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    2015 In Funk: Going Out on the High Notes


    2015 - 12.14

    In the words of Frank Sinatra, “It Was A Very Good Year” for funky music, 2015. The following is a long-form discussion and dissection of the many pieces of musical news in my world; it’s big but hang with me there’s lots of substance to talk about.  We got new albums from Lettuce and The New Mastersounds, and a new festival right in my backyard brought some mean groove to the Texas countryside. And.  I made some pretty fresh music myself, if I don’t say so.  The Funk is alive and thriving although I’m pretty sad to chronicle it: Bear Creek was cancelled this year.

    2015 In Funk Pt 1: The October Bear Creek that wasn’t

    This year the Legendary Bear Creek Music Festival which I’ve written about time and time and time again was initially rescheduled about a month earlier than its traditional mid-November timeframe, which was a tantalizing proposition for literally hotter dancing and brand-new-good-old times, however due to undisclosed complexities, the organizers cancelled the fest this year which was… devastating news. According to at least one trusted source the odds are not favorable that it will return (although never say never). This is pretty sad news for the feet and the spirit….

    Screenshot_2015-12-07-15-13-55About one year and some weeks ago my friend Bill and I were taking a breather after a long day of soaking in the incredible vibes at Bear Creek 2014. We were sitting by the edge of a pond to let our feet rest and I said to him, ‘you know some day they’re going to stop putting this fest on, for one reason or another, and we’re going to look back at this time period like it was some kind of utopia or a golden age for music like this.’ Little did I know at the time how prescient of a thought it was. I wish it hadn’t been.

    Me, I hate to wear bracelets so as soon as I got home from the fest I clipped mine off and kept it to put inside the frame with the festival poster I had picked up. But Bill loves to keep his on as a daily reminder of the fest. When I heard the news I texted him right away and you can see his reply in the screenshot here. When I talked to him on the phone about it later he said “Man, I wore that thing to work every single day… every business meeting.”

    It’s a testament to the power of what happens when everything goes right at a fest and some incredible magic is created which can only happen there, away from the business meetings and the grind of existence. Something ‘big’ enough that it becomes part of who you are. Bear Creek inspired me to push off in certain direction with my own music for sure. With the concentrated dose of pure funk, jazz, and soul I think that fest tipped my scales toward a certain sensibility much more than an eclectic fest could have done, and drastically more than a series of small concerts peppered througout the year in a drip-feed. If you love this kind of music, if it speaks to a certain thing inside your being, Bear Creek was a lightning strike to the soul.

    These days there are tons of great fests out there, and plenty of them offer what feels like an escape to some alternate reality, or at least a vacation from your typical reality. But Bear Creek was that and something more. It was a meeting of the minds. A congress of groove-seekers unmatched. It was a place where the headlining acts were Lettuce and The New Mastersounds, a place where heroes of the genre got to really get up there and rip it at 200%, boosted beyond the normally possible range by the energy of this crowd. Everyone could feel that vibe.

    It was a place where, when the final act had finished, the crowd chanted for an encore by singing a looping rendition of the chorus from the Parliment anthem “We Want The Funk”. Replete with the falsetto “ooohhh weeeeeee” it went on until the musicians came back out and fired up the jams once more. We Want The Funk.

    Word, Bear Creek. Word.

    2015 In Funk Pt 2: Top Tier Inspiration on the Stereo

    Within the last month, two superb albums have dropped and I feel it’s worth discussing them together. 1. Made For Pleasure by The New Mastersounds and 2. Crush by Lettuce. These two bands are sort of like two sides of the same coin. They both are well-established and highly-talented groups of musicians making original funk music although they’ve each got a different philosophy on how. Lettuce is pushing further into their own direction with a huge number of members in the band, lots of effects, a clean/modern mastering sound, and complex song structures. Their identity is still evolving. The New Mastersounds are rooted in their quartet playing tunes of simple structure, mastered with a vintage/analog sensibility; all of which have been refined to such a beautiful richness that there’s really no need to start flipping knobs around. NMS are pretty well “dialed-in” as far as their identity and what you might expect from them, but they do manage to toss in plenty of treats for their returning listeners.

    The New Mastersounds - Made For Pleasure vinyl LP

    A common theme between these two albums is the studio-implementation of things they’ve been doing live for quite some time now. In the case of the New Mastersounds, I’ve seen them perform reggae grooves as far back as 2008 but until “Made For Pleasure” there’s never been a proper reggae tune on one of their albums. Adding to the novelty is the fact that it’s a cover of the Iggy Azalea tune “Fancy” transplated into a reggae groove with the lyrics “I’m so Irie”. That’s perfect.

