Monday, August 31, 2009

In a whisper I'll break your name

On Friday night, I saw Fredericton's 283 play a reunion show to mark the 17th anniversary of forming as a band. It was pretty great, rough edges and all. For a brief, fleeting moment I felt the sense of community that I remember the Fredericton rock scene having 6 or 7 years ago. Of course, a lot has changed for me since then. I'm a solo musician now, I'm older, and I unfortunately don't have the free time and energy to make it to as many shows as I used to. At times, it feels like I make music in a vacuum.

Fortunately I don't lose much sleep over what other people may think of my music. First and foremost, I make music that I want to hear and that nobody else here seems to be making. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I share it with people and they like it too.

But this post was supposed to be about 283. At least, I think it was. 283 was always one of my favourite local bands simply because they had (have?) the sonic muscle of a jackhammer and yet imbued their music with unapologetic intelligence and emotion. And even at their most technical, simplicity and substance ruled over showiness. It always felt like they were making music they cared about, and that's something I can relate to.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Return of the District Fly 92

I thought I'd take today to share my two most recently watched movies. Have you seen these? Care to discuss? No? Okay, here's some lemonade.

District 9
(Dir: Neill Blomkamp) I'm sure you're already familiar with the conceit employed by the film, but I'll tell you again anyway: it's styled as a semi-documentary set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien ship became inoperable, stranding its occupants on Earth. The aliens (nicknamed "prawns" due to their appearance) become outcasts, segregated from humans in District 9, where living conditions are terrible and crime runs rampant. The protagonist is Wickus van der Merwe, an official placed in charge of the operation to relocate the non-humans to a new district, further away from the city.

The obvious apartheid analogies are appreciated, although a little difficult to take seriously and didn't particularly enhance the film. For me, the movie only begins to develop real traction when an accident forces Wickus into a friendship of mutual need with one of the aliens, named Christopher Johnson (named by humans, I assume). It's here that actor Sharlto Copley's talents really begin to shine, and that you actually begin to find yourself sympathizing with the aliens. On the other hand, Christopher and his son are the only prawns to be given such developed personalities, while the other prawns seem to be more animalistic. This is a bit problematic when you consider that these aliens are presumably meant to represent segregated Africans, but by this point the movie has already established its footing more in the realm of science-fiction-drama than parable-mockumentary, so it becomes easy to overlook. I can't explain it, but somehow the other prawns become more likeable, simply by virtue of being associated with Christopher. Not to mention the fact that the behavior of the humans is even more atrocious.

And yeah, there's lots of nastiness on display here, coming from all sides. It's a dirty and violent film and the camera (often handheld) does not shy away from the unpleasantness that exists in this imagined universe. A key plot device is the presence of alien weaponry, which is capable of liquifying human bodies, alien bodies, and animal bodies in a number of imaginative ways. I watch a lot of nasty movies, but I can't remember the last time I saw this many heads explode in a 2 hour period.

By the film's end, Wickus is only half-successful in meeting his goals, so you can't really call it a happy ending. But hope is established and I guess that's a lot better than the prawns' previous situation and more than Wickus could have hoped for given his unfortunate predicament.

The Fly II

(Dir: Chris Walas) I'll make this simple for you: The Fly by David Cronenberg is a sophisticated horror-drama and one of my favourite movies ever; The Fly II by Chris Walas is camp horror that's not-quite-average. Basically, the movie falls in the familiar trap of trying to recreate everything that was memorable about the first film and then attempting to one-up it. Sounds great on paper, but when you consider that the original was handled by David Cronenberg, while the sequel was directed by the effects designer of the original, you know you're in trouble.

Remember the scene in The Fly where Seth Brundle tries to teleport a monkey and ends up turning it into a squirming mass of hamburger? That was memorable! And this movie has several of those scenes, which is mysterious because Seth had actually made his teleporter work properly by the end of the first movie. Why doesn't it work anymore? Because we need scenes of animals being horribly mangled, that's why.

Remember when Seth Brundle puked fly vomit on a dude's hand and it melted? This movie has a whole bunch of those scenes. Remember when Seth Brundle's love interest was simultaneously horrified by him and yet couldn't help continuing to love him? This movie has a character like that too! She lives on a houseboat. Remember that bearded guy who you loved to hate but generally had very little to do with the plot? Well, he's actually back in this one, except they had to make him likeable and make him seem more important because he's the only returning cast member. He's surprisingly non-chalant about hanging out with a dude who he knows is part-Fly and most of his dialogue serves only to remind us of what he did in the first movie: "Your dad melted my hand!"

