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MESA/Boogie Doghouse Workshop

The Original ‘Home of Tone’

A wonderful bit of footage, apparently from a couple of years back, surfaced a couple of days ago on the MESA/Boogie ‘Amplitudes’ blog. The clip documents a trip taken by a couple of Boogie stalwarts and Our Fearless Leader, Randall Smith, to the ‘Doghouse’ – the original MESA/Boogie workshop. According to MESA in their blog post accompanying the clip, the Doghouse was the workshop in which the ‘majority of the legendary Mark I amplifiers’ were assembled (somewhere in the region of 3000 amps) before the company moved to their current factory in Petaluma, CA.

Aside from the fact that I am a huge fan of his amplifiers, Randall Smith is also one of my favourite businessmen. It’s very rare that an inventive and brilliant engineer (in the vein of everyone in tech’s number one guy, Woz) also possesses the business nous to build his product into a multimillion dollar industry-leading company, but that’s exactly what Randy has done. The classic tech-industry startup cliché is a few guys working on a great product in a basement or garage, and it seems from this film that this pattern extends to the world of hotrod guitar amps, too.

For me, this clip holds extra significance, though. In 1977, my 15″ Mark I amplifier was hand built in the Doghouse workshop, the underside of the chassis bearing the date of completion and the letters ‘RCS’ – Randall C. Smith. More than three decades later, the amp that Randy built up in the California hills is still killing it. Thanks, man!

Frank Zappa: Technology, Business & the Web

During his lifetime, Frank Zappa was an inspirational free thinker, a compelling speaker and, often flying right in the face of the norm, held absolute conviction in his beliefs. For me, he was also the greatest and most inventive composer and guitar player to grace the planet.

Business Nous, Technology Vision

In addition to those bitchen’ factoids, Frank is also a business and technology hero of mine, and it’s maybe not so widely known how switched on to these fields he was throughout his career.

From the very earliest days of his career, Frank was determined to maintain creative and business control of his own product – by 1969, he headed a pair of record labels (Bizarre/Straight), releasing his own solo & Mothers of Invention material as well as other artists, including Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley and Captain Beefheart. In the mid-late 1970s, Frank demonstrated his absolute commitment to control, entering a legal spat with Warner Bros. records after they refused to distribute the ‘Läther’ four-LP box, instead chopping it into four separate album releases. He was vindicated in court, winning back the rights to all of his MGM & Warner Bros. recordings. All of his releases post-1979 appeared on his own Barking Pumpkin or Zappa Records labels.

After years of complacency, poor management, lack of innovation and an inability (or unwillingness) to explore new business models, many major record labels are on their knees today, a direct result of their ignorance of digital distribution – a concept invented by Frank way back in 1983. In fact, Frank’s idea to distribute music over a phone or cable connection was designed specifically to save money on distribution and curtail piracy. Yes, not only did Frank predict Napster, LimeWire et al, but he also came up with iTunes as a means to prevent the recording industry meltdown we’re now in the midst of.

Frank’s embrace of the latest technology began before the days of the Mothers of Invention – even in the early 60s he worked with a 5-track multitrack recording system, when such a setup was very high technology indeed and restricted to only the most expensive recording studios. In the 1980s, he began creating music using the New England Digital Synclavier digital audio workstation, largely obviating the human performers he had relied on for the rest of his career. As the Synclavier’s technology progressed, Frank stayed at the cutting edge – adding disk drives to store samples and more and more memory for multitracking. Compare the (Grammy award winning!) Jazz From Hell album with the final masterpiece, Civilization Phaze III, to hear the difference between the cutting edge FM voices of 1986 and the most sophisticated wavetable synthesis available in 1993. Frank’s Synclavier in its ultimate form was specced with 640MB of sample RAM. (In 1993, my desktop was running Windows 3.1 on a 486 with 4MB of RAM.)

FZ Online, 2011

Even in his absence, Frank’s following today is stronger than ever, thanks greatly to the dedicated community of fans using the web to share, enjoy and spread the word. Tomorrow, I’ll share my favourite Zappa-centric corners of the web, but for now, Easy Meat.

Live Algorithm Performance

Whilst I was away at Glastonbury, I performed at an evening concert staged by the Goldsmiths College Electronic Music Studio as part of a code-powered ensemble of networked ‘Live Algorithms’.

The goal of this particular corner of computer science is to produce live, algorithmically driven ‘musicians’ in computer code, capable not only of listening and reacting but inventing new musical ideas of their own through some computational process.

My live algorithm in this case was based on a simulation of ant behaviour, focussing on the trails of pheromones they leave for one another to mark the route they have taken to their destination. The movement and behaviour of the three ‘creatures’ in this live algorithm is mapped to an audio output (the vibraphone sound in the video), while the audio input – what the software ‘hears’ – is imposed on their environment as an external trail. They are as likely to follow one another – ‘inventing’ new musical ideas – as they are to follow the external trail – ‘playing along’ with the audio input.

