Posted by mike in Friends,Politics at 10:22 pm on November 3, 2008

Tomorrow we’re going to learn a lot about our country and what its citizens are made of. To say that it’ll be an “historic” occurrence seems trite (isn’t every Presidential election “historic”?), but I do feel (along with pretty much everybody else) that we’re at the biggest turning point as a nation of my lifetime, and probably much longer than that. This is a major fork in the road, and tomorrow we’ll see which route we’re going to be taking for many years to come.

Like CK, I’m happy to say that I’ve voted for Barack Obama twice—once as a resident of Illinois to represent my state in the U.S. Senate, and now once as a resident of California to lead our country, finally, into the 21st century. I’m not as big of a supporter of his as are a lot of people (he occasionally disappoints me with his willingness to politic his way out of every situation that arises), but I feel that he’s clearly the no-brainer choice, as Chas so concisely pointed out.

The truth of the matter is, when making a choice for President, you can judge these books by their covers. I was completely flabbergasted that anybody would take some hayseed simpleton seriously as a candidate—much less actually elect the dumbass—and remained even more shocked when he was re-elected after living up to precisely the comically low assumptions I’d held of him all along… How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB? and since then, he’s only gotten worse, as we’re all painfully aware of by now. It’s an infinitely small consolation to be able to say “I told you so” after eight years of watching this fool bumble around in our name on the world’s stage. The point, though, is that we now find ourselves in an even more exaggerated version of the same predicament we faced in 2000: John McCain is such a sad shell of a once-strong man that he’s impossible to take seriously as a potential leader unless you’re a) completely mindlessly partisan, b) a huge racist (overtly or not), or c) not only obscenely greedy and self-centered to the point that you vote based solely on the consideration of a potential tax increase but also so obscenely out of touch that you still believe that tax cuts help our economy in the first place. And on the other side, as Ben so eloquently spelled out, is the complete opposite: somebody who actually fits the role of Leader, somebody who at least looks, acts, and speaks like he belongs in the highest office we have. And this isn’t even getting into the VP candidates, where the disparity gets even greater.

And yet, despite how obvious the choice we’ve been presented with seems to be, I remain doubtful of our country’s ability to make the right decision, given our recent track record. We have more to overcome than just latent racism, not the least of which is the kind of shenanigans that the Republican party has become experts at over the past few elections. It’s hard to watch Recount—which I’ve done more than a couple of times in recent months—without wincing throughout, not just due to a sense of “what could have been,” but also due to a fear of reliving one of our country’s saddest periods over again. Luckily, all indicators point to this one not even being close, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Tonight in my house we’re going to watch V for Vendetta, a film that three and a half years ago gave us hope that maybe the masses can band together after all, no matter what they might be up against, and take their country’s destiny in their own hands. Hopefully the U.S. can do it at the polls tomorrow in a decidedly less dramatized fashion, but the result just might end up being as world-changing as that depicted in the Wachowski brothers‘ adaptation of Alan Moore‘s story.

Thanks to the phenomenon of early voting, my personal decisions have already been officially made (including, importantly, my opposition to state-sanctioned bigotry), which leaves me free to watch with bated breath tomorrow until the results become official. To say it makes me nervous is an understatement; to say that it’s exciting even more so.

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Posted by mike in Film,Friends,Reviews at 1:15 am on June 24, 2008

Status: Unreleased (premiered 6/22/08)
Directed By: Mark Flanagan & Andrew van Baal
Cinematographer: Andrew van Baal
Starring: Dave Allen, Jon Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips, Zach Galifianakis, John C. Reilly, Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and many others

At dinner with his parents the night before the world premiere of his first movie, Largo co-director, editor, and cinematographer Andrew van Baal warned them once again that the film he had made would likely only serve to alternately bore and offend them. He informed them of the fact that he had hoped to capture a depiction of the performances at this trendy Los Angeles club, where the sublime meets the profane. The film vacillates between the two, mixing emotional musical performances with biting and edgy comedy routines, sandwiched within a visual chronicle of the last days of the old Largo on Fairfax, which closed its doors for the last time prior to the film’s completion (the club has since reopened at a new, larger location). Shots of the club and its ambiance are intercut with the performances to form what amounts to a “best-of”-style concert film; Largo has hosted a lot of special performances over the years, and this movie aims to assemble a sampling of the best of them into a cohesive whole.

