Standard Disclaimer: My favorite band ever is The Smashing Pumpkins, or possibly Nine Inch Nails. In recent years my favorite genres of music have been EDM and Post Rock. If it’s dark, and/or mopey, I probably love it. If it starts off slow and sad and crescendos with catharsis 9 minutes later, I probably love it. Consider yourself warned.
A college friend of mine randomly decided that nutritional guidelines were bullshit. At the time, he was deliriously lost in a pipe dream of being rich before 30.
This may or may not have been the same time frame when he bought a house in California and rented it out to too many roommates at once. The theory was, California real estate value was only going upward – so buy, have some other fools pay the mortgage, and then sell for complete profit.
My friend was the extremely frugal sort, and a nerd, like myself. He examined his RichBy30.xls spreadsheet and tried to cut as many corners as he could expense wise. One evening, knee-deep in RichBy30.xls data, my friend decided he didn’t believe in nutritional advice – all his body needed was calories to consume, so why not optimize for the most cost effective calories there are?
Thus, the Ramen Diet.
For several weeks, perhaps a month, my buddy ate nothing but ramen and drank nothing but water.
We were in our early 20s, and we’d practically “lived on ramen” while on college from time to time. I was incredulous of the idea, but if nothing else, the Ramen Diet sounded like a worthy experiment.
After all, in your 20s, you’re immortal.
After about a month on the Ramen Diet, my buddy landed in the hospital for several days due to malnutrition. He came out okay, but his hospital bills were ten times more expensive than the monthly food expenses he had just cut. One month on the Ramen Diet costed my buddy one year’s worth of food expense, and nearly his life.
The Ramen Diet is, in many ways, a parable for the last decade of my life.
When my youngest brother was born, my body was on fire. Chickenpox was making the rounds at my school, and it was my turn.
During chickenpox week, our house was a scene from the movie E.T., this child quarantined in that room, the younger child in yet another room, and the baby a safe distance from everyone involved.
As my fever rose one evening, I began to hallucinate – my bed was an island in the midst of a room spinning like a top. When mother came to check on me I was covered in sweat, sobbing, hyperventilating, and holding onto the corner of my mattress as an anchor in the madness, as if my life depended on it.
Mother brought a cold rag for my head, and she told me of a magic trick: Focus on the nightlight in the corner of the room, if I do that, the spinning will stop.
The magic trick worked.
A few years after The Ramen Diet, a coworker of mine confided that when left to her own devices, she’d eat a can of beans or corn, unheated, for dinner. My coworker was 10 or more years my senior, and had her shit together in all the possible ways to have your shit together.
Another coworker, managing a very large high visibility project I was working on, offhandedly remarked on April 14 that he always waits until the evening of April 14 to do his taxes. In my humble opinion, that guy did not have his shit together.
Thus, it follows quite logically, that I tricked myself into a slower paced version of the Ramen Diet, but still did my taxes in February.
Nutrition was never a thing in our household. I mean, it was in the same way it is in every household, where your parents cook good-for-you dinners, and you stuff the broccoli in your milk so you can be the first to get the nintendo controller.
Vicious lesson in capitalism and being the first to market, being in a household of three boys with a nintendo that only had two controllers.
Our parents would buy sodas and fruit rollups (oh god, gushers fruit snacks!), four boxes at a time, intended to be rationed out over a month. The previously mentioned free market / first-to-market system we operated under would demolish those four boxes in two days, and we’d suffer with good-for-us sandwiches for the rest of the month. It was the worst.
Those two days when the nectar of the gods (various forms of corn syrup) would flow like rain at the beginning of the month were the greatest days of our childhood. Pure sugar-high delirium, with a high-stakes competitive game amongst ourselves to hide or consume more than our competing siblings.
There is nothing sweeter in this existence than eating the last fruit roll-up and staring right into your brother’s teary little eyes, watching a little piece of his soul slip away as the realization of the impending 28 days of sugar-free hell sets in.
Anyway, our parents taught us about food pyramids, but my takeaway was the same as my friend with the Ramen Diet, more or less – my body needs calories and if I eat the right amount I’ll be fine – got it.
Very strange, hallucinating, sitting in an ice-cold bath you logically know to be ice-cold, and yet your little body says the bath water is in fact boiling.
Cold baths for fever, and steaming hot showers running with closed bathroom doors for congestion, these were our family remedies that worked a charm, every time.
My chickenpox fever was dangerously high off and on through my week of hell, and every time it reached a certain point, the cold-water fever bath was necessary. Never in my life had I felt my skin boiling, and, fortunately, I haven’t again since.
The boiling ice water fiasco was my first personal brush with the concept of mortality and true pain. I tried very hard to forget about it, and believe instead that I was immortal.
“I don’t want this fucking fire truck.”
I probably didn’t know the f-word at the time, but the sentiment was the same, the last thing in the world I wanted was that fucking fire truck toy.
My youngest brother and I were spending hours that felt like years playing in a playroom, typical set of hospital toys – the one with the bendy wires that kids move blocks along from one end of the the wire to the other. We did that a thousand times, adding to the bacteria farm those toys were, like a bug light for every germ on earth, we were making our contribution with a sense of duty.
We were young, and confused. Our brother had a cough, then it got worse, and then he was staying in the hospital for a few days with a case of croup.
I’ll never forget seeing my middle brother laying in an oxygen tent – forever cementing the sheer horror of the movie E.T. I had seen years earlier – no contact, no touch, only tears as you watch your brother do battle.
Watching him there, struggling to breathe, helpless, I hoped in vain that his personal hell was somehow easier than boiling ice-water baths. I could not stand to watch him suffer.
When the wire bacteria farm gave way to worry and occasional hyperventilating and tears, someone, (my parents? my grandparents?) gave me this impressively large fisher price fire truck. I remember thinking this was easily the biggest and thus in some way the best gift I’d ever received, and I didn’t want it.
I might of (probably did..) thrown the truck against a wall in a tantrum, that would be classic Jason, unable to bargain with or contain overwhelming fear. I didn’t want that fucking fire truck, I wanted my brother to be better and out of this hell.
It wasn’t the fire truck though, it was mortality, suffering, and helplessness.
By the time the chickenpox vaccine came to market, I was already enamored with western medicine.
Doctors had saved my brother’s life with an oxygen tent, and stitched up little terrifying wounds for all three of us boys half a dozen times.
Grape flavored corn syrup with a pinch of medicine miraculously put us back on our feet from time to time. And who can forget the bubble gum flavored antibiotic we’d always get? Why couldn’t broccoli taste like bubble gum antibiotics?
When I heard the chickenpox vaccine was a thing, I remember thinking kids born after this are lucky little bastards, never needing to take a ride on the bed in the midst of the spinning top, or feel ice water boil their skin – incredible, really. Modern magic.
The cholesterol fad hit somewhere in my early teens, right around the time medicine for cholesterol was coming to market, funny how that works.
Our mother’s side has high cholesterol in the genes, and, bonus, not the type of high cholesterol that’s tamed by the previously mentioned cholesterol medicines.
For years my various doctors would prescribe lipitor, or zocor, or whatever the latest patent-protected big-pharma-pushed non-generic/full-cost cholesterol med fad was, and it’d never work.
I’d graduate from my high school doctor to one where my college was, and we’d have the same conversations repeated ten thousand times. No, doc, this shit really doesn’t work on me. Sigh.
I still trusted western medicine at that point, but I internalized the cholesterol battle as a personal curse, another checkmark on a very short list of perpetual health defects. Oh well, you can’t win them all. I guess I’m dying early then. Hopefully I make it to thirty, I guess?
I remember telling my wife about my coworker friend who would eat a can of beans for dinner sometimes. This was a justification on my part, and it worked. My wife continued to let me eat spaghettios and sugar cereal for dinner from time to time, and we happily and thoughtlessly called it “The Coder Diet”.
I didn’t ever tell my wife about The Ramen Diet, for obvious reasons.
After a few years of doctors threatening my 15 year old body with early death over cholesterol, I started losing faith in medicine. My previous naive trust in pills faded into a hazy grey middleground – to this day I feel there’s many things we can cure, but there’s still a ways to go, unfortunately.
I remember taking a day off of school once a year or so to go with mom to the children’s hospital – already a terrifying event in itself forever due to oxygen tent memories, and running on a treadmill for a few minutes, playing legend of zelda on a hospital NES, then later that day hearing yet another confirmation that yep I’d be dead really early in life. Cue metamucil fiber drink from hell, cut the eggs, we bought the entire cholesterol marketing machine hook, line, and sinker.
All of those times mom and I went to do treadmill tests, all of her fretting over her personal health and mine due to these damn genetics – so much effort all for naught.
During my first year of college, my mother caught a solar ray wrong, or some other factor caused a cancerous mutation in her body. She found a lump, a scan found nothing, six months later she was stage 4 all over her body, 4 years after that, she was in the ground.
When cancer’s aggressive, you’re often fighting a losing battle. She was terminal the minute she was diagnosed, and she endured 4+ years of hell – chemo and surgery galore, all the while just trying to buy more time to be a mother.
Every year there’d be some massive surgery, followed by two blissful weeks of not knowing if it was all over or not – not unlike those blissful days with fruit rollups in the family pantry.
We’d always hope for the best, and six weeks later some scan would tell us some new terrible.
While our mother was fighting these cancer battles, she tried anything and everything, drinking copious amounts of green tea, cutting sugar completely, exercising when she could – a thousand lottery tickets in vain.
At several points she participated in clinical trials for drugs coming to market – something I’d never heard of previously, indeed at the time I didn’t understand that the big-pharma marketing machine existed, or how drugs are made, or how studies are ‘sponsored’, and so on.
When she passed, I was angry. Extremely angry, facing boiling bath water oxygen tent mortality constantly in my thoughts. Angry at western medicine for failing my mother, for bullshit scans not seeing what was already there at the very beginning.
In that grieving process, someone somewhere told me exercise was a good way to deal with anger, so I started running on a treadmill. I was in my early 20s, and immortal. Within weeks of starting I was jogging fifteen minutes straight every day. I lost weight, and for the first time in my life, my cholesterol dropped dramatically.
Naturally, my pharma-bought doctor wasn’t happy with results and insisted I should still be striving for even lower cholesterol. It was about that time I quit the meds and started thinking I knew better than doctors.
Fast forward a decade, through several spells of running on a treadmill with my 20-something immortal body at random. Stop. Start. Never stretch, my immortal body, smarter than doctors, smarter than trainers – that 20-something body just keeps on going. No matter the nutrition or lack there of.
My delusion increases. Maybe I really am immortal, I almost never stretch, and I do only a couple of exercises, maybe gyms and trainers are a ruse, maybe they’re bullshit like nutrition food pyramids and all I need is time on the treadmill with calorie counting?
Around this time, I find myself a doctor who proudly hangs this informal certificate of membership for a group of physicians who steadfastly refuse big-pharma evangelists – the “free” lunches, the “free” latest-drug-fad branded swag, the “free” conferences in Hawaii about said drugs, etc. Finally, a doctor I can trust.
In my late twenties, I stop going in for routine physicals, because I know what the bloodwork says – my cholesterol is high, and I need to lose weight – tell me something I don’t know. I’m immortal, and starting to think cholesterol is a marketing machine.
Maybe it’s all bullshit and marketing. I start to think, maybe I can just eat Ramen for life, you know?
Around 32 I get the big payoff – the reward for sitting in front of computers 12 to 14 hours a day for more than half of my life – lower back pain that comes and goes.
At first, running on treadmills helps the back pain, then it doesn’t.
I start to think, I wonder if I should have paid attention to my gym teachers, and done leg-lifts and stretched in my 20s, rather than just running and doing bench-presses?
The months roll onward and I endure awkward phases of foggy brain and decreased energy levels, often looking at my work week as a shitty version of the lottery, will I make it through this week without any back pain?
This goes on for years.
One time my wife and I cut sugar for an entire week. We had heard that if you do that, then eat normally after about a week – wine tastes better, indeed everything tastes better. That first day after the week without sugar we binge like mad, worst sugar coma / headache of my entire life – not recommended.
A year or two later paleo became a thing, and our friends took part in the facebook gym post crossfit marketing machine. I collected an arsenal of memes to post in response to said posts, it was a glorious glorious day when facebook started allowing images in comments – not unlike that last-fruit-rollup moment staring in your sibling’s tearful eyes with your cold smirk fronting a mouthful of sugar.
