05 November 2009

Just some interesting stuff....

It's been a while, but such is the busy life of a college student. This'll be a random post with some music, news and fun stuff, so read on.

A friend sent me a cool video, and I really liked the song.  Turns out it's the same group that's done some DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) songs, and one of their remix songs (Moonlight Shadow)  is probably my favorite DDR song.  They're called Groove Coverage, and they're a German Euro-trance band.  Lately my music interests have tended to techno, ambient music and oldies, so I definitely recommend a listen. (The first video is an AMV from Fullmetal Alchemist, which is a pretty awesome anime if you're into that.)

Far Away From Home - Groove Coverage

Moonlight Shadows - Groove Coverage

In other news, Maine voted to repeal its recent gay marriage law, becoming the 31st state to deny equal marriage rights.  Many in the LGBT movement are angry at President Obama for "not doing enough".  This blog can be and is my personal soapbox, so here's my opinion:

Bigotry and ignorance are NOT Obama's fault.  He is the President of a very sick and strained country, not your personal bully pulpit.  His most pressing matters are getting our economy back on track so that you can have your jobs, your homes and your livelihoods, and live your lives without fear of homelessness.  He's focused on not getting more Americans killed in wars we shouldn't be in.  He's worried about pressing international affairs, including nuclear tension with Iran.

If you want equality, you need to fight for it.  Don't expect the President, or the Vice-President, or Speaker Pelosi or Sen. Reid to do it for you.  Educate people.  Spread truth instead of the red herrings and lies that the bigots spread.  Show people that above all, you want to be treated as equals, not given rights above and beyond what others have.

And to those that oppose equality:  Read some history, please.  You are denying civil rights and creating a second-class populace based on who they love.  This happens to be a gross violation of the Constitution and something that the Founding Fathers strained to prevent.   The rights of people should not be put to a simple vote, as you have done.

"All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases
to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."
Thomas Jefferson 

"A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine."
Thomas Jefferson 

01 October 2009

"The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"

Today, as I was browsing BBC (my news site of choice), I came across an article on a young man from Malawi who had built a electric windmill that was powering his village from junk salvaged from dumps.  He came from an impoverished family who'd had to pull him from school because they couldn't afford the fees anymore, but he continued to read and learn, and brought electricity and a way to get potable water to his village.

Read the full article here:

This is, in my opinion, EXACTLY the kind of thing that needs to happen in Africa.  The food and water handouts only work in the short term.  We need to enable them to learn and innovate, and make their villages and countries better by their own work.  Mr. Kamkwamba is only one of many young Africans who have the potential to make a huge difference in the welfare of every African.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime."
- Lao Tzu

(Image courtesy of BBC.com)

28 September 2009

Music/Movie Monday - Farval Falkenberg

Today's feature is the Swedish OST and film Farval Falkenberg (Falkenberg Farewell). The film follows the last summer for a group of friends before they have to leave their hometown, the titular Falkenberg.  They pass the time by swimming in the sea, wandering through the woods, trying to live up to their parents expectations and burglarizing homes for fun.  Each of the five young men have different fears about leaving Falkenberg; Holger, the central figure, dreads becoming clichéd in the big world, while his brother John is simply unmotivated and lazy.  Their friend Jasper (played by the director, Jasper Ganslandt) is the only one of the five to have left Falkenberg, but he returned anyway. Jorgen is trying to start a catering business with little success, and loner David has no plans for the future.   

I won't spoil the film, because I think that it's a very profound story of five friends.  The setting for the movie, the town of Falkenberg, Sweden, is absolutely beautiful.  It's an idyllic sea coast town, and reminds me quite a bit of my own hometown.  

The soundtrack is what really fleshes out this film and gives it color.  Erik Enocksson put together simple and sparse but spectacular (alliteration!) pieces that set the mood for the whole movie.  "The Joy of D.H. Lawrence" and "The Lingering Procession" are my favorites, because they give off that unshakeable feeling of the last summer, the last days of childhood.  "The State the Sea Left Me In" is another good piece, very dark and hopeless.

If you can find it, this is definitely a film worth watching.

23 September 2009

Tech Tuesday - For effective Lithium Ion batteries, just add...Silicon?

