Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Google Earth Has Arrived

Google has just released "Google Earth," which is a lot like WorldWind, which was reviewed here a few weeks back. This software adds a lot of other features which were lacking in WorldWind, like the ability to search for businesses and type in an address, get directions, etc. I have not had a chance to install it yet. You can assume that a review will be forthcoming soon.

To get your free copy of Google Earth, visit http://earth.google.com/

Monday, June 27, 2005

Freshly-Cut: Albums of the Month

(June 2005)

1. Modest Mouse / "Good News for People who Love Bad News"
2. The Desert Sessions / "Vol. 3&4"
3. Beck / "Guero"
4. The Arcade Fire / "Funeral"
5. The Black Keys / "Rubber Factory"

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sunken Treasure (1999)

"Sunken Treasure" by A.H. Rajani Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Millions (2005), Episode 3 (2005), Layer Cake (2005)

Three quickie reviews:

Millions (2005): This is a British film about two children who happen to come across a gym bag full of money. The story has strong religious overtones, but they fit in very well with the overall theme. The two boys, Anthony and Damian each have well written parts and are not susceptible to the standard Hollywood dumbification of children's dialogue. Both are distinct rational actors and have their own views on about the money (one literally thinks its a gift from God). "Millions" is a children's film as well, and I'm surprised how much content they manage to cover and yet keep the subject matter appropriate. This is one of the best written and well-paced films I've seen in a year at least.

Star Wars: Episode 3 (2005): Quite possibly on my list of 5 worst acted films of all time. Simply put, George Lucas has forgotten how to tell a story. Episode 3 is the last of a trio of prequels whose only explanation for existence is the continuation of Star War's merchandising. The dialogue is stilted and contrived. The action scenes are filled to the brim with CGI and computer generated images that instead of making things look realistic unfortunately succeed only in making people fly into walls without getting hurt.

The only scene I was looking forward to was watching Darth Vader put on his mask, which was a mediocre three seconds at that. Everyone who entered the theatre was simply looking to have the same story re-told to them, which I think is fine by itself. What makes Episode 3 problematic, however, is that Lucas apparently made no effort to create decent dialogue. What made the idea of a prequel exciting was the opportunity to develop existing characters and make them deeper. But Lucas insists on telling us what we already know.

Layer Cake (2005): "Layer Cake" is the story of a British businessman who deals in cocaine. He's unnamed and also serves as our narrator. He stresses to the audience the importance of professionalism in his business, but we all know that he'll inevitably be sucked into something deeper and darker no matter how hard he tries.

Roger Ebert mentioned in his review how much "Layer Cake" reminded him of "Goodfellas" and "Casino," which is an analogy I can see. In its structure, "Layer Cake" does look a lot like "Goodfellas," (insofar as both movies describe an inevitable decline), but the smooth, quiet feel of the film reminds me more of "Heat" than "Casino." "Casino" has more of a chaotic, almost comic, over-the-top feel to it whereas "Layer Cake" is a lot more subdued.

This film has all of the plot twists and turns of a who-dunnit and has the smart dialogue and great casting to match. Don't miss this film.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Crash (2005)

"Crash" is a new film by director Paul Haggis. The entire film is a commentary on the role of race in the United States, especially in the post 9/11 era. I recommend this movie, but I have a number of reservations I'd like to share. Please don't let this review hold you back from seeing "Crash" or renting it later on if it's not playing near you. Beware, there might be some slight plot spoilers below.

"Crash," I mentioned above, is a commentary on race. "Commentary" is the right word, too. This isn't just a movie about race, but a movie where the characters discuss race with one another. As I explain later, the constant explanations and racial-proofs offered as justifications for the plot to go on get to be too much after awhile.

Take for instance Ludacris' performance as a car-jacker who discusses with his accomplice the fear non-blacks exhibit when they see Ludacris or people "like" him on the street. Or the Iranian convenience store owner and the stuck-up aristocrat who both feel that a particular Latino locksmith is untrustworthy. A couple victimized by a white policeman. Or a by-the-book cop played by Don Cheadle who is juxtaposed with his disreputable brother. Or a not so by-the-book cop played by Matt Dillon who transgresses and seeks redemption. The list goes on and on.

What you notice is that "Crash" has a lot of characters and every one of them is dealing with issues related to race. - - My critique is fourfold.

