Still Alive, Just Busy

Full-time work really saps my energy and motivation for recreational writing. Like, the kind that doesn’t pay. I’ve got plenty of stuff going up at blog.roblox.com (although much of it is under other peoples’ names), though, and a lot of it is interesting, especially for tech and gaming nerds.

On an unrelated note, this song has been the soundtrack to my last week. That deep, warm guitar tone? I could listen to it all day.

Wait, I already do.

Refreshing: Unity on the Internet

Last week, the internet collective banded together and made a statement about how harmful the narrow-minded, shortsighted SOPA and PIPA legislation would be to the connected world. It was obvious to me within the first hour of my day — WordPress’ codex was behind a wall, Wikipedia was inaccessible, Google’s logo was blacked out — and it was real enough to cause the respective sponsor of each bill to delay further legislative action.

Victory! from Sopastrike.comVictory. For now.

Both bills are supposedly meant to curb internet piracy. (The names Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act sound noble, right?) Unfortunately, they’re so broad that they’d actually make websites with user-published content constant targets of copyright holders and the Justice Department, the latter of which would have the power to order copyrighted content removed. At its best, the internet is a place of sharing, creativity and free thought. Both bills would suppress those qualities.

The blackouts were inconvenient, but a refreshing sight. Anyone who spends any time online knows that the internet, at its not-best, is a place where denizens can and do use the luxury of anonymity to be total jerks. On Thursday, there was a common thread tying people together, from the Googles and Wikipedias to YouTube users to smaller publishers, and it transcended the bickering for a short while.

Surely this isn’t the end of measures to keep money in Hollywood and music-industry pockets, but it’s an encouraging sign that we can hold onto a free internet. Let’s hope Congress actually grasps why these bills were so flawed before the inevitable next go-round.

On Band Reunions

This week, I learned two bands that were important in my late teens and early 20s are reuniting. First was At the Drive-In, who did so in annoyingly modern fashion with a cryptic tweet. While the message only hinted at a reunion, Alternative Press later confirmed the tweet is no hoax and the band that spawned Sparta and The Mars Volta would be ending its 11-year silence at Coachella 2012.

Then I heard about Swedish hardcore punk band Refused, who announced — much more directly — they, too, would be reuniting for Coachella. One-time deal. One chance to do it right after never really getting to do their timeless The Shape of Punk to Come justice.

At the Drive-In / Refused photos

Band reunions tend to excite me. It’s nice to know that friendships — once broken or not — can survive the turmoil of a full-time band, and talented musicians perhaps do recognize that being in an influential band is something special; something very few people will ever experience. (And a lot of people want to.) Thing is, band reunions are almost commonplace today and, from my perspective, not always earned.

At the Drive-In and Refused? Earned. These bands went out on the top of their game. That’s not a bad way to go out — obviously much better than in going out past their prime — but in both cases the timing felt criminal. Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come still hasn’t been topped in the 14 years since its release, and it still sounds like… Well, the shape of punk to come. At the Drive-In’s last album, Relationship of Command, saw the band bring all their eccentric personalities together to create a unique brand of post-hardcore that’s still a breeze to identify in a sea of like-minded bands.

There’s no one thing that makes a band reunion legit, but At the Drive-In and Refused are both deserving of the privilege. And considering they’re both going to be getting back together at Coachella, and I happen to be just up the street these days in central California, I’m really considering attending. Despite the price. How could I pass up the chance to see Refused do this?

Reliving the Classic Arcade Experience

Arcade photo

Photo courtesy of Padinga.com

Remember video game arcades? They were filthy and noisy. They ate quarters that, for many patrons, would be better spent on laundry. They were dimly lit caves of counter-productivity (to mom and dad, at least), and they failed because this thing called technology let people have an arcade at home, competition and cooperation with strangers included.

They were great.

