Cool Stuff: Music & Audio (Part 1)

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

Required Reading

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buying Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vinyl fans should also consider the following:

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

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Choosing Test Music

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

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

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

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

Video for Sigur Ros’ Saeglopur:

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

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

Video for Ulrich Schnauss’ In The Wrong Place:

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

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

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

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Purchasing Hardware

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

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

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

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

Decent Hardware (Home Theater/Computer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headphones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Bankruptcy

Commiting to a rambling blog entry at 7a without sleep is always a good place to start.

Music: Matthew Good – Non Populous

TLDR: When it feels topsy-turvy, it’s time for a break. It’s okay to take a break.

Thursday, August 22: “Man, this stuff + work drama makes me so want to quit all of this crap. ever feel that way?” .. “Yes.”

I spent a large part of the year working on a half-dozen personal projects in my spare time, enjoying myself quite a bit – until I didn’t. I could have been stretching myself too thin, it could have been that my latest career move was a bad one, it could have been that the projects I’d kicked out earlier in the year didn’t bring results, it was probably all of the above. Truth is, the reasons, the who and why – they don’t matter. The thing that matters is that I wasn’t enjoying myself or these personal projects anymore.

A few years ago, a coworker I knew would regularly declare “social bankruptcy”. Like most software engineers (myself included), he was an introverted type – perfectly happy to sit at home alone for a full weekend. The problem was, he also enjoyed hanging out with his friends, and he couldn’t seem to find the balance between social and non-social personal time. His solution to the problem was social bankruptcy. When he felt overwhelmed by his social life, he’d tell his friends he’s declaring bankruptcy on social life for a little while, he’d promise to be back, but he’d make it clear that he was going underground for a while. He’d go underground, seemingly dropping into non-existence while he recharged his batteries on his own, and a month later he’d be back at it – ready for another 3 months or so of a busy social schedule.

For me, my creative efforts and interests have always been cyclic. There are definitive high and low tide moments from time to time – be it code, music, photography, whatever. When the tide’s growing towards a peak, I’m intensely prolific to an almost maniacal and occasionally intimidating degree. As the cycle wanes, my heart’s no longer in it, and at some point it feels I’m investing time into something that no longer makes sense.

This, for me, is one of those times.

My friends and I have collectively spent the past few years pumping out quite a few apps, websites, novels, albums, and so on – and it seems for many of us that 2013 is a very low-tide year. There will be another prolific creative cycle, and I will again feel my heart accelerating in excitement over some idea or another. But, it can’t be forced.

The downside to the low-tide is that it often feels as if something is wrong, something’s broken. Even though I logically know that my life runs in cyclic patterns, I worry that the last high-tide was the last there will be. In my experience, there’s no cure to the worry, except to stop everything, and wait it out.

Large, successful companies take a yearly inventory and figure out what’s next. This voodoo magic looks great to stockholders and gives c-level executives something to do besides fight PR fires. The important thing about the inventory is that it’s a self-assessment, it’s taking a little time to reflect on what was planned, what was done, what worked out, what needs a little help or a change, and what’s next.

I’d love to say that taking inventory is the solution to skip over the “wait it out” phase of the creative doldrums, but in my experience, trying to logic it out just makes things worse. There are some things that just take time.

There aren’t too many lightweight first world problems such as these that an occasional cocktail won’t help even out for a moment or two. Here’s my favorite recipe, or at least the one I’ve been trying of late:

  • Playing video games with friends, and on my own. Of late, borderlands and the ps3 edition of diablo 3 with friends, as well as diablo 2, luigi’s mansion 3ds, and pikmin 3 on my own.
  • Getting out of the house, vacation style – visiting friends and family both nearby and afar.
  • Dropping the to-do lists a few days a week and just being.
  • Taking long walks with my spouse and our dog.
  • Watching all of breaking bad in two weeks.
  • Exercise.
  • Listening to music or watching movies that help break the emotional dam for a moment, recent recommendations: into the wild, black rebel motorcycle club’s latest, anything matthew good, and/or a douglas coupland novel.
  • Experiencing a place with manic weather, like Seattle, better yet, camp in it.

