Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for December, 2012

Notes on Being Busy, Meditation

Maria Konnikova for The New York Times:

An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention.

Giles Harvey, for The New Yorker:

It can sometimes seem as though modern life has no room for four-and-a-half-hour-long experimental operas or difficult poetry; but this is a mistake. In a world of speed and distraction, the slow, demanding art work is more indispensable than ever, for it holds out the possibility of those elusive commodities: stillness, clarity, and peace.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Seven: Frank Ocean

Channel Orange — Frank Ocean

Between Frank Ocean and The Weeknd (more on him later), this decade is shaping up to be a golden age resurgence of R&B. Last year’s mixtape from the OFWGKTA member was just a teaser of how smart Ocean writes his lyrics, and I immediately wanted more. His debut LP doesn’t disappoint.

The album kicks off with lead single “Thinkin Bout You”, which sets the tone and theme of the record: Ocean dislikes random romantic antics, yet he explores them; he ultimately wants a meal, but he’ll have some tapas in the meantime. It’s an introspective take on R&B which gives it an honesty and a relatable quality that is so attractive.

On “Sweet Life”, Ocean opens with the delightful lyric “the best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either”. There’s so much to get lost to in that line. “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born,” he laments in the chorus. Again, an interesting take on the genre: he isn’t coming from money, but he aspires to that status.

There are a bunch of incredible tracks in the first half — “Sierra Leone”, “Pilot Jones”, and “Crack Rock” — but I’m going to skip to the jewel of the record, “Pyramids”. Who’s heard of a ten minute long R&B track before? (Okay, Prince’s “Purple Rain” is, like, nine minutes long.) It’s an opera of a song, with bluesy guitar parts (thanks to John Mayer) and jazzy saxophones nestled between club-ready synths and a heavy funk beat. There are a lot of ideas in the lyrics of this one track, but it’s largely built around the broken fantasy world of the relationship between pimp, prostitute, and “client”. It’s Los Angeles at two in the morning: miserable and mysterious, appalling or alluring (or both, depending on your particular leanings). This is undoubtably one of the best songs of the year.

Just when you’re brought into the deepest emotional depths of the album so far, Ocean hits back with the tropical “Lost”, and brief jazzy saunter of “White”, the latter with more fretwork from Mayer. But this album isn’t easy by any means, and listeners are reminded of this with the solemn “Bad Religion”. Much has been made of this song, owing to Ocean’s coming out earlier this year. But it’s powerful purely because of the simplicity and honesty of its lyrics, but because of the same, it’s not an easy song to listen to. But it’s worth it. Nobody tells stories through music like this any more.

How to Download Your Instagram Photos and Kill Your Account

Roberto Baldwin for Wired:

Today Instagram unleashed brand-new terms of service that has rubbed many of its loyal users the wrong way. Instagram can sell your photos to third parties for ads without telling you.

Not exactly.

While the chances are slim that your photo of your cat will end up on the side of a bus selling Meow Mix […]

If by “slim” you mean “non-existent”.

Still, this is a handy guide if you’re actually quitting the service (as opposed to the “quitting” that most people will do for a day or two).

Instagram Isn’t a Public Utility

Hey, look everybody: a free social network is trying to make money through ads. Let’s all throw rocks at them like we had no idea this was coming. Declan McCullagh of CNet is leading the charge:

Under the new policy, Facebook claims the perpetual right to license all public Instagram photos to companies or any other organization, including for advertising purposes, which would effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency.

Actually, they aren’t doing this, and can’t, as actual lawyer Nilay Patel explains:

These phrases have very specific meanings — Instagram can’t sell your photos to anyone, for example. It simply doesn’t have permission. And Budweiser isn’t allowed crop your photo of a bar, slap a logo on it, and run it as an ad on Instagram — that would go well beyond “display” and into modification, which Instagram doesn’t have a license to do. (In fact, the old Instagram terms allowed for modification, but the new ones don’t — they actually got better for users in that regard.)

But don’t let this get in the way of your rage, David Meyer of ZDNet:

This, on the other hand, is exploitation, pure and simple. The blog post in which Instagram announced its new terms of service does not actually say what the new terms entail. Indeed, you’d have to click through, then understand the legalese, to parse what is actually going to be done with your content. This stuff is designed to go over people’s heads.

I don’t disagree that contemporary Terms of Service and Privacy Policy documents should be written in plain English. They concern everyone’s usage of the service, not just lawyers’. But, as legalese goes, Instagram’s updated Terms are actually pretty easy to understand, and fairly consistent with the Terms of other ad-supported social networks.

