Category Archives: Lists

Link Dump – March 2015

Time for another collection of random amazing things.

Long Reads

New websites worth following or bookmarking:

Important Images

Video

Games

Random

Want more? See past link dumps.

Music To Code By, 2013

It’s that time of the year again. For more great music, check out the previous ‘Music To Code By’ posts from 2011 and 2012.

It seems this year, soundcloud really became a thing. In previous years I’ve had to link to Amazon mostly for 30 second clips at best. This year, links below are actually worth a click – as almost all of them link to music you can stream for free from soundcloud or bandcamp – no subscription cost necessary. That being said, I strongly recommend that you join a music service like Rhapsody or Spotify – so you can hear some of these amazing albums in full.

Standard Disclaimer

I prefer full-album front-to-back listening experiences. Favorite genres currently include post-rock, noise-rock, EDM, alt rock, shoegaze, and dream pop. Also, new this year, this blog post isn’t just music I’ve found on my own – there’s a fair variety of tastes this year, thanks to some excellent suggestions from friends and colleagues.

Executive Summary

I’ve put together a couple of soundcloud playlists – in an attempt to capture a good slice of worthwhile music to checkout.

First, there’s the 2.5 hour 2013 Code Mix – this is the mix I can listen to while coding with my brain on. It’s primarily post-rock (caspian, this will destroy you) with bits of dance and noise-rock (tv on the radio, 65daysofstatic, BT, blonde redhead) in between.

Because I’m paranoid, and sure soundcloud tracks will change, here’s the original track ordering:

  1. Blonde Redhead – 23
  2. Caspian – Gone In Bloom and Bough
  3. Matthew Good – Non Populus
  4. 65daysofstatic – PX3
  5. TV on the radio – DLZ
  6. Tv on the radio – Wolf Like Me
  7. 65daysofstatic – PRISMS
  8. This Will Destroy You – A Three-Legged Workhorse
  9. Caspian – Hymn For The Greatest Generation
  10. Metric – Breathing Underwater (Acoustic)
  11. BT – Skylarking
  12. Caspian – Hickory ’54
  13. This Will Destroy You – Communal Blood
  14. Carbon Based Life Forms – MOS 6581 (ALBUM VERSION)
  15. This Will Destroy You – The Mighty Rio Grande
  16. Matthew Good – Champions Of Nothing
  17. Orbital – One Perfect Sunrise
  18. Caspian – Fire Made Flesh
  19. 65daysofstatic – Tiger Girl

Next, there’s the “god, I hate bug fixing and need something to distract me” mostly pop-rock 2013 Best Of playlist. Here you’ll find a good old-fashioned all-over-the-place mix 2 hours in length. It’s a healthy dose of the latest fashionable pop rock junk (such as 80s revival nonsense like the national), with enough alt-rock and just enough of a sprinkling of punk-rock to help you not feel like a tool for listening to it all. There’s some bleed over from the code mix – because some tracks are too awesome not to hear multiple times.

The ‘Best Of’ playlist is too long (timewise) to embed in this entry, so click above, or here to go listen to it.

‘2013 Best of’ track list:

  1. Mark Duplass – Big Machine (Acoustic Version)
  2. Avicii – Wake Me Up (Extended Mix)
  3. TV on the radio – DLZ
  4. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Let The Day Begin
  5. The Neighbourhood – “Female Robbery”
  6. Caspian – Hymn For The Greatest Generation
  7. Blonde Redhead – 23
  8. Matthew Good – Via Dolorosa
  9. J. Roddy Walston – Heavy Bells
  10. Dire Straits – Romeo And Juliet
  11. Shakey Graves – Late July
  12. Kitten – Cut It Out
  13. Twin Shadow – Five Seconds
  14. The National – Afraid Of Everyone
  15. The Neighbourhood – Sweater Weather
  16. Mirror Travel – I Want You To Know
  17. Alkaline Trio – I Wanna Be A Warhol
  18. Bomb The Music Industry! – Felt Just Like Vacation
  19. Alkaline Trio – This Could Be Love (from Damnesia)
  20. Matthew Good – Non Populus
  21. Caspian – Gone In Bloom and Bough
  22. Caspian – Hickory ’54
  23. Metric – Breathing Underwater (Acoustic)
  24. Crystal Castles – Not In Love (Featuring Robert Smith)
  25. Champion – No Heaven

Top Five Albums

If you listen to nothing else at all, do yourself a favor and at least listen to this track, at max volume, ideally on speakers that will make you feel the kick drum in your soul:

This is “Gone in Bloom and Bough”, by Caspian. The entire album is an amazing post-rock trip of beauty that rival’s Sigur Ros’ ‘Takk’ album (one of my personal favorites). You can stream the entire album for free. If you’ve dismissed older Caspian records as generic post-rock (along with godspeed / explosions in the sky), don’t dismiss this one – it’s different. Where other bands are blending electronic elements and synth into post-rock, Caspian’s already made the record everyone’s aiming for, ‘Waking Season’ is it. Also, their latest EP ‘Hymn for the Greatest Generation’ is amazing as well, you can listen to the title track from that EP here.

Caspian – Waking Season (full album stream):

Matthew Good – Lights of Endangered Species (sample track):

Matthew Good’s album from last year, ‘Lights of Endandgered Species’, is, I feel, his best album to date – and that’s saying something. This track, Non-Populous is the latest in a long line of 7 minute + epics that take you on an unforgettable, almost intangible emotional journey. He also released a more typical alt-rock record this year, entitled ‘Arrows of Desire’, it’s good, but if you’re new around here, check out the ‘Hospital Music’, ‘Endandgered Species’, ‘Avalanche’, and ‘Beautiful Midnight’ albums first.

65daysofstatic – Wild Light (Sample Track):

‘Wild Light’, is, in a word: fantastic. 65days started as mostly high-energy high-bpm math-rock/post-rock – very aphex twin fairly often. In recent year’s they’ve morphed. Where the previous record, ‘We Were Exploding Anyway’ was essentially a dance/rock record – ‘Wild Light’ pulls back a bit, the music has morphed into a synth-heavy droning guitars noise-pop/post-rock/glitch masterpiece that absolutely refuses to loosen it’s grip on you. If you dug the Polinski side-project record I mentioned last year – this, to me, is that with guitars.

Sigur Ros – Kveikur (Full Album Stream):

Other post-rock outfits are trying to find the lighter ‘pretty’ side of music that Sigur Ros’ pulls off so effortlessly, but with their latest, Sigur Ros is going in the opposite direction. Their latest, Kveikur, is at once driven and beautiful. It seems for the first time, drums and bass are in the driver’s seat. There’s a darkness to the album, a sense that something went wrong and somebody’s pissed – I like it. Great album.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Specter at the Feast (Sample Track):

I’m not familiar with BRMC, but I ran across them after checking out the Sound City film, and their latest album, ‘Specter at the Feast’ is awesome. Shoegazer meandering mope rock fuzz-pop at its finest. An enjoyable listen all the way through.

Other Bits

I spent a fair number of days this year listening to Alkaline Trio’s ‘Damnesia’ album (acoustic versions of their punk/alt-rock/mope-rock hits) on constant repeat:

The same repeat-forever multi-day full-album treatment was given to..

Bomb The Music Industry’s ‘Vacations’ (amazing punk rock, the end):

Full album stream on their website.

Kitten’s ‘Cut It Out’ EP (80’s resurgence pop), full album stream:

The Neighbourhood’s ‘I Love You’ (pedestrian alt rock, album is really *really* catchy and good):

The National’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ (80s resurgence, basically the smiths + joy division), full album stream:

and Limp Bizkit’s ‘The Unquestionable Truth’ (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it – it’s actually decent, whereas I consider the rest of their albums aside from the first a waste of time), this is a full album stream:

I don’t usually listen to single tracks on repeat, but there are occasionally albums I can’t stand most of, but one track is god like, this year those tracks were:

Blonde Redhead – 23:

Battles – Atlas:

Tom Waits – Goin’ Out West:

Crystal Castles – Not In Love (Featuring Robert Smith):

Champion – No Heaven:

And then there are awesome albums that get re-released with devastatingly beautiful poignant acoustic versions of great songs, such as Metric’s ‘Breathing Underwater (Acoustic)’:

Go ahead, enjoy your next few days of time spent spinning one of those tracks on repeat forever. I’ll catch you on the flipside when you’ve had enough euphoria.

