Wednesday, January 31, 2007

It's tax time again. I thought I would call your attention to the Intuit Tax Freedom Project, which offers free online federal tax preparation for those with an income under $28,500, or who are active duty military or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Some states (not mine) also offer free state filing through the service (California offers free state filing directly through their web site). Unfortunately, they limit the service to those with fairly basic returns. I have some capital gains to report, so I can't use the free service. But I get a decent discount on the software through Vanguard. I was tempted to just prepare my taxes by hand, but for under $30, I decided it's worth the convenience to pay to file online.

I finished most of my return tonight, though I still need a few forms, including the big one, my 1099 from work. Hopefully, that should be waiting for me at work tomorrow. So I still don't know where I stand. I did notice a mistake on another tax form, so I'll have to wait for a corrected form before I can file, in any event. I expect to get a decent refund.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force promotion causes bomb scare. Very amusing to hear stodgy media reports trying to describe the concept of the Mooninites. Good times...

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How come pop-music-management simulators where you get to give young girls backrubs never seem to make it to the States? I tell you what, the day the XBox version of iDOLM@STER is released in the U.S. is the day I buy an XBox 360.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaking Competition finished with a whimper, after over half the entrants pulled their games in solidarity with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, after the controversial game was pulled from competition. In contrast, Elephant received the Palme d'Or at Cannes. I would not say that films and video games are equivalent, but if you're going to go to the trouble to hold a game festival as an adjunct to a film festival, you should at the very least extend the same creative freedom to those on both sides. I can guarantee you if it was a film in question, it would have screened at the festival. But apparently there are special rules for video games, because video games are for kids.

Those who succeeded in getting the film pulled, of course, only undermined their objectives, giving the video game a fresh wave of publicity, and new players. I never bothered to play the game, until last week, when, in light of the controversy, I decided to give it a try. I didn't enjoy the game, but then, that's not the point. But I didn't find anything like what the critics of the game describe. Eventually, yes, you start killing students using an NES-era Final Fantasy-esque interface, but I really don't know how even a true sociopath could enjoy that part of the game. Basically, you enter your command, target the student, and they die, within a round or two. No challenge, because the students are completely outgunned. Which really makes it hard to claim that the murderers are somehow made to look heroic.

Overall, I'd say the game is an interesting attempt to tackle very serious issues in a video game format. I don't know if the primitive graphics and dull game play, compared to the first-person shooters the actual killers preferred, was a conscious choice on the game designer's part, or if it was dictated by the medium (the designer used preexisting RPG design software to create his game). But the creator of the game uses the medium to present a cogent point of view regarding a major cultural touchstone, and encourages reflection in his audience. And that's what art is supposed to do.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

So, a few weeks back, I had some down time at work, and thought I might make a list of the top albums of 2006, in order to kill an hour or two. But what started as a lark, has consumed far more time than it should have (though the time in question was time sitting around listening to music, so why am I complaining?), and is still rather in the unfinished category. But I'm sitting around, a bit under the weather this evening, and so I'm putting this baby to bed tonight.

I don't generally make top ten lists for music, as I feel like I miss far too many of the new releases, and I'm not always aware of whether an album even came out that year, or if it's just new to me. But this year, it seemed like there were a lot of new releases I rather enjoyed, so that I should be able to pick out a few that deserve special kudos. Also, thanks to my eMusic subscription, I've had an incentive to download new albums at a steady clip throughout the year. So overall, I think I stayed reasonably on top of the music world this year. At least those segments of the music industry I have an interest in.

I'm sure there are releases I missed that would have qualified for my list had I heard them. But reviewing various best-of lists online, I found few albums mentioned that really appealed to me, which I haven't gotten around to. Overall, I think the list I present is a good reflection of my tastes, and what was released in 2006.

