To Steve

Steve.
Everyone keeps saying thank you. Perhaps it’s the brevity that Twitter enforces, perhaps it’s the sheer enormity of what those words must convey, but no one’s really tried to sum up what they really mean. As I stare at my Mac, and imagine endlessly his personal influence in everything from the gradient of the menu bar down to the radius of the trackpad, here is my attempt.

Thank you, Steve.

Not for being a tireless champion of the user experience.
Not for believing that no detail is too small.
Not for empowering those everyone else ignored with technology and, more importantly, communication.
Not for showing us how business and vision are not enemies, but together a powerful force.
Not for making us believe that technology can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Not for pushing an entire generation of engineers, designers, and users to accept nothing less than the very best.

All of these things, yes. And all of these things in spades. Each of these things would be enough on their own. But they are mere artifacts, evidence of what he truly means to me, and so many others.

Thank you, Steve, for showing us that all of these things matter.

1955—2011

Looking onwards, looking upwards

The Shuttle takes its final bow

In the next hours, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is going to flip onto its back, its Orbital Maneuvering System thrusters are going to fire, and for the final time in history a Space Shuttle will deorbit.

The 30-year Space Transportation System program is not without its share of drama and setbacks. We all remember the Challenger and the Columbia accidents, and we all think of them as often as we think of the Shuttle’s successes. The program never actually fulfilled its original goals: the orbiters are reusable, but only after extensive inspection and parts replacement; the cost of the program per launch, even if you ignore the overhead generated by the extensive maintenance periods and costs, never matched the original projections; the safety of the system is still in question.

Going to space has not, as once was promised, become routine.

Far from it. And perhaps that’s a good thing. Remembering just how exceptional it is that we can do what we can do in space reminds us that we face many challenges yet, and there are grand problems to be solved yet. Sometimes we forget this fact, as a nation. It shouldn’t take a Challenger or a Columbia to remind us that missions to outer space are not routine, but with 20,958 orbits, 134 missions, 45 dockings with a space station, and well over three and a half cumulative years in space, it’s easy to forget just how incredible it is that we’ve built this machine.

And what a machine it is. It can accomplish things in space that no craft before it could dream of doing — indeed, that no craft currently planned for the future could dream of doing. It can not just launch cargo into space, but act as a staging platform from which to prepare it before installing it to a space station, or launching it elsewhere into orbit or beyond. It can fly to an orbiting object, capture it, and act as a servicing platform from which to do repairs. It can bring home large, heavy payloads safely, within the protection of its heat shield. The International Space Station would not have been possible without its capabilities as a construction staging vehicle. The Hubble space telescope would not have been possible without it — not any of the five servicing missions that made it usable, last, and look to the future.

And then there’s that, too — the Hubble. The images it has brought back to us are burned into our memories. There’s the one with the nebula, with what appear to be pillars of dark stardust cast against an eerie blue-green glow. There’s the one with the spiral galaxy, with spirals of milky white descending upon an orange glow. And who can forget that most incredible of images, the Hubble ultra-deep field, with what appear to be hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies, numerous as the stars we can see painted above us at night, all uniquely shaped and colored, and all within a fraction of a fraction of a degree of the night sky. What single machine has brought us images have invited as much awe, have proved so humbling, and have inspired so many young and old as this?

And this is what I’m afraid of.

I’m afraid of a future in which that most extraordinary, inspiring science organization in the world, is no longer going to have the tools to amaze us.

The Space Shuttle is, even ignoring its vast capabilities, the most beautiful spacecraft ever built. Put next to all the others we’ve ever flown as a civilization, it’s as if one were looking at a Veyron alongside a collection of oxcarts. There’s something about its plane-like shape, the expectation that it wants to move forward as a plane does, that makes those launches so dramatic and awe-inspiring: that space plane upon its back, nose pointed at the sky, aching to reach further and further upwards.

Our next spacecraft is to be another round, gumdrop-shaped capsule.

And Hubble, that telescope that is single-handedly responsible for bringing so many young children and students into science and technology: it will operate as long as it can, but unless a robotic mission boosts it to a higher orbit, and unless its gyroscopes last longer than their earlier-generation predecessors, the venerable telescope will cease to be operational within the next 8 years — perhaps sooner.

Our next space telescope does not take visible-light, color images; only near-infrared.