The general idea is to relax the personal commitments and goals for a little while, minimizing the to-do list to only things that *must* be done, and taking some room to breathe. It’s not a cure, but it helps minimize the stress until the next worthwhile idea comes along.

When the room spins

I was young, but not so young as to not remember, perhaps 8. It was early evening, but felt like dawn. I clung for dear life, at the edge of my bed, as the room spinned and spiraled around me. Slowly, methodically, I made my way through ice cubes, mouthing one after another, willing the room to stand still. Sometime minutes or hours later, mother opened the door to check my fever – clearly still going strong. I beg her to make the room stop spinning. I cry in confusion, unable to grasp the edge of the bed strong enough to put the world back in place. Mother frowns at another thermometer read over 100 degrees, and tells me I need some rest. She explains the spinning room in terms of fevered dreams, while gently prying my rigid hands from the top of the box spring. She says “See the night light in the corner? Focus your eyes on that little light, and the room will stop.”

It was christmas break, 1999. My girlfriend and I were high school seniors, the so-called class of the 2000. Every waking hour of our better-than-the-rest education had always assured us both that we would somehow change the world, because we were born in the right time, at the right place. Right on the cusp of being grown ups, the world was changing – the year 2000 was mere days away, and christmas had been intense, more-so than previous years. We decided to see a film. We watched as Jim Carrey’s rendition of Andy Kaufman saw his world fade from practical joke to self-parody, with a witch doctor delivering the final irony – new age cancer curing surgery without a single cut. Kaufman sees a bit of chicken in the doctor’s hand before the surgery begins, and begins to laugh – it’s all a joke. Seeing this, I grip my chair, as the room begins to spin. It had been the first in a series of somber christmas breaks, mother’s terminal cancer had just been discovered.

Fall semester, junior year of college – just going through the motions. The girlfriend and I broke with a nasty split a bit before summer, and I had skipped the usual summer family trip – unable to spend a week bouncing off the walls watching our deteriorating mother on what we knew would be her last family vacation. I return from yet another Burden Brothers show, cross the room, and see a message on the answering machine. As I press play, my shitty hand-me-down living room furniture starts to ebb and flow, wiggling in place in the corner of my eye. “Jason, it’s dad. Something bad happened today with Carol, don’t worry, she’s okay, but you need to call me.” I dial, he picks up and the wiggling furniture starts to march. I grab the corner of my computer desk as my knees give way.

Christmas Break, 2003. I walk into her bedroom, and pet my brother’s cat, Sable. The cat had not left her side since the event from September, when mother finally let go. I ask her if she’d like to watch a new movie, promising she will enjoy it. She asks what it’s about. “It’s about a fish who’s lost his son, and lost control of his life.” She does not have the strength to object. As we watch the movie, she smiles an awful lot – much more than she ever did before the event, perhaps more than she had in many years. She’s enraptured, and I just sit and stare, gripping my chair for dear life. The movie finishes, she loves it – like a child. I do not have the heart to tell her it is the fifth time she and I have watched it together.

Three years into my career, I am on top of the world – though I would have preferred it not to spin. There was an engagement ring hidden on the upper shelves of my bedroom closet, and a bucket of ice near me on the bed. 20 years had elapsed since mother told me to focus on the night light, but this time there would be no need. The world around me, though spinning, was understood, simplified, and easy. The moment would pass soon enough, and before I knew it we’d be married, and then, and then, and then. I hastily push my fevered dreams into words on paper, for inclusion in an album my buddy John and I had been working on for a good while.

