times and it never fails to amaze me. The beauty is astounding.

We kicked around two ideas for the day, either hike the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls (the greatest short hike in the world, especially on a really hot day) or push Lila around the valley in the stroller, following the looping bike path. We decided to push her around because there would be no place for her to crawl around on the Mist Trail. We went to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls, then to Yosemite Village. The scenery was amazing, but Lila was getting very restless. There was no place to put her down! Eventually, we made our way to a riverbank across from Curry Housekeeping where a portion of the beach was in the shade. Perfect! Lila was finally able to move around freely. She watched ducks, dug in the sand, and even waded in the cold water (with my help). There was a steady stream of people floating down the river, some in tubes, some in rafts. I can’t imagine a better way to spend a hot day in Yosemite. Next year!

We then continued on to Curry Village to have lunch. We sat out on the porch and ate hamburgers. It was great for us, but not so great for the baby. Again, there was no place to let her move around. We then went into the cafeteria, which was closed for lunch (but physically open), and let her crawl around on the carpet in a corner. Not exactly the best environment Yosemite has to offer, but it served a purpose, and was shady and cool. Then we pushed her around the valley and she fell asleep. We loaded her up and drove back to the campsite.

Again, we let her stay asleep in the car while we had a few moments of baby-free camping. When she woke up we spread our tablecloth on the ground to give her an outdoor place to move around. But, predictably, she crawled right to the edge and wanted to play in the dirt. At this point we figured what the hell, let her get dirty. It’s all part of the experience. She immediately filled her mouth with dirt and started crying. We fed her and all got back in the tent and endured another long night.

In the morning we left the park and drove to the Bay Area to visit family.

So, should you take a baby camping in Yosemite? Should we have done some things differently? What did we get right? Would I do it again?

Well, I’m glad we went. But I realize now that Lila is the worst age possible for camping. Tons of energy and curiosity, but she can’t walk. If you want to take a crawler camping in a park and campground with no grass, you have to be okay with the kid getting very dirty. Very dirty. With no immediate opportunity to clean her up properly. And if it’s dry and hot and dusty and your kid slobbers or puts her hands in her mouth a lot, well, it gets nasty in a hurry. Yosemite is a beautiful place, but Lila couldn’t appreciate that aspect. To her, the trip was a bummer – getting strapped into one thing after another, rarely getting a chance to explore when there was so much new stuff around worth exploring. Next time (in two weeks) I’ll bring a little inflatable bed with bumpers, but I doubt that will change anything in the sleeping department (Lila isn’t a great sleeper under the best circumstances, and it’s hard to say what role the altitude played in this situation.). Good decisions included bring the high chair, buying a big tent, bringing both a stroller and hiking backpack. The campfire was a bad decision, especially when the wind blew the smoke into our tent.

I also kept thinking how nice it would have been to have a dog in the campsite. I’m a bit paranoid about bears and cougars (based on past experiences I’ve had in Yosemite). I know you can’t take pets on the trails, so I don’t know what I would have done about that. But if your camping in bear country outside a national park, a dog is a great security system, especially if it’s the middle of the night and you hear a lot of funny noises outside the tent.

If anyone has any suggestions or insight into camping with a baby please let me know.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Book Review: Echoes from the Lost Ones by Nicola J. McDonagh

Echoes from the Lost Ones by Nicola J. McDonagh – Published by Fable Press

What sets this excellent book apart from the crowded field of dystopian novels is the strong voice of the lead character, a plucky young woman named Adara. However, while Adara is unique in the novel’s bleak futuristic landscape, she is by no means unique in the world of books – a young hero with a special gift, out in the world, on a quest to rescue her brother. It is the strength of the author’s writing, specifically the fascinating speech patterns Adara uses, that keeps this novel from being a mundane adventure in which our hero moves episodically from one peril to the next. As readers, we are transported to this harsh future not so much through descriptions of landscapes, references to technologies, or apocalyptic exposition, but through the intimate nuances of language.

Adara’s voice keeps the story small and personal, despite frequent mentioning of larger events – events one suspects will take on a bigger role as the Song of Forgetfulness moves along. Often times the unique vocabulary, the inverted phrasing, and the swapping of adjectives for adverbish thingies, helps our hero describe her own body and its processes. This isn’t Tolkien, inventing words to teach us about the history of the world; this is instead a skilled author inventing words to describe defecation and menstruation, among other things. And that brings a good deal of light and humor to what is too often a humorless genre. It also makes Adara feel very real. 

