Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Saw The Future Turned Upside-Down, And Hesitated

Wow... I think it has now been a solid decade since I decided that R.E.M. was my favorite band. If asked today to name my favorite band, I will hem and haw, then spit out a half-dozen names, with R.E.M. at the head of the list. I don't know whether that is indicative of loyalty or laziness. Regardless, while my tastes have expanded over the years (most notably getting on a huge electronic music kick that I'm still following through on), the formative influence that this Southern band held on me sets a high barrier for any other band to overcome.

They recently released Accelerate, which is their (consulting Wikipedia...) fourteenth album. That's a pretty amazing run, don't you think? They've been making music together for over twenty-five years now, still playing to sold-out stadiums and releasing challenging new music.

Before I get in trouble, I should be clear: The Beatles are a better band than R.E.M. That said, even The Beatles only lasted for a decade, and I think it's a huge testimony to R.E.M.'s tenacity and work ethic that they have hung together and kept evolving their music.

The purpose of this post is to share my thoughts on Accelerate. I have to admit that, unlike Reveal and Around the Sun, I did not buy this one as soon as it became available. Now that I have it, though, I've been hitting it pretty hard. It will take a while for me to come to final decisions, but after several listens I'm prepared to call it "a very good album", and would probably place it in the top half of their canon. Among the post-Berry albums, I'd put it in the middle: Above ATS but below Reveal.

It seems like for every album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi the pre-release buzz has been, "Oh, this is the album where they go back to using a lot of guitars!" With this album it's actually true. It kicks off with a bang, and they follow the driving force of Buck's guitars on the bulk of the songs here. I think that the track "Accelerate" in particular is some of Buck's finest guitar work ever.

That said, this album is definitely an evolution of their sound, not a reversion to their earlier, Document-era work. The electronic experimentation of recent albums is not as evident here, but they have earned the right to use these techniques, which are woven into the soundscape. I got a particular kick out of listening to "Sing For The Submarine" and thinking, "Oh, this sounds a little like Radiohead!" Which is brilliant, since Radiohead was probably more influenced by R.E.M. than any other band. Both bands are mature and incredibly talented, so it feels like an homage or a friendly nod. And after they channel Thom Yorke through the middle part of the song, they break back into a classic Peter Buck riff, and wind up with the same noisy denouement that they have been doing since Murmur.

Aw, heck... I want to talk a little about each track, so let's do that now.