My wife and I were incredulous of paleo diets and non-stop crossfit testimonials. “26.2” bumper stickers started popping up on cars everywhere and all I could think was “oh come on, fuck off.”
The Coder Diet, my decade long version of the Ramen Diet, persisted.
Right around the start of the crossfit marketing machine, the back pain starts, karma for a million gym post meme comments, no doubt.
At the time I wouldn’t say I was at the height of my irrationality, but I was climbing that hill.
My wife would recommend a deep tissue massage to loosen leg muscles leading into the back, I’d try it, it’d work like a miracle. My back pain would disappear, then I’d try to jog like a 23 year old again.
A month or two later I’d be in my doctor’s office with lower back pain again. He’d recommend muscle relaxers to get me through the current bout.
Next I went to physical therapy, that was fun, the unattentive gym rat physical therapist, costing me $100 a throw to watch me do some exercises that didn’t appear to help, no advice for improvement – too busy facebooking on his phone and chatting up every bro and ladybro in the joint.
Finally, I go see a trainer friend of ours, she sets me up with a set of exercises that sound logical. I start doing them, intending to meet her again in a month. We don’t meet up again, I was watching some netflix marathon as soon as the back pain went away, instead of exercising.
Back pain comes back, I half-heartedly try a standing desk for a week. A week later I’m just sitting in the living room working on the couch instead.
I start to realize I’m not an immortal early-20s guy anymore – and I cling for dear life to a childish delusion, maybe I can’t jog anymore and if I’m even lazier (no working out at all) my back will stop hurting – this works. Then it doesn’t.
In the midst of on/off back pain my wife constantly encourages me to really get serious about fixing my back. She pushes doctors, another physical therapist, regular visits with a trainer – she advises me to really work the problem and start acting like an adult and taking this seriously.
Instead, I think of my pocket book. Yeah, my back hurts, but I don’t want to pay for a gym membership or a regular trainer, and the doctors will just prescribe a pain pill for today, and the physical therapists won’t whatever.
The whole ordeal starts to remind me of my mother’s lottery tickets against her cancer battle, is green tea going to help my back? How many lottery tickets do I have to give a half-assed try? Oh god, is this my version of cancer screenings being bullshit?
Besides, I know better. I am smarter than doctors and trainers. Everything is marketing, everything is bullshit. Clinical trials exist precisely because of this problem. Back in the 19th century people could put anything they wanted on a bottle and sell it as medicine.
I am excuses, and my wife waits patiently.
We try a fad diet of sorts for 30 days. The goal is to see if we’re allergic to various types of food. Like the week without sugar, but this time its no grains, sugar, beans, or anything really. Lots of cashews, chicken, and carrots.
About two weeks into this food allergen experiment, my energy returns and my foggy brain is suddenly clear skies consistently. There’s something to this diet.
The annoying thing about the fad diet was that I learned some stuff I didn’t want to know. I learned that not every calorie is the same, and that nutrition isn’t bullshit. I learned various things that made my delusions of The Coder Diet and immortal 20s lifestyle just a little bit harder to believe.
My favorite take away from the book about the diet was a comparison of the human body and a car’s gas tank. Different foods send different signals to our brain, some of these signals indicate we’re full and it’s time to stop, while others (oreos, etc) tell the body never stop eating. You can think of this as filling a gas tank on a car. When you put gas in the tank, a sensor in the tank indicates your tank is full on the car’s dashboard. Eating oreos is not unlike putting the gas in the tank after first drilling a massive hole in the bottom of the tank.
The problem with calorie counting as a nutritional guide is that you’re using the wrong tool for the job. Counting calories is comparable to filling your gas tank with water. The full-tank indicator is lit on the car’s dashboard, but bad things will happen if you try to run the car on water instead of gasoline. An ounce of protein is not an ounce of rice. A hundred calories of broccoli is profoundly different nutritionally from a hundred calories of a snickers bar.
The diet ends. We’re not obviously allergic to anything. Eating right was a lot of work.
Three days later I am mentally early-20s immortal again: Fuck it. Oreos and pringles are worth it. Right? Right.
At 32, one year into the back pain chronicles, I give running another go. It’s always worked before, so why not? I do my same old slow-paced ramp up from walking for several weeks to jogging. For several months I’m jogging like I was able to as an immortal early 20-something, but all the while my back pain is coming and going.
Every iteration of the back pain gets worse. First it’s mild discomfort by Friday of a work week, then a month or two later it’s Wednesday, then another few months pass and I bend over wrong doing yard work and my back’s intolerable for the better part of a month.
After a half-month of pain, I start my “never work out again” plan, then that doesn’t work, then I half heartedly go to a trainer, then I never exercise, rinse, wash, repeat.
All the while I’m thinking more and more often on boiling ice water baths, oxygen tents, and cancer screening gone wrong. I build an impressive house of cards, each card some bullshit excuse to not man up and face the realities of being an adult and taking care of my body.
The fad diet kicked the first cornerstone card out from under the house, I just didn’t know it. The diet was an unexpected curve ball in my delusional quest to remain the 20-something immortal, living on the Ramen Diet. Not even two weeks of eating healthily cleared my brain fog and concentration troubles up for months afterward. Nutritional science is most definitely NOT bullshit.
Now I’m starting to wonder if there’s something to all of that advice about stretching and doing more than one type of exercise. Maybe the Nth chapter in the quest against back pain will do the trick. Maybe it’s time for a lifestyle change. A little less ramen, computers, and delusional immortality blanketed in denial.
My current programmer living in a chair for a career back-pain lottery tickets, that you may also consider if any of this hits close to home:
- Walking for 15 minutes every two hours during work days, rather than sitting in a chair for 6 hours at a time.
- Walking outside rather than on a treadmill, working different muscles as I walk on uneven terrain.
- Consulting with a gym trainer regularly.
- Trying the standing desk again, remember not to lock the knees!
- Various tips from /r/fitness threads.
- Learning how to lift weights correctly, the book Starting Strength keeps coming up on various threads I’ve been reading.
- Regular calisthenics exercises, you know, all those exercises you were taught in elementry school. (Thanks, Nick.)
Finally, I’m not a doctor, but here’s some possible bullshit I’ve heard recently, maybe some of it’s true:
- Our bodies aren’t made to run long distances, but they are made to walk long distances. Walking as a recommendation for back pain relief is common.
- My doctor says every 10 pounds of weight over your ideal weight puts 100x the stress on your back, so being 30 pounds overweight is 300x more stressful on your back than being your ideal weight.
- Lower back pain is often attributed to weak core strength. Crunches, squats, etc help this.
Music: R.E.M. E-Bow the letter, and Leave.
A friend confides in me that they don’t feel as if their job is a ‘career’, because they didn’t need a degree for the career path they’ve been on for nearly 15 years. No degree, not management, not ‘career’.
I respond that if a career means endless promotion resulting in management positions, then I never want to have a career.
I’ve recently broken up with a long time girlfriend, feeling as if I’ve been asleep for the previous four years of life – missing everything important. I sit in a daze, watching our country invade the middle east with non-stop televised live footage of the war at hand, this is a first. “Shock and Awe”, indeed.
I’ve been listening to a lot of the Matthew Good solo album Avalanche, and his band’s previous release, Audio of Being.
The albums strike me as a soundtrack for a future dystopia I am far too naive to realize already exists. One song in particular ingrains itself in the forever memory store:
Here’s a quarter for the phone
why don’t you call someone and find out
how it is we can all belong
to something that no one
wants any part of
one day you’ll wake up and there’ll be
advertising on police cars
and your death will sell you out
as someone smart,
Baby don’t get out out of bed,
just lay back down your pretty head
and they’re advertising on police cars
Days or months later, the hundredth article on the up and coming surveillance state in the UK pops up on slashdot. The tin-foil hat crazies go on and on about how one day the entire world will be this way, cameras on every street corner, state-sponsored cyber warfare, and so on.
One comment on the slashdot UK surveillance state story catches my eye, a slashdotter recommends we read The Light Of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter.
Arthur C Clarke? I love the movie 2001, on to the amazon “books to read” list the novel goes.
It’s 1999. I’m a high school junior sitting in a Barnes N Noble reading a book about the world before 9/11, before patriot acts, before twitter and selfies.
I’m reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.
The atom bomb book is a massive book. I determine to finish it by the end of the summer, always forcing myself to go read bits of it at the store – an excuse to get out of the house and feel social in one of those weird ways introverts feel social without talking to anyone at all; also an excuse to not pay $25 for the book.
Rhodes starts his book talking about Leo Szilard, one of a few top scientists who made the atomic bomb a reality. Rhodes recounts how many scientists involved with the project had typical scientist delusional fantasies: this new, bigger weapon will cause world peace somehow, because of course it will.
In the book, Rhodes mentions Szilard in particular was incredibly influenced by a book H.G. Wells had written before World War I entitled The World Set Free.
Wells’ vision of utopia in The World Set Free entails the invention of an atomic weapon that renders a major world city a nuclear wasteland, uninhabitable for eons of time to come – after this unimaginable event takes place, all world powers unite and become peaceful – free of war.
How crazy it must have been for Szilard to read these sci-fi books about a future that in part came true just as predicted.
I didn’t finish the atomic bomb book. Instead I lost myself in H.G. Wells stories, finding his short story The Country of the Blind a perfect summary of every argument with the ignorant and dogmatic, ever. Idiots rule.
A local theatre shows 2001 : A Space Oddyssey on 35mm. My wife endures 3+ hours of amazing, and never lets me forget about her sacrifice whenever the movie comes up in the future.
The screening pushes me back into another Arthur C Clarke habit, reading the entire 2001 series of books again. Unsatisfied, I browse my amazon wishlist of books to read and find The Light Of Other Days, the book the tin-foil-hat slashdotter recommended several years ago in response to the UK becoming a surveillance state.
I read the book, finding it both fascinating and terrifying all at once. The plot supposes a brilliant technologist invents a machine that can instantly recall or ‘see’ any point in time anywhere on earth, all-encompassing youtube with instant recall for any GPS coordinate you wish.
In the book, the masses are terrified by this all seeing machine – it shouldn’t exist, or it should be highly regulated, or at the very least it shouldn’t be controlled by a single company. Like the machine gun, and the atom bomb before it – the machine exists, it cannot be taken back or wished out of existence. The work’s been done, and now the world must deal with the consequences.
That’s Act 1.
2012. George Zimmerman kills an unarmed 17 year old African American boy. He’s acquitted.
Say what you will about a country divided, at least in the case of Zimmerman, we’re fairly united in our outrage.
Edward Snowden blows the whistle on the NSA, revealing a world-wide surveillance state that dwarfs the early 2000s UK stories the slashdot tin-foil hats were so upset about.
Haunting echoes of The Light of Other Days Act 1, indeed, the all-seeing machine already exists.
The Light Of Other Days: Act 2.
After the initial shock of the all-seeing machine wears off. The world settles into a steady-state. Life as an ordinary citizen is not the same as before, because the all-seeing machine has eradicated privacy – but at least it’s a controlled beast – it’s not like your neighbor has access to the machine.
Turns out, the brilliant technologist who invented the thing is a benevolent type – he doesn’t want the all-seeing machine to fall into the wrong hands, so he sets it free – the all-seeing eye becomes public utility, accessible by all – another cultural atom bomb, just after the first had settled.
Chaos. A billion divorces. A million crimes solved on day one.
Remember when they shut down that town near boston for a day looking for the boston bomber and found nothing with thousands of police officers? Remember how one hour after lockdown was released an ordinary citizen found the kid?
You know how Microsoft spends 500 man years with 10,000 QA people testing windows before it’s released, but then on day 1 after the release a million bugs pop up anyway because 500 man years of time is just one hour for every 1 million users that use the thing?
Like that, but sci-fi style.
All over again, world-wide outcry – the machine was terrible for existing before, and now it was even more terrible with public access – the final crushing blow to privacy. Privacy eradicated forever.
2014. A Ferguson Police Officer kills an 18 year old African American boy. He’s not indicted. Riots ensue.
More Snowden documents leak through the year. Huge tech firms form alliances to lobby the government, begging them to cut it out. The US Government responds with ideas about surveillance security holes becoming law.
Meanwhile, security becomes a hot topic – and it seems things are accelerating.
Slashdot stories abound about security issues being found everywhere. Nevermind Microsoft’s patch tuesday – now our ten year old wifi routers with firmware that’ll never be updated have security holes being disclosed almost weekly. Remember when the TJMaxx credit card breach seemed like a big deal, then in 2014 it seemed every major retailer had the same? Heartbleed? Truecrypt developers saying don’t use the product?
