Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Unquiet Evening

My friend Margie drove through town over the weekend, arriving Sunday night and leaving the next morning. She's found a job in New Hampshire, and was moving up there from North Carolina. Margie has stayed with us often, and we have found her to be the consummate low-maintenance houseguest.

One of the wonderful things about Moji (a nickname she got in college, maybe to be told another time, often shortened to Moj) is that she loves animals. When she comes to town, she often brings rescue animals that need rides from North Carolina to the DC area. This time, however, animal rescue was seeking a driver for six 3-month-old, alleged German Shepherd pups, to take the dogs from North Carolina to New Hampshire (and a couple of cats to take to Delaware from NC). Moj couldn't say no, and even rented a trailer so there'd be room to put the dogs in the cab of her truck. She was also bringing one of her dogs and two of her cats (her husband is still in NC with the other dog and two cats). She tried to find someone associate with animal rescue to house them for the night, but we told her we'd welcome them -- if she's going to do all that driving with and for them, the least we could do would be to make things as easy on her as possible. So for the record, the population in our house that evening was 3 adult humans, 4 cats, 3 adult dogs, and 6 pups.

When Moj arrived, she and Kathy let the pups out to go to the bathroom, but either the cold or the location didn't appeal to them, so only a couple of them peed. Until they got into the house. Within the first five minutes of arrival, we cleaned up four pees, and six poops. Then they had dinner. Then we cleaned up another six pees and six poops, followed by a couple more pees and poops during the rest of the evening. Other than the use of our house as a giant bathroom (an activity repeated this morning), however, the damage caused was surprisingly light -- a chewed electrical cord (though still functional and no shock was applied) and some damaged dog toys was pretty much the extent of it. And of course as puppies they're ridiculously cute, a trait that I'm sure Darwin would argue was for survival of the species.

As for our dogs, Junebug was largely bemused by all the puppyish activity, watching most of the activity while on a chair. Meanwhile, Nora wanted nothing to do with them, occasionally barking at their playing and frolicking -- the poor pups didn't understand why a dog just their size might not be up for joining in the fun.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

New Music Sources

In response to the post announcing my favorite albums from 2004, Q wrote, "I haven't heard a single song by any one of the artists you mention." Q lives in Ottawa, so I can't say what sources for new music are available for him. I can say that were I to rely on my local radio, I wouldn't have heard a single song off my list either. I don't like the narrowly formatted music that plays on DC radio -- other than a largely news-formatted NPR, which is what Kathy listens to, the radio is never on. So it begs the question of how I find new music.

Not surprisingly, the Web is the ideal place to start. One of the first sites I stumbled across was the now largely defunct The War Against Silence, offered by Glenn MacDonald. The writing was tremendous (though the review portion was often secondary), and some of the albums sounded worth checking out. Glenn introduced me to Emm Gryner and Low, among others, for which I'm grateful. Oftentimes I'd find a new artist, only to discover that Glenn had already reviewed him/her/them, e.g., The Magnetic Fields, if only I had faithfully grabbed everything he reviewed. But Glenn rarely writes reviews anymore, which means that I need other sources.

Yahoo lets you construct your own radio station, and I have a link to my own on the sidebar. It throws some popular crap my way, and often only plays artists, albums and songs I've rated positively, but every once in a while it throws out something new (to me at least) that grabs me. They also have programmed stations, but that's fairly limiting in that almost all of them are no better than actual radio stations. Speaking of radio stations, even though I complain about them, some of them are quite good -- the problem is that they're not in D.C. WFUV and WYEP are public radio stations that offer music I enjoy, and more importantly, webcasts, so I often tune into them to find new offerings. Among other finds, Willy Mason's "Oxygen," which is on Public Displays of Affection, one of my top albums of 2004, was discovered through WFUV.

Another source for good music that I've recently discovered also comes from public radio, the NPR program All Songs Considered (which I've just added to my sidebar). Even though those concerts are of DC shows, neither local NPR station actually plays All Songs Considered, so I'm grateful that all the shows are available online. Almost as amazing as the wide range of new songs they play are the archived concerts they provide (including one I attended last Fall, which is how I found out about the program), many of them for artists I really like.

