Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hill Country - Real Southern Barbecue in NYC

Last night, we went to Hill Country Barbecue & Market on 26th St. in Manhattan. This is actually my second time there - first time was at a company party - but this was the first time I got to try their "real" food. And it was something, alright.

Real southern barbecue is one of the last frontiers for authentic cuisine in New York City. We've got everything else, from Mongolian to Ethiopian to Vietnamese to more common ethnic stuff like Italian and Chinese, but not the kind of Italian and Chinese you get in chain restaurants. I'm talking the real thing. But we've always been missing good BBQ until pretty recently. Now all of a sudden, there are at least three or four attempts at authentic slow smoked cooking that have popped up, and this is one of them. (Dinosaur and RUB are two others that get mentioned a lot.) Hill Country is Texas style barbecue.

I'm not really an expert on barbecue - I am a New Yorker after all - but I know the difference between grilling (what we usually do up here) and barbecuing (what Hill Country does) and I know what I like. I wanted to come back to Hill Country because the little fingerfood samples of brisket, hamburgers and stuffed jalapenos they gave us at my company party were just delicious.

When you walk in, they give you a meal ticket. You don't sit at a table and order food like at a normal restaurant - you walk around to the various counters and ask for stuff, like a market. They mark your ticket to show what you got, then you pay at the end. Don't lose your ticket or they'll charge you $50 minimum. It's easy to lose your ticket - my wife left hers on her tray at one point and the waitress took it away with her food. (She got it back.)

Ordering at the meat counter:

My wife just got a couple of ribs, which was only like $6. It's actually really cheap if all you want is a couple of kinds of meat. And it's a lot of meat. I actually got the Pitmaster's Combo sampler, which is $25 - but it's an insane amount of food. I don't think they expect anyone to finish it - I just wanted to taste a few different things. The Pitmaster's Combo for 1 comes with 1/4 lb. of lean brisket (they also make a "moist" brisket), a pork rib, a beef rib, a quarter chicken, and two sides.

Now, one of each kind or rib might not sound like much, but this isn't freakin' Chili's. These are ribs. One rib by itself could feed an average person. There's about 1/4 lb. of meat on each one. In fact, my beef rib probably had more like 1/2 lb.

Sorry, there's really no way that I've found to make a big pile of meat look appetizing. This isn't a fancy place; no gourmet presentation here, just a pile of meat on some brown paper. But look at that beef rib - compare it to the 1/4 lb. of brisket in the top right. Consider that that's a 1/4 of a chicken there on the bottom right. Those are huge ribs!

Here was my full dinner, sides included:

I got the mac & cheese because I'd heard good things about it, and the pinto beans braised in beer because, well, "beer braised" are magic words on a menu.

The meat itself was pretty much perfect when we got it, although it got cold fast. I mean, you can't eat it fast enough for that not to happen. And when slow cooked barbecued meat gets cold, it gets dry. So it wasn't nearly as good at the end of the meal as it was in the beginning.

The brisket was the highlight for me. It just has such a smoky, beefy flavor, not overseasoned but really intense. The lean brisket is just right for me when it's hot... I think the moist stuff would probably be too fatty. You can see they give you a couple slices of bread - apparently some people make a brisket sandwich.

The chicken was another bright spot. I'm sure it was blasphemy not to eat the skin, but even without the skin it was incredibly moist (even once it got cold) and flavorful.

The ribs were a little hit or miss - the pork rib was better as a leftover (it was a little too fatty last night, but dried out a bit overnight), while the beef rib was veiny and bony and just a little weird. I'm not used to beef ribs, so maybe that's just me.

They do give you their own barbecue sauce at the table, though honestly it didn't even occur to me to try it. I sort of regret that now, but I wanted to taste the meat as it was cooked.

Oh, and about those sides - both were amazing! The beans are made with a large amount of bacon and they really taste like smoke, bacon and beer. Yummy. The mac & cheese seems to be all cheddar, with just the right amount of crust. Everything reheats really well, incidentally.

Their desserts are impressive too:

Most people get the PB&J cupcakes, but I got the red velvet because I love red velvet. (I don't know if that makes me technically a girl or an old lady or something, but red velvet is just chocolate with a particular kind of cocoa and cream cheese icing.) I will honestly say that this was the best red velvet anything (cupcake or cake) that I've ever had. So moist, both the cake and the icing, but still heavy and satisfying. Not too light, not stale, lots of cocoa and cream cheese flavor.

Next time, I'll try the PB&J.

Our total bill came to $67. They get you with the extras. $6 for a beer, $5 for sides (my wife got hers a-la carte), $6 for the cupcake, etc. If you just want some good barbecue, you can get a couple of ribs and a side and be out of there for $11. But I'm sure they count on the fact that most people will spend about what we did.

This is some good barbecue. Definitely recommended.

Moving!

Hey y'all,

After 4 years (or whatever) on blogspot.com, this blog is finally moving to a custom domain. I never really intended to use this thing as much as I have, so I sort of picked the badasscat.blogspot.com subdomain without putting any real thought into it... and I've always regretted that.

The new domain will be http://www.alphabetcityblog.com. (Remember the "blog" part - that's important.) It should hopefully start working shortly. The blog will look the same, so no worries. It should be all automatic, and the old pages will redirect, so you'll still get here from the old address.

I'll try to put out any fires as fast as I see them, but just be advised that it is possible this whole thing's gonna go down in a ball of flames. If so, I'll revert back. Hopefully it'll go smoothly.

UPDATE: Done! Hopefully. And not many hitches either - blogroll stopped working for some reason, but that's fixed. It was all pretty painless.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Earthquake!

What the hell is up with the news media these days? They're like a bunch of manic chickens running around with their heads cut off. Nothing but a lot of screaming hysterics.

Today there was an earthquake in Los Angeles. It measured 5.4 on the Richter Scale. That's considered a "moderate" quake. I've been through worse myself - when I lived in San Francisco, there was an earthquake measuring 5.8 centered right in the middle of the bay. Honestly, it wasn't even bad enough to scare me that much - my stepmother kept yelling at me to get under a doorway and I remember standing at the bottom of the stairs saying "what?" Before I knew it, it was over. There was no damage and there were no injuries.

Both CNN and MSNBC had "Breaking News" alerts about today's earthquake, devoting their entire front page to the story for hours, and of course that bastion of journalistic integrity Matt Drudge still has about six stories linked at the top of his web site, one of which is headlined "L.A.'s biggest quake in 15 years!" (Of course, the headline on the linked story itself is "Jaded Californians see quakes as part of life", which I guess was not nearly dramatic enough for Drudge.) The AFP declared in their headline that Los Angeles had "dodged a bullet", whatever that means. (Presumably the earthquake shot at them and missed? But wouldn't it have hit somewhere else then?) Reuters similarly called L.A. "lucky".

It couldn't have been that this was just one of the approximately 1,300 earthquakes around the world each year in the 5-6 range on the Richter Scale. And this was on the lower end of that range.

The Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning each point on the scale is an order of magnitude stronger. A 6.4 earthquake is ten times stronger than a 5.4, and releases 31 times more energy. Don't make the mistake of looking at the numbers and saying "oh, 5.4 is pretty close to 6" - it doesn't work that way. Hell, we've had earthquakes that strong in New York City! Even the most dire-sounding expert that CNN could dig up would only proclaim that this quake was somewhere "between small and moderate". CNN did their best to get her to admit that it was a "precursor to a larger quake", but all she'd say is that after 24 hours, there's only a 1% chance of anything larger happening.

There are two things at work here: the race to get eyeballs, ratings and pageviews in a news environment made more competitive by the speed of the internet, and this ridiculous and annoying culture of fear that has taken hold since 9/11. I'll be posting my own thoughts on 9/11 when the date comes around again - I was here, so it pisses me off when people in Montana or Idaho or Iowa or wherever try to use it to justify their crazy paranoia - but the point is, fear is now a business. And it's the business the modern news media thinks it's in.

Let's just hope that enough people can see through the bullshit.

