Podcast Thirty Four: Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts

Concerning employers trying to become our new social networks, tech blog entries full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, Comcast pays us to watch porn and the how I'm preparing to blow out the last candle on the integrity of popular music.

lovehate: Auto-accompaniment and the Failures of Simulation

I've been playing piano since I was five and, while there have been short periods when performing music has fallen out of my interests, I have almost always had an appreciation for a completely live performance. Such a performance can include anything from a single instrument and voice all they way up to a full orchestra.

I remember playing as a teenager in the 80s-drenched synth-oriented dance pop that pervaded the charts. I remember even buying into the concept of a synthesizer or two but hated the concept of the dreaded sequencers and samplers that would allow even the most inept players to spout forth with "cool" sounding patterns and loops. I could tolerate the idea of a synthesizer making sounds that were unique to the instrument itself and not trying to generate something else. With the persistent adoption of drum machines and string patches and horn sections and poorly-modelled electric pianos, I retreated further into a state that I considered a bit of musical elitism: a piano sound should come from a piano, a drum sound should come from a drum, and a bass guitar sound should come from a bass guitar.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the attraction of simulation. I have recorded songs where I've used a keyboard to create multiple music tracks, but always, in my head at least, the exercise was just that - an exercise. Call me old-fashioned when it comes to music, but I believe there should be something organic to musical sound. And this from a guy who grew up idolizing Keith Emerson and his endlessly-tweakable envelope filters.

As I grew older, I developed a certain tolerance for auto-accompaniment, but always with a sense of kitsch. The idea of the cheesy home organ with beat generator and portamento was to being smiled at and laughed with instead of laughed at. I am willing to listen to someone satrize a traditionally serious song by giving it the Wurlitzer treatment.

And it was with all this derision that I shook my head in disbelief when I learned of Microsoft's Songsmith software during CES last month. While this product's limitations have been shown to glorious and humorous effect by copying the vocal lines of past hits into its engine and watching the generic "reggae" or "soft rock" accompaniment get triggered, could anyone have really expected anything different... you know what? I was exepecting better.

While I believe the concept abhorrent and completely against all of my sensibilities about music, I fully expect that the technology is not out of reach to mesh anyone's random vocalizing with a very solid sounding accompaniment. I anticipate that no matter how bad someone sings, the software's engine should, on the fly, fix any out of tune notes and quantize the rhythmless until they sound inoffensive. I expect that music AI has advanced far enough that realistic-sounding instruments can be modelled in real time to sound at least as good as many of the mediocre ballads that are in the top ten of most pop music charts.

I expect we're on that threshold and, while it should scare the hell out of me, I've discovered I really don't care because if some out-of-tune arhythmic cellar dweller can one day sell a million copies of a song they produced in their basement, and maybe flip the RIAA and the Big Four the finger while doing so, I'll buy a cake and with wry, smiling dismay blow out the last candle on musical integrity.


lovehate: The Real Reasons

When the Superbowl arrives every year, those of us who are even casual football fans, and many who never watch football at any other time, prepare for parties that rival Caligula's hedonism. While this is nothing new, and the tradition is certainly well-established, it has prompted a question about connections between two seemingly completely unrelated things.

I realize for some that the idea of Sunday football has become less about football and more about food, drink and friends. This is the relationship that I find so interesting. Essentially, the real reason for many people to watch the Superbowl (which is traditionally a mediocre game) is to give people an excuse to socialize with friends. With this connection in mind, some of the other real reasons we do things may start to unfold.

I thus present a lovehatethings list, based on no scientific research, and in no specific order, that I shall call...

The Real Reasons

The real reasons people read self-help books are to help moderate their insecurities. After all, if only 25% of the things in the book apply to you, there are people out there in 75% worse shape than you are.

The real reason people line up for things is to appease their demographic.

The real reason people ice fish is to drink.

The real reason people go to bars is to not be lonely.

The real reason women go clubbing is to have fun with friends.

The real reason men go clubbing is to get laid. This is also the irreducable primary for 90% of the things men do, but to save time, you'll just have to trust me.

The real reason people buy Monster Cables is because they believe cost equals quality.

The real reason we still go to McDonald's is because we were brainwashed as children to choose brand over exploring.

