Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Top 3 Albums I First Listened to in 2011

It's the one year anniversary (plus a few weeks) of my resolution to create 333 top-3 lists and post them to my blog. As evidenced by my now international fame, it's been a rousing success. To celebrate, tonight I'm going to reprise top-3 #1. Here are my three favorite albums that I first listened to in 2011.

3. Ratatat: LP4 (2010)
2011 started out as a bit of a bummer for me, musicwise. One of my all-time favorite pop groups, Freezepop released their first "post-Duke" album. The result was so un-Freezepop that the electro-pop loving piece of my brain slid into major depression. Fortunately, that part of my brain doesn't have any important responsibilities, but I was concerned about it just the same.

Enter Ratatat and their fourth album, LP4. I don't know how this slipped to 2011, but I'm glad it did because it was just the pick-me-up that electro-pop part-of-brain needed. It's Ratatat. It's exactly what you'd expect. And it's fantastic.

I know that Freezepop primed me for this reaction a bit, but I honestly think that Ratatat could put out 20 more albums exactly like this and I'd love every one. Who says you need to innovate to stay fresh? Perfection + iteration works just fine.

The Duke of Pannekoeken was Freezepop's co-founder and "programmer", his primary instrument being this thing. He left in 2009 to lead the development of the Dance Central video games for Kinect. :(

2. Blue Scholars: Cinemetropolis (2011)
Blue Scholars are a hip hop duo from Seattle. Their first album (2004) hooked me in about ten different ways. First, it was just plain good—smart, slick rhymes over smooth, catchy beats. Second, it was all about Seattle, which I was completely in love with at the time. Third, I was in on it early, snagging the original, self-released version of the album when I heard it playing at the great (and sadly defunct) Cellophane Square. And also about seven more ways. The point is, I loved it.

The next few albums/EPs were fine, but they didn't hook me like that first one. They were a little too smooth, verging on boring, and I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit for another. When I heard the new album would be self-released through Kickstarter though, I signed up with a slight sense of obligation. Gotta support the local dudes doing it proper, and all that.

Anyway, May 2011 rolled around and I got a shiny new download link in my inbox. Again feeling obliged (since the perk for supporters was early access to the album), I downloaded and listened to it that night... and it was so awesome.

Gone are the sedate, jazz-based beats of Blue Scholars-past, replaced by a spectacularly danceable electronic soundscape. DJ Sabzi had been slowly adding synths into his beats, but I don't think anybody saw this revolution coming. He is a fantastic electronic producer, and absolutely makes this album.

Check it: Old Blue Scholars—pleasant and likable. New Blue Scholars—yeeeooow, that's hot!

Thus, in direct contradiction to the above, sometimes you have to completely reinvent yourself to retain my affection. I hope all my favorite bands are taking notes.

1. Eero Johannes (2008)
In contrast to Ratatat and Blue Scholars, I have no history with Eero Johannes, and so perhaps the least to say about this album, my favorite that I first listened to in 2011. But I'm completely smitten, so I'll do my best.

Eero Johannes is Finnish, a graphic designer by day and an electronic producer by night. He's part of an electronic movement/genre in Scandanavia called "skweee". I assumed the name was onomatopoeic, but Wikipedia says it comes from trying to "squeeze" the most interesting sounds out of old synths. Regardless of the etymology, the name is fittingly gleeful. The genre is bright, airy, funky, and playful.

The thing Eero Johannes does so well (like Justice), is to make experimental-sounding music exceedingly catchy. There's all sorts of weird stuff going on here—syncopated beats, squeeky beeps, bursts of white noise, chopped up sounds, and a huge diversity of synth patches in each track—but Johannes never loses track of the melody and spins the whole delicate mess into some seriously addicting hooks. Just a fantastic album.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Risk Legacy and Games as Stuff

There's a joke among boardgamers that whenever you introdce a non-gamer to a new game, they inevitably say, "oh, so it's like Risk?" Risk is more than just a boardgame--it's an institution and cultural reference point. It's also a money-making machine, or so I guess by its huge number of differently themed editions. But unlike fellow mainstream juggernaut Monopoly, Risk's variants almost always change the game in substantive ways. Risk is a constantly evolving classic, not content to rest on its laurels, but never straying too far from that which made it great.

