Blog Archive

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Missing driver

I see the upper class when I have to work in their domain. I see the iPhone grappling and Porsche driving bosses with their excessive equipment, expensive furniture and fancy secretaries. I see their fine clothes and their polished shoes, the jewelry on their hands and the tasteless art on their walls. And I desire none of it.

I wear my best suit and my best shoes and groom properly but no matter how hard I pretend, I instinctively feel like a foreign body in their spaces, with a thin facade of pleasantries to veil how alien it all seems to me. It's an environment I recognized from the caricature that advertisements and stock photos present as generic fancy metropolitan office space, but when you're suddenly standing in the middle of it, it's like a caped cartoon superhero appearing before you, the abrupt physicality of it makes it surreal, like a virtual reality production of a bad movie you've already seen. And you realize that this repulsive environment is what people are spending all these immense efforts on. This is why these people gather every day to cram up their Outlook for twelve hours.

Were I to make much more money, I might eventually be able to afford a second-hand BMW and a 4k screen instead of a third-hand Honda and a 1080p screen, but that wouldn't make me so much happier as to justify the work that goes into getting that rich. Other people would strongly disagree because the latest iPad or Mercedes or wristwatch appeals to them, but it doesn't appeal to me. There's lot of stuff I don't own, but I've found I feel better living in a relatively sparse space.
In a nutshell, my very limited financial capabilities already saturate most of my immediate material demand.

So with material gain gone as a motivator, the reason to keep working the same amount of dreadful hours in a job that makes me feel sick is either a) because I'm a responsible adult that wants to put some money aside, more probably b) because I'm a coward and don't dare risk having to rely on my emergency reserve if I don't find a new job right away or c) because the job market isn't designed to have employees reduce the number of hours they want to work. Part-time is unheard of in my field, less than forty hours a week almost scandalous. It's understandable from the employers' point of view that they would rather have one guy work fifty hours than two guys work twentyfive each, but it also means that you're either working full-time or not at all.

All drivers to keep going to work are negative - fear of poverty, fear of not getting something new, fear that quitting early on would look bad on a resume, fear of having to lower my humble current standard of living. I don't want to own an Armani suit, but I don't want to worry if I can afford the dentist either.
There's no positive driver like personal fulfillment. I don't identify with the results of my work. Material gain is the most popular motivator to keep people going - only X more paychecks and you can afford the thing - which is completely legitimate, but I don't want the thing. I only have to provide for myself and I'm good with what I have. The one possession that would make me happier would be a place to live with way more space between me and the neighbours, but that would take decades of saving up.

How do you legitimize working for forty more years when the best possible outcome is becoming one of those abhorrent people and a good outcome is the status quo? Should I start donating to charity? Should I consider more long-term saving? Should my ultimate goal be a big enough cushion to retire early? Or am I just an entitled little shit that should be glad he can keep buying food? It's probably the latter.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Expanse

The Expanse is the recently televised Syfy adaption of the series of novels by the same name. A first season of ten episodes has just aired and a second season is scheduled to be broadcast in 2017. Set in a future where humanity is colonizing the solar system, Earth and Mars are the two major political and military forces upholding a brittle peace, while the Asteroid Belt is treated as a marginalized and impoverished mining colony that seeks independence.

The show follows three stories that become interconnected. At Ceres Station, police detective Miller (Thomas Jane) is tasked to find a missing young woman who fled her wealthy family and mingled with the criminal underworld. Between the belt and Jupiter, an industrial ice transporter with James Holden (Strait), Naomi Nagata (Tipper) and Alex Kamal (Anvar) serving in its crew respond to an emergency broadcast that lures them into a trap. On Earth, UN executive Avasarala (Aghdashloo) is managing the ever-increasing tensions between Earth, Mars and the Belt. All three parties become entangled in a series of events that threaten to escalate into a solar war.

The Expanse in my eyes is the best Science-Fiction TV series of the last ten years. It's flawed in parts and it takes a while to get up to speed, yes, but overall it does superbly well and I'm excited for more. 
What I like about it is how it manages to have one story-thread from the space opera genre with a huge scale and another one that's a hardboiled detective story with bits of cyberpunk in it, without them clashing. You get the big spaceships and laser-rifle shootouts and interplanetary travel, but you also get poverty and crime and drugs and low-life in a high-tech environment. The segment on Earth might even work as an additional political thriller, but the show doesn't pull that segment off well enough.
The show is at it's best when the protagonists intermingle with the shadier parts of society, because as opposed to Star Trek's ideal of a unified humanity, instead it has carried the old struggles with poverty and resources, violence and criminality, politics and economics into space with it. There are some segments that felt reminiscent of what made Firefly popular, when the crew around Holden (the charismatic leader, the brute, the laid back pilot, the strong lady engineer) gets comfortable in the ship they eventually make their own. Because of the relatively near-future scenario though, the show feels more realistic than FF or Battlestar Galactica.