The directors have presented the film in a manner very befitting of the club itself: the black-and-white photography helps convey the feeling of the dimly-lit interior, and tight shots of the performers bring the club’s intimate setting to the moviehouse audience. The first several performances are what co-director Mark Flanagan described at the post-screening Q&A as maudlin, with tight steady perspectives and softly-focused and -lit faces of the artists (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and others) pouring their hearts out on the club’s small stage. The selection of songs follows a naturally building arc, and by the end a crescendo is reached featuring rocking performances by Andrew Bird, Largo’s long-time musician-in-residence Jon Brion, and Grant-Lee Phillips, with wider angles, freer camera movements, and more frequent cuts to go along with them. In between there are several hilarious comedy pieces by the likes of Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, and Patton Oswalt. John C. Reilly stops by to share a story that makes one wonder if he hasn’t done stand-up before, and Flight of the Conchords ably bridge the music and the comedy in their now-famously unique way.

I found myself at times wishing that the movie was either all musical performances or all comedy; going back and forth between the two, it’s easy to get into one mindset or the other and find yourself wanting to stay there. The film transitions between performances smoothly, though, and after a few context switches they become easier to take; in fact, I’d say that it achieves a point where the comedy provides a nice respite from the music, and vice versa. The way the film subtly shifts styles to match the various performances further helps to entrench the audience in each one, in addition to serving as a testament to both the care that was put into its assembly as well as the talent behind it.

That this is not a movie for everybody should be patently obvious on the surface. The opening-night crowd was largely comprised of Largo regulars and existing fans, which made for a perfect first screening, but I do wonder along with the LA Times reviewer who asked, “Whom will they be rocking beyond the film festival audiences?” Largo is not only well put together, but it is also admirable in the way it allows the performances it documents to speak for themselves. There are no titles, there is no narration, and there is no commentary; it is simply a collection of supremely talented artists, sampled while at their most exposed in the most intimate of settings. By nature it’ll only appeal to a niche audience, but it’s a niche that exists and was out in full on Sunday night at the Crest theater. Where it goes from here I’m not sure, but I’ll provide updates as always. I’d like to see it get bought by an HBO or a Showtime (the “profane” parts would necessitate it), where I think it could get some airtime and attract some viewers.

Until then, I just want to publicly congratulate Andy and Flanny for producing a movie that is beautiful, funny, moving, and at times very touching. It’s always special to be able to see a film’s premiere exhibition, but this one was particularly so for me because of my personal relationship to the primary creative force behind it. I’m extremely proud of and happy for my friend for what he’s accomplished, and looking forward to seeing what it leads to for him next.

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Posted by mike in Film,Friends,News at 12:59 am on June 20, 2008

Largo, the film my friend Andy has made (which I’ve written about a couple of times previously), is finally set to premiere this coming Sunday, June 22, at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Andy, the artist
Not only am I super-excited for my friend (who looks really “artisty” in his publicity photo for the festival), but I’m really looking forward to seeing the fruit of his labor in its finally-completed form. Having had the opportunity to see parts of the film at several stages over the past few years, including being present for a few of the performances that will be showcased in it, it’s going to be really cool to get to see it in its polished form on a big screen, not to mention with a big film festival audience (which should naturally be pretty receptive to a non-narrative film).

Interestingly, in the time since Andy completed shooting footage for the film, the club (in its original incarnation) has closed. It just opened in its new larger location last week, in fact, making the debut of the film particularly timely, in addition to giving it additional cachet as a chronicle of a club that is now made even more legendary due to the fact that it no longer exists (at least, not physically; from everything I’ve heard and read, all intentions are to ensure that the spirit of the club transfers to its new location). I think that this can only help build excitement for the film, and hopefully increase the amount of people interested in it. I’m really looking forward to the premiere, and will be sure to report back early next week with some thoughts on the movie and a report of how the premiere went.

Along those lines, now that we’re finally settled into our new home, and I’m more or less settled into my new job, I’m done with excuses for slacking off on my movie-reviewing goal, so I’m going to work on getting caught up (I’ve got a lot in the queue). I can’t think of a better movie to use as my first full-length review than Largo, so that seems like a worthy plan. I don’t know if I can hold a pace like Chas did when she first started blogging, with an entry every day, but we’ll see– there’re enough movies I’ve seen since my last roundup that it might require a review a day for a couple of weeks before I’m caught up. My intention is to work backwards, chronologically, so that at least the first few are somewhat relevant and timely; the rest will be more for archival purposes and just to force myself to not abandon the reviews I’ve started. The release of the new Batman movie seems like a good date to shoot for to be caught up by, so that’ll be my aim.