  We all know that most hybrids don't run very far on a single charge before switching to gas, making the electric part not very useful for long distances.  This new find just might change all of that.  Here's the scoop from Treehugger

Researchers from Stanford University and Hanyang University in Ansan, Korea, in collaboration with LG Chem (makers of the Chevy Volt battery), have made a breakthrough that could change the future of electric cars. It's too early to know for sure, but what we know so far is very promising. They have shown that by replacing the conventional graphite electrodes in lithium-ion batteries with silicon nanotube electrodes (silicon nanotubes, not the more common carbon nanotubes), 10 times more charge could be stored. This could not only greatly extend the range of electric cars, but it would also make gasoline-electric hybrids more efficient by allowing them to run in electric mode for longer periods.

That's really promising and also very impressive.  I'd like to buy an electric hybrid, but it just wouldn't be cost effective for me, as I do a lot of long distance driving.  Even the Volt can only go about 40 miles on a single charge.  There are some setbacks, however.  The Silicon tubes are pretty fragile because they can hold so much lithium, and so they break after only 200 uses (give or take).  Scientists are working on ways to strengthen these for indefinite use.

Kudos to Chevy for partnering up with LG Chem on the Volt.  I like to see car companies moving into the future.  Now if only the Volt wasn't so damn expensive....

22 September 2009

Music Monday!

All right! Back from an awesome birthday weekend, and ready to bring you some cool music.  Sorry about the delay, I'll also have Tech Tuesday up tonight.

Today's feature is Cloud Cult, an experimental indie band from Minnesota.  Cloud Cult has an eclectic style that's been called genius and compared to the likes of Modest Mouse and The Flaming Lips.  They have a very untraditional band set up, featuring strings and brass along with vocals and synth.  The band is led by Craig Minowa, a prolific songwriter and musician.  In addition to a really cool sound, Minowa's wife and another member of the band will complete a painting over the course of a live show, and then auction it off.

I really enjoy Cloud Cult.  Their songs tend to be very intricate, and most require more than one listen to fully understand them.  I was glad to hear "Lucky Today" on recent Esurance commercials, since they definitely deserve more exposure.  They're a unique group in a time of sound-alikes, and I highly encourage everyone to give them a listen.

15 September 2009

Tech Tuesday - Dissidia: Final Fantasy review

This week's Tech Tuesday is a review of Square Enix's newest Final Fantasy offering, Dissidia.  In an unexpected move by SE, Dissidia is a RPG/Action hybrid, fusing fast-paced one-on-one combat with all the character growth and customization of traditional Final Fantasy games.  It features full 3-D models of the main hero and villain of each FF game from I to X, which is quite a feat, seeing as the first 6 were 2-D and pixellated.

Gameplay - 8
Dissidia is a real solid game, with effective and uncomplicated controls, a camera that does what it's supposed to, and moves that are easy to use and don't require complicated button combos.  The arenas are 3-D and destructable, unlike fighting games like Soul Calibur or Tekken where the arena is a small platform.

The goal of the fight is to bring your opponent's HP to zero through use of HP and Brave attacks.  The Brave system is new to this game, and bears some explaining.  Each fighter starts out with a set number of Brave Points.   These function as a defensive barrier and also as a power level.  Higher Brave = more powerful attacks and better defense.  Using a Brave attack (circle button) steals BP from your opponent and transfers it to your total, increasing it and letting you get the upper hand. However, once you've used an HP attack, your brave points are reset to the original amount.  Go below 0 and you enter Break mode, which causes critical hits and extensive HP damage, as well as your opponent gaining all the BP in the pool at the bottom of the screen.
(image courtesy of IGN.com)

The other feature of the fighting is EX Mode, which is like a Limit Break.  Your character transforms and has the chance to execute a powerful attack.  The attack is dependent on the character you're playing as (ex. Cloud gains his Ultima Weapon and performs Omnislash), and usually features the same kind of trigger/button combo as it did in the original game.  Tidus' EX Mode exchanges the sword Brotherhood for his Celestial Weapon (Caladbolg) and lets him perform "Blitz Ace".  Similarly to FFX, the Overdrive meter comes up and you have to get it right in the middle for the most damage.

Plot - 8
Behold, a fighting game with a story!  While not the best thing SE's ever written, it's still lightyears ahead of the story modes for SC4 and Tekken.  Cutscenes abound, and the characters all interact with each other, rather than just showing up to fight.  There's even some blurring of good and evil (Jecht and Golbez)!  The premise for Dissidia is that two gods, Cosmos and Chaos (you figure out which is good or evil), are fighting and each have enlisted the help of a group of warriors.  Cosmos's warriors must battle the villains and find their crystals in order to defeat Chaos and return balance to the world.  It's a very Final Fantasy plot, but not as in depth as the console RPG's are.

