Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #6

She & Him
Volume One

When celebrities get the bug up their ass to try their hand at releasing music, I usually stay as far from the result as possible. Every once in a while, some shred of genius shines through, but for every Eddie Murphy singing "Party All the Time," there are a thousand more Billy Bob Thortons and Bruce Willis, butchering the shit out of the blues. When Scarlett Johansson released Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album of Tom Waits covers, I didn't hold out much hope, and rightfully so. The album was flat and lacked everything about Waits' songs that made them so wonderful to begin with (like Tom Waits). However, Zooey Deschanel is a different story altogether, and this year's collaboration with Saddle Creek standard, M. Ward, comes in half-way through my top albums of the year at number six.

The first time I heard Deschanel sing was in the 2003 Christmas comedy, Elf, and I had to consult Wikipedia to see if it was really her voice coming through my speakers, so beautiful was the sound. So when I heard she'd be putting out an album with one of my favorite modern balladeers, I kept my ears open for the release date and snatched it up as soon as it made it to the radio station where I worked. And disappointed, I was not. The thirteen songs of Volume One make me hope there will be a Volume Two (which, reportedly, there will be--it's in production as we speak), and excited for any other consequent work Deschanel decides to lend her vocal cords to. But we're talking about this one here, and I digress.

The thirteen songs here are very much in the vein of other indie songstresses like Cat Power, Feist, and most of all, Jenny Lewis. This album is country to the core, with just a hint of 1950s sock hop-pop, but not the kind of glossy pop-country that Faith Hill is singing on CMT. This is Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn's country, the kind made to be sung into a big silver bullet mic and played out of grandpappy's old AM radio. The best part about She & Him's brand of modern indie-country is the honesty and fun of it; where Jenny Lewis tries to make an ironic statement with hers, playing the cliches of the genre to her, admittedly, clever advantage, Zooey and Matt seem to really love what they're playing. I've talked mostly about Zooey's contribution to the album thus far, but it is her voice that is the star of the show. However, Ward and the backing band (including Saddle Creek brainchild Mike Mogis and The Decemberists' Rachel Blumberg), deserve their share of time in the limelight. Without them, as beautiful as Deschanel's voice is on record, it would have just been a voice on record. The beautiful sounds emanating from behind her are the work of these fine ladies and gents: a perfect, delicate sprinkling of strings over plinking pianos and mellow guitars. Even the more upbeat songs like the doo-woppy "I Was Made for You" feels light and airy; but nothing can compare to the album's opening, "Sentimental Heart."

I love the next two songs on the album, "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?" and "This Is Not a Test," possibly even more than the album opener, but it is the nakedness of Deschanel's voice and simple perfection of the music that builds slowly behind it that makes it such a brilliant first song. In the first two bars, you know exactly what you're in for through the course of the album, and you couldn't be more excited to listen the whole way through. I wasn't even listening to full songs the first few times I turned the album on--I just wanted to see everything Zooey and Matt were going to give me, and I'd skip all around, listening to pieces here and there. It's probably not a good way to get into an album (and not my typical way at all), but it is a testament to just how good the entirety of Volume One is. It's not a single, followed by some half-assed schlock, just to sell a record on the back of a celebrity. It's true, beautiful music: another one like Jim Noir's number seven pop masterpiece that everyone can listen to. Even your grandma will like this one. And that's saying something.

She & Him - Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #7

Jim Noir
Jim Noir

Sometimes in the world of music, "pop" is used as a bad word. It's that glossy nonsense we hear on Top 40 radio and MTV, with its over-produced sounds and pretty faces. But pop music existed long before television hijacked it--it even had a distinct sound all its own, despite its all-encompassing name. Upbeat, major key songs with bright guitars and a little swing, pop music was all but perfected by the British Invasion artists of the 1960s, creating a sound that has been emulated and expanded upon endlessly through the years. So it should be no surprise that the seventh place finisher on my countdown comes from across the pond, from Davyhulme, Manchester, just a stone's throw away from where The Beatles' Liverpool, where it all began.

With his second album, Jim Noir (real name Alan Roberts--his pseudonym comes from surrealist British comedian, Vic Reeves, whose real name was Jim Moir), proves himself to be a connoisseur of the genre. His brand of pop draws from the later work of The Beatles, Monkees and Beach Boys, focused firmly in on an easy-going brand of psychadelica. It is not the acid-dropping, wigged out music of Black Moth Super Rainbow, but a more free-flowing, organ-driven pop that harkens back to the days of round sunglasses, mop-top haircuts and dayglo-striped backdrops on the BBC. Fellow UK-residents, Super Furry Animals out of Wales, are the closest I can relate to Noir's sophomore effort, but even their music is far more steeped in modern electronica. Noir also dabbles in the electronic realm, but does so in a way that still sounds deliciously dated. I have no idea what kind of technology he's got at his disposal, but judging by the fact that this is first recording produced outside of his parents' basement (including four EPs and one full-length), I'm going to guess that he's got the real thing going here--analog everything, tape loops and ancient, Roland drum machines. If he isn't rocking the classics, he's got an ear for production like no other because this sounds as authentic as it gets.

Every year, one or two albums like Jim Noir's self-titled sophomore effort are released, and give me renewed hope for popular music at large. No matter who I am with, I can turn on this album and they always say "Who is this? I really like this!" and it makes my heart swell with joy, because it proves that there still is good, simple music out there, floating around in the world somewhere. All we need to do is somehow rope it in, convince the huge media conglomerates and bloated record labels to print it, and we'll be able to save music as we know it! If anyone can do it, it will be Noir, with his nostalgic sound full of rolling Hammond organ and reverb-drenched vocals. With other Completely & Criminally Unknown Artists like Peter Adams and Har Mar Superstar, they will lead the charge, reclaiming the pop music banner from Rihanna and Britney Spears (she is seriously putting out records?? Who is allowing this to go on??), and reviving pop music as our parents knew it. That's one war I'd have no problem supporting.

Jim Noir - All Right

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #8

Flying Lotus
Los Angeles

Out of his sophomore album's namesake of Los Angeles, California comes number eight on the countdown: Flying Lotus. The little-known hip-hop producer has yet to truly break onto the scene like contemporaries J Dilla and Madlib, but you've probably heard more of his tracks than either of the other two. How? He's the uncredited creator of the vast majority of the Adult Swim segues played every night between episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Venture Bros.

His sound is instantly recognizable for Adult Swim viewers, off-beat hand-drumming over bass drones, all produced with the fuzzy deterioration of ancient vinyl. The beats are messy and spastic, almost world music-esque with electronic sitar-like swells lending accents to the sexy grime of the low end. But don't let Flying Lotus' characterization fool you; Los Angeles is less a hip-hop album than it is a downbeat electro adventure. This is the album that pushed Dosh off my list this year, my own personal hero of electronica. Hip-hop only describes the speed and sway of the beats--there is no rapping or singing to get in the way of Lotus' production. Instead, the stars of the songs are the beats themselves, the solos the blipping electronics that peek through the mess.

Los Angeles, I would love to imagine, is truly the sound of the city. It is filthy and a little scary, leaving the listener in the dark of what might be around the next corner. I spent about ten minutes in Los Angeles this year, but got to see none of the downtown area that I'm told is exactly what I just described: a wasteland of empty, graffiti-covered buildings and gangs, especially after dark. I've tried to imagine the club where I'd expect to hear Flying Lotus spinning, but I don't think there is one in particular--this is music more fit for running through alleyways at midnight, trying to get away from some Crips that just gunned down your brother. As you run by neon-lit clubs and bars, you hear snippets of dance music, of people talking, but then you have to keep moving, and it's back to the frantic pace of your footsteps as you stumble into trash cans, hurdle over fences. By "Parisian Goldfish" (probably the album's most single-oriented song), you have slipped into a coke-head disco, trying to lose yourself among the crowd and the flashing lights, but you see the gang come through the back behind you, scanning the crowd, and as "Sleepy Dinosaur" begins, you're tripping over people's feet, trying to push your way out into the street again.

Maybe I'm taking the analogy a bit far, but Flying Lotus has not just presented us with another collection of singles, ready for MTV and Kiss-FM. This is a challenging record, daring to create an environment for us to enter into, not just a glossy song for us to mindlessly shake our asses to. Hip-hop could learn a lot from Lotus, and I hope that as people like him and Danger Mouse begin to crack the popular charts, the genre as a whole takes a well-needed step forward. Rappers say they rap about real life, murders and drugs and the streets; Flying Lotus recreates the streets through the art of sound and brings them to us unadultered. What is more real than that?

