News and Notes
Think back to before computer-based illustration was hyper-real. Remember the 16-color palette? The cartoon outlines? The static viewing angle? Well, they're back. And they're better than ever. Not only will you find practical examples of pixel art all over the place, from online games to magazine illustrations. You've also got consumer products like t-shirts and building blocks aimed at quenching the cultural thirst for this retro style. One of my favorite incarnations of pixel art is Craig Robinson's minipops collection -- tiny little portraits of people like Sonic Youth and the characters from Big Lebowski and hundreds and hundreds more. If you want to explore the world of the pixel art, some decent starting places include eBoy, pixelfreak, Electriconland, and Craig Robinson's Flip Flop Flyin'. If you want to learn how to create your own pixelated masterpiece, then bookmark this tutorial.
It would be a shame to pigeonhole the Truckers as "Southern rock," despite the fact that they are Southern, do rock, and even have a double-length concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their latest release, The Dirty South, is about to drop, but do yourself a favor and get Decoration Day first. For immediate gratification, you can (legally) download a live version of the title track or hop over to KEXP's live music archive and check out performances from both Decoration Day and the upcoming release.
I went hunting for a single word to describe The Believer, in order to impart its fundamental nature as, um, indescribable. A self-assigned game of word association and I was thumbing to "freak" in the thesaurus. It's not that The Believer strays far from the beaten path of literature, music, art, and intriguing ephemera. It doesn't. But oh how it travels! The interviews are deep and often both sides of the exchange have very smart things to say. The articles are varied, and the regular features are unlike any you've ever seen (my favorite is Underway, where writers share what they're working on). The website has some exclusive content, but for the full experience, which offers the most beautiful magazine design I've ever seen, you'll need to scoop an actual copy. Back to the thesaurus: I didn't find any one word to describe the magazine, but after perusing the freak-related entries -- oddity, folly, non-conformist, enthusiast, and, yes, believer -- I knew I was in the right neighborhood.
This is my wife's favorite cookbook and so I'm going out on a limb by attempting to do it justice in a nugget. That said, I can vouch for these things: First, as a novelist and story writer, Laurie Colwin makes these essays a true pleasure to inhabit. The author herself is a compelling main character -- observant, opinionated, and wickedly funny. Second, the recipes are delicious. There aren't all that many, just one or two are featured within each short essay (most appeared as columns in Gourmet). Yam Cakes with Hot Pepper and Fermented Black Beans are a particular favorite. Finally, Colwin's own favorite cookbooks are a great foundation for any kitchen library. She frequently mentions the cooks that she admires: Jane Grigson, Edna Lewis, Margaret Costa, Elizabeth David, and others. Even if your cookbook shelf is full, make some room for Laurie Colwin, who sadly only produced two collections of food writing before her death.
Symphony no. 4
I saw this symphony last year and was duly impressed with the fourth movement and its overwhelming energy. However, it wasn't until I watched a recent broadcast of Great Performances that I began to appreciate the entire piece. A few weeks later, I spotted a recommendation from Alex Ross, pointing the way to PBS's multimedia presentation of the symphony. He describes the experience wonderfully: "...the true audience is that vast population of otherwise well-informed people for whom the rituals and codes of classical music are a closed book. This site, more than anything I've seen, opens it all up." Well, as a member of that true audience, I can fully attest to Ross's assessment. The page-by-page view of the musical score is a feature I would desperately love to have whenever I listen to classical music.
World Poker Tour
Okay, everyone knows it: Poker is hot. What was once just an innocent pastime between friends has blossomed into a multibillion dollar Internet phenomenon and broadcast entertainment juggernaut. And while escalating celebrity involvement usually signals the imminent decline of any interesting cultural trend, there is still a fair chance (AK vs. pocket 4s) that poker on television will still be around when Ben Affleck decides to go back to his day job. If it does, it will be thanks to the players on the World Poker Tour. Notice, I said the players. Not the seizure-inducing lights. Not the witless commentary by Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten. (Of course, no one's complaining about Shana Hiatt.) Yes, the players that reach the final tables of the WPT are a rag-tag crew of grizzled poker pros, online wunderkind, and home-game heroes. You couldn't cast it better if you tried.... which is why WPT's Hollywood Home Game should immediately be put out to pasture.
