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18
Feb 13

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant-FundamentalistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist was the third book we bought on our recent trip to the Rolling Huts in Winthrop (see earlier post). Once again, it was something that Donna picked up that I read afterwards. It’s kinda nice being able to get an opinion of a book from someone before committing yourself to it. However, in this case, the risk wouldn’t have been that great since it comes in at only a slim 182 pages or so.

The story is a bit of a thriller. A young, Princeton-educated Pakistani man meets a mysterious and menacing American stranger in a Lahore, Pakistan marketplace. The young man proceeds to act as a host, settling into a cafe with the silent stranger. Over the course of the evening and dinner, well into the night, the young man tells the story of his time in America: graduating from Princeton, getting a high-paying job at a New York City valuation firm, falling in love with a girl named Erica. However, his attitudes about his new job and life in America begin to shift, leading him down an unexpected path. This happens at the same time as the nature of his relationship with Erica changes – a part of the plot that’s very reminiscent of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (which was an great book – I’ll likely be talking about Murakami in my next post).

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read and the structure of the novel with the building tension surrounding the mysterious stranger kept me engaged through all the way through to the interesting ending.

Also, I just found out from IMBD that the book has been made into a movie, apparently due to be released in April. I think I’ll have to check it out!


12
Feb 13

War Dances – Sherman Alexie

WarDances

 I used to read The Stranger a lot, but not so much these days. But lately when I do, I’ve enjoyed Sherman Alexie’s pieces of short fiction. So, when we were in a Winthrop bookstore recently (see my previous post), we picked up a copy of War Dances. Donna read it first, but I’m more than happy to mooch off of her good finds.

The book is a collection of poetry and short stories. I really enjoy Alexie’s writing – it’s straight-forward, honest, funny and poetic – often all at the same time. I also think his writing resonates with me due to a certain amount of cultural connectivity. First of all, he’s only three years older than me, and a lot of his subject matter is retrospective, so I can personally appreciate his references. And while I’m by no means of Indian descent, there’s a surprising amount of overlap in his experiences growing up on the Reservation and my having grown up in rural Texas. Finally, on a more contemporary note, he lives in Seattle and many of his stories are set there – just another aspect of his writing that makes it more personal for me.

As this book is a collection of his writing, it turns out I had read a few of the pieces in other publications. That fact aside, I enjoyed this collection quite a bit – it’s a quick read in its entirety and the mix of humor, realism and poignancy help provide an interesting perspective on the sometimes mundane aspects of everyday life.


11
Feb 13

Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age – Gary Marcus

guitarZero

This February marked our second trip to the Rolling Huts outside Winthrop, Washington in the scenic Methow Valley. During the day, there’s cross-country skiing aplenty. During the evening, we generally hang out in the cozy hut and spend a lot of time reading. On this trip, we didn’t bring any books with us, but the Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop provided some great options (we ended up getting three books – you’ll hear about the others in upcoming posts).

While browsing the bookstore shelves, Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age caught my attention. Over the years, I’ve had a passing interest in the guitar. One of my goals during our 2012 year off was to actually focus a little more time in that direction by signing up for guitar lessons – I’m currently taking lessons at Half Note Music School in Bellevue (tell ’em Jeff sent you and get a free lesson!). One of my goals with lessons was to try and gain a deeper understanding of musical fundamentals and to see if I could develop a basic level of competency. In other words, I’m seeking to become musical at a certain age, so this book seemed like a perfect choice.

The book is written from the perspective of a non-musical cognitive scientist who decides to take up the guitar during a one-year sabbatical. While going through the process, he describes his experiences and discusses the related brain science. He does a good job of weaving together his personal history, anecdotes from the music industry and existing theories of the mind with respect to music. If anything, I found he spent a little too much time going over the detailed science, but then again he is a cognitive scientist.

While it was a good read, especially given my current guitar explorations, I didn’t learn anything terribly surprising (except maybe that certain accomplished guitarist can’t read music: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, etc.). Marcus downplays the notion of a “critical window” for gaining certain skills (new languages, musical ability) but acknowledges that it can take more work the older you get. If anything, consistent practice over time makes the biggest difference (though not necessarily requiring the 10,000 hours made famous by Malcolm Gladwell). Also, talent is a real thing and definitely helps certain people progress more quickly.

Anyway, enough blogging – I’ve got some guitar practice to do!


07
Feb 13

Road Trip == Classic Rock

For the record, let me state here that I’m a radio snob. I avoid listening to commercial radio whenever possible, generally dividing my time between my NPR station (KUOW) and the University of Washington’s KEXP. Occasionally (i.e. during pledge drives) I’ll check out some of the other local stations, but between the repetition, commercials and inane DJ chatter, I’d almost prefer to drive in silence.

Even for commercial stations that nominally play music I might like, such as KNDD, the repetition kills me. For example, I got in the habit of saying that every time I tune in, they’re playing a Red Hot Chili Peppers or Foo Fighters song. Eventually, in a moment of self-reflection, I decided to test my hypothesis against reality.

Most radio stations these days have a website that also shows playlist information. Being a software developer, I figured I could programmatically access this data gain some insights. As it turns out, both KNDD and KISW use the same back-end service for for their playlist data. By observing the browser conversation with their websites, I was able to directly leverage the underlying REST API to generate the following data. Note that I ran this experiment in November 2011. It’s a little stale, but telling nonetheless.

KNDD

Here are the top 20 bands (and number of plays) offered by KNDD over a one-week period. I also found it interesting that they played 84 different bands over the course of a day, but only 170 unique bands over the course of a week. I was happy to see that the predominance of Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters confirmed my gut feeling 🙂

knnd

KISW

Here is a week’s worth of KISW band data. They were even worse than KNDD, with only 136 unique bands played over the course of a week.

kisw

KEXP

Finally, here’s the KEXP data. Unlike the above stations, this data is for a single, 24-hour period, not a week! How many unique bands were played over this time? 252.

kexpAlso, KEXP didn’t expose a data source for their playlist info. At one point, I even mailed them asking about it, suggesting I could simply parse their website’s HTML as a worst case option. Here’s the response I got.

Hi Jeff,

We intentionally do not offer a rest service for our 
metadata (aka the playlist information) as we license 
that data and are not allowed to publish it to third 
parties. You could parse our playlist data, but you 
would then also be violating the terms of our site. :(
(see here: http://kexp.org/about/privacy.asp#SITE TERMS)

We do however, work with a number of developers who 
donate their time to help us build new features, etc. 
(our android and iphone apps were built this way)

Happy to discuss further if you have questions!

Best,
Aaron Starkey
--
KEXP Online Support
online-support@kexp.org

 Road Trips and Classic Rock

Anyway, let’s get back to the original point of this post. While I don’t like commercial radio, I do find myself indulging in a guilty pleasure whenever I take a road trip: I listen to a classic rock station. There’s just something about mindless driving coupled with mindless “rockin’ out” that works for me. For our recent 4.5 hour drive to the Rolling Huts, the station of choice was 102.1 The Quake, Central Washington’s Rock Station. Amazingly, we were able to listen to it all the way from Snoqualmie Pass to the Methow Valley.

Now Donna isn’t a big fan of classic rock. However, she agrees to listen to it on our road trips, so I suspect she secretly LOVES it. In any case, she freely offers her critical opinions on the genre. She’s even started to develop a ranking system for bands, which so far goes something like this: Pink Floyd is the worst (they have nothing to say and take forever to say it), followed by Led Zeppelin and then Steely Dan. This is about all we could work out on our recent trip, since her natural inclination is to simply lump them all together as “bad”.

Also, a fun game you can play with classic rock is called “Analyze the Lyrics”. While many songs can be pretty straight-forward, we enjoyed taking a stab at Phil Collin’s In the Air Tonight (note: what qualifies as “classic rock” seems pretty loose). It’s actually a pretty creepy song that seems to be about secrets and revenge. My takeaway was that I probably don’t want to get on Phil’s bad side. Also, as it turns out, we’re not the only people to speculate about the lyrical content of this song. There’s even a Snopes article about it!