Which brings me neatly to Jordan Koschei’s excellent article which provided the title for this collection of links:

If you don’t read the terms of service before starting your legal relationship with a website, that’s fine. But you forfeit your ability to complain about the terms — the contract under whose authority you’ve voluntarily placed yourself — without sounding completely foolish.

Given the number of people who think that Instagram suddenly has a license to sell your 612 × 612 pixel images to stock photo companies, I’d say that’s a fair assessment. All of this is a reminder that you should want to pay for stuff, as Alexis Madrigal put it:

Truly, the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value. It’s amazing what power we gain in becoming paying customers instead of the product being sold.

So what about all the people suddenly quitting Instagram? (Remember how they “quit” Twitter because of promoted tweets, and Facebook because of sponsored content, and Google+ because of Google’s privacy policy?) Tom Warren of The Verge thinks Flickr is going to see its renaissance:

With a nicely redesigned client and support for filters, Flickr is finally catching up to battle Instagram on the photo sharing front. And its dormant community of lapsed Pro users (who are required to pay a nominal fee each year) could be awakened after Instagram users realize they’re the product of advertisers.

Unless Flickr debuts a radically redesigned app, I doubt this. Instagram’s appeal for many was in its infinite-scrolling photo stream, with an easy double-tap every time you saw something you liked.

Update: Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom clarifies things:

Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing.

Translation: calm down and learn to read.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Six: Dum Dum Girls

End of Daze — Dum Dum Girls

Last year’s Only in Dreams LP was the record when I began to hear the sound of the Dum Dum Girls mature and concentrate. The hit single from that record — if there was one — was “Coming Down”, which I first heard while taking a train through the rain at one o’clock on a September morning. Dum Dum Girls have had a special place in my heart ever since.

This year’s EP is no less powerful. The garage sound is both sensitive and powerful at the same time, best exemplified by lead single “Lord Knows”. Lead vocalist Dee Dee laments the hurt she’s caused, but there’s a defiance to her pleading.

This EP is more atmospheric than previous Dum Dum Girls albums, and moreso even than you’d expect from any garage rock album. There’s space for contemplation and understanding, and it’s wonderful. My only complaint is that it isn’t a full-length, but I’ll settle for this tight five-song EP while I wait for their next LP.

I Am Facebook Friends With Ryan Lanza

Matt Bors for Salon on the consequences of the rush to be first:

“Social Media” didn’t get anything wrong or right. Reporters got things wrong – people who made choices about what to post and how to headline it – and they looked like fools for doing so.

Out of respect to those who lost their lives, their family, and those in the community, I have hesitated to post anything about the horrific shooting in Connecticut. If you’re looking for gun law-related links, both Gruber and Kottke have a collection of good ones.

However, I feel that one of the nasty side-effects of the tragedy was that cable news channels plastered a photo of a man onto millions of televisions without verifying it. Turns out the guy that they posted is both innocent, and whose brother was the shooter. He now has to cope with the emotions that come from both of those aspects because Fox, CNN, Gawker, and others were in a rush to be first.

Well, Duh

Instagram:

Our updated privacy policy helps Instagram function more easily as part of Facebook by being able to share info between the two groups.

What a surprise.

In-App Purchase Inconsistencies

Last week, I wrote:

I noticed that I was able to top up my Starbucks card through its app. I emailed to ask whether they were getting special treatment from Apple and, after many layers of customer support, I couldn’t get a straight answer. I do believe they are accepting a 30% cut in potential profits through the app, though.

A representative from the PR firm that represents Starbucks in Canada let me know that I should contact Apple “to learn more about exceptions to Apple’s app policy.” At this point, I’m not entirely certain that Apple is taking a 30% cut for in-app purchases made through the Starbucks app.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Five: DJ Shadow

Total Breakdown: Hidden Transmissions From The MPC Era, 1992-1996 — DJ Shadow

If you, as I, have spent many a lonely evening staring out on a darkened city, you’ll recognize the value of DJ Shadow’s records. Don’t be fooled by Shadow’s (real name Josh Davis) opening track, “Vee in Detroit”. Just because there’s a funky synth bass sample to kick this record off, that doesn’t mean that the rest of it isn’t for the night.

And, indeed, by the time the sixth track (“Intensely Hitting”) rolls around, this record has settled into the lonely, desolate, and mysterious samples you know and love. Except this wasn’t the mood DJ Shadow knew or loved, because these tracks were all created before he released Endtroducing… in 1996. In many ways, it shows that Shadow hadn’t settled into the role of a mashup artist extraordinaire yet. These are all prototypes and working drafts of a format he would later perfect. They’re great nevertheless. A thoroughly enjoyable album.

“Has the iPhone Peaked?”

