Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions is the story of Dwayne Hoover, a car dealer obsessed with the writings of a science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. Hoover has requested that Trout be invited to speak at his town’s art festival. As Trout travels to the city, Hoover undergoes some sort of mental breakdown.

The story is definitely odd, and it’s sprinkled with lots of Vonnegut’s artwork. Unfortunately, the story kind of lost me. Not that I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the plot, but rather that I wasn’t entirely sure of its point. It was definitely funny at times and insightful once or twice, but mainly it just left me wondering if I was missing something. Vonnegut has done that to me before, but usually there’s some other nugget of humor or insight that I can take out of his work. This one was a little tougher to grasp.

So, for Vonnegut, not his best work. For a book in general, it’s not bad, especially if you like humor and goofy illustrations. It’s definitely a quick read. I think I finished in 3 days. If you haven’t checked out some of his other stuff that I’ve reviewed, you may want to start there. According to his Wikipedia entry, in his book Palm Sunday he grades his performance on each of his novels. He gave Breakfast of Champions a “C”. I really enjoyed the work that he graded highly, so maybe I should listen to his reviews and pick up God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Mother Night the next time I’m in a Vonnegut mood.

2.5/5

Side note: A reader pointed out that the movie 2081, based on Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, was released on DVD this month. Thanks!

The Sound of White

My first encounter with singer-songwriter Missy Higgins was so positive that I had to check out her debut album, The Sound Of White. I have been eying this album for a while now, and I finally got it for Christmas this year.

I was turned on to this album after hearing All For Believing, Higgins’ first song that she astonishingly wrote when she was only 16. Maybe I was expecting too much from The Sound of White, but I was less impressed by it than On A Clear Night. Higgins had not quite perfected the variety and edginess evident in her later work. That’s not to say it was a bad album by any means, and surely it will grow on me as I listen to it over the coming weeks. I was just hoping for the near perfection found in her second album, which admittedly is a little unfair of me.

Despite my lackluster review, there are a few stand-out songs, including All For Believing and Scar. If you were a fan of On A Clear Night, this album is still a solid addition to your collection. Her voice continues to be unique, refreshing, and a pleasure to listen to. If there was this much improvement between her first two albums, I am now awaiting her next release even more eagerly.

3/5

Honeysuckle Weeks

I discovered The Submarines as many people did, even if they did not realize it. Their music plays in nearly every iPhone commercial, namely the songs You Me and the Bourgeoisie and Submarine Symphonika. I went in search of other music by The Submarines only to find that I liked a lot of it. For some reason, I never got around to purchasing the album this year, so I asked for it for Christmas.

I popped in Honeysuckle Weeks on one of my many hour-long drives this holiday season and was mildly blown away by it. I hadn’t heard much of their music since discovering them back in March, so I had forgotten how great they are. The entire album is refreshing. The band is a male/female duo, and the vocals are shared by both John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard. I especially enjoy Blake’s voice, and interestingly I see from the wikipedia article on their band that she is the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Stand-out songs, besides the two already mentioned, include Swimming Pool and The Wake Up Song. The energy of the album seemed to dwindle near the end, which was mildly disappointing. My biggest complaint, however, was that the album was too short! It didn’t last my full trip to Chicago from Sadie’s house. And if that’s my biggest complaint, you know the album is pretty good. Next up, I’ll have to check out the duo’s debut album, Declare A New State.

4.5/5

The Lost Symbol

I spent the first week of my holiday break reading The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. This novel follows a similar format to Brown’s previous Robert Langdon stories, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. I enjoyed both of those stories a lot, which made reading this latest installment a no-brainer. In fact, I like Brown’s writing style quite a bit. I think it’s the short chapters that keep me saying, “I’ve got time for one more.” I also like that they tend to have a lot of puzzles, mystery, and suspense. Plus, I end up learning a lot about history by the end of the story.