The lights were dimmed, and the slideshow began. A steady march of images synced to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism for our first dance. As the song crescendos the images start to wiggle, flashing faster in reverse. As images flicker, they paint her dress, her face. Our family and friends, our world, spins around us and I tighten my grip. Later, my father will hand me a card, a card mother picked for this day, years ago, before she died. Later, I will read my father’s word’s in the card and that night will return in a flash – just keep breathing, keep staring at that little night light, don’t stop staring, just ignore the dancing furniture, ignore the ebb and flow, focus on the light. We spin, the room spins, our friends, our family, the flicker of the projector, the swirling music, until finally, the end. I dip her, and hold onto her for dear life, we kiss and the projector stops on a single image – it paints us in golden light.

I look up from the kiss, and all I see is a bright light in darkness. In a flash, I am 8 years old, bewildered by fevered dreams and staring at a night light. I blink and I’m in the theatre unable to stop the tears. I inhale deeply and I’m with my childlike broken mother, days before she would pass. I pause, staring into the light, and hold my breath for just a moment. I exhale, and look away from the light. I hold her tighter, soaking in her shimmering golden aura, I hold her for dear life, and the world falls in place.

Sept 23, 2013 – 3.45a
Music: Matthew Good – Avalanche (the song)

It doesn’t matter.

I haven’t been taking many photographs recently.

When I analyze it, the story goes: I started sorting through years of photos, trimming the fat, collecting the better bits into something worthwhile. Sorting years of photos proved such a daunting task that at one point early on I was able to calculate how long it would take to finish this personal project. I determined it would take a long time – too long, really. So, why shoot more? Why bother?

My grandfather was a photographer too. Always with the camera. Every family get together, several photos a day. He always promised us that if we made a funny face, the photo would be printed at 8×10 size. I saw dozens of hilarious/embarassing 8x10s of various relatives over the years.

I’m halfway decent at photography – that is, I’m good enough to know it would take a whole lot of money and time I don’t have to buy equipment and learn about lighting and photoshop curves, and tweak tweak tweak tweak tweak.

I bought a DSLR a few years back, a Nikon D90 and some cheap lenses. Putting a piece of hardware like that in your hand teaches you *real* fast that you have no idea what you’re doing. The D90 practically killed my interest in expanding my photographic ability, until a few years later .. when the iPod touch had a little camera in it.

My grandfather was really a pretty amazing photographer. When he passed away around the turn of 2004, I had the opportunity to flip through tens of thousands of old photographs he took. For a while there I told myself I’d select the very best thousand or so and scan them for future-proofing. I had more than a few photo albums of his and diligently scanned and scanned for a while.

Problem was, there weren’t 1,000 good photos, there were tens of thousands. For every photo that meant something to me, there were 100 I’d skip on by that my father or an aunt would consider precious – snapshots of moments foreign and meaningless to me.

Photography’s a funny thing, as they say, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. A photo may hold a lot of sentimental value to you and have a hold on your heart that will never let go. The very same photo may mean nothing to anyone else, hell, some of your favorite photos of your spouse will never be their favorites of themselves.

Once in a very long while you’ll shoot something and know in that very moment that you’ve captured something eternal – some little moment that transcends the family reunion you’re standing in.

I didn’t start shooting until digital cameras became affordable. I never had to wait 3 days for a batch of exposures to come back and teach me. I’ve almost never had to wonder if I got the shot or not. Further, I’m able to shoot 1,000 photos in an afternoon without paying a cent for any of them.

I don’t think I’ve ever shot 1,000 photos in a day, but I could.

We had two photographers at our wedding. A few weeks after the event, we received 8 dvds with 5000+ raw images on them. Scrolling through the photos was more like watching a bit of a movie in slow motion than looking at a collection of photos. Several minutes worth of burst shots, 3 takes of the same shot – trying to get the one person to stop blinking.

Rewind to my grandfather in the 60s or 70s, or my father in the 80s waiting for the exact right moment to take some of those timeless, perfect, shots of a child or a bit of landscape. I sometimes wonder if my grandfather was experienced enough with his film-based camera to know he got the shot – could he tell he had captured something eternal?

