Saturday, September 26, 2009

The fine art of managing one's Netflix queue

Someone really should come up with a word for that awful thing that happens when you fail to properly manage your Netflix queue and end up with a disc that's completely wrong for your current mindset.

Last night, I vigorously ripped open one of those cunning red Netflix envelopes, happy in the certainty that it contained the conclusion of a "Star Trek" two-parter I had started the night before. Imagine my shock at finding a disc I'd saved to my queue 18 months ago: the ultra-paranoid documentary "Loose Change 9/11," a provocative — some might say offensive — treatise on how the U.S. government was allegedly complicit in the worst terrorist attack in American history.

At least, that's what I think it's about. I haven't yet watched it, not having been able, last night, to make the mental shift from my planned agenda to one focused on mass murder and allegedly evil right-wing politicos. It sounded just a bit too far from all that Starfleet optimism.

Bottom line, manage that queue....

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September breezes

Since fall really seems about to descend, I and two colleagues decided that this week would be a good time for one last summer outting. So after wrapping up work last night, we headed for an outdoor patio in the financial district.

If you don't know Boston, the financial district is close to the harbor, and it's very pretty, with lots of art deco buildings, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is lovely in the evening.

Sadly, we couldn't get a seat on the patio we'd been aiming for — I guess everyone had the same idea — but that was OK. We ended up in a cozy booth in a pub with lots of windows and doors that propped open so you could see the sky. We weren't anywhere with a water view, but you could smell the salt in the air, and the evening was the perfect crisp cool of September.

The pub we visited is known for its chowder, but I ordered popcorn shrimp and a watermelon martini. Just as exciting, the establishment had a jukebox well stocked with Michael Jackson tunes, both the popular and somewhat obscure. I played 10, concentrating on "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," but with a few "Dangerous" and "Bad" selections mixed in. Fantastic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I dreamed I destroyed the sun

Occasionally, on "Star Trek," the captain is faced with the prospect of having to sacrifice himself, the ship, and its crew in order to avoid some greater disaster. A dream I had last night borrowed this theme, though I wasn't on a starship or anything like that. I was right here in my living room.

In my dream, there was some sort of cataclysmic event that was about to occur, the sort of thing that could destroy the entire galaxy. I had colleagues who were working to avert it. But if their efforts failed, we would have to contain the damage by destroying our own solar system. That would be pretty bad, obviously, but not as bad as the alternative — letting the cataclysm snuff out both our solar system and the rest of the galaxy.

The way we would destroy the solar system, in this worst-case scenario, would be by launching a missile at the sun. I was the one in charge of this.

Things had to be timed exactly right. My colleagues needed to be given as much time as possible before we gave up and launched the missile. But if they were unsuccessful and the missile were launched too late, everything would be lost.

I was sitting here on my sofa, staring at information on their progress that I was streaming onto this laptop. I realized that they probably were going to fail. Still, I waited. Finally I realized that I was waiting too long. I entered the instructions for the launch — using some sort of Google mapping app, of course; what else? The countdown began, displayed in dark blue numbers in a yellow box.

I was so stressed over whether I had waited too long that I almost forgot to be sad and scared about what was happening. As I watched the animation of the missile's progress, I wondered how it would feel and look when the sun exploded, how quickly people would die, and whether it would hurt. It felt strange to think about these things while also hoping desperately that I hadn't failed in my mission.

While watching the image of the moving missile on my laptop, for a horrible moment I thought the missile would miss its target. Then it righted itself. I saw it enter the sun, and my computer told me that it had detonated.

I looked up toward my bay windows and saw the sky go dark. On the interior of the windows, I saw words illuminated: "Goodbye to everyone I ever knew." It got very hot. I wondered if the world would explode, and I waited, and waited.

Then I woke up. My space heater was set too high. I turned it off and made breakfast. Later I worked on a drawing, baked cranberry muffins, and watched an episode of "Star Trek." No one died.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Vinyl — it's the new crack

While IMing a co-worker yesterday, I typed the following question: "Do you think I should pick up the 'picture' vinyl version of 'Thriller'?" His response: "You're out of control."

"Here's some advice: create a record budget, and only spend that," my helpful co-worker told me. "We may need to detox you."

Yes, people are trying to intervene. Ever since I bought my turntable, I can't stop buying records.

The context of the above convo is that a few of us had just gone for an innocent lunch at a Greek place around the corner from the office. Afterward, one of my co-workers suggested a stop at Newbury Comics. (For those not of New England: that's a music/comic book store — these days, mainly music.)

Things started out pretty harmlessly. I picked out and paid for a relatively cheap ($13) 45 of two "Billie Jean" remixes (the Dirty Funker remixes). But while my friends were browsing in books, I drifted back to those tempting vinyl bins.

If only I hadn't come to the "W"s. There I succumbed to the siren call of two irresistable discs: Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," and the White Stripes' "Elephant," one of my all-time favorites. At $18 and $40, these buys kicked the cost of the afternoon up a significant notch.

Later on, someone pointed out that I already had "Back to Black" and "Elephant" on my iPod.

