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Concept Albums — A Lost Art?

It seems that I always come in at the end of trends, especially when it comes to music.

My latest “discovery” has been then progressive metal band Kamelot.  I stumbled upon them from a track called Moonlight that came up in my Pandora station one day.  The accompanying blurb indicated that their style of music was similar to that of Dream Theater, another group of the genre and one that I have a couple CDs of already and have even seen in concert once.  So, I decided to give Kamelot a try.

What impressed me early was the range of the lead singer, Roy Khan‘s voice.  I later learned, through the wonders of Google and Wikipedia, that he had three year’s of formal training in opera.  Opera, for a metal band’s lead?  Egad!  I also learned that Kamelot had put together a few concept albums — ones that have a theme throughout or tell a story through song, one track after the other.

I like concept albums.  To me, any band can make songs, but it takes a more creative talent to produce a concept album.  And here is where I come in at the end of trends.

Most bands just don’t do concept albums anymore.  It’s a lost art.  In the past, though, well that’s a different story.

My first introduction to concept albums was Styx’s Kilroy Was Here.  This one I did catch in concert, but at the time it was a marketing dud.  What I didn’t know was that the idea of concept albums had been going on for years!

Most from my generation would immediately point to Pink Floyd’s The Wall as one of the greatest concept albums ever, and to a great extent they would be right (perhaps a step or two behind The Who’s Tommy).  But there are others that I have since found and still enjoy.

Rush’s 2112, although not a concept that spans an entire album, is a classic in and of itself.  Produced well in my early youth (and before I listened to anything not defined as pop at the time — hey, it was a musically sheltered childhood), it wasn’t until my high school years that I heard it which was a good ten years or so after its inception.

And I wanted more.

During college, Queensrÿche hit the mainstream with their album Empire and the smash hit single Silent Lucidity.  I couldn’t stand that track as the radio stations saturated the airwaves with it; however, I had turned a corner and found a harder, more rocking style of music quite beyond that of Rush and the more mainstream “rock”.  But I missed Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime tour that featured their cornerstone concept album of the same name.

The not-yet-at-the-time Mrs. Kharmin introduced me to Queensrÿche as well as another concept album composing act: Iron Maiden.  Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son concept album was again, something that I had missed (although they played much of it in concert this summer when we saw them!).

So, it was with great enthusiasm that I dove into Kamelot and their back-to-back concept albums, Epica and The Black Halo.  Then, I read that they would be touring in the US this autumn and not too far from me that I couldn’t drive to see them.  But… their lead singer, after much personal reflection, had decided to quit the band.

I was deflated.  The lead singer is the voice of the band.  Sure, they have their own distinct sound and style, but the thing that really hits you is the singer because he is the one belting out the lyrics and telling the stories in the songs with his inflections and emotions.

So, once again, I am late.  I will miss out on hearing my current favorite group, intact, as I have heard them on their albums.

© 2012 – 2013, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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Yesterday’s Heroes

So, I was taking my daughter to school this morning, and as I pulled my truck out into traffic, I called out, “Up, up and awaaayyyy!” to which she replied with, “To infinity — and beyond!”

What?

I asked her where that came from, and in her typical, smart seven-year old way she told me that it was from the movie Toy Story. When quizzed as to whom the toy was who said it, she knew that it was Buzz Lightyear.

Wanna see me pull a rabbit out of my hat?

It got me thinking of my childhood and things that I recalled. I was a bit too young to remember watching the Lone Ranger on TV, but I do remember Cisco Kid. I used to put my saddle blanket on the bar stool and use the chair back as the reins as my brother and I rode along with the Kid and his trusty side-kick Pancho. Being the younger child, I was always relegated to the lesser role, but in those days I don’t remember that it mattered. All that concerned me was that I was part of the story, no matter how far removed from it.

Kids these days have it so easy! Cartoons 24×7, even on their own channels, and if that won’t sate, then there is video on demand, YouTube, Netflix and DVDs (like who uses VHS cassettes anymore? They are so 1980!). I remember Saturday morning cartoons from 8am to 11am, and that was it. If you were really lucky, there was the rare occasion of a Disney movie on Sunday night, and that was if you behaved enough to stay up past your bedtime to watch it. There were the annual holiday shows like the Rankin-Bass Christmas trilogy and the Charlie Brown Christmas special, but if you missed them then too bad — you had to wait another whole year.

But I digress.

When looking at the television heroes of yesterday, I remember Cisco Kid and Pancho. For cartoons, there were the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, the Looney Toons hour, Hanna-Barbera and Deputy Dawg. We emulated the Super Friends as they stood for truth, justice and the American way from their Hall of Justice! Who do the kids have to look up to today? Spongebob. Egad!