I was going to build the suspense, and work my way up to #1, but I think I'll just start at the top and work my way down, until I get bored, or until I start getting to albums that, whatever their merits, don't really rise to the level of "Best-of" (I'm thinking the Racounteurs is a good place to draw the line). Anyways, let's begin:

#1: Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways
I'm sure this comes as a surprise to no one who knows me. As I said at the time, it's an absolutely amazing album, a goodbye that's unflinching, but never dispairing. Standout tracks: "Like the 309," "If You Could Read My Mind," "On the Evening Train," "I'm Free From the Chain Gang Now"
#2: The Pipettes, We Are the Pipettes
Probably the most unexpected discovery of 2006, this is a really fun album. A manufactured girl group, but in the best possible sense, they conjure up the best of 60s Phil Spector productions with a decidedly modernist mindset. Standout tracks: "Pull Shapes," "Because It's Not Love (But It's Still a Feeling)"
#3: Lady Sovereign, Public Warning
Another surprise, a bit removed from what I normally listen to. But I got hooked big-time on "Love Me or Hate Me" last summer, and when the album came out, found more of the same, only meatier. Walks a fine line, being crowd-pleasing and fiercely independent, accessible and distinctly British. Standout tracks: "Love Me or Hate Me," "My England," "Tango"
#4: Willie Nelson, You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
Willie put together an amazing western swing band for this album, but he still manages to keep the spotlight on the songs. Great honky-tonk balladry by Cindy Walker, who passed away a week after this album was released, with simple lyrics that cut to the quick. Standout tracks: "You Don't Know Me," "Dusty Skies," "It's All Your Fault"
#5: The Meat Purveyors, Someday Soon Things Will Be Much Worse
Somewhat disappointing, in comparison to their previous work, especially considering this is to be their last album. But still quite good punk bluegrass, and they continue their tradition of odd covers, although their rendition of "Don't You Want Me Baby" does come off a bit gimmicky. Standout tracks: "Liquor Store," "Don't Be Sorry," "666 Pack"
#6: Bruce Springsteen, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
I would have thought a Bruce Springsteen tribute to Pete Seeger would be about as strident as you could get. But this album's a lot of fun, and if anything could use more political content. Standout tracks: "Pay Me My Money Down," "Jacob's Ladder"
#7: Solomon Burke, Nashville
Great soulful renditions of country standards. Solomon Burke is one of those living legends I feel guilty for not knowing more about, and this album serves as an accelerated education, and a charge to seek out more of his stuff. Standout tracks: "That's How I Got to Memphis," "Ain't Got You," "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger"
#8: Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
The Rilo Kiley singer's solo debut showcases the country/soul influences detectable in that band's output, in a beautifully produced package. Standout tracks: "The Big Guns," "You Are What You Love," "It Wasn't Me"
#9: Various Artists, Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman
This tribute album is somewhat hit or miss, but it hits a lot more often than I would have expected (with only Steve Earle's "Rednecks" as a truly spectacular miss). Having Americana artists turning out covers of Newman's more Southern-centered work turns out to be a pretty good idea. I just hope Newman himself is on this list at the end of 2007. Standout tracks: Sam Bush's "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)," Kim Richey's "Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father"
#10: Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, The River in Reverse
A wonderful collaboration that emerged from post-Katrina benefit concerts. Standout tracks: "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further," "Tears, Tears and More Tears"
#11: Neko Case, Fox Confessors Bring the Flood
I've tended to think Neko Case is a bit overrated, but here her gothic alt-country ballads come pretty close to living up to the enormous praise heaped upon her. Standout tracks: "Dirty Knife," "Lion's Jaws"
#12: Various Artists, Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys
There's a lot of stuff here, and it's not all gonna be great, but the best here is quite remarkable, and anything that brings more attention to sea chanteys is a good thing in my book. Standout tracks: Loudon Wainwright III's "Turkish Revelry" and "Good Ship Venus," Baby Gramps' "Cape Cod Girls," John C. Reilly's "My Son John"
#13: The God Damn Doo Wop Band, Broken Hearts
They probably suffered a bit from the inevitable comparison with the Pipettes, but if Broken Hearts isn't as hefty as We Are the Pipettes, it's still a lot of fun. Standout tracks: "Talk Too Much," "One More Night"
#14: Dave Alvin, West of the West
Alvin's tribute to his fellow Californian songwriters is, if not his best album, at least his most consistent. Standout tracks: "Kern River," "Here in California"
#15: Kris Delmhorst, Strange Conversation
I've tried to judge the albums on this list in their entirety, but I must admit that, while this album (a collection of songs based on classic poems) is pretty good, it is the opening track, "Galuppi Baldessare," that's largely responsible for its rank on this list. Standout track: "Galuppi Baldessare"

This is probably a good time to break with the rankings, and just conclude with some honorable mentions. These are listed in a vaguely descending order:

Los Straitjackets, Twist Party
Partnering with vocalist Kaiser George (and at their live shows, the World Famous Pontani Sisters), this album isn't quite as exciting as seeing them live, and does get a bit repetitive. But the whole project has such a joie de vivre, it's easy to overlook its flaws. Standout tracks: "Twist and Grind," "Domino Twist"
Belle and Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
Standout tracks: "Another Sunny Day," "The Blues are Still Blue," "Sukie in the Graveyard"
Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
You gotta be rooting for them now, but this is not their best work. Standout tracks: "Not Ready to Make Nice," "Lubbock or Leave It"
Josh Ritter, The Animal Years
Standout tracks: "Lillian, Egypt," "Wolves," "Thin Blue Flame"
Chatham County Line, Speed of the Whippoorwill
Standout tracks: "Rock Pile," "Savoy Special"
I See Hawks in L.A., California Country
Better seen live, but this album's a reasonable approximation. Standout tracks: "Raised By Hippies," "Golden Girl"
Dan Zanes and Friends, Catch that Train!
Apparently some sort of children's album, but you'd never guess if you weren't told. Standout tracks: "Loch Lomond," "Welcome Table"
The Little Willies, The Little Willies
Standout tracks: "For the Good Times," "I Gotta Get Drunk"
Wailin' Jennys, Firecracker
Standout track: "Glory Bound"
"Weird Al" Yankovic, Straight Outta Lynwood
Very hit or miss, but a few moments of brilliance, especially on the Beach Boys style parody. Standout tracks: "Pancreas," "White and Nerdy"
The Be Good Tanyas, Hello, Love
More of the same, but in this case, is that so bad? Though the Prince cover caught me off-guard (picking up where the Meat Purveyors left off, I suppose). Standout track: "When Doves Cry"
Old Crow Medicine Show, Big Iron World
Standout tracks: "Down Home Girl," "Cocaine Habit," "New Virginia Creeper"
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound
Standout tracks: "Oxford Town/Cumberland Gap," "Ain't No Grave"
Casey Dienel, Wind-Up Canary
Standout track: "Doctor Monroe"
Paul Burch, East to West
Standout tracks: "Montreal," "Last Dream of Will Keane," "Daddy Rhythm Guitar"
Natalie MacMaster, Yours Truly
Another case of turning out another perfectly good album that just doesn't stand out amongst the rest of her wonderful work. Though the bagpipes certainly help it stand out a bit. Standout track: "NPG"
Johnny Cash, Personal File
A bit of a disappointment, but considering these are outtakes, one's expectations need to be checked a bit. The intimacy of the recordings helps, and the introductions can be interesting. Standout tracks: "Life's Railway to Heaven," "Jim, I Wore a Tie Today," "Saginaw, Michigan"
Hank Williams III, Straight to Hell
Standout tracks: "Country Heroes," "My Drinkin' Problem"
The Racounteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers
Standout tracks: "Steady, As She Goes," "Intimate Secretary"

So there you have it. My opinion of the best albums of 2006. And I even managed to get it out to you before the end of January 2007 (barely). By my standards, that's pretty timely. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the list. I like to make lists, with "like" here being a word which means "voices in my head often implore me to make lists," so maybe I'll share more lists with you, the internet community, in the future.

As reported at The Comics Curmudgeon, the 1940s adventure comic strip Steve Canyon is being rerun from its inception online. The pacing is a bit slow for modern tastes, but it still moves lightning-fast by Mary Worth/Judge Parker standards. More interesting as a time capsule that anything else, but holds up well enough to make it worth a daily read. Mostly, it's just fascinating to imagine a time where comic strips were as anticipated as the latest television program or podcast or whatever the hell it is the young people care about these days; a world where words like "excitement" and "sex appeal" weren't out of place in discussing the funny pages. A comic strip debuting on page one, above the fold, is hard to fathom today.

Relatedly, an article about clipping and saving vintage strips, with a mention of some of the fantastic Fantagraphics anthologies of recent years.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Please take a moment to contact your elected representatives, and share your opinion regarding the PERFORM Act, if you enjoy listening to streaming radio on the internet. The RIAA's battle with satellite radio is threatening all online MP3 streams.