  1. Living Well Is The Best Defense. One of my favorite tracks on the album, and it would make a great single. The energy is great, and the lyrics are surprisingly accessible.
  2. Man-Sized Wreath. A fine, Document-esque shout at the world. R.E.M. has always been political, but the degree expressed in their music waxes and wanes over the years. This song has them rolling their sleeves up once again to take on Bush, war, the media, and... well, the same things they were complaining about in Document, really.
  3. Supernatural Superserious. Their first single... and, given the reception of their recent albums, probably the only single this album will get. Which is a shame: the song is good, but far from the best on offer. The lyrics kind of annoy me, but the music is excellent, a perfect combination of the old and the new: Buck shimmies on the guitar and Mills backs vocals, while the optimism and fuzz are very much part of the 21st century R.E.M.
  4. Hollow Man. An interesting little segue of a song, starting calm but building up into a pleasant little rocker.
  5. Houston. I really like this one. The paranoid lyrics grab your attention from the very start, and the tune is simultaneously catchy and strange. It carries some of the Southern mysticism that you can detect in Life's Rich Pageant. I really wanted this to be longer.
  6. Accelerate. Another of my favorite songs on the album. The energy in this track is unbelievable, the guitarwork inventive, the singing insistent and delightfully vague.
  7. Until The Day Is Done. Probably the prettiest singing on the album. This captures the small-chamber aspect that R.E.M. occasionally puts on display, and does it really well... it's quiet and accomplished, finely crafted music.
  8. Mr. Richards. My least favorite song in Accelerate. Amusingly, this means I've listened to this one more than any other, as I try to understand why I dislike it so much. I think the song should either be about 25% faster, or else they should have ditched the guitar altogether... either done it acoustic, or done something with the horns they drop in at the end. The tone is making promises that the song doesn't deliver on, making listening a frustrating experience... it's constantly on the verge of being a fun song but never makes it.
  9. Sing For The Submarine. I want everyone who complained about New Adventures in Hi-Fi to listen to this: it is an amazing, atmospheric, dark, and very cool song that they could never have made without the experimentation in that earlier album. As I mentioned above, this is also cool in that they have a Kid A-esque breakout in the middle, sandwiched between an opening reminiscent of recent R.E.M. and a closure that hearkens back to the earlier years.
  10. Horse to Water. R.E.M. doesn't just make great music; they have also become master craftsmen when it comes to constructing the flow of an album. Sing For The Submarine is the last great song on the album, but it would end on a bad note. Horse to Water lets you center yourself and smile as the band gently pokes fun at themselves. It's a return to the fun, high-energy sound that has dominated Accelerate. "I might've kept my mouth shut," Stipe sings at one point, and I can imagine him thinking about this everytime he goes back into the studio. He doesn't have anything left to prove, he's just in it for the love of making music now.
  11. I'm Gonna DJ. I think that this song will probably be the most controversial on the album. Your reaction to it will probably be the same as your reaction to The Outsiders on Around The Sun: Either it is an embarrassing attempt for the band to work with another genre; or else it is an interesting injection of decidedly non-R.E.M. influence that sets up a unique chemical reaction you won't ever see again. I lean towards the latter explanation.
Also, I love the funny yet defiant way that Stipe repeatedly sings "I'm not gonna go 'till I'm good and ready!" throughout the last song. Thank goodness for that! If history is any indication, he could very well be making great music for years to come, and I hope I can keep up with him and the rest of the band. Rock on!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

America's Best Kitchen

Wow! Huge kudos to the editors of Cook's Country (and Cook's Illustrated). Last year I picked up a copy of America's Best Lost Recipes when I went to a book-signing by Christopher Kimball, nerd-in-chief at the America's Test Kitchen operation. It's a cool book, but I have to admit I haven't spent a ton of time with it. The magazines serve up more than enough dishes to keep me salivating. I flip through it occasionally. I'm amused that more than half of this book is given over to desserts.

So, that's my excuse when I say that it wasn't until Kathryn's recent visit that I realized the book I have contains a printing error. Er, maybe a binding error. Anyways, it's missing about 24 pages, and an extra copy of another 24 pages. I was bummed when I discovered this because, well, those were the pages with cakes on them.

I tracked down the web site for the publishing arm of the Kimball Empire, which included (in plain view!) an email address to contact them. I wrote a nice email explaining my situation. They wrote back saying, "Send us your address, and we'll ship you a new book." So I did, and they did! Wow!

It's hard to convey how happy this makes me. It's really gratifying to not need to go through a lot of hassle to get at those missing pages. And I'm especially impressed because, on their end, they didn't even demand the receipt (which I'd long since tossed) or other proof that I actually, y'know, bought the book. So, again, kudos to ATK for doing it right. They're a class act all the way!

While I'm writing on the topic, I figured this would be a good time to take a quick inventory of the cookbooks I have in my kitchen. In rough order of acquisition, they are:

The Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book: This was the first cookbook I got when I went off "on my own," a wonderful gift from my parents. It was a terrific first cookbook: it contains almost any American standard you can think of, and doesn't overwhelm you with a lot of exotic ingredients and preparation techniques. It isn't afraid to use easy resources like cream-of-chicken soup cans, which helps get people cooking. I still pull this out occasionally; if anything isn't in Joy, it will be here. (Note: There are like 14 editions of this thing, I think mine is earlier than the one on Amazon.)