When you look around today and wonder what happened to America and why we are the lesser shining jewel on the hill that we once were, look to what influences today’s youth and the idols from where they build their moral character. Like me, I’m sure you’ll soon yearn for the heroes of yesterday.

© 2012, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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Wizard 101

Ok, so my latest addiction is a kids’ game. So sue me.

Actually, my wife set up our daughter with an account at Wizard101 and both Mrs. Kharmin and I decided to create our own accounts so that we could all play the game together. It has since taken over.

Wizard101 is a free-to-play online multi-player game, meaning that you can just create an account and go. However, to unlock the more advanced content requires some investment and depending on how much real cash you wish to spend, you can gain access to various levels and whatnot.

Basically, your character is a student at Wizard school. You have your own dorm room which you can decorate with a variety of things that you get as rewards from completing quests. You have instructors to teach you skills and they maintain a consistent storyline for you to follow.

Someone cast a Firecat spell!

In Wizard101, your character obtains assorted quests from the computer characters throughout the game. While achieving your goals, you do arcane combat with the evil denizens who walk about everywhere. Here is where my interest was piqued: combat is done with using a deck of virtual cards which represent creatures or other buffs/de-buffs that your character must decide and cast. This is very much like Magic: The Gathering, which Mrs. Kharmin and I were into several years ago.

There is a fair amount of strategy involved with choosing what to use in combat as some of the opponents are resistant to certain types of spells (fire, ice, etc). Battles can be with up to four players versus four opponents and many times the players cooperate to take out a particular foe or to increase the defenses of another player. There is an arena for player versus player challenges, but that’s paid content and not something that appeals to us.

In the game, you can obtain a pet (and train it, too!), different outfits that you can dye in unique colors and mystical mounts that you can ride. I saw one guy zipping around on a flying carpet!

The game is rated E for Everyone 10 years and older. Our daughter is younger, but we feel comfortable enough with what we’ve seen to allow her to play under the restrictions that we can set with the built-in parental controls. And for those of us over 40 (egad!), it’s entertaining enough especially when following your own kid on his/her adventures.

© 2012, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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Whisky Whisky Everywhere

I am by no means an expert on single malt whisky*. I have never claimed to be an aficionado of scotch. However, over the past several years, I have become a huge fan.

What started from a tentative fancy has blossomed into a full appreciation of different single malt scotches based on the location of the distillery and the barrels in which it matures. Islay, Highland, Campbelton, Speyside, Lowland and Island whiskys all have their own distinct characteristics, from honey-sweetened to peat-smoke laden and all flavors in between. Some have fruity hints while others leech out the tannins from the wine that had been casked in the barrel prior to being sold to the distillery for whisky maturation.

People often ask me, “How can you drink that stuff?” As in all things, one should sample a wide variety. I can almost guarantee that you will find a distillery or region of scotch that suits your palate! The trick is to start slow and work with someone with at least a modicum of whisky knowledge who can point you down the path of your preferences.

Still my favorite!

I started on my journey with a scotch-tasting and a friend’s house. Along with a mutual third-party, we had purchased a sampler box of single malt and made an afternoon of it. We had some literature (since none of use had that requisite modicum of whisky knowledge) which gave us some ideas of what to expect with each sample. We tried them, one at a time, made our own notes of observation and then shared those with each other. It was quite interesting to see the differences in opinions! To this day, one of my friends is still a big fan of Islay (pronounced EYE-lah) scotches, which are usually are stronger in peat than I prefer.

Drinking quality single malt scotch is an acquired taste. It is also an expensive hobby. I often tell folks that I don’t have many vices, but the few that I do have aren’t cheap. Single malt scotch is one of those vices. I have a profile over at connosr.com which lists my current shelf of whisky, those expressions I’ve tried as well as a wish list. Not all of the ones I’ve sampled have been purchases — the advantage of having a friend who enjoys sharing a dram or two from his own shelf!

So what really brought me to write this post? Well, it’s this: after these past few years of sampling and enjoying many different single malt scotch whiskys, I still have much to learn. Like I said, I am no aficionado.

The lesson learned last night was not to follow a dram of Compass Box’s The Spice Tree with a cask strength Aberlour A’bundah (batch 38). When sampling multiple distillers, it is a good idea to cleanse your palate between them. I should have known better, but I was too excited to dive into a newly purchased bottle. The stark contrast between the ginger spice in the Compass Box expression and the stinging bite of the 60.3% A’bundah made my eyes water! Don’t get me wrong: both expressions are terrific, just not one right behind the other.