    A very welcome additional treat for this listener is the presence of the peppy and crisp West Coast Horns on four of the album’s eleven tracks. In particular their trumpeter adds a hot sizzle to the action which I really love. In the words of my friend Vince “try as I might, I just can’t get into Mastersounds with vocals” and I will echo that sentiment. The tunes with Charly Lowry, on their own, are a great soul tribute that would feel good on an album of their own. But sandwich them between the high-level instrumentals at which the Mastersounds are so adept and cranking out, the the vocal-driven tunes feel like a sideshow, a distraction.

    “Pho Baby” centers around a chord progression style which feels abnormal for the Mastersounds, but in a pleasing way. I imagine that tune would feel great toward the end of a festival set. “Let’s Do Another” gives you a dose of vibraphone, tabla, and horn section on top of the mastersounds which was a wholly unexpected combo that continues to please on repeated listens. But my favorite track is definitely “Cigar Time” which is a no-frills tune that simply delivers what the mastersounds do best: a steady groove with that magic ratio of funk and jazz behind some superb-sounding guitar and organ solos that compel you to nod your head. How these guys keep producing such quality material album after album is a marvel to me, one I plan to continue studying indefinitely.

    Lettuce Crush Album CoverAnd then there’s Crush, the 4th album from Lettuce. This record’s got a lot of meat and a lot of attitude, as you’d expect from the boys. I gotta admit, I’m not sure I’m totally a fan of how they mastered this album. Compared to other offerings in the genre (as described above!) this album sounds thin and digital to my ears. In particular the obvious noise gate on the beginning of “Phyllis” is a confounding production fail, if you ask me. One thing I AM totally (read: predictably) loving about this new Lettuce album though, is the amount of effects on the horns! In track 2 “Get Greasy” Ryan Zoidis has a killer solo using what sounds like envelope and a synth pedal. it’s making me want to dig into my own synth pedal capabilties…

    This is also the first studio album with trumpeter Eric Benny Bloom and he fills the large shoes of Rashawn Ross nicely I think. Rashawn’s high range is… formidible. Bloom takes the “screamer” dial to about 80% of where Rashawn had it, but he makes up for the rest with his much more thoughtful solo capability. The sheer firepower of his successor was always a thrill but given a choice I’d take Eric. Plus, this guy is into effects and I have… let’s say “more than just a casual penchant” for that. In 2014 he was present for Bear Creek and I got a taste of his approach.

    That year’s fest was also the moment in which the stylistic shift on this record was first displayed. There were a lot more spaceout/dubout moments than ever before, which I think is a fantastic counterpoint to the “Rage” funk. In so many different ways, musicians of all genres try to take their listeners up to a high place then give them some breathing room to cool off. That’s the essence of dynamics since staying planted at 100% all the time turns into a grind.

    I’m glad to see Lettuce taking this new direction. My friend Bill had a more tepid reception to the change and prefers the tone set on their previous record Fly. I’d argue there are still plenty of in-yo-face numbers here, in particular “The Lobbyist” stands tall for me, and “The Force” is a spectacularly dramatic opening theme. I’d love to see them open a show with that, and maybe reprise it once before the end.

    2015 In Funk Pt 3: Art Outside

    Jammin under the Oaks @ Art Outside 2015

    As chronicled previously, the incredible Bear Creek music fest was cancelled this year, leaving an opening for some other musical experience to fill. Fortunately for our heroes, right here in our Texan backyard there was a gathering called Art Outside which had a very enticing lineup of both funk and electronic music. I had been badgering my wife to come along with me to a music festival for a long time and the variables had lined up to persuade her to join in. Only problem was the weather. Hurricane Patricia was just making landfall in Mexico and the effects would soon be sweeping across the state, leaving just enough of a window for two glorious days before the drought-cracked soil of Rockdale TX would get all the moisture it could handle and more…

    TAUK at Art Outside 2015I opted for the 4-day pass since my favorite band, The New Mastersounds were playing that day, along with soul virtuosos The Nth Power and TAUK whom I heard for the first time at Bear Creek 2013.

    The New Mastersounds had the closing slot on Thursday night where the elite crew of 4-day warriors kicked off the festivities. Having seen them over a dozen times now, I’d say it was a lovely festival set with a great song list. Summercamp with it’s delicate and sparse breakdown flowing into a 4-on-the-floor dance groove was a favorite for me, as well as their rendition of “Hey Fela” with West African master percussionist Weedie Braimah from the Nth Power imbuing the tune with an afrobeat feel. Eddie Roberts seemed a bit reserved that night, opting for cerebral jazzy phrases and never really rocking out full-tilt the way I know he can. I’m not certain but I’m pretty sure they played a dubbed-out cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Well Dressed Man” in which Roberts actually used a delay pedal; a common piece of guitar equipment he purposely eschews.