Flying Lotus - GNG BNG

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #9

The Black Angels
Directions to See a Ghost

The self-proclaimed weirdest town in America, Austin, Texas, makes its second mark in a row on the list with psychadelic stoner rock quintet, The Black Angels. Their sophomore release, Directions to See a Ghost, is, with its fuzzed-out guitars, tribal beats, and wandering sitar lines, the kind of album that envelopes you with its sound and hits the ninth place among my best albums of the year.

The only way to listen to this album, especially its opening track and single, "You on the Run," is to turn it up as loud as your stereo can manage and let it roll over you, feeling the vibrations of the thumping toms and rumbling bass lines buzz through your skin, the hair on the back of your neck and up your arms standing on end. Every detail in the production here is paid deft attention to, allowing the album to come off dirty and loose while not losing an ounce of quality, no instruments going overlooked as Alex Maas' delayed vocals swoop in and out of the speakers. My my, those vocals: they're what holds it all together, the perfect compliment to the sludgy beats with their creepy, echoing, mid-range howls. There is a timeless quality in them and their production that hearkens back, utterly fittingly so, to The Velvet Underground, to the point that if I didn't know that the Angels were a current band, I might peg them on sound alone as one of VU's contemporaries back in the late Sixties.

The Angels themselves even blur that line with their logo, a super-high contrast photo of Nico caught in a circle, the band's name running along the inside circumference. I think it is this self-recognized tie to pop music that sets The Black Angels apart from their peers like J. Mascis' Witch who also released their sophomore effort, Paralyzed, this year. As fuzzy and noisy as they get, the Angels know and understand what makes a pop song, and they use it even in the constraints of their genre to produce a brand of psychadelica that wouldn't feel out of place in the halls of modern, classic, or indie rock. With these finely tuned sensibilites at work, you might even find yourself shaking your booty to some of these jams if you aren't so fucked on acid as you listen that you can't move more than your eyelids.

Pulling influences from Lou Reed instead of Ozzy Osbourne gives the Angels a wider palate to work from and more room to adventure (though it is done subtley enough here, in choice of chord progression and production approach, instead of other aspects that might make the album come off as shallow or forced--think Axl Rose's foray into industrial rock with Chinese Democracy's track "Shackler's Revenge"). With this freedom, the entire album feels fresh and new, while still retaining a sense of purpose--quite an achievement for a band working in such a specific genre.

Directions to See a Ghost is just that. Turn it on at midnight, as high as it can go (and as high as you can go, too, if that's your style), and see all kinds of scary-ass shit. That's what stoner rock does, and this is stoner rock at its finest.

The Black Angels - You in Color

Monday, December 22, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #10

My Education
Bad Vibrations

Starting off my Top 10 list for this year has got to be Austin post-rockers, My Education. It is not very often that I am so utterly impressed with a new post-rock album (most of it, nowadays especially, just sounds like a carbon copy of albums Mogwai and Red Sparrowes have released half a decade ago), but with their fourth release, these guys have really got my blood pumping. They come from quite a pedigree: members of Stars of the Lid, ST37 and Cinders, My Education has toured endlessly over the last few years with other post-rock darlings Pelican, Dälek and even Red Sparrowes themselves. They also have completely embraced the orchestral quality of their music in composing an original score for F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, a step further into the core of post-rock than even Mogwai has gone with their soundtracks for The Fountain and Zidane.

The music on Bad Vibrations, as one might expect from a band with chops enough to lay down silent film scores, is built of soaring strings and layered acoustic and subtley crunchy guitars, backed with chimes, twinkling pianos, and marching snares. Even a lapsteel makes a guest appearance on a few tracks, maybe borrowed from their Sparrowe buddies? Of course, the screaming guitar solos occaisonally peak through, but they are treated less as a cock-comparing contest as in much rock music and more as just another instrument in the orchestra with its chance to shine. And when those solos distort to the point of static, the noise is just as beautiful as the delicate string arrangements.

To fully appreciate My Education's approach to music, it might be helpful to know the origin of their name: My Education: A Book of Dreams, the final memoir/novel published by William S. Burroughs in 1995 that collects a selection of his dreams from 1959 on. It is, as Wikipedia would have me know, his most mellow and mature work, with a far more sedate outlook on writing, allowing descriptions time to develop, ideas time to fester. If ever there were a more fitting name for a band of My Education's stock, I do not know it. Each of their songs is a miniature soundtrack to life, building up from nothing until they become almost unbearably real, intensity personified in the thundering drumming and searing guitars before it fades again, slowly dying into the calm, then silence silence, letting the next track be born.

And so, as the Best Post-Rock Album released this year--better even, I'd argue, in its variation and surprisingly fresh approach to the genre, than Russian Circles' long-awaited Station, My Education's Bad Vibrations takes the first spot in my Top 10 Albums of 2008. And so it begins.

My Education - Bad Vibrations

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Just like every other jerk-off that listens to music, the end of December marks that time when I get to thinking about my favorite albums of the past year, and those thoughts turn to forming a list, proving that I have, in fact, been thinking about it. Usually, I compile a list on a napkin or scrap of paper, intending to do something more with it, like write a brilliant article about each of the albums, complete with a full history of the band and all of their eye colors and favorite flavors of pie, then sell it for copious amounts of money to Rolling Stone and secure a full-time job with them. But usually I just end up losing that scrawled little list as soon as I put it in my pocket, and then struggle to remember who even cracked my top five.

But now that I've got this little blog thing going, and it's lasted far longer than my MySpace or even my Xanga ever did, I finally have the vehicle to spout my opinions about music you likely either don't know or just downright hate! I might not be putting Michael Azerrad out of a job, but at least I won't feel like such a Nick Hornby loser, making lists upon lists for myself to wank over. At least now you can wank with me. Or watch me wank. Whatever you're into.

But I don't want to blow my load all in a single tug (I can keep this kind of innuendo up all day), so I'm going to do it in increments. If nothing else, it gives me a reason to get up tomorrow, and plenty of material to write about for the next week and a half when I'll be trying my best to convince myself to sit down and type instead of finishing my Premiership season in FIFA07--a challenging feat, as well as Hull City is currently doing. So it'll be an album a night or so, counting up to my favorite album of the year, but tonight I'll give a double dose: two albums that didn't quite make the list, but I'll still proudly label as my honorable mentions.

Below each review here (and throughout the rest of the list, providing I can turn something up for all of the other bands), are links to YouTube videos for their singles. Please excuse the quality of the videos--I didn't upload them, they're just there to give a sample of the music since I can't upload mp3s to this website. Close your eyes when you listen to them if you must, and just be glad I found the actual video for at least the first one, and didn't have to link to the slideshow of horse pictures someone made. Oh, YouTube, you never cease to amaze me.

Honorable Mention #1

Sigur Rós
Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

The problem with being one of the greatest, most emotive bands in the world, is that as soon as you put out one album--nay, one song--that doesn't quite live up to your full potential, everyone is down your throat, nails out, screaming about how you're past your prime and you might as well just throw in the towel. Thankfully the backlash on Sigur Rós' fifth studio album (translated "With Buzzing in Our Ears We Play Endlessly" from their native Icelandic), was not quite so harsh. But this latest offering, especially with its strangely upbeat lead single, "Gobbledigook," did not have the same expansively minimalist quality we've come to look for from our favorite Icelanders, and I personally felt cheated.

I'm typically a fan of an artist's freedom to try something new, but when I pick up a Sigur Rós album, I am picking up something very specific. What they tried on this new album was definitely a different direction, and an interesting one at that, but it was not Sigur Rós. It was a little bit Animal Collective, and a tiny bit... Coldplay, actually, who in no way, shape or form came close to cracking my Top Infinity Albums of 2008 list with this year's Viva la Vida. I hope that with this release, Jónsi and his boys have exorcised whatever pop demons that were troubling them and that we can expect a return to the beautiful soundscapes with which they've led us into dreamland for the last eleven years.

Sigur Rós - Gobbledigook

Honorable Mention #2

Midnight Juggernauts

Probably my favorite dance album of the year, Australian trio Midnight Juggernauts are riding the coattails of their friends from France, Justice. And while I loved the album to death, with "Ending of an Era" and "Into the Galaxy" making it onto just about ever mix CD I put together this year, it is that exact fortunate turn of events that keeps them out of my Top 10. Right now, nothing is hotter than the rock-dance that Justice turned the world onto with their emblematic "Cross" album last year. Throw an electric guitar over a heavy trance beat, maybe a catchy sample to put a bow on that neatly-wrapped package, and you'll find yourself in car commercials and as background music for every self-respecting hipster's Friday night out. But what have you really made?