Characters - 9
The whole cast stays pretty true to their respective game personalities, while being able to interact and even make friendships with other characters (such as Bartz and Zidane, or Terra and Onion Knight). Their voice acting is pretty good, and (go SE!) their mouths match their words!  I'm pleased with some of the new voices, like Squall and Zidane, who really sound like I expected them to.

Overall, this game is pretty damn awesome, and I haven't even made it halfway through.  There's so much stuff to do besides/in story mode, like Battlegen (an accessory creation system), achievements and a myriad of other options.  I've already put something like 20 hours in this game, and I haven't started the second part of story mode yet.  It's a must have, and definitely a good reason to get a PSP if you don't have one.

14 September 2009

Music Monday

Well, this weekend was awesome.  A win for the Chippewas over MSU, and lots of quality time with my lady.  Back to business however!

Lately my music tastes have been pretty eclectic, ranging from the African music I featured last week to one of this week's features: Mastodon.

Mastodon is a prog metal band from Atlanta, Georgia. Their style has been described as sludge metal, prog, and art rock, but I think they're an artful blend of all three.  I've been listening to their latest release, Crack the Skye, on repeat for a couple days, and it's an interesting album, on top of being very musically complex.

It follows a quadriplegic who has learned astral travel, but flies too close to the sun and severs the umbilical cord tying him to his body.  His spirit is then summoned by Rasputin, and he correctly predicts the Russian mystic's assassination, after which Rasputin guides him back to his body.  It incorporates a lot of astral travel, Stephen Hawking's theories and the spiritual realm.  A fascinating album, really.  They've got three other great releases too.  I'm partial to Blood Mountain, but they all have their merits (mostly good!).

Our other spot today is a talented mashup artist from the web, DJ Earworm.  A friend sent me a link to a mashup of Kanye West's "Heartless" (covered by The Fray, which I prefer) with The Police's "Message in a Bottle", Black Eyed Peas's "Boom Boom Pow", 2Pac's "Dear Mama", and the sample that Kanye based "Heartless" on, "Ammonia Avenue" by The Alan Parsons Project.  This mashup is SPECTACULAR.  I'm really not a fan of hip hop, as most of you know, and I think Kanye is a colossal douche, but this mix is ridiculously catchy, and the Fray make "Heartless" bearable (even likeable!)  This guy's done a bunch more mashups, and not a dud in the bunch. Be sure to check him out!

11 September 2009

Foto Friday!

The weekend is upon us, and I plan on doing a lot of relaxing and watching football (CMU vs. MSU on Saturday).  I leave you with some lovely photo discoveries.  Enjoy, and see you Monday.  (Unless I have something really important to post.)

10 September 2009

Some Green Gadgets and News

As you may or may not know, I'm really into being eco-friendly and living green.  I also happen to love gadgets and gizmos of any kind, and I know there are many people out there like me.  What are we to do to get our technology fix? Find out after the jump:

09 September 2009

Tech Tuesday resumes next week!

I'm putting off Tech Tuesday because I planned to do a review of Final Fantasy: Dissidia, BUT I'm finding that this game is bigger (and therefore takes longer) than I had thought.  I'll be doing that review next week for sure though.  Stay tuned!

Obama to Congress: "The time for bickering is over"

Well done, Mr. President! Obama's speech to Congress tonight was powerful, calculated, and poignant, neatly showcasing his poise amidst attacks from conservatives.  He outlined exactly what he wants from this health care bill (hint: it's not government takeover or "death panels"), and it makes sense.

-People would be required to have basic health insurance, and those who can't afford it would get a "hardship waiver".

-Businesses will be required to offer their employees health care, or at least pay for costs.

-More "defensive medicine", less malpractice suits.

-It would be against the law for insurance companies to deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition.
  (This is amazing in itself.  So many more people could be insured this way.)

-A public option needs to be available to the uninsured to "keep companies honest". It will be paid for with premiums, not subsidized from the taxpayer.

All of this sounds awesome, and nothing like the Republicans have made this bill out to be.  I've made it a whopping 45 pages into this bill, and I bet I've read more than most of them.  Even the representative from my hometown (Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R - MI), tried to hold a town hall and DIDN'T READ IT.  I think now that Obama's laid it all out for them, there shouldn't be any more of this death panel and gov't funded abortions crap.   For more on the plan, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/health_care/plan/.

In other news...

- A survey shows that the recession may be nearing it's end.

- A Mexican hijacking has been ended with no casualties.