Uniqlo - ads you want to watch


Uniqlo is a Japanese clothing store that's now expanded into the United States and elsewhere. They're sort of like Old Navy; basic stuff, pretty cheap. I had to buy a bunch of stuff there last time we went to Japan, because I (ahem) ran out of clean clothes in the ridiculous Japanese summer humidity that forces you to change about three times per day.

Anyway, I was just randomly browsing around today and on a Brazilian guy's blog that I was looking at, I saw this little Uniqlock widget:


Only his was customized for Brazil. I clicked on it, not knowing what the hell I was clicking - I'm not thinking "Uniqlock" means "Uniqlo", this is not a company I normally consider in my daily life. I came to this page, which had me basically hypnotized for ten minutes. Then I somehow got to the Uniqlock page itself (I think I just clicked somewhere else in the widget), and I watched that for about another five. So creative! I forgot I was watching a clothing advertisement.

Watch more than once - it changes.

Then I clicked the "World. Uniqlock" link in the menu and I was blown away. Talk about viral - the list of blogs linking to this thing is so long that it almost crashed my computer.

The whole thing is kind of brilliant, I think. I love that it features the art form without ever actually mentioning the clothes, and that it uses Flash not for its own sake but to frame the content in an interesting way. I also think it's pretty smart how they're using bloggers' own selfishness for their benefit - promise most bloggers a link and they'll do almost anything for you. I admit, the main reason I've got that little widget up right now is to see my own link up there. I may or may not keep the widget afterwards.

I hate advertising and I hate marketing (unless they benefit me directly!). But I don't hate this.

Monday, July 28, 2008

New York's Finest

Did you guys see this?


This cop goes and body-checks this bicyclist completely unprovoked. We usually call that "assault". Granted, these Critical Mass cyclists are annoying, but in no way does that excuse a cop just pushing a guy to the ground.

Apparently it was a rookie cop and he's being disciplined right now. I can't indict the entire NYPD on the actions of this guy. But it's not like this is the first time. Hell, I still remember as far back as the Tompkins Square Park riots - seems like not much has changed, eh?

I Am Legend vs. 28 Days Later - Fight!

Hey, everybody! It's "rent last year's movies and then talk about them now that nobody cares anymore!" month around here.

I finally got around to watching I Am Legend the other night. I love a good zombie movie. This is not a zombie movie, which I didn't know. It's a vampire movie. Well, whatever the monsters are in I Am Legend, they act basically the same as zombies, except they can't stand light. That's okay. Seems like kind of a convenient limitation, but then it always was, in every vampire story. It's a plot device to get the main character out of sticky situations - as it does several times in this movie.

What I really want to talk about is 28 Days Later, but that's even older and I have no logical reason for bringing it up other than I Am Legend reminding me of it. But that's the zombie movie to end all zombie movies. It does everything right with the genre. EVERYTHING.

I gotta say I like a good post-apocalyptic movie, especially one set in New York City, as I Am Legend is. I don't really know why it is that people like seeing New York destroyed on film (including those of us who live here!), but we obviously do. New York is almost always the target of any American post-apocalyptic (or just plain apocalyptic) film. I guess London is the British equivalent.

But post-apocalyptic movies in general are always about expressing our fears. Years ago, everything was post-nuclear war. That's what we were afraid of. These days, it's almost always a rogue virus of some kind that wipes out humanity, leaving eerie husks of cities completely intact but totally vacant and left to rot. That's the case with I Am Legend. It was also true of 28 Days Later. And Resident Evil too (though it took a while to get there in that series). All of these films have the same basic plot. Most of them end on some sort of hopeful note, implying that, yes, there are things to be afraid of, but we can overcome even the worst-case scenario.

Incidentally, probably my favorite of all post-apocalyptic virus stories is not a movie and it's not about escaping infected "zombies". It's a book called Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. And it is about a near-future where bio-engineering has become so routine that even the most banal of domestic situations can end up bringing down the entire population of the planet without us even knowing what's happened. That's basically the same plot as all of these movies, except that in her book, you don't become "infected" - you just die. And her book is a lot more personal than any of these films.

28 Days Later was directed and produced by two of the same guys who did the equally amazing Trainspotting: Andrew McDonald and Danny Boyle. Honestly, those guys have put out some duds too (A Life Less Ordinary, anyone?), but they are extremely talented filmmakers. What they're great at is distilling what makes any situation scary or dramatic or funny, and then exploiting it. (That's filmmaking 101, but it's a point that's obviously lost on a lot of young directors, many of whom get stuck on adding rather than subtracting.) What's scary about zombies? Is it the unnatural movement, the "supernatural" aspect of George Romero-style undead zombies? No, Danny Boyle realized that it's the swarm, the collective single-minded violence. And he realized that would be even scarier if they moved as fast or faster than humans could. And he also realized it would be scarier still if they basically looked like regular people, and were in fact still alive.

I remember seeing some documentary about Martin Scorsese where he was looking at an old Italian film about Jesus Christ - and I don't remember which, maybe The Messiah by Roberto Rossellini - and there was a scene where Jesus was walking down a path to give his sermon on the mount. And he was just walking like a regular guy, and Scorsese says, "Look at that. See? He's not walking like he's in a movie. He's just walking!" He smiled and sort of threw up his hands as he said it, as if to say "it's obvious!" That's what filmmakers like Scorsese understand, and Danny Boyle understands it too. The best drama is realistic. This is not rocket science, but most modern filmmakers just don't get it. If we can't relate to the things that we see in a film, then we're not going to care.

I Am Legend takes a lot of inspiration from 28 Days Later, where a virus has wiped out the city (and country?), leaving behind a small number of infected "vampires". These vampires can haul ass, like the infected in 28 Days Later. They swarm. But they don't look all that human and they can do super-human things, and that's the problem. Whereas the infected in 28 Days Later were all played by real actors and were still basically confined to human limits of speed and strength, the vampires in I Am Legend are motion-captured CGI. They don't move or look like people. And that makes the whole thing a lot less convincing. Really, guys, we're not there yet in terms of computer graphics. It still looks like computer graphics. Look at Will Smith - even he seems unconvinced:

Incidentally, the Resident Evil series, which I do like, sort of splits the difference. The infected zombies in that series are a little slower and don't swarm in such huge numbers (usually), though they put up a real fight. Just enough to let Milla Jovovich kick some zombie butt, anyway. She's a badass! She's a supermodel and an actress and a singer and a badass. Is there anything more for her to aspire to be? (Ok, that came off as sexist. Not intended! Point is she's multi-talented and awesome.)

This series isn't really all that great, but I'll watch anything Milla stars in. Yes, I even watched Ultraviolet!

28 Days Later
also has a sort of "how'd they film that??" feeling to the entire movie, whereas I Am Legend, again through its copious use of CGI, just feels like they've cheated. I watched the Blu-Ray special features so I know that many scenes actually did feature blocked-off streets with lots of onlookers right near the set, but 28 Days Later was a low-budget film ($8 million) shot on digital video where entire London city neighborhoods are shown completely abandoned. And not just in parts of the movie, but through the whole thing.

I Am Legend did sort of try to set up a science vs. faith thing in its original form, but that was cut for the theatrical release. The Blu-Ray disc restores those scenes (the DVD probably does too), but honestly, I'm not sure they add much to the overall experience. They may even detract from it. It's not like this idea is all that original. I like the pointlessness of 28 Days Later or Oryx and Crake - it's somehow scarier to think that all this happened more or less at random.

(Resident Evil's explanation for its events, taken from the video game upon which it's based, is that it's all down to a plot by an evil corporation. That's arguably an even cheesier motivation than either of the other two films, but then fear of monolithic corporations is another of our modern memes.)

Incidentally, I've also seen 28 Weeks Later, which some have said surpasses the original. I thought it was okay, but it's got most of the same problems as I Am Legend - it just doesn't ring true. It feels very "put together" - you can see the seams of it. It also goes heavy on the CGI for its settings, although at least the infected are still human actors. It's got that big-budget glossy look, too - even though they were consciously trying to make it look like its prequel, you just can't hide all that money. Films are all about suspension of disbelief - sci-fi moreso than other genres - and 28 Days Later does that better than its sequel.

