Best Song Ever?

A screenshot of the "Best Song Ever?" playlist on Spotify.

A friend asked me today what my favorite song is. Full stop, point blank, no modifier: favorite song ever. She has her own answer, but the thought of me trying to land on a single song that would rank as my topmost was nearly dizzying. How would I condense a lifetime of loving music into a single track?

She’s right of course, technically speaking. There must be one track that brings me scientifically the most joy of any song I’ve ever heard. It may be an old song, one that has stood the test of time and repetition. It might be a new song, one awash in that stomach-churning anxiety of new love. In either case, I was resolved to figure it out.

The Artists

Let’s start with artists. There are many artists I enjoy, but there is certainly a core group who continue to assert themselves. They’ve followed me through moves, relationships and any number of life events. These artists produce the backbone of my musical identity. Therefore, my favorite artists of all time (in mostly no particular order) are:

Now that I have artists, I can start to dig into the songs by those artists to get at something approximating my favorite song. I’ve listened to all these bands for decades and boiling their oeuvre down to one song might be difficult.

The Albums

After some consideration, I decided to go with selecting a track from a formative album. This technique has flaws (what if my favorite song by an artist isn’t on a good album?), but it’s something. These artists all had one particular album that really sunk into me. It may not have been their first album that I heard, but it was the album that I most strongly associate with my love of them.

My favorite albums by my favorite artists of all time are:

As I put this list together, it felt like a cheat. The albums seemed obvious and uninspired. But that’s the point, right? There’s no sense in picking an obscure album or a brand new one or an album that I feel I haven’t given enough attention. This should be the list that makes me say, “Duh.” So… duh.

Now to pick my favorite song from these albums.

The Songs

At this point, I started getting apprehensive. Here is where it gets real. Here is where we really start narrowing in on things. It’s at this moment that I realize how much my answer to this question will define me in a certain way. I’ve always felt that way about the art that I enjoy.

If, instead of asking me to my face, this friend had instead gone to my Spotify profile and discovered my Top Songs of 2019 playlist, she would have discovered that my most listened to track from last year was Kazoo Kid Trap – Extended Mix by Mike Diva. This song bears no relation to any of my actual favorite songs, but it made the perfect opening track from my workout playlist. In the course of training for a half marathon last year, I listened to this track every workout for dozens (if not hundreds) of workouts. I would be fairly mortified if someone thought it was my favorite song of 2019.

The process of picking my favorite songs took a little longer than the albums. Many tracks on each album made a good case for inclusion. After much deliberation, these are my favorite songs from my favorite albums by my favorite artists of all time (in no particular order):

The Songs, In Particular Order

By now I had an arbitrary list of some of my favorite tracks ever (more or less). How to whittle the list down? If I’m to pick just one favorite, we need to learn more about these titles.

Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs – Zak and Sara. This song had the least chance. Ben Folds has been a favorite artist of mine since before he left Ben Folds Five to go out on his own as Ben Folds. There are a lot of his albums that I enjoy nearly equally. Rockin’… stood out because it was his first solo project, and I think he really expanded his musicality with it. All the tracks are catchy and beautiful, and Zak and Sara just happens to slightly edge out the others. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a great song. It’s just not the greatest song.

Sigur Rós – Takk… – Hoppípolla. I can’t remember any longer how I discovered Sigur Rós. Being able to tell people that I listen to a band from Iceland may have been all the initial motivation I needed. However, I soon fell in love with their artistic creativity. The band writes lyrics in Hopelandish, an invented language that blends Icelandic with English. They are constantly experimenting with new ways of getting sounds out of their instruments (including using a cello bow on an electric guitar). And they regularly partner with artists from various media to produce immersive and expansive artistic musical experiences. However, I really value strong lyrics, and I’m not yet fluent in Hopelandish, so this track loses out early, too.

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans – I Will Follow You Into The Dark. I’ve followed Death Cab since their second album. The band has gone through small evolutions since those early days, but they more or less remain a really fantastic indie rock band. I feel like Plans strikes the best balance between taking musical chances and delivering more of what they’re good at. There are many fantastic tracks on the album, including favorite contenders Summer Skin and Marching Bands of Manhattan, but I Will Follow You… became the relationship song for Holli and I and has a special place in my heart. Given that, the song is pretty standard for Death Cab and doesn’t quite have what it takes to be my number one overall.