I am afraid of a future where the greatest science and engineering organization on the planet, one that is perhaps the most prominent ambassador to the rest of the people in our nation and upon our planet, is no longer capable of producing the most extraordinary machines on Earth. I’m afraid of a future in which NASA resigns itself to what is reasonable, rather than what is possible. I’m afraid of a future in which we no longer have images to inspire our youth into studying science and technology.

And I’m afraid that that future is very near to us indeed.


I’m going to miss the Atlantis. It may in fact be my favorite of the orbiters. It performed the final Hubble servicing mission, one that we feared may never have come to pass. It was the first and most frequent Shuttle to dock with the Space Station Mir, ushering a new era of international cooperation in space exploration. And it is the last Shuttle to fly a mission in outer space.

In the opening of the latest revision of the book Moon Shot, Tom Stafford, astronaut aboard various Gemini and Apollo missions, watches the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, and remarks wistfully that “life was good when magnificent machines flew.”

Goodbye, Atlantis. You were a magnificent machine. I hope it is not long before we see a machine in your image fly again.

I believe in the revolution.

iPad

I have no business buying an iPad. Not for what it is.

In a previous version of this post, I had a lengthy bit here explaining why the iPad isn’t the right device for me. Ultimately though, that’s not the point of this post, so suffice it to say this: I have two (2) 15 inch Macbook Pros, an OG Kindle, a netbook running OS X, and an iPhone. I always have at least three of these with me. I am not in need of an iPad away from home. At home, I want to IM and browse the web at the same time, which the iPad will not allow me to do efficiently. It sucks.

Basically, I have no need for an iPad. But it would appear that I just bought one today. Here’s why: I believe in Apple’s revolution.

It’s pretty clear why the tech community is so confused over the iPad: they’re not the target demographic. At least, not yet. This is the computer for everyone. It’s the Internet device for those of us that are terminally afraid of the Internet. It’s arguably the most intuitive user interface imaginable. You manipulate it with your hands. You don’t have to worry about what programs you’re running. You don’t have to worry about installing software. Hell, you don’t have to even know what a file is to run this thing. This (relatively) ultra-cheap machine wraps up everything a starting computer user needs in a sandboxed, on-rails experience with an insane amount of polish. And this is all made possible simply by making a larger iPod Touch.

But, of course, that’s not a legitimate reason for me to purchase an iPad. Rather, it’s the things we couldn’t yet see a few months ago, and even now can’t fully see that are so compelling.

Take print. The Kindle was a brilliant product. I own one. You can purchase a book, and in moments be reading it. You can carry your entire library with you. And yet, it does absolutely nothing to revolutionize the concept of books, or the concept of print. Indeed, if anything it’s a suboptimal experience in nearly every way. The pages are smaller. It’s got 4 shades of grey, so forget about nice images, let alone magazines. Turning pages is at times torturously slow—let alone video. And, for $10 per book, the whole experience is entirely unceremonious. It feels very much like you’re paying a somewhat unreasonable amount of money for a pile of words on a screen, simply because it’s such a bare-minimum experience. There’s little to no pride of ownership—I often bring up the fact that I like a shelf full of books to fellow Kindle owners, and it always elicits the same sad, wistful response. With the Kindle, your shelf is a list of titles.

Contrast. There are already the most amazing demos coming out of how incredibly rich the reading experience can be on the iPad. Magazines don’t just show up in full, beautiful color, with the layout their designers intended for them: they move, and breathe, and interact. Forget the moving pictures in newspapers in Harry Potter’s world. Hell, forget that demo I just linked you. Watch the “Enter Seadragon” segment of this somewhat famous demo. See what they do with print. Imagine that in your hands.

And, with design as important as it is to Apple, your books get the treatment they deserve. They aren’t just a bundle of text, they have a proper showcase. It’s simple. It’s honestly the most inane thing that I could care about. And yet, it goes such a long ways toward instilling that pride of ownership that is so important to users trying to accept digital distribution. In the end, design matters.

And I think that’s why I’m buying the iPad. There are a ton of different other things I was going to cover—the fact that, unbelievably, Apple actually seems to be succeeding in killing Flash (who would have thought, a year ago?), something which will live on as one of Apple’s top five achievements of the past decade, or the incredible experiences people are already coming up with. But they’re extraneous points. The real reason I think I bought one is because it’s the ultimate validation—nay, vindication—of what graphics and experience designers have known all along; indeed, of what Apple has known all along.

Design matters.

Heavy Rain Review: Wait, so what’s done is done?

