Thursday, December 29, 2011

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman Book Review

The World Without UsI've wondered at many points in time what it would be like when humans no longer populate this earth. Usually these thoughts venture into the sci-fi doomsday scenarios that play out in so many bad B-movies, but at times I truly wondered what it would be like, here on Earth, if man suddenly disappeared. As a kid, working in the fields as a farmhand, I saw a piece of garbage half buried in the dirt, maybe a Doritos bag or other plastic sack and think nothing of it... until I was in the same field a year or two later and noticed the exact same piece of garbage--it was still there, 100% intact, after a couple of years of weathering the elements. This was really the first time I realized the human impact on this world will last so much longer than our species ever will.

Weisman runs with the premise of exploring our world after humans were to vacate it and, despite it being a bit dry and clinical at points, it is a fascinating look at how there is really no way to make our impact disappear. What we've created, changed, and destroyed will not instantaneously change back to how nature made it. In fact, certain changes will last for millennium.

Knowing that we've had such an impact made this book a bit depressing to read. Obviously this wasn't the intention or tone of the writing, but as you read about the speculative individual cases, augmented by partial real-world examples, you're left with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach that we, as a species, don't really give much of a care to what we do to this planet in the long run.

I never really considered myself a staunch environmentalist. You won't see me tied to a tree or only using hemp-sewn reusable bags as I shop exclusively at local farmers' markets. I try to do my part by limiting the garbage I create, conserving water when I can, and treating my surroundings with respect... but that's not really what's doing the damage, or that would have the long-lasting impact on nature if we were whisked away tomorrow. No, it's the bigger things--nuclear power plants, the invention of polymers that do not decompose, the transplantation of species to new habitats... there's so much on a macro level that our species has changed it boggles the mind to actually think about it.

What's most disheartening is knowing that, for all intents and purposes, it's already too late to undo or counteract the changes we've made to this planet. When we eventually are not present, nature will have to deal with what our machinations have done to this planet. I think this is the most distressing point the book makes. For as many great achievements we have made as a species, we have made equally as many horrible changes to our planet and home.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Fair to Midland & Dead Letter Circus at the Varsity Theater

Middle of the week shows are rough for a working stiff like myself, but this was a show that even a 9 hour work day and pneumonia wasn't going to keep me away from. Dead Letter Circus and Fair to Midland were a touring combination that seemed perfect, and seeing as that they were playing the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis (a great venue if you get a chance to go) it made it a no brainer to attend.

The show started off on a real down note, however, with Throw the Fight. They were obviously the odd band out in the lineup and it showed. Their brand of basic, cliched radio-rock just didn’t fit in alongside 3 bands that were quite unique in how they approached music. For most of the set I was, frankly, bored and found myself urged to play Bejeweled on my iPhone instead of watching. It’s not that Throw the Fight are bad… they’re just so completely run-of-the-mill that you can see a band like them at any local college bar for free while out drinking with your crew.

Aficionado was a band I had not heard of before the day of the show. I gave a listen to a couple of the songs they had posted online and thought they were listenable from that quick interaction. Their performance was also very much… listenable. It was all a little too melodramatic for me and ended up reminding me a lot of a post-hardcore/indie, Dear Hunter-esque band complete with a flautist and female vocalist to complement the lead male vocalist. A few songs I really got into, but as I said, it was all a bit too art-school for me.

As much as I love Fair to Midland, I’m not afraid to admit that the band I was most looking forward to seeing was Dead Letter Circus. Their album This Is the Warning was one of my top 10 albums of 2010 and I still revisit it constantly. Their set did not disappoint, although it wasn’t without its minor issues, most of which I don’t think were their problem. For the first couple of songs, the mix didn’t feel quite right—the guitars were really low in the mix, the backup vocal mics were basically inaudible, and the general sound was flat. Eventually things evened out, but it was a rough couple of songs to start.
Dead Letter Circus
What was surprising to me was that they played a number of songs from their debut self-titled EP along with cuts from their full length. It was a real treat for a long time fan such as myself to hear them perform “The Mile” and “Lines,” two songs I instantly latched onto the first time I heard them years ago. Couple that with key tracks from This Is the Warning,such as “One Step,” “Next in Line,” and “Cage,” and they had a setlist that didn’t have a weak moment. The performance was tight, and I was especially impressed with the rhythm section. Listening to their recorded work you get a sense that the rhythm section is important to the band, but in a live environment they steal the show on numerous occasions. I think it comes down to the rapid-fire bass lines which, in a few of their songs, actually give the band the sound by which they're recognized. Despite the odd mixing issues at the beginning of the set, Dead Letter Circus put on a heck of a performance.