As for this particular novel, it follows Robert Langdon as he is swept up in a tale surrounding the Ancient Mysteries when his close friend and leader of the Freemasons is captured by a madman. The story takes place almost entirely in Washington D.C., which was also interesting. As Sadie pointed out in her review, we traveled to D.C. a few years ago, so it was fun to picture some of the scenes.

So how does this novel compare with Brown’s other novels? I thought it was pretty good. I still think The Da Vinci Code is my favorite, but maybe that’s because it was also the first Dan Brown I’d ever read. I think I liked Angels & Demons a little bit more than The Lost Symbol, simply because I found the background of the Catholic Church a little bit more interesting than the Freemasons. I think I liked it as much as Digital Fortress and more than Deception Point. So, how’s that for a breakdown? My only real complaint about The Lost Symbol is that I guessed a few of the plot twists too early. It’s probably just because I’ve read too many of Brown’s stories before, though. Don’t forget to go vote for your favorite Brown novel over at Sadie’s blog if you haven’t already.

Overall, it’s not the best Langdon book, but definitely a must-read for any fans of Brown’s work. If you’ve never read a Langdon book before, you may be better off starting with The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons. And if there is anyone out there who has only seen the movies and not read the books, please do yourself a favor and read the books. You won’t be disappointed!

4/5

A Man Without A Country Review

A Man Without A Country is something of a memoir by Kurt Vonnegut. It contains a number of passages he has written in recent years. Some of them are excerpts of articles he wrote as Senior Editor for In These Times, a political magazine out of Chicago. The passages are often short, containing little pearls of wisdom Vonnegut picked up throughout life. He also offers his opinion on then-President of the United States George W. Bush and his administration.

A Man Without A Country by Kurt VonnegutThe passages are summarized by the book’s title. Vonnegut feels like he is lost in the modern world and is dumbfounded that it can be running the way it is. Through it all, he doesn’t come across as “the crotchety old man who doesn’t want anything to change” but rather as “the intelligent old man who thinks his people are making some poor life decisions.” Despite my love for technology, he has a particularly interesting passage on his disdain for it and his fear that it’s removing human interaction from our daily lives. There is an important sense of urgency and hope in his writing that is directed toward my generation, which I found particularly insightful:

I apologize to all of you who are the same age as my grandchildren. And many of you reading this are the same age as my grandchildren. They, like you, are being royally shafted and lied to by our Baby Boomer corporations and government. Yes, this planet is in a terrible mess. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me. I just got here.” (p. 130-131)

I think it’s important for the members of my generation to remember that we can change the world. Maybe it’s not a great idea to demonize the Baby Boomers, but it’s important to acknowledge and understand the mistakes of yesterday and today so that they can be remedied tomorrow. Change and adaptation are how our culture evolves, and just because the ideals of people currently in power may prevent us from changing the world today doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be planning on changing the world tomorrow.

As you can see, this book is one that will get you thinking. It hits near the top of my favorites of all-time, but it loses a few points for some (perhaps well-founded) cheap jokes at the expense of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with critiquing or bashing the Bush administration, but if you’re going to make a joke, it should probably have a broader point. Some of Vonnegut’s didn’t. Still, it definitely one you shouldn’t skip. Go grab a copy today!

4.5/5

Slaughterhouse-Five Review

I love Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t know how it could have taken me this long to realize it. If you’ve never read any of his books, you should take the time to make your next book one of his. I finished this one quite some time ago, but I realized I never wrote a review. Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death is described as “the ultimate anti-war novel.” Vonnegut was a soldier in the U.S. Army and was captured in the line of duty. He was held captive in the German city of Dresden in a slaughterhouse (#5). The Allies subsequently firebombed Dresden, and Vonnegut and the other soldiers in Slaughterhouse Five were some of the few survivors in the city. He and his fellow Ally soldiers were then forced to help clean up the bodies and rubble across the city.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutIn the first chapter of this book, Vonnegut describes a little bit about his life after the war and why it took him so long to write about such a horrific experience. Using true artistic style, in the rest of the book he chose to tell the tale of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, a soldier whose story overlaps with that of Vonnegut’s own. In fact, Vonnegut even makes a few brief appearances in the book.