At the end of the first season, some questions are answered and several threads tied up, but it leaves the story at a point that is neither complete escalation nor resolve, closing at about the end of the first book. The novel had five sequels already, so I hope the series is allowed to catch up to that somewhat. Either way I liked the premise and the characters so much, I plan on starting with the books.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Xenotronic Cider Twerk

SUNN O))) - Kannon [2015] []
Six long years after the epic and clear Monoliths & Dimensions, SUNN return with another album that moves away from the dissonant feedback of early days (Flight of the Behemoth) and the triumphant black metal experiments of BLACK ONE, instead directing their droning into brighter spheres of sound. Previous records plunged you into an abyss, this one lets you glimpse that there is light on the other side. It might be misleading to call this light or accessible, but the riffs come in faster intervals, the songs have more structure to them, the pitches are higher. The result doesn't smother you anymore, quite the opposite, it lets you breathe more freely than any of their other records. To me, that also makes this album flat and boring (that is, for a SUNN record), because it lacks the brutal heavyness and shifts of their most glorious efforts. Meh.

Baroness - Purple [2015] []
Seven years after Baroness became a rock band, which to this day feels like a damn waste to me, they publish the followup to the thin Yellow, being compared to their earlier material - that got me interested again. In short, no. Purple sounds like Blue, a rock album with very clearly structured, rhythmic backing and melodic vocals. Purple is neither the brawny sludge metal that made First so powerful, nor the free-form prog beauty of Red. Anybody comparing this to their abandoned early sound is full of shit. That being said, Purple is not a bad record per se - it has many upbeat melodies to it, strong drumming, few spots of crunchy riffs, but for the life of me I can't stand Baizley's clean vocals. If you're looking for lightweight modern rock music with some experimental sounds mixed into clean structures, you might appreciate this album - I don't.

Sarpanitum - Blessed Be My Brothers [2015] []
Sarpanitum from Birmingham play a sort of extreme death metal that mixes the technical melo-ish style of popular modern bands with the chaotic brutal hammering from the likes of Diocletian which in turn sounds like bits of blackened Morbid Angel. What this means is you get a foundation of dry, mean pounding (think Gateways to Annihilation), which supports a highly technical construct on top. Think Artificial Brain with sudden clear melodic leads, sometimes even supported by synths, instead of gurgling slime and dirt. Thankfully, it doesn't make the mistake that for example Cult of Fire makes by suffocating everything with layers of unnecessary orchestral effects. Blessed By My Brothers is a perfect illustration of the lyrics' subjects, a tremendously powerful album and one of the best records made in 2015.

Ceephax - Charismatic Integrity Slam [2015] []
Cro Magnox was probably the greatest piece of electronic music in the last five to ten years because the guy deviated from his usual rave-y silly acid stuff and hit a more brooding, serious note in many songs. In here's it's right back to the analogue bleep and bloop acid rave trance music. That makes it much more occasional than the heavy-rotation Cro Magnox, but it still delivers good tracks, most importantly the glorios "Vladijenk II (The corroded mainframe at Tartarus edition)" - there's a song title for you. What got me into Ceephax is right there - how he creates this rich and full analogue synth sound that lends weight to the songs, but sadly Mr. Jenkinson quite often decides to drop that heavyness and go into ecstasy-popping house territory. The tone on this album varies a lot, and that lack of consistency is what holds it back.

Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels [2013] []
With their first studio album that is still available for free download, Run The Jewels gained rapid popularity. El-P and Killer Mike work tremendously well together, their vocals are tight and on point, propulsive and precise, and while their beats too often consist mostly of generic modern wobble bass that I usually dislike so much, they integrate it well enough into the sound without being annoying. The lyrics on this record are far from the the politically-charged material that Killer Mike does even outside of music, instead it's much sillier and primitive than that. Maybe it's that silliness that makes this album much more accessible than it seems at first, it's much simpler than its reputation. Modern rap music doesn't do much for me in general, but there are rare exceptions and Run The Jewels is one of them. Not brilliant, but enjoyable.

Further listening: 
Grip of Delusion is a webradio that plays Stoner, Doom, Sludge, Blues and Hard Rock, anything that is handcrafted, heavy and at least a bit dusty. From Danko Jones to Eyehategod, there's lots of variety within a vaguely shared aesthetic. Great station.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Lean Mean Stream Machine

I got myself a Raspberry Pi 2, the world's favourite cheap mini-computer. Searching for small projects with useful long-term results to justify the device, I came up with two services I am now running. I use a further stripped-down Raspbian as the OS (in contrast to a single-purpose preconfigured Pi image) and operate the system headless, only via ssh/web. 