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Posted by mike in Entertainment,Friends,Music at 1:26 am on March 5, 2008

Video games can be a lot of fun. Millions of people–young and, increasingly, old–enjoy them as a true form of entertainment, storytelling, and sometimes even artistic expression. Gamers have long enjoyed assuming the persona of an on-screen hero or heroine, allowing themselves to get wrapped up in a fantastic world where their imaginations can run wild and the impossible is possible. Until recently, though, it was typically pretty clear what was meant by a player “assuming the persona” of his or her virtual alter-ego.

With the advent and exploding popularity of the Guitar Hero series of games, the line has been blurred. Part of the problem is one of language: we “play” a video game and we “play” a musical instrument, but these are normally two different things. It then makes it hard for a Guitar Hero enthusiast to not sound like he takes himself entirely too seriously when he talks about the songs he’s been “playing.” But the problem is compounded by the fact that many Guitar Hero enthusiasts do, in fact, take themselves entirely too seriously (more on that in a bit).

Fake guitarsAnother aspect that blurs the line between playing a game and playing an instrument is the very feature that has most likely accounted for the series’ success: the novel guitar-shaped controllers it employs. As opposed to using the standard console controller, these allow one to assume roughly the posture, hand position, and motions (albeit all on a greatly simplified basis) of somebody who is actually playing a guitar. This, in turn, makes it easier for the player to convince himself that what he is doing while playing the game has some relation to the act of playing guitar. Compare the two activities:

  Playing Guitar Playing Guitar Hero
Playing position Sitting down with guitar rested on lap, or standing up with guitar strapped to torso Sitting down with controller rested on lap, or standing up with controller strapped to torso
Left hand On fretboard on neck of guitar; presses strings to change their pitch On buttons on neck of controller; presses buttons to “play” various notes
Right hand Over sound hole (on acoustic guitars) or between pickups (on electric guitars); picks or strums strings to play notes or chords On strum bar on body of controller; move back and forth vertically to “strum” or “pick”
Typical practice space Living room, bedroom, or basement Living room, bedroom, or basement
Learning curve Very steep Shallow
Time required to achieve mastery Several hours a day for many many days; becoming a master takes several years of intense practice Several hours at a time over many gaming sessions; becoming a master takes several months of repetitive practice
Cost Cheap guitars can be had for $100-$200; electrics require amplifiers; ongoing upkeep (regularly replacing strings, etc.) Under $100

The main difference lies in the initial startup cost, and in the fact that it’s much easier to pick up a Guitar Hero controller and start playing right away than it is to do the same with a real guitar. After that, though, becoming good at either activity requires sitting around for hours on end playing the same songs over and over and over again until memorization and/or mastery has occurred. It’s in this regard that I think the activity of playing Guitar Hero is baffling to some, myself included: Why spend all of that time and effort simulating the act of learning to play guitar, rather than actually learning to play guitar?

It goes beyond that, though. The next evolutionary leap of the Guitar Hero series is Rock Band, which takes the concept to the next level. Instead of only one or two players using fake guitars to “play” the lead and/or bass guitar parts, there is now additionally a “drum” part and a “singing” part (as well as a new $170 price tag). The packaging for the game invites players to “start a band” and “rock the world.” Unfortunately, a lot of people have taken this entirely too literally. A lot of the explanation for the whole phenomenon, I think, can be attributed to the fact that most people don’t really understand what is involved with playing the instruments represented in these games. It was bad enough when the games’ makers just oversimplified what it means to play a guitar; now they’ve added two additional parts that almost everyone thinks they can do without any sort of training, despite the fact that singing and drumming are just as musically involved and require just as much instruction, practice, and perseverance as the guitar does.

