Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Discover New Music

I stopped listening to commercial music radio a long time ago.  It used to be that I would listen to the radio and hear something I enjoyed, then would eventually go out and buy the song (or the album if I really liked the artist).  Maybe it's because I've gotten old, but most of what I hear of popular music is a talent wasteland.  Even what would be considered "adult contemporary" is mostly riddled with computer-modified vocals together with computer-generated noise.  You'd think that the Mad Computer Scientist (ie. me) would find this application of technology appealing, but I truly don't.  Actually, consider my reaction about the same as most people would react to walking into a room that smells of ammonia and poop -- irritated senses and the feeling of nausea.

So where in the world does one go to experience something new?

I've found a treasure-trove of talent on YouTube.  Unfortunately there's almost too much to choose from, however, and the artists I've discovered have actually happened almost by accident.  I would look at a video that had one topic, and one of the recommended (related) videos turned out to be someone performing something I enjoyed.  I would explore more from there, and stumble upon some real talent.  This is how I found Sayalessandra (Sayaka Sato), Stephanie Strand, Mary Win, and of course TheUnsungHeroine (Kristina Hu).  I've found it really refreshing to be able to connect with a couple of the artists on facebook and be able to actually give direct praise and feedback about their work.  My recommendation, if you don't care to be a troll, is to keep the feedback positive and constructive.  Keep in mind that these folks are sharing their passion with you.  If you don't like what they do, move on to someone you do like.

Another place to explore new music is none other than amazon.com.  Amazon has a little-known section of their site with free mp3 music.  To get there, go to Amazon's MP3 store (Shop by Department -> MP3s & Cloud Player -> MP3 Music Store), then along the left sidebar under Categories select Free Songs & Special Deals, then along the right side there's a link that says Browse all free songs.  The free song section are usually songs that a rising artist has placed out there to gain interest in their album or other work.  Some of it is junk.  A lot will be music you just won't like.  Usually it's pretty obvious from the album cover or name of the artist or song whether this is a genre you'll find you like.  With some patience, however, some great gems can be found...and with luck, some new music you'll enjoy enough to purchase and support these artists.  I actually downloaded a couple of free songs by Hayley Reardon, and at first I wasn't sure I liked her style.  However, she really has grown on me, and I need to purchase more songs from her albums Hope You're Smiling and Beautiful Simplicity.  This is just one example of an artist I discovered this way.

A lot of people like Pandora and some of the other Internet radio stations.  For a while, I kind of liked these, but I found myself more likely to rediscover some old lost favorites rather than discovering something new.  Yes, I admit, I stick to the style I like yet, but it's nice to hear someone different once in a while.

I realize that living in Austin, Texas (the supposed live music capital of the world) I should be out at some concert.  I'm not one for being out in crowds, though, and frankly I rather enjoy exploring recorded music more.  If live music is your thing, though, that's certainly another avenue for exploration.

So don't feel like you have to stop discovering new music just because you can't bear to listen to the radio anymore, or find the stuff "the kids are all listening to" utterly repulsive.  Hopefully you now know of a few cool places to look for new music.

An unrelated comment...

No doubt you've heard about the bombing that happened during the Boston Marathon.  While my heart goes out to all those who have been injured or worse, I really don't have a lot to add to what has already been said.  I know that after the comments I made in my last posting one may expect I would want to comment, but I don't.  What has happened saddens and depresses me as it exposes the dark side of what it means to be human.  I'm going to spend a few extra moments with my cat instead of saying any more.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Root Of The Problem

"How can you possibly have any compassion for the families of the Sandy Hook victims if you are against stricter gun control legislation?"

If the families of a mass-killing spree can only find a solution to the situation surrounding that massacre by taking to the legal system (government) and outlawing the thing that was used to kill their loved ones, then I must suspend compassion for those families.  I still empathize.  I realize I can't possibly feel the enormity of their grief and that I cannot imagine what it is like to have a loved one lost in a senseless act of violence, I likewise cannot imagine why someone suffering such pain would conclude that the only way to address the problem is to outlaw (or severely restrict) the weapon used as though this is its only use.  I fear that this is only the beginning of the discussion -- there is more at stake than guns.

