Thursday, September 18, 2008

Just sit back and enjoy...

Lenka, the Australian songstress, is just a little bit caught in the middle. Like all of us. Just enjoy the show, she implores.

The video shows us a young singer, who smiles coyly at the camera as she is summarily jerked around by an unseen hand, moving her into and out of the situations of daily life.

This is probably how it feels when one is at the center of a media campaign like the one promoting her debut album, Surprise. But is she really promoting the kind of passivity depicted in her music video?

Certainly, this is an idea with its supporters: Buddhistic withdrawal from the world is, I think, a kernel shared by many religions. It's what allows for the Christian capacity for suffering. And there is no doubt that it is a useful tactic at times when one cannot affect the world around them. At some point, everyone needs to learn that there are things they can't change.

But let's not forget that it's this passivity which allows the great injustices of the world to continue: without it, would the serfs of Europe supported the rulers of Europe through the middle ages? Would the caste system have flourished so long in India? It seems to me that the current citizens of the world are already quite good at passivity: it is the implicit message of the television medium, and most of us have been indoctrinated by it from an early age; this culture of passive media consumption has been extended out of the home by the iPod. Lenka, it would seem, is preaching to the choir, through iTunes.

I should mention that it's an idea with which I've never been entirely comfortable. This world may well be a false one, as the Buddhists and Gnostics have it, but nevertheless it's the one in which we live. To completely embrace passivity is to give up on the possibility of improving the world for future generations, which seems irresponsible to me. It should be possible to live within the ethical and spiritual guidelines of a religion and also deal responsibly with the problems with which we are daily faced in this world.

The song happens to be a fairly inspired bit of pop candy, aside from a nagging similarity to Avril Lavigne's "Complicated." But the lines are longer here, lilting easily into the choruses; the melodic resemblence only serves to make it even catchier. The material is also easier to take without the superficial dressing of teen angst and watered-down punk. One wonders if Lenka is giving us a hint that she knows what she's doing as she emphasizes the word "pop" in an early verse.

Throughout the video she is mostly passive; at one point, however, she reaches out and holds on to a microphone as the unseen hands lift her from the stage, delaying her exit for a few lines. This, and a certain slyness in her smile as she mugs for the camera, makes me wonder if she's as dedicated to utter passivity as her lyrics might suggest. She might be enjoying the show now, but I would imagine that she's worked very hard to put herself into the middle of this media blitz; still, there's not more than a hint of sarcasm or wit in this confection. We'll see how long it lasts.

I've been reading about pop music for the past hour or so, and I'm starting to feel a bit unwell. Here's a some footage of Django Reinhardt to clear the palette.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lindt Excellence Chili

As you know, I am a dedicated corporate shill, and now I must once again ply my trade.

(Ok, I'm kidding, but, I would be willing to accept donations even from corporate sponsors.)

This Excellence Chili stuff is fantastic. I think Lindt's Excellence line is pretty solid dark chocolate, not too bitter or waxy, maybe even a bit sweet for some. But they've hit the nail right on the head with this one: it's about 49% cocoa solids, and at first it comes off as sweet dark chocolate, even a bit creamy. At first bite you may be disappointed: this doesn't have the immediate, obvious spice of a Mexican hot chocolate with chiles.

The chili comes on slowly, as almost pure heat. Amazingly, it doesn't overpower the chocolate or push it off balance: in fact, it's hard to imagine a better balance.

It's the time factor that really makes this a treat: at first nonexistent, then subtle, finally palpable, the heat is a wonderfully nuanced addition that both highlights and enhances the chocolate. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Get out of jail free

Now that I'm here, more or less installed in my place in Täby, I have of course turned my attention back to the most important things in life, those topics which don't change simply because one moves to a new continent or begins a new chapter in life. Yes, I am back to analyzing the cultural impact of electonics.

Awhile ago, when we realized that we'd probably prefer not to bring our desktop computer to Sweden (a bit of a shame because it was a nicely-configured box which was serving us well) we decided to get another laptop. After much hemming and hawing, initially favoring windows machines because of their prices, Brett settled on a white Macbook, nearly identical to the one I bought last fall. In large part this was because of an available deal on Adobe's CS3 suite, but the proposition was also helped along by a back-to-school iPod giveaway.

So, earlier this summer, we found ourselves proud first-time iPod owners.

I'd avoided the iPod phenomenon for a few reasons: first, it was an expensive toy, and I generally enjoy hearing the sounds from the world around me. I tend to read while on public transit, and listening to music in addition makes one a bit too isolated for my taste. Second, it just seemed to popular. But this dabbler in HCI could hardly resist the temptation of getting a $300 toy for free -- the iPod touch, running the same OS as the iPhone.

Nor could I resist spending the $10 for the firmware 2.0 upgrade, allowing me access to the App Store, with a good selection of quality applications, including some solid free ones.

The iPod Touch in an impressive piece of hardware. It's even been handy while I was running around Stockholm without good internet access. But there are some serious caveats.
  • Sure, you can render websites just fine, but you can't download files.
  • No cut & paste. This is inexcusable on a device with this much power.
  • No terminal app -- not even one that would only let you log in to remote devices.
  • In fact, no real "root" access to your system.
It's a shame, because the iPod touch (and particularly the iPhone) are powerful, well-designed pieces of hardware that could really be fully-functional computers. But the artifical restrictions imposed by the iTunes / App Store system handicap them to the point where they are mere toys.

But to realize this yourself, you need to jailbreak your device and see what you're missing. The best post-jailbreak features are actually low-level OS features that should have always been included on these devices: a terminal app, openssh (for logging into your iPod), netatalk (an AppleTalk server, so you can share files to it) and an extended preferences app, BossPrefs.

The jailbreak is free, and most of the stuff I just mentioned in GPL software.

Why do we have to hack our way into the devices we own? We're really just adding back in functionality that's been arbitrarily removed. Listen, iTunes, is a fine piece of software; it's got its detractors, but it's largely adequate. However, as a software platform, it sucks. I don't want to live in an iTunes world -- I want to live in the world where I have root access to my devices, and I can hack or break them to my heart's content. I also want to have the things that I've grown accustomed to, like cut & paste and, uh, the ability to save files.

So let's just do a little comparison, between the iPod Touch and the Nokia N810. The Nokia is basically an overgrown cell phone, running a modified version of Debian GNU/Linux. It's got a slide-out keyboard and a pen-touch screen. It's got GPS, and 2gb of storage. It's got wireless and an ARM processor, similar to the iPod Touch. The storage is expandable with a MicroSD card, so let's just say that the hardware is basically similar, with some interface differences.

So what is the difference? With the Nokia, you get less "sexy" factor, and instead, you get the ability to save files, cut & paste, and a terminal with root access. You basically get a PC in a small form factor. This blows the jailed iPod out of the water in terms of utility; a Blackberry does the same for the iPhone.

So why do we need to download a sketchy hack just to get this basic functionality? The only answer that I can imagine is that the Apple Touch devices are for entertainment only; Apple has no interest in creating a device with any real utility. Apple's profitability has come from one of the most vapid, useless products ever (the iPod) and this is the future that they want to pursue.

Apple: don't forget us, the power users and hackers. Listen, Steve: there is a reason that the Touch was my first iPod, and it wasn't because I need bigger cover art.