Zach Epstein tries to write the one story all year that violates Betteridge’s law:

Has the iPhone Peaked? Apple’s iPhone 4S Seen Outselling iPhone 5

UBS analyst Steve Milunovich trimmed his estimates for Apple’s fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2014 years on Thursday evening. He also dropped his price target on Apple shares to $700 from an earlier target of $780. […]

“Some of our Chinese sources do not expect the iPhone 5 to do as well as the iPhone 4S,” Millunovich wrote.

Apple PR today:

Apple today announced it has sold over two million of its new iPhone 5 in China, just three days after its launch on December 14. iPhone 5 will be available in more than 100 countries by the end of December, making it the fastest iPhone rollout ever.

Combined with the earlier first-weekend press release, that’s seven million confirmed iPhone 5s sold. Obviously, it’s more than that, but the idea that the iPhone has peaked in sales is absurd.

Horace Dediu will likely have a much more detailed (and accurate) analysis of this data on Asymco soon, but if unit sales grow 56% year over year (the average iPhone sales growth rate of Q1 for the past three years) they’ll sell 57 million of them. Hell, it’s going to be sold in over 50 additional countries by the close of the quarter, so that’s entirely plausible.

So, to answer your question Mr. Epstein: no, the iPhone has not peaked.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Four: Deftones

Koi No Yokan — Deftones

The dudes in Deftones — never The Deftones — haven’t got Chi Cheng back from his harrowing four years of hospitalization and recovery, but they’ve released two records in that time with temporary replacement bassist Sergio Vega. Despite his contributions only to Yokan and 2010’s Diamond Eyes, he’s managed to help craft a record that combines the best parts of the previous studio record with the classic White Pony from 2000.

Yokan begins with the stomping two-and-a-half-minute “Swerve City” which, judging by the videos on YouTube, is quite the crowd pleaser. A Deftones record hasn’t hit this hard from the start since, yes, “Back to School” on Pony, but “Swerve City” is more immediate and visceral. It gives way to “Romantic Dreams”, “Leathers”, and “Poltergeist” — three of the most textured, sweeping songs in the Deftones songbook. They’re loud in all the right ways, but there’s a sensitivity to the distortion and Chino Moreno’s screams.

Track seven, “Tempest”, is the most recent single from the album. It’s as radio-friendly as the record ever gets, but don’t think that it’s weak sauce. The pre-chorus uses a tasteful amount of delay to create a distant “run run run run, ahead ahead ahead ahead” effect. It’s beautiful, preceding “turning in circles, been caught in a stasis,” as Moreno pleads in a Thrice-esque chorus.

In amongst all of the chaos on the record — the loud guitars, the screamed vocals, the hard-hitting drums, and the wicked bass work — there’s a sense of every song being absolutely exquisite, and completely essential.

The Surface Solution

Benjamin Brooks:

So back to Dalrymple’s question of what the Surface solves, which I would answer with: it solves the same problem that car manufacturers solved (or tried to solve) with SUVs. Some people want both a car and a truck, but can’t afford both. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Surface solves the problem well, but it solves the perceived problem of needing a hybrid device. It’s essentially the same thing original tablets tried to solve, just in a different form factor this time around.

I like this analogy because it carries the implications and problems of trying to combine a car and a truck. SUVs have some characteristics of a truck: they’re enormous, and not fuel efficient. The average buyer of them is going to use them like a car, and these drawbacks become vastly more apparent when one drives their SUV in the city. And, conversely, they’re not quite as good as a truck for moving a bunch of lumber or a large wardrobe, for example.

Much in the same way, if the iPad is a car and a laptop is a truck, the Surface tries to hit the middle point. Unsuccessfully, I might add.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Three: Clams Casino

Note: Unfortunately, some overly-protective copyright police are removing links to this all over. It’s a mixtape, so that’s to be expected. You can still find a way to download this if you know where to look.

Instrumental Mixtape Two — Clams Casino

The surprise hit of last year is back with fuzzy charm and sampled density. “Palace”, the album opener, is the instrumental beat from Clams Casino’s production of A$AP Rocky’s track of the same name. It’s heavy, and it’s enormous. I can’t overstate how huge this track is.

The rest of the album continues the style established by Clams Casino’s release last year, only a little darker. Every sample seems to slither its way through the layers without ever staying still. Take “The Fall” for example, with its bird samples and male vocals colliding, without either taking precedence. “Amor Fati” impossibly winds itself forwards and backwards at the same time. Nothing stays still. Everything is moving.

That is until you hit “Kissing on My Syrup”, which jolts you back into the real world with its microsecond-precise 4/4 beat. It’s what breaks up the latter half of the album, cutting through like a sharp hit of lime in a gin and tonic.

The album closer, “I’m God”, is the mellowing of what you’ve just encountered. It’s just as layered and just as fuzzy, but it’s less dense. The sampled vocal aptly encourages “deep breaths”, and that’s what I’ll take before running through the album again, and again.