In reaction to Ferguson, cameras-on-cops becomes a relevant social topic. If there’s going to be a surveillance state, why can’t an ordinary citizen tune in too?
Social media carries stories of the surveillance war being fought in the streets – police officers smashing phones and/or harassing citizens for recording police actions on video.
A friend of mine mentions how the police in Fort Worth Texas have had dash cams and cop-cams for the past half-decade and it’s done a world of good.
My friend’s statement reminds me of my earlier conversation, about career ideally being anything other than management. My theory being that a manager isn’t there for the all-stars, managers exist to keep the screw-ups in line. A manager in my line of work spends perhaps one hour a month one-on-one with their all star reports. The very same manager spends half an hour per day per screw-up who needs to be micro managed – the manager’s job is not awesome, the manager is a babysitter.
The manager is necessary because not everyone’s a model employee.
Riots break out in Baltimore, in reaction to a 25 year old African American Male suspiciously dying while in police custody.
One wonders if Freddie Gray would still be alive if the all-seeing machine were on Freddie’s side that day he took a ride with the officers. Perhaps it’s time for a manager, or babysitter, perhaps an all-seeing machine that’s above the control of local law enforcement CYA politics.
The all-seeing machine exists – it cannot be undone. Perhaps this is Act 2, the point when the surveillance state becomes a public utility – openly embraced, rather than feared.
See also: Pandora’s Box.
See, this is why the erosion of privacy and data convergence worry me.
Sometime in the future, I will skype video conference my doctor for my yearly physical. It will be convenient, because I won’t have to wait in a waiting room for an hour for my appointment. Bonus: No blood draws or treadmill tests, because my fitbit 5000 health tracker gizmo will tell my physician everything she needs to know.
My doctor will inquire about my health, and I will, as always, say everything is fine.
Unsatisfied, my doctor will grill me with further questions, testing my lying skills from differing angles. I will, as always, masterfully weave a magnificent tale of ‘truth’ about how healthy I’ve been eating and how I exercise all the time (thinking about exercise counts, right?).
My doctor won’t immediately yell ‘bullshit’ based on my fitbit stats, instead she will try to gently prod my tall tale of health for a number of minutes – not because she’s unsure of the truth, but because in this day and age, seeing patients squirm in their blatant lies will be a sport or treasured hobby for doctors.
There will be popular T.V. shows dedicated to video captures of the funniest video conference physicals, and my doctor will have a small betting pool going amongst colleagues about who’s patient will be featured on the show first. Anything to keep the day job interesting, right? Right.
With enough squirming out of the way, my doctor will proceed to open a shared computer screen window for our video conference and start typing my name into google’s search box. Type type type .. “J-a-s-o-n-space-b-a”
Right around this time, when my name’s being typed in, my doctor will receive a 911 notice on her smartphone, saying one of her patients, a “Jason Baker” has a blood pressure rate going through the roof.
At that most opportune moment, my wife will join the video conference and say hello. The doctor will pause her typing and exchange pleasantries with my wife. The 911 notice on the doctors smartphone will subside ever so briefly, at which point my wife will ask how the physical is going. Next the doctor will remember where she was, and start typing into google again.
It will be at this moment that a “flatline” notice will alarm on my doctor’s smartphone, you know the one, with the adorable stylized/cuddly skull and crossbones emoji? The ‘flatline’ notice will be for the same patient as before, naturally. The doctor will crack a joke about how this happens all the time, and she thinks the notification/alarm notifications for fitbit have some bug in the latest software update. My wife will laugh, and I will attempt a grin while trying to catch my breath and noticing my left arm is feeling funny.
The doctor will complete her search request, five grocery receipts will pop up in full 16K hi-res glory on the video conference.
For a brief glimpse of time, perhaps two seconds, there is silence. One of those beautiful but especially rare moments where you have this out-of-body experience and seconds feel like glorious minutes or hours, all in slow motion – the kind of moment where you savor the silence and just take it all in – especially if you’re me, and you already know what your wife and doctor are realizing.
Slow motion moment over, with a scream: “WHAT THE HELL, JASON?”
(Just to be explicitly clear, it’s my wife..)
“What the hell, Jason? Four fridays in a row where all you bought was those ‘drumstick’ ice cream cones?” – my doctor starts seeing dollar signs, thinking about how the betting pool with colleagues is up to about five grand – “I thought you said you were going to the corner store to buy an ice cream, and you came home with a single ice cream, but these receipts are showing that you bought four-packs of the ice cream 4 weeks in a row?! What do you have to say for yourself?!?!” – the doctor is deciding between somewhere nice in the carribean or perhaps a nice trip to tahiti – I am sinking in my chair, slowly dipping out of view of the video conference camera, VERY carefully checking my desk to ensure none of the candy bar wrappers are actually in view of the video conference camera.
“One moment ladies, I need a restroom break.”
I take the moment to collect myself. I wave my hand in front of the faucet with a gesture to the left and cold water comes on. Yeah yeah, the water is wired backwards – it’s actually piped in correctly, but we bought the microsoft or google faucet, not the apple one. It was half the price, sue me. Anyway, I splash some cold water on my face and towel it and the sweat from my face. I give myself a moment for my tell-tale nostrils to stop flaring the “he’s telling a big fat fucking lie right now” flare of betrayal – and I return.
As before, I weave a wondrous tale of something ludicrous, probably something that starts with “sorry honey”.
“Sorry, honey – I’ve been buying ice creams and splitting them with your dad – you know how he’s having a really hard time right now because they canceled the bachelor series last month after someone was killed on live tv (ratings and profits, they must go ever upward, right? right.) – so I’ve been buying a 4 pack to conceal our secret meetings, he eats 2, and I eat one.”
The moment I name drop my father in law, my wife will already be speed dialing him, by the time I finish my story his video will be starting to come online. 5 minutes later we’ve troubleshooted his video conferencing problems (poured water on the microphone again), and my wife will ask her father about our clandestine ice cream meetings.
My father-in-law will sense hot water so he backs me up in these fantastic lies.
Usually, in this type of scenario he’d be overly jolly to either make the lie more fantastic to poke-the-bear (that’s what we call it), or – if it were truth – he’d be excited to recount the fun he’s been having. My father-in-law is a smart man though, and he will have noticed the white-coat, and he will have noticed that my wife an I’s faces are the exact same shade of red, and he will notice my nostrils flaring like a maniac, so instead of weaving a tale, he’ll just stop with a confirmation of my fantastic tale, without adding his characteristic ‘enhancements’.
If my tell is nostrils flaring, my father-in-laws is an answer to any question being less than 300 words. My wife will of course pick up on this and immediately speed dial the oracle of truth, mother-in-law. Mom-in-law’s video starts coming online, and I will see my story and my ice cream adventures falling apart in my mind.
Being a computer programmer, and a good boy scout who’s always prepared when it comes to doctors visits, I will quickly execute a command on my computer to wget a super-secret crash-in-laws-computer webservice I had installed earlier in the month when I helped install a computer game (i knew i had a physical coming up, so sue me). At that moment my in-laws will mysteriously drop from the video conference.
I will muse aloud that they must have spilled water on the mic again, and note that our time’s almost up.
Some while back, our doctor will have decided on tahiti and made herself some popcorn to watch me sweat on the stand while testifying. With in-laws out of the picture, my doctor and wife confer on a diet plan for me and I start to become irate. “I didn’t even eat but one ice cream a week, give me a break, this is bullshit.” My doctor will calmly interject – “but, your fitbit 5000 is showing me that you had around 2000 calories of sugar within a half hour for each of these mystery ice cream trips?” – the doctor will silently think to herself: “ZING!”
The doctor tags out, my wife enters the ring and we go another round about truth and half-truths, my nostrils flaring furiously.
We’re getting nowhere, which is to say, I’m winning, and perhaps maybe, just maybe, saving myself from a fitbit 5000 monitored diet. If I win, I am most definitely going to the grocery store for a 4 pack of ice cream in celebration – naturally.
Time really is running out, and the doctor’s nurse has slipped her a note about a patient with the flu.
The doctor starts to wrap up, but she leaves us with a parting-shot. She quickly pulls up google again and starts typing again “j-a-s-o-n-space-b-a-k-e-r-space-5-space-y-e-a-r-space-g-p-s-space-h-e-a-t-m-a-p-space-n-e-a-r-space-g-r-o-c-e-r-y”.
At first, as I watch the doctor type, the pure geek in me will be curious what new google feature my doctor has found, I won’t be able to control my geek and I’ll start asking the doctor questions rapid-fire: what this will be and where she heard about this and so on, but before I’ve even started, she’ll click “i’m feeling lucky”.
And there it will be. A heat map of my favorite grocery store. You know the type, like a crime heat map where areas with no coloration indicate zero crime, green indicates non-zero crime, and bright-red indicates the-wire-style gentrification is around the corner? Right, that kind of map.
The grocery store map will naturally show a bright red area around the registers and the front doors, a token amount of green in the veggie aisle, but there in the middle, slightly more red than my face, will be what we all knew would be there: bright red lines from front door through the candy aisle and ice cream aisle.
The last thing I’ll remember will be my headset’s speakers clipping out from the sheer ferociousness of my wife’s instinctive tirade she’ll launch without pause, and then I’ll click the ‘hangup’ icon.
Don’t worry. I’ll go out for one last four-pack of ice cream anyway.
And that’s how I will become the four-pack-ice-cream guy on the hit tv show ‘americas funniest physicals’.
Time for another collection of random amazing things.
- Ask Slashdot: Terminally Ill – What Wisdom Should I Pass On To My Geek Daughter? – if you read nothing else, read this (the post, and the comments!).
- The subtle art of not giving a fuck.
- What 4chan thinks of Hacker News
- “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from
- The borderlands gun collectors club.
New websites worth following or bookmarking:
- Polygon – game news.
- Gamasutra – in depth game articles, developer/designer/creator centric topics.
- Programming humor: Code Chef, Devops Borat, I Am Devloper, W3C Memes.
- Jesus Christ, Silicon Valley – amazing.
- SXSW Douchebags – same as above, but for Austin.
- People I Want to Punch In The Throat.
- Write 365 – a blog about taking a year off to write a novel.
- Cool Tools – often linked from boingboing, random articles about gadgets and tools you didn’t know you needed.
- Dude, I want that. – similar to cool tools, but more like “if I had a trillion dollars and world hunger was solved, I’d buy these things.”
- More Pushups Than U.
- Banksy’s roommate.
- Bill Nye Tho (Facebook) (Twitter), different groups, rotating admins, usually amazing.
- Pinball Map – find your favorite pinball game, anywhere in the US.
- The Wirecutter – in depth gadget comparisons, think ‘best of’ articles.
- Geekbench Browser – compare performance of computers, processors, and mobile devices.
- Unsuck it – google translator for office buzzwords.
- Street Fighter Motion Sculptures
- Star Wars Bloopers Turned Into Hilarious Star Wars Trailer
- A Short introduction about occupied Palestine
- Pensado’s Place – famous record producer’s youtube show in which he interviews other record producers about music geekery. Be sure to watch the Butch Vig, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and Charlie Clouser videos, at the very least.
- See how much color correction can change the feel of a movie
- Gridland – minecraft meets puzzle quest.
- Catlateral Damage Should Really Be Called Jerk Cat Simulator 2014
- Bombermine is 1000 player Bomberman
- FlapMMO – play flappy birds live online against other people, addicting.
- These Before and After GIFs Show Just How Fake Ad Photography Can Be – articles like these are a dime a dozen, but this is real movie/magazine grade photoshopping, fascinating.
- Community Immunity – Herd immunity explained in pictures your whole-foods-friends can understand.
- Bill Watterson – A Cartoonist’s Advice
Want more? See past link dumps.
Arguably, in 2015, if you need to ask someone what to get to build a desktop machine, then you don’t need to build a desktop machine.
Commodity (consumer, everyday, best buy-buyable) machines are fast enough for any home user who’s not a computing professional. If your job or video games require a beefy machine, you may build one and get a little bit better performance for a better price, but if that’s not you – don’t build a desktop, buy one.
If I needed a new desktop machine today, I’d just buy a mac mini instead of building one.
I’d buy the 2.6ghz model, upgrade to the i7 processor and 16GB of ram, making the machine about $1100 before taxes.