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife – The Crane Wife 3. The Crane Wife, the album, recounts a Japanese folk tale in musical form as a sort of modern opera/concept album, something that The Decemberists would try again with Hazards of Love. There are three “Crane Wife” references on the album: The Crane Wife 1 & 2 are an epic eleven-and-a-half minute journey, but The Crane Wife 3 is more succinct and playlist-friendly tune. If you like lyrics, this song is packed. If you like traveling bass lines, this song delivers. If you like soaring vocals, this song climbs Mt. Everest. That said, a fair part of its strength lies in being part of a concept album.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs – We Used to Wait. What first drew me to this song was the music video. Arcade Fire partnered with Google to produce an interactive web-experience for their music video. The web app would open windows with related videos, animate in-browser birds and integrate with Google Maps StreetView to walk the viewer down their literal hometown street. As a web developer, I was ecstatic to see these two partner up on such a great song.

The driving piano in this song is addictive. It builds and layers throughout the track, finally fading away without a truly resolved climax. While this song isn’t my top, it has some of my favorite lyrics of all time: I used to write / I used to write letters / I used to sign my name / I used to sleep at night / before the flashing lights / settled deep in my brain. Why these lyrics resonate so much with me, I don’t know.

Bright Eyes – Lifted – False Advertising. This song is a journey. Bright Eyes is no stranger to bending the format, and this song is no excuse. It features sound effects (fake record crackle), ad libs (“I’m sorry!”, “No, it’s okay. It’s okay.”), scene changes (the applause and door shut at the end) and even a spoken word beginning (“On a string. On a string. (inhale) On a string…”). The track is also very rich. I think some of Bright Eyes’ best work is when it sounds like a dozen people are playing at once. This track is one of the most orchestral in their catalog. Conor sings well in it, and the lyrics are some of his best: onto a stage / I was pushed / with my sorrow / well-rehearsed / so give me all your pity / and your money, now (all of it). This song could have been my favorite of all time, but there’s still one more track on the playlist…

Radiohead – OK Computer – Let Down. Radiohead was probably my first and greatest musical obsession. The sister of a high school girlfriend had a “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD that I borrowed. One of those tracks (baffling to me now) was Karma Police by Radiohead. There was a lot in that track to enjoy, but I remember distinctly a moment when the lyrics clicked for me. Under the beautiful crooning of Thom Yorke was a dark and foreboding message: this is what you get / this is what you get / when you mess with us. The dark violence hidden beneath those soaring vocals fascinated me. I knew then that Radiohead was special and quickly began buying their albums. I sought out and joined fan sites. I poured over lyrics. I pirated live shows. I was all in.

OK Computer is singular in its combination of extremely listenable musicality layered over the challenging and anxious poetry of Thom’s lyrics. For many, OK Computer is the only Radiohead album they’ve ever heard. It put the band on the map, showing their talents as a mature and deliberate musical act instead of just a bunch of mates from Oxford who wrote guitar tunes.

Let Down has long been my favorite track on the album for its heartbreaking imagery and beautiful arrangement. The lyrics are like Kafka put to music: one day / I am gonna grow wings / a chemical reaction / hysterical and useless. My favorite moment is the climax of the song, where Thom begins to sing a round with himself, letting the melody and counter-melody play over each other in a gorgeous medley.

Let Down by Radiohead is, according to the previous described process, my favorite song ever.

Best Song Ever? Really?

Probably not. I can already think of a couple other ways I could have made my decision. But at least now I have an answer for my friend.

The Playlist

Want to hear the songs I wrote about? Here’s the playlist on Spotify:

Christmas Card 2019

Have you ever had a moment where it seems like all the pieces of the puzzle of life just fall into place? That’s how we felt after we welcomed the newest member of our family: Remy Valentine Rausch. We lovingly placed the words necessary to describe our crazy, happy, momentous year on a beautiful grid… and then lost all the letters!

No, we’re just kidding. That’s not what really happened. What happened is that we built a crossword puzzle app from scratch where the answers are significant moments from our 2019! Enjoy!!

View our 2019 Christmas Card here.

Web layout is hard, you guys.

A page of search results from Amazon.com with some visual issues.
A page of search results from Amazon.com.

(2018) Best of Last Year

There have been some years where my “Best of Last Year” playlist was stretched a little thin. I wondered if 2018’s would have the same issue. Then we got a Spotify Premium account, and everything changed. At one point, this playlist had over a hundred songs on it. To pair those down to a reasonable runtime was quite the challenge. What’s left, however, is truly the Best of Last Year.