Heavy Rain box

Those of us who live in video games have always had the luxury of a rather juvenile approach to our video game lives. Did you screw up? Go back and try it again. Do you want to be good or evil? Here are two options for you. Here’s what will happen depending on what you choose. Change your mind about which option you wanted? Well, that’s alright — just go back and try the other thing.

Heavy Rain is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, emotional stranglehold of a game particularly because it violates all of these things that we’ve been accustomed to in video games. But first, some advice:

Play the game on the hardest difficulty, even if you’re not super familiar with video games. Unless you’re missing more than a third of so of the prompts, you shouldn’t pick the easier route. This game is much more interesting if you make mistakes.

This game is much more interesting if you make mistakes.

Heavy RainThis was one of the easier decisions in the game.

This isn’t a game about winning. This isn’t a game about doing things the right way. This is a game about people, and people make mistakes. And, unlike in video games, they have to live with those mistakes for the rest of their lives. Unlike in video games, sometimes what is asked of people is too much for them to handle, too much for them to accomplish. And forcing yourself to accept that reality and forcing yourself to accept that, for the next eight to twelve hours of your life, you have to live with whatever just happened — that is the insanity of this game.

And, the choices you make in the game are just as human, and just as insane. The sort of thing you’re choosing to do in this game is organic and real in a way that I haven’t seen in any other game to date. This isn’t a game that gives gravitas to grand, sweeping decisions that you’re making. There are no defining moments of choice. There is no Playboy X moment in this game. This game is much dirtier and much meaner than that.

There was one point in my first playthrough where I was confronted with a quick, simple decision, and implicitly given only seconds to choose — and I was completely paralyzed trying to make this decision because I had no idea if one of the options would perhaps kill me, or if the other option would perhaps result in the failure to find my son. In fact, I spent so long trying to weigh my options that the game stopped waiting for me and just moved on. The genius of the choices in this game is in the fact that you have an investment in those decisions (emotionally for the characters, as well as personally for your own time playing the entire remainder of the game), and as a result it becomes practically as real as it is for the characters in question.

Similarly, fight scenes are about as intense as any you’ll find in any game, simply because the stakes are so incredibly high. And, with fights and intense action happening fairly often, you’ll be about as exhausted as these poor characters by the end of the game.

I’d rather stop my review here. I think that everyone should play this game once. I think that while it may not be a revolution in the way games are made or told (it is, but it’s too much of an insane effort to be replicated within pretty much any other game), it is an incredibly well-conceived and -executed experience that everyone should experience once — particularly those that spend a lot of time playing video games.

And, perhaps once is the right number of times to play this game. Going back and seeing how other decisions play out I found ruined the emotional value of the scenes. Real people, after all, don’t get to time-travel back and figure out what might have otherwise happened. That nagging feeling after the game ends that perhaps you could have made better decisions, but not being completely certain, is part of the experience. Of course, if you want to get all the trophies in the game, you’ll have no choice.

Either way, though I think everything else about the game should be inconsequential in relativity to what I’ve already described, this wouldn’t be a proper game review without considering all the other components that make this game a game.

Heavy RainThis game has perhaps the best lighting since Mirror’s Edge.

Graphically, Heavy Rain is a bit of a tour de force. Sometimes the designers blew out the lighting a bit too much, for instance in the police office, and textures start to look like the pastels from the first Counter-Strike, but for the most part the graphics in this game are both technically and artistically breathtaking. The uncanny valley is in a bit of effect here, but it’s more than counterbalanced by the beauty of the lighting in the first scene of the game, or the dust suspended in the air of the apartment you just broke into, with peeling wallpaper and a crumbling ceiling, sunlight scattering through the dirty windows. There are brief moments in this game that look better and more realistic than any other game I’ve ever played, and I’m not sure how they do it, but I suspect they put a lot of thought into light and how it diffuses. The PS3 has really been shining bright recently.

The sound in the game is also superb for the most part, with the obvious and oft-mentioned complaint about some of the voice acting. I didn’t find it as distracting as others, but it was definitely a present problem. The music gets a bit repetitive after a while, with only a couple generic calm-yet-sad leitmotifs, and a small handful of oh-god-i’m-going-to-die cues.

