Bad Movies

Monday, August 5th, 2013 at 10:49 am

gigli

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.

more

The Technology Of Playing For Change

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013 at 1:19 pm

playing-for-change-nepal

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.

more

Get Off My Lawn

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 at 3:02 pm

stream

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.

more

Full Stack Javascript

Thursday, June 27th, 2013 at 1:09 pm

marshall-stack

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.

My first article, for their Business Intelligence section, is about JavaScript, specifically how software packages like Node.js and MongoDB are using it in new contexts and turning it into a full-stack language that works at every stage of the development process.

It’s effectively impossible to launch a sophisticated Web project without making extensive use of JavaScript and AJAX dynamic loading. That’s precisely why recent projects that move JavaScript beyond its usual boring domain of defining in-browser interactivity are so interesting—because it’s already dominant, and growing even more so.

more

Blink Blink Blink

Saturday, May 11th, 2013 at 12:00 am

blink

I wrote an article for the New Yorker about the evolution of web browsers, the impending demise of the infamous blink element, and Google Chrome’s new HTML rendering engine.

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.

more

Sniders

Friday, May 10th, 2013 at 3:49 am

pretzels

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.
more

Dosi.io

Monday, April 29th, 2013 at 1:04 am

target

I spent the past few days at the weekend-long competitive coding marathon that kicked off the 2013 edition of TechCrunch‘s annual Disrupt NY conference. Thanks to the mighty Niles Brooks and Kenneth Chen, we now have Dosi.io, an extension for Google Chrome which automatically adds additional tech industry intel to the professional networking profiles on LinkedIn — repositories on GitHub, history on AngelList, etc.

I think it’s pretty cool! But it’s not just me: TechCrunch wrote it up, and CrunchBase awarded it their big prize — they’ll be flying us out to Berlin in October to compete in the Disrupt Berlin hackathon. I can’t wait!

A Man, A Plan, Canal Street, Panamah

Monday, April 22nd, 2013 at 1:13 am

panamah

Head on over to Spin for a quick look at Panamah, an electronic pop trio who sound quite a lot like The xx.

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.

more

Keep Sailing

Thursday, April 18th, 2013 at 6:45 pm

monica-juliet

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.

more

How To Destroy How To Destroy Angels

Thursday, March 7th, 2013 at 4:15 pm

how-to-destroy-angels

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.

more

Sail Away

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 at 12:39 pm

stefan-fink

Another round of my busker recording project with the Village Voice, this time featuring the delightful Stefan Fink:

He’s surprisingly young. This is a natural consequence, of course, of singing old-soul Appalachian folk; the MTA has up-to-the-minute arrival times posted on the LED signs overhead, and finally now also delivered via a new iPhone app, but songs like this emerged at a time when we were still dreaming up the concept of time zones to help with scheduling trains, none of which were underground at the time. Also, he is sporting a mean beard.

more

When That Sandwich Slides Out Of You In A Week, Look At It

Friday, February 1st, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Last night NBC aired the final episode of 30 Rock. The Awl and I would like to hit you with every spoiler in one efficient listicle.

Maura Magazine

Monday, January 28th, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Goodness, I can’t believe I’ve neglected to mention this for so long. We’re already four issues in, but I’m the main geek behind the web presence for Maura Magazine, a new digital weekly for iOS devices helmed by the amazing writer and editor Maura Johnston. She fielded my pitches at the Village Voice for a while, and you may have also read her work at a number of other wonderful publications.

This is her new experiment in small-scale direct journalism. Using an infrastructure provided by my fellow geeks at 29th Street Publishing, she publishes a handful of long-form stories each week which are pushed to a custom app loaded on the iPads and iPhones of her eager subscribers, each of whom pays a buck or less per issue, with payments automated via iTunes. Writers get paid, readers don’t have to deal with ads, everybody wins.

There’s been more coverage of this than I’d care to outdo here, so let me just refer you to some of the other guys:

As for the site, a lot of the heavy lifting is being effortlessly handled by WordPress, but I’m still really excited about a lot of the things happening in the custom functions I wrote — these are among the coolest WordPress ideas I’ve ever come up with. I don’t want to go into too much detail since we’re not openly sharing the plugins yet, but in a nutshell, the paywalls are dynamic, and you will start to see them move and react as we continue to charge along here. For example, this past weekend one of the articles was temporarily unlocked to match the HBO schedule.

And, as with my last attempt to merge tech with editorial, a hearty shout out to my good friend Buster Bylander, who jumped in with his amazing visual design sense once I was done fiddling around with the code for generating the content loops. We are both very proud of this. Please subscribe!

