10,000 Hours of Something Else

Many, many years ago, before a time when the Toronto Blue Jays were back-to-back World Series champions, I spent a remarkable amount of time playing a tenor saxophone. The instrument was borrowed from the school I attended and, as one would expect, I played in the brass band with 49 fellow students. The saxophone was a wonderful horn with an attractive sound when one learned how to effectively play a reed instrument, and it was something that I wanted to excel at. There was band practice three times a week and, when there wasn't, the sax would be carried home or to a friend's place where it could be put to use for an hour or two before dinner.

There were no illusions of being the next Kenny G, though. While the act of playing music was incredibly enjoyable, it wasn't going to be a career. The last time I had a sax to my lips was in 1991, playing in the band for the graduating class of that year.

While I'm not keen on picking up the saxophone at this point in time, I have been seriously thinking about trying my hand at the acoustic guitar. This is thanks in part to Spotify, which has a seemingly endless supply of playlists dedicated to the instrument.

Classical Gas Sheet Music

A lot of the hobbies that I've invested time into lately have all involved using a computer at some point, be it photography, exoplanet exploration, podcasting1, reading, writing, chatting, sketching, learning, or coding. Everything seems to revolve around a screen and Qwerty keyboard at some point to accomplish a goal2. It would be really nice to do something else for a while, though. Ideally something that will take me away from the computer.

An acoustic guitar would certainly do this3. Just as with the sax, there would be no illusions of a career in music. The purpose would be to play some of my favourite songs and maybe jam with the family from time to time as they play one of the other instruments in our house. We currently have a piano, a violin, and a trumpet; all of which would sound nice with an accompanying guitar.

The only real challenge that I see is dedicating the time. Everything else can be solved with practice and perserverence.

  1. I'm still recording every so often, but rarely ever publishing.

  2. Baking is probably one of the few pastimes where I am not sitting in front of a computer at some point.

  3. As would a lot of other musical instruments, of course.

Five Things

The weather this weekend was so nice that men over sixty were wearing winter jackets, people under 40 were wearing jeans and a light jacket, and kids were wearing as little as their parents allowed. As one would expect, the family and I managed to spend a good bit of the daylight hours outside. While the boy was not always happy with what was going on at any particular moment, he did greatly enjoy playing in the 7-Eleven-sized sandbox at a park not too far away. Lots of pictures were taken, and I even managed to get some great shots thanks to the fast shutter speed of the Canon DSLR. The summer humidity is not far off, so we're trying to enjoy as much time outside as we can beforehand.

Weather report aside, it's time for another list of things that don't necessarily warrant a blog post. First up …

The $300 CD

There used to be a popular music store in Ontario called Sam the Record Man that would often import albums from around the world. In the fall of 2000, Hamasaki Ayumi's 3rd studio album Duty was released to much fanfare, and I wanted a real copy, not just the decent-quality MP3s from Napster. So on the week of the release I called ahead to confirm the store had stock of the CD and asked that one be set aside for me, and I would be up on Saturday morning. On Friday I rented a car from the nearby Budget and invited a friend to join me on the 2-hour drive from Hamilton to Toronto to pick up a CD from Japan.

Young people have so much time on their hands.

The drive up was probably uneventful as I don't remember much about it. When we arrived at the music shop I went up to the counter and asked if they had my CD on hand. The clerk checked and, as one would expect when a young person calls a store asking that something be set aside, the CD was not waiting for me. Fortunately there were still two discs in stock and I picked up the coveted album for the insane price of $44.95 CAD, which was before the 15% tax was applied. Of course, as I had rented a car and drove for two hours just to get this CD, I didn't stop at just one Japanese import disc. I bought three: the aforementioned Duty album, a TM Revolution album, and a compilation from Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Not only was I young, foolish, and employed, I was stupid, too. All in all, the three discs came out to a little over $100, making the trip to Toronto come in at around $300 in total. Did I enjoy the drive? Absolutely. Did I enjoy the CD? Very much so, as I still listen to it today … on Spotify. Would I do something like this again? Probably not for music or some sort of collector's item.

Not the Target Audience

April is considered the start of the year in Japan for schools, TV shows, and a number of businesses that prefer fiscal years not follow calendar years. This year a number of shows that the boy likes to watch have seen regular cast members go and new people join. Animated shows such as Thomas and Friends has also started another season, with the voice actors the boy and I have come to know reprising their roles. There's just one problem: I strongly dislike the changes. Especially when it comes to Thomas and Friends.