If he could, is he the sucker, having to wait 3 days for that print to come back, or am I? Did he rush to open his envelope photos and have a second little transcendent moment when he confirmed he really did, indeed, get the shot?

There was a time in my life when I didn’t want to participate, and the camera became a weird extension of myself. In an odd way, it felt like the photographs would prove that I was living, after the moment had faded and passed.

There were more than a few moments where the camera got in the way of the experience. I’ve got great photos to show anyone who’d care to see – at the expense of missing more than a few ‘eternal moments’.

Every time I look through my photos of the past, a million memories flood in, many seemingly long forgotten. My photos remind me of scanning my grandfather’s photos in my shitty post-college apartment, wasting days and days of time. They remind me of the time the dog found a bag of powdered sugar and behaved like a high addict for a number of hours. The time I kept the shutter on long-exposure while my wife drove us home in a thunderstorm at night. The times I spent a whole summer walking our family dogs around the park with my father.

My photos, like my grandfathers, will fade. I know this, and you should too. At times it seems to take a monumental amount of effort to pick yourself up off the floor, and just keep on going – and photography, for me, occasionally feels very similar.

But, the photos remind me, when the timing’s right, that life’s for living – rather than archiving or proving something. This is why I continue shooting.

I never once asked my grandfather why he took photos – that was just who he was, what he did. I wonder if photography was both timeless and secretly tragic in his mind, as it is in mine. I wonder what he thought would happen to those ten thousand slides of random landscapes and buildings, I wonder if he cared.

Time is both finite and infinite. It’s finite for you and I, but infinite going forward. I think, – I think it takes equal parts courage and crazy to snap the shutter to capture that eternal moment that you know will fade.

School of Code: Making A Website

Corporate Metrics

Corporate metrics are a necessary but terrible mouse trap.

Rule benders will bend the rules, and creating a mouse trap to catch a rule bender inevitably turns into a rube goldberg machine.

This machine eliminates autonomy and freedom of choice. It transforms personal pride, integrity, and accomplishment into a generic store-brand product of mediocre quality.

Cultural metrics commodotize the definition of excellence, at the expense of all, to weed out the few.

Styling the Contextual Action Bar ActionMode Divider or Splitter for Android

The Objective Sea

Developers love to make lists. We’re not always great at organizing our lists or sharing them with the world, but boy do we love making lists.

It seems like I learn about a great new library, or trick, or tool from a peer developer, or hacker news every few days. Earlier this year I started writing a personal list of these resources in a spreadsheet, and after a few days there were over 250 items in my secret little spreadsheet.

I discussed this list-making with a few of my fellow developers and we agreed it would be awesome to combine our lists and make something like nshipster and one thing well blended together.

If nshipster and one thing well had a baby, it would be our new blog, The Objective Sea.

The Objective Sea features iOS development resources and tips aggregated from fellow developers, designers, and myself.

Topics covered include libraries, tools, web services, websites, low-cost design assets, career resources, osx and xcode tricks, and regular-old “wish i had known that before!” iOS SDK trivia. The site’s not just for iOS developers, there are or will be plenty of bash/unix and web application/web services related topics covered as well.

Example posts:

Some topics posted are well-known within the iOS development community, but there’s almost certainly something new for everyone to learn about. Three posts are published per week, so feel free to check back from time to time.

If you’d like to contribute to our master-list of awesome things, or write for The Objective Sea, contact me. We’re happy to add your name and a little bio (that you write) to our list of contributors, or reference your submitted material as anonymously contributed if you prefer.

Fix Crittercism’s lack of logging

Life in the information age (a response to PRISM)

I apologize up front for my rambling style. I promise these first few jaunts/missives connect up at the end.

A few years ago, I saw a profoundly disheartening and disturbing movie, Taken. The movie portrays a james-bond-alike saving a young abducted person from being sold to a highest bidder. In the end, the girl was predictably saved, and all evil-doers were vanquished (or at least held at bay until the inevitable sequel) – and all was right with the world.