It might just be that I’m a product of the 90s with a bad bout of nostalgia, but whenever I pass a dingy, beat-up arcade cabinet in a bar, bowling alley or somewhere else where it’s just a neglected, no-cost way to bring in a few extra bucks, I remember how proud it would have looked in a proper arcade. Surrounded by its brethren. Getting pummeled by kids. For all intents and purposes, that doesn’t exist anymore — not on the scale it used to. But it turns out that, if you want the arcade experience enough, there are places to find it.

The arcade experience

Arcades are all about atmosphere. That’s the one thing the home arcade just can’t replace. They’re dark, they’re busy, they’re almost seizure-inducing in that your only escape from flashing screens is the floor. Maybe most importantly, they’re communal. You “get next” by putting a quarter down on the machine, then face off in the flesh. And when the competition gets good, people gather around and watch. It’s like playing pool — a bit more fun at the bar, with people you may or may not know, than in your basement.

Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade signExperiencing it today

You still can.

I was in Portland, Oregon for Christmas, and had a few days to get to know the city. That mostly meant stuffing my face. But I noticed Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade on Google Maps as my girlfriend and I traveled downtown one day, and it became an instant must-stop. The great thing about it is it’s nothing but an arcade. Sure, you can get food and drinks (there are even cup-holders installed on some machines, which is totally awesome), but Ground Kontrol has a single focus: the classic arcade experience. It’s got some of the best of the 80s and 90s, from classics like Tempest, Tron and Galaga to popular 90s multiplayer games Street Fighter II, X-men and Simpsons, and a bunch of pinball machines. It would be perfect for a happy hour with a few friends.

There’s also California Extreme, an annual classic arcade game show that transforms a hotel conference room into a classic arcade for a weekend. According to the show’s website:

California Extreme was born with a desire to share fun coin op games that are in the hands of private collectors, and to hopefully spread the word that pinball machines were once plentiful, and that videogames were not synonymous with “martial arts” and violence.

The games are all free to play, so you buy a ticket and just go to town.

I’m sure there are more just a Google search away. It’s comforting to know that, even though the days of arcades are long gone, there’s still an appreciation for what they offer, efforts to preserve what remains and an opportunity to experience it for yourself.

Things You Learn Working at a Toy Store

My holiday break started about an hour ago, so let’s get lighthearted. I’m currently helping a local online board gaming retailer manage its web advertising and do some email marketing. So, naturally, I’ve learned more than I care to know about board games, puzzles, toys and the like, but also been exposed to some products that are so absurd I have to make a mental note.

While I can safely say game makers will stretch — and stretch far — to exploit any licensed property under the sun and there are some toys out there that redefine lame, these names say it better.

Fun With Your Cat Science Kit

My hypothesis is cats don’t like it when kids use their “Science Kit” to experiment on them.

Frosted Flakes Cook Kit

Here we have a product that apparently encourages kids to cook. Great! Except, in reality, this exists to sell more Frosted Flakes.

Puppy Tweets

Attach a sensor to your dog. When it trips the trigger by moving or making noise, the sensor posts a generic tweet to a Twitter account. Seriously. Now kids can confirm that their dog moves during the day!

And, my personal favorite.

Doggie Doo

Someone built a cartoon weiner dog that’s so lifelike it has a working digestive tract!

“When you squeeze his leash, he makes a gassy sound that gets louder and louder until… Plop. The first to clean up after the dog three times wins!”

Sigh. Maybe this is meant to teach responsibility, but the only good I see coming from it is an early understanding that farting is funny.

No need to pay for that.

My Soundtrack to Christmas, 2011

There are two reasons why there’s no way Christmas is less than two weeks away. First, it’s not cold. Like, cold cold. 60 degrees in December is balmy. Second, I haven’t been hearing any Christmas music. In years past, my morning alarm was tuned to whatever local radio station played 30 nauseating renditions of the same 10 nauseating songs. I always had a love/hate relationship with it; it went on far too long (i.e., late November through Christmas) and never ceased to lay on the sugary-sweet happiness, but it still brought some warmth to an otherwise brisk time of year.

