Monday, June 30, 2008

My photo blog

A while back I set up a blog named doubleperf to house some of my favorite photos that I've taken. It's linked on the left, but I doubt many of you even bother looking at the left nav. And I confess I haven't even looked at this blog at all in more than a year.

But there's some good stuff there, and I'm trying to decide what to do with it at this point. Should I just roll it all into this one? This blog's a lot heavier on the text, the how-to's, the stories. That blog's just all photos and explanations of them. The reason for the question is that I've got some nice photos sitting on my hard drive and I don't know what to do with them... and I don't know if it makes sense to keep a separate blog for them. But I kinda like having a nice clean setup where it's all about the photos.

Decisions, decisions. But check that blog out in the meantime; there's a lot of cool stuff there that I've never posted here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The state of the Jazzmaster

Today I did the following to my Jazzmaster:

My pickup covers are now "aged". Not sure if I'm into it yet, but I'm going to order some aged knobs and switch tips and see how it looks when everything's consistent. Most people like vintage-ized guitars, even if they're new. I kinda don't, but I'll sleep on it for a while and decide how I feel later.

I did it because I changed my pickups to Seymour Duncan Antiquity II's a while back, which are designed to mimic the vintage sound. They're a big improvement over my original Japanese pickups, which aren't like real Jazzmaster pickups at all. But the problem is American pickups don't fit Japanese pickup covers. I filed my original covers a little so these pickups would fit, but they looked kind of weird afterwards... so I thought I'd try this. The only American covers you can get are this color - Fender USA only sells cream-colored covers on their "vintage reissues", even though the originals came with plain white!

Anyway, I'm working on a comprehensive list of upgrades I'd recommend for your CIJ Jazzmaster, along with any caveats like this. I get a lot of traffic from people searching for CIJ Jazzmaster info, so hopefully it'll help. Watch for it soon.

Update: I put my pickup covers back the way they were. I tried all "aged" stuff and it just looked fake. Plain white looks a lot better. (Trust me.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Important Papers

Almost forgot about this...

Been walking around with these in my bag for a month now. These little strips of thin cardboard are the most valuable things I've got in there.

It annoys me that the band name is smaller than the promoter. You'd think this was an "All Tomorrow's Parties" concert, with "Live Nation" as the opening band.

Both dates are now apparently sold out. And Roseland is big; this isn't a tiny little club. Madonna played there earlier this year. Jennifer Lopez has played there. Lots of good artists have played there too, but I'm just sayin'. The place is not small. My Bloody Valentine has still got it.

By the way, the NYC shows aren't until September but they're already out playing - this person has some photos from their last show, but there are others floating around too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

ABC Turns Japanese! Some real-time reactions to the new summer game shows

So I'm watching the premiere of "Wipeout" on ABC right now, the first in their new duo of Japanese-inspired game shows. "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" is on directly afterwards. I'm a little drunk, which should help with this kind of thing. But right now, it's not. That's unfortunate! This show's a buzzkill.

These shows are supposed to be like the wacky Japanese TV shows that Americans seem to think are the norm on Japanese TV. You know, the kind that the Simpsons parodied in the episode "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo", when they appeared on the fictional "The Happy Smile Super Challenge Family Wish Show".

Some thoughts so far:

They've got the basic format right. "Wipeout" is basically like "Takeshi's Castle" or any number of its contemporaries, although stripped down even further if you can believe it. It's not overdone - they haven't intentionally cheesed it up. If anything, it's much too sedate! There's no personality.

Another problem: the contestants are too out of shape. Most of them are obviously giving up about midway through the qualifying course. They're just throwing themselves in the water and/or mud. I know we're a country of fatties, but come on. There have to be 10 or 12 people left who can actually make it all the way through an obstacle course!

The hosts are not even really there. Talk about low budget! I haven't seen a green screen this obvious since Howard Cosell hosted Wide World of Sports. I know they're producing these shows here because they're cheap, but jeeze! In Japan, the hosts are part of the show. It's like a big party. And the shows are still cheap! Spend a few bucks on some airplane tickets, ABC. For Christ's sake.

The qualifying course is much too difficult. Most of the obstacles seem basically impossible. Did anyone test this? On real Japanese shows, the obstacles are hard but not ridiculous like this. Nobody's even making it past the first obstacle (heck, some are not making it *to* the first obstacle!). To compensate, the producers have allowed the contestants to simply continue when they get knocked off an obstacle. In Japan, they'd just be out.

The biggest sin so far is that the show is just not funny. Japanese "obstacle course" shows (I dunno what else to call them) are ridiculous and hilarious, on purpose. Otherwise, why watch? I feel like ABC's done what Food Network did to Iron Chef here - they've taken an intentionally funny show with a serious competition behind it and turned it into a serious competition with a few jokes sprinkled here and there. They've missed the point. And the jokes are falling flat. It's really coming off kinda like "American Gladiators". That's not a good thing.

Maybe ABC thinks the Japanese brand of intentionally cheesy comedy just doesn't work here... but then why put on a show inspired by it? Ya see? Somebody at ABC's gotta ask the tough questions! The whole point of these shows is to laugh at the contestants, and cheer every once in a while when somebody actually makes it through.

I hate to say it, but so far "Most Xtreme Elimination Challenge" on Spike TV is actually truer to the spirit of the original than "Wipeout" is. And that show was dubbed with a completely new script! Dear God, I've just complimented Spike TV.

Now "I Survived..." - it's in HD! Awesome! But there's something weird about the audio, which is like it was recorded with tin cans instead of microphones. Ugh, this is annoying!

The show is apparently actually shot in Japan. I don't think that automatically makes it anymore authentic, but at least they couldn't avoid the culture if they wanted to.

They're using the conceit of a reality show to trick the contestants into playing. I think that's pretty clever, at least at this point. We'll see what they do with it.

The production values are much higher than "Wipeout". Clearly, this is the tentpole; "Wipeout" was just filler. God, Tokyo looks great in HD! I need to get back there this year...

