Saturday, March 30, 2013

Can't Stop

The short version:
Neil Davidge—Halo 4: 8/10
Austin Wintory—Journey: 9/10
The Glitch Mob et al—Drink the Sea remixes, vols. I and II: 3/10
Beats Antique—Contraption vol. II: 7/10
Glenn Stafford, Neal Acree, Derek Duke, and Russell Brower—Heart of the Swarm: 5/10
Andrew Bayer—It's Artificial: 8/10
OneRepublic—Native: 9/10

Lots of great music to recommend recently.  First up is Neil Davidge's score for Halo 4, a game I have not played.  Overall it's a quite good example of Inspiring Cinematic Action Movie or Game Music.  I imagine that it fits the game very well, but it sounds rather nice as an album of energetic background music too.  Buying the CD also gets you several downloadable tracks which shouldn't be missed, as the bonus downloads include the Andrew Bayer remix of Green and Blue which is fantastic and bears little resemblance to the original track, excellent in its own right.  The remix is really groovy for lack of a better word, and it just puts me in a happy mood.  My only complaint is that it suffers pretty heavily from what I believe is properly identified as "ducking"; to emphasize the beats in the song, the other audio around the beats is reduced in volume.  The effect is basically the musical equivalent of turning the sharpness filter up waaayyy too high in Photoshop; used subtly it's a nice effect, but overused it's weird and awkward.  Anyway, those two tracks are great, and so are Awakening, Haven, and several others.  Definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of Inspiring Cinematic Action Movie or Game Music.

Austin Wintory's score for Journey is simply one of the most beautiful soundtrack scores I've ever heard.  Really my only complaint is that the game Journey itself is very short—just a couple hours—and while the soundtrack is amazing and fits the gorgeous environments in the game perfectly, there isn't a huge amount of variance from beginning to end.  That said, this is a soundtrack that you can play start to finish without wanting to skip a track or even pause in the middle, and I think that it would be a pretty incredible experience to hear it performed live.  Check out I Was Born for This, The Road of Trials, and Nascence.  You can also pick up the free Journey Bonus Bundle, a free collection of B-sides from Journey and the other minigames that come on the disc.  Nothing on the bonus bundle is as good as the main soundtrack, but it's still nice.  Anyway, the soundtrack came with my copy of Journey for free (it was on the Blu-ray with an option to copy it to your hard drive), but it can also be picked up separately.

The Glitch Mob put out two free albums of remixes from their debut album Drink the Sea, and unfortunately there's one great remix and most of the rest range from pretty bad to mediocre.  The reason worth picking it up is the Beats Antique remix of We Swarm which is catchy with some great, weird horn parts.  A few others of the 25 tracks are decent but they're mostly just riding on great source material.

Having really liked that Beats Antique remix I've been listening to a couple of their albums, and Contraption vol. II is rather pleasant.  Skeleton Key is the standout best, and Colony Collapse and Hero are great too.  It reminds me a bit of Caravan Palace and a couple other bands I've found recently that focus on old sounds and instrumentation fused with modern beats and production.

The soundtrack for Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm came with my collector's edition copy, and it's decent but nothing too spectacular, like the music from the previous games in the series.  There are several excellent moments in the soundtrack, but they're spread pretty thin between fairly dull parts.  The organization of the soundtrack also seems sort of odd; some of the tracks are like three completely different songs mashed together, so if there's a piece of high-energy music from one of the cutscenes you really liked, it might be sandwiched between two slow, ambient, atmospheric bits.  Collateral Damage, Conscience, and He Had It Coming are the best.

Thanks to some incessant praise on Facebook and his great remix off the Halo 4 soundtrack I picked up Andrew Bayer's album It's Artificial, and it's very good.  It's pure electronica without really attempting to be pop or dance music, and some of the pieces are rather beautiful.  The opening track Nexus 6 is gorgeous after a weirdly long two-minute buildup, Monolith is driving and intense, and Paper Cranes just makes me happy.  Definitely worth checking out.

