Friday, December 28, 2007

Music picks of 2007

I've noticed that, as I've gotten older, I've lost touch with what the kids like in the music arena. When I was their age (high school age, whatever that amounts to these days), what I listened to was hip and cool. Now what I listen to seems aged and refined.

But hey, at least it's not pop-punk.

This year a lot of that aged music was released. It happens that, every other year or so, a crop of great music comes out - leaving me with choices to make, like opting not to buy the new Smashing Pumpkins album that was released over the summer. My heart forever belongs in the "Siames Dream" era of Billy Corgan's band, and anything past "Mellon Collie" strikes me as unofficial Pumpkins material. Hell, Zwan came closer to a Pumpkins album than "Machina."

Last year, my good bro Driver ran a list of recommended albums that came out over the year. So this year I'm dedicating my list to artists who I like, and who release material regularly, but who haven't had a hit with the kids in ages. And also some new stuff I discovered along the way.

Breaking tradition, we'll call it a Top Ten List. No one ever does those.

In no particular order (except the last one):

"Tohuvabohu" by KMFDM
KMFDM has entered a steady groove, with a consistent slate of band members (something new in their long history) that leaves for little variety among their post-"ATTAK" albums. "Tohuvabohu" also breaks tradition, with 2005's "Hau Ruck," by not using the usual five-letter album title (like "Nihil," "Angst," and "WWIII"). Other than that, this is the usual stuff from my favorite politcal satirists. It's taken a long time for KMFDM to write a song as fabulous and fun as "Superpower" - a return to their epic, self-referential mid-'90s sound that I've missed so much. The rest of the album? Standard stuff, though Lucia gets a lot more air time, and uses it pretty well.

"Mission California" by Cross Canadian Ragweed
This was a new one for me. I read a review of a CCR album in the Detroit Free Press a few years ago, and always meant to try them out. After I saw "Mission California" was out, I took a dive - and I'm glad I did. I had heard that CCR was a roots-rock outfit, but they have a bit more twang than I was expecting. But it's a good twang - like Lynyrd Skynyrd twang. "Record Executive" starts out the album with a thumb in the eye, while songs like "In Oklahoma" and "Smoke Another" keep the tempo upbeat. But there's a few slower numbers here, and they're done well. I hear CCR's live show is a memorable one, so I've got my eyes open for their tour schedule in this part of the country.

"Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace" by Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters seem to be the "it" band these days, what with a Grammy nomination and all. "Echoes" do them justice; it's a steady, consistently good album, ranging from straight-up rockers like "The Pretender" to bluesy, ultra-listenable numbers like "Summer's End." I was glad to see them experimenting with country/bluegrass on "Echoes," too. Not quite the magnum opus "In Your Honor" was, but still one of the year's best.

"Sky Blue Sky" by Wilco
I actually haven't purchased this one yet, but I will. And since it was released this year, it gets put on the list. I hear it's it's an easier-going ride, like a walk down a shady path, and Driver's enthusiasm for Tweedy's group is contagious. Each of their album grows on me the more I listen to them. I've got the middle stuff ("Summerteeth," "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot") and the "Mermaid Avenue" album. Now I'll grab the bookends, and see what all the fuss is about.

"In Our Bedroom After the War" by Stars
I heard about this Canadian indie outfit in Rolling Stone, I think, and heard "The Night Starts Here" thanks to's daily download - and it was enough. Dual singers, a roller coaster of highs and lows, and just enough quiet and heartbreak to keep it in steady rotation. Not to mention a weird, instrumental opening that sucks me in every time. Something new, and something worth trying.

"Year Zero" by Nine Inch Nails
It's risky to say Trent Reznor is lightening up in his old age. Maybe it's just that he's gotten over the self-loathing and found bigger, more interesting, issues to tackle - like the state of our country in these weird times. "Year Zero" is a dystopian view of what America could become, but it becomes something else entirely by producing an amazingly well-thought-out story line. For all his brooding, Reznor found enough light in his tunnel to write a piece of great fiction, and establish an entire participatory experiment while doing so. There's plenty of news out there about the album's interactive elements - secret web pages, thumb drives left in concert hall bathrooms, blackshirts unloading armbands out of mysterious vans - but, in the end, the album really could stand on its own. "The Good Soldier" offers the best NIN song since "The Downward Spiral," while singles like "Survivalism" and "Capital G" point to a police state America that didn't seem so fictional a few years back. The man is talented, no doubt about it, but "Year Zero" takes Reznor's talent to another level.

"Afterwords" by Collective Soul
Look up "reliable" in the dictionary, and Collective Soul's Ed Rowland and gang are right there in the examples. "Youth" - too slow in parts to really capture the imagination. But "Afterwords," released only in Target stores, is a return to a formula that was perfected when Hootie and his Blowfish ruled the world. This is a fun album made by a band so comfortable with itself that album rankings and the monolithic teen love fail to hold sway. Although "Hollywood" helped put Collective Soul back in the "American Idol"-loving consciousness, songs like the amazing "I Don't Need Anymore Friends" and the sweet "Georgia Girl" make "Afterwords" a good listen from front to back. I hesitated even buying this album, knowing exactly what I would get from the band. But that's what I bought it, too: I knew what I was getting, and - in my old age - there's comfort in rocking to a band that I've grown up with.

"Under the Blacklight" by Rilo Kiley
About once a year, Michigan State's college station, Impact 89 FM, turns me on to some random band who I can't seem to escape (Mates of State, Interpol, Snow Patrol, many others), and Rilo Kiley gets added to that list this year. It was an easy experiment. Jenny Lewis's solo album was a hoot. But it was "Breakin' Up" that did it: a song so infectious that I whistle it in the shower during my NPR listens. "Under the Blacklight" also offers the divine "Dreamworld" and the dreamy "Silver Lining," and enough of Jenny Lewis's personality to make me recognize, when I first heard "Breakin' Up," what was going on. Plenty of variety, and plenty of good songcraft, so that now I want to check out Rilo's back catalog to see what else I can find.