This movie is like a remake of The Fly directed by someone who has no idea what was good about The Fly in the first place. Don't get me wrong, the stiff dialogue and goofy gross-out effects are entertaining, but it's hardly a good movie by any stretch of the imagination.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ugh + Ew = Super Ugh

You know when you really despise someone and you say they're a maggot? Like, someone who's total low-life scum and seems to exist solely for the purpose of making you miserable?

There's a good reason for why these people are called maggots and it can't really be appreciated until you've had to deal with a whole garbage can full of them (actual maggots, that is). Super Ugh.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pasillas 'n soup

I don't really do recipes, if you know what I mean. When I find one that inspires me, I typically adapt it to suit my own preferences and pantry and then usually try to make it smaller as well, since I'm usually just cooking for two.

This weekend I found some dried Pasilla chiles that I really wanted to incorporate into a meal. Whole dried chiles aren't so common around here, so it's kind of a special occasion. Pasillas, if you're not familiar, are a large, long chile that gets black and wrinkly when it's dried. It's not particularly hot at all, but it contributes a wonderful earthy chile flavour. Here's a picture I stole from elsewhere online:
I decided I would make a tortilla soup based on a recipe I found on Epicurious (this one). As always, I made some changes. I wanted this soup to constitute a meal, so I decided I would make it a little heartier by adding corn, beans, chicken, and a jalapeno. I have to say it turned out quite wonderfully.

So what does my recipe look like? I'll try to reprint it, but honestly there's a lot of stuff I just eyeballed and adjusted as I went along. You'll have to use your best judgement with some of the amounts. I used these ingredients:
  • 3 Pasilla chiles
  • Ground ancho chiles
  • 1/2 can whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 can of black beans
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 jalapeno (seeded and chopped)
  • 1 small to medium onion
  • 1 fresh and sweet ear of corn
  • 3 chicken thighs
  • handful of cilantro (washed and chopped)
  • a dash of cumin
  • a little smoked paprika
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 lime
  • a little olive oil
  • a bit of grated cheese
  • a bunch of chicken stock
  • some tortilla chips
First, clean and briefly marinate the chicken thighs in a little lime juice, olive oil, smoked paprika, and cumin. Fry over medium-high heat until they get some nice browning and set them aside.

Next up, toast the pasilla chiles lightly in a pan. They soften up a bit, which makes it easier to remove the stem and seeds. Chop and set aside a small portion for later.

For the base of the soup, you're going to make a raw puree directly in the pot. Combine 4 or 5 tomatoes (juice squeezed out) with 3/4 of the chopped pasillas, the garlic, the onion (chopped), a tsp of the ancho powder, and a little more smoked paprika. Add a little bit of stock and use an immersion blender to puree the whole thing until it's relatively chunk-free. If you want to use your regular blender, go ahead, but that's more dishes you'll have to do.

Turn on the heat (medium) and let the puree reduce a little bit. In its raw form it kind of tastes like smokey salsa. Once the mixture has thickened a bit, top up with the stock until you have an appropriately soupy thickness and texture.

Add the chopped jalapeno, some black beans, the chopped chicken, the reserved pasillas, and let cook a few minutes longer. Taste for seasoning. I happened to use a store-bought stock this time, so that already had enough salt as it is. No need to add more unless taste dictates it.

The last thing I added was the corn, which I cut off of the cob and basically left raw. I bought this corn just a few days earlier from the local farmers' market: sweet, juicy, fresh and wonderful just the way it is. If you have corn of more dubious quality, you may want to add it earlier.

To put everything together, place tortilla chips in your soup plate and ladle the soup over top. Add grated cheese, a chopped avocado, and the chopped cilantro. Finish with a squeeze of lime to add a hint of brightness. Enjoy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

When simplicity goes wrong

Warning: This is long, technological, and ranty.

These days, the Apple brand is known for sleek-looking designs, innovative features, and assumed user-friendliness. People buy their products because they trust the brand and expect their purchase to be simple to use, easy to look at, and relatively fuss-free to install.