I really wish the mac mini line was competitive with their all-in-one iMac line processing horsepower wise, but it’s not. There was a ‘server’ edition of mac mini a few years back with server-level processing horsepower (read: quad core cpu inside), but they don’t do that anymore. For the quad core processing power you have to buy an iMac…
With an iMac, you pay the same price or maybe a little more than a mac mini and you get this all in one sleek machine that’s a monitor with the computer inside it. To me, this seems like a waste, because I still have and use a nice 24” monitor from nearly 10 years ago and I like to buy my hardware and monitors separate from each other. BUT, if you really want horsepower in an apple desktop, the iMac models would be the best purchasing choice today in early 2015.
If I absolutely *had* to install windows on it for some reason, I would use VirtualBox (a free virtual machine program) to run Windows “In A Window” inside the OS X Operating system, or I’d just install windows on the machine with the Apple Boot Camp installer that comes with the machine. Boot camp is a program they made just to simplify installing windows on Apple machines.
If I were buying a laptop today, I’d also buy an Apple laptop.
Apple hardware costs more than other commodity hardware from the likes of Dell and Acer and such, but my high-end Apple laptop from 2011 will last 7 or 8 years, whereas a $600 or $800 laptop will run like trash after 2 to 3 years.
If you’re going to build a machine, be sure to buy a SSD hard drive – this is by far the biggest computer upgrade in the past decade, it’s a hard drive with no moving parts that reads and writes 10x faster than regular spinning-disk hard drives. The Samsung 840 or 830 series is the SSD to buy, and just get a 128GB or 256GB model, make it your primary (C:) drive and put your programs on it. It does not make sense now to buy 500GB+ SSD due to cost, but in 5 or 10 years you’ll buy 1TB SSD without a second thought because it’ll cost much less at that point.
If you have the cash to spend, there’s also Samsung 840 “Pro” lines that have even more blazing read/write speed.
Again, I wouldn’t waste the time or effort to build a desktop machine today. I’d just buy a mac mini and optionally install Windows on that if I needed to. Then I’d buy another one 5 or 7 years from now.
But, if I were to build a machine these days I’d look at either Tom’s Hardware or Ars Technica’s recommendations they put out each year.
I would figure out a build they recommend, usually its the low price tier, mid, and high – i’d look at low or mid – then I’d buy the parts they recommend – with perhaps the case or video card being different from their recommendations.
For the different components here’s what matters if you wanted to use a diff brand or model than they recommend:
- Motherboard: needs to be same ram type (IE DDR3 1600 vs DDR3 800 vs DDR2 800 or whatever), and same CPU socket type (IE LGA 775 vs LGA something else)
- Power supply: Needs to be same wattage or more than they recommend
- Hard Drive: get a Samsung SSD 840 or 830 model for the c: drive, super fast – the biggest fastest upgrade in the past ten years.
- Ram: Needs to be the same DDR3 whatever the motherboard supports.
- CPU: needs to be the same CPU socket type as motherboard supports (LGA whatever for Intel, something else for AMD chips)
- Case: just needs to fit the motherboard – i would almost definitely pick up a case I like at frys rather than the one they recommend
- Video Card: Just needs to fit the motherboard slot, 5 or ten years ago there were two types of slot, I don’t even know what there is now, just make sure the motherboard matches the video card.
Get windows 7 system builder edition for $100 instead of the $200 or $300 version, the $200 version you can install on different machines, but by the time you have a new machine, we’ll be on Windows 11 or 12 five years from now.
Windows 7 is almost EOL (end of life) too, you could just go for windows 8 but its different in a few ways from what you’re used to, it’s fine for casual users who just use the browser all day, but it would drive me mad in certain ways.
Make sure its 64 bit windows, not 32 bit.
While you’re at frys go over to the apple aisle and look at how small the mac mini is and perhaps fiddle with one or two of their iMac machines – remember that they can run windows “in a window” or as the full OS, and that generally speaking with Apple you’re not getting a bunch of bloatware added and you’re buying a machine that’ll last longer than 18 months without frustration.
Standard Disclaimer: I’m a fan of post rock, electronic music, and alt rock. To me, the best album ever is Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins, and my current favorite record is either 65daysofstatic’s Wild Light or BT’s These Hopeful Machines. I like to listen to albums all the way through, and I’m not really a top-40 or metal fan, somewhere in between metal and top-40 – that’s me.
2014 has been a slow year for music. I’m hard pressed to recommend much of anything new this year, so my recommendations this year are mostly from years past. Due to the slow year, my listening habits have been all over the map in 2014, so there’s bound to be something in here that you’ve never heard of.
Top Album Recommendations
I highly recommend the following records – they’re all solid listens all the way through, and I find that I can’t start any of these without an obsession with listening the whole way through.
BT’s These Hopeful Machines – EDM (electronic dance music), his masterpiece in my opinion, 2+ hours of incredible highs and lows both fast and slow, all mixed perfectly into one endless soundscape of amazing.
65daysofstatic’s Wild Light – Post-rock meets a swirling wall of synth with a never-subtle virus of glitch constantly threatening to tear it all down, both inspiring and apocalyptic all at once. Fantastic.
The Glitch Mob’s Love Death Immortality – EDM/Glitch. Their previous album (Drink the Sea) was a regular repeat-forever on my commute to and from work a few years ago, and this latest effort is even better – if ever there was a EDM supergroup to top all EDM artists ever, they’d be hard pressed to match the glitch mob’s work.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Specter at the Feast – Moody shoegaze perfection. Impressively consistent with enough variation to keep your attention – and, like all good shoegaze, it keeps moving you places without ever being front and center. It’s hard to pay attention without losing yourself in daydreams or memories while listening, and I think that’s kinda the point.
I hate attempting to make a playlist out of tracks when they flow much better within their respective album’s framework, but the albums playlist for these tracks is over 37 hours long, so, a hacked up playlist it is.
I joined spotify recently. If you think 65daysofstatic and/or this will destroy you and/or the glitch mob and/or matthew good and/or sigur ros and/or the paper chase is the greatest band ever, shoot me an email, let’s share playlists.
My playlist is a spotify playlist this year, it’s 45 tracks that clock in at 3 hours 48 minutes (there’s a fair bit of post rock in there..lolz):
Spotify has a couple ways to link to playlists, so here are options you may want:
Option #1: The playlist http link.
Option #2: The playlist Spotify uri.
Option #3: Search for me on Spotify with “1226261222” (no quotes), and look at my public playlists for 2014 Best Of.
Track By Track Breakdown
Not everyone is a fan of post-rock, and not all post-rock fans are fans of EDM. To that end, I’m going to utilize a “post rock warning” image throughout the track lists. For this, I’ll be using the greatest meme of all time: the post-rock raven.
Here’s an example post-rock raven image:
When you see this meme, you’re reading about a post-rock track.
My advice to you: listen to the playlist, if a track catches your ear, read the breakdown about that track below – or, you know, just read all of this blather if you’re bored. Don’t miss the other bits about good vinyl and other music developments at the end of the post though!
Ok then, onto the track by track breakdown:
Track #1: Caspian – Hymn For The Greatest Generation
I went on and on last year about how Caspian’s album Waking Season is the greatest album in a long while. I still agree with this synopsis, and still strongly encourage you to listen to my #1 track from last year: Gone in Bloom and Bough.
This track, Hymn For The Greatest Generation is the title track from Caspian’s EP released late last year in 2013 – the EP has been the start to my day through much of 2014, with this slow-building and bittersweet enchanting title track opening things, and a track I’ll mention later ending on a driving “I can conquer the world!” theme finishing out the short but amazing EP.
Track #2: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Lose Yourself
A nice, representative moody shoegaze track from the previously mentioned Specter at the Feast album – one of my top albums for the year.
Track #3: Led Zeppelin – Tangerine
Fun fact: The movie Almost Famous is semi-autobiographical. The director of that movie was a teenage writer for rolling stone and met his rock gods Led Zeppelin during that time. When Almost Famous was coming out, the director ran the film by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page for approval. The band nixed use of Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir, but approved 3 or 4 other songs – most of which come from the album Led Zeppelin III.
As a youngster, my father introduced me to Led Zep, stressing that Led Zep IV and Houses of the Holy were their greatest albums. I strongly agree with this synopsis, having listened to all their albums years ago. But, somehow, all these years, Led Zep III flew under my radar.
The band reissued remastered editions of their first five albums in 2014 and while I listened to Led Zep I as well, and still haven’t opened IV or Houses of the Holy yet, it was III that I could not set aside for a long period this summer. Truly a treat to listen to.
The album starts strong with the track Immigrant Song, which you’ll immediately recognize when you hear it. Upon first listen you’re prepared for more of the same from Led Zep that we heard on I and II – over the top prototype rock for the following 30 years of music, but then the album takes a turn.
The in-your-face power anthems give way to a lighter side of Zeppelin not before seen – acoustic guitars and anthems for light hearted summer days abound – with this track, Tangerine, being the prime example of that beautiful and somber final side to the album.
Another fun fact: The 2014 reissues are remastered in the opposite direction of the early 90s remasters. Where the goal of the 90s remasters was as flat and crystal clear (read: lifeless) as possible, the 2014 remasters are truer to the original mixes back in the 70s. The 2014 mixes pop with a sense of life previously missing on CD releases. Stairway in particular has had dynamics returned – if your friends and family couldn’t grok zeppelin due to the lack of life in the 90s cds, urge them to give these 2014 mixes a go.
Bonus fun fact: The 2014 remasters were released on vinyl as well, making it easier for a new generation of music nerds (read: me) to get high quality versions of these albums at an affordable price.
Track #4: Hole – Malibu
The downside to a slow music year is nothing new to listen to, the upside? – rediscovering something you missed a long time ago. When Hole’s album Celebrity Skin was released in ’98 – it was very cool to dislike Hole, and the album. Dislike of the album is well placed I think, the title track is bland, and hard to get through. Celebrity Skin, the track, there’s something off about it – an engineered-for-the-masses grunge hit that’s a little too formulaic and yet lifeless all at the same time.
Celebrity Skin, the Album, is pretty good – or at least it sounds that way to me in 2014. It’s a bit like Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzmosis released around the same time – a good solid album with a who’s-who big name list of music consultants aiding in turning out something generic, but still palatable for music fans of the time.
I was seventeen when Celebrity Skin hit, and my albums that year were Adore by the Smashing Pumpkins and Mechanical Animals by Marilyn Manson. Celebrity Skin, the album, can’t hold a candle to those other two albums in my opinion, but when you’ve listened to Adore and Mechanical Animals some thousands of times as I have over the past 20 or so years – Celebrity Skin is there to be discovered.
Give it a try.
Track #5: BT – Always
Just one example of the amazing tracks on the previously mentioned These Hopeful Machines album, one of my top albums for the year. The album was released in 2011 or 2010.
Track #6: Crosses – Prurient
I listened to this album on repeat for days on end over two months earlier this year. The Crosses album is legit – but I listened to it so much that I burned myself out on it – so I can’t tell if it’s good anymore :/.
For fans of Deftones, Crosses is a side project of the Deftones’ frontman Chino Moreno.
But wait, Deftones fans, don’t let Team Sleep color your opinion before you begin!
Chino’s an outspoken fan of Depeche Mode and a few years back another side project of his, Team Sleep, issued a downtempo album that can only be described as ‘meh’.
Crosses’ self titled debut album is the album I wanted from Team Sleep. Remember that track Digital Bath from the Deftones’ White Pony album? Remember how you wanted an album full of *that*? Good news, Crosses is probably as close as you’ll get to the digital bath album.
I feel like Crosses is a bit more digital bath than depeche mode, but Chinos vox on the album are about the same as on Team Sleep for the most part – that is, fantastic. The difference here is that the backing music has life to it on the Crosses effort.
Crosses’ self titled debut album is a love letter to the Deftones fans who heard White Pony and were hoping for White Pony forever from then on. It’s White Pony 2.0 – minus the nu-metal – perfect.
Track #7: Queens of the Stone Age – God Is On The Radio
An apology is in order. About 5 years ago my coworker Chad tried to introduce me to the QOTSA album Songs for the Deaf, and, unfortunately, I just wasn’t ready for it. At the time my musical tastes leaned heavily on heavy-handed and over-the-top emotional mope rock – I was just discovering post-rock (heavy handed over the top emotional mope/feels rock without words) and I just wasn’t ready for the pinnacle of stoner rock that songs for the deaf is.