Along the way, not surprisingly, Adara meets a cast of characters. Some are friends, some are enemies, and more than a few are shrouded in mystery. As these things go, we know some untrustworthy characters will behave honorably, while some close friends will commit acts of betrayal. While reading this novel I sometimes proceeded along with a sense of dread, that it might succumb to the banalities of its formulaic nature. But always my fears were unfounded as new characters and imaginative details kept the story fresh and fascinating. I was particularly interested in the character of Wirt, a sidekick with a unique manner, and a compelling and horrifying backstory. In fact, it is the nature of Wirt’s troubled past that makes Adara and him such interesting companions, as the potential for a romantic connection is complicated in ways you won't find in Shakespeare.

Another unique aspect of the book, that sets it apart, and above, other books of this genre, is its upbeat and positive tone. While the future setting is certainly grim, and tragedy is close and personal, our hero seems unflappable. Again, much of this comes through in the nature of her voice, and her humor (intentional on the part of the author, but maybe not always intentional on the part of Adara). She’s an easy girl to root for, and she earns the readers sympathy without playing the standard chords of loss and abuse and loneliness. She gets our support from this great narrative voice, that is so human and honest. The idea that she is special and gifted with unique abilities is entirely believable, not because the author simply tells us she’s destined for greatness, but because she’s genuinely drawn by the author as someone of singular quality.  

If I had to offer any criticism of Echoes from the Lost Ones I would say it is an uneven book. The characters and language are at times richly presented, thoroughly developed, and as well done as anything in the genre. However, there are times when these strengths create a harsh contrast with flatter, less successful elements of the story. Many characters are simply drawn cutouts from too many other stories, and they miss the quirky and imaginative details the author gives her main characters. Certain plot elements suffer from this same contrast. A climactic scene near the end is presented through quick exposition, without giving the reader a chance to see how events fully affect the characters. I realize this is an attempt to move the story along quickly as important event unfold in a chaotic situation. And I did tear through the last bit of the book, riveted by the sequence of events. 

Generally speaking, I was extremely impressed by this novel, which I chose completely at random to be the first (of many) books I review on this blog. Ultimately the greatest indicator of how much I enjoyed this (or any other) book is whether or not I pick up the next book in the series. I suspect the next book, which I hope to read soon, will explore the larger story, and bring more depth of characterization to some of this book’s minor players.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 3

Day 4: Relocated my “recording studio” for the third time in three days. Now I’m in the closet of my daughter’s room. It’s the only closet that’s empty enough to squeeze my body into. I did this because yesterday’s decision to basically ignore outside noise was a ridiculous decision. This new space is as quiet a place as I have access to. Other than my car in my garage. It seems kind of inevitable that that’s where I’ll end up, but for now we’ll try the closet and see how things go. I mount (okay, tape) the voice screen (now I’m just making terms up) to a box of Pampers and set the mic behind it. But before I start the day’s recording I find I’m still not ready to give up on the iPad. I don’t feel good about using the Mac laptop since it’s a work computer. There’s sex and cursing and gratuitous descriptions of defecation in my book. I don’t want to get caught up in some weird public school scandal. I also have heard that anything created on these work computers becomes the property of my employer. I’d hate to lose out on the big bucks this project is sure to generate. I do some test reads on the iPad and then some on the Mac and I confirm yesterday’s decision. The iPad records a very loud background hum that’s not there when I plug in to the Mac. This is surprising since so many people online recommended using the iPad for voice recording. Again I have this feeling of dread and frustration that my lack of knowledge is the source of the problem, not the hardware. But googling “why does the voice recorder on the iPad version of Garageband have a background hum while the voice recorder on the Mac version of Garageband doesn’t?” yields exactly zero relevant hits.

And I discover yet another problem with recording on the iPad. The voice recorder doesn’t seem to be reading gain properly. The mic has a gain dial, but when I fiddle with it I don’t see the “needle” on the voice recorder display moving any differently. Why? Why why why! On the Mac version the gain dial visibly adjusts the gain. One more reason to commit to using the Mac.

My plan for the day, now that I’ve relocated and settled the hardware and software issues is to lay down at least an hour of content without stopping to edit. I want to get a good chunk of material that’s not a test, but the real thing. I suspect it’s important to read a lot per sitting so there’s some continuity in the nuances of sound quality. I’m not going to be able to reproduce the exact same levels every time I sit down, so I need to make the most of each session. I don’t want this thing to sound all cobbled together. I plow through the first four chapters of the book, pausing and lip smacking when I make mistakes. I don’t go back and listen to everything I record. I know I have to move forward and not stress every detail if I’m going to get this done. I also don’t stress the different voices I have to read. I just do my best to give each character a unique sound. This is the most interesting part of the process so far, realizing how physically altering your mouth and face when you talk gives your vocal delivery a slight variation. So what I end up doing is screwing up my face in a variety of ways when I talk. I become the characters. It feels like real acting, now that there’s this physical component in addition to the vocals. I imagine there would be a lot of gesticulating as well, if I had an inch to move in this cramped closet, or didn’t worry about knocking down the winter coats hanging above me (winter coats, incidentally, that will stay in the closet as long as Los Angeles continues to be in the 80s this winter).

