2010: The year of music

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For me, the new music landscape has been all but barren for many years. KROQ was my radio station from middle-school on (and actually KTWV - The Wave - was my station in elementary school. I still have a fondness for New Age to this day. A lot of it is insipid crap, but Vangelis? Ray Lynch? Mike Oldfield? all of them pure genius). KCRW resuscitated my interest in new bands around 2005, and ushered in a flurry of wonderful bands: from Sigur Ros to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Jesca Hoop, it was a wonderful thing. But that impact slowly faded away to another wasteland.

Hunting My DressAnd once again, in 2010, I've been lucky enough to get a second musical rennaissance. Jesca Hoop released her second album this year, and it was far better than I had any right to expect. "Murder of Birds" is in the top 5 tracks of all time. If I had written this 2 months ago, that would have been the major highlight. We'll get to that.

ActorSt. Vincent released an amazing album late last year, Actor, which I didn't discover until this summer - coincidentally on the same day Annie Clark was playing a show in San Diego (which I went to). Ironically the song that set me off was "Laughing with a Mouth of Blood" and it wasn't the strongest on the album, not by half. Annie is a brilliant songwriter with a wonderful ear for texture and contrast. Her first album, Marry Me, is just as good.

The Way OutThe real highlight of the year didn't happen until late in the year. In November, I think, The Books played a live set at KCRW. I thought "interesting, but no big deal". But then I heard their newest album, The Way Out, in it's entirety and instantly fell in love and planned to buy 10 copies to give to friends. I don't think I've felt this strongly about an album, ever.

The album is pure genius from beginning to end, with a lush, intelligent, unique sound. If Annie Clark is perfecting her linear contrast (it's most obvious on the track "Your Lips Are Red" on Actor), The Books have perfected the profound/absurd contrast simultaneously. By sampling esoteric self-help tapes and dubbing them in absurd ways, but playing this over an enormously complex, textured and agonizingly detailed and beautiful arrangement it's like The Books are consuming the swirl of modern day information, and responding with wordless insight, biting humor, and hope. More than any other band in existence, I feel like The Books are "my band".

Have One on MeIf this was "The Year of The Books", then along with St Vincent and Jesca Hoop there were two other really good albums released this year. Both artists have been around a few years but both are new to me. Joanna Newson's "Have One On Me" reminds me a lot of Kate Bush and JRR Tolkien. Kate because of the emotionality, visuals, and complex musicality, Tolkien because of the focus on the natural world. Even if she mostly sings of love, this is love on a farm, or in the mountains. She sings of the wind and the rain, and it's lovely. Particularly the track "In California".

This Is HappeningOn the lighter side was a wonderful release by LCD Soundsystem, "This is Happening" containing my favorite dance track in a long time, "I Can Change". Just try listening to that track without moving some part of your body. And of course the single "Drunk Girls" is hilarious (check out the video - it's insane & quite funny).

Oh, a few last things. I finally picked up my own copy of Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon". It's still as good as when my parents used to play it, and it stands up really well to the test of time, too. Also, Arcade Fire did a decent job with their 2010 release, "The Suburbs". In all honesty I find Arcade Fire to be a bit mediocre, a bit boring, but nothing really objectionable. The New Pornographers released an album ("Together") that I was into for a while, but then realized that all those deep lyrics were really just free association nonsense and rapidly lost interest. Really good music, though. (I wish whoever writes the lyrics for them would get their shit together (or adopt The Books' method of overdubbing stuff that is obviously nonsense). The track "We End Up Together" should be a rousing anthem, but instead it's just nonsense. I felt betrayed when I realized I'd been duped!)

Quantum mysticism and other syrupy nostrums

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"History abounds with religious enthusiasts who have read spiritual portent into the arrangement of the planets, the vacuum of space, electromagnetic waves and the big bang. But no scientific discovery has proved so ripe for spiritual projection as the theories of quantum physics, replete with their quixotic qualities of uncertainty, simultaneity and parallelism. [What the Bleep do we Know] abandons itself entirely to the ecstasies of quantum mysticism, finding in this aleatory description of nature the key to spiritual transformation. As one of the film's characters gushes early in the proceedings, “The moment we acknowledge the quantum self, we say that somebody has become enlightened." A moment in which "the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics [...] are stripped of all empirical content and reduced to a set of syrupy nostrums""

-Margaret Wertheim

(Margaret: thank you, thank you, thank you.)

How to install ICU on OSX

The readme makes this very difficult to suss out. Here you go:

Installed ICU (International Components for Unicode) by hand on my Mac. The readme is incredibly obtuse. Hopefully this will save you pain. Here are the instructions:

tar xzvf icu4c-4_4_2-src.tgz
cd icu/source
chmod +x runConfigureICU configure install-sh
./runConfigureICU MacOSX
sudo make install