This album. God. Like the top albums recommended for this year, I cannot start this album without finishing it – listening to songs for the deaf is an event. I’ve got to check my schedule and ensure I’ve got an hour and a half undisturbed free before I begin. Perfect for airplane rides or just on repeat forever at volume 11 while working at home.
My only gripe with the album is the ridiculous offspring-like between-the-tracks banter of mock FM radio DJ satire – to me, this crap really detracts from the super solid and amazing album.
Don’t be turned off by other, lesser, meh, not for me, QOTSA efforts – this one’s accessible and pop rock as hell, I fucking love it. Thanks Chad, and Matt.
Track #8: The Naked and Famous – To Move With Purpose
I really liked The Naked and Famous’ first album a few years back – but now I can’t listen to that album anymore because this new album, In Rolling Waves is worlds better. The entire album is a torn-love/breakup album, and it’s great – at once subdued and poignant, beautiful. Electropop alt rock music, think MGMT or Passion Pit, but good – more like a love letter to The Postal Service.
Track #9: Hole – Hit So Hard
Another track from the previously mentioned Celebrity Skin album.
Track #10: Everclear – Why I Don’t Believe In God
The only album from Everclear that I can stand – I’m clearly a fair-weather Everclear fan, and to me, So Much For The Afterglow is an album that should not be missed.
Everclear has a sound, like Oasis, or Foo Fighters, and like those bands, the second album is the one to get. If you’re heads over heals insane about the album you may enjoy the more-of-the-same-forever follow ons, but personally, I don’t.
I’m a So Much For The Afterglow/The Colour and the Shape/What’s The Story Morning Glory fan, and I’m hard pressed to enjoy anything outside the greatest hits otherwise.
Everclear kinda meh to you? That’s fair, give So Much for the Afterglow a chance – like Celebrity Skin, it’s a post-grunge alt rock love letter – generic as hell but damn if I can’t stop listening to the full album on repeat.
Track #11: BT – Forget Me
Another track from These Hopeful Machines – one of my top album recommendations for the year. Forget Me is one of my most-listened-to tracks of the year, my current favorite from BT (and that is a hard choice to make as there are many stand out tracks by him..), and a strong candidate for my personal list of top 50 songs of all time.
Track #12: Mogwai – Remurdered
I’m not a Mogwai fan – like Explosions in the Sky and Caspian, and several others, I’ve listened to back catalogs without interest – the post rock all starts to sound the same when Takk and () from Sigur Ros are your introductions to what post-rock can be.
Like Caspian’s latest efforts, this latest album from Mogwai (Rave Tapes) and the B-sides EP they released a month ago are worth a listen.
Rave Tapes isn’t 65daysofstatic, newer Caspian, Sigur Ros or other standard over-the-top make-you-feel melodrama (read: perfection) post-rock, it’s more in line with This Will Destroy You – great in it’s own right. But, I can’t help but thinking Mogwai wouldnt have made my list this year had some of the other post-rock bands I like released something.
Good album, easily overlooked and forgettable, chill and serene. Perfect to code to.
Track #13: The Glitch Mob – Fly By Night Only
A track from the previously mentioned album Love Death Immortality, one of my top recommended albums. Pure adrenaline perfectly intertwined with serene synth and glitch all at once. Ugh, so good.
Track #14: Jack White – Would You Fight For My Love?
Another artist my coworkers Chad and Dan introduced me to a handful of years ago.
I *enjoy* the white stripes, but I don’t *love* them.
Something about Jack White music leaves me with a he-doesn’t-give-a-fuck taste in my mouth – to me, almost all of his solo and white stripes albums sound like a collection of b-sides to a really great album that he never released. I suppose that’s due to a lack of polish my cherished albums usually have – what can I say, I’m a full-album front to back listener, and Jack White’s always got something in there that’s so meh that it has a sort of an uncomfortable twist and makes for a hard listen.
I know, I get it, Jack White is avant-garde or whatever, he doesn’t subscribe to pop sensibilities and accessibility – o rly? False. Proof? Ok: Seven Nation Army. The End.
It’s as if Jack White takes himself super seriously and not seriously at all, all at the same time – perhaps that’s the point. Anyway, if you’re a white stripes fan, fair-weather or otherwise, his album this track comes from, Lazaretto, is more of the same – good, a thousand great hooks sprinkled with poignant interludes here and there with a fair helping of filler that could have hit the editing room floor.
Track #15: Garbage – Milk
Ugh. Garbage. So Good. There was a three or four month phase this year where I was listening to every album Garbage ever issued, on repeat, for days. If you’ve only heard the singles, do yourself a favor, listen to their first two albums.
Fun Fact: Butch Vig, the drummer/producer from Garbage is the same Butch Vig who produced the greatest album ever, Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as Nevermind by Nirvana, and a ton of Foo Fighters records (Don’t knock him for that though, he just tries to make them sound as good as he can..). In my opinion, Butch Vig’s super polished sound production is the reason Garbage is as good as it is.
Also, Shirley Manson’s vox – liquid velvet you cannot get enough of. God damn.
Track #16: Longwave – Sirens In The Deep Sea
Amazon recommended Longwave and 65daysofstatic to me at random years ago, and I’m glad they did.
Longwave is a now-defunct early 2000’s rock band. Fans of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots (sorry to hear that), and Foo Fighters (sorry to hear that too) need to give Longwave’s Secrets Are Sinister a spin.
Solid album front to back.
Track #17: Matthew Good – Advertising On Police Cars (Acoustic)
Matthew Good is one of my most favorite artists ever. This version of the track comes from a ‘deluxe’ triple-disc version of his greatest hits compilation In A Coma. The ‘deluxe’/extras cd has this 5 or 6 track acoustic session of some of his songs and they sound phenomenal. I wish I could have these tracks on vinyl.
The acoustic tracks in particular sound amazing in a room with great reverb, such as my brother’s home office with one wall covered in a wooden cabinet and wood flooring. Sonic catharsis and euphoria at volume 11 – easily one of the greatest listening experiences of my entire life.
Track #18: 65daysofstatic – Safe Passage
It is a yearly goal of mine to introduce someone to 65daysofstatic. 65 days is labeled as post-rock or glitch or EDM depending on the album you’re looking at, and this album, Wild Light is, in my opinion, just as good as the Caspian Waking Season album I so highly recommended last year. Both Wild Light and Waking Season saw very heavy full-album playthroughs throughout 2014 and I anticipate that continuing in 2015.
This track is the epitome of Wild Light, all wrapped up into 6 minutes – a subdued haunted sad piano intro with guitar tremolos teasing just out of sight. Then, all at once – heavy-handed over-the-top right-in-the-feels synth overload – still mellow somehow, until about 3:10 when the drums kick in and you realize the track is getting out of hand – it’s accelerating and turning from a grey subdued morning to one of those car-crash 90MPH hour days you experience perhaps 3 times in life – it’s spaceships on a collision course with the sun with half the machinery malfunctioning. Epic. God. Damn. Epic. I love it.
Fun Fact: 65days fans, one of the band members, Paul Wolinski, released another short solo EP under the Polinski name again, entitled Full Bleed. It’s a full free stream – but give the man some money so he’ll keep going on making the music of our lifetime. His last solo record Labyrinths was one of my top recommendations for 2012, and I feel like that record showed the direction the following 65 days record (Wild Light) took. Full Bleed is good, but different – where Wild Light and Labyrinths were heavy handed overly dramatic walls of synth, this is like a pink floyd record with sounds of everyday life leading up to a delicate melodic final piano track. I’m not surprised, all of 65’s records have always been an evolution from previous efforts, and if this where 65days is going next, I’m excited to hear it.
Track #19: Caspian – Halls of the Summer (Lazerbeak remix)
This track comes from the previously mentioned Hymn for the Greatest Generation EP that Caspian released late last year. This track finishes that album out and often it’s my go-to for amping myself up to conquer the world. If time will not relent for the entire EP, this track will do in a pinch. Good stuff.
Track #20: The Glitch Mob – Our Demons
More of the same of what we’ve covered earlier in this post, from the album Love Death ImmortalityTrack #21: REM – Sad Professor
REM’s unplugged on MTV sets from 1991 and 2001 were released this year – a good listen if you’re a fan of REM, fair-weather or otherwise.
Track #22: Mike Birbiglia – The Scrambler
2014 was the year I finally listened to my buddy Tim’s advice and listened to comedy albums. I spent days listening to everything from Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt, and others, but I did not expect Mike Birbiglia.
My favorite writers have always been Douglas Coupland (of Generation X / Microserfs fame) and Matthew Good (of Matthew Good Band fame), but this year I’ve got a third favorite author – and that’s Mike Birbiglia.
Like many music artists I enjoy, Birbiglia is hard to really explain or sample one track at a time – he’s a full story/full-album listen required kind of guy. He’s a standup comedian, and his very first album is just regular standup comedy, but if you work your way backward newest album to oldest, you’ll fall in love.
Birbiglia’s albums are comedian concept albums, that is, they’re one long story. He’s a master of self-deprecation and being an asshole at the same time, he’s the underdog you cant help but root for as he tells tales of his first kiss or the time he visited his girlfriend’s boyfriends’ house and tried to impress his parents in hopes she’d choose him over the other boyfriend.
His stories start off harsh – Andy Kaufmanesque in many ways (on purpose) – “I dont believe in marriage” – for example, but by the end of the story he’s enraptured your soul in such a way that his final crescendo or twist at the end brings you to tears – it’s that endearing.
Birbiglia is the perfect story teller. This comes as no surprise, as he’s apparently had 15+ years of practice, often appearing on NPR’s this american life (don’t hold that against him though, that’d be like holding the foo fighters against butch vig..) and other such shows. His performances are theatre – he builds a story and constantly revises it as the tour progresses, ending with an absolutely immaculate story every tour.
Like my other favorite authors, Mike Birbiglia is the reason I write – he is the relatable guy who makes entertaining writing filled with humor and poignant moments seem so effortless. It seems effortless, but only upon the fifth listen through do you realize the amazing amounts of effort he must invest to make a show that appears so effortless. His simplicity and self-deprecating awkwardness is at once endearing, charming, and disarming – you feel bad for the guy and then, before you realize it, you’ve learned something precious about life when all you came for was the jokes.
Birbiglia is inspiring, and genius. Some of my most favorite books and people in life have been just like this guy, and Birbiglia’s packaged the amazing experience of knowing those books or people into something anyone can experience. Incredible.
Start with the album My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, watch it on DVD or stream it on Netflix ideally first.
Track #23: Garbage – The Trick Is To Keep Breathing
Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.
Track #24: Everclear – Sunflowers
Another track from So Much For The Afterglow, an album mentioned previously in this post.
Track #25: Direct Hit – The World Is Ending (No one cares.)
Direct Hit’s Brainless God is an entertaining pop-punk concept album about the apocalypse if it were to happen in current suburban America. Fucking brilliant, and catchy as hell.
Track #26: Brody Dalle – Dressed In Dreams
Here we have contender #1 for over-produced generic pop alt rock album of the year. Listening to this album is a dirty-secret pleasure – there’s nothing super remarkable about it, but it has all of the signature sounds a good rock album should.
Like the previously mentioned Celebrity Skin/So Much For The Afterglow/Ozzmosis, it feels like this is kind of phoned in with help from consultants. Dalle is the lead singer from the early 2000’s pop punk band the Distillers – not a band I particularly care for, but Dalle split a record-store-day single with Garbage this year, so I looked her up and found this.
A fun listen, just don’t tell anyone you listened to it.
Track #27: Jeff Rosenstock – Hey Allison!
A preview of a forthcoming album from the lead singer of the now defunct Bomb The Music Industry!.
I highly recommend BTMI’s album Vacations – an enjoyable listen front to back, indie power-pop-punk with a sprinkle of chiptunes here and there. Feels like the Broken Social Scene of the punk rock scene, because it is – a collective of musicians having a good time and kicking out records in the mean time.
Anyway, Jeff Rosenstock – I don’t dig all of his stuff, but this track and that Vacations album are awesome.
Track #28: Shakey Graves – Dearly Departed
I ranted about this guy in previous posts. Phenomenal live. His first album was a bit lifeless, and somewhere along the way he found his way and now he’s kicking out folksy country stuff like the best of them. Good album – And The War Came – released this past fall.
Track #29: TV On The Radio – DLZ
A track I had on my 2013 list but it kept being played through 2014 on repeat, a beautiful groove that crescendos in all-out-feels-righteous-anger-style. I have not yet listened to the band’s 2014 release Seeds, but I intend to. Maybe more on that in 2015.