Similar to OwnCloud, Seafile is a Dropbox-like "Cloud Storage" software that allows you to sync our files against a shared backend storage. In contrast to OwnCloud which is released under the GPL, the Chinese Seafile is proprietary software - my main reason to use the free-of-charge version for home users instead of OwnCloud was the free-of-charge Android app that came with it. The main usecase for me is transferring files between my PC and my phone without having to plug it in via cable, so that was important. Seafiles has clients for Windows, Linux (for my desktop PC), Mac, a terminal client, and apps for iOS and Android, as well as just using a webclient. The connection is either done via http or https.
Installation was trivial, the only problem I found was that Seahub, the server's frontend component would sometimes fail to start for inexplicable reasons, so I just made it retry on system startup with a short delay - now it works fine.

Mopidy + PiMusicbox
Mopidy is a Python-based, Apache-Licensed backend service to stream and play music.  PiMusicBox is a plugin for Mopidy that adds a touch-friendly webinterface to it. Installing mopidy was trivial and so was the basic configuration and installation of the plugin, the main problem was with general audio output.
I wanted to use my existing desktop speakers, which have USB and AUX connection. The USB connection works as an external soundcard for my PC, and the vendor explicitly states that in order for both AUX and USB to work in parallel, USB has to be plugged in so the driver can manage the Line-In associated with that device. The entire point of the project though was to listen to music without having to turn on the big, power-consuming PC. No problem because it shouldn't be in parallel when the PC is off? I thought so too, but even when shut down I still needed to unplug the cable - the tiny current still on it was enough for the USB connection to remain active and expect feedback from the driver that wasn't there anymore. What I had to do was enable EUP in BIOS, which shuts off USB ports completely when the system is shutdown to reduce energy consumption, but also prevents Wake on LAN and Wake on Keyboard (which I don't need). 
With that out of the way, the ALSA audio management is a complete nightmare. Addressing channels and faking PCM slave interfaces is terrible, the configuration is hell. I'm not sure how, but finally I somehow managed to get it to address the stereo speakers as such with separate output for left and right, not just the same mono-signal on both. Never trust amixer!
I can now edit a simple file to add additional web radio stations. In theory you can manage stations from the webinterface as well, but that is done within browser-cookies, so if you want persistent cross-device stations like a normal person, you have to edit that file. If I want to start streaming music or change the channel, I can open the Musicbox webinterface (e.g. via wifi and browser on my phone), choose from the radio stations I configured (you know, normal stuff) and press play. I can also add my own music to the local storage and play that as well. Easy, flexible and very extensible. Some people pay a lot of money for Sonos Systems to stream music and control it from their phones - my tiny Pi can now do that for free with non-proprietary software, thank you.

I'm still looking for maybe one or two additional services to make the most out of this system and legitimize it running most of the time, but these two are already pretty neat, especially the webradio. The Pi is a great device for these purposes as it can be this multi-purpose server, doesn't cost much, but more importantly doesn't consume much power and is silent.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Out of 2015

The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?
The same procedure as every year, James!

The Blog
As I announced in June for AWTCs ninth anniversary, I will stop writing here at the completed tenth year, after which the site will remain online but frozen until I'll permanently delete all of it by no later than April 2017. Looking back, 2015 didn't change much for AWTC, but I managed to write a whooping 50 posts, which is almost back to 2012 levels. Labels are cleaner than ever and I tried to add more varied topics. My personal highlights were a brief exchange with GNU founder Dr. Richard Stallman, the first real short story I've ever written and my best piece of micro-fiction yet.

The Individual
I use indifference as a shield against things that would infuriate me, but apathy might have become a problem. Every day seems endless, but the months fly by. I don't take what I do for a living seriously anymore and worry that one day people might notice. Oh, I’m fine. It’s just that life is pointless and nothing matters and I’m always tired. Also, I can’t sleep, I’m overeating and none of my old hobbies interest me. I've taken up walking (normal walking, not the silly one) to have some sort of physical activity, but I'm not as dedicated as I should be. So here I am, with nothing to do but not getting anything done. What always manages to cheer me up though are the chiming sounds that the big bone pillars in the forbidden temple make when the wind howls through them. I think they belonged to a single creature once, but the bloodmonks won't talk about it.

Not only did I discover amazing music from before 2015 (Ceephax, Xoth, Tribulation, DBC, Satan, Run the Jewels), there have also been many great releases this year. Some of my established favorites like High on Fire, Clutch and Napalm Death delivered records that live up to their high standards, while other bands failed to do so, for example SUNN O))), Rivers of Nihil or Slayer. There were lots of positive surprises among the new releases like Vhöl, Chapel of Disease, Sarpanitum, Sulphur Aeon, Iron Kobra, Black Fast and also some great non-metal records (GosT more than anything else). I haven't listened to the new Killing Joke and Baroness enough to form an opinion yet, so more on that later. Vektor only released an amazing single, but their concert this month was great.