Before I even start talking about Fair to Midland’s set, you need to know one thing… they are a ball of crazy when they’re on stage. After the long intro to their set they ripped into “Whiskey and Ritalin,” complete with fuzzed out vocals, overly distorted guitars, and driving drums. The band comes across so much “heavier” live than any of their recorded material would lead you to believe they'd sound. Listening to songs like “Golden Parachutes” on Arrows & Anchors, you get a sense that Fair to Midland are on the heavier side of the rock spectrum, but live they would rival most current “scene” metal bands in terms of outright heaviness and aggression. The riffs in their songs translate perfectly into huge, pummeling, audible fists that attack your ears (and body as well) throughout the show. Now… this having been said… you can only imagine the pandemonium and chaos that the songs “Rikki Tikki Tavi” and “Dance of the Manatee” instill. Darroh Sudderth is, quite simply, a man possessed on stage. He never stands still and even though he is all over the place, he doesn’t let it affect his performance. And rest assured, when he lets out the pro-wrestler voice, it’s uncompromisingly awesome.

Fair to Midland
I was extremely impressed by Fair to Midland’s performance, partially because it was so unexpected, and partially because it was simply so damn entertaining. So many bands are content to just play their songs, yell at the crowd, and hop around a bit… but Fair to Midland is the real deal. It’s not often I get to see bands that really give a real performance, so this was a definite treat.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

People Still Go to Stores to Shop?

The last couple of days I've gotten and oddly perverse sense of satisfaction in seeing Best Buy fall on their face yet again, this time by not fulfilling orders placed a month ago and only letting their customers know about it now. No doubt most of the items were Christmas gifts so now people are left in the lurch to scramble for something at the last minute. And with times as tough as they are for many, people have been pinching every last penny that they can so now if they want to get the same item they'll have to pony up extra money and will be forced to buy it at a brick & mortar shop instead of ordering online because, well, there's just not enough time to get stuff shipped out before Christmas. This is going to be a PR nightmare and could be the final straw that pushes people not only away from Best Buy but from the online outlet of other brick & mortar retailers.

I long ago gave up on Best Buy after numerous headaches that they put me through. At times, I thought they were making it their mission to make people's lives as headache-ridden as possible. I also gave up on the whole Black Friday shopping madness that has become so much more ridiculous than I ever would have expected in the last couple of years.

It really baffles me that people will "use" (I hesitate to use the word "waste") so much of their time to line up and wait outside of a store to save a few more bucks on something than if they bought it elsewhere or online, and then they're not always guaranteed to get what they want. And since people are doing everything they can to save a buck the chaos at stores, as seen through too many a YouTube clip, is becoming unmanageable no matter how stores try to curb the nutso environment that minimal savings bring out in people.

Maybe I've started looking at things a little too logically, but my time is worth more than the few dollars I'll save on a bottom-of-the-line LCD TV or some Blurays of movies I've already seen. I'd rather pay the extra few bucks it might cost me to get them non-Black Friday and save myself the insanity of Black Friday shopping.

But what happened with Best Buy this time around wasn't with their in store purchases from Black Friday--it was in regards to their online sales, confirmed online sales to boot. It's not like people ordered something, got a confirmation of the order's completion, and then received a cancellation shortly thereafter--it was a month later. I've had situations where I've bought something online during a crazy sale and got an email after my "purchase" stating they're out of stock or that there were more orders than they could fill. I have no problem with that. This was a month later, though...