Fake drumsIt certainly doesn’t help when reviews of Rock Band say ignorant things like, “while learning to play a plastic guitar gets you nothing but higher scores on a game, getting good at the drums in Rock Band will actually give you some drumming skills in real life.” Statements like this have the dual effect of demonstrating the reviewer’s ignorance of what actually constitutes “drumming skills” while also misleading would-be drummers into thinking that Rock Band‘s lame excuse for a drum kit and drum charts will be a sufficient substitute for (or precursor to) learning the real thing. Some reviews, thankfully, are a bit more honest with their readers, but they still exaggerate the relation between the Rock Band drum kit and actual drumming: “With the exception of the drum parts, which are somewhat realistic, Rock Band substitutes reflexes for musicianship.” Yes, the drum parts are “somewhat realistic,” but in exactly the same way that the guitar parts are “somewhat realistic,” and no more. It is sad that people who have obviously never played drums before deem themselves worthy to comment on the experience. While it seems commonplace for most articles about these games to accept–and occasionally poke fun at–the lack of realism inherent in the guitar controllers, they simultaneously make the mistake of presuming the existence of a level of realism in the drum controller that is just as equally absent.

Amplifying the problem is the fact that the Rock Band drum parts–which, like the guitar parts, come in varying difficulty levels–are not a good way to teach somebody to play the drums, despite the fact that the possibility to use them for that purpose might actually exist. This is probably what leads to the assumptions on the part of most reviewers that progression through the game’s levels of difficulty is equivalent to progressively learning more about how to actually play the drums, but again that only shows the reviewers’ ignorance and not the achievement of the game in that regard.

My personal experience with these games is, admittedly, very limited. I find it very hard to get used to “playing” the “notes” ahead of the actual song; one thing that nobody seems to mention is that there is a slight but significant delay between when you “strum” the guitar controller or hit one of the pads on the drum controller and when the game registers the “note” being “played.” This does not teach you to play the song or to even come close to rhythmically approximating it on a basic level; rather, it is simply a test of reflexes, as previously mentioned, combined with memorization at the more difficult levels. It is not in any way musical, at least no more so than is tapping on your lap or strumming an air guitar. In fact, I’ve played Guitar Hero with both the guitar controller and a standard Xbox 360 controller, and found the musical experience I derived from the two to be equivalent.

It gets really weird when you consider that people actually put on “concerts” involving playing this game on a stage. There is even a smoke and light kit set to be released soon. And some people have taken it even further than that, combining the fake instruments with real ones in order to give them a more realistic look for their “performances.” This begs the question of why not just actually learn the instrument? even more, and makes for an even more ridiculous example of just how far people will go to keep themselves firmly planted in the world of a video game, no matter how much they attempt to emulate the world that the video game is supposed to be simulating. It’s additionally yet another case of the relevant South Park episode coming true in a way that’s as sad as it is hilarious.

So am I just such a curmudgeon that I can’t stand the thought of people playing a quasi-musical video game and enjoying themselves while doing so, as the xkcd comic implies?

xkcd's take

The answer, of course, is no; “stop having fun” is not my point. My point is, honestly, that I worry about what this means for our culture, that it seems we can no longer be troubled to actually take up any hobby that doesn’t have a score attached to it. More than that, though, it’s that we seem to have moved beyond the fantasy world of video gaming and into the realm of games as substitutes for their real-life counterparts. I’ve been known, for instance, to play a game called Golden Tee from time to time, but nobody has ever mistaken that for an actual round of golf, and nobody has ever claimed that learning Golden Tee makes you a better golfer. It seems that day may not actually be far off, though, and I wonder what that would mean for the sport of golf when the next Tiger Woods gets addicted to the video game instead of the actual sport. Likewise, what does it mean when there are children who are considered to be Gods of Guitar Hero? Are these the would-be rock stars of tomorrow, choosing to pursue a perfect score in place of writing a future hit?

Mostly, though, this whole phenomenon gives me that sadness you feel when you see others getting cheated out of what you believe to be a worthwhile experience that you yourself have had. It’s like when somebody tells you they recently purchased a new HDTV, but then you find out that what they bought is a low-end Vizio and they’re still watching standard definition content stretched horizontally. It’s somebody telling you they’re a Linux expert, only to then divulge that their experience comes from using Ubuntu a couple of times. It’s somebody telling you they’re a hardcore programmer when all they’ve ever coded in is Java. None of these people are lying when they make these claims; they’re just missing the point of the experience by only going halfway with it.

And that’s how I feel about the Guitar Hero series of games, and especially Rock Band: Sure, it’s fun to play, and it might even help drive you to get better by having a simple scoring system to use as a yardstick. But when you confuse it with an approximation of that which it is meant to imitate, you’re missing the point of both.