The real reason people drink alcohol is to forget.

The real reason that people blog is steeped in vanity.

The real reason that people podcast, in addition to vanity, is to out do bloggers.

The real reason people yell is because they feel insignificant.

The real reason people go to church is the same reason people use online social networking is the same reason people spend hours in a coffee shop is the same reason people watch Oprah.

The real reason we steal music by illegal downloading is because someone doesn't want us to.

The real reason we spend money on things we don't need is because concretizing our wealth is comforting to our sensiblities.

The real reason people go hunting is because they lack the serenity to go walking.

The real reason we buy the thing that's "new" and "improved" is more about wish fulfillment and possibility than actually belief.

The real reason the economy is so messed up is because we're lazy.

The real reason we're lazy is because action can lead to failure.

The real reason failure scares us has little to do with fear of our inabilities and more to do with our fear of others.

The real reason people laughed at that kid getting his head shot off in the back seat of the car by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction is because we're too scared to cry is the reason therapists thrive.

The real reason we advance technology is because the whenever we ask the existential questions that lead to the nature of real reason for everything, we realize we can't answer, but we hope technology will one day allow us to.

The real reason for every war of the modern era isn't borders or religion or resources, but the low self-esteem of the decision-makers.

The real reason borders still exist is to preserve a way of life that has been manufactured, packaged, imported and sold to you.

The real reason you "buy-in" is because it's too much work to "buy-out".

The real reasons that motivate our actions bely our need to avoid reality.


lovehate: MemeMakers

In being thoroughly discouraged by what cuts it as an internet meme these days, I've decided to do a little deconstruction in determining what make a meme into the little slice of temporary pop culture phenomena that it is.

First, let's not deceive ourselves into thinking that ascertaining a meme's popularity is totally predictable. I maintain that a mainstream meme is the result of sheer luck and circumstance of a well-placed tweet or digg by a popular blogger, or a surreptitious mention on a popular podcast. So if one's heart is set on creating the next big meme, where does one begin?

Ingredient One: I Can Mistake Inglish?

Back as far as "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" people have flocked to mildly humorous examples of the English language being misrepresented or completely mismanaged to create a lasting effect that ranges from the silly to the absurd. Of course several years after the "Base" meme ran its course, "I can has cheezburger" kept up the trend, but included what will become our second step. The "Base" meme, due to its early nature, took longer to evolve and, because of it, stuck around longer. Several music and video remixes were made that required a certain level of expertise and allowed for the endurance of "Base".

Ingredient Two: Animalz R Phunny

Whether it's a cat, owl, or prairie dog, the sure sense of a odds-on meme will include an animal of some sort. With popularity going back to the early days of cats making unsuccessful jumps from sofas to tables, people love to see animals in two different scenarios: 1) being cute, 2) wiping out. The animal memes rely heavily on the minor abilities of people to use image editing to add text to photos. The partial, yet relatively minor skills involved in pushing this type of meme forward will spread it far more quickly, but ultimately cause it to flame out quicker.

Ingredient Three: Unmotivationals

The minor Photoshopping skills that people require for the text/animal mashups can also be used to create faux motivational posters. While this has become a meme in itself that would have run its course, the endless content that can be adapted has kept this satirical or parody-inspired practice in vogue. Also, the sheer ridiculous factor of the ever-growing original Motivators will continue to inspire this knockoff meme.

Ingredient Four: People Say/Do the Stupidest Things

"Stupid" people (read: wrong time, wrong place, wrong words for many of them) initiate this style of meme that propagates through video. Let's face it, it only takes the flailing of Star Wars Kid or a beauty pageant candidate exposing her sheer idiocy to capture the imagination of a mashup web generation. Remember "I like turtles!", "I'm not taking my glasses off", or "Leave Britney Alone!" If you don't, you must have been away from the web or ignoring the Fw:fw:fw: in your webmail boxes during the perfect time period. The stupidity inspires mashups, knockoffs, and responses that can keep these memes alive for a few weeks. The ease of use in spreading the word about these clips have made them some of the most popular memes of all. After all, what does it really take to email a youtube link to a friend, post it on twitter or facebook, or blog about it? But even if video dries up, you can always just add text to a picture of a person caught in an embarrassing situation that reads "EPIC FAIL!"