And better than I Am Legend too.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tiny Amp! Danelectro N-10 Honeytone

I just bought this. Isn't it cute?! It matches my guitar!

I have a little Marshall practice amp too, but honestly, it's too much of a pain in the ass to actually walk myself over to where it's plugged in and use it. You see, I'm extremely lazy. So I need an amp for lazy people.

The nice thing about mini-amps is that they run on batteries. They also don't take up much space, so you can keep one on your coffee table if you want and use it whenever the desire strikes. I looked at a few, settled on this one mostly because it was twenty bucks, but also because I love the vintage look. And I love Danelectro stuff, it's just so garage.

Mine's "burgundy", but they also come in vintage white and what they call "nifty aqua". They used to sell one in a mint green and that's what's pictured on the box. I would have bought this if I could have, but the pictures I've seen of the aqua one are a lot bluer than this.

Another view. It's got a real leather handle!

There's a belt clip on the back, so you can seriously walk yourself down the street rocking out to some Stones if you want. Make yourself a one-man parade.

Your standard volume, tone and overdrive controls. Yeah, overdrive! Not every mini-amp's got this - a lot are clean only. This one plays clean or distorted.

How's it sound overdriven? Well, about as good as you'd expect a little 2" speaker to sound when overdriven. Not great, but as good as any other tiny amp that has this feature. It is a very, very dirty sound. Sounds like a speaker that's being played too loud and is about to blow. I wonder what you could do with it if you tried to record it and then jacked up the low-end - it might actually sound pretty cool!

And clean? Sounds pretty good clean. And it can seriously get pretty loud - a lot louder than you'd expect a tiny little amp running on a 9 volt battery to get. I'm not sure what sort of battery life I'm going to get playing that loud, but it hasn't run out on me yet. You're not gonna play in a band with this amp, but the volume's plenty adequate for solo practice.

The entire amp is plastic, including the knobs and all the trim. The only metal bits are the jack and the belt clip. Hey, it's $20, what do you expect? It's basically disposable. The volume pot is a little scratchy on mine, but it works.

Love it - comes with a vintage power source. No more scouring Ebay for 50-year-old 9 volt batteries! :)

Seriously, the fact that it does come with the battery saves you a couple bucks and an extra trip to the store. And I'm saving mine when it runs out - a Danelectro battery is just too cool to throw away.

I bought mine from Guitar Center's online store, which is the only place I've found it for the $20 price. (Musician's Friend has it for the same price, but they're owned by Guitar Center.) If you want one - and I wouldn't link to something I don't recommend - then click the image below:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Six Flags Great Adventure - Superman: Ultimate Flight

This is the first ride you see as you walk up to the entrance of Great Adventure - it is practically in the parking lot, with nothing but a fence separating the lot from the ride. That's probably intentional, and I think there's always been some kind of roller coaster there - I seem to remember the Sarajevo Bobsled (one of my favorite rides ever) being on this spot in the 1980's. It's supposed to generate excitement as you get close to the park.

There are apparently three of these at different Six Flags parks, just another example of the corporate bullshit taking over theme parks in this country these days. Someday, every park's gonna be the same, all cookie cutter crap. The pictures on this page are actually from Six Flags Over Georgia (I wonder if Georgians actually just call it "Over Georgia") and were taken by a guy who goes by Coasterman1234. But it looks identical to the one at Great Adventure.

This is a really boring roller coaster, quite honestly. It has one hook, which is this:

When you're locked in, the seats flip back 90 degrees so you're facing the ground, with nothing under you. It's supposed to make you feel like you're flying as the coaster zips around.

There are a couple problems. First, it's weird. No getting around that. You're not actually Superman, you know, so gravity's still trying to pull you down. The restraints are obviously very restrictive and they basically hold your entire body in place, including your ankles. It's actually quite claustrophobic, which is the opposite of what it's supposed to feel like.

It's also a little scary, even for a guy who loves roller coasters. I mean if your restraint fails at any point on the ride, you're dead. There's no stopping the ride and sending a rescue team out. There's no holding on. It's just, "poof!" into the ground.

There was a point at the top of the lift on our ride when our train jerked to a stop. I felt adrenaline rushing through me as I imagined our train just releasing itself from the track and all of us doing a faceplant into the grass below with the full weight of our train on top of us. I've seen videos of this ride so I know that stop wasn't normal. Luckily, it wasn't nearly as fatal as I'd feared - we started up again after a minute or two.

The best part of the ride is the "pretzel loop". There's only one loop and this is it (there's another barrel roll inversion that I'd honestly forgotten about). But it's the one part of the ride where the novelty of "flying" really comes into play. It's basically a reverse loop. You start at the top and go down below ground level on the "loop", then come back up. At the bottom of the loop, you're on your back. Kinda wild!

The rest of the ride is just pretty basic - it's like a roller coaster from 20 years ago if it didn't have the 90 degree inversion. It was strange how silent the people on our train were, no screams or anything. I didn't even do my trademark involuntary "whooooooooaaaa!"s that I normally can't control on roller coasters.

I have a feeling the designers were worried people would get sick from the novelty of the seating position combined with any further heavy maneuvers and speed, and the funny thing is it seems they would probably have been right. Coming back to the station, there's a point where you ride over a metal platform that's long enough for two trains to stop while waiting for another to clear the station. Since you're looking straight down, it was pretty clear how many people had recently thrown up there. I counted at least ten!

At least we didn't have to wait long - despite being one of the newer coasters at Great Adventure (2003), we walked right up to the ride and got on. No line whatsoever! Obviously, the word of mouth on this thing isn't very good.

Here's an offride video of the ride at Great Adventure - you can see how slow it is:


After El Toro and Nitro, this thing was a huge disappointment.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Shoegazing

My Bloody ValentineToday's music sucks. I want to talk about a time when music was good.

Wired recently posted a piece dredging up the "shoegazing" genre and what it is (or isn't) all about. Combined with the current My Bloody Valentine tour, it got me reminiscing.

When I was in college, I worked at my (first) university's radio station, WPSC. I eventually took over as music director in 1990. College radio in those days was the way a lot of little-known bands got discovered, so record labels would just send me shit all the time and I'd listen to it and see if there was anything good in the pile and if there was, I'd put it on the air.

I started noticing a lot of stuff coming out of England that had a similar, dreamy sound to it. Of course I was well-acquainted with goth and new wave bands from England, and I'd been a fan of bands like the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cocteau Twins for several years.

But this stuff was a little different; it was thick sounding, very melodic, heavy on the guitars, and alternating between poppy riffs in one song and noisy jam sessions in the next. The whole "wall of sound" thing. It was in some ways pretty similar to stuff you'd have heard in the late 1960's, and it was obviously heavily influenced by drug culture, but it was more modern and it was often pretty dark. Very different from anything I was hearing out of the United States, or even out of England just a couple years before.

LushIn the mid-90's, I transferred to NYU and started working in a little record store in the west village that was owned by a British guy, a German guy and an American woman. Naturally, we stocked British pop music, Euro-beat and trance, and American indie music. It was pretty awesome. By then I knew the name given to this movement - "shoegaze" - and I was a big fan of many of the bands and had seen a lot of them live. Even some old favorites, like the Cocteau Twins (who were total goths when they started out) had gotten roped in and hopped on the bandwagon.

The really shitty thing is that the British music press got hold of this group of bands and made it their mission to put them out of business. The term "shoegazing" itself is meant to be derogatory - the press coined it to refer to these bands because they're constantly looking down at their mass of pedal effects on stage. The British music industry is completely self-destructive - the instant a style gets at all popular, it's got a price on its head. It's almost like a contest to see who can nail the coffin shut. Article after article gets written slogging off every band attached to the genre in any way, until they're forced to break up or change their sound. This led directly to the death of the movement around 1995-1996.

