I wrote what I believe is the The Awl’s first technical white paper.
My goal here was ostensibly to put together an essay for the Village Voice about the new Aphex Twin album, but it’s actually more about the absence of the new Aphex Twin album, and how I got highly attached to an amazing leaked track in the interim.
Not only has James never released another album like Selected Ambient Works 85-92 — worse yet, these days he just doesn’t really release albums at all. It’s been 22 years since that debut, and for more than half that time he has existed only as a beloved ghost. The last thing he released before disappearing was 2001′s Drukqs — twisted, knotty, and in places totally incomprehensible. Frankly, it has proven exhausting to be a fan of a musician who was first brilliant, and then difficult, and finally just totally absent.
I wrote a very opinionated post for Wired about Apple’s recent decision to force downloads of the new U2 album on all iTunes users.
There’s a very simple reason why this is unprecedented, and that is because it doesn’t make any sense. Never before has such a major technology company also operated as publicist for a creative artist. The whole endeavor yearns desperately to be a landmark new innovation for the music industry, perhaps something along the lines of Radiohead’s legitimately earth-moving In Rainbows, which was self-released with variable pricing in 2007 and remains the gold standard against which music industry innovation is measured. But this is not In Rainbows, and as such should instead be remembered primarily as a monumental blunder by the tech industry.
Update: At 1:30pm today I’m going to be a guest on CHQR AM 770 in Calgary to discuss this fiasco; listen here.
Two short blurbs for The Verge as part of their attempt to crowdsource reviews of every episode of the Simpsons.
A few nights ago I stayed up late to start watching season 2 of House of Cards as soon as it premiered, and as you might expect, I freaked out when Frank Underwood immediately kills Zoe Barnes in the first episode, so I wrote an essay for Wired about the odd sensation of sharing a cultural experience like that via the internet despite the availability of video-on-demand services like Netflix.
Even in the middle of the night, I wasn’t alone. Both Netflix binges and traditional broadcast television are increasingly subject to an internet-based social halo surrounding fandom, and nobody wants to be the one who misses the party.
The merger is an unusual one: Gracenote owns a massive library of media metadata, and the Tribune Company is best known as the publisher of print newspapers and tabloids, most notably its flagship paper in Chicago. Five years ago, Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy as advertising revenues declined, the result of the global recession; at the time, Gracenote had just been acquired by Sony for almost $100 million more than its most recent price.
Each iPhone accessory and app is both a potential selling point as well as a tether for existing users—if you need to re-buy your cables, apps, docks, mounts, and speakers, even a free phone starts to look a lot less compelling. Google Glass isn’t a phone and doesn’t have any direct competitors running iOS, but it is still the closest thing there is to a market leader in the emerging world of wearable computing. As such, it currently faces similar strategy questions which could prove just as influential in defining its success.
I’ve completely neglected to post my recent projects for The New Yorker:
- “What You Look Like to a Social Network” – essentially dumping all the data fields shared about your user accounts by the major social network APIs into a single zoomable D3 chart for chilling comparison. (This project was extremely popular, so you really should click through!)
- The November 7th Twitter IPO captured in an interactive infographic which lets you compare the revenues and valuations of major tech companies both against each other and against themselves over time. Written with D3, and with an unreasonable amount of attention paid to the “bounce” option among the easing function selectors.
- Mapping the failed attempts to defund Obamacare so Ryan Lizza could proceed with a characteristically astute political analysis.
- Restaurant review map, with a particularly lovely introduction by Amelia Lester.
- An interactive jQuery timeline of women in the Senate to accompany the Kristen Gillibrand profile by Evan Osnos.
- Introducing Premise, a new company that creates “offline” financial indices by having overseas workers manually enter vegetable prices into their smartphone app. Written entirely using old-fashioned journalism – no programming whatsoever!
- Breaking Bad‘s various meth money plot points in a jQuery bar chart.
- Corporate fines compared in a D3 bar chart.
- Evolution of the Dow Jones, simple mouseover effects built with jQuery.
An update: I’ve started working at The New Yorker doing a mix of writing and programming – tech projects for the editorial division, basically. I’m still not quite sure which dog I’d be in this scenario.
The much-hyped Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher comes out today, and over at Slashdot I have an interview with Daniel Kottke and Bill Fernandez, two of the earliest Apple employees, about the creative liberties taken by the filmmakers.
Vijith Assar: Let’s talk about that pivotal scene at the the West Coast Computer Faire.
Daniel Kottke: It’s really kind of the really big scene in the movie. They spent several days shooting it, but they did an unbelievable job recreating the West Coast Computer Faire. There’s fifty different booths selling stuff relating to computers. Huge room. They did an unbelievable job reproducing it based on photographs that had been taken. It really blew me away. But anyway, that speech that Ashton does: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Steve Jobs, and I’m going to introduce you to the Apple II, blah blah blah.” That speech that he gives never happened, for sure. [laughs] It was just a booth at a computer show.
Bill Fernandez: There’s a whole other aspect that wasn’t even touched: the personal computing environment. The Commodore PET computer came out, and we were concerned that we might lose to them. And the Radio Shack TRS-80 came out. And from what I gathered, there’s nothing in the movie that sets the context; a lot of people were doing personal computing at the same time.