It's hilarious hearing these morons talking about how they're in "Times Square, but instead of English, everything's in like, hieroglyphics!" Hey, jerk, how about everything's in JAPANESE. You know, the language they speak in the country you're in? It's not hard; it's just the name of the country with an "ese" at the end. I'm embarrassed to be an American.

Alright, I'm getting annoyed. Everybody's like this. Are there any non-idiots living in America anymore? At least one guy admits that "Tokyo is way far more advanced than the United States of America." He's wrong in one way, but right in another!

Somebody just called this fat slob of a Japanese woman serving as their housekeeper "cute". I'm pretty sure nobody in Japan would call her that. (Ok, that was mean. True, though.)

They're pretending to show these dumbasses the "set" of a "Japanese game show". (The show itself seems to imply that it's real, as in a show on the air in Japan. It's not, as far as I know.) Really, though, they're the contestants! Ha. This could be good or bad.

The "host" of the game show introduces himself as "Romu Kanda" but his name is spelled "Romu Kandu" on screen. Funny story - my wife met him in our old neighborhood in New York. He's an actor, not a game show host. That's his real name (Kanda, not Kandu). Here's his IMDB page. At least they seem to have gotten the lack of air conditioning right! He's sweating, as are some of the contestants. Yeah, it's really Japan!

It's disappointing, though, that this is obviously not a real game show. That just makes "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" a plain old reality TV show, not based on reality at all.

The first task has one contestant eating mochi balls off another contestant's head while they run on a treadmill (ABC keeps spelling it "mocchi", as if it's Italian). It's actually pretty funny, and the real Japanese crowd seems to like it. It's something that could be on a real Japanese game show.

It's ridiculous how seriously some of the contestants are taking this! The American contestants are acting like they're on "Survivor", they're not even having fun. That makes it less fun to watch than it should be. They need to relax.

The winners get a helicopter tour of Tokyo. Whee! There's not much to see of Tokyo from the air - the skyline is not one of the city's strong points. You do get a sense of how big the city is, though, and they play up that angle. The losers get to run rickshaws through Tokyo - as if that's a common sight in the most advanced city in the world. Hey, news flash, ABC: Tokyo and Beijing are in two totally different countries. (They actually try to convince via voiceovers that rickshaws are a "popular mode of transportation" in something called "old Tokyo", wherever that is.) The Japanese riders seem completely amused to be in what is obviously a totally novel form of transportation for them.

The basic structure of this show is (disappointingly) standard American reality. There's a challenge and the winner gets a reward while the loser gets a crap job and both teams nominate somebody to leave. Then there's another challenge to determine who goes home. Yawn. This has *nothing* to do with Japanese game shows. It's just an average American reality show set in Tokyo.

The "elimination" challenge is lifted straight from David Letterman - the contestants run down a track, jump on a trampoline and stick a colored dot on a target on a wall. Tell me if my snoring wakes you up.

I'm pretty disappointed with this show, although I don't know what I was expecting. I thought it'd be more like an actual American attempt at a Japanese game show, though, not a crummy reality show using a game show for its challenges. How many of these reality shows do we really need? They all have exactly the same format - there's nothing new here. Even the challenges were hit and miss - the first was kind of goofy, the second was something we've seen a million times on American TV already.

I predict both of these shows will be gone before the summer's out, and everybody's going to say Americans aren't ready for Japanese TV. That's not true - both Food Network and Spike TV have proved that Americans are ready for Japanese TV, as long as it's in English and as long as it's funny. What America's not ready for is a poor American imitation of Japanese TV - especially as part of a below-average standard American reality show - and that's the lesson that ABC should take from this.

I probably won't watch "Wipeout" again. I might watch "I Survived a Japanese Game Show" if only because I'm nostalgic for Tokyo, though I'm not planning on being able to catch it more than 2 or 3 more times before it's canceled.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Japanese beer found!

I've written before about how frustrated I am with the utter lack of real Japanese beer in this country these days. It's a goddamn travesty, especially as sophisticated as Americans are getting lately when it comes to beer, with imports and craft beers accounting for almost all of the industry's growth. Nobody wants to drink what amounts to a Molson or Budweiser when they order a Japanese beer. Even at both trendy high-end places and rustic, authentic ramen shops, if you ask for a Kirin or Sapporo, you're gonna get something from Canada or California, not Japan. And no, it doesn't taste the same.

But wait! Behold:

What's this?!

Not only is that real Japanese beer, it's a brand that doesn't even exist in the United States. Impress your friends with your Japanophile status by drinking Yebisu! I never thought I'd see this stuff here, in any form, much less the real stuff.

Yebisu is Sapporo's "premium" beer in Japan. I think it's basically malt liquor - it's advertised as an "all malt" beer. (They don't actually have a product called "malt liquor" there that I've seen). But it doesn't taste like the malt liquor I've had here, so maybe it's not the same - it's lighter, and it tastes basically like beer. You can definitely taste the malt, though; it's like a maltier version of, say, Heineken. It's not bad, but it's not my favorite beer. It's just so rare to find real Japanese beer in the US anymore that I had to post it.

I found it at Shin Nippon-do in Roslyn. Their web site, such as it is, is here.

btw, if you haven't read my earlier posts on the subject, you may wonder why a Sapporo beer is being brewed in Tokyo. Well, Sapporo itself is brewed all over Japan these days, not just Sapporo. But Yebisu has always been brewed in Tokyo. The neighborhood of Ebisu is named after it! (The beer's name is pronounced "Ebisu" - the "Y" is silent.) See, in the days when Yebisu was first created, there was a big problem keeping beer cold as it was transported, and Sapporo beer from Sapporo just couldn't make the trip down south to Tokyo. So they created Yebisu for sale in the Tokyo region, using ingredients more commonly found there.