    Having seen these fellows at their finest there was a feedback loop which never connected that night–Eddie seemed visibly annoyed at times with the lack of crowd reaction to push the band higher and likewise the crowd never really went wild because the band never really took-it-there. “Are you all still awake out there?” he asked at one point. That aside, the set delivered the goods in a mellower way for sure. I did a lot more standing and listening than dancing, but my ears were thoroughly engaged for the entirety of their set.

    The Friday itinerary was a sandwich stacked high with lots of wonderful ingredients. The Easy-Star Allstars performed their reggae cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety along with a smattering of Micheal Jackson, Radiohead, and The Beatles. As a last-minute surprise to close the set they broke into Led Zepplin (could it be foreshadowing for their next album??) and out of nowhere 4 or 5 people in the crowd started throwing long streamer ribbons which zigzagged the audience in a web of colors. That was a very cool festival moment.

    Coming off the Easy-Star streamer surprise we caught Nightmares on Wax, who opened up with “Les Nuits” one of my all-time favorite downtempo tracks. In a live setting it felt totally different than it does on the stereo at home though! His set was surprisingly packed with soul-tunes: “Sir Duke” from Stevie Wonder, “Give The People What They Want” from the O’Jays, and a very memorable Marvin Gaye “Inner City Blues” remix. The sound was bone-jarringly loud and we kept telling ourselves we were going to move back ‘after this track ended’ but his DJ set kept it locked and there was no good time to come up for air! It feels weird to say it but even among all the other great artists, this set was my favorite moment in the fest. The buzz of the crowd, the tune selection, and the DJ mixing from NOW was on-point. The dome stage which wrapped around the audience definitely added something as well.

    Dome Stage Art Outside 2015

    Third heavy hitters on the Friday night agenda were Lettuce, touring the country to promote their aforementioned new album. The show was a fun time, I’d even say it was great, but after talking to 4 different people about it at length, the jury agrees unanimously that something was… off. First off, Eric Krasno wasn’t there. Lettuce has about all the musical firepower that you can wish for but Krasno really is a soloist of unusual caliber. His sound, soaring above the raging rhythm section and searing hornlines, is what has sent many a Lettuce jam over the top. Without him, something just feels missing. Chatting about this at a party, I later learned that Krasno is only playing certain Lettuce shows these days. That’s a pretty unfortunate changeup. But all that aside, they did play a crazy-fast version of Lettsanity, many of their older classics including Squadlive, and the new tune “Sounds Like A Party To Me” which I was feelin. Nigel Hall hooked it up there.

    Finally the last show that we stuck around for was a Bonobo DJ set. Gotta say, I liked what I heard. I’ve seen Bonobo play a live set before, with drumset, horn soloists and the whole nine yards and it had just felt… low energy. So my expectations weren’t very high. His set sort of started out with a simmering energy and gradually built up, with a lot of rich-sounding atmospheric tracks that had a steady 4-on-th-floor beneath it all. I honestly didn’t think Bonobo had what it took to keep the dancing masses moving from 2-4am, especially after a Lettuce set, but he proved otherwise.

    After Bonobo handed the turntables over to the next act we adjourned for the night, pausing to grab a slice of late night pizza on the way back to our tent, and that’s when it hit: An incredibly loud thunderclap signaled the flipping of a switch in the atmosphere above us. About five minutes after that sound a steady, strong downpour began which did not relent until perhaps two days later. By sunrise the grounds had been utterly drenched and the soil turned from cracked and hardened into a mud-pocalypse the likes of which I had never been involved with until that weekend.

    2015 In Funk Pt 4: Onward and Upward in the Living Room

    Ampex 900 Reel to Reel vintage audio

    This year has been an incredibly great period in my own musical development and productivity. It saw the creation of a new project, The Acropolis Of Soul and the conclusion–on a high note–of my long-running group 100% Juice. I’ve refined my recording and mastering techniques along the way and finally started to produce a few YouTube videos as well, something I’ve long wanted to do. I also became a member of PedalGenie.com which is an effects pedal rental service, allowing me to try out lots of new sounds. And of course, we had lots of great jams which allowed me to grow as a player. Listening back to these moments has been enjoyable on a visceral level but also deeply enriching on a cerebral level as well.

    I was sad to hear the news that Bob Saviano, the drummer for 100% Juice had decided to move to Colorado, but the silver lining was that it gave us a push to polish up our songs and have that two-day recording session we’d been talking about for a long time. 6/27 and 6/28 produced several top-tier improvised jams and a few “best-ever” takes on songs we’ve been playing for a long time. The fact that these would be our last sessions also gave me a blank check to spend as much time as I wanted on post-production to clean everything to a spotless finish and add all the overdubs I might want. Adding overdubs–that is also another thing I had always wanted to do but didn’t begin until 2015!

    In retrospect, 100% Juice has been one of the best musical projects I’ve ever had in terms of personal development into the kind of music I want to make. I’m feel very proud of the sounds that came out of it, even though I can still nitpick my own playing to death. We did some video recording on 6/28 and there are still several tracks remaining to publish from that day. As of this writing, two tracks are completed and published to YouTube. The video below is our take on the Lettuce tune “Blast Off”. For this video I took our multitrack recording and bounced it to quarter inch tape on reel to reel to get that analog warmth. Again, another thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Hear it for yourself:

    My musical partner in crime, Vince Chihak has joined up with our new group The Acropolis of Soul, which first met in February of this year. Over the year we’ve had 11 sessions and there’s been some killer stuff to come out of those. Our soundcloud page is accessible by clicking on the cassette below:

    The Acropolis of Soul

    Schedules have been a challenge with this group since everyone has busy lives. The Acropolis will probably never become as prolific as 100% Juice was, but the flip side to that coin is that it gives me more time to work on the production for each session and add overdubs more often. To reflect all these nice things that have been happening I made a few updates on the music section of Microcosmologist which now has links to my soundcloud and YouTube pages as well as links to download some of my favorite recordings under the Trumpet section.

    One never knows what the future may hold but right now at the end of the year, looking back, I’m feeling fantastic about everything that’s transpired musically, thankful for my excellent counterparts, and couldn’t be more jazzed to see where the adventures take us next… on to 2016.

    100% Juice video: Hey Fela! (New Mastersounds cover)


    2015 - 10.16

    A bit of news: Bob Saviano, my drummer of choice for the past 3 years has moved out of Houston. However the silver lining there is our band 100% Juice finally did a double-session weekend, which is something we’d meant to do for a very long time. The first day yielded some stellar group improvisations and the second day was mostly video-recorded. I have been chipping away at those sessions with a snail’s pace, so there is still more to come, but hey, there is one completed video which I’ll post here.

    Here is 100% Juice covering The New Mastersounds song “Hey Fela!”

    I have also been putting more of our jams onto YouTube, where they can be streamed in higher quality than Soundcloud offers. Check out this link for some listening.

     

    PS3 Round II


    2015 - 07.31

    So for many years now I’ve been playing games on my Playstation 3. It’s an original 60gig “fat” system, the very first model introduced. Sadly two months ago it gave me the so-called “yellow light of death” which means that the main BGA inside it has cracked solder balls from a slow temperature stress over time. I was able to use the so-called hairdryer-trick (which is exactly as scientific as it sounds) to briefly revive it; enough time to copy over my save games, eject a disc, and get a little nostalgic.

    The oldest save file? Ratchet and Clank from 4/17/07. Wow. Eight years. Has it really been that long? Though it sounds odd to say it, rewinding through the save files and being reminded of all the games I had played over the years was quite a trip down memory lane. Certain games I maybe only played for a short time, and carried a strong association with whatever else was going on in my life at the time. It’s a bit like hearing a song you haven’t heard in forever… something that reminds you of a smell or a place you once lived, or the way life used to feel back then.

    It’s sort of funny, the way your mind forms these connections and loops nostalgia through it. I also feel some connection to the system itself because in my last job I had taken a business trip to Japan and the two weeks I spent there were visiting Sony and Toshiba, working for the manufacturing plants that were building the Cell processor (CPU) and the main graphics chip for the PS3. And this was during the early days of their manufacturing as well, so it would have been these “fat” systems they were struggling to build, with all the growing pains of scaling production up on a system destined to sell millions of units.

    But all things have a season and the fat PS3 has served me well. When it went down, I decided to go on a videogame sabbadical until after the MRHA conference, since I knew I wanted to focus my free time on some model RR work for their model contest. Now that this is complete, I went out to buy a new PS3, only to discover that new units are no longer being produced. I settled on a used “SuperSlim” unit–the 3rd generation of the console.

    My videogame pace seems to grow slower and slower with each passing year but I gotta admit it was very exciting to get a new (to me) console! I’m sure it will provide many nights of enjoyment……

    A VHS Dubber’s Dream, and a Stereo Pre-Amp Sleeper: The Yamaha AVC-50


    2015 - 04.11

    Having acquired the KM-209 Kenwood power amp, I knew I needed a pre-amp to power it. Since it would be in the living room hooked up to the cable box, I knew it also needed to have a remote control. I’ve never been super into surround sound, so I figured I’d look for something stereo-only. Naturally I wanted to get something older, hoping for a better build quality than modern products… and I didn’t want to pay much. After spending a decent amount of time searching for untis with those qualities, it became clear the best deal would be a receiver or integrated amp which had pre-amp outputs, since a strict pre-amp is overtly aimed at the hi-fi crowd who will spend money for discretes. Remotes began to appear in the early 80s so I looked there, and ended up zeroing in on the Yamaha Natural Sound series.

    In short I was looking for a sleeper: something with great specifications that got lost in the mountains of A/V choices out there, forgotten by the advances of time and the piling-on of unneeded features. And I think I found it. The AVC-50. It’s got inputs from sun-up to sun-down, it’s stereo-only, has a remote, and a killer set of numbers behind it.

    Yamaha AVC-50

    If used as a pre-amp, the AVC-50 has some astoundingly good specs. Specifically it has a 103dB noise isolation between channels and a Total Harmonic Distortion of 0.005% which is… stupifyingly low. That’s not a typo, there’s really two zeros before the 5 in that. That’s very formidible for any pre-amp, even at a snobbish level of audiophile haughtiness. Yet here it is in this obscure seemingly mid-level Yamaha. Sort of strange.

    As to the sound quality, so far I’m very pleased. Between this and the Kenwood power amp that’s doing the grunt work, I can discern a notable improvement in the quality over the outgoing Aiwa. The AVC-50 needed some de-oxit spray to get rid of the crackling when the main volume control was turned, but that was it. I also like the switched power outlets on the back which feed my tape deck and the power amp. Hearing the relays inside all three of them go CLICK when you turn it on is neato.  One thing I do wish it had is tone controls.  There is no bass/treble control and I do miss that, although the speakers it’s driving are already balanced just about right anyway.  It does have a bunch of functions I’m not in need of though: this thing would be amazing for copying VHS tapes back in the day.  There’s a huge amount of video inputs, you can select any audio source while recording video, and it even has a video enhancing circuit with sharpness control.  If you were copying tapes, this thing would have been stellar.

    You could probably find one of these for about $50 if you were patient and persistent. Me, I paid a little extra at $75 to get this one off eBay which came with the remote (many didn’t) and manuals. Although the pictures didn’t really show me, I had a hunch that if it came with the manuals it was probably well-cared for. Indeed it proved to be, and not only did it come with the manual, it also had the receipt for extended warranty (long since expired) and, most interestingly of all, the promotional literature. Retro advertisements can be pretty entertaining to look at sometimes, so I’ve scanned in several pages of this for any who may be interested. The pictures date it. And there’s a lot of effort put into explaining the capabilities of the unit. It’s a long sell. Something that I haven’t seen for a modern product of equivalent standing. Below are all the interesting pages of the large brochure… Check it out:

    Residual Greatness: The Kenwood KM-209 Power Amp


    2015 - 04.09

    So I spent a bunch of time on Craigslist not long ago helping a friend pick out components for his first “real” stereo and when I started doing this I knew that certainly I would come across something for myself that would prove too good of a deal to resist. Predictably that expectation came true in the form of a Kenwood KM-209 power amp from the 80s that I got for just $50. It’s nothing special to look at but it’s got some significant power: rated at 150W RMS into 8Ω with 0.015% THD–from 5Hz to 200kHz (according to HiFiEngine). That’s more wattage than any sane or reasonable person would ever need. And yet here we are.

    Kenwood KM-209

    For a very long time now I’ve had an old Aiwa receiver that’s been the heart of my living room stereo setup. I bought that receiver at Best Buy in the 90s, back in the era when Aiwa minisystems were the bomb and everyone had to have one of those. I admit, the trademark green source buttons with the active one lit in red both looked cool and was quite functional from across the room as well. But an Aiwa is an Aiwa, even if this was their attempt to break out of the minisystem market and be seen as something more legit in the hi-fi world. The receiver is still working, although some of the EQ and DSP buttons seem to have a mind of their own these days.

    Probably what won me over on this unit was the excellent experience I’ve had listening to the Kenwood KA-8300. And also the performance of the Marantz PM750DC Integrated Amp… The KA-8300 said ‘hey Kenwood was actually pretty serious, way back when’, and the PM750DC said ‘products built shortly after the peak of a manufacturer’s greatness can be a great deal’. 80’s Marantz gear worked out pretty good. Let’s give this Kenwood a go. For $50, I couldn’t pass her up.

    The sound is neutral, as far as I can hear.  It certainly goes plenty loud.  As for the unit itself there’s a glowing red display in the center labeled “Power Indicator” which has LED indicators which light up on either side of it for left and right channels. There’s also a toggle switch which lets you switch between 1x and 0.1x for the meters, which is a key feature for power meters.  Nothing exotic or amazing here, but some very solid numbers for a cheap price!