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Posted by mike in Computers,Entertainment,Friends at 11:17 pm on December 5, 2007

As I mentioned previously, about 6 months ago I switched from DirecTV to Insight Digital cable service, giving up my beloved DirecTiVo in the process. The experience has made me appreciate–and miss–the care and attention to detail that went into the design of the TiVo UI. I’d like to enumerate in detail exactly which design mistakes Motorola’s engineers made that TiVo’s accounted for. Simultaneously, CK is going to do the same thing in reference to his DirecTV Plus HD DVR, which he recently switched to.

We’ll start with the remotes. CK has already written his comparison, finding squarely in favor of the DirecTiVo’s remote (unsurprisingly). Now it’s my turn to take a look at the remote that comes with the Motorola 6xxx series of cable boxes. I have the Motorola 6416, which is the dual-tuner HD-compatible version with a 160GB hard drive.

Motorola's remote
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention right up front that I haven’t used this remote much, as after the first week or so of having (and hating) it, I programmed my Harmony 880 (possibly the second-greatest TV-related invention, after TiVo itself) to control the new DVR, and tossed the Insight remote into a drawer, never to be used again. Here are the main reasons I have for thinking that every user of one of these cable boxes should do the same:

  • Too many similarly-shaped and -sized buttons. While the “On Demand” button is nice and big and easy to feel for in the dark, that’s not the one I’m going for most often when I pick up the remote–usually it’s the pause button, or the video transport buttons. They’re all about the same size and shape, and grouped in a 3×3 grid. On the plus side, when picking up the remote your thumb naturally goes to the “OK/Select” button in the middle, which is a good “home position” to start from. It’s just that it’s hard to go anywhere from there except to the arrow buttons immediately surrounding it.
  • Page up/Page down buttons. These buttons are stupid, because it makes much more sense to use the Channel up/down buttons for this functionality, when in a context where going up and down by page makes more sense (like being in the on-screen guide). This is the way TiVo does it, and using the Channel buttons comes very intuitively and works quite well. Not only has Motorola chosen to use separate buttons for Page up/down, though, but they’ve also placed them on opposite sides of the remote, making it impossible to easily go between them when browsing through the guide.
  • The most important buttons are small and poorly-placed. With the notable exception of the aforementioned OK button, the most important buttons are in the worst possible places, with the worst offenders being the Guide and Menu buttons. The My DVR button also gets blended into the array of video control buttons towards the top; this is the button that brings up your list of recorded programs, so on a DVR box, it gets used a lot (TiVo users will know it as the List button).
  • Too many “back” buttons. Perhaps as a sign of skittishness (or, more likely, a testament to how confusing their software is), the developers have given the user multiple ways to go backwards at any point in the interface. There’s a Last button to go back a screen, which does the same as the left arrow button in most circumstances. There’s an Exit button which exits out of the menu system completely. Then there’s a Stop button, which really doesn’t make much sense to me. When you’re watching TV, or a previously-recorded show from the DVR’s hard drive, what does the concept of “Stop” mean? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean you want everything to stop and go to a blank screen, as it would on a VCR. The TiVo engineers thought of this, and so TiVo remotes do not have a Stop button at all; instead, you simply press the appropriate button to indicate what you want to do next. If you’re currently watching a recorded show and want to switch to live TV, you press the Live TV button. If you want to go back to the menu of recorded shows to watch a different one, you press the List button. Stop doesn’t make sense in the context of a DVR, so it shouldn’t be there at all.
  • Important funcionality missing. While there’s a “review” button (the circular arrow pointing “backwards,” found just to the left of the My DVR button), there is no equivalent “skip” button. This is especially odd when you consider that the box actually has this functionality–using my Harmony’s “replay” and “skip” buttons, I can skip backwards 15 seconds or forwards 30 seconds, respectively. Why only the “replay” feature has a button on the stock remote is a mystery to me; particularly when you consider the typical length of a commercial, the 30 second skip feature is arguably the more useful of the two. You might also notice that even though this remote is for a dual-tuner DVR, there is no obvious way to switch between tuners–keep reading for an explanation of that glaring omission.
  • Picture-in-Picture buttons. These are especially confusing, since the box does not have picture-in-picture capability, and so the buttons serve no purpose… with one very notable exception. Having omitted a tuner-swap button in their design of the remote, the box’s engineers have chosen to co-opt the “PIP Swap” button for that purpose.:
    Deceiving swap button
    When I first got this box, for the first several days of using it I was actually under the impression that there was no way to explicitly switch tuners (this was an action I was used to performing quite regularly with my DirecTiVo). I mistakenly thought that the only way to utilize the dual tuner functionality was by side effect: if it is recording a show and you try to change the channel, a dialog box will pop up offering the option to switch to the other tuner. I would then be “stuck” on the other tuner, unless I went into the My DVR interface and selected the show being recorded to watch. I’ll touch on this more when I do my review of the DVR software, but suffice it to say that this was confusing and annoying. Even after figuring out how to swap tuners, it is still very non-intuitive to have to use a tiny button at the bottom of the remote in a group of otherwise unused (reserved for future use, maybe?) PIP buttons in order to take full advantage of the DVR’s two tuners. Luckily, on my Harmony I’ve programmed a custom button called simply “Swap,” and it’s in a much more easily-accessible place on the remote.

