Seeing as it's a holiday for a lot of people today - including me, who wasn't expecting having a day off - here's Stereophonics with Bank Holiday Monday. (Language advisory inserted here. C'mon - it's Stereophonics.)
[Surf's Up, as publishedin the St. John's Telegram on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007. Click here to read more columns.]
It may be the season of goodwill to your neighbours, but I’ve been spending a fair bit of time (in fact, far more than I perhaps ought to admit) firing all kinds of weapons at Russian tanks. It’s the most recent online game to grab my attention.
Budapest Defenders The U.S. cable TV network TNT created a show this year called The Company, about the CIA, and from that conspicuous source comes this game … which I have to admit hooked me over several recent nights. Even though I’m not that keen on shoot-‘em-up games, I found this game of strategy fascinating.
Your objective: position snipers, shooters, Molotov-cocktail-tossers (no kidding) and others around 1956 Budapest to prevent the Red Army from conquering the Hungarian city. It took me a little while, but I figured out how to win the game …and, even so, I still wanted to keep playing, to test various other tactics.
My biggest hint: start with some centrally located snipers, and then position cars to block routes, forcing the invading army to take a long, circuitous route (all the better for knocking off invaders). At Christmas, this is certainly not the most enlightening activity, but it is fun figuring out how to win the game.
Elsewhere this week
Another Magazine Just what you need: another magazine about celebrities and how great they look. The difference: Another Magazine actually has some thought put into it, as does the companion website. In addition to slick layouts about actor Julianne Moore and fashionistas you’ll find some fairly serious writing, which is nothing to sniff at.
The Register From the United Kingdom comes the Register, a tech-savvy site that has this brilliant tag line: "Biting the hand that feeds IT." Snarky, snappy and fun to read, the Register is well-read across the pond, and very much up to date with a variety of topics. Hit the “top 20” tab at the bottom for the most popular stories in the current feed.
Plotshot Plotshot makes a mashup out of Flickr, the photo-sharing site, and simple narratives … with an utterly random feeling to it. Various words are accompanied by images pulled out of Flickr’s massive store, and presented within the text. If you don’t like (or don’t quite get) what’s on the screen, click the "generate a new plot" button.
Fix It Club Being notably not-handy, I was curious to find the Fix It Club, which offers hints on all kinds of practical things, from fixing a VCR (assuming you want to get a bit out of your stash of old-school tapes) to fixing a doorbell to checking out your furnace. I’d spruce up the look here, but it’s undeniably a useful resource to keep handy, particularly with a lot of video segments (embedded on YouTube) to help explain the basics.
Rene Magritte More than a decade ago, I had the good fortune to see a large exhibition in Montreal of the works of painter Rene Magritte. (Indeed, I recall how the walls in one huge gallery were painted blue with lofty white clouds, inspired by his surreal backdrops. A kid in front of me exclaimed, "Ooh! Windows 95!" … which becomes increasingly dated and possibly less funny as time passes. Anyway, here’s a page with instant access to the best of Magritte, who made bowler hats, apples, pipes and suburban quietness so sweetly weird.
Normally - if I get around to it at all - I post a list of five songs or so that have been in the earbuds lately. This week, something different.
Every year, I made a CD of Christmas music for the family and some close friends. This year was the eighth edition; in 2000, I figured I would soon enough run out of Christmas music, but that has not been a problem; I keep finding new albums every year, and I get plenty of pointers to something else worth listening to.
Here's this year's list.
Vince Guaraldi Trio: Christmas Is Coming. From a Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the many themes that is instantly familiar to millions who grew up watching the special and (if you're like me) get to watch it again through children's eyes.
New Birth Brass Band: Santa's Second Line. From a Putumayo collection.
The Drifters: White Christmas. One of the best-known versions of White Christmas, this one got bumped alojng from year to year.
Aimee Mann: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Our son's favourite song on this year's list.
James Taylor: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Our top version of the behavioural modifier of the pre-Christmas season.
The Spinners: The Twelve Days of Christmas. No, not the familiar R&B Spinners, but instead a British folk group I didn't know about until this year. A funny but full running of the counting song.
The Crickets: Deck the Halls. Yes, the old Buddy Holly Crickets, with a song with "holly" in it. That didn't occur to me until a few days after I added it.
Jack Jones: Sleigh Ride. As discussed here recently, Jack Jones's version is heavy on the schmooze, but I like it anyway, especially the horn arrangement, which reminds me of when I played trumpet.
Ella Fitzgerald: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ella Fitzgerald has appeared on every year's compilation - which seems appropriate, given she made one of the best Christmas albums ever recorded.
Sufjan Stevens: The Friendly Beasts. Stevens's Songs For Christmas was the find of last year, and will keep me stoked for years to come. We love how this version of the Friendly Beasts builds gradually, with everyone chipping in on vocals, regardless of singing ability. (More Sufjan Stevens Christmas stuff is here.)
Dave Panting: Carol of the Bells. From Dave's excellent Mandolin Christmas album of a few years back.
Anúna: Away in a Manger. Anúna reportedly left a few people breathless at this year's Festival 500. They have a Christmas CD, and it's beautiful.
Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band: The Angel Gabriel. Maddy Prior's voice may be an acquired taste, but I love how she does carols.
Mary Margaret O'Hara: Christmas Evermore. Whatever happened to Mary Margaret O'Hara, anyway?
Stevie Wonder: Someday At Christmas. A Sixties pop chestnut, and still relevant, unfortunately.
Sinéad O'Connor: Silent Night. Lush and gentle.
Willie Nelson: Jingle Bells. A wonderful, spirited version that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Sarah McLachlan: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day. I was going to use one of the tracks from McLachlan's recent Christmas album, Wintersong, until I heard this, on the new Starbucks compilation, Stockings By the Fire.
Pet Shop Boys: It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas. A Pet Shops Boys single about the dull reality that Christmas Dad can sometimes be, but still a toe-tapper.
LED vs. Panaphonic: My Favorite Things. An electronica-lite take on the Sound of Music tune, which I always associate with Christmas and the onset of winter.
Blind Boys Of Alabama Feat. Shelby Lynne: The Christmas Song. Chestnuts with a slow roasting feel.
Rufus Wainwright: What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? From the McGarrigle Christmas Hour album.
Van Morrison: Celtic New Year. OK, this doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, or even with regular New Year's ... (it's about Samhain, which was in November) but I like the tone of it all the same.
Starbucks has opened a new outlet in downtown St. John's (its first), across the street from not one but two local coffee shops that have gotten my dime, and then some, over the years. I'm a little conflicted, as I like Starbucks coffee, a lot, and although I go local, I'm not going to be guilted out, as a friend tried to do earlier this month, about spending money on the Starbucks monolith. On Friday, I picked up a tidbit that Starbucks is now looking at opening up a new location on Kenmount Road, not far from a new Tim Hortons outlet. That will be interesting to watch.
Back to the David-Goliath situation playing out downtown. This piece posted on Slate on Friday makes an interesting case: Starbucks doesn't hurt mom-and-pop coffee shops, but actually boosts their sales, by - essentially - boosting the overall market.
... or maybe not. Predicting the quality of sequels is dodgy stuff. Nonetheless, I was excited to get a glimpse of the flash-edit job that is the Prince Caspian trailer. I can wait till May, I guess.. Have a look:
Trudy Morgan-Cole, former English classmate at university and all-round decent person, has a New Year's book contest rolling over at Hypergraffiti. Finally, a quiz that rewards the well-read! Check it out here.
"The sport of skiing consists of wearing three thousand dollars' worth of clothes and equipment and driving two hundred miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and get drunk." - P.J. O'Rourke
My soundtrack from December 1982 largely revolved around the Jam's final single, Beat Surrender - a tune that weaved Motown, rock, new wave and even pop seamlessly. Below is the Jam's last appearance on Top of the Pops; the video quality is poor, and the performance (in retrospect) doesn't come across that well, either, which is a shame. Nonetheless, a single that holds up nicely.