08 September 2009

FORUM: President Obama's Speech to Students

So I decided that I'd do the first forum tonight, seeing as the President's speech got a ton of press (and garnered a lot of attention from conservatives).  I've put the text of the speech below, in case some didn't get a chance to see/read the address.

"Hello, everyone — how's everybody doing today? I'm here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we've got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through 12th grade. I'm glad you all could join us today.
I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it's your first day in a new school, so it's understandable if you're a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you're in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could've stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.
I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn't have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday — at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn't too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I'd fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I'd complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."
So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I'm here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I'm here because I want to talk with you about your education and what's expected of all of you in this new school year.
Now I've given a lot of speeches about education. And I've talked a lot about responsibility.
I've talked about your teachers' responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I've talked about your parents' responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don't spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren't getting the opportunities they deserve.
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.
Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide.
Maybe you could be a good writer — maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper — but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor — maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine — but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
And no matter what you want to do with your life — I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.
And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.
We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that — if you quit on school — you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country.
Now I know it's not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.
I get it. I know what that's like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn't fit in.
So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I'm not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.
But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our first lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn't have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.
Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don't have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there's not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren't right.
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home — that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying.
Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
That's what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.
Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn't speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.
I'm thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who's fought brain cancer since he was three. He's endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer — hundreds of extra hours — to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he's headed to college this fall.
And then there's Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she's on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.
Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren't any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same. That's why today, I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education — and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you'll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you'll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you'll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you'll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don't feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you're not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That's OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures. J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
These people succeeded because they understand that you can't let your failures define you — you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn't mean you're a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn't mean you're stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice. It's the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust — a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor — and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.
And even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you — don't ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.
The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best. It's the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.
So today, I want to ask you, what's your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?
Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don't let us down — don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America."
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. 

Here's my thoughts: It was a very concise, well thought out piece, and really emphasized effort and application in school.  He didn't try to make it political, he didn't put flowery language in it.  He encouraged kids K-12 to work hard and apply themselves to do well in school, and to take advantage of their education, because it takes hard work and dedication to make it in the world.

I don't see why that's drawing the ire of so many conservatives.  There's nothing political about it, there's no agenda, nothing.  It's the President of the United States addressing school kids and telling them that he wants them to do well in school.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it was political, or a good speech?

New Features

I mentioned in the Music Monday post that I was implementing some new features.  A quick rundown...

First is movie reviews through my good buddy Josh's blog I ARE MOVIES.  He's a good critic, and watches tons of films.

Second is book reviews/suggestions.  I love to read, and I read a ton (at least a book a week).  I'd like to let everyone in on what I'm reading, and try to spread my love for books.

Thirdly, I'll be showcasing photography, both mine and neat stuff I find on Flickr and the interwebs.

Lastly, I'll be doing some political forums.  These will be on current issues such as health care reform, the economy, etc.  Standard rules apply: No flaming, no ad hom, so on and so forth.

I'll talk more about each as they go up, each on a different day (or maybe two a day? oh noes!)


07 September 2009

Music Monday!

All right, here's your weekly dose of new music.

First up is Geoffrey Oryema, an internationally famous Ugandan musician. He was smuggled out of the country at the height of Idi Amin's regime, and has made music that keeps alive his homeland and culture ever since.  He's collaborated with many artists, most notably Peter Gabriel.  I enjoy his music immensely, as he sings in two indigenous languages, Acholi and Swahili, and creates a lush soundscape.  Two songs I especially like are "The River" and "Land of Anaka".  

Second is Toe, a Japanese post/math-rock group.  They're an instrumental band, featuring Kashikura Takashi's swift and laser-accurate drumming.  While they've got a dreamy, post-rock sound, a lot of the structure of their songs is heavily influenced by math rock.  I was tipped off to them by a friend (thanks JP!), and immediately picked up their live DVD, RGBDVD. They really jam, stretching songs out to 10 min+ on pure talent.  I definitely recommend them to anyone looking for some less spastic math rock, or just something to chill out to.  Check out "Path" and "Kodoku no Hatsumei".

Definitely give both of these a listen! Also, last.fm is a great place to find musicians like these.  I picked up an account and it definitely expanded my music horizons.  Give it a try and friend me! http://www.last.fm/user/shawnvalin

Back in Business!

All right, that was an extended delay, but the blog is up again! I'll be changing some things, but the format should remain generally the same.