In this case, probably just a throw-away dance album that we'll all, unfortunately, forget about in another year. The only reason I paid attention to this album in the first place was its attachment to Justice (the duo extended their hands to these three boys from Melbourne with an opening slot on their North American tour last year), and one of the only reasons their album has stayed in my head all this time is because Justice didn't release anything this year to knock it out. That and maybe a little bit because there's just a hint of INXS on this record that makes me feel all sexy inside when I turn it on. But I feel bad! I really do like these guys, and I want to see them succeed! I'm just afraid (read: certain) that when this whole heavy-metal-trance-punk thing comes crashing down in another year, Midnight Juggernauts won't have enough to stand on, and will be swallowed up, a forgotten band of a has-been fad. Like The Hives, and that Garage Rock Revolution we were all talking about four years ago.

Midnight Juggernauts - Into the Galaxy

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Alan Moore - Watchmen ****

It scares me that Alan Moore's Watchmen is now twenty years old. Not because it makes me feel dated--as old as I admittedly feel sometimes, I wasn't even alive when Moore published the first volume of his magnum opus. The reason it scares me is because of how horrifyingly relevant it still remains today, two entire decades after it was first put on bookshelves. The scary part about that--the reason why it remains one of the top-selling, top-reviewed graphic novels in the world, now on the cusp of a major motion picture from Warner Bros.--is because the crime and corruption that is dealt with in the book is still the exact same crime and corruption we see today. It frightens me to death that in twenty years nothing has changed. If anything at all, it has maybe even gotten worse. The reference to The New American (in the book, "The New Frontiersman"), the pseudo-White Power newsletter that was visible on the desk of one former VP hopeful, Sarah Palin in a picture leaked to the internet all but made my stomach turn. Twenty years ago, and here it is bubbling to the surface again. And no one remembers? I thought we were supposed to learn from our mistakes.

What is in store for the next twenty years? Will we still be reading Watchmen and sadly, knowingly shaking our heads? I hope we are not. I hope that the stories held within seem as outdated as Archie comics. Not to destroy Moore's work, not at all. He has created something so important with the Watchmen that it would be a crime to stop reading it. But I hope that we can read it in a different light. One of intelligent retrospect, of knowing from whence we came with a clearer vision of where we are going. I can only assume Moore would agree. From the lessons he tries to teach in Watchmen, I think he'd gladly allow his royalty checks to run dry if he could see some greater good come of it.

That's ultimately what I took away from Watchmen as I read it: an attempt at merging all the grey areas with those who can see only in black and white, molding them into some kind of moral beast, with which to fight what is wrong with the world. That's what the Watchmen themselves did--they attempted to pool together their talents and passions, but their beast was uncontrollable, too many heads and not enough brains. If you are to read the novel (and yes, it is truly a novel--the only thing "graphic" means here is that it is told primarily through pictures) like any other superhero story, you will be sadly left wanting. Perhaps not if you are a reader of some of the more modern superhero stories, starting with the X-Men and the modernization of Batman, ones that stretch beyond galactic battling in skin-tight leotards. But many of those comics themselves have been inspired by what graphic novels now represent. An emphasis on "novel."

The action here is not breaking down doors. David Gibbons' artwork is extremely dated and a bit shallow, the palate too full of oversaturated purples, yellows and reds. Not enough shading, no attention to how the story moves across its frames. Wordiness to wane even the interest of a bookworm like me. That's what kept me from buying the book for so long. A graphic novel is far more than just its story, and even the most intriguing books can be ruined by subpar artwork. By the same turn, some otherwise worthless stories can be turned around completely by artists like Ben Templesmith or Brett Weldele. Thankfully, I finally got past that judgement of mine and began reading. Within ten pages I was hooked, and I started carrying the book everywhere. Normally, I treat my comics with an almost anal-retentive kind of care, but Watchmen became like a novel to me, and for the week I spent reading it, took all kinds of abuse, from the weather, in my bag. I even read it on the toilet--a place where the glossy pages of Black Summer or Stray Toasters will never see.

And when I was finished... well, I was finished. The ending brought together disparate aspects of the story that managed to completely blow my mind once I figured out just what was going on. But the experience itself sort of fell flat. I really hate to say it, but ultimately I ended up just a wee bit disappointed. The drawbacks in artwork really hurt the hugeness of the climax for me, and injured the book beyond saving. I know I've just touted the thing as one of the great political and philosophical works of our modern era, and I still do wholeheartedly believe that to be the case. I learned more from Watchmen than I have in half of the regular novels I've read of late. But as a graphic novel, as a whole, I still don't know. As I said before, what I ultimately took away from the book was the lesson that was to be gleaned, not neccessarily a complete satisfaction with how it was presented. I am, however, excited for the movie. I don't know how they're going to shove all the necessary information into less than two hours of celluloid, but I think it will be amazing regardless. The book is definitely an excellent story board, and I can see this going down in history with Fight Club as being only my second ever Movie That I Liked Better Than the Book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dreaming of a White Christmas

It's half-way through November already, which means the holiday season is almost over. How is that even possible? We're not even in the month of Christmas and already I'm sick of hearing carols being played over the loudspeakers at Wal-Mart. And why the hell am I still shopping at Wal-Mart? I thought I had more of a moral backbone than that. I'll tell you why: because I've only got $1600 to my name and I haven't even put down the security deposit and first month's rent on my new apartment in Pittsburgh yet. I haven't even found my new apartment in Pittsburgh yet. Nor my new job. It's a work in progress.

But I'm getting along alright because the Holiday Spirit is in the air, and nothing makes me happier than some nuts roasting on an open fire, provided they aren't my own. It's not the carols (definitely not the carols), it's not the lights or the decorations--it's just that cozy feeling that starts seeping into my pores around this time of year that makes me want to curl up under a blanket and watch the Wallace and Gromit shorts and family movies from the '90s until I fall asleep. And not even just the Christmas ones--give me Man of the House and Camp Nowhere and I'm good to go, come winter. So despite my impending bankruptcy, my lack of job prospects, and my relatively directionless future, I'm feeling pretty good. It also helps that Jess keeps telling me that everything is going to be okay, and due to her spectacular organizational skills, I pretty much believe everything she says. You don't think I pick out these clothes myself, do you?

But Christmas does not mean all gingerbread hugs and candy-coated kisses. It also means having to see my family. As excited as I am to be moving in January, it couldn't hurt if I were moving a few weeks earlier to just avoid the whole thing. It's not that I hate my family, I just don't exactly... see eye-to-eye with them on a lot of issues. Like the fact that gay people are the scourge of the earth and that divorce is sending the United States by way of the Roman Empire. The problem with my family is that they've lived in the same town, surrounded by the same people all their lives. For generations. My family came to America in the 1680s and settled within twenty miles of where we all now live, except my craaaazy great aunt Mary who moved to Florida in the '60s and never came back. So they don't get out much. By which I mean, most of them have never spoken to a black person.

Which is what has me worried about the looming get-togethers that will begin when we flip the calendar page in a week and a half. In case you haven't heard, we've got a black president on the horizon, and as much as my relatives aren't racists per se, I'm sure they'll have plenty to quip about that. My grandparents just had their 50th anniversary and at the party we had for them on Saturday, my uncle already had a handful of jokes about our President-Elect. "I don't know what everyone's so worried about," he said with a grin, "when was the last time a black guy held onto a job for more than four years?"

I tried my best not to grimace.

Now don't get me wrong, I love a good racist joke as much as the next guy, but that's because I think they are ridiculous exaggerations of complete untruths. Outrageousness is funny, and comedians like Sarah Silverman and Daniel Tosh make good money on pointing out just how outrageous the world can be, poking fun at the stereotypes themselves, not playing into them. I know that my uncle doesn't have a Confederate flag hanging off the back of his truck (not this particular uncle at least), but this is the kind of subtle ignorance that scares me more than full-blown racism does. At least if you see a bunch of guys in hoods tromping through town on horseback, you know whose heads to start knocking in (and yes, I am promoting violence here--they might have the right to free speech which I respect to no end, but I should have the right to teach them why their opinion is wrong with my fists).

I am more scared of the little jokes and jabs than I am of burning crosses. I don't mean to downplay the absolute horror of what people have done to each other throughout the history of our country, I'm just saying that I belive there is a quiet ignorance that smolders far longer and more dangerously than hate can. The people that believe Barack Obama is a Muslim are the ones that scare me; the ones that think he shouldn't be our President because he is are the ones that terrify me. And though I'm pretty sure I don't have to worry about finding holes in my relatives' linens, these are the kinds of people that many of them are. So I'm not looking forward to seeing them and sitting through their jokes about how "It's the White House, isn't it? A-hyuk a-hyuk!"

But Merry Christmas to you all, already. On November 19th.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Chromeo, oh Chromeo. Wherefore art thou Opera?"