And I do think Risk is great. The game is fervently hated by the majority of hobby gamers. If you're a writer, think Stephenie Meyer. If you're a programmer, think COBOL or Perl. But the game has its defenders among the knowledgeable (like Perl, but unlike COBOL or Meyer, as far as I know), and I consider myself one of them (both knowledgeable and a defender). Few games can match the epic feel of Risk with rules so simple. It contains no story-telling mechanics or flavor text, but a narrative emerges from every game. The rules don't say anything about diplomacy, but enduring alliances and devastating treasons are a huge part of the game. In short, Risk does a lot with a little, and although I rarely play it any more, I still very much respect and admire it.

That's why I think Rob Daviau has such an awesome job. He's a game designer for Hasbro, responsible for shaping the future of classic franchises like Risk. I imagine there are a lot of constraints on creativity working for a mass-market company like Hasbro (which has put out more than its fair share of crap), but Rob consistently does great stuff anyway. The point of this essay, however, is that maybe this view of Hasbro is wrong or changing, because they have just announced something bold, innovative, and awesome--Risk Legacy, by Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis.

The premise is that as you play the game, you permanently modify your copy. Based on the decisions players make in-game, you might place stickers on the board or on the cards that change them forever, or mark them up with pen; a decision might lead to the permanent destruction of a card, or the opening of a sealed pack that introduces new cards or other elements into this and all future games. Your game becomes your own, unlike any other, as you enhance and destroy it.

It's not the first game to implement the idea of persistent state (see every RPG ever), but it's the first to do so in such a straightforward and destructive way. The thing that makes this idea so radical, that will perhaps be lost on non-hobby gamers, is the extent to which the actual physical components of a board game are venerated by many in the hobby. People go to great lengths to keep their games in pristine condition, putting every card in a plastic sleeve, banning friends from drinking at the table, making everyone wash their hands every time they touch their forehead, and so on. I admit I'm guilty of some of it too, but it misses the point.

To get highfalutin for a paragraph, I think that a good game, in the abstract, has immense value. A shared social experience centered around a game is also extremely valuable. A particular copy of a game is just a cardboard and plastic manifestation of that value, not the value itself. Too often, I think, we fret over the preservation of a $20 game at the much greater expense of our enjoyment of it.

In that sense, I think Risk Legacy has the potential to be extremely liberating. As part of the game you will have to destroy it. There will no doubt be geeks who come up with elaborate workarounds for actually destroying the game, putting the stickers on sleeves or fixing them with removable tape or something. And whatever. For those who truly embrace the premise, I think Risk Legacy will be cathartic, helping us to overcome our compulsions and anxieties and enjoy games for what they are--a little bit of stuff that facilitates something greater.

I'm not advocating that games be disposable. I still intend to take care of my games and hope others do too, but I'd prefer to actually think and worry about that as little as possible. My immediate reaction to Risk Legacy was: Mangle my game?! Blasphemy!! I like that it's challenging that reaction though, and the game itself sounds very cool. Credit to Hasbro, Rob, and Chris for a ballsy move. And long live Risk!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Top 3 Jeff Francoeur Pictures

I've been working on my paper all night and I desperately needed a break and pick-me-up, so I compiled my top 3 favorite Jeff Francoeur photos of all time. It wasn't easy. Just type "Jeff Francoeur" into Google Images and you'll see. I was sad that I had to leave out some great ones from his bearded depressive period in Texas.

3. Jeff Francoeur catches a routine fly ball.

2. Jeff Francoeur swings just over the top of it.

You can't tell because of the camera angle, but dude's got the dopiest grin ever on his face right now.

1. Jeff Francoeur gets some sad news.

A simple picture that just says it all. The vacant but slightly maniacal eyes, the absurd grin, the unquenchable cheer.