"Our Love to Admire" by Interpol
I keep hoping I'll like "Our Love to Admire" as much as I adore "Antics," but - even after repeated listens - it just isn't happening. Oh well. It's still a pretty good album. Even if there was only one song, and it was "Pace is the Trick," I would pay $10 or whatever on this latest Interpol album. I guess I'll never forget the winter I got turned on to these NYC-loving, suit-wearing, spooky-singing throwbacks, and "Pace is the Trick" takes me right back to that time. It's got the right combination of soaring and hypnotizing bends that the song, combined with "Rest My Chemistry" and opening track "Pioneer to the Falls," made "Our Love to Admire" rise above a disappointment. Other than that, the brilliance of "Untitled" or "Hands Away" (off "Turn on the Bright Lights") or "Slow Hands" and "Length of Love" (off "Antics") is nowhere near as evident. The rest of the tracks seem too rushed and thrown together. Maybe it's because Paul Banks is a methodical bastard, and this album seems out of character. Whatever. It's still Interpol, and I still love driving to work with it blaring in my ears.

"Dead Again" by Type O Negative
My pick for the best album of the year. Don and I got to see Type O live in the spring (and I didn't get my tires slashed at Harpo's like last time), which really highlighted the genius of the epic songs "These Three Things" and "Profit of Doom." Like "Life Is Killing Me" before it, "Dead Again" took a few listens to appreciate. But now it's there, and it's fucking amazing. Like Tool, Type O comes out with an album - if we're lucky - every four or five years, and a lot happens in the meantime that bleeds into the music. Peter Steele converting back to Catholicism, getting arrested, and OD'ing on cocaine lend plenty of lyrical material, but the band puts their admirable musical talent to work here, producing 80+ minutes of sonic doom and gloom. Type O never takes themselves seriously, and I appreciate bands (like KMFDM) that poke fun with wit and intelligence. This is not a sunny album, and it's not one you should play for your grandmother. "Hail and Farewell to Britain" and "September Sun" highlight Steele's recent obsession with good melodies melded with Soviet-style May Day Marches. All in good fun. And it all adds up to my most-listened-to album of the year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The day my hero died.

It's a grim anniversary, and it's hard to believe I was only 15 when it happened, but today - in 1996 - Carl Sagan died. was nice enough to remind me, but I remember when Driver sent me a similar memorial a few years back.

My grandma wondered last night why, now that all that's in the news is global warming stuff, more people didn't listen to Dr. Sagan and his greenhouse theory. All we had to do was look at Venus to see our future, he said, if we don't start behaving.

Grandma and I finished his landmark "Cosmos" series a few weeks ago - a Christmas present I got her a few years back.

He's what got me into astronomy and world events and humanism and scientific skepticism. He's probably my biggest non-political hero.

Well, was. But he still is, because he lives on whenever I pull out one of his great books and devour it.

We still miss you, Dr. Sagan.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is more "Guitar Hero"

I learned a long time ago that knowing how to play guitar doesn't mean you're qualified to play "Guitar Hero."

The last time I tried, right about this time last year, I walked up to the Best Buy try-it-out booth. And failed, miserably.

But this year, something clicked. "Guitar Hero III" just came out, and Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" was blasting from the Best Buy display during a recent visit.

"Goddammit," I said. "I can do this."

So I strapped on the cheap plastic Les Paul knock-off, selected "Even Flow" on "easy," and scored a decent 93% by the end of the song.

I finally go it.

And that's when something transferred from the Xbox 360, through the cable, into the guitar, and up my fingertips. "Guitar Hero" got to me, and it's all I can do to stop myself from returning to Best Buy and try it out again. Or buy a copy for myself.

The idea of selling designer guitar straps and faceplates for a video game still seems ridiculous to me, but I can see why the game is so popular. It's fun, challenging, and offers a level of interactivity that I've never experienced before.

Then along comes "Rock Band," and ups the ante. I gave that one a try for the first time last night, and let me tell you - I know want to be a drummer.

"Rock Band" lets you play the full ensemble: guitar, bass, singer, and percussion. The demo at Best Buy also gives you more songs to play. Scrolling through the list on the drum pad, I saw Nirvana's "In Bloom," and my heart leapt. I've always wanted to play that song on drums, in all its bombastic simplicity. I finally got my chance, and it was just as fun as I dreamed it would be.

"Rock Band" seems to give each instrument its own focus for each song. When I tried out Faith No More's "Epic" on guitar, there was a lot of downtime because the guitar doesn't have a lot to do in the song. It's a drummer's song.

But throw together a group of friends with some music experience, and you've got a helluva evening planned. Toss in booze, and watch out organized sporting events: your sun has pretty much set.

I've been thinking about Nintendo's Wii, especially after "Super Mario Galaxy" came out, and thought what a great addition it could be to Don's and my living room. After finally playing "Galaxy" last night (it was a Best Buy kind of evening), I realized what a powerful combination the Wii's controls together with games like "Guitar Hero" could be. Having grown up with video games, you can only play so many control-based games without growing out of them.

Drums? Guitars? Flicking a nunchuck to make Mario perform a spiral attack?

It's like I was 13 all over again.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Michigan Primary: giving politics the underhand.

I may end up voting in the Michigan's Republican primary come January 15, but only because the party I usually support has taken any choice away from me. But I don't blame the party. I blame Michigan.

Perhaps you know that the modest states of New Hampshire and Iowa (who's combined population only equals half of Michigan's) always get first dibs on selecting presidential candidates. It's been that way since early last century, starting with Oregon in 1910, and now candidates face off in the coldest months in blustery states each presidential election season.