Vinyl

Finally, my wife and I got into vinyl a bit this year. I’d highly recommend it – it sounds a little different, yeah – but the thing that caught me off guard was the manual/personal-involvement of it. Not for nearly twenty years had I been physically limited to playing one disc at a time, and with a record you’re flipping it every 15-20 minutes, so its even more involved than a cd would be. It sounds like work, and it is – but it’s a labor of love. Vinyl has been a catalyst to a change in my life toward relaxing and appreciating music the way I used to when I was young. It’s part nostalgia, part backlash against always being on the internet and wasting my life. We’re enjoying ourselves.

If/when you check out vinyl, I highly recommend the following albums:

  • The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
  • The Cure – Seventeen Seconds
  • Sigur Ros – Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
  • Dylan Leblanc – Cast The Same Old Shadow
  • Mirror Travel – Mexico
  • First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
  • Pearl Jam – VS
  • Silversun Pickups – Swoon (this one sounds suprisingly fantastic, warm fuzz.. mmm)
  • Modest Mouse – Good News For People Who Love Bad News

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I can only seriously claim credit for almost all of the “code mix” – most everything else recommended this year was recommended to me by friends and family.

Thanks to Alex for recommending Tom Waits and Death From Above 1979, among a dozen others I still need to check out!

Thanks, Brooke, for Kitten, The Neighborhood, Twin Shadow.

Thanks, Jonathan, for Crystal Castles, Battles, Sleigh Bells, and a ton of music back in the day, including introducing me to Stellastarr, and Death Cab for Cutie – we wouldn’t have known of ‘Transatlanticism’ or used it for our wedding day first dance had you not introduced me to it.

Thanks, Daniel, for recommending carbon based life forms – truly awesome music to work to for hours on end.

Thanks, Brian, for your awesome indie/punk finds, including Bomb The Music Industry, and Direct Hit. I have a feeling Direct Hit is going to be on repeat for a while in 2014.

Thanks, Dad, for the recommendation of Dire Straits – I had no idea the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ song in one of my favorite movies (Empire Records) was by them – good stuff.

Thanks, Adam, for suggesting we play through borderlands when we were sick of code – truly one of the highlights of my year, and the ‘No Heaven’ credits track by Champion was an awesome end to a great time.

Thank you Amanda for recommending Shakey Graves, and Avicii; and thanks for sticking around late that one week night after 65daysofstatic’s set to discover caspian with me. Also, thanks for going to the Sigur Ros’ show with me, that was truly the greatest show I’ve ever seen.

To the rest of you who recommended great stuff, thanks, keep it up.

Cool Stuff: Music & Audio (Part 1)

I recently discovered that I’m the son of an audiophile – suddenly I understand why I was encouraged to buy a decent amplifier/receiver at a very young age, suddenly I appreciate those old dads-college-days/hand-me-down kickass KLH speakers just a little bit more than I always have. I am definitely not an audiophile myself, but music is a huge part of my happiness in life. I’m also a geek, so over the years I’ve learned a clever thing or two about the hobby of collecting and listening to music, and I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned.

Required Reading

Before we get into the hardware geekery, I think it’s prudent to point you toward a few classic articles and books about the music industry.

First up is Steve Albini’s The Problem With Music. Albini produced classic pixies and nirvana records, but, to me, his no-nonsense approach to writing and putting it all out there is just as important. There’s also a classic no-bullshit letter from Albini to Nirvana before recording In Utero that’s fairly entertaining to read.

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Next, consider Courtney Love’s Courtney Does the Math article. It’s a financial deep dive that shows the money for a fairly successful act dwindling from $2 million up front to almost nothing for the actual band members at the end. Sombering stuff.

Another highly recommended read is David Byrne’s How Music Works. And, depending on your interests, there are some entertaining bios out there for various musicians, I’ve enjoyed a few: Marilyn Manson, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, The Pixies, The Smashing Pumpkins. There are also a few books I haven’t yet read, but will eventually for bands such as: The Cure, Jane’s Addiction, and Pink Floyd.

While we’re at it, music fans should also check out Sound City, Hype, It Might Get Loud, Pearl Jam Twenty, The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, The Other F Word, Almost Famous, High Fidelity, Empire Records, SLC Punk, and Spinal Tap.

Finding Music

Before you get yourself in too deep with discovering great music you want to hear, I’d highly recommend considering a monthly subscription music service such as rhapsody or spotify. Each of these services cost about $10 a month and let you listen to as much music as you’d like on a computer or on your iOS or Android device.

Years ago these services were a ridiculous pain in the ass in terms of portability, but the advent of the iOS and Android apps for the services simplify everything greatly. If you don’t have a smartphone, I recommend considering an iPod Touch and using the service’s download-for-offline-play feature.

One downside to the streaming services is that at times, it’s like netflix vs hbo go vs hulu vs whatever. That is – an artist can have a terrible exclusive deal with one music service or another, so the one you pay for doesn’t have that artist’s latest. And don’t forget that some of your favorite bands are stuck in the 20th century mindset, for example: you won’t find led zeppelin, ac/dc, metallica, the beatles, and a few other acts on these streaming services. Jerks.

The rhapsody/spotify services also have the ability to browse music by genre, often with features like “most popular track, album, artist for this genre” – find a genre, or obscure corner genre such as shoegazer or dream pop, and discover something new that way.

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Discovering music in the 21st century is super easy. Just plug a favorite band or song into an internet-radio/recommendation engine like pandora radio, last.fm (more indie acts, but less big-label acts), or itunes radio. The subscription services (rhapsody, spotify) also have social features and recommendations such as “acts similar to this one” or “albums similar to this one” or “influences for this band”.

Other recommendation sources to consider are your friends and family who enjoy similar music; online forums for bands you like (examples: nin, matthew good); and amazon’s recommendations listed with your favorite album (“people who bought this also bought..”).

Occasionally a band will mention bands they’re influenced by or listening to in interviews, and often the wikipedia page for your favorite band will have this kind of information readily available. For example, I probably would not have given The Cure a fair shake if it weren’t for James Iha from The Smashing Pumpkins going on and on about them every chance he got.

Indie and popular acts alike often upload tracks to soundcloud, and bandcamp, and there’s always random music blogs to consider, such as sound junkie soapbox, or mixed tape masterpiece.

Discogs.com is sort of a music-central wikipedia/music marketplace. It’s often a better resource for websites and discography lists related to a band than wikipedia or an artist’s own site is. This website is especially dangerous for niche or vinyl fans, as you can find almost any album ever published for sale – sometimes very expensively.

Finally, for a little nostalgic trip, consider wikipedia’s album release lists, genre lists, and/or billboard lists.

Buying Music

These days the most popular way to acquire music is by buying it online. Keep in mind that when you buy something on iTunes you’ll run into insane DRM nightmares down the road, fun such as not being able to play music you bought on a non-apple device, etc etc. Basically, this:

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Instead, I recommend buying music through Amazon, bandcamp, or directly from the artist’s website.

Most music purchased on Amazon is forever-available to instantly stream or re-download in the future via Amazon’s Cloud Player.

If you’re still a fan of purchasing physical copies of music (a cd or vinyl), you should definitely consider purchasing new copies of your albums through Amazon when they have the “AutoRip” label on the cover.

With AutoRip, Amazon automatically gives you a forever streamable and/or downloadable copy of your album in their cloud player. A cool feature about AutoRip is that it’s retroactive, there’s a good chance you can insta-download mp3s of albums you bought 10 years ago on Amazon, right now.

For CD/Vinyl fans, It’s getting harder and harder to find anything you’re looking for in a local brick and mortar big-box such as best buy, target, etc. I’ve found fry’s electronics still has a halfway decent in-store selection, but really, these days, the physical media nerds will need to check out a record store. You can find a nearby record store by searching on yelp in your area. Here’s a short list of stores I’ve visited and highly recommend:

* Waterloo Records (Austin, TX)
* Pirahna Records (Round Rock, TX)
* Easy Street Records (Seattle, WA)
* Forever Young Records (Arlington, TX)

Vinyl fans should also consider the following:

* The Austin Record Convention – annual record convention w/ more than 300 vendors.
* Absolute Vinyl (Boulder, TX)
* Breakaway Records (Austin, TX)
* Austin Citywide Garage Sale – monthly convention, half a dozen vendors have vinyl.

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Choosing Test Music

Before you buy any music equipment, it’s important to understand that unless you’re paying many hundreds or thousands of dollars, the equipment you buy will most likely “color” the music. That is, the equipment will bias bass a bit louder, or treble, or feel more “open” (like a concert hall) or “punchy” (like a small room w/ carpet).