The one problem with this particular bottle of Yebisu? Yeah:

Talk about transport problems - $3.29 for a bottle of beer. Worth it? Nah. They're obviously tapping into the ex-pat homesickness factor. And yeah, it's nice to have a real taste of Japan, which is a rarity in the US these days. But I'd probably rather just drink a Brooklyn Lager ($6.99 for a six-pack) as my daily beer.

If I actually lived in Japan, though? Who knows!

Friday, June 20, 2008

New MIM "Classic Player" Jaguars and Jazzmasters

My Jazzmaster posts have been surprisingly popular, especially with beginners, and are actually bubbling up higher in Google searches now that they're linked from various other sites. Guess there's kind of a dearth of info on these guitars out there! They're certainly not as popular as Stratocasters or Les Pauls, even though they are great guitars. So I figure I may as well continue fishing for more page views trying to satisfy that audience. Introducing: the brand new Classic Player Jazzmasters and Jaguars!

Just wanna know my opinions of them? Feel free to scroll down. Otherwise, keep reading for more info.

As experienced players know but beginners likely don't, the Jaguar and Jazzmaster are similar to the point that many people who know the offset guitar line talk about them in the same breath. The Jaguar has different pickups, somewhat different electronics and a short-scale neck - otherwise, they are pretty close to being the same. The stock tone and sustain is slightly different, but beyond that, most people who play these just make their choice based either on looks (the Jaguar's got more chrome, but smaller pickups) or on the neck scale. The Jaguar is better for people with smaller hands. I have freakishly long fingers and monstrous hands, so I prefer the long-scale Jazzmaster. (I'm playing a Jag HH above because that's all the store that I went to had.)

Since the early 1990's, Fender has offered reissues of the original vintage Jazzmaster and Jaguar models under their "American Vintage Reissues" ("AVRI") line. These are pretty expensive - around $1,400 - and they have all the same intricacies, quirks and kinks as the original models did. Same threaded bridge saddles, same complicated tremolo system, same rhythm circuit, same bottom of the neck truss rod access (requiring the neck's removal to adjust), same proprietary "soap bar" pickups on the Jazzmaster (and custom pickups on the Jag that look like Strat pickups but aren't). These guitars are made for heavy strings, lest your strings fall off the thread in the bridge saddle and potentially break, or at the least throw you out of tune. They're also a bit harder to set up than a Strat or Les Paul. Many guitar techs don't even know how to do it.

For all these reasons, the AVRI models have never really expanded the line's fan base. These are real guitarist's guitars, kind of an acquired taste - they're not that accessible for people just starting out. But the people who love them love them for what they are, quirkiness included.


Fender Japan has been selling their own line of fully licensed Jazzmasters and Jaguars for around 20 years too, loosely based on a 1960's design but not as close to vintage as the AVRI's (nor really intended as "reissues"). They're colloquially known as "MIJ" or "CIJ" models, depending on what year they were made/what's printed on the neck. I own a CIJ Jazzmaster. These are cheaper than the AVRI's and are still basically vintage-correct in most of the important ways. They were a good alternative to the AVRI's for a while, but Fender USA's been clamping down on imports lately. That caused a lot of us offset fans to wonder if something was up.

Feature Rundown
Enter the officially-imported line of Mexican-made offset guitars in a line called the "Classic Player" series. These are about the same price as a Japanese model - around $800 - but unlike the CIJ guitars, they have some pretty major revisions over the original vintage design:

1. The bridge is an "adjust-o-matic" - Fender's version of the tune-o-matic. It's a far simpler and more traditional bridge than the vintage/AVRI/CIJ floating bridge.

2. The tremolo/tailpiece is closer to the bridge. This has the effect of increasing the break angle over the bridge.

3. The neck radius is a flatter 9.5, which is more common in modern guitars than the 7.5 radius in the vintage, AVRI and CIJ models.

4. They have an increased neck pocket back angle, which is supposed to increase sustain.

5. They have different pickups intended to be "hotter".

They are also finished in poly, which is the same as the Japanese models but different from either the vintage or AVRI models. They won't wear the same way as an American version of these guitars, and the neck feels different with a glossy finish.

There are other minor changes in the wiring and electronics, and the new Jag HH (not to be confused with the older CIJ Jag HH/Special) completely lacks a rhythm circuit. It's replaced by a simple kill switch.

My Opinions
I got the chance to briefly try out a new Jag HH at my local Guitar Center a few days ago. Unfortunately, I only got to play it acoustically - but I'm not sure plugging in would have told me much, because the HH model uses humbucking pickups and they'll sound significantly different than a standard Jag anyway. But I still got a good feel for the guitar, and that should translate to any of the new Jazzmaster/Jag models. My thoughts:

* The neck looks and feels a lot like a CIJ model. Same finish, and personally I didn't notice the difference in the neck radius. Some might, though.

* The weight is inconsistent between guitars - I tried two, one fairly light, one ridiculously heavy. Definitely try before you buy.

* The hardware looked to be good quality but I am not convinced (as some others are) that it is AVRI hardware. For one thing, the only thing that really even could be is the trem plate - everything else is either totally different or it uses some obviously different parts. The trem plate to me did not look AVRI-ish, although I admit I could be wrong about that. It didn't look CIJ-ish either. I believe it is a Mexican design and production. Here's a photo - note also that the tremolo lock button is chrome, which is different from the AVRI's:

* There was not much resonance in the two guitars I tried. I don't think the wood they're using is very good (which would explain the weight issues too). I could barely hear myself playing acoustically. Good Jazzmasters and Jags are practically as loud and full as a real acoustic guitar when playing un-amped (albeit a pretty poor quality acoustic guitar). That's one of the advantages of that big body combined with the long break behind the bridge (and probably the bridge itself). The new models sound dead by comparison, and yeah, that usually translates when you're playing electrically too.