I binge-watched way too many TV shows this year, from Game of Thrones to Narcos, from Deutschland 83 to Mr. Robot, from Silicon Valley to Hornblower, from Gravity Falls to Rick and Morty, and quite frankly the original What's My Line is just dandy.
In terms of movies, I find it rather easy to identify my top films of the year. Ex Machina and The Martian were good, The Revenant was great, but Mad Max Fury Road was a big, roaring, octane breathing and adrenaline sweating monster of dirt and oil the demonstrated with a vengeance that remakes/reboots don't have to be boring (couldn't care less about Jurassic World or Star Wars).
There were only two significant vidyogaemz for me this year, one was GTAV which was fun but finished within a month, and then there was Hawken which I got really deep into, but recently abandoned until there will be new content or a client-update. I've looked at the Steam Christmas Sale list, and sadly none of those titles interest me.

From a personal standpoint, my biggest step in technology this year was switching to GNU+Linux as my main desktop OS and I must admit that I'm getting on with it way better than I expected. Yes it has flaws, but I am willing to deal with those. I spend so much time stuffing money into Microsoft's throat and mopping up their mess at work, I'm willing to trade off some comforts and functionality so I don't need them at home. A new phone with more performance and a bigger screen made Android actually useful for me and I haven't used my old laptop since.
From a global standpoint, things keep moving to -as-a-service models where you don't own anything anymore. Windows 10 is a prime example of loosing control over your personal computing, the same goes for sites that won't allow you in if you use an adblocker. This is nothing less than an attack on the right to own a computer and use it the way you want it to.
Outside of computing tech, humanity looked at Pluto up close, CRISPR gene editing has pretty much exploded, rockets can now land vertically and the Paris agreements on climate change come about thirty years too late. As always, the effect that tech has on broad stroke society is slowly changing, until one day you realize that what is normal has moved on. Drones are a common thing now, so are voice-controlled personal assistants and computers smaller than a cigarette box. No flying cars, robot slaves or human space travel, but your watch will tell you that you're too fat.

Lump of rock, floating in nothing
Holy fuck what a dump. More people than ever live in places so utterly terrible that they had to flee from their entire (sub/)continent. Religion is used as a banner to commit mass murder like it's the crusades all over again. Significant amounts of people in the richest country in the world are taking Donald Trump seriously. The moral conflicts of today are over religion, gender and race - again. Illegal mass surveillance is still at large and unhindered. The Russians and the Turks are all up in arms and Europe is moving to get militarily involved in the Middle East again. Nationalist movements all over Europe have grown much stronger. The age pyramid of the world is becoming an age barrel, maybe for the rising population to float on the equally rising sea levels. It's all a farce but we have learned to live with it. The good news is, ḏ̴̯a̱͜t̴̞͔̪̩̹̺ͅą ͍̲in̛̝͓͕̝t̷̬̗͙̣͚̯̠e̫͜gr͉̩̗i̺̺͓t͏̳̖̬̼ỵ̺̩̞̹̫̭ ̪̱̟͢h͈̘a̰̖̞͎̣s̮ ̵̯̰͍̖̠̭͖b̪̠̠̤͓ͅe͙͔̝͡e̯͠n̬̖͔̟͍ ̢̗̙͍̤̟s̤͕̜̮̠̝͖͜i̳̲͓͉͜g̤͢n͍̜̻̬͉͝i̡̬͖͓̞͚͙͈f͓͓̲͠i̝̥͉̪̖̗̱c͏͎͉̟̱̙͕a͇̯̹͙n͙̱͎̟͙ṭ̣̮͎͕ͅl̢͓͍̩̣̜̦̙ý̲̲̖ ̥̞̺͎̪̙i̷̙̩̹̗̫̫m̲̭̙͍̮͙̗̀p҉r͚o̦͜v̘e͈̠͕̻͝d̰̱̥̱͙̳..

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

No Class

After drummer "Philthy Animal" Taylor in November and one week after his 70th birthday, the world has lost the big man himself and with him a band called Motörhead (as confirmed by Mikkey Dee). Lemmy looked quite sick for a while, with many cancelled shows throughout the last year. In the end, it wasn't drugs or alcohol that killed him like people joked twenty years ago, but cancer. Yet if a man influences more than three decades of the world's biggest musicians and means a lot to millions of people across the world, he is not really dead. His band's catalog features albums that are widely forgotten and eternal classics, hidden gems and flagship songs for music history. One mean, gritty roar from your mom and dad's glory days to now. Motörhead never strayed far from their original sound and spirit and while they sold waaay out, they never compromised or conformed. Why not though? Because they were Motörhead. Because they played Rock'n'Roll. Born to lose, live to win.