Archive for September, 2011

Magic

This man is clearly some kind of wondrous sorcerer.

How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less Than 10 Seconds from SAVEUR.com on Vimeo.

Elvis Costello, “What Do I Do Now” (Sleeper Cover)

New Kindles!

As many of my readers know, my day job is as an engineer on Amazon’s Kindle team. So it’s with great pride and a little bit of bragging that I direct your attention to the new lineup of Kindles that were announced earlier today. I am and always will be a huge fan of the Kindle, and I’m really excited about the new devices.

Especially exciting, though, is the new Kindle Fire. Now for a technophile, I’m usually not in the earlier adopter part of the curve, but this is one gadget for which I’m definitely jumping in the preorder line.

A few of my favorite little features:

  • Amazon Silk = CRAZY SEXY
  • Free month of Prime to get people hooked on AVOD!
  • Whispersync for video! Brilliant idea.
  • Easy integration of my Amazon .mp3, Amazon Cloud Drive, and Kindle library all on one device.

Awesome stuff. Nov. 15th can’t come fast enough.

Working at Amazon has been, in many ways, a humbling experience. And working on the Kindle team has shown me just how much hard work it takes by tons of brilliant people to ship an awesome product like this. I’m very proud to be working on such awesome products, and I just wanted to say good job and congratulations to the rest of the Kindle group.


Disclosure Notice

“I’ll get down to the gist / Do you want a line of this? / Are you a Socialist?”

God I love Pulp.

A. Barton Hinkle on Animal Rights

Writing on Reason.com, A. Barton Hinkle provides a very well-written, succinct overview of the philosophical side of the animal rights debate. This has long struck me as one of the most interesting and least debated ethical issues in philosophy. It’s one of those strange cases in which people’s natural moral intuitions tend to be extremely strong, but also widely distributed.

Hinkle’s article does an excellent job of laying out the major arguments in the debate. Personally, my intuitions tend to run heavily along lines of cognition, heavily informed by Tibor Machan’s categorical arguments. I am in principle opposed to research on great apes, precisely because they are obviously intelligent creatures that still lack the context in order to give their consent for research.

To me, there’s an interesting contrapositive to arguments about animal rights and experimentation and that is human rights and our right to opt-in to potentially dangerous experiments. I firmly believe that human informed consent should be extended to any variety of experimentation whatsoever. If people which submit themselves to experimentation using a completely novel, potentially dangerous medical compound, they shouldn’t need the permission of government to do so. (All the usual caveats re: full disclosure on the part of the medical researchers applies.)

Or, to use an example from history, the United States was morally errant in sending chimpanzees into space using untested vehicles and technologies. There would no doubt have been no shortage of human beings willing to take that risk who would have had the necessary cognitive context to understand the risks involved and to give their informed consent.

In summation, I firmly believe that we should end experimentation on great apes and replace with a robust system for experimentation on fully informed, fully consenting human beings.

“Capitalism is the only economic system suited to the dignity of the human being.”

“And battered books / and fog rolling down behind the mountains”

PJ Harvey, “The Last Living Rose”

Nothing Doesn’t Go In Here

I’m a huge fan of the Programmer’s Notebook. The 0th rule of the Programmer’s Notebook is that nothing is too trivial to get recorded. You can omit things if you want, but absolutely anything can be logged and absolutely should be if there’s any chance it could come in handy down the line. This idea is often described as “Nothing Doesn’t Go In Here”.

This is often portrayed as one element of the notebook, but the more I use mine, the more I think that this is probably the most important element. There’s huge amounts of value in having a place where all your design and programming notes go, but it’s even better as a place for you to flesh out ideas, techniques, and theories, many of which will be discarded as dead ends. My notebook has quickly became a huge treasure trove of lessons learned, ideas discarded and the reasoning for it, personal antipatterns, etc. It’s a midden full of code that almost did the trick.

This process of having a place that is, in part, a place to make mistakes has become increasingly valuable for me. It’s helped me be a much better craftsman and much more rigorous in my approach to my work. Think of it like a sketchpad for the art of programming.

Even if you never reference a particular idea or snippet of pseudocode again, just writing it down can help cement the relevant ideas in your brain. If that code is useable, then you’re more likely to think of it when you encounter a particular problem in the future. It’s it’s a dead end, you’re more likely to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Even if you never glance at it a second time, you have, in some small measure, increased the breadth of your skills.

Of course, the source material is always there if you want to go back for a refresher or if it spurs later ideas down the line. One thing that’s been handy for me in this respect is adopting a canonical notation for pages and notes. Each page gets numbered, and each note on that page gets sub-numbered. Any time I switch topics, the note number gets incremented. If an idea relates to a prior one, I take the time to track down the antecedent and cross reference page-and-note notations into each of the two related items. This helps me easily chain together trains of thought that may stretch over days or weeks and even cross project boundaries.

But as I said, the more I use the notebook, the more I think that one of the most important aspects of the Programmer’s Notebook, is that it lets us make our mistakes first before we actually set out to create our product. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that a Programmer’s Notebook lets us do our studies.