The Christmas with the Rat Pack compilation CD was a brilliant bit of marketing: scoop up bits and pieces of Christmas music by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., et al., and sell them as a evercool package. One of the songs is Marshmallow World, featuring Sinatra guesting on a Dean Martin Christmas special from 1967; it's campy and fake, but we sing it around the house all the same.
I found a video recording to go with it, and although it's far from perfect - in fact, you see a slew of tape errors, fuzz and non-holiday-related snow - you can see the two hamming it up, which explains the laughter on the soundtrack. The video below also continues for a minute, with the two sharing eggnog (the CD fades out the audio), including a Sinatra quip about getting pulled over for too much cinnamon in the nog.
Anyway, they don't make Christmas specials like this anymore.
[Surf's Up, as publishedin the St. John's Telegram on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007. Click here to read more columns.]
We have a few advent calendars in our house. I added a new one this year: little boxes that open to reveal … a daily hit of chocolate. (We’ve actually augmented it, with a chocolate kiss for each family member: you don’t want anyone to feel left out!)
For the last few years, and hopefully for a good few more to come, I read Kevin Major’s terrific The House of Wooden Santas to my son each night. It is, basically, an Advent calendar in the form of a book, with each night’s chapter building to the story.
This week, we start with some sites that have Advent and the approaching Christmas season in mind.
Flickr’s advent calendar There are countless photographs out there with a Christmas theme. Flickr, the photo-sharing site, is inviting everyone to chip in images for this feature, which reveals more and more each day. Cool.
Advent calendar from Washington The Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., has started this calendar, which puts an accent on the sacred. Each day, a crèche item from collections from around the world becomes visible.
Geography quiz, a la Advent This British school has created a novel way for getting kids interested in geography: each day, a new flag becomes visible, with a prompt for students to answer.
Advent Calendar Museum Advent calendars have been sold for generations, although I was surprised to learn they date back just to the 19th century – a great time, I see now, for developing and defining the traditions that make the Christmas season. This collection shows many versions from decades past.
Charity calendar The U.K.-based Charities Aid Foundation has come up with a novel way of publicizing specific organizations: each day, a new one becomes visible. I imagine this is of limited use on this side of the Atlantic, but I tip my hat to a creative way of promoting these causes.
Elsewhere this week
Miles Davis Need a little background music that steers away from Top 40? The official site of the late, great jazz legend Miles Davis streams a selection of his work – and proving just how enormous his range was.
VideoLan Video is everywhere on the web ... and with the file extensions to prove it. MPEG, AVI, DVD - the list goes on. What makes VideoLan attractive to many users is that fact that it will play a slew of videos across different formats and platforms. And, it's free!
Threadbanger I grew up in a time when some people went to great lengths to make their jeans – the first designer jeans, from more than a quarter-century ago – look as pristine and stiff as possible. Well, things have changed; now, kids use cheese graters and scraps of sanding paper to make newly bought jeans look “vintage.” Threadbanger is at the forefront of that whole trend, with cool little videos on using espresso (no kidding) to dye your denim, and retro-fitting (pun intended) other things kicking around the closet.
Cracked When I was growing up, Cracked was the overlooked cousin, pale in the satirical shadow of Mad magazine. I have to admit I was surprised to see Cracked is online … and I have to confess that I chuckled as I poked around.
When my son was a bit younger, he used to call Do They Know It's Christmas? "the feed the world song"... which is as apt as anything. I recall being in a van at a student conference shortly after the Band Aid single came out, and how a young woman - dressed as the nasty punk-anarchist we all knew she really wasn't - was reduced to sobs while it played. (The Ethiopian famine, it should be noted, was still very much in the news.) I sometimes still get a lump in my throat when it plays, too, and I always liked how the video had the look of musicians who looked liked they either just got up or were just roped in off the street.
Dot Dot Dot is Morse code for the letter 'S,' the full message Guglielmo Marconi claimed to have received atop Signal Hill in St. John's in 1901. It ushered in the age of telecommunications. My maternal grandfather worked as a telegraph operator for Canadian Marconi on Signal Hill for many years.
As well, I have a habit of overusing the ellipsis when I write ... as frequent readers might notice.