My plan for tomorrow is to edit the hour of content as well as I can, trying out different effects until I find a sound that I’m happy with. And assuming I can get something I consider to be useable, what then? Thinking about the next step gives me the Howling Fantods. I don’t know what to do when it comes to turning my 40 or 50 one-hour segments into a finished product. I still don’t know if I want to put this up as a free podcast, or if I want to try and sell it as an audiobook on my website. I don’t know. And whichever option I choose, I don’t know how to do it. I’m confident I can learn, but there is a lingering fear that I’m going to record this whole book only to find that it’s not the right file type, or it’s too loud or too quiet, or that I’ll run into some insurmountable compatibility issues. The last thing I want to do is visit to download some kind of conversion software that doesn’t work, or I can’t figure out how to make work. I’d like to think I can save worrying about all these issues until I’m done recording, but that’s not a smart approach. What I should do is try to take my one-hour of good solid content (assuming that’s what I get tomorrow) the whole way through the process. All the way to an uploaded podcast? How do I do that? Can I do that? On iTunes? On my website? Or do I mean take it all the way to an uploadable audiobook file, which it goes without saying I’m a far cry from knowing how that all works.

Wait, why am I doing this again?

Because you got a microphone for Christmas. And you always ask for shit you never use. Like the Xbox 360 you got two years ago. And Skyrim. You had to spend two fucking years playing that infernal game just to justify your request. Asshole! Or maybe it’s some high-level hardcore procrastination. If you weren’t recording an audiobook you’d have to sit down on this vacation and actually, gulp, try to write another novel.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 2

Day 3: Yesterday was my first real attempt to record a decent quality audiobook. As expected, numerous problems revealed themselves. My goal for today is to tackle these problems one by one in a logical and systematic way. There’s no hurry here. If it takes a while to sort things out, that’s fine. Humanity has done just fine for the past 100,000 years without a Smoke Monkey International audiobook. A few more weeks isn’t going to spoil the party.

Issue #1: The couch cushion tent fort recording studio.

I need to ask myself if this is a realistic thing to set up and dismantle on a daily basis. Is this really the ideal recording space, or do I just like building cushion forts? I need to try and be mature here, and professional. I need to face the fact that I’m being ridiculous. But beyond that, I need to really think about what I know about sound recording and sound proofing. Which raises this fundamental question: Is the purpose of a good recording space mainly to keep sound in, or to keep sound out? I don’t actually know the answer to this question. The reason I went with the cushion fort studio idea was because I figured all the padding would protect and massage the sound waves, give them a nice place to land. This in turn would lend a warmth and fullness to the sound of my voice. But now I’m suspecting that the real purpose of a recording studio is to block extraneous noises from fouling up the recording. I’m sure on some level a good recording space is supposed to do both of these things. But my cushion fort sure as hell isn’t keeping any sounds out. Cars and busses and even airplanes make a lot of noise in my apartment. I accept the fact that if I am going to record in my apartment, I might as well do it in a more comfortable and spacious location, because there’s no blocking the sounds of the city. Earlier in the day I listened to three episodes of the podcast called  “Podcasting for Dummies.” The narrator made a good suggestion. He said you can record in a loud apartment and just pause whenever you hear a bus go by. Then make lip smacking noises so the sound waves on the recording program show you where you need to splice when you edit. Then resume. Podcasting for Dummies indeed. I set up my recording gear at the desk in my office (which is also my bedroom). 

Issue #2: The mic.
I need to do something about the popping sounds I make when I read words that start with certain letters. I’ve read I can make a screen out of pantyhose. I call my wife to get pantyhose location info, as well as permission to destroy a pair. My wife is great, but between cushion forts and pantyhose vocal screens, I know I’m pushing some kind of unspoken limit. Years ago we bought sauté pan splatter screens in a set of three. I find that slipping the pantyhose over the smallest of these creates a nice air blocking screen with a convenient handle. I’m proud of my resourcefulness. I do some sound tests and, wow, the thing works like a charm. Except for the fact that the pantyhose are black (sexy!) and I can’t see through them to verify that the mic is positioned properly, which you might not think is a big deal, but it turns out I blow a few long recordings because the mic has swiveled without my noticing. Podcasting for Imbeciles!