* Cosmetically, the sunburst model I saw looked good. Better than some recent AVRI or CIJ bursts I've seen. Nice color, nice finish. However, both guitars I looked at had strangely contoured edges that don't blend smoothly. I drew this picture to illustrate the difference between the MIM and AVRI/CIJ models:

This is very subtle, and I admit I'm probably being a little nitpicky. But the contours are definitely different than other Jags and Jazzmasters. I took a photo of the white one I looked at from the side, although it's hard to really see anything weird in this picture.

If you look closely at the horn (closest to the camera) on the right side of the photo (towards the top of the guitar), you can see a little of what I'm talking about - the curved edge is sort of abrupt, it doesn't blend smoothly. You can also sort of see by the shading on the side of the horn that there's a sharp edge all the way around.

* Generally, I felt like the quality was pretty good but was a step below the Japanese models, which themselves are a step below the American models. The fit and finish is not quite there - the pickguards are really thin, they don't line up perfectly with the chrome plates (see below), there's a bit of a gap in the neck pocket, the fretboard wood is very light, the weight is inconsistent, etc. Just in terms of fit & finish, I wouldn't call these top quality guitars. They're not bottom-feeders either, though. I could live with one, but you are giving up something for the lower price vs. an AVRI.

The bottom line, though, is that I feel like the changes made to these guitars sap all the character out of them. They play like generic guitars. The default factory strings are pretty light - like a Strat, not like a Jazzmaster - and the bridge and trem position are obviously intended to make that possible. The tone is different because of the trem placement (the strings themselves are shorter from the nut to the trem) and because of the bridge, and of course the intentionally "hot" pickups would make a difference too. (Ditto for the humbuckers in the HH, which aren't very Jag-like at all - though this is not a new concept anymore.) The neck radius, while I didn't notice much difference, is also more like any number of modern-day guitars.

Basically, these are Jaguars and Jazzmasters for people who like the way these guitars look but don't like the way they feel or sound. So, now you have an option for a guitar that looks like a Jag or Jazzmaster but really isn't one, at least not in any traditional sense. I suppose they're also more accessible to beginners, who don't have to learn a whole new system just to be able to work their guitar.

They're cheap enough and attainable enough that they'll probably attract some new players. But if what you're looking for is a vintage look and sound on a budget, I'd still advise checking eBay or Ishibashi's U-box for a used (or even new) Japanese model. (Ishibashi is not nearly as intimidating as it looks. Be sure to click the link that says "For Overseas Customers".) Even after upgrading the pickups, you'll still be right around where you would be paying for a new Classic Player model and you'll have a guitar that's very close to AVRI level. You'll never really get there with a Classic Player, which are actually routed differently than the AVRI's or CIJ's.

I'm actually a little disappointed that Fender would do this. I'm all for expanding the fan base of these guitars, but not by neutering what makes them what they are. The quality I can live with - hey, for $600 less than an AVRI model, you're going to give up something - but that's why we have the CIJ models. Certain modifications I wouldn't mind either. If people are scared of the Jazzmaster bridge, for example, why not throw a Mustang bridge on there at the factory? It could always be changed out to a real Jazzmaster bridge if desired - they're interchangeable. That's not so easy with an adjust-o-matic.

I feel like the concept behind these guitars is misguided. If you're considering one of these guitars, I want you to really think about what it is that you like about them and how you play. If you've been thinking about a Jazzmaster or Jaguar because some band you like plays them... well, they're not playing these. They won't sound or play the same. If you just want to save some money, buy a CIJ. I would only recommend one of these guitars if they both fit your budget and you're specifically looking for the features that are unique to these guitars - which happen to be the same features that make them the most generic of all of Fender's offsets.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fear of Flying

This plane caused my fear of flying. It's now been turned into beer cans and razor blades, and good riddance. But I'll get to why I hate this particular plane in a bit.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot. Loved planes. Loved flying! My family was spread across the country so I did a lot of flying in those days, much of it alone. It was a different era - just after deregulation, so service was a lot better and the planes (and airports) were a lot less full. Flying was exciting and fun. Heck, there were still upper deck lounges in 747's and pubs on DC-10's.

But in 1979, this happened:

I know, scary image. That's a real photo of American Airlines flight 191, a DC-10 that crashed on takeoff in 1979 when one of its engines detached from the aircraft, severing hydraulic lines and making the plane uncontrollable at the speed the pilots were trained to fly it at in that situation. It was tragic and shocking and the worst air disaster in the United States, still today. I was a little kid, but I flew a lot so I understood what had happened to some degree, and it shook me up.

The FAA grounded the entire fleet of DC-10's for a while, a move that was unprecedented then and has never again happened to an entire aircraft type. There were a lot of news reports about safety problems with the DC-10, and the FAA became concerned about a potentially widespread issue with cracked engine pylons. I used to fly DC-10's on United a lot going from Newark to Oakland, and now I was back on the older DC-8 for the most part instead. (I liked DC-8's anyway, and I was happy to not be flying on a scary airplane that had just crashed.)

In 1980, the DC-10 airworthiness certificate was restored. But I was still scared of them; I didn't know or understand the whole story. I remember walking with my dad to the gate on my first flight after that, and seeing a DC-10 sitting there, I almost refused to go. I only didn't because I thought he'd be mad. Well, that flight turned out fine. The return flight? Not so much.

The first thing I remember from that flight was a distant "pop", then a bunch of people screaming on the other side of the plane. It was just after takeoff. I also remember seeing a bright orange and then a bright blue glow out the windows, though I couldn't see what was going on because the passengers over there were all looking out. The stewardess (still called them that back then!) came running up the aisle to look out the windows, then ran to the cockpit.

I was 8 years old, and flying by myself. I had no idea what was going on, but all I could think about was what had happened the year before.

The plane slowed and we leveled off. I heard what sounded like both engines spooling down. I was convinced we were all going to die. No announcement was made. I started crying. Several other people were doing the same, both kids and adults. That freaked me out even more. Eventually, after what was probably about five minutes but seemed like forever, the pilot came on the intercom and said we'd "blown an engine" and "had a little fire back there" (as near as I remember it, those were his exact words) but that they'd shut it down and put the fire out and we were heading back to Newark. He said we'd be on the ground in about 20 minutes.