I recommend testing equipment before you buy it. To do this, you need to make a playlist of songs to demo equipment with. Put the playlist on your smartphone and a cd, and bring necessary wires to hook your device into whatever you’re targeting. Your playlist should have a couple or three songs that you are very familiar with and you know how you expect the song to sound. Everyone’s taste in music and sound balance differs, and you don’t have to be a music snob or genius to understand what you’re looking for – just pick some favorite songs that you will *know* when they sound “right” to you.

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For myself, I like a balanced sound that’s just a tad warm with super clarity. I love me some reverb/open sound, so what I’m looking for is something that sounds “wide open” with super clear mids and treble – with bass I can hear that isn’t overpowering the rest but instead is a subtle but powerful driving undercurrent.

There are more than a few songs that I considered that exemplify what I “like”, but here’s what I came up with: When I was test driving cars I used Sigur Ros’ Saeglopur, and when I tested PC Speakers I used Ulrich Schnuass’ In The Wrong Place and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.

Video for Sigur Ros’ Saeglopur:

Note that youtube compressed audio may not be the best representation of the nuances I’ll describe below.. but you get the idea.

Saeglopur was chosen because it has this beautiful super clear beginning piano w/ bells – right off the bat I can tell if a stereo’s halfway worth it if that section sounds enveloping and beautiful – or muddied. Later, the song builds into something roaring and huge and the moment of crescendo/catharsis is absolutely key. Right around 1:50 – 2:15 a huge swirl of spine-tingling warm catharsis fades in and ought to make me skip a breath or two – some cars had auto-volume leveling features that muddied or otherwise ruined this. Later, after the swell – the track is muddier than I’d like – to an annoying degree, I suppose there’s too much going on – but I find it bothers me less depending on the clarity of the hardware.

Video for Ulrich Schnauss’ In The Wrong Place:

The Ulrich Schnauss song has a similar super-clear intro with this little “springy/bouncy” sound on the kick sample – you’d be surprised how many sets of PC speakers we tried where the “spring” effect was completely muted and gone. Like Saeglopur, it quickly builds into a bed of lush instrumentation with more than a few distinct synths of varying tonal qualities running around. In particular there’s a very subtle but strong bass line going that was often absent on test equipment. Around 3:00 there’s a significant change to the tune and a new synth melody comes into the picture – but it’s subtle and hidden to some extent – I would fast forward to this spot and listen and on many speaker sets this driving melody would be completely hidden in mud and the song ruined.

Video for The Smashing Pumpins’ Porcelina of the Vast Oceans:

The Pumpkins’ track, Porcelina, is more or less Saeglopur with a better mix/balance IMO, it starts off with a long fade-in of guitars that either sound lush and full – like the music surrounds you in a warm envelope of comfort, or like little treble punches here and there – all depending on the quality of the speaker set. As the song builds to serious overdrive w/ the classic marshall sound there’s an edge to the guitars around 2:15 through 2:40 – again, a fullness of sound, that just can’t be lost – but often is. Finally, there’s a synthy/raspy guitar in the right speaker during the first verse that would often be completely lost on substandard sets.

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Purchasing Hardware

If at all possible, test your potential hardware in person – at a fry’s electronics, or (worst case..) a best buy, or a friend’s house.

If in-person won’t work, Amazon is the obvious choice, with a great return policy in place if you aren’t satisfied.

Other options to consider include Newegg, J&R, Musician’s Friend, and Guitar Center.

Also, seriously consider MonoPrice for all of your cable, adapters, and so on – you can occasionally find similarly priced quality ‘amazon basics’ items on Amazon – but MonoPrice’s prices and customer service in the event of a problem are awesome.

Decent Hardware (Home Theater/Computer)

As I mentioned earlier, your individual taste in music will affect the type of equipment you like. Price points are an important consideration as well, you may be able to purchase a $10 set of headphones that beat some $50 sets, but you will not find a $50 set that eclipses a $250 dollar set – and so on.

Before we start the hardware recommendations, keep in mind that I’m not an audiophile myself, but over the years I have cobbled together some audio equipment that is good enough for me. I have a even mixture of moderately expensive (more than $100 per part) and inexpensive hardware. Further, I have some hardware that’s more than a decade (or two) old, and still doing just fine – this works for me, but if you want stuff with the bells and whistles, I have a few more recent home theater builds from friends that I think sound amazing as well.

In our living room we have an ancient, inexpensive, but still kicking and awesome Sony STR-D615 receiver driving my father’s college KLH Twenty speakers, which are 40 or more years old. This setup was the configuration that I cut my teeth on and annoyed my mother to-no-end with as a teenager – as a kid there was nothing better than turning these up astoundingly loud and sitting not 4 feet in front of them – listening to porcelina repetitively. These days the KLH’s have a pair of MBQuart QLC104 speakers sitting on top of them as the “front” speakers – the MBQuart’s are better for TV and video games than the KLHs are, but the KLHs slaughter the MBQuarts for music imo.

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I’m not a 5.1 or 7.1 guy, as most setups I’ve heard sound like garbage or oddly balanced, and I generally enjoy friend’s setups with similar predispositions against the N.1 nonsense. A buddy of mine with much newer hardware has a beautiful sound emanating from Paradigm Studio 100 v5 for left/right and a Paradigm Studio CC590 v5 for center. He drives all of this with a Pioneer VSX-21TXH. If I were to upgrade our living room receiver/speaker situation – his would be the one I’d match.

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That being said, I do have one buddy with an amazing 9.2 (7.2 in reality, as nothing does 9.2 yet) setup that actually does the proper 3D surround sound effect. The trick seems to be to have a table with the rear speakers directly behind your couch, right behind your head. He drives his system with a Pioneer SC-1222-K. The speaker setup is two Polk Audio New Monitor 75T Four-Way Ported Floorstanding Loudspeakers, Polk Audio New Monitor 25C Two-Way Center Channel Loudspeaker, and 4 rear speakers poached from a Klipsch HD Theater 600 Home Theater System. He configures his system with the 3 polks in the front, 2 klipsch’s next to those, 2 subs up front, and 4 on the table behind the couch.

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Note: Both of my friends with the 2.1 and the 9.2 setups are fairly hardcore in their dedication to finding the best equipment for their price range – they both did extensive research to land on their setup of choice, and the research definitely paid off – both setups sound amazing.

In our kitchen we have a crappy little $35 iphone dock (iLive IBP181B) that sounds like garbage. The price is right, and for our needs, it work’s perfectly – we don’t exactly need crystal clear tunes when we’re making a bunch of racket in the kitchen cooking, doing the dishes, or cleaning.

For years we had a pair of unassuming – but *amazing* sounding – Harmon Kardon pc speakers setup in our bedroom, one speaker per nightstand table – with the audio jack floating around and easily pluggable into a laptop or portable music player. We purchased a pair of these for my father a few years later, and my father, the audiophile, liked them so much that he purchased 5 more sets for various places around his house – they’re awesome.

Years ago, a friend of mine had the Harmon Kardon space-bubble speaker set and it sounded excellent as well. One more thumbs up for Harmon Kardon: newer toshiba laptops in the $700 range (ie model P745-S4320) have Harmon Kardon speakers – and these little speakers absolutely slaughter other laptop sound systems, including macbook pro laptops with the speakers beside the keyboard.

My buddy has had a terrific pair of pc speakers forever, the original cambridge microworks model, but they were too expensive for my blood until recently. My wife and I tested pc speakers at fry’s for a nice set in the bedroom, and unsurprisingly we found the cambridge microworks ii to be the best they had to offer – important note: these were not the most expensive pc speakers the store offered!

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For our computers I have a Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 set – which for all intents and purposes is identical to the microworks ii set as far as I’m concerned. One downside to the promedia set is there’s no easy way to turn them off, the volume nob bottoms out at no-sound, rather than “off” – and there’s an off switch on the back of the sub, buried behind my desk – useless.

My wife’s computer has a set of Bose Companion 2 Series II speakers – these sound decent enough, but are a far cry from the microworks or promedia sets (as expected, they cost half the price, and have the label “bose” on them..).

A fairly solid inexpensive option for PC speakers or a small sound system in a random room, the Logitech S220 from a few years back retailed for about $20-$40, and they rival many of the $100-$150 options I’ve seen – a bit tinny, but functional.

Another inexpensive setup to consider is the popular LP-2020A+ Lepai Tripath Class-T Hi-Fi Audio Mini Amplifier, with a set of Sony SS-B1000 speakers. A small office I worked at had this setup for a conference room, and the sound was amazing – super clear, full, and defined. I was shocked that the speakers only cost $70, I was expecting a much higher price tag based on the clarity of sound.

