Thoughts of a geek

4 October 2010

More requests

Filed under: Computers, Electronics, Me, music, thequotebook — Tags: , , , , , — qwandor @ 2:34 am

Continuing on from my last post, here are some more topics people requested me to write about.

xyzzy and Craig both want me to write about working at Google. Hmm. Well it is a fairly good place to work. We get free breakfast, lunch and dinner in the office, Monday–Friday, plus there are microkitchens around the place with snacks and drinks. The food is pretty good too. Typically at lunch in the main cafeteria there will be 2 or 3 choices of meat (at various times we have had roast duck, roast beef or lamb, lamb cutlets, beef steak, various kinds of sausages, sausages wrapped in bacon, chicken, turkey, I think there was even kangaroo steak one time), some choice of fish or other seafood, vegetarian dishes, roast and/or boiled potatoes, rice, a range of cooked vegetables, various salads, sushi, a couple of flavours of soup, bread of various sorts, crackers and cheeses, a hot pudding, cakes or cupcakes or other cold desserts, fruit, and a range of drinks. There is a machine to squeeze oranges into juice which is fun to watch. There is not nearly so much selection for dinner unfortunately, and not so many people stay for it. Breakfast is pretty good though. If you happen to be in London, come for lunch! We get to have up to two social guests to eat at the office each month.

Food aside, the work has been fairly decent. It does take a while to get used to all the systems and technologies, as Google have a lot of internally-developed tools and systems that nobody else uses, and have had to put a lot of work into making everything scale bigger than pretty much anyone else. Writing a web application that could cope with being used by everyone on the Internet, many simultaneously, from all over the world, does pose some challenges over just designing something for a few hundred people. I still have a lot to learn. Unfortunately nothing I have worked on so far has been launched yet, and it is unlikely that any substantial part of it will be launched publicly until sometime next year.

Working at a global company with tens of thousands of employees is certainly rather different to working at a small place with between 10 and 20. The ratio of actual developers to support roles (legal, HR, recruitment, management, sales, facilities, and probably many others that I do not even know about) seems to be quite a bit lower. I am not too sure what differences can be attributed to differences between England and NZ as I have only worked at the one company over here. I guess there are more big companies over here though, being a bigger country. I do find that there is not so much chance to chat with my colleagues about anything outside work, though that may be at least partly due to the fact that I knew about half of the guys at Innaworks already before I started working there, though university and Interface.

As for what skills I use from my studies, the data structures, algorithms and complexity stuff was certainly important in passing the interviews and getting the job, though so far at least it has not been all that important day to day.

I think that answers most of Craig’s questions. xyzzy also wanted to know about “some project you’ve embarked upon in your spare time! your take on what really matters in life!”. Unfortunately I have not been working on any terribly exciting projects in my spare time since I moved here. I did just recently order a Bus Pirate, in the hopes of hooking some sort of I2C devices up to my computer and having a play. That has not yet arrived yet though. It is also not clear whether there are proper drivers for it to let it work with the usual Linux I2C infrastructure, or just userland stuff.

I have made a number of updates to theQuotebook in the last month or so, most notably finally getting the new style ready to launch. I am working on a new feature to allow quotes to be added by email, and Twitter support may also follow if I can work out a good way to design it and find a suitable Twitter username that is not already taken.

I also did some work on a web-based client for Fridge a while ago. It is implemented using GWT, and talks directly to the XML-RPC API that the other clients use, so it supports all the same features, including Interfridge. You can try it out if you have an account on the Memphis fridge or any peered fridge.

So what really matters in life? Probably not Slayer. God, I think, though I am not sure quite how. People seem to be fairly important. I wish I got to spend more time interacting with people constructively, perhaps sociably as well. Finding good community and good friends is hard. Knowledge is also important I think. Do more maths, people. And some science if you like.

Before I stop for the now, Richard asked me (twice!) to write about Slayer, so I guess I should do that. Richard seems to be a little bit obsessed with Slayer, though I am sure he would assure you it is purely in an ironic way. I am afraid I do not now much at all about them, so I will be looking up what I can. last.fm informs me that Slayer are “a thrash metal band from US, formed in 1981 … credited as one of the ‘Big Four’ thrash metal bands, along with Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth”. They seem to choose deliberately controversial topics for their songs, which is not uncommon among such bands. I am pretty sure Metallica are better. Perhaps you can tell us more, Richard?