We were at around 2,000 feet, and every turn we made seemed too sharp, going too slow. I had that image above in my head all the way back. I had nobody to tell me it was going to be ok. I had a row of seats to myself so not even any strangers around me, and the stewardesses were all busy preparing the cabin for an emergency landing. Obviously, we made it back or I probably wouldn't be writing this. We were trailed down the runway by a bunch of ambulances and fire trucks like in one of the "Airport" movies. It was a sight to see. Honestly, when I saw the airport below us I started to relax a little, so once I saw all those vehicles with their flashing lights, my reaction was more wonderment than anything.

This was the exact plane involved - not just the same type, this is the plane:

How do I know? I have the incident report, which includes the airplane's registration number. The report's pretty innocuous - here's what it says happened:


I swear, it was a little more dramatic than that. They don't typically "change engines" due to a compressor stall, anymore than you change your engine in your car when it stalls - there was more to it. The pilot did obviously declare an emergency and all. But the point is my perception of what was happening, while it may not have entirely matched reality, ended up changing my love of flying into a deep-seated fear of flying. I was eight. I no longer felt like when I got on a plane, getting off again was a foregone conclusion. I no longer wanted to be a pilot. In fact, I never wanted to fly again. And I still feel that way. These things that happen to you when you're a kid, you don't just get over them. Even if you know later that things weren't quite what they seemed. I still remember the panic on board that plane. That's what I remember, not how minor of an incident the report says it was.

My family actually had other brushes with plane crash infamy. The most eerie was probably a flight we took from Denver to Portland, also on United and on a DC-8. We flew first class, as we sometimes did back then, because domestic first class in those days was not completely out of reach for average people as it is now (don't let anyone tell you that deregulation has lowered fares across the board; first class back then was only about double the economy fare). Well, that flight landed fine. The same flight the next day? Crashed. All of the people that died were in first class, where a large tree sliced through the cabin. You can read the accident report here (PDF link).

But it was that DC-10 flight that really scarred me for life. Since then, I've secretly wished I could be an accident investigator, though you need to live in Washington, DC and it helps to have some sort of engineering background (I've checked). I do have an unnatural fascination with plane crashes, though. I know almost everything about every major domestic plane crash that's ever happened, and even many overseas ones. It's actually not particularly morbid, or at least I don't find it morbid. I'm not interested in the actual method of death, I'm interested in how the passengers must have felt in the moments leading up to the crash, and the ways the crew tried to save and comfort them. I'm also interested in the mystery of most accidents, and how that mystery gets solved. But I feel a sort of connection to the people who go through it. I want to know about people who felt how I felt, even though I didn't go through all of what they went through. But it's those feelings of confusion and terror that interest me, not the violence of the crash. It's purely an empathic thing.

The accident that has always haunted me the most on that basis is Japan Airlines flight 123. I've always had a fascination with Japan anyway, and felt a brotherhood with the people there, and this accident came just five years after my DC-10 incident. It happened to what is still my favorite airplane, the 747 (in this case, a 747SR, the special short-range version of the plane built only for JAL and ANA). It remains the deadliest single aircraft accident in history, but that's not why I'm haunted by it. I'm haunted by it because after the rear pressure bulkhead blew and severed the airplane's hydraulic lines, the passengers had a full 30 minutes of foundering around the mountains to accept their fate. They knew what was happening. Many of them wrote farewell notes to loved ones.

This is a photo that makes me really sad whenever I look at it:

That's an amazing and rare thing - a surviving photo taken inside a plane that's about to crash. Somewhere between 1 and 30 minutes after this photo was taken, this airplane hit Mount Osutaka. The photographer, along with everyone else in this photo, most likely did not survive.

Four people did survive. Four out of 524. One of them was an off-duty flight attendant named Yumi Ochiai. She spent the last 30 minutes of the flight trying to help the passengers, even though she was really just one of them on that flight. For all I know, that could be her standing in the photo. The original is titled with her name, and I found it in a Google search under a detailed first-hand account of the accident that was either written by her or taken from an interview with her. You can see it here, although it's all Japanese. You can use an auto-translator from Google or Altavista or whoever you like to get the gist of it. It's a harrowing account.

The really sickening thing about this accident was that there were actually many survivors, and U.S. Air Force helicopters found them quickly. But they weren't actually rescued until the next morning, about 12 hours later, due to a series of errors in judgment and departmental in-fighting among various Japanese governmental agencies, who ordered the USAF out of the area and then waited until daylight to begin the rescue. During the night, most of the survivors died. We know this because of the accounts given by Yumi Ochiai and the other survivors, who all heard many people groaning and screaming after the crash. Gradually through the night, most fell silent.

There have been other accidents similar to this one, including one involving a DC-10 painted in the same colors as my nemesis above. UAL flight 232, which crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, had a similar loss of all hydraulic fluid (though for different reasons), with a superficially similar result. But that accident is steeped in heroism and luck, as the pilots were over flat land and managed to bring the plane down at an airport - resulting in the quick rescue of 185 of the 296 passengers and crew members aboard. The deaths of 111 people are always tragic, but it could have been a lot worse. Makes you wonder how many people could have survived JAL 123, if only rescuers had reached the plane sooner.

I'm getting a little bit better when I fly. I used to have to take medication, often self-prescribed - Ambien usually, and Oxycontin a few times. (The oxycontin was actually a legit prescription for pain, but I doubled up on it when flying to knock myself out.) Hey, whatever works, right? But I don't need these anymore. Living near an airport definitely helps - it's hard to see an endless stream of airplanes successfully taking off and landing and then convince yourself that you're going to be unlucky enough to be on that one that doesn't make it. There's something almost egotistical and selfish about that - the world doesn't wait for me to have a plane crash. But still, takeoffs and landings are pretty tough. Not a fan of turbulence either. Even the sounds that airplanes make still freak me out a little bit. I don't mean stuff like landing gear and flaps - it's not a fear of anything specifically mechanical - I mean the constant sounds that make flying feel alien and unnatural. The whine of the APU when you step onto a plane at the gate, for example - that's a signal to me that I'm entering a different world, and I'm now captive on this tube of doom. I don't feel that way on other modes of transportation.