I always feel a little weird writing to my Senator to protest a bill, when they are a sponsor of the legislation. I swear, if the Republicans would nominate someone to run against them who wasn't a crackpot, I'd consider switching sides, just to get some fresh blood.

Friday, January 26, 2007

If you enjoyed the music from the Wii ad campaign, Tofu Hut has posted some songs from the Yoshida Brothers. It also has a link to the remixed version from the commercial.
Nicolas Cage, truly America's finest actor:

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Randy Newman is in the New York Times' Op-Ed section today, with an abridged version of the lyrics to "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," published in response to Bush's State of the Union address. Nonesuch has the full lyrics online.
Just a few words in defense of our country Whose time at the top Could be coming to an end Now we don’t want their love And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question But in times like these We sure could use a friend

Start saving your pennies; the song will be on iTunes next week. I've heard it live a few times, and would definitely recommend downloading it. After hearing the final version at Disney Hall, I worried that the conclusion (the bit about the Supreme Court, excised from the NYT version) felt a bit forced, but reading it, it's grown on me. After all, how can you not laugh at a line like, "I defy you, anywhere in the world/To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got [on the court]?"

Oh, and Randy, congrats on the Oscar nod.

Monday, January 22, 2007

As you most likely are aware, the latest format war is in high swing, and many observers thought that Sony's decision to turn its back on porn could doom Blu-ray in the marketplace. But a report today in porn industry trade magazine The New York Times reports that high-def porn might be a bit too much of a good thing. The actresses might not like the scrutiny, but I for one am looking forward to finally seeing each and every sexy inch of Ron Jeremy.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I enjoy zoos. I have some moral qualms about some aspects of zoos, particularly in regard to the presence of primates, but tend to be willing to overlook the more problematic elements, as merely a concentration of larger social ills. Primates in captivity may be depressing (I try to avoid those exhibits as much as possible), but seem morally defensible to me as a necessary stopgap, in the face of habitat decimation and the bush meat crisis, to ensure the existence of endangered species. So I don't have a problem with the existence of zoos, but I certainly believe that their practices should be monitored and debated, and that debates like the recent debate over the presence of elephants in zoos are good for the animals and, ultimately, the zoos themselves.

I tend to side somewhat on the animal rights activists' side on the elephant issue. The present conditions at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park strike me as woefully inadequate. The Zoological Society seems to agree, as they are improving the Zoo accommodations. But, while I tended to begrudgingly accept the recent importation of several elephants from an African wildlife refuge as a lesser-evil type of situation, the concomitant need to ship off several elephants to die in Chicago and Utah was less defensible. But I certainly felt there was room for debate on the matter, and was willing to give the Zoo the benefit of the doubt, or at least agree to disagree.

I received the current issue of Zoonooz in the mail today, and the topic of the issue was elephants, promoting their new and improved elephant exhibit, currently under construction. The opening letter from the president of the Zoological Society even addressed the controversy directly, which I was happy to finally see done in the organization's official organ. Unfortunately, all the letter did was show that the San Diego Zoological Society is not as willing to tolerate dissenting opinions on the elephant issue as I am. In her letter, Berit N. Durler helpfully explains the nuances within the arguments on either side of the issue: opponents of the zoo "would rather see elephants go extinct that live in the care of humans," while zoo supporters are the only people favoring the existence of elephants. I found this false dichotomy infuriating, and quickly wrote an angry letter to President Durler, which I repost here for your own edification: Dear President Durler: I was pleased to see that the February issue of Zoonooz, which I received in the mail today, was devoted to the topic of elephants, and my interest was raised when you made reference, in your opening message, to "the controversies surrounding the management and protection of elephants in today's world." Given the press given to critics of your institution on the matter, I was eager to hear your side of the matter. Especially as, I must say, I have some misgivings regarding the conditions of elephants in your care myself. Imagine my surprise when I was informed, by you, that those who criticize your position on the matter "would rather see elephants go extinct than live in the care of humans." Really? That's our only choice, support your position or rejoice in the extinction of elephants? I didn't realize that, because I tend to think a few paltry acres is inadequate for the care of elephants, I actually was a first-class elephant-hater. Thanks for clarifying the stark contrasts in the elephant debate, and making it clear that either I'm with you, or I'm against the elephant. I thought this was an issue where we could agree to disagree, where I could support the good work of your institution, with some discomfort about some aspects of your surely well-intentioned work. But apparently there's no room for dissent at the Zoological Society of San Diego. I would hope that someone working to save animals from extinction would use the word "extinct" to raise awareness of the stakes of animal conservation, and not as a slur to fling at those who disagree with you. When animal rights activists dump manure in front of the Zoo, they look like idiots. When you start dumping the same b.s. in your Zoonooz column, you hardly come off looking better. Until more reasoned discourse prevails, I shall not be renewing my membership.