I think that will do for today. Next up: books, culture and language if I can think of anything to write about them, and probably not a vat of hot chocolate.

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8 September 2009

An idea for songfighting

Filed under: Computers, music — Tags: , , , , , — qwandor @ 11:14 pm

I was walking to work yesterday, and I had an idea.

Perhaps you have heard of SONG FIGHT. If not, the idea is fairly simple: each week, a song title is given. Competitors then have a week to write the words and music for a song fitting that title, record it, and submit it. Anyone can then download the songs, listen to them and vote for which they think are best. I guess the main point is to motivate musicians to write more songs, to improve their skills and whatnot.

Anyway, my idea is to automate the process. I want to write some software that, given a title, can produce a half-plausible sounding song matching it. The first step would be to generate the lyrics, which I guess could be handled by an approach based on Markov chains trained on a range of existing song lyrics, probably combined with some sort of syllable and rhyming dictionaries to produce lines with some sort of rhythmic structure. Hmm, perhaps the rhythm should be generated first and then the lyrics made to fit it. The title would be included in one of the lines, probably near the beginning or end, or even several times in the chorus.

Next (or perhaps first), it would be necessary to generate some sort of plausible tune for the verse and chorus, and any other bits in-between (bridge? intro? instrumental bit in the middle?). I am not sure how to approach this, perhaps there is some literature on the subject. Maybe more Markov chains, or some sort of recombination of existing tunes, or some other method. I could really do with some advice from musicians here: how do you put together a tune that actually sounds tuneful, rather than just a list of random notes?

I assume that once the basic melody is generated, generating a passable accompaniment would be relatively straightforward, though again I will need to talk to some musicians.

Once the music and lyrics are sorted, along with an arrangement for the song, producing the final product would be a matter of running the lyrics and melody through Festival’s singing mode (as I have played with before), synthesise a few instruments and some drums for the rest of it, and mix it all together, ready to submit. Simple?

Anyway, reactions? Does this sound plausible? Has it all been done before? Can you offer any advice, especially for the musical side of it?

6 June 2009

Local music

Filed under: music — Tags: , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 2:14 pm

I would like to tell you about a few local musicians whom I know to varying degrees. They all live in Wellington, and I have met all of them at least once.

First up is Josh Thompson, now calling himself Danjor (previously Tommo39). Danjor’s music is mostly fairly light acoustic rock about God and girls. You can see what he is up to at the Danjor blog, and download some free tracks from his old website. He is working on an album to be released at some point, but in the meantime I recommend that you download his songs and listen to them.

Someone else well worth listening to is Sarah Hughes. She plays female singer-songwriter sort of stuff, again someone singing about life and love and God with a guitar. She does do it well though. Unfortunately the last.fm page for Sarah Hughes refers to another artist of the same name. Sarah has so far released one album, Glimpses. Unfortunately it only has 6 tracks, but I recommend it nonetheless. You will have to contact her directly to buy it; try her blog (linked above). I am not aware of any plans for more albums, but who knows.

Another Josh with a guitar to watch out for is Josh Baker. Josh seems like a fairly interesting character (well, maths students are always cool, right?), and he seems to write a fair number of songs, some of which he records and posts online.

Is there anyone I have missed? Whom do you recommend?

10 May 2009

Music and me

I often find that I associate things in my life — events, feelings, and so on — quite strongly with music. Some songs remind me of particular times, places, emotions, happenings.
Here are some songs that have been significant over the past year or so.

Bottom of Yourself by The Anywheres was a song that I listened to quite a bit at times last year. There were times last year when I felt completely exhausted, drained, unable to go any further, and this song seemed to fit.

So when you get there
Let me know you’re well
I’ll be waiting for your call
And when you get there
Tell me how it feels
To reach the bottom of yourself

Oh, and it quotes Amazing Grace, which makes it even better. Definitely something to listen to during long walks in the middle of the night.

Lights of Sunday by Emerald Park is another fairly acoustic, indie song, which I have been listening to a bit earlier this year. Again, something to listen to while walking slowly, at night, to no particular destination. And again, I identify with it as reflecting how I have felt at times.