Listen to (2018) Best of Last Year on Spotify.

Christmas Card 2018 Autopsy

Rausch Family 2018 Christmas Quiz

We recently announced our 2018 Christmas Card. Every year, my wife and I design and develop a digital Christmas card. These cards are opportunities to explore new technologies or techniques, and they usually turn into more trouble than they seem to be worth.

In this post, I’ll dissect the process and product of our Christmas Card. View the card at 2018ccard.now.sh. Check out the code on GitHub at awayken/2018-christmas-card.

Continue reading “Christmas Card 2018 Autopsy”

Christmas Card 2017

Merry Christmas! The 2017 Rausch Family Christmas Card is here!

ESCAPE from the MAZE PLANET! It’s a text adventure where you play as Fruckles, a lovable alien pet who helps Kiddo and Sweets make decisions along their adventure.

Can you escape the maze planet? Will you turn around in shame? There’s more than one way out, so feel free to play over and over again.

View our 2017 Christmas Card here.

Working My Gut Off To Be Normal

I’ve written about weight and exercise and health before in My Completely Obvious Secrets to Losing Weight, Scheming on a Thing, That’s Exercise Sabotage! and My Food Addiction. My body size, shape and weight have been stressful topics for me my entire life, and they’re on my mind constantly.

When trying to improve one’s health and fitness, it’s useful to have goals. Many fitness programs and health tracking apps put the emphasis on weight. “What’s your ideal weight?” they ask, assuming that you have any idea what a realistic or healthy body weight would be for your body type. Or they may ask for your height and current weight which they use to calculate a Body Mass Index (BMI). They will then give you a target weight which represents a “healthy” BMI. But BMI has some problems which I feel are underrepresented. I think the reason so much weight (pun) is given to BMI is because we don’t have a neat and simple alternative to define health. There’s no grand, eloquent equation of perfect health.

I started my journey by setting a weight goal. I made progress, but I never hit my goal. I got within ten pounds at one point, but complete success proved elusive. As I’ve done more research, I’ve come to see body fat percentage as a more useful measurement. The research is starting to support body fat as an important health indicator. Body fat, like BMI, categorizes ranges of health for groups of age and gender. One might be low, normal, high or very high. Even after losing thirty pounds, I was still in the “high” range. I set my sights on “normal” and got to work.

On September 23rd, I hit that major health milestone. For the first time in my adult life, after some five years of concerted effort, I have finally measured in the “normal” range for body fat.

I’m happy and scared. Unlike some goals, like getting a novel published, this goal can be undone. Also, unlike most aspects of my life, this is one area where I’m very happy trying to be normal. I’m in a weird place right now.

Okay. Enough celebrating. Back to work.

Text on Facebook Gets Delightful

I noticed something unusual on Facebook the other day. My mom had posted some results from a dog show. Her dogs did well, and I love my mom, so, like a dutiful son, I “liked” her post. I soon endured a deluge of notifications as friends and family sent her good vibes and congratulations. I noticed something unusual: whenever someone wrote “Congrats”, the word was a different color. It was now an orange (#F1765E) instead of black. I clicked it, and a spray of confetti and balloons erupted across my screen.

What the what??

I dug into it. Thanks to Chrome DevTools and React DevTools I was able to narrow in on the “Congrats” snippet and learn some things. Facebook appears to be experimenting with something called “TextDelights.” My guess is that these are delightful little animations that can be triggered by certain text keywords left in a post or a comment (or other “surfaces”). Each TextDelight is called a campaign, and there are two campaigns were available to me: Congrats and xo. (I say “to me,” because Facebook practices A/B testing and staggered rollouts, and other Facebook users may see more or fewer campaigns than I.) Congrats is orange and launches confetti and balloons, whereas xo shows pink (#eb6575) and conjures floating trios of hearts.

Each campaign has an ID, an array of keywords, and (through more digging) an animation URI. The array of keywords allows for different languages and text variations (xo or xoxo or xoxoxo, for instance). Congrats has 57 keywords (including: “Congrats” and “Felicitaciones” but not “Congratulations” and, more recently, “Congratulations”), and xo has 28 (including: “xo” and “Besos y abrazos” but not “hugs and kisses”). The campaigns are associated with an animation URI which appears to be a jpg but is actually a complex and obfuscated JSON object. I found an example for the Congrats animation, but I’ve had a hard time deciphering it.

