Half-way points

My parents are visiting this weekend, and earlier today we went out for a delightful brunch at Hotel Akersloot. We were talking about societal and technological progress, and I was struck by an interesting date calculation. We moved to the Netherlands (for the first time) in 1978, which is half-way between the end of the Second World War and Right Now. 33 years from the autumn of 1945 to the autumn of 1978, and another 33 (and a bit) years from 1978 to January 2012.

Which is kind of, wow. Huge changes in both of those periods, but it feels to me that the years from 1945 – 1978 were more significant. Perhaps that’s because I wasn’t around to experience the changes first-hand; things I have seen and events I have watched myself seem more ordinary than events I’ve only read about in historical records.

But I suppose that when Alex and Fiona are my age, and compare the period 1978 – 2012 to the decades they will have lived through, they will think that those years were more significant: the fall of the Soviet Union, the unification of Europe, the dawn of the internet and instant, universal access to information.

Interesting times. I wonder what comes next?

Further reading:

Site protest blackouts with .htaccess

Many sites are going to go dark tomorrow (18 January 2012) in protest of the SOPA and PIPA bills currently before US congress. I’m helping Making Light do this, and I thought I’d make a quick note of how we’re going about it.

Google recommends using HTTP 503 “Service Unavailable” status codes. The 503 code indicates that the service (or page, or site) is temporarily unavailable, but that it is expected back again soon. This is better than using the 404 (not found), 302 (
moved temporarily), or 301 (moved permanently) codes, because it tells web crawlers that they should just come back and try again later.

If your site is running on Apache, and is allowed to use mod_rewrite, you can set up a site-wide 503 page with the following steps:

  1. Create an HTML page called 503.html, and upload it in the root of your site. This is just a normal HTML page – no special code needed. Here’s an example: 503_sopa.html
  2. If you don’t already have an .htaccess file for your site, create one (it also goes in the root of your site). If you do already have one, add the following code to the top of the file, but read the notes before you do so:
# =====================
# SOPA Blackout 
# =====================

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
# Set a custom error document for 503 errors
ErrorDocument 503 /503_sopa.html

# Cause all requests (except images) to generate a 503 error,
# which will produce the custom 503 error document
RewriteEngine on
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{ENV:REDIRECT_STATUS} !=503
RewriteCond %{REMOTE_HOST} !^111\.111\.111\.111$
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} !\.(jpe?g?|png|gif) [NC]
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_URI} !robots\.txt$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^ - [L,R=503]

Important notes on this snippet:

  • The “REMOTE_HOST” line contains an IP address that will be excluded from the blackout rules. Change the IP address listed ( to your own. This will allow you to keep using your site (and its back-end features, like Movable Type or WordPress), but everyone else will just see the 503 page. If you want to preserve access to your site from multiple IP addresses, you can add multiple REMOTE_HOST lines.
  • The first “REQUEST_URI” line contains exceptions for image files. If you want to serve up an image as part of your 503 file, you need this line, otherwise images will return 503 errors as well. If you don’t need an image, or if you are using images hosted elsewhere, you can remove this line.
  • The second “REQUEST_URI” line ensures that the file robots.txt on your site will be served up normally, without a 503 error.

When you want to restore access to your site, simply remove the code from your .htaccess file, and you’ll be back to normal again.

Update: Matthew Batchelder has a nifty update that uses mod_rewrite date conditions to automatically switch on the 503 redirect rule on 18th January 2011: Preparing a Site for SOPA Blackout with .htaccess

My most-played albums of 2011

I have two modes of listening to music: whole-album, and best-of. Sometimes I like to listen to a whole album, all the way through, again and again. And sometimes I like to listen to a random selection of my favourite tunes on shuffle.

My iTunes library is organized accordingly. When I download a new album, I create a new playlist for it, using the year in which I bought it, the band name, and album title (e.g. “2011 Aberfeldy Somewhere To Jump From”). I add metadata to the comments to keep track of where I got it from, and the exact date on which I added it (e.g. “sunpig:acquired=20110206;sunpig:source=emusic.com”). Finally, I use iTunes’ star ratings to rate individual tracks. Slightly obsessive, but I like the way it gives me a view of what I was listening to in a given year. (iTunes doesn’t track listens by date–I wish it did–but I’m guessing that at least 80% of my listens happen in a 6-month period after initial acquisition.)

According to my library, I bought 76 albums in 2011. (For comparison: 2005 = 87, 2006 = 71, 2007 = 81, 2008 = 73, 2009 = 59, 2010 = 57.) Of those 76, there were 20 that I had played all the way through at last 10 times at the end of the year. (Technically: I have listened to each individual track on the album at least 10 times, but that’s a good enough metric for me.) Here’s the list, sorted alphabetically by artist.