Track #30: Mogwai – The Lord Is Out Of Control
Another track from the previously mentioned Rave Tapes.
Track #31: Hole – Petals
Another track from the previously mentioned Celebrity Skin.
Track #32: Blue October – Fear
My wife is a huge Blue October fan. Their 2003 album Foiled (with the song Hate Me) was a super strong and amazing alt rock album. But albums from the band after that languished as the lead singer worked through a bullshit divorce and addiction issues. His struggles at the time show on the albums between Foiled and this latest album Sway. If you’ve heard those in-between albums, don’t hold it against the band, Sway is a return to form, Foiled 2.0 with a bit more love and a bit less anger. Phenomenal in my opinion.
This track in particular, Fear, is the standout in my opinion. Don’t fall for the recently released terrible amateur-hour digital-drums-added re-release radio version of the song, hear this version, the original version from the album.
If you’re a Blue October fan who’s suffered the past few years through some shit albums, give Sway a try. Also consider the lead singer’s cool solo album this year, Songs from an Open Book, in which he plays solo acoustic renditions of Blue October hits and tells the stories behind the songs in the meantime.
Track #33: Garbage – You Look So Fine
Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.
Track #34: First Aid Kit – My Silver Lining
If you liked their previous album, The Lion’s Roar, you’ll dig this. If you like other folksy country hipster crap these days (Shakey Graves, Shovels and Rope, Edward Sharpe, Of Monsters and Men, etc), you’ll dig this.
The new album’s called Stay Gold. Great weekend afternoon music.
Track #35: Metric – Help I’m Alive (Acoustic)
A cool acoustic version of the first track that opened their album Fantasies several years ago.
I loved the acoustic versions of the Synthetica songs on the ‘deluxe’ version of that album, and I realized this year there’s a digital-release-only EP called Plug In Plug Out with these acoustic renditions of various Fantasies tracks. I really wish this EP was available on vinyl, I’m sure it’d sound fantastic – just as Fantasies and Synthetica do.
Track #36: Matthew Good – Blue Skies Over Bad Lands
Heavy-handed lyrics, with an overly dramatic long-drawn out signature Matthew Good backing track.
From my least favorite album from one of my favorite artists, White Light Rock & Roll is OK, but kinda throwaway – which makes sense, that’s kinda how he recorded it (less obsessed solo perfection, more just jamming with a band and seeing where it goes).
Anyway, I missed this track previously, it’s good, but it’s no Champions of Nothing, Near Fantastica or a dozen other such amazing anthems.
Track #37: Enigma – Return To Innocence
Earlier this year my wife and my brother in law invited me to an erasure concert.
Fun fact: Erasure is a happier version of Depeche Mode, which make sense because the main musician was actually in Depeche Mode early on.
Another fun fact: Enigma is not Erasure. And I thought we were going to see Enigma, not Erasure.
I listened to the enigma album with this famous track before the concert anyway, and I’m glad I did – great mid-nineties tribal music mixed with accessible soundscapes made for white people – predictable over-used sound clips of apollo-era astronauts included here and there.
Fun fact: I love songs with over-used astronaut sound clips.
Also, Erasure is pretty awesome, if you like EDM such as Depeche Mode or BT, check erasure out. Also check out VNV Nation and Blaqk Audio while you’re at it.
Track #38: Interpol – Ancient Ways
I haven’t liked anything since their first album, but this latest effort El Pintor is listenable and enjoyable. Generic, forgettable, but hey, 2014 was a slow year.
Track #39: Garbage – So Like A Rose
Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.
Track #40: This Will Destroy You – Dustism
Fun Fact: Before I saw that photo above, I had not heard of lowercase noises, I will check them out in 2015.
Anyway, This Will Destroy You’s latest – For some reason I was expecting more of their self titled effort, the melodramatic predictable post rock subtle near-silent start that builds into an anthem crescendo then back down and up again for a few more rollercoaster dips – all sprinkled with hints of electronic beats here and there.
This latest album, Another Language is not that. Gone are the over-used melodramatic post-rock swells.
TWDY insists they’re not post-rock, and where Sigur Ros went all-swells-over-the-top on their last effort, TWDY went the opposite direction with Another Language – this sounds more like Tunnel Blanket 2.0 (Tunnel Blanket was their previous album). It’s really good, and I feel strange saying its like Tunnel Blanket, because it’s not – it’s very subdued and somehow a very strange album – it leaves me with an unsettling feeling like I’m not sure what to feel or what I’m feeling at all – very strange.
Where previous efforts have been a direct punch to the feels jugular, over-the-top melodramatic heavy-handed Sigur Ros type stuff, this album is different.
This latest effort reads as a band that’s matured beyond all of the generic melodrama. This album reads as a band who’s hit their stride and yet somehow seems to be hunting for something yet to come – the album feels like the pedestrian build up in a given post rock song – except the *entire* album is that build up with no release – like foreplay for an album yet to come.
If anything, I’d compare this to Sigur Ros’ Valtari record a few years back – it’s still post-rock, but you can fall to sleep to it without being woken up every 10 minutes with some over the top driving crescendo full of catharsis.
With Another Language, I kind of think TWDY is both fucking with us and educating us while dragging us kicking and screaming into the realization that there’s more to good music than formulaic melodrama. I like it.
Track #41: Moby – When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die
I watched all of the Sopranos this year, again. I hadn’t watched it in nearly a decade. In a post-The-Wire world, the sopranos reads as pulp tv drama, a Mad Men of yesteryear – whatever/who-cares.
Still, the storytelling in the series is a bit like Game Of Thrones books – there’s a lot of get-to-know-the-characters that’s enjoyable but leaves you with the feeling that the entire series’ content could be quartered in length and be fantastic.
But, there’s a trick – the melodramatic moments just read as melodramatic and lame if that’s all there is all the time, see 24 or any other hit show ever (aside from The Wire, that show, ugh. so good.)
For melodrama moments to have maximum impact, you need the post-rock build up, the 6 seasons of formulaic sopranos ho-hum, the familiarization with the characters to the point that they’re family to you. Then the protagonist gets shot, no – not the first (or second?) time, – the third or fourth time where they have this best-of-series episode where Tony’s in the hospital and nobody’s sure if he’ll come through.
I hate hospitals. Babies are the only good thing to come from hospital stays, otherwise the best you can shoot for almost all of the time is a return to normalicy. Hospitals get a bad wrap because the hospital is where terrible things happen – maybe, just maybe some minor miracle of modern day science saves someone, but often hospital stays equate to tragedy.
This episode of the sopranos perfectly captures family tragedy, and hospitals, in the span of an hour – it is profound. The episode perfectly captures the effortless fragility, chaos and emotion one feels in the face of family emergency, all within the span of one hour.
So, yeah. Great episode, and the finale to the experience? – A montage set to this track from Moby.
I’m no Moby fan, but this track, with some 70+ hours of sopranos leading up to it, it hits you right in the feels. Tears. Everytime.
The episode in question is Join The Club, but don’t watch it without watching everything before first!!
Track #42: Garbage – Beloved Freak
Garbage. Ugh. So Good, search for “liquid velvet” earlier in this post. That. More of that.
Track #43: Inventions – Peacable Child
Side project from one of the guys in Explosions in the Sky. I’m not a big Explosions in the Sky fan, but I dig this side project album a fair bit. Slow moving, serene at times, forgettable, but worth a listen. Not post-rock, no feels/melodramatic builds and crescendos, more easy-going electronic meanderings I’d say.
Track #44: Aaron Behrens & The Midnight Stroll – Keep On Rising
Our second contender for dirty pleasure listening generic all-the-rock-music album of the year. This EP from Ghostland Observatory’s lead singer’s new project is good, but generic as hell. This track in particular opens all U2 sounding and then moves into a standard rock-ballad/slightly-country song I know I’ve heard before a million different ways.
This self-titled debut EP is an enjoyable listen while cleaning the house or otherwise idly ignoring the me-too generic feel to it. Aaron Behren’s vox tho. Right? Right.
Track #45: Led Zeppelin – When The Levee Breaks
The closing track to Led Zeppelin IV, one of the greatest albums of all time (which also includes Stairway to Heaven). Often these ‘greatest albums of all time’ have an epic single that makes up for the rest, this is *not* the case with Led Zep IV – I feel the album would be just as amazing without Stairway altogether, it’s just such a solid prototype for rock music done right. Fantastic.
One of the things I want from the future is for Led Zep to be less stingy about their music rights in movies, so this song can get the remaster treatment that Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower had in The Watchmen movie.
Yes, this is a 2014 remaster, but one gets the feeling that Jimmy Page is trying to remain as true as possible to the source mixes back in the day, without over-producing something in a 2010s flair like the 90s remastered misses came out – but god, this track, if ever there was a track that could use the crystal clear overdriven brick wall compression movie-version mix – I need this. Future, please deliver it. Not a full album of over-done, just this. one. track. please! When The Levee Breaks, the movie mix, let’s make this happen.
More 2014 Music Fun
Other Music related things I highly recommend:
The HBO show, not the album, or the band.
A year or two ago Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters published a neat documentary about a famous record studio called Sound City.
Sonic Highways is to Sound City as Band of Brothers is to Saving Private Ryan or From the Earth to the Moon is to Apollo 13 – that is, someone makes a great movie or documentary and realizes they can’t tell an adequate story in 3 hours – there’s more to tell!, so they go to HBO and say “hey, what if we made a miniseries on this theme and tell the more of the story?”. That’s sonic highways, the show, not the terrible album.
In the show, Grohl and his band go to different famous music studios and cities around the US and talk about recent rock history from the area – Seattle, Austin, LA, etc. Really awesome, must watch for music fans. They also record a track from the terrible album with the same name and have a annoying lame music video for the Foo Fighters at the end of each episode, but you can skip that bit.
A really great read for music nerds. Did you know widely-distributed recorded music didn’t exist before the phonograph? Of course you did, but have you ever thought what society and music was like in those days before a cd? Before the phonograph there was no such thing as a personal listening experience or radio – music was a shared cultural thing, everyone knew how to sing or play something, music was a family event – like a never ending disney movie I guess – thank god for the phonograph.
That’s just a small nerd-tastic profound detail of many captured in this book. The book is semi-autobiographical, about Byrne’s new wave band the whoever, and though I’m not a fan, the autobiographical bits are interesting because he captures the ‘scene’ and inner workings of the music industry with vivid detail – it doesn’t even matter if you care for his music or not.
Good Vinyl In 2014
(above image courtesy of Steven Potter)
Vinyl is going crazy – and I’m just another hipster wannabe who’s on the bandwagon. That being said I bought some music equipment this year where I can really hear a difference between music sources, and some stuff really shines on vinyl. I’m not sure that there’s a type of music that would sound like garbage on vinyl that doesnt already sound like garbage (i.e. dubstep), but there are a lot of artists who don’t seem to ‘get it’ and the vinyl mix comes out sounding flat or over distorted or neutral at best.
So, here’s a list of vinyl releases you won’t be disappointed with (in no particular order):
- Led Zeppelin III (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
- Caspian – Waking Season
- Caspian – Hymn for the Greatest Generation
- The Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves
- 65daysofstatic – Wild Light
- First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
- Mogwai – Rave Tapes
- Blue October – Sway
- Hole – Celebrity Skin (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
- Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
There are a few albums yet from this post that I haven’t obtained on vinyl, but the This Will Destroy You vinyl sounded substandard, and several others sounded just the same as the digital mix, avoid unless you’re a super fan:
- Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
- Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Specter at the Feast
- Oasis – Whats The Story Morning Glory? (2014 Remaster/Reissue)
Ok, that’s “it” – 6500+ words put together over a series of evenings this holiday season. I hope you find something you enjoy.
Thanks Brian, Dan, Amanda, Jonny, Jeff, Cesa, Chad, Tim, and Matt for introducing me to many of the artists I listened to this year.
You should start at the beginning: Minecraft – A Software Engineer’s Experience Part 1
I started playing Minecraft early this past August. What started as an innocent and fascinating experience in a “real world” simulator eventually took a turn. I spent about a month happy as could be with an extremely limited world view: break down the rocks, harvest the garden, live on, break some more rocks, enjoy the sunset, fish, repeat tomorrow.
Then Andy’s friends joined, right around the time I realized the Minecraft world is in actuality more like the real world than we’d care to admit: It’s a massive massive expansive world with limited resources, but more than enough resources to last several real-life lifetimes of gameplay. What’s more, the “world” we played in was shared by 5 people, rather than 6 billion, and in theory the game limits the world to about 1.4x the surface area of the earth.