Perhaps the most broken part of this game is the simple act of walking. After playing the game for a few minutes, you start to understand why the game controls like a tank (you hold R2 to walk, and then use the left stick to turn), but that still doesn’t excuse the fact that the way it carries out said tank-controls is so awful. Sometimes you’ll find yourself on the cusp of an invisible, virtual corner of the game, trying to get to the other side of the corner, but because you’re a few inches off, you’ll turn around like a drunk clown several times before finally giving up, walking several feet away, and trying it again. There must have been a better solution here than tank controls. Added to the fact that the way it’s animated gives the impression that you’re dragging these people unwillingly along by a piece of string attached to their noses, and it serves in general to make something which should be fairly simple incredibly frustrating.

Again, though, I think these things are inconsequential relative to the actual merits of this game. Everyone should play it once — perhaps precisely once, perhaps at least once, but once nonetheless.

Performant .live() in jQuery 1.4

So, jQuery 1.4 has very few new features that really make the upgrade worth it (though fixing the .val() on checkboxes and radiobuttons and implementing .detach() are both things that should have been done long ago), but the performance benefits are immense in some cases, so I decided to move the in-progress odkmaker project over.

One significant optimization I’ve been using with jQuery 1.3.2 for some time now was documented by Zach Leatherman — when you use .live() (and if you have a dynamic number of elements you should always be using .live() over .bind()), there’s actually a pretty horrible inefficiency inherent in the way it’s called. Read his post to get the in-depth explanation, but essentially you’re calling into the Sizzle engine to evaluate your selector, when really .live() only cares about the text of the selector. Zach’s method fixes this problem, but unfortunately due to some internal changes in jQuery 1.4, his brilliant method has stopped working.

Thankfully, the fix is pretty simple. The critically missing part is that jQuery objects now have a reference to their context, I suppose to ease use between frames. The resultant code is as follows:

;(function($)
{
    $.live = function(selector, type, callback)
    {
        var obj = $([]);
        obj.selector = selector;
        obj.context = document;
        if (type && callback) {
            obj.live(type, callback);
        }
        return obj;
    };
})(jQuery);

So in the future, instead of

$('a[rel="modal"]').live('click', function(event)
{
    /* some code */
});

you should write

$.live('a[rel="modal"]', 'click', function(event)
{
    /* some code */
});

And thus you save the cost of iterating through the whole document for absolutely no reason.

This technique shaved off up to 7 seconds on pageload on a commercial-grade website I work on, so it would be a huge loss if it stopped working — it’s good news that it’s so easy to fix.

Review: VVVVVV

screenshot

It’s no secret that the moment you make a 2D platforming game on a non-handheld platform, you’ll have my heart from the get-go. Releases in recent years have shown that unlike the 2D brawler genre, which had its heyday — looking at you, Streets of Rage — but is now dated and unenjoyable, the platforming genre has plenty left to say. Braid, Bionic Commando Rearmed, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (despite its title) have shown that the affordances of modern hardware can allow for mechanics in platforming that are fresh, innovative, and which add new elements to the genre that were simply not possible or executed before 2D platforming was more or less abandoned twelve years ago. The sole exception here is perhaps Yoshi’s Island, which was far ahead of its time.

And then there was VVVVVV. Really, it doesn’t add anything that innovative to the genre. The gravity flipping mechanic has been done before by a million different online flash games, not to mention to an extent in Mega Man 5. Its 8-bit style means it doesn’t really push any boundaries graphically. It doesn’t even do that many things that wouldn’t have been possible on an NES. But damn if this isn’t a fantastic game.

Instead, the game takes advantage of the increase in horsepower to tighten up the mechanics. I’m old enough to remember when games were hard, but depending on the game any proportion of that difficulty could simply be assigned to general shoddiness. Poor hit detection, loose controls, and other quality issues often meant a thrown controller due to yet another death that seemed completely out of your control. I died 1155 times getting 100% in VVVVVV, and not once was it not my fault. That actually speaks volumes, I think, about just how tight the core mechanics are in this game.

Speaking of the core mechanics, VVVVVV‘s core mechanic — one might say gimmick — is actually immensely well done. Like Braid before it, the game takes a simple, perhaps overused mechanic (rewinding time in Braid and reversing gravity in VVVVVV), and examines it from different perspectives, adding different twists and poking at the result in interesting ways. As soon as you start to get the hang of each new mechanic in either game, it instantly yanks it away from you and replaces it with another one. The difference here is that while Braid focuses largely on puzzles and lateral thinking, VVVVVV is almost purely execution. The difficulty of the game ramps up pretty quickly, so even if you just go play the demo, you’ll find that not long after you’re introduced to a tripwire that reverses gravity the moment you hit it, you’ll come across rooms filled with them — and spikes.

