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 clich├ęd 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