Ingredient Five: The Unexpected

From the early efforts of people being redirected to gross out porn to the more recent efforts that have revived Rick Astley's career through Rickrolling, the ability of someone to perform misdirection in link text or similar disguise has become as much an email meme as it has a web meme. Microblogging is a ripe medium for such an effort as it has become so simple to type "You Have to See This Car Accident" and then have the url redirect to Astley or a dozen other crazy clips. Kind of the laziest practical joke going, the misdirected link to unexpected content will always be around in one form or another.

And so we come to the part of the post where I try to create the ultimate meme. While I will try to incorporate as many of the ingredients as possible, I may not hit all of them. Cats have been done to death so I'm mashing up a picture of a soft-shelled turtle splayed out on the sand with its head half peeking out with the all upper case captions "I NEEDZ VIAGRA" across the top and "CLIC HERE TO HELP" across the bottom. In blazing red upper and lower case mix, diagonal to the top right we have "EPiC SHeLL FaiL" and the entire picture, when clicked, links to the misdirection video clip from an 80s band. While I've missed out on the Motivational parody and the human aspect in the original content, I do believe the goofy humans in the video make up for it. So we have a 1-2-5 meme with a dash of post 4.

Please feel free to send the link to as many friends as you like or mashup your own soft-shelled turtle viagra jokes as you can muster... I feel cheap and dirty.


thinglets: Film-a-month Favs for 2009 (part two)

all dates from comingsoon.net

July - 2012

Some slim pickings for what's usually a solid month of the year. I've not, and will not, see a Harry Potter film in the theater. That being the case, for the apocalyptic geek in me... and the fact that John Cusack is in it, 2012 is my pick.

Never before has a date in history been so significant to so many cultures, so many religions, scientists, and governments. "2012" is an epic adventure about a global cataclysm that brings an end to the world and tells of the heroic struggle of the survivors.

August - Inglourious Basterds

When one shakes random director and genre generators and comes up with Quentin Tarantino and World War II... how can I not see this?

"Inglourious Basterds" (sic) begins in German-occupied France, where Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) witnesses the execution of her family at the hand of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Shosanna narrowly escapes and flees to Paris, where she forges a new identity as the owner and operator of a cinema.

Elsewhere in Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) organizes a group of Jewish soldiers to engage in targeted acts of retribution. Known to their enemy as "The Basterds," Raine's squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) on a mission to take down the leaders of The Third Reich. Fates converge under a cinema marquee, where Shosanna is poised to carry out a revenge plan of her own.

September - The Informant

Okay, something strikes me as strange when too many post-apocalyptic/futuristic/vampire options are given in the first couple weeks of the month. I'd rather stick with Soderbergh and Damon.

What was Mark Whitacre thinking? A rising star at agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Whitacre suddenly turns whistleblower. Even as he exposes his company's multi-national price-fixing conspiracy to the FBI, Whitacre envisions himself being hailed as a hero of the common man and handed a promotion. But before all that can happen, the FBI needs evidence, so Whitacre eagerly agrees to wear a wire and carry a hidden tape recorder in his briefcase, imagining himself as a kind of de facto secret agent. Unfortunately for the FBI, their lead witness hasn't been quite so forthcoming about helping himself to the corporate coffers. Whitacre's ever-changing account frustrates the agents and threatens the case against ADM as it becomes almost impossible to decipher what is real and what is the product of Whitacre's rambling imagination. Based on the true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history.

October - Where the Wild Things Are

I've gotta give give mad retro respect to a Maurice Sendak book being made into a film by Spike Jonze no less.

An adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's story, where Max, a disobedient little boy sent to bed without his supper, creates his own world--a forest inhabited by ferocious wild creatures that crown Max as their ruler.

November - Sherlock Holmes

Not that I care too much that Guy Ritchie is involved... Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Pipes anyone? But it's Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Thankfully this is coming out before what I'm sure will be a notoriously unfunny comedic remake that's rumored with Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen. I almost picked The Wolfman with Benicio Del Toro, but I really wish they hadn't gone period piece with it. I was hoping for a modern-day adaptation.