There are a lot of spikes in this game.

There are, however, also a lot of checkpoints. These little diodes are scattered in enough places that you’ll never face one of gaming’s worst ruts: having to get through a lengthy easy part just to die at the real challenge over and over again. But don’t let their frequency fool you — this is still a hard game. It’s unforgiving in places. If you go for a full completion of the game, you’ll find yourself dying. A lot. One particular trinket took me around 500 deaths to nail (albeit it was 2 in the morning and I was exhausted at the time). And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game with the unforgiving spirit of the “old days,” and it’s frankly refreshing. Just be prepared to hear that death sound effect a lot.

Also be prepared to hear some fantastic music. This isn’t some chiptune nonsense, this is true 8-bit video game music. Actually, it’s probably not. There are some samples in there that belie its modern origin, but overall the spirit is there in spades.

screenshot

The nostalgia isn’t limited to music, either: just look at this map and tell me it wasn’t ripped straight out of a Super Metroid.

If there’s one thing to complain about the game for, it’s its length. I hit 100% completion in the game in just about 2.5 hours. I’ve also played a lot of platforming games, so your mileage may vary. But for $15, I would really hope for a little more than that. There are plenty of possible mechanics left untouched that could have been interesting: areas that force gravity in a certain direction, or other objects that are also affected by your flipping, or perhaps even the ability to rotate gravity four ways rather than simply vertically. Perhaps these will be in VVVVVVV or something (yes, there is one more V in there), but it’s a shame they never saw the light of day in this one, considering how all-too-brief it is.

If you miss the old days as much as I do, and you enjoy the demo, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this game full-price, sight unseen. If you don’t however, I can’t recommend spending the full $15 on it.

****/5

Top Albums of 2008: 10-1

Well, it’s the last day of 2009, and while everyone else is doing best of ’09 lists, I still haven’t wrapped up ’08 so I feel I haven’t the right yet. Here’s a marathon post to finally round out 2008. 2009 to start tomorrow.

10. No-Man – Schoolyard Ghosts

Once again, Steve Wilson captivates. No-Man is a side-project catering to exactly where one would expect his musical journey to lead him — it’s largely electronic, with various electronic styles laid over various other genres, spanning the spectrum from trip-hop to jazz. For some reason though, and perhaps somewhat unbelievably, Schoolyard Ghosts ends up even more melancholy and subdued that the bulk of the rest of his projects.

Apart from a few capricious outbursts early on, the album is contemplative to a fault, and while it’s just the right mood to set off Wilson’s delicate english croon, it just doesn’t do it for me the way that Porcupine Tree or Blackfield do.

9. A.R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire

Sunil Garg and I were listening to this album before the release of the film and kind of wondering why it was the way it was. Everything about the album seemed a bit off, rendering the whole album a rather weak offering. And then the film came out. And everything was perfect.

Seriously, if you somehow live under a rock and never saw the film, go see it now so I don’t have to explain myself. Hell, it makes Paper Planes a sensible and artistic choice. Who would have thought that possible?

8. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

The Hold Steady isn’t for everyone. Their southern-tinged flavor of rock might be off-putting, and their dense style can be tiring to listen to. But somehow, their blend of classic rock and modern style is exactly my cup of tea. From the strong album opener to the sauntering, downtrodden ballads dotting the meat of the set, to the closing song, a composition that deliberately feels exactly like “hanging in there,” the atmosphere and style of their music is pretty nearly perfect.

But yeah, it does tend to get repetitive around the two-thirds point in the album.

7. The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead

I’m in love with the closing song of this album. After forty minutes of smooth, folky, bubbly indie rock, the album finally breaks loose and lets you hear what its undercurrent has been this whole time: raw and energetic, the music of people gathered around a campfire having a great time. The vibe of this album is sublime.

And it samples sound effects from Super Mario Bros. 3. What more could you want?

6. Polarkreis 18 – The Colour Of Snow

I discovered Polarkreis 18 too late to include their debut album on my 2007 top list. Smoothly produced, with a beautifully done set of transitions from electronic beats to poppy sections to long and luscious string interludes, Polarkreis 18′s eponymous debut was an album I absolutely fell in love with the moment I heard it. And I wanted to like the follow-up just as much.

I don’t — and that’s not to say that it’s not great. But as with any sophomore release, the band did something unfortunate and unfortunately common: they stopped and looked at the debut album and tried to figure out what the formula was that made it tick, rather than just focusing on writing great music. As a result, The Colour Of Snow is a bit more formulaic, and a bit more artificial. Some of the tightening and cleaning has been for the better — Allein, Allein is a fantastic track that calls back to the spirit of the original album well. However, the album dips into the orchestral interludes far too deeply compared to the original, and as a result rather than be lost in a fantastical realm, the listener just feels like momentum is being lost as the album progresses. By the time Happy Go Lucky comes along, it feels so comparatively melancholy that you wonder where the band’s high spirits have gone.

5. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles

Forget what I said about The Hold Steady — this band is truly not for everyone. Really, it’s not for most of you. It’s electronic, and experimental, and very, very abrasive. Alice Glass’s voice is chopped up and resliced to unending lengths, and the crunched and recrunched beats do very little to ease the soul. If you can deal with a little abrasiveness in your life, though, this album will be a hell of a ride.

Somehow, all the clashing and the crashing melds together to become a truly hypnotic experience, one that slowly evolves over the course of the album until it seems almost approachable, almost palatable. And hey, the opening track samples Death From Above 1979, one of my favorite bands of all time.

4. Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground – Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground

This album has been floating around in vinyl since 2007, but since the major release wasn’t until 2008 I feel okay including it here.

If ever there was a good thing to come out of Gatsby’s American Dream’s indefinite hiatus, it’s Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground. Not being a product of the 70′s, I missed out on the easy, meandering style of psychedelic rock. Kay Kay takes that style and updates it for modern times with absolutely the perfect touch. The first song alone could very well have been 3 separate songs, and yet it drops between its segments with appropriate capriciousness and aplomb, and with such conviction that you can’t imagine that these bits of melody were ever meant not to be with each other.

I love weird, capricious music that not only draws from every style but includes every style, and Kay Kay delivers in spades.

3. London Elektricity – Syncopated City

I love Drum and Bass — I listened to very nearly nothing but it in 2007, but I never thought a DnB album would ever cross number 10 or so on my top ten list. The reason is twofold — first, the LP record, something hallowed and time-honored on this list and in my mind, isn’t a particularly respected unit in the electronic music world, which is driven instead by EP’s and singles. Second, while I love the genre, I won’t hold back from faulting its monotony. Most songs have exactly the same techstep beat these days, and few tracks really stand out — let alone a whole album of standout tracks!

And yet, genius and longstanding scene giant that he is, London Elektricity delivers, and strongly. His first music in quite a few years, Syncopated City is a masterwork of both Drum and Bass and Liquid Funk, the jazzy subgenre that Hospital Records tends to cater to. From the great RnB and poppy vocals in many of the tracks to the inventive new beats and tonal textures, this album is a breath of fresh air in the scene and a pleasure to listen to over and over again. Seriously, if you haven’t heard this album yet and are looking for something new, go fire up Attack Ships on Fire on YouTube or similar. It’s one of the best productions and greatest beats I’ve heard in quite some time.

2. Murder By Death – Red of Tooth and Claw

Number one was a tough decision this year. If I could do so without seeming like a cop-out, I would name both of these top two albums the album of the year. More on the final decision reasoning later.

Murder By Death is another album of somewhat southern influences, with imposing baritone vocals and raggedy strings wound around rattling drums and guitar. Oh, and a cello. A freaking cello. So again, if you’re turned off by those types of influences, I don’t think this album will carry much water for you.

However, if you can get past those reflexes and really listen to this album, I think you’ll find that it’s completely staggering. The sheer scope of its ambition, both musically and lyrically, and its completely uncompromising vision make it one of the most intense, visceral, honest 38 minutes of music of the decade, let alone the year. When they say in the interview that it’s a “Homer’s Odyssey of revenge, only without the honorable character at the center,” they really aren’t kidding. The scale and desperation of the main character’s downfall is so immense that you almost wish at the end of the final song, after having woken up in a rotten bed of his own blood and sick, not sure what has happened, not even sure if perhaps he’s killed someone, that instead of “I don’t know what I did/But I’ll do all the good that I can….” he concludes “I don’t know what I did/But I’d do it all again if I could….” — which it sort of sounds like, but isn’t upon closer inspection.

This album is so good that I have half a mind to bump it up to number one, having just written what I have, and I don’t doubt that in retrospect Red of Tooth and Claw will indeed shine bright as the album of the year, and one of the top albums of the decade, but for now I have my reasons.

1. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

In the end, it wasn’t even close, and on one criteria — for the lack of a clear decision musically, I reverted to the same criteria I used last year, and which served me well: what album did I spend the most time listening to? And it wasn’t even close — Red of Tooth and Claw is so ambitious, uncompromising, and vicious that it’s exhausting to listen to, opening the door for the lighter Heretic Pride to take the medal.

The Mountain Goats have never been about the production values, the musical showmanship, or anything in that direction of music (which makes it all the more surprising, given my obvious bias on all of these lists, that it was chosen as my year’s top). Instead, the band, which for all intents and purposes is frontman John Darnielle, is about precisely one thing: the lyrics. Indeed, Darnielle began writing music long ago to provide background to his poems — and soon found that he was writing songs rather than poems.

Having spent a few albums looking inward, especially with the particularly personal The Sunset Tree, highlighting his troubled childhood with his abusive stepfather, Darnielle returns to writing about fictional characters. Just because they’re fictional, however, doesn’t mean they’re any less flawed, twisted, or tortured — in fact, he often makes light of how he tortures his characters while performing live. And in the end, it’s these characters and their inner contemplations that make this album shine.

That’s not to say that the music itself isn’t good — it’s actually rather good of its own merit. Formerly a strictly lo-fi artist, recording on a boom-box with a tape deck, Darnielle and his band know how to get a lot of clutter and clatter out of just a few instruments. While it may sound like there is a lot of shiny production and a multitude of layers going on at most times, close inspection reveals that really there aren’t ever more than four or five instruments at once, and often only three. This skill and quality leads to an album that’s sonically fulfilling without ever feeling tiring or overweight, as many albums do these days, particularly with over-compression.

But still, the lyrics are what win you over to The Mountain Goats. I promise that no matter who you are, if you pay really close attention to what Darnielle is singing, you’ll find at least one passage that really jumps out at you, that resonates with you and that you can picture with startlingly vivid clarity, regardless of whether it actually has anything to do with you. For me, that passage in this album is found at the peak of Autoclave, sung in a major key with perfect amicability yet mean wistfulness:

I dreamt that I was perched
atop a throne of human skulls,
on a cliff above the ocean,
howling wind and shrieking seagulls.

And the dream went on forever,
one single static frame;
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name.

The Shape of Things to Come

I know. It’s been a month again. I’ve promised posts that haven’t come. Between my research project, my design project, my as-yet-unnamed XForms project, work, grad school applications, and guesting for a radio show every week, I have basically no time.

In a vain attempt to force myself to post more, I’m going to lay out what I mean to have written in the next few weeks, under the sound logic that promising something a third time will get it done.

  • Those pesky last few top albums of 2008. It’s hilariously late at this point, but it would be completely silly to start posting albums for 2009 without having even completed 2008.
  • That year-with-Twitter retrospective. The funny thing is, the longer I sit on this post, the more it seems I have to rethink its content given how rapidly Twitter evolves.
  • A look back at a little site of ours highlighting the meteoric rise and fall of a certain political legend.
  • A look at that XForms project I’ve been working on, which should be done pretty soon, and which is pretty cool.

And, by the end of January of next year, I’ll hopefully finally push through and write a new WordPress theme to replace this mysteriously broken instance of K2 that I’m running.

See you then?

Misconceptions, Episode 2: The “Government-run” Healthcare Company

Everyone’s heard more than enough about healthcare in this country over the past 2-3 months, so I’ll try to limit myself to my point. It breaks down fourfold:

The “Government-run” plan isn’t that at all. Your congressman isn’t going to be deciding your healthcare. Your government isn’t going to be affecting your healthcare whatsoever, except by funding a separate option for you. Rather, much like the Federal Reserve, the “public option” provides for the funding and creation of a health insurance company that is owned by the government and over which the government has oversight, but which is not run by the government.

So you see my problem with the term “Government-run.” If President Obama denying you your healthcare options is your worst nightmare, sleep easy. Moving on.

Healthcare reform as we’re pushing it makes zero sense without a public option of some sort. There are a number of regulations in HR3200 that are meant to curb excessive spending, but the most radical change and the one that stands to make the most difference as a result is the mandate that everyone in the country needs to purchase health insurance of some kind.

