Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Mind" -> Hurt

Hurt. Is it a post grunge band? Is it emo tending? Is it over the top? Is it alternative metal?

What ever it is, I like it.

When you do music every once in a while, you listen to a lot of stuff and you think to yourself, "Man, that is a highly overprocessed sound. I bet that I could do something like that with enough money and enough producers behind me." However, Hurt is slightly different. Now, it is highly produced. However, I like this. Face it, I think the idea that you go once into the studio and record a album is bunk. If you don't put work into it, why do it at all. Good music should be hard.

However, when you hear a album that is self written and at a constantly good level,
you think to yourself, "Well I guess that I'll never make that cut."

Hurt is a lot like that. Once you start listening, you see a very high level of craftsmanship placed into every song. Okay, they sound a little bit like an amped up Nickleback, but there is a lot worse things to be compared to.

Hurt has never cracked the Billboard top 100, but they've come very close. Their discography consists of three basic albums. Vol I and Vol II are clearly the best place to start. Both of these albums hang closely together, and they could have been released as a double set. The last album is done after a split with Capitol Records. "Goodbye to the Machine" is a good effort, but they are at the cusp of a transition. They can do the same material as the first two albums forever, and never grow, or they can branch out a bit. They try the later on Goodbye, and I'm not sure if I like it yet. A few more listens to see if they are on the road to a new sound, or if this is the swan song.

Regardless, it's a good band to explore.

"Mind & Spirit" -> Eureka 7

Okay, I'll admit it. I fell for Eureka 7, and it has become my favorite anime. Now, it is ended for me, which makes it all the better.

To understand why I like Eureka 7, and the fact that it ended, is to understand why anime stands up so well as an artistic medium.

A good anime does something that no American television can do. It is designed to have a birth and a death. Consider American television. In American TV, We start a story, but we have no idea if the series will be a hit or not. Therefore, the series starts off tentatively, only hoping to get the right ratings so that it can continue. If a show looks to be solid, the show may develop multistory arcs. Maybe these arcs will have a couple of twists, but the real conflicts will never be resolved.

In American television, the major couple will never get together (because it breaks the tension), or the major issue will never be resolved (for example the characters on "Lost" are rescued), or the major mystery is never fully solve (where is Battlestar Galactica's place to settle). You might say, "Yes, they do get resolved, on the very last show."

And that is the point of American television. We only end something when there is no other option.

And what drives this last show? Slipping ratings. The term "jumpinq the shark" is well known, as it describes a series desire to regain slipping ratings. Although it is well known, I'll relate the etymology of the phrase. In September of 1977, the television show "Happy Days" was starting to see it's ratings slips. Therefore, to get better ratings, the show started to create more and more outrageous situations. The pinnacle of this work is when the ubercool character Fonze wore a leather jacket and swim trunks to waterski jump an open pen holding a man eating shark. The best thing about this was that it was a cliffhanger.

The show had deteriorated to a shadow of itself.

Not only is the lack of knowing where the end lies before beginning a problem but the very medium of real actors makes yet another challenge.

The second problem is the power of the actor to hold the show captive. I really liked the show CSI because of the main character Grisham played by William Peterson. However, Peterson felt stiffled in his roll. So exited the main character. CSI lost a major part of itself due to an actor's desire, and not the writer's intent.

But in anime, the writer runs supreme. The characters are nothing more than drawings. Drawings cannot quit. They cannot strike for higher wages. And the beauty of Japanese anime is in the drawings. As I've scattered a few through this post, you should be able to see the creative flowing lines of a good anime.

Anime, for the most part, never has to jump the shark. When a main character is dropped, it is because story development needs it, not because the actor wanted something different.

Anime tells a story with a beginning and and end.

Often movies can do this also. They look to be self contained. However, movies are 2-3 hours at most at average. Maybe, if they know a movie will be driving a sequel, they will extend this to 2 movies, or at most, 8 with the Harry Potter movies. But even with the Harry Potter movies, they are spaced so far apart that we grow old with the wait.