Despite Glenn's departure from the review scene, the Web still provides a great resource for music reviews. I've been using the All Music Guide and Amazon's Recommendations for years -- the write-ups and the 30-second samples are useful to give one at least an idea of what to expect. Recently I've started checking out metacritic's music reviews more frequently as well. Year-end lists are also good ways to at least discover albums I might have missed. Once something piques my interest, I rarely have much trouble listening to it. In addition to the samples that are ubiquitous, it's almost impossible not to find an entire song or two somewhere on the web -- most of the artists have music on their websites, which a simple google search can locate.

Of course, finding music on the Web requires a user-guided search, and if you rely on the searches you perform, and the recommendations that come from them, you end up with a much wider circle of music to consider, but you still risk missing some opportunities. Thus, the need for Word of Mouth will always exist. A couple of years ago I was part of a CD sampler exchange program that a friend of a friend started -- ~20 people would burn ~19 CDs of music they enjoyed, and mail them out to the other group members. That way, everyone in the group would get 19 new samples of music to check out. A couple of the albums on my Best of 2004 list, from Anais Mitchell and The Beta Band, came from the recommendation of my sister-in-law and a friend, respectively. Recently a co-worker and I exchanged some CDs, and by doing so he introduced me to M. Ward, someone who really struck a chord with me (his cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" is a tremendous reinterpretation). There are others with whom I talk music as well, people whose tastes overlap lots or some. Their ears invariably find stuff I enjoy that somehow I'd missed.

So I guess the bottom line is that even if the radio dial doesn't provide adequate options, good new music is out there, if you're willing to look for it.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Anansi Boys, etc.

Neil Gaiman and Christopher Moore occupy a narrow universe of fiction that's focused on adding fantasy elements into everyday life. Recently Gaiman has moved even closer into Moore's milieu and decided to place old myths in the modern world, something he did full-scale with the wonderful American Gods. Here he tells of straitlaced Fat Charlie Nancy, the adult son of the West African spider god, the trickster Anansi (Moore explored such a concept several years ago in telling of the Native American trickster god Coyote in Coyote Blue). As a boy Fat Charlie was embarrassed about the silly things his father did, and is somewhat relieved to hear that the man he hadn't seen in about 20 years has died so he won't have to invite him to his upcoming wedding. Nevertheless he duly flies to Florida from London, where he now lives, to attend the funeral, and there he learns from an old woman in the neighborhood that his father was a god, and that he has a brother. Not having any powers of his own, he believed neither of these things until events show otherwise, most notably when Spider, his brother with the powers, starts taking over his life, including moving in on his fiancee.

Gaiman weaves a clever if somewhat predictable story, about a normal man having to confront an increasingly abnormal universe. Spider's character and the interplay between him and Charlie, particularly when they're getting to know each other, are the highlights of the book. Other than the predictability, the book's biggest weakness is that beyond Charlie's well-developed character, most of the other characters, especially his fiancee Rosie, lack much depth (Spider's character also is shallow, but that's deliberate).

Rating: 7/10.

Even though a lot of my recent posts have been book reviews (largely because I've written so little otherwise, sorry about that), I've been resisting turning this site into a book review site. Case in point -- rather than full reviews, I'm just noting that two books I've recently read, David Liss' A Spectacle of Corruption and Kage Baker's The Children of the Company, were fairly disappointing reads and I can't really recommend either of them. I've read books by both before, and neither of these books compares to their best work. Liss creates a world of intrigue and politics in 1720 London, but does a poor job of wrapping things up. Baker reprints a bunch of short stories, together with a few new thoughts, and ties them together in a very loose manner in what's held out to be a new novel in the Company series -- there are good stories here, but I had read a few of them already (including the best one), and I was expecting more. Ratings: 6/10 and 5/10, respectively.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Environmental Inactivist

When we came back from Costa Rica, Kathy and I were enthusiastic about doing more for the environment. As is sadly typical of us, however, we made a couple of changes and then otherwise went back to our usual routine. Recently a friend sent me as a gift Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia, and I read much of it while we were spending this past weekend in the Shenandoah Valley. It served to remind me of our interest in lessening our impact on the environment, and as a result, this weekend Kathy and I had a number of conversations about the environment, and to some degree renewed our commitment to reduce our environmental impact.