For this concert, however, the external stimulus for the three live algorithms in the ensemble was not human, but each another: the audio output of each was routed to the input of another, creating a chain of idea-generation and accompaniment, all conducted by a fourth piece of software.

There is much more in-depth technical information about my live algorithm in the accompanying paper (available here), and there are plans for more concerts of this type in the future, which will definitely be documented less like a pirated DVD!

Apple ’97 & RIM ’11: Round 2

A few days ago I published this post after watching Steve Jobs’ Q&A session on the final day of WWDC ’97. What struck me about the footage was how much the 1997 Apple shared with Research in Motion today, particularly their ineffective leadership, incoherent platform strategy and confused developers.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought this: earlier today, Boy Genius Report published an open letter from an anonymous RIM executive to the company’s senior management team highlighting his/her frustrations with the way the company was being run, including an 8-point list of suggestions to rectify the highlighted issues. Point three on this list, entitled ‘Cut projects to the bone’, is rounded off thus:

Look at Apple in 1997 for tips here. I really want you to watch this video because it has never been more relevant. 

To hear somebody at a ‘high level’ within the company (verified by BGR) making these connections is hopeful for RIM. In 1997, Apple was blighted from the inside by ‘good engineers who were bad managers’, only able to create products from a technical perspective and with little regard for user experience or consumer relevance. When Jobs returned to the company and sought effective change to right the sinking ship of Apple (first puppeteering then-CEO Gil Amelio and then as CEO outright) he did so by doing exactly what the anonymous exec prescribes in their letter: ‘Cut[ting] projects to the bone’. RIM’s inability to ‘kill their babies’ is costing them dear.

The comparison of RIM to the 1997 Apple is actually not as disadvantageous a position to be cast in as it may first appear. There are two reasons for this:

As evidenced in this open letter, there are executives at the company who are open to outside reason and influence, who just want the best for the company, who hate to see it suffer and want to restore it to past glory. The anonymous author of the letter may not have the gravity of Jobs, but they are not alone:

I know I am not alone — the sentiment is widespread and it includes people within your own teams.

Again, this is great for RIM if it is indeed true, and it sounds perfectly plausible that a widespread sentiment of lost confidence and disillusionment might be prevalent at the company right now. In numbers, this voice of reason may grow loud enough to be heard.

Secondly, and to further RIM’s advantage, is that 1997 was 14 years ago. That’s 14 years of turnaround strategy, platform change and growth, alterations to business models and more upon which to draw. Even if the company was faltering for other reasons, they could do far worse than to study the changes made by Jobs and his team when they returned to Apple. The plain similarities between the problems of RIM ’11 and Apple ’97 make it almost a cut-and-paste job in some cases (sending clear messages to your developers, for example).

However RIM chooses to proceed, the opportunity to enact the ruthless and effective change in the company encouraged by the open letter is likely not one that they will apparently be ‘aggressively addressing’ according to the reply posted on their corporate blog earlier today. Right now, the company seems too preoccupied and defensive to take the effective action it desperately needs to: it seems that the program of self-protective corporate blog posts, meaningless shareholder appeasement programs and public CEO-meltdowns is set to continue.

On Apple and RIM – WWDC ’97 Steve Jobs Q&A

 

This video has been doing the rounds on the internet since John Gruber posted it to Daring Fireball a few days ago, and whatever your thoughts on the present day Apple it’s a remarkable and insightful piece of footage which has profound resonance in the context of today’s industry.

At the time of filming, Gil Amelio was still CEO of Apple and Jobs had returned as a ‘Special Advisor’ after the purchase of NeXT. Rather than taking the keynote speech on the opening day of the developer conference, Jobs rounds off the week with an open Q&A for attendees, with topics ranging from marketing strategy to graphical development software and his personal choice in PDA.

There’s some very amusing moments – Jobs discussing how much he enjoys working with Gil Amelio when a matter of weeks later he led a boardroom coup that sent the CEO marching, and an early appearance of ‘work[ing] their butts off’, made famous by the 2010 Antennagate ruckus – but of particular significance are the prescient technological and business strategy allusions. Ten years later at the same event, Jobs unveiled the iPhone, but in 1997 he was already envisioning a portable device with a constant connection to the internet and email. It may have lost the keyboard in the intervening decade, but the nascent concept of the iPhone was already formed even before Jobs became CEO.

Accompanying the iPhone on its stratospheric rise to success over the past four years has been the App Store, and in 1997 mention is even made of the importance of creating a cheap and easy means for developers to get their software into the market place. On iOS (and now the Macintosh), the App Store is the fruit of this vision, and 10,000,000,000 downloads later it’s clear that it was a good one.

While there’s a certain amount of geeky nostalgia to be enjoyed (and laughs to be had) watching relatively vintage clips like this one with the benefit of hindsight, there is also a great deal of business sense on show here which is still of great relevance today. One question from an audience member regarding Jobs’ thoughts on the Newton MessagePad yields an answer which the co-CEOs of RIM would be wise to listen carefully to.