It has been a fun ride thus far, as I have virtually traveled all over Scotland by way of the various distilleries I have sampled. My favorite is still the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (a Highland whisky), although I am finding some interesting scotches in the Speyside region. I will sometimes enjoy an Islay, but usually when I’m really in the mood for that peaty (smoky) flavor like having a dram around a campfire at night in the summer while looking at the stars and enjoying the pleasant company of friends.

I hope that someday, dear reader, that you can enjoy a dram or two with me as well.

*To be called a “whisky” (without an ‘e’), the scotch must be distilled in Scotland. If it is made anywhere else in the world, then it is not a whisky, but a whiskey.

© 2012, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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Kharmin’s Got Rhythm

I’ve got rhythm, I’ve got music, I’ve got dancing, who could ask for anything more? Actually, I have neither dancing nor rhythm, but with the receipt of my replacement, refurbished iPod I once again have music.

The past week of commercial radio (or the alternative – silence) during my daily commute has been just this side of hell. I cannot imagine how these stations stay in business. Each hour was dominated by at least 45 minutes of advertising and/or disc jockey banter, or so it seemed. How spoiled I’ve become!

I even tried to listen to Pandora on my Droid, despite the multiple losses of signal on my smartphone as I trekked over hill and dale on my drive to and from work. Some days I fared better than others, but I probably averaged 8-10 songs during my hour commute.

At last, I have an iPod in the truck again. Thanks to who shipped it to me faster than it was estimated. For a mere $117, I got a fully functional, refurbished 5th Generation iPod — 60GB just like my dead one. Ocean Reef has a 30 day warranty, which made me more confident in my purchase (most other refurb places only offered 14 days). It arrived packaged well and was in a condition exactly as advertised.

Now, I begin the long, arduous task of loading my music and movies back onto the iPod. Of course, I didn’t have a recent archive of my iPod brick, so I’ve had to start from scratch. Lesson learned — when I’m done, I will make a backup.

Anyway, it has been very refreshing to once again have control of what I listen to in the truck. Thanks, again, Ocean Reef for making my return to sanity affordable.

© 2012, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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Electric Personality

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook already know that my 5th Gen iPod finally conked out.  I’ve had that for … gosh, I can’t remember how long.  It’s been with me almost everywhere including trips to Seattle, WA, Ontario, CA, Phoenix, AZ, Disneyworld and the shores of North Carolina, not to mention my daily commute and other, more local excursions.

My iPod died on the way home from my last trip to Phoenix, which rendered the plane ride much more entertaining since I was forced to deal with the background buzz of the other passengers.  You know, there are certain topics which shouldn’t be discussed on an airplane, folks!

Alpine iDA-X100 from crutchfield.com

The silence in the morning is deafening, to coin a phrase.  I hear every rattle, hum and squeak that my truck makes while driving to and from work.  I hate it.

I would try the radio, but we already know where that got me.  So, I’m stuck.  I am probably going to buy a refurbished iPod since the newer models don’t work with the Alpine iDA-X100 radio that I installed in the truck a few years ago.

Then, last night, Mrs. Kharmin and I were going to enjoy some microwave popcorn and settle down to an episode or two of Farscape on Netflix.  As the popcorn was just getting started, and I was firing up the Wii to access Netflix, the microwave started giving off a loud buzzing noise.  I looked across the room and sparks were arcing all over inside the microwave.

Pilot! Save the microwave!

I ran across the room and quickly shut it off.  When I opened the door, a mixture of popcorn and electrical ozone odors wafted out.  Not trusting the microwave any further, I unplugged it and with much sadness informed Mrs. Kharmin of the unit’s demise.

This microwave had been given to us as a wedding gift almost 20 years ago.  It had lasted through our apartment, townhouse and our single family home.  It replaced the kitchen microwave a few years ago when that one gave up the proverbial ghost.  It has been a staple of our lives in that it has been with us from the beginning where few things in our house have.

Two electronic devices, that I touched last, died.  Perhaps there is some weird electro-magnetic field surrounding me that I encountered while in the air en route to Arizona?  Or maybe it’s just my electric personality?

I hope for the latter.

© 2012, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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Traveling Again

“Here we go again.” In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the goldenrod droid C-3PO, who hates space travel, resigns himself to his fate aboard the Millennium Falcon. And so it was with me, resigned to my fate to travel to Phoenix, Arizona for work in our data center. It’s not that I hate space travel; having never really tried it, I couldn’t honestly say. But airline travel? That’s a droid of a different color.

