More Nonsense about Free College

Progressives/liberals are obsessed with the idea of free college for everyone, probably because it’s an electoral winner. What it is is another trillion-dollar boondoggle. Here’s the latest proposal from the op-ed pages of the Boston Globe.

Marcella Bombardieri of the Center for American Progress pushes the group’s new plan that would give free in-state public college tuition, room, board, transportation and other expenses to students from families that make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Middle-class families would pay up to 10 percent of their income. Upper income would pay 20 percent. (There’s nothing to indicate what they mean by “middle” and “upper”.) If they go to private schools or out-of-state public schools, they would pay “slightly higher.”

For their part, schools would be given golden handcuffs of promises of more federal and state funding in exchange for certain guarantees of quotas filled and “benchmarks” reached, i.e. “teach this in this way and enforce these social engineering rules, follow these government mandates, etc.”

What would be the cost of this little plan? Just $60 billion per year, they claim, a pittance compared to … name your big federal program here. But of course, the real cost would be more than that. Way more than that. Why?

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Podcasting Equipment For Beginners

As someone who has been involved in podcasting for almost a decade and who podcasts as a full-time job now, I often get asked for recommendations for podcasting equipment for beginners. I wish I had a good quick answer for that, but I don’t. That’s because there is a lot to consider first.1 But before we get into the equipment, first dispose of any ideas that podcasting is like what you see on TV shows like God Friended Me. Just no.

What kind of podcast?

Is this going to be informal for a few friends? Are you going for a wide audience? Are you planning on commercializing it? Are you podcasting for your business or organization?

Where will you record it?

At your desk? In the car? On the go? Coffee shops? At a podium or lectern? In a lot of different places?

Who will you record it with?

Are you making a solo podcast? Are you doing a podcast with a co-host? A group of people? The same people or a changing panel?

How will you record it with them?

If you’re recording with other people, will they be joining you in your office? Via Skype or other remote service? In a car? Outside? On the road?

How much is your budget?

You can spend almost nothing up to thousands of dollars, although a decent setup that can last you through several advances in expertise can be had for a couple hundred dollars.

How long do you think you’ll be doing this?

Are you not sure if you want to make a commitment? Are you looking to experiment? Or do you plan on doing this years with a regularly scheduled show?

Starting small

Let’s start with the simplest and easiest setup with equipment you probably already own. Say you just want to try recording yourself and see if you have what it takes. For that you can simply use your current smartphone. If you have an iPhone, the earbuds that come with it have a microphone built in. They also come with the Voice Memo app. Boom, you have a recording. Yes, t hat’s a bit barebones.

The next step up is to use an app-based podcast service like Anchor. This is an all-in-one service that does it all. They record your podcast, host, distribute it, and even promise to help you monetize it (if it gets popular enough), but of course it’s all within their ecosystem. So if you’re okay with being limited to Anchor’s users as your audience, that might be the way to go. If that’s the case, you’re still using your iPhone or iPad to record.

You may want to eventually upgrade the quality of your recording on your iPhone or iPad, in which case you can get a Lightning connector microphone. I recommend either the Zoom iQ7 or the Shure MV88, between about $100 and $130 as I write this. They’re a little pricy for such specialized gear, but don’t be tempted by the cheap microphones. They won’t sound any better than your earbud microphones so they won’t worth the money.

Podcasting-on-the-go

Let’s say you’re looking for something that will sound better than just recording into your phone, but you still want to be mobile. In that case, you want a portable digital recorder. While there are all kinds of expensive feature-filled recorders out there, if you’re just going to be recording yourself, then the Zoom H2n ($140) is perfectly fine for you. If you will be recording yourself and another person, the Zoom H4n ($200) can be used by itself, but it also has inputs for two XLR microphones.2 And if you need to record more than 2 people remotely, Then check out the Zoom H5 ($250), which has four XLR inputs.

You can probably tell I like Zoom digital recorders and I do. They’re easy to use, sound great, have good strong batteries, and connect easily to your computer.

Of course, if you have a laptop computer, you can always bring your desktop mikes and an audio interface and so on, so read on for that.

Microphones

You can spend anywhere from a little bit to a lot for a microphone. The first step is to consider what kind of connection you will make to your computer. The most basic connection is the standard USB you already use for printers and scanners and other devices, and if you get a USB microphone, you won’t need any other equipment to connect it to your computer.