Contrast this with Eureka 7, which has 50 episodes that are roughly 22 minutes long. So we get 20 hours of story telling. Yet this length show only goes 1 year in production. Having 20 hours, knowing that you must end the anime in 20 hours, gives you enough time to do character development. In 20 hours, you can make a real emotional impact.

So, why do I like E7, as it is often called by it's fans?

Superficially, it is just a dumb giant robot story. A little bit like the movie Transformers, only in a cartoon fashion. But this is just skin deep version of what we have. Of course, it does have the future version of surfing called "reffing." Reffing is a lot like surfing, only you do it on light.

Eureka 7 has the themes that we love. A 14 year boy, Renton Thurston, who is just turning into a man. Anime often picks on the 14-16 year old. Why? Because this is the age of change and discovery. This is the time when you make the decisions that will impact the rest of your life.

Into this life, he has his heroes landing literary in his front yard one day. The adventures that come from here are wild and varying. Some of the adventures pan out, some don't. However, all build toward an eventual climax.

You will see Renton struggle with a group of people know as the Gekko State. He begins to unstand that it is unclear if they are his friends or simply a bad influence. You will see him on both sides of a battle. Unclear about who is the right people to side with. For those of us with a Christian faith, it beckons to choices that we make in our own life. "Choose this day who you will serve," is a famous phrase from the Bible.

Into this frame work, we also find our young man captivated with a young girl called Eureka. For me, on a personal level, this is a touching issue. In the anime, we believe that young Renton has never been kissed, and to see him struggle with an admiration of a young woman reminds me of my own relationship with my wife. Is Renton only have a young infatuation, or is there something more than can grow here?

For me, while I had a couple of girl friends before my wife, my wife had basically none. From my perspective, not having anybody else in your life before your mate brings a clarity and deepness to your relationship. For all practical purposes, I have only loved one woman in my life. My wife has clearly only loved one man. And I love her more today than when I first met her. The question for me, in the entire series, is if this young man and young woman would find each other.

But if the story merely stopped there it would be pleasant. However, the story goes well beyond that and talks about family, war, sacrifice, and the acceptance of others. It has the wild villains and the courageous heroes, that often have problems of their own. While the large messages are strongly there, it is often the littlest things that grab me. In the course of the story, the young girl is involved in something that gives her scars on her face. When it comes to later section of the story, she is offered a miraculous chance of having those scars removed. Without a hesitation, she smiles and declines. See the scars are there to remind her of what she went through. To others, they are a deformation of a beautiful face. To her, they are a diary of past events.

We find through this anime that family can be blood, and blood can be family. However, we also find out that family can be friends and it can be adoption. Just because you are an orphan, does not mean that there is no place for you.

One of the interesting twists in the story is uncovered very early in the series, when young Renton gets to see Eureka with her crew mates. It is a shock to him to see three very young children run up to meet Eureka, and they call her "Mother." It is told quickly in the series that these are not her real children. However, how she came to adopt them is a twist that you'll remember for your life time, and I won't spoil it here.

The artwork is wonderful, with a smooth flowing anime style that is such a strong mark of the Bones studio. The drawings seem both new and old at the same time. It carries much of the traditional anime drawing style but with a coloring that seem new.

Top this off with an absolutely superb OST (Original Sound Track) by Sato Naoki, along with a single from Supercar, you have a emotional impact that will live with your long after the anime is done. If you cannot be touched by "Sorrow" by Sato Naoki, you cannot be touched.

As I finished the series, I read other people's interpretation of the events. One common theme was "it over, and I'm bummed." People got so involved in the journey that they didn't want it to end. But that is the point. The reason that we look back on the anime so fondly is that it did end.

And the ending made the journey all the sweeter.

For those of us that understand that our journey will end in not the distant future, we also look fondly at this journey we are on. Our ending will make our journey all the sweeter, also.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Spirit" -> The Analogous Road

I had recently run into a spate of cartoons that mocked the belief in a personal God. Most of these cartoons mock the Christians strong attachment to the Bible. And, there is no doubt why doubters would go for the Bible angle.