Big massive world full of practically unlimited resources, all ours? Go wild. Right? Right. – Just like in real life.
During my first sheltered life of game time, I didn’t know anything more than break down the rocks, harvest the food, and perhaps watch my friend Justin build something magnificent that I could never make on my own.
So, Andy’s friends.
Andy’s friends joined our map in early September, and unlike our other friends Jon and Justin, these guys would play nonstop with every waking hour of freedom – like me. Except, Andy’s friends had played before, and their favorite play style with such experience under the belt closely mirrored mine: They wanted to do things they’d never done before but heard about – such as build a zombie farm in the sky – a so called “mob grinder”.
The theory of a mob grinder goes: The game tries to spawn monsters in a given area, but if the area is covered by water, no monsters will spawn. So, in theory, you could build a slab of concrete in the middle of the ocean, and monsters would spawn on it.
Slight problem: Monsters are dangerous, and they’ll kill you, so building a slab of concrete in the middle of the ocean is a terrible idea.
However, building a slab of concrete 100 blocks in the sky with a long controlled free-fall to another slab at the top of the ocean makes for a excellent monster-farming machine. You simply light up the slab at ocean level with torches so the game will think “Well, can’t spawn monsters here, it’s too bright”, and the game will instead decide to spawn monsters on the slab in the sky. The monsters will wander (or be forced) into the free-fall joyride machine of death, and you’ll collect the loot at the bottom.
Justin and I spent an entire real-life evening building this monstrous, ugly, hideous machine, our amazing mob grinder – just out of sight of the bay.
Building the grinder was a fun time as a team, except when it ended in failure.
Nothing would spawn on the sky-slab.
The next day, after a few internet searches and youtube videos later we learned that the game could be spawning monsters under the ocean, in caves in the same area below the ocean floor – the way around this? Build higher into the sky. Forum theory on the subject suggested that the game logic spawns monsters within a 128×128 block radius of a player, so if a player is say 150 blocks above the ocean, the game would never consider putting a monster beyond that ocean under ground.
So, we built taller. We were sure this time that we knew what we were doing, so we built a three-tiered machine with a massive 35×35 slab of concrete at the very top. That slab had water ways forcing monsters down into holes that led down to a 20×20 slab, then to a 10×10 slab, and finally into our joyride free fall chute of monster death. We built so high that we were above the in-game clouds. In game clouds would roll in and through our death machine – it was weird.
We built the machine, cut a hole in the wall on top of the machine, saw monsters spawning and raced down to see them splatter atop our harvesting zone, below the joyride.
It worked! We e-high fived, and collected our loot. We quickly christened our machine the ‘gun powder machine’ because creepers falling down the joyride would give us an endless supply of gun powder items when they went splat.
We started working on a sign for the gun powder machine when minutes later, the machine stopped working, again.
It stopped working because our players were more than 128 blocks from the slab-in-the-sky. So we went back to the top, idled for a while and got dinner – we came back and went to the bottom to collect riches, only to discover the only riches there were from monsters that had just recently followed us down the ladders (though they took the much faster joyride/splat route).
Our math was bad again – loot only stays spawned if a user is within some 128 blocks of the loot, so we had built ourselves a catch-22 machine, for the machine to work, two players would need to stand by – one in the sky, one at the bottom of the joyride, and waste their time waiting on things to happen.
After that disaster, I rage quit the game for half a week – it was the first serious investment of time that led to failure. What was I doing wasting my free time playing failure simulation games that made me mad? Screw that game.
Meanwhile Andy’s friends, true captains of industry and all things automated, had joined the game and by the next time I logged on they had a working “Iron farm” – which is a “mob grinder” for these monsters called “Iron Golems” that only spawn with very narrow criteria – not only had they crafted a working mob grinder, but part of the mob grinder involved a collection of villager people in a box. The villager-in-the-box ensured where the iron golem spawning zone was, and also kept interested zombies and monsters from killing the villagers.
So not only was there a working iron farm, but there was a box of villagers that constantly attracted zombie monsters at ground level toward a big pit that then led the zombies down a water way to a holding area where one could use a sword to kill the zombies for easy experience.
I had semi-rage quit, and I think Justin had too, two days earlier. But, when we came back, Andy’s friends had lapped us, twice, with a two-for-one double decker mob grinder that was fun for all ages – churning out an endless supply of both iron and zombies for the taking.
Around this same time, Justin, the artist, decided he would make a huge amazing temple to a fictitious god he called “Ahl” – he’d need tons of stone to do this – and having my first big set back with the failed grinder, I was happy to tear down the failed grinder and mine for a while for Justin’s dream home. He’d build, I’d dig.
Things were accelerating.
I had joined a world of pristine beauty, with a few holes in walls 5 blocks deep with an occasional door guarding an entrance. At the time, in the beginning, the world’s population of four was bickering about the spoils farmed from 20 pigs and cows without sharing them around.
Now, one real-life month later, we had an ugly machine that did nothing, and another that provided safe zombie ‘farming’ and unlimited iron for faster-digging and faster-fighting iron tools – not to mention iron armor.
A real-life week later, Andy’s friends had built a “trading village”, which is an elaborate huge area walled off and lit very brightly to prevent zombies.
Inside these walls they had built some god-defying machine that tricked the game logic into spawning baby villagers endlessly – this three story high contraption would constantly spawn villagers because the game was trying to get them to do something but a certain circumstance prevented the game from fulfilling its wish, so five minutes later it started again and an endless supply of villagers would generate.
Suddenly, Jason’s greatest hits of fuck ups, the non-working mob grinder and the previously mentioned sheeptopia ghost town were a distant memory. Like Iron, Villagers were no longer a precious resource. They were an animal, in a cage, not unlike our cows and sheep.
Problem was, too many villagers would spawn and the game would slow down, so what does one do with an infinite regenerating resource in abundance?
The first time I saw this machine I was reminded of one of the most terrible moments of my privileged life – the time I visited the holocaust museum in Washington DC. If you haven’t been, you need to go.
If ever you have an inkling of a thought that humanity is anything other than a godless collection of depravity that from time to time will invent some new previously unthought of terrible evil low, you need to go to that museum.
If ever you think there is a kind and benevolent god, or many gods, and humanity is that kind god’s greatest creation, you need to visit the holocaust museum.
If there is a god, he or she is not kind.
The museum has this tiny scale model of a gas chamber from one of the real camps, the model is terrifying. It’s about 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep, and a about 100 scale model humans fit within an 8 inch square. The model is truly terrifying to behold. For my entire life I had always naively and innocently pictured these world war 2 horror stories as some bank of showers to put perhaps 20 people to death at a time – they weren’t – the scale model shown in DC could have fit 1,000 people at a time with ease.
Six million seems like a large number, some factoid for the history test, until you see just a fraction of reality in tiny scale:
Anyway. The trader’s village baby creation machine reminded me of the holocaust in a bad way, and this caused me to start thinking a bit deeper about the meaning of our existence.
Are we destined to create brave new world like machines that create children without mothers, with some terrible secondary machine to deal with the excess of a bumper crop? Are we as humans ultimately a resource not unlike common iron ore in the ground? Dust to dust? It’s what plants crave?
The holocaust machine set me to thinking about real life outside of Minecraft.
I had not before in my life ever truly cared to understand how we got from zero to today – the future.
Never had I really given much thought to how incredible it is that so much *stuff* is so easily consumable and usable in modern society – and the sheer complexity and man-lifetimes of work behind these products and advances is astounding when you stop to think about it. For more on that matter, read this.
The game sparked a personal interest in life before the 1980s. I downloaded a book about the edison/tesla/westinghouse electrical rollout and wars of the early 20th century. The book detailed how at the time, American cities ran on gas-powered lamps – a common household chore was to clean the soot and muck out of the inside of the house’s lamps, and bonus: everyone had headaches almost all the time from the gas smell in their claustrophobic living rooms with the gas lamps running.
A hundred years ago there was no such thing as a record album of music. A hundred years ago music was something experienced as a group, and almost everyone knew how to play or sing.
A hundred years ago you did not go to a fancy restaurant downtown, because the streets were covered with horse shit. There were entire industries of workers working to move millions of pounds of manure from New York City streets every night of the year.
This was all just one hundred years ago, never mind a thousand years ago, or 2,000 years pre-roman empire with their world-changing water aqueducts.
The sheer complexity and enormity of many millions of lifetimes of industry is astounding – it is no wonder that younger generations born into a world with google and wikipedia often fail to find a reason to want to try – there’s just so much *stuff* – it’s overwhelming.
Around the time of the holocaust machine, Andy found an ‘automated chicken cooking machine’ recipe online – that is, a series of Minecraft blocks arranged in such a way that some chickens laid eggs, the eggs fell down to become chicks, and when the chicks matured they’d automatically be cooked and stored in a chest for later retrieval. Here was another machine not unlike actual horrors in our waking life, perfectly acceptable machines of industry that lowers the price of chicken and feeds the human race to a greater degree as the years of engineered efficiencies mount.
It was at this time that Andy also found a schematic for an auto furnace – that is, a furnace that you could prepare fuel and things to cook for, and it would automatically cook those things and deposit them in a chest for you.
In no time, I took Andy’s auto furnace concept to its logical horrible conclusion: a seven-way auto furnace that constantly consumed hundreds of buckets of lava to turn my second, improved “glass factory” into a real life honest-to-unkind-god factory.
I’d spend 5 minutes above ground with a diamond-level shovel enchanted with a magic spell to go fast and fill my 27×64 inventory full of sand in the middle of this desert in the middle of nowhere – then I’d climb underground, collect lava from a nearby lava lake, feed the machines, and go fishing in a manmade pond (not unlike most lakes in my home state) near by that was just big enough to “trick” the game into thinking this 3-block deep body of water deep underground should have fish in it.
Things were still accelerating, except our rate of acceleration was getting out of control.
Justin taught me about the ‘nether’. The nether was this other world area you can warp to using a specially built portal – every block in the nether mapped directly to eight blocks in the “real” (non nether) world. Justin told me a story about how he and Jon had previously built massive cities of buildings, interconnected by a nether highway.
I set out to do the same.
I first built a couple of portals between our bay and the dark and scary redwoods – a 20 block walk in the nether covered 160 of ocean and put us on solid ground. I then used my easy-to-make-thanks-iron-farm iron armor to protect me from monster attacks and I leveled a large section of the redwoods. Today, there is a massive plain leading into redwoods, and if the game would draw far enough, we would see Andy’s mesa area from our bay. No longer a dark and scary forest, the front visible areas of the redwoods now remind us of something out of bambi, a nice meadow leading into something that grows more treacherous slowly.
I then set out to build more.
I built a nether highway portal to Andy’s mesa area, with the iron farm and what not.
And a long while later, my nether highway reached all the way out to Justin’s temple that he had built near Jon’s old ‘house on the hill’ in the mountains. No longer would someone have to appreciate the enormity or beauty of the natural minecraft world, much like the real world, we could just walk a few blocks through the subway at a 8block-for-1block speed down a bland grey hallway and be at the mountains in 5 minutes rather than 30.
Then Justin went on a random adventure 5000 blocks to the east.
Then in half an evening I connected three villages he found during the trek to the nether highway – no need to see THAT beautiful trip again, just walk the bleak grey highway.
5000 blocks was a long way though, so we put in minecart tracks, and now we could travel from the bay to the mountains through nether minetracks inside of two minutes, down from the original 30 – only 2 minutes. Nevermind how bleak and boring the grey subways are, you only have to spend two minutes in them now!
At the end of the madness, my true glass factory was a moments jog from the iron farm where most of our players were constantly toiling on ever more fantastic machines.
Justin built his temple, I built my nether highway, then we were bored.
A few days later, Justin and Andy and I were recounting the crazy modern self-sufficient world we’ve all built. We were telling Jon, a hermit previously mentioned in previous posts, and he’s intrigued.
Recall that Jon was previously living atop a mountain, then I joked about burning his house down, so he moved to some secret place a thousand miles away.
Jon’s curiosity at our machines got the best of him, and like a fool, he came out of hiding, and told us his coordinates.
We build him a nether highway hook up in the blink of an eye – he then comes and looks around for half an hour, and moves again, almost instantly.
He builds a little hut for me as thanks for the nether hookup, and another hut he had promised Justin for helping him move and keep his secret a secret, and leaves.