If you want to see these delights, I created a public post showcasing them, just in case you don’t know anyone you want to kiss or congratulate. (If they don’t work for you, you’ll just have to imagine how beautiful it is.) Go forth and embrace the delight!

UPDATE: Hat tip to commenter Shelly Milligan for pointing out “rad”. You can type a #e648ef “rad”, “radness”, “da hora”, etc., and it conjures rocket-powered thumbs-ups.

Building Progressive Web Apps using CFML at cf.Objective() 2017

I’m giving a talk at cf.Objective() 2017. It’s called: Building Progressive Web Apps using CFML. If you, or someone you know (or someone you don’t know, I guess), is attending cf.Objective next week, check out my talk on July 20th, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM.

Progressive Web Apps are more than just a UI fad, like parallax or scroll-triggered animations. PWAs are quickly becoming the best practice for creating reliable, fast and engaging user experiences. Like progressive enhancement, which treated JavaScript as an optional enhancement for a website, progressive web apps treat the network itself as an optional enhancement. By treating the network as untrustworthy, developers are forced to create better web apps that capitalize on modern browser features when they exist and fallback to traditional client-server communication when they don’t.

This talk builds the most cutting-edge client technologies upon the solid foundations of ColdBox, giving CFML developers a helpful path into the future. Google has been a strong supporter and proponent of PWAs and the Offline First movement, but their examples and toolkits make too many or too few assumptions about the reader’s server technology. This talk will use ColdBox and Lucee (through CommandBox) as the server language, allowing CFML developers to wrap their heads about this new movement and hopefully incorporate its philosophy and techniques into their existing and upcoming projects.

Learn more on the cf.Objective() website.

A Technique for Tracking Page Print Using CSS Background Images

Printing a web page is still one of the most popular ways that customers interact with a classifieds search engine. At AutoConX, we try to track that metric for our sellers, so they can see how frequently people print off their listings for safe keeping. Our legacy platform presents users a print-dedicated page to track such details. But what is a modern, responsive technique for tracking that kind of interaction? I wanted something that could target printing by any means possible: triggering a JavaScript print event, using browser keyboard shortcuts or menu items and even using the cloud printing capabilities on mobile devices. CSS’s print media seemed like the way to go.

First, how to handle the actual tracking. A common technique involves creating a “tracking pixel.” When an image tag is dropped into the page, it appears to load a small, transparent gif. What actually happens is that special code executes behind the scenes and just returns data in the form of a small, transparent pixel. I crafted a 1px by 1px transparent gif as the tracking pixel and created a handler event that would call a stored procedure that would track the print in the database. Then the handler would return the data from the transparent pixel to the browser to be rendered as any other image. The CFML code roughly looked like this:

Next, I needed to use that URL as the `src` for an image. I dropped an image tag into a section of code already setup to show only for print media. The section displays a QR code and canonical URL so people with the paper version can get back to the web version. It looked like this:

I opened Chrome Dev Tools, chose the Network panel and reloaded the page. A call to my tracking pixel was made even though the image was hidden from the screen. This is an age old situation that has made it necessary to create new tags like picture and attributes like srcset for displaying different images for different browser scenarios. It was worth a shot, but now I knew this wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped.

Let’s try the stylesheet instead. I created the selector `.detail--trackprint` and used my tracking pixel as a background image. It looked like this:

I reloaded the page and… oh, right. CSS URLs are relative to the CSS file. Another rookie mistake. What I needed is something that is relative to the executing page so that the CFML framework gets the appropriate listing information needed for tracking. I tried briefly to use data attributes to build my background image URL, but the `attr()` function is still only good for content. Inline styling would be my best bet. I modified my original view:

I reloaded the page and watched the Network. No call. I emulated print media and reloaded the page. CALL! Success! I deployed the code to our dev server and put some other team members on QA. They weren’t seeing tracking counts as high as they should be. I dug into it with my own testing and found that the browsers (I saw this behavior in several of them) were caching the print preview after the first print. It makes sense and saves the browser some work and data transfer. However, I need to get as close to accurate as possible. I added a cachebuster to the background image:

This proved to be the solution we needed. But it doesn’t track every print! I know. This technique is equivalent to what we have in our legacy system, so in that sense it is a responsive implementation of the same accuracy our sellers already have. I could add some long polling JavaScript to increment the cachebuster while the page is loaded. This would give us
stats on the same page without reloading, but that seems overkill for a secondary metric. That number still wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because users can print more than one copy at a time. In the end, this was just enough development to meet the needs of the sellers.