Continuing in my riveting coverage of Things That I Do That You Can Witness on the Internet, comes my latest update: that you can now see the interview Priya and I did with Radio New Zealand National's Bryan Crump for Roadtrip Nation online. It didn't work on Opera or Safari when I clicked it yesterday, but now today it seems to be opening in all three of the browsers I have on my computer, so whether you're on Opera, Safari, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Camino or even--heaven forbid--Chrome, you can watch our smiling faces in a snippet of our adventures through New Zealand. The interview was pretty enlightening, as you'll see, and the editing that Dan at Roadtrip Productions did is absolutely amazing. It almost brought a tear to my eye as it ended. Definitely worth a watch.

But on a serious note now, is anyone using Google Chrome yet? Does anyone even know it exists? I haven't seen much of a media push for it, and the amount of time I spend online is truly and completely inappropriate. Chrome, for those of you who don't know, is Google's own internet browser that has been in development since Google realized they could completely monopolize a user's time on their computer (look for GooPorn, coming in early 2009!) and was finally released in a beta version in early September. The browser has been hailed by some as a direct and viable rival to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, with more customization and less security issues, but Microsoft insists that web users will "embrace Internet Explorer 8"--not too terribly far of a stretch when you consider just how lazy and averse to change internet users on the whole are (check out any and every online messageboard for proof of this.)

But Chrome has quite a good thing going for it, or so I've read. As they rightly should after stealing their entire design scheme straight from Opera Systems. You never heard of Opera either? That's okay. It's typically used as a reduced-footprint browser for mobile devices like PDAs and cellular phones. But in the past year alone, the browser has developed into one of the finest, cleanest, user-friendly browers on the web. Of course, you can't watch Netflix movies on it (hell, you couldn't even watch them on a Mac until last week), check your college loan status, or visit a number of popular but poorly coded websites without having the pages come out looking like mangled war amputees--but for simplicity and speed on all other fronts, Opera is hard to beat. It will never compete with Internet Explorer for exactly all of those reasons, but it is a great alternative if you're just surfing the net like so many of us often are doing. Of course, I would have said the same about Firefox four years ago, but look where that is now (read: bloated and slow).

So when Google developed Chrome, where did they look? To some new and influential technologies? To a completely revamped approach to the internet that would be sure to springboard them into competition with the Microsoft Juggernaut. Well, yes, if you weren't familiar with Opera (and most were not). Any way you spin it, Google manhandled Opera, ripping off its designs and concepts like a frat guy tearing the panties off a roofied freshman girl at a Homecoming Weekend kegger. Just look at Chrome's brand-new Thumbnail Homepage:

Pretty clever, right? Saving your favorite websites so that you can access them faster and more conveniently whenever you log on. I'd have a hard time finding fault in a new and innovative tool like--oh wait a second:

Yeah. Opera's Speed Dial. Looks kind of familiar doesn't it? The Chrome browser has also been touted for stripping away the extraneous toolbars and buttons that clutter the tops of Internet Explorer and Firefox windows. Take a closer look at the top of that Opera window--you're damn right, there isn't even a word there beyond the open tab. Looks like someone's already stripped, and let me tell you, she was a hell of a lot sexier.

The insiders at Google aren't even denying it. When the beta was released, I was in New Zealand with Priya, whose brother was working on the Chrome development team. She showed me the new browser, and, as an Opera user for the last two years, I freaked out. When she talked to her brother later on the phone, she told him that his project had its hands down the pants of an already existing (albeit unknown) one, and he responded: "How did you know about that?"

Now, I haven't actually used Chrome at all, so maybe they have taken Opera's ideas and developed them into something much better and sleeker. According to my friend Varun, however, it is not. "It's slow," he said when I asked if he'd used it--he had minimally on a PC and tried to port it to his Mac before finally throwing in the towel, "and kind of ugly." That was enough for me to not even bother. The only reason I have Firefox is so that I can access things like the video I linked that can only be read in it. Even Safari hasn't made it onto my dock (and I even have a shortcut to Civilization IV there). Opera is the one for me, and I'm sticking with it.

And now I need to get in the shower and scrub the nerd off me. It's sticky.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Obama

How glad I am to say those two words. It really represents a step forward for our country to be able to vote into office a black man with the name Barack Hussein Obama. Even despite the living, breathing, hate-filled racism that is so prevalent in states below (and unfortunately, above) the Mason-Dixon line, we have moved into a completely new age of social equality. Racism is not solved, equality has not been acheived--but we now stand at the cusp of an era where those goals are coming into sight.

Of course, not everyone is so happy. One such person is hyper-conservative, Native American writer "Bad Eagle" (given name, "David Yeagley")--and by hyper-conservative, I don't mean Pat Buchanan. I don't even mean Rush Limbaugh. I mean George Lincoln Rockwell and John Birch. Bad Eagle is what you and I would probably call ethnocentric. We'd probably also call him a lunatic. Mr. Eagle was my counterpoint on Radio New Zealand National's NIGHTS with Bryan Crump last night. He is from Oklahoma City, and as far as I can tell, is a professional blogger--though he'd have us believe that he is a "newsman." In so far as blurting your opinion on the internet is news, I suppose he is right. The interview can be found in RNZN's archives, just like the last interview I did with Bryan, and it is even more worth a listen, just to hear a complete and utter racist, sexist, psychopath rant on about Obama's Marxist tendencies and illegitimate, third-world past.

Yeah. He also said "Negro" three times.

There was also a third party in the interview, a married mom of one who has lived the last four years in New Zealand, after growing up in Deleware, but there wasn't much to say about her. She was a Democrat, but she was so flighty and typical in her support of "change" that I was almost as frustrated with her lack-of-opinion as I was with Bad Eagle's baseless ranting. I wouldn't say that the format of the discussion was a debate, per se, but those who have listened have told me that I "won." I just hope I didn't misrepresent the American people to a nation across the globe that already kind of looks at us as a mad scientist's social experiment gone awry. I know that I wasn't necessarily my sharpest on all of my points, but give me a break: I was on live at 1:30 in the morning and my head was all a-flutter with politics and FIFA 07 statistics! You're damn right Miller and I were playing our FC Dallas season while we watched the election results come in. The beauty of picture-in-picture television.

So I'm happy. I think we have a big chance as a nation right now. The entire population was tired of our current administration, and realized that things had to change--economically and socially. I don't think that President Obama has all the answers, and I know he won't be able to solve all of our problems--if any, in his first four years--but we have stepped up and shown the rest of the world that our young nation is finally growing into adulthood. Now we can only hope and pray that we continue in such a fashion and do not get lazy and let it all go to waste next time we are called to make a decision about how we would represent ourselves to the rest of the world. That's really what I fear, and we've proven, time and time again, on a number of levels, that we are capable of blinding ourselves to our future. Every time gas prices go up, people begin realizing that the huge cars they're pumping fuel into are in fact, maybe a little too big. But then, as soon as prices go down, they're back buying the Hummer, or whatever other enormous, cock-surrogate the news tells us we need to buy because IT GETS A WHOPPING 22 HIGHWAY MILES PER GALLON! My car was built in 1994 and gets 31. Geo stopped making their Storm, which got almost 40. I am not impressed by the Chevrolet Mountain-Fucker and its 18 feet per barrel.

But maybe this is our chance to turn it around. Maybe we can learn from our mistakes and realize that we need to start taking responsibility. It's something President Obama certainly believes in.

President Obama.

That makes me smile.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Michael Chabon - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay *****

How do you end what may be the most important, most critically acclaimed, most all-encompassing novel of our generation? How do you possibly figure out what is powerful enough to be the last sentence of one of the most important pieces of literary fiction to be penned in the last fifty years? What could possibly close a novel of such magnitude satisfactorily?

I have no idea. And that is why I can't fault Michael Chabon despite my dislike for the abrupt end of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Perhaps it isn't a perfect book--but could anything so deftly reflecting real life be? Life is not perfect. There are boring swells along with those tidal crashings of adventure and emotion. So even when I wasn't feeling the most involved with Joe's adventures in Antarctica and just wishing he'd grow up and come home, I still was in love with his character enough to wish that he'd grow up and come home. I didn't like him being in Antartica because I felt like it was an escape from the reality of the book--just like it was an escape for Joe from his own reality. Chabon is a master of fitting his form to his content.

So how can I give anything less than a perfect rating to a novel that so perfectly captures not only a story but an entire cultural climate? The sheer volume of the book is staggering, let alone its literary weight. Chabon continues to write the stories of people we know, like Art in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but now has developed the ability to blow them up to superhuman size, pun completely intended. Kavalier & Clay represents something of a cultural comic book to its readers, steeped in meta-fictional consequences. The book is about comics--a medium of exaggeration and idealism--but is told in a story that stretches itself over exaggeration and idealism itself, making us look more deeply into the importance of comics themselves. What are they, if not reflections of the world around them through the lens of a writer trying to make sense of it all. Is Chabon the comic writer here? The levels of reflection found in this novel are enough to convince you that you're trapped in a philosophical house of mirrors.