The backbone of the classic Protestant Christian faith is one of Sola Scriptura. It is also here that most people that were "raised in a Christian home" falls away from their faith. They don't first stop believing in Jesus. They first stop believing in the Scriptures.

I have heard and read countless number of accounts that once a person reads the scriptures with an open mind, all the contradictions in the scripture come to a head, and it causes them to abandon their faith.

"After all, the Bible is the Word Of God, and if it is the Word of God, it has to be perfect. Yet the Bible is full of errors, therefore, the Christian faith cannot be right."

We Christian often pull this problem right onto ourselves. I have gone to many a sermon where the pastor holds up his Bible and says, "I am preaching the Word of God."

However, the Bible is not the Word of God. The Bible points to the word of God. The Bible is the scriptures. The Scriptures (or the Holy Writ) explains the nature of God and points us to God.

The Bible is a sign. The Bible is not a destination. I wish that we Christians would redouble our efforts to make sure that the two things are separated: The Word Of God and The Scriptures. The scriptures is what we classically call the Bible. The Scriptures tell us enough about the Word of God so that we can get to the Word of God. There is only one Word of God, the Logos, or better known to the English speaking tribe as Jesus.

We we are supposed to worship the Logos. Yet, we often worship the Bible, and woe to us for doing such an action. Now, when you are reading this, you probably think that I'm being a bit harsh. Am I just thinly dividing a thin line? How can we study the Scriptures and not know Jesus.

Let's see what the Lord says:

John 5:38-40 (New International Version)

38...nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Tough to make it any more clear. The only reason to study the scripture is to get a better feeling of what the Christ is like. Scripture does not save. It only points to salvation.

The scripture translated, copied and handed down through the ages does not glow. It will have questions about a sentence there and a count of people there. However, if you read the book and look for a high degree of integrity, you will find it. It is like no other book. It is more than sufficient to do what is supposed to do: Lead you to salvation.

The scriptures were laid down like a highway from long ago. If we were exploring together, and we found this highway that had been built and abandoned, but was in very good shape, we could quickly identify it as something that had been done by a grand engineer. As we might take our jeep on this highway, it would allow us to drive quickly efficiently to where we wanted to go. We would recognize that somebody, somewhere had spent many hours designing and constructing this road. By studying the road, we would get to know the designer. More than this, once we got onto the road, we would be able to go places quickly.

However, the non-Christian sees our highway that we use so often, and they call the designer into doubt. "Look at mile market 23," they will say. "At mile marker 23, it is missing bumper turtles. If this road was truly made by the grand engineer, then it wouldn't be missing any bumper turtles." They could spend all day showing you the little things that were wrong with the road. They could show you all the "conflicting errors" in the traffic flow.

Well who did make the highway (or Bible). They would explain to you that it popped out trails that were made by the local towns people. That these roads just sort of grew over time. For the Old Road, they would say that there were four main designers: JEPD. They look at the highway very carefully, and they believe that they can find different color stones in the concrete.

However, a view of comparative literature just makes this laughable. To make the Bible contradict science, the atheist has to strain at the smallest knit. Mind you, there are miracles, but miracles are not logical inconsistency or obvious errors.

"Well the Bible says the Earth was made in 7 days," they'll say.

No, this is clearly a reference to seven eras.

"Well the Bible talks about the four corners of the earth," they'll say.

No, this is clearly poetic license.

Other than the story of the world being flooded, which is highly problematic (and obviously sent to test our faith) the path to reconcile science and scriptures is trivial. If I ever leave the Christian faith, it'll be of the lack of evidence of a global flood. However, the rest of the scriptures are so friendly to science that I overlook one area to have access to the others.

I hope someday I am surprised with clear geographical evidence for the flood.

Yet, this is not where the non-believer attacks. Instead, they try and say that all of the scriptures have deep issues. A matter of fact, they might even say that they can see the individuals that fabricated the Bible. "Everywhere a stone changes colors, we believe that we have a new writer," they announce. There are four major types of stones, thus four major creators of the highway.