Somebody famous - I think it was Mark Twain - said we'd all have been better off if somebody had shot down the Wright Brothers first flight. I share that sentiment. I can fly now if I have to, and I often do, but I will never enjoy it and I wonder at what kind of world we'd live in if flying simply didn't exist. No doubt there'd be less globalization, less mingling of cultures. First of all, I'm not sure that's an entirely bad thing. Nobody has yet convinced me why globalization is a net positive for the world - it's simply an integration of cultures and commerce for its own sake, at the expense of cultural uniqueness. Worse, globalization is responsible for most of the ongoing conflicts (ie. wars) going on in the world today. Most conflicts arise through cultural misunderstandings (and defensiveness) or forced redistribution of wealth from one region of the world to another. I think it's naive to think the solution to that is more forced cultural integration. The solution is the opposite! (In other words, everybody should be minding their own damn business.)

But second, I'm sure the world would have adapted without flight, and I doubt our lives today would really be all that much different. Ocean travel and rail would have progressed to the point where you'd probably be able to take a high-speed train all the way around the world by now, and ships would be fast, safe, cheap and plentiful. There'd be a rail line stretching from the United States, up through Canada, across Alaska and Russia, down through East Asia, connecting to Japan via tunnel and other countries throughout Asia and Europe over land. Without the airlines, the domestic rail carriers would never have left the business and would still be profitable, so by now we'd have a large and state-of-the-art network of high-speed rail in this country. Not for nothing, it wouldn't be dependent on foreign oil, as the airlines are. Sure, it might take 36 hours to get to Japan by train vs. 13 by air, but again, is there really ever a *need* to be in Japan that fast? Seriously. Is the world going to end if everybody just slows down a little bit?

Coney Island 2008

Last week, I went with my wife and my brother's family to Coney Island. I hadn't been there in about five years, which seems pretty unbelievable, but now I remember why I'm not usually in a rush to get there every summer.

Coney Island used to be kind of a resort. When it was first built up as an amusement park and boardwalk, it was considered pretty far out of the city. (Nowadays, of course, it's part of the city.) Remember, they were still using horses and buggies to travel around in those days. Still, it got pretty crowded in those days too, though the amusement parks were cleaner, newer and classier, as were most of the people that attended them. Proper attire seemed to be a requirement.

These days, Coney Island attracts basically the rabble of New York City, most of them walking or arriving by subway train, with those who can afford it generally heading further out on Long Island (or New Jersey) where the beaches are cleaner and less crowded. Coney Island's couple of small amusement parks - Astroland and Deno's - are not really the attractions that the old Luna Park and Dreamland once were, at least judging from the pictures (not that I'm old enough to have experienced them). The current parks are basically glorified street carnivals, old and run down and not really maintained too well anymore (in fact, a lot's being made of the supposed fact that this is the last year before the area is redeveloped). So most people are just going for the beach and boardwalk anyway.

We made the mistake of going there on a) a weekend, b) the hottest day of the year, and c) Puerto Rican day. Nothing against Puerto Ricans whatsoever, it just made it a lot more crowded as a lot of people made their way from the parade to Coney Island. When I say it was crowded, I mean it was swapping sweat crowded.

There's some serious visual pollution going on there if you ask me. Of course, I stuck out like a sore thumb in my black jeans and boots, but I didn't actually go on the beach - I took this from the boardwalk. I didn't plan to be going into the water. How relaxing does that look? Not very. My brother, who did go in the water, said it was like 12 people deep at every point - you had to stand in a tiny little area to keep from bumping into someone else.

There are two things I need to do when I go to Coney Island.

1. Get a hot dog at Nathan's.
2. Ride the Cyclone.

I have a Nathan's right near us on Long Island that is not crammed full of people, is clean, and has actual seats where you can actually sit down. But my brother's right in that while it may taste the same, it really isn't the same. The Coney Island Nathan's is the original one; you gotta go there. The shared metal standing table, which usually resembles a trough more than anything, is just part of the experience.

I rode the Cyclone with my brother. See if you can pick us out here (hint, I'm the dorkiest looking guy on the ride):

The Cyclone is, if you ask me, the best wooden roller coaster in the country. It defines everything that's good about wooden roller coasters. For one thing, it feels like it's going to fall apart at any moment. For another, it doesn't let up - there is no rest on the Cyclone, no time to catch your breath. And it's deceiving. Everybody thinks it's some sort of kiddie coaster before they get on it the first time. It looks really small from the outside. It doesn't look particularly fast. The hills aren't all that high.

But as soon as you hit that first drop, you know you've misjudged. Because it's so compact, the designers exaggerated all the angles, hills, and turns. Every bend in the track is super-sharp. It actually circles back on itself twice, so it's much longer than it looks. The first and second hills both feel like they're close to 90 degrees. There's crazy air time, where you're forced up against the seat restraint, which is just a lap bar - nothing else. And this thing is old-school - it wasn't designed by computer, but by a couple of guys working on a sheet of paper. It feels really dangerous.

It's $8 now to ride the Cyclone, but it's worth it. Re-rides are $5, although if it's not too busy, they'll actually haggle with you. They offered to let us go again for $3. I didn't take them up on it, because seriously, once is enough for me. It's fun, but twice in a row would probably make me sick.

The Cyclone is actually the last of many great Coney Island roller coasters, and it may not even have been the best one (though that's like saying Grand Central Terminal may not have been the best train station in New York, which is just as true and just as moot). I don't remember ever seeing or riding the Tornado, which burned down in 1977, though I surely remember the Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt was made famous (outside of NYC) in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall", but it stopped operating just a few years later. It sat there derelict for about two decades afterwards, and it was a pretty sad sight. Anyway, some people liked the Thunderbolt better than the Cyclone, but I don't know if I ever rode it so I can't really compare.