Issue #3: Hardware and software.
I learn today that the version of Garageband for iPads is very different from the version on an actual computer. The computer version allows you to fool around with the recording and fix some big problems, like background humming. It’s possible to do raw recording on the iPad and then transfer the file to the computer to deal with cleaning it up, but that process doesn't work for me for a couple of ridiculous reasons. First of all, I literally can’t figure out how to do this basic operation. I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to using technology, but I do have a young child. My brain sometimes just stops working. I look online, I watch tutorials, and I just can’t do it. It’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming. Additionally (and these two issues might be related) my Mac computer is a work issued computer and I am not an administrator. The iTunes version on the computer is too old to work with Garageband, so when I try to move files from the iPad I’m told I need to update the version, which I don’t have the authority to do. Alternatively, I do have a Windows PC and a Windows laptop, but they can’t run Garageband. But why am I married to this idea of using Garageband anyway? Jesus. Through some trial and error I accept the fact that my best option is to record directly onto the Mac computer using the full version of Garageband. This is the right move I’m certain, but I’m disappointed to learn that I can’t make my iPad do this one cool thing I want it to do. At least I can still use it to read from while I record.

So I’ve sorted a lot of things out at this point, and the day is nearly shot. I’ve moved the recording studio to my desk and accepted the fact that I will have to accommodate ambient noises. I’ve settled on a hardware and software situation. And I’ve got a pantyhose screen guard. So I’ve fixed some of the fixable issues. But there are still more problems.

Issue #4: My voice.
I finally start recording and find that while I can control the gain level coming off the mic, I cannot control the saliva level in my mouth. And so, what the fuck, Mouth? You can talk all day without Noah’s flood pooling against your tonsils, but when I need a nice clear delivery for my audiobook it’s like you've set up shop on the Olympic Peninsula. The same thing happens to me at the dentist. So I’m recording and pausing to swallow and smacking my lips three times like the guy told me to whenever there’s a problem or an outside distraction, and I finally get through a chapter.

Issue #5: Editing.

Editing on the Mac computer goes great, except for the fact that when I take out a problem section and splice the file back together, the voice sounds slightly different from one side to the next. The final product sounds like it’s been cut and pasted together, which it has. I’m hoping there’s a way to smooth all of this over. But I don’t know what that way is. And I’m still not happy with the tone of my voice. If I leave off effects it sounds too realistic, like a guy reading. If I put some effects on my voice I can get a nice filtered sound the resembles the audiobook quality I’m familiar with. But there’s a slight electronic edge to the vocals and you can tell they've been digitally manipulated. Maybe that’s what you get when you do it yourself, or maybe I just don’t know what I’m doing yet. We’ll see.

Recording My Own Audiobook: A Beginner's Journal Part 1

The intention of this blog series is to document my experiences recording and distributing the audiobook version of my novel Smoke Monkey International, which I released as both an ebook and a paperback last year. I also want to stress right here at the beginning that I have no idea what I'm doing. That's kind of the point. I don't know how to engineer, mix, edit, or upload an audio file. I don't know if I'm recording an audiobook, a podcast, or a podiobook. I don't have a recording studio or any real recording equipment. But what I do have is a new baby, no free time, and a can-do attitude Christmas gut.

Deep Background Information - Readers of this blog (chuckle, chuckle) know that I love audiobooks. I listen to them compulsively on my bike commute to and from work. I do this mainly because it's the only form of reading I can do anymore. Actual books put me to sleep, literally. So my familiarity with the audiobook format is one thing I do have going for me. The other thing I have going for me is my novel, which I think is good. People seem to enjoy it. 

The very first step I took was to contact a music producer friend of mine (okay, we were friends in high school and haven't really talked since) and ask for advice. I was hoping he'd be so impressed that I'd written and published a novel that he would offer to produce the audiobook for me, add his name to the credits, write some killer bumper music, and use his contacts to help market it far and wide. He did indeed offer to let me use his studio and his sound engineer, but only during off-hours since he needed the studio during the day. Work and family life prevented me from taking advantage of this opportunity, which would have required me to drive to the other side of Los Angeles at night and on weekends many, many times. To which I say, I'd rather just stay home and get drooled on. What this offer did do was force me to put a number on just how many hours I expected this whole process to take. Once I thought seriously about it, I realized it was going to take over 50 hours, just to record. Probably longer. I can't set aside a chunk of time like that. The only way this is going to happen is if I do it myself, with my own stuff, in bits and pieces, whenever I can get a minute free. 