Ai No Beat

Monday, December 10th, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Over at Spin, a look at the new single from the Japanese boy band Kis-My-Ft2, which was released in both rock and pop versions:

The dual release format makes a lot of sense precisely because the composition almost seems to have been built from the ground up for this express purpose — each version focuses on one part of the song, at the expense of the rest. Which is not to say anybody’s any better off as a result — the median age of the band members is a crisp 21 years, and consequently the rock version sounds like a hazy reflection of rock as understood by someone who grew up in the age of Shinedown: dramatic pauses, fluttering echoes and filters, doubletracking everything to death even when the riffs don’t actually want to go anywhere useful.

more

Bagpipe Buskers

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012 at 1:15 pm

The latest round of my busker field recording project Cast In Concrete features Scottish Octopus, a duo that combines bagpipes and drums.

Bagpipes are a deceptively powerful instrument, which you may not realize until you’ve heard them from a few feet away and/or had them overload your mics, but that also means they’re a fine counterweight for a drum kit. Combining them, at least in the manner these two do, also creates a strangely compelling time travel sensation, because although the pipes are well outside the comfort zone for most of the people who are going to end up reading this, a drummer like Morales can propel them along into something that could pass for modern, at least enough to survive outside period pieces and dramatized police funerals on Law & Order.

more

Chicken Little

Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

When I was in high school, we were all addicted to AOL Instant Messenger, which allowed you to use small images as your account’s icon, sort of a 48-pixel precursor to today’s profile pictures on Facebook and elsewhere. Usually you’d just download something — fake “buttons” that contextually mimicked the visuals of the program were all the rage — but much to the amusement of my friends (or some of them, at least) I was handy with Microsoft Paint. Instead, I hacked together a rough self-portrait caricature by clicking on individual pixels at the 800% zoom setting, and then pulled a series of head swaps to create variations like the one you’re seeing here — bond.bmp. (The clear “crowd favorite,” as it were, certainly seemed to be turtle.bmp, but personally I was also quite fond of ninja.bmp, devil.bmp, and dead.bmp, as well as a special edition which I used during the week-long beach trip we took together right after graduation.)

Sorry about that clunky intro, but there’s no other way those images were ever going to see the light of day. Anyway, I’ve just written an enormous feature for Grantland, parsing through the catalog of the James Bond theme songs in anticipation of the release of the newest film Skyfall on Friday.

From the outset, the idea was to rate and subsequently rank the songs using more sophisticated logic than simply “which song is the best” — for example, in a wild break from most of the other music writing I’ve done, we consider and even award points for the complexity of the music theory underneath the pop surface.

But I’d been also closely reading New York Times political statistician Nate Silver’s articles for months, and as election night drew nearer, the extremism of his predictions for an Obama win (all since proven correct, as you are likely aware) created a firestorm of controversy in the mainstream news coverage. He was inescapable, and consequently more of his approach was absorbed into my own writing than I could have predicted. I soon found myself writing about music in a ludicrously academic and mathematical fashion.

Considered on its own, the strength of the song roughly corresponds with that first expectation of artistic unimpeachability, the idea that a secret agent of Bond’s formidable aptitude should not be introduced by anything less than the finest entry music. But the smoldering remains of the music industry do still like to chase after popular success, so we also need to consider the prominence, popularity, and reach of each song — for our purposes here, this is a rough amalgam of sales numbers, chart positions, eventual cover versions, and more generally the extent to which the song can stand on its own as an independent cultural allusion many years after its initial release. (This also acts as an automatic populist counterweight of sorts against what would otherwise be an isolated critical opinion for strength — please remember that as you’re composing your angry tweets about this article.)

Using two numbers allows us to measure intrinsic quality separate from widespread success, but those are already valid metrics for every song in existence, and we’ve not yet accounted for the fact that this is a Bond theme, and thus just the latest tiny piece of a high-profile long-running whole; let’s see what we can do about that. The cleverest of the Bond pop songs are undoubtedly those that seamlessly incorporate a very specific melody, known among Bond music enthusiasts as the “suspense motif” — this is the slinky chromatic line that kicks in during the main title music, after the horns stop. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in the background at the beginning of the verses in Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” for example. This is what everyone thinks of as “the James Bond theme.” Constructing your pop song around the mathematical constraints of the suspense motif is the most fascinating compositional approach, but there are also other ways to “sound like a Bond theme,” so we’ll simply assign a third score here for cohesion, which is the extent to which a given song cooperates with the rest of the series.

This now gives us three scores instead of one for each of the Bond pop songs — roughly speaking, we now have separate numbers for each of those words: “Bond” (Cohesion), “pop” (Reach), and “song” (Strength). From these we can calculate an overall average which we hope will better reflect the effectiveness of each theme song using more reasonably balanced criteria than a simple gut reaction.

more

This continues apace for five thousand words. It’s easily one of the most demented things I’ve ever written, and I’m delighted that Grantland was willing to entertain it anyway.