And finally, the new OneRepublic album Native came out a week ago, but I am already fully convinced that it is top-notch.  Strangely, the first two singles from the album are in my opinion some of the less interesting tracks on there, which made me fear for the album a bit, but I was quite wrong and it's wonderful.  The opening track Counting Stars is perfect, from the vocals to the drums to the instrumentation to the production.  (On a side note, does the background instrumentation remind anyone of the awesome synths in Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) by Abba as sampled in Hung Up by Madonna?)  But that's not even my favorite; the best is Can't Stop, similarly perfect in every aspect, with some incredible high-pitched vocals.  And Preacher has a lovely gospel-pop feeling to it.  Native is indisputably one of the best albums I've heard, and if you can hear Can't Stop and Counting Stars and not fall in love with them, I don't understand you.  Needless to say, highly recommended.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Enter Galactic

One of the lines in the Kid Cudi song Enter Galactic absolutely drives me up the wall.
Tell me your secrets
The things that make you tick
I like when you talk
Because your voice is angelesque
The word "angelic" would have fit perfectly there.  Also, "angelic" is a real word and "angelesque" is not.  Also those lyrics are just pretty terrible overall.  But at least the song's catchy.

P!nk has quite a few terrible rhymes in her songs too and they enrage me just as much.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

No longer utterly dependent

A few days ago I got Lasik.  I've been looking forward to it for more than a decade now probably.  My vision has been pretty bad since first grade, and for the past twenty years I haven't been able to see or read much of anything without glasses or contacts.  A week ago I couldn't read a thing that was more than 2-3 inches from my face.  Today with no correction I can see about as well as I could with glasses on.  To call that anything less than a miracle of modern science is underselling it.

To put things in perspective, before the surgery, the number of memories I have from my entire life in which I did not have glasses or contacts I can probably count on one hand.  I remember vague imagery of the playground equipment in the kindergarten area at my elementary school.  I remember the first time I read a word (or one of the very first few), "GAS."  I remember being in a K-Mart or ShopKo or Target and my mom buying me workbooks to help me learn math.  And honestly that's about it.  And then I remember standing in line in front of the school when I first got my glasses, and how soon after, I felt weird without them.  If I was up late at night, I had to put my glasses on to help me sleep because I felt wrong without them.

I don't remember what it was like to wake up to an alarm clock and to actually be able to see that alarm clock.  I don't remember what it was like to be able to walk around without having to feel my way around.  I'm no longer utterly dependent on my glasses and contacts to the point where I am quite nearly blind without them.  I can make love and see who it's with.  I can go on a trip without the disastrous possibility of leaving my glasses behind (which has happened once).  I will likely still need reading glasses or some sort of additional help in a decade, but for now, my life has been changed.

The actual procedure was straightforward and was over in minutes, after all of the preparatory tests and consent was done.  They put some anesthetic in my eyes, put me in a dentist-like chair, and things began.  They put a device around my eyelids that I can only assume was reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange to keep my eye open, and then there was a terrifying device that sounded like a mini sawblade whirring.  They put more drops in my eye that temporarily blacked out my vision, and then thwuck-thwuck, the saw slid in and out.  I could feel the saw apply pressure to my eye which was unsettling but not painful; it was cutting a flap off my cornea.  Then the flap was held back while the laser burned away part of my eye—it smelled like burning hair and filed-down fingernails.  Then the flap was put back in place, more drops were added, and they repeated the procedure on the next eye.  And that was it.

Immediately after the procedure my vision was drastically better—not great, but quite noticeably better.  I could make out peoples' faces, and while they were a little blurry, that in itself was a massive accomplishment.  The world looked like it was underwater, and I could read things on a computer if I turned the zoom level waaaayyy up (250% was the sweet spot).  It was uncomfortable to look at one for too long, though, and my eyes tired very quickly.  The next day, I went in for my post-op appointment where they removed the clear bandages from my eyes, and after my eye test I was told I could expect to get about 20/25 in my left eye and 20/20 in my right eye after healing completed.  That's a nice improvement over the 20/many-thousand vision in my eyes prior.  (My prescriptions were -10.50 and -10.00, if you want to compare.)  That day I could use the computer for somewhat longer periods of time at about a 125% zoom level, though it was still straining.