The problem some people have is the states chosen to go first. What's so special about New Hampshire and Iowa? Why do their primary and caucas hold so much weight?

Part of it is history. Since Truman got his butt kicked in New Hampshire's 1952 primary, that state has held the title of potential president-maker. Granite State primaries used to be held in March (featuring a lot more sane timetable, if you ask me), but they move it back each year to be first. Now it's held in January.

But Montana and New Jersey are last, and by then everything is pretty much decided. So now Nevada, South Carolina, and our own Great Lakes State has challenged Iowa and New Hampshire for primacy - tackling the same issue that Super Tuesday voters wrestled with as of 1988. Why leave it to mostly rural, mostly white states to pick a party's contender?

Michigan voted to have its primary moved up to January 15, thereby sprinting past Iowa and New Hampshire to be the first in the nation. And because of that, most of the Democratic nominees dropped out of the race. Their names won't even appear on the ballots - and only Hillary Clinton is offering her name for the primary. The Republicans? They're hanging with us. Mitt Romney is heavily canvassing his home state just to try the whole thing out.

So, as a registered Democrat, my own state's move into first on the calendar punishes me. And now it's not even first in nation; New Hampshire moved theirs to January 8. We could be voting on candidates in December next time around, which is madness.

I'm in favor of tradition when it comes to politics, and I had no problems with Iowa and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status. It's been that way since I was a kid, and yes there are problems with it (as well as alternatives), but it's something to look forward to each election season.

The Electoral College? NOw THAT'S an issue to tackle. But for now, the primary system works for me.

Which is why I plan on voting in the Republican Primary this time around. Much like our primary two years ago for Representative, the Republican side is just more interesting. And if offers me more choices than my own party. My vote could help swing a Republican victory for a candidate I can stomach.

That means Rudy and Mitt won't be getting my vote. But McCain or Paul? Count on it.

This is actually how John McCain beat Bush in 2000: more Democrats switched sides for a candidate they felt comfortable with. Because I don't feel comfortable with Guiliani, I plan on voting for someone else. It's my own state's fault. Blame not the voter.

And besides, the national Democrats might strip Michigan of its electoral votes, leaving our state worthless in country-wide politics. Michigan's bold move ended up solidifying New Hampshire and Iowa's supremacy.

Meanwhile, I'll wait for Mitt and John and Mike to campaign for my vote - because me and others like me may end up swinging the entire GOP race on a cold day in January.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The ol' Mac vs. PC debate - in a nutshell

From John Gruber @ Daring Fireball:

Microsoft looked at the PC market and asked, “How can we make the most money?” Their answer was to sell software to the business market, because that’s where the money is. Pure pragmatism: corporations are conservative, change slowly, and hold compatibility (and low prices) in high regard.

Apple looked at the PC market and asked, “How can we make something better than everything out there?” Their answer was the Macintosh. Pure idealism.

He goes on to say that Apple couldn't have had compatibility AND "insane greatness" at the same time. And it kind of goes along with the story that the Apple folks were a bunch of crazy hippies working on changing the world.

> via Daring Fireball

Friday, November 30, 2007

< a href="Greeting from Bowling Green, OH" >

Does life get much better than having a Sean Connery look-alike ("Penis mightier!") teach you Dreamweaver web design on dual-monitor Mac Pros in a buildling full of glowing, self-aware, high-powered computers?

Nope, not much.

Hanging out in Bowling Green this weekend, learning Dreamweaver and picking up some tips on HTML and CSS, all-the-while enjoying the ability to drag a window across two screens of real estate. This is living.

The above photo isn't what the BGSU Mac Labs really look like, but they give an idea. I'm bringing my camera tomorrow just so I can show them.

But being offsite for learning new knowledge (that's a Dr. Renner term for those that had him) is always a blast. I've found that it gives me the opportunity to talk shop (read: dork stuff) with other human beings, and actually have them understand what I'm saying:

ME: So have you tried the new Dreamweaver after Adobe shut down GoLive.

SEAN CONNERY-ESQUE GUY: Yes, and I've found Dreamweaver is a much better product, although the license won't let me install it on a PC, even though they're both Intel-based.

...and so on. People back at the office would have blood squirting out of their nose after my first sentence. Here, people understand me.

Our class was scheduled to go until 5 p.m. today, but with just me and a lady from Toledo taking the class, we sped through in record time. It's 3 p.m. now, and we've been done for a half-hour.

Tomorrow I'm hanging out with Sean Connery-esque again, and we've had a lot of fun so far. He's a retired business owner who fell in love with computers and decided to spend the rest of his life teaching other people how to use them. He does Office stuff, and Adobe stuff, and says he's catching the Mac bug. I, of course, had plenty to say after that.

I guess it's just refreshing to get away from the everyday and feel like you're still in your element, you know? I could really see myself doing what Sean Connery-esque (his real name is Marek, which is totally cool) does for a living.

But anyway, Andrea and Annie and I are all going out to dinner tonight, right after I purchase some BGSU merchandise (even though, in my heart, I'm more of a Toledo Rockets fan), and then I'll hit the hot tub and wake up to another Waffle House breakfast tomorrow.

Over and out from Ohio.

Monday, November 26, 2007

On good design, and good hard drives.

Maybe I'm a dork, but the instruction manual for Seagate's excellent 500 GB "FreeAgent" external hard drive is a hoot.

I originally bought one over the summer - $100 for 500 GB is a heckuva deal - because my former external hard drive was a piece of crap. It had Firewire, but that's about all it had going for it. The Seagate's hefty 500 gigs would be more than enough space to back up all of my Macs, with room to spare, and the plug-and-play USB is a cinch to use.