There have been online bookmark sites before, with the value proposition usually being access to your important sites from any machine -- home, work, on the road. If that's what you want to use del.icio.us for, feel free, but the site's other features are far more enticing. With del.icio.us, you are entering the world of "social bookmarks" -- where your selections are added to the set of public bookmarks that is accessible to anyone who visits the site. If you tag your marks ("music" or "politics" or "design" or any other word you choose) then they show up in the appropriate category pages, again accessible to everyone. So not only do we have a place for our stuff, but we have a place to discover other people's stuff. If a lot of people bookmark a site within 24 hours, it shows up in the "popular" set. Plus you can subscribe to any of these sets via RSS or within your own personalized del.icio.us subscription page. If that weren't enough, you can also browse or subscribe to individual's bookmarks, say Kevan Davis or Clay Shirky. If that weren't enough, you can integrate del.icio.us boomarks into your own site. If that weren't enough, people are always coming up with cool extensions to the del.icio.us universe. When people join together, powerful things can happen.
Hanayama's metal puzzles are mostly classic "tanglement" affairs, where you attempt to separate the component pieces (and hopefully reassemble them). Once you learn how to solve each puzzle, they aren't really all that much fun to repeat, unlike a Rubik's Cube. However, these puzzles are a lot more beautiful than a multicolored plastic cube, and once they're solved, they transition gracefully to paperweights, conversation pieces, and something to just fiddle around with unconciously. The puzzles are divided into six levels of difficulty. Skip the lower half, unless you're buying for a child. But don't think you'll start at the top, either. Several of the toughest puzzles are "unranked." Take on the Enigma at your peril.
Let America Laugh
Comedian David Cross was one of the creators of the brilliant Mr. Show and now appears on the Fox series Arrested Development, which is hands-down the best thing on network television. Let America Laugh is ostensibly a comedy tour movie, but unlike most of that genre, the focus is off-stage, not on. And there's plenty of hilarity out there: Cross antagonizing club owners, Cross being interviewed by a clueless college journalist, Cross and his tourmates buying fireworks. If you appreciate Cross's sarcastic wit, this one's definitely worth renting.
Schott's Original Miscellany
British photographer Ben Schott came out with this slim volume of factual floatsam a couple years back. It's already well on its way to becoming a franchise, which will probably overshadow the charm of the first installment, much like the Worst Case Scenario juggernaut did. That said, this collection is worth a look before the plague of desk calendars descends. Variety is the key here. Sections include: medical shorthand, cockney rhyming slang, pencil hardness, cattle branding, etc. etc. etc. Also notable is the book design, which is, um, "strongly reminiscent" of the McSweeney's aesthetic.
The New Joy of Cooking
Even if you believe, as I do, that the The Joy of Cooking is a staple requirement for any kitchen, what you may not realize is that the text is anything but sacred. The book has undergone two major revisions since it was originally published in 1931--first, in the 60's by Irma Rombauer's daughter, Marion, and most recently by her grandson, Ethan. Each of the revisions has met with its champions and critics, and the latest edition is no exception. The loudest complaint seems to be the removal of a critic's favorite recipe. And while that is an insult that's hard to stomach, I think that home chefs may have more than their share of "the original is better" prejudice. All I can say about The New Joy of Cooking is that it's like a kitchen oracle. You need to know everything about making pancakes? Look no further than page 793. How about duck confit? (Page 624.) The range of dishes is impressive, and while this guide may be a hair short of encyclopedic, the writing is clear (even if it does have less personality than the original), the illustrations are useful, and the food just plain tastes good. You'd be suprised how hard that recipe is to duplicate.
You Think It's Like This But Really It's Like This
A ukelele and a voice -- that's how Mirah's debut album starts -- at that should be more than enough to hook most listeners. Distinctive from start to finish, You Think It's Like This ranges from the plinky simplicity of "Million Miles" and "Engine Heart" to the bass-swinging "Sweepstakes Prize" to the Elliott Smith meets Elizabeth Cotten lullabye "Person Person." Produced by Phil Elvrum of the Microphones, this record is a like a cool breeze blowin' through your headphones. Scoop it and then check out Mirah's current release, C'Mon Miracle.
