So Then I Wrote A Rock Opera

KS photo with titles badge

About two years ago, I moved to Michigan where my wife's family is from. I started working for an Ann Arbor based software company, which has been a lot of fun. But I really missed playing music with my tech buddy Rob, who remained in California.

So the original idea was for us to each write ten songs, then pick the best and record them. But somehow it spun out of control. Why not a concept album? Why not... A ROCK OPERA?

The oddest part about all of this is that neither Rob nor I have ever written songs or recorded before. Our only qualification is a combined 50 years of listening to classic rock. And if we might not hit the heights of The Who's "Tommy" or Greenday's "American Idiot" perhaps we could do better than KISS’s "Music from the Elder."

I mean, how hard could it be? It was, of course, an absurd idea. How could two rookies possibly scale the heights of rockdom? I don’t even think Rob had ever listened to a rock opera before. (I mean who has in recent years, amiright?) But much like a software startup that aims to make the world a better place, the audacity of our goal inspired us.

Next thing you know I’m recording some creepy bass riffs in GarageBand and overlaying drums and guitars. Our first song, “The Creeper,” was the embodiment of an evil surveillance government. And it sparked the whole story: 50 years of winter, a dystopian future, rock music is illegal, yada yada yada. This is pretty much the plot of every rock opera. But it's a darn good one.

The Creeper

Since Rob and I were in different cities, we did most of the collaboration over the interweb using Skype, iMessage, and Box for sharing files. (Box is the official cloud content management system of leading rock operas everywhere, don’t ya know?) Every few months I'd get back to California, goad Rob into singing or recording some guitar parts, and then continue editing in GarageBand.

As positive as I’d try to be during these recording sessions (“That was great, Rob. But let’s do one more take…”) the next day I’d listen to what we’d recorded and I’d be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. I had this vision in my head of an epic rock opera but all I had was a handful of recordings of two guys failing. This feeling of hopelessness occurred at least as often as the feeling of elation throughout the entire course of the project.

They say every startup is a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and lows. That matches my feeling on writing a rock opera. Whether it was writing melodies, drafting lyrics, recording solos, mixing, or working on videos, there were countless times where I thought the most expedient solution was to delete all the files and give up. There’s no blueprint (or at least none I could find) on “The 7 Steps to Writing a Rock Opera.”

Every time I faced this situation, I simply moved on to another part of the project. If one song proved to be a dead-end, there’s no reason I couldn’t make progress elsewhere. When I put something aside for a few days or weeks and came back to it, I had a kind of unwarranted optimism: maybe I can improve this. A leap of faith was required at every milestone. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but a more basic: can I make this suck less?

I won’t say that the work was easy. It takes many more hours to edit a song than it takes to record it. But I found that by gradually chipping away at something I could improve it. Often the results were surprising: a song I’d given up on now sounded pretty cool. Better than I hoped for. In my book, brute force perseverance is an under-rated skill.

Rob and I brought a startup attitude to the project: just keep working at it and lets see how far we can get. Lyrics got written, story lines developed, solos recorded and re-recorded. Occasionally we’d share songs with our beta testers. Their feedback was often the only motivation we needed to keep on going. And we did all this while holding down full-time jobs and family obligations.

Lyrics to “Self-Made man” got written at 5am at O'Hare waiting for a flight to New York. I finished the first rough recording at 9pm in my hotel.

Other songs were written weekends, evenings, on airplanes. If Rob had recorded his solos in a more timely fashion I might have stopped writing new songs. But eventually we got to 20 songs and I wondered: what the hell happened here? We’ve actually written a rock opera!

But there was one thing missing. All the songs were pretty basic: me and Rob with bass, guitar, drums and a few keyboard parts and a couple of friends adding vocals. It wasn’t quite grand enough. Then I came across an interesting item on Kickstarter: the $99 orchestra. Wait —what? Yep, for $99 per minute, we could get a 30 piece symphony orchestra to record one of our songs. For another $100 they’d create the score. I sure as hell didn’t have a score for them. I’m just a 3 chord rock guy.

We had one song where I’d weaved together multiple guitar parts that Rob and I had recorded separately. It epitomized our collaboration on the project. It was just some overdriven guitar parts, but in my mind it always sounded like a symphony: I heard strings, horns, piccolos. I don’t know what instruments are in an actual 30 piece orchestra, but it must be something like that, right?

