Monday, October 30, 2006

Your Layout Sucks Almost As Much As Halloween

Interestingly enough, this problem tends to be less prevalent on Blogger (or any other web journal system) than on Myspace. Notice that, upon trying to go to someone's profile, the first thing you see is an obnoxious-colored background. Then the awesome background photo loads at the same time the text shows up... too bad the background photo is mostly black and white, and the text on the page is one or the other. Before we get to the "links you can never click on because someone decided it would be an excellent idea to make them turn to bold when you mouse over them," though, you have to get through "rendition of how to make a frame that makes half your text go off the page and create a God-awful horizontal scroll bar at the bottom."

This dovetails nicely into skinnable apps. To paraphrase (or maybe quote directly) Jick from the Kingdom of Loathing, "I hate skinnable apps." There is just nothing that gets me less excited about programs than the fact that you can change what the scroll bars and menus look like. Aesthetics are important, undoubtedly, but infinite customizability is simply unnecessary. When we're paying more attention to what color the title bar is than to what the program actually does, priorities have become a little misplaced.

Take Windows, for example. Windows looks perfectly nice as is. If you don't like the colors, Windows has taken the time to include ways to change them. But if I tried to estimate the sheer number of desktop themes that are out there... I'd be estimating for more than a little while. I don't even care about my background, to tell you the truth; it's usually something amusing, or if I'm not amused by that anymore, it's probably just some neutral image. And yet, there are a preponderance of people out there who find it absolutely necessary to change not only colors and desktop images, but icons, folder backgrounds, and icon fonts. (Don't even get me started on multiple user accounts.)

I don't like Halloween. I haven't since I was about thirteen, when I discovered that I kind of looked dumb dressing up as some random video game character and begging for candy, and I probably won't again until maybe I have kids of my own who are into it. Ask me for my opinion of Halloween in fifteen years, and I may have a handful more insights and thoughts. As of now, if I really want candy, there's a handy Publix a few blocks down from the bookstore which I have on good faith sells a fair bit of the stuff. I have never been one for dressing up (though I've grown to accept the tie as of late) and seriously, even if I wanted to dress up, what do guys dress up as? Something scary? Not a fan. A superhero? Also not a fan. Girls evidently take Halloween as an excuse to dress up sluttily, especially into college age. Whatever.

All in all, Halloween is a holiday on which people do ridiculous things based off even more ridiculous superstitions. (The cynical atheist will probably say that same thing regarding Christmas or Hanukkah.) And yet... it's got a great deal of cultural gravity associated with it, as much as say Thanksgiving, which is based off something real.

Currently listening: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Petty Annoyances

You know those little things that just irritate you? There's not necessarily a good, solid reason for any of them; you just know that if all of them stopped, you'd be okay with it. I'm not talking major obstacles like Physics II or Being a Poor College Student; I mean actions, behaviors, and patterns that you find obnoxious. A handful of these have begun to grate on my nerves as of late.

That annoying leg-bounce thing that mostly guys do (but some girls do as well). You're sitting in Differential Equations (granted, a setting that does need a bit of livening up), you notice that there seems to be an overabundance of movement in the room... and you realize that it's because the six guys seated near you are all bouncing their legs up and down really fast. Sometimes it's both legs, sometimes one or the other. Sometimes it's keeping the heel on the ground and bouncing the toe, but more often it's a heel bounce. Okay, guys. There's absolutely no reason to do this. If you're really that antsy, head to the CRC after class. Drink one less cup of coffee before you come. Take this as an opportunity to kick that cocaine habit... something.

Darfur is a geopolitical issue that I think everyone feels similarly regarding, but that activists feel the need to carry on about anyway. "Genocide? That's no good! How do I show the world that I'm an opponent of genocide?" Conveniently, there have been a large number of feel-good "student solidarity" groups that have popped up on Facebook lately. One of the most prominent is one that promises a monetary donation for every so many people to join. Hate to break it to you, but you're no Lech Walesa. Really, I don't think there are any proponents of genocide, except probably the guys doing the genocide. And what does it mean to "donate [money] to Darfur"? Are you going to put some dollars in an envelope, write "Darfur" on it, and hope the area of the country accepts its gift? If you're donating to people, what exactly are they going to do with your money? Bribe a couple of warlords not to keep genociding? It's great that people are informed about world events, don't get me wrong. But what exactly is hanging signs that say "Gee, there seems to be a bit of a genocide issue in Sudan!" going to do? By stating your mere awareness of an armed conflict there... where are you going? What do you reasonably expect anyone in power to actually do?

Possibly going hand in hand with the "lack of intellectualism" that I always complain about, negativity seems to be prevalent at Tech. It's one thing to joke about "the Shaft" but another entirely to lament how much everything sucks, all the time. If something doesn't go your way, here's a little heuristic that generally works. "Can I really do anything about this?" If yes, stop complaining and do it. If no, get over it. It's as simple as that. It gets old when you're trying to maintain a positive attitude, and others are complaining how much of an "idiot" everyone else is. A sort of corollary to this is use of "retarded" to mean "undesirable." As in "Do we really have to have this done by Friday?" "Yes." "That's so retarded!" Well, no, it isn't. It's unfortunate, it's irritating, it's annoying, but it isn't slowed by a hindered andvancement. (Also, as you probably can't change the deadline, there's nothing you can do about it anyway, so stop complaining.)