Follow me on Twitter! http://twitter.com/shawnvalin

31 March 2009


Sorry about not having a Music Monday or Tech Tuesday post up, everyone.  I've had some stuff going on, but I'll be working on those tomorrow, and expect both by Wednesday night.

26 March 2009

Album Review - The Decemberists "The Hazards of Love"

The Hazards of Love is the newest offering from indie rockers The Decemberists.  Known for their less-than-popular style, they've won the hearts of many fans with their unique sound and album composition.  I in particular am a huge fan, and I think all of their albums are amazing.  However, Hazards really takes the cake.

The premise of this album is a story that revolves around a girl named Margaret.  She lives near the taiga (think Russian plains/steppes), and one day comes upon an injured faun.  As she stops to help it, the area around her shifts and changes, as does the faun, turning into a handsome human, William. The album follows their paths to each other and true love, braving a cold Forest Queen and a child-killing bandit.

The album opens with the haunting "Prelude", which feels like the lights coming up on the stage as the show begins.  The thing I loved about this album is that I could very clearly see it play out on my mind's stage.

"Prelude" segues into the opening vocal "The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)", featuring Meloy setting out the backstory and beginning of Margaret's journey.  This is the first of the "Hazards of Love" tracks, which are variants on the melody of this first piece.

We can guess what goes on in "A Bower Scene", and Margaret finds herself pregnant, and sets out into the taiga in search of her true love, William.  A special thing that I really enjoyed is that Margaret and other characters are voiced by guest vocalists.  Margaret is the lovely Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, and Meloy provides vocals for William and the evil Rake.  The track "Won't Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga) is bolstered by a steady bass beat under Stark's airy vocals, and evokes a long search in the wild.

The best song on this album is the fight between William and his aloof mother, The Forest Queen (Shara Worden aka My Brightest Diamond) in the track "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid".  It's easily my favorite, and really gives the impression of the furious and overbearing Queen forbidding William to go to Margaret.  In the end, he is given one night to go to her, but is foiled by our villain, the filicidal Rake.

"The Rake's Song" is a terrible and haunting account of the murder of his children and how he "came to be living easy and free".   I have to say, after a few listens I found myself nodding my head to the beat, which is catchy and strange at the same time.  It's one of the many songs on the album that requires more than one listen to really grasp, and once you do...oh boy.  That song is terrifying.

All the way through this album I'm picturing the story unfolding on stage, and it's incredible.  I'd love to see an actual stage production of this album at some point.  The picture Meloy and Co. paint with their appropriate music and amazing vocals is one that engrosses you and draws you in, which is something that most albums and artists don't do anymore.  This is really a story that needs to be listened to from beginning to end, multiple times.  Singles from this album would be like publishing the 2nd page of "Where the Wild Things Are" or "The Cat In The Hat" as a separate book.  It just wouldn't make sense on it's own.

Hazards concludes with the lovely and heartbreaking "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)", as our lovers take their vows and their last breaths on a sinking ship.  The musical theme of the album all comes together in this last track, parallelling Margaret and William's love.  It really makes for a sonic masterpiece.

All together, this is one of the BEST albums I have ever heard.  It's masterfully excuted, with all the songs in the right places and a moving and involving tale of love and loss.  According to my iTunes, I've listened to this album 12 times now, and I don't plan to stop anytime soon.  


24 March 2009

Tech Tuesday - LG Dare

Today's Tech Tuesday is going to feature my new phone, the LG Dare.  It's been touted as an iPhone killer, so let's see if that holds up. 

First off, the Dare is sleek and light, with dimensions of 4.1"x 2.2" x 0.5" and a weight of 3.76oz.  It's dominated by a large touchscreen and has 3 physical buttons along the bottom edge, plus a volume rocker and dedicated camera button on one side, and screen lock and speakerphone buttons on the other side.  

The phone boots fast, only a couple seconds and a short VCast screen before the phone is running.  The touch screen is bright, with a 240x400 resolution.  It's also more responsive than the iPhone's screen, in my opinion.  It features a resistive screen and haptic feedback, making it much easier to type on.  Menus pop up fast and navigation is easy with two menus, one the original and the other a shortcut bar of sorts.  The shortcut menu is customizable, so you can set the stuff you use the most there.

The main menu sits at the bottom of the screen and takes up VERY little real estate, with only 5 sleek icons.  Most of the menus are animated as well, which shows off the power this phone really has.  It has an onboard memory of 148MB, but is expandable up to 8GB with memory cards.  Also, the charger cable doubles as a data cable, letting you link the phone to a computer for easy transfer of music/pictures.