And if you think this is just an awkward moment caught on camera, I again direct you to Google Images. This is his facial expression 90% of the time. Swinging the bat (often), throwing the ball, running the bases (rarely).

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Top 3 Seattle Mariners

I plan to do all 29 remaining MLB teams tomorrow to make up some ground, so brace yourself for that. I would have done them tonight, but well, I got a little carried away writing about the Mariners. I do love that stupid team.

1. Felix Hernandez
2. Ichiro!
3. Michael Saunders

It's hard to overstate just how much I love the first two guys on this list--they're two of my absolute favorite athletes of all time. When the M's were horrible and depressing, Ichiro gave me a reason to still love and watch them and Felix gave me hope for the future.

I distinctly remember when we first signed Ichiro, seemingly out of the blue when A-Rod left for Texas and a quarter of a billion dollars. It was the third straight year that we'd lost a surefire Hall of Famer and we all knew the M's run of goodness was over, but Ichiro made things interesting all of a sudden. He was mysterious and quirky, and a megastar way bigger than even Griffey in his homeland. The Japanese media circus around him was unlike anything you'd ever see for an American baseball player, and his game was so fundamentally un-American that nobody really knew what to expect, especially since he was going to be the first-ever starting Japanese position player in MLB. We were excited to find out, but nervous that his finesse game and tiny body wouldn't translate to the faster, stronger, longer American game.

In his second game, he laid down the most beautifully perfect bunt I've ever seen. I'm not a fan of the bunt, but this one was so perfect that I thought, maybe, just maybe this whole Ichiro thing would work. A week later, Ichiro was hitting great but was held out of the lineup for the first time at a game in Oakland. A bunch of fans had been yelling racist taunts at him throughout the previous game, so the manager decided to give him a break rather than risk some kind of incident (seriously, this was in 2001--Oakland). Ichiro pinch hit in the 8th and got a huge clutch single to spark a rally that put the team in the lead. In the bottom of the same inning, now in right field, he gunned down speedy Terrence Long going first-to-third with a throw so awesome people in Seattle and Japan call it simply "The Throw". That was when we knew this dude was the real deal, for really real, a baseball player unlike any other, especially in the Juice Era.

By the end of the season, Ichiro had a batting title, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year Award, and a team with the most wins in MLB history. Alex who? Three years later when the team around him was finally terrible for good, he broke the MLB single-season hits record... and I was there! Ichiro is amazing, and I can't imagine what the last decade of Mariners baseball would have been like without him.

Now Felix. Oh boy, I've got a lot to say about him too, but I'll try to keep it shorter. The Mariners pitching prospect attrition rate is something like 1000% the MLB average, so when we learned about the 16 year old Venezuelan kid tearing up the minor leagues, all we could collectively think, was oh please, oh please don't get hurt. The M's were absolutely horrible during this period, and one of the worst run teams in baseball, so there was little hope of things getting better any time soon. Except there was Felix.

He forced his way onto the major league team at only 19 years old and set the baseball world on fire. I went to all but two of his home starts his first two seasons in the league, when I was working near the stadium. Although he was one of the youngest players in baseball and well above-average, his next couple of seasons were considered a disappointment by many after his incredible start. The last two years, however, he's lived up to his extremely lofty expectations, finishing second in the 2009 Cy Young race, and winning it last year, despite playing on the worst team in the league.

If it seems like it took a long time for Felix to take home the prize (six years), consider this amazing fact: Felix Hernandez, with six excellent major league seasons already under his belt, is just one year (to the day) older than Jeremy Hellickson, the current number one pitching prospect in baseball. At the age Hellickson is now, as he's just breaking into the major leagues, Felix had already thrown over 900 innings and struck out over 800 batters. That's incredible.

But of course, being incredible isn't reason enough to rank ahead of the amazingly awesome Ichiro. Earning that honor takes a little extra something. And that something is this: In 2008 I went to New York City for the first time, and watched the Mariners play the Mets at Shea Stadium. By sheer good luck, Felix was pitching against defending Cy Young winner Johan Santana. With the bases loaded, Felix came to the plate for just the ninth time in his career, against arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He hit a grand slam, of course. A freakin' grand slam off Johan Santana, with me in the stands jumping all over the place.