(On the other hand, British bands also have pretty thin skin, as you can tell by the Wired article. It's easy for the press to push their buttons, and they know it.)

Anyway, check out video from some of my favorite shoegazers, and read some of their stories. If you like what you see, click any of the inline links to buy some CD's.

Slowdive - Alison

This song brings back serious memories for me. I'll leave it at that. I feel lost whenever I listen to it, still.

Somewhat funny story: the album this song is from is called Souvlaki. The band said they picked this name after visiting New York and seeing it written on a sign. They just liked the look and sound of it. They were embarrassed to discover later that souvlaki was a dish made of barbecued meat. They didn't realize it was a word that every New Yorker knew.

Less funny story: this album was savaged in the press, and the band changed their name to "Mojave 3" and their style to a sort of faux-country. It didn't work, and they faded into obscurity.

Lush - Sweetness and Light

Lush was my favorite band from about 1990 through 1993. I saw them live in both 1992 and 1995. The 1992 show at the Ritz in NYC remains to this day the best concert I have ever been to - and honest to god, I still hear people talk about that show randomly on the street every now and then. It was just a crazy show. A giant mass of people moving as one through the whole show, especially during "Sweetness and Light", which is from their best album Gala. I remember the band being backlit in blue during the entire song.

Lush - Nothing Natural

I made it my goal in life to meet Miki Berenyi - the lead singer - who I thought was the most beautiful woman in the world at that time. You know, what with the exotic face and the manic panic hair and the most amazing speaking voice I've ever heard and all. I did finally meet her at the 1995 show, and of course it was just incredibly awkward and weird. Oh well. I think she gave me a case of the "asian fetish", though, which I've found to be incurable.

Their 1992 album Spooky was almost as good as Gala. In fact, I liked it so much I named my cat after it. (Unfortunately, Spooky died young - feline leukemia. Very sad.) Then they went downhill. Their last album, 1996's Lovelife, was an attempt at going Britpop. It didn't work. Chris Acland, their drummer, committed suicide that same year, and that was the end of Lush.

Chapterhouse - Pearl

Dumb video but this is a classic song. The thing about shoegazer bands is that a lot of them had really big egos. Pretty obvious in this video. Someone loves him some closeups!

This song is really about 2 minutes longer than this - they cut it down for the video. Rachel Goswell of Slowdive sings backup. Also, as far as I know, they actually wrote the beat in the second half of the song - the same beat was used later by Siouxsie and the Banshees and also some hip-hop artist in the late 90's.

Chapterhouse only had one real shoegazer album (Whirlpool), though their last(?) album Blood Music might have actually been even better. It was more of an electronic-infused rock album. Unfortunately they never made videos out of any of the best songs on it.

The Cocteau Twins - Pink Orange Red

The Cocteau Twins straddled several genres and were also really their own thing, but they've got enough in common with other shoegazer bands that I put them here. For one thing, Robin Guthrie, the Twins' guitarist and main songwriter, produced Lush's Spooky album, among other songs of theirs. And Emma Anderson of Lush calls them her favorite band.

I've always thought that there were really two schools of shoegazing - one born from My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Spiritualized, and the other from the Cocteau Twins.

The Cocteau Twins (This Mortal Coil) - Song to the Siren

This is one of the Cocteau Twins' most famous songs and it's not even really theirs (or it really is, depending on your perspective). It's a cover song recorded under a different name and minus their bassist Simon Raymonde.

The record label at the forefront of the Twins' brand of shoegazing was called 4AD. They still exist, but they do different stuff now. Ivo Watts-Russell, who owned and ran the label, was a huge fan of the Twins, and they were his flagship band. But he was a fan of all his bands, so every once in a while he'd get them all together to do kind of an "all-star" thing that he would produce, and he called this "band" This Mortal Coil. (Incidentally, I had the pleasure of going out to dinner with Ivo and his girlfriend one night, and it was like being in the presence of royalty.)

This was the Cocteau Twins' biggest contribution to This Mortal Coil. David Lynch used it in Lost Highway.

It was a famous song at the time partly because it was the first time anyone could understand what Elizabeth Fraser was singing. She's famous for her intentionally indecipherable words. I used to be madly in love with this woman, probably because she always seemed like she was in need of rescue. She hid in her music, rather than using it to express herself. She was deeply disturbed for a long time - you can even see it in her eyes.

She came out of her shell on the album Four-Calendar Cafe, which is not coincidentally probably the worst Cocteau Twins album. But she sang intelligible lyrics about her life and her problems. It took away from the music itself, though, and it didn't sound much like the Cocteau Twins. I also saw them on this tour and they sounded really thin and not very good, and they played mostly songs from their previous two albums.

They sort of went back to their older style for their last album Milk and Kisses, and it is a great album. I saw them on this tour too, and I am glad I did. They were like a different band. They opened with "Pink Orange Red" - an old song to start the show! - and they played a ton of their back-catalog, but remixed in new ways. It was like they knew this would be their last tour, and maybe they did. That was in 1996, and as far as I'm concerned, their breakup that year was the death of the genre.

Fraser has turned up in other projects over the years. For example, she sang on Massive Attack's "Teardrop", which is now used as the theme song to the TV show "House". I'm not sure what Robin Guthrie or Simon Raymonde are doing.

My Bloody Valentine - Soon

I've talked about My Bloody Valentine before. Hell, I'll probably talk about them again. They are amazing. They inspired me to buy my Jazzmaster. Their album Loveless blew. my. fucking. mind.

My Bloody Valentine are survivors - they still exist, and in their original form. They're just not very active. Kevin Shields, their lead guitarist and songwriter, occasionally writes solo stuff and produces various things - he's worked on the soundtrack to several of Sofia Coppola's films, for example.

But the story of their fall from grace in the 1990's is infamous. They nearly dragged down 4AD's main competitor, Creation Records, with them. Given a $250,000 advance on their followup to Loveless, the band squandered it on a studio that never worked properly as Shields went through a nervous breakdown. At one point, he reportedly submitted 100 songs to the record label, all of which were rejected out of hand. He's also rumored to have nearly finished an entire My Bloody Valentine album before throwing it out as not up to standard.

But at least their story is not one of destruction by external forces. They weathered their internal storms and amazingly, despite 16 years apart and Shields' erratic behavior, they're now all back on tour together. Shields is once again promising an album to follow. I'll be there to see them in September, so this isn't the last you've heard of them.

My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes

Incidentally, this song actually was in "Lost in Translation", but this isn't that scene. I do think it was playing when they were going over Rainbow Bridge just like in this collage, but the rest of it seems a little cobbled together.

Sofia Coppola has good taste in music, I will give her that.

Ride - Twisterella

I really don't know much about Ride, but I always loved this song!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Six Flags Great Adventure - Nitro

Photo by Dusso Janladde
Now this is a great roller coaster. It's almost the steel equivalent of El Toro.

We tried to ride Nitro when it first opened a few years ago, but it was late in the evening, the line was too long, and we were tired and just wanted to go home. (Basically the exact same thing that happened this year with the Dark Knight.) I also just wasn't sure it'd be worth it - it looks like it just goes up and down a few hills. Big deal, I thought. No loops? No sale.

At the time it was built, this was one of the tallest and fastest roller coasters in the world. That was its claim to fame. I'm not really buying this biggest/fastest marketing when it comes to roller coasters, but I was made a believer when it comes to this one.

I took that picture with my cell phone - came out pretty good, right?

First, the lift takes you up 230 feet, but it feels really high. I think a big part of it is just how long it takes and how much time you have to let it sink in. It's not like Kingda Ka, where you're up and down so fast that you don't even realize it. On Nitro, you get up about halfway and all the sounds of the park melt away. Then you've got about another minute of nothing but the clink of the lift before the drop. The lift is pointed away from the park, so it starts to feel like you're just out in the woods, drifting up into the clouds. Near the top, it feels like there's nothing propping you up - you can't see the supports or anything. It's a scary lift; they really designed it well. This is usually not what you'd call an exciting part of a roller coaster ride, but it's one of the best parts on Nitro.