     

    First Impressions on the Samsung Gear VR


    2015 - 01.03

    Gear VR

    This thing is… compelling. Awe-inspiring. Thought-provoking. I feel lucky to have it. It’s a virtual reality headset that uses a Samsung Note 4 smartphone as the processor/screen.  This is my first experience with real virtual reality–never tried Nintendo’s Virtual Boy from back in the day, and I’ve never put on one of the Oculus DK1 or DK2 headsets. Honestly my expectations were kind of high going in… and it delivers. Something you see is going to make you smile, something else you see is going to force you to shout out loud. It’s a glimpse into the future. Sure there’s nitpicks or quirks here and there but overall, dang. We’re living in the future. This is the next “thing”. It’s hard to even describe it. That’s my biggest takeaway: this is a new medium. Like movies, music, photos, paintings–those are all artistic mediums of capturing stories. This is a whole new medium of telling a story. VR.

    Right now this is a somewhat exclusive club: the Gear VR only works with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. I had the Note 2 and loved it, so when my 2 year upgrade time rolled around, the Note 4 was a logical choice. Once I read that Samsung had partnered with Oculus to create a virtual reality headset accessory for it (wait, what?!), the deal was sealed. I picked this phone just so I could get the Gear VR.

    The hardware is refined and still young at the same time. On one hand, a lot of technical challenges have been addressed; head tracking is smooth, responsive, and accurate. Overall it’s comfortable enough for long sessions and there is some great content already here. The screen on the Note 4 is pretty great! It’s been interesting to read reviews of the device around the web. One observation about these reviews needs to be emphasized: anyone who cares enough to make a review of the Gear VR is probably a MAJOR gadget geek. That is to say hyper-critical of technical minutia and hung up on details that honestly have little effect on the overall experience. Many reviews say the pixel count is still too low, the content isn’t there yet, that it’s not comfy enough, or that motion sickness may be an issue for people. Alright yes, there is something there which may disqualify the whole deal for certain people. And yet–guys, if we can stop fixating on pixels, there is something utterly mind-blowing going on here!!

    You can put on these goggles and stand on top of the Empire State building. You can go to Egypt. You can go to MARS. You can explore imaginary worlds or sit inside of a IMAX theater on your couch at home. You can dive with dolphins and tour the solar system. You can watch a ballet performance from on-stage and share dinner with a family in Mongolia. You can literally do all of those things straight out of the box with this device. And it’s all happening ON YOUR PHONE. With no wires.

    Man.

    Let’s highlight a few of the things that resonated with me during my first couple weeks with this spiffy device…

    The included 360 photo library:

    There’s TONS in here. Each photo seems crisp and although you can see the individual pixels of the Note 4 screen if you stare at it, when you move your head around, the sharp resolution of the original image is clear, since the original has more pixels in it than the display can physically render. Some of my favorite photos I already described but there are plenty of them to examine, with each photo being rich enough that you can stand inside of it (yes, wrap your head around that!) and study all the details for quite some time if you want to. Ancient Amphitheaters, coral reefs, beehives, the top of the Eiffel Tower, Buddhist temples, the ruins of Chernobyl, take your pick. There’s whole worlds inside here, and you magically teleport around the globe at the flick of a finger. JEEZ.

    Strangers with Patrick Watson:

    I keep coming back to this 360 video, where you sit in the studio-space of a lone musician and he plays you a tune on the piano. What makes it are the casual, seemingly unscripted bits: the sounds of traffic from outside, the way he scrounges for a cigarette before he begins. Then he starts the song over because the drum machine is too loud and asks his dog, “yeah, that’s too loud isn’t it?” As he appears to finish, his phone rings. He grabs it, sees the name and laughs before hitting decline and continuing to sing a last final outro. It feels like a real moment. Believable. It puts you THERE. More than the other movies (which were all awesome in their own ways) this video showed me the possibility of what immersive VR video could bring. I wanna see the inside of a smokey jazz club or get strapped onto a guy in a birdman suit with this… the potential scenarios are dumbfounding.

    Playhead:

    It’s a game similar to Frequency, or Guitar Hero where you have note lanes you have to do things in conjunction with. Only now you’re inside of it! It’s the first music-based titled I’ve played and like “Strangers” above, this one shows you the promise of what’s possible. The whole experience is not very long, but the song is cool and there are two sections where you emerge from the note lanes into an expansive open landscape with cliffs on either side of you, a winding river far below, and eventally a rising pyramid before you. All this seems to groove with the music in a real neat way and it feels good! I look forward to more levels within this game or more games like it.