Day One - The project starts in earnest on Christmas morning when I get an Apogee MiC. My recording buddy had told me I could do this whole thing myself, with a computer, as long as I had a good microphone. So now I have my passably good microphone. I decided on the Apogee MiC after doing a lot of research in the internet. I had it in my head that I wanted to record the whole audiobook on my iPad, using Garageband, because of the portability and simplicity. The MiC was almost universally recommended for iPad users. The price seemed right too. $199 was reasonable - not too expensive and not too cheap. 

Because I'm on vacation at this point, and have no time to myself, I can't really start recording the book. But I do have a chance to fool around with the mic and Garageband, just to understand the basics of the program. Garageband is a very simple and intuitive program, as I heard it was. I watch a few tutorials about voice recording on YouTube. Educating yourself on technical matters by reading and watching stuff on the internet is a tricky matter. I've found a lot of conflicting information, or information that applies to certain versions of software or hardware that are slightly different that what I have. I learn from one article that in order to record a long track you need to set Garageband's tempo down to 40. Another post said all I had to do to record a long track is to set the "song section" length to "automatic". That seemed to make the most sense and it also seems to work so far. If you don't change this setting your recording will loop back to the start once the end of the track is reached, and you will then start recording over your own track. 

Day Two - I'm back in town and still have another week of vacation, so it's the ideal time to start the recording process. Other than the massive time commitment required for this project, the other major problem I have is the lack of a quiet space to record. Everything I've read about recording stresses the importance of finding the right space. I live on a noisy street and a noisy alley. People have suggested closets and cars in garages as the best options for home recording. But I have a better, stranger, and far more satisfying option in mind. I build an old-school couch cushion fort and layer the whole thing in blankets. 

It's hot, stuffy, cramped...and very quiet inside. It'll work for now. The next step is to set up the hardware and software. I put the mic in its stand and place it on a coffee table that's at head level when I sit on the floor. I plug the mic into the iPad and start up Garageband. I select the Audio Recorder option. I set the song length to automatic. There are two different screens you can set up to monitor your recording. The default screen, which shows a nice graphic of the mic level. The other screen shows you a vertical display of the tracks. For some reason, in order to see the recording effect options, or the vertical track display, you first have to record something. Then these options appear. I mess around a bit with the effects and quickly realize "dry" is the way to go. So I'm ready to start reading...

One great thing about Garageband is that you can set it to run in the background while you use other apps. I'm able to bring up the ebook version of my novel on the Kindle app and read directly from my iPad. This is ideal since reading from the iPad doesn't make any noise and you can set the font size nice and big, so you're less apt to make mistakes while reading. 

Actually reading the book, of course, is the most important aspect of this project. I've been a teacher for years and because kids these days are mostly incapable of reading assigned texts, I spend a lot of time reading out loud to my students.  I'm not going to get into whether or not this is "good teaching." Okay, yes I am. Conventional thinking says it's bad for a teacher to read Catcher in the Rye to his students during class. I do it because otherwise half the class would not experience the text and would not be able to complete related assignments. Besides, I'm not going to pass up the opportunity to yell at my students, "Sleep tight ya morons!" or, simply, "Fuck you!" My point is that experience has made me a good reader. But I do not have a good reading voice. My voice sounds gravely when recorded, almost like there are lingering puberty issues. I know that I will not be able to alter my voice throughout the reading process in a convincing and consistent way. And I don't want to sound like a phony either. So my voice is what it is and it'll have to do. But there are further complications. My book has an internal dialogue that I need to read in different ways so the listener knows there are two voices in the conversation, not just one. Additionally, there are many scenes with multiple characters. So I will need to read these character voices. I don't know how to do this, or at least not in a professional sense. I'm not an actor. There are three options for dealing with this. First, I can ignore the issue, save time and energy, and just read everything in my own voice and let the listener sort it out. Second, I can do my best to read different voices and try not to be a perfectionist about the outcome. Third, I can get help from friends and have them read other parts. While the third option would certainly complicate the process logistically, it sounds like a good solution. However, in listening to audiobooks I find I dislike it whenever there's a change in the narrator. For example, I'd rather have a male narrator fake a female voice than have an actual female take those parts. So, I'm going to attempt the second option and read voices. This will be a lot more fun (which is the main point of doing all this anyway, right? It's not like my audiobook is going to make me any real money). I locate a chapter in the book with multiple characters and press record. 