I currently have a Curator's Club membership at the Zoo, so I would hope they would take my opinion at least somewhat seriously, and at the very least reply with more than a form letter. Time will tell.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

NETeller closes its U.S. operations. As the existence of NETeller was one of the major obstacles to the enforcement of the recent anti-gambling act passed in this country, its absence should be the death knell to online gambling in the U.S., unless the ban is recinded. Sad times, these.

Monday, January 08, 2007

I certainly didn't vote for him, but I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I will acknowledge that Gov. Schwarzenegger's health care proposal looks promising.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I managed to get the archives back. Turns out it just required a little tweak to the template, replacing the old archives javascript command with the code called for by their new system. And I put in a line break to pretty up the top of the page slightly, with the new bar and all. Though I couldn't quite get the archive links formatted to match the rest of the page (I could get the first link to look fine, but it wouldn't carry over to the rest, so I decided to just make them all look the same). Anyway, rest easy, knowing that this blog's archives are back in service, to meet your various needs, whatever those might be.
A very happy new year to you all. This is of course the time of resolutions, so I decided I should use this space to share my resolutions for the year, and review last year's. I notice the archive feature of this blog is missing for some reason, but the ugly tool bar now on the top of the page offers convenient search functionality (I'm hoping it looks better when I see it on another computer, and that the issues I have are just with Safari--and on the plus side, the new Blogger seems to have activated comments on the blog). So I was able to review last year's resolutions, and much like I had to announce the failure of 2005's resolutions in that post, here I announce the failure of 2006's resolutions. To start with the last resolution, graduating college, I'll just say the less said, the better. But my primary resolution was fitness-based, to build up to a training regimin of 20 miles a week. I thought this was more focused that the previous year's resolution, but apparently it wasn't focused enough. I never really got beyond running maybe 25 minutes a day, and in fact was mostly stuck at the 20 minute level. Breaking seven miles a week was a major achievement, and missing an entire week or two (or three) was not uncommon. And I managed to gain about four pounds. To be fair, most of my slacking off was late in the year, when various illnesses gave me some excuse. And at least I remained committed to the concept of exercise throughout the year, and tried to at least do something, rather than nothing. But the fact remains, by the end of Feburary, my goal was falling apart. I think the problem was that my goal was focused solely on my state at the end of the year, with no accountability along the way. Which I have tried to address in this year's resolutions, while still leaving myself some flexibility.

So for 2007, I have set a target of running the Silver Strand Half-Marathon in November. To advance this goal, I will be running a series of races throughout the year to keep myself on track, both 5Ks and 10Ks, starting with a 5K the first week of February. I think this goal gives me reasonable flexibility while still providing structure: I can set my own training pace, and adjust it as needed, but if I'm falling short, it will be (literally) painfully clear on race day, and I can respond accordingly. Failure won't wait for the end of the year to announce it's presence, and thus I'll have time to reverse the situation. I also intend to work out in the gym twice a week, and do more runs outdoors rather than on treadmills (my tendency lately to run mostly at the gym has probably contributed to some degree of boredom with running). And while I don't have any resolutions directly regarding dieting, I have resolved to keep a food log, and keep more healthy foods stocked in the house. I'm not denying myself food, but if I have good choices available, and stay aware of what I am eating, I tend to make better decisions.

I did weigh myself this morning (I bought a scale recently with a body fat monitor--giving me an opportunity to weigh myself in the nude, which the fascists at my gym don't allow on the scale in the cardio area) and I've lost 2.2 pounds this week, which is a good start. And despite it being a bit chilly (by So. Cal. standards), I've found running outside to be vastly more enjoyable than treadmills (I plan to limit my treadmill runs to days I do weight training, and really inclimate weather). So I have confidence this is the year I buck the recent trend and get back to the halcyon days of my running life, where I made resolutions and kept them.