On code soul Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Soul. Singular. We're not talking about ghosts, possibly lost. We're talking about soul, as in Miles All-Your-Soul-Are-Belong-To-Us Davis soul. And MythTV (the code part). So that's a start.
You see, MythTV is sweet. Not "candy" sweet, or "flowers" sweet: Cartman sweeeeeeet (you guys). The kind of sweet you want to take home to Mom... and rail on the kitchen table. It's that sweet.
So then, what does code, soul, and MythTV have anything to do with Microsoft? Woaaaah, who mentioned Microsoft!? Must've been a Freudian slip, but I'm sure we'll be hearing more about them in a bit.
MythTV is a homebrew PVR project done by a single programmer named Issac Richards, who, from his email address, I would guess is a student. (At the time of original writing this was true, although now I would imagine there are a fair number of contributors to the project.) Most of you have probably never heard of MythTV, nay have actually used it. But those of us that have know that it's an incredible project with a great user interface that is -- from the little I've messed with commercial PVR systems -- easily comprable to Tivo or ReplayTV, save for the fact you have to be able to set it up yourself.
Where am I going with this? Well, MythTV is a product that actually does what it's users need and want it to do (very well) and yet it is, for all intents and purposes, written by one person. Not a team with eight sub-teams, one of which spends all their time working on the talking paper clip. One dude.
Now, the kid's gotta be pretty damn smart. A virtuoso, if you will, of the art of programming. And it's reflected in the project: MythTV has code soul.
As if this rave didn't make any sense so far, it's about to get even stranger. Because now is where I start talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I know that even admitting familiarity with ST:TNG is equivalent to dropping a 100-megaton nuke on your social life, but during my formative years I tuned in every week. Thanks a lot Dad.
You see, I'm reminded of that one episode where Data -- the almost-human android with the shiny yellow skin -- is playing music in Ten Forward (bad Star Trek joke: he's playing music in Ten Forward in about half of the episodes) and he mentions that while he can play any and every piece with perfect technical proficency, yet people consistently remark that his performance seems to lack something. Lack feeling. Lack soul.
Whether the mass market realizes it or not (they don't), programming -- really beautiful, masterful software creation -- is an art. Major software projects are, after all, the most complicated artifacts human beings have ever created: the latest Linux source code package is thirty-three megabytes (and that's heavily compressed)!
The problem with art is that there is art because of art and there is art because of money. A friend and I ranting about being forced to endure some of the most worthless commercials we had ever seen, all the while Turnpike Films has some of the most brilliant and witty commercials ever made. But you'll never see them. Because none of them ever actually make it to TV. (As of the original writing you could view Turnpike's hillarious advertisments on their website: however, due to pressure from the companies for whom they developed the spots, they're not even available online anymore. If anyone reads this and has an archive of the commericals, please contact me, I would love to have them again!)
So seriously, what the hell point am I trying to make. It all comes down to this: "bad" software is deemed so not becase it doesn't get used or it doesn't work (we need look no furthur than Windows to satisfy both these conditions). It's because, just like any other piece of artwork, we judge software against the untouchable ideal of perfect beauty, in the sense of Plato's forms.
We can "sense" if the software was written by an artist who was trying to, like so many others before him or her, finally instantiate that ethereal ideal here on Earth. We can also tell when it wasn't. When it was written by one of thousands who will never aspire to produce anything that could be called "beautiful." Software like this, software that lacks soul, is just like any other piece of "pop art:" yes, MTV's latest logo is a piece of artwork, but no one will ever wonder why it wasn't place in the Louvre. Don't agree? Then tell me why Turnpike's commercials aren't aired in every city and every market. (It's really too bad you can't watch them anymore, I'm quite disapointed.)
Microsoft can hire the entire living workforce of programmers and still never create a MythTV, or a Linux, or an OS X, or any of the other million pieces of art-in-the-machine created by dedicated programmers all over the world who do so because it's art and because they are artists. Microsoft has some of the best programmers in the world working for them, this is indisputable. And ever so rarely, one of them will gain a true artistic interest in their infinitely-small task, and the result is a piece of code that just can't have come out of a corporate cube farm: it's far too brilliant.