There are many very good USB microphones available. Blue makes some very good ones, from the very inexpensive Blue Snowball ICE ($40) to the slightly more expensive Blue Snowball ($55) to the Blue Yeti ($100). The difference between the ICE and regular Snowball is that the regular version has three different modes, with the cardioid mode being better for podcasts. The Yeti is a professional quality microphone with a USB connection.

However, at this price range, I prefer the Audio Technica ATR2100 ($67), partly because it offers both USB and XLR connections for maximum flexibility. Plus it sounds very good for such an inexpensive microphone. This is the microphone I still use everyday to records hours and hours of podcasts.

There are more expensive microphones in the multi-hundred dollar range that are worth every penny, but since this is a list for beginners, I will save those for another time. The microphones listed above will suit most podcasters for a long time.

Microphone stands

Once you have a microphone, you’ll need something to hold it. Most inexpensive microphones come with a small stand, which can be okay for using it on-the-go, but you’ll quickly want something more stable and more isolated from vibrations at your desk. Otherwise, every time you rest your hand on the desk, for example, the vibration will be transmitted to the microphone as a sound.

You can get boom stands for very little cost. I started with the NEEWER White Broadcasting Studio Microphone Suspension Boom Scissor Arm ($14), which has a spinning clamp style attachment. It doesn’t reach as far as some and while it won’t hold a heavy, expensive microphone, the generally lightweight inexpensive mics are fine.

A better boom stand is the RODE PSA1 Swivel Mount Studio Microphone Boom Arm ($99). While this is a jump in expense, it’s also a jump in quality. It has a much longer reach, is much more stable, has smoother action, and has a much better method of clamping to the desk. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s balanced in such a way that it has a minimum weight for the microphone. If the microphone is too light, it will continually rise up into the air.

You will also need a shock mount for the stand to further isolate vibrations and just to hold the microphone. It has to fit the microphone you use because the weight and diameter will vary. Some microphone manufacturers offer shock mounts made for their mics, but there are also generic variations available. For my ATR2100 microphone, I use the Symphaudio PSM-1 Universal Microphone Shock Mount, which is no longer available), but the Dophee Condenser Microphone Shock Mount is nearly identical and is only $11. These are virtually commodities, so just make sure you get the right diameter for your microphone.

The final element in this area is a pop filter. Certain letter sounds are called plosives and they pop in audio recordings. A pop filter goes between your mouth and the microphone to catch the plosives (as well as anything that inadvertently comes from your mouth while speaking) and smooth out the sound. Like the shock mounts, some manufacturers make filters specifically for their microphones, but an inexpensive generic filter will usually do fine. A barrier filter works best for podcasting. I use the Dragonpad USA 6” Microphone Studio Pop Filter with Clamp ($8.50) and it clamps right on to the boom arm and adjusts to where I want it.

Audio Interfaces

Once you have a microphone, you need to get the analog audio signal into your computer, usually via a USB connection. The ATR2100 microphone and the Blue microphones have USB connections, but if you want a little more flexibility and control, plus the ability to plug in more than one microphone at a time, you’ll want an audio interface.

If you purchased a Zoom digital recorder, it will also work as a pass-through audio interface. If not, you can get a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 2-microphone interface ($160). This interface allows you to adjust the gain of two microphones independently. One of the benefits of a dedicated audio interface is that it makes your sounds better with dedicated digital-analog conversion circuitry and microphone preamps.

At the next level, you might be interested in a mixer, which would allow for more than two microphones or other inputs and adjustments, but at another level of complexity.

Headphones

Of course, you’ll need to hear your recording as well, especially if your podcast includes people joining you via Skype or FaceTime. Again, you can start with any fairly decent headphones, but I would recommend against earbuds or other headphones that don’t close over your ears. The problem with open headphones is sound leakage, meaning that whatever you’re hearing in your ears will end up on the recording, layered on top of your voice and creating an editing nightmare.

If you’re looking to buy some good headphones, the Sony MDR-7506 ($80) are industry standards and comfortable. You’ll want to make sure whatever headphones you get are comfortable for long recording and editing sessions, so be sure the padding is sufficient.

My current preferred headphones are Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones ($130), which have a long, replaceable cord, are comfortable, and sound good.

