The joy of unexpected gifts

The doorbell rang. Not an uncommon sound these days, as shopping online became the norm in this household again. Sinterklaas’ gift bag for Daughter needs to be filled on December fifth and therefore the past few weeks, anticipating on a surge in online orders and thus delivery delays, the past few weeks the doorbell rang on a daily basis. I’m still waiting for the last of the packages to arrive. I got up from my desk, walked downstairs and found a package in the door. The package was small enough to fit through the mailbox, but certainly bigger than what I ordered. I grabbed the package and opened the door. I saw the delivery man walking back to his van, his back towards me. After closing the door I looked at the name on the package. It’s addressed to me. Sent from an unknown place in Paris. I put the package on the dining table. I had a meeting to prepare, so opening it had to wait.

Just before dinner I had the time to open the package. I ripped open the cardboard and found a book inside, wrapped in brown paper. I removed the paper and saw this.

A beautiful book with fourty drawings inside. My French is rusty, so I was glad to find the English translation of Rilke’s text to introduce the drawings. The drawings are from Balthus and tell the story of how he found a cat, Mitsou. The boy took him in, traveled with him and then lost him. It dawned on me that a reader of this blog sent me this gift, because only a reader of this blog would know about the passing of dear Lunel. And I know of one particular reader that has been shopping in France, from his home in Canada.

Thank you.

My favorite image in the book is of the cat presenting a mouse to Balthus. It reminds me of all the mice Lunel brought home in Enschede. It also reminds me of the cats that I knew before Lunel that brought mice to my parents’ home. In my interpretation of cats, this brutal act of presenting humans a living gift is the only way cats acknowledge our effort to feed them and keep them warm. And we humans don’t even appreciate it.

A wonderful gift to turn to whenever I want to reminisce the weird relationships I’ve had with cats.

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Back to school?

I’m at the brink of signing up for the data & AI course at Techionista Academy. I’ve been looking for a way to up my skills on the data front for a few years now. So far, the courses I looked at were either too time intensive or too expensive. The one at Techionista I can afford. Due to Covid-19 they do the entire course online, which gives me great flexibility while taking care of Daughter after school. Following the part-time schedule for 22 weeks leaves a bit of time left doing work for clients as well. And a 22 week long course, starting the second week of January, will give me something to focus on during the long winter months while we wait for the salvation of covid-19 through vaccination programs or, in case vaccines are useless, until the weather allows us to meet outdoors again. The only downside: I will have to use Windows because Techionista partners with Microsoft. I can live with that.

The mere thought of going back to school makes me nervous, though. My last exam was sixteen years ago. I was so glad the days of working for grades was over. Nevertheless, if I indeed sign up for the class and pass the exams in June 2021, I will be a Microsoft Azure certified data nerd at the beginning of Summer 2021. How does that sound?

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Words do matter

The words you speak and your tone of voice do matter while communicating. Listening to Biden’s speech I caught myself thinking what a reasonable man he sounded like. So unusual for a man about to run that big messed up country. Hopefully Biden’s moderate tone of voice can bring divided families back to the dinner table again.

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Switching to online interviews

Three weeks ago I had an interview scheduled with someone for my podcast. As the number of covid-19 infections were rising, and I was struggling with one cold after another, we postponed the interview to Friday 6th of November. We figured that in three weeks time for sure things would be better in terms of infectious people after three weeks of restrictive measurements like closing restaurants. Not really. Earlier this week, the number of infected people did go down, but only just. Therefore I decided to let go of one of my principles: visit my guests at home, and interview them in a space they feel comfortable. Perhaps it results in a less intimate interview, but as I set out to do ten interviews this year, published only four, and for the coming six months the dance around the virus will continue, I decided not to postpone the interview and do it online instead.

The thing is, I hate listening to podcast interviews where the interviewer sounds crisp and clear like you get from recording in a soundproofed room and the guest is on a crappy headset sounding very distant and devoid of any low-frequency tones in their voice. If that’s all you can get, because it’s a long distance call than that’s fine. However, most of the (future) guests on my show live within 100km range. That means it’s possible to send people a microphone to attach to their computer to up the sound quality drastically. Therefore I did some research on what my options were with the gear that I already own and what software to use.

In April this scenario already crossed my mind and when I discovered Zoom can record meetings with an output of two separate audio files for both ends, I was immediately sold and subscribed. Having two separate files gives a lot of flexibility while editing. On top of that, I discovered that since September it is even possible to extract higher quality files, using the untouched audio input from ones device (read: microphone) instead of the Zoom treated audio (which tries to filter out unwanted sounds like fans, room echo, etc.). Using this functionality, the audio files are about 128kbps instead of 28kbps. But that requires a proper microphone. Otherwise you still get crappy audio from a crappy built in microphone or headset.

For the face-to-face interviews I use two lavelier mics (those tiny ones you pin on your shirt). Via Røde’s nifty adapter and app I can record with two mics in very high quality audio on my iPhone (unless you pay too little attention when a guest accidentally touches the chord a lot while gesturing; lesson learned there). As long as my guest uses a Mac I could send one of those lav mics via mail, but then they would also need a wireless headset (like airpods) for audio monitoring (listening to my voice). You can’t pin both a lav mic and a headphone in one mini-jack input that comes with a Mac. Without the headset my voice would be recorded on the lav mic of my guest as well. That reduces flexibility while editing. The best output is an audio file of my guest containing nothing else than their voice. Today’s guest did own a Mac, but not a wireless headset, so using a lav mic was off the table. I couldn’t send my guest the good quality condenser mic I use for voice-overs as it comes with a lot of cable, an XLR to USB converter and needs a microphone stand. Instead I used that for myself and decided to invest in a simple to use yet good quality microphone that connects via USB. Works on both MacOS and Windows. I ordered it online on Wednesday and opted for same day delivery to my guests house to make sure it would be there in time for our interview, which was scheduled for Friday, today.

As my own office space is a bit bare of sound dampening materials, I put the rug from Daughter’s room under my chair and used my background stands and two fleece blankets to create an intimate tent. Worked like magic. Unless I decide to join the weird trend of publishing podcasts in video form on Youtube as well. In that case I need a prettier background.

So this is the setting I did the interview in. My guest today was in her own study, so at least still in her private space. She connected the microphone without any issue and we both used our iPhones to record a back-up audio file. I guided her through the proper audio settings in Zoom and that was all there was to it for setting the interview up technically.

We didn’t have to wash our hands or worry about the slight chance of infecting each other with covid-19 (or any other more well-known corona virus). Technically it went flawless. Compliments to Zoom for continuing to provide very stable video calls. After finishing the call the audio files were neatly converted to and stored on my computer (and synced to my Nextcloud). A quick review of the files showed me that it was more than good enough. All my guest needs to do now is send the mic back and all I need to do now is start editing.

I guess doing the interviews online could even speed up the podcasting process, as it is much easier to schedule two hours somewhere during the day (nights even) than it is to plan for a visit which easily takes four hours. The only extra burden is sending the mic back and forth. The biggest downside of course is less private chatter before and after. Nothing beats sharing a tea or a coffee together. For now, this is the best I can get. More than good enough.

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The (bad) design of city flags (309)

Mark pointed me to a TED-talk by Roman Mars. My friend, a long-term podcaster, mainly pointed me to this video to take a look at how Mars made a radio show live on stage. It inspired him. After watching it, I understood why. Roman Mars really creates an entertaining atmosphere using music and sound bites to tell the story of how US city flags are not following the rules of good design. A real craftsman he is.

Mars runs the podcast 99% Invisible.

99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.

Despite its popularity I hadn’t heard of this podcast before. Obviously I subscribed.

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