I feel like I should know better than to accept branding messages at face value, but I can be suckered as well as anyone. I bought an Airport Express on the weekend with the intention of using it to wirelessly stream music from my computer to other parts of the apartment. As you can see in the picture, it's a modest-looking device: a little white rectangle that goes directly into a power outlet. The only other features are three input/output connections (USB, Ethernet, audio out) and a single indicator light that changes colour. How hard can it be to set up, right?

The short version of my story is that I did get it to work -- after devoting almost 6 hours to the cause. And let's hope I never have to change any settings on it, because that will probably set me back another afternoon.

It begins...

First, I install the utility software that comes with the Airport Express. The software is needed to configure the device so that you can tell it to connect to your existing network, which is what I want to do. I try to run the utility, but I get a message that Windows encountered an error and needs to close the program. A reboot solves nothing, nor does a reinstall. Something's causing it to not work, but there's zero indication as to what that may be. The manual doesn't include any tips for what to do if the utility won't run.

So I uninstall the software and proceed to the Apple website to look for a newer version. That often solves these kinds of problems, right? The Apple site has a big "Downloads" button. Awesome, except the Airport utility is not listed under "Drivers" or "Utilities." Ah! There's an "Apple" category that includes "Application Updates." The first thing listed is an "Airport Client Update"... But it's for Macbooks. I reorganize the list alphabetically and see that there are 19 different downloads that start with the word "Airport." I scan for Windows versions and discover that I can choose either version 5.4.2, version 5.4.1, version 5.3.1, or version 5.3.2. Why are all these old versions around? Wouldn't a newer one make them obsolete? They all claim to be for the same operating system, after all. I have no idea what the difference is and the description is virtually the same on each one, so I just go with the latest version.

It gets ugly...

The newer version of the utility installs perfectly and even runs correctly. All my problems are solved! Except, no, they're not.

The utility says it can't detect any Apple wireless devices. I give the Airport a reset using its tiny paperclip-button switch. Detection achieved! Now the utility tells me it needs to connect directly to the wireless device (thus breaking my home network connection) in order to configure it. Great, sure. I proceed through the setup wizard and tell it what I want to do. I provide it with the keys it needs to connect to my home network. Hmm... It says it can't connect to the network, that I should check my settings, and try again -- but I gave it the exact 128-bit encryption key I've been using for 4 years and even my Nintendo Wii was able to use it without a problem. Oddly, the utility now also claims that it can no longer detect the very same device it was just trying to configure.

It gets worse...

Once again, the manual doesn't mention this as a possible scenario, so I decide to turn to the internet for help. Apple must have support forums, right? Strangely, my internet is no longer working. Oh right, the Apple utility disconnected me from my regular network in order to connect to the Airport for configuration. I open my wireless settings and see the usual list of available networks, but now I can't connect to my own network anymore. There are no particularly informative error messages -- just a long wait and a generic announcement that there has been an error -- "contact the network administrator" it says. I think that's me.

The computer and modem both get a reboot, but the problem persists. I check the wireless network settings, but everything appears exactly as it always does. Great, so now I can't connect to anything anymore and I don't even know why.

Into the time machine...

A friend suggests doing a system restore and I restore everything to how it was that morning. My home network works normally again and I can access the internet. Unfortunately, I can't find any solutions that even vaguely address my problem. Then again, I'm not even sure what my problem is, exactly. I guess I would define it as: "Airport can't find network, then everything breaks."

First, I reinstall the Airport utility, since the sytem restore undid my previous installation. I try running it again and decide to try a manual setup. I reset the Airport again to start from scratch and give it my network info again. Soon, I find myself back where I was 40 minutes ago, with absolutely nothing working anymore: not the Airport, and not my own network. I still don't know why.

Into the infinite time loop...

I do another restore, which means I have to restart the computer again. Then I also have to reinstall the Airport utility again, which also requires another restart to take effect. To avoid having to do this all over again, I create a new Restore point for after the utility installation, but pre-configuration-attempt, which is where everything goes wrong.

I take several different approaches, but nothing seems to make a difference. Every time I end up with an error message, a non-detectable Airport, and a non-working network connection. Each time, I have to Restore, which requires yet another reboot (or 3).

Cursed with a hex...