Joy of Cooking: Hands-down my go-to book. A gift from my Aunt Fran, this one collected dust until nearly a year after I moved to California, after which it has rarely left my counter. It is simply an amazing book that contains everything you could want to know about cooking. When I started going to the Campbell farmer's market, I would drag home bags full of vegetables that I'd never eaten before, then pore through the book to figure out what the heck to do with them, and would inevitably be delighted with the response. It does demand more of you than BH&G, but it is also the best teaching book I've ever read. It explains how to do all the basic tasks that a lot of recipes take for granted - I'd never understood before what "saute" or "braise" meant. Again, due to the magazines I usually don't need to go looking for entree recipes, but virtually every side dish that reaches my table arrives by way of Joy.

The Pirate Cook Book: Arrrr! Anything with pirates is automatically awesome. They sadly failed to take advantage of easy cross-promotional monkey opportunities, though. This is mainly party food and so it doesn't get a lot of use, but it still makes me smile.

The Best Light Recipe: The first book I got from the Kimball company. They actually are generally pretty defiantly anti-light-cooking... almost none of their recipes contain nutrition information, and they will always choose a more flavorful option even if it is less healthy - I use lots of butter and oil. The trade-off, though, is that when they do make a light recipe, it is darn good... they refuse to put their names on anything that doesn't taste great. This book can be roughly divided in two. About half of the recipes are "naturally" light: tasty ways to prepare a white chicken chili, stir-fries, oven-baked fish. The other half are intriguing, where they tackle traditionally unhealthy foods and come up with amazing renditions. I have made, and practically swooned over, their recipes for Chicken Parmesan, Meat Lasagna, Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Cinnamon Rolls. The most amazing, though, remains what they put on the cover, a New York-style cheesecake with strawberry sauce. It simply stuns me. This isn't an all-purpose book like Joy, but wherever there is overlap, I tend towards this book's version.

Extending the Table: A spiritual successor to More with Less, this book combines international cuisine with international perspectives, making for great reading even when I'm not cooking. I'd probably cook out of it more often if I was closer to an international foods store - the recipes actually look really simple, but the most intriguing ones ask for stuff I don't have on hand (plantains, mung beans, tumeric). Still, it definitely gives me ways to stretch myself.

America's Best Lost Recipes: And are they ever! This is kind of a funny book, actually. For some reason, a majority of the recipes in here come from Eastern Europe. I don't know if that is reflective of Cooks Country's readership, the biases of the editors, or the quality of the cuisine (?). It does kind of make sense, though... American food has been dominated by British, French, and Italian influences, so it stands to reason that other immigrants would number among the lost. I've already picked out a dozen or so dishes that I really want to make - and yes, a lot of them are desserts. Everything just looks so tasty!

That's it for now. In all honesty, it's probably more cookbooks than I need... in addition to the above, I've held onto every issue of Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country, plus I occasionally grab recipes off the internet. It is wonderful, though, to know that I'll never be at a loss for meal ideas. As you all are my witness, I'll never go hungry again!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dead Note

Mini-review time!

This last week I got to see the live-action version of Death Note at Oakridge Theater. I'm glad I got to go - it was interesting to see another take on it from the anime version - but I have to admit I walked out of the theater feeling a little disappointed. I'll try and capture the reasons why here.

Everything in this post counts as a


First and perhaps most importantly, I disliked almost every change they made to Yagami Light's character. The anime was amazing and subversive because it made him so very likeable. Even after you realize he's a monster, it's hard not to cheer for him. He comes across as a man of pure motives and iron will who follows a logical path that leads to evil.

By contrast, the Light of the movie just seems like a punk. The anime Light was clean-cut, hard-studying, and serious; the movie Light comes off as smarmy and a little aimless. Both of them are bright, but I get the feeling that if the anime Light had never found the book, he would have gone on to an amazing career, while if the movie Light had never found the book, he would have dithered his life away.

There is an interesting side-story that they added to the movie: Light starts the movie as a college student who is studying law. Early on there are some ham-handed attempts to use this as an explanation for his connection to the notebook: he becomes aware that many criminals escape just punishment, victims don't receive satisfaction, this one mean guy pulls a knife on him, blah blah blah... and the notebook arrives like a savior, coming in the middle of a dark night after he has lost his faith in The System, providing a seductive alternative answer.