The following two days were this weekend, and now at the end of Sunday I feel like I'm ready to go back to work tomorrow.  Staring at a computer screen for a long time is still a little challenging (it's too bad that I didn't have those three days of solid meetings after the surgery), but I think I'll be able to last most of a workday at this point.

I still have to put drops in my eyes every hour or sooner for the next month or so, and I have three different kinds to use right now.  What really surprised me is that there was no real pain besides the discomfort of the dry, strained eyes.  I was given capsules of liquid acetaminophen to use when the original anesthetics wore off, but they were never necessary.  That seemed pretty strange to me given that I just had the tips of my eyeballs sliced off.  (The thought has occurred to me that I'm just so used to constant pain at this point that I don't even notice things like that.)

Today, at the end of the weekend following my surgery, the only way you can tell by looking at me that anything is different is that my left eye is a bit bloody (which I'm told is common, due to capillaries getting sliced when cutting the flap).  In a week I'll be done with the medications and I'll just need moistening drops for the following few weeks.  And after that I'll get to experience again what it's like for people with normal vision, and I can already tell that it will be amazing.

Closer

The short version:
Stacie Orrico—Stacie Orrico: 5/10
Mike Morasky—Portal: 3/10
Mike Morasky—Portal 2: 6/10
Icona Pop—Iconic EP: 8/10
Tegan and Sara—Heartthrob: 7/10
AWOLNATION—Red Bull Editions: hey, it's free
fun.—Selections and B-sides from Aim and Ignite: hey, it's free

I stumbled across Stacie Orrico's self-titled album in my music folder, which I don't really remember buying, but I had heard a couple of her songs in college and they were okay, and you can get the CD new on Amazon for four bucks, so I guess it seemed pretty low-risk.  Low-risk is probably a good way to describe it I guess.  It's mostly bland pop; there are a few catchy tunes and some pretty awful tracks and it's absolutely unessential.  I Could Be the One is the best, followed by More to Life.

The whole Portal 2 soundtrack was released as a gargantuan free download, which was awfully nice.  If you haven't played the game, Portal 2 has a strange soundtrack.  It's extremely synthetic-sounding, which fits the game and builds tension, and while in the game it has a cute sort of atmospheric charm, heard on its own it becomes painfully clear how obnoxious-sounding most of it is out of context.  A great example of something that is nearly impossible to listen to is Die Cut Laser Dance.  In the game that would have probably fit just fine as you're flying through space and lasers are firing at you and you're not sure if you're going to fall to your death or successfully evade the trap, but as background music while surfing Facebook it makes you want to die.  On the other hand, it's a huge soundtrack, and there are actually quite a few awesome tracks.  Bombs for Throwing at You is one of my favorite video game final boss battle tunes and it's absolutely nerve-wracking in a weirdly pleasant way, but it's definitely stretching the limits of soundtrack tunes that you'd ever want to listen to outside its original context.  You Will Be Perfect is pretty great too, and I'm not sure where it's from, but it's catchy, and one of the least annoying tracks in the set.  And the opening track Science Is Fun is cool too.  Anyway, you can download the three-volume soundtrack for free from the Portal website.  The original Portal soundtrack is much worse and the only worthwhile thing at all on it is the now-famous Jonathan Coulton song Still Alive.

I found out about Icona Pop because Chiddy Bang sampled their song Manners, and they've finally got an EP out now.  The Iconic EP is pretty excellent for a debut.  There are no bad tracks out of the six, and three are wonderful: I Love It is aptly named and full of energy, Manners is catchy and weird, and Sun Goes Down is interesting.  Some people have a pretty negative reaction to either the two girls' tendency to yell, or the quirky instrumentals, but I think that if you enjoy electro-pop you need to check them out.