On our way out, I picked up a funnel cake - another sort-of tradition for me at Coney Island, because you can't easily find them anywhere else. Funnel cake is basically just deep-fried dough with powdered sugar on top. It's as awesome as it sounds. Actually, it's not much different than zeppoles or even home-made donuts (though the dough itself is not sweet). Unfortunately, the one I got this time was not fresh, which is a sin. It was kind of oily and chewy. Oh well.

I think I'm probably set for another five years before I'll feel like I need to go back.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Kimura Kaela's "+1"

+1 / Kaela KimuraBuy +1 [w/ DVD, Limited Edition]
from CDJapan

I've posted about Kimura Kaela a couple times before - yeah, I'm a fan. She's got a "new" album (actually 2 months old) and book out, and I just feel like using that as an excuse to write some more about her. This isn't really gonna be a review, probably more of a rambling bunch of nonsense.

Some of you probably haven't read my previous posts and don't know anything about her. Well, she's a Japanese pop/rock star, with a twist of lemon. She's not like most Japanese pop/rock stars. See, popular female Japanese artists usually fall into one of two camps:

a) Technical vocalists who sing straightforward pop music that shows off their vocal range (Ayumi Hamasaki, Kumi Koda, etc.) - the equivalent to a Mariah Carey in this country.


b) Mostly untalented, untrained singers whose job it is to look cute while they dance around the stage, or in videos (Morning Musume, AKB48, Namie Amuro, Leah Dizon, etc.) - closest thing we have would be someone like Britney Spears.

There are just a few rare examples there of female pop stars with great natural voices and no real training, who are trying to buck the system by doing pretty much their own thing and not falling so neatly into one of those two camps. Kaela is one of them, and she's probably the quirkiest of all Japanese pop stars - she's a real weirdo and everybody knows it. She says things on national TV that make no sense, things like "I am a sexual urge". She dyes her hair funky colors and wears 1950's bathing suits. She usually doesn't wear much makeup (including, as my wife noticed and except for the photo above, a lack of painted eyebrows). She has refused to appear on some of Japan's most popular music shows out of protest. All of this stuff is kind of taboo in Japan. That's one reason why I like her. But a lot of her music's great too.

I got the "special edition" of her new CD "+1" for my birthday, which comes with a pretty kickass little DVD as a bonus. It also comes with a thick set of liner notes printed on really nice matte paper, and it's all bound up in a matte cardboard sleeve. All for about $5 more than the regular edition of the CD, which comes with nothing. The special edition even has a nicer cover photo (seen above) - the regular edition's got a similar photo but with a weird half-smile that actually somehow makes this tiny and beautiful 23 year old girl's face look fat and kinda old (see it here).

I really wish they'd do special editions like this in the USA. They've sort of started now, with things like the MVI DVD that I bought from Paramore a while back, which came with both a CD and a DVD in a cardboard sleeve. But the quality is just no comparison. When I buy a "special edition" of something, I want to feel like I'm buying something special. Japanese SE's always have that luxury feel, like you're driving a Bentley and all those peons with the standard CD are driving Chevettes. That's a big part of what buying a "special edition" is all about!

It seems like Kaela's mellowing out a little as she gets older, which starts with that cover art. No more mohawks (or even fauxhawks), no more tattoos either real or fake. She's almost completely left behind her punk background, although she does have a picture of herself on her blog from last month with her hair dyed pink and green in back. So hopefully she hasn't totally turned her back on her roots. (No pun intended.)

The music on the CD was actually a little disappointing at first, especially after her last album "Scratch". That album was amazing, barely a bad song on it (maybe one or two), and it really had its own personality. And it was a rock album, even though it did have a couple little nods to plain old j-pop. "+1" is not really as cohesive, and there are more pop songs and fewer rock songs. The rock songs that there are have a lot of little beeps and boops and other electronic bits that don't always really fit. Either that, or they just have no discernible melody, as is the case with the opening track "No Image", which my wife strangely likes a lot.

I don't feel like it's until the fourth track "STARs" that "+1" even really gets going.

One thing that also annoys me in general about the Japanese music industry, and this is not at all confined just to Kaela, is the practice of releasing three or more singles way before an album release. I had literally worn out five of the songs on "+1" before I even got it (3 singles plus 2 b-sides). That's like almost half of the album. I didn't have that experience with "Scratch", which was the first recording of hers that I actually bought, so I was going in fresh and that probably made a difference. But their industry is not like here, where a single usually comes out right around 2-3 weeks before an album release, then 1 or 2 singles follow *after* the album release to help promote its sales. In Japan, singles are treated like standalone recordings. The idea is to keep fans interested in between albums. That's a cool idea, but then I wish they'd just leave the singles *off* the albums - wouldn't that actually drive more sales of the singles? Then they'd have more room for a couple more actual new songs on the album itself.

But there are a few songs on "+1" that are both new to me and that really play to her strengths. Like all of her albums, there are multiple songwriters throughout, though she wrote all of the lyrics this time. My two favorites on the album are "Kagami yo Kagami" and "1115", even though the former may as well be an Ayumi Hamasaki song and the latter sounds a lot like PUFFY. No surprise on that one - it was written by Tamio Okuda (as I suspected before looking it up).

The DVD's got the music videos for the three singles ("Jasper", "Yellow", "Samantha"), some live clips including about ten minutes of Kaela just talking to the crowd at the end, and then an "experiment" program shot like a TV documentary that I can't really follow without knowing Japanese. It's a long DVD for a bonus.

I haven't yet picked up her new book, "Kimura Kaela Collection" (not "Kimura Kaela Kollection"?), which is probably just a cash grab on her record label's part, but I'm a sucker so I'll probably buy it at some point. I really don't know what's in it, although I'm sure a lot of it involves pictures. That should make it worthwhile.