  • Aberfeldy – Somewhere To Jump From

    Another delightful album from Aberfeldy. Light melodic pop drifting from humorous to melancholy with practiced ease. I’ve never come across an album with closing credits before. They’re quirky and uniquely fitting. Don’t you go changing.

  • BattlesGloss Drop

    More accessible, and more consistent than their first album Mirrored. A fantastic mix of experimental rhythms and furious driving beats. Video: “My Machines” feat. Gary Numan.

  • Beastie BoysHot Sauce Committee Part Two

    I was disappointed at first that there wasn’t anything on the album quite as catchy as the lead single “Make Some Noise,” but it definitely grew on me. Fun and funky.

  • Bibio – Mind Bokeh

    One of my favourite tracks of the whole year is “Anything New”, which is distilled summer in a crystal goblet. A couple of other up-tempo moments punctuate a chilled-out ambient soundscape.

  • Big MovesIn the Beginning

    My favourite band discovery of the year. Big Moves are an indie band from Los Angeles. This album has a playful yet very precise sound that reminds me a lot of the Long Blondes – especially singer Jess Imme’s vocals on “Brontosaurus” – but with a generous helping of jazzy meanderings (“Blue Rose”). Video: “Stegosaurus”.

  • Big Moves – Lanterns EP

    One bored afternoon in October I was browsing Last.fm for some new music recommendations. Big Moves came up, I followed the link to Youtube, and watched the video for “Groundbreaking Studies“. Then I watched it again. And again. And again. How can a song this good still only have less than 2000 views on it? The song is lush, energetic, and exuberant. The band takes the jazzy indie rock style they displayed on In The Beginning and turns it up to 11. It’s awesome. The rest of the EP is fantastic as well.

  • Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer

    Of all the albums in this list, this is the only one I don’t listen to any more. I loved it at the start of the year, but now it bores me.

  • Dananananaykroyd – There Is A Way

    Just amazing, as I have mentioned before. Video: “Muscle Memory”

  • Foo FightersWasting Light

    Great solid rock. The Foo Fighters on top form. The video for “Walk” is a neat spoof of Falling Down.

  • Friendly Fires – Pala

    I loved Friendly Fires’ first album, and Pala is a great follow-up. Steamy and smooth tropical dance sounds. After seeing their performance at T In The Park on the BBC, I was really looking forward to catching them live at Melkweg in December, but they had to cancel. Sad Panda. Weird video: “Hurting”

  • Frightened RabbitThe Winter Of Mixed Drinks

    I somehow missed out on Frightened Rabbit’s second album The Midnight Organ Fight, so my baseline was their debut, Sings The Greys, which is a fairly subdued, moody affair. They have taken that moody, slightly folky feel, and turned up the power. This album is exultantly alive with anthems like “The Loneliness And The Scream” and “Living In Colour“. These guys are now on my “must-see-live” list.

  • Grand State Valley University New Music EnsembleSteve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

    I went through a bit of a Steve Reich phase in the spring, after noticing the World Minimal Music Festival just after it was over. Must not make that mistake again next year. The GSVU version of Music for 18 Musicians is crisp and clear and glorious. Trailer video.

  • MogwaiHardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

    Vast, sprawling, lush. Classic Mogwai.

  • Sky LarkinKaleide

    Last.fm recommended Sky Larkin to me based on similarity to Dananananaykroyd. I didn’t see at at first, because their vocal styles are so radically different, but the rest of their music shares a lot of common themes: heavy rock-infused pop, with unorthodox song structures. Kaleide is a rich and complex album, and my favourite tracks have shifted around a lot since I started listening to it. For now, I’ve settled on liking “ATM” most of all.

  • The DecemberistsThe King Is Dead

    Unlike the myth-tinged unity of their previous album The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead is “just” a collection of songs. A great collection of beautiful songs, from the peppy REM-ish “Calamity Song” to the sparse, haunting simplicity of “June Hymn.” I caught them live in Paradiso in March, and they were fantastic. Take any opportunity you get to see them.

  • The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

    I wasn’t sure if this album should count for 2011, because it includes most of the same songs as their EP A Balloon Called Moaning, which I listened to a lot in 2010. But it’s too good to leave out. Muscular yet dreamy rock, somewhat reminiscent of Ladytron, but all guitars and no synths. Surprise moment: when I came across their anthem “Cradle” backing a trailer for the new Ratchet & Clank game.

  • Tom Waits – Bad As Me

    Brilliant, as always. Video: “Satisfied”.

  • UnderworldBarking

    Attaching the word “mature” to techno feels wrong, but that’s what Barking is: practiced, polished, and highly accomplished. Underworld are mainstream now. I still love the album, but it occasionally makes me feel old. Video: “Bird 1”.