As a whole, and almost as a rule, art produced for any enterprise wishing to exploit it is something else entirely. It completely and utterly lacks soul, because it was produced by artisans who felt nothing for its creation. Imbibing art with soul isn't a spontaneous process, it requires raw materials. When the artist has no emotions towards what he is creating (or in Data's unfortunate case, no emotions at all) a truly soulful piece of artwork can never result.
All these mispelled words and mis-structured paragraphs to say this: art is a medium which reflects back to all who look upon it its creator, and software design is an art form just like any other. Microsoft will never be able to understand whyso many programmers spend countless hours writing software simply to write software, just like Data will never be able to play a single note the way Miles did.
here we go... again Thursday, February 17, 2005
The fire that got my fingers to the keys was one of the those amazing structure-in-randomness epiphanies, the kind that knock you off balance for a second. I don't know if my incredible powers of ambiguity could possibly make that any less detailed, so since you already know I'm going to say that we'll get back to that later, I'll just skip over that part. (Does he mean the whole thing or... you don't know!)
If you know me, you know how attached I am to my iPod. If you don't, just know that among our friends, the group of iPod afficiandos frequently get into shouting matches with our other friends who have snapped after going days having to repeat everything thing they said two times. Most people think it's because I love the iPod itself, but that's not actually quite it. The iPod is, in fact, just a pocket-sized version of iTunes, and that's where obsession starts.
When I first got my Mac about a year ago and started using iTunes with a fair amount of reservation, my buddy Casey told me "just promise you mean you won't become one of those 'iTunes-changed-my-life' fanboys." Fortunately for me, at this point even Casey has an iPod so I can proudly admit that I'm just not going to be able to keep that promise. You see, it's not so much that iTunes has changed my life... it's just that it has completely changed the way I listen to and relate to music... music, of course, a core aspect of my personality... and day-to-day life... ... fine, you win.
Remember that big fat hook I planted way back in the second paragraph with just a tad of clever writing and a whole lot more bad grammar? Oh, you forgot about it. I guess that was bound to happen, I'm not really much good at breviety. Anyway, it had something to do with structure in chaos, so here's where I'll actually attempt to make a coherent point. Wish me luck, I'm probably gonna need it.
I use 'Smart Playlists' far more (probably 90% of the time) than the traditional, or static, playlists. I've used them for quite a while, at first because I just like how they acted almost like a relational query interface for your music, which at the time was just 'shiny and new.' But now that I've been building my playlists, and constantly tweaking the little things (sort order; what constitues 'recent' versus 'new'; how many? forty tracks, forty one tracks, forty tracks, forty two tracks, ad infinitum), I've begun to realize that iTunes begins to incorporate and reflect the musical personality, tastes and habits of it's listener.
And it was this playlist - which is actually a small chunk of a larger smart playlist - that finally made me realize it. The details (skippable unless you really care): the playlist is a 22-track selection right out of the middle of my "Recent >3s" smart playlist, defined as all the tracks that have been played in the last week who's rating is greater than three stars (">3s", I do advocate breviety in iTunes).
Since the rating system is the basis upon which I listen to music, this can be summarized as "all of the good stuff I've played in the past week." Already you can see how iTunes can be configured to act more biologically. Sorted in descending order of "last played," if you're playing directly from this list (with live updating enabled) the list even re-orders itself after each track. If you take it a step further and move back and forth between smart playlists that use similar subsets of conditions, you begin to find that one list can influence another in interesting and remarkable ways.
The point is, as I was playing this particular smart playlist, I glanced down at the next good chunk of songs to be played after the one I was currently listening to (which, by the way, was 'Smoke' by Ben Folds Five, the inspiration for the title of this blog) and realized that those tracks accuratley represented not just the music I've been listening to lately (an obviously simple effect of the conditions of the list), but they actually create something of a snapshot of who I've been in the recent past. I've come to think of it as something of a auto-generated sum-is-greater-than-the-whole mix tape for the Internet age.
They're not all tunes I would consider favorites, many of them I don't even consciously remember hearing in the past week (I could have sworn I haven't heard 'Rio' in months). No one makes mix tapes anymore, although my generation may be the last one to remember them (we didn't even make them much, we just heard them from the older cool kids), and if I actually sat down and try to put together a mix tape that was me as of late, this playlist would be it, straight up.
And of course, the novelty is that a that I can do this a week from now or a year from now and it will surprise me every time. Music is my life, so why not try to describe my life in music? That's my time, now... go watch some Family Guy or something.