    Darknet:

    Okay, here’s the meat. Darknet is a slow burn, starting out as a nifty hacking puzzle game that borrows from many cyberpunk influences to create a dazzling world of stylized computer networks you stand inside of. At first it seems easy and bite sized. But then you complete your first hack and you do another one, and another one… and the brilliance of this game slowly reveals itself. It keeps getting harder and the time alloted doesn’t get longer. You unlock new options and you start to see there’s a lot of subtlety to how you can approach the puzzles, which have themselves added on new roadblocks. More than anything else on the Gear VR, this one has legs as an addictive way to spend time. The music sets a pitch-perfect vibe and when you experience that barely-made-it hack that only gets beaten in the last minute, the bug will bite you. If Gear VR has a “killer app” so far, this is it. As I write this, I’m excited to get back in and hack some more!

    looking at the inside of the lenses with the phone in... you're looking at the matrix code although it's too distorted to see from this distance.
    Returning back to the overall device, Oculus has been posting updates to the available content every Tuesday, which is fantastic! Each batch of new VR jams is a set of other dimensions to step inside of… because in VR a photo is not just a photo, it’s a place to be. It’s a new frontier in the way we view things. The content and the experiences may be just a few drips from a tap that’s slowly opening but what’s here already is mesmerizing, spellbinding. It really does feel like a kind of magic trick. It’s exciting to be in-on-the-scene here, with this technology that really feels like it is on the cusp of exploding. When you stand inside of it, it sweeps you up and you want to show it to other people. Everyone should see this. It amazes. And you wonder “why is this not everywhere?!” Pretty soon it will be. It just has to.

    SimCity 2013: The Phantom Menace – putting the “limited” in Limited Edition


    2013 - 03.21

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    So I wrote a little blurb shortly after the launch of Simcity, but the news on this game has been evolving so rapidly that what I’d written felt irrelevant before I could even publish it.  It’s been a strange tale.  I haven’t actually bought the game yet, and that turned out to be the right call.  As I’ve observed the commotion, my feelings on the game went from major excitement, to pessimistic disappointment, and eventually to my current ambivalence.  The pre-release hype made it seem like this was going to be a return to the glory days of one of the best franchises in all of gaming, and then the reality set in at launch: servers were crushed under the initial load, then once people finally did get started playing, the gameplay was revealed to be broken on multiple levels.  I was super excited about this one for months on end, and now I wonder if I’ll even get it….

    I won’t even begin to chronicle the plain-out-weird tale of corporate-newspeak from EA/Maxis and their apologetics for why the game absolutely had to be online-only.  That story will probably go down as a textbook example of how not to handle a PR meltdown.  The superbly-written and eminently-thoughtful gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had unbeatable coverage of the whole fiasco, which is certainly worth perusing, if you’re interested.  Besides, they’re the best PC gaming blog in the biz today, check em out.

    A couple weeks in, it sounds like most (but not all) of the server-related killjoys have been addressed.  But perhaps more nefariously, the game’s underlying AI seems to have deep problems with pathfinding.  Epic traffic jams that span whole highways between city.  Fire trucks stuck in the station, or simply never arriving.  Pedestrians wandering in circles endlessly around the same intersection, blocking all traffic.  Trade frozen.  Bus pileups as far as the eye can see.  Once your city gets big enough, these unfixable problems begin to break it. 

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    There are other weirdnesses that make no sense: it’s possible to build nothing but roads and residential zones, and end up with a 60k population… in spite of the fact that your city has no commercial zones, industrial zones, power, water, sewer, trash, police, hospitals, etc etc. 

    People have have also lamented that city size is much more restricted than it ever was in SC2k and that disasters cannot be disabled.  Those are overshadowed further by the downright baffling design choice that you can’t even save a copy of your city… which used to allow experimentation with the freedom of restoring to an earlier save-state.  Your city data is not stored on your local computer, apparently?  You have no possession of the content you create now.  That’s just… deeply unfortunate. 

    In spite of all this, odds are I’ll end up buying this game in good time, assuming they can fix the worst of the pathfinding problems.  I’m glad to be reading all this trash-talk before I ever touch the thing.  No game has a soft spot in my personal Venn-diagram of nostalgia/videogames the way Simcity does.

    I remember as a grade-school kid, staying after school for hours to play the original Simcity in the computer lab, since home computers were a rarity in those days.  One time no one knew where I was, and it even prompted a moment of panic until they found me at the PC, just building my city again.  Then when my best friend got Simcity for his SNES we played the dickens out of that, even with lots of other games vying for attention.  We would take turns building and strategizing, laying on the living room floor for hours while his parakeets cheeped and that same music looped over and over.  SimAnt was another addictive one for me when we eventually got our first home PC.  Taking over the whole yard and eventually forcing the humans out of the house was strangely gratifying, and the game somehow made ant-trivia fascinating.  Then fast-forward to junior high when Simcity 2000 (aka SC2k) came out… whoooo, I don’t even want to know how many hours went into that.  One of the all-time top-10 on all platforms, if you ask me.