The boy disagrees. He loves the changes. I haven't heard him laugh this much when watching his programs ever. Clearly I'm not the target audience, and that's fine. So long as the boy is happy, then my opinions on the matter are less than inconsequential.

Power Napping

In an effort to try and regain some semblance of sanity, I've decided to invest some time in power naps throughout the day. For the moment it's just five to ten minutes in the afternoon, but may try to squeeze in ten minutes after 4:00pm as well. With a slightly more rested mind, better things will happen … like being able to stay awake during meetings.

The Sound of Processing

Sleeping in the same room as the 10C server1 means I get to hear when the system is doing some heavier lifting. What's interesting is hearing the system and the hard drives work when it comes time to do the hourly and daily backups2. There's a certain rhythm to each backup and I've already worked out the sounds of a healthy backup.

I wonder if people who work at data centres also train their ears to catch anomalies.


Tomorrow will be a big day for the boy as a nearby kindergarten opens its gates to neighbourhood children who will start attending school for half a day starting April 2020. There are three kindergartens in the area and we're not yet 100% certain which school would be best for him, so tomorrow's open house will be an interesting opportunity to see the facilities, the teachers, and how the boy reacts to everything. He's not particularly comfortable in areas with a whole lot of foot traffic, but kindergartens should be different given the size of the feet.

With just one week remaining before most of the country shuts down to celebrate the series of national holidays and the new emperor's coronation, it will be interesting to see how much work gets thrown my way. Given the amount of overtime that I've been clocking the last couple of weeks, I fully expect managers to start stepping in and asking that I do much, much less.

This is assuming, of course, that managers at the day job start to manage.

  1. My snoring is keeping people awake, so it's better if I sleep in a different room for the time being.

  2. The database is backed up hourly and the files are done daily. Spinning disks are used to store uploaded data while SSDs are used for the databases.

The Power of Music

What a difference a good soundtrack can make to an otherwise dreary day. The skies above are dark and grey with the oncoming typhoon, and people are dragging their feet as they commute through the persistent summer humidity. The calendar may proclaim that we're in the middle of October, but Mother Nature begs to differ. With temperatures pushing 34˚C every afternoon and humidity levels above 80%, there is just no relief from this year's oppressive summer. But every so often we see a person walking by themselves, smile on their face and bounce in their step. The reason? Music.

Portable music players have long had enough storage capacity to provide people with dozens of hours of tunes. My own iDevice has enough of this audible art to amplify emotional states or otherwise keep me entertained for 39 hours. The network server has another 600-odd hours that can be called upon when required. Some people undoubtedly have far more than this, but the reasons are the same: music speaks to us on such a primal level we can't help but be swayed by the rhythmic enchantments.

Like a good, non-destructive drug, we consume music to escape reality and add some spice to the repetitive activities we find ourselves doing day in and day out for most of our adult lives.

Some time ago I belonged to a religion that outright banned music in all its forms. Music, for them, was the work of Satan who wanted to distract us from what was truly important in life. This was the most difficult aspect of the religion, and I quickly fell out from the group1. How can such a raw expression of emotion be considered a bad thing?

Heavy rains and boring paperwork be damned; I'd much rather enjoy my day.

  1. not only because they didn't approve of music

Listening to the 70s

The Alan Parson's Project produced, without a doubt, some of the most iconic music during the 1970s. My father would often listen to two albums produced by Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons during the summer and, because I was in the house, I would listen along with him. Music was a constant part of my youth, but I'll admit that I didn't really start listening to music until my late 20s. This doesn't mean that I didn't hear and enjoy music before then, but I never really stopped to listen to the words or get a better understanding of the meaning behind the words until this time. The music was always more important than the words.

Some groups were exceptions to this rule, of course. The music of Simon and Garfunkel was very rarely about anything but the words. These people, Paul Simon mostly, weaved stories and tapestries with their lyrics. Most musicians had words in their compositions decades ago, but I was far more interested in the sounds than whatever message they might try to convey. Every song was the same, I thought. They were either about love, loss, work, or a pep-talk to get through some situation. I didn't need any of these things before I was 20 … the concepts were all foreign.

Music started to have a different meaning for me in the fall of 2003, shortly after I fell out with a group of friends who tried so hard to guide my spiritual enlightenment. My thoughts had become more coherent and focused by this time, and I started to pay more attention to the words in a lot of the songs I'd listen to while walking the 5.7km from my apartment to work. Doing so showed me a whole side to the art that I had missed: subtext.