So when our network drive at work (the one that held every file ever created by our marketing department) took a dump, our IT department suggested we get an external drive to back up our M:Drive.

Previously, I had been backing up our files on to CD-ROMs, but that's a slow process, and you can't fit much into the 700 MB on the disc. When our network drive crashed, we had to recover files from individual CDs, and my co-workers couldn't all use the same CD at the same time. It was a hassle.

Enter the Seagate. I recommended it after having such a good time with mine: its throbbing orange light mimicking my own sleeping iBook's, its sleek form factor, the way I keep it plugged into my Airport wireless network at all times, accessible from any room in the apartment - plus you can't beat the cost.

Smart people backup their computers, as my experience at work showed. I've been lucky at home: I haven't had to recover any files from my backup plan. No lightning, no acts of god, no thefts - but that doesn't mean I don't backup on a regular basis. Carbon Copy Cloner makes a full, bootable copy of my hard drive, and Apple's own Backup application makes incremental backups of my music, documents, and personal settings. If - Don forbid - something were to happen, I could make a full restore of my entire system.

It's not Time Machine, but it'll do.

When I got the Seagate, I couldn't help but giggle over the design choices the manufacturers made. A little sticker that says "hello" keeps the little cord baggies closed, and when you first open the box a message tells you "If only this box held as much content as your FreeAgent desktop drive." It's the little things.

But the manual is my favorite. It tells you, confidently, that "This won't take long," then keeps track of how many seconds it takes to set the components up. Taking everything out of the box and packages? Thirty-nine seconds. Plug the thing in? A minute. Plug the USB cable into your computer? A minute eleven. The entire thing, according to Seagate, shoudl take 1:36, and its pretty accurate. "Please enjoy" the manual concludes.

How fun!

Good design is not only a joy to behold, but communicates effectively - and, if we're lucky, with humor. The manual does both.

Now I get a spanking-new FreeAgent to play with at work. I'm going to name it "M:Drive 2.0" because I'm a dork like that, and one teammate suggested we burn incense and say prayers to it, just for security's sake. I think it's a great idea.

All hail FreeAgent.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Random thought for 11.21.07

So, what would Pat Robertson - you know, the guy who said Hurricane Katrina was fit punishment for the U.S. - say about the drought in Georgia?

Shrimp Quest 2007.

It's already 7 hours after Shrimp Quest 2007, and I'm still having trouble cleansing my mouth of shellfish slime.

We had lunch catered at work on Wednesday, and I learned that the Oak Tree would have a shit-ton of peel-and-eat shrimp on hand. After learning what was on the menu, I stretched, drank multiple glasses of water, and prepared myself to set the world record for shrimp eating.

The world record for shrimp eating (9 on the list) has already by set - by some guy named Erik Denmark - and equals four pounds, 15 ounces of "spot shrimp" in 12 minutes. Well that was nothing. And I'm not a fancy guy. My goal was an easy-to-remember five pounds of shrimp eaten over the course of my lunch hour.

Some have held contests where the shrimp count is the most important record, but there could be a few Sea Monkeys in that "record-setting" collection.

I've been fooled by other "all you can eat" promotions, but this one I was actually able to see - a giant platter with 10 pounds of shellfish.

There were complications. After having an allergy incident at a local restaurant over the summer (involving delicious ahi tuna and a trip to the emergency room), I was nervous about the undertaking. But a half hour before I started lunch I sampled one of the shrimp - just to see if anything would happen. Nothing did happen, thankfully, but it's funny how the mind can play tricks on you. The whole half hour before lunch I felt phantom pains, and phantom blushes, and phantom choking sensations. It could've been that my brain recoilled in horror at the thought of five pounds of dead seafood sitting in my stomach.

The brain can be tricked, and the stomach can be made numb. I had work to do.

Here are my notes on the attempt:

0:05: Lunch is prepared. A sandwich, some tomato soup, and a little more than a dozen shrimp, plus a cup of dipping sauce to help the little beauties go down. Still no effects from the trial shrimp. All systems go.

0:07: A Diet Coke may complicate things. Carbonation in the stomach = less room for seafood. Will test results.

0:08: No time for diet coke. Must concentrate on eating.

0:12: Next batch of shrimp on plate - all is well. Stomach is protesting the speed, but tongue is thanking me for the taste. These are quality shrimp.

0:16: Sandwich half gone, leaving more room for shrimp.

0:19: Co-workers bugging me with conversation. [Something scribbled out, won't post here] The march continues.

0:24: More than a third of the way through, but progress is slipping. Thoughts of the poor Eskimos displaced during the raid to fetch these fine shrimp developing into mad glee at smashed igloos and fleeing Inuits for the benefit of this delicious lunch. Other news: the soup is tasty.

0:27: Drifting in and out of consciousness. Restless leg syndrome looks like an acceptable consequence of today's attempt.

0:35: No way to describe the gustational noises erupting from my stomach. Hallucinations coming on strong now. Maybe a pound or two of shrimp eaten by now. Will I ever make it? And will that flying clown ever land to eat lunch?

0:45: Only 15 minutes left. Attempt almost aborted seven minutes ago after another co-worker joined me in the shrimp eating. Thoughts of using the plastic cutlery as weapons if things ever get heated. Beads of sweat are dripping into the dipping sauce. No matter. It will help the shellfish slide down.

0:52: Seven minutes since last post. Co-workers are suspecting something, what with the slimy drool and bug-eyed despair that shows on my swollen face. Is the allergy there after all? Have I made out a will? Is this digestive Armageddon?

0:53: Like clouds clearing after a rainy day, my thoughts are becoming clearer. The shrimp may actually be digesting, though how there's any room for such activity is beyond me. The brownie I just ate is at war with the shrimp. The shellfish have the numbers - things could get ugly. Co-workers are avoiding me.