Headphones

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I have a love/hate relationship with headphones. I’ve spent probably $1000 in headphones over the past ten years, in $50 and smaller increments mostly, over and over. I continually bought cheap headphones b/c I thought there’d be a satisfactory pair that could match a $50 pair a roommate discovered in college – but I couldn’t. For me, the holy grail of headphones is a pair of Coby CV-670.

Coby’s stuff is generally average at best, but those CV-670s will always have a special place in my heart as the set to match. More recent models such as the CV-630 are decent enough, and they’ll be great for most listeners, but they pale in comparison (build quality, and sound is “super bass”/crap – as labeled) to the CV-670 model of 2001.

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A half dozen not-worth-mentioning $20-$50 attempts later, I finally put real money down for the Sennheiser HD598 open air model – my god. I spent a fair bit of time researching various models in the $150-$300 range and took a minor chance on this set after reading many comparison reviews on Amazon. The research and expense was worth it – I’ll never buy another ‘high quality’ set of headphones again until this pair wears out 10 or 15 years from now. The funny thing is, I spent well over $300 in $30 and $50 pairs of disappointing headsets over the past 12 years since the CV-670s – sometimes it makes sense to save, I guess.

I cannot begin to describe the experience of listening to music on those sennheisers – I think the best way to get the point across is to say – I’ve never had a piece of audio equipment that made me want to go back to all of my favorite music and hear it anew again – until I bought these. If you are a big music fan and/or listen to it while you work, do yourself a favor and save the money – your next decade of music enjoyment will be worth it.

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With this pair of headphones I can tell a significant difference between remastered and non-remastered versions of the same album, and as cliche as it sounds, I can truly hear nuance and bits of my favorite albums that I’d never heard before. The headphones are so good that they forced me to start buying CDs again, to rip a higher-quality version of the albums I love – because with this set I can hear a difference between that high quality rip and the “HQ” stream or download from a music service.

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For a long while I tried to find noise reducing headsets or closed ear headsets to use at work. The aim has generally been to not disturb my coworkers rather than the other way around – as I tend to listen to music very loudly.

A short history of sets to consider, but probably pass on: JVC HANC line – colors the music, tinny, muddy – decent on an airplane though; Koss QZ-99 – inexpensive, sound is passable, so heavy they gave me headaches; Bose QuietComfort® 15 – best noise reduction, colors sound quite a bit, not as bad as JVC but meh.

In the past year I settled on the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 – I’m not in love, b/c the sound color is not to my liking – I’ve read these have a very flat accurate response so perhaps I just like things a touch warmer than reality, but they’re better than everything else I’ve tried. One thing that’s surprising about the ATH-M50s is that they sound *great* on an Airplane – perhaps because you can’t hear the nuance as well at high altitudes, but it does feel like they sound better in the air in than on the ground. Another set to consider that’s much less expensive and with a minor test sounded better to me than the ATH-M50s, is MonoPrice’s Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone – this pair costs about $25 and sounds like or beats the $100-$150 ATH-M50s.

If you’re not looking for $300 or noise canceling options, there are a bunch of inexpensive earbud type options I’d recommend. The Panasonic RPHV21BL earbuds run about $10 and easily sound the same or better than many $30-$50 range options. I was never a fan of the apple earbuds that came with their devices, but their newer EarPods line sounds really good – not much better than the Panasonics though.

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 5.25.04 PM

That about covers my long list of core music recommendations. In the next part for this series I’ll cover portable music, wireless hardware, a bit of vinyl trivia, and various odds and ends.

Music To Code By, 2012

Here’s what I listened to while coding in 2012.

This year I’d categorize my listening habits into three moods: getting shit done, relaxing, and background noise.

Standard disclaimer: I listen to albums all the way through, front to back, and am often annoying the hell out of my wife with a single track or album on endless repeat, for an entire day. I like moody music, stuff that takes you places, stuff with meaning or at least the feeling of meaning. If that’s not your style, and you want pop hits – you can stop here.

Getting Shit Done

These are the albums that put me in the zone this year, some new releases, some new-to-me stuff. This is the good stuff to go heads down with, especially at volume 11 or 12 on a 10 point scale.

For many days I listened to This Will Destroy You’s albums and EP. This Will Destroy You is awe-inspring post rock, think sigur ros, with much more tension, and more precision. I’ve seen these guys twice in concert in the past year or so, and they always impress. When you listen to TWDY, you wander off somewhere, and come back, up and down. It’s just perfect, buy it now. If you’re not sold, here’s the kick: you know that main epic theme that kept coming and going in Moneyball, but wasn’t on the soundtrack? The one that practically made the movie? Yeah, that was This Will Destroy You’s ‘The Mighty Rio Grande‘:

You’re welcome.

Later in the year, my good friend Greg and I went to see Tomahawk in concert, so that of course revitalized continuous repeat of their albums for a few weeks. Tomahawk is the rock super group to end all super groups: Mike Patton from Faith No More/Mr Bungle/50-more-bands is on vox, and that should be enough to convince you outright to at least give their stuff a spin. Mit Gas is the record to check out, and the selling point here is this music video, which just happens to be the greatest music video ever:

The thing about Tomahawk is, these guys are truly pro. Hands down, the most amazing concert I’ve ever seen: these guys. They’re not visual overload, they’re not elaborate, and frankly, the mix at the venue we were at was junk, but none of that fluff matters, because their command of moving your soul both aggressively and with pro style – all at once, that’s where it’s at. You hear these guys’ albums and some of it sounds like studio magic that can’t possibly be done live, then you see it done live, and you kind of feel embarrassed for everyone else in the music business. These guys pound the bass, drums, with force, and a moment later they’re drowning you in the most beautiful cathartic melody for just a moment, then bring you back around to aggressive amazing all over again. Tomahawk’s one of those things where, you know, some rock music could be characterized as cock rock, aggressive for the sake of being aggressive – but, again, you hear this stuff, and the level of effort and talent involved and you realize that for Tomahawk, you really don’t give a shit about the labels – it just is, and it’s awesome. BTW, Tomahawk has a new album coming out in January.

Okay, those are the two worth gushing about for hours. Here’s the rest of it:

I spent quite a bit of time this year coding to electronic music of this variety of that. I don’t know or care what classifies as IDM or Trance or LeftField or whatever the hell, b/c it seems all of these artists have albums containing all of the above, so we’ll just call it what it is: good stuff.

First up, The Glitch Mob came out with an *amazing* album in late 2011. This is glitched-out over the top melody and move your body music. It’s just good, the end. They’re working on something for early 2013 right now.

Second, as I mentioned last year, I’m a big fan of 65daysofstatic, and one of their members put this incredible solo effort out as Polinski, it’s really great sweeping synth with a bit of glitch. It’s a short trip, but man, is it epic:

Third, BT’s ‘These Hopeful Machines‘ double cd is godlike. BT’s a ‘trance’ artist, or so I hear, but like most of his more-pop albums, this one’s just good in all of the ways, all of them. Some bits are trance mind benders, others are good old fashion pop electronic love songs dance music style. Like This Will Destroy You, BT likes to spend 5 minutes building up to something, but when the crescendo hits and starts crashing down, you feel the goosebumps and then the waves of cathartic glow wash through you, and you come out the other side feeling like you really need to write this guy a thank you note for the experiences he compiles, or at the very least, do something awesome with your life that may one day pass the feeling on down the line to someone else.

I heard a bit of hype about this Skrillex guy this year and mistakenly listened to his ‘Bangarang EP‘ on repeat, for days, before giving his other albums a go. DON’T DO THIS. Bangarang is a remix album of some of his earlier efforts, with some new stuff in the mix. The thing is, Bangarang is basically a more precise version of his tunes – an added layer of glitch, noise, and so on. There’s that, then there’s the fact that almost every tune has it’s BPM increased just enough to notice. So, if you listen to these things in the wrong order (or perhaps this is the right order..), when you hear the earlier efforts – you find them annoying, b/c they’re slower sloppier versions of the tunes you’re already in love with. Skrillex is glitchy noise, with the correct amount of cathartic breaks in the middle of it all. The EP takes you on a trip, a high speed headache-inducing trip if your mood isn’t just right – but if you’re in the right mood to handle it, Skrillex moves you.

I love me some glitch / noise, or “white noise bullshit” as my wife lovingly puts it, but there were also more than a few regular alt rock records this year that spun endlessly while I was coding.

