Friday, September 30, 2011

Electronic Purée

The music’s base line is the source that’s pumping the blood through the pulsating crowd around me. I look around and the crowds of thousands of people are jumping simultaneously like one giant organism. There is fire shooting out from the main stage and huge screens are showing images of a sea of people as a camera pans over them. My friends and I flew down from Boston to Miami in late March 2011 to go to Ultra Music Festival. We have all been to electronic shows and festivals before but nothing compared to this. Electronic music brought together over 50,000 people from all over the world for this ongoing three-day party.


These festivals are meant to bring people together from all different nations, backgrounds and ethnicities. Once the music starts you all become one and the music is there to make you feel blissful. The power behind each track is intoxicating enough that you really don’t need drugs to enhance your time at the show. You just need open ears and an open mind to enjoy the experience and energy that is raging all around you. Festivals like this happen all over the United States: Electric Zoo in New York City; Coachella in California and the Electric Daisy Carnival, which travels to five different states, are just a few festivals that go on every year.

A very common phrase among people who are not familiar with electronic music is “it all sounds the same.” This is true for recent pop songs that have the artist singing with an auto-tuned voice and pop electronic. Artists like Fergie, LMFAO, and Britney Spears auto-tune their voices and they are considered mainstream electronic music. These songs are fun to dance to, and extremely catchy.

Some of these songs can be so catchy that they are used in commercials on television. An example of this is LMFAOs song “Party Rock Anthem” featured in a Kia Soul car commercial. This commercial has little hipster hamsters roll in a Kia Soul into the middle of a war between all different kinds of robots. When the hamsters get out of the car they start to dance. The robots stop trying to destroy each other and they begin to dance in synchronization. I know this is commercial advertising for a car but an underlying message is that music can bring people together even if they are disputing over something.

Before I explain the different genres of electronic music (better known as Techno) one must understand what main aspects make a song. Melody is what identifies the song, the part of the song you find yourself humming. Harmony complements the melody. It is the same melody but in a different key or octave that plays in the background. Like percussion in a techno song, rhythm sets the pace and tempo. Rhythm is what your body moves to. You feel the rhythm when your feet start tapping to a song, then your hips start grooving, and pretty soon your whole body is moving.

Techno music can be broken down into many sub categories but the most popular are Trance, House, Dance and the fairly recent phenomenon of Dubstep music. Rhythm is the driving force of techno music and the melody sets the vibe and feeling of each individual track. Trance music is a bit slower than the rest of the genres and it is thought to alter a person’s state of consciousness. DJs would play three to four hour sets during a show using the same melody and this would put listeners into a “trance.” Artists like Armin Van Buuren and Paul Van Dyk are famous Trance DJs.


House music is the most popular of these genres because the beat is easy to dance to and incorporate