I decide to go back to the web for more possible solutions. Deep in the bowels of the Apple knowledgebase, I discover an interesting tidbit of information: when giving the Airport a WEP encryption key in hex format (which is the only format I have it in), you must preceed the key with a dollar sign ($). Maybe this is common knowledge (is it?), but I don't have any other devices that have ever required this, nor is it mentioned anywhere in the manual, or in the software. Could this be the solution to all my troubles?

to donuts...

I go back to the Airport utility and take another stab at configuring my lovely new Apple device. I'm careful to place a "$" before my encryption key and cross my fingers. I hit the "Update" button and the utility begins working its magic. I see a message that the Airport is connecting to my home network and it doesn't linger this time! That's good news, right? I think it is, but a few short moments later I once again see the error message that the device encountered an error and that I need to check settings. Aaaand my regular home connection also doesn't work anymore.

For fuck's sake...

I restore the system to pre-configuration settings again to get my network access back. At this point, I'm 99% certain this ordeal is going to end in violence, but just before things get ugly, I notice that for the first time this entire night the little indicator light on the Airport is glowing green. Steadily, even!

I open iTunes and enable the AirTunes function on the preferences menu (which also doesn't seem to be mentioned in the Airport manual). Not only does the Airport appear to be connected to my network, but iTunes can even detect it, and yes, it even sends music to it.

So it appears that the Airport utility software's function is to send configuration info to the Airport and then apply a scorched earth policy to the computer's networking functions. I just hope to God I never need to change any settings and run that damn utility again.

Lessons learned...

The sad part about all this is that I still have no idea what went wrong or why. I can only assume that some unknown piece of software on my PC is running into conflict with the Airport utility, but I couldn't begin to guess which one. And what was happening to my computer's networking abilities each time I ran the utility (even when it successfully transmitted configuration info)? I have no idea.

All I know is that I wasted an awful lot of time this weekend.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul

Les Paul was known as the father of the electric guitar and the creator of the Gibson Les Paul. My primary guitar for the last 8 years or so has been a Gibson SG, but even the SG began life as a Les Paul model -- or at least that's what Wikipedia tells me.

The story goes that the original Les Paul guitar was given an overhaul in the early 60s to make it lighter and give it the double cutaway horns that are now a signature of the SG (see below). But Paul didn't care for the new model and wished to have his name removed from it. That version of the Les Paul became the SG and soon the classic model's look returned. Of course, I love my SG, and whether he liked it or not, I have him to thank for the guitar I make all my noise on.

My SG is kind of a weirdo model from around 1979 and it's actually just called "The SG," which makes it very hard to Google. I've only ever seen one other person play one and that's the guitarist from the band No Age, although he appears to have lost two of the covers for his tone knobs. I'm not sure what I'd do without it. Thanks, Les. This is me with my Gibson SG:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From Love to Hate in 60 Emails

Well... This made me laugh today.

And yet it's also sad and confusing. I can barely fathom how such a misunderstanding could possibly happen between two people who apparently care about each other. This is going to make me sound old, but I actually remember a time when people couldn't rely on email and cell phones to keep track of each other -- quite simply, because nobody I knew had any of those things. I'm not sure how those two thoughts are related, but I guess I wonder if this is further proof that our reliance on technology has made us dumber. Or maybe that's just my own pessimism at work; after all, dumb people have always existed. Hmm... That didn't really sound any more optimistic.

Monday, August 10, 2009

BLT Challenge update

I've been slowly working away at producing the ingredients needed for Michael Ruhlman's BLT-from-scratch challenge (see here for earlier post on this). Things are coming along well.

Bacon: Check! I cured a 5 lb piece of pork belly, divided into 2 portions. I already used up the first half, but stored the other piece away in our freezer so it would be available for the challenge.

Tomatoes: Almost check! My wife and I planted 4 little seedlings when the challenge was announced and this week they finally started showing some signs of fruit. I've already spotted almost a dozen little tomatoes starting all over them and I'm sure there will be more soon.

Lettuce: As I mentioned before, I'll be sourcing this from my mother's garden. From what I hear, it's growing well.

Bread: This is the area where I still have the furthest to go. I'm not a very experienced baker, but I'm willing to dive in head first and see what happens. I'll be starting my yeast culture this week.

Mayo: I've never made my own mayo, but I sense it'll be a no-brainer, so I'm leaving this for the very end.