Between the lines of many lyrics rested one of three things; a hope, a story, or a plea. Transcending genre, it became possible to see the patterns in a number of songs. Eminem would often bury his pleas within an elaborate story often involving violence towards women, stupid people, or animals. Faithless would carry messages of hope. Hamasaki Ayumi, despite being a Japanese artist of dubious competence, would bounce between hope and a plea within her stories depending on her personal life at that time. The music started to make more sense than before. It was at this point that I decided to go back over my entire music library, which was quite massive at the time, to extract more meaning from the works that I had enjoyed for their instruments.

What I found was disappointing. A lot of the stuff that I had grown up with was terrible. There was no purpose. There was no meaning. The lyrics were written less skilfully than a Japanese TV mystery1, and nowhere near as entertaining. I started deleting the albums that made no sense.

Now, I've made my way through all of the music from the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, culling the nonsensical claptrap along the way. Next on the chopping block is my tiny collection of albums from the 1970s. Groups like The Alan Parson's Project, Boston, Styx, and other classic artists will be examined with a fine tooth comb as I listen for the intent behind the music. So far I've been impressed, as only Blue Oyster Cult has made it on my list to double-check. A song does not need to make sense for me to enjoy it or keep it in my vast digital collection, but there does need to be some consistency. In the case of Blue Oyster Cult, I just haven't figured out there pattern. There are pleas, there are stories … but what's their underlying theme?

At the end of the day I highly doubt any of the 34 albums I have from the 70s will be eliminated from the library, which is a heck of a lot more than I can say for the albums I bought in the 90s. The quality of the music just seemed better before I was born despite the emergence of disposable, commercial bands. What I like most about this process is being able to re-examine music I have heard my whole life and extracting new meanings and a better appreciation for the skill that went into composing each piece, the good and the bad.

I wish I could have learned how to do this 15 years ago.

iTunes Price Discrepancies

I look forward to the day when Apple releases their own currency and does away with the rather large price differences in the various iTunes Stores. This seems to be a common thread whenever I want to buy music or movies … the prices in Japan are not just higher here than in the home market, they're higher by at least 40% without taking into account other factors such as the exchange rate. Apps don't seem to suffer this sort of wild discrepancy.

To prove the point, here's a CD that popped up in my "Genius" recommendations which, oddly enough, brought me to the US store:

Here's the very same album, but in the Japanese store:

I'd love to know why music and movies are consistently more expensive in Japan than elsewhere. Is it really because the big businesses that control distribution in this country have such a stranglehold on the merchandise that they can charge whatever the heck they want because they know people will pay it? Perhaps … but I can't help but wonder if Apple is using stronger foreign currencies as a means of hedging their losses for sales at home1.

Inappropriate Cheering

For a long time I've avoided "Live" album recordings as the sound from the audience often got in the way of good music, particularly with popular music containing catchy lyrics. My argument was that I paid good money to hear the artists perform their music, not the audience. However another issue that I've often had trouble ignoring is the inappropriate cheers and whistles from the audience during particularly charged works involving topics as mundane as dropping out of school to more serious events such as war, murder, and increasingly criminal activity. What is the audience actually saying when they loudly proclaim their enjoyment of the musical piece during or immediately after hearing something like "you killed my family, so now you're next"?

Truth be told, the audience probably isn't even thinking about timing when they applaud their favourite artists. One of the oddest examples of this would be during the Eminem & Elton John version of Stan.

The protagonist, a self-proclaimed number-one fan of Eminem by the name of Stan, recounts his story of waiting for months to hear a reply from the many fan letters that were sent to his idol. He explains that he's been to every Eminem concert and talks about the guy all of the time. So much so, in fact, that his friends and family are sick of hearing about Eminem. Oddly enough, the guy has a girlfriend and happily reports that he's about to be a father. Should he have a daughter, the girl will have the same name as Eminem's eldest daughter. That's how much of a fan he is.

The good times are not to last, though. Stan goes through fits of rage, particularly when things don't go the way he wants. He wants to be Eminem's greatest friend and confidante. He wants to be the right hand man. But this sort of thing is crazy. The artist currently known as Eminem exaggerates on his albums to garner ever-larger reactions from people who make it a living to be offended by things that have nothing to do with them. Stan, however, doesn't see it this way. He slits his wrist and drinks so much alcohol that his liver might as well just give up. After one particularly rough day, Stan goes overboard and destroys his house. The posters are ripped off the walls. The CDs are thrown in the trash. His 8-month pregnant girlfriend is tied up and thrown into the trunk of his car. We can hear her screaming. He's going to drive the car with everyone inside off the bridge and into the river!

Then we hear the crash of the car breaking through the side-barriers … followed by a splash as it hits the water. The car sinks.

The fans cheer as the music becomes quiet.

Then Eminem "writes" his response only to realize at the end of the letter that the person he's writing to is no longer alive. The realization is like a blow to the gut, that this man killed himself because Eminem didn't respond fast enough. It's an inside glimpse to some of the problems artists can face when fans are a little too devout. Whether the content of the song is accurate or not, the message behind it is very real.

Yet the fans cheer as though the duet just sang a semi-uplifting version of Rabbit Run.

For a long time things like this bothered me. Probably because I pay too much attention to things that aren't meant to be observed. Or perhaps Eminem intentionally left the fans' response to the song as a way of raising this particular point. Cheering is great. Showing respect is great. But timing is everything. Cheering when somebody drives his car off a bridge with his pregnant partner bound and gagged in the trunk of the car is inappropriate … isn't it?

I'm still not a fan of live albums but, when I do listen to them, the audience is what I tend to pay attention to.

A Golden Record

The Voyager spacecrafts have been making their way into the farthest reaches of (local) space for longer than many of us have been alive and are about to breach the constantly fluctuating border that separates our solar system from interstellar space. Affixed to the two Voyagers are gold records that contain some music, sounds, and scenes that would best represent humanity. A number of people have complained about the selections NASA made, saying that the American organization didn't do enough to ensure every distinct culture or musical genre was included, but we can't please everybody when storage space is at a premium. However, as technology has progressed, digital storage has become increasingly cheap to produce. The Guardian has recently conducted a survey to find out what people would want to share with some spacefaring crew1 that may collect this device in the future. It's an interesting question.

So many of the public decisions that people make now are declared epic fails before they even have the opportunity to prove them selves2. Just like before, pleasing every person would be an utter impossibility. Some would want the entire library of AKB48 to be shared with a technologically advanced society, while others would focus on the classics that have proven staying power. Could we ever make the least wrong decision and agree more or less on a playlist?

Honestly, with over 7-billion opinions3, there can never be good consensus on the music and sounds that we send into space. What I would suggest is something quite a bit different than the wailings of Louis Armstrong or the gentle song of whales. Instead, I strongly believe that we should consider adding a rather robust data module with a simple computer that would contain text, images, and some audio files. We should send an enhanced Wikipedia.

How much storage will be required for such a feat? That depends on how we package it up. Wikipedia was reportedly just shy of 8 Gigabytes in size in 2007. Over the last five years the site's database has grown exponentially and in several dozen new languages. When compressed, this size shrinks to somewhere between 5 and 12% of the uncompressed and can easily be stored on flash chips that are able to withstand the dangers associated with space travel. A separate little computer would be included to either view the Wikipedia database, or to use as a model of how to construct our crude computing devices.

As time goes on, the database we send out into space would continue to grow and our probes will become ever faster. There is a very real possibility that we can build a device fast enough to reach another star system within a human's current lifespan in the next few centuries, so there is a possibility that eyes not of this world could stumble across this rich wealth of information from another planet and learn about our culture, our languages, our world, our science, our politics, our mistakes, and our triumphs. All of these things are contained in Wikipedia, and all of these things are readily available to any alien who makes their way to Earth and connects to the Internet. It's only a matter of time before other intelligent beings learn about us and our history, so why not put it all out there?

There are risks, of course, but this is what I would like to see put on future interstellar probes. The weight would be negligible and, at the very least, it would be something humans could look back on in the centuries to come should some calamity bring us to the brink of extinction before we clawed back to become the globe-trotting, cell phone-using species we are today.

Writer's Block

Over the last few years there has been a rather serious drought in decent rap music with many of the big names having moved into more of a producing/mentoring role as they approach 40. Like many types of music, decent artists come in waves with droughts that can last several years in the middle. This is for a number of reasons, so the ebb and flow of album purchases with the various genres is likely monitored very closely by record label executives who try to determine how much money they might be losing by having too many lackluster performers on the payroll. All this said, it seems like the current dry spell is about to come to an end.

Recently I picked up Royce Da 5'9"s recent single, Writer's Block, and it's been on my daily playlist ever since. Like everything rap, the 4 minute 35 second track is all about how awesome the artists are while everyone else sucks. Unlike the more recent stuff, though, the lyrics are much more logically written and put to a very strong back beat. Having listened to the single several dozen times in the last few weeks I think I can safely say that this is the greatest track Royce has ever been on.

