TV in 2015

I think most people, including myself sometimes, watch too much TV, but I don’t think the right amount of TV is zero.  We really are in a golden age for the artform and with the putrefaction of the film industry, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying it in limited quantities.  My thoughts on some current and recent shows:

American Ninja Warrior

This show has been on for a while but I had never even attempted to watch it because it has a terrible name.  I caught part of an episode last year and realized it was not some campy parody of a Japanese game show but something else entirely.  If you’re not familiar, it is a relatively simple concept.  Contestants run an obstacle course with the primary goal being to finish the course and the secondary goal being time.  The twist here is that the course is incredibly hard.  Most people fail.  They don’t get any practice and if they make one mistake they are done.  In this age of coddling and positive reinforcement this show takes us back to the days when video games didn’t have save files, when the 10th best hitter on the baseball team rode the bench all season, and cars would explode in minor accidents if they didn’t impale you on the steering wheel first.  It reminds us how satisfying hard work can be and there is no doubt that the frustration and happiness of the contestants is real.

Hannibal

Recently cancelled, hopefully to be picked up elsewhere, I am surprised it even made it this far.  It is a very dark, very deliberate, very long story.  The imagery, music, and sounds are often vague and pretentious, but they are always detailed and highly crafted if not beautiful.  And with all due respect to Anthony Hopkins, Mads Mikkelsen is amazing as Hannibal Lecter.  I recently watched a bit of Silence of the Lambs and Hopkins’ take on the role is almost clownish.

Halt and Catch Fire

A couples romance where the main conflict driver is entrepreneurship.  The show captures what feels like a very authentic bleakness about 1980’s Texas.  After two seasons, the writing has become a bit aimless but the characters are authentic and the acting is very good.

Mr. Robot

This show is brand new, but the pilot was amazing.  If someone said they were going to do a mashup of Dexter and Fight Club and maybe throw a teeny bit of Sherlock Holmes (Elementary-style) in, I don’t know what I’d expect but this show pulls that off.  The pilot could have easily been tweaked into a good movie and is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  The rest of season one was not as good but more sustainable, and has maintained the thriller aspect.  Christian Slater is television poison, but he has a limited role that doesn’t leverage his usually hamminess, so we’ll see if the curse can be reversed here.

52 Word Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller pulled off an impressive feat with Mad Max: Fury Road. After a 30 year hiatus, he managed to craft a movie that is better in every conceivable way than the previous 3 installments. It’s everything an action movie should be: fun, fresh, relentless, uncompromising, and extreme but, perhaps most surprisingly, not dumb.

Readability + Kindle + Something Else

I really like my Kindle. Beyond all of the more tangible/advertised benefits it has, the most important thing it’s done for me is that I’ve been reading more since I started using it.

I also really like Readability, I think it’s an optimistic and hopeful view of the future of content on the internet, rather than the arms race of ad blockers and the AdWords-fueled plague of content scrapers.

The fact that these two things I like can join forces is also great. I can send an article to my Kindle via Readability. If I see some long, thoughtful piece, I click two buttons and it will be there for me when I settle in for the evening. Unfortunately I don’t/can’t use this as much as I’d like for two reasons.

Lost Commentary

I find most of my new/fresh content via link-sharing sites. Starting long ago in the golden age of Slashdot, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking the comments on an article before I read it. I don’t usually read the comments, I just skim them, and get a sense of how worthwhile it is to read the article. If I see a healthy discussion, or lots of praise, it’s clearly something worth spending a few minutes on. Even if I see some well-written refutations, it can be valuable in a “know your enemy” sense. If I see something like “Here’s the original article” or “How many times will this be reposted?” then perhaps I’ll just move on.

After I’ve read the article I might go back and read those comments, or perhaps even leave one. With the Kindle/Readability combo, I can’t do that. Blog posts will come through with their own comments, but for whatever reasons, there always seems to be better discussion offsite.

Linkability

The “premium” content sources like major magazines or newspapers rarely link off of their stories. I think this is conditioning from the print era, but it actually plays well to this offline system. If an author talks about another website he’ll probably include the relevant details in the article, or quote it, or include a screenshot.

Blogs, however, are chock-full of links, often without context, sometimes just for humor, but sometimes as an essential part of the article. Very few blog posts are actually viable in a vacuum. I have a special folder in Google Reader called “droid” which are blogs that generally don’t do this, and are good for reading when I have idle time (via my phone, hence the name) and don’t want to deal with links.