1) The characters seem to be dealing ONLY with race. There are issues about class and a hinting of gender issues from time to time, but they are not expanded upon whatsoever. These characters frame everything in terms of race. Sure there are a few references in anger to "Bin Ladens" which would suggest a kind of religious connotation, but the screenplay does not sway from the race perspective. This gets tiresome because we are no longer being told a story in which race plays an issue, but are being force-fed stories purposely crafted to show a particular point. Subtlety is not something you'll find here.

Compare "Crash" with Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (or even "Malcolm X"), Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning" and Tony Kaye's "American History X." These movies captured a sense of racial tension that give their films a sense of urgency but did not overpower the stories themselves.

2) The way in which the characters in "Crash" interrelate is contrived. Granted vignette screenplays have been in high-fashion ever since P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia" hit the jackpot, "Crash" is still missing something. Director Paul Haggis does not let the story unfold, but forces the issue (no pun intended). All the characters are cherry picked for their racial characteristics and put in a screenplay together and its apparent that everyone is there for a specific purpose: to represent their racial/ethnic group. On top of the constant racial justifications given by each character, the fact that their lives intersect in the way that they do is just too much to take in at times.

That a police man--after having abused a black, female woman in his custody--felt remorse for having done so is one thing. However, why did the direction insist on having both the police man and this woman meet again under different circumstances? It's just too much.

3) "Crash" is hopelessly entangled in a racial discourse full of simplistic binaries. While the story does offer the "there's always two sides to the debate" point, the larger point should be that these conflicts are multidimensional. This critique relates to the aforementioned lack of gender, class, political and religious texture to the film.

4) The last critique relates to #3: "Crash" needs to keep its screenplay simple by using binaries because each character finds some sense of redemption by the end of the film. This isn't a happy film, but one that attempts to make a very grand gesture. This is too grand of a gesture because by the end of the film, the tension has been diffused to a certain degree.

Ultimately, "Crash" makes the mistake many of us do in our daily lives: the belief that our lives are determined by only one category.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Digital Dirty Laundry: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I began my discussion with file names and ended with ID3 tags. But in this installment I will go in reverse because there are great utilities that will fix ID3 tags and then change file names based on those updated tags. This will save hours of time.

5. Lookup ID3 Tags

The first thing you need to do is find a program that will look up your ID3 tags for you on the Internet. There are a number of programs that will do this for you: MusicMatch Jukebox has a decent lookup feature (it is called “Super Tagging”). But the best lookup program by far is a new kid on the block called “MusicBrainz.” This can be downloaded for free at http://www.musicbrainz.org. One caveat, you will need to sign up on their website. I have gotten no spam from them and an account is totally free.

Once installed, all you have to do is tell the program where your music is stored and the rest is automated. Musicbrainz will look up all of your songs and suggest matches for all of them. Musicbrainz is very efficient and very accurate. It can get through about 2,000 songs in about 45 minutes. Just make sure you have a decent internet connection.

MusicBrainz Tagger Interface Posted by Hello

Once Musicbrainz finds a match, it automatically moves it into the “Identified” category. If you click on this tab, you can see your existing information and what Musicbrainz has suggested in place of it. If something is not identified, it goes into another category and you can search for it manually, which isn’t very difficult. All of this is pretty self explanatory.

6. Change your Filenames

The good thing about Musicbrainz is that once it finds the right ID3 tag, it can automatically rename your MP3 files for you based on those tags. You just need to make one quick change in the settings and you’ll be home free.

Once you’ve run your searches, move your mouse to the top toolbar and click on “View” > “Settings.” Once the window opens up, click on the “Naming” tab. Click on the checkbox so that Musicbrainz is set to rename files along with your ID3 tags. Musicbrainz is completely configurable. So in the field below, you can enter in any naming convention you want. So, think back to what naming scheme you wanted. I prefer:

%artist\%artist - %album - %0num - %track.

So here is what is happening overall. Let's say you originally had a file named “brEathe_3482938_floyD.mp3” and it had the wrong ID3 information. Musicbrainz will find a match and suggest a song by Pink Floyd. So when Musicbrainz finds a tag, it will update the information stored INSIDE your MP3 file. Moreover, Musicbrainz will then rename your file based on that new information. So your original file will now look like “Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – 01 – Breathe.mp3.” And it’s all automated!

7. What’s the Point?

Why have accurate ID3 tags? Well, the newest MP3 players use ID3 tags. Even if you play your music only on your computer, most software applications are increasingly dependent on ID3. ID3 can be very fun, especially with programs that compile a music library for you.

Take for instance Winamp’s “Media Library” feature. It will search through your entire computer and find your music. Then, you have a nice database where you can search for anything at any time. Winamp’s database is similar to iTunes and MusicMatch in this respect.