Metric is one of those bands I don’t think I’d care for, had I heard them before their last record, Fantasies, came out. Frankly, I think they’ve come a long way since the garbage they were putting out before Fantasies. I spun Fantasies quite a bit in 2010 and even 2011, but it still felt – this will sound snobby, but if you’ve heard it, you’ll know what I mean – accessible for the sake of accessibility. Think Rise Against after Swing Life Away hit it big – that kind of accessibility compromise. In Metric’s case I don’t perceive or care that they were so accessible, it’s just that the music sounded not quite there. Fantasies came out, then there was a track on the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack that sounded next-level – I was hoping for more of *that* on the new album that came out this year. Good news, there is more of *that*. Their new record, Synthetica is fantastic. Where Fantasies had some bits that felt off, or goofy, Synthetica is 1000% more polished. I’m not saying Synthetica doesn’t have some not-quite-right moments for me, but I dunno, the ‘Breathing Underwater’ track, and any record that opens with a line like “I’m just as fucked up as they say” over an immaculate bed of synth – these things make it A+ in my book. There’s a deluxe edition of the album that was released later this year. You care about this, because there’s a haunting, amazing acoustic recording of ‘Breathing Underwater‘ on there that you need to own:

It’s funny, when Synthetica hit, I started to think about Garbage, b/c a lot of this new electronic pop makes me feel like Garbage was just ahead of their time or something. This all caused me to poke around on the internets about what ever happened to Garbage, and it turns out they were broken up or calling it quits for a half decade or better – but this year they returned. And, they returned, with force. The new record is the same old Garbage (that is, the first two albums, good, Garbage), but with a 21st century shine. It seemed their last couple or three records were getting into esoteric pop jangles seemingly aimed at churning out sales more than style, that’s gone. This new record is, I guess, power pop. It’s upbeat, but it has a next-level feel to it. It’s the same old Garbage, but the in-between tracks that should have hit the edit room floor are now where they belong – on the editing room floor. It’s definitely worth a spin:

There were also a few decent mope rock records this year, I think.

Notably, Maynard James Keenan (from Tool, A Perfect Circle) released another solo-ish record under the puscifer moniker. Like his other efforts, the album’s flow and quality from track to track varies to a worrying degree – but you get the sense this is his i-dont-give-a-shit take-it-or-leave-it artistic outlet. There’s some half-decent tracks on the record, nothing I’d consider as deep or touching as selections from his first record, but.. it works, I guess. I listened to it quite a bit for a few days, but then I discovered the Blood Into Wine soundtrack, which has some pretty awesome remixes from his first effort and one of the best tracks I’ve ever heard: ‘The Humbling River‘.. the track makes a great point of how accomplished one can be on their own, but without helping hands will never be able to accomplish anything of importance. It’s tracks like these that excuse the white-boy-hip-hop-trash filler that you find in between the tracks that matter on his albums. He may be playing practical jokes on you the listener 50% of the time, but when he cranks someting like ‘The Humbling River’ out, you can tell he’s still got it.

In the opposite direction, you have Trent Reznor, who’s still playing with the idea of making music with his new wife, they released another EP, which just isn’t quite right, just like the last one. And he released the soundtrack to girl with the dragon tattoo, which like the social network soundtrack, didn’t really grab me personally. Once you’ve heard his Ghosts album, this other stuff just sounds like he’s pulling the 9 to 5 punchcard and pushing the buttons over again for client X. Like Billy Corgan, Trent kind of trapped himself in this juvenile lyrical style, and now that he’s a happily married better-adjusted non-addict, he’s not that guy anymore. He has the talent to churn it out, and I have faith he’ll return to form with something mind blowing with a step up in maturity in time – but it feels like he’s still getting over his last few records and adjusting to a better life.

Oh, Billy Corgan also put something out with moderate success, it’s listenable, which is more than I can say for everything since about 2000 otherwise, but that’s not saying much. Maybe next time.

So, with all of the Rock Gods retiring, it makes me feel slightly less ashamed/dirty-pleasure to heartily recommend Linkin Park’s latest effort, ‘Living Things‘. Perhaps it’s ironic the boy-band/nu-metal professional commercial calculated band is sharpening up and moving forward in small steps all the time, whereas Rock Gods proper are treading water. Like many people, I didn’t care for Linkin Park’s first couple or three records very much – then Minutes To Midnight had some hooks and movement to it that signaled something better coming, and something better came. I think that next record, A Thousand Suns was a fantastic record:

I find myself spinning A Thousand Suns at least a dozen times a year, three years later, it’s just a really solid record. It was often compared to Public Enemy, if that means anything to you. Where Minutes To Midnight started bringing some songs with serious depth, A Thousand Suns jammed 3 really great songs together with perfect transition into every single track. With A Thousand Suns, guitars-front-and-center nu-metal lolz are sidelined for electronic-laden super-layerd grooves punctuated here and there with equal parts hard hitting reverb/death-march drum tracks and epic melody. This year’s effort, Living Things, was really good too. It’s not a concept album like A Thousand Suns, but it’s solid front to back. Though, to be fair it feels like a bit of a retreat – mixing more of the safe go-to style into the next-level stuff we heard on A Thousand Suns. A Thousand Suns wasn’t as accessible as other albums and suffered in sales because of it – and that’s a damn shame because A Thousand Suns was epic. I can see why these guys may be back on track in the safe zone, but man, I can’t wait for their next risky concept album move.

Relaxing Music

Some days are heads down code, and others are what-am-I-doing-with-my-life hassles for this reason or that. When I was taking it easy this year, or needed something to calm the nerves, here’s what worked:

For a while, I thought Sigur Ros’ new effort was forgettable. It seemed like a meandering half hearted return to a light/not-sure-what-we-want-to-do-now Agaetis Byrjun. I love their earlier albums, don’t get me wrong – it’s just that everything that came before was always upping the game to the next level this way or that, finally climaxing (for better or worse) w/ Med Sud.. being a pop record. I kind of wondered where they’d go from there, and I just set their new effort aside. Turns out, I just had the wrong frame of mind. You already have your Sigur Ros records to listen to when you’re sad, inspired, happy, or cathartic – what you didn’t have, until this year, was the record to just chill out with and recoil from the stresses of your day to day. This latest effort doesn’t have anything you can impress newcomers with – but it’s still Sigur Ros, and it’s still damn good:

On lazy Saturday mornings, my wife and I seem to continually put Death Cab For Cutie’s 2011 effort on. It’s good – a solid record, with the right percentage of low-key pop jingle intertwined with otherwise relaxed fare. It works, for almost any mood or any time, but it really seems to hit the spot on Saturday morning.

A couple of indie/folksy albums came out this year that are absolute must-listens, but like the Sigur Ros record, you absolutely must be in the proper mood to soak them in. Of Monsters and Men is equal parts sounds-like-that-one-band and i-dont-care-i-like-it:

First Aid Kit is great folksy throwback with a 21st century crispness over the top:

.. and their touring open act, Dylan Leblanc, has a great laid-back whispered wallowing tone that works with a glass of wine as easily as it does a dark room filled corner to corner with volume 11:

Background Music

For those days where I just needed something on:

Angels And Airwaves’ latest album ‘Love 2’, and their just-released EP are really good, as is the just-release Blink-182 EP. The Angels’ EP has a really great track called Diary, and otherwise is a great collection of instrumental remixes from recent albums, they made a great retrospective video for Diary (the real album track doesn’t have the robot voice over..):

Blaqk Audio’s second effort is decent enough, feels phoned-in compared to the first, but it works. Rob Zombie’s 21st century remixes of White Zombie and solo hits is pretty epic, and I feel like I’ll regret saying this, but the Deftone’s latest is bearable front to back, which is more than I can say for their past 2 or 3 records. The offspring put out a new album that’s really catchy, if annoying after N repeats, but solid. I had really high hopes for Silversun’s Neck of the Woods, but it seemed to fall into background-noise mediocrity surprisingly fast – not horrible, but generally meh:

There were certainly other records I gave a chance but am not mentioning, so all of the above at least have that going for them..

One more background album or two: The Smashing Pumpkins reissues are still a thing, and this year saw the Pisces Iscariot and Mellon Collie remasters + deluxe awesome. I’d highly recommend either release, in deluxe form, to any Pumpkins fan. I’d say Gish benefitted the most from the remasters, followed by MCIS. MCIS’ remaster is particularly impressive because they’ve created room to clarify bits you never knew existed (such as a ferocious bass line in the wall of noise during ‘Bullet with Butterfly Wings’), all without compromising the fuzzy/warm/crunchy/wall-of-mud signature marshall-amped guitar sound that seemed to drown all of this stuff the first go-round. The deluxe edition of the MCIS reissue is expensive, but worth the price in my opinion for some of the recorded-live-as-a-band takes that are damn near the final version of what’s on the record. The pumpkins were at their best when they were recording that record, and it’s really inspiring (like, pro tomahawk level stuff..) to hear the raw full-band aggression – you can tell they cleaned up a bit with studio tricks on the backend, but only slightly. Impressive.