Chabon has grown so much as a writer since his first publication in 1988, and I've grown to love him. As I read Kavalier & Clay during my trip to New Zealand, I often got characters in the book and in real life confused, mixing up the stories they told. It is something that happens to me in the best of books that I read, and as foolish as it may make me, it proves just how engrossing the book really is. John Gardner called successful fiction writing the creation of "a vivid and continuous dream," a statement that Chabon delivers well on. I just don't know where he can go from here. There is virtually no way for him to go bigger, and he'll have trouble going much better. Still, I'm sure to pick up each book that gets put on the shelf with his name on it so that I can live the story he has to spin.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Radio New Zealand National

If you haven't had enough of my blindly opinionated ranting here online, you are in luck! On Election Day, Tuesday November 4th, I will be on Radio New Zealand National's show "NIGHTS with Bryan Crump" doing the same, and all the while representing you, America, to a nation of 4.1 million people on the opposite side of the globe. Probably in my underwear to boot. How do you feel about that?

I met Bryan when I was in New Zealand for Roadtrip Nation this past August, and was fortunate enough to go on his show in Wellington and talk with him about our show and about his life. The interview that my friend Priya and I had with him can be found in RNZN's archives by clicking that link right there, if you are so interested. And soon enough, more audio with my beautiful voice will be added to that archive, because I am going to be on a panel of American voters to discuss this year's election! There are four of us in all, each representing a different aspect of the nation's voting public, from a conservative-minded American Indian to a transplant in New Zealand who is voting via absentee ballot to what was mysteriously described in Bryan's email as "a black American." I can only hope it's Colin Powell.

Of course, I'll be representing the demographic of Green Libertarians Voting Democrat in the Midst of a Sea of Psychotic, Gun-Toting, Bible-Brandishing, Right-Wing Nut-Jobs. Since there are so many of us to speak for. I have no idea what the format of the show is going to be or exactly what I'm supposed to talk about, so that in and of itself promises sheer radio gold. Honestly though, NIGHTS is a fantastic show--a more music-oriented This American Life for New Zealanders. When Priya and I were on the show in August, Bryan and his producers Robyn and Shannon had their entire show revolve around roadtrips in light of our visit. Every song they played was tied to the theme, from "Highway to Hell" to "Route 66," and all throughout the show they took emails, calls and texts from listeners about their favorite roadtrips. After our bit of the show was finished, the three even helped us plan out our route through South Island for the following days. In short, Bryan and his producers are great and they make a really awesome show that is totally worth your time.

So if you're still up at 1am on Tuesday night (and hopefully you won't have to be, so long as Florida and Ohio get their shit together this time around), tune in to RNZN's online stream and listen! Or, if you have a life and/or a job that you need to be up for the next day, listen at your leisure in RNZN's archives. I'll link to the interview as soon as it's posted.


You didn't honestly think I was going to let these two stories slide, did you? Sarah Palin running up a fat $150,000 tab on the Republican National Committee's dime for a family makeover? That's right--every one of her fashion-forward, pantsuit-and-leather-jacket get-ups she's been trying to compete with Michelle Obama in (and failing miserably, I must say) for the last two months was straight out of the GOP's wallet. How someone could even manage to spend $75,000 at a Neiman Marcus in a single day is beyond me, but it's no big thing to the Republican Party, so long as they've got the prettiest belle at the ball. Remember how I said in my letter to the editor that this wasn't a beauty pageant? Well, let me correct myself.

And let John McCain correct himself as well. Or at least attempt to. At a rally just outside Pittsburgh in Moon Township yesterday, the Arizona senator just couldn't help but speak his true feelings on Western Pennsylvanians: that they are unabashed racists and bigots. But never mind that slip of the lizard tongue--the crowd still cheered the poor, blathering old coot on as he squeaked out this narrow save that will be forever remembered in the annals of rhetorical history:

"I couldn't disagree... with you... I couldn't agree more with you more than the fact that Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most God-loving, most... most patriotic part of America... and this is a great part of the country!"

Hey, play to your strengths I guess.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Paul Auster - Mr. Vertigo *****

I wish I could suit myself with simply writing, "The man is a genius," and letting my review at that, because that is what Paul Auster is absolutely deserving of. 1994's Mr. Vertigo is nothing short of astounding in its breadth and vision, encompassing a nation's loss of wonderment and innocence in the story of a poor boy from St. Louis who learns to fly.

Walt is a Holden Caufield of another era--a down and out, harsh little man in a boy's body, trying to keep a step ahead of the game he's convinced he's been thrown into. But the man who saves him from a life on the streets, the mysterious Master Yehudi, is more than willing to play into that game, to test Walt to his outer limits, showing him what a mind and heart can do when they are pushed to breaking. But after they've proven themselves, how long can such a dream last? So unfolds what may be Auster's most traditional of novels, as Walt and Master Yehudi tour the nation in search of their own American dream.

And, without giving anything away, just to top off the excellence of the book in and of itself, Auster manages, in the last four pages, to tie the entire story to his acclaimed (and apparently, all-encompassing) New York Trilogy, causing me to actually throw my book down in amazement. I knew that Auster liked to cross storylines, just by glancing through his newest novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, but I went 290 pages of Mr. Vertigo without a single thought of Daniel Quinn and his surrealist detective adventures, just to have Auster slip him in at the last possible second and consequently blow my mind.

Mr. Vertigo is a truly wonderful tale; one that in its depth of cultural relevance and commentary, reads more like a piece of allegorical history than fiction at all. Even the most fantastic moments come off completely real, and even more painfully so because of the weight with which they are written. My only trouble with Auster now is the fact that I'm going to have to buy every single one of his books because I cannot bear to leave a single page unturned.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bipartisan efforts

Everyone should be able to have their own opinions. If I didn't believe in that basic right, I wouldn't be on here every couple days bitching about how much I hate various cross-sections of humanity. However, I also believe that your opinions need to be grounded in some sort of common sense, which unfortunately negates lots of people's opinions on lots of things. I mean, the Holocaust, the Apartheid and Hot Pockets were all, in someone's opinion, good things, but that certainly did not make them in any way right. The problem is when the people holding these sorts of horribly skewed and undereducated opinions are the people who are the most vocal and visible about them, using that face-time to try to sell their opinions to the vastly impressionable general public. Naturally, I'm talking about Republicans.

Not all Republicans, of course. Ron Paul is technically a Republican and he remains one of the only people I feel is deserving of presidential appointment (also, someone who I totally could dig as my grandpa). And the party itself isn't all bad all the time either. In theory, they're all about reducing the size of our federal government and giving more legislative power to individual states--a stance I can certainly get behind. In fact, at the heart of it, I'm sure there are some pretty decent people in the GOP that are honestly trying to make changes for the better. None of them get voted into any positions beyond Assistant Lieutenant Secretary Of Trash Removal and Piano Tuning, but it's the thought that counts. And really, as much as I like to rag on people like Sarah Palin or John McCain, they both seem to be very intelligent and capable (or at least incomprehensibly shrewd) people. Perhaps not the kind of people that I'd like to run this country, but people that could probably do it if it came to that. Which, looking at the polls, I'm not particularly worried about, or else this little ditty would be a lot more fiery.

The people I am worried about with their loud, right-wing agendas are not the politicians, but the people who support them. The kinds of people who think our country is "a white, Christian nation" that needs "a white, Christrian president." Or the kinds of people who cheer when someone shouts a death threat at a rally. It's bad enough to see these "Joe Sixpacks" get picked up by the news media in passing, their idiotic comments being trumpeted for all to hear. But they can at least plead ignorance. Or at least we can for them. Far more frightening to me are the people who make publicized stands on these kinds of statements. Like Hank Williams Jr. at a recent McCain/Palin rally, when he got on stage to brutally rape and murder his 1979 hit single "Family Tradition" with re-tooled words celebrating the duo's bid for the White House.

People like Hank Williams Jr. shouldn't even be allowed to have opinions about politics. Here is a man who has spent the majority of his career so blasted on painkillers and booze that he hardly has a grip on his own reality, let alone the reality of the 300,000,000 other people that live in this country. Somehow, Bocephus just doesn't seem to me like the kind of guy who is checking out SmartVoter.org to keep himself abreast of his upcoming election decisions (something that you absolutely should be doing--as soon as you're finished reading this, of course). Entertainers across the board should remain exactly that: entertainers. Actors in particular are guilty of nosing their way into the political spectrum, trying to solve the world's problems with a movie that gets reviews that include phrases like "brutal reality" and "social commentary" and "Oscar nod." It's all about "Awareness" after all. If we know that there are starving children in Uganda, maybe we'll help them. No we won't. We'll just change the channel and hope that movie where you play the retarded guy with the shark-toothed little daughter is on HBO. You're damn right we're paying for premium cable. Why do you think we don't have any spare dimes for the little boy with the flies crawling on his eyeballs?