I haven’t had that luxury this year because, well, radio waves apparently can’t pass my bedroom walls. And I didn’t even notice it until I stumbled across metal band August Burns Red‘s take on “Little Drummer Boy” this week.

"Little Drummer Boy" cover

Metal renditions of Christmas songs are almost guaranteed pieces of shit. It’s just not meant to be. But once in a great while — this being “once” in the “great while” of my life — they work. August Burns Red veered off their standard course of complex riffs and busy rhythms, opting instead for a rhythmic, droning, understated approach. Perfect choice. It shows an appreciation for the original’s steady pacing, and slowly envelopes you with its ebbing and flowing layers of rich guitars. And, having been mixed by Magnus Lindberg — a veteran musician and producer of this style, where texture is of utmost importance — it sounds perfectly warm; just right for the season.

Everything fell into place here. It sounds like August Burns Red actually thought out their approach, rather than doing it for humor, irony or another reason that leads to forgettable covers. I may not have 24-hour Christmas radio, but I’ve got my soundtrack. (Holiday) cheers to that.

Listen! Spotify | Youtube

Brinicle: Awesomer Than an Icicle?

Every kid, at one point or another, probably claimed to want to be a marine biologist when they grew up. No real surprise; there’s something fascinating about what lies beneath a watery surface, be it a murky lake or the Atlantic, and how life adapts to the conditions of the deep.

I didn’t exactly become a marine biologist, and the brinicle isn’t exactly underwater life, but I certainly do find the phenomenon fascinating. Using always-cool timelapse camera footage, cameramen Hugh Miller and Doug Anderson show the formation of a brinicle, which is essentially cold salt being pushed out of sea ice, sinking to the floor, and freezing the water around it. Oh, and killing every starfish in its path.

The brinicle will soon be featured on the BBC One series Frozen Planet, and hopefully become the name of the next Scandinavian metal band. BRINICLE.

Discovering Music, the Old-fashioned Way

“They’re pretty good, but I don’t really care to see them live.”

Such was my indifference minutes before Pianos Become the Teeth started playing Monday night.

And then they started their set. And I ate my words.

Let me digress. I love being surprised and captivated by bands. The surprise is better when it happens in the flesh, surrounded by people, packed in a tiny, glorified garage of a venue. And it’s even better when it happens in a post-iTunes world, where the internet has sapped a lot of the excitement of discovering and tracking down new music, and left nostalgia in its wake.

I don’t want to sound like an old-timer who really, seriously, honestly thinks that music distribution was better back in the day of dubbed cassette tapes and burned mix CDs and bad radio. (To be fair, the burned mix CD will forever have a place in my heart.) But when it happens in an old-fashioned way, it’s just… Well, it’s just really rewarding. Like it was meant to happen, because I was in the right place at the right time.

Pianos Become the Teeth, Live

Photo of Pianos Become the Teeth from Last.fm

The age-old discovering-a-band-by-seeing-them-live is timeless. And to get back on point, it happened last week, when I saw Baltimore’s Pianos Become the Teeth open for Touché Amoré at Sub Mission Art Space. Going in, I had heard some of the post-hardcore band’s swooping arrangements, which, while beautiful in their expressive style, can be pretty abrasive and harsh. But they never resonated with me; they sort of felt unmemorable, even flat. When it comes to such emotional — not to mention emotionally draining — music, that’s a deathblow.

The live delivery was different. Although I’d heard the songs they played, I don’t think I ever really heard them. Seeing the band of five perform a bunch of songs from their recently released The Lack Long After gave credibility to an impassioned sound. It brought the music to life and made me believe the band believed in their craft. I probably looked dumbfounded or had a “holy-shit” grin on my face at any given moment because I was a bit overwhelmed.

Probably similar to when I first heard the Offspring or Green Day in sixth grade. Or NOFX in ninth grade. Or Poison the Well as a high school senior. You get the picture.