As I have said before I am not a big fan of guns.  I don't have a gun, and probably never will.  They are not of interest to me.  They are, however, of interest to others in various capacities.  Examples of gun-related activities are gun collecting, target practice, hunting, protection/tools (particularly in rural areas), and law enforcement/military.  There are enthusiasts who enjoy talking about the characteristics of various guns.  None of these activities appeal to me (in fact hunting is something I detest), but they exist for many people...and these people by far are law-abiding, upstanding, compassionate, responsible people.  I can assure you that gun enthusiasts are extremely saddened and shocked by the recent gun-related killing sprees that have occurred recently.

This is the reason why I am frustrated, and in many ways angered, by the response that the Sandy Hook victims' families have taken.  Instead of meeting with gun enthusiasts to look at possible solutions - solutions that may possibly involve the use of guns - they have taken to attack the very thing that gun enthusiasts are enthusiastic about.  It is no surprise that the response to such an attack is negative, and that rational discussion between gun owners and gun victims becomes impossible.  Furthermore, the legal recommendations that are being put on the table with respect to gun control make very little sense when it comes down to preventing violent outbursts.

The reason for the push-back on gun control laws is that they don't work.  For every study presented showing the decline in violent crime as a function of increased gun control, there is another study presented showing the opposite.  Addressing access to guns is not going to prevent another massacre such as what happened at Newtown, Littleton, Aurora, or any of the other shootings.  Will the next massacre after such restrictions be a shooting?  Perhaps, not.  It will just be some other, possibly more violent, possibly more gruesome, and likely a larger target.  In fact, the attention that has been given to all of these shootings will only make it more appealing to those looking to copy, and perhaps outdo, the previous massacre.  In short, a person or group set out to commit an act of violence or domestic terrorism is not going to be turned around because they can't legally get a gun or the size magazine they're looking for.  One only needs to look as far as Timothy McVeigh for an example of this.  What happens when the next malcontent puts some kind of improvised explosive device or other weapon in their locker, or somewhere else in a school?  What then?

This is where the crux of the discussion should take place:  Why are these violent acts happening?  While I don't have any clear-cut answers, I do have some suggestions for places to look.  The first place I suggest looking is within our own society.  We glamorize and sensationalize violent behavior.  In the movies we watch, in the games we play, in our sporting events, reacting violently to something we don't like or is in our way is encouraged and, sometimes, rewarded.  The world today is complex, with a lot of competition between people, always trying to one-up each other.  We're constantly bombarded with messages saying that we should never be content and always trying to get more.  What happens when you can't get more, and it appears that other people are in your way?  How have we instructed our society to react to such frustrations?  What reactions gain the most attention?  If you want to see less violence in our world, we need to show violent behavior as unacceptable.  It won't eliminate violent acts, but will make them so unconscionable that we will tend to deal swiftly and forcefully when such behavior presents itself.  It won't become a controversial talking point for months.

The other place to look is philosophical (which could also be considered societal).  While people tend to come together in times of crisis, they do very little of that in their everyday lives.  My own observation is that many people see other people as a means to an end, and act accordingly.  This dehumanizes humanity, and justifies the taking of a life as a way to make a point.  One need look no further than home improvement contractors to see how many reports of substandard work is performed because they don't see the need to take the same care for their clients that they would do for their own family or friends.  If people act with such disregard for others in the craft they are proficient in, imagine the outcome when they see people generally as being in the way of something they want.  While this isn't a widespread thought pattern, I see it is as a growing trend.  It is a dangerous trend, as well.

Solving these issues is not simple.  It is not something that will change overnight.  I'm not sure how it will change, either.  However, the best I can suggest is that the more people resist falling into the trap of these negative behavior patterns and set a positive example for others, the more likely that will become popular thought.  It won't take place by forcing it upon people by law.  The law may create a bubble of safety in the short-term, but in the long-term it just raises the bar as the behavior has not changed.  People need to see the law as guiding principles for minimum standards of behavior.  The absence of a law against an activity doesn't mean it's a good idea.  It means that one should exercise common sense.