In the event that I think of more things that annoy me, I'll post them. Comments on these, or examples of what annoys you, are encouraged.

Currently listening: "Chicken Head," Project Pat

Friday, October 06, 2006

Why Labels Do Not Matter

Mr. Morford is being a little antagonistic and egging me on to post. Truth is, he's right; I do have something to talk about. So I'm by and large a big Decemberists fan. I like their music, and so I was very excited by their new release The Crane Wife. Of course, the big news wasn't that one of the most inventive and original bands of the decade had a new release; no, it was that this release was on a *major label*. The Decemberists were abandoning Kill Rock Stars! Soon the Second Angel would pour forth his vial upon the sea, right?

As it turns out, no, not so much. The Decemberists, though their new album falls a bit short of true brilliance, aptly debunk one of the great principles of the Indie Music school of thought: any given collection of music is automatically better when released on anything but a major label. Because except for a few missteps, The Crane Wife is probably their best album to date. So guess what? The transition to Columbia didn't make them suddenly suck.

This CD starts with "The Crane Wife Part 3," which is actually the last third of the musical adaptation of the Japanese folk tale of the same name. You're probably familiar with it, so listen carefully to the lyrics so you can catch the story. This first song is moving and emotional, and it's musically satisfying. About three minutes into it, I started thinking "If this whole album is this good, then we've got something amazing on our hands."

Then I heard "The Island."

I'm not going to lie, I'm surprised I didn't start breathing heavily when I heard this one for the first time. As a huge fan of "The Tain," of course I was ecstatic to find what basically amounts to "The Tain's Little Brother" in the middle of a full length album. I'm not going to talk much about this track, but suffice it to say that it's almost twelve minutes of pure brilliance from start to finish. And any band who can incorporate a Tempest allusion and a "Whiskey in the Jar" tribute within a few minutes of each other is something special indeed.

"Yankee Bayonet" is very good, taking us to the Civil War via a folky male-female duet. "O Valencia!" is unfortunately less good. There's nothing wrong with it musically, and it's put together very well, but it just toes the line of "not interesting." How many modern-day retellings of Romeo and Juliet do we really need? And how many stories of lost love can the Decemberists churn out? "The Crane Wife" and "Yankee Bayonet" are both love-lost stories, but more sincere and inventive than "O Valencia!" It's not a bad song per se, but there are about four tracks I would have picked ahead of this one to make the first single out of.

Then we really get into the doldrums of the album. "The Perfect Crime #2" is sadly the inevitable track that's going to give Mr. I'm-Better-Than-You-Because-I-Discovered-This-Band-Before-You-Even-
Knew-Indie-Music-Existed a little ammunition to cry out his "Holy crap, the Decemberists suck now just because they're on a major label" lament. There are a handful of people who will defend this song; I fail to see its musical merit. I feel like half the song is Colin repeating the words "The perfect, the perfect, the perfect, the perfect crime" over and freaking over again. Even if that's not the exact proportion, the fact that it seems like that makes it a bad piece of music. It's frustratingly repetitive and not at all imaginative, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a Decemberists song.

Next, we hear "When the War Came," which nobody but me seems to have any issue with. Maybe I'm biased against the horrendously bad trumpet lick in the chorus, but that combined with the insistent banging of the guitar riff just results in a musically jarring song. Luckily, now, the album begins its ascent back into good musical quality. I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of "Shankill Butchers" either, but it's certainly better than the two tracks preceeding it. The fact that it's based off real events is cool, and the musical atmosphere created by the song--a sort of unsettling and creepy bedtime tune--definitely works given the subject matter. But this song, more than any other on the album, just lacks energy. It doesn't go much of anywhere.

After all this, we're refreshed with the brilliance of "Summersong." This is an absolutely delightful song, as imagistic and lyrically deep as any of the Decemberists' best work. It works on a variety of levels, too: are these happy times that necessarily will end eventually? Or sad ones, in reminiscence of the better ones? What's getting swallowed by a wave: the summer itself, or some ideal that it represents? This is probably the best (non-twelve minute) track on the album: it's beautiful and catchy, and as deep as you want it to be.

"The Crane Wife 1 and 2" provides the first two thirds of the already-finished fable, and delivers well. Finally, "Sons and Daughters" is a light, hopeful, and optimistic song to end the album; it has the happy effect of leaving the message that there's always something to look forward to.

This album does add an interesting dynamic to the Decemberists fanbase. In the past, we had never seen a truly bad song from them. There were boring songs, and un-brilliant ones, certainly; never an awful one. So in the past we could tolerate an "Of Angels and Angles" in return for a "The Infanta." How many "The Perfect Crime #2"s are we willing to accept if we're going to get a "The Island" and a "Summersong" out of the deal?

All in all, with the notable exception of the middle two tracks, this album is definitely worth listening to. To remind everyone (Zach and Enrique, I know you're interested in going), Decemberists concert on the 27th, 9 pm, at the Tabernacle. It should be great.

Currently listening: Sam's Town, the Killers (review soon to follow)