Something Else

I’d like to have some way to read an article or post offline, that can pull in these other sources. Perhaps a “send to kindle” that actually generates an ebook with the article as the first chapters and comments from my favorites collated into other chapters. Or perhaps a Kindle app that can do this and stay updated. What I don’t want is a mobile OS-style app that pops open browser windows, as that’s an entirely different use case. A “send back to computer” would be useful for stories that require switching back to browse mode.

TLDR: Sometimes I just want to read, not browse.

Books as Clutter

Like the culture at large, I’m moving from physical media to digital. I’m slowly getting rid of almost all paper documents via my scanner. I haven’t bought a CD in years. I’ve never been a collector of movies. I haven’t had a roll of film developed since the early 90s. Our printer isn’t even usually hooked up, and when it is it’s usually to sign-and-scan a contract or something, as I haven’t found a great replacement for that yet.

Even more than the digital conversion, I don’t even bother with much physical media. Files are backed up to online services like S3 or Rackspace via Jungledisk. I have some 1TB external drives for peace of mind and Verizon’s inevitable billing errors, but never burn anything to DVD or CD.

I kept all of my old CDs, because I wasn’t comfortable with throwing out full-quality versions of something. There is FLAC, but at the time I switched a few years ago I wasn’t happy with the FLAC-encoding tools so I went with 256k VBR MP3 files, and figured I’d re-encode them again someday and then be able to toss the discs. This argument does’t make a ton of sense given that I now pay for degraded copies of new music, but that’s a little psychology I’ll put off analyzing.

Books, however, are tough for me. I’ve been using a Kindle for a while, and love it, as do most who have one. I look at my bookshelf and think “this doesn’t really need to be here”. I’ve tossed a number of books, but I pick up an old Choose Your Own Adventure book and the innumerable hours I spent reading and re-reading them comes back to me. The thought of throwing it away is unsettling.

I will probably never even read these books again. I’m not sure if my potential future kids would bother with them, but the sentimentality runs too deep. So I keep them, and even my minimalist girlfriend probably understands. It’s not like I have thousands of them, there’s probably 100 books I can’t toss.

Some books I keep because technology just hasn’t caught up to them yet. Cookbooks, picture books, and so on. These will probably go eventually, I end up tossing a few each time I look through the shelves. The sentimental books that are signed by the author or were gifts I keep too, I don’t see a real clutter issue there either, and again, I don’t have too many of these.

The quandry comes with new books. These books have no sentimental value yet, nor will they ever, and I think that’s part of the trouble. The part of me that wants to move into the future, to be more mobile, more organized, more free of physical possessions has not yet found a decisive victory over the nerd who did a book drive for his Eagle project and spent those precious half-days of school lost in the annex at the Ames Free Library.

I’ve always looked at books as some strange kind of investment. I spend $10 on a book, and read it. I can read it again years later, or give it to someone else, there’s some residual value, (not monetary, selling books is hardly worth the trouble IMO). But now I click “buy it now” and I still realize what is arguably the real value of the book, yet I have nothing to put on my shelf and page through from time to time. Nothing to jog my memory when I see it, or spark a conversation when someone else sees it. Nothing I can hand to a friend and say “you really need to read this”.

I’m not even that concerned with Amazon going away or revoking my access to these books, while that would be unfortunate, I can always buy them again somewhere else. Physical books can be destroyed or stolen too, probably even more easily than e-books. Nor am I too concerned with the privacy issues, although I do recognize that lack of concern is a privilege not everyone has. The idea of an oppressive government “burning” or suppressing a book is real as well, but I think computers are so numerous now that this knowledge will find a way to survive. One small hard drive can hold literally millions of books, I’m sure at least one copy will survive.

Unfortunately this isn’t a very constructive post, as I don’t think there is an actual solution to this. I guess this is more of a eulogy. It’s a problem faced by most generations that see the things they grew up valuing being devalued, and it stings for someone who, if you asked him anywhere from age 5 to 15, probably would have said the most valuable/important thing he owned was his book collection.

The Ultimate Music App

There’s an ever-growing number of online music services out there, but none of them have really nailed it for me. Here’s my list of demands:

  • Instant Purchase – Simple one or two click purchase, which adds it to my portfolio. Downloading from one place and uploading to another is dumb.
  • Standard format/no DRM – This is why subscription-based services won’t work.
  • Automatic Download/Sync – As seamless as DropBox, maybe even with a few rules (per playlist, etc).
  • Smart Playlists – The only reason I use iTunes is that I can set up playlists with dynamic criteria, like “stuff I like that I haven’t heard in 2 weeks”. This entails tracking what I listen to and being able to rate stuff.
  • Upload My Own – No reason for me to have to buy things again. I’m fine with paying a small extra fee for this, but I should also be able to work that off by buying new stuff. Amazon hosts stuff I’ve bought from them for free, but charges me for uploads, so in the long run they could actually end up costing me more. They should give me a 50MB bonus per album to upload other files.
  • Mobile – My phone is my music player now, I should be able to stream/sync/download from it as well as my computer.