After many attempts, I mange to work out the seven different voices I will need. There's the narrator, the main character, the main character's subconscious voice (part of the inner-dialogue), an angry Vietnamese guy, a serious college kid, a stoner college kid, and an angry and frustrated college kid. I'm sure I sound like a huge racist when I read the Vietnamese guy's voice, but it's certainly clear who he's supposed to be. The other voices require more subtlety. I spend several hours stopping and starting and rehearsing and cursing. My cushion fort seems to be working out well. When I'm done with the chapter I take down my fort and move to a desk to listen to the results and see what I can do about improving the sound quality.

I pop my earbuds in and have a listen. Yikes. Major problems. First of all there's a lot of popping certain letters. I knew this was going to happen. In my mind I assumed it would be easy to edit this stuff out. Given Garageband's limited and simplistic editing capabilities I realize I can't just edit them out. I need to get a screen of some sort. I look online and learn  I can make my own screen with pantyhose. Beyond that problem, and the problem that I still don't like the way my voice sounds, is the problem of overall sound quality. My voice sounds too realistic, too clear, too much like it was recording by a guy sitting on his floor inside a cushion fort. I need some kind of mask or filter to make my voice sound "right." It's the same kind of difference between camcorder footage and film. The iPad version of Garageband gives you very few options when it comes to adjusting the sound quality. Certainly nothing I do solves this problem. I read some more stuff online and realize that fixing this problem is no simple task. It's the reason people pay a lot of money for professional equipment, or why people hire professional audio engineers to record audiobooks. There is no cheap easy fix for this. 

But I'm done for the day. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute:Part VI

"When I bought my bike last August [2012] and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks." [edit: and some fantasy]

Phase 14: Really, wind? In my face both directions? And on a Monday!

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Book: This was my first real detour into the lesser known (to me) depths of the fantasy genre. Mostly I've stuck to the well-known stuff, Tolkien and Martin. I've always had it in my head that everything in the genre is ultimately derivative of Tolkien anyway, so what would be the point of reading inferior versions of the same basic tale? This opinion was at first refuted by the fantastic Game of Thrones books, but then more recently confirmed when I read (okay, listened to) the first half of The Eye of the World, which was ridiculously (offensively! preposterously!) similar to The Fellowship of the Ring. But once again, the limits of the library’s Overdrive catalog left me with no choice but to try Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion. Which was fine. My experience with Gormenghast – which I don’t consider to be a fantasy series at all - has encouraged me to branch out a bit from my initial “sci-fi or die” constraints for this audiobook blog project. So, it turns out I love The Curse of Chalion, particularly the main character Caz and his steadfast humility, his dependability, and his unflappable goodness. I thought of this story as nice counterpoint to the Game of Thrones epic, which now seems like a post-modern take on the fantasy genre, the way it plays against every convention, with its lack of heroes, ambiguous morality, its justicelessness, its absence of Chivalry, and total disregard for such things as romance and happy endings. In light of this, The Curse of Chalion felt delightfully old-school. It’s small,  simple, occasionally brutal, often sweet, and you read it with a genuine sense that things will resolve themselves tidily. It focuses on wholesome things like gratitude and service. And it’s also very clean and chaste, which is surprisingly refreshing after experiencing Martin’s crude treatment of sex, or the way sci-fi writers like Peter F. Hamilton so often cram in unnecessarily graphic and painfully awkward depictions of futuristic humans getting it on. I liked the fact that the dirtiest thing there is in The Curse of Chalion is a passing reference to a concealed erection. This isn’t a book to change your life, or cause you to petition HBO to turn it into a mini-series, but it’s well-written, well-plotted, addictive and weird. And it raises the fundamental question we all ponder in our lives: what if the soul of your defeated mortal enemy took refuge in your gut, where it festered and raged like a depraved sentient cancer?