Cables

Good cables are a must. If you have an XLR microphone, you’ll need XLR cables. I suggest getting several of different lengths, especially if you think you’ll sometimes record on-the-go. Depending on how your desk is setup, I’d suggest at least a couple of 3-footers, so you’re not always unplugging everything when you have to record away from your desk. Don’t buy the cheapest cables as cheap cables can leave noise in your recordings because of insufficient shielding. Sweetwater Sound makes professional audio gear and can be a good source of reliable cables.

Software

Some podcasters prefer to record only to hardware because they’re afraid of software crashes that delete their recordings. Often these are longtime podcasters who remember buggy early software running on hardware that could barely keep up. This isn’t as much of a problem anymore.

Audio Hijack from Rogue Amoeba is amazing Mac software that lets you route audio to and from various sources, manipulating it along the way like a good audio engineer with a mixing board. Their companion software Loopback is invaluable for additional routing capabilities. Explaining how it works would take too much time here, but I’ll write a separate post outlining my recording and editing workflow that will have more details.

For free, cross-platform software, Audacity can’t be beat. It’s not the easiest interface right off the bat, but once you figure it out, you can easily make very good recordings that you can either do simple edits with here or export for more extensive editing elsewhere.

You could edit your podcasts in almost any audio software, including Apple’s Garageband, but if you’re going to be doing this for a while, consider getting either Adobe Audition or Apple Logic Pro X. Audition is part of Adobe’s Creative Suite ($21/month standalone or as part of a bundle) and Logic ($200) is standalone. They are pricey and have a steep learning curve, but there are plenty of YouTube tutorials to help you figure them out and make editing out noise, boosting sound, and generally making your podcasts listenable so much easier in the end.

It’s technically possible to record and edit your podcast on an iPad and a key reason for that is Ferrite Recording Studio, which gives you many of the same editing abilities you get using Logic or Audition on your Mac or PC. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to get you pretty far along.

Forecast is another key piece of Mac software that makes preparing your podcast for distribution easier. It does the simple job of taking your final edited file and compressing it down to the most efficient size, adding metadata and cover images, and chapter divisions. It’s been in an open beta for two years, but has been stable for nearly all of that time.

How to record, edit, and distribute a podcast

As I mentioned above, the equipment is only the beginning. The real work comes in figuring out the distribution. If you move beyond an all-in-one service like Anchor, you will need someplace on the internet to store the audio files for download, some place to list it, a way to alert listeners of new episodes, and more. There are many ways to accomplish this, but in a future post, I will share how we do this at SQPN.

  1. I will share my setup and workflow in a separate post.
  2. XLR is the professional microphone connection standard for microphones everywhere.

Looking Back on 2018

It has become my custom to spend the last couple of days of each year to write up a review of what happened in the previous year and then to give a brief glance forward.1

Moving to SQPN Full-Time

This was a year of a big job transition and a big leap of faith. As 2018 began, the Star Quest Production Network (SQPN), where I had been working as a part-time executive director since 2015, underwent a large transition. The last original founder, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen, left SQPN and that left the network at an inflection point. After much consideration, the board of SQPN and I agreed to take a leap of faith and bring me on full-time as CEO to re-launch the network on its original mission with mostly new shows. We started with just two shows that we’d carried over and how have about a dozen shows as we begin 2019. We still have a long way to go to make self-sustaining, but I’m very excited by what we’re doing now and the support we’re receiving.

Of course, moving to SQPN full-time meant leaving Mass. Citizens for Life, where I’d been for two years. While the work they do is important, I do not miss driving into Boston for a commute. Being able to work from home has meant a huge change in lifestyle for our family and we’ve proven that I can do recordings without interruption or negative impact from a small house full of homeschooling kids.

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Easier iPhone 6 Battery Replacement

iPhone 6

You might remember from earlier this year a so-called scandal over Apple throttling CPUs to save battery life in certain models of iPhones, particularly the iPhone 6, leading to a battery replacement program. What you might not know is that there’s a better way to get an iPhone 6 battery replacement than standing in a store.

While claims of nefarious intent are somewhat overblown,1 Apple did agree to replace batteries at a steep discount until the end of 2018. The price before the deal was $79, but for now it’s $29. (After January 1, it’s only going up to $49, which is better than before.)

Unfortunately, everyone forgot until the last minute and Apple Stores, which are always jammed before Christmas, are even more jammed with people looking for appointments to replace their batteries. (Also keep in mind that only Apple is officially doing repairs. You may see other places offering battery replacement deals, but these aren’t part of the official plan and may charge you more.)