At the time, Apple was building a next-generation operating system (Rhapsody, see my articles here and here) based on the Unix-derived NeXTSTEP. While this platform was in development, the classic Mac OS also required maintenance and improvement to sate the requirements of the existing install base. In addition to these two desktop software platforms, the line of Newton MessagePad PDA devices was a third, fully independent platform which itself required the same maintenance and enhancement efforts as the desktop Mac OS. With the company cash-poor, developing and maintaining three simultaneous software platforms was a dangerous strategy – the future success of the company required a new, great operating system, which a development team stretched thin and on a shoestring budget simply would not be capable of producing.

Today, Research in Motion has an almost identical problem – two existing platforms and one in development – yet seem to be rushing head forwards (eyes closed) into this demonstrably dangerous OS strategy. The existing line of BlackBerry smartphones runs on version 6 of their operating system, however while the OS is soon to be updated to version 7.0, software written for the new version will not be compatible with the old, and existing handsets will not be upgradeable. Similarly, compatibility between existing software and the new platform is not guaranteed.

In addition to their two largely incompatible smartphone platforms, RIM has a third OS, currently in the market running on their PlayBook tablet and based on the QNX operating system, which is destined to eventually replace (the as-yet unreleased) BlackBerry OS 7.0. As with Apple ’97, the company seems unable to stick to just one or two definitive, coherent ecosystems with clear, logical development guidelines. Instead, they opt to simultaneously operate multiple weaker operating systems and a non-cohesive, bewildering array of software development options. As Jobs said, some companies can’t even handle one platform properly, and RIM is proving that three times over.

One thing that is conclusively proved about Apple’s growing success over the past 15 years is that planning, vision and clear thinking rules. In the face of crowd protestations over the cancellation of OpenDoc, Jobs coolly explains it purely as a business decision to cease a project conceived by ‘good engineers who were bad managers’. The notion that development should be consumer- rather than technology-facing is extolled here, yet 15 years later it seems that the lessons of the past have not been learned by some.

OpenDoc, Newton and the Macintosh clone market were all casualties of Steve Jobs’ business process upon his return to Apple, but those were other people’s ideas on the chopping block. The real testament to Jobs’ ruthless methods is his willingness to scrap his own projects. In their quest for perfection, design students are reminded at every stage of their training that the most important thing to be able to do is ‘kill your babies’, something apparently missing from computer science degrees. Steve Jobs’ and Apple’s mastery of this principle is exemplified by their brutal treatment of MobileMe recently, but it’s their ability to make these decisions and enact necessary change which continue set them apart from the competition.

iMac Waking Itself Up [Solved]

My main desktop for the last couple of years has been a 24″ Apple iMac. While performance and reliability have been nothing less than bulletproof for the entire time I’ve had it, there is one really irritating problem that it’s suffered with for absolutely ages – and up until a few weeks ago went unsolved.

The Problem

I use the machine every day, so I only ever send it to sleep rather than going through a full shut down. Unfortunately, it developed the very annoying habit of waking itself up in the middle of the night, sometimes for a couple of seconds only (spinning up the drives and fans, but not fully waking) but sometimes waking completely and staying that way.

The Solution

1. Launch ‘System Preferences’

2. Load the ‘Energy Saver’ preference panel

3. Uncheck ‘Wake for network access’

Hopefully this will solve this annoying problem for you. My computer had been doing this for over 2 years now (possibly coinciding with my upgrade to Snow Leopard?) – since unchecking the network access box a couple of weeks ago it’s been behaving itself perfectly.

60th Anniversary Telecasters

Via @fender

Xbox Linux

Installed xDSL Linux on the old Xbox this morning. More details to come, once I’ve decided what I’m going to do with it.

The Xbox now dual-boots the excellent XBMC and Linux. I think it’s had just about every hack you can throw at it now – all accomplished with zero hardware modification. The whole thing is done with software mods (the only hardware change from a standard Xbox is the USB port I added in controller port 1).

As Featured on Gibson.com

YouTube recently improved their ‘Insight’ stat features (or maybe I only just noticed!) to include a timeline of ‘firsts’ – first mobile view, first referral from Google.com, first result from search term x/y/z – for video discovery. I find the stats pretty interesting, and like checking them once in a while.

And today I noticed one rather curious first on one of my videos:

– Oct 29, 2009: First embedded on – www.gibson.com

Huh?

I just had a quick search around Gibson’s website and, sure enough, dated 10.29.2009 is an entry entitled ‘Classic Amps: the 1970s Mesa/Boogie Mark I’ – an article headed up by a YouTube clip of a slimline, Tele-toting git-tar picker demonstrating his favourite Public Enemy t-shirt and his 1977 15″ Mesa/Boogie Mark I combo.

I only just discovered, a whole year later, mind you, that my video has been embedded on the website of one of the most famous marques in all of guitar-dom. Heavy! I’m incredibly proud and happy about this, and my thanks to Gibson for not only featuring my clip, but for paying tribute to one of my favourite amps of all time.

Absolutely bloody chuffed, I say!

Here’s the link to Gibson’s site.

Ball versus Phone