Anyone looking for a book about war and battles, however, will be sorely disappointed. Most of this book is about the life of Billy Pilgrim both before and after the war. The twist is that Billy has become “unstuck in time.” That means that at random points in the story, Billy time-travels to various points in his own life. He has seen his own birth and death many times over. If that’s not strange enough for you, at one point in his life Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and placed in a “zoo” of exotic species. He’s returned to Earth after some time, but it’s as though he never left. Fortunately, there’s a lot to be learned from the Tralfamadorians, and those scenes are actually some of my favorites. There’s a particular passage that sticks out in my mind:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.” [Wikiquote]

While I’m not sure I fully caught on to the prolific “anti-war” theme, I can assure you that this book spoke volumes to me about life in general. It’s one of those books with plenty of quotable passages like the one above that make you stop and think. If you’ve never read it, I suggest you wander over to Amazon and grab a copy. It comes highly recommended.

4.5/5

On A Clear Night Review

Every week Amazon MP3 offers up the Friday Five. They sell 5 popular MP3 albums for $5 each. I grabbed Missy Higgins‘ album On A Clear Night on the Friday Five two weeks ago. I had actually been thinking about buying the album after hearing the song Steer on the music blog Ryan’s Smashing Life. Missy Higgins is an excellent singer/songwriter from Australia, and I immediately picked up on the quality of her singing and guitar playing.

Missy Higgins - On A Clear NightOn A Clear Night is a fantastic album that I ended up liking even more than I thought I would. The diversity of the songs really shows her breadth as an artist. She plays both guitar and piano very well, and that’s complemented by her killer vocals. Her voice is reminds me a bit of Norah Jones, who is one of my favorite female vocalists. Surprisingly, you don’t get too much of an Australian accent when she’s singing except for in one or two songs. Ms. Higgins is probably known best for her single Where I Stood, which I hadn’t heard before. It grew on me the more I listened to it. The songs 100 Around The Bends and Steer both grabbed my attention as upbeat guitar songs, while Sugarcane was an fantastic piano ballad. Peachy even shows an angry side to her music, which was very refreshing. All-in-all, I felt it was a fairly well-rounded album with no two songs sounding too much alike.

It’s available for purchase as a CD or an MP3 album from Amazon, and it comes highly recommended.

4.5/5

Breathing Life Into An Old Machine

Sadie’s family has an old Gateway desktop in their basement. Up until last Spring, it was the only computer their family had besides Sadie’s college laptop, which was starting to show its age. The desktop was probably purchased before the turn of the century, and it came with the lovely Windows ME operating system. By most accounts, Windows ME was an incredibly botched product that was introduced after the more stable Windows 98 and before Windows XP (2001).

Despite her uncle having reformatted it and fixed it up a few years ago, the computer was in pretty dire circumstances. When it actually booted successfully, the boot process would take over 2 and a half minutes to get to a working desktop. You’d get a BSOD every time you shut down, and the thing generally ran as slow as molasses.

Her dad had mentioned wanting to learn to type, but he didn’t want to risk messing up their new laptop. I thought this would be a perfect job for their old desktop, but I had trouble deciding how to set things up. Things obviously couldn’t stay in their current state. I could get them a copy of Windows XP to put on it, but the machine only had 128 MB of RAM and either a Pentium II or III processor. This also ruled out putting Ubuntu on it, since I doubt that would run any faster or better than Windows ME or XP. I needed something extraordinarily lightweight. As long as it was capable of the basics, we’d be good to go. I even knew of a decent free Linux typing program, Klavaro Touch Typing Tutor.