On to the touch screen.  While a bit smaller than the iPhone's, it makes up for it in sheer usability. The screen is very responsive, and the haptic feedback gives a little buzz to let you know you've hit a button, rather than just poking the phone til something happens.  The contacts list makes use of the scroll feature, in which you just push up or down on the screen.  This scrolls the list up or down, and one touch stops it.  It's a handy feature, as the contacts list on this phone can hold up to 1000 contacts.

The camera is definitely the crowning jewel of this phone, though.  At 3.2MP, it's one of the highest quality cell phone cameras on the market.  It takes beautiful photos too, let me tell you.  They're very clear, and the phone has all the same anemities as a decent camera, like auto focus and blur reduction, as well as different settings for nighttime pictures, motion, etc.  The phone stores the pictures in a higher resolution too, so they're still decent quality when they get to your computer.

The battery life is very good, boasting 4.7 hours of talk time and 360 hours of standby (that's 15 days!).  I'm on day 2 of one charge, and I've used the phone quite a bit for phone calls, texting and other things.  I'm at one bar of battery now, which is FAR better than my old phone.  I expect I won't need to charge until I get home later tonight.

The Dare is also customizable with different applications (some from Verizon, some homebrew), and has built-in GPS capability.  This is one of my only problems with the phone, and it's not even the phone's fault.  Verizon tends to cripple their phones with GPS to push VZNavigator.

Quite honestly, I'd take the Dare over the iPhone any day.  It's got a better battery, a more interactive screen and the capacity to expand beyond the iPhone.  Add the 3.2MP camera and Verizon's coverage and price, the Dare comes out on top.  Now it's just up to LG and Verizon to push the Dare.  A comment on another review that I felt rung true was "The iPhone is a great multimedia platform with phone capabilities. The Dare is an excellent phone with multimedia capabilities."


23 March 2009

Music Monday - New Releases!

Ok, so this Music Monday (albeit almost Tuesday) is going to be dedicated to new albums!

First up is Neko Case's new endeavor, Middle Cyclone. I did a review of it a few days ago, and I HIGHLY recommend this album.  It's alt-country, but still carves a niche of it's own.  

Next is the highly anticipated The Hazards of Love from The Decemberists.  I've been following Colin Meloy's Twitter, and he is psyched about this album.  The premise is a rock opera-type story, featuring a girl named Margaret.  The story is convoluted and twisted, and the band had to make a wall chart to keep everything straight.  But even for all that, this album vastly outshines all of their previous efforts.  It combines a moving story with incredible music and vocals, something which is scarce in this age of hit singles. It's my humble opinion that an album should be a cohesive project, not just a bunch of singles thrown together, and I think The Decemberists share that opinion.  

Both of these albums are worth a listen (or two or three or four, etc.)


20 March 2009

Album Review - Neko Case

Today I have a review of the new album from The New Pornographer's co-vocalist, Neko Case. Middle Cyclone is the second solo release from Case, and arguably the best.

 Middle Cyclone is an alt-country offering, and has the same kind of feel as Bright Eyes.  It's a very nature-oriented album, with two songs about tornados, animals and a 30 minute track of crickets, recorded at night in Case's own backyard. I really thought that was a nice addition to this album.  It gives it an even more personal feel.   Case's voice is powerful, and a few tracks have her harmonizing with herself, which sounds amazing.  She is really a talented vocalist, as well as songwriter.  All but two songs are self written, and those are very well done covers.

Another interesting facet of this album is that it was recorded in a barn on Case's property in Vermont.  The barn isn't soundproof nor is it fully closed up, so nature sounds make their way through if you listen carefully.  

The first track, "This Tornado Loves You" is amazing, simply put.  It has a Pornographers feel to it, while it also has that unique Neko Case aspect.  It's a good song, probably my favorite on the album.

Some songs feel sort of repetitive, and a few have the same kind of instrumentation going on, but overall, there's really no negative aspect to it.

The whole album is a testament to Case's natural music ability and talent, and I HIGHLY recommend it. 

Middle Cyclone gets a 9/10.

17 March 2009

Tech Tuesday - New Google Chrome Beta?

Tech news for today!

Google has made a new Beta of their web browser, Chrome, available on the web.  From what I read on their blog, it runs MUCH better and faster, which is always a good thing.  It's got some nifty new features as well, like the ability to drag tabs so that they're side by side.

I'm kinda excited.  Chrome is my browser of choice, and if Google keeps on innovating with it, it'll only get better.