The disheartening part of the film was not the ending, but, instead, the realization that the world the movie portrayed was very real, and the ending in many cases, is not at all what the movie would have you believe.

You hear urban legends of these types of things, and see a life’s worth of milkboxes plastered with missing children, and you don’t think twice. Your natural reaction to the milk boxes is to dismiss them by blaming negligent parents or assume the children are runaways, hoping they’re found and better off when they’re tired of rebellion. This is how you feel and think about milk boxes and missing persons billboards, and then you see Taken.

When I was a young man, I picked up a book entitled The Making Of The Atomic Bomb. I opened the book because I was curious how a scientist could trick himself into thinking the atomic bomb would be a good thing for the world. Within a few chapters, the book mentions that one of the major players in the manhattan project read a book in his youth. He had read H.G Wells’ The World Set Free, a book about a nuclear accident uniting the world and ushering in an era of lasting peace.

Later, another scientist, Oppenheimer had a moment of terrible revelation with the first successful nuclear bomb test, he stated “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” For many of the scientists involved with the manhattan project, they believed they were doing a great thing – and only realized the new terrible reality they had ushered in when the thing had been done.

I spent the formative years of my software engineering career working for big companies with logos you’d instantly recognize. I was astonished how inefficient and unapologetic the first big company was – everything was a PR game, an attempt to save face and protect the ‘brand’. The second big company I joined seemed more human, but no more efficient.

Working for a major company with semi-transparent leadership for a little while really opens your eyes. You realize everything in this world starts somewhere, and with enough man years of time, and a little luck, evolves into something we depend on – no matter how silly our politics are, no matter how inept we are as a species, all we need is time. After working in big places like that, you realize how truly amazing it is that our species put a man on the moon.

There’s a great HBO miniseries about our trip to the moon. The From The Earth To The Moon miniseries differs from others in that it portrays the space race from many angles – rather than telling a simplistic story of heroic space pilots and ignoring the forgotten. One episode tells the story of the lockheed martin engineering team that buit the lunar module. Another tells the story of the pad fire – that one always sticks with me.

When we were preparing to go to the moon, three of our astronauts died during an accidental fire that occurred in the middle of a training exercise on the launchpad. This was a profoundly saddening event in our country’s history, one that could have killed our attempt to make a moon shot before we had really started – but it didn’t. Committees were formed, investigations were made, negligence and predictable finger-of-blame politics ensued between companies who built the equipment. In the end, the space race moved on, and we landed on the moon, thanks in no small part to just the right amount of PR to put the right spin on the tragedy – more or less: ‘we make mistakes, we’re human, this is important, let’s move on and ensure these three astronauts did not die in vain.’ – powerful stuff.

I read a book a few years ago, The Light of Other Days, co-authored by the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke. The light of other days is especially relevant to present day society, in that it supposes a machine that eliminates all privacy and secrecy, forever. In the story, this machine gives the initial owner, a for-profit corporation, incredible power. For a while the concern is that this single corporation “owns” the technology. A potential solution is found by relinquishing that powerful position for the corporation, and giving the ownership of technology to the public. This settles fears and doubts for many. Everyone pats themselves on the backs for undoing the demon and federating it’s ownership, but society misses the whole point, the problem was not ownership of the machine – it was the implications of the machine and the terrible changes it would bring. In time, this machine’s existence rips society apart and reforms it anew as the human race adapts around the inevitable conclusion of this terrible new information age: a world without privacy.

Another book worth reading is Digital Apollo. Digital Apollo details the man vs machine side of our space race, showing the very-human concern that the men on the moon shots were no more than monkeys. As computer scientists figured out algorithmic ways to course-correct a spaceship, the purpose of the astronaut seemed to dwindle to that of cargo. In the face of technology that demands change, we fight to the best of our ability to ensure we can hold onto what we have without losing more. We fight like a corporation or NASA does when responding to some damning event with appropriate PR. We fight against our obsolescence, vigorously, wishing things to be the way the had been before – in essence, wasting our breath and time, until we accept the inevitable, and adapt.