So, long story short, we got the Western European Symphony Orchestra to record it. And we got to watch a live video stream of the recording. It felt pretty amazing to hear someone else’s interpretation of our music.

So we finally put the album up on Kickstarter after Thanksgiving, partly to defray the final mixing costs and partly to develop an audience. It was fully funded fairly quickly (never underestimate the power of email to VCs, especially if you helped them make a lot of money.) The project runs until December 23 11pm eastern if you want to get in on it. Kickstarter prohibits raising money for charity, so since we’ve hit our goal we’ll either mix some bonus instrumental tracks or get some videos made. Either that or we’ll spend the money on hookers and blow.

In the mean time, I've also added "Rock Opera" as a skill on my Linkedin profile. I hope you'll read this and agree it's a skill worth having.

Update: The music and Libretto are now available for free download at www.rock-opera.com

Zack Urlocker is a software executive living his rock and roll fantasy in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This story was originally published on Linkedin Pulse.


Fake O'Reilly Covers

Fake bigdata

Here are some of the fake O'Reilly book covers I mentioned in a prior post.  These have been optimized for use as black & white Kindle screensaver wallpaper images.  If you haven't done so already, you can install a Kindle screensaver hack with a couple of downloads. 

Update: I've embedded a slideshow from PicasaWeb, but it requires Flash.  If you don't see it you can click on the links below to go directly to PicasaWeb.


Open Source & Interactive Fiction

One of the amazing things to me is that the Internet has enabled the development of very far-flung communities.  Social, media, music or other interests that might be of interest to only a handful of people can now attact a global audience and foster greater partcipation than ever before.

One of these odd-ball communities that I happen to be interested in is Interactive Fiction.  (Or for those who have been around for a long time, think of old-school text adventure games.)  Somehow the likes of old games like Infocom's Deadline or The Witness fill me with nostalgic memories from the 1980s.  

And oddly enough, there continues to be a thriving community developing new Interactive Fiction games.  This is largely due to open source efforts that reverse engineered and ported Infocom's Z-Machine interpreter architecture to modern machines.  Games written in the 1980s now run perfectly fine on the latest interpreters for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, iPad and Android platforms.  And this in turn begat the development of newer virtual machines and domain specific programming languages like Inform and Tads, Adrift and Alan that enable the development of new games.  

If you're at all curious, I encourage you to check out some of the games that are available at IFDB.  There's also a thriving community several annual game competitions.  IntroComp kicked off this week and there are more than a dozen games published there, including my own Infocom-tribute mystery story, The Z-Machine Matter.


Help Bring Zork and the FyrevM to Android, Kindle et al

Textfyre
David Cornelson of TextFyre has embarked on an ambitious plan to create a new open source virtual machine, FyreVM.  This new VM will run Interactive Fiction games (e.g. Zork and newer works written in Inform) on a dozen different mobile platforms such as Android, WinPhone 7, Kindle, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry.  The goal of FireVM is to take advantage of specific user interface capabilities on each platform, whether it's the touch screen of Android tablets or the 5 way button on the Kindle.

To help with this project, TextFyre has started  a fundraising effort on Kickstarter with a goal of raising $5,000.  To make it interesting, Cornelson is offering several incentives for sponsors:

  •  $20  -- A copy of all TextFyre's current products
  •  $50  -- A copy of all TextFyre's current products plus two in the works
  • $100  -- Your IF game will be commercially published by TextFyre
  • $500  -- A Kindle loaded with TextFyre games and a t-shirt
  • $1000 --An iPad or Android tablet with TextFyre games and a t-shirt

The Kickstarter funding ends Saturday October 16. I hope you'll join me, other MySQLers, and IF fans  in making a donation. I think interactive fiction is an interesting area of retro computing and want to encourage the development of open source tools and platforms.  Note that Cornelson is publishing TextFyre under an open source license.


No Yak Shaving!

Yak_shave

Apparently Yak Shaving means a useless activity undertaken in lieu of meaningful activity. The term originated at MIT some years back in reference to Yak Shaving Day, a fictional holiday featured in a Renn & Stimpy cartoon.  