0:56: Marching two by two, hurrah. Hurrah. The saints go marching in. Shrimp salad. Shrimp stew. Shrimp stir-fry. *Burp* What's rosebud? Is everybody happy? I want everybody to be happy. I know I'm happy. Ah, that tastes nice. Thank you. Et tu, Brute? The earth is suffocating . . . Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won't be buried alive. I am not the least afraid to die. Do you hear the rain? What was that sound? Adieu, mes amis. Je vais la gloire.

0:58: Fever, vomitting, diarrhea: they're starting to sound like a blessing.

0:59: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

There was dabs of horseradish and bits of discarded shell on my notebook. I'm assuming I didn't complete the task, but no matter. It's the attempt that counts, right? I've learned that the original record setter is now dead, probably because the human body wasn't designed to digest more than two pounds of shrimp on any given day.

My co-workers found me in a slump on the floor of the breakroom. Before I cashed out I was babbling something about dead eagles and the turkey being the legitimate national bird, but not before I had made a mess out of my teammate's workstation:

I learned, above all, that I'm not allergic to shrimp. And that's good, because a world without shrimp is a world I don't want to live in.

Besides, this was just a warm-up for Thanksgiving. And there's always next year.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

On making bread.

It's a magical thing, to make your first loaf of bread.

After reading about how easy it is, I couldn't help myself. Making my own home-made loaf of bread would be this weekend's project.

I followed the recipe's directions to the T, with a few left-turns here and there. For instance, I used a bit of brown sugar and some honey in place of the five teaspoons of plain sugar. Also, I found downing several cups of coffee in the process helps the mind focus on step-by-step instructions.

The recipe ended up making two more loaves than I was expecting, but that gave me the chance to give one away as a present and to take one to work tomorrow for lunch.

Watching the dough rise is an amazing process, but not a new one for me. After all, watching a giant metal bowl mix an entire bag of flour at Hometown while making pizza dough was all the experience I really needed. The yeast-y smell, the sticky dough - it brought back a lot of memories.

Letting the dough sit also gave me time to tackle other projects around the apartment, and listen to "A Prairie Home Companion."

But at the end, it was a beautiful finished product. And, together with the homemade chicken noodle soup I made for Thursday's dinner party, it made for a heckuva dinner.

Now I have all kinds of ideas about the type of bread I'd like to make. I'm a wheat/grain kind of guy, so I'd like to add some more fiber and flavors to the mix. Also, maybe try some dessert-style loaves.

It ended up being a fun, lazy-Sunday project. I always seem to have more time for cooking in the winter (and maybe more of an appetite, too), so I can imagine making more with a big pot of chili or something.

In the meantime, it's another check on my always-wanted-to-do list.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Nov. 1, 2007: Newton syncs with iMac

Sometimes, geek dreams really do come true.

First, some background: I bought an Apple Newton - the first PDA ever invented - almost a year ago, just to play around with it. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to sync it to my Macs. The Newton uses an old serial cable that no one uses anymore.

Then I found a serial-to-USB adapter, but then the Newton's batteries ran dead, with no hope of recharge. So I bought some Sanyo Eneloop pre-charged batteries, and have finally been having some fun with the MessagePad 110.

And for the past few days, I've dug the adapter out and tried syncing it with my laptop and my iMac - with no luck. Then, tonight...

Whala. There it was.

The technical stuff is a little complicated, but long-story-short, I messed around with the hookup settings late tonight and finally, my Newton and iMac are talking.

It's a shame I have to use OS 9 to do everything (my iBook doesn't like the adapter), but now I can do anything, like add events to my Newton calender:

Or names and contact info to my address book:

But the point is, now I have my circa-1993, pre-iPhone organizer up and running:

Now, what to do with it?

That's almost a non-issue. The point is, I got it running, and can control it with other means rather than the handwriting recognition software.

Who needs an iPhone?*

*Last sentence was a joke, totally not serious, made by author who was up too late working on his dorky, obsolete pet project while dreaming of midgets in rainbow jumpsuits doings lines of coke off iPod Nanos. Disregard. Carry on.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

November goal.

It seems the guy that runs The Simple Dollar seems to have had the same brainstorm I did: dedicate the month of November for getting something accomplished.

For instance, I told myself that if I do a certain number of things each weekday over the course of the month - workout, do something productive for 15 minutes, and meditate - then I would reward myself for the accomplishment. My reward?

An iPhone.

I actually made a little chart where I can put a check next to each thing. I gave myself four weeks, and two out of the four possible items each day (aerobic, weights, meditate, 15 minutes) to accomplish, and my goal is to get at least 40 checks over the month (at least two things per weekday = 10 checks per week x four weeks = 40 checks). Nice and easy, right?

If I do three things in a day, it ups my average for those days I don't get much accomplished. And weekends are just gravy: anything done on weekends just goes to the pile, but I don't make it a point to get much accomplished on weekends. Those are ALL mine.

Trent over at Simple Dollar has no extra spending on food and merchandise (except for the holidays), tackling a few to-dos around the house, and writing so many posts to his blog. I liked those, so I'm stealing his "to-dos around the house" item. That'll get added to my 15-minutes-a-day check. Check? Check.

At the end, three weeks from now (I'm on my second week), if I have 40 checks total, I'll allow myself to purchase an iPhone - probably around Christmas or after Apple's January World Wide Developer's Conference, when new iPhone stuff will be out. I'll probably spring for the refurbished 4 GB model, since its only running $299 now while supplies last.

To do all this, I'll have to keep focused, use my time wisely, actually get something accomplished on weekends to make up checks, and have friends and family hold me accountable.

So you, dear reader, can help - just leave me a comment every now and again asking, "Have you done your checks today?"

If it's Sunday, don't bother. I'll be watching football.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Top 4 ways blogs are cool.