The Ride: I pass through many different municipal districts and jurisdictions on my bike commute. Each one is responsible for maintaining their own section of the bike path or road. Since I started riding to work much of my route has been rebuilt, repaved, repainted, or repaired. Frequent winds along the path bring sand and debris, which sits there until someone decides to send a crew out to move it. You can learn a lot about a town or a country by studying the quality of the bike path, and how it’s maintained after a big wind. I move from freshly applied black asphalt into a sea of dunes, then out again onto swept concrete, into fields of palm trunk husks, then onto more dunes, a gauntlet of broken glass and razor sharp mussel shells, over sections made bumpy by subterranean tree roots, onto slick new city streets. You learn the ups and downs, the grooves and bumps and little minefields. Most interesting of these obstacles are the sand dunes. Because the sand on the path is dry, most passing bikers fail to carve out a trench to the asphalt. Sand gets pushed back and forth, without a clear thoroughfare ever developing. So I’m pedaling along and there’s a mini-dune of indeterminate length on the path ahead, and I have to decide; do I take it slow and steady and risk losing momentum and steering, and end up dismounting or wiping out at an embarrassingly low speed, or do I pedal as hard as I can and hit the obstruction with the goal of forcing my will upon the sand, and risk losing steering and wiping out for real, with all the attendant consequences? Making the correct decision requires the evocation of a paradox that has confounded me since I was two years-old and put on my first pair of skis: the faster you go, the more control you have. It’s certainly counterintuitive, not to mention dangerous. But it’s interesting to expand this basic tenant of physics to the larger world, which is somehow more manageable, and you yourself become more functional and effective, if you accelerate into danger. If you slow down and try to micromanage a situation, you often flounder. It’s the old “pitch it, don’t aim it” scenario. Certain physical realities in our world seem to intentionally push us out of our comfort zones, into danger, where moments take on greater significance. Kids who are bored in school think inaction is the solution; they don’t want to be there so they do nothing. In reality, the cure for boredom is action. The kid who truly hates school should work at it, so time passes more quickly. The way out, is in. A nice side effect is all the learning that takes place while that student is just trying to beat the clock. It’s sort of all the same thing, isn't it? So I hit the dunes full speed and barrel through upright and unharmed, for now…

Phase 15: End of Daylight Savings = sunrise and sunset, five commutes a week 

Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

The book: This is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion. But it doesn’t continue the events from the first book; rather, it tells a new story with a new protagonist. I was at first disappointed, because really loved Caz, the hero of the first book. Now, instead of a continuation of his story, I found myself forced to hear about Ista, some crazy lady who had a very minor role in the first book. I didn't enjoy this book as much, even though I eventually came to appreciate Ista every bit as much as I did Caz. What I didn't like was how much the story relied on its own universe’s somewhat abstract and arbitrary natural (and unnatural) laws. As a reader, you don’t know what is possible and what isn't. Therefore, when a problem arises, or a mystery develops, you can’t make assumptions or predictions because you don’t know what the rules of the game are. If a bunch of people get trapped in a castle and are slowly dying of starvation, you don’t know if someone might just summon up some food out of nowhere, or if a god will magically make everyone’s belly full, or if the enemy will be smitten down by some character’s discovery of a secret ability. Anything can happen, so there’s nothing clever about how problems are solved. Every time you think you understand the protagonists gifts, she suddenly has a conversation with a god and realizes she can do even more cool stuff than she thought she could.  That said, I still liked the book for many of the same reasons I liked its predecessor. The story telling is direct and economical. Everything that happens relates to the ultimate conclusion. There are no wasted moments or characters. Everything is neat and tidy. All the messes get cleaned up, everyone finds their intended mate, the bad guys are either vanquished or forgiven, and the gods can relax and go back to whatever it is they do when they’re not preoccupied with human fallibility. I don’t read very many books like this, with nary an ironic twist, a random act of depravity, or a character who doesn't get exactly what he or she deserves in the end. There’s a third book in the series, but I think I've had enough of this good clean fun. I need more nerded-out space sex and less magic.

The Ride: Whether it’s the start of a tough day at work, or the end of a long one, I often daydream about a less complicated and less stressful existence. I’ll do things like watch seagull standing on the beach as I ride my bike to work, and think, those guys don’t have to do anything today. They have no responsibilities, no deadlines, no performance reviews. No inane conversations. They just sit there or fly around. They eat from the bounty of the ocean (and the beach trash cans). And that’s it. A beautiful simple life. Of course any seagull would be happy to tell me it’s not all wine and roses. I get that. I also do the same thing with people, or specifically, with their occupations. During my ride to and from work I pass numerous people who are “on the job”, spending their work-hours engaged in far more satisfying, less stressful, activities than what I do. There are the physical trainers and yoga instructors, the lifeguards, the surf coaches, the garbage men, the delivery drivers, the road construction crews, etc. But there are two jobs in particular I observe with a genuine, somewhat absurd longing. First is the power washer. This is the guy with the wand that shoots pressurized water at the ground to remove dirt and grime and gum. I've used a power washer before on a job years ago, and I've used a similar device at a do-it-yourself car wash.  I find the whole experience to be aesthetically satisfying on some core level. In this case I really couldn't say if it’s just me, or if everyone gets a kick out of feeling the jolt of pressure shoot out at the ground, washing away the sins of the weekend, leaving glimmering virginal concrete. I could do it eight hours a day. Ten hours. Twelve. It could be some kind of Freudian hyper-ejaculatory fantasy. Or not. I don’t know. But it’s deep in there. When I see these guys I try to really look at them, to see if there’s evidence of a primal fulfillment. Usually there isn't. And not only do these guys  get to man the pressure hose all day long, they also get to wear these crazy big rubber boots. The other job I see during my ride, is the sand cleaner. This is the guy who drive a tractor across the beach, pulling some device that rakes and cleans the sand, leaving a smooth uniform surface that reminds me of fresh powder snow. The appeal of this job is similar to that of the power washer, with a lawn-mowing component I relate to as well, having worked as a landscaper for years. I love the way the tractor lays down a smooth clean line, and then lays down another on his next pass, right next to the previous one. And then another and another. I love the uniformity, the systematic approach. When he’s done the beach is all neat and tidy (I must be going through my neat and tidy phase). It’s litter-free, seaweed-free, even seagull poop –free. It’s all so damn satisfying. And the guy driving this tractor gets to spend his whole day at the beach, every day. It probably pays little more than  minimum wage, but in many ways it’s my dream job.