We never saw him again.
From time to time he would taunt us with screenshots of so-called “Jontopia” – a wholly separate and different civilization comprised of a population of one. But he’d never give us his coordinates, because, in his opinion, our civilization and ease of Minecraft life “fucked everything up”.
“Whatever”, we thought, “his loss.”
Another player, our friend Nick, played from time to time too – sporadically. He too was a self-proclaimed luddite. We constantly offered him a free hookup to the utopian blight we were so quickly putting together, and for some strange reason, he always declined.
Justin and I were bored, and done. We’d done it all.
There was no point in mining more ore, besides Justin had played this game on and off through several huge maps many times several years before with differing sets of friend – he was done. I was too.
Then we yet again came up with another scheme, a non-holocaust-style safe village incredible in scope and size. Justin had told me in a previous Minecraft map in creative mode (unlimited resources / god mode) he and his friends had dug a massive hole 40 blocks deep – this sounded like a fun challenge to me, so again we were back at it. Just like his temple before, there I was, digging out a ton of stone underground, and he was toiling above ground building massive castle-like walls around this village full of villagers.
I built a massive 64 block long x 30 block wide underground farm that housed every type of farmable plant or nether plant known to man, and Justin built the walls protecting the village. I helped complete the walls and he built the beautiful turrets at the corners of the walls. I spent some time fertilizing an area of tulip flowers and he spent some time building more homes for our little utopia village to expand into.
Out of boredom I went on a short trip North and tripped into a ‘Jungle’ biome, which is the only place you can tame a cat.
The entire time we’d played the game, Justin had gone 5000 blocks in one direction, and I had once gone ten thousand in another – all in search of a Jungle biome – which, of course, all along, was just in our backyard in the other direction.
I was so excited to go catch some cats and show them to my wife – the world’s most crazy cat lady.
I tried my hand at building something beautiful like Justin could build, and yet again found that everything I touched had a great view from the inside, but looked like a giant mistake on the outside.
In the end I bred some 20+ cats of all three varieties and threw in the towel.
At the time, Andy and his friends had finished their work, their crowning final achievement? A snowball machine. Some steampunk looking monstrous intertangle of blocks of all sorts that automatically made snow balls and deposited them into chests. They were bored, and done.
Done done. We all were.
This was Jon’s perfect moment to say “I told you so” – our immaculate civilization had outdone itself, everything was too easy, our only option left was to start over again, brand new.
In playing the game I noticed we all had very distinct playing styles.
Justin is an extremely talented artist in real life, so it should come as no surprise that in the video game his aspirations usually leaned toward making something beautiful – something that looked better than any of the rest of us could ever make.
Andy and his friends do I don’t know what in real life, but for example Andy was happy as could be mining *forever*. Literally the entire time that guy played the game he was mining. We used a third party tool to create a google-maps like view of our world, and there were only two man-made objects visible from space – Justin’s huge temple, and Andy’s expansive mining tunnels.
Jon didn’t play all that much, and when he did, he just fished.
I was so fascinated by the game because in the video game I could make a bed, or a table or a boat – things I could not do in real life. Jon had played several times before, and besides, he can make tables and stuff in real life, so minecraft to him is a bit like a toy computer language is to me – interesting, but probably lame to some degree.
When my wife says “Stop playing that game and make something in real life.”, I cry inside, because I can’t.
When Jon’s wife says the same, Jon doesn’t cry, he’s a craftsman at heart and builds whatever the hell he wants, beautifully, in real life.
I’m a software engineer by day and over the years I’ve worked on projects both tiny and massive in scale. Most if not all of my career has been like an ongoing repeating game of Minecraft – I set out to accomplish something, accomplish it, get bored, move on.
I’ve hopped around from company to company a few times in my career thus far, sometimes by choice, other times not – but each time, no matter how dire the culture or impossible the goal – I am excited all over again to do something different, to solve some more problems and make something better than I’ve ever made before.
My real-world skills do not translate into being an excellent call of duty twitch-style-precision game player, nor do they translate into an ability to build something beautiful:
My skills and interests do however translate into the game’s machinery.
Every machine that Andy and his friends found or built, I had to know how they worked, every efficiency they had discovered over thousands of hours of game time was tucked into my memory.
Andy built a chicken farm near the iron farm, so I built a chicken farm twice as large near the skeleton farm – and then I proceeded to feed the chickens until some 500 chickens were running around in the top pen – the game would make glitchy nonstop clicking sounds as it attempted to keep with the occasional cluck sound per chicken – I made a chicken farm that would feed the world forever.
The next time I visited the farm, the chickens had been cut down to less than 100 – a good choice, the clicking sound stopped.
Andy taught me about the auto furnace and I almost immediately thought about this huge expanse of desert (read: sand resources) we found on our google-map of our world. I nethered it up, built the 7-way auto furnace and almost instantly demolished several picturesque sand dunes, turning them into glass.
I mined and mined and mined 40 levels deep under Justin’s massive castle village, just, more or less, to prove that I could. I was hell bent for several days on end to keep hunting the jungle for cats until I could show my wife all three types, and so on.
The software engineer in me bled through into the game, just as it does in real life outside of work. I tackled problems with great enthusiasm, and often thought of second or third ways to better solve the problem over again. My wife is forever frustrated at my consistent attempts at finding the ideal furniture arrangement in our home – no configuration is forever, and there’s always something better.
When I got bored in the video game, I’d leave everything behind, go out into the wilderness for a second, third, or fourth time, naked as the day I had spawned – with nothing, and start again, building something from nothing. If that’s not the story of my career, I don’t know what is.
Before I signed off for good I went to our nether highway’s ‘warehouse’. The warehouse was a giant room of storage chests, free stuff for anyone who needed it – as well as one box per player with their name labeled above it. Jon was probably the only one who might log into the game ever again, and that bastard had still been in full hermit mode and sworn off the nether forever. He was still just happy to virtual-fish once in a while, so that was what he did.
I did not know where Jon was, but I knew he’d sworn off the nether forever, so I went over to his specially marked chest and placed a little circle of princess-pink carpet around his box, for Jon, our little luddite hermit princess.
Weeks later our mutual friend Nathan told me he had been playing Minecraft, I told him to jump on our server and I’d give him a tour of everything. The tour was extremely fast paced, and made good use of our no-time-to-travel nether highway. The tour lasted over two hours in length.
Toward the end of the tour, I led Nathan to my glass house on the plains that once were beautiful redwoods. We exited the nether portal, opened the door, and I stopped cold – laughing in real life.
There, in the middle of my house’s entry way, was a patch of princess-pink carpet.
Some oddball luddite hermit had taken a trip on the nether highway, and I knew exactly who.
Some fool who for weeks after we were bored and done was still enjoying the game, making progress all alone on his own, without a care in the world. Fishing all the time.
Thanks Jon, you told me so. You were right all along.
The very last day I played, putting the finishing touches on a massive minecart track between the castle village and my “Amanda’s house of cats”, our friend Nick logged on again.
Like Jon, Nick had expressed adamant distaste for the idea of the nether highway. He too had been working on something of his own here and there, and no matter how often we offered to help or said we wanted to see his work, he’d say no.
For the millionth time I offered Nick a nether hookup, expecting no response yet again. He refused, but something strange then happened. He offered for me to come look at his secret getaway.
There were rules – I could only come by boat, no nether highway tricks near his area, and I was not allowed to tell anyone else the coordinates. As I gathered my supplies, he asked if I could bring something to make a bright light – I suggested nether brick, a brick that you can light on fire and it burns eternally. He said that would do and I said I’d be on my way shortly.
That last day I played I’d been thinking a lot about how strangely Minecraft resembles our real, true, world. It was not surprising to see Justin’s beautiful temple, or hear that Jon the craftsmen could give a fuck about virtual tables and boats. Just as in the real world, a civilization had risen to a certain technological point, and collapsed at that bittersweet moment when every carefree utopia turns into a dire dystopia of boredom and unrest.
But, unlike in the real world – playing with others was more exciting to me than playing alone. I had purchased a Playstation Vita and had played a fair bit on that, but the Vita always left something to be desired – no friends of mine had a Vita, so there was nobody to show or share triumph with, every triumph on the Vita was just a personal lame triumph nobody else would ever enjoy – and for some strange reason, this bothered me, deeply.
I take great pride in being a cowboy/lone-wolf/self-sufficient/delusionist. An introvert at heart, I’ve spent this entire day writing about 10K+ words about a virtual world that only exists in my friends and I’s heads – and I’ve been doing this to escape a rather wonderful but kind of fucked up right now every day life.
As an introvert, I quickly feel over stressed and worn out in the presence of others, and I’ve often worked remotely these past few years. This year in particular I worked from home four days of the week, every week, until around the time Nick asked me to come see what he was building.
Around the time Nick invited me to his virtual surprise, the year started winding down and other engineers on our team started traveling less, meaning I could work with them in the office more often. I did not want to do that – I was more efficient at home, building bleak real world nether portal highways to nowhere that meant nothing – rather than seeing the countryside or enjoying a bit of fishing like princess-pink Jon.
Anyway, Nick invited me over, and I set out on the way. He was due North of the original spawn island.
It was bittersweet coming back to the original spawn island. Every player had started here, naked, and afraid. Each and every players started this way, completely alone on an island far too small to sustain life at all. Every player, right out of the gate needed to surmount an impossible body of water before they could even begin.
When you died, if something had happened to the last bed you slept in, you’d respawn back at spawn island rather than in your home where your bed had been. Naturally, when this happened, some monster had just killed us and the game shot us a thousand blocks away to spawn isle – far from everything we were just now carrying around – items and loot we had spent real life time obtaining. Several of us were infuriated to learn our stuff would despawn some thousands of blocks away from us faster than we could build a boat and travel home – so, naturally, we nethered up spawn island.
I took a light jog down the bleak nether highway and portaled out to our more-efficient and now forever safe and easy spawn island.
No longer would one experience fear, dread, or anxiety if their bed blew up. Brand new players would never even know what life was like so many thousands of Minecraft days ago – indeed, our civilization had nicely wrapped up most if not all aspects of life itself in a nice and comfortable world of automation – the lot of us were free to retire and fish all the time like Jon, except instead of enjoying our work, we simply checked out and quit the moment our empire was realized.
I was thinking these bittersweet thoughts that last time on spawn island, on my way to whatever it was Nick had been secretly toiling about on from time to time. I got in my boat and started heading north. The sun was setting, and as I approached his area it began to rain.
As I drew closer I saw a massive grey building that looked not unlike something as beautiful as Justin would make. It was a cylindrical grey column of stone, with glass on top – Nick had built a light house, all alone, on his own – but without someone else, he could not actually light it up.
Nick never logged the hours that Andy and I did – he was much more like Jon in that he was rarely online. Unlike Jon though, he didn’t have to keep escaping technological progress to find harmony. Here he was, just another day on a rocky shore, finishing his master work – a light house, a solitary beacon in the pouring rain.
I gave nick the nether brick and watched him as he put the finishing touches on his masterpiece and for a moment I felt as if I were with a famous artist, watching the final realization of something magnificent.
I rode out in my boat to take a look, still in the rain. As I looked back to shore at Nick’s magnificent light house – I knew this would truly be the last “playing the game” moment I’d have in this Minecraft world, and like Jon with his fishing, I took it all in, soaking in one of those very rare moments where you know you’re forming a lifelong memory and you’re living it just then.
Nick’s lighthouse was beautiful, and a testament to his resourcefulness without the blight and easy hand of iron farms and infinite food.
In that beautiful moment I realized that all along what had made the game for me was not digging out stones, or building things, or digging out more stones, or making ever more terrible machinations – what had made the game special was the time spent with my friends, enabling them to realize their visions with some efficiency they would not have had without me – the software engineer who delights in automation and tooling in real life was at his happiest when helping someone with some tool.
It seemed foreign at the time, but after nearly a year of working in self-imposed solitary confinement, telecommuting from home, I realized that though we may be capable of horrific, terrible things; at the end of the day we still need one another, flaws and all.
Without each other we are nothing. Without each other we are Jason flying on a business trip to the middle of nowhere away from friends and family amidst family emergency, playing Minecraft on the Sony Vita, accomplishing incredible virtual triumphs all for naught, accomplishing something we’ll never share with anyone.
I recently realized that life is more than efficiency. Don’t forget to take some time to fish – with your friends.
Music: Matthew Good – In a Coma (deluxe edition with the acoustic tracks, naturally.)