Bonus Features

  • API – Let me have another program talk to your service to do things like recommendations and missing tracks.
  • Podcasts – This doesn’t necessarily have to be done in-service, if the API allowed uploads someone else could do it, but it seems pretty trivial to add on if all of the above things are in place.

Don’t Really Care

  • Sharing – Nice to have but I’d be fine with a service I can’t share. I’d prefer the option to sign into more than one account at a time.

The Where and When of Music

The idea that music can bring you back to a time and place is not a novel idea. There are songs you hear that make you remember the first time you heard them, or a specific event like a wedding, but I think there’s an even more powerful level. When I’m addicted to a song, it can get tied to a place as well as date, and when I’ve moved on from that place, I basically put that song back in its box, and file it away. It will come up in shuffle again someday, but it loses its primacy. Here are some of mine:

  • I Love a Rainy Night – Eddit Rabbit: Listening to the 45 in the playroom at my house when I was 5 or 6 years old.
  • Now That We Found Love – Heavy D and the Boyz: Involuntarily being subjected to this song every day on the bus to school. I think my blood pressure jumps 20 points just from hearing this.
  • Dig Your Own Hole – Chemical Brothers: Playing Starcraft in the basement of our hell-hole apartment on Tremont Street, wondering if I’d ever be able to find a programming job with no experience
  • Aenima – Tool: My friend/roommate at that same apartment Andy had a fancy stereo and a huge CD changer, but I think he only had 1 disc, so he pretty much played this album 24/7. I still can’t bring myself to buy a Tool album despite otherwise liking the band
  • Remixes – Ratatat: The second StyleFeeder office in it’s vacant, magenta glory.
  • A Thousand Suns – Linkin Park: The fourth (and current) StyleFeeder office. I seem to have no interest in listening to this album at home or in the car, but put it in a few times a week here

Album of the Year?

My venerable iPod had a bad run-in with an open sunroof and some precipitation, and my other one is still packed, along with my music drive. After a couple months of tinkering with Pandora and Last.fm, I needed to go out and find some good music the old fashioned way. That means without the benefit of a recommendation engine that thinks my affinities for various flavors of hip-hop and bands from France (Daft Punk, Air) mean I will like French hip-hop. Which I don’t. Because it’s horrible. French is well suited for poetry and indignation, but rapping … non.

So, I trawled the Amazon mp3 store for a while and ended up with a basket of albums:

1. Lily Allen’s “It’s Not Me, It’s You” – Decent but disposable pop, previous album was far more interesting.
2. Franz Ferdinand’s “Tonight” – Low expectations were met, I don’t even know if I’ve listened to it twice.
3. Andrew Bird’s “Noble Beast” – I haven’t really give this one a chance yet, it’s kind of wimpy and I haven’t really found the right situation to listen to it yet.

Then things started to get interesting.

4. Passion Pit’s “Manners” – As long as you skip the first song, this is a great, fun album. There’s hints of Michael Jackson, Daft Punk, some 70s and 80s pop, but it’s fresh, not retro. I was hooked on it for a week or so.

One of my favorite albums from 2008, though it was released in 2007, was Panda Bear’s “Person Pitch”, which might best be described as listening to a Beach Boys cover band playing at Arlington station while you’re at Symphony. I never realized that Panda Bear was a part of the Animal Collective, but when I found out, I bought:

5. Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” – This is a complicated album, that I just couldn’t really get into at first, but after a while, I came back to it and enjoyed it much more.

Serendipity struck when I bought the final album in the list, thinking it was another Animal Collective member, which it’s not, but given the name you can understand my confusion.

6. Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest” – The first time I listened to this album I was picking on some Radiohead wannabe vibes, but then I tried again and picked up a couple things and liked it more. Then again, and again, and again, for my entire commute to and from work each day. Each day I have a different favorite song. I haven’t enjoyed an album this much in years, probably since Atmosphere’s “Sevens Travels”. If you want something interesting, a little outside of the box but not as weird as Panda Bear or as over the top as Passion Pit, you should definitely check it out.