Bonus: Jonny’s Stuff

My younger brother, Jonny, occasionally recommends a few bands he’s heard.

Here’s his credentials: he introed me to Metric, Of Monsters and Men, First Aid Kit; he fully agrees that Silversun is basically amazing; and he’d pass on any of my over-the-top post-rock or 8 minute electronic suggestions. He likes stuff that’s to the point, but at the same time he heartily agrees that the acoustic ‘Breathing Underwater’ is best-of-year material.

Here are the bands/songs he sent my way this year:

Later in the year, my friends Adam and Amanda heartily recommended The Lumineers (you’ll enjoy if you like First Aid Kit or Of Monsters And Men), and Ronald Jenkees:

Ronald Jenkees part 2:

I really try not to curse on the blog, but yeah, ^^^ that, fucking awesome.

Jonny actually recommended The Glitch Mob to me late last year, after I wrote my 2011 entry, and somehow I have a feeling Adam’s suggestion of Ronald Jenkees is going to be in the best-of/high-play-count list for 2013.

Finally, my wife recently heard some “white noise bullshit that sounds like something Jason likes” while eating lunch. She inquired about the white noise, and it was Tympanik Audio’s ‘Accretion’ collection. Tympanik is a record label, and this collection is a selection of tunes from their electronic artists over the past five years. 4 hours of music for $9 – it’s worth a shot.

So that’s music for me, 2012. Hopefully you’ll find something new here 🙂

Finding a Job

Finding your next great adventure is a numbers game in many ways. You are the perfect match for some position out there, it’s just a question of finding that place, or perhaps, that place finding you.

In my book, there’s an ordered list of ways to find a job:

  1. Create your own job.
  2. Places you want to work.
  3. Places your friends work.
  4. Recruiters who target you with non-spam.
  5. Recruiters who target you with spam.
  6. Random job postings.

Create your own job.

If you’re creative, self-driven, and have a great idea or two, why not create your own job?

If you’re already tinkering, all you need to do is take your hobby a bit more seriously. Polish your hobby into a product, make a website, form an LLC, and go take over the world.

You never know, your hobby may turn into passive income, or it may even subplant your real job. If not, there’s no faster way to learn new skills and grow to appreciate the intangible benefits an employer provides or provided for you.

Places you want to work.

If you already know where you want to work, your job-hunt is over, sort of.

It’s a good idea to tailor your resume for the exact position you want, and make sure you interview at a few places you *don’t* want to work first, to get the interview jitters out of your system.

A great way to get an inside pointer or two is to search up a recruiter on linkedin for the company (assuming the company’s big enough to have their own recruiters).

And please, do not interview for position X, when you really want position Y.. you’ll just be wasting team X’s time.

Places your friends work.

After a few years of experience, your peers will branch out to new opportunities with other companies. It’s a good idea to keep a list of awesome people you want to work with again in the future, and email or do lunch with them when your job hunt starts.

Having a friend on the inside will give you a better look at the not-so-great truths of the place and give you far more information than any interview process will.

If you don’t have friends who are branching out, and you’re not happy where you are, it’s time to find that next job and take a risk that your peers don’t seem to be taking.

The great thing about taking that risk is that you’ll likely land at a place with other risk takers just like you, which may lead to a happier work life, or perhaps even friendships with people who *will* take the risk to find the next great job again when the time is right.

A great way to meet new risk-taking friends is to attend and participate in local user groups and discussions. Most any metropolitan area will have meetups you can attend, here’s a list of stuff I’m aware of:

Recruiters.

To understand the recruiter animal, you need to place yourself in their shoes. A recruiter is someone who’s a great networker. Their job is forming relationships with hiring managers, and hooking them up with you. The good recruiters excel at helping the hiring managers understand what talent they need, and the bad recruiters will break your arm for a shitty hiring manager when the low-ball offer’s in site.

A recruiter (generally) gets paid a 10 to 20% finders fee, meaning if you make 100K a year, the recruiter will get a 10K or 20K check for hooking you up with the job, so you can understand a little freak-out or pressure on the recruiter’s behalf when an solid offer actually comes through.

Just remember when the recruiter’s freaking out, that it’s not your problem or duty to make them happy – if you don’t like an offer, haggle, and if something seems fishy (such as a feeling of being pushed around a bit or bullied), you’re probably best off to just decline altogether. After you’ve met some recruiters in town, and watched the game for a bit, you’ll probably learn why some hiring managers and recruiting firms are pushy, as they’ve always got positions open due to high turnover.

There’s spammy recruiters, and less spammy recruiters. There’s corporate recruiters working for the man, and brave little groups of headhunters striking out on their own. If you want a corporate job at a juggernaut like IBM, you’ll need to find a recruiter for the company via linkedin. If startups or small to mid size companies are your thing, that’s where the self-made headhunters come in.

Never give your real phone number to a recruiter you do not trust, instead use Google Voice. All recruiters, spammy and non-spammy alike, will email you new opportunities they hear of, but some of them will cold-call you on a monthly (or worse) basis. You can’t fault the cold-calls though, remember this person’s job is to network, and they’re good at what they do.

It’s a good idea to make a list of your favorite recruiters, and keep that list close at hand for your friends when they start looking.

If you’re starting fresh, perhaps one of your past colleagues already has their own list of favorite recruiters, otherwise you could start with mine:

Austin recruiting firms:

Other recruiting firms:

Alternatively, you could, and should, post your resume on all major career sites, and that will bring the recruiters out of the woodwork. Here are places to consider:

Random Job Postings

If the recruiter scene isn’t your game, or even if it is. Taking some time to filter through a bit of the job-posting noise on your own may net you your next great gig. If nothing else, you’ll find names of companies in your area. Here are job posting sources I’m aware of:

Hopefully these resources will help you improve your next job hunt.

Remember, if you can afford it, don’t rush your job hunt, be patient, pay attention, and take the time to filter the signal from the noise. Your forever, or next-5-year adventure is out there somewhere, you just have to find it.

Great Interview Questions

Interviewing is not a one-sided conversation. If you land a job by only worrying about successfully impressing interviewers, you will almost certainly be surprised, and you may be unhappy once you start the job.

It is critical that you understand that an interview is not about making the company happy and fitting their mold, it is about finding a good match for both you and the company.

How do you make a good choice in choosing the next place to work? Simple, you ask questions! And how do you make the best possible choice? You put some effort in and come up with some great interview questions.

Don’t do what some of your crappy interviewers will do and google something random right before going to the interview, actually take some time and think about what matters to you.

There are obvious things you would want to know about a company, such as what hours you’ll be working, and how much you’ll be paid. But, there are also tons of subtle but important things you can figure out before receiving the offer.

If you don’t have a list of questions organized, The Joel Test is a great place to start.

I strongly recommend making your own list of questions, printing them out, and bringing them with you to every interview you attend.

You will not have time to get answers to all of your questions, but I recommend making an exhaustive and prioritized list of questions anyway, so you can work out the answers that matter to you or concern you as your interview process wears on.

I have my own list of questions that evolve over time. My questions are almost certainly not going to perfectly capture what truly matters to you on your next job hunt, so be sure to put some effort in and make your own question list.

From my experience, I would highly recommend getting as many details out of the recruiter up front, rather than waste everyone’s time if they’re not planning on paying well or have insane work hours, or whatever else.

It is also important to ask the following two questions to each person you speak to, no other questions will reveal more about the truths of a company, the culture, and the employees than these:

  • What is your favorite thing about working here?
  • What could be better?

Keep in mind that not all interviewers are honest (at times for fear of losing their jobs, sadly), so if you intend to deduce a not-so-great truth, it’s best to ask questions that require an answer beyond “yes” or “no”. For example, don’t ask if the interviewer likes working at the company, instead ask them what their favorite thing about the company is.

And, if you really want the true truth, ask for it like a detective would from separate witnesses, that is, ask the same question to each person who interviews you. In the best case, you’ll have a more robust picture of a truth at the end of the day, and in the worst case you’ll have different stories and know to avoid the company.

If you find that the company’s interview process is not welcoming to your questions, the company is telling you immediately, with perfect clarity, how they treat their employees and how much they care about this position.