We're suckers for visionary multidisciplinary artists here at the Nugget. And if you had to look for a prototype, this married couple might be it. They designed magazine covers, toys, films, buildings, courseware, and, of course, furniture. Much of their work has become part of the definition of "20th century." The first photobloggers? Not quite, but the Eames' collection of 350,000 slides is easy to link to the far-ranging online photostreams that are being curated today. How about their ground-breaking film Powers of Ten? Tell me that wouldn't be meme of the year if it came out today. Lucky for us, the legacy of Charles and Ray Eames is being carried on and many of their films, photos, and furniture designs are still readily available.
My Best Fiend
It's no secret that the best art is often made by collaborators who "challenge" each other. In some cases, the band breaks up. In others, success eases the friction. In My Best Fiend we see a third outcome: Film director Werner Herzog continues to admire and employee his most noted and notorious leading man, Klaus Kinski, despite an escalating series of tantrums, physical altercations, and bouts of madness. This documentary takes a loving look at Kinski and his, um, peculiarities, focussing on the work he did with Herzog, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the amazing Fitzcarraldo, and several other films. If you are already a fan, you might want to pick up Herzog/Kinski, a box set containing Fiend and the dynamic duo's five best-known films.
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
This one's easy. This record is pretty much an acknowledged masterpiece. With the six tracks of Black Saint, Mingus created a musical collage like no one had ever heard in 1963, mixing styles from flamenco to film noir. The album starts off so quietly and, at times, thunders, but there's much more than simple modulation. There's a feeling of looseness, but you never once suspect that the music is improvised rather than composed. The poetry is so insistent. Some say this isn't the album for those who are new to Charles Mingus. I say you shouldn't bet against a sure winner. For those of you who are already fans, mark your calendars for next week's re-release of The Great Concert of Charles Mingus, recorded in Paris in 1964.
They've been around for ten years, and if you haven't gotten an issue of Giant Robot during that span then a. you're seriously behind the curve and b. you should go out and get their 10th anniversary issue. For the most part, trying to describe Giant Robot with any kind of specificity usually results in misdescribing Giant Robot. In their self-retrospective section, they even call out the 14 most wrongheaded comments about the magazine, starting with "If you're not Asian, you won't understand it." I have to give a great big "amen" to that one. If you live in the world today with your eyes and ears open, you're most likely experiencing culture with Asian flavor. If not, you're missing out. In any case, Giant Robot has an editiorial aura unlike just about any magazine in the world -- intelligent, funny, demanding, yet always generous. Pick it up at mag-racks everywhere, or better yet, get a copy at one of their ("I must buy everything in sight") stores in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
What started as a beta-test for blogging platform TypePad has grown into a crucial resource for anyone who has considered buying (or building) a Personal Video Recorder (PVR). Via the blog, Haughey and company gracefully consider the technologies and trends of this fledging industry, which has a near fanatical following among the initiated. PVRs like TiVo and Replay TV allow viewers to pause live television, subscribe to the entire run of a show with one click of the remote, and search weeks' worth of listings by title, actor, or keyword. Depsite a fairly slow adoption rate, PVR technology is still the odds-on favorite to replace VCRs. It's not really a matter of if, but when and how? If you want the answers to those questions, bookmark PVRblog--if anyone knows, they do.
My wife spotted this gadget online, before she was my wife, and, truth be told, it may have had a hand in our eventual espousal. You see, we both love butter, yet we don't like messy wax-paper sticks, which keep the butter too hard to spread. And we don't like tubs of aerated butter. Enter the butter dispenser, a product of such stunning genius that it has become a touchstone in our home. Every morning, we wonder at the sublime utility of the dispenser as it informs our day: "Waste not," it whispers. "Keep it clean," it coos. "Don't laugh at me just because I look ridiculous," it admonishes. Seriously, this kitchen tool is indispensable if you use small amounts of butter on a daily basis--on toast, in the frying pan, for melting in recipes. If you can get over its gawky looks (and some people can't), the butter dispenser will bring you daily dollops of pure, high-calorie joy.
Mythbusters gets the nod for great content--the scientific debunking of tall tales--and great personalities. Hyneman and Savage come from backgrounds in special effects and they clearly have a lot of mechanical savvy between them. The pair's creative problem-solving usually comes to the forefront of each hour-long episode as they brainstorm how to attempt to prove / disprove / replicate the results of the assembled myths. Their disagreements over methods is almost as entertaining as seeing them blow stuff up. Almost. The myths themselves, a Snopesian parade of incendiary cell phones, pennies tossed from skyscrapers, and oscillating bridge spans, are intriguing, although probably not intriguing enough to require the services of a resident folklorist. However, the myths do serve ably as great jumping-off points for the scientific slapstick of the hosts. New episodes have been loaded into the Mythbuster's giant compressed-air cannon and will arrive shortly. Until then, catch the first-season reruns on Discovery and chop it up on the MB discussion board.