Departing from home, I skated through the TSA’s modest security checkpoint and arrived at my gate. For those who haven’t traveled Southwest Airlines, they have a rather unique way of seating: you get your seat assignment when you get your boarding pass. The later you get your pass, the later you board the plane which leaves you with the most undesirable seats. I learned this lesson from my previous excursion to the data center: you can check in and print your own boarding pass online 24 hours prior to departure. This time, I fared much better in my seat selection.

My breakfast with an 11.5oz can? How cheap is that? I want my .5 oz!

The trip had one stop where I didn’t have to change planes. While on the ground, and before the next herd of passengers stampeded the aisle, we who were continuing our flight were allowed to re-seat ourselves. Score! As there were only 11 of us, we had a plethora of choices.

Unfortunately for me, once the next group boarded, I ended up next to the guy who was … well, not grossly overweight, but was broad enough to crunch me into the corner of the window seat.

For the next 4½ hours.

Touchdown in Phoenix, my co-worker picked me up and whisked me to the hotel. A quick shower, and a small dram of Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban later, I was off to meet with the rest of the team to plan our assault on the data center.

Since the servers were “live” servers, we had to wait until after 10pm local time before our work could commence. We finished around 3:30am. I had literally been up for 24 hours at this point.

We were allowed to sleep late the next day, but being from the east coast I was up early. I enjoyed breakfast at the hotel and then a company-sponsored brunch (which was essentially a second breakfast for me) and then it was back to the data center.

I don’t want to bore you with the details, so I’ll jump ahead to the travel part, which is really what this is all about (or aboot, for you Canadians reading this, eh?).

Before: What a mess After: Much nicer!

I arrived at the Phoenix airport with just enough time to get through security (TSA got me this time – had to go through the dreaded back-scatter x-ray machine and was briefly searched along my left arm where my digital watch was concealed beneath the long sleeve of my shirt. No “body cavity” search, though, thank goodness!) and find my gate. It was fifteen minutes to boarding, which was not enough time for me to find anything to eat.

We boarded and pushed away from the gate. After sitting in the taxi-way for quite a while, my seat-mate next to the window saw some smoke from the wing. He, and the guy behind him, discussed whether or not that was normal. Then, a moment later, the captain informed us that we had lost some hydraulics and that he was unable to steer the plane while it was on the ground. A tow-car-thingy was on its way to drag us back to the terminal.

We later learned that we had lost an actuator seal in a piece of equipment that caused the A-Hydraulic pressure to drop. I was glad that it happened on the ground!

Luckily, Southwest had another plane into which they were able to migrate all of us travelers. Many of the passengers had already missed their connections, and Southwest had arranged alternative routes for them on other planes. The rest of us boarded and were away from the gate with much haste.

Free 120z cans!
They broke this thingy.

In all, we lost 1½ hours on the ground.

Soon, though, we were “wheels up” and on our way! Exhausted from much work, and too little sleep, I was happy to finally be heading home. In my opinion, Southwest handled the problem with much efficiency and professionalism – I was quite impressed. I got free beer on the flight (hooray, beer! That one’s for you, Rick) and a quiet seat mate who only wanted to sleep.

Which, to me, sounded like a terrific idea!

© 2012, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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A Drop? Are You Kidding Me?

Channeling my inner Mora, I completely felt the same disbelief he had in 2001 when questioned about his team’s chances of making the NFL playoffs:

“Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs?”

For two weeks, I wrangled with Comcast after losing our service. The first (of many!) technician claimed that our “drop” — the line from the top of our driveway to the house — was bad and that we needed a new one. The drop would need to be ordered, so he filled out the paperwork with Mrs. Kharmin (since I was at the office) and left.

Unknown to the tech, we had already had a second drop made a few years earlier which was never connected. When I got home and saw the drop order, I called and canceled it. I requested that someone simply come out and hook up the existing secondary drop. This was on Thursday night and the earliest appointment was Monday.

Come Monday, I am again at work and Mrs. Kharmin at home. A different tech came out, surveyed the drop where it came down the driveway to a “pedestal” (those plastic obelisks you see in everyone’s yard) and informed Mrs. Kharmin that he could not use it as there were no wires. A phone call was made to me, and I spoke with the guy and told him that there had to be wires as someone tore up my yard to make that drop. He was insistent: no wires, no service. I asked him to do nothing and that I would contact a supervisor when I got home from work.

Monday evening after work, I opened the pedestal and lo! — therein I found two wires: one fat wire leading up toward the end of the driveway, and one thin wire leading toward the house. No wires indeed! There were two! I then called and spoke with a Customer Service Representative (CSR) who informed me that my account was showing a drop as scheduled to be made. A drop? No, I canceled that, I told her, and if it wasn’t then I asked her to please do so now. I then detailed the events thus far and asked to have someone come out on a day where I’d be home and could show them exactly what was what. An appointment was set up for Friday.