Which is all well and good, but it feels much more safe and conventional than the anime's backstory. I mean, we've all seen the movie before where the lawman learns that he needs to go outside the law to achieve justice. Heck, there are hundreds of those movies out there. It doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Probably the most important effect of this diminishment of Light's character is that the first half of the movie feels anemic. He goes through all the steps, largely following the plot of the anime, but even though he's the main character the audience just doesn't identify with him. The theater I was in was full of Death Note fans, a good chunk of them cosplaying, and it was eerily quiet for the first hour or so.

However, once L appears, everything changes for the better. There was a loud cheer in the theater, and some people actually got out of their seats to run a victory lap. Granted, L is the favorite character for most viewers, but beyond that, the director did a far better job of translating him to the screen than he did Light. Perhaps coincidentally, the movie L is almost identical in appearence, manner, and speech to the anime L. In other words, he is a fascinating character who grips your attention.

While I'm talking about actors, almost everyone else in the movie was pretty good. I don't understand why they made Ray Japanese, but I don't mind either. Light's girlfriend has an expanded role from the anime, and does a fine job. I liked all of his family members; the father in particular is solid and capable. Even with Light, it isn't really that his acting as such is bad; my issue is much more with the script and direction.

Now, the most important part: the ending! (If you didn't believe me about Mega Spoilers before, you REALLY should stop reading now.) The scene with Light and Ray's widow is still my favorite episode from the entire anime, which I should emphasize is full of great episodes. What it did was utterly masterful: have a long, extended sequence that only shows two people chatting while they walk down a sidewalk, yet contain a subtext so dire and painful that I could feel my heart racing wildly as I watched, horrified and mesmerized by the travesty unfolding before me. They completely ditch that whole scene in the movie, instead coming up with a totally alternate plot line in which Naomi discovers Light's identity, investigates him, contacts L, and tries to draw him out.

While the plot unfolded, I was replaying my earlier complaints: basically, "This is different from the show! Waaaaah!" Now that I think back on it, even if they had wanted to recreate that episode, it would have been death on film. The episode relies on use of interior monologue and frozen frames to explain both levels of what's happening. This would have seemed like pure cheese if they had shot it the same way with live actors. Without the interior monologue, it wouldn't have the same tension and would have fallen flat.

That said, after the revised scene completely played out, I had to confess my admiration. They pulled off what seemed like an impossible task: recreated the shock and admiration I had felt when first watching the anime. Granted, the story is completely different, but if it had been the same I would not have been surprised. So, a grudging "congratulations!" to the filmakers on their accomplishment.

It comes at a price, though. This is only the first movie, and heading into the second movie, it is impossible to view Light as anything other than a venal, despicable villain. There isn't anything particularly wrong with this, other than it makes for a far less interesting movie.

Enough for content. A few brief technical thoughts before signing off:

It is pretty fun to see Ryuk in the movie. At the same time - wow. I know Japanese technology is top of the line, but they seriously are years behind us in the CGI department.

We saw the dubbed version, which is HORRIBLE. I probably would have enjoyed the movie quite a bit more if it had been subtitled. I tend to be prejudiced against foreign movie dubs anyways, but this was a particularly egregrious violation because of how many significant written elements there are in the film, NONE of which were translated. Newspaper clippings, suicide notes, secret communication during a bus hijacking... all of these things were clearly important and highlighted with musical stings, and 95% of us had no idea what any of it meant.

We stayed after the movie for a "special" on the making of the movie. It was unintentionally hilarious. The whole thing felt like it had been produced by a ten-year-old on his Mac Mini... every single section had the exact same animated logo with the exact same chuckle from Ryuk. The content was repetitive as well; did we really need to see every actor's closing?

A few things did catch my interest. First, the highlight was definitely one talking head who got the title "Actor and Director's Friend." Now THAT is a job I aspire to hold one day! Second, the director seemed to have thought very thoroughly about a lot of the decisions to make in the movie, leaving me even more confused about how he ended up with what he did.