I mentioned earlier that the tighter gun control laws are only the beginning of the issues at stake.  There have already been talks of bans against violent video games, and further tightening security at schools.  I shutter to think about what happens when the next massacre happens through the hacking of a computer system that has controls over the physical environment.  Imagine that someone uses a very powerful computer system to hack a water treatment plant system controller and intentionally programs it to release toxins that causes a large number of people to get sick and die.  What then?  Do we outlaw computers with a CPU speed greater than some arbitrary value, because "nobody should be allowed to have a computer that fast."  "Because the only thing that a computer that fast can do is be used to crack encryption codes."  "Because only the government and military should have computers that fast."  "Because we can't trust that people will use a computer that fast safely."  This may seem nonsensical, but it really isn't.  As we come to depend more and more on computer technology to manage our world it is likely that these very questions will occur and ultimately become legal questions.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Trying this again

Well, I thought I wouldn't be back...but here I am.

It turns out that maybe someone at Google actually heard my rant and at least addressed some of the issues I brought up - the most serious of these was the fact that the posting editor didn't fit the width of my browser as I use it.  Well, for whatever reason, it now is...and the Publish, Save, Preview, and Close buttons are there as well.  I still don't like some of the other changes but this is workable.

So, thank you to the people who took my criticism seriously and resolved these issues.  I appreciate it.  I'm not sure when this all happened, since I really haven't been back here much.

It would probably stand to reason that you're all wondering what has happened in my world since September, 2012?  Reducing these to sound bites...

  1. Time Warner Cable, in an underhanded move to extract more money from its customers, decided to start charging $3.95/month to lease the cable modem.  In response, I purchased my own DOCSIS 3 cable modem (the Motorola SB6141), my wallet got a bit lighter, and there was a little bit of rejoicing.
  2. JC is back with more Mental Shrapnel, and some not-so-happy news.
  3. I discovered a new, amazing, YouTube musician TheUnsungHeroine (http://www.youtube.com/theunsungheroine).  Her real name is Kristina Hu, and she takes pop/techno/dubstep songs and interprets them in a classical solo piano style.  She has provided the soundtrack to my life for the past few months.  Recall that I really have a deep dislike for the anything overtly electronic (see My Musical Journey from August, 2010).  Kristina's re-imagining of the style and performing it as solo piano is simply wonderful.  She is nothing less than genius when it comes to music (as someone I know said, "She hears those songs differently than the rest of us do.").
  4. An old friend from grade school passed away shortly after Christmas.  I had very little recent contact with him as we both kind of went in separate directions, as frequently happens with childhood friends.  He was a brilliant mathematician.  In high school, he laid the foundation for a new set of mathematical properties based on the solution of y=x^x for x in closed form (the solution to the so-called coupled exponentials).  The last e-mail I received from him was in April when he told me of a heart condition he was suffering from, that he didn't feel he would make it through the surgery, and that he wanted to tell me about the math research he was doing in case he didn't make it.  I told him he'd been through tougher things and he'd pull through this.  Sadly, I was wrong.  R.I.P., Jay.  I won't forget you.
  5. It seems that lots of killing sprees seem to be happening.  The world clearly hasn't gotten any better at finding the root causes of these problems than when I wrote about this last (see Gun Control and Other Topics).
As for me ... well, let's not sugar coat things any ... I've been sinking down into depression again.  This is something that I have been and probably will forever be wrestling with (as much as I'd like to think not).  The usual symptoms where things seem hopeless, self-worth feeling pretty worthless, and things that were once enjoyable seem irritating and pointless.  Those who are familiar with the malady will see these as classic symptoms, those who aren't will wonder why one can't just "snap out of it."  The latter will be the folks that should break out google, look up depression, and be happy they're not dealing with it.  Because of this, I'm not sure how much I'll be writing here.  While writing about things helps clarify my thoughts somewhat, as well as help share some of them with others, it has become difficult to write as well...  In any case, this is a start...we'll see where it goes.