I had heard of Puppy Linux at various websites around the Internet. I never knew much about it besides that people often mentioned Puppy as a good, lightweight Linux distro. I decided to investigate further only to find that it was exactly what I was looking for. In fact, it’s so lightweight that you can run it completely from RAM if you have more than 256 MB installed, making things incredibly snappy. I downloaded the latest Puppy Linux iso, and burned a copy. I booted from the CD, and after answering a few questions, I was taken to a nice linux desktop. Once I had assured myself that everything was working correctly, I went ahead and installed Puppy, erasing Windows. Puppy’s install wasn’t quite as user-friendly as Ubuntu’s, but I was able to install it without any problems. Linux novices might prefer a more helpful install process. Luckily, there is a decent online manual that should help with pretty much everything.

The real test came when the installation was finished: boot time. Puppy Linux cold-booted in less than 30 seconds on this machine. That was incredible! The desktop is fully functional. It contains a web browser (SeaMonkey), desktop email client (SeaMonkey Mail), word processor (Abiword), spreadsheet editor (Gnumeric), and a lot of other basic applitions pre-installed. They do have a repository for additional applications, but one frustrating thing is that Puppy Linux uses its own package type, the PETget. Using your own package type means that there’s going to be less software available for your system. Fortunately, it looks like there is a compatibility library so that Debian packages can also be installed, which means you can get pretty much any application on Puppy. I was lucky enough to come across someone who had made a PETget for Klavaro, so installing that was a piece of cake.

Puppy Linux uses the JWM window manager, which I had never used before. It’s popular in distros like Puppy because it’s so lightweight and very customizable. I’ll admit that JWM is not much to look at, but it does its job and uses very few resources. The panel along the bottom of the screen has a “(Puppy) Menu” button at the left, a list of windows and virtual desktops in the middle, and a system tray and RAM usage graph on the right. Puppy also comes with many icons on the desktop for popular applications. A nice feature of JWM is that the “Main Menu” (“Puppy Menu”) is actually available from anywhere on the desktop just by right-clicking. One thing that threw me off is that JWM defaults to a single-click destop interface, which was very disorienting for me. I was able to change it to double-click without much trouble.

I will say that the default look of the desktop on Puppy leaves something to be desired. I’m not talking about the window manager either. While it’s nice to have some icons on the desktop, Puppy goes a bit overboard. Plus, some of their descriptions of the applications are not entirely intuitive. Since when is “browse” a good title for your Internet browser icon? There is also a rather stark mountain lake scene as the default wallpaper, which I found terribly distracting.

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Since Sadie’s dad isn’t exactly comfortable with computers, I wanted to make things as easy to use as possible. I cleared off most of the unnecessary icons and only left ones that he’d possibly use. I also made sure they had proper descriptions, like “Internet.” Even navigating the “Puppy Menu” would probably be too much for him. I really wanted to fix things so he’d be able to do everything right from the desktop icons. After organizing and cleaning up the icons and giving the desktop a new wallpaper, things started to look much better. I even looked up how to write a quick “shutdown script” so that I could put a “Shutdown” icon on the desktop. This actually took the most work of anything because I kept doing it wrong, and it would freeze the computer. All-in-all though, I think it turned out very nice.

This just demonstrates one of the great powers of Linux on the desktop. You can use it on everything, from powerful servers and supercomputers to hardware that’s close to 10 years old. You can use it breathe life back into a machine that you stopped using long ago because it wouldn’t work with the next version of Windows. Plus, it’s free! Do you have an old machine lying around that you could use for something? If it’s somewhat modern hardware, try Ubuntu. It’s the best Linux distro out there. If it’s older hardware, I can now recommend Puppy Linux as long as you’re somewhat familiar with Linux. Either way, why not give Linux a try on it, and let that hardware achieve its full potential!

Vampire Weekend Review

I discovered the band Vampire Weekend on The Hype Machine Zeitgeist 2008, where their self-titled album came in as the #3 album of the year according to hundreds of music bloggers. I sat down and listened to it all the way through using their lovely built-in player, and I found myself pleasantly surprised. Even though Chris from Flickin’ Spit thinks the album is all buzz, I missed out on any “buzz.”