Of course, politically active entertainers are an exception. Actually, they don't even have to be active, they can just know what the fuck they're talking about. Ian Mackaye can have an opinion, as can Jello Biafra and Neil Young. But Hank? I'm sorry buddy, but I don't think I can let you pass on this one. Maybe if you had hit that intonation a little sharper. And don't think I'm just railing on him because he is stumping for the GOP. I think it's ridiculous when bands come out and have their "serious statements" about how right for this country Obama is too. Of course, I agree with them, so it's a lot easier for me to forgive, but do I actually put faith into a bunch of guys with so much moolah from record sales and concert tickets that they wouldn't even notice a shift to their tax bracket? Sorry, Pearl Jam. I love you guys, and I think you did right by Ticketmaster, but I'd be more willing to take political advice from that guy in downtown Pittsburgh who is always screaming about people following him. At least he understands my problems.

But there is hope. I couldn't leave you on such a down note. As I said before, I would be a lot more intense about this whole thing if I weren't so sure that Barack Obama was going to take this election in something close to a landslide, and today I something that tied a cute little bow around that wonderful package:

Did Colin Powell, former Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, just publically endorse the Democratic ticket in this year's election? You're damn right he did. And here's a guy whose political opinion actually holds some weight. Sure, Fox News is spinning it that it's just a couple o' blackies stickin' together, tryin' ta take ovah our good clean white countray once an' fer all--but in a single statement, General Powell just negated the work of a thousand broadcasts of loud-mouthed, down-home, small-town plumbers with white hoods stashed in the backs of their closets.

Congrats to you, Colin Powell, for stepping outside your party bounds and making one of those "bipartisan efforts" that I keep hearing McCain talk about. I guess he never figured on the "effort" being to boot his ass back to Arizona. The amount of guts it took for someone in your position to get on Meet the Press and make a statement like that is astonishing. Voting for the candidate who would be best for the job, not just for your party's agenda? Now that's an interesting new take on this politics thing. I can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leonie Swann - Three Bags Full ****

Whenever I read translations, I always wonder what may have been lost or gained as the story was transferred between languages. Leonie Swann is a German author and graduate of the Munich University (with degrees in philosophy, psychology and communications) who released her first novel last year to significant praise from critics and readers alike. Whether I owe my thanks more to Swann or to translator Anthea Bell, I certainly owe it to someone for having delivered one of the sweetest and yet most sharply philosophical books I've read all year.

The story is that of a flock of sheep in Glenkill, Ireland who find their shepherd dead one morning with a spade jutting out of his chest. Each sheep has its own opinion of what happened (or, more often than not, their own outrageous fears or utter indifference to the whole goings-on). I did not know how I felt following a flock of sheep through a mystery when I began, wondering if it would be a novel little device that would wear thin before the story ended. I couldn't have been more wrong. The sheep's adventure to help solve the mystery ends with almost a hundred pages left in the book, and only then did I realize I had been so invested in the sheep that I had forgotten about the whole overlying mystery itself. Because of that, the ending felt almost surreal and removed from the rest of the story, wrapping up loose ends that had been all but lost in the fray. Only after the story came to a final close did everything feel connected, the ending less tacked on. But that's just the thing--the ending wasn't tacked on at all, it was just set up so subtly behind the amazingly rich personalities of the sheep, that you barely considered what was happening outside the flock.

I'm not sure yet how I feel about the ending and how it fell into place, but it goes to show how strongly the sheep are presented. From Miss Maple (a great Agatha Christie reference, I must add) to Othello to Mopple the Whale, each has a distinct personality and take on the world around them. Still, they all remain absolutely sheep, their personalities focused sharply through what I can only describe as a "sheepy" lens. The result is so cute that it made me want to cuddle each and every member of the flock (except for maybe Melmoth, who kind of creeped me out), and yet I still respected each sheep as a wholly complete character, not just as separate parts of a humorously assembled ensemble cast. What's more, with their misunderstandings of human words and concepts, the sheep graze into the turf of philosophy, religion and social commentary. No small feat for a novelist writing solely from such an intellectually limited point of view.

The Guardian wittily called the book, "The best sheep detective novel you'll read all year," but I'd be willing to extend that to "the best detective novel you'll read this year, period." With undoubtable originality, Swann has penned a truly wonderful book, so clever and poignant that should not be soon forgotten.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A letter to the editor

Today I sent a letter to the editor of my local newspaper, The Ephrata Review. I don't know if they'll have time to print it before the election, or if they'll even want to print it at all, but I thought I should exercise my ability to write one all the same. Plenty of other people do, and don't even have much to say. Lots of things about God usually--things that don't even have anything to do with the paper or what is going on in town. The Letters to the Editor page in the Review is more of a weekly soapbox than it is a forum of discussion. So I decided I might as well step up and take a swing myself. Mine at least has to do with the current state of affairs. Politics, namely, as if you could expect anything else in the last weeks of this presidential race.

It's a much less harsh letter than I initially wanted to write, and I'm not even sure that all my good-naturedness is actually real, but I had to fluff it up a bit to make sure the editor would even consider publishing it. Here's to hoping that he does, because I really do feel strongly about the general idea of what I wrote at the least. But if he doesn't, here it is anyway for you to read:

"I recently moved back to the Ephrata area after spending the last four years in Pittsburgh, an extremely Democratic area that hasn't voted for a Republican mayor in more than seventy years. So when I came back here I was obviously prepared to come back into a "Red" area, and knew I'd be seeing more McCain-Palin yardsigns than I could even begin to count. But that's perfectly fine with me. I'm glad to see that people are involved in the political process, even if it is in support of a candidate that I oppose. I'd rather them vote for McCain than to just not care and not vote at all. However, I fear that in as small and close-knit a town as Ephrata is, we run the risk of having group-think take over. Peer pressure. It sounds ridiculous, sure--am I really afraid that I'll get beat up in the parking lot for voting for Obama on November 4th? Of course not. However, I spoke to a fellow Obama-supporter recently, and asked her why she didn't have a Obama-Biden sign in her yard to counteract all of the McCain-Palin ones on the street. But she owns a business and fears that she would scare away some of her more vocal Republican patrons if she did. I would hope that her fear is unfounded, but it made me realize just how powerful those signs can be.

If I were an undecided voter with no political ties in this area who just wanted to vote to exercise my right to do so, I would probably look around me and see the majority of my friends, family and neighbors proudly supporting John McCain, and conclude that perhaps he is who I should also vote for. Even if I weren't so out of touch with politics as that, and instead influenced directly by my vocal friends and family and neighbors, I'd even more certainly be pulling the lever for McCain, still not knowing what my options really are. And there are options, this year more than ever. I am not writing this to discourage McCain voters in any way--all I hope to make known is that it is worth looking into who you are voting for. This isn't a beauty pageant we're deciding here, and you shouldn't allow yourself to be swayed in your beliefs. I encourage everyone to put out their yardsigns and not have to be afraid of backlash. If you aren't sure about McCain or Obama, do a little research and find out whose platform best represents your own values. But most of all, don't fall into a vote just because you're scared of what your friends will think. Your vote is yours, and you should be proud to cast it for whomever you please.

Jeremy Zerbe"

Getting personal with your personal computer

I've never much considered myself a computer nerd. In fact, I'm probably far more likely to crash my entire system by attempting to open a pop-up for a celebrity sex tape than I am to go hacking into the United States Department of the Treasury. The very first computer I ever had was a hand-me-down from my parents: an Acer Aspire running Windows 95 that was so gunked up by my mom's photos and hilarious chain-email attachments by the time I got it that I barely had room for porn. So I took it upon myself to purge the system of all the extraneous data that was clogging my hard drive like one of Rosanne Barr's arteries.

