Artificial Heart

So over the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to Jonathan Coulton’s new album, Artificial Heart. It’s his first new music in quite a while, and you can tell. There’s a big difference between his last web releases and the tracks on this album, both in production quality and overall sound. But there’s no mistake: the king of geek pop is back, and he feels fantastic.

The album feels more “grown-up” than his previous efforts, as far as the production quality. It’s still got that not-quite-polished charm, but the quality is certainly higher, and there are more instruments involved on this album than there have been in the past. This shouldn’t be any surprise, given that Coulton’s biggest excitement about the album was the chance to work with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. Additionally, there are some really great contributions from other artists, all of which sound fantastic – my personal favorite example of this is Now I Am An Arsonist, featuring Suzanne Vega, who I’d never heard of before listening to this track. Her voice adds a haunting sincerity to the lyrics, which is sometimes a stumbling point for new listeners of Coulton’s, given that his songs often have unusual subject material. I’ll definitely be checking out her other music as a result of hearing her on this track.

But that’s one thing that felt very different to me on this album: there were no really “goofy” tracks except the closer, The Stache, and possibly the completely-sung-in-French track, Je Suis Rick Springfield. Certainly there are still the odd metaphors and quirky phrases, but the album somehow feels more “serious” in nature, despite the subjects of several songs being typical JoCo fare – astronauts, heart surgery, and aperture science. (Yes, that’s right – both Portal songs are found on this album, and Sara Quin sings “Sill Alive!”)

There are three really standout tracks to me that will be stuck in my head for the next week, at least: first, the aforementioned Now I Am An Arsonist, which, if you pay attention, is a song about astronauts –  but the tone of the song is sincere and beautiful, and I love Suzanne’s voice for this one.

I’m always a fan of Coulton’s more sobering tracks, so Today With Your Wife quickly became a favorite. A song dealing with loss and the bittersweet reminiscing that follows, this one warranted repeating a couple of times before I moved on to the next track.

Finally, the track that stands out from the rest of the album most: Nobody Loves You Like Me. The song is completely acapella and sang in a beautiful harmony in stark contrast to the rest of the album, and lyrically is very strong as well, the pain and sincerity coming through very clearly, raw through the unaccompanied voice.

To summarize: Artificial Heart is not what I expected, but it’s a great album nonetheless, and a must-have for any Jonathan Coulton fan. I also think that this may be the best introductory album for newer listeners who are interested in him as a complete artist, and not just as the novel “geeky music guy.” You can find it on his website, but if you order before Thursday you can still get in on his very cool package deals for the album.

I don’t wanna come back down from this cloud

Yes, I just used a Bush lyric as a title for a blog post on cloud storage. Stop shaking your head like that, you know it’s cool.

So just unveiled their cloud player, which is free to anyone with an Amazon account, along with 5GB of cloud drive space. They currently have a deal where if you buy an MP3 album, they’ll bump you up to 20GB for free for a year – after that it’s $20 a year if you want to keep it. Not a bad deal. And given that they have some pretty good deals on some albums I’ve been listening to lately, I’d recommend you give it a shot. The cloud player itself is easy to use, fairly well organized, and will even do things like add album art based on the nearest match it can find (which can be unintentionally hilarious if you upload stuff from smaller or local artists that Amazon doesn’t know about. Thanks, Flexstyle!) They seem to have borrowed a lot from the traditional music player layout you’d find in a program like iTunes, foobar2k, or Grooveshark, so the UI is pretty intuitive.

Now while it is good, it’s far from perfect, and there are a couple of potentially very irritating issues. For one, it doesn’t include any way to edit the ID3 tags for the MP3s you upload, so you should have that all in order before you upload or else you won’t have the easiest time finding your music – there’s no “folder view” or anything like that in the player. Additionally, the “now playing” interface is basically just that – it shows you only the current song, not the current list of songs it will play, and there doesn’t appear any way to go back to the “Now Playing” list once you’ve navigated away. This means that if you have an album playing, and you go browse your library and want to have it play another album when this one finishes… well, you can’t, at least not without creating a new playlist and adding both albums, then having it play that playlist. This seems to me to be the biggest failure with the UI; hopefully they’ll catch on and update this soon.