Here's a definition by uber-blogger and noted Purple Cow expert Seth Godin who got it from Joi Ito:

I want to give you the non-technical definition, and as is my wont, broaden it a bit.

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do. "I want to wax the car today."

"Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I'll need to buy a new one at Home Depot."

"But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls."

"But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor's EZPass..."

"Bob won't lend me his EZPass until I return the mooshi pillow my son borrowed, though."

"And we haven't returned it because some of the stuffing fell out and we need to get some yak hair to restuff it."

And the next thing you know, you're at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so you can wax your car.

Its amazing how many times you meet people who are constantly distracted by technological Yak shaving. They need to build a get a new build of the latest Ubuntu release before they can download the compiler, to write the framework to patch the library, to write plug-in for the browser, to automate the process of updating the whatever it was they were supposed to do in the first place. 

 Are we all clear?  No Yak shaving!

Unless you're a Yak Whisperer in Mongolia during the Yak shaving season.


iPhone 4: First Impressions

I managed to get an "early upgrade" of my iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4 despite AT&T's best efforts.  I've had a couple of days using the new iOS 4 operating system on my 3GS and a couple of hours with the iPhone 4.  So here are a few highlights of the initial hands-on experience with more updates on the weekend.

Updated with additional information, video & photos.

Low-res video (VGA resolution):


Here's a gallery of additional photos from the iPhone 4:
(Double click to see larger versions.)



Upgrade Process

Other than AT&T's longstanding inability to deal with demand, the upgrade process is pretty simple.   I chased the UPS driver home to get my iPhone today and just plugged into the USB cable to restore my last iPhone 3GS backup.  That took about 20 minutes.  Applications, data, settings etc were exactly where I left them. However, since I manually manage my MP3 files, it didn't restore those, which is kind of a nuisance.  You also need to re-enter email and WiFi passwords, which makes sense.  During the upgrade process you can sign up for a 60 day trial of MobileMe, which is tempting if you own an iPad and iPhone.  And you also need to re-activate the account by calling a toll-free somewhat-automated AT&T service.  My hold time was just over 3 minutes and then it took another few minutes to go through the terms and conditions.  In fact, I had to type or say my cell number 3 times, zip code twice and agree to the terms twice.  All told it took about 10 minutes. But considering it's AT&T, it could have been worse.

But then a few minutes after syncing, I noticed that not all of my applications were restored. The New York Times, Frotz, Wikipanion, Engadget, Guitar Tab Toolkit and several others apps were missing.  Not quite sure why.  So I plugged in the USB cable a second time, canceled the backup and suddenly the remaining apps were being restored.  That took another 20 minutes.  Not sure if I did something wrong here or the iTunes Store was overloaded.  But if some of your apps aren't restored initially, don't panic.  But if this happens you'll also have to re-arrange the app icons back to how you used to have them.  

Hardware

Better battery life, better screen, better audio, better camera and for those who actually need to talk on their phone, better cellular coverage.  Admittedly, it's still AT&T, but I believe the new antennae built into the casing will help. On my 3GS, I've had calls drop 4 or 5 times while driving on 280 (which has a black-hole for cell service near Sand Hill Road.)  But so far, so good.

The iPhone 4 is slightly skinnier than it's predecessor, and a bit more squared off, but to me the differences are subtle.  Its the same weight and doesn't really feel much thinner, not that that was an issue.  If you had a third-party case for your old iPhone it may or may not fit the new one, depending on how snug it was to begin with.  My old soft rubberized case seems to hang a bit loose, like pants a size too large, but it's not far off. If you're into design then yes, the iPhone 4 has got a modern-retro cool style.  But to me it's not a big deal.

The new screen is better, but again, it's a fairly subtle improvement. However web sites with small fonts, like the mobile version of TechCrunch, are definitely more readable.  And even existing built-in apps benefit from the higher res fonts.  In side by side comparison, the new screen is sharper and seems to have better contrast, making it easier to read.  For news applications, it's almost like reading a printed magazine, albeit a very small, fussy one.

Similarly, performance is a little faster for some apps.  For example, Google maps screen refresh is noticeably snappier than before.  And in side by side comparisons, for example, updating stories from the New York Times or AllThingsD, the iPhone 4 is consistently faster. Not a lot faster, and not in itself enough to make a huge fuss about, but I'll take it.  