Clicking through folder after folder, I deleted any and every file that Windows allowed me to--until finally, in a grand flourish, I managed to delete all of the computer's boot-up files. Of course, I didn't know that at the time, and I went on my merry way, continuing to delete files that were in fact not at all extraneous, but which were involved in such essential computer-related funtions as "Making Things Go." By the time I finally ended my campaign of unwitting destruction, it was quite late, so I shut down my computer and went to bed, to dream of all the wonderful and disturbing pornography I would surf for at the dawn of the new day. But when I turned on my computer the next morning, I was greeted with a black screen, a shrill, angry beep, and a message something like:




All of the files I'd left on the computer were still perfectly fine, but now trapped inside with no way to access them, like a house with no doors. Or windows. Or even a chimney to wiggle myself down. Thankfully, one of my mom's friends' husbands was a computer tech and could fix it. Even more thankfully, my computer was still just a house with no doors and not yet a brothel, or I'm sure I would have had some pretty interesting questions to field as he worked on getting everything back in order. Since then, I've managed to twice crash another desktop, losing all of the pictures I'd taken throughout high school and my first year of college. That spectacular display of burning wreckage however, was not due to porn but to--I believe--my attempt to illegally pirate Jurassic Park Tycoon. Don't ask. Freshman year was a tough one. Soon after that, though, I got my first laptop which served me well until this past Christmas when I finally purchased the computer I'm typing on now: my Apple MacBook.

It is the use of this computer that has come to make me such a nerd of late. It's not that I know anything more about it than I did my Windows computers--in fact, I probably know less because I have never had to get all touchy-feely with its intimate parts in MS-DOS when it suddenly and inexplicably has the computer equivalent of a mid-life crisis and decides that it would rather be something like, say, a toaster, than a computer. But that's fine with me--the less I know about this thing, the better. I hated having to stay in on Friday nights and console my old laptop through its teary-eyed wine bingeing anyway. Yet, even in my blissful ignorance of how the simplest of tasks is done on this machine, Apple has managed to arouse in me a nerdiness I never imagined myself capable of. And I'm not one to shy away from my inner nerd: I love video games, science fiction and will probably play Magic: The Gathering with you if you have enough cards to split them into two decks and at least a modest degree of respect for your own personal hygiene. But when I watched the video that was released this week as an introduction to the brand new MacBook for 2009, I think I may have actually become sexually aroused.

Every time Apple has a major new product to release, they precede it with one of these videos, to which, every time, I find myself salivating and my right eyelid twitching uncontrollably. When I watched the video for the Leopard update of the Mac operating system last year, I blacked out, and when I came to, my pants were off and my nipples, hard as diamonds, were pressed against the screen. And that was at the radio station where I worked. This problem has been getting increasingly out of hand. They're just computers, after all. Beautiful, sleek, unbelievably sexy computers, but computers all the same. Half the time I don't even know why what they're talking about in the videos is so important, but I still find myself short of breath, with sweat hanging on my brow. A single piece of aluminum as the base? Yes, please. Upgraded video capability on a flush-edged, all-glass screen? Mmm, baby. Illuminated keyboard and no-button trackpad? You dirty girl. Just looking at this new model on Apple's website makes me hurt--in my heart and in my pants. I never understood the kinds of people who went crazy over new cell phones and Star Wars Redux Gold-Box Director's Cuts. Now, I still don't understand them, but I find myself standing beside them in lines at midnight and sharing stories in online messageboards that are so lame they should give me polio.

If only I had been able to wait another year to buy. Not that I don't love the computer I have, but I lived my whole life without a Mac until last Christmas, and if only I'd have known what was in store this year, I might have tried to hold out a little bit longer. Sure, I'd have had to sell one or both of my kidneys to afford one, but I think it would have been worth the investment. Forget about wasting time, money, and hard drive space on porn--just cracking one of these babies open would be all I'd ever need again.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ti-i-i-ime is on my hands

Yes it is.

I am finally home from New Zealand. Well, actually I have been since the middle of last month, but if you were following my trip blog on Tumblr, you probably think I'm only leaving tomorrow. Sorry to ruin the surprise, but I'm back state-side and full of all kinds of new ideas, glowing outlooks on life, and general goodwill toward my fellow man.


New Zealand was nice, and if you read my blog about it, you probably believe that last sentence. But that was for a television show and a travel website, so it only got the bright and shiny details that make me sound like an Epiphany Machine contracted for the Disney Corporation. But the whole trip was not, in fact, all cookies and blowjobs. There were aspects of it that I wish I could change now, as I look back, but the experience was well worth the time. It also is going to look spectacular on my resume, which is currently in the hands of producers at This American Life in New York, who are debating whether or not I deserve a position with the show for six months. I am hoping that I do.

This American Life is a radio show hosted weekly on Chicago Public Radio (so why production is in Manhattan, I have no idea) by Ira Glass. The internship I've applied for is for a six-month, paid stint with the production team, doing just about everything from making coffee to producing my own bits. Everyone tells me I am qualified for it, so I've decided to give in to peer pressure for once (okay, twice, now that I wear tight pants but I still swear that's to make it easier to bike), and believe in myself. I do think I deserve the job, as self-aggrandizing as that sounds, and I do think that I have a chance at getting it. They emailed me this weekend, telling me that they were busy and didn't have time to read all of the applications yet, which made me sad that I now have to wait until November 14th to find out the course of the rest of my life, but in the same turn glad because--hey, at least they didn't just throw my shit away in disgust when they opened up the giant manilla envelope. That's a start at least.

So I'm waiting, mostly. And playing a lot of FIFA07. My parents are out on their tour of the United States, which still, amazingly, does not stop my mom from calling me every thirty minutes to see what I'm up to. They were on Pike's Peak yesterday, and all my mom could think to do, rather than simply take in the beauty of the landscape around her, was to call me and ask about the dog. The dog is fine. I also, am fine. However, if you don't want to take my word for it, I'm sure that's the focus of my mom's brand new blog since I can't imagine what else she has time to think about while she's on the phone with me all day. Not that she's really interrupting anything anyway, other than Basket Cup 2008, inspired by a ridiculous looking basket-attached-to-a-wooden-pedestal-thing (complete with a shiny brass nameplate that reads: "CONGRATULATIONS!") that we found in my kitchen when we were counting just how many baskets are in the room. The correct answer is We Lost Count Around 90.

Boy, am I home. Hopefully not for long though. Not that I hate Lancaster. In fact, I think that it's one of the better places in this state, possibly the best after Pittsburgh. I'm even trying to get together a little soccer/kickball league here in Ephrata so that I can get people together to play (out in the real world, not on a television). So if you're interested in that, give me a holler. I might even start updating this blog more regularly than once every two months. I've got a bunch of books that I finished while I was in New Zealand that I suppose I ought to get around to reviewing. I don't have a whole hell of a lot else to do. Except win that Basket Cup. I think the Kaizer Chiefs are going all the way. South Africa, represent!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Michael Chabon - The Final Solution ***

When I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh in college, I thought Michael Chabon was a hack to end all hacks. The story was interesting enough, but it was such an ill-representative slice of Pittsburgh that it pained me to think that he could title it as he did. I even went to the extent of dedicating a photography series of mine to the idea of capturing what I considered the "real" Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

So I am glad to say that The Final Solution is nothing at all like the Pitt alumnus' debut novel. Actually, none of his work these days is. He's delved deep into a class of genre fiction few others could manage; a class more literary than most of the literary fiction that is currently being churned out, yet still adventurous enough to stay surprisingly outside tradition. I still can't look at Mysteries without cringing, but I am excited out of my mind to read the copy of The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that I picked up the last time I was at the book store.

The Final Solution really represents a defining pivot in Chabon's style, breaking completely from his first two novels, not even existing in a real or original world. Though it is never stated outright, it is readily apparent that the books is the last mystery of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous deerstalker-capped detective, Sherlock Holmes. In essence, what Chabon is writing in the brief novella is a work of fan fiction, but he does so with such grace and precision of his own, masterfully developed voice, that it seems like Holmes was really his all along.

The mystery itself is interesting, but it seems of little consequence in the grand scheme of the story, much like Doyle's stories themselves. The mysteries that he always presented Holmes always seemed to be more exercises for the development of the detective's character than puzzles the reader was actually expected to be able to solve. Now spread over more than a hundred pages, we learn far more about the "old man" (as Chabon refers to the aging detective) than we do about much of the mystery. There is only the slimmest chance that we could actually figure out the mystery on our own--but then if we could, would the skills of such a master of detection really be needed? Holmes is the star of his stories, and in Chabon's exploration of his character, he most certainly remains the focus.

I only wish that the end of the book didn't feel so disjointed. To reveal completely what I mean would be to ruin the ending, but leave it be said that the switching of narrators borders on almost too fantastical. It's an interesting touch, but I just don't know if it feels right. I also have some issues with the clarity and purpose of the final scene, but perhaps I'm just not educated enough to catch all of what is going on.