Friday, the appointment time passed and no technician had arrived. I called and spoke with a CSR to find out where my tech was and was told that no technician had been scheduled; rather a drop was ordered and until that happened no technician would be coming. A drop? Wait… didn’t I cancel that already? I canceled it again and asked to speak with a supervisor. The supervisor was unavailable (a common theme throughout this entire event) and would call me back “soon.”

As I waited for the call that never came, a contractor arrived and had begun to pace out the distance for a drop in my yard. I ran out and told him about the situation and that his service would not be required pending my conversation with the Comcast supervisor.

Saturday, I called again. Different CSR; same story. No information about a request for a supervisor call. No, instead they showed that I was being scheduled for a drop. Are you kidding me? A drop? Enough with the drop!! I canceled it, now for the third time. I implored the CSR to schedule someone, anyone, I didn’t care who to come out and have us physically show them what we had. They schedule a technician for Tuesday, and I coordinated with Mrs. Kharmin as she would be home that day. I showed her the wires in the pedestal and where they terminated and under no circumstances was a drop to be scheduled!

Sunday, we arrived home from church to find a Miss Utililty contractor spray painting lines in my grass. When asked, he told me that he was marking for the drop that Comcast had scheduled. Sigh.

Back on the phone, I was told by the CSR that no drop was scheduled. The Miss Utility contractor had been scheduled some time ago and had never been canceled. I was told not to worry and that come Tuesday, things would be straight.

Tuesday’s technician was shown the ropes by Mrs. Kharmin. He pulled the existing line from the ground by the house, hooked up his tester and determined that somewhere in the 300+ foot line it had been over-saturated with water and was no longer functional. We needed a new drop. Mrs. Kharmin interjected and asked that the secondary drop already in place be used. The technician told her that he didn’t know anything about that secondary drop and that it wasn’t activated so he couldn’t use it. He would have to have someone from the construction division come out and make a determination on that other line.

That night, I finally spoke with a supervisor. After canceling the drop he saw on our account (what’s this… five times I’ve canceled it now?), he listened attentively to our story and agreed with me that we needed someone else to come out and make a call on our secondary drop. In the meantime, he was going to schedule someone (at my request) to run a temporary line across our lawn just so that we could get service. They’d have someone out on Thursday.

My kingdom for some cable!

Wednesday night, I get a call from the contractor who I had found pacing my yard a week earlier. He called because he had just received a drop order from Comcast for our location. He remembered our conversation from his prior visit, and decided he’d better call before coming back out and dredging up our yard. Thankfully, someone with insight! No, I told him, Comcast was sending out the right people (hopefully) and if it was decided that we had to have a third drop, then we’d have him run it. He’d call me the day after the Comcast visit to see what, if anything, he needed to do for us.

Thursday, one of the supervisors from the construction division arrived. I gave him the recap of everything you’ve read so far. He looked at the drop and commented, “I think I’m the one who installed this drop. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Geez. We looked in the pedestal and I showed him the wires (remember… the two wires that the technician told us weren’t there?). He said, “Oh, you just need a tap here.” A tap. What’s a tap? It is the thingy that connects the large, fat wire to the small, thin wire. He said that he’d check back at the office to verify that the drop could indeed be used and that he’d have someone out later that day.

Later, a technician shows up. I tell him what the construction guy said, and asked if he would at least run my temporary line to get me running. Full of great customer service, this technician was very accommodating. He unloaded a brand new spool and ran a line across my yard (the whole 300+ feet) and terminated both ends. He tested and connected it and waited for me to test my services to make sure that everything was working. Finally! WE HAVE CONNECTION!

Just as I was about to sign off on his work order, I noticed a Comcast bucket truck at the end of my driveway (right where we just placed the temporary line). We walked to the truck and found the drop technician (for lack of a better title?) was there and getting ready to install the tap.

The missing piece… a tap!

The two of them talked for about 40 seconds in Comcast-ese and it was decided that the first tech would wait for the second tech to install the tap. Once done, the first tech could finish the install from the tap to the house.

They were done in less than an hour.

Had Comcast sent someone more knowledgeable after the first confusing visit, we would not have had to cancel an un-necessary drop multiple times and spend countless time on the phone and taking days off of work. The entire episode was more than frustrating as you well may imagine.

So, that’s the story. Sorry for the delay in getting it to you, but as you can see there was a lot to tell.

© 2010, Kharmin's Small Piece of the 'Net. All rights reserved.

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