Not that the rest isn't exciting. The first drop is massive negative G's at close to 90 degrees. Then it's just a succession of hills and drops that don't stop for about 3 minutes. This is one fast ride, but very smooth, so you're never quite expecting the upward pull (airtime!) as you hit the crest of a hill. It really does feel like the train is going to just rip itself off the track and go flying - this track has gotta be mighty strong.

Oh, and the only restraint is what amounts to a glorified lap bar. No shoulder restraints at all, and no floor that I remember. I love this - it feels like you're just out there in the open air.

One thing about me and roller coasters is that I can never let go of the restraints while I'm riding. Seriously, I look like an idiot - I've seen the pictures. I've been trying to change that. But riding Nitro didn't really help. You know, I'm not worried about anything but the ride itself breaking in some way and sending me plummeting to my death, and I can't shake that. "Final Destination 3" type shit. It does happen. I still enjoy the hell out of the ride, I just can't let go of the restraints.

This is me and my wife on a roller coaster:

(Not really.)

I know I said I wasn't gonna do this, but this sort of captures what Nitro is like... you've really gotta imagine that airtime, though:

Monday, July 21, 2008

Portrait


I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the tyranny of my various blogs right now, so just sit tight - I've got like 20 half-finished posts and I will get to them all. I've still got my roller coasters to get through, then a couple posts about New York, a couple about Tokyo, a couple miscellaneous bits. And that's just here - I've got other blogs too! But I'm gonna try to make this one a little more interesting for you guys. I feel like all my posts are boring lately. I'm getting old! Or maybe I'm just stuck in a rut.

I'll get to everything. I gotta learn to lay off the statcounter and stop putting so much pressure on myself.

By the way, yes that's me up there, apparently not enjoying a pickle. I'm with my friend Cheryl, who doesn't seem to be enjoying hers either and who I haven't talked to probably pretty much since then. Our matching pants are not even really a coincidence; the 1970's were all about plaid. I just felt like this blog needed a random funny picture for you to look at. And I know there aren't many pictures of people here; that's sort of a mental block I have (plus a privacy issue, I guess).

Sunday, July 20, 2008

(And Still One More) New Car! 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee


This would be getting boring if it wasn't kind of funny. Well, to me, anyway.

I just bought a certified used 2004 Grand Cherokee. That's obviously not it up there. "Certified" means there's supposed to be nothing wrong with the car. There's a 125 point inspection by the dealer that's supposed to confirm that.

Well, my Grand Cherokee had bald tires and no spare, for starters. Got that sorted out. But then we noticed on our trip to Great Adventure that the passenger side floor was soaking wet from the a/c. I mean there was a puddle!

So, back to the dealer again for a repair. No, it wasn't any big deal, and they fixed it for free (as they're obligated to). But in the meantime, they gave us the beautiful car above as a loaner. A 2008 "Rocky Mountain Edition" Grand Cherokee. Not bad! So I'm now probably one of the few people to have driven all three generations of Grand Cherokee in the span of a month.

I gotta say we like our 2004 better. Up until 2004 (the last year of the second gen), Grand Cherokees were real off-road vehicles. They had solid axles, old-school ball steering, and they just felt like heavy trucks. The interior styling was utilitarian but not cheap (it shouldn't be for $30,000). Our 2004 is all black inside, with real metal accents. And I feel like I just fit right in our 2004, which is hard for any car considering how tall I am.

The new Grand Cherokees are basically suburban wagons. They're not even SUV's. They have independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, and the interiors are like any other Chrysler - all cheap and plasticky, with fake metal everywhere (basically just plastic painted silver). I felt like I was driving our PT Cruiser. I love our PT Cruiser, but I knew I was buying a station wagon and I only spent $14,500. I would expect something else if I was gonna pay $30,000+ for a new SUV. I would expect something closer to our 2004 Grand Cherokee.

The new models also seem to only come with full-time 4WD systems (Quadra-Trac and Quadra-Drive). I disliked that in our 1997 Grand Cherokee, but it was just an option back then, as it was in 2004 when our current Grand Cherokee was built. Our 2004's got the manual 4WD transfer case (Selec-Trac), which I love. We can keep it in 2WD mode 99% of the time for gas mileage and handling, then switch to 4WD full or part time on the fly when we need it. The full-time only systems are not reliable - they break more easily, and they're not true 4WD systems. You can't go out in the snow and know you're getting power to all 4 wheels - you only will once the system feels slip, and it might take 1-2 seconds for that to happen.

Oh, and the a/c on these things is weak. Sweat like a pig weak. Full blast in the 95 degree heat here and it took about 30 minutes for the interior to cool down. The previous generation didn't have this problem.

One thing we fell in love with on the 2008 loaner: satellite radio. Holy crap! How did we live without this?? It was so hard going back to regular radio when we got our Grand Cherokee back - hearing the same four genres of music everywhere and with commercials every 3 seconds. We spent most of our time in the 2008 listening to the "Chill" station, which is a lot of trip-hop and ambient music. Stuff you'd never hear on regular radio, and I love that it tells you who the artist is for stuff you don't know. We're pricing out some Sirius add-on tuners for our own cars now.

But I'm still happy to have our 2004 Grand Cherokee back.

Six Flags Great Adventure - Kingda Ka

This is the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster (at the moment). To some people, that actually means something. Philistines. Honestly, to me it's like saying a car is the world's fastest or a building is the world's tallest - so what? Roller coasters are like pizza; it's not about having the most of anything, it's about getting the balance right. So I didn't care much before today about trying this thing, except to be able to say I'd done it.

Also, last time we went to Great Adventure, we made the mistake of riding Batman & Robin: The Chiller, which mercifully no longer exists (replaced by The Dark Knight). That ride was similar to Kingda Ka in that it shot you out like a bullet at high speed, then put you into some high-G maneuvers. We both felt like our brains had been detached from their stems after riding that thing, and Kingda Ka, about twice as fast and four times the height, obviously looked even worse to us.

We actually debated as we stood in line whether we should leave. We finally decided it would almost be like a defeat if we did; we'd feel like losers.

Kingda Ka is one of those rides that's almost all about the intimidation and anticipation. You stand there and watch the craziness of other people hitting 128mph in 3.5 seconds, then climbing a 465 foot hill and going over and down at 90 degrees, and you think "holy fucking christ!" That's the ride; that fear. They milk that for all its worth; they maximize the views of the ride as you're in line, then they make you sit on the track waiting to launch for like 40 seconds, then they have you fall backwards for a few feet before you launch. It's all designed to heighten the fear. (The fact that a few trains end up doing a rollback at the top of the hill each year might be orchestrated too.)

My wife shot this video from the line:


Incidentally, this was all apparently exaggerated even further as the ride was originally designed. But during testing, there was an accident that sent shrapnel flying through the original line route, so the line was redesigned to stay outside of the track area at all times.

The actual ride is nothing. A lot of buildup for a big letdown. I mean it goes by so fast, both in terms of duration and speed, that you barely even notice what's happening. The speed and acceleration are so ridiculous that you really can't even physically look anywhere but straight ahead, so all you see is the track. You don't really get a sense of any great height. Going down from the top of the hill is kind of a rush, but it's over in literally 3 or 4 seconds. The last hill at the end of the ride really adds nothing - I didn't even realize it was there.

Obviously not everyone agrees, but Kingda Ka is a novelty, and it'll wear off.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Six Flags Great Adventure - El Toro

The first ride we hit at Great Adventure this year was El Toro, the park's newest wooden roller coaster. I love wooden roller coasters, and I was just awe-struck when I saw this thing. It looks suicidal in person. It is the most intimidating wooden roller coaster I've ever seen.

They've got it set up so you approach it initially from the back, and you can just see the first drop off in the distance. It really looks impossible; I mean my eyes didn't believe what they were seeing. The first drop is humongous and it looks like it's 90 degrees. (It isn't; it's 76 degrees, but that's still one of the steepest drops of any wooden coaster.) The back section has banked turns that also look like they approach 90 degrees - really unusual for a wooden coaster.