The third book worth mentioning here is a biography of Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space, called Starman. The book is full of fascinating trivia about the secretive soviet half of the space race equation. Where the pad fire threatened to kill America’s bid for the moon altogether, the soviets dealt with similar issues much differently, they simply did not report anything other than success. When astronauts before Gargarin died during tests, nobody knew, which made for a much easier PR job – in that there was nothing to report, or refute, or smooth over, ever.

A few months back I had an enlightening conversation with a colleague. My coworker had always worked at small or young companies, startups mostly. He told me he did not understand how big companies do it. He wanted to know what big companies had that little companies didn’t, what it was like working with competent people instead of inept fakers. I laughed at my coworker’s belief that big companies had some secret sauce of professionalism that set them apart. I told him that all big companies had, in my experience, was a right-time-right-place dice roll stroke of luck, and a whole lot of people riding the coattails of that moment. Like the astronauts in Digital Apollo, the difference between a big company that survives and one that does not is their ability to fight and prevent change, and, against all odds, overcoming the ineptitude equation until their aggressively protected corner of the pie is irrelevant.

When I was a young man, I had a live journal account, and blogged regularly – all sorts of meaningless trype about my school days, or perhaps neat books I’d read (natch :)). My high school girlfriend’s uncle read my blog and said to me he was both impressed and wary of my generation’s ability to put something out in the open where anyone could read it, on the internet. At the time, as a 19 or 20 year old kid, I did not think much of it. Nor did I think much of my mother paying for family counseling and therapy out of pocket to avoid insurance records “for our future”. I did not think much of these things, because I perceived I had nothing to lose, I perceived the world as a very bright and possibly great place where honesty and truth would win some eternal struggle. Now, many years later, I know better of such beliefs. Now, I simply smile and nod my head when someone tells me they are not worried to lose privacy because they have nothing to hide…

When my parents had marital problems in the late 90s they did not want insurance documents including their children’s names associated with therapy bills, fearing an association with mental illness haunting or possibly harming their children later in life. Years later those very same insurance companies introduced pre-existing condition checks, a seemingly first step down the slippery slope to the information age dystopia that my mother had always feared. The theory goes that after denials for pre-existing conditions maximize profits and there’s nobody left to deny, the next natural step would be to widen the set of conditions to exclude for in the name of capitalism, and naturally, any record at all of my family’s genetic predisposition to mental illness, addiction, heart disease, the common cold, television advertisements, or whatever, would doom us all.

But, it appears at this juncture, unless a Republican is elected in 2016, the insurance company dystopia will not in fact happen just yet. Obamacare, that “horrible socialist tool”, is doing away with all that pre-existing condition bullshit and taking a first step in the opposite direction – ensuring we’re all covered. With a bit of work, and a stupid amount of politics, that first perilous step toward health insurance armageddon has been undone – for the moment. It’s entirely possible the insurance companies will be able to re-take the ‘pre-existing’ condition step and many more in the wrong direction in the future if our government and population fails to keep these problems in check.

In our democratic system, it is said, we have a system of checks and balances. Indeed there are many examples of our nation righting itself non-violently from time to time. This system allows for us, as a people, to change the rules – if, and when, we care to. Unfortunately, human ineptitude, complancency, and greed persists – and when we let our guard down, wrong steps can be taken, repeatedly.

In high school, my economics teacher asked my classmates and I what set us apart from China. I knew nothing of China except that most of my stuff was manufactured there. My high school teacher reassuringly taught us the difference between ourselves and China was that we respected human rights. She reassured us that our government does not make citizens “disappear”, or “spy” on its citizens. Before that day in class, I didn’t give two shits for this country China, but after it, I was filled with all-American uninformed patriotic hatred for the country. As the information age progressed, Google was invented, and somewhere along the way I stumbled onto slashdot. Slashdot taught me all about how my economics teacher was right.

