Monday, October 19, 2009

Georgia Tech Football Retrospective: the 05-08 Years

October 2009 has so far proven to be a great time to be a Yellow Jacket fan. A convincing win at an SEC stadium. The first victory at Doak Campbell Stadium in twenty years. The first home victory against a top-five team in forty. All this got me thinking about a conversation I had with my roommates last year, discussing the top five greatest football moments in out time at Tech. This, more or less, was our consensus.

Game #5: #3 Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 10; 9/2/06, Bobby Dodd Stadium
"Wait, I thought these were supposed to be the five greatest games. How can you start with one where Tech loses?" I usually hate saying things like this, but I think it was one of those games that you really had to be there. Never before or since did I see Bobby Dodd Stadium so energized. Mild September night, complete sellout, jam-packed student section, and more enthusiasm than I've ever seen at a college football game.

And although the good guys did lose, this game was important for at least two reasons. First, it reaffirmed that Tech could go toe-to-toe with the nationally-recognized "elite" of college football and still come away with a win. And second, it represented a sort of "coming-out" party for Calvin Johnson as one of the greatest receivers playing the game.

Game #4: Georgia Tech 38, #9 Virginia Tech 27; 9/30/2006, Lane Stadium
The GT-VT rivalry has quietly been fomenting as one of the fiercest in the ACC. The ACC Championship game has been played four times; VT or GT has represented the ACC Coastal in it all four times. Two of those times (2006 and 2008), the GT-VT game more or less directly decided the division. And on top of all that, both "Techs" are similar academically and demographically, often being considered "peer institutions" to each other.

The 2006 installment of the rivalry came after the most lopsided--and embarrassing, for Georgia Tech fans--game in its history, a 51-7 loss at Blacksburg. Not to be deterred, GT marched right back to Blacksburg the very next year and turned things around. It was almost over halfway through the first quarter, when GT scored 21 points in the first eight minutes. Winning this game led Tech to its first (and so far only) ACC championship game.

Game #3: Georgia Tech 31, #16 Florida State 28; 11/1/08; Bobby Dodd Stadium
Where the GT-VT rivalry has been a close one that's had more than its fair share of influence in determining the conference champion recently, the Tech-Florida State rivalry has been one of mind-boggling losing streaks and embarrassing lopsidedness. Tech hadn't defeated Florida State at home since 1975. They hadn't beaten Florida State at all in the last twelve tries, dating back to 1992. And the list went on. That all changed this game.

I call this the most impressive home win I ever watched as a Tech student, and the fact that it broke all these miserable streaks was only part of it. It sounds crazy, but I swear there was a "vibe" around Bobby Dodd that day that something was going to change. This game was the only rushed field of my undergrad career, and it was Paul Johnson's first "marquee win" over a ranked opponent in his tenure as Tech's head coach.

And it's the only time I ever saw Paul Johnson smile, aside from when he accepted the job as head coach.

Game #2: Georgia Tech 14, #3 Miami 10; 11/19/2005, Miami Orange Bowl
The Chan Gailey years were a roller coaster in every sense that a football tenure can be. Over those six or seven years, Tech made a habit of losing to teams like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia... but then they'd unexpectedly pull out massive upsets against the likes of Miami. Seven sacks, only 30 rushing yards allowed, and Calvin Johnson's famous lying-stretch catch that made people sit up and notice just how good he was. All this against the number 3 team in the nation.

In fact, the prospect of upsetting Miami was so incredible that it made people who never cared about football at all get excited. I remember being in Memphis for the most prestigious mock trial invitational of the season (the old Blues City Challenge), when we really should have been practicing in anticipation of our fourth round Sunday morning, our team's usually-strict coaches decided to look the other way and "trust us to practice instead of watching the game".

Game #1: #18 Georgia Tech 45, #11 Georgia 42; 11/29/08, Sanford Stadium
You might never hear a higher-up at the Tech Athletic Association admit it, but plain and simple, this is the game that Paul Johnson was hired to win. Chan Gailey had done a middling to decent job as head coach for the past several years, but had never beaten Tech's archrival, the University of Georgia. The vaunted rivalry was starting to lose steam: an informal poll taken of UGA fans ranked Tech as the fourth most important rivalry that UGA had, behind Florida, Tennessee, and (of all teams) South Carolina.

A passive sort of coach might have sat on his hands for a year, feeling Georgia out, and preparing to beat the Bulldogs in his second year in the much friendlier confines of Bobby Dodd Stadium. But Paul Johnson is not the passive sort of coach. Instead, he rose to the challenge, overcoming a 28-12 deficit at the half to claim victory between the hedges. Tech players snipped off parts of the vaunted hedges as trophies; when Paul Johnson was asked if he'd taken a souvenir, he responded "no, I figure I'll be back here."