"Yes," I said, "but I only have them as MP3s." After receiving a blank stare, I explained, "MP3s are OK, but CDs sound better, and at the top is vinyl." Another blank stare and my friend dryly asked, "Where do tapes fit in?" Ah, I know such wits!

So how are my Newbury purchases? Pretty good. The "Billie Jean" remixes are awesome, and both Amy and the White Stripes sound fantastic in vinyl form.

My one slight complaint: "Back to Black" and "Elephant" are probably the first albums I've ever bought that were not recorded with vinyl in mind. As such, the song arrangements don't fit quite as nicely onto sides A and B (and, in the case of "Elephant," C and D) as well as compositions that were conceived of with vinyl in mind. Particularly with "Elephant," I think the album probably plays better start to finish with no breaks. Still, the vinyl sound quality is unmatchable.

The album art is also beautiful, especially on "Elephant." Some of the same art also appears in the CD liner notes, but the colors and effects are different there. For example, the cover of the record is a much darker red than you see on the CD liner notes.

Just to explain, the reason I have the "Elephant" liner notes but not the CD is because, at my last job, the disc disappeared one night from the CD player in my cube — whether by a case of theft or irresponsible borrowing, I never found out.

Anyway, I also love the picture of Jack and Meg dancing. In the CD notes, this is a black-and-white shot.

Exciting as these purchases were, I've decide to lay off for a while. Luckily, I still have one more hit coming before I go cold turkey; about a week ago, I ordered some remixes of the MJ tunes "Bad" and "Blood on the Dance Floor" from a British web site that specializes in "classic, rare, and deleted dance music."

I love the "deleted" specialty. How could I possibly resist great dance music that's sitting in someone's Recycle Bin, about to disappear forever!?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Chaotic space

There is an episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" in which the crew enters a region known as "chaotic space" — where sensors don't work, space shimmers, and unknown forces communicate using words plucked from the mouths of random individuals.

When I was in New York last weekend, I stumbled across an art installation that reminds me a bit of that episode.

The discovery was accidental: With an hour to kill before catching a bus at Port Authority, I decided to walk over to The New York Times building, which is right across the street from the terminal. I had never seen The Times building (which I have since learned is new), and I wondered whether they ever offer tours. After a nice security guard informed me that they do not, I wandered around the lobby a bit and spied a long orange passageway lined with what I thought were little plaques.

I went over for a closer look and was surprised to see that, though there were dozens and dozens of them, they were blank.

Then, without warning, they snapped to life, spitting out all kinds of seemingly random words.

This installation is called "Moveable Type 2007." Created by UCLA statistics professor Mark Hansen and New York-based artist Ben Rubin, it is composed of "vaccuum fluorescent displays, copper and steel cable, custom software, [and] two grids," according to a sign at the site.

The grids are situated on two long walls that face each other, each holding, I would guess, about 250 panels. Every minute or so, the panels update with information culled from The Times.

Sometimes each panel displays a question.

Other times, each panel shows a statement.

I found it easy to get transfixed by these panels, wondering who uttered such statements as "I was a rodent at the time, dying to be human," and "We have a few white people, not so many, but they're very nice."

Also provocative are the questions. I would like to know the answers to, and context of, queries like "Isn't there something nice, a lot cheaper, on Lake Michigan?" not to mention "Had there been a purpose?" More obvious (but no less fun) was one that popped up a couple of times while I was there: "A little tacky and vulgar, but would you want your steamy tangos and cha-chas any other way?"

The panels tend to go dark all at once, then they start lighting up in different ways. Sometimes the ones at the bottom light up first, and the content migrates gradually to the upper panels, creating a cool rolling effect.

Other times, each panel ignites with a dot of light that begins drawing a map. It's fun to try to identify as many of them as you can before they dissipate.

There are moments where all panels feature a line from an obituary. Other times, all panels display a number, along with a partial explanation of it (like this: "4-pound sea bass" and "1 stand devoted completely to watercress").

There are also crossword puzzle effects.

After writing most of this post, I dug up The Times' own article about the installation. Apparently, it was commissioned concurrent with The Times' move to its current location from its former one on West 43rd Street. It wasn't clear to me whether most of the text on the panels comes from the current day's paper, or whether an equal part comes from The Times' database of older stories, but I guess it doesn't really matter. Interestingly, the installaton also draws on search terms that users enter at The Times' web site,

The Times piece reminded me that there is an auditory element to the exhibit as well. If you had asked me before, I would have guessed that the sound was some nonintrusive music that falls silent a lot but chimes in when the panels begin lighting up. Other than, I couldn't really remember. The Times article identifies the sound as that of typewriter keys, "the lost music of newsrooms." According to an interesting interview the artists did with NPR's "On the Media," the sounds of rotary phones and teletype machines may also lend themselves to the score on occasion.

All in all, if you're wandering around the area in need of diversion, this is a fun one. NY has no shortage of diversions, of course, but "Moveable Type" was one of the more pleasant surprises I had during my short stay.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Sasha Sark. Please don't reuse without permission.
"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.