Sunday, 25 May 2008

Uncanny Rattles at Night Time: Johansson Sings Waits

So I decided to write something up about this new album I recently downloaded after hearing about it from people at kaioo.

I've been a huge Waits fan ever since I listened to Frank's Wild Years for the first time. His exotic grumpiness, his vocals, lax and stern at the same time have fascinated me from the beginning. The music is alsways a bit chaotic, most of the time the instruments provide only a thin layer, every one is just covering its own spot, its own frequency, while Waits' voice paints the songs in melancholy and wisdom. For me, Waits is like a father I never had, he feels like someone able to teach you about the miserable aspects of life, about pubs, prostitutes and alcohol. And music.

I've never really heard much about Johansson before; I knew she was some kind of Hollywood celebrity, but I never really was into Hollywood nor celebrities. Only after investigating a bit I realized I had seen a movie starring her: Lost in Translation. I didn't really like the flick though, it felt mediocre.

So, a mediocre (by my standards) actress starts singing Waits songs? This could either be a complete catastrophy or really interesting. Anyways I had to give the album a try, so I went out to get it. But I was afraid to touch it for another two days.

I had expected a bubblegum pop album. Or a really really good album. Or something entirely mediocre and trivial. It was neither.

The album still feels entirely strange to me. I can't really open my mind. Do I like it? I don't know. I don't hate it. But I expected something different and hence I'm completely disoriented. I must say that I can see Lost in Translation in this album. But, actually, the good parts of it. The waiting, the to-no-avail-ity, a lot of its melancholy. It starts completey soundtrack-esque, with an instrumental intro. The first bits of her voice in Town with No Cheer, are preceded by caribbean-sounding steel drums - and manage to surprise you. I expected her to sing better. After all, she had all the money of the world to let all sorts of machines sing instead of her. But, as someone posted in her shoutbox at - They didn't even try to pretend she can sing. They just let her go away with slight mistakes in pitch and a pretty monotonous voice. A voice not without charisma, but also with a lack of talent. She'll have to make up on it with character and innovations in future releases. I'll let it slip for this one, but I won't for the next.

All songs are covers, except for #6, Song for Jo, my favorite. This tune and Green Grass, #7, are the greatest songs on this album.

The atmosphere is very post-y, very melancholic. In contrast to Waits' instrumentation, the album feels a bit over-produced, too much reverb, to many stray notes wandering in a sound scape that feels very impressionistic overall - whereas Waits feels more like an expressionist. Instead of the contured, sharp tone of Waits, Johansson and Sitek deliver blurred and fuzzy sounds, sometimes even drone like. Her voice feels like Karaoke on some tracks, especially on I don't wanna grow up, a ... Disco tune! She appears to be a girl next door, taking huge sips from the 90's trash cocktail, while casually mentioning that she'll "drink you under the table" in I Wish I was in New Orleans, the only of Waits' earlier tracks on here. Unfortunately, she (or someone else) decided to pick mostly Waits' later works, which I'm not that familiar with.

Overall, this album feels strange and new. It's like soundtrack meets Waits meets that cute lost little girl in Japan, that's actually Danish, but an American actress. I tagged it drone-pop and post-waits since that's what it feels like for me.

I think I like it.
It would be hilarious if Johansson started a nice alternative/experimental music career frome here. But somehow I think she won't.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Use the Cluebat, Luke!

Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.
F. Nietzsche

Sometimes us programmers are faced with what I would call the most ridiculous and humiliating aspect of our work:

You come across a problem. You start thinking about it. You find it ever more complicated, but you go on and on. Actually, this is only one of the obstactles in your way to achieving your original goal, it's probably not even got something to do with what you were trying to accomplish in the first place...

Finally you come up with a solution. It took you 2000 lines of code, it reduced your app's performance by 40%, true, it still may have some bugs you don't know of - along with a couple of bugs you know but have no idea how to solve and hence try to sell as features; but, hey! the problem was complicated, after all! And you solved it. Yay!

The glistening, glaring enlightenment strikes you once you're presented with a comment such as

"Why didn't you just use random one-liner-solution X?"
on your work.

Of course, your immidiate response goes "Huh?". Your brain feels like it's shrinking. No words available, they're all gone, along with your self-esteem, your thinking your're intelligent and all your coding skills. You've just spent a week's worth of coding time in vain. Everything you did was ugly and totally uncalled for. You take the blame.

This happened to me yesterday, and the apathy and fear of code is still here, hampering my productivity and just about everything. If it wasn't for the great music pumping out of my speakers, I would even not feel competent enough to blog about it... Here's what I did.

I'm currently working on porting a second-language-acqusition-aiding-system (Think taaaanks! We need a nice buzz-word for this, pronto!) from mod_python to Java & Servlets (in Tomcat), utilizing the Apache/IBM UIMA-architecture. The program fetches remote web sites and performs (not-so-)random input enhancement on them. The problem was displaying remote websites properly on my own server, just like Google Translation does. Long story short, I went to considerable lengths to replace all relative paths in a given page with absolute ones to get the source adresses for extra content right. It worked. Sort of.

Then I went to my advisor, and, whoops... Ever heard of the HTML <base> tag? Me neither. It's not even ONE line, replacing all of my crafty and barely readable regular expressions. My conscience faded. Good thing I didn't drop dead right on spot, though I surely wanted to.

Now I have to gather focus on performing the serious tasks at hand. Fortunately that's something I should know better - really, I think this sort of mistakes happens because you hit a spot in your app where you have to perform a task you don't know shit about. You don't know the libs people use there, you don't even know how to approach the problem. I asked people on #tomcat and #java on, but they couldn't help me either. They were all programmers, I should've asked some web designer. But I didn't... I went all finite state on it, bombarding the poor thing with hideous regexps, wasting my time on a problem that didn't really have to exist in the first place.

Oh well, 'tis one of the moments, where I just tend to pessimism, reminding myself about this great quote I came along in Nietzsche's "Menschliches, allzu Menschliches". Strangley, pessimism, like doom metal makes me go optimistic.

Nothing lives which would be worthy
of your striving, and the earth deserves not a sigh.
Pain and boredom is our being and the world is excrement,
—nothing else.
Calm yourself.
G. Leopardi

There it goes. People screw up stuff all over the place. This time it had to be you. You're not even special in failing. Go on, dipshit.