The bite matches the bark. Riding it is insane. First of all, you haul ass to the top of the hill - they're using a cable lift, not a winch lift. It's a weird, wild feeling - none of that "clink clink clink" sound as you're going up, just dead silence at 14mph. The rest of the ride is so fast and pulls so many G's in every direction that, and I know this may sound a little disgusting, I had liquid coming out of pretty much every open part of my face by the end of the ride. Eyes, nose, mouth, there was just water and goo flying everywhere. Before I said anything about this, my wife told me the same thing happened to her. This ride is one long punch to the stomach. My wife said she was afraid she was going to lose her eyeballs somewhere on the track. She actually thought she was about done for the day after this! I had to convince her to keep going.

El Toro is partially built through the park's older wooden coaster Rolling Thunder, which now just looks a little pathetic by comparison. (One thing Rolling Thunder does have over El Toro is racing trains.) Honestly, while I was riding it, I didn't even notice the intertwining part of the track - I was too busy trying to avoid the headchoppers! This coaster is supposed to be sort of a hybrid between a steel and wooden roller coaster, but that's really just marketing. It was built by machine, but that's really the only difference between it and other wooden coasters. It's still got all the same features of a wooden coaster, including the somewhat rough ride (smooth enough to hit 70mph, but you still get thrown around), the rickety feeling, the lap bar-only restraints, and the headchoppers as you go back through the structure.

One good thing about it - unlike some wooden roller coasters, it doesn't slam you back down into your seat at the bottom of a hill. That's my big problem with some coasters like this; I feel like I've gotten kicked in the crotch for two minutes after getting off. Not on El Toro.

By the way, there are a lot of POV videos of both this and the other roller coasters I plan to write about out there on YouTube. I'm not a fan of these videos because they really don't capture what it's like; if anything, they always make the ride seem less exciting than it is. You can't replicate the experience of flying along at 70mph, pulling negative G's on a bumpy track with the wind pulling your face backwards in a little 320x240 video box on a computer screen. So I'm not going to link to any of these videos. Feel free to look them up yourself, but just understand that watching POV videos is not. the same. thing. as riding for real.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Six Flags Great Adventure - Coaster Week!


Recently we did something that I never thought I'd be able to do again after my recent health problems - we went to Great Adventure. And I'm gonna write about every single roller coaster we rode. One post each. Starting... soon. Like, maybe tomorrow.

Photo by Dusso Janladde


But first, my intro.

We used to call Great Adventure New Jersey's poor-man's Disneyland. It's a pretty big park set in the woods in the middle of nowhere. In the old days, there wasn't much there - three or four roller coasters, a ferris wheel, a log flume. I used to like riding the little train they had that ran around the park and through the woods. But it's really changed a lot in the 30(!) years that I've been going. Today was the first day I think I've ever been there that I didn't go on a single ride that existed when I was a kid. There are still some there - the log flume (which is still literally just called "Log Flume"), the ferris wheel, Rolling Thunder, the Mine Train, a few others. But really, except for maybe the log flume, even I think these are pretty boring by today's standards. One change I'm not too happy about - the Super Teepee is gone! This was iconic of the park in its early days, and I was wondering why I didn't see it. Just one more nail in the coffin of Six Flags theme park uniqueness - someday, they'll all be indistinguishable from each other. Just one big corporate brand, utterly consistent and bland.

So we did nothing but ride the newer coasters all day. We missed out on The Dark Knight, which opened this year, because the line was too long. And like I said, we ignored most of the older ones. But that left plenty for us to fill up our day.

Digression: when I was a kid, nobody had ever heard of Six Flags. Everybody just called the park "Great Adventure". I'm pretty sure people in New Jersey still do, despite Six Flags' best efforts these days. (This New Jerseyan agrees!) Talk about dating myself, but I actually still remember when the park was independent, going back to 1977! (That same year, the movie "Rollercoaster" was released, in which a guy goes around to various amusement parks trying to blow up roller coasters. It was presented in "sensurround", which basically added really loud rumbling low frequencies. I got so scared from the opening scene that I ran out of the theater.)

No Six Flags!

Not to say Six Flags' involvement in the park has been bad or anything. The place looks a lot better than it did when I was a kid, there are a lot more rides and there's a hell of a lot more to eat and drink. You used to be able to walk from one side of the park to another and not see so much as a water fountain the whole way - and it's a pretty big park. Now you can't throw a rock without hitting a drink stand. It's all overpriced to hell, it's the same four brands and drink flavors throughout the park, and the stands are all staffed by surly idiot kids who'd rather be anywhere else but there. (I had to force some dumb kid who tried to give me an Icee filled with 1/4 Icee and 3/4 foam to give me another one at one point; he didn't see the problem.) But it's still nice on a 95 degree sunny and humid day, when you'd drink horse piss after walking around for five hours if they served it to you cold.

Safety standards are better too, even as the rides themselves get crazier. I can't find a writeup of this anywhere but I clearly remember that when I was a kid, the bumper cars burned down on the day that we were there. I remember that at least one person died. I have a specific and vivid memory of watching the building burn, flames shooting probably 30 feet into the air. In the 1980's, there were other major accidents, the most famous being the burning of the Haunted Castle, which killed eight people. There were a string of other accidents around that same time.

Nowadays, probably the biggest thing you've got to worry about at the park is the Six Flags Corporation trying to rip you off. Look at this crap:


You used to be able to just leave your stuff in a little box near the exit of the ride, and/or take anything with you on the ride that you could comfortably carry. Ok, so maybe they had problems with theft or something, or maybe this slowed down the loading and unloading process, I don't know. But why make us pay for these lockers? We've already given you $50 for a full price ticket (not that anyone actually pays that), $15 for parking, $4 for every drink we drink, plus food, souvenirs, etc.

This $1 charge amounts to an extra fee for all of the bigger rides. What else are you gonna do? The lockers are time-limited, so you can't just leave your stuff in there all day.

Their other new policy: you need to throw out your drink if you haven't finished it by the time you get on the ride. You can't just leave it on the platform until you come back anymore. I saw this in action - they're totally militant about this. Ummm, ok, I can understand theft being a problem with pocketbooks or even souvenir stuffed animals and whatnot... but half-finished drinks? This is clearly just a policy to get you to buy more drinks after you get off the ride.

Oh, and my last complaint is this little aristocracy they've now set up among the park guests. You can now pay extra for both "premiere parking" and a "Flash Pass". Premiere parking lets you park right near the entrance. That's not so bad, but the Flash Pass is an atrocity. It's basically a license to cut in line. Worse still, Flash Pass people get priority for the front seats of all the rides. So you can stand there waiting for hours while Flash Pass customers just jump right in front of you. This actually isn't that new, but it's become insidious. The way amusement parks are supposed to work is that everybody who goes to the park gets equal treatment and has an equal chance to ride the rides. It's not supposed to depend on how much money you make. People, have we forgotten what it means to live in a Democracy??

(This guy has the nerve to complain that they actually wanted to charge him for a Flash Pass and wait in line to buy one, thereby demonstrating everything that's wrong with this country in one seemingly innocent blog post. Here's another one of these people.)

Anyway, it was still a fun time this time, much moreso than the last time we went, which was some kind of major holiday. If we learned one thing from that visit, it's this: do not go to Great Adventure on a major holiday. We managed to get on two rides all day, the lines were so long. I'm talking signs saying "Your wait time from this point: 240 minutes". Nothing like that this time; some rides we literally just walked right up to and got on. Haven't seen that since I was a kid, when the park was just a lot less crowded every day, not just holidays or weekends.

Watch over the next few days for my coaster reports for Kingda Ka, El Toro, Nitro, Medusa, Superman, and... was that it?? Maybe I'll do a single-post roundup of some other coasters we've been on there in the past as well, though that one will be more from memory. (That would include Batman: The Ride, Batman and Robin: The Chiller, Viper, The Great American Scream Machine, Rolling Thunder, Sarajevo Bobsled, Lightning Loops, and the Mine Train.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Japanese Melon Cream Soda - USA Style

On my last trip to Japan, I had my first taste of this Japanese delicacy:


It's a melon cream soda - just a melon soda with some vanilla ice cream in it. It's AWESOME.