Mean Storm, Meaner Pencil

Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 5:58 pm

New York’s transit system has been eviscerated by Hurricane Sandy and none of the subways are running in a sensible fashion, which is precisely why I made a point of meeting up with the wonderful singer and cellist Lenna Pierce for an underground recording session. This one is a bit weirder than usual.

That voice, man. It’s like something echoing out from history itself, like it should be trained on weighty Celtic spirituals instead of the inconsequential love songs that typically concern us mortals. The cello all but disappears here, buried unceremoniously by the futility of trying to keep up.

more

On a related note, I’m also thrilled to have finally snuck in a silly little contribution at The Awl, which for my money is the greatest editorial property on the internet at the moment. Hopefully next time I’ll graduate from barebones rankings of the downed subway lines for everyone to argue about into doing some actual writing.

But by all means, continue doing the horsey dance

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012 at 3:08 am

Over at Spin, we debunk the notion that listening to “Gangnam Style” in any way qualifies as global cultural awareness by pointing you toward “Bloom,” a wonderful new jam that is handily beating Psy on the Korean pop charts.

Korean rapper PSY’s runaway smash-of-smashes “Gangnam Style” has long since graduated to such a level of worldwide Internet saturation that Korean pop listeners have decided it’s time to move on. Son Ga-In is by far his most exciting successor yet; she clearly wants you to have fun, but there are no dances that frat boys will be doing on Halloween, and no shots of anyone rapping on the toilet.
more

Have you seen my blog posts about CMJ? Y/N

Friday, October 19th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

New York’s annual CMJ music festival is happening again this week. I’ve written about it before via short reviews of the litany of concerts held across the city, but this time I wanted to focus on the awesome daytime programming hosted at NYU before the shows commence each evening. So, for the Village Voice, a series of mock flow charts which help* you pick the right discussion panels to attend (* = they do not actually help).

Tuesday, October 16
Wednesday, October 17
Thursday, October 18
Friday, October 19

A few interesting footnotes here:

First, we considered putting the charts together as giant image files, which is how this sort of thing is usually done, but eventually I successfully pitched the idea of building the charts right on the web page. This makes for a much more pleasant user experience, since traversing the decision tree is just like scrolling through an article without any cropping or resizing weirdness, and the content can be highlighted and copied just like any other text. It also reconfigures itself much more cooperatively for viewing on mobile devices than a static image file would.

In a way, it’s pretty simple — essentially, we just created a whole bunch of divs and applied tons of inline CSS to them, most notably setting the background images and the padding to create the illusion of interconnected lines and arrows flowing between them. This is generally frowned upon as a web design practice, but for a single-use scenario like this it actually works quite nicely, because I didn’t have to add any external stylesheet files to the CMS and it’ll remain remarkably stable as the Voice’s site evolves in the future.

But man, that’s a lot of inline CSS! For example, generating single box to put a question in requires all these rules (many of which are duplicated because they get split across a parent and child div):

width: 500px; min-height: 150px; padding-top: 70px; background:url(“6.png”) no-repeat center top; background-color: #F9FFB2; padding: 20px; border: 1px solid #333399; text-align:center; margin: 0 50px 0 50px; font-style: italic;

Worse yet, since it’s all stored in an inline attribute, this would need to be repeated in full every time you want to generate a box of that type. And if you later need to change something — say, the images aren’t lining up quite right, or you need more vertical space for text — you’d have to go back and manually fix every instance. So in order to make this easier, I wrote a little set of scripts in PHP which dynamically applied the CSS while looping through the content I wrote for the boxes. I’ve done a fair amount of both writing and coding over the past few years, but it was really neat to finally have a project in which both were so tightly woven together.

Second, please also note the awesome visual design work by my friend John Bylander, who first brought the rough demo charts I sent him to life with subtle color and typography tweaks, and then cobbled together image files late into the night.

And finally, a nod to my sources of inspiration for this: former Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla, who back in 2007 wrote about the rapper Mims using diagrams to thunderous acclaim, and then in 2010 covered the CMJ panels with a series of snarky comments not unlike my own Q&A content here. And then there’s also the extensive timeline of future events from sci-fi movies as compiled by the Awl, where a close examination of the markup helped me figure out how best to approach the CSS here.

See you next year, I hope.

Gotham’s Reckoning

Saturday, September 15th, 2012 at 3:32 am

Today the Village Voice has some tremendous new developments which you should go read about, but meanwhile Spin has also posted my newest piece on foreign pop. This time I focus on the remix of “One Day/Reckoning Song” by Israeli folk singer Asaf Avidan, on top in half a dozen European charts and strongly reminiscent of Cat Power, whose tremendous new album you should go listen to.