Here’s my list of questions:

recruiter questions

  • location?, multiple offices?
  • if far: telecommute ok? flexible hours?
  • offer range?
  • is the position full time? salaried? contract?
  • if contract: expected length? contract to hire? 1099, or w2? paid overtime?
  • is telecommuting an option, as needed, permanent?
  • how much travel involved?
  • team size?, division size?, company size?

questions for each engineer

  • how long have they worked at the co?
  • what is their favorite thing about working here? what could be better?
  • are developers empowered to do their job?
  • are developers empowered to speak up and get problems fixed? are other people (UI, business, mgmt, qa, ops, etc)?
  • who do they work with? (dev lead, project manager, multiple managers, other teams?)
  • how would they characterize the co’s culture?
  • what is a typical work week like?
  • how many hours per week avg?
  • how many weekends worked past year?
  • what are their responsibilities?
  • what else do they recommend i ask?

position questions

  • what would my responsibilities be?
  • are there remote or telecommuting team members? if so, how is collaboration done?
  • how is work split up amongst the team?

project questions

  • how long has the project been in development, and when was the last release?
  • how long is the current phase of the project codewise, and when is release ballpark?
  • are subsequent phases of the project currently planned?
  • how many projects or project releases are worked on at once?
  • what languages, libraries, and technologies are used for the project?

process questions

  • what dev methodologies are used, how long are project iterations? what tools are used?
  • source control? what type?
  • how is product, api, and code documentation? who does it? how often?
  • builds: one-step build? nightly integration builds? automated tests run?
  • how are product dependencies managed?
  • how is 24/7 support managed?
  • how are live deployments & support managed?
  • what sacrifices are made when product completion nears? (pushed deadlines? cut features? cut quality?)
  • are there annual busy or slow seasons?

tools

  • process tools? (scheduling, resolving I.T. issues, comm ticketing systems for other groups)
  • dev tools? (OS, IDE, debugging, profiling, building & packaging, DB, libraries, dependency management)
  • remote collaboration tools? (conference calling, im, video conferencing, screen sharing)
  • live/test tools? (OS, deployment, monitoring, automated testing)
  • documentation tools? (wikis, etc)
  • work environment? (laptop, desktop, multi monitor, test hardware, etc)

test/live env questions

  • is there a test env? how does it differ from live?
  • is there a qa team?
  • are there unit tests, or automated test suites?
  • is there an automated build?
  • are test suites automatically run periodically?
  • what types of testing are done? correctness? usability? load/performance?
  • does dev and qa write tests?
  • is there a bug tracking system?
  • how are live and test issues debugged?
  • how is deployment done?
  • what are some typical examples of issues found in live (scaling issues, data consistency, install/config consistency, etc)?

work/life/culture questions

  • are there quiet working conditions?
  • how are career goals (advancement, raises, etc) managed?
  • how does the company make (or plan to make) money?
  • how is current funding?
  • how often are layoffs?
  • how much pto per year, and do people use it?
  • what kind of team or company events are there?
  • what kind of on-campus amenities are there? (food, beverages, pool tables, trails, sports, gyms, parking, etc)
  • does company sponsor or encourage training, conference attendance?
  • does company encourage contribution to open source?
  • what are core hours? do all engineers work exactly 9 to 5? or do some come in ealier/later?

hr/offer questions

  • relocation package offered?
  • stock options? RSUs? vesting schedule?
  • bonuses? if so, how (cash? stocks over vesting period)?
  • signing bonuses?
  • 401k? what kind of matching?
  • other benefits (health, dental, vision, sabbatical, parking, etc)?

Apps I Liked, 2011

Again in the “better late than never” category, here’s a list of apps I enjoyed in 2011.

Apps I Used The Most

  • Google Docs – I link to this on my home screen from a safari bookmark.
  • Feedler – a great google reader client for both iPhone and iPad.
  • Rhapsody – a music subcription service, the killer feature here is the ability to download tracks for offline play.
  • Wikipanion – the best iPhone/iPad wikipedia app.
  • iLoader – this makes bulk uploading photos to facebook albums easy.
  • Facebook – of course.
  • Camera+ – a great well-rounded photo application for cleaning up or dirtying up your photos on the device.
  • IM+ – a great IM client for multiple services such as Google Talk and AIM.
  • Amazon – of course.
  • Music Roulette – not just a personal advertisement, I truly developed this to do something I wanted: to rediscover my favorite old music that I always forget about.

Apps My Wife Used Quite A Bit

  • Groupon – pay $10 to get $20 worth of food at restaurants, a great way to discover new places to eat.
  • Runner’s Interval Timer – not only was the app developed for my wife, she uses it too.
  • Quarrel DX – the classic Risk game meets a “spell something fast!” word game.
  • TumbleOn – Some of my favorite moments of 2011 involve hearing my wife consistently giggle while she was browsing photo lolz with this app that my friends and I made.

Other Apps Worth Mentioning

  • 8mm Vintage Camera – a really cool old-style video shooting app.
  • PictureShow – another great photo app, this one leans more toward the “dirtying up”/trashing pictures style.
  • iDarkroom – this photo app seems to clean up images rather nicely.
  • Beat wave – a great little procedural music maker.
  • GarageBand – I can’t believe I can record music with my iPod with this.
  • Yelp – we use this all the time to figure out if places are good to eat at, or if a handyman is any good.
  • Cloudcam – a great “web camera” app that made it easy for us to monitor a sick kitten this past year while at work.
  • Flixster – the best app to see what’s in theaters now, in the future, and whats coming to dvd.
  • Netflix – of course.
  • Photosynth – a really cool 21st century “you are living in the future” type app that lets you take a 3d photo of your surroundings and lets you look through it in 3d too.

iPad Games

We bought the iPad this past year and ever since, I’ve been less inclined to play games on the iPod touch at all. I’m tired of playing games where my thumbs cover half of the game I’m trying to see. Many of these apps are “Universal”, which means the app works on both the iPhone and the iPad, but the game experience is better on the iPad.

  • super crate box – this game is an amazing mix of the original mario brothers arcade game with guns. The whole thing works because your score is not based on killing enemies, but instead it’s based on how many boxes you can collect in the level without dying. You can play the PC version for free to try it out.
  • Age Of Zombies – a twin-stick-shooter/robotron clone from the makers of Fruit Ninja, truly one of the best in the genre.
  • Mega worm – a Deathworm clone done in 8-bit retro style.
  • Globetrotters – a great multiplayer game where up to four people control these little spacemen trying to mine treasures out of planets and racing to grab the treasures when they fly into space.
  • Siege hero – angry birds clone with a first person perspective.
  • Eternity warriors – another twin-stick-shooter/robotron clone, this time with a diablo theme.

iPhone Games

  • Pathpix – totally an OCD puzzle game, reminds me of picross.
  • Meteor blitz – Super Stardust HD clone on the iPhone.
  • Jetpack Joyride – a great little timewaster from the people who made Fruit Ninja.

Port Games

Last, some games that have been ported from other platforms to the iPhone/iPad in the last year. Great games, now portable, and inexpensive. All of these are not-as-awesome as their big brothers from real consoles, but for on-the-go portable play, they’ll do.

That’s it for the 2011 lists. Next time we’ll talk about something a bit more interesting.

Music To Code By, 2011

A bit late with the ‘best of’ 2011 lists.. but better late than never. This is a list of some great music that I listened to in 2011.

There are different modes of coding, sometimes you need absolute silence, and at other times a loud coffee shop is the way to go. I personally code quite a bit while listening to music and/or watching netflix. I find there are different coding ‘moods’ from time to time, and differing moods require differing types of music.

Standard Nerd Stuff

It’s probably best to start with something that has at least a little nerd cred to it, and work our way down the awesome scale from there.

Just before 2011, the movie Tron Legacy was released by Disney. Daft Punk did the soundtrack to the movie, and it is phenomenal. When you come back up for air after a month of listening to the soundtrack on repeat, try the also-amazing remix album that features remixes from many popular dance/techno artists.

Along the same lines as Daft Punk, my buddy John Quarles and his friend Tim have started a whole new chiptunes genre called “chipsurf”. Chipsurf is chiptunes backed by surf-style guitar, and it is awesome. Listening to these guys is both nostalgic and gripping, the 8bit throwbacks remind you of the best days of NES music, while the guitar lines attach a new sense of melody and movemnt to the genre. Tim and John’s project is called Victim Cache. At the very least, check out the tune Tsunami Gaiden.

Something a bit more laid back

If you liked the Tron Legacy Remix album mentioned earlier, one of the tracks on there is a remix done by M83. M83 is a one-man electronic band with a definite pervasive relaxed theme. This year M83 released a double album entitled Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. The single from the album to check out is Midnight City.

Another easy-going electronic outfit full of awesome is Healamonster and Tarsier. Their album Cupcake Cave is sure to soothe the soul and get you back to where you need to be.