The camera, on the other hand, is noticeably improved.  I often end up at conferences panels or blues clubs where I don't always have my trusty Canon G9.  In these cases, the lighting conditions are never ideal and as a result, the iPhone 3GS camera just doesn't cut it.  And in my experience, the 3GS video was completely useless as any volume of live music (say 100 db, which is loud but doesn't require earplugs) gets clipped and distorted by the built-in microphone.  

The iPhone 4's camera is much improved. The pictures are high-res (5 mb versus 3) but the real improvement comes from being more sensitive in low light conditions.  The iPhone 4 also has a front VGA (640x480) low-res camera used by the FaceTime video conference call app that is also suitable for quick self-portraits with less fumbling around.  While the camera isn't perfect, it's miles better than the 3GS and can match low-end point and shoot or Flip video cameras. I've posted two photos in crappy lighting and the iPhone 4 makes a decent job of it.

Sample high-res shot:

Zack_back_camera
 
 

Sample low-res VGA shot:

Zack_front_camera 

The video is ok in low-light but the result is a very grainy image, almost on par with the latest Flip video camera, but not really comparable to a high-end point and shoot camera such as the Canon G9.  But it is definitely much better than the iPhone 3GS and more convenient than carrying an iPhone and a Flip. Here's a quick and dirty use of the low-res VGA video capability:

(My apologies for the guitar playing!)


And some live concert footage at about 100db:

The audio is definitely better than the 3GS, but the picture is very grainy.

Improved Cellular Reception

While there has been some questions and comments about reduced cell reception depending on how you hold the iPhone, I haven't had any problems.  (Hint: avoid directly touching the antenna in the lower left corner when you hold the phone.) Still, I put a piece of tape over the lower left corner antenna just to be on the safe side.


In fact, as the video at the top of the post demonstrates, I was able to make continuous calls on several notorious silicon valley dead spots, including Highway 280 near Sand Hill Rd and Highway 17 to Santa Cruz.  However, I did lose reception in a tunnel (to be expected), on the Bay Bridge and on rural Highway 9 in Saratoga. But this was still fewer dropped calls than usual.  

If you've been frustrated by dropped calls with the 3GS, this improvement alone may be worth the upgrade price.

The speaker is also slightly clearer which is useful if you do conference calls or play music from the speaker (which I do on occasion.)


Software

The new iOS 4 is good on the 3GS but it really rocks on the new hardware.  Not only is the multi-tasking quick, but the better hardware makes even existing applications look better and run faster.  Hopefully in the weeks to follow we'll see more applications updated to use the new multi-tasking.  

Note that the multi-tasking on the iPhone is not the same kind of flat-out full-on multi-tasking you may be used to on a desktop compute.  It's really more of an intelligent quick-restore of an application with some limited multi-tasking for maintaining cell connection, playing music, getting notifications etc.  On a handset, this seems to work fine.  It's not like I need a massive spreadsheet to recalc or some kind of long-running DBMS transactions to go run in separate threads.  But we'll see in the fall whether this same model works as well on the iPad.

Nonetheless, the multi-tasking, is a intuitive as you could imagine.  Double click the iPhone button below the screen to pull up your recent or running applications.  So you don't have to go back through the home screen and scroll through pages of apps when you, say, confirm a calendar appointment in an email while talking on the phone and looking at a map.  It's not as good as multiple desktop apps on the screen at once, but the experience works well on the small screen of a smartphone.ns.

Some of the built-in apps are also improved.  For example, iPhone email now has a unified in-box and threaded conversations. With a unified in-box, I can now finally start to move off hotmail and over to gmail without having to manually check email in two places.

You can also now run the iBooks application on the iPhone with bookmarks and content synchronized. If you're happy with your 3GS and just want multi-tasking and a unified email inbox with threaded messages, and iBooks, you can get all of that with an upgrade to the iOS 4 platform for free.

Apple has also introduced FaceTime an iPhone4-to-iPhone4 video conference call capability. Unfortunately, it runs only over WiFi.  Still, it could be a useful application for those who travel a lot.


