Half-Life and Times
Monday, April 15, 2013
I couldn't put off cutting the grass any longer, despite knowing that the plume of pollen rising above the lawnmower would be visible all the way to Pittsboro. So rather than focus on the horrific events of Boston today, I decided to contemplate the wonders of our springtime Pollen Bowl. In fact, if you yellow-washed a Dorothea Lange photo, it's pretty much what it looks like around here.
You can always tell when someone has moved to North Carolina or one of the surrounding states if you see them out rinsing off their car or washing their porch within the first couple of days of Pollenocalypse. They obviously don't know that they'll be doing that every day for at least 10 days, maybe longer. As soon as it gets warm enough to crank up the grill and start using the deck, your spring gets delayed by a couple of weeks until you're sure that it's really over and you can spend a couple of days scrubbing pollen out of all the things you forgot to bring in off the screen porch.
Long before our state became known for tobacco, textiles, college basketball and nutball conservative senators, North Carolina was the leading provider of naval stores in the colonies. The state was covered from coast to mountains with long-leaf pines, making a huge source of tar, pitch and masts - and making the long-leaf pine nearly extinct. Most of what we have now are loblolly pines, I think. I'm guessing if long-leaf pines dumped pollen the way the loblollys do, they'd have cut them down faster.
It is my understanding that pine pollen is not an allergen (particles are too big) but it's damn sure an irritant. After spending the weekend in the mountains, I got home Sunday evening and between the driveway and the door, my mouth felt like I'd barely survived a Saharan sandstorm. It gets in the corner of your eyes, between your teeth and underneath the waistband of your underwear. It has caused me to almost wreck the motorcycle on more than one occasion - never ride with an open-face helmet this time of year.
I know it will all be over in a couple of weeks, but until then I'm staying inside, running on the track at the Wellness Center and not opening any windows.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Monday, December 17, 2012
Cars vs. Guns
Friday, December 14, 2012
Spoiler-free reaction to The Hobbit
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
I Hate Time-Warner Cable - Reason 417
We have an older HD digital set-top box from TWC that does not have an HDMI out interface. This wasn't a problem with our old TV, as it only had two HDMI interfaces available and I was using them for the Blu-ray player and the home theater computer. With the new TV, I've got 4 HDMI ports, so I'd like to swap out the set-top box for a new one with an HDMI interface. Given the limited hours the local TWC office is open, I thought I'd call first to make sure they have one available. Um, yeah, about that...
No phone number is listed on the TWC website for the local office. There's only a toll-free number. So I called it and stumbled through a voice menu that didn't have any options that really matched what I needed. Tech support? Not really, I know what I need and can swap out the box myself. Service upgrade? Not really - same service, just need a box with a different interface.
So I tried service upgrade anyway and got a nice young woman on the phone. I explained what it was that I wanted. "So you want digital service?" No, I have digital service - I just want to swap my cable box out for one that has an HDMI interface. "Ok, you can do that at the local storefront." Yes, but I'd like to talk to them and make sure that they have one available before I disconnect my box and carry it over there during their limited hours of operation. But they don't seem to have a freaking phone! "I'm sorry, sir, they operate as a walk-in service. I can pull up your account and go over your service with you." Jeez, lady, I'm perfectly capable of pulling up my account online - I can read you the goddamn MAC address of the box that I have at home off of your website that I managed to log into all by myself but you can't tell me the freaking telephone number of the local office?
Un-fucking-believable. If it weren't for Carolina basketball I'd drop that shit in a heartbeat.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Yep Roc 15 Night 3
I'll admit that sometimes I feel like an old guy and somewhere around mid-afternoon on Saturday I started wondering what the bloody hell I was doing going to three multi-band shows on three consecutive nights (while doing some serious yardwork Friday and needing to do the same on Sunday after all of this was over). But while Thursday night's bill was the one I'd most anticipated, there was no way I was going to miss Saturday night's show with John Doe and Tift Merritt.
Thankfully I beat the shit out of my good sense Saturday and we snarfed down a quick dinner at Panzanella before getting over to the Cradle before 8 so we wouldn't miss a note.
The first two acts were guys I knew nothing about but both were terrific live. Too often solo acts talk between songs and you just want them to shut up and sing or get the hell off the stage. Both Darren Hanlon and Jim White were both actually quite funny storytellers and their stagecraft was as good as their songs. Aussie Darren Hanlon writes clever memorable songs and Jim White is just, well, wonderfully weird. Take a guy that grew up in a fundamentalist Pentecostal family who rebels, gets into drugs and then eventually works as a fashion model in Milan and he's going to write some messed up Southern gothic stuff. He does and it's wonderful.
Can any of you guys that were familiar with the Young Fresh Fellows back in the day tell me if Scott McCoughey has always tried to look exactly like Jerry Garcia? It was kind of uncanny. I'd heard of The Minus 5 as a side project for Scott (and others, including Peter Buck, who was not there Saturday) but had never heard their stuff. They rocked. Hard. No idea what their recordings are like but live it was pure rock and roll - the highlight being when John Wesley Harding came out to join them on "Aw Shit Man". One doesn't get much more rock and roll than that.
Jeannette is convinced we'd seen Chatham County Line before but I honest to god don't remember it. But i'll definitely remember their set from Saturday. They do it 50's radio style - all four guys crowded around a box mike "singing into a can" as they said in "O, Brother". The set they played Saturday was probably more traditional (albeit extremely high energy) bluegrass than I understand they normally do - very talented and very fun.
I've been a huge fan of Tift Merritt's for many years but somehow I've managed to miss ever seeing her live before Saturday. As much as I love Neko Case, Allison Moorer and Kathleen Edwards, Merritt's voice is as good as Case' and better than the rest. She was every bit as good live as I'd expected and for the cherry on top, she brought out John Howie Jr for a couple of tunes - made up for me never seeing them back in the day when she was singing with Two Dollar Pistols. I've seen people wear the finish off their guitars before - she's worn holes in the damn thing (she said Chris Stamey gave it to her years ago - I'm guessing he won't want it back).
John Doe is the coolest motherfucker in rock and roll. For me, he's sort of the Samuel L. Jackson of rock. I've seen him with X (both long ago at the Pier and more recently at the Cradle) and I've seen him with the Knitters, but I'd never seen him solo before. He didn't disappoint ("The Meanest Man in the World" is just an awesome song) but he's frankly better with a band. So after a few solo songs the Sadies came out to back him up and the roof started lifting off the Cradle. They've toured together a couple of times and were clearly comfortable with each other. The highlight of the night for me (and I'm guessing for Tift Merritt) was her coming out to do "Stop The World and Let Me Off" and taking Kathleen Edwards' part on "The Golden State" - it was just freaking perfect.
The Sadies finished off the night with one of the most blistering sets I've heard at the Cradle or anywhere else. I've only really known them as backing up other singers but they were not only quite good by themselves, they generated more energy in an hour than any other band I've ever seen. And I've seen hundreds (thousands?) of bands in dozens of venues in the past forty years. At 1:30 am, they'd been playing solo for well over an hour after backing up John Doe for 45 minutes or so and they showed no sign of stopping - we, on the other hand, were pooped and headed for the car, still hearing the Sadies all the way to the parking lot a few hundred yards away.
As I said, I've been to hundreds of shows in all kinds of venues since my first rock concert when I was 14 (REO Speedwagon opening for Three Dog Night at the Charlotte Coliseum) and even after a day's reflection I'm convinced that was the best night of music I've ever experienced. Roughly 15 hours of live music over three consecutive nights culminating in the Sadies rocking my ass off - it's going to take a hell of a lot to ever top that.
Yep Rock 15 Night 2
If Thursday night's bill leaned towards singer-songwriters, Friday night was primarily a rock and roll showcase. Jeannette was saving her energy for Saturday night (and John Doe) so I went solo. By the time I found a place to park, I'd missed Mayflies USA but was there in time for the rest of the bill. The room wasn't quite as crowded from the start as it had been the night before, so I was able to make my way close to the stage for the first couple of acts, neither of which I was at all familiar with. Cheyenne Marie Mize was relatively interesting but not really my cup of beer. Josh Rouse had a number of fans there and was relatively interesting (sort of Paul Simon-ish) but somewhat low-energy for rock night. The obvious fan favorite was Sloan - who knew after the demise of Nortel that there were so many Canadians still around the Triangle? Maybe it was the overly-hot audio mix but I found them pretty forgettable. There was really nothing there to differentiate them from a thousand other bands. But they had a lot of fans.... who all walked out as soon as their set was done, sucking whatever energy there was out of the room just in time for Liam Finn.
Finn was the act I was most interested in seeing Friday - I didn't know anything about him other than his relationship with the Finn Brothers from Split Enz (son and nephew) but I'd checked out a couple of his songs and thought he'd be pretty good. I'm guessing (and too lazy to look it up) that he's one of those guys that plays most/all of the instruments on his recordings, which can be a challenge when you're playing a (mostly) solo show. He did a pretty credible job of using repeaters and other electronic tricks to create a "band" - I'm interested enough to check out some of his recordings.
Fountains of Wayne was the headliner - they're another one of those bands that people whose music tastes I greatly admire really like but I've just never developed any attachment to them (see also They Might Be Giants and Robyn Hitchcock). I hear their stuff and think it's okay but it's never anything I'll seek out. That was pretty much my takeaway from the half set I stayed for Friday. They were very competent but that was about it.
Thursday night was very collaborative and very collegial with people coming out and playing with other bands and covering each others' work - very high-energy. Friday night was a bunch of bands playing their stuff - normally that would have been enough but frankly it was a bit of a let-down after the night before.
Friday, October 12, 2012
Yep Roc 15 Night 1This was probably the night I was most looking forward to, knowing what great shows Dave Alvin and Los Straitjackets are capable of and the opportunity to finally see Nick Lowe. The Cradle was gratifyingly packed the whole night (and we walked in at the exact moment John Wesley Harding was introducing the first band). For all the expectations (I've been looking forward to this weekend for months), there were some unexpected high points.
Pleasant Surprise number 3 - Jukebox the Ghost. They were the first band up (and the last band added to the bill) and we both thought they were quite good. Somewhat hard to describe - the first couple of tunes sounded a bit like Ben Folds Five without the snark and the cussin' but other tunes were totally different. I liked them.
Pleasant Surprise number 2 - the Community Chorus Project taking the stage to do "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding". Just awesome. Unfortunately it meant Nick couldn't do it.
Pleasant Surprise number 1 - Chuck Prophet taking the stage with Los Straitjackets and storming through "Heart of the City". Wow. Just... wow. And unfortunately, yet another song that Nick couldn't do. ;-)
The finale was Dave Alvin and Christy McWilson with Los Straitjackets doing a rave-up of Alvin's "Marie Marie" - great way to finish the night! Glad I took today off to recover.
And I still don't get Robyn Hitchcock.
Monday, October 01, 2012
Sarah Frances "Sally" DunningI thought about Sally last week when that Holly Beth Vincent tune that she had introduced me to was running through my head. Sally was a classmate and a neighbor and a friend in college but I lost track of her soon after we graduated. Wondering what she was up to these days, I did a little digging and found that she apparently passed away a few years ago in Tampa. Sally made an indelible impression on me so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at how sad the news of her death many years ago has made me the last few days. As big a personality as she had, I was surprised at how little I could find about her on the web, so Sally, here's my little Internet memorial to you. These are my memories from over 30 years ago, so if anyone stumbles across this and remembers or knows differently, so be it.
I first remember Sally from Dr. Ryan's History 16 class the spring semester of our sophomore year at UNC. She looked like a Cali girl (despite being from Florida) - straw blond hair, much better dressed than the rest of us slobs, wearing expensive hippy chic when most everyone else was going to class in gym shorts and t-shirts. Or their pajamas. She asked questions in class that seemed out of the blue at the time, but after the class you'd realize they were pretty insightful. She seemed older than us, more self-possessed, more grown up - it wasn't until later than I found out that she was actually a couple of years younger than us.
The next fall she moved into an apartment in the same building in Tar Heel Manor as mine. A bunch of my friends, led by Kevin Bruce, rotated through the apartment directly across the hall from me and Sally moved into the one upstairs from them. Our apartment and my buds' across the hall were all furnished with stuff that hadn't been claimed at whatever self-storage unit we bought it from for $50, which went well with the mattresses on the floor, the cinder-block and particleboard shelving and third-hand lamps that our parents had been wanting to get rid of for years. Sally's place was just a bit different. If I remember correctly, it was her father that paid the leasing company to replace the carpet in her place with new white shag to go with the white leather furniture she moved in. I'm quite sure he was the one that bought her the gold Mazda RX-7. If it had been anyone other than Sally, we would have been disdainful of that kind of display, but it was just who she was and we accepted it. She was somehow cool enough to pull it off.
I said Sally had a lasting impact on me - partly it was her and her huge personality and her friendship, but partly it was her job. When she moved into the apartment she was working as the Columbia Records campus rep and I became one of her sounding boards. She'd come by the apartment and drop a half-dozen LPs in my lap and then ask me what I thought of them later. One of those was the Psychedelic Furs' "Talk, Talk, Talk" album, a band I'd somehow overlooked before then. I also got some of the radio station-bound demos and interview disks, including Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" with EC introducing each cut, as well as a Nick Lowe interview disk. The Hitmen, Missing Persons, Gary Myrick - Sally influenced my music tastes almost as much as WXYC just from making stuff available. Of course there was also a lot of dreck as well, but she got pretty good at figuring out what I'd like and what I wouldn't.
Some of her other influences might not have been as positive - convincing me to try psilocybin while we were out on Franklin Street and THEN convincing me that I had to drive her RX-7 back to the apartment complex in Carrboro did not result in my finest moment. Driving slowly out Main Street in Carrboro while convinced that the tail-lights on the car in front of me were melting over the bumper was somewhat nerve-wracking. But, like many things during those days, I enjoyed it, I survived it and it made for some great stories.
The last time I saw Sally it was at the airport in Tampa. She was heading back to Florida to stay with her mom for awhile after we graduated and needed someone to drive her rental truck with her furniture down while she drove her car. The rest of the guys had moved out of the apartments - I had started working for IBM and was the last one still around there so we spent a long December day and night making our way down to the Gulf Coast. After we dropped the truck off at her mom's, she drove me out to Clearwater Beach and we talked about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives until it was time for her to put me on a plane back to Chapel Hill. I don't know how closely her life followed the path we talked about that day but I'm fairly certain it didn't involve her dying at 43.
I'm not normally particularly maudlin but finding out of the blue about Sally's death frankly just pissed me off.
Rest in peace, Sal. You're not forgotten.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Buying Music (beware - long and somewhat geeky)
I don't buy nearly as much music as I did in college and the few years right after. It's not that I think there's not good music out there - I just can't spend nearly as high a percentage of my life thinking about it, trying things out, reading about it, etc. as I did then. Most of the music I bought from 1979-1986 was influenced either by WXYC or by what I heard in local clubs but as XYC moved towards an even more eclectic (and, to me, less interesting) mix and the frequency of my visits to clubs dropped dramatically (particularly after I didn't own one anymore), I lost a lot of input. I did start picking up the newstand edition of CMJ in the mid- to late-90s for their CD samplers and occasionally did the same with other music mags, but those have mostly gone away as well.
In addition to figuring out the best way to find new stuff that I like, I'm trying to figure out the best way to acquire music. My primary places to listen are in the car (32GB USB key with mostly rock/pop/Americana), on the back porch (32GB MP3 player with mostly jazz mixed with bluegrass, trad, exotica and some rock instrumentals hooked up to one of those Brookstone outside speakers) or while running/working out (4GB Sansa Clip with uptempo stuff, much from the 80s). I've also got (almost) all my CDs ripped to a workstation in my home office, all of which is accessible from the home theater PC downstairs in the family room (HTPC is networked using Powerline as wireless was a bit too slow) and I've ripped a good number of my LPs.
For the most part until recently I've continued to purchase CDs - I grew up on albums so I'm conditioned to purchase a group of songs as a package rather than individual tracks (sure I had some 45s but very few after I turned, oh, 12 or so). I can rip CDs at whatever bit rate I want and other than that brief flurry of DRM nonsense, I can store them in multiple places and play them on a wide variety of devices. But I'm finally to the point that none of those devices is a CD player, so why bother with those extra steps?
So in the past few weeks I've decided to do some experimenting. As a control, I did what I've done the past few years and ordered two CDs from Amazon - Jack White's solo disc "Blunderbuss" and the new dB's album. Then, since after purchasing a Google tablet I had a $25 credit in my Google Wallet, I bought the new The Old Ceremony release as well as an older one I didn't have via Google Play. At the same time, I bought "The Yes Album" (I've never owned a copy in any format), The Black Keys' "El Camino" (h/t to Jeannette for that one!) and Greg Humphreys' "People You May Know" from Amazon as mp3s.
The CDs arrived in about a week - free shipping but hey, a week. I use Audiograbber with LAME underneath as a ripper - unfortunately the dB's disk wasn't in the CDDB yet, so while it ripped just fine, I had to hand-enter the track names. I then usually use MP3Tag to fix the tags the way I like them. Overall, more hassle than it should have been due to the dB's release not being entered in the CDDB yet.
The Google Play experience was interesting - found both TOC releases I was looking for and purchase to the Google Play cloud was pretty seamless. Downloading to my PC was less so. After selecting the tracks for "Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide" I was told that I either needed to download the Google Music Manager or I'd only be able to download the tracks twice from the Web. I wasn't particularly interested in downloading yet another piece of crap software, so I went ahead and downloaded directly - the mp3 files came as one zip file that I had to then extract to where I wanted it. Not a big deal but probably more complex than it needed to be.
I'd bought a few individual tracks from Amazon before but I don't recall buying complete releases as mp3 "albums" before. Again, purchase was no problem and the tracks from the three releases were dumped to the Amazon cloud. And again, downloading was not as straightforward as it should have been. I could either grab each file individually or download Amazon's music management software. I wasn't happy with either choice but I decided to go ahead and pull down the crapware, which loaded the tracks where it wanted to (I don't think it asked me where *I* wanted them) and also automatically loaded them into Windows Media Player, which I detest almost as much as iTunes and do not use. So I had to go find them and then move them to where I wanted them.
In the case of both Google Play and Amazon, I had to do a little bit of cleanup of the files, primarily using A.F.5 Renamer to add the band name to the beginning each file name (I prefer "artist name - track number - track title") but in neither case was there much to do - cover art and appropriate tagging was already there.
All-in-all, Google Play was probably the best experience. The mp3s were advertised correctly as being 320kbps (Amazon didn't specify and varied by release - from variable to 192 to 256). I have a Google Nexus 7 tablet and a Motorola Razr Maxx phone, both of which come with Google Play so I don't have to do anything extra to listen to Google Play tunes on those devices (I know Amazon has an Android app available - haven't tried it yet). There was an extra step involved in both the Amazon and Google process, but I was able to download the Google Play purchases without installing vendor-specific crapware. As an added benefit, the free download on Google Play last night was The Dunwells' "I Could Be A King" which is a pretty damn fine tune!
You'll note that I didn't include buying locally as an option. Since Schoolkids closed a couple of years ago, those options are pretty limited. While there are a couple of small record shops (my, that's sounding quaint these days) left, their selection isn't great and they're not places I'm likely to walk by when they're open very often. As much as it pains me, I think I've moved on.
I haven't done any experimenting yet with how large a catalog Google has to draw from, but for the time being it appears that it will be my music source of choice.
Very interested in feedback from others on this!
Monday, September 03, 2012
Just Read - Mira Grant's "Feed"
Just devoured (you'll get the pun in a minute) the first novel of Mira Grant's "Newsflesh" series (no longer just a trilogy as she has added a novella and short story to the arc). Set in a 2040 America that is surviving a on-going human-caused zombie outbreak, the protagonists are a pair of news bloggers covering the Presidential election (hence the dual meaning of the title - RSS and "Bra-a-a-i-i-i-n-n-s-s!").
I probably had more trouble putting this thing down than anything since some joker gave me a copy of "The Stand" the night before a final exam that I should have been studying for. Bastard. Of course Grant's work clocks in at about 1/4 of the length of King's epic (thank god) but she creates a fully fleshed out (rimshot!) world and people that you care about. I've already downloaded the second novel and look forward to reading it soon.
I do need a bit of a gap first though - like most (all?) good modern zombie stories, it's emotionally wrenching. If you let yourself get pulled into the story (and what's the damn point otherwise?), you'll likely find yourself needing to read something a bit lighter before moving on to the next one.