I wrote an article for the New Yorker about the popular collaborative coding platform GitHub:
GitHub allowed coders to collaborate easily over the Internet, providing messaging and social features that would feel familiar to current users of social networks—for example, the ability to follow particular chunks of code in projects the way one might follow people on Twitter. The primary difference is that on GitHub the users share code, not photos and LOLcats.
I wrote a feature for the BBC’s culture division about the various groups in New York who enjoy watching bad movies together.
Sharknado is just the latest in a string of terrifically silly releases by The Asylum, a production studio that specialises in low-budget ‘mockbuster’ spoofs tied to major theatrical releases (Transmorphers, Snakes On A Train) and absurdist camp flicks that aren’t readily connected to reality at all (Nazis at the Center of the Earth). Some of their movies have coasted to wild popularity on Netflix with audiences looking for ironic late-night giggles, but in New York, groups, events and screenings have emerged to share the experience of watching and mocking bad films – because misery loves company.
Last year I interviewed Mark Johnson of Playing For Change for the Village Voice. It was a companion piece of sorts to my field recording column Cast In Concrete, and as such we really connected when it came to discussing and complaining about the logistics. We kept in touch, and this has culminated in a technical interview in issue #96 of the audio production magazine Tape Op, which came out today. If you do not already have a subscription, you should pick one up now, because they’re free.
As the head of Playing For Change, Mark Johnson travels the world with a small crew, a high-end mobile recording rig, and video cameras, to capture buskers and other undiscovered musicians — perhaps a drummer deep in the Congo, a guitarist on a New Orleans street corner, or a choir in South America. But this isn’t just an anthropological expedition — after a little coaching, johnson has them all play the same song, along with the same metronome and/or backing track, stacking overdubs to create a “virtual collaboration” between musicians who otherwise would likely have never met. The resulting videos and albums have turned his project into a viral sensation. The humanitarian spirit of peace and unity at the root of all this makes the goals lofty and the logistics difficult; yet, somehow, Johnson cuts no corners, even in the wildest destinations.
Vijith Assar: One could argue that fidelity is not the point of a project like this.
Mark Johnson: With a lot of music documentaries, whenever you would hear street musicians it was always some camera mic picking them up. I always felt like they never got a fair shake. We realized if we brought good microphones, used different windscreens, a nice clock, good mic pres, and recorded it at a higher quality, we could give these things a chance to actually be represented properly to an audience. So, that’s why we wanted to bring the studio to the street.
For Slashdot, a complaint cheekily titled “How DRM Won” which explains why current business practices at streaming media companies like Spotify are culturally destructive:
In 2009, when Apple dropped the Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions from songs sold through the iTunes Store, it seemed like a huge victory for consumers, one that would usher in a more customer-friendly economy for digital media. But four years later, DRM is still alive and well—it just lives in the cloud now.
I love Wired, The Verge, and Ars Technica as much as anybody, but there’s really no debate that Slashdot is easily the nerdiest of the various tech industry news sites. In fact, it’s primarily how I learned about technology and programming myself. That’s why I am thrilled to have started writing for them.
Chrome’s recent move to Blink undercuts the primary olive branch it promised to Web developers upon Chrome’s release in 2008; those developers now need to test their Web sites in an additional rendering engine. But there is an argument in favor of the change: WebKit is now very widely used, especially in mobile devices, in much the same way that Internet Explorer 6 dominated the market and brought a near-halt to real innovation in the look and feel of the Web a decade ago.
It is very hard for me to bring myself to say this very silly phrase, but: I wrote a very short piece of fiction about pretzels for McSweeney’s. It’s part of their snarky reviews of new food series, to which I also contributed a Grape Nuts feature a few years ago.
When I bite into a Snyder’s of Hanover York Peppermint Pretzel Sandwich Dip, I get the sensation that I’m about to die in a ditch and my rotting corpse will be picked apart by raccoons before anybody finds me.
Even fans of the xx would have to concede that there’s a strict formula in play in their music — sparse percussion, simple chord progressions implied more than stated, and most importantly the hypersexual whispered interplay between dueling vocalists. “Børn Af Natten” proceeds along at a tempo that’s just a hair too fast for the xx, and this has the effect of tempering the depressing sinking feeling that emerges from the spaces between the beats.
Who’s up for a little time travel? I’ve been a little under the weather so this time we dig into the archives for my my busker recording project with the Village Voice — I recorded Monica Bethelwood and Juliet Biemiller ages ago but the segment never ran, and I’ve always felt guilty about letting such an excellent song get buried by our hassles on the editorial end.
Bethelwood told me she’d just returned from California, and given the hobo-folk vibe I was quite content to just assume that she hitched a ride on a rusty freight train. (One of her songs was called “Hubba Hubba Hobo,” actually.) She has since set up shop in North Carolina; “I moved to Asheville with 20 dollars in my pocket,” she told me recently, so I like to think she now travels between her gigs doing tarot card readings riding atop a rickety old mule.
I reviewed the new album by Trent Reznor’s new band for Spin.
The aspirations here are lofty, as always, if less reflective than your average NIN lament; the songs swell, bobble, and even leak from the seams under the pressure. It’s not just that Maandig’s petite vocals always feel incidental; Reznor himself and his signature tortured whispering are dwarfed as well, because the real star is his production expertise, which reaches new heights of maturity here even when all else fails.