Slashdot taught me all about the “Great firewall of china“, and how chinese-state sponsored hackers aimed to destabilize other governments. Slashdot comments mentioned a great book called “The Light of Other Days”, and somewhere buried in there I also learned about how the Chinese government works based on bribes. Without a bribe or two, your company doesn’t exist in china.

Then 9-11 hit. And the patriot act came into existence. And hilarious stories of WMD became truth, and the headlines started to change.

In the years since 9-11, slashdot taught me a whole lot about gauntanamo, historical stories of our own government destablizing other governments, and how we “fine” companies that pay “bribes” to China. It’s an important choice of language, you see, you pay a “$3 Million Dollar fine” to the American government, and a “$3 million dollar bribe” to the Chinese government to continue doing business in that country. One must be very careful not to mix up the bribe vs fine paperwork while mailing the checks.

Slashdot taught me we’re all the same – that we’re all really very clever, inept, silly humans. Playing out constantly evolving versions of the same old games. Slashdot taught me that, in fact, my economics teacher was wrong – there’s not so much different between human beings in another country and those in my own. The only difference between countries and people in this world are means. Some countries can afford to play the space race game, or save other countries in world wars, and some countries cannot. A country not being able to afford to play at super-power levels is disadvantaged, because the game goes on with or without their involvement – indeed, the cold war lives on.

Slashdot often features many articles from bruce schneier, a security expert with a great blog about the truths and ills of security. A great thing about bruce’s take on security, is that he’ll talk about the not-so-great truths of security: security theatre, the illusion of security, and so on. One particularly great article recently featured on Hacker News from Bruce’s blog, details a pervasive NSA program that intercepted all telegraphic communication entering and leaving the United States for many years during the 60s and 70s. A program not unlike PRISM.

The gratifying punchline to Bruce’s article on the older NSA program was that the program was eventually (allegedly?) shut down by someone who cared enough to undo the program. The recent uncovering of the NSA’s PRISM program only proves the point that when we do not care, something like denying health insurance for pre-existing conditions can come right back again.

For years journalists have decried the patriot act, calling it a step in the wrong direction. Schneier’s article, and any mildly educated historical perspective proves to us that history repeats itself, the patriot act being my parents’ generation’s version of mcarthyism. My once-hippy parents would be the first to tell you mcarthyism was a bad thing, as was vietnam, and yet history repeats itself N years later – I’ll have to remember this when my generation pulls down this patriot act nonsense with a vote in 2016 but turns the blind eye in our old age to the next repetition of this age-old tune for fear of some new perceived threat. Perhaps the terrorists of the future will threaten our cat memes and lolz, oh no!

The movie JFK opens with this ominous quote from President Eisenhower’s farewell speech, where he speaks about the terrible new reality he had part in birthing: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” The movie implies some inept political types within the intelligence community who did not get their way got even with JFK in other ways. Sound like a familiar theme to anyone who’s worked in a big company? I am so glad these childish vice presidents in companies do not have portions of the military at their disposal-

Wait, our politicians are no less inept than you or I, so instead let me say I’m glad this kind of military-response-to-not-getting-ones-way threat is minimized (a la nuclear proliferation) to a very small set of organizations in our country.

A few years after seeing JFK, I heard CNN report about the president-elect spending a few days with the DOD being debriefed. In my imagination these talks went something like this: Days 1-3: the president-elect is shown a ton of DOD ideas on powerpoints. Day 4: as the president is leaving mid-day, someone from the DOD hands him a file labeled TOP SECRET, and “JFK” on the folder label. The president elect opens the binder, and inside finds a single word printed on a single piece of paper: “Yep.”