When we got back yesterday, I spent part of the day surfing the web for environmental sites. One site I found, New American Dream, has a program called Turn the Tide, which discusses nine things everyone can do that has a positive impact. Funny enough, Kathy and I already do most of these things, and had decided to do another one of them before I even found the site. So if Kathy and I are already pretty much observing this checklist, maybe we're not quite as "inactive" as we think of ourselves. One thing we haven't done is the last item, which is inspire two friends to "Turn the Tide," so I'm posting here in the hope that some of you might consider undertaking some/all of these activities.

Ironically, even as we discuss positive environmental measures we can take, we are pursuing one of the biggest negative impacts on the environment, procreation.

Regarding the book, I enjoyed the reminder it served for me, but the first half of the book was a bit tedious with all the "I did this" and "we did that" that shows up in his recount of the company's history. The second half discussed the principles and philosophies that shape Patagonia and its desire to minimize the amount of harm the company does to the environment, and this is the part that I found inspiring. There are certainly a number of positive things that the company has done and continues to do, including donating significant money to grass-roots environmental groups, performing an environmental assessment to determine which of its activities can be changed so as to be more environmentally friendly, and using organic cotton. By no means do I want to suggest that such activities aren't noteworthy, but at the same time it might have been more intellectually honest if he'd noted some of his and the company's shortcomings. For example, Chouinard notes the amount of energy needed to ship something by air compared to ground transportation, but other than photos and mentions of travel to pretty much every continent, neglects to estimate the amount of energy his travel to go surfing, skiing, ice climbing ad infinitum consumes. Also, while he recognizes that the internet has become a significant source of business for Patagonia, he continues to produce catalogs, which, even though they're now being printed on recycled paper, inevitably have a greater impact on the environment than does the paperless web (he explains that some people like catalogs better than the Web, and it's easier to take a catalog with you). Rating: 7/10.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Valentine's Day

Tomorrow marks the 8th Valentine's Day that Kathy and I will spend together, and we plan to do what we pretty much always do in honor of the holiday -- nothing. I heard a remark about Valentine's Day on the radio this morning, and it elicited a shout at the radio, and after I explained why to Kathy, she asked when Valentine's Day is. So at this point in our relationship, I think it's fair to say that Kathy doesn't feel like she's missing anything.

I suppose that for anyone who knows me, it shouldn't come as a surprise I don't do anything special for February 14. I mean, Valentine's Day observance is as commercialized as it gets (at least Christmas has religious significance for some). You're supposed to take someone out to dinner at an overcrowded fancy restaurant, and buy her a card, flowers, chocolate, jewelry, or some combination thereof -- you'll note the gender bias deliberately placed there, as for some reason the spending for this day has become decidedly unidirectional.

Equally important, I don't see that doing what everyone else does conveys that Kathy's special. To the extent there's a day that's special for us, it's our anniversary, not an externally declared "holiday." I try to show Kathy that she's special throughout the year. I can send her flowers and/or poems at any time of the year, and I do.

I have to admit that once on Valentine's Day, I snook out of work a bit early and while she was at a meeting, placed a small box of chocolate-covered cherries (her favorite) on her desk. Because of our non-observance of Valentine's Day, however, even that was out of the ordinary.

There's something wonderful about doing something because you want to, not because it's expected of you.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Lessons in Silence

Thanksgiving 2005. We're not in the car with the family much, but when we are there is constant talking. It doesn't have to be about anything, so long as someone is saying something. If I didn't know better I'd be able to think that maybe it's because we're together so infrequently, there's so much ground to cover. But not only do I know better, so would anyone who listened to the discourse.

August 1989. J pisses me off with her flirting. I really like her, and she knows this, so when I get rebuffed by acting on it, I spend the next day's 12-hour drive from DC to Jacksonville avoiding saying anything to her, though I don't hesitate to talk to M & D, who are also in the car. Later on, when I ask J about it, she says she didn't even notice.

September 1991. Something I said or did at the Outer Banks has pissed ex off, so during the entire ride back from the Outer Banks, she doesn't initiate conversation or say anything to me except in response to direct questions. Later on, when ex asks me about it, I tell her truthfully that I didn't even notice.

