Archive for September, 2013

Kindle Fire HDX Announce

I’m thrilled to see the announcement of the new Kindle Fire HDX tablets. I’m very proud of the part my team and I have played in getting the new devices ready for launch. I’m also very happy to see some of the other cool features that the other device teams have been working on. May Day looks like an awesome feature that will be a huge help for our customers, and off-line viewing of Amazon Video content will no doubt be very handy. I’m especially thrilled to see the continued expansion of the X-Ray family of features. I’ve only used it for books so far, but it seems like a killer feature to have for movies and music as well.

And while I very much believe in Jeff’s comment from the Kindle Fire HD launch last year to the effect that we want to win when you use your device, not when you buy a new one, I’m thrilled to see that we’re continuing to innovate with regards to form factor, display, hardware specs, etc. so that users who do choose to upgrade will definitely be rewarded with a better physical device.

Please do check out the product page for more details.

Disclosure Notice

War-time Propaganda

  • Value of the property that [US President Richard] Nixon claimed in 1972 was stolen each year by heroin addicts: $2 billion.
    • …claimed by Minnesota senator George McGovern: $4.4 billion
    • …claimed by Nixon administration drug treatment expert Robert DuPont: $6.3 billion
    • …claimed by Illinois senator Charles Percy: $10 billion-$15 billion
    • …claimed by a White House briefing book on drug abuse distributed to the press: $18 billion
  • Total value of all reported stolen property in the United States in 1972: $1.2 billion
  • Number of burglraies committed by heroin addicts each year, per Nixon administration claims: 365 million
  • Total number of burglaries committed in the United States in 1971: 1.8 million

Quote taken from Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America.

“Listen to my muscle memory”

High school students tearing it up on “Forty-six and 2” by Tool. I’ll be honest: I might I like this version better than the original.

“I thought it less like a lake and more like a moat”

I realized today that Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism album came out almost 10 years ago, having been released on Oct. 7, 2013. This realization has me feeling rather nostalgic for my undergrad years, seeing as that record soundtracked much of my sophomore year at Gonzaga.

I strongly recommend that you do yourself the same favor I have this evening: pour yourself a drink, put on some headphones, and listen to the title track in a dark, quiet room:

MSI GT70 First Impressions

I recently, after several months of miscellaneous frustration with my old laptop, sprung for a new MSI GT70-0NE. (PR Sheet; Amazon detail page). Despite some disappointing service from Amazon (first time in 8 years) which got it to me a few days later than I expected1, I’m completely thrilled with my decision.

First off, I won’t be saying much about the hardware specs, because this thing is a straight up beast. If machine were any more beastly, it’d be living in a Cretan labyrinth. Once I got it set up and drivers installed2, everything I threw at it ran at full video settings with nary a dropped frame. I’ve also had none of the cooling issues that some other folks reported, even under high load. Then again, when I’m gaming or doing intensive work, I usually have the machine on a fan-cooled laptop stand, so it’s possible that helps as well.

The fit and finish of the machine are superb. Looking at the form factor and physical design online it looked a bit gimicky, but in person its stealth-fighter lines and variable-color backlit keyboard actually look pretty sweet. The keyboard itself, by Steelseries, feels great. The keys have a pleasing slightly sticky friction and, with a few minor exceptions3 that I’m quickly getting used to, the layout is great. The screen is clear and has excellent viewing angles. The audio from the speakers alone is remarkably good for a laptop, but that’s kind of damning with faint praise. Your external speakers or nice headphones are still going to give you a much better listening experience.

The machine came with Windows 8 installed, and remarkably little non-Microsoft bloatware. There was the obligatory Norton Security bullshit to uninstall4, which has gotten slightly more annoying to do on Win 8. But other than that, the MSI-branded apps that were installed all seem at least nominally useful. There’s a WiFi network monitor that I probably won’t look at again, but which was at least interesting to poke at, and a slick app for customizing the coloration and pattern of the LED-backlit keyboard.

A little over 24 hours in to owning, the MSI GT70-0NE is an awesome machine, and I’m thrilled with my purchase. It’s definitely premium kit, but if you’re someone like me that spends the majority of their waking hours on computers, you’ll definitely appreciate the killer hardware, top-quality interface components, and excellent fit and finish, all with a minimum of cruft or headaches. Highly recommended.