8. Advanced Users

Want to go above and beyond the call of duty? Enter into the domain of “obsessive compulsive?” Well, the next logical step is for you to attach album art to your MP3’s. Why? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice window fade in four a few seconds every time you played a new song so that you could tell what album it was from?

Album art fills in one of the downsides of digital music. We’ve become very dependent on singles. We shuffle our music, make playlists. This is not an era of concept albums or patient listening. The problem with that is that we lose a certain relationship with our music. Album art might ease the pain; a little.

To add album art, I would recommend importing your music into iTunes. Then download and install “iTunes Art Importer 0.9.2” available at http://www.yvg.com/itunesartimporter.shtml. This is a free utility. All you do is select whatever songs you want in iTunes and click one lookup button on this small add-on utility and the utility will do its thing. The Art Importer will search on Amazon.com for a matching album and will automatically rip a thumbnail image and update your album art. This album art is not saved as a separate file, but is inside of your MP3 file, so there is no mess of picture files lying around everywhere.

9. Phenomenology of MP3

For those of you aspiring to drive yourselves insane, here are a few dilemmas everyone with an impressive MP3 collection toils over night after night:

Dilemma 1: “THE”

Do you want bands with “The” in the front of them? Do you file the song “Last Nite” under “Strokes” or “The Strokes” or “Strokes, The”? Are some bands more deserving of “The” than others? Smashing Pumpkins? The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? The White Stripes? The Jackson 5?

Dilemma 2: “Last Name, First Name”

Do you file Aimee Mann under “Mann, Aimee” or “Aimee Mann”? Dave Matthews Band under “Matthews, Dave” or “Dave Matthews Band”?

Dilemma 3: “feat.”

Every rapper and r&b star inevitably features someone else. So where do you put the song “Notorious Thugs” by the Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony? Just put one artist? Well, it was on Biggy’s double album, so why not just give him credit? Why not name it “Notorious B.I.G. – Notorious Thugs (feat. Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony).mp3”? Or maybe you can call it “Notorious B.I.G.& Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony – Notorious Thugs.mp3”?

Dilemma 4: Music Careers

Are you going to be truthful to someone’s music career? Are some tracks going to be by “Paul McCartney” while others will be “The Wings” and others will be “The Beatles” and others will be “Paul McCartney & The Wings”? Are you going to sacrifice accuracy for ease of use?

Think about Eric Clapton, he’s been in quite a few bands and has had an impressive solo career. Are you going to just say hell with it and name everything “Eric Clapton” or will you venture out and distinguish some of them as by “Cream” or “Derek & The Dominos”?

“Bob Marley” or “Bob Marley & The Wailers”? Or both?

Dilemma 5: Soundtracks and Theme Songs

Soundtracks have all different artists. Do you just say hell with it and name them all “Forrest Gump”? How do you keep them together? The ridiculous “Various Artists” category?

Dilemma 6: Abbreviations

“STP” or “Stone Temple Pilots”? “DMB” or “Dave Matthews Band”?

Dilemma 7: Live Tracks

This is the most frustrating category. What information are you going to include in the file name? When the track was recorded? The year? Venue? Live tracks represent a shit-filled quagmire in my universe.

Dilemma 8: Untitled Songs

Don’t you just love it when the crappiest bands try to be artistic and have an untitled song? Some albums actually have a blank space while other tracks are often literally called “Untitled.” Should that play a part in the decision?

Dilemma 9: Hidden Tracks

What if there’s a track that’s hidden at the end of an album? Do you just call it “Hidden Track”? Or “Track #__”?

Dilemma 10: Clean/Radio Edits

Do you need to give notice that the original song has been changed somehow? That Wal-Mart has taken out some profanity or that the song has been shortened?

It can get very intense. Naming MP3's is a spiritual experience.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Santa Clara County

First Impressions: Santa Clara County Posted by Hello

Yes, it's real.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Insomnia = Billable Hours

I apologize for not having posted anything for awhile. I was a bit caught up the past few weeks at my new job in Cupertino, CA. I'm loving it.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Digital Dirty Laundry: Part 1

One of the defining aspects of the broadband colture is media at our fingertips. Most of us have MP3 collections, but not all of us do a good job keeping things organized. Here’s a tutorial of the essential steps you need to turn your scattered folders of unintelligible files into an efficient music library.

This first installment forces you to think about the basic concept of music organization. Don’t worry about actually moving files yet and renaming files manually. Don't waste your time doing that. Just get an idea of the basic concepts first. All of those boring tasks can be automated to some degree. I’ll discuss those methods in Part 2.

