Revising the entertainment center..

Due to a string of unfortunate decisions, I am a reluctant homeowner. Since buying the house I’ve either been too low on funds or too adamant to sell it to bother with any “remodeling”. Recently I decided that I ought to go ahead and make it my own since I’m likely going to be stuck with it for some time. I have started this process by setting out to remodel the living room, making it more comfortable for me. In the coming month I’ll be covering up the gaudy wallpaper with a new coat of paint, and installing new lighting and curtains, but the first step was ditching the kitchy wal-mart entertainment center that’s been there for 7 or 8 years, and replacing it with something a little more my speed.

I’ve had an old RCA console stereo in my basement for years that I purchased with the intent of converting to a stealthy, modern entertainment center. It was the foundation of this project. My brother gave me an old TV of his years ago, which I think came out of a dumpster. It served me well, but there is no place for it in the console stereo, so it had to be replaced. After courting a couple of LCD tvs on craigslist, I ended up grabbing a newegg.com special Corion/Digital Lifestyles 42″ LCD. It was larger than I’d originally set out to buy, but the price was really too good to pass up. I also got a Rosewill wall mount from newegg. The TV is pretty nice. reviews on newegg seem to go both directions, but my particular TV has a great picture, and has given me no problems. I even contacted their tech support to get some information that wasn’t included in the manual and had my e-mail returned in a couple of hours.. at 7p on a Sunday no less!

The next step was assembling a home theater PC. At the onset of this project, I had planned to incorporate many source devices inside the console stereo, routed through a receiver and controlled by the computer via IR blasters. As I pieced together the configuration for my HTPC, I realized that I could make the computer do almost everything I need in the box. (save for the PS2) So, I ended up going with an ASUS barebones system with a 2G dual Allendale core proc. The ASUS was an awesome purchase – not only did it _exactly_ fit an existing knockout in the console stereo, the case is super operable and the integrated media connections were just where I wanted them too. It looks nice, works well, and with the newegg rebate, was really affordable. I got another rebate on 4G of quick memory too. The HTPC was finished off with a SATA hard drive and SATA DVD-rom, and an ATI TV Wonder 650 tuner card that I picked up on ebay. I’m currently using the on board video, and it works great. I may upgrade it pending future tuner card options. The ATI 650 was really the only boner of the project – the ATI catalyst drivers for XP are just plain inoperable. For this reason, I am running Vista Ultimate with the TV pack. The catalyst drivers are much better there. Compared to my old Hauppauge PVR-150 card, the analog tuning is pretty good, however, the interlacing is not awesome on a 42″ display. The HD tuning of the ATI, while functional, seems taxing on the hardware. I am considering dropping in the AverTV PCI-e combo card alongside the ATI to handle HD and let the ATI just do analog.. Or I may ditch the ATI altogether.

I had the TV on the wall and ran the HTPC for a month or so, tweaking it out and getting MCE happy. (I even installed a netflix “watch instantly” program that operates entirely in the MCE interface) It was time to hack up the console stereo. My inital modification plans were minimal. One side of the stereo was dead when I got it, and I was hopeful that it might be as simple as a blown speaker so I could use the existing amplifier. ..and it was, but the more work I did, the more crazy ideas I got. I think at the most complex, the console would hold the HTPC, D/A converter, a trio of homebrew amplifiers, a turntable, the PS2, reworked speakers based on Zaphs budget MTM plans, and a subwoofer. after getting through 95% of the woodwork and realizing the time I’d have to put in for the rest of that stuff, I decided to scale back and just hit the functional points for now, and revisit the others later. The woodwork was pretty basic, but since I was adapting an existing piece, everything had to be trimmed to fit. the Speaker compartments were sealed, a shelf was made for the HTPC and an access panel was cut for cabling. I’m going to leave it this way for a while, and re-think the speaker upgrade. I will probably still go with the Dayton woofers, but I think I’d be making a mistake by using a wave guide style tweeter in this console stereo. I think I am going to build a pair to his plans for my listening room though. Since space for a turntable is limited, I am going to hold off unless one of those 14×14 Denon’s makes itself available to me, or I find a good deal on a plinth mount setup.

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The state of music?

I fully admit that I am out of the loop with regards to current pop music. At some point things seemed to spin out of my realm of comprehension. This is really odd, because music hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, and neither has the media’s handling of music. (with a couple of exceptions)

I think the most significant change that has happened in my lifetime is the integration of so-called “urban” styles into the media-hyped mainstream. It’s cool because although a lot of the music is kind of copy-cat and repetitive, there seems to be a lot of freedom allowed in some of these styles. One of the most practical demonstrations of this in my opinion is the latest Beyonce Knowles record, I am… Sasha Fierce. Mind you, I’m not particularly a Beyonce fan, or even a fan of the style of music, but after catching her performance on SNL, I was intrigued. The first tracks of each disc in the set were really interesting. The first, If I were a boy, was interesting to me because of the live performance. It’s a slow, ballad-y type thing, and on recording, not terribly interesting. Live however, Beyonce is going with a “rock band” setup, with drums, guitar, bass and keys. More importantly, she seemed to perform (during this song) like she was fronting a rock band. She really seemed to be rocking out – It seemed somewhat cathartic and even at times kind of awkward, but my personal belief is that kind of awkwardness is a part of the ethos of rock music. It seems like this absorption of elements of rock might be a trend, especially with more hip hop artists like Kanye and T-pain using sung vocals a lot more often because of the popularity of vocoding/autotuning. (but that’s another post in itself)

The 1 track of the second disc is Single Ladies, which is a just plain weird song when you look at all of it’s individual parts. It’s pretty much just a rhythm with some samples over it and then the really repetitive vocals, but it works somehow. It’s got more emotional content than some of the other similar dance songs I’ve heard.