1 If you ever want to see the most pathetic frustration, tell a nerd his new toy will arrive on Saturday, then make him wait until Monday. To say that I’m spoiled by fast shipping rates would be a charitable understatement. “Had to wait two extra days for a laptop” isn’t even a first world problem, it’s a zeroth world problem.

2 I did run into one minor issue where the first-time setup for the drivers failed to correctly install the WiFi driver, leaving me unable to connect to any networks. Uninstalling and re-installing the driver fixed the issue completely, however.

3 This is the most minor of all minor grievances, but the right shift key is too short and abuts the up-arrow, resulting so far in frequent frustrating mistakes whilst editing text.

4 Norton has managed to suck even more on Windows 8. It won’t actually let you close the pesterware dialog, only letting you select “remind me later”. What it really needs is a “Fuck off, uninstall yourself, and never darken my door again” option, but then I imagine that’s a bit long to fit on a standard dialog button.

Overheard at the Shooting Range

Range Officer 1: “There’s a guy bleeding over in the rifle bay. He doesn’t look too concerned, but you might want to check it out.”
RO2: “Okay, I can go take a look. What lane is he in?”
RO1: “I don’t recall.”
RO2: “Okay, can you give me a description?”
RO1: “Yeah, he’s got a ball cap on, about 6 foot. Plus, you know, he’s the only person in there dripping blood at the moment.”

The United States of Paranoia, by Jesse Walker

I recently finished Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. It is, despite its entirely unnecessary subtitle, an phenomenal book. It provides an historical account of conspiratorial thinking in America, mixed with an insightful analysis of the patterns and ur-myths that form the groundwork of modern conspiracy theories.

I should say that I am probably the ideal audience for this book. I’ve been fascinated by conspiracy theories for as long as I can remember, being in my youth an obsessive X-Files fan1, as well as a fan of the work of Robert Anton Wilson, Umberto Eco, Steve Jackson, Rev. Ivan Stang, and anyone else who co-opted the conspiratorial worldview in their art. I have been, at times, nearly obsessed with what Jesse Walker refers to as the “ironic style” of conspiracy theories. This is the use of conspiracy as a central tenet for art or play, best seen in the Church of the Subgenius, Discordianism, and the games of Steve Jackson.

But I was happy to find that Walker’s account of conspiracy theories in America went well beyond kooks and jokers and focused instead on instances in which conspiracies played major roles in the course of history. His examination of the role of conspiracy theories in both sides of the run up to the civil war was particularly interesting, with both sides fearing similar secret machinations, but with inverted hidden powers. The South feared agitation and back-room dealings by a cadre of abolitionists, while the North held a terror of a great cabal known generally as the Slave Power.

The book is remarkably well-written and researched, and Walker has a clear love for his topic. The author is a surprisingly fair judge, giving even-handed, almost sympathetic, accounts of various hysterias through the ages, starting with the first European colonists to American shores. Despite his commendable neutrality, Walker is a very engaging stylist, giving wry glimpses of the stories of conspiracies he explores, spinning them as compelling yarns, which helps convey a bit of their persuasive power.

The United States of Paranoia is an excellent book, and highly recommended for any reader, even those less intrigued than I with the conspiratorial obsession of their fellow human beings.

1 To my slight shame, I remember meeting William B Davis (“Cancer Man”) at an event in Richland much more clearly than I do the Middle School friend with whom I attended the event.

The Unicode Miracle

The Shondes, The Garden

Artist: The Shondes
Album: The Garden
Label: Exotic Fever Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2013.9.17
Verdict: Strongly Recommended

I have a deep appreciation for bands that clearly work to cultivate a unique sound. Those rare bands that develop a sound over time, discarding what doesn’t work for them, keeping what does, and gleaning the elusive sound that they want from the chaff of what didn’t work. I love hearing a band’s sound evolve under the selective pressure of their various musical experiments.