You see, programmers are craftsmen and, like any craftsmen, they live or die by their skills. We also share in common with other craftsman that a great deal of our learning process involves doing and throwing out. Picasso regularly did years worth of studies and sketches in the course of creating one actual painting. “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was proceeded by hundreds of figure studies, before he was actually able to create the final work. Go to the art building at any university and marvel at the heaps and heaps of broken pottery thrown by people who will one day do great sculpture.

By analogy, programmers also need to do sketches or exercises to hone their skills and improve their craft. Programming isn’t as much an art as painting, but it’s certainly sufficiently artlike to demand draft work. The problem is that, if draftwork is done in the course of building an actual program, a lot of that draftwork ends up getting shipped.

If you write code for any reason, you owe it to yourself and your craft to keep a notebook. It’ll make you a better programmer and improve the speed and quality of your work. It won’t guarantee that you’ll turn into the proverbial code Picasso, but it will (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) keep you from shipping your broken pottery.

The Shondes, Searchlights

Artist: The Shondes
Album: Searchlights
Label: Exotic Fever Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2011.9.20
Score: 9/10

So it’s only fair that I confess up front that I’m an unapologetic fan of the Shondes, not only as a band, but as people. I’m on record as saying that they’re one of the most interesting bands working today, and I hear nothing in their 3rd album to dissuade me from that stance. The album, called Searchlights and out today on Exotic Fever Records, is a brief, but wide-ranging album of solid rock music. While longtime fans will no doubt hear the raw power and exotic influences they expect, they’ll also hear a lot more polish and maturity in this album than in previous efforts.

One instantly notable improvement from the previous two albums is production value. Whereas as Red Sea occasionally felt thin and My Dear One was muted and muffled, Searchlights feels bright and raw, a sound much more befitting bouncy, energetic rock music. The only possible exception to this rule is the otherwise excellent tune “The Fortress”, which sounds flat and grainy. This is a real pity, because it’s a fantastic, hard-driving, lilting tune with a fantastically prog rock sound.

Another pleasant surprise is that the album is much more stylistically broad than some of the earlier albums. Contrast the gutsy, wailing, almost Prog-Rock-y “The Fortress” with the subsequent “All This Weight”, which is evocative of Police-era Sting. Or consider the poppy, but world-weary “Coney Island Tonight” with the archtypical Shondes tune “Give Me What You’ve Got”.

Instrumentally speaking, the band is in top form. Of particular note were Fureigh’s guitar work all across the album. It’s so rare to find a guitarist with enough style, personality, and guts to carry off syncopated, exposed melodies with no rhythm guitar to back them up. And yet on almost every song, the guitar lines add hugely to the style and melody of the tune. Probably the best example of this are the clean, stylish fills and choppy hooks during the verses of “Ocean to Ocean”.

I’m continually amazed how solid the Shondes manage to sound in all of their instrumentation. Replacing the rhythm guitar with a violin means that, not only is it harder for everyone to hide, but there’s one more melody line out there in the open. I strongly suspect that, for a lesser band, the result would be a caterwauling mess. For The Shondes, however, the result is simply layers of well-crafted melodies and counter-melodies, all supported by Temim Fruchter’s rock-solid drumming.

There are some real gems on this album. The title track is staggering. Louisa Solomon’s vocals are expressive, the melodies through the pre-chorus and chorus are haunting and perfectly syncopated. Elijah Oberman’s violin lines give the whole song a haunting quality, as well as serving as an engaging counter-melody.

The album closer, “Bright Again”, also bears special mention. It’s rare to hear so personal a song that doesn’t come off as saccharine or lame. It’s a tender, beautiful song of perseverance, at the end of an album full of images of rebellious strength and impenetrable, almost petulant resolve. Its lush harmonies and simple melody are a striking counterpoint to the frenetic composition and layered counter-melodies of the previous songs. Its message of hope strikes a wonderfully fragile note to close out the album. Truly a stunning song and a perfect close to an awesome album.

All of this musical hagiography isn’t to say that the album is flawless, though. The single from the album, “Ocean to Ocean”, comes across as a bit self-indulgent and, while it’s probably very cathartic for the band to perform, I find it hard to relate to. It’s also, musically, one of the weaker songs on the album. (This probably praising with faint damns, though, considering just how solid the rest of the album is.) The slick, boppy guitar lines and beautiful, sweeping vocal lines feel wasted on a poor concept and uninspired lyrics.

I have more tepid objections to “Coney Island Tonight”. The songs reads like a well-crafted, “woe-is-me, woe-is-the-world” tune, but the chorus, in which all is absolved by a trip to Coney Island, feels anticlimactic and hollow. Again, this might be simply an issue of my own inability to relate. I have never, flawed creature that I am, been to Coney Island.

Searchlights feels to me like an innovative band finally coming into their own. They’ve done one album to establish what’s unique in their style (The Red Sea), they’ve done a second album to exercise their demons (My Dear One), and now they’ve released an album that shows the full breadth and depth of which they’re capable. I highly recommend Searchlights. If you’re a fan of the Shondes already, you’ll hear tons of the raw power and musical intricacy you love, as well as better composition and a broader style, all served by much better production and mixing. If you’ve never heard of the Shondes before, then this is a great, accessible place to start. It’s a great album, and it’s well worth your time and money.

Irony

Found in an econ-blogger’s siderail:

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.