In my recent experimentation with bloggin (here, here, and right here), I've noticed a few things while doing research and reading other blogs.

First, a lot are just like magazines in that they offer "The 10 best ways" to do something. ZenHabits does this on a daily basis, and it seems only the digit changes. From "5 best ways to prepare for retirement" to "10 worst Macs in history," blogs remind me of the covers of Cosmo and Glamour - only without the dirty sex positions. This takes complex issues - running, cleaning - and breaks them down for the average surfer, but it's definitely not a new idea.

Second, a lot of blogs are just aggregators of other blogs or news sites. The formula goes: (a) find some interesting news or advice, (b) repost it on your site, and (c) offer your own opinion on the matter. The Simple Dollar, a good site for financial and budgeting tips, does this every morning. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone, because I come from a long line of newspaper article clippers. It's in my genes. And if I find something interesting, I would hope you'd like it, too. But some blogs do nothing but this gather-and-share stuff.

Third, the best blogs have engaged and talkative commentors. Lifehacker and The Consumerist - two of my all-times favorites - are fun to read because the comment sections are full of insight, snark, and opinions. It's almost like the blog writers throw a ball in the circle and let the commentors start their own game of rhetorical dodgeball.

Finally, there's a blog for damn. Near. Everything. Again, just like magazines, there's a blog out there for everyone. The ones I read daily mostly concern Apple, tech, money, and politics (with a few randoms thrown in for good measure). But if you like to run, drink, compute, fiddle, meditate, laugh, sing, design, revolt, or simply breathe, there's a blog out there for you.

It's a crazy world out there, and everyone seems to have their own, gathered together with friends to start one (as my bro Driver did on this great blog), and/or are making some extra money with nothing but a keyboard and an internet connection. It's the American Dream in action, and all the better that it involves reading and improving and democratic discussion.

I like it because the journalist gland in me cries out for an outlet and an audience, and I love the fact that my friends can chime in and share back and forth. In some ways, its the main way we keep connected and informed.

But you can have some fun, too, and that's just as important as all the rest.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Me, version 1920.

So I was a political essayist for my favorite magazine, Harper's, in 1920.

And wouldn't you know it - talking about the same ol' stuff.

Some things never change.

Adventures in the Keystone State.

Got back from Pennsylvania late Sunday night a better American, I think, and a little bit wiser to the east coast's ways.

But first, a tour.

My first thought on entering Pennsylvania late Friday night was, "Jesus, who put all these hills here?" But really, I forgot my last trip through the Keystone State: a frightening midnight run through two-lane Appalachian roads.

Where my sister lives? Beautiful. Rolling hills, changing colors, and enough boarded-up businesses to remind me of my own Rust Belt hometown.

"Don't drink the water," my dad told me before we left. And now I know why: this was the well at my sister's apartment complex, a temporary home for students of WyoTech - like her boyfriend, Trey.

If you know me, you know I love to drive the scenic route. So it was with great pleasure that I took a spin down State Route 981, a beautiful, roller-coaster-like highway carved into the Pennsylvania countryside.

Along the route, I started to feel like I was seeing what I imagined I'd see on my upcoming New England tour. True bucolic Americana - an Emerson-and-Thoreau-inspired trip through U.S. history.

The feeling was strongest in tiny Saltsburg, a river-side town in Indiana County about 10 minutes North from my sister's place.

Saltsburg made its fame (and its name) from deep salt beds buried next to the Conemaugh River that the populace mined for wealth and fortune. What they do now I have no idea.

Take a trail along the river, behind an old folks' home, and you'll find a little path that leads to the former aquaduct.

There I sat on the rocks, and enjoyed the experience: perfect fall day, sunshine, warm, and a shallow river running next to a small American town. Truman would've been proud.

Back in this century, I enjoyed a fine lunch - Texas Hold 'Em included - and a super dinner, as well as a trip to a local tavern, the Roadhouse, for some Yuengling and some Ohio State whipping MSU.

On Sunday we had a giant breakfast, and took my sister's dog Dayton for a romp outside.

We also watched as my dad amazingly fixed the stuck door on my sister's old Toyota. Living in a complex full of auto mechanics helps, however, as long as you have cigarettes for them.

We said our goodbyes and hit the road. I finally got to see Three Rivers Stadium (or whatever it's called now), where my AFC team plays in Pittsburgh, and dad and I shared in the pretty part of Ohio (it does exist, right next to a sliver of West Virginia) as we took winding state highways back home, case of Yuengling riding shotgun.

It was a beautiful trip, and a beautiful state. I plan to engage my assault on New England from Philadelphia next year, so I'll be able to see more of it.

A few things I learned: Pennsylvania is like Ontario, because they only sell beer in beer stores; Italians are legion, judging from the number of pizza joints; they DO have an accent; they love Penn State and the Steelers (sitting in the Buffalo Wild Wings, hearing the lunch crowd cheer for the Nittany Lions, was a neat experience); and the construction is just as bad there as it is here.

Thanks for having me, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

News, hobo road trip edition.

Thomas Jefferson would disagree with Fred Ziegler's letter to the editor: the "bottom line" of education isn't to prepare students for the working world, but to prepare them for a participatory democracy. An uneducated populace isn't fit to vote or debate national issues, said Jefferson, so a public school system would give kids the basic knowledge to function as American citizens.

Training students on "thank you" ettiquette should fall to the parents, not overworked teachers. It just so happens that Ziegler's "job readiness skills" come along with a good education.

I've heard too often about schools switching to a curriculum that focuses on teaching trades and job skills, but if the best we can do is teach kids how to punch a clock, it's no wonder we need rigid, cookie-cutter standardized tests to keep kids in line.

