21 December 2011

A Quick Kindle Fire Review

...and I'm going to make an assumption that there may be some interest in what's good and bad about it. I'm an avid reader, and I received a Kindle DX for Christmas last year - it's one of the greatest gadgets I own. It's fun to use, it's easy to get books, and the thing works perfectly fine as a Wi-Fi only device simply because of the sheer number of books you can load onto the thing.

So yeah, I'm an Amazon/Kindle fanboy, and when I saw they were launching a tablet, I was intrigued. I still use desktop computers, so this would just be for tabletop roleplaying/travel purposes, unlike someone like my wife who uses her iPad as her main computer. I know the iPad is the head of the class, and nearly every Android tablet I've read about has some significant reservations. I've been holding off until my wife handed me a box with my Kindle Fire in it. I guess I'm a tablet owner! So, now that I'm spending some time blogging for you folks, I figure a device breakdown is in order:

18 December 2011

Best of everything 2011

It's that time of year again. 11th list, too!


This was probably my favorite year for new music in quite some time. Much of it is because I discovered a lot of great bluegrass and alt-country music via Turntable.FM, but the reality, for me at least, is that there was just a mess of great music that came out this year. I made a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs of the year, if you're into that sort of thing, or you can sample the YouTube links provided.


1) Childish Gambino - Camp: I got into Childish Gambino not just because I've gotten into some rap music in the last year, but because I'm a big fan of Donald Glover, especially his work on Community. Even from his previous mixtapes and EPs, I didn't expect this - a great rap album that perfectly straddles the line between serious and fun, with references all over the place that you may not catch until your 10th listen. Really, really great. Highlights: "Bonfire," Heartbeat."

2) Chris Thile and Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open: An album of traditional/classic bluegrass duets doesn't sound exciting on the surface, but there's an attitude to this, along with the stripped-down nature, that made me very addicted to this album very quickly. I picked this up on a whim from an Amazon mp3 daily deal and I'm really glad I did. Highlights: "My Little Girl in Tennessee," "Rabbit in the Log," "Sophronie."

3) David Wax Museum - Everything is Saved: I've been a casual fan of David Wax Museum for a couple years now - their albums never really resonated with me, but it was always one or two songs that stuck with me. This album still has a few songs that rise far above the rest ("Unfruitful" in particular is far and away the best song I've heard this year), but as a cohesive unit, Everything is Saved is a step ahead for a band that should be a lot more popular than they are. Highlights: "Unfruitful," "Born With a Broken Heart."

4) Laura Stevenson and the Cans - Sit Resist: Out of nowhere, this album just grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Pleasant, poppy indie rock from a songwriter with more of a ska background. Just listen to some of it and you'll be charmed. Highlights: "Master of Art," "The Healthy One."

5) The Decemberists - The King is Dead: The best R.E.M. album put out this year. It dawned on me while reading pre-release reviews that the last two Decemberists albums left me somewhat cold, that only the singles really hit me. "Down By the Water" was such a solid song, too, that I was worried that the album wouldn't hold up. I was thankfully wrong. Highlights: "Down By the Water," "Rox in the Box," "This is Why We Fight."

5) Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes: I felt that Traffic and Weather was a bit of a stumble overall, which meant that the last Fountains of Wayne album I truly loved was Welcome Interstate Managers, which was ages ago. Thankfully, this album is more of a return to form of sorts, very few flaws to speak of overall. Highlights: "The Summer Place," "A Road Song," "Richie and Ruben."

6) R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now: Not as solid as Accelerate, arguably better than most of what they've put out in the post-Bill Berry era. An album that ended up being a swan song was something that did more to remind me of what R.E.M. has been all these years than anything else as of late. Highlights: "Mine Smell Like Honey," "It Happened Today," "Discoverer."

7) Sarah Jarosz - Follow Me Down: Her first album, Song Up In My Head, was good, but not great. An interesting cover of the Decemberists' "Shankhill Butchers" was the highlight, but when this album came out, it definitely shifted things for me. A darker bluegrassy effort with a different tone than what I think most would expect, plus a great cover of Radiohead's "The Tourist," makes this an extremely solid, great effort. Highlights: "Come Around," "Annabelle Lee," "The Tourist."