The Mets fans were great--they didn't seem to mind my boisterous glee during their anguish; they joked with me for a while, then commiserated when Felix hurt his ankle later and had to come out of the game. Queens ain't Oakland, that's for sure.

So that's the lengthy story of why Felix and Ichiro are my two favorite Mariners. I also like the young Michael Saunders a lot, and hope to have some similarly amazing tales to tell of his exploits one day.

(6 of 333)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Top 3 Raw Nuts

They're all drupes!

1. Walnuts
2. Almonds
3. Pecans

(5 of 333)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Top 3 Planets in Our Solar System (Excluding Earth)

I was a total space geek when I was a kid. I liked reading about black holes and quasars, and looking at pictures of galaxies and nebulae, but my biggest fascination was always with the planets. While all those other things were fascinating and amazing, they were also unfathomably huge and distant. Planets, on the other hand, were so tantalizingly close, yet still out of our reach. I could imagine walking on them, orbiting them, or watching them from their moons. And they were all so weird and different, despite being so (relatively) close to home.

I had a ton of books about space, but my favorite was the Space Atlas. It was an absolutely wonderful book with a huge two-page spread dedicated to each planet, packed with pictures and drawings and tons of information. I must have read that book a hundred times in bed and had every fact about every planet memorized. Naturally, I had my favorites, and they have remained mostly unchanged over the years.

3. Jupiter
Besides being the biggest and weirdest looking planet, Jupiter is especially awesome because of its incredible moons. With Europa and Io, it was almost like loving three amazing and strange planets for the price of one! That three or four Earths could fit in the Great Red Spot blew my mind, and the prospect of life under Europa's icy surface kept me up thinking late into many nights.

For lack of a better segue, now check out the most amazing animated GIF ever! That's one photo every Jupiter day for an Earth month, as Voyager 1 approached the planet. This is what the internet is for, folks.

2. Venus
The radar image of Venus above was first released when I was a kid, and was the first time that we ever got to see the surface of the planet in detail. Both aspects of that fact made me love Venus. First, I loved the intrigue, that our closest (and in many ways most similar) planetary sibling spent most of human existence shrouded in mysterious clouds. Second, I felt like I was on the cutting edge of new knowledge. Here I was, a space-loving kid, and one of the first people in all of human history to see the surface of our fiery neighbor. Not only that, but these new pictures led to all sorts of crazy new theories, like that the whole surface of the planet melts once every few hundred million years. Cool!

1. Neptune
Like Venus, my love of Neptune is partly related to astronomical events from my childhood. I grew up during a 20 year period where Neptune was actually further from the sun than Pluto, and I loved to smugly correct people when they said Pluto was the most distant planet.

Even more significant was when they started finding other Kuiper Belt objects (not yet named as such) in the outer solar system. I absolutely ate this news up, making my mom buy Astronomy magazine every time "New Planet Discovered!" appeared at the top. These distant worlds were almost impossible to imagine and the fuzzy dots absolutely did not satisfy me. Then I learned that astronomers suspected Neptune's moon Triton was a captured one of these distant icy "planets"; I had great pictures of Triton in my Space Atlas! This gave my imagination all the fodder it needed.

Other fascinating tidbits were that Triton, like Europa, had a (much smaller) chance of life beneath its icy surface. And that Neptune had a Great Dark Spot of its own--though this turned out later to be sadly just a transient storm.

(4 of 333)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Top 3 Atari 2600 Games

The NES became generally available in the US when I was just two years old but I was ignorant of its existence until elementary school. Even then, we didn't have one in our house until my seventh birthday (the most exciting present ever--thanks Mom and Dad!). Instead, I cut my gaming teeth on my dad's Atari 2600. My parents successfully passed off our Atari as a "Nintendo" for several months before I finally played the real deal at a friend's, but even after I had wised up, the Atari got plenty of use. Even my NES-owning friends would come over to play the Atari. Why? Because we had every single game.