Harmony 880 remote
The remote’s deficiencies are a telling sign of the amount of thought that went into the design of this cable box overall. Especially when contrasted with the brilliantly-designed TiVo remote, it falls very short. The Harmony 880 (pictured at left) that I use and love, while not quite matching the TiVo remote in terms of button layout and intuitive feel in your hand, comes pretty close, while also offering the additional functionality of controlling all of your home theater components by itself and being completely programmable. I honestly don’t think I could put up with the stock remote that came with my Motorola DVR provided by Insight for any significant length of time, especially after having used a TiVo remote for over 3 years; luckily the Harmony means that I don’t have to.

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Posted by mike in Film,Friends,Music,News at 4:54 pm on November 27, 2007

The Largo film that I previously wrote about is featured in an article in the current issue of Filter magazine, available now. Andy, my friend behind the film, had this to say about it:
Filter issue 28

Check out the new issue of Filter magazine (w/ David Byrne on the cover), at newsstands and bookstores now through February, for a great article on Largo and my upcoming concert movie. The article is called, “Exalting the Artistic Moment: The Meaning of a Place Called Largo.” For those of you who aren’t already familiar with the club it’s a good primer on its history and what makes it special.

The article also features a lot of stills from the movie, a great shot of Elliott Smith by photographer Autumn de Wilde, and interviews with myself, club owner & co-director Mark Flanagan, and performers Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Mark Oliver Everett (E from Eels), Zach Galifianakis, Tom Brosseau, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Paul F. Tompkins.

The film sounds like it’s on track for its targeted February 2008 completion date. Hopefully I’ll be headed out to LA around that time to see the first screening of it there, followed by TriBeCa in late April/early May. Pretty exciting.

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Posted by mike in Entertainment,Film,Friends,Music at 7:45 pm on September 11, 2007

Largo is a club in Hollywood, the kind that you assume locals tell their out-of-town guests about when asked for some “best kept secrets.” The owner, Flanny, is one of those LA staples who people in the know all know. The club is a sit-down music venue where you’re as likely to encounter an artist you’ll recognize in the crowd as you will on stage. Flanny–a long-time music booker and promoter–is big on presentation and ambiance, and has no-chatting and no-cell-phone-use rules during all shows; somehow this works for him, although with other establishments it’d likely come off as pretentious and annoying. Largo is the kind of place, though, where you want to just sit back, enjoy the food (all of which is good, by the way), have a few drinks (the only things on tap are Guinness and Bass), and most of all, enjoy the music.

Whenever I visit my lifelong friend Andy who lives in LA, hitting Largo is always my first request for things I’d like to do while there. I’ve been lucky enough to see Jon Brion a couple of times (indeed, the first such experience had such an effect on me it warranted being the subject of one of four total posts I ever managed to make on my LiveJournal). We always have a good time, and I always leave feeling a little more cultured, having seen some music I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise (the most recent was Nikka Costa, who was just fantastic).

For the past couple of years, Andy has been spending most of his weekends collecting footage of Largo’s stable of performers doing music, comedy, and other forms of performance art on the club’s small stage. The last few times I’ve been out to visit him I’ve been privileged enough to watch the film centered around the venue that he’s been working on as it comes together. He recently launched a promotional site for the film that shares the venue’s name, in anticipation of completing and releasing it in the very near future. There’s a trailer that he’s put together to give a glimpse at what the finished product will be like; think of it as a concert film where the setlist reads like a “best of” compilation of musicians, comedians, actors, and assorted guest appearances from the club over the past year or two.

I’m anxiously awaiting the film’s conclusion, and can’t wait to see it on a big screen as soon as the opportunity arises. Andy knows I’ll be there for its first screening no matter the circumstances.