In a dynamic new portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous characters, "Sherlock Holmes" sends Holmes and his stalwart partner Watson on their latest challenge. Revealing fighting skills as lethal as his legendary intellect, Holmes will battle as never before to bring down a new nemesis and unravel a deadly plot that could destroy the country.

December - Avatar

I get the feeling there are still WAY more announcements for film releases almost a year from now, but, based on the known titles as of now, James Cameron alone wins this for me. What looks like a solid cast is bound to be surrounded by some spectacular cinematography and effects.

"Avatar" tells the story of an ex-Marine, thrust unwillingly into an effort to settle and exploit an exotic planet rich in bio-diversity, who eventually crosses over to lead the indigenous race in a battle for survival.

Avatar concept art

thinglets: Film-a-month Favs for 2009 (part one)

all dates from comingsoon.net

January - Taken

Luc Besson co-wrote this and he's got a mind that's just twisted enough to make it good.

A former government operative comes out of retirement and uses on his extensive training to rescue his estranged daughter from a slave trade operation.

February - The International

Looks kinda like a Bourne film, which is fine in my books.

Interpol Agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) are determined to bring to justice one of the world's most powerful banks. Uncovering myriad and reprehensible illegal activities, Salinger and Whitman follow the money from Berlin to Milan to New York to Istanbul. Finding themselves in a high-stakes chase across the globe, their relentless tenacity puts their own lives at risk as their targets will stop at nothing – even murder – to continue financing terror and war.

March - The Watchmen

I've been waiting for this film since the Terry Gilliam rumors over ten years ago. Can I pay someone to put a Fatwa on Rupert Murdoch if Fox blocks this thing?

A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, "Watchmen" is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the "Doomsday Clock" - which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union - is permanently set at five minutes to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed-up but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion - a ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers - Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity...but who is watching the Watchmen?

April - State of Play

Holy cast Batman!

Russell Crowe leads an all-star cast in a blistering thriller about a rising congressman and an investigative journalist embroiled in an case of seemingly unrelated, brutal murders. Crowe plays D.C. reporter Cal McCaffrey, whose street smarts lead him to untangle a mystery of murder and collusion among some of the nation's most promising political and corporate figures in "State of Play," from acclaimed director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland").

Handsome, unflappable U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) is the future of his political party: an honorable appointee who serves as the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending. All eyes are upon the rising star to be his party's contender for the upcoming presidential race. Until his research assistant/mistress is brutally murdered and buried secrets come tumbling out.

McCaffrey has the dubious fortune of both an old friendship with Collins and a ruthless editor, Cameron (Helen Mirren), who has assigned him to investigate. As he and partner Della (Rachel McAdams) try to uncover the killer's identity, McCaffrey steps into a cover-up that threatens to shake the nation's power structures. And in a town of spin-doctors and wealthy politicos, he will discover one truth: when billions are at stake, no one's integrity, love or life is ever safe.

May - Star Trek

Wow... what a month: Star Trek, Terminator, Angels and Demons, and X-men: Wolverine. I am, however, a sucker for the Trek with Angels and Demons a close second.

From director J.J. Abrams ("Mission: Impossible III," "Lost" and "Alias") and screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman ("Transformers," "MI: III") comes a new vision of the greatest space adventure of all time, "Star Trek," featuring a young, new crew venturing boldly where no man has gone before.

June - The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

I know, I've abandoned the new Transformers movie and Land of the Lost which should have a nostalgia-filled knockout punch for my choice, but... Will Ferrell's in it. Pelham gives me that retro feel that I just hope they can come close to the original on... see the original.

In "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," Denzel Washington stars as New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber, whose ordinary day is thrown into chaos by an audacious crime: the hijacking of a subway train. John Travolta stars as Ryder, the criminal mastermind who, as leader of a highly-armed gang of four, threatens to execute the train's passengers unless a large ransom is paid within one hour. As the tension mounts beneath his feet, Garber employs his vast knowledge of the subway system in a battle to outwit Ryder and save the hostages. But there's one riddle Garber can't solve: even if the thieves get the money, how can they possibly escape?

2009 should have the torrent sites... I mean theaters... buzzing with downloads... I mean ticket sales.