In this analogy, the Bible is like that Highway. Most of us never got to see the structure laid down. We are viewing the Bible or the highway after many years of use. Certain parts of the scriptural highway may have been patched by man. However, if you stand back and look at the Highway, there is no doubt that whole of the Bible hangs together. Sure, are there small gaps? Are there some difficult scriptures. Sure, but there is no doubt that those that use the Highway get directly to where they want to go.

The belief of inerrancy applies to this. To be an inerrantist, like myself, you believe that the highway was laided down by many different authors over many years. Each section of highway is complete in itself. Now, each section may be of its own flavor and texture, but each small section of road is laid end to end perfectly. Even though many people did different parts of the road, each of them laid down a perfect section.

Now, from the day that the road was constructed, perhaps a couple of flaws or inconsistancies have appeared. However, there is no doubt to what the road does or where it is going. The roads were perfect as laid down, and they vary little to none from the original.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

"Mind" -> Visual Basic For Excel

The age old fantasy for everybody is to have a personal butler to help oneself around the house.

In the very popular movie "Batman Begin," Alfred is the rock solid helper that assists the Batman in the times of greatness need. Not only that, but he is also taking care of the menial duties of the house so that Bruce Wayne can spend his time on better things, like saving the city from the clutches of the evil villains that beset it.

So, what does this have to do with Excel?

Chances are if you are in business and you do any work, you will be using Excel for something. It may be doing the very simple to the very complex, but you will be using it for something. Now, if you are using it on a regular basis, chance are that there is something that you do with it on either a weekly or a daily basis. Here is where the butler idea comes in. It is exceptionally easy to set up the ability for that spreadsheet to do your repetitious tasks automatically, like a personal butler for your spreadsheet.

However, you will need to use some called "Visual Basic For Applications" or VBA. I was reading an excellent blog by Jorge Camoes, who is a quant head at a company and spends a lot of time blogging on charts, and very much enjoyed his casual observation:

In an informal survey among friends and colleagues (all of them Excel users), I’ve discovered that 55% doesn’t know what VBA is, 40% knows but doesn’t want to use it, 4% uses recorded macros from time to time and 1% actually edits the recorded macros to add some sort of functionality (well, this happens to be me…).


"Oh, no," you might say. "This sounds complicated. You just told me that 40% of people don't even know what this thing is. Why should I be interested?"

Well, the first step is just you out of the class that has never heard of have heard of Visual Basic For Applications (VBA). VBA is the backend (or the device) that allows you to record macros in Excel. So, congratulations, you are now more informed than 55% of the population.

Let's talk a bit about macros. Macros used to be very, very difficult. Now, they are very, very easy.

Macros are the short way of saying macroinstruction. Since I'm an aging computer geek, I want to take you back to the early days of computing to the old "Terminate and Stay Resident" (or TSR) programs. Borland International stole this idea from a start-up and created "Superkey."

If you think about it, there were no mice on the early computers. (I know that this boggles the mind.) The way that you interacted with computer was the "Command Line Interface" or CLI. The amout of clicks that you can do from the keyboard if you are a very fast typist is 480 per minute. (think 80 words per minute at an average length of 5 letters per word and one space.) While this is extremely fast for a typist, this is very slow for a computer.

If you had a series of keystrokes that happened over and over again, you could simply capture them and replay them. The computer doesn't know if it is a human being or a program replaying the key.

The application providers realized that this really wasn't worth a stand alone program, and they started to integrate these key recorders into the applications that they made. This is when I was introduced to macros, through the DOS environment. However, the macro environment goes back earlier than this.

When I got my second degree is when I discovered Unix. Unix has two very popular editors vi and Emacs. What is an editor? Think of it as a limited word processor made specifically to write scripts or computer language type instructions. Of these two programs, Emacs is of special interest. First off, I prefered it to vi, but even more important for our story: it stands for Editing MACros. See the real computer geeks were on the Unix side, and they were working on things far before it ever came to the DOS (and later Windows) world.