Last weekend, during some clean up I found that I still had an iPhone 6 that I’d forgotten about. I recall now that we’d been using it as a glorified iPod for use in the car, but—you guessed it—the battery life was a problem and we’d forgotten about it. So now, I was faced with the question of whether to bother braving the crowds to get in the deal before the end of the year.

But I found that it wasn’t necessary. Apple has a mail-in program for the replacement. I went on their website and filled out a form, they sent me a box and packing materials and instructions overnight to my house, I packed up the phone, and I dropped it off at a Fedex dropbox the same day, and the phone got to Apple’s repair depot the next day. That’s pretty fast!

Now, I don’t know how long it will take to get the phone back. I’m expecting it to take a few days, but that doesn’t bother me as this isn’t my primary phone. But it sure beats going to a mall and fighting the crowds while racing the end of the year clock to get my iPhone 6 battery replacement.

Update: I got the iPhone back in just three business days (dropped at Fedex on Thursday, December 13, and received it back on Tuesday morning, December 18). That’s pretty fast! And it’s good as new.

  1. At worst, Apple was guilty of a failure of transparency. Fevered claims of planned obsolescence and manipulation don’t match the facts. All phone manufacturers use forms of throttling to stretch battery life. But Apple should have acknowledged that the iPhone 6 battery did not live up to their expectations for its service life and should have told users that they would experience throttling effects unless they replaced their batteries. And they should have allowed people to turn off the worst throttling if they needed better performance in the short term versus battery life.

Isabella’s New Computer

Yes, we got Bella a new computer and it’s not a Mac. No, I have not apostatized or lost my mind. I am still a dyed-in-the-wool lifelong Apple fanatic and shareholder who always chooses the Apple product. So why a Chromebook?

A couple of simple reasons. First, we’ve been thinking of getting her a computer of some kind for her own. She’s 12 years old now and starting to do work that requires regular access to a computer for writing and other needs. For one thing, her writing ability outstrips her typing ability, meaning her ability to compose something in her mind is far greater than her ability to type it out, so we need voice-to-text typing.

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Uber Deception on the Benefits of Congestion Pricing

An Uber executive writes an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe touting the benefits of congestion pricing to reduce traffic in Boston. Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy, says that it’s a fact that traffic in Boston is among the worst in the country and that are mass transit systems need new investment. But his argument is based on sleight of hand and misdirection and his claims of Uber’s selflessness are misleading.

Before looking at Salzberg’s claims, I should note that congestion pricing and per-mile tolling have long been part of some politicians’ wish lists. As recently as 2016, the Legislature considered a bill to begin a pilot program to tax drivers based on the number of miles traveled. Earlier, the former state governor Deval Patrick floated the idea of toll gates at every exit on every highway in the state. So, this is not some pie-in-the-sky isolated proposal by Salzberg and Uber.

Now to begin, Salzberg claims that “all vehicles should pay to use the roads,” implying that unless you’re paying a toll you’re driving for free. This is false. We arelady pay for the privilege of driving on Massachusetts roads through a use tax that is the gas tax. In fact, we pay 26.54 cents per gallon in state tax 1, which in 2016 brought in $766 million total, a significant growth from prior years due to both an increase in the tax from 24 cents in 2013 and the rebounding economy. Now, advocates will claim that increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles is lowering the amount of gas consumed (that’s not a bad thing!), but as we can see that is a very long term problem, not a short term one. However, the bottom line is that Massachusetts taxpayers are indeed paying a road fee to the tune of three-quarters of a billion dollars per year in just gas taxes.
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My Backup Strategy in 2018

It’s been six years since I wrote about my strategy for safeguarding my irreplaceable data with good backups, and I think I’m due for an update.

In the main, much of what I wrote hasn’t changed much. I still do multiple backups, onsite and offsite, to ensure that my data always exists in at least three places, but some of the details have changed. Some of that is because of the introduction of new cloud services and some because my own situation has changed.

I still run a Time Machine backup of my primary computer, which is now an iMac. I also do daily clones of this computer to an external hard drive, although I do not daily do two daily clones1. Because I work from home, there’s no offsite location for the second clone to reside. I do a weekly backup of the second hard drive in my MacBook Pro2, but because I keep all my important data in Dropbox, that all gets backed up when I back up my iMac. Likewise, I still do a Backblaze offsite backup of all my data from my iMac.