Bottom Line

Overall, iPhone 4 is an incremental improvement.  I am not sure whether I would label it game changing; that depends on how much you use FaceTime, iMovie or other new applications that have yet to be created.  But it is certainly a worthwhile upgrade, just to get the improved battery life, camera and cellular reception.  But if you do the upgrade, note that it can take about an hour to backup your old phone, restore on the new one and activate the account with AT&T.  Don't attempt this if you need to use the new phone in 10 minutes.

If you can get the subsidized price or early upgrade and can live with AT&T, then it's $200 well spent. Otherwise, you may have to wait for Verizon to pick it up next year.  

With the iPhone 4, Apple has once again set and raised the bar.



Dennis On the Road to Recovery

4thbox_stockdale

(Click on the image to enlarge)

Dennis Wolf, former MySQL CFO, has been undergoing Plasmapheresis treatment in the last week and despite a mild setback due to an infection, he will be checking out of the hospital today to continue rehab as an outpatient.  Dennis reports that he has increased mobility in his leg and that the test for Devic's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis has come back negative.  So there's a bit of a mystery as to what has caused this NMO flareup, but the fact that it's not Devic's disease is good news as it means a recurrence is less likely. 

Dennis will be continuing treatment as an outpatient for the next several weeks and will also be getting a second opinion from the experts up at UCSF. 

Marten Mickos put together a couple of nice posters that were hanging in Dennis' hospital room including the one above featuring the MySQL executive team (known informally as the 4th Box Club) and a quote from James Stockdale:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Dennis, we are thrilled to hear of your progress!

Feel free to add your comments for Dennis below.


Dennis Wolf Undergoing Treatment for Devic's Disease

Dpwolf
 

Dennis Wolf, former CFO of MySQL, is in the hospital undergoing treatment for neuromyelitis optica (NMO) also known as Devic's Disease.  This is a spinal cord inflammation with similarities to Multiple Sclerosis.  Dennis is a very special guy to get such a rare disease. He's also a tough son-of-a-gun, so I have no doubt that he will put this behind him with a full recovery just as he did 18 years ago.  But it will take some time, attention and help from many people. 

He has started Plasmapheresis treatment tonight whereby they pump out his plasma, remove the anti-bodies and pump in fresh-frozen plasma.  This can take several sessions before there are results, but the doctors are confident that this is what's needed.  

Overall, Dennis is in good spirits and is dealing well with the discomfort.  Dennis is quite happy if folks get the word out on his condition via twitter, email, blogs etc.  

Please keep Dennis and his family in your thoughts and prayers. 


Whatever Happened to "Do No Evil?"

Evil 

A buddy of mine, Doug Marks, recently opened my eyes to some sites that are putting out misleading product reviews fueled by Google Ad Words.  I wrote about this on my InfoWorld blog with a story entitled "FTC and Google need to crack down on scam review sites" which provides a counterpoint to the concerns on the US FTC's blogger disclosure rules that become effective this week.

When the FTC announced that it would require disclosure of fees and endorsements by bloggers starting Dec. 1, some complained this was overkill. I have several personal blogs outside of InfoWorld, and I don't mind disclosing that I've occasionally received review copies of books, CDs, and the like. I also run Google ads on some of my blogs. All told, the money that comes in is less than the price of a decent guitar, and I dont believe I've compromised my integrity as a writer. I suspect many bloggers are similar; if they make any money, it's to fund their hobby.

This isn't just a simple case of some over-zealous fan astroturfing as happens from time to time in open source projects (and elsewhere.)  As I Googled around, I noticed these scam review sites for not just piano and guitar lessons, but exercise equipment, language learning software, vitamins, even web development tools.  So its not just an isolated incident.  Doug Marks has complained to Google that these sites violate their policies, but so far, there's been no response.  Hopefully the FTC will crack down on these sites or force Google to do so. 

To be clear, I have purchased Doug Marks Metal Method DVD Course and have no hesitation recommending it to others.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm an affiliate.  I have not tried out the competing courses, but I'm suspicious of any company that engages in these kind of misleading campaigns.

Have you seen these scam review sites for other products?  Let me know.

  • Metal Method: Main site, Complete Basic Course,Speed Kills, Forum
  • GuitarVibe: Guitar Lesson Scams, Guitar Mastery, More Time for Guitar