8) Jessica Lea Mayfield - Tell Me: Late to the party on her, but she's a great folkish singer-songwriter doing some really interesting things, and this album offers something new every time. Highlights: "Blue Skies Again," "Our Hearts Are Wrong," "Grown Man."

9) Low - C'Mon: It's strange to say that a Low album sounds optimistic, and I may just be hearing it wrong, but this was not what I was expecting from Low after the brilliant and stark Drums and Guns. A number of really great sing-a-long style songs along with a lighter tone than I'm used to. Highlights: "Especially Me," Something's Turning Over."

10) The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow: A great folky duo that sounds really unassuming until you realize that you've been singing half the songs on the album to yourself on a regular basis. Highlights: "I've Got This Friend," The Girl With the Red Balloon," Barton Hollow."

Other highlights musically:

* Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside - Dirty Radio (Highlight: "Danger")
* Ellie Goulding - "Lights" (Bassnectar remix)
* Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest (Highlight: "Dark Turn of Mind")
* Fujiya & Miyagi - "Yoyo"
* Das Racist - Relax (Highlight: "Michael Jackson")
* The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (Highlights: "I've Got This Friend," The Girl With the Red Balloon," Barton Hollow.")
* Yuck - Yuck (Highlights: "Get Away," The Wall.")
* The Roots - undun
* Hayes Carll and Cary Ann Hearst - "Another Like You"
* Alison Krauss and Union Station - Paper Airplane (Highlight: "Dust Bowl Children")
* Abigail Washburn - "Chains"
* Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys (Highlights: "Codes and Keys," "Underneath the Sycamore")
* Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams (Highlight: "Bedroom Eyes")
* Eilen Jewell - "Queen of the Minor Key"
* EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints (Highlight: "Milkman")
* The Vaccines - Whatever Happened to the Vaccines? (Highlight: "Post Break-Up Sex")
* Wild Flag - Wild Flag (Highlights: "Romance," "Electric Band," "Glass Tambourine.")
* The Black Keys - "Lonely Boy"
* The Sounds - Something to Die For (Highlight: "Something to Die For")


* Elbow - Build a Rocket, Boys!
* Fujiya & Miyagi - Ventriloquizzing
* Beady Eye - Different Gear, Still Speeding


I didn't get to the movies often this year. If I had to list what I really liked?

* Moneyball
* Bridesmaids
* Thor
* The Muppets

And what I hated?

* The Tree of Life
* The Tree of Life
* The Tree of Life
* The Tree of Life


Keeping in mind that I still haven't picked up Neal Stephenson's Reamde...

Top books:

* Pie - Sarah Weeks: A beautiful, gorgeous children's book about family, about expectations, and about following your own talents and desires.
* Ready Player One - Ernest Cline: Yes, it's a book full of fanservice, but it's SO GOOD at it.
* Robopocalypse - Daniel H. Wilson: As good as advertised, a fun robots-take-over read.
* Wonderstruck - Brian Selznick: Subtle, yet significant. So many surprises in a book of mostly illustrations.
* The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach: A great literary title with a lot of nuance and an engaging plot.
* The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss: Best fantasy series running, possibly the best fantasy writer going given what we've seen so far.
* A Dance With Dragons - George R. R. Martin: Nothing else needs to be said.

Bottom books:

* The Omen Machine - Terry Goodkind: A nonsensical insult to his fans and readership.
* The Inquisitor's Apprentice - Chris Moriarty: A book for children that dragged in ways few adult books do.
* Happyface - Mark Emond: A graphic novel for teens that is way too dark and disturbing to be taken seriously.

20 September 2011

An R.E.M. Postmortum

I probably first became aware of R.E.M. in 2003. "Man on the Moon" was still in VH1 rotation, and "Losing My Religion" was still on the radio a lot. <i>Out of Time</i> was the first R.E.M. album I had ever bought, and I sought out <i>Automatic for the People</i> soon after that.

Today, R.E.M. broke up.

I'm 30, so 18+ years of my life have been tied up in this band. They're the first band I truly loved, the first band I made a point to buy albums for on the release date (I begged my father to pick up <i>New Adventures in Hi-Fi</i> for me on his way home from a double shift that night), the first band I missed things for in order to pick up music (I skipped out of band rehearsal to grab <i>Up</i>), the first band I ever traveled long distances to see (among other things, seeing R.E.M. was the centerpiece of my first visit to Chicago).

I think a lot of people assumed the band would have broken up when Bill Berry, their drummer, left. For a lot of people I know through my R.E.M. fandom, they may as well have broken up in 1999, or 2001, or 2004, or 2005. I've kept up with them, though, and the last few albums they put out were genuinely great - maybe the band didn't feel the same way? I don't know.

Either way, it's hard for me not to be a little, or maybe a lot, sad about it. R.E.M. was my first real thing I was a fan of. I bought all the albums, most of the singles, the books, saw them live 6 times, sought out side projects...heck, I've lost count of the bands and books and movies that I've consumed simply because a member of R.E.M. recommended them, or because they were namechecked in a song, or simply because there was a degree of separation. A lot of who I am is very much tied up in growing up with R.E.M. in my life. Maybe that says something negative about me, but I don't see it as a flaw, but rather a companion piece to myself.

As a fan, I'm upset about the fact that we won't get much, if any, new stuff. That I won't be able to see them live again. But maybe now the vaults will really open up, and a lot of that old unreleased stuff will see the light of day. Maybe we'll get that Mike Mills solo album the fans have secretly wanted for decades. If there's one thing R.E.M. did forever, it was keeping us guessing, and I doubt we'll truly know what's coming next, either.

So here's to my favorite band ever. May future generations appreciate them as much as I have over the years.

17 May 2011

I Am a Spoiled Gamer

I don't write enough about the games I'm involved with. I should write more about them, though, and this is why: I'm spoiled.

Today, I'm going to talk about the game I'm in using Mage: The Awakening. The game is very deep - it takes place in turn-of-the-17th-century Prague where we're all courtiers of the Emperor. The character I chose to play, in particular, was a war-weary older soldier named Ernst who has essentially been put into a more administrative role in the court. He's become deeply religious in his old age, and thus sees much of the world through this prism. This, of course, means that this cabal of Mages he has fallen in with are very foreign, probably heretical, and definitely out of his element.

To fast-forward a bit, Ernst has been awakened as a spirit mage, and this creates an extra balance between the spiritual world he knew before, the spiritual world he knows now, and the physical realm that his experience has been up to this point. This creates a lot of interesting and problematic situations for Ernst - he ends up being very reactionary as a rule, and I tend to play all my role-playing characters as somewhat paranoid. A lot of this came to a head last night, and this overview of the evening largely covers a lot of the details as to how it went down. The short version is that Ernst was put in a position specifically to counteract this, and some poor decisions combined with poor dice rolling ultimately resulted in the demise of Ernst. I was, however, able to rescue my soul at the last minute (which may have/probably resulted in my timely demise anyway).

In that the session was wicked cool, it's great. Even with my character dead for the moment, I'm not upset. In a lot of ways, it had to happen, and Ernst will be better for it as a character, and I'll be a better player because of it in the game. As I drove home last night, though, it really made me appreciate this game and the games I'm in generally speaking. With the exception of my first exposure a few years back before I got into gaming with the group of folks I'm with now, I've had some of the greatest storytelling experiences, deepest games I think I could be exposed to. In the event the people who run my games ever stop, I don't know what I'd do for my role-playing fix because I already feel like I'm among some of the best.

This is a post in part to praise those creating the games I'm lucky to be involved with, but moreso for those reading this to be appropriately jealous at this embarrassment of riches. This is a game that sticks in my head and won't get out, and one that I have not appreciated nearly enough from time to time. It always keeps me guessing and really keeps me wondering what's coming next. When I think of the books I ultimately enjoy as my favorites, of the more passively-oriented video games that I'm drawn to, it's the type of entertainment that keeps me guessing and keeps me wanting more. And while a previous version of me would be jealous that I can't come up with this sort of universe, current me is simply glad to be part of it.