So what happens when you require people to buy health insurance without actually making it more affordable? The health insurance industry stands to profit. A lot. And a lot of families are going to go bankrupt. That’s why they’re not fighting healthcare reform in general, but they’re pouring their coffers into fighting the public option, which would create competition and force them to charge reasonable prices. AAHCA, contrary to what many believe, will only further damage our healthcare system unless a price-limiting factor is introduced.

The public option will not cost trillions. I don’t know how this one got started, but the facts are pretty simple. There is a bipartisan body called the Congressional Budget Office whose sole job is to aid lawmakers with their decisions by estimating the total cost of every bill that Congress considers. Their analysis states that the plan would cost $1.042 trillion dollars to implement, but would bring savings and revenue of $892 billion, for a net total cost over 10 years of $239 billion. That’s, of course, $23.9 billion per year, or about 1/6 of what we spent on the Iraq War this year.

And that estimate is only from the perspective of the government, too — it makes no account of the money families will save each year.

The public at large is in support of the public option. It depends on how you ask it, I will grant — if you phrase it as a “Government-run” option, support drops, but I’ve already illustrated how that’s a falsehood to begin with. If you look at Nate Silver’s analysis, you’ll find that support for the public option generally rests between 60-70%.

 

It’s pretty ridiculous how long this process has dragged on, for how little reward it seems to be able to provide. While it is true that the economic impact of completely dissolving our private healthcare industry in favor of a single-payer system renders that option infeasible (remember, one in every six dollars spent in America is spent on healthcare), a public option seems like such a small concession towards making things right that I shudder to think of what will happen when something truly groundbreaking comes up.

 

Addendum/Appendix: “Why does it make sense to force everyone to get healthcare in the first place? It makes no sense to me.”

The answer is, in two words, preventive medicine. Simply look at this chart listing all the preventable causes of death per year, and imagine all the healthcare costs involved with the attempted treatment of all these things once it is too late.

Adding a Gmail-like ‘archive’ action to OS X’s Mail.app

Edit 22/09/2009: Of course Google has to go and change things around two days after I post this script. Now, for Gmail accounts if the script doesn’t work with “[Gmail]/All Mail” being the account name, you’ll want to try “[Google Mail]/All Mail”.

I used to just leave mail in my inbox and let it pile up until the counter read “thousands.” I would occasionally tag messages that were very specific to a project I was actively working on, but that was about it. But with Gmail’s highly accessible Archive button and awesome and, at the time, revolutionary and unheard of search capabilities, hitting that Archive button didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Now, things in my inbox are purely things that need my attention, either now or months from now, and the count hovers around 15-30.

However, I recently switched to Mail.app on OS X, and while it’s a simple enough task to create an ‘archive’ mailbox to put mail messages in, to do so requires a time-consuming drag operation, since there’s no button that can do this for you. When you add enough mail accounts (I for one actively monitor 6 accounts), the list of mailboxes become long enough that the drag operation is compounded by a scroll operation.

To this end, I’ve written a quick Applescript (adapted from the one John Gruber wrote over on Daring Fireball which works a bit differently) that will take selected items and shove them in a mailbox entitled ‘archive’, exactly as Gmail does. You’ll have to hack it up a bit in an intelligent way, since there’s some code in there that is specific to my mailboxes. If you monitor any Gmail accounts within Mail.app, you’ll want to copy the special-casing I did for the fictional Gmail account below.

set _description to "Move selected item into the archive mailbox for the current account. This action is not undoable."

tell application "Mail"
set s to the selection
if the length of s is greater than 0 then
set m to item 1 of s
if the name of the mailbox of m is "INBOX" then
set a to the account of the mailbox of m
if a is account "example@gmail.com" then
move s to mailbox "[Gmail]/All Mail" in a
else
move s to mailbox "archive" in a
end if
end if
end if
end tell

The only major limitation of the code is that it assumes you select mail only from a single account at a time. If you view inboxes from multiple accounts at a time, then leave a note in the comments below and I’ll be more motivated to fix it.

Unfortunately, Mail.app won’t let you add Applescripts to the toolbar as buttons, so the only way you’ll be able to activate this handily is by enabling the scripts menu at all times (you’ll find the option in the Preferences dialog of Applescript Editor), and assigning a shortcut to it via the Keyboard System Preferences pane. This is a bit less than ideal since the script takes a second to kick in with this method, but it’s what we’ve got.

Maybe someday I’ll turn this into a proper plugin.

In closing, I’d like to simply sum up my thoughts about AppleScript with a short quote from Chris Metcalf:

I don’t want to “say” shit to you applescript, I just want you to do what I want!