Many kids in school think learning about Shakespeare or government or economics is boring with a capital "B." But then I think about how current generations are dropping out of activities like reading books and newspapers, voting, and falling for financial scams like sub-prime mortgages, and I wonder how all that "job training" is going to help Americans be good Americans.

I've long advocated for a new dieting craze called the Hobo Diet. So far I've developed basic meal plan guidelines: anything in a can (sardines, pork 'n' beans, Vienna sausages), anything high in salt and sodium (crackers, chips, boloney), speadable meats like braunschweiger, drinks enjoyed out of a paper bag, and lots of fried eggs - with little to no fruits or veggies (unless they're out of a can and high in corn syrup - like fruit coctail).

(Come to think of it, my Hobo Diet is a lot like what my grandpa and I ate when I visited him as a kid...)

Now someone has come up with a step-by-step process to become a REAL hobo. How exciting.

Turns out there's an entire hobo language:

"Learn the hobo code. Historically hobos relied on a shared system of symbols that let fellow travelers know more about their current environment. The symbols can vary from place to place and may no longer be used in many areas."

So pack your sardines, learn the handshake, and catch the next train to Sacramento.

Who's with me?

Why Dennis Kucinich will never become president: ""Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe. Matter transcends, to return to spirit. The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self. The energy of the stars becomes us. We become the energy of the stars. Stardust and spirit unite and we begin: one with the universe; whole and holy; from one source, endless creative energy, bursting forth, kinetic, elemental; we -- the earth, air, water and fire-source of nearly fifteen billion years of cosmic spiraling."

From his book, A Prayer for America.

This weekend will be the first time my dad and I have taken a road trip together in years. Me, him, and my iPod to break the silence.

We're heading to Pennyslvania to visit my youngest sister, who moved down there with her boyfriend while he attends a trade school. They got an apartment, and she snagged a job with Olive Garden. What's cool is my dad's helping them out along the way - care packages, money, whatever - as my sister gets her first start out in life away from home.

I've been through Pennsylvania, but never stopped for any kind of visit. From what I understand, the town is a bit east of Pittsburgh, which I've always wanted to see. So we won't be in the heart of PA, but still: a new place to say I've been.

My dad doesn't talk a lot. My grandma likes to say I'm the happy medium between the two families: sometimes quiet (dad), but never a non-stop talker (grandma).

"I don't know how he hooked up with our family," grandma said. She said a lot more before and after that, but I drift in and out.

Dad was never a helicopter parent - most of the time he was pretty absent from any of my school activities - and he told me the only way I would ever get in trouble with him is if I got caught. Well, I got caught plenty of times, but I've never caught real hell with dad. I think he knew to trust me - to trust my decisions, to trust that I could make my own way in life, and to trust me to just be around, in some fashion. He's independent, so I'm independent.

My dad just likes us kids to be there, no strings attached. I think that's a pretty good deal, and so I suggested we take this trip together. Even if it means a total lack of in-depth conversation; just being together is enough.

We leave Friday night. Back on Sunday. Wish me - and the guy that named me - lots of luck.

On improvement.

Self-improvement has a long history in this country. Ever since Ben Franklin started working under a pseudonym, America has long been the center of the self-help crowd. What other country, in the minds of people around the world, offers the kind of start-all-over paradigm that we do?

Hell, even the pilgrims knew they could start fresh somewhere else.

Maybe I was born in the wrong era, because - looking back - my life has been one big self-improvement saga. From awakening my thirst for involvement in high school, to my participation in activism and leadership at college, to my community awareness in the working world, it seems I've always strived to do more - and better.

Consider a few things I've been working on lately:

At the start of the summer I couldn't run for two continuous minutes. Now I can run a 5k. I tried out track in high school just so I could know what being involved in varsity athletics was like. And I was decently fast. These days I'm doing it just to say I can do it. The fun part? I have something else to talk to people about.

Financial peace
This one is ongoing. I've had a decent handle on my finances since graduation, but now it's a goal, and a project, and something I'm working toward improving. It doesn't involve just making more money, but doing more with the amount you have. I've learned so much.

Web site design
This is the one area where I'm lacking in graphic design, so lately I've decided to do something about it. With the web becoming so integral to business and organizations, it's silly not to learn the basic. Now I'm helping build web sites for work, Rotary, Recycling, and Katie's dad's business. I want to take a class at Jackson Community College to learn more. Why not?

I got turned on to a few meditation podcasts after reading an article in National Geographic that said Buddhist monks were, according to pure numbers, the happiest people on Earth. I wanted some of that, and started experimenting. Turns out, it's not that bad. My heart wasn't built for organized religion (probably because I tend to ask too many questions), which is probably why I've always been interested - or at least curious - in Buddhism. The best part is you don't even have to be a religious person to reap the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Maybe we could all use a bit more quiet time.

This one's also almost always ongoing, but I'm always trying to get more done in the time I have. I started carrying around a thumb drive, and on it I have plain text to-do lists, listing my projects, ideas, and even a grocery list. I found a neat notebook I can carry in my car, in case I think of something at red lights. And the ol' note-on-the-back-of-my-hand trick works everytime. If it's not written down, it doesn't get done, so you'll find scraps of paper everywhere I am. All to GTD.

...and I've always been this way. From picking up a guitar to running for student government president to start a recycling program here at work - life is too much fun to passively watch it go by.

But what does it all lead to? Where am I going with all this?

Lately I've thought about the ultimate start-over technique: moving/working somewhere else. On all my trips over the past few years, I've explored each spot as a possible place to live and work. Not in any definite amount of time, but just to plant the idea. Over time I've learned where I wouldn't want to live, and where it might be kind of fun.

Shucks, with the country headed in the direction it's in, I've always thought of moving to that northern neighbor right over our heads.

Maybe all this self-improvement stuff is a type of monomania. Is the constant need for a better me a good thing, or even healthy?