...and to kick people in the junk while they're down, many of the items being "cancelled" are readily available for purchase online right now at for their regular price. So it looks even more like a retailer is just trying to screw over their customers, eroding any potential loyalty they may have left.

I know I'm rambling, but it's crap like this that has ultimately pushed me to do all of my shopping nearly exclusively through Amazon. I have yet to be let down price-wise, service-wise, or communication-wise by them. And with Amazon Prime, nearly everything I order arrives 2 days later at my doorstep. I'm amazed that Amazon hasn't put the likes of Best Buy completely out of business by this point.

Anyhow, I guess what I'm trying to say is, "Shame on you, Best Buy. I hope you do your damnedest to make it right with the customers you screwed..." and that I'm ultimately, I'm plugging Amazon because they've been everything that a retailer should be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

As I Lay Dying: A Decade of Destruction Concert Review

It seems like a ritual at this point—As I Lay Dying stops through Minnesota and I’m there, along with Jared Mehle, who took some amazing photos during the show. As I Lay Dying are one of the few bands that I never miss when they come through the area. So, another year, another As I Lay Dying show, and another great performance to write about. This year they were on tour celebrating their decade of existence and promoting their new “album” Decas. I use quotes since it only has 3 new songs and the rest of the material on the album is covers and remixes, none of which really held my attention, but that’s a conversation for a different place. Coming along with As I Lay Dying were an odd combination of bands—Sylosis, Iwrestledabearonce, The Ghost Inside, and Of Mice & Men.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
Unfortunately, since this was an all ages show that started at 5 pm at First Avenue I didn’t get there in time to see Sylosis. Even more unfortunate was that I did make it in time to see Iwrestledabearonce. I’ve seen a lot of bad performances and terrible bands over the last decade, so it would take a lot for me to really hate on a band, but Iwrestledabearonce easily notched their way into the top five worst bands I’ve ever seen. They’re beyond frustrating because they have talent, but they actively choose not to use it and instead all they do is dick around, play stupid “funny” songs, and utilize the worst aspects of what’s hot in today's trends. They make use of unneeded bass drops, noodle around aimlessly, have a female lead singer who screeches uncontrollably, play portions of covers (notably the Inspector Gadget theme song), and ultimately just screw around. I have a hard time seeing how anyone can give half a shit about this band, but apparently they’ve managed to trick enough kids into thinking they’re somehow worth listening to. Sad.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
Cleansing my palette of the filthy taste Iwrestledabearonce left in it, The Ghost Inside came out and threw down. This is the second time I’ve seen these guys, and they have an amazing amount of energy throughout every song they play. Mixing material from both of their albums, they kept their foot on the throttle for their entire set, doing their best to get a somewhat apathetic crowd moving. It’s captivating seeing a band ooze aggression as they play. If you’re going to play metalcore, a naturally angry and abrasive genre, you should look and play angry. If you don’t know how to do this, go watch The Ghost Inside. They’ve got it nailed.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
Taking the stage right before the main event, Of Mice & Men showed that they had quite a following here in Minnesota, which I didn’t expect at all. Of Mice & Men play a standard Rise Records style of trendy metalcore with clean choruses to sing along to between harsh verses with breakdowns tossed in here and there to show how “heavy” they are. I’m really over the whole Rise sound, but Of Mice & Men executed their take on it adequately and they kept the crowd in it. It’s always a little odd seeing a bunch of 120 pound kids on stage trying to be tough, but they played their roles well enough. There’s nothing that made Of Mice & Men stand out from the myriads of other cookie-cutter metalcore bands out there, either good or bad, so all I can really say is that they did a decent job of playing to their fans in the crowd while keeping everyone else relatively entertained.