In other news, SHUT UP about the new Facebook.  Their developers don't give two shits about how you don't want to see other people's wall posts.  It's a free service, and if you don't like it, QUIT.

16 March 2009

It's that time again....MUSIC MONDAY!

Yeah! Ok, I'm back with another edition of Music Monday!  From now on, it will be new music/world music with a touch of older stuff I think you should listen to.

First up is Cansei de Ser Sexy, a Brazillian electroclash/indie group.  You may have heard their single "Music is My Hot Hot Sex", which is really my favorite song of theirs.  They took their name from a comment by Beyonce, who declared she was "tired of being sexy".  They have a lot of bass and synth, and their music is great.

Next is Track n Field, a Finnish trip-hop duo.  Their album Marathon is a masterpiece, with songs to fit every occasion. It's probably the most wide ranging album I've ever heard.  Some songs are synth-poppy, some are laid back lounge music, and some sound like soul or jazz.  I highly recommend this album.

Finally we have Craig D'Andrea, a fingerstyle guitarist. He's on the same label as Andy McKee, who I'm sure some of you have heard of.  His music is incredibly lyric, although not as complex as McKee's.  I especially love his song "In with the Purple and out with the Blue".  He uses some sweet harmonies and really makes that guitar speak.  Definitely check out the entire CandyRat label, they have some amazing artists.


12 March 2009

Videogames DO NOT Make People Shoot Up Schools!

I'm sure many of you have heard about the school shootings in Germany by now.  It's a tragic event, and my condolences go out to those families that lost a child.

But an article I read today really burns my ass.  In it, they report the shooting, place, names, etc. etc, but then at the end tack on this crap about "he played video games a lot and so that's probably why he did it. VIDEO GAMES ARE EEEEVIL!"

Uh, no.
This kid was obviously deranged, because normal people don't look at a videogame and go "Hmm, this is fun. I think I'll go shoot up a school!"  I've logged HUNDREDS of hours on just about every console, and I've yet to have homicidal tendencies.  If anything, games are cathartic.  If you're pissed off at your parents, you don't get a gun and shoot them.  You play GTA or Halo or something and blow away some pixels until you feel better.  

Also, my parents kept an eye on what games I played when I was younger.  I wasn't allowed to play hyper-violent stuff because they didn't think I was mature enough.  GASP! That's right, my parents actually monitored me and didn't let a TV do the child-rearing.  Thanks to that, I can tell the difference between reality and and pixels on my computer/TV screen.

Another thing:  He was baited and taunted in a chat room (again, no one's watching) when he mentioned his intentions.  Hindsight is 20/20, I know, but you would think a red flag would go up when a kid says "I'm gonna go kill some people."

ANOTHER thing:  He had a history of depression.  That right there gives me probable cause for the shooting.  

So, a mentally unstable young man who is an expert marksman and feels unwanted and inadequate brings a gun to a school and kills people in a horrific shooting.

But that's the fault of video games, of course.

Waking up is hard to do!

I, like many people, have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  It's probably due to the fact that I have trouble getting IN bed at night.  I have an awkward sleep cycle, and I find that I can never sleep the same pattern for more than a week.  Also, I've been sick lately, and all I do when I'm sick is sleep, so that messed up my sleep cycle as well.

Now, as we age our bodies actually need less sleep to function normally, bottoming out at about 6 hrs in your 40's, then reversing.  I figure I need about 7, maybe 7 1/2 to function in the morning (and a good 8 to be somewhat likeable). Busy schedules and a puppy keep me from getting that, though.

Not to fear!  I found this neat article on Geekdad about ways to get out of bed in the morning, and I have to say I'll be trying some of them.  A few of my favorites:

"5. Put a glass of water next to your alarm.

Drink the whole glass when you get up and turn the alarm off. After a full night's sleep, you're probably a little dehydrated, and for whatever reason, drinking water just seems to help the body realize that it's time to get up."

I do this already, and it really does help. I keep my water bottle on my nightstand, and I drink 1/3 to 1/2 of it when I first wake up.

"7. Have a well-stocked "library."

I'm going to be perfectly frank with you. I get a lot of reading done in the bathroom. I think of it as my own Fortress of Solitude, minus the subzero temperature and creepy statues of my parents."

This has always been the case with my family.  We always had 5 or 6 books in the bathroom when I was growing up, and although it may be a little too much information for some, I actually like reading in the bathroom.  I feel rather...accomplished when I'm done.