My final conclusion: this movie is for completists only. If you love Death Note and crave more, grab this, but be sure to get a subtitled version. If you've been meaning to try it, first of all, you shouldn't have been reading this! Mega spoilers! But try the anime. And if you hated the anime, you won't like the movie any more. That said, I will be watching the sequel. If it's markedly better than the first, I'll be sure to let you know!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Just watched the Season 4 finale of House. While this is a pretty solid show from week to week (at least in the opinion of this long-time Hugh Laurie fan), the finales have always been especially wonderful. That great trend continues.

One of the best moments comes about halfway through the episode. I suddenly perked up and wondered, "Is that... could it be?" Yep! It was "Teardrop," the song that starts off every episode. However, this was a different, acoustic version that I had never heard before. After the episode finished, I went to The Internet to investigate. Turns out that it's by a chap named Jose Gonzales, and - hooray! - it is available for free!

Anyways. This isn't terribly significant, but it's fun to hear a fresh take on a song I love. I think I've mentioned this before, but Massive Attack was a big part of what kept me going through the first awkward episodes of this show. I love the band, and it's great to see that like so many other great acts, they have created a canon that can be translated into different styles while still sounding good. I hope they keep making those wonderful creepy songs, and will hurry up and release a new album already!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Biked to Work Day!

Just a quick note: today is Bike to Work Day! Officially so in the Bay Area, but you can observe it wherever you are. If you're within pedaling distance of your office, give it a spin!

I was impressed by how many people I saw out riding today. It's really fun, and today is a great day to get started. With more cyclists around you're more visible, and there are refreshment stations set up all over where you can grab snacks, drinks, and more information about cycling opportunities.

Fate has struck again, and the weather didn't exactly cooperate this year. It will be the hottest day of the year to date, with San Jose expected to reach a whopping 99 degrees. That said, as long as you ride in the morning and evening, you should be fine, and with a brisk wind and the Bay Area's patented lack of humidity, it ought to be pleasant as well. Just be sure to bring water with you when you ride, and ride safe!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Running on low battery

I rarely use this blog to rant. Generally because there isn't much to rant about. So consider this more of a quiet diatribe.

I've been really disappointed by the way the Android Developer Challenge has unfolded. I don't blame anyone in particular for this... Google is free to run it however they want, and I'm sure all the judges they've tapped have very busy lives without this being added to the list. Still, it's a shame to see what could have been such a great kick-start to the developer community generate so much ill-will.

This whole post is VERY inside-baseball, so if the preceding paragraph doesn't make sense, save yourself and skip the rest.

Any developer will tell you that they've gained something from the challenge, regardless of whether they've won or not. Speaking personally, it has focused and incented me to spend a lot of time learning the APIs, grokking its quirks, and getting valuable experience writing apps that behave well. All of this has made me a better programmer, and possibly helped build a stronger resume. So, in a very grade-school sense, I have "won". (In every other sense, not so much.)

That said, the motivation at the front of people's minds has been to, y'know, really win the contest, meaning a selection as one of the 50 finalists. While I would have downloaded the SDK and played around with it, I probably would not have invested as many hours as I did without the added motivation of the contest.

While the details of the contest have always been a bit hazy, Google clearly established four criteria by which applications would be judged: originality, polish, indispensability, and demonstration of Android features. These were announced early enough that developers wrote their apps with those criteria in mind, focusing on them when making design and implementation decisions.

When the deadline grew closer (after being extended), Google announced more details about how judging would work. There would be about 100 judges, drawn from OHA companies and "industry experts". Each application would be evaluated by four randomly chosen judges. Each judge would give the apps a score of 1-10 on each of the four criteria. The 100 submissions with the highest scores would then go on to a second round of judging, and the 50 of those 100 with the highest scores would be declared the winners.

On its face, this is an excellent system.

The problem is that there seems to have been a great deal of confusion over the meaning of "evaluate." Specifically, developers had assumed that the judges would follow instructions in their documentation, use the app and examine its features. Judges assumed that they needed to launch the app. As the May 5th "deadline" grew closer, more and more developers began to gripe on the official Android Challenge group. Among those who have networked applications and tracked usage, a disturbing number reported seeing judges who did little or no evaluation at all.