Well, maybe not every game, but we had several hundred. You see, we were either multi-millionaires or my dad had a friend rig up a cartridge with an EPROM port and burn a zillion games onto chips for us. I will leave the truth ambiguous to avoid directly incriminating my father as either a pirate or a money-grubbing oppressor of the proletariat.

In any case, we had a lot of games and I played them all to death. Not only when I was a kid, but again in high school when one of my first acts on the internet was to create an Atari 2600 fan and FAQ site. In other words, while my opinions on canned fruit cocktail may be unrefined, on this topic, I'm a coinnosseur.

3. Fast Food
And so I mortgage my credibility on the first entry. Fast Food is not one of the three best Atari 2600 games. It's probably not even one of the thirty best Atari 2600 games. But it's my third favorite.

You play a disembodied mouth who flies around the screen eating as much fast food as you can while avoiding the treacherous purple pickles. Eat eight purple pickles and you burp; game over. It sounds stupid and it is. But it's also maddeningly addicting. When you start out, the food scrolls across the screen slowly, but as you eat more and your score gets higher, the food starts whizzing across. The purple pickles tuck themselves in behind those delicious milkshakes, and as the pace gets more frantic you just can't help eating some.

It's painful to rank Fast Food above masterpieces like Pitfall! and the Atari port of Ms. Pac-Man (both of which I completely adore), but when I think of my Atari, this is one of the first games I think of and will be one of the first in the system when I next dust it off.

2. Adventure
Unlike Fast Food, this game has plenty of admirers. It's notable for two reasons (besides being a fun game): (1) It contained the first popularly-known easter egg, and (2) it is the first ever action-adventure game, a genre which a few years later gave us the immortal Legend of Zelda.

Adventure is several orders of magnitude simpler than Zelda, but it seemed an amazingly complex game at the time. The goal is to carry a chalice back to your home castle. The world is a maze of rooms with a couple other castles and several items strewn about. There is a bridge which lets you walk through walls, keys to unlock each castle, and an arrow to slay the three evil dragons zooming around and trying to eat you (and looking like ducks). The hero is a simple square that can carry one item at a time, so the game revolves around the logistics of getting the items you need to the right places in the right order, while making sure your arrow is never too far away in case a dragon turns up.

The thing that made this game great is how different it was from everything else. In most Atari games, everything but your score is random and transient--you shoot random bad guys, you eat random fast food, you pass random cars. In Adventure, if you unlock a door and store an item inside the room, when you come back 15 minutes later, the door is still unlocked and the item is still there. It seems silly from today's perspective, but this was just so amazingly cool.

I still find this game very fun to play and it's one of the few that doesn't suffer too much from playing on an emulator (arrow keys just aren't the same as those stiff-then-squishy joysticks), so I come back to Adventure pretty regularly even after all these years.

1. River Raid
I consider River Raid one of the finest games ever made. It probably got as much play on my Atari as all other games combined. It's a scrolling shooter, which is hardly unique on the 2600, but there are many things that set it apart from its competitors. First, you must manage your fuel--this is another example of sophistication that you just don't see in other Atari games. Second, you control the scroll speed (and this affects fuel consumption), giving you much more control than in most shooters. Third, the world is huge, cleverly designed, and non-random. Large, non-random levels are rare in Atari games due to the extremely limited space on the ROMs. River Raid achieves this by generating the world algorithmically rather than storing it directly.

River Raid isn't just an awesome game though; it's historically significant! The game was designed and programmed by Carol Shaw, the first female game designer. It wasn't her first game, but it's her best. Sadly, she retired just a few years after creating River Raid. Many of the successful early designers went on to be influential in the industry and I often wonder how (or if) things would be different with a prominent female designer from the get-go.

In conclusion, pew pew! River Raid, yeah!