Tegan and Sara's new album Heartthrob didn't really catch me at first.  I really liked the first single Closer, but the rest didn't really excite me so I ignored it.  Then Amazon had it for super cheap so I picked it up after all given that I was going to pick up the Closer single anyway, and it's really grown on me since then.  The whole album has a fun 80s vibe to it while still sounding fresh.  How Come You Don't Want Me is a strong second-place, and Shock to Your System probably is third-place.  But just about every track is pretty strong, and I think that if it had one more song that I thought qualified as "great" I'd give it an 8/10, but it's still worth checking out.

AWOLNATION had a free download called Red Bull Editions that has a few decent remixes.  I wouldn't pay for it, but luckily no one asked me to.  fun. also released a free download called Selections and B-sides from Aim and Ignite and I feel sort of similarly about it.  It does contain All the Pretty Girls which is one of my favorite tracks off their first album, but I already had that.  Both are worth picking up if you're a fan of the respective bands and not if you aren't.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What it's like to get Botox

I realized that before having Botox done, it was something that I'd always been somewhat curious about.  It's this mysterious procedure that elderly female celebrities get to make them look weird, but not something that "normal people" have done.  Now that I've had it done three times, I figured I'd share the experiences in case any of you were curious too.

First of all, I've had it done as a medical treatment (for my headaches), not a cosmetic one.  When used medically, the same toxins are used, though at a somewhat reduced dosage level.  It's also injected into different locations; someone getting it done for cosmetic reasons wouldn't get injections on the sides and back of their heads.  But, at the core, it's effectively still paying someone to inject poison into your face.

My particular dosage is 155 IUs of the toxin, which works out to 27 different injections.  Most of them are in the face, around my eyes, but there are several other injections around my temples and a few in the neck.  The whole process takes about 15 minutes.  Botox paralyzes your muscles.  Injected for cosmetic reasons, it gets rid of wrinkles.  The objective of using it for headaches is, roughly speaking, to weaken the face muscles so that they don't apply as much pressure to the face.  There are cosmetic side effects to the procedure; the first two times I had it done I had reduced ability to scrunch my eyebrows, and my forehead was noticeably smoother.  I just had it done a third time yesterday, though, and I haven't noticed those side effects this time; my face hardly seems weaker than it did before the injections. The effects all wear off in about ten weeks, and then you have the procedure done every three months.  It has proven somewhat effective but not very significantly effective for me, so I don't know if I'll have it a fourth time or not.

The individual injections are uncomfortable.  There's the simple fact that you're being poked with needles many times, which I don't really mind too much but some people strongly dislike, but it's also in an extremely sensitive part of your body.  The most unsettling part from my perspective is that because it's done in the face, I can actually hear every part of it.  I hear the needle puncturing my skin, sliding slightly into my face, and I either hear the liquid being injected, or I hear my muscles reacting to it.  So that's pretty creepy.  All of the injections are at least mildly painful, because the liquid burns a bit and it's an injection in a place that's sensitive to begin with.  The ones in the temples are quite painful.  My face feels sore for 24 hours or so after the procedure.  The after-effects are pretty mild, though; I often don't really notice until I touch my face to wash it, and then suddenly it stings and I remember why.

That said, most of the pain is gone a couple minutes after the procedure finishes; by the time I'm driving home, things are really not bad at all.  It's offset by reduced headache pain for the next couple months, and many people who have it done have much greater results than I have.

My health insurance covers the treatment, which is not common.  They wouldn't cover it until after years of other remedies, for reasons of cost, though the treatment is well under $1,000 per visit, and some of the drugs I've been taking are on the order of $50 a day, so it seems like if it had actually been fully effective for me it would have been a bargain for the insurance company.

So, anyway, if you are curious, that's what it's like to get Botox.