At first, a Google team member explained that some of these abortive accesses were probably just "spot checks," designed to see if an application was functional but not an actual evaluation per se. That quieted people for a little while, but as the deadline grew closer and rumors swirled that the 100 semifinalists had been selected, it grew into an outcry.

Speaking personally, this exact thing happened to me. Two judges logged into the application and did nothing. Another two used the app for about two minutes each, never accessing any of the significant features of the app.

It's hard to convey how dispiriting this is. After spending months of work and making sacrifices to pull a product together, learning that people aren't even really looking at it feels profoundly deflating. I think back over all the time I spent fixing bugs, polishing the user interface, thinking carefully through workflows, doing every little thing I could think of to make the app shine just a little bit more. Having all of that go to waste is a pretty awful feeling.

Again, I don't really blame anyone for this. It's Google's contest and Google's money, and they're free to do whatever they want with it.

It's a little hard for me to blame the judges, too. Let's do some math. 1,788 entries were submitted. With each needing four evaluations, that's 7,152 test runs required. Assuming about 100 judges, each one would need to run about 72 applications.

Now: The deadline was April 14th. Google spent some time making sure that they identified all the working submissions, packaged them up, identified the judges, and shipped laptops with the proper software installed. From what people online were seeing, apps didn't start being evaluated until about the 21st. If you believe the rumors, the final 100 were chosen around the 30th. That gives a grand total of 10 calendar days for testing; more realistically, 8 workdays.

Doing more math... each judge would need to test 9 applications every single day. That sounds pretty painful to begin with. Keeping in mind who these people are, though, it's different from having a dedicated QA team testing. These are all people with regular full-time jobs, taking on a volunteer effort that will not bring them any more revenue. All their work will be anonymous, and any glory will attach to Google.

So, while I remain extremely disappointed, I at least understand why, say, someone would blow through 5 submissions over their lunch break, doing a quick Blink-style gut check of how good it is.

And yet, and yet... there's an undeniable wail out there. "But I worked for MONTHS on my application! And you can only spare two minutes?"

Who knows how widespread this is, but between my experiences and those being recounted online, it seems broad.

I doubt we'll ever learn more, but the more the situation deteriorated, the more curious I became about how it actually worked. I would have loved to have seen Google's instructions to the judges; did they say, "If you read the documentation and think it's a bad app, don't bother judging it"? Was there some judges out there who did spend a long amount of time with each app? And, if so, were their marks higher or lower than those who spent very little time? Did people just run out of time and rush their final evalutions? Did Google have any second thoughts about how the contest was being run?

I'm sure I'll never know, but at least it keeps my mind busy.

Wrapping back around to the beginning... it is disappointing that it ended like this. The Challenge was and remains a great idea - it got people excited about Android, established several thousand nascent experts prior to launch, brought in content to help move handsets, and helped keep Android in the public eye after Apple announced their SDK. While the full fallout of this may not be known for a while, I'm guessing some bitter individuals will turn against Android or Google as a whole, will discourage others against competing in the second Challenge, and remove themselves from the gene pool of Android early adopters. Again, it's a shame, because the Challenge was such a great idea, and I can imagine that in the future the powers that be will point to the ADC as a reason not to hold another one.

Oh, and by the way: congratulations to all the winners! I really do look forward to seeing the applications.

UPDATE 5/13/08: Dan Morrill explained the ADC judging process in a blog post today. I think this is a great step towards addressing some of the concerns expressed by members of the Android community. It casts a bit more light on some of the more mysterious aspects of the process, and should reassure contestants that they were not unfairly penalized by the actions of individual judges.

Unfortunately, Google's process can only deal with the data it receives, and without having spied on every judge, the most burning questions will never be answered. The post does a great job of explaining why you shouldn't panic if only three judges reviewed your application; it doesn't give much solace if zero judges did.

Again, this is a learning process for everyone. I'm not sure what the solution to this problem is... as long as judging continues on a volunteer basis, we will need to prepare for rushed or incomplete evaluations.