(3 of 333)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Top 3 Ingredients in Canned Fruit Cocktail

1. Cherry
2. Pineapple
3. Pear

Is there anyone out there that doesn't like the cherries the best? I wonder how much the fruit distribution of canned fruit cocktail affects our preferences. I like the peaches the least, but they're usually the most common. Would my preferences be different if there were as many cherries as there are peaches and only two peach bits per can?

(2 of 333)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

1 of 333: Top 3 Albums I First Listened to in 2010

Your mom likes a gimmick and I'm here to provide her with one. Not just any gimmick, but a triply nested gimmick: 333 top-3 lists. See, they're top 3 lists, and the number 333 is represented (in base 10) as 3 occurrences of the digit 3. (That the gimmick is thus triply nested might be considered a fourth occurrence of the number 3, but we must be careful with this line of reasoning since the gimmick then becomes quadruply nested leading to an unsettling paradox.)

It seems my fan blog is back in business. We'll see if he can keep up.

Top 3 Albums I First Listened to in 2010

3. La Roux (2009)
Allison picked this one out as something I'd like after she heard someone playing it at school. It's kitschy synthpop with a female lead singer, which is right up my alley, but on the first listen I actually wasn't so sure. La Roux has a much fuller sound than Freezepop, who are one of my favorite synthpop groups, but they're also much more obviously intentionally 80's-sounding (a turn-off).

Ultimately though, I was won over by the excellent hooks and the bravado and voice of singer Elly Jackson. Now it's one of my absolute favorite synthpop albums, and my third favorite album I first listened to in 2010.

2. Lateef & Z-Trip: Ahead of the Curve (2007)
I don't know how I missed Lateef the Truthspeaker for so long. I'm a casual fan of many of his associated acts (DJ Shadow, Gift of Gab, Jurassic 5), and he's one-third of an album called "Droppin' Science Fiction" released on the same label as Aesop Rock (Definitive Jux). If that didn't catch my attention, I don't know what would.

Anyway, this is ostensibly a mix album of older work though much of it is actually new. It's also really, really good. I like a full and catchy production and Z-Trip provides it--the drums are heavy and there are some amazing transitions, especially between tracks 7 and 8. There's almost a rock feel to many of the tracks. All of this is kept from feeling like a Linkin Park album by Lateef's unique soul-infused style--sometimes rapping, sometimes singing, often in between.

Also awesome is Maroons: Ambush, also featuring Lateef.

1. Marina and the Diamonds: The Family Jewels (2010)
Maybe it's just a guilty pleasure that I haven't yet recognized as such, but I truly think this is one of the best pop albums ever. It's kitschy and quirky and strong and fantastic. Despite the name, Marina and the Diamonds is a one-woman show, written and performed by Marina Diamandis. Although the rest is good, it's the vocals that truly make the album. Marina's got an eccentric oomph that I find utterly enthralling.

The style of the album ranges all over the place but the sound is almost always bold and interesting. The album is also tied together thematically, focusing mostly on commercial success--the sacrifices required to achieve it and the social impact of its glorification. It's a theme that has the potential to be trite coming from an aspiring pop star, but Marina pulls it off.

Rarely have I anticipated an album as much as Marina's next.

So there you have it. Number 1 of 333 down. I will almost certainly be more terse in the future. Feel free to unsubscribe when I resort to ranking my top-3 players on every MLB team.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A very brief rebuttal ...

... to the philosopher in the 2nd floor bathroom stall of the Kelley Engineering Center, who wrote:

Happiness is a pause between 2 moments of suffering.

I assume this sentence is intended to elicit a sense of despair by marginalizing happiness as the temporary lack of suffering. However, it fails on several counts.

If my assumption is correct, our philosopher presumably believes that there exists more than two moments of suffering. Therefore, suffering is equivalently a moment between two pauses of happiness. In other words, our philosopher's insight is little more than trite pessimism of the glass-half-empty variety. In fact, it is actually a weaker pessimistic observation than the half-empty glass, since a moment implies a briefer period of time than a pause.

Consider yourself owned, bathroom philosopher. Now back to this proposal I'm supposed to be working on.