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    So it’s tough not to approach a new Simcity with giddy overenthusiasm, reminiscent of how I probably felt in the theater watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace for the first time.  Sure, all your favorite tropes are here, but uhhh, you’d better tame those expectations: childlike wonder is by no means guaranteed!

    And how could it be, really?  Part of what made Simcity 2000 such an amazing powerhouse was the fact that I played it at a point in life where I was old enough to grab my bike and ride off to any part of town, yet too young to be expected to work; a moment in life when free time was endless, and the relatively-new world of 3D videogames was a fascination with few rivals.  There was all the time in the world to build that perfect masterpiece, then realize all the oversights you’d made in dreaming it up, tear it all down, start over, and build the real masterpiece this time… ad infium.

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    Looking at the screenshots of people’s creations (those who have been able to play) brings back a wash of fond recollections of the old Simcities.  This series is sort of the original and greatest “sandbox” game.  One with no win or lose condition, no time limit, no missions to complete, just your imagination.  I really look forward to spending some time in Maxis’ latest iteration of that wonderland I used to get so lost within–I’m just tamping down my expectations.  This is Simcity: The Phantom Menace.  And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can’t actually BUY it.  You can only RENT it from Electronic Arts.  That is, when they decide to eventually shut down the servers for good in some years time, that’s it, everyone’s done.  There will be no dusty box in the closet with a CD in it that will allow you to reinstall a working copy.  Nor will there be a stack of 3.5″ floppy disks that got lost for years, only to be found under the bed one day, allowing some magical time warp back to your old experiments, quirky half-successes, and weird ideas.  Those save games kept that time portal open, in a way that few toys could–your LEGO creations could never rebuild themselves into a badass spaceship you created that one time, and the particles in the real-life sandbox of your backyard can never reassemble into the sweet castle your pal Jake made with his tower-shaped bucket.  There is a euphoria in rewinding.

    Those days are gone.  The future is here, and what’s new isn’t always better.

    Instead of a sarcastic “Thanks EA” I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy Simcity 2013 at face value.  It’ll never be able to touch SC2k in terms of pure addictive thrill.  And when it’s over it’s gone forever.  I’ll make a point to enjoy it in the moment, going in knowing that’s a very pretty, but ultimately much smaller, more limited world than my nostalgia wants to paint it.

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    2 years in Microcosmology: Retrospective


    2012 - 12.27

    2012 has been a huge year for me.  I bought a house and got engaged.  Big stuff.  This year I was considerably less active on the website compared to 2011, although it’s because I’ve been more busy doing things around the house, doing more car repairs on my own, and of course, working on this new model railroad which I now have space for.  It’s been a happy time for me.  And a very industrious one!

    Last year on Microcosmologist I crossed paths with several personal heroes of mine and that in and of itself was super fulfilling.  This year has been much more humble and introspective by comparison, and that’s not a bad thing.

    I have also done some real cool stuff that just hasn’t made it onto the site yet.  There are two very cool timelapses that haven’t been posted, a ton of great pictures that still need to be uploaded, and many poems that need to make their way onto the periodic table.

    Speaking of poetics, as a new year’s resolution last year I told myself I needed a new push to write more poems.  I created a folder called “Project Renissance” with the goal of writing a poem a day.  Predictably, I fell far short of that lofty goal, but the project was an unmitigated success, in the sense that it generated a giant amount of writing, far exceeding what I did in 2011.  I need to push myself to keep the momentum up.  I think growing closer to completion on the poetic table will help a lot.  When it is complete, I plan to make it into a second book, which is additional motivation.  That one is near the top of the list for 2013…

    How about you, dear readers?  Anything you want to see more of on here?  Any goals of your own for the coming year?  We survived the Mayan Apocalypse so I think some celebration is in order!

    Engine Disassembly Level: Holy $#/+!


    2012 - 11.29

    I know for a lot of people out there this isn’t anything all that scary, but for me, the novice car repairman, this was super intimidating. I was performing a valve cover gasket replacement and vanos piston seal upgrade. I did this several weeks ago and I only now feel comfortable posting a picture because the car still works!

    Greetings from Glorious Bear Creek


    2012 - 11.09

    So me and my pal Billiam are attending our third consecutive Bear Creek Music Festival and I have zero doubts that this one will be just as hot as the previous ones.  Slight twist though: this year I will be attending purely as an observer/enjoyer.  Last year I was granted a press pass and used it as an excuse to rent some cool photo gear like a steadicam and a 2nd camera body.  I also brought along a custom slider I made, which was fun to use.  The results of all this are dutifully recorded under the Bear Creek tag.  It was an awesome experience, no question, but I do admit, when you’re investing energy into chronicling what’s happening, you do miss out on ‘the moment’.

    This year I will be solely devoted to savoring ‘the moment’ as it unfolds.   And that’s gonna be awesome!