The rest of the album is more common fare, but I really got into those two tracks a lot.

On the other end of the spectrum, the bland, cookie cutter pop is still kicking. Brittney Spears has a new record, and I was really hopeful when I saw the video for the first single, Womanizer. I hoped that maybe the pop tart had returned from the brink of paparazzi fueled, post partum nut-bar status with a clear head with this (assumed) stab at an ex, but it panned out to be just another crappy song written by a random production team. Spears is such a train wreck. There is enough of her that’s small-town-girl to make you like her and hope she will become normal, but it seems like the child-star damage runs too deep. (by the same token, I have to give her former boyfriend Justin Timberlake a lot of respect for not only avoiding being a douche, but being so level headed and maintaining a really good sense of humor.. in the public’s view at least)

So here I’ve been rambling about pop-starlets.. Music that I’m fairly averse to. Why? These things seem kind of relevant to me as a study of media effects, and more specifically their role in the new pecking order of musical taste making and delivery, and a lesser extent, the evolution of music creation. We’re still speculating about the fall of the majors and the rise in importance of the “long tail“. I’m not going to speculate on the future of music, because it’s really too fluid right now to say. I have much more hope for the future of creative music now than I did years ago though. Technology has brought the ability to make and deliver music to people who don’t know/want to avoid the rules. I’m too set in my ways and shortsighted to be much a part of that new movement, but I’m glad to watch it happen.

I often feel that my time as a member of pop culture society is over. I heard about the launch of the mtvmusic.com site and was really excited. A collection of just music videos had a certain feel reminiscent of the days when Mtv only played music. I picked up right where I left off when the channel jumped the shark, looking up some of the ridiculous videos that amused me around that time – the jerseey rap-rock of progenitors of the genre, Brougham.. the failed frat rap of Bad Ronald, and then went after some of the vids that were introduced to the world by Beavis and Butthead. (sadly, I couldn’t find any Plantman) As cool as all this was to me, I don’t even think the site was a blip on the radar of today’s culture consumers.

The so-called space age gets a little closer.

Every time I hear news about civilian space programs, I get kind of excited. Today I saw that New Mexico’s “Spaceport America” was granted an FAA license. I think what is so fascinating to me about all this is that most of American society doesn’t seem to care. I don’t know if it’s that actual space travel is an unbelievable proposition, or if people are waiting for jetsons style, glass bubble cars before it seems real. It is very real though. it’s just a matter of money – it’s really expensive to put something into space, but when you think about all the dumb stuff that people spend ridiculous money on (oil?) it’s not that far a stretch. So now we have viable tourist vehicles, a launch terminal, and a working model of a space hotel.

I just hope the whole recession/depression thing doesn’t kill this.

An update on Macys.com’s awful shipping.

In my last entry I wrote about the terrible packing and consequent broken item from my Macys.com order. Just thought I’d post a little update..

I called Macy’s customer service number after getting the broken goods, and explained that the packing was insufficient and the product broke. The service person was extremely nice and said that they would send me out a replacement item. I asked if she could put a note on the order to add extra packing material, and she said she did.

A week later, a new package shows up on my porch. This time its in a _plastic bag_. I open the bag to find the same, really thin, single sheet of bubble wrap that didn’t keep things from breaking the first time in the cardboard box. This time the ceramic dish that the soaps came in was broken in several pieces and again, there was soap all over everything. The shipping slip said “premium shipping” or somesuch.

I again called customer service and talked to another really nice lady who asked if I wanted another replacement. I declined but said I just wanted to get the complaint in.

Moral of the story, don’t order anything fragile from macys.com. I commend their customer service department for being awesome, but shipping needs a lot of help.

my holiday crap list.

I’ve had a lot of good shopping experiences lately, so this one kind of caught me off guard.. I ordered a gift for my Mom from Macy’s online, since it wasn’t available at the local store, and incurred an extra $6 of shipping in the process. That much I don’t mind, but when the package showed up, the item was incompletely wrapped in one very thin sheet of bubble wrap and placed in a huge box with no other packing materials. Needless to say, the item was broken, and in this case, leaked all over itself.

I’m going to call today to see how they intend on fixing this, but really there is no excuse for packing this poor. Is the economy driving up the price of foam peanuts or what?

Unlimited sushi rolls?

I am somewhat apologetic that my food bloggings have drifted towards the local lately, but I must admit that not much in the realm of fast food chains has really interested me much lately.

So anyway, another local item of interest – the Bluefin Bistro in downtown Lafayette has been doing unlimited sushi rolls for lunch the past couple of weeks. At a $7.95 buy-in, I had to give it a shot. I’ll save an overall review for another time after I’ve had a regular meal there, but for the purposes of this post, I will say that the place is still pretty nice, albeit pretty empty. The wait staff was helpful and not annoying, and the food was more than I’d expect for $8 all you can eat.

That said, the sushi wasn’t _awesome_; merely good. I suspect the lunch special changes things a little, but overall, the rice was a little more dry than I prefer, and the rolls contents were a little skimpy. The special menu consisted of pretty much the standards, with the biggest outlier being the Bistro roll which was asparagus tempura. The rest of the regular menu was somewhat adventurous.

Regardless of the quality, the value is pretty darned good. I recommend checking it out, and I’ll definitely be going back to try their full menu.

Bluefin Bistro Lunch Special – 8/10