I managed a reasonable facsimile the other night:


That's not actually melon... but then I'm not convinced "melon soda" is really melon flavored either. It just tastes kinda green. So does this - this is a Green Apple Jones Soda.

I love Jones Soda. They're the guys that do weird stuff that makes the news like turkey flavored soda for the holidays. But they have all sorts of "regular" soda too, like cola and root beer and cream soda, all flavored with real cane sugar, not corn syrup. But then they've got sort of borderline questionable stuff like "blue bubblegum", "fufu berry" and of course, green apple. They also have a "crushed melon" flavor! But it's not green, and I went for color accuracy over naming accuracy. I guess their melon soda must be based on cantaloupe, not honeydew, so I doubt they taste anything close to similar anyway.

One of these days I will hit up our closest Japanese market and see if they've got any proper green melon soda in stock - they probably do. But until then, I'll enjoy my green apple fake melon cream soda. It's a little different than a Japanese melon cream, but it's still pretty nice.

By the way, if you're in New York City and you want to try a melon cream soda, try Hiroko's Place. You can see a picture of the one they serve at that link.

(Another) New Car!

I bought yet another new (to me) car yesterday. Here she is:


It's a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Why, it seems like just a couple of months ago I was writing about another Grand Cherokee:


Had kinda bad luck with that thing. Dealer ripped me off, basically. Told me they fixed something that they hadn't fixed, and I spent $2,000 trying to repair it myself (which I'm now in the process of recovering). Hello, small claims court! And it still needed more work before it was even actually safe. I couldn't deal with the headache.

So I bought a certified used one with a lot fewer miles on it. It still wasn't very expensive at all (not much of a market for SUV's right now) but you know how dealers are, especially when you're financing. It always comes out to more than you expect when all is said and done. I'm feeling a little buyer's remorse right now, but then I think that's pretty common. But this isn't like what I thought that other Grand Cherokee was going to be - this isn't an old beater that I'm going to run into the ground. This is a real car. I'm gonna be sad if anything happens to it, and I've got a not-insignificant financial commitment to it. (It does have a few dings already; I mean it is four years old.) It's gonna need to work for us at least until we pay off the loan: five years.

I'm still having a pretty terrible time buying cars, though, even a certified one. I noticed when I got this thing home last night that it had no spare tire. I didn't even think to check that because it's supposed to be part of the certification that the spare and jack are there and in good shape. I've also never bought a car that didn't have its spare before; it's just weird. So I'm gonna have to go back and deal with the dealer on that; hopefully they won't call me a liar and accuse me of taking it out of the car so I could get a free extra one to sell.

Buying a car at a dealer really sucks - I was there for about six hours.

I also seem to have driven through some paint or something on the way home; the driver's side has little droplets of white paint all over it. And it's a black car. Ugh! I'll need to figure out how to get it off.

At least I've got a real warranty, though, unlike the fake warranty that was apparently not worth the paper it was printed on that I got with the last Grand Cherokee.

I know, how can I be buying another SUV with gas prices being what they are and whatnot. Well, first of all, seriously, we drive like 4,000 miles per year total. So yeah, gas prices suck for us, but we're not as bad off as people who are commuting 70 miles a day by car. And one thing we learned from the other Grand Cherokee is that we love Grand Cherokees. I mean we love the just-right size and the interior space and how they look and feel. And of course, we need a 4X4. Older Grand Cherokees feel like serious SUV's, not these little toys most companies are putting out these days and calling SUV's (including Jeep after 2005). At the same time, though, Grand Cherokees are not unreasonably huge, they're not ridiculous.

I think that someday both of our cars will be all-hybrid or electric-hybrid. It just makes sense that the world is moving in that direction. And I have no problem with the idea of an electric or hybrid car, I just don't really want to make a massive series of compromises and drive a Prius or a Civic, and I don't want to get on a waiting list and then spend $35,000 right now to drive a Ford Escape hybrid (we really couldn't afford it). Someday, though, there are gonna be Jeep Wrangler hybrids and all-electric Mini Coopers and whatever else, and we'll have the money to buy one. Probably pretty soon, too - maybe even by the time we shop for another new car.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Blogger SEO - Forget What You Know about Search Engine Optimization

I've got three blogs at the moment, and given the amount of time and effort I put into them, I do try to recoup at least a little bit through the ads you see around here. (I try to keep the ads from being annoying.) So I've been thinking a lot lately about search engine optimization, or SEO.

This is also actually part of my job, and I deal with it at work and have for years now - since before "SEO" was even a buzz term.

There are a lot of pages out there on the net talking about this. The problem is most of these guys are selling snake oil. Some of them probably even believe in the snake oil they're selling, but it's still snake oil.

A big issue with SEO is managing expectations. Whether your site or blog is large or small, most people think their traffic's going to look like this after a little bit of SEO:

In reality, it's probably going to look more like this:

And that's assuming you had a problem to begin with. A lot of blogs and sites are pretty good from an SEO standpoint even before optimizing anything. If you're not getting traffic, the problem may not be SEO - it may be your content.

The fact of the matter is a lot of SEO is guesswork. Some optimizations are based on trial and error, but the real mechanisms at work behind those results aren't known. Other optimizations are based on statements from Google employees that may or may not be wholly accurate and even if they are, we still don't know the reasons why the things they say work the way they do. Still other common optimizations are basically made up, because they just seem logical.

Here's what's known. The only things Google and most other search engines really care about are two things: distribution of links around the web ("importance"), and page content ("theme"). All of your optimizations should be going towards one of those two goals. Any optimizations that don't specifically address one of those goals are probably not necessary and may even be counterproductive. Google calls their system for assigning page importance PageRank.

To really get good at SEO, you need to consider all the implications of what I just said above. I'm focusing on Google here, but the concepts apply to most search engines. It helps to understand how PageRank really works. Read this article on PageRank - it's enlightening and will have you re-thinking a lot of what you thought you knew about SEO. In short, many of the most common SEO techniques amount to trying to move Mount Everest with a snow shovel. Wrong concept, wrong tool.

The most important points:

* Google indexes pages, not sites.

* PageRank is assigned by a mathematical formula that calculates the distribution of links on pages around the entire world wide web.

* The average PageRank of all pages on the world wide web will always equal approximately 1. The average isn't exactly 1 because the calculations can never be 100% accurate. (Read the article linked above to see why. It's a very Matrix-ish sort of problem.)

So the PageRank system is all about the relative distribution of existing PageRank potential through linking between pages. That's all it does.

Again, there are two components to any front-end search result: importance and theme. People are searching for specific things, not just looking for pages with the highest PageRank. Search engines need to display the pages most relevant to a search term that also have the highest rank. Theme is where things like keywords, anchors, and of course the content of your pages themselves comes in. So this is important too. Obviously, the better your content, the more links you'll probably get coming in, so theme and importance go hand in hand.

Given that, let me go through some common SEO steps and whether I think they're necessary or not.

First, these are things you can consider but that probably won't dramatically affect your search results:

1. Meta tagging. Google doesn't care, and in fact most search engines are programmed these days to intentionally ignore most meta tags. They used to be an easy way to fool search engines, so most don't even look at them anymore.

One exception: your homepage. Google does use the meta description field to describe your homepage in search results, and this is usually more helpful for readers than a random piece of text. For individual pages within your blog, though, it's usually better to let Google pick out relevant content to show - it gives potential readers a preview featuring their search terms.

2. Disallow archive page indexing. Having duplicate content on your site is generally a bad idea. So most people will suggest using a robots.txt file or some other means to disallow spidering of your archive pages.

But Google is smart enough to know how blogs work. They own Blogger, after all, and Blogger still makes archive pages that are indexed by Google. Go search Google for "jazzmaster setup", for example - you'll see my page on the subject is the #1 result right now. The archive page containing this post is nowhere in the top 100.