Phase 16: Cops punishing homeless guys by impounding their unlicensed dogs 

File:Evolutionary void cover uk.jpg

The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton

The Book: Back into space. Back home, actually, in many ways. Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga is the heart and soul of this sci-fi bike commute project. It’s where I began. And John Lee’s narration of this series has warmth and familiarity that lets me settle down into my ride and just enjoy everything. This, unfortunately, is the last book available in the series. I understand Hamilton is writing two more, but it will no-doubt be a few years until they are available as audio books, and even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll be available on Overdrive. I might be going back to Audible soon. In any event, The Evolutionary Void wraps up the Void Trilogy, a richly imagined space opera, full of clever ideas, fascinating technology, and just enough plausibility to keep the whole thing grounded. It’s hard to separate this book from the others. In fact, the whole Commonwealth Saga is really just one long book. I would echo the complaints of many of Hamilton’s readers and say the ending isn't quite as satisfying as I would have liked it to be. I think this is a function of the massive world building the author does, rather than a shortage of ideas. There’s simply too much going on for it all to just come neatly together at the end. Things get pretty abstract down the stretch and I’m not sure if you asked me to explain what happened, if I even could. A couple times in the series Hamilton has broken out of his normal narrative mode and experimented with different ways of delivering his story. The brief history of MorningLightMountain in Pandora’s Star, the Prime’s interrogation of Dudley Bose, and the battle scene in The Evolutionary Void where Aaron reverts to his default cybernetic survival mode, are all examples of non-traditional story telling that give the reader a more immediate understanding of character and point-of-view. I wish he did this sort of thing more. Something else I really liked about this whole Commonwealth Saga is the fact that it really doesn't ever present itself as a cautionary tale. I don’t know all that much about science-fiction writing, but it seems that older, “golden age” writers had a point. Like you get in Star Trek. This is what will happen if we do not evolve as a species. Hamilton’s works, like many contemporary sci-fi books I've read, are more interested in speculating about how technologies (immortality treatments and wormholes and that sort of thing) will drive the human narrative. It’s kind of a Darwinist approach. This is what humans do. We will always do it. We will evolve as a species only to the extent that it serves out own individual interests.

The  Ride: Speaking of technology, there is one truly amazing gift from the future, that allows me to fine tune the experience of riding to and from work, and allows me to alter reality based on my mood, my interests, and my responsibilities. I’m talking about Siri. I know Siri is useful in a number of different situations, but I think she’s most helpful to a bicyclist. I use her to send text messages and make calls, to change the music, to start and stop audio books, and take down notes. The fact that I can do all of this hands-free, while pedaling along is by far the most sci-fi thing I do all day. I mean, what’s more futuristic than talking to a computer and having it do what you want it to? Smartphone and microphone technology in general is pretty fantastic. I’m cruising along. “Call my wife,” I say. Suddenly my audio book stops, my wife is talking through my headphones. I talk without having to break stride or even adjust my head to direct sound into a microphone. We talk. I pedal along. We hang up. The audio book resumes. It’s crazy. I can ride my bike and speak into the air and communicate in real time with someone on the other side of the planet if I wanted to. My wife can put the phone up to my baby daughter’s mouth and I can hear her weird noise-making just like I’m in the room with her. We take some of these things for granted. The telephone itself is an incredible technology. But something about using Siri and a headphone mic to communicate, all while riding a bike on the beach is surreal. We live in incredible times. 

Click here to read part VII: The Sci-fi Bike Commute goes to Mars!