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Posted by mike in Film,Friends,Internet at 9:20 pm on November 13, 2006

I have a Bacon number of 4. This is due to the fact that my oldest friend Andy (who I’ve known since kindergarten) lives and works in Hollywood, and pretty much everybody in Hollywood is shortly connected to Kevin Bacon.

Andy lived for a period of time in Manhattan, in an apartment more or less right across the street from Madison Square Garden, with a couple of friends who we’d attended high school with. When Andy moved back to California, a guy named Charlie took his place. Charlie founded something called Improv Everywhere, which can most easily be described as a roaming improv comedy and pranking group, but that’s oversimplifying it a great deal. Their infamous U2 mission takes place on the roof of the aforementioned apartment.

After about 5 years of performing what Charlie refers to as “missions,” Improv Everywhere decided to release a compilation of their antics thus far on DVD, which Andy edited and assembled for them.

I was visiting Andy in Los Angeles as he was finishing up these DVDs, and got to see early versions of them. I’d like to think that I helped in debugging some of the menu navigation and hidden features as well, but Andy had largely completed all of the work by the time I got a chance to see them. Forever the supporter of endeavors of my friends, I pre-ordered the DVDs from IE’s website upon my return from LA, and I received the finished product a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve gone through every nook and cranny of both discs, over 6 hours worth of material, and have thoroughly concluded that I’m a big fan of the concept in general. I think it’s no coincidence that I often accidentally type Improve when referring to IE; they really do live up to their billing of trying to spread joy with their missions. One of my favorite hidden features on the discs explores this very notion, along with some of its implications, in an as-yet-unaired episode of This American Life, the forthcoming TV series. I won’t spoil the content for my readers, but suffice it to say that it’s worth seeking out. I’m looking forward to more entertaining missions from Improv Everywhere in the future.

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Posted by mike in Friends,Internet,Music,Work at 10:25 pm on October 31, 2006

When I was 15, my family moved to Naperville. A year later, a family moved into the house a few down from ours, and we found out that they had a son, Brant, who was about my age and was going to be on the drumline (which I was also a part of). I met him shortly after they moved in, and we more or less immediately became friends. That was about 12 years ago now, and Brant and I don’t see each other as often (he now has two children keeping him very busy), but we keep in touch and stay caught up as much as possible.

The first thing I learned about Brant was that he was an incredibly talented drummer. Early in our friendship he was proud to show off videos and demo tapes from the band he’d been a part of back in the St. Louis area, where his family had moved from. I’ve always supported him in his various musical endeavors, from high school on. These days, he’s in a band called Veritae, based out of the Chicago area.

A little over a year ago, Brant contacted me about helping him set up a Web site for his band, and I happily agreed to help in any way I could. What I soon found out, though, was that this was not to be a “normal” Web-design endeavor. As part of the deal his band had made with their producer, they got Web hosting along with their studio time. This wasn’t just Web hosting, though; it included a Flash-based site creation tool called Habitat that I would be using to create their site.

It’s worth noting at this point that generally when I make a Web site, I do it using one tool, and one tool only: vi. So a completely Flash-based graphical tool that designs a Flash-based Website for you is about as much of a polar opposite from my preferred style as you can get. This causes, unsurprisingly, quite a bit of frustration on my part. I’m sure some people find the idea of this Habitat tool to be a great idea; even I can admit that it’s novel. I’m certainly not alone, however, in my criticisms of Flash.

It’s been an interesting experience, then, trying to keep the band happy with the site, while at the same time loathing myself for using something and creating something that I consider to be a great example of everything that is wrong with the Internet. It loads slowly, uses way more bandwidth than necessary, is completely inaccessible, and requires a browser plug-in in order to view any of the content on the site. The one thing the Habitat guys deserve credit for is making a Flash-based site that is bookmarkable. However, this was at the cost of additional load times when you traverse between sections, so even that can’t be viewed as a total positive.

I have to remind myself, though, that this is the music industry, and flash (with a lower-case ‘f’) and style can make all the difference in the world when trying to catch people’s attention. This is the same industry that uses MySpace as of late as its primary means of independent publicity.

After several months of inactivity, there was a crash with the band’s site, and I’ve spent some time yesterday and today recreating it. I’m not happy with it, and still have several gripes, but feel it my duty nonetheless to advertise Veritae’s Web page and drive any traffic I can to their site.

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