When Tron originally came out, the height of technology was playing Pole Position at the arcade. Neuromancer was still two years off. The Internet was newsgroups and library catalogs. So maybe this effects-driven tale, starring Beau Bridges as a programmer trapped inside the three-dimensional workings of a corporate computer system, was paddling out a little too far in front of the technology tidal wave. That's not to say audiences and critics didn't appreciate Tron when it was first shown; there are plenty of die-hard fans from way back, plus shows that owe their very existence to the film's metaphors. However, now more than ever there may be a broad audience for Tron's mix of gamer attitude, hacker ethics, and visual style. Perhaps that's why a sequel recently arrived via the 21st century's premier entertainment vehicle, the video game.
Before Ricky Gervais created the despicably funny David Brent on The Office, Steve Coogan had already perfected the art of behaving badly for big laughs. His radio sportscaster / failed talk-show host / graveyard-shift DJ Alan Partridge is not only deadpan hilarious, but also somehow endearing despite his astonishing lack of savoir faire. For the best of Partridge, you may have to do some detective work, since his BBC shows Knowing Me, Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge haven't been released stateside. However, you can get a taste of Coogan's brilliance in 24-Hour Party People, the Michael Winterbottom film about the Manchester music scene and Tony Wilson's Factory Records. Rent Party People, dig up some Partridge, and hope and pray that more of Coogan's characters eventually end up on a screen near you.
Yes, it's true, this album doesn't tower above Odelay, Mutations, or Sea Change as Beck's crowning artistic achievement. Still, I hate it when I hear people dismiss Midnite Vultures as Beck's "joke" album. The subject matter may be more thematic than personal, and the production may be more flamboyant than filigreed, but rock n' roll is about fun, dammit, and Vultures is nothing if not smile-inducing. Write a slew of funky lyrics, channel your favorite soul icons, and pile on a few dozen layers of dense, dirty rhythms--it's a recipe that may not suit everyone's taste, but to me the results are de-licious.
Positively Fifth Street
A Chicago novelist and poet, Jim McManus found his starting point for Positively Fifth Street in a short piece he was commissioned to write for Harper's on the murder of casino owner Ted Binion and the trial of Binion's stripper girlfriend, all set against the glittering backdrop of Las Vegas and the increasingly popular World Series of Poker, which the Binion casino had been host to since the tournament began in the 1970s. In spring of 2000, McManus travelled to Vegas to scope out the tourney and the trial at the same time (talk about a happy coincidence), then parlayed part of his writing fee into an entry in the main event. As he flips back and forth between the Binion case and his own struggles to move up the tournament ladder, McManus's most winning trait is his voice, simulaneously impulsive and intellectual. Of course, that's a combination that can get you pretty far in professional poker circles, which McManus has been seen frequenting since his 2000 appearance in the World Series. Hopefully it won't take a murder to get him to write more about his experiences at the tables.
More free-form art piece than competitive game, Samorost is the brainchild (and art-school thesis) of Czech designer Jakub Dvorsky. Ostensibly, the goal of the game is to change the course of an oncoming space-rock and avoid certain death. To accomplish this, you basically just click around within each scene and try to transport the cartoon hero to the next tableau. In practice, Samorost is mostly about oohing and aahing Dvorsky's beautiful use of organic patterns in a medium typically dominated by mechanical designs. Add a sense of whimsy to Dvorsky's love of natural substances and you've got a winning combination. And people are noticing -- the designer was recently commissioned to create a similar piece for the Polyphonic Spree.
Gear For Your Kitchen
Brown, the hardest working man in food television, won a James Beard Award for I'm Just Here for the Food, his debut kitchen reference book. Here's the followup, which turns the spotlight from techniques to, your guessed it, kitchen equipment. The great thing about Gear is that it's straightforward -- Brown knows what he likes and what he dislikes and he's not afraid to name brand names (Alcoa to Zyliss). It's also hilarious, with Alton's signature asides littered throughout the margins. Get this book, get some gear, and get cooking. For more Brown, check out his web site.