Vampire Weekend - Vampire WeekendI loved the musicality of the entire album. They combine a cornucopia of instruments including a kettle drum, harpsichord, and a violin if my ears don’t deceive me. I will say that despite listening to it a number of times, the lyrics haven’t stuck with me as being terribly insightful. That doesn’t mean that they’re not, just that they haven’t caught my attention. Still, the musical quality of the album is fantastic. Notable songs for me included A-Punk, M79, Walcott, and The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance. It’s always nice to find a new band to listen to, and I especially like Vampire Weekend. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them in the future. Thanks to The Hype Machine!

You can purchase the CD or MP3 Album from Amazon.

4/5

The Hype Machine rocks my world

I recently discovered The Hype Machine when browsing Ryan’s Smashing Life. I didn’t exactly understand what it was at first, but it’s actually really cool.

So people have these music blogs all over the Internet. They review albums and usually post free promotional mp3s in their reviews. Record labels give out these promotional downloads to spread the word about a new album or band. The Hype Machine catalogs and organizes all these music reviews from the best music blogs for your viewing pleasure. They also have an awesome built-in music player (by imeem) that allows you to listen to the attached mp3s directly from The Hype Machine. Users can mark tracks as a “favorite”, and you can view the “favorite” count for all the tracks.

Now if that was all The Hype Machine offered, it would be interesting, but only moderately useful. Fortunately, there are a bunch of other incredibly cool sections of the website. The “Latest” section is the first section you’ll encounter. It contains the latest posts in the music blogosphere. The “Popular” section contains the most popular music on the site from the past 3 days, either by “favorites” or by play count. The “Radio” section contains a non-stop radio stream of the most popular and recent music. Put it on, and you’re sure to have some fresh tunes to listen to non-stop. You can even plug this into your favorite music player as an online radio station. The “Spy” section lets you spy on what the most users are currently listening to on The Hype Machine. There’s also a “Dashboard” section that lets you customize your experience with The Hype Machine.

Surfing through all that music might seem a bit overwhelming. Even though it’s fairly easy to navigate, finding good new music on there could be challenging, especially for a new user. Thus my favorite section of The Hype Machine is the “Zeitgeist.” At the end of every year, they catalog the most popular music from that year and give you the top 50 artists, albums, and songs. The really cool part, as I read about on ReadWriteWeb, is the Top 50 Albums section. For the 2008 Zeitgeist, The Hype Machine partnered with the folks at imeem and musebin (which creates one-line reviews of every album on The Hype Machine). They pulled some freely distributable, Creative Commons licensed photos of the bands from Flickr and made awesome spreads for each album. Plus with the help of imeem, the full albums are available to listen to for free. I was really intrigued by this. I had already bought the #1 album a few weeks ago, but I really enjoyed the #3 album by a group called Vampire Weekend. I liked it so much that I ended up buying it a few days later (using their referral link directly to Amazon MP3).

If you’re grooving on The Hype Machine, I figured out another cool feature for people using Firefox and other modern browsers. Mozilla’s Mycroft Project, which implements OpenSearch, will let you add an entry for The Hype Machine to your Firefox search bar. Furthermore, if you go to the “Manage Search Engines” section at the bottom of the search engine drop-down menu, you can highlight The Hype Machine entry and edit its keyword to something like hype. Now if you want to quickly search for some music by The Submarines, you can simply type hype the submarines in your Firefox address bar (awesome bar). That’s a pretty awesome and quick way to find new music!

If you’d like to know more about the blogs that are syndicated by The Hype Machine, you can check out their blog post at the Machine Shop blog on the matter. There are literally thousands of music blogs that are syndicated on The Hype Machine. I’ve also found that their musical taste also varies quite a bit, including some pretty interesting jazz and blues. No need to worry that it’s all weird indie rock, although there is quite a bit of that.

So, what are you waiting for?! Go find some new music on The Hype Machine!