Still, it is a fine piece of fiction and definitely worth the hour or two it will take you to fly through it. Chabon's prose is absolutely top-notch and the story is as exciting as any of the other Sherlock Holmes mysteries--only with a new twist and the best fleshing out of the world's favorite detective we've seen yet. Chabon on genre is a Chabon I can get behind.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Off to New Zealand

That's right, the time has come and I'm off to New Zealand for three weeks. Right now I'm sitting in a broken down RV behind Roadtrip Productions in Costa Mesa, California debating going on a sunset bike ride. The weather is beautiful, the people are surprisingly nice, and I haven't showered in two days. Thursday evening I'll finally leave for Auckland, but until then I'll be learning about the camera equipment and enjoying the California sun. And of course, I'm going to continue blogging! But it won't be here (Blogger is a bitch for uploading photos), so if you want to keep track of my trip, check out my new and improved photoblog:

The Hypermagic Kiwiphase

I'll be updating it whenever I can, which should be pretty often, so you can feel like you're actually here with me! All the grit and grime and beauty of the trip will be right at your fingertips. Woo-hoo!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

As an added bonus...

I am a member of the website, GoodReads.com, a relatively popular and well-coded online book review site, where you can learn about your peers' taste in literature (mostly that they only read Harry Potter and self-help books) and adjust accordingly. The site is actually really nice, giving you a chance to give opinions on books that you've read, and take suggestions from people who like the same authors and genres as you do on what to read next. Of course, there are a few bad apples who seem to only exist to stomp on every good book ever written, especially the classics, deriding them with a whole laundry list of knee-jerk reactions to the texts and calling it insight. I like to read these reviews every once in a while, just to see who could possibly hate George Suanders and Bret Easton Ellis, but the most recent blowhard that caught my eye turned her hatred in the direction of William Golding, whose Lord of the Flies I literally just finished writing a review of moments ago.

I noticed this woman's review last night, when I changed my "Currently Reading" status on Lord of the Flies to "Read" and started debating what I'd want to say in my review. Inspired by her single-star rating, I couldn't help but click on her review, just to see what could possibly have been her problem with such a great piece of literature. The lack of characterization, no doubt, I assumed. Or the sparse imagery. I admitted in my own review that both aspects of the novel made it suffer at least slightly in the end, and I could see how that would have really damaged someone's reading. But what I found was something completely different. Something that made me so angry that I naturally had to respond. But of course, someone had already beat me to it--and had succeeded in being almost as ridiculous as the first dumb twat herself. My mind was blown and I made a stand, and now, for the sake of your enjoyment, I've decided to include, as an added bonus to my review of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a complete and unabridged (including, regrettably, my own misspellings) transcript of the exchange. It is quite lengthy, but totally worth a read. I give it at least five stars for sheer entertainment, despite the characterizations being a bit thin.

I HATED this book. This is one of the books that gets lumped into a group with other equally bad books that everyone is supposed to read and love because it has some overarching value. This book was trash.

The subject matter was dark and terrible and in my opinion NOT fit for children. If you could overlook how poorly written it is, then you gagged on the Christian symbolism that was pervasive in almost all literature of the time. I did not buy the idea that without God we'd all dissolve into savages that enjoyed killing as I was supposed to. Of course this book was assigned at the same time I was learning about the Crusades and witchhunts. Not exactly the best time to try to send the "God makes you good" message. In fact this book helped tip me over into the atheist/agnostic camp where I remained for many years. I am still decidedly anti-Christian.

I am homeschooling my children and if I have them read this horrible book it will be as a warning to them to steer clear of anyone that espouses Christian ideology as dangerous. Not because of the characters in the book but because of the brainwashing the author tried to pull off using them.

Horrible book. Horrible writing. Not a classic by any stretch of the imagination.

What a poor review you have given Mr. Golding's book! I detest to all that you have stated and I want you to know it.

First, this book is not badly written. It is written in a style that people do not always like because it makes us imagine the feeling and environment. The book is unique because of the style and it adds to the story. Feel free to hate the style of writing but do not call it poorly written.

Second, there is more symbolism in this book than the Christian viewpoint. The main theme is based on the idea of what would become of us of there were no civilization to hold us up. If we only had our peers, could we get by? Outside of this theme there are other direct symbols. Perhaps you should look into these if you are so "anti-Christian".

While I am on this topic, I believe you have misinterpreted the Christian symbolism. Understand that there is never an absence of God. We either chose Him or we don’t, but either way He is always with us. In the book, the boys forget to care for each other. Life goes well at first but things quickly deteriorate. When one forgets to care for others they quickly forget themselves. We see that, in the end, the boys become savages- they have lost themselves. This all represents failure to choose God. When we fail to chose God (and others) we lose ourselves.

This book is not implying that God isn’t present on deserted islands or that without God we would all kill each other. It is saying- Look, you have a choice, you may have God, peace, truth and happiness, or you may have yourself, which from the Christian viewpoint is nothing without God. We cannot win with out God.

I amazed by how venomously you stated your views of this book and I pity your lack of faith. If nothing else could you please call yourself something other than anti-Christian? It is always better to be for something than to be against another thing. May the peace of Christ be with you.

Interesting you ascribe venom to my rationally written OPINION of a book that was IN MY OPINION *poorly written* and it is a heavy handed attempt at shoving Christianity down childrens' throats. But then, that's the Christian MO.

"I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
Mohandas Gandhi" And that pretty much is true for me too, your prosletzing in the form of a review just proves my point about Christians.

I have not protested towards you. I told you once, in fact, that I do like to be against things, but rather, for things. I have explained what I see in the book as a Catholic. I never tried to impress my faith upon you.

It may interest you to know that Golding’s books were never actually directed towards Christians, but rather to all groups of people.

Do not be so critical of Christians though. If you "liked" my Christ you would be not so be anti-Christian.

“...that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963), from Mere Christianity

You may believe Gandhi, but I believe C.S. Lewis.

You are right, however, in correcting me for insisting the book to be well written. I cannot dispute with you over matters of taste.

Nowhere in the book is the Christian God ever mentioned. It is about the natural fall of man, yes, but not about religion in the slightest. I don't know why I'm even bothering to defend it becuase you will lash back with ignorance even harder, but it needs to be said all the same. The two sides that Ralph and Jack represent are not the godly and the godless, but the rational and the savage. There are other things that can create rationale than God--in Ralph's case, it is wanting to escape the hell of the island and go home. Nothing more. No mention of God is made, not even when the Lord of the Flies talks to Simon. In that whole scene, when it could easily be swung into a Christian light, the Lord of the Flies admits that it isn't a beast or spirit at all, that it is the darkness inside all of them--the id, as Freud put it. In the closing moments of the book, Ralph breaks down and cries for the same reason: "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart." He knows what has happened is no fault of god or demon--it is the beast inside every person that needs to be controlled by sense and rationale. Golding himself said, "the theme is an attempt to trace the defect of society back to the defect of human nature." You can't get much more blatant than that. If anything, this is far closer to a piece on psychoanalysis and philosophy than it is any sort of championing of the Christian belief system.

And really, I feel sorry that you could deprive any child of a classic of literature because you yourself might not agree with the author's social, political or religious leanings. I have a cousin who homeschools her daughter and has made this exact mistake, and thereby has not at all prepared her for the real world where people don't always agree. For the sake of your children, please try to have more of an open mind about other people's beliefs, or curse them to as close-minded an existence as your own.

LOL...I always have to laugh when I find people on this site trolling looking for reviews they don't like and then making personal attacks against the reviewer.

YOU are welcome to love this book. Reread it every day if you so choose. I am free to dislike this book. That's the beauty of free-choice.

Enjoy your life.

I'm confused, are you upset with me or Karen here?

I am disappointed in both of you for projecting ridiculous readings onto a book that doesn't call for them. I'm not attacking anyone, Karen. You attacked Golding, the poor late man who can hardly defend himself here (though he does a pretty good job of it if you read any of his commentary on the book), so you are no better than whatever you think of me. I must say I applaud your rigorous compliance to form though--just as I expected, you rebutted none of what I said and just zinged me with an "LOL." Hot damn. And I wasn't trolling for bad reviews either, I only clicked on your review to see why someone would hate such an important piece of literature and what I found was appalling, so I felt the need to respond. That's what literature endures for, after all, the discussion and dissection of it.

But thank you for that dismissal, that subtle sign that you have no time for me in your busy life. Come on baby, I'm not that stupid. I know what that meant, even if you don't. You've got nothing to say to me--you're ushering me out, making me the smaller man if I continue challenging your opinion. After all, everyone can have their opinions, right? Opinions never harmed anyone. I mean, it was just Hitler's opinion that Jews were the scourge of the earth and that turned out alright, right?


Well dear if you reread your post to me you said if I said anything to you I'd be spitting into the wind. If you want to have a discussion about the book that's fine but you went after my opinion, my thoughts, and my parenting. That's not going to win you any brownie points. And CERTAINLY doesn't make it seem as though you wanted a discussion...sounded more like you were spoiling for a fight and that is not something for which I have time in my life.