Along the same lines as H&T is Ulrich Schnauss. I spent a fair amount of time this year listening to his Goodbye and A Strange Isolated Place albums. The track that will sell you is In All The Wrong Places.

Post Rock

I’m a big fan of the post-rock genre of music. My favorite tunes as a kid were always the prog-rock/alt-rock songs that started sweet and quiet and ended with a loud cathartic crescendo 7 or 8 minutes later, and post-rock is ALL about that type of song architecture. If you’re not at all familiar with post rock, do check out Sigur Ros’ album Takk, as that album is the pinnacle of the genre.

In 2011, I listened to Jonsi’s (the singer from Sigur Ros) solo album, Go. I also listened to Mono’s Hymn To The Immortal Wind for several days on repeat. And lastly, but certainly not least, I could not get enough of Saxon Shore’s Luck Will Not Save Us From A Jackpot of Nothing EP, and their It Doesn’t Matter album.

Noise

If the chaotic coffee shop while highly caffeinated is the the appropriate mood for focus, the following three albums will fit the bill at home with volume cranked to 11.

First, 65daysofstatic makes this chaotic noise “mathrock” stuff that’s really hard to pull of in a way that’d hook a listener like me who prefers melody. But that’s just it, the band has a magic touch when it comes to weaving absurd electronic drum progressions beautifully in between truly moving melody. Listening to a 65daysofstatic album is like being wound up for a heart attack and then dropped at just the moment before you itch to turn the music off, over and over. It’s amazing. The 65daysofstatic albums that pulled me through 2011 coffee shop type days were their incredible One Time For All Time album, and their 2010 release We Were Exploding Anyway.

If straight-on heart attack of bewilderment is not exactly what you needed, Broken Social Scene may be more fitting. I learned about Broken Social Scene from the great Scott Pilgrim soundtrack. There’s this really weird but oddly catchy tune on there from the band. It turns out Broken Social Scene is a musical collective that has a constantly rotating cast of characters. For example, the lead singer from Metric appears on a track or two on some albums. Broken Social Scene’s music is basically a chaotic jam session put to tape. The opening track to their self titled album sounds like three disjoint jam sessions coming together as one in the span of a few minutes. It’s not heart-attack high-BPM madness like 65 days, but it’s not verse chorus verse either. It’s odd, and usually laid back, but it’s always chaotic, or perhaps, disjoint. The two Broken Social Scene albums that held my attention this past year were the self titled album, and You Forget It In People.

Lastly, an oldy but a goody that seems to just automatically come out on my coffee shop chaos days now: Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental Ghosts album. If you liked the social network score at all, you’ll love Ghosts. Ghosts is 2+ hours of the social network type music, with more bite, and of course, enough random change between beautiful quiet melodies and maddening walls of noise. Chaos as art at its finest. Don’t knock it till you try it, it’s not industrial mope-pop, at all.

Mope Rock

All that being said, I didn’t get into Nine Inch nails at 16 for their instrumentals, and for those baeurocratic work days there’s an appropriate genre, mope-rock. I’m 30 now, and listening to mope-rock at this age can be downright embarrassing from time to time, but we’ll save real embarrasment for later on. This year there were a few albums I listened to that made the the-world’s-not-quite-right genre a still-wearable badge of honor.

First, the obvious, The Paper Chase’s Someday This Could All Be Yours, Volume 1 is a must listen. My wife and I *loved* their Now You Are One Of Us album and have listened to it for years, but it took a rhapsody subscription for me to do what I knew was right: give this album a spin. Man. It’s as awesome as anything else they’ve ever done, which is saying something. The Paper Chase is like spooky/horror story lyrics over wall-of-noise guitars making sounds guitars don’t make, all carried along by killer drum/bass & piano. The theme of this latest album is natural disasters, one per song. The lyrics are equal parts bleak and beautiful, as are the songs. A straight punk “we don’t give a shit how it sounds” progression leads into a full on orchestra with lump-in-the-throat melodies intertwined, and back again. This is a band that knows how to pull you up and over whatever blah blah you’re getting around to facing, and makes you feel good about the entire process.

Next, something a bit more pedestrian in terms of mope-rock/pop-sadness. Linkin Park’s 2010 album A Thousand Suns is *really good*. Like, you may not be embarrassed for listening to their back history good, it’s that good. I never really enjoyed the band’s early couple or three albums, but their Minutes to Midnight album from a few years back surprised me and showed promise. This one, A Thousand Suns, shows the promise fully realized. The album’s a concept album of some sort about a nuclear holocaust and the aftermath, or something like that. It opens with a chilling sound byte from Oppenheimer talking about the moment trinity succesfully detonated, and then leads into song after song that flows up and down intertwined beautifully. Reviews for the album said it reminded many of how public enemy albums sounded, which makes me want to check out public enemy sometime, it’s that good 🙂

Last, the king of mope rock and sad songs, my friend Greg “The Shark” Shark released a solo album this past year. Greg and I spent many hours in high school listening to The Fragile, everything Deftones, and way too much Radiohead. Radiohead’s influences show the most on Greg’s solo effort, particularly on the Lament For Wolves track. If nothing else, check out The Fall, I lost days of my life in 2011 listening to that track on repeat, vowing for hours to “stop after just one more listen”.

Remasters

You know you’re a full-on adult and “old” when your most cherished albums are being remastered. This can have good, bad, and who-cares effects on your precious memories. It’s kind of a roll of the dice, honestly. In past years U2,The Cure, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Nirvana and even Weezer have released remastered albums. The albums are occasionally “deluxe” sets, so you get some rare/obscure b-sides or demo tracks along with the remastered album, so that can be cool. In the cases listed above, I never listened closely enough to the originals to notice a true difference in sound on the remasters. That’s not to say it isn’t there, it’s just that Pink Floyd has been remastered twice every five years for the past 2 decades, so any variance at all is just too small to notice to me.

Anyway, there are some remasters I’d highly recommend.

Pearl Jams VS/Vitalogy remaster package is fairly amazing, for the VS remaster alone. I remember when VS came out there was quite a bit of news hubbub about it selling pretty well, against predictions. Now that the remaster is out, you can really tell that the record company didnt pour a lot of money into VS the first time around. I never thought of VS as muddy or lacking definition and edge, until I heard the remaster. Some of the better-mixed record-label-money single type songs don’t gain much from the remaster, and WMA in particular seems to suffer a loss of dynamic range to me, but the other tracks being brought up to par makes it all worth it. Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten, was also remastered recently, but I havent checked it out yet (I can’t stop automatically putting VS on :)).

The Smashing Pumpkins also put a couple of amazing deluxe/remaster packages out in 2011 for Siamese Dream and Gish. Both packages include a dvd of a live show from the era, and a second disc including a number of bsides and previously unreleased material. The “Starla” remaster on the Gish package bonus disk pretty much made my year in music, as that’s one of my all time favorite songs ever. Remaster-wise, Siamese Dream shows very minor improvements here and there, much like Nirvana’s recent Nevermind remaster. This is unsurprising as Butch Vig apparently knew what he was doing on the pre-master mix and polish in both cases. Gish shows a lot of improvement though, so much improvement that it’s on my radar for the first time really, the old production was that crappy to me. I’m really looking forward to the Pisces Iscariot, Mellon Collie, Aeroplane, and Adore remasters coming out in 2012.

Pop

Sometimes all you need is a catchy tune, or a nice album full of catchy tunes, and I found more than a few worth at least a listen.

Death Cab For Cuties’ Codes and Keys is a great album to get your day started, and the Naked And Famous’ Passive Me Aggressive You delivers a great pick-me-up when food coma hits around 3pm. Alternatively, the Cults’ self titled effort is a great light-hearted collection of tunes all the way through.

If you liked The Postal Service, definitely check out Owl City. Both of his albums (Ocean Eyes, and All Things Bright And Beautiful) feel like the spirit of The Postal Service with a bit more upbeat optimism flowing throughout.

Finally, if you enjoy the SNL digital shorts from Andy Samburg’s Lonely Island supergroup of comedy, then you really *must* check out 3oh!3’s Streets of Gold album. I can’t tell if these 3oh!3 guys are serious frat-pop or if they’re a satirical comedy troupe, I hope they’re serious, because it makes the album that much more funny. That being said, their tracks are really catchy, fake or real, you’ll feel a bit embarrassed to give it a listen, but you’ll be back listening again and again no matter how silly it seems.

That wraps up the memorable music for my 2011. Next time I’ll cover a list of iPhone and iPad apps that I enjoyed last year. Until then, happy coding, or spreadsheeting, or whatever it is you do.