As for the cloud drive itself – well, it is what it says it is. It’s a place to upload files, and 5GB is a good amount of storage to start with. It’s pretty generous for a free service; compare that to Dropbox’s 2GB or Google Docs’ 1GB. I think I’d probably use this over Google Docs for storing files I don’t actually want to edit with docs; the interface is just as usable and the space is greater, so there’s no real downside. However, my current addiction for cloud storage is Dropbox, and Amazon won’t be replacing that just yet, for a few key reasons:

  1. Dropbox has an awesome client. This is where Dropbox really shines. You can install a client to your PC, Mac, or Linux machine and have it automatically sync all the contents from a given folder to your cloud storage. It’s incredibly simple and entirely hands-off – once setup, you don’t even notice it’s there. Amazon still sticks to the “upload via the browser” method for most files, though it does have a marginally better downloadable client for uploading music. Still, nothing remotely close to the ease and long-term convenience of Dropbox.
  2. Dropbox lets me share files easily. With Dropbox, I can drop some files in my public folder on the local computer, then create a public link for anyone to access that file. It’s a thousand times easier than the old method of uploading a file via FTP to my webhost and then sharing that link; Dropbox even puts a way to copy the link in the file’s context menu in your operating system. I use this particular feature almost daily and consider it one of the best lesser-known features of Dropbox.
  3. Dropbox can create linked folders. Let’s say you’re another Dropbox user and you want to be able to easily collaborate with me on some project we’re working on. I can share a folder with your account, and anything I put in that folder will also show up in your Dropbox folder as well. You can then update the file, save it back to the folder, and I’ve got the updated copy. Just like that. It’s an elegantly simple solution and it works wonderfully. I used this quite a bit when working on the radio show with my friend Tim. It’s also good for creating a “drop off point” for things that aren’t easy to email – for instance, I had a friend who would drop videos and replays from his Starcraft games into the folder so I could watch them later.

Dropbox remains the best implementation of cloud storage that I’ve found, while keeping a sane and simple interface. Don’t have one? Go get one. It’s free and easy to use, and the higher storage plans are reasonably priced, though Amazon manages to cut their price basically in half, and offers up to a terabyte where Dropbox only will go up to 100GB. However, should you need a ton of storage, Google Docs actually has the cheapest solution by a large margin – you can get a terabyte of storage for $256/year, and up to 16 terabytes of space. That’s about a quarter of what Amazon charges, or an eighth of what Dropbox does, with a much higher potential capacity.

Obviously few people will need this much space, and the free space I’ve gotten from the services has covered everything I need so far – but I may end up subscribing to the $20/year Cloud Player service when my trial is up. Fortunately, I’ve got a year to decide whether it will be worth it.

A tale of two companies

Allow me to tell a tale of why customer service is such a critical component of a great product and company.

Let us examine two companies: Logitech and SteelSeries. Logitech makes mid-ranged products, not top of the line but certainly not terrible by any means, and has average pricing. SteelSeries makes “professional” quality products, claiming to be the pinnacle of the technology, and prices accordingly. Both of these companies make “gaming mice” – durable, highly configurable mice with more than your standard 3 button layouts.

I buy a mouse from Logitech, the G5. I use it and it works well for about about two years and then the scroll wheel breaks. Annoyed, I begin a search for a new mouse and upon reading some great reviews and finding out that SteelSeries supports eSports and sponsors Evil Geniuses, one of my favorite teams, I get their top-of-the-line mouse – the Xai. I install it and promptly have issues; Windows says the device will not start. All my other mice work fine, but this one will not. I send their support desk a ticket. I wait four days. No reply. I send a followup to the ticket, send them a Twitter message, then wait another six days. No reply, so I bump the ticket a second time. Four more days, and I bump it one more time. Nothing.

I put it out of my mind for a bit as I am busy getting a new computer, and on this computer I get the mouse working, but have issues with the firmware – it will not upgrade, and the profiles do not load. I update again, no reply. Finally, a month after my initial ticket, I tweet the following out of frustration –

Well I don’t think I’ll ever buy any @steelseries products again. Worst customer support in the history of mankind.

This finally gets a response.

@dgooch Wow, that sounds really horrible. Do you have a ticket number so I can help?

Success! Whoever runs their Twitter account got the support guys to check my ticket (there’s a lesson here – the squeaky wheel gets the grease and all that). I get a response back from them and over the next 48 hours of emailing back and forth we determine the mouse is defective and I need to send it back. The support guy creates me an RMA, and I look at the process – I pay to ship it to them, and then I should get a replacement mouse in about 3 weeks. Not exactly horrible, but far from convenient. I pack it up and get it ready to send in and plug in my old Logitech mouse in the meantime and prepare to live with having no scroll wheel again for a few weeks. Then I stumble across a thread on Reddit about someone’s great experience with Logitech service. I search Reddit and find many other such threads, several of which mention that Logitech will help you for an absurdly long time after you bought the mouse. Now, bear in mind that since I’d had the Logitech for a couple years I didn’t even bother looking for support on the mouse previously.

I go to Logitech’s website and look up their support info. “Wow, they actually have a phone number,” I think to myself, and dial the support line listed for the mice. Immediately I’m connected to a gentleman who asks me what my problem is. I give him the product ID off the bottom of my mouse and he asks me what I have done so far. I tell him that the mouse doesn’t scroll unless I spin it for a long time and then it might move one click, and it’s done this on two computers where other mice with scroll wheels work fine. He says “Okay, well I’ll go ahead and replace the mouse for you. Since we don’t make that exact model, we’ll replace it with a G500 instead, okay?”