I sold computer in the early days of the personal computer revolution, and when Lotus 1-2-3 2.0 came in, it had the ability to use macros. People went crazy building all types of unique additions to Lotus using the ability to replicate end user keystrokes.

The successor to the general purpose keyboard macros programs can still be found today. The most widely used free software is Autohotkey. The program is not what I call as directly friendly, as you need some ability to program. However, I recently decided that I needed to trim the first 30 seconds of of 100 podcasts. I had a program that would trim one, but it had no ability to do multiple files. So, I set up an autohotkey script to act as if it was me. It opens the files in my trimming program. It trims the file. I copies the file into a "done" folder, and then it opens the next file. You can watch it operated as it does things on my screen. It is almost spooky.

Back on subject, applications started the ability to bring in keystrokes into the programs. In a flash of brilliance (and it revolutionize the app industry) Microsoft determined that it could capture those keystrokes and convert them into a series of programming steps.

Let's use an example. Let's say that you want to save a spreadsheet. You know that the keyboard short cut is "Alt-S" and typing in "temp" and hitting enter.

The old keyboard macro would have captured:

1. Alt key down (Make code in keyboard talk)
2. s key down (Make)
3. Alt Up (Break code in keyboard talk)
4. s Up (Break)
5. t (Up and Down)
6. e (etc)
7. m
8. p
9. Enter

What Microsoft does is change this automatically to a programming language call Visual Basic. Once it records your keystrokes, it say that you did the following command:

ActiveWorkbook.SaveAs Filename:="c:\temp.xls"

Now, programming is always a bit hard to learn, but if you can learn a few rules (about 30-40 hours worth of study), but once you learn the syntax, you can open up a window and say, "I want to take the data from sheet 5 in my spread sheet. Then I'll make a Pivot table out of it. Then I'll make a button to come up to the various parts that I want to see. Then I'll save the document."

The trick part of working with VBA the first time is understanding how to refer to things and all the command to do something. Like most modern programming languages, the language has a lot object orientation in it. This make is simple to program once you understand how it thinks.

We can understand some of this by simply looking at the line of code above. What did we want to do? We wanted to save a worksheet (file), which is obvious and object. In VBA, the currently opened spreadsheet is called ActiveWorkbook. This is always an object. This object can do various actions (think verbs). The object can open. The object can close. In our case, the object will "save as". These actions are called "methods" rather than actions. If you want a object to do a method, you list the object, then you tack on the method with a period. Thus this is why we have

Activeworkbook.SaveAs (or object.method)

We are obvious lacking a file name, and if you put in a space and a "filename:=", it knows to assign the file name whatever you put behind the := in the syntax.

The other tricky thing is that most objects have properties. For example, a Pivottable has pull down menus for setting data that you want to see. In this case, you need to tell the program to find the workbook, then find a particular sheet in the workbook, then find a particular pivottable, then find the attribute or property of one of the items on the pivottable. While this sound very complicated, you basically just type down what we said.

ActiveWorkbook for the workbook
Sheets("MainPage") for the sheets inside of the workbook, and you named the sheet
Pivottables("Pivottable1")
PivotFields("MyData")
PivotItem

This is listed out as

ActivewWorkbook.Sheets("MainPage").Pivottable("Pivottable1").PivotFields("MyData").PivottableItemm

In this case, this pull down menu (PivotItems) has several things like "Sales in Feb" and "Sales In March". You can then say "please set this item to always come up "Sales in March".

However, in most cases, you don't type this in. You record yourself doing the action in Excel, then after you are done recording, you look at the commands. Simply selecting the pull down menu with record a line like the above one. While a bit complicated at first, with some training you can quickly see what it is doing. Then you can make changes to the code to modify the actions.

I know that this has been a short glimpse into VBA, but I want to give you a bit of the history and what it is doing as an overview. As stated before, it'll take 30-40 hours to learn enough to start writing a bit of code to automatically do stuff, but once you have this tool, you'll be many more times productive.