Here are a few of my favourite lyrics from the piece:

I ain’t calling names cause all of y’all the same, plus,

I’m the king, all my past pain all done changed up.

All these plains, all these lames, since the Slaughter’s came up,

Cause they know they hands tied, feet ball and chained up.

Translated: "Nobody can tell the difference between any other rapper, and they are all very bad at what they do. To make matters worse, they're unable to adapt to the changing styles that are being brought to the genre by better-supported artists."

My shit is powerful, literally sick, trust me nigga,

It’s ugly to kill a thing if the bigger I get.

The more disgusting and fuckin’ disfigured it gets,

Niggas expect me to go pop, oh, stop.

Y’all about the champagne, I’m about the toast.

Translated: "I am awesomesauce. You're waiting for me to disappear, but forget it. You want to reap the rewards of success, but I want to savor it."

I, only fuck with mailmen with heroin from Boca,

Niggas that’ll smoke you while you staring in your postbox.

Only incense he enlightens when he’s thinkin’,

While that sinks in, I got a Brinks ink pen.

I’m back, mutha fucker!

Notice the flyness on the cover of the XXL.

I’m back from the dead like Tobey Maguire from the Brothers,

How y’all realer? If I said it, I did it.

If I didn’t, I seen it first-hand like a car dealer.

Give up the throne, your lease up, I am the Mona Lisa,

That decoded Da Vinci Code, you throwin’ your piece up.

Is a waste of fake like a phony B-cup.

Translated: "I get my drugs from the best source. You can keep that cheap crap. And, while you're pissy about that dis, let me show you how I move my money from place to place; it's in a Brink's truck. I'm on magazines. I'm back on tour. I'm back in the game. All I did was show up, but you fools have to work every day to get noticed a little bit. Give up your delusions of grandeur. I said it before, I'm the best there ever was, is, and ever will be. Your skills are about as real as a stuffed bra."

Later, in the second verse he drops this line:

I roll like the end credits in movies, y’all just got scripted.

Translated: "I'm done, and you haven't even started yet."

The endless disses that permeate darn near every rap track is what brings me back time after time. There's something about hearing somebody being insulted in rhyme that is irresistibly magnetic. Like a moth to a flame.

My voicemail is full, got bitches screamin’ inside of envelopes,

And they tryna mail ‘em to me, tryna reach my phone.

I don’t know which one is harder,

Tryna not to take your bitch or tryna get rid of my own.

Translated: "Everybody wants to to talk to me. To make things worse, I'm not only trying to get rid of all the women that want to have sex with me, but I'm trying not to attract the cheap women you hang around with."

Dis after dis. I love it.

Grand Piano

This is the next big challenge I've set for myself: learning the keyboard and reproducing this album in its entirety from memory.

Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells (Vinyl Cover)

The wife has wanted a piano for a long time and, while we can't really play musical instruments in the house without upsetting the neighbors, it shouldn't be impossible to get a really nice keyboard and quality set of headphones. Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells is one of the few albums created before my birth that I can listen to over and over without growing tired of it. Heck, according to my iTunes library, I've listened to the lossy 192kbps version 218 times over the last three years and enjoyed it every time.

Wonder how long it would take to master …

Another Unique Album from BetamaxDC

Music has played an important role throughout my life, but one of the most difficult issues I've had to contend with over the last decade has been finding new artists that have a unique sound. In the late 90s I developed a taste for non-mainstream sounds from indie performers who didn't want to be just another copycat in the world of 'popular' music. What I found in this search was a completely different sort of experience to that we could hear on the radio or TV. With indie artists we could hear experimental or downright different music that fills a narrow niche. Betamax DC is one of these artists, and he has a new album out titled Hypeville.

BetamaxDC - HypevilleHypeville has the distinctive sound BetamaxDC has cultivated which can also be heard in his previous albums, such as Gringos and Welcome to Odd. Several stereotypical-sounding soundbites from the 50s and 60s are woven into the works perfectly and add to the overall theme that permeates many of the most popular tracks by this artist. Each piece comes alive with a unique rhythm and style that would not seem out of place in a Tarantino film and, just like a Tarantino film, Betamax DC's work gets better every time you listen to it.

Comparing this album to his other works, Hypeville comes in a clear second between Gringos and Welcome to Odd. That said, all of his albums have earned at least three stars in my music library and has proven to be an excellent companion to my software development.

You can download Betamax DC's music (legally) from Jamendo, and every one of his albums is worth a listen.