This game was incredibly important for the rivalry. It preserved the longest winning streak in the series at Tech's 8 (Bobby Dodd back in the 50's). It answered the question "what has Paul Johnson done for the program?", if there were any doubts lingering after the aforementioned Florida State game, and it turned Johnson into a folk hero around campus. It reignited passion for the rivalry on both sides of US 78. And it gave the Class of 2009 its only win in "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" that they'd enjoy as students.

Coach Johnson continues to rise to the challenge. If I were still at Tech and making this list to include this year's games, I'd have to include at least two. The road win at Florida State was probably an even bigger deal for the program and for historical trends than the win at VT in 2006, and a win against #4 VT at home (on homecoming!) with the goalposts coming down probably had more buzz and more energy than either the Notre Dame game or last year's Florida State victory.

Four incredible wins in a year and a half have made me incredibly optimistic about the future of the GT program. The road to the Orange Bowl is tricky but still doable this year, and once Paul Johnson starts recruiting people specifically for his offense, I see no limit to how impressive Tech football might become.

Currently listening: Brandenburg Concerto #3 as performed by Maurice Andre

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Peggle: 750,000?

I know, this post is two years late. Peggle is hardly today's news. But that's how long it's taken me to finally complete the last challenge in the game, the granddaddy of them all: 750,000? (It even comes with a question mark to show just how improbable it is to complete this challenge.)

For those of you who aren't familiar with the casual gaming event of the decade, Peggle is one of the simplest yet most addicting games ever to be released. The basic premise is that you fire balls at pegs, trying to hit as many of them as you can... and that's about it. Think Pachinko meets Breakout, with a dash of Bust-a-Move thrown in for good measure.

The game starts out innocently enough, with fifty-five levels that you only need to complete. That ends the "undergraduate" course at the Peggle Institute; next up is the much harder gauntlet of challenges. These range from "score a lot of points" to "beat the computer in a duel" to "finish a level under a set of crazy conditions." And they get harder as you go along, eventually culminating in the utterly ridiculous 750,000 point challenge.

Again, for the Peggle uninitiated, 750,000 is an absurd number of point to accumulate in a single level. A usual single-level score is in the neighborhood of 200,000 with some wide variation; say plus or minus 50,000. If you break 300,000 consistently, you're doing a great job. 500,000 is about the highest score you're likely to achieve purely by accident. This challenge demands 1.5 times that.

Most of the challenges can be completed with a little perseverance, possibly with the addition of a touch of strategy or a bit of luck. 750,000? is not among those challenges. You need a solid gameplan before you can even think about broaching this one. My first inclination was to go for a Spookyball- or Multiball-flavored strategy, trying to time and place the last few shots exactly correctly to take advantage of multiple shots at the 100,000 level-ending bonus. I think in theory that's a viable approach, but in practice there were so many variables--and each attempt took such a long time--that I decided to take a new approach.

Swallowing some pride, I turned to my old buddy the internet. And I wasn't the only one who'd done it. There are forum discussions, YouTube Videos, and even hints on the actual Peggle website. Some advised going for a simple, orderly level with predictable shots to maximize style points. Some had bizarre, fancy strategies for "trapping" the ball on complex levels with moving pegs. The problem with all of these is that they require you to be really good at Peggle. So the strategy I ended up going with represented the "brute force/pure luck" approach: Warren on Pearl Clam.

"Wait!" all you Peggle aficionados are protesting. "You always play Claude on Pearl Clam!" And it's true; Peggle conventional wisdom does call for our crabby friend on that level. The level might as well be designed to showcase how the flippers are effective. The thing about Warren is that--with enough luck--he can effectively be Claude, plus he has a few tricks of his own.

The key to this strategy is getting Warren's wheel to land on Triple Score from one of the green pegs and Flippers on the other--within one turn of each other. This is not easy. If you miss a green on the first shot, that's a restart. Hit a green but get Magic Hat or Extra Ball, restart. Hit Triple Score one turn but miss a green next turn, restart. Hit a Triple Score, but then get anything but Flippers, restart. Statistically, it's a 1/72 chance, assuming you make contact with both.

But if you make it work out, this strategy works like a gem. The turn you have Triple Score and Flippers both active, flipper the crap out of the ball until you screw up and lose it. Ideally, you'll accumulate upwards of 175,000 points (though it's feasible to get many more, like the above video shows). That will triple to 525,000. You'll probably get the Orange Attack and Flipper Maniac bonuses for an extra 75,000, bringing your first- or second-ball total to 600,000. Then it's relatively easy to get an additional 150,000, especially if you pick off all the stragglers and get the guaranteed 100,000 at the end.