Additions to my backup scheme include iCloud Photo Library and iCloud backups for my iPhone and iPad. I pay for the iCloud 2TB storage tier, which may be a bit of overkill, but I’m also backing up Melanie’s iPhone and my Mom’s iPhone and some hand-me-down iPads that the kids use and that puts us over the 200GB of the next lowest plan.3 The iCloud Photo Library ensures that my photos are not only backed up from my iMac (where I have set the preference to “Download Originals to this Mac”) on my clones and to Backblaze, but also in Apple’s cloud.4
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We warned them back in 2002, but no one listened

I’m perplexed, too, but not for the same reason. The Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday published a joint expose on all the US bishops who have failed to respond adequately to sexual misconduct in their dioceses and they say they’re perplexed. Meanwhile, Cardinal Seán is also perplexed too.

More than 130 bishops – almost one-third of all living bishops – have been accused during their careers of failing to adequately respond to sexual misconduct in their dioceses, according to an examination of thousands of court records, media reports, and interviews with church officials, victims, and attorneys.

“I’m shocked by that number,’’ O’Malley said in an interview at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, responding to the two organizations’ report. “It raises a lot of questions in my mind.’’

As I said, I’m perplexed, but not that 130 of the living bishops (note: that includes retired bishops) have themselves failed to respond adequately. It’s that this is news to anyone.

Because back in 2002 when the Dallas charter was first advanced in the midst of the explosion of the Scandal, both Phil Lawler and I were pointing out that while the charter focused on the tiny percentage of all priests who ever abused a child, the bishops at the time (and ever since) failed to act against the bishops who shuffled them about and ignored the complaints of victims and hushed up lawsuits and paid off families under secrecy shields and all the rest.

In fact, if anything the problem is much less worse because at the time it wasn’t one-third of living bishops who were culpable, but two-thirds of bishops. But time and the Holy Spirit have winnowed that number down through the ultimate means of having them die off.
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Why the SmugMug Flickr cap is bad for the whole Net

When SmugMug bought Flickr from Yahoo earlier this year, many people suspected another shoe was going to drop and now it has: Smug Mug is dropping Flickr’s free tier from 1TB of storage to just 1,000 photos. In addition to being an inconvenience for active users, it has larger implications.

For instance, Melanie​ has long used Flickr to embed photos in her blog posts rather than take up our own previous server space. But once Flickr starts actively killing off any older photos above her 1,000 limit, those embedded photo links will all break. So will we have to start paying $50/year as another expense to keep her blog going?

But there are even wider implications for the web. One of the largest sources of Creative Commons photos online has been Flickr, but many, many of those photos are sitting on old accounts. The internet community is about to lose access to a lot of visual content. Many of the photos you see on Wikipedia, for example, are Flickr photos. The same with many of those public domain stock photos.

Another example is the Archdiocese of Boston’s Flickr page. George Martell and I set that up back in 2009 and it has over 31,000 photos. It is a valuable historical record of the past decade of the Church in Boston. In fact, there are many Catholic sites that rely on Church’s Creative Commons-licensed photos, like Aleteia. They’re going to lose this and I don’t think the folks who are running it at the Archdiocese of Boston now realize what’s about to happen to it.

It’s a shame when invaluable internet resources like this are so dependent on one commercial entity and doubly a shame when they shut down or radically pare back. This is going to be bad for the internet for sure.

Bett for Ham

When the Broadway musical Hamilton started becoming all the rage about three years ago, Melanie was immediately hooked on it and started listening to the soundtrack constantly. I resisted at first (“I don’t like hip/hop or rap!”) but I couldn’t help hearing it and the discussing it with Melanie and then before I knew it, I didn’t just enjoy it, I was dissecting the lyrics and exclaiming the musical and playwriting genius of Lin Manuel Miranda.

Soon enough our dream was to be able to somehow go to New York and get the priceless, impossible tickets and see Hamilton with the original Broadway cast. Of course, it was never going to happen. But we consumed all things Hamilton: We watched the #Ham4Ham YouTube videos, read blog posts and articles about it, watched every news special about it, Melanie read the biography that inspired it and then bought the book that accompanies it. We even watched the bootleg YouTube videos of the play itself before they got taken down. In short, we were hooked.

Eventually, as we knew it would, the announcement came that the show was going national. Permanent performances would go to Chicago and San Francisco, too far for us. But the national touring company was going to come through Boston! I immediately got on the mailing list for the local Broadway show promoters. At some point last year, they announced that initial ticket sales would be done by lottery and so I signed up and waited… for months.

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