He’s tired of himself
I don’t think sleep will help
You’re weary and you sleep
‘Cause you’re tired of yourself
When you’re sorry for yourself
You push your friends away
And when you push your friends away
You feel sorry for yourself

Real Synthetic Audio is not a song but a podcast, playing 40 minutes of industrial, EBM and futurepop each week. Driving beats and angry Germans. I got into RSA this last year through my Ukrainian friend Cat, who would often play it while we were working in the lab late at night, night after night. I found it to be good music for keeping oneself awake through the months of 14–16-hour days that is honours.
It is also good for walking fast, or running. It tends to be pretty hard stuff, and there are some songs or entire episodes that I dislike, but I currently have 23 episodes that I listen to on and off. I probably do not listen to it quite as much as I used to, though just a few days ago I was listening to quite a bit.

‘Leaves That Are Green’ by Simon and Garfunkel is a song that I identify with a bit at the moment, feeling that I am getting older without really getting anywhere. Missing people, feeling opportunities slip away.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long,
Time hurries on.
And the leaves that are green turn to brown,
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Hello, hello, hello, good-bye,
Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye,
That’s all there is.
And the leaves that are green turned to brown,
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

My only gripe, though, are the lines “I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song. / I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long”. This does not make sense: how old was Paul Simon when he wrote those lines? 21 or 22?
More Simon and Garfunkel songs that I have lately listened to and thought about are ‘Patterns’, ‘Bye Bye Love’ and ‘The Sound Of Silence’.

‘In Christ Alone’, by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, reminds me of TSCF conferences.

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

The triumphant final verse is particularly good too:

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

I bought Stuart Townend’s album ‘There is a Hope’ at the the TSCF mid-year conference last year, I think it was, and there are quite a few really good songs on there, I guess best described as modern hymns.
Some more great songs on the same album, which I think I also remember from TSCF conferences, are ‘There Is A Hope’ and ‘Salvation Song’.

‘Lead Me To The Cross’ by Graham Kendrick (not to be confused with the Hillsong song of the same name) is another excellent hymn, which I remember from the 2006 TSCF midyear conference:

How can I be free from sin?
Lead me to the cross of Jesus
From the guilt, the power, the pain?
Lead me to the cross of Jesus

There’s no other way
No price that I could pay
Simply to the cross I cling
This is all I need
This is all I plead
That his blood was shed for me

The Flaming Lips (or at least, their album ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’) remind me of working at Innaworks the summer before last, as I first heard them there (thanks to Darren I think). At first I was not too keen on their music, but it definitely grew on me and and I listened to it a fair bit in Memphis last year.

Another song that reminds me a lot of last year is ‘I Am A Rock’ by Simon and Garfunkel. I felt that I could relate to it:

I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
Its laughter and its loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And the end, sad, defiant, but still not quite honest:

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

It was something that I listened to late at night, alone in Memphis, anyway.

There are of course many more songs: stuff by Breaking Benjamin, Live, Lagoona, Apocalyptica, Nightwish, Switchfoot, Adiemus and others, and I am really liking The Cranberries at the moment, especially ‘I Just Shot John Lennon’ and ‘I’m Still Remembering’. But I think that will do for now.

Oh, one more: ‘Videotape’ by Radiohead. Another melancholic one, bringing memories of walking home in the dark, tired but not sleepy, dissatisfied. Perhaps it is raining a little.
It is hard to pick just one part to quote here, so do listen to the whole thing, but here is the beginning and the end:

When I’m at the pearly gates
This’ll be on my videotape
My videotape
My videotape

No matter what happens now
I won’t be afraid
Because I know
Today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen.

As usual, Thom Yorke’s voice is amazing in his unique way, and this sparse song demonstrates it well.

What songs are particularly significant to you?

7 April 2009

Walking

Filed under: Me, music — Tags: , , , — qwandor @ 12:57 am

Social interaction is frustrating. Well, attempts at such.
The moon is disappearing. Hidden behind the clouds. Appearing, still blurred. Soft, in a hard world. Nature. Still cold though. Bright and dim. Pink cloud blowing past, oddly dog-shaped. Unshapen now. Light pollution. Quite a breeze tonight, here in this dark playground. Swing, swing.
Too much. The moon fades again. A little dizzy, I walk.
I keep doing this. Over and over again. Still no clue really, how to relate to people. I tend to miss what few opportunities I might have, to … well, talk I guess. To have a real conversation, rather than just basic social niceties. I guess there are exceptions.
This makes me think of the song ‘Lights of Sunday‘ by Emerald Park. Back to the original problem really.
Time to run.
Attempting metaphor, against my better judgement.

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