Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bible Quartet

Even if you're not a religious person you should really read the Bible. It is arguably the most important book out there and is very likely the best book ever, even if you don't believe a word of it. It has everything:  history and myth,  uptightness  and eroticism, rules to live by and habits best to avoid, genocidal super villains and divinely infused superheroes, acts of mercy and despicable crimes,  tragedy and unintended comedy, miraculous births and the walking dead, psychology, espionage, deus ex machinae, poetry, a possible UFO abduction, and blood and guts galore. What other book can give you so much?

We, modern readers, have a bit of a problem reading it nonetheless, because we cannot directly relate with the names and places and many of the characters that are in there; Nebuchadnezzar could easily be the name of an evil character in a science fiction novel. Also, the prose is not like what we used to nowadays. So, there's  somewhat of a hurdle to be overcome and thus we need a bit of help and patience to get going.

What I will call loosely the Bible Quartet could be your ticket and I review it here.

The Good Book

The Good Book by David Plotz is the account of Mr. Plotz's first encounter with the Bible. He is of Jewish background and had been acquainted with the Bible before but only in passing. He tells us all the unexpected things one can find when one really commits himself to read the Bible from cover to cover for the first time and without no extra layer of material or interpretation. The result is a very enjoyable book which puts forth many of the apparent inconsistencies and funniness that's in there. For those who have not read the actual holy texts, the good book can work has to crash course on the contents of the Bible. Around the middle he takes a break and goes archaeological digging at Israel and he shares us that as well. He stops his reading at the end of the Old Testament, but that's not the end of his book. He finishes by giving us reasons why we should read the Bible and with what we really want to know: what impact it had on him. He delivers by describing the changes in him  both intellectually and spiritually. As an added bonus, we have an appendix with the best (and worst) parts of the Bible in list form. Thoroughly recommended but seriously consider a second reading of the Bible, this time with  with interpretation, for you might be missing out by staying just with the anecdotal.

Five stars

The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs is also secular Jew. He began to suspect that he might be missing on something by not being as religious as he could be, so he set up a challenge for himself.   What he attempted and achieved in this book is to live by the Bible for a year. The challenge was to be the "ultimate fundamentalist" following all the rules he could find simultaneously: no picking and choosing allowed. Early on, he takes a very wise decision in consulting experts on difficult or ambiguous rules. This gives us insight about how some of the difficult portions have been resolved for practical life. Also to his credit, Mr. Jacobs sticks to his commitment no matter how difficult or awkward it is for him at times. As with his other books, his wife gives him plenty of support, challenge and humor. Like Plotz, Mr. Jacobs gives us his insights at the end of the book, but these are less satisfying as he is more sparse. This may be because throughout the book he gives his feelings and experiences in real time, which leaves not much for later reflection. This is the book that finally pushed me to read Bible in its entirety. Also highly recommended.

Four stars

The Year of Living Like Jesus by Edward G Dobson

Of the four this is the oddest in more than one aspect. In no way this is a bad thing. First off, Dobson is the only fully fledged Christian of the group, an evangelical pastor nonetheless. He was inspired by Jacobs's book and attempted to do likewise, but with a Jesus flavor. Consider for a moment what it would take to be like Jesus for a one year. Ready? I expected Dobson to take a smooth ready set road, but he surprises by taking another viewpoint and going cross-country. He starts one direction taking the outward aspects first giving us a day by day account of his occurrences very much like Jacobs, and working from there. Midway through though, his circumstances change and he adapts the project. On the second half, he draws more from his previous experiences and preaching  giving us real life examples and how they relate to Jesus's teachings while providing his own take on trying to follow Him. As with the others, he goes beyond his comfort zone and commendably tries out new aspects of living his faith. Like the others too, he's very honest about giving us his failures. His stories and experiences makes this book worth more than one reading.

Three stars

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

In Roose's case, he was a liberal atheist to begin with. He was associated with Mr. Jacobs and decided to take on a challenge to his own. He attempted to take a semester on Liberty University, "America's holiest University", passing himself as one of the flock. From start to finish, this poses a quandary as he longs to disclose himself to the fine people he meets, studies and lives with, but cannot do so without ruining his project. To allay suspicion he joins in as many activities as possible and live the fullest Liberty experience as he can. The result for us, is that we get to know the ordinary life of a Liberty student without having to enroll. Towards the end of the semester circumstances turn serious as he unintendedly becomes a focus of attention in one, if not the most, important event of Liberty's history. This book is more internally reflexive than the other three as the author wrests with conflicting emotions. As I see it, this is because in the other three cases, the projects are mostly in the open. In this one, he has no one on site to fully share, except us. If you have more than a passing interest in Liberty, The Unlikely Disciple is the book for you.

Three stars

Other recommended books:

  • Asimov's guide to the Bible
  • The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus (available also on Librivox)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

De-essing part 2: Get a hardware de-esser

Conceptually this is not a good solution but it might be worthwhile. What about buying an actual hardware de-esser and plugging it between the source and the output? As far as I have seen, there is no reason for this not to work. Take for instance the DBX 263x de-esser. I have not tested this, but as I see it, you could purchase a pair of these (one for each channel) and plug the output from the pre out jack on your amplifier and sending back the signal from the de-esser to the amplifier through the main in jack. Of course, you would need to have an amplifier that has such jacks or similar. The setup stays analog all throughout. The DBX has no on/off switch but consumes very little wattage and if you're lucky you might get a pair of these at eBay under $100. The biggest downside to them is that they might look out of place on your system as they are unattractive in appearance.

More on de-essing:

Friday, July 13, 2012

De-essing part 1: Easier Cartridge Alignment

I have a somewhat large vinyl collection at home, but for some years I had been having problems with sibilance, that is, harsh hissing sounds when the letter S appeared in vocals. One of the recommended diagnostics is to get a specialized protractor and use it to check if the cartridge and needle are properly aligned on the turntable. I am kind of cheap when it comes to buying equipment that might only get used once, so instead I downloaded a few printable ones online. Besides getting them perfectly punched, the main problem I found was parallax. I couldn't really say if the cartridge was aligned or not: it all depended on which eye I used!
It took me a great while, but I came up with a way to solve this and with readily available materials to boot. Best of all, it might also work for you. If you want to try it out, here's how:

You'll need:

  • graph paper
  • a digital camera
  • an optional camera stand or just a cardboard box
  • a computer with some basic photo editing program


  1. dismount the headshell with cartridge from the tonearm
  1. place the needle in the cartridge  if it doesn't have it already
  2. carefully place the headshell on the graph paper with the top side down
  3. align the cartridge body to the grid
  4. place yourself directly above the cartridge and take a photograph. Use the integrated crosshairs for alignment if your camera has them. If you happen to have a stand that allows the camera to be placed horizontally to the ground, use that instead. You can also try to use a turned up cardboard box as a stand with a hole cut out for the lens on the top side and an aperture on one side to shine light in.
  1. upload the photos
  1.  now, with the photo editing software draw some vertical and horizontal lines along and over the cartridge, headshell and needle. You should get right angles all round. If you don't, you'll know that the cartridge is not aligned properly with the headshell, and so you'll need to repeat the procedure until you get them right.
VoilĂ ! No more squinting.

More on de-essing: 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Destiny of the Republic review

Here's another book that I purchased without really knowing what was it about. I do this mainly because I want to be surprised. I believe that the author generally has to plan for revealing the plot and it is best to follow it to get the most impact. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard is a highly rated book and I set myself to find out why. Not  as a mission, but as a journey.
 Now, how can I review it without giving too much of it and spoiling it for you? Well, I don't know if I really can, so I'll try to be brief. It deals with Pres. Garfield, one of those presidents from the 19th century that you tend to skip over because you cannot relate to any facts of their presidency. Despite that, his story is interesting in itself. As you can imagine it starts with his youth and early career and then switches to the unexpected way he ended being nominated for president and winning. Parallel to this thread are four other strands, some imperceptible at first, that intertwine and finally pull to different directions until some finally snap. One of those threads, I will reveal as much, is that of Alexander Graham Bell (hint: it's not about the telephone in this book). The others, I will let yourself find out.
 A nice, self-contained, well written book. Highly entertaining and informative of the period.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tuscan Apricot tea

I tend to be a purist about tea. That means no sugar and no milk for me.  So far, I have drunk tea for its own sake and enjoyed it. I believe that ultimately, tea tastes very good by itself: not necessary to add anything. That said, I also believe that some flavors, natural perfumes or processes can help bring other tea qualities that you normally don't get. For instance, there is the very popular Earl Grey, the smoky Lapsang, the toasty Genmai or the pungent Puerh. These, and similar ones, are just one step removed from the original taste and I feel one can be happy by not straying too far from home base. Safari hunting is not required for tea.  Get too far away, and you may no longer be drinking tea at all.  I'm amazed at the tea shop at some of their offerings. There are blends like Blueberry Bran Muffin Rooibos or Winter Fresh Mint Caramel Toffee Silver Needles (I'm making these up, but aren't there mixes similar to these?) and sure enough, when you take a look inside the tin , there are a hodgepodge of bits and pieces and flowers and who knows what else in there. I must say that they do smell good, and they probably taste that as well, but they are not my cup of tea (wink wink). They're just too far removed. If you happen to like those, carry on, nothing wrong with you; I won't burn you at the stake or anything. It is just that I like simpler tastes.

Despite that, not too long ago I wandered from my comfort zone just a bit. At my favorite tea shop, I was looking for something new, and among the suggestions I smelled the perfume of apricots. This one caught my attention above all others. From what I previously said, you may safely assume that I am unsure of those teas that have bits and pieces mixed in. This apricot tea has those in small quantity, but it smelled so good that I bought a couple of ounces. And very cheap too! From its appearance, it has dried flowers, dehydrated fruit and your standard black tea. I don't think it has any extra essential oil in it. The smell is fruity and flowery, but not cloying at all. The underlying smell of tea remains hidden under the bouquet. I prepared myself a pot. Due to the added contents I correctly added in more weight than with pure black. It brewed fairly quickly; in about 4 to 5 min. it was ready for drinking. The taste was very fresh, with apricots all around. Still, no cloying sensations, but very far away sweetness. The black tea flavor now sprung lending roundness to the brew, but still under the apricots. I was taken.

I would recommend this tea almost anyone including you, unless you positively hate scented teas. If you're a milk and sugar guy or gal, you might want to check it out as it might give you richly rounded, milky cream results. For the iced tea lovers, I'm not all that sure, because I suspect it would taste too much like bottled commercial offerings once ice is added.

On the downside, the brew can turn unpleasant if you let it oversteep. Also the leaves do not lend well to a second brewing, so you'll have to be mindful in both cases. Caffeine wise this one packs quite a punch; I'm regularly tolerant, but this one makes me woozy after a whole pot.

Check with your local tea merchant for it. If ordering online, apparently this Canadian site has the same one as mine. It is both cheap, pleasant  and uncomplicated.