June 1995. N and I are driving around Wisconsin and throughout the various drives she's not speaking. I repeatedly ask what's wrong, and she repeatedly says nothing. I'm not sure I believe her until after we've broken up.

Anydrive with Kathy. Sometimes we talk, and sometimes we're silent. The silence occurs when neither of us has anything to say.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

So here's what I actually look like with a beard.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Year's Best Albums -- 2004

Now, when everyone else is releasing their top albums of 2005, I'm announcing my favorites from 2004. It takes a while to figure out the best albums of any year. Unless you're in the industry, a few good albums inevitably fall through the cracks, only for you to discover them the following year (or even later). Even many of the ones you get within the calendar year show up as gifts as year's end, when you've hardly had anytime to form a lasting impression. And of course some albums take a while to catch your ear, while others don't stand the test of time. It still might be a bit premature to post this list, as I'm certain there are still other albums to discover. Still, there's a certain symmetry in posting this list now, seeing as today marks one year of blogging, and my first post complained about the lack of good music in 2004.

I'm still not wowed by the music from 2004, but maybe that's because 2003 was such a rich year, and 2005 had a pretty decent crop as well. Still, despite my concerns, I did have to cull from the list several albums I enjoy. My favorite at this point is Shake the Sheets, by Ted Leo + The Pharmacists, but otherwise, I'm just keeping them in alphabetical order by artist.

Devendra Banhart -- Rejoicing in the Hands
The Beta Band -- Heroes to Zeros
Sarah Harmer -- All of Our Names
Ted Leo + The Pharmacists -- Shake the Sheets
Anaïs Mitchell -- Hymns for the Exiled
Old 97s -- Drag It Up
Richard Shindell -- Vuelta
Rogue Wave -- Out of the Shadows
Various Artists -- Public Displays of Affection: The Sounds of Independent Radio
Wilco -- A Ghost is Born

A couple of releases deserve mention for having a great song, but don't do it for me as albums. Rilo Kiley had the poppy "It's a Hit" from More Adventurous, that I really enjoyed. The Magnetic Fields, who released 69 Love Songs in 1999, had a love song better than any of those with "It's Only Time," off I. I also enjoyed numerous tunes from both Arcade Fire's Funeral and Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News, but each became somewhat monotonous when playing the whole album.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Singularity Sky

When I wrote about Altered Carbon, I observed that much of science fiction is more concerned with creating an interesting setting than it is with plot and character. Unfortunately, Charles Stross' Singularity Sky is a fine example of such a story. It's set in the future, hundred years after an Artificial Intelligence named Eschaton has scattered humanity across the universe, and across time. One of the outer planets inhabited by the New Republic, a government modeled on Tsarist Russia that's determinedly anti-technology (except on military matters), has visitors called the Festival. It's not clear exactly what the Festival is, but it wants to be entertained and in exchange is willing to give forbidden technology (including devices that essentially can make anything anyone wants) to anyone who asks for it. The planet's military is summarily destroyed when it decides to attack the Festival, and its government is quickly overcome by revolution from its peasants. In comes the New Republic's main military force from the main world, determined to retake its planet. Along for the ride are two Earthers, a U.N. diplomat (Rachel) serving as an observer, and an engineer (Martin) for the company who sold the New Republic the flagship of its fleet. They of course hit it off, and moreover, both have hidden agendas.

Stross believes the story is more interesting for dropping you in the middle of things, then explaining things as you go along. While that can sometimes work, here it doesn't. At the start of a chapter 120 or so pages in is a 2-page discussion of Eschaton, what happened when it appeared, etc., which belonged as a prologue, just to give the reader context. Unfortunately, Stross may be correct for putting it so much later because the story is so straightforward and predictable without such artificial complications. The romance between Rachel and Martin doesn't seem believable, the stupidity of the New Republic forces creates no mystery about the outcome, and so forth. What takes place on the Festival-occupied planet is somewhat interesting, but it becomes tedious after a while, once the revolution has taken place and the fate of peasants who are overwhelmed by too much at once becomes apparent.

The concept of the Eschaton, a near-god determined to protect its own existence, was moderately interesting, but what Stross did with it in this story was rather disappointing. Rating: 3/10.