There's a genre of non-fiction film that I like to call freakumentaries. Ironically, the starting point for the genre is Spinal Tap, a work of fictional brilliance. From there, however, the truth proves much, much stranger and funnier than fiction. From Dancing Outlaw to Karaoke Fever to Word Wars to Tribute, there is a seemingly endless parade of bizarre subcultures ready for their close-ups. Of course, none may be more bizarre than the menagerie of space cadets in Trekkies. Meet Gabriel, the kid who's shooting a Star Trek movie on his computer. Book an appointment with Denis, the Star Trek dentist. And, above all else, consider it your duty to deliberate the finer points of space exploration with Barbara Adams, the "Lieutenant Commander" who serves on an Arkansas jury while decked out in full Starfleet uniform. Best of all, after seven long years of searching, our scanners are finally picking up a sequel.
The Love Songs
"A nightmare is just a dream that's scary."
This was the breakthrough record for Giant Sand. The Love Songs was where it all started to fall gloriously apart. While the song structures still echo conventional forms, this disc offers a lot of instances of zigging where most bands would zag. You'll hear brisk tempo changes, like an engine shifting gears. You'll hear Howe Gelb speaking some lines, rather than singing, adding a directness that's galvanizing, like a preacher switching from crooning to commanding. You'll hear just plain great songs, like "Almost the Politician's Wife" and "Wearing the Robes of Bible Black." There are dozens more Giant Sand albums to discover, but Love Songs is a great place to start.
A funny thing happened on the way to the multiplayer online game that Ludicorp was building -- a photo network cropped up. And like Blogger dwarfing the project-management software that spawned it, Flickr looks like a side-project with some serious legs. At first glance, you could mistake Flickr for yet another online storage space for personal photo collections, but don't be fooled -- it's plenty more. Social network. Blogging tool. Topical groupware. Of course, the kicker may be the effort, enthusiasm, humor, and smarts the Ludicorp gang brings to developing Flickr as a platform for interaction. Check out their blog for random snaps and cool new features, added just about every day.
The largest dome in the world was built in the first half of the 15th century. More than 140 feet in diameter, the dome of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore has stood watch over Florence, Italy, for the past 500 years. In Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King tells the story of not the original architect of the structure, but the man who won the competition to actually complete the daunting design. Using techniques never before imagined, Filoppo Brunelleschi spent thirty years to raise more than seventy million pounds of stone hundreds of feet into the air -- all while dodging a near continuous onslaught of obstacles such as war, bad weather, and sniping from his lifelong rival, Lorenzo Ghilberti.
With ReadyMade, Shoshana Berger and crew have created a magazine with a purpose: Help people make cool things. Along the way, the writers at ReadyMade exhbibit a great eye for design, talk to really interesting people, and attract an enthusiastic community of MacGyver wannabes. Each issue is packed with projects, projects, and more projects that you can complete without a Master's degree in engineering, plus a handful of great feature articles. Recent topics: inspired vacation destinations, urban gardens, and off-beat wedding plans.
As heard on Radio Soulwax Part 2
Make what you will of the mashup craze that's been going around for the last several years, I love it. I can't get enough of those wacky franken-songs: Beck vs. The Prodigy, Justin Timberlake vs. 50 Cent, Blink 182 vs. Yaz. That said, most of these digitally manipulated mashes are like a good joke -- you heartily enjoy hearing it the first time, you like telling your friends about it, but you don't really want to hear it every day. Enter the Dewaele brothers from Belgium with their amazing album of old-school mixes. You've got 44 different songs, all masterfully blended into something completely unique -- a 45-track rollercoaster that starts off mixing Emerson, Lake & Palmer with Basement Jaxx and the Beastie Boys. Along the way, there are certified crowd-pleasers like Salt 'N' Pepa crossed with The Stooges and The Breeders mixed with Skeelo. It's got popular songs, old classics, and obscure finds, all balanced nicely. But don't bother downloading this album piece-meal, it's definitely crucial to hear the entire disc, since each track flows seemlessly into the next. Finally, after you've listened to this sucker a few hundred times, go to the brothers' website and check out the track-by-track notes from both the DJs and the record-company clerks that had to get clearances approved.