My imagined DOD debriefing seems funny, and fanciful – as I mentioned earlier, I have a tendancy to view the world as bright and beautiful, and simple. And yet, our latest president has doubled down on all of the things he said he would undo, dangerous persons detained unendingly, expanding domestic surveliance, and so on.

Age and experience have shown me that the true tragedy here is not that an elected inept CEO of the country went back on his word – the tragedy is probably something much more sinister than the silly notion of a JFK file filled with DOD-lolz. Our president going back on his word, this badly, perks my ears and reminds me of the movie Taken – a movie that showed me just a glimpse of the terrible side of the human condition I had not previously imagined. The president wasn’t strong armed with some fantasy JFK file, he knows about some truly fucked up shit, the bad side of this information age dream, and he’s just doing his best to play along – that is, keep us in the game and give us a fighting chance. Like the rest of us, he does his best to make the world a better place – sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. For Obama, this could very well be his own “destroyer of worlds” moment of revelation.

A whole lot will be made of the nature of PRISM, a lot of FUD will spread around saying it’s necessary, as will stories claiming that the program is both small and large in scope. A whole bunch of powerfully effective double-speak filled PR will evolve this story into something that may birth a entirely new generation of JFK-like conspiracy stories. And none of this will matter. Ignore it, this is just another antiquated company’s leadership desperate struggle to save face and, ironically, undo the damage done when one of their own private secrets has been exposed.

There will be a big distracting fight of semantics and details, where we all may complacently accept that the pipes are hooked up, but argue endlessly about how they’re being opened and closed. Like in the story The Light of Other Days, we may distract ourselves with ownership of the technology, and forget all about the true “Taken” realization here: the privacy-free reality that we all now know either exists or is inevitably coming.

We can impeach the president, or pat ourselves on the back for voting someone different in, but in the end we’re likely to be caught with our pants down – having forgotten that this forward momentum of new technology and change does not stop. Like those little countries without the means to keep up, we can elect not to participate in this brave new version of the game, but the game will move on, with, or without us. PRISM, and a thousand other programs like it, will continue to pop up, all over the world. We may limit our country’s domestic surveillance programs, but how will we limit an enemy-nation’s program?

It’s important in times like these to be careful in resorting to blame games. We need to remember those embarassigly horrible internal emails we receive from our inept CEOS – or the one time you shook your CEOs hand, then saw him give a less-than-polished speech internally later that day – that time you realized that he, just like you, is just another inept human – trying from time to time to make the world (or, for lesser men, his own world) better in some way. Think about your funny inept CEO, and then go back to Obama, or the NSA, or our population, or me, or whoever. We’re all, collectively, a big inept part of the equation that occasionally results in technological progress like PRISM.

The point, and perhaps the darkest part of this PRISM nonsense is that we’ve entered a new reality. A reality we’ve read sci-fi books about, or heard about in the UK with CCTV. A reality full of automated tickets from traffic lights being a funny start to something much bigger, and something potentially much harder to adapt to as a society.

For me, PRISM is not surprising. Nor is the double-speak PR or potential giant conspiracy yatta yatta, for me, PRISM is a depressing revelation that we’re further down that path to the light of other days than I previously thought. Worrying about the particulars of the pipe into google being full-throttle or partial is a distraction, because it will be full-throttle some day – this is the way these things go. To me, PRISM is another version of the movie Taken: a rude awakening of realization that the world is just a little darker than I had hoped. We now understand that a future will exist where those not beholden to a single country’s rules will be integrated with more than PRISM between them, and it is my dearest hope that those interactions will be as closely regulated and beholden to us as a people as the NSA is.

My advice: Remain vigilant, remember these broken promises, but don’t let the bastards get you down. We’ll right this particular wrong, and for the larger issues, well – We’ll adapt.

“As one of my mentors said many many years ago… ‘Use the Internet like you would use a post-card. Everything you do can and will bee seen.'” – a random anonymous comment I saw on Facebook recently.

Here are some related movies and books I’d recommend investigating:

Music: Sigur Ros – Popplagio