  • United Fruit – Fault Lines

    I grabbed this because United Fruit were playing support for Dananananaykroyd on their Glasgow gig in October, and it turns out to be an effective hard rock album. They’re good live, too.

  • Zoey van GoeyThe Cage Was Unlocked All Along

    Interesting that this list starts with Aberfeldy, and ends with Zoey van Goey, because their musical styles are quite similar. Sweet, airy, and melodic pop with excursions into the hauntingly melancholic. Video: “We Don’t Have That Kind Of Bread”.

Notable omission: Aidan Moffat + The Best Ofs – How To Get To Heaven From Scotland. I love this album, and it would have had a higher play count if I’d bought it earlier in the year.

Some rambling thoughts about self-published ebooks

One of the most interesting (and entertaining) things I’ve read about the publishing industry is Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Slushkiller. It deals with the manuscript submission stage, where authors send their work to a publisher, and an editor decides whether they should publish it. Teresa gives a blunt yet whimsical list of reasons a manuscript is typically rejected:

  1. Author is functionally illiterate.
  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

  1. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
  2. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

Stage 14 is not a rejection, but rather “Buy this book” — the point at which the publishing house decides to put the book into production.

The reason this list is on my mind is because I have recently read two self-published ebooks that are probably 13s, specifically Twenty Palaces by Harry Connolly, and A Real Piece of Work by Chris Orcutt.

The interesting thing about stage 13 books is that they are good enough be published, and importantly: good enough that a certain number of readers would enjoy them, and pay cash money for the privilege. If an author knows that their book is at stage 13, it may make sense for them to self-publish and try to reach that audience directly. Here are some reasons that can stop a book from being published, but that would not stop me from buying it:

  • Books in a series I enjoy that has not sold as well as the publisher hoped it would. (E.g. Twenty Palaces)
  • Books of a genre and type that home in on my taste like a guided missile, but where the author hasn’t yet convinced a publisher to take the financial risk of launching the series. (E.g. A Real Piece of Work)
  • Books that have been published before, but are now out of print, and whose rights have reverted to the author. (What was popular in the 1970s might not be mass-marketable any more.)

As a reader, I like the idea of these stage 13 books being available for purchase, in the same way that I like artists releasing music directly on soundcloud or bandcamp instead of (or as well as) through a major label album publishing deal. (My favourite examples right now: Slimes and Big Moves.) Just looking at it on a purely numerical basis, the fact that authors are willing to put stage 13 books on the market directly means that there are more books available that I might really like.

For the record, I don’t think that all authors should publish this way, and I don’t think that in the future all authors will self-publish. Authors write. They don’t necessarily do editing, artwork, typesetting (yes, ebooks do improve with proper typography), marketing, sales support, or any of the other numerous things that come into play when you start to sell books in volume. Right now, publishers act as a one-stop shop for all these services, and I’m sure they will continue to do so. I don’t know exactly what the future of publishing holds, but I imagine that the shift towards ebooks will create scope for new ventures: smaller-scale niche publishing houses, writer’s collectives, and blue-sky innovative startups.

Of course, if authors can put stage 13 books on the market, then what’s to stop them from sticking any old slush into an ePub and calling it silver? How do I know if a self-published ebook is a 13 that a publisher regretfully declined, or if it’s the laughing-stock of every editor in the business? Amazon doesn’t require you to have purchased an item before you can review it; most people can convince friends and family to drop a couple of 5-star reviews on them. But market distortion like that is hard to keep up in the long run. I think that in the end a little bit of general-purpose bullshit detection will help me steer clear of the worst dross, just as reviews, blogs, and word-of-mouth will steer me towards the best stuff. Which sounds pretty much like how I find most of my books already.

So although self-publishing holds benefits for me as a reader, whether it’s a good thing for authors is an entirely different matter. Self-publishing is going to enable a much deeper long tail of books in print than we have right now. This does not mean that we will all read more lesser-known works, and fewer bestsellers. The “recommendation problem,” described in great depth by Paul Lamere in his article “Help! My iPod thinks I’m emo” applies to books as well as music. I reckon that self-publishing will bring fame and fortune to a lucky few, but only the satisfaction of craftsmanship itself to the vast majority. As with any lottery, one should beware of selection and confirmation bias.

So if writing is a hobby for an author, and a previously rejected novel can be enjoyed by a couple of hundred readers around the world, is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Does it sap the author’s ambition to strive for something greater, or does it bring them hard-earned satisfaction? Does it diminish the popularity of a well-loved full-time writer who sells books by the tens of thousands? Does wider availability of “good” reduce the reading public’s appetite for “great”?

Personally, I don’t come to the end of a good book and think, “There! My work here is done.” The end of a good book leaves me hungry for more. That’s really what makes me happy: more of what I like. I’m inclined to think that self-published ebooks work in my favour here.