By the way, some people are confused initially by both the spelling and pronunciation of Kaela's name (not to mention the order). It is correctly Kimura Kaela, just like it's written on the book cover to the left, and it is pronounced like "k-eye-la". It's weird, though, because it's not a Japanese name - she is half British, and that name comes from the British side of her family (that's why "Kaera" is wrong). It really should be pronounced like the name is spelled in English. But because she lives and was raised in Japan, she pronounces it with a Japanese pronunciation (really "ka-eh-la", but shortened it sounds like "k-eye-la").

As for the order, you could write it either way but in Japan it's family name first... and that's the only country where she's active.

I'll close out with the five videos released so far from "+1" ("STARs" was never a single but was a video, and "No Reason Why" was a B-side). I don't think any of these are the best songs on the album. "STARs" isn't bad, though, and I like the fact that the first three minutes is just her swimming laps. Quirky! Actually I kinda like all of these videos, it's the songs that aren't quite as strong as some others on the album, or as any of the songs from "Scratch". ("Jasper" especially is really pretty forgettable outside of the video.)





No Reason Why

Saturday, June 07, 2008

pizza pizza pizza!

Since we moved to Long Island a couple years ago, we really haven't taken very good advantage of what we've got around us. We still venture back west into the city whenever we want some culture or some decent food. I mean, you do what you know, right? But finally, we're putting a little more effort into making some local connections.

Tonight I discovered that we've got probably one of the best pizzerias in the country pretty close by.

I took the photo from the wrong side, but hopefully you can read the name Blue Moon. (Ignore the fact that they specialize in "Neopolitan" cuisine... that would be some sort of "post-modern politan," I guess.)

There is actually this little street in Rockville Centre, two towns or about two miles over from us, that's literally just restaurant after restaurant, and all of them either trendy as any Soho bistro or authentic as any pre-war tavern (and I mean pre-War of 1812). It's called Park Avenue, and it's like a little mini-Manhattan, Village-style sidewalk cafes and all. On this street you'll find Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian, and American cuisines at least, plus several bars, a full-on beer garden, and possibly one or two spots that are vaguely French-looking.

We've tried the Thai on this street (very good, totally real), and tonight we hit Blue Moon because their signage says they have a coal oven. If you've read any of my previous pizza posts, then you know I consider this a pre-requisite for good pizza. And coal ovens can be pretty hard to find - they are illegal for new restaurants, after all.

Blue Moon's been around since 1937, according to the box:

So I guess their oven was grandfathered in under the current law. That would also put their pizza among the earliest in the country. Lombardi's, the nation's first pizzeria, opened in 1905... and not much happened for a lot of years after that. It wasn't until post-WWII that many people even really started eating the stuff in New York, much less anywhere else. (Chicago style pizza wasn't even invented until 1943.) Before that, it was mostly just Italian immigrants. This is a pretty heavy Italian area that we live in, though maybe not as much now as it used to be.

Here's the pizza, and apologies for the half-pie - I didn't know it would be so good so I wasn't prepared for a photo op before we ate.

We got their special pizza, which is sausage, peppers, onions and mushrooms. We actually got half without the mushrooms, which you can tell in the photo. Anyway, their pizza is just like it should be. The crust is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside - it's like eating a really good quality bread from a bakery. The sauce was just exploding with fresh tomato flavor. The cheese is sliced, not grated. The peppers and onions were perfectly cooked - not rock hard but not wilted and watery either (even the great Lombardi's is guilty of this sometimes). And the sausage, while mild, has exactly the taste you want and expect - this is Italian comfort food.

I gotta say it again - a coal oven is what makes crust like this possible. I know people that regularly pick the cheese and toppings off their pizza, eat it, then throw away the crust. They think the crust is disposable, just a platform to hold the toppings. That's because they're eating crappy pizza, and most pizza is. You need to cook pizza at 850 degrees. The crust shouldn't be chewy, or have the consistency of cardboard. It shouldn't be tasteless, either - it should have a nice, smoky flavor. At a good pizzeria, having that wedge of empty crust at the end of a slice is like a little treat. And Blue Moon pizza is like that.

I took a random photo of their menu so you can see the toppings they have, all traditional stuff, nothing fancy:

By the way, they also have Brooklyn Lager on draft. That almost by itself is worth the price of admission - as good as this beer is in a bottle, it's about the best thing you'll ever taste when it comes out of a tap. (One of these days I'll go to the brewery in Brooklyn itself, and I'll write about it here when I do.)

Oh, and they make a mean tiramisu.

The funny thing is Grimaldi's in Brooklyn has people lined up around the block pretty much every minute they're open for business. Blue Moon has better pizza - no question about it - and the place was almost empty when we went. (We did go early, I'm sure they're busier later. Can't stay open 71 years with no customers.)

Who needs the city?

Monday, June 02, 2008

"Sweet Tea" - what the hell is this crap?

Today I walked into McDonald's to get myself an assortment of deep fried chicken strips, and not wanting a soda, I ordered an iced tea. I was given the option of raspberry iced tea or "regular" iced tea. I chose "regular", knowing that at McDonalds that probably meant sugar water, but at least it wouldn't also be fruity. Well, I was given this:

It was undrinkable. It was frankly disgusting. It was, without doubt, the single worst iced tea I've ever had in my life. Supposedly it's a southern thing. What the hell are they thinking? It's sugar with a few drops of water and some ice. I swear it was actually thick, like a syrup. Just give me a bag of sugar, man; it's the same thing.

I don't understand this fascination with adding sugar to iced tea. It's TEA, man - if you don't want to taste it, why are you drinking it? Ideally I try to find unsweetened tea, although I know that's usually too much to ask in this country. We make it at home when we can, though. Yes, I actually like tea, not sugar. I tasted no tea at all in this McDonald's "drink".

I immediately poured it out and refilled my cup with seltzer from the soda machine at work.

Maybe this stuff will fly in the south, but it ain't gonna sell up here.

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.


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