More First Impressions

Odd: I don’t drive, so I’ve avoided any head on collisions – but I’m having to get used to actually walking on the right of a path against a flow of people coming the other way. I’ve noticed this in Europe too, so I should be used to it.

First Impressions

I have arrived.

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The weather is fantastic. I certainly don’t miss UK weather, where one has the impression that people are being watered like plants. However, I understand that in a couple of weeks the weather will turn sharply for the worse, and I may be envying the UK their drizzle.

The work is hard, but not impossible. It’s not quite what I expected, which is pretty much what I expected. I’ve been learning a lot about strategy from the perspective of marketing and economists so far. To be honest, it been a treat to find out what strategists actually DO – that was an open question just a couple of weeks ago.

The biggest and most exciting thing here so far has been the United States itself. It’s so different to the UK – not better or worse, just different.

Wonderful: families. Children seem to be everywhere, and they seem to be everything to their parents. Everyone smiles when they see one in public.
Wonderful: connections. It’s clear that talking to strangers (especially in London) is simply incorrect. Here you can talk to anyone, and anyone will talk to you. I feel like I’m using a muscle I haven’t used for a long time.
Wonderful: colleagues. Regardless of the diversity of the students, they are common in their energy, sagacity, and eagerness to help.

However, there are some things I miss about the UK.

WTF: environment. I don’t have a car, but it seems difficult to function here without one. It’s not impossible – I can get away without one, but it teeters on the edge of impossible, which is just annoying. The city here is fairly spread out, and to buy anything you need to sit for hours on a bus. Specifically route 208. More specfically, there seems to be nowhere in Evanston to buy a toaster. I pine for an Argos or a Robert Dyas.
WTF: time. There is no time to do anything in this environment – there’s simply more to do than there are hours in the day.
WTF: nomenclature. People seem to keep calling crisps “chips”. This is incorrect.

There are also some oddities.

Odd: every street is lines with neat grass. Where does it all come from? Who cuts it? Who waters it in the dry season? Is the city employing an army of invisible gardeners?
Odd: wildlife. There are squirrels everywhere, and they are almost tame. I’m sure I could just grab one on the way into college. Also, I have seen a skunk. London has foxes, we have skunks.

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Odd: baseball. I have now been to a baseball game at Wrigley Field. Nobody watched the game. (The photo is of a freakish moment when everyone was looking in the same direction by chance.) Everyone was just chatting amongst themselves. For the english readers, baseball is almost exactly like rounders, and you’ll be pleased to know that football is getting a lot more popular here.

Product Review: Smokey Amp

The Smokey Amp is a guitar amplifier and speaker built into an old cigarette case. We’ll examine here if it’s any good.

Just the facts:

  • It’s powered by a standard, replaceable 9v battery inside the case.
  • It can apparently power a 4×12 cab.
  • The box is reinforced, so it’s fairly sturdy – but don’t use it to prop up your speaker cab.
  • There are no controls on the amp. That means you control everything with your guitar’s volume.
  • The amp will distort with a recognisable transistor distortion if you turn your guitar output up all the way.
  • The speaker cone is hard plastic.
  • You can forget about getting any bass response out of it.
  • It comes in three slightly different versions – built into an actual cigarette packet, a special design edition, and a plastic case.
  • It’s not the only mini amp you can buy – both Orange and Marshall do mini versions also, which do have some controls.
  • It costs about £25 in the UK, and about $32 in the US.

So, how does it sound? Well, at low guitar output it sounds like exactly what you’d expect – slightly tinny – but it is lovely and clear. Hooked up to a better speaker, I imagine it would sound rather nice. Turn up the guitar output a tiny bit, and the signal will start to break up. It’s at that point the Smokey starts to sound quite nice. Rack your guitar up all the way, and you’ll have a smudgy mess – you really are getting transistor distortion. There’s no modelling here – this is an amp for real men. People who use 8 track. People who growl and rub their chest hairs.

As a sideline, I’d add that using this amp will help you get to know your guitar a lot better than you do now. I can’t emphasise the rawness enough – you’ll get to hear exactly what all of your pickups, tone controls and coil taps actually sound like, and that’s important for anyone who cares about tone.

So – is it worth it? If you need a mini amp for whatever reason – I’d say yes. The alternatives are too much like a poopoo excuse for branding – no matter how good it is, a six inch high Marshall isn’t going to give you Marshall tone. Not here – the Smokey was born to be a mini amp, and it does it well.

Optimize video for Youtube on Linux with FFMPEG

On observing a colleague at work with a Macintosh, I was impressed with the FFMPEGX tool, and disappointed that there was no equivalent on Linux. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong – it’s built around the FFMPEG tool, which is originally for the Unix / Linux platform. You will have to prepare yourself for the command line, but you won’t have the nag screen and waves of brushed metal you get on the Mac.

In my case, I needed to optimise some video for uploading to Youtube. Youtube’s own page lists their optimal format. Crunchgear also suggests a video bitrate.

  • Video codec: MPEG4 (DivX or Xvid are specifically mentioned)
  • Video bitrate: between 700 and 1000 kbps
  • Audio codec: MP3
  • Resolution: 320×240

First, let’s install ffmpeg:

sudo apt-get install ffmpeg

Next, run ffmpeg to figure out what format your source video is actually in. In my case, I was manipulating video coming from a Fujifilm F31FD camera. Here’s what I typed:

$ ffmpeg -i DSCF0370.AVI

And here’s the important part of the output:

Input #0, avi, from 'DSCF0370.AVI':
Duration: 00:03:51.0, start: 0.000000, bitrate: 9350 kb/s
Stream #0.0: Video: mjpeg, yuvj422p, 640x480, 30.00 fps(r)
Stream #0.1: Audio: pcm_u8, 16000 Hz, mono, 128 kb/s

So, we can pretty clearly see that it’s 640×480 MJPEG video at 30fps with 16KHz mono audio. In order to optimize for Youtube, I need to change the resolution and video codec, and possibly also encode the audio to MP3 (but it’s such a low bitrate that it’s not going to make much difference).

Here’s the command line to do that:

$ ffmpeg -i DSCF0370.AVI -b 800 -s 320x240 -vcodec mpeg4 -r 30000/1001 out.avi

To break this down quickly:

  • -i denotes the input file
  • -b denotes the output bitrate
  • -s denotes the output size
  • -vcodec sets the output codec to MPEG4. What comes out is actually a kind of DivX5 file. We could have set this FLV and got the Flash video format that Youtube actually uses, but I’m following the instructions!
  • -r 30000/1001 sets the framerate to 30000/1001 = 29.97003 fps, which is the standard frame rate for NTSC video. Oddly, I couldn’t get the encode to work without this.
  • I could have set the output audio to MP3 using the -acodec mp3 option, but the ffmpeg that comes as standard in the Ubuntu repositories doesn’t support it. Ya boo sucks. The default output is MP2 format – I guess I can live with that.

So – while executing that command, the salient part of ffmpeg’s output looks like this:

Output #0, avi, to 'out.avi':
Stream #0.0: Video: mpeg4, yuv420p, 320x240, q=2-31, 800 kb/s, 29.97 fps(c)
Stream #0.1: Audio: mp2, 16000 Hz, mono, 64 kb/s

… and we can check that plays OK like this:

vlc out.avi

Voila! Now you can upload right into Youtube while preserving a modicum of quality.

HP Grand Tour in London

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I’ve been following Eric Kintz’s blog at HP, as his interests there are probably closest to my own. He mentions in one of his posts that HP UK have been sponsoring the National Gallery’s reprinting and display of modern masterpieces (including Monet, which I have now heard described as elevator music for art).

The concept is arresting. It’s tough to walk down the streets of Covent Garden and not notice them, for two reasons – there’s a huge ornate frame to each photo, and the pictures are not of any standard aspect ratio. The biggest two challenges would be working with the relevant London council, and managing to keep every picture free from graffiti. The pictures are prints, and the surface appears to be fairly glossy. One would assume that there is a surface coating which would not allow any external ink to stick (despite my friend Anna’s best efforts).

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The reward for HP? Threefold. First, driving footfall to the website noted on the plaque containing the usual associations with HP printing. Second, a brand association with the National Gallery and its stable of works. Third – and hopefully just as important – an opportunity to introduce classical art to those who may not be familiar with it (like me). So, after a few drinks in central London, you really can while away the wee hours contemplating a Caravaggio.

L’Oreal in the Guardian

Guardian Logo Some of you may have caught the article in the Guardian Online detailing L’Oreal’s recent conviction of racial bias. I’m in no position to debate whether the conviction was warranted, as I don’t have the full facts of the case. I do find it very surprising for the company as a whole.

Garnier is currently undergoing a rebranding with the new tagline “Take care. Garnier.” This rebranding features many different images of people with someone’s hands holding their face – and many of these images are of non-white people. Certainly, the current image on the Garnier homepage bears that out.

Why? Simply this – Garnier is a mass market, consumer orientated brand, and the mass market contains people who aren’t white. For a business that builds itself on aspiration, it’s important to feature people that represent the consumer body. Wouldn’t you rather buy a product from a happy, smiling person who’s just like you are? Wouldn’t you trust more what they say? The core of aspirational marketing is making it accessible, and that means including people who represent the best of all sections of society. Whether that means an international brand campaign or hostesses for a Fructis Style event, it’s not just the right thing to do – it’s better business.

L’Oreal as a group certainly does take discrimination and equality quite seriously, both in the workforce and its advertising. I would hope that the relevant marketing director has reminded their people of this, both from a social and business standpoint.

International Students and the US MBA

There are a number of tasks one has to deal with before enrolling in business school, especially as an international student. I’ll lay out my list here – it’s specific to a UK student and Kellogg, but it should help a few of you out there nonetheless. Some of the links will require you to have a Kellogg ID – I wish they didn’t, as it’s not the kind of information that should be secured. Click on for the blow by blow list.

Continue reading “International Students and the US MBA”

New Life

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For the first time in two generations a little girl has been born into our family, and I have a new little niece. Isn’t she beautiful?

Music

A new “Music” section has been added to this site. For the moment, there’s only one track – more will arrive with the muse of fire.

Book review: Freakonomics

Freakonomics cover
I was looking forward to reading Freakonomics because a lot of my friends have it, and the cover looked interesting.

In essence – it’s enjoyable, but you could probably compress the useful stuff onto a couple of sides of A4.

Here’s the executive summary:

  • It’s about asking strange questions and finding surprising answers, which it does
  • It’s not really a book, it’s a collection of interesting articles
  • It’s full of rhetoric
  • It gets a bit boring and repetitive 2/3 of the way through
  • It has a really interesting cover
  • It does contain some nice insights into social behaviour

Here’s some more detail.

Continue reading “Book review: Freakonomics”