Now that that's complete, do I stop playing Peggle for a while? Hardly. 100% ribbons on every level, here I come.

Currently listening: "La Virgen de la Macarena", Arturo Sandoval, from Trumpet Evolution

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Vedera: Stages (the album)

Note to self for the future: do not start listening to an album with the hope or expectation that it will be your favorite of the year. It's not a fair basis for a review. Nor is it realistic to set expectations for an album based on three songs you know it's going to contain. Imagine, for example, listening to "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "The Fool on the Hill" and "Penny Lane" over and over (and over and over and over...) on some hypothetical Magical Mystery EP for the better part of a year, with the future knowledge that there was going to be some sort of Magical Mystery Tour album containing those songs. Those are three incredibly good songs. Some of the best in the Beatles' entire catalog--and that's saying something.

When the full-length Magical Mystery Tour came out, you'd probably get a few pleasant surprises ("I Am the Walrus", "All You Need is Love"). And eventually you'd hit stuff like "Baby You're a Rich Man" and start thinking, okay, what the heck is this? This is not a bad song, but it's nowhere near "Penny Lane" in terns of sheer awesomeness.

That was the inherent danger in listening to--and falling in love with--the Stages EP back in January. The three songs on that EP--"Satisfy", "Back to the Middle", and "A World Apart"--are easily the best three songs in Vedera's (admittedly more limited) catalog. I had deluded myself into thinking that the entire full-length would be as incredible as those three songs. Turns out that's not even close to a reasonable goal--but neither does it imply that the full-length album is bad.

To me, the core of the album is still the "cycle" of songs from the EP. And primacy being what it is, I think those are still the strongest tracks here. I'm not sure how Vedera intended those songs to be interpreted, but to me a very strong possibility is a miniature story: "girl realizes times were good back then and tries to get them back" ("Satisfy"); "girl decides to go back to guy, knowing that it wasn't perfect being with him but acknowledging he's the only thing she can think about" ("Back to the Middle"); "girl admits that she can't be with guy after all, but figures out she's inexplicably stronger for it" ("A World Apart"). The tones of the songs fit:"Satisfy" is brimming with optimism; "Back to the Middle" is alternatively trepid and exultant, finally settling on "the middle"; "A World Apart" is longing yet resolute.

But Stages breaks apart these three tracks--as well it should, to avoid a "more of the same" feeling--and adds a few kinks into the story. "Forgive You" and "Goodbye My Love" are the other side of the "Satisfy" coin, where "girl wonders whether or not it's worth it to give guy a second chance." By the end of "Goodbye My Love", it seems that she's made her decision--but she's "drawn back" along the same old road anyway. In "Even I", she's in denial but is beginning to realize that she can't go back, leaving "A World Apart" with a much more defiant and individualistic tone.

The point of all that analysis is to say that by ordering songs correctly, the story an album tells can be completely different. That's one of Stages' many strengths.

Another obvious high point is lead singer Kristen May's voice. Over the band's first full-length, The Weight of an Empty Room, plus this one, May's voice has been at times growly, edgy, soaring, bittersweet, vulnerable, and confident. But regardless of the mood, May's vocals are always passionate and always impressive. She's obviously Vedera's strongest link, and her virtuoso vocal performances are what make Vedera stand out as a band worth listening to.

It's no surprise, then, that the weakest points of this album are when May's voice is at its least interesting. May's voice is one built to soar above the rest of the band, to shine through the instrumentation, so it's not surprising that the more of these vocals Vedera throws into the new songs, the better they turn out. That's what elevates "Greater Than" into one of the best songs on the album and what makes me like "The Rain" and "Goodbye My Love" in spite of myself.

It's also what makes "Loving Ghosts" and "Even I" probably the two worst songs, or at least the least interesting. Here, May's voice is a middling to good alto, but we've become accustomed to a stunning soprano. Vedera toured extensively with the Fray over the last year or two, and it shows in these two songs. Now, I have nothing against the Fray. I think they make fine music. But they have the "middle-tempo, piano-driven, softish pop rock" market cornered, and Vedera does not need to challenge them on it. Moreover, Vedera has Kristen May; why would Vedera want to challenge them on it?

And still, if the worst thing that can be said about this album is that it's too much like the Fray, that's hardly scathing criticism.