Since this was an all ages show and Of Mice & Men took their sweet time getting set up, As I Lay Dying’s set had to be scrunched right into about 55 minutes in order to meet curfew. They took the stage and kicked right into “The Sound of Truth,” getting the crowd riled up and ready. This worked great as an opening song as it combines everything the band does well—aggressive verses, sing-a-long choruses, solid progressions, and a couple of great solos. They then moved into “Upside Down Kingdom,” which is the first time I’ve seen them play this song. Of their entire set, it was the only song that felt a bit out of place. I suppose that it works fine as a follow up to the opening track because of the uptempo pace and breakdowns throughout the verses, but if one song could be axed from their set, this would be it.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
The remainder of their set consisted of an even sampling from their discography—“The Darkest Nights,” “Through Struggle,” and “Confined” (their closer) from Shadows Are Security, “Anodyne Sea”, “Parallels,” and “Condemned” from The Powerless Rise, “Nothing Left” and the title track from An Ocean Between Us, and then the classics “94 Hours” and “Forever” from Frail Words Collapse. They also played “Paralyzed” from Decas, which was fun to hear and is easily the best track on the album. And let’s also not forget the obligatory drum solo that Jordan Mancino performs 3/4 through the set.

Photo courtesy of Jared Mehle
As with every As I Lay Dying show, the entire band has great stage presence and is energetic throughout the show. There’s no denying the talent that each of the band members possesses as their performances are always tight and controlled. All in all they’re at the top of their game… well, except for one weak spot that I tend to notice each time I see them. As great as Tim Lambesis’ vocals are on As I Lay Dying’s albums, I often find that his live vocals don’t quite have the “oomph” or fullness I’d expect. This is a relatively minor complaint, but is something I consistently notice during their performances.

There’s a reason As I Lay Dying have been around for a decade—they’re great at what they do. I have yet to attend one of their concerts and be disappointed, this stop being no exception. They captivated the crowd, had everyone nodding along, and showed why they're one of the top tier talents in the genre. If you get a chance to catch them when they come through your town, it’s definitely worth the money.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Week in the Sun

Before last week's vacation to Mexico, I had a hard time remembering when my last long, relaxing trip was. Turns out it was more than 3 years ago and attached to the end of a work trip to Europe. Before that... it was even longer. So, needless to say, I haven't had a ton of vacations the past half decade. I am very much a creature of habit, so not having vacations usually isn't a big deal for me, but having taken a week to relax in the sun of Playa del Carmen last week... man, it was much needed.

This vacation was actually the long overdue honeymoon of my wife and myself. We didn't get to take it right after our wedding because we were pretty busy at the time with my job being hectic, my wife switching jobs, and us having a lot of other commitments to attend to. As time went on, we thought about honeymooning, but as we saved for it, we instead took the plunge on buying our current home, so that sapped the honeymoon fund and added other tasks for us to do. Nearly two years after being married, however, we finally got around to it. I'm glad that Kristi took the initiative, researched vacations, and got everything organized. All I had to do was pack, hop on the plane, and enjoy. She was the travel organizing machine!

We spent our vacation at the Riu Palace in Playa del Carmen, a bit south of Cancun.  It was an all inclusive resort, which is the best way to do a relaxing vacation. You don't have to worry about budgeting for food, for drinks, for activities, for travel, and for all of the other things that may come up. You pay once, up front, and then you just go, kick back, and enjoy yourself. It really is the best way to go.

Before vacation I was battling a really strong cold & flu, so I was worried about being sick while in Mexico, but just getting to the beach and warm weather helped me kick the majority of whatever I had and let me fight it in the best environment possible--laying out on the beach under a palm tree with a drink in hand. Usually I'm pretty ADHD and can't sit still, but the combination of the laid back environment and having some of my energy sapped to fight off the plague actually set me into the perfect state of being to take in the slowed down, relaxing nature of our trip.

As much as I tend to think I don't need vacations and as much as I complain about the process of traveling, it was definitely a great trip and we had a wonderful time. It was tough coming back to Minnesota where we had snow and below freezing temperatures, but I think it helped me appreciate the climate we were just in even more!

If interested, I've posted the photos from our trip. There's not a ton as we were mostly focused on kicking back, but I couldn't keep from taking at least a few pictures of the great environment we were in.  I wonder if a palm tree will survive in our back yard...