Always, there's a burning in my stomach to try more, do more, live more, get more done. A lot of it is not even feasible, but then the only big expectations I have are for myself. I hope that, given any situation, I'd make the most of it. I'd probably have a lot of fun, too.

What's next? Who knows. But it'll be something. Maybe I'll land on my next big project by chance, but I'm starting to think that spending some time researching my big ideas might be the way to go. Go back to school? Live somewhere else? Run for office?

Poor Richard was right when he said, "Tis easy to see, hard to foresee."

But I do know a better me is within sight.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MessagePad Jabberwocky

I've started a new blog, and it involves poetry and my Apple MessagePad 110.

Go here to see it.

I started it for several reasons:

(A) To play around with WordPress
(B) To play around with my Newton
(C) To get myself to read some poetry
(D) To become a world-famous blogger

I use my stylus to write down poems on the MessagePad. It translates them, usually spitting out gibberish, and I blog whatever comes out.

It's inane, and silly, but it's fun. And it got me reading Perrine's "Sound and Sense" - something I haven't picked up since English Literature Studies.

Check it out, and leave a suggestion for the Newton.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Run, Al, run.

If you've ever seen the opening scene in Michael Moore's "Farenheit 9/11," where Moore imagines Gore winning the 2000 election, you might have one of two reactions: disgust or gee-whiz sentimentality.

For me, the scene Moore painted was excruciatingly visceral: sentimentality is my middle name, and that scene stuck with me for a long time after I saw it. Some of us have never moved past the whole 2000 election mess (and for good reason), and I can't help but always wonder "what if."

So at the risk of putting salt into healed wounds, I'll jump on the "Gore should run again" bandwagon that's been popping up in anticipation of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement.

The last time Gore ran, I wan't that enthused about him. Sure, he was better than Bush, and I knew better than to vote for Nader. Since then, however, something has happened. For some of us, Gore has achieved this martyr status in the Democratic Party. He has this really cool story to tell, about how he almost became president, and with all that's happened in the world since 2000, you can't help but think that we wouldn't be having some of the arguments and problems we are today. Maybe they'd be different. But it all plays into this giant national story, about red and blue and the "something" that's wrong with Kansas and the whirring sound that's resonating from the graves of the Founding Fathers.

The imagination flies, and even though the Democrats have a good crop of candidates this time around, none of them - with minor exceptions - have this tragic tapestry behind them.

Edwards has poverty. Richardson has foreign policy. Dobbs has national service. Clinton has her husband. Obama has community. They've all got stories that are worth telling.

But Gore has a bigger story to tell, one that needs to be told and needs someone at the helm to actually get it accomplished.

I've avoided a lot of discussions about the 2008 election so far because, frankly, it's a helluva long way until 2008. Candidates forming policy papers this early is madness to me, and I've struggled to maintain a healthy distance from any political discussions so far (which I'm pretty proud of, thankyouverymuch). Dipping into the pool in October of '07 makes me want to vomit blood.

My read on it this early, however, has been an obsession with electability (kind of like the last election) and the horse-race mentality. There are three top candidates, and the rest can go to hell, and why even consider the lesser-knowns - even though some of them have been stirring the pot in fun ways. This mania about electability, though, takes the country down some muddied paths. I don't care as much about a candidate that can "beat someone" as much as I do about a candidate who has a story to tell, and some items on their to-do list that really need to get accomplished, and the respect for government to actually manage the government.

Would Gore have the support? Could he fundraise? Does he even want to run?

In my heart, I feel like there's no way it will happen. Gore seems to be having way too much fun outside of politics. And who would want to crush his spirit with the soul-blackening concessions made during national campaigns?

Luckily Dems are not in the same situation that the GOP is in: there aren't a bunch of middle-age white guys engaged in a pissing contest over who would torture which minority more, or who would leave a bigger, steamier pile of shit on our Bill of Rights.

I like Richardson's experience and foreign policy shutzpah, and that he knows how to run a government. I admire Edwards' passion about poverty and health care.

But there's something about the idea of Gore running again that could restore my political thirst. Score Hillary as a running mate, and the dream team is back. Hit up Obama as a VP, and you've got the makings of a good 12-16 years of Democratic control of the White House.

Run, Al, run.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Hometown Pizza, how may I help you?"

It's amazing what you can find just by cleaning out your closet.

I came across a bunch of random floppy disks the other night, and discovered some pictures I had taken at Hometown the summer after I graduated college.

I've often told myself that I couldn't write about my time at Hometown - about seven or eight years all-together - because the experience was too weird and too awesome to put into words.

Me and all my friends, we pretty much grew up there. Harry got me a job, my first, when I turned 15, and I got Josh and PJ and Don and a bunch of other friends jobs there, and soon it turned into one big hangout session when we weren't in school.

That's Brian, the owner, on the left. He fostered an atmosphere of organized chaos, with crazy bets and challenges and all kinds of high hilarity.

I always thought that little pizza joint in Brooklyn would make a great TV show. We had all the great characters, and all these great situations. Perfect for television.

Any attempt to take pictures of the place failed. I took a disposable camera into work for the sole purpose of taking pictures, but I lost the damn thing. Finally, after college, I brought home my cheap little digital from my graphic design class and snapped some pictures. Then they, too, disappeared.

Only to reappear, years later, in a shoebox in my closet.

It's the kind of thing that makes you kind of glad to be scatter-brained, because otherwise some curse would've lost the pictures down some black hole.

The funny thing is, the characters are all there - they're just different now. Don still delivers, and I stop in every once in a while to grab a pizza.

But the Hometown I remember is the fuzzy, hazy one - lost to memory and stories told after the fact. You can't really write anything meaningful about Hometown; it takes a group of us, all together, to tell the story, because laughter is always involved.