11 March 2009

Been Sick/Music Monday/Tech Tuesday

Sorry about the lack of posting for the past few days, I've had a rather nasty cold/sinus infection. Computer screens aren't a fun thing to look at.

Anyway, I'm back with a mashup of World Music Monday and Tech Tuesday.

Brazillian native Aline de Lima is first, with her fresh arrangements of smooth bossa nova, influenced by samba and tropical music.  Her voice is simple and sweet, while carrying that quality that's a staple of bossa nova music.  I am a big bossa nova fan, and Brazillian bossa nova in particular.  I love the way Portuguese vocals blend nicely with the music. Definitely check this one out.

Next is another French singer, Daphné.  Her music is a bit pop-ier than Coeur de Pirate, but at the same time much more intimate.  Her piano player adds much to her act, and overall it's a beautiful listening experience.

Onward to techie stuff!

First up is a new PSP game, Resistance: Retribution.  There's been a dearth of PSP games in the past months, which I think is a real shame. The PSP is a damn good portable system.  CNET had this to say:

"Because the PSP lacks a second analog stick that would really help with aiming, Sony's touting the game's "advanced third-person targeting system designed specifically for the PSP system." However, the highlight of Resistance: Retribution is its robust eight-player multiplayer mode with five game modes (Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Containment and Assimilation).

We've been playing with an early release of the final version and, all in all, we're finding it pretty fun, though the advanced-targeting system does make killing computer foes a little too easy at times, so you'll probably want to ratchet up the gameplay setting to hard in the single-player campaign mode."

Sounds like it'll be a good game. Developers manage to get around the lack of a 2nd analog stick just fine.

I'm looking to get a new phone soon, and I've narrowed it down to two:  The Samsung Omnia and the LG Voyager.  Both feature large, haptic feedback touchscreens, and the Voyager flips open to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard.

The Omnia, however, HAS to have a data plan through Verizon, which is an additional $30+ a month on top of the already big bill.  The Voyager has VCast and the other typical VZW features, but no EVDO or Wi-Fi.  

I'm fairly torn, because the Omnia would be well worth the money, but the Voyager is a cheaper and just as good phone.  Sometime before the end of the month I'll go and test them out, see which I like better.

All right, that's all for tonight.  I've got to finish sleeping off this cold.


06 March 2009

Funny video

So I found a funny video of a cat on Dailymotion today.  Probably the most musical cat I've ever seen!

For your viewing pleasure:

Also, it's a freakin' nice day out!  Took my puppy Bear outside to play, and for a car ride too.  Oh spring, how I missed you.

03 March 2009

Tech Tuesday!

I have some new tech/video games I'd like to share with everyone.

First off is a neat game I play called Perfect World.  It's an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), and it immerses you in a beautiful and massive world that bears resemblance to medieval China.  The character editor is one of the best you'll find, and the best part is the price: FREE.  That's right, free, as in no charge ever.  There are 3 races to choose from, with each race being able to perform 2 jobs.  It has an exciting backstory and an ever-unfolding landscape to explore.

My character is Rianan, if you do decide to play. Send me a friend request!

The second tech item is HammerHead Rhythm Station, a nice freeware program you can use to create drum patterns. It's very customizable, and you can make just about any kind of beat you can think of.  I use it for backing on my keyboard and guitars, and it's a solid program.

Check both of these out!

New Music!

I was messing around with HammerHead Rhythm software and the synth voice on my keyboard, and I came up with this neat little song.

02 March 2009

A Place for Tired Feet to Wander

I'm an avid hiker/backpacker. I love being outdoors and in the wild. It gives me a sense of really belonging, something I don't find in cities. Too much concrete for me.

Anyway, this summer I'd like to take a trip somewhere, a long camping trip.  My first choice is Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  It's a beautiful HUGE park, full of animals and practically untouched by man.  It'd be a tough trip though, since fires are prohibited in parts of the park and it can get downright cold at night, even in high summer.  Lots of gear needed for that one.

Another trip I'd like to take, and one that a lot of people could join in for, is a trip to Manistee National Forest in Manistee, MI.  It's not too far from home, but features some of the most spectacular beaches and dunes the state of Michigan has to offer.  I went on a trip there last summer with my aunt, and I was in awe.  We camped in a small bowl behind a barrier dune, only 150 yards or so from beautiful Lake Michigan.  Water was plentiful, obviously, and the park is huge, with wooded forest trails and miles of beachfront to hike.

If you'd maybe be interested, let me know. It'd be fun to get a nice group of people to go along and have some fun!