Column: Love Online

 Loose Wire: Looking for Love on the Net
 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 31 October 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
I’ve been suspicious about the benefits of linking computers and romance since the late 1970s, when as a gangly teen I joined an acting tour of New England schools. The stated purpose of the exercise was to bring refined English culture to the colonial heathen (although it wasn’t expressed so explicitly), but we young fellas were really only interested in using our posh English accents to melt tender American hearts. When, prior to departure, we were asked to fill out a computer punch-card form for a ball halfway through the tour where we were promised a bevy of girls matching our vital statistics, we felt sure the trip was going to be a runaway success.
 
Of course it wasn’t. Our first night on U.S. soil saw us thrown out of an ice cream parlour by a waitress unimpressed by our accents and empty wallets. And when it came to picking up my badge and list of matches at the ball, I quickly realized that I had been a little too honest in the questionnaire. As I wended my way through the room glancing at badge numbers, I couldn’t help noticing that all six of my matches looked like they were part-time shot-putters for the East German Olympic team. Torn between leaving and spending the evening in the toilet, I dumped my badge and tried to convince a couple of cheerleaders they were my matches. Needless to say they poured punch in my lap and I ended up in the campus shrubbery with a slightly moustachioed hammer-throwing exchange student from Leipzig.
 
Twenty years later, not much had changed. Single and newly returned to Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, I signed up for a dating service. For a fee, you got to submit your profile for others to peruse. You, in turn, could check out their profiles. In tiny cubicles in a dingy office subscribers flipped through brochures, trying to stifle gasps of horror at the gallery on offer. I cancelled my subscription when the only woman I could find who didn’t seem to have some significant drawback — a contagious disease, six previous husbands or Joan Collins hair — rebuffed my mediated approaches.
 
Now, on-line dating has taken off in a big way. I counted half a dozen new sites launched in the past two months alone. Most let you browse what’s on offer for free, but charge you, either via subscription or a credit system, if you want to contact anyone you like the look of.
 
Setting up your profile has got a lot more sophisticated than punching a card. At uDate (www.udate.com) you can fill in detailed forms right down to whether you eat Chinese food or read the Helsingborgs Dagblad. The British-based site boasts 11 million members and made $2 million profit last quarter. One new site, DateCam (www.datecam.com), lets you use Web cams — cameras hooked to your PC — to flirt on-line. That should make those awkward early exits easier: Instead of feigning food-poisoning to escape your undesirable date, you could just blame your modem.
 
Of course, there are downsides. In some circles there’s a stigma attached to folk who apparently have to resort to matchmaking services. Another problem is that you can’t be sure who you’re dealing with on-line, leaving you vulnerable to liars, stalkers, philanderers and criminals: Japan reported almost 800 crimes related to on-line dating sites in the first half of 2002, almost double last year’s figures.
 
Still the more people who sign up, the less stigma there’s going to be, and the more choice folks will have in selecting a partner. Indeed, sites such as Lavalife (www.lavalife.com) offer a huge array of choices, even in a place like Indonesia: I was particularly taken by a lady who’s opening line was “Come to mama, big boy!!!” Another lady cheerily confessed she has more shoes than she can count, and her picture seems to catch her in a moment of happy abandonment at the end of a lively evening.
 
So does all this work? Lavalife reckons so. A survey the company commissioned said that last month more than half of Americans believe they stand a better chance of meeting someone they like on-line than in a singles bar.
 
If you’re romantically sidelined, I’d recommend dipping a toe. UDate has the most options, but it’s untidy, and member profiles aren’t particularly illuminating. Lavalife is the best laid out, in my view, and they make it very easy to add photos, personalized text, and a more private Web page that only folk you invite in can view. I only ran into trouble when I tried to remove a photo of myself by the pool which, on reflection, was a bit too racy for the public section. As far as I can work out it’s still there, which probably explains why I haven’t had any responses yet. Even from Leipzig shot-putters.

Column: MP3 burning

Loose Wire — Burning for An Eternal Flame

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 17 October 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Those of you who spent your lovesick adolescence painstakingly making compilation tapes for your paramour, wasting hours hunched over a record deck deciding on a perfect segue to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin exhaling their way through Je t’aime . . . Moi non plus, I’m happy to report that technological advances now make the process a less exacting experience. It’s nothing particularly revolutionary, but recent improvements in software and hardware have made compilation CDs something you can create at home, quickly and easily. Here’s how.
 
What you need are a CD writer, some music and some software. For Windows users I’d recommend Cakewalk’s new Pyro 2003 ($25 for a download version from www.cakewalk.com/ pyro), but you might also try Ahead’s Nero (about $40 from www.nero.com) or Roxio’s EasyCD Creator (about $90 from www.roxio.com).
 
First, the music. If you’re using CDs, programs like Pyro will convert them to a format that can be stored on a PC. These are either MP3 files or rival Windows Media Audio (WMA) files — a compressed format that loses a little of the original sound quality — or a wave file, which retains all the original range of sound, but makes for a whopping great file. Want to use your LPs, or a cassette? Pyro will handle those too, basically by having you plug the relevant machine — turntable, or tape player — into your PC, and playing the track so the PC can record it. Pyro can also remove any clicks, pops or other sound quirks that were either on the original, or which appeared during the transfer to PC.
 
Pyro does all this quite intuitively, which is why I’d recommend it over other more feature-heavy, but less user-friendly, programs. That’s not to say Pyro isn’t powerful; Cakewalk made their name in music-recording software for pros and Pyro is a spin-off from that technology, so you’re in good hands. Once the tracks are in a format that Pyro can deal with, you can view them graphically as waveforms, like the jagged signals on heart-monitoring equipment. This is great for arranging the order of songs, and sorting out how you want them to follow on from one another.
 
Once again, Pyro makes this very easy: Click and drag a horizontal line over the waveform to set the volume of each song, and drag the ends of the same line to alter fades in and out. Drag the song’s waveform to alter the gap between each song, or overlap them for that wild party feel. In my day you could only do this with two turntables, fiddly cassettes, a mixer and a lot of patience, and if you got it wrong the first time there wasn’t much you could do about it except curse Serge Gainsbourg.
 
Once you’re happy with sound levels, segues and the overall brilliance of your compilation, it’s time to burn it to CD. This is also pretty straightforward, though I ran into some minor problems, probably as a result of my CD burner more than Pyro. Pyro could have done better on the error message, which ventured little more than something like ‘You’ve got a problem, dude.’
 
On balance, though, this is an excellent way to make CDs and it’s not as time consuming as it sounds. If halfway through you decide to add a song from elsewhere, Pyro handles it without any kerfuffle. If I had any complaints, I’d like to see better contextual help, which though innovative is too patchy to be helpful.
 
Programs like Pyro also make sense for the growing number of folk downloading music off the Internet, whether it’s from the dark and illegal world of post-Napster file sharing, or the uncertain, but legal, world of on-line music subscription. If you haven’t tried the latter, I’d recommend Emusic (www.emusic.com), which, for a monthly fee of just $10, allows you to download an unlimited number of MP3s from its sizeable library. You won’t find everything you’re looking for, but it’s a great way to check out new stuff, or come across some forgotten favourites. This isn’t for hi-fi perfectionists, but it’s a worthy successor to the grab-bag tapes of old.
 
Finally, suggestions please for what song should follow Je T’aime. I’m considering Eric Carmen’s original of All By Myself, but I’m open to suggestions.