Those metaphors were tortured in the service of saying that The Shondes are one such band. Their first three albums all worked to refine a unique aesthetic, each playing with the band’s sound in different ways, keeping the lessons of prior albums and trying new tricks to see what else worked. From the raw, almost elemental Red Sea; to the hurt, angry My Dear One; to the life-affirming resolve of Searchlights, the Shondes have tried out several facets of their own brand of anthemic, outsider rock music.

Their new album, The Garden, feels like a studied fusion of these past experiments. The album takes the barely-contained chaos of Red Sea and blends it with the pathos of the following two albums. The result is a pleasant blend of progress and nostalgia. New listeners will get a good introduction to the band’s sound and existing fans are guaranteed to hear a lot of what they liked in the previous three albums, plus a few new tricks.

“Nights Like These”, in particular, feels like it could have been a b-side from Searchlights. It matches well thematically, but is just different enough the band’s last release that I could easily imagine it being a track that didn’t make it onto the previous record. The upbeat, soaring vocals, spacy guitar bridge and prominent violin hooks blend to form a catchy, fist-in-the-air life-affirming tune that would feel a little saccharine if it weren’t so damned catchy.

And that gets to something that is part of what makes the Shondes so effective as a band: they are willing to take risks. They typically ride very close to the line between drama and melodrama, but always manage to end up on the right side of it. Safety kills rock music just as surely as any other art, and I think that the Shonde’s willingness to risk a few eye rolls ultimately serves them well.

“On Your Side” is a another example where this risk tolerance pays huge dividends. The anthemic tune plays with glammy guitar solos and a particularly epic, stadium-rock key change. The end result feels a bit like the Shondes covering an unreleased Queen track. It’s a big, bold rock tune that manages to hook the listener with well-textured guitar and violin hooks and an irresistibly catchy chorus.

One music dork sidebar: the mixing and production value on the Garden is much better than on previous albums. I’ve harped on muddy or weak mixing on, I think, every review I’ve done of a Shondes record. This album, more than any of the previous ones, feels like a fair accounting of the music. The mix does a good job of drawing the listener’s ear to important changes and there’s a great deal of aural separation between the various parts. Music production is, at its best, completely invisible and that’s the case here.

This is a great record, serving both as a synthesis of the Shondes’ efforts up to this point, and as a next step in an ongoing evolution. If Red Sea is the chaotic, elemental distillate of the Shondes’ sound, then The Garden is the finished form that manages to be more powerful than its unrefined source material. I highly recommend this record to all comers. If you like creative, unique rock music, then The Garden is right up your alley.

Towards a Canonical Ruleset for Credit Card Roulette

0.) Players may opt in to Credit Card Roulette at any point in the evening. They have until the next round of play to chicken out. After a player has participated in a round, whether they lose or not, they may not opt-out for the rest of the night.

1.) When the bill arrives at any establishment, members of the group who are not playing my either ask for separate checks, agree to pay the loser for their portion, or settle up their portion of the tab however they see fit.

2.) All players who are not exempt (see rules 7 & 8) then put in one (1) debit or credit card. The resulting deck of credit cards can then be shuffled or inspected by any player.

3.) This deck is then presented to the waitron, who is encouraged to pick one card in whatever manner they deem fit. This is usually by means of blindly picking one (the behind-the-back shuffle-and-pick seems to be a popular method), but doesn’t need to be.

4.) The owner of the selected card is responsible for the entire bill, minus the portion payed for by opted-out members of the party. They need not pay with the losing card, however. They can swap the waitron for a different card, pay by cash, etc.

5.) The person who pays at an establishment is termed to have “lost the bar”, lost that particularly establishment, or more generally, to simply have “lost”.

6.) Losers are strongly encouraged to tip well.

7.) Once a person has lost, they are exempt for the remainder of the night, (unless rule 9 comes into effect). “Exempt” means that their bill must be payed by the loser, but that no longer need to submit a card (i.e. they cannot lose again for the rest of the night.)

8.) Any member of the group who has not received their first paycheck is exempt. Noobs drink for free.

9.) If only two non-exempt players remain, then whichever of them doesn’t lose is declared the winner. After a person wins, all players who are exempt by reason of having lost are back in play starting from the next establishment. Noobs remain exempt.

Amendments, revisions, and clarifications welcome.

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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.