A smorgaspost

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I haven't posted in a while (and I see that when I did I was in rather a bad mood; poor GRRM!) and there's a lot to talk about:
  • Geeking out with Clojure, a functional language.
  • Geeking out with Legos. More about that later.
  • Geeking out with Plants Vs. Zombies.
  • Geeking out with Java: OSX, Eclipse, and Google App Engine.
  • Geeking out: issues with Linode
  • Geeking out: making a decision about PHP and WordPress
Clojure is neat, but it's so general that it's hard to get your brain around the fact that, really, you can do whatever you want with it. The number of patterns in Lisp/Clojure are immense - even more in Clojure because it's a dynamic functional language. The two things I want to write in clojure are: a completely dynamic webapp framework, which basically starts off life as a network aware REPL and kinda "grows" from there. When you install it, you "regrow" the system. Your apps "grow" too. Of course this should run on App Engine and *never* have to be redeployed. The other thing I really want to write is a GUI app that takes a two dimensional bitmap and interprets it in arbitrary ways: strings, numbers, etc. I'd like to "grow" that into a full-fledged text editor. The community is really great, btw. And I like that the logo is at once geeky and hippy (that's a lambda in there, baby!)

Legos somehow I got the itch to buy some of their Star Wars kits. I used to love building things with Legos as a kid - specifically spaceships. I would build them and then throw them in the air (I loved the wind rushing past their "hulls") and then when they hit the ground I'd not touch anything, observing carefully what had happened. Depending on my mood I would either do minimal repair, or I'd try to make it even stronger. A fun game. But these newfangled kits are nothing like that: the X-Wing was ~350 pieces and there were maybe 40 "normal" Legos in there. Maybe. The other 310 were customized, you'll-never-figure-out-how-to-use-this-in-anything-else sorts of pieces. The AT-AT was 1200 pieces, and the ratio was about the same (although, in fairness the AT AT was a motorized beast that required some custom bricks.) It's hard for me not to draw a parallel between this sorry state of affairs and computer science: it's become cliche to treat "Legos" as some sort of monicker for standardized interchangability. What irony that Legos are no longer standard or interchangable. And this is probably for two very simple reasons: the models look better with more custom bricks, and you're more likely to buy more Legos if you aren't tempted to "roll your own". As I was building the models I kept thinking "why did they make that brick? They could have used these other two together..." which is something I also think about when building software. Weird.

Plants Vs Zombies is the clear "runner up" in the "great casual game wars of 2010" (the winner being Angry Birds, of course). PvZ is a really good take on the tower game genre. I think I saw it for the first time on a demo PC at Costco. Anyway, apart from needing some more balancing (Gloom Shroom is WAY overpowered) it's a great game. It's also an interesting exploration of the interdependency of a team - each individual contributes different things during the game (and different things during different phases of the game), and it would be foolish for one plant to claim that they are better than any other plant. For sure, there are some plants which are more valuable, in that they would be more expensive to replace. It's hard not to draw the parallels to building a business, a team, and seeing that team change and grow.

Java is still my mainstay (and increasingly Google App Engine) and ironically all this work with Clojure has made me, if anything, even more fond of the old beater language/environment/coffee that is Java. To that end I actually spruced up my environment (OSX and Eclipse) a bit. For Eclipse mainly consisted of updating the OSX developer library (for javadocs and JDK source), adding TLD files to my GAE projects (without them the JSP editor complains when you use JSTL). While I was at it I reinstalled macports (which had somehow got corrupt) and spruced up my .bash_profile to fix my prompt and ls defaults. I also installed ForkLift - which is a nice Finder (and CyberDuck) replacement, and a Clojure plugin for Eclipse (which is shockingly stable). This all fits in nicely with my newfangled "Workspace" philosophy, which I may write about later.

Linode has annoyed me. They deleted my images when the CC I had on file failed. This upsets me, but not as much as you'd expect: I didn't have anything too heavy running on the host. I'm not even sure if I want a VPS anymore. On one hand, it's nice to have a persistent host with a stable IP address completely under your control somewhere in the universe. There's just so many things you can do with it (not the least of which is to install the Dropbox daemon so that you have an offsite backup not controlled by Dropbox). But Linux sysadmin is not my forte or interest, those stable IP addresses are like honey to hackers. I'm not sure if I'm going to reup or if I'm just going to settle for the much-less-general-but-super-easy-to-administer Google App Engine. The bottom line is that, unless you're a control freak, you don't need your own host for even the most involved websites - so why bother?

Making a decision about PHP and WordPress. I've pretty much made a decision to avoid this technology stack. It's a justifiably popular solution for lightweight CMS that most websites need. This isn't to say that there's anything wrong with it, per se, it's just that there is only so much I want to learn. I actually really admire PHP's directness and the fact that it's purpose-built. And Wordpress has a pretty amazing bang-for-the-buck ratio, especially when you take into consideration available templates. I guess I just don't like munging HTML on the server anymore. If you want to munge HTML, do it on the client, with JavaScript, the way God intended. The server should really be just a dumb, RESTful data store used by the DOM to populate itself. (Interestingly it is theoretically possible to write a WP template that does things this way...tempting!)

Speaking of Google App Engine - what a great product. Dealing with some Linode drama I have come to realize the costs and benefits of running your own host, and what a great job the GAE team has done making deploying and managing your apps as easy as can be. They have lots of nice touches, like the ability to deploy in-active versions for testing, and full text search on logs - all through the web. This is all stuff that you can do with linux/apache/tomcat but it takes a lot of work to setup and maintain. Kudos to GAE.