Google’s Winter Cleaning

Dieter Bohn for The Verge:

Google is dropping consumer support for the Exchange ActiveSync protocol soon as a part of a “Winter Cleaning,” the company has announced. As a replacement, Google is recommending CalDAV for calendar, CardDAV for contacts, and IMAP for email — though obviously iPhone owners will also likely use the new Gmail app for that.

This probably wasn’t very popular, but it’s yet another reminder that Google can pull the rug out from the services you love. I liked Wave, for instance, but I had to — ahem — wave goodbye to that.

Please direct all pun complaints to my hate mail address.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Two: Kindred

Kindred EP — Burial

You’d think that with just three tracks and the initialism “EP” in the title that this would be a short jaunt. Ah, but this is Burial, so it’s a good half-hour of music. The title track opener sets the tone, and it’s aptly named: Burial’s signature vocal samples over beats. It sounds like much of 2010’s Untrue, if the entire record were condensed into an eleven-minute concentrate.

As apt as “Kindred” is named, so bluntly is “Loner”. It’s probably the most club-oriented track by Mr. Bevan. Its tempo is brisk, with each first and third beats delivered in steady thumps. There’s a driving arpeggiated synth melody that flutters overtop, but don’t think it’s lost any of the cold, solemn feeling that you’d expect from a Burial track. It belongs in the nightclub confined to your head.

The album closer, “Ashtray Wasp”, is perhaps the best thing Burial has created. It echoes the synth stylings from “Loner” at the beginning, but using an almost-ephemeral flute, with a sampled vocal pleading “I want you”. As the track passes through desperation, it morphs into a darker, more visceral experience, becoming disturbingly sparse in the last four minutes or so of the 11:45 piece.

This is the soundtrack for two o’clock in the morning, when you’re awake and staring through your window at a streetlight illuminating nothing. It’s properly haunting.

“A Shallow Veneer of Simplicity”

Lukas Mathis isn’t buying the dramatically simplified nature of the iTunes 11 interface:

Sure, iTunes 11 looks as if it was way more friendly than previous versions of iTunes. But while those previous versions were at least honest about their complexity, iTunes 11 isn’t. iTunes’ user interface used to promise a complex application, and then deliver one. iTunes 11 promises a simple app, but delivers the opposite.

He cites a number of examples whereby switching views is inconsistent, such as between the store and library, or within different portions of your local library.

But he forgets that it has always been this way in iTunes, despite acknowledging the following:

Compare this to how iTunes 10 used to work. To jump to a different screen in iTunes, select it from the sidebar. To change how the screen is shown, select one of the options in the toolbar. The basic organization of iTunes 10 can be explained in two sentences.

But this is incorrect. The “jumping to a different screen” aspect of the sidebar included switching between different kinds of local media, switching to an online store, or switching to groupings of local media (playlists). I could easily stretch the same complaints about the inconsistent views in iTunes 11 to questioning why I was able to switch to a musical playlist from the Movies view in iTunes 10.

Of course, I’m not implying that iTunes 11 is perfectly usable. There are a number of legitimate complaints here, chief among which is the library/store switching button which changes sides. But it’s a significant improvement all around. By segregating different kinds of media into unique sections of the app, it has isolated them into more appropriate categories and views, rather than assuming that all are equally relevant all the time.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition One: Silver Age

This year has produced a selection of truly brilliant albums. I’ve reviewed my favourites for the year, and there’s something here for everyone. I’ll be posting one of my picks every day until the end of the year, and I’ll be adding it to one big collection page, if you don’t want to read them every day.

The album titles will all be affiliate links to Amazon, so if you like the sound of one of these, please support the artist by buying a copy, and I’ll get a small cut. Or, check them out on iTunes. I won’t get a cut, but you’ll be buying a great album.

With the housekeeping out of the way, here’s the first edition.

Silver Age — Bob Mould

Bob Mould, the legendary Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman, released his ninth studio record this year at the age of 51, and he’s still rocking harder than people half his age. Silver Age is packed with the honest, simple, and down-to-earth music you expect from a trio.

Silver Age was recorded with Jason Narducy on bass and backup vocals, and Jon Wurster on drums. Both of these musicians contribute significantly to the stripped-down sound on this album. It’s clear that it’s the raw essentials.

But don’t think that it’s a light and cuddly record by any means — this is Bob Mould. The guitars are loud and fierce, and the lyrics are piercing. “Never too old to contain my rage,” spits Mould on the album-titled song. Indeed, he may be over 50, but this is the most raw and direct Mould has been since — dare I say? — his Hüsker Dü days. I love this album.