It probably can't hurt to disallow archive spidering, but I doubt it helps either. Google doesn't seem to penalize blogs with archive pages. (Here is Google employee Matt Cutts' response to this question.)

3. Page title before blog title. Some blog software (including Blogger) put the blog name before the post title in their page titles. While annoying, nothing has ever convinced me that this affects PageRank or search results. Some argue that the post title should be first for SEO. Why? All the same words are there; search engines aren't determining syntax. They're not linguists, they're just looking at words.

I like post title first just because they're less likely to get truncated in search results that way, which makes it more likely that someone will click on a post with a long title. But it's got nothing to do with how high a post appears in search results.

4. Blog post categories/labels/tags. There's a lot of conflicting info about this out there. Some say it helps PageRank. Others say it hurts. Which is right?

Neither, really. A category or tag is just an internal link anchor. It may slightly affect your keyword density, but the larger consideration is the redistribution of PageRank among your pages that contain the same tags. For example, say you have a group of 10 post pages tagged "puppies" and you have a link to that tag on many pages of your blog (wherever you show that tag). Now all those other pages on your blog are giving a little bit of their PageRank in favor of these posts about puppies. So the puppy posts will have a higher PageRank while all of your other posts will have a lower PageRank.

At the same time, all of these posts about puppies are redistributing their own PageRank amongst themselves through that common link. You may not want that, because some of these posts may be better/longer/more important to you than others.

Categories and tags are something you need to consider, but not in the context of getting "more" PageRank. Again, there's one exception, and that's if your pages don't all link to each other regardless (say, through a nav). Otherwise, it's really more about how you want the PageRank you already have distributed among your pages. Give your important pages more tags and your unimportant pages fewer (or none).

5. Use a hosted domain. This has other advantages, but SEO isn't really one of them. Google assigns the same weight to a page regardless of where it's hosted - it doesn't somehow assign pages a lower rank just because they're a subdomain, including blogs on blogspot.com. Given the exact same content and number and quality of incoming links, a page at http://pencils.blogspot.com and a page at http://www.pencils.com will get the exact same rank. There's some debate about whether Google gives preference to top-level or second-level directories vs. directories nested further down (ie. http://www.pencils.com might have higher weight than http://www.pencils.com/home/pencils/index/numbertwo), but that's not usually a consideration for bloggers.

I put these five in the "not necessary" category because they promote neither importance nor theme, and are therefore basically irrelevant to search results.

----------------------------------------------------

Now for stuff you SHOULD do:

1. Write unique content. Look at my Jazzmaster setup post, which is the most popular post I have on this blog right now. There are only about two pages out there specifically detailing that subject, and we link to each other. Anyone who searches for that term - and a lot of people do - will find both of our sites.

It helps if your blog has an uncommon theme. This one's pretty random, but my other blogs - while they may not be everybody's cup of tea - cater to a specific niche. (Namely, classic video games and a female Japanese pop duo.)

2. Be controversial. I wish I was better at this! Get people posting your stuff in discussion boards around the net and leaving comments. Comments are basically just more content to Google - they increase your keyword density and help with theming.

3. Write often. Because Google ranks pages and not sites, the more pages you have, the more potential PageRank you have. Some say writing more often will also cause Google to spider more often, and to some extent that's true, but that doesn't help your PageRank except on those individual pages. It just keeps the results current. It's simply having more pathways to enter your site that helps your search traffic. Blogs are an example of the "long tail" in action. Bigger blogs with more pages get more traffic because they come up in more unique search results.

More frequently updated blogs are usually more timely too, and that can't hurt - write about stuff while a lot of people are searching for it. (This is one thing I don't do enough.)

4. Keep your comments on your post page, not a popup, so they affect the theming of that page. Don't use third-party hosted comment services. If you use Blogger, you can sign in to Blogger in Draft to select the option for inline comments. (Depending on when you read this, this feature may now be part of regular old Blogger.)

5. Use pictures and video. For one thing, they make your blog more fun to read - especially if your posts can get kinda long. (Guilty!) That makes it more likely that other site/blog owners will link to you. But they also help you get search traffic. For example, your photos will turn up in image searches. Embedding YouTube video creates a link to your blog post on YouTube.

6. Use trackbacks! A lot of people have declared the trackback "dead", others say it's unnecessary now that we have Digg and Technorati links (which I used to have here). But they're misunderstanding how trackbacks work.

First, trackbacks either distribute PageRank both ways (if they're used) or they just don't do anything (if they're not), unlike persistent Digg or Technorati links that only leak PageRank out of your site unless people actually use them.

Second, trackbacks allow *you* to put your own link elsewhere on the web, getting PageRank back. You're not relying on others to (you hope) do it for you.

Most blog systems have trackbacks by default. If you're using Blogger, follow these instructions on adding Haloscan trackbacks to your blog, and then use this Greasemonkey script to enable outbound trackbacks.

7. Turn off "backlinks" if using Blogger. Backlinks are a bastardized, uncontrollable version of trackbacks. Turning them off will encourage people to use trackbacks (if you have them).

8. Make use of the nofollow tag. Should you be penalized in search results just because you run a blog with a lot of links? No - that's what the web is intended for. Use rel="nofollow" in your links when appropriate and don't worry about the number of links in your posts affecting PageRank. Be judicious with it, because you're basically deciding who deserves your PageRank and who doesn't. Never nofollow another blogger who's linking to you. But do nofollow links to major retailers, news sites or Wikipedia (Wikipedia nofollows every external link, so they're not very deserving of your PageRank, IMO). My rule of thumb is that I use nofollow if I don't expect a link back and I don't feel the page I'm linking to needs my help in their search results.

Nofollow is also useful for internal links, if, for example, you want a link to your "about" page on every page you have, but you don't necessarily want to be redirecting all that PageRank to that page.

Some argue that nofollow goes against the spirit of the web, which is that every link counts equally. I would argue that it is the spirit of the web, in that its use encourages more linking without fear of losing search results ranking. Don't forget that search engines came well after the web was created; they're the ones that changed the nature of the web. Before they existed, the way we all found our way around these parts was for someone else we trusted to link us somewhere. After search engines, we're all petrified of having too many links lest we bleed PageRank. All nofollow does is restore the balance and allow content creators to link without fear.

9. Use good link anchor text. Don't link words like "here" or "this". (I'm guilty again.) Link descriptive words. It helps determine theme and keyword results.

10. Sign up for a free Google Webmaster Tools account. There you can see if there are any errors in your site that are preventing Google from crawling it correctly, and you can easily get a lot of information about how you're appearing in their search results. You can also control various things the Googlebot does, such as ignoring certain pages or setting the crawl rate.

11. Canonicalize your URL. What the heck does this mean? Well, this blog technically resides at both http://alphabetcityblog.com and http://www.alphabetcityblog.com. If both were in Google's index, it would think they were two different pages with the exact same content. Not good!

Choose one url. There are ways to do this on the server side if you're using a hosted blog, but it's also easy to do with Google Webmaster Tools.

12. Write page and/or post titles that a person would want to click on. I don't subscribe to the theory that page titling affects search placement much (unless you're just way off theme), and in fact I go a little against the grain in that I think you're likely to see more traffic with catchy, bold titles than with titles that have a lot of keywords in them.

For example, would you more likely click on a search result entitled "A qualitative look at popular musical genres in the 2000's vs. the 1960's" or on one entitled "Today's music sucks!" See what I mean? You always have to remember that humans are doing these searches. SEO is not all about "optimizing" for PageRank's sake; it is fundamentally about attracting humans to your content.

13. Subscribe to Matt Cutts' blog. He works for Google and specializes in SEO, and he posts about the subject pretty often. The best info is straight from the horse's mouth, after all.

----------------------------------------------------

I really think it's important not to get too caught up in all of this, though. The best way to get ranked highly in search results is to put stuff out there that people want to read. Do that, and you'll be naturally ranked highly. It doesn't usually happen overnight. Build an audience.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

My photo

I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

Followers

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP