music: “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”

This documentary about Chuck Berry‘s 60th-birthday musical performance and tribute was surprisingly enjoyable, considering that I only ever want to hear four straight-up rock ‘n’ roll songs in a row. His songs all tend to chug along the same way, but his willingness to dismantle his own songs with economical scratchy stabbing solos is impressive; Keith Richards is far better and yet less compelling. A bunch of other famous musicians play in the concert, but the stand-out is his modest piano player Johnnie Johnson. More than the concert, I love his relaxed rehearsal takes on standards like “A Cottage for Sale” and the movie ends with him playing some wistful pedal steel, alone.

Chuck Berry precisely talks about his life, his music, and his money, yet he’s a cipher. He knows where he came from.

They say “That’s a Chuck Berry song because it’s Ba-du-ba-dada [scat-sings a Roll Over Beethoven riff].” Well, the first time I heard in that was in one of Carl Hogan’s riffs in Louis Jordan’s band. We have T-Bone Walker, I love T-Bone Walker’s slurs and his blueses; so put a little Carl Hogan, a little T-Bone Walker and a little Charlie Christian, the guitarist in Tommy Dorsey’s band, together, look what a span of people that you will please. And that’s what I did in Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven — And making it simple is another important fact, I think, that resulted in a lot of the artists understanding, and being able to play, my music. If you can call it my music, but there’s nothing new under the sun.

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music: Shutter falls, all in 3D, foreign movie, Peg!

I enjoy and admire Steely Dan’s Aja, but I don’t quite love it to pieces like Gaucho. Then an afternoon watching drummers on YouTube (Jo Jo Mayer’s stickwork, Buddy Rich’s impossible drum solo) took me to Bernard Purdie and two revelatory videos about the side 2 opener “Peg.”

First off Donald Fagen walks through the chord changes to “Peg.”  Sadly I don’t fully understand musical theory, but hearing the chords compressed from the full studio group onto a single piano makes you hear them anew.

At 6:00–6:23 there’s a phenomenal bridge from 4ths to blues to a “bebop turnaround.” It’s fifty years of 20th century musical development restated in twenty seconds. Gershwin and Ellington could not do better. In the second part of the video Fagen and his interviewer Warren Bernhardt play through and it’s lovely.

Then you can geek out on the making of the album track, from the Classic Albums series on DVD. Rick Marotta’s hi-hat, Chuck Rainey sneaking in slap bass, the insane time and money it took to bring in “three or four, five players, six or seven, eight [guitar] players” before Jay Graydon nailed it, and Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers frontman and surely one of the best harmony vocalists in the world) triple-tracking those close background harmonies. After hearing the song for an hour straight, his unearthly background vocals are locked into my head, just beyond comprehension of how they add to the song.

The discussion of making the other songs is great too, especially “Deacon Blues.” Dean Parks plays a beautiful hidden acoustic part at 4:36, there’s a subtle F.A.O. Schwartz department-store synth part at 6:30 to perfect the horn line, the swooping complex harmony vocals at 8:38

Dean Parks sums it up best. “It was like a two-step process. One was to get to perfection and then the other is to get beyond it, and to loosen it up a little bit.” Most bands forget that first part :-). Steely Dan are not godlike, it’s not rocket science, it’s just a huge amount of work by masters. (And Roger Nichols who was a rocket scientist.)

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a retrospective as Grand Theft Auto V nears

The approach of Grand Theft Auto V makes me reflect on the series.

  • Highest and purest style: GTA: Vice City
  • Ridiculously gargantuan sandbox: GTA: San Andreas[*]
  • Best damn radio patter: GTA: Liberty City Stories (Dan Houser and Lazlow’s finest moments)
  • Craziest car stunts and most engrossing side missions: GTA: Vice City Stories (Infernus and Empire building).

I bought a PS3 and a new TV and stood in line at midnight to buy GTA IV, but it wasn’t that great. Rockstar upped the detail so you could feel Nico’s gritty lifestyle, but they dropped dozens and dozens of features from San Andreas.[*] The story is sweeping and well-told, but a dreary bummer. With “The Ballad of Gay Tony” Rockstar did a solid job of coming up with a story and characters that work better in the constricted game world, but once the story wraps it’s a realistic but dull place to be, far short of GTA:SA. No triathlons, paramedics, fire missions,.. meanwhile there’s an entire Coney Island funfair that doesn’t work.

  • But GTA IV has the best radio ads. El Chamuco Roboto! Dan Houser and Lazlow are brilliant writers and parodists.

On the basis of that arc, it looks bad for GTA V. Developing the 3-D assets for the level of detail demanded by the latest consoles seemed to exhaust their creativity and fun. Maybe a less ambitious cartoon like Saints Row is the way to go (I liked SR2, I haven’t played Saints Row The Third). But then, a non-GTA game restored my faith in Rockstar:

  • Best storyline, characters, cut scenes: Red Dead Redemption by a mile.

[*] 70+ features in this list, not to mention that San Andreas comprised most of California + Las Vegas. The change in the light and haze in the different areas is phenomenal.

“Masculine in the front, feminine in ze back.”
“Music is life and we snort it until we O.D., again und again”
“At least in the 80s they could play their instruments and there were two ambiguously gay men beating a synthesizer who were up for a go”
– Reni Wassulmaier, transsexual film director turned DJ on Flashback FM in GTA:LCS

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non-support: PayPal can’t help itself

Another day, another company that won’t let me tell them what’s wrong with their site. Same as it ever was. This time it’s PayPal. Their interface to Subscription payments is poor. Firstly, you can’t find it under Send money, or under My account: I had to find a recent subscription payment, click on it for Details, then you see a link “You can see all of your recurring payments on the My preapproved payments.” (sic, these people can’t write properly). Follow that link and you see your subscriptions, but you still have no idea how to get to this from the menu system. Then, all this list does is show you your subscriptions and a scary set of merchants that are allowed to bilk you at will. You can’t change the amounts and you can’t reduce the maximums (eBay can drain me of $300,000.00 USD (per month) for “sellers fees” any time they want?!). OK, I’ll look for support then, and I want to help PayPal improve its site by surfacing “Preapproved payments” and letting me change subscription amounts. On every subscription page, there’s a (Questions about this subscription? Contact us.) link, that sounds promising! But of course SPage’s law kicks in:

the part of every Web site with the most problems is the feedback form for reporting problems.

Sure enough, that helpful-sounding link takes me to an utterly general “Email Us” form that makes me guess all over again where find Subscriptions! PayPal is too stupid to pre-select the right Topic and Subtopic?

I also clicked the general “Contact Us” link at the bottom and tried PayPal’s “Chat with Sarah” helpful bot, but SPage’s law is still in effect and it is comically bad. The bot didn’t understand “How do I give feedback on your  web site”, “Where do I give feedback?”, “How do I change a subscription payment”, “I want to change a subscription”, “reduce subscription”, etc.  The only thing she was good for is “I want to reduce preapproved payment.”, in response she told me how to navigate PayPal’s menu system to find the list of payments. In other words this hunk of junk doesn’t seem to understand the term “subscription”, I have to type “preapproved payment”, even though the web site still uses the term “subscription”.

And then when I tried to tell PayPal about these four defects in its web site, after spending 20 minutes typing this in, when I clicked [Submit] I got “Your session has timed out, please log in again.”

Your session has timed out, please log in again.

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cars: Fisker Karma, Hot Wheels brought to life

I saw a Fisker Karma on the street for the first time. The car is huge, and insanely distinctive. It swells and bulges all over the place, making a BMW 6-series look like a bland Hyundai. It’s a Hot Wheels vision of the future brought to life.

People will buy it just for the looks, and if they’re able to drive around partially electric, good for them.

(as I wrote)

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music: piracy is wrong, copyright matters

The Trichordist tore into an NPR columnist who admitted to having 11,000 songs but hardly paying for any of them. Now Free Software guru Richard M. Stallman wades in, and gets it wrong. I criticize him thusly (originally on Slashdot where I got a ‘5: Informative’!):

Emily White violated the copyrights on the music she acquired (“I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star, The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo”). You’d think RMS would be against that, since his GPL software license expresses (admirable IMO) restrictions on what you can do with it under those same copyright laws. His arguments why Emily “did nothing wrong” are mostly the lame tired crap that piracy apologists have trotted out for decades now

After all, how can we support musicians? Buying recordings from record companies won’t do it. For nearly all records, the musicians get none of that money; the record companies keep it. See this article and this article.

Untrue. Artist royalties are often ~20% of the sales price; this chart says $.09 for an iTunes download, and artists self-releasing through CD Baby keep 75%. The meme that artists don’t get money seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the money record companies advance against royalties so artists can make a quality record (The Trichordist explains this well). Regardless of the percentage it is not the consumer’s right or job to decide if that’s a reasonable or obscene deal from the record company and online store. For f***’s sake, if you don’t like a song enough to pay $0.99 for an unprotected DRM-free legal copy of it so that the artist gets some money in exchange for your enjoyment of her creative endeavor, then:

1. Skip it and enjoy the zillions of free songs out there — under CC share licenses, out-of-copyright, in the public domain, live performances from trade-friendly artists on Internet Archive, etc.! As RMS knows well from software, there are great free alternatives to restricted paid works, so go support those!

2. If you whine “Waahhh, this song I want ought to be free like all those others” so you pirate it anyway, then your parents raised you badly and you’re an ethical fail.

RMS goes on

Practically speaking, the only effective and ethical way you could support musicians was through concerts.

Not true. Paying for the copyrighted recordings you want and love works great and delivers money to artists so they can make more! It’s insulting to suggest artists should instead try to collect money for something completely different — “touring and T-shirts”. (No Sgt. Pepper for you, John Paul George and Ringo are going deaf on another tour that only their teenybopper fans attend.) The idea that artists should not charge for a quality studio recording has been immensely damaging to “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” (as the US Constitution’s copyright clause puts it) in the area of recorded music, it’s a big reason why today’s songs are recorded in bedrooms on laptops instead of in quality studios with crack session musicians. And as RMS later acknowledges, touring doesn’t even work for those bands that do perform live, because they can’t afford to travel to all their fans, and then only a fraction of fans in an area can make it to the show.

RMS is on better ground with the first of his two ways to support artists

Put a tax on Internet connectivity, and divide the money among artists.

Great idea, let’s hope it happens. But his second is a fantasy:

Give each player device a button to send 50 cents anonymously to the artists.

It’s been tried, the Fairtunes service during Napster’s golden era. I ponied up money for a song I shared, but in several years of operation I think they only received $50,000 (when there were 25 million Napster users). Jane’s Addiction succinctly expressed the reason: “When I want something, I don’t wanna pay for it”

Another fantastic commenter tries to analyze the ethical vacuum where Emily will pay for fair-trade coffee, but can’t imagine compensating artists who toil for her gratification.

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software: misplaced Linux desktop angst, just make HTML5 great

Linux users and developers bemoan the few apps available for their desktop. Where are the app developers? is a typical lament. But every commercial next-gen platform going up against Apple/Android — BlackBerry X, Tizen, even Windows — has figured out how to deal with low developer interest: run HTML5 apps. Only the tiny Linux desktop community persists with the fantasy that “if we had better docs, or easier development tools, or less fragmentation, we’d get developers.”

Here’s my response to that particular post (damn site won’t accept OpenID responses):

You’re correct to identify Mozilla app store as an open alternative, but then you return to “Gnome apps”.  Focus on making Gnome an outstanding environment to run HTML5 apps, inside or outside a browser. Cheese, GCalctool, GCompris, Gnucash, Tomboy — anything not a hardcore system tool — are all going to fall behind HTML5 apps using the newest web APIs. Which is fine so long as those apps can run offline, don’t leak privacy, can interoperate using open file formats, etc.; so get ahead of the trend and encourage the HTML5 apps that adopt open source values, even though there’s nothing tying them to Gnome.


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cars: BMW i8 climbs down from greatness

The good news is some version of the BMW i8 will probably enter production. It’s still a looker, but the EfficientDynamics Vision concept was beyond belief, easily the greatest concept car so far this millennium. (Watch the designers talk about their baby.) Obviously the concept’s clear lower door panels wouldn’t make it to production and the high-mounted mirrors were unlikely, but the pre-production also loses the ‘u’ laser headlights and the folded bodywork floating on the glass. For over €100,000 BMW should deliver more of the awesome.

Comparing a pre-production rendering with the identical view of the concept at BMW makes me sad:

Now the rear looks especially weak, the rear quarter lights resemble the 300ZX’s, the rear fenders lost the bulbous teardrop shape and to compensate the side profile from the doors rearward is a flame-surfaced mess. The front has an ugly black center opening under the BMW kidney grille and so the black cuts no longer look like roads curving into the distance. The Camaro’s headlamps look closer to the concept than these generic eyebeams. Etc.

I’d make a pilgrimage to see the original, like Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

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software: accelerating the development of EVERYTHING

Draft incomplete thoughts and missing links but I just had to get something out…

Marc Andreessen said software is eating entire industries, and from my own personal experience he’s really onto something.

Most heard about Facebook buying Instagram for one BILLION dollars, with predictable shock. NYTimes is 116 years old , Instagram is 557 days old with $0 revenue, and both worth $1bn (Instagram worth $77M per employee). But something they overlook is the mountains of stuff the 13 employees at Instagram adopted . The list of technologies they integrated to be able to serve 30M users is dizzying. Nearly all the software is free, and the services they pay for (storage, servers, etc.) are pay-as-you-go and cheap because they also leverage free software.

I assume any and all the improvements Instgram made to their tools are free and were developed in the openshared development. It would cost them more to keep them in-house. Anyone in the world can follow their steps to provide an app to 30,000,000 people.

…XX more on github and shared development

Rapid development spreads

Now it’s spreading to management. A guy runs a 40-person company remotely using online tools, web-based project management, private messaging to teams, etc. No human resources department, no middle managers, no waste.

You can see the tools and systems that software development is producing to improve & accelerate itself are spilling up into general management, and over into other industries. This is Andreesen’s insight. Links needed.  Will dinosaurs in construction/health care/ education notice the blurry figures zooming past them?

Accelerated software slims down and shakes off layers

The unavoidable reality for me is I made a decent living interfacing developers with the outside world: writing documentation, testing software before it goes out, providing tech support for outside developers, packaging SDKs (even burning the CD-ROMs), feeding bugs and enhancement ideas to them. But the “open” movement destroys the whole notion of outside developers. Link to old Cluetrain manifesto  And software development inevitably develops the tools to accelerate and minimize all the tasks that get in the way of pure programming, including the jobs I performed. Github does them for you:

  • the site integrates simple markup and implements a wiki so project developers can easily make their own online documentation
  • developers can skip the manual and view the code to figure how it works
  • anyone can contribute documentation
  • anyone can file an issue
  • the site builds a download of your project
  • And critically in all these areas, an outside developer can use git’s distributed development “Here’s my fix to the code/documentation/examples/tests, please review and incorporate it” so improvements can happen hourly.

I can code, so all these tools help me do a better job at it just as much as they help a stone-cold genius programmer. But my velocity remains underwhelming compared with a superstar. Every company is desperate to hire someone like Instagram’s 13, but the world is full of me.

My dream is I take my understanding of how rapidly systems can develop back to some stodgy institution (Gibson quote The future is here but it’s unevenly distributed)  and say “Talented people can pump out improvements unimaginably fast… I’m not super-talented myself, but I’ve seen how the greats do it and can encourage the process by writing things up on your wiki.”

Browser-based accelerates faster than all

This distributed development in the open benefits anything that can be expressed in 1s and 0s: not just software but textbooks, media, genetic sequences (!), computer-aided design, and soon even physical parts (with 3-D printers).

Almost without exception you’re using all these tools in a browser, so if the end result of accelerated development is something that itself runs in a browser, it’s completely friction-free. Every moment someone makes an improvement, you get a better web application.

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design: Downton Abbey’s sartorial nirvana

Downton Abbey is high-class underwritten clichéd claptrap (I thought the smug writer-producer mahvelling over his work in the BBC parody really was Julian Fellowes), but season 1 episode 5 achieves sartorial nirvana.  Lady Mary’s charcoal cutaway riding outfit, the men’s cream day suits, then at 0:41 housemaid Anna’s chevron-frilled linen coat and gray shirt blows the roof off.

chevron-frilled linen nirvana
C’mon baby, put some more clothes on!

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