1. Get your bearings

First, figure out where your music is stored on your computer. Is it all in one folder or scattered across your hard drive(s)? Try and move everything to a central location first. If you have more than one hard drive, try to avoid storing them with your operating system files because if your computer crashes, say goodbye to your music collection. [I prefer using an external hard drive].

Next, figure out what your needs are. You can really go crazy pruning everything. What is it that YOU want out of your music collection? Some people want great playlists, some people want amazing listings of all their songs in a searchable database, others want album artwork, some want their MP3’s in separate folders, some want everything by genre. Figure out what you want.

If you use a music application like iTunes, then where you store your music usually doesn’t matter. But if you are like me and you want a bit more control, you probably have a lot more exposure to the actual music files sitting on your computer. Know what that means? You need to start thinking about folders and file names.

2. Folders: An Introduction to Directory Structure

Here’s one of the more important steps. Think about how you want your music stored. Got 500 songs? Put them all in one folder; you’ll be fine. Got more than that? Things start to get burdensome if the list gets too long. Here are the two most popular folder schemes:

\MP3 Folder\Artist Name\ (in this scheme, all your songs by Pink Floyd regardless of what album will be in the same folder)
\MP3 Folder\Arist Name\Album Name\ (in this scheme, every album gets its own folder. I personally dislike this method because there is just too much clicking just to get to one song. I prefer the folder scheme above.)

3. File Naming: The Big Question

Once you’ve figured out where you’ve going to keep your music, now you have to figure out what you’re going to call each file. Now, before you go crazy worrying about having to do all of this renaming by hand, don’t worry about it for now. There are plenty of tools that automate the process for you. Relax and just think clearly. Here are the most common naming schemes and how they look combined with the directory structure in step 2:

Track Title.mp3 [e.g., “Breathe.mp3”] (here, your song file is just the name of the song. This is a very dangerous way of naming songs because if things get mixed up, you’re out of luck. I would NOT recommend this scheme)
Artist Name - Track Title.mp3 [e.g., “Pink Floyd – Breathe.mp3”] (This is a very common scheme. I used this scheme for about five years. I still like its simplicity and ease of use. Filenames using this method stay pretty short and they are easy to read. The downside is that you’ll get every song in alphabetical order only)
Artist Name – Album Title – Track Number – Track Name.mp3 [e.g., “Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – 01 – Breathe.mp3”] (I think this is the choice for most advanced users. The downside is that filenames can get very long, but most modern computers can handle that with no problem.)

So just a quick recap. At this point your music collection theoretically exists in one folder, and that one folder is divided up into subfolders. Each subfolder is named after an artist. In each subfolder are your mp3’s from that artist and they are all named in a certain way. Here’s an example of the entire file and directory structure, but please keep in mind you can change this to anything you want:
MP3 Directory Structure and Filenaming Scheme Posted by Hello
4. The Parallel Universe of ID3 Tags:

As noted in an earlier posting, ID3 is the name given to information stored WITHIN your music files for album, artist, track number, track number, genre. You can fill in as few or as many of these fields as you want. Music that is downloaded from most major vendors come complete with almost all of the fields correctly filled in. But many songs either have wrong or missing data.

Here are the basics. ID3 tags are totally unrelated to your filenames. So if you have the most immaculately named files, your ID3 tags can still blow chunks. It works the other way too: if you have great ID3 tags, your file names can be atrocious.

Chances are if you use iTunes—which is completely dependent on ID3—or if you use a music application that has some kind of database feature like MusicMatch Jukebox, Realplayer or Winamp (I prefer Winamp), you will need to have your ID3 info up to date.

You should now have a good idea of what you want your own music collection to look like. The next major issue is how you’re actually going to achieve this.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Change Your Homepage, A Little

My guess is that most of you have Google listed as your homepage. Well, I finally found something better than Google as my homepage. Fortunately it is still made by Google.

Google has a beta release (still experimental) called "Google Suggest" which I think is absolutely brilliant. It looks just like Google, but when you type something in the search field, it will automatically start brining up results as you type letter-by-letter. It's like auto-complete for web-searching.

Google's "Suggest Beta" Feature Posted by Hello

So, as you can see above, I typed "guided b" and it suggested "Guided By Voices," which is a band everyone should listen to. Along with a list of suggestions, Google Suggest also lists how many results it has for each listing. This works very fast, so there is hardly any lag unless you are on dialup.

To change your homepage to Google Suggest, enter in the following URL in your internet options: http://www.google.com/webhp?complete=1&hl=en