Uh, yes. That’s okay. That’s very okay. So how many weeks do I need to wait to receive this and what do I have to pay?

“So I’m going to email you a prepaid shipping label, you send that mouse in to us and as soon as we get it we’ll ship you out a brand new mouse. Should take about 7 business days for the whole process.”

He got my email address and shipping info, gave me a case number, and told me to have a great day. No credit card info needed, no hassle, no sweat.

So let’s recap.


  • Mouse retails for $90
  • One year warranty
  • No phone support
  • Delayed email support
  • I pay for shipping
  • Replacement takes 3 weeks.


  • Mouse retails for $70
  • Three year warranty
  • Phone support
  • No hold time
  • They pay for shipping
  • Replacement takes 7 days.

Guess who I’ll be buying my peripherals from for the foreseeable future?

SteelSeries makes great products. Of this I have no doubt. The Xai even LOOKS beautiful. It’s elegant in its simplicity and the configuration software is very easy to use and offers a ton of features most mice don’t even think of. Additionally, I will give SteelSeries endless props for their support of eSports and sponsorship of pro gaming teams like Evil Geniuses – eSports would not exist without companies like this willing to take a risk and get involved. And it pays – I’d never have been considering a SteelSeries mouth had EG.iNcontroL not sworn by them publicly.

But Logitech also makes high quality products. They’re not as top of the line, sure, but honestly – I’m not a pro gamer. I don’t need any more precision than the Logitech mice offer and honestly the precision either offers is probably way overkill for my skill level. And Logitech is willing to go the extra mile for their customers. In the end, that’s what makes a great product. That’s why I love companies like Logitech and Apple, who really strive to make these situations as easy as possible for the customer, and run away screaming from companies that seem to want to blame the customer for everything – I’m sure you can think of a few of those.

So a word to SteelSeries and any other company out there with a great product but so-so service: sink some cash into the customer service department. Apple’s been the face of a customer-centric company for a decade now, and they’ve rode that ideal into becoming the most profitable technology company in the world. A great product can only go so far without equally great service.

Quote of the week

From cosmo_drazi:

“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he send six pings or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, with all this packet loss I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is an ICMP echo request, the most straightforward protocol in the world, and would DDoS your server clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel laggy? Well, do ya, punk?”

No, this doesn’t count as my daily post. That will come later. But this is still awesome.

Geeky Sunday Ramblings

Figured I’d take today and ramble on a little bit about tech developments lately, and some of my geekier interests over the last few days. But let me start off by saying: Dear Cardinals, thanks for winning at Soldier Field today! Great game. Now please never let Matt Leinart on the field again. Love, Dan.

So! The big news this week has been the leaked provisions of the secret copyright treaty that the Obama administration has been working on under the cover of “national security.” Cory Doctorow wrote about it back on Tuesday, describing it as “bad. Very bad.” Even skimming over its provisions made it pretty clear he wasn’t exaggerating. I had hoped it would stir up some controversy and perhaps blow over, but I don’t think that will happen. Among other things, it pretty much obliterates the “safe harbor” status of service providers and forces them into policing all content for copyright infringement. This would probably kill Youtube, Flickr, Blogger, Myspace, Facebook, and any other large content host overnight, as it would be impossible for them to make that happen without charging exorbitant rates for use of the service to hire a fleet of lawyers.

It would also require ISPs to deny accused (not convicted!) infringers access to the internet. That means that if one person in the household gets accused of sharing even a single downloaded song, regardless of if there was proof or if that person actually did it, that person’s entire household would be summarily cut off from the web. This flies in the face of justice as we know it, both in the process of establishing guilt and the principle of reasonable punishment. This treaty also includes a DMCA-style takedown notice provision, which has been an unmitigated disaster in every country it’s been tried. But Obama and the other supporters of this treaty want to make this a global law.

It’s another example of people who have no clue about the ramifications of what they are doing making laws about things they do not understand – or at least I hope it is, because if it is not, then the Obama administration and any other supporters of the treaty are openly declaring that they have no respect for the American values of justice or law, much less the Constitution. Unfortunately, it’s becoming less and less of a stretch to believe the latter case is true.

On a happier note, Ubuntu 9.10 is out and seems to be doing mostly okay. It has gotten a slightly better overall reaction than 9.04 did, and I anticipate that when the first wave of bugfixes come out it will be a really solid distro. What is really important, however, is that this means Crunchbang 9.10 will be out soon. And that, my friends, is worth celebrating. Go ahead, have a drink. Pretend it’s on me. In the meantime, here’s my current #! desktop (click to biggify):

Lastly, I still want a Google Voice invite. Anyone able to hook me up?