The only other critique I'd level is that some of the metaphors in the lyrics are a little stale, like Vedera is trying too hard to say something creative. There are good ones, like "lived tossed along these waves" in Satisfy. And then there are a few atrocious ones, like the entire premise of "I am the rain" and just about everything in "Goodbye My Love": "uncut diamond", "storm on a quiet day", etc. etc. But a few tepid lyrics don't come close to representing a deal breaker for this album.

Stray observations on other songs: "Look Around" would have been right at home on The Weight of an Empty Room; it recalls some of the first album's edge and meandering, noncommittal tonality--without sounding like it was recorded in a shoebox.

"We Sing" uses the old Vedera trick of "take the chorus from a decent song from the old album and leverage it to create a freaking great song on the new album." In this case, Vedera stole from "For a Friend"; we've seen it before when they robbed their own "Desire on Repeat" to make "Satisfy". I'm ambivalent toward that tactic. I can justify it as long as it's part of the "reinvention" from Veda to Vedera. But if I see "you're the only one I know who brings me back to the middle" show up in the chorus to a new song on the next Vedera album (which better not be too far away!), I'll feel a lot worse about it.

Move Forward is an interesting jam-ish way to end the album. I can't figure out if it's a bonus track or not... the only problem with having bought it off iTunes. I'm inclined to think that it is because it doesn't show up in the liner notes. They end similarly, both on a strangely transcendent major second piano chord that dares you, don't go back and listen to this album again. You probably won't be able to resist.

And finally, the liner notes to the album are downright beautiful--simple, elegant, artistic without really trying... a lot like Kristen May's voice at its most expressive.

I came into this album wanting it to be the best one of the year. Now that I've thought about it, given it a fair shake, and not judged it against what I thought it possibly could be, it almost delivers.

Currently listening: "Wild Horses", the Rolling Stones

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Salsa Connoisseur: D.L. Jardine's Texas Champagne

There's probably an important distinction between "hot sauce" and "salsa", but it's far from obvious. If I had to nail it down to one single difference, it would be in their intentions: salsa is an end in itself, while hot sauce is often relegated to a means to the end of making food spicier. Foods are custom-designed to go well with salsa, while hot sauce is more or less designed with the aim of making existing food better. Maybe it's that hot sauces "know their place" where salsas are currently in the middle of a culinary explosion of new (and not necessarily good) ideas.

I think it's because of this that hot sauces as a category are more internally consistent or homogeneous than salsas are. The consistency issues that plague salsa (with respect to the smooth-chunky axis) just don't show up in hot sauces. And the set of ingredients varies a lot less from hot sauce to hot sauce than they do from salsa to salsa.

That said, hot sauces and salsas share a lot in common with each other. The criterion of balancing heat with flavor is especially applicable to hot sauces, where some purveyors sell you a bottle of habanero juice, slap a "10/10" or "Insane!!!" or "XXX" or pictures of fire on the bottle. Then they leave it to you to find out that instead of using their product, you may as well have immersed your mouth in boiling water--it's just as hot and doesn't have any more flavor.

D.L. Jardine's does not make that mistake with their Texas Champagne hot sauce.

Texture: shakes from the bottle easily. Maybe slightly thicker than a standard hot sauce like Tabasco, but only if you're looking for it to be.

Heat: reasonably hot but not unbearably so. You can easily eat some of this by itself (if you're so inclined!), or put it on a chip, and not be driven to apply an ice cube to your tongue. Intensifies the longer you keep it on your tongue. When shaken uniformly over food, or stirred into a soup or chili, it gives a noticeable kick to each bite, but the heat never overtakes the flavor of either the sauce or the food. D.L. Jardine calls it "hot" with no reference to what "mild" or "insane" might be, which is a little ambiguous but seems right to me.

Flavor: saltier than you might expect. Scent is tangy, similar to a pepperoncini pepper, but less acidic or briny. The three ingredients--cayenne peppers, vinegar, and salt--mix beautifully. A food item is well-made when you can taste each and every flavor in each bite, and Texas Champagne hits the nail on the head there. D.L. Jardine's website boasts that this sauce is the new partner to salt and pepper in condiment land, and I think the sauce is versatile enough for that to be true.

I bought a 3-ounce bottle at Berkeley Bowl, and it ran me $3.29 for a 3-ounce bottle (or $1.10 per ounce!), but part of that is my fault for buying a name-brand grocery item at a more "marketplace" establishment.

Recommended, especially if you're not on a budget. It's similar to, but better than, Louisiana Hot Sauce, which you might find on the tables at your friendly neighborhood Popeye's. For slathering on fried chicken, Louisiana might be a better choice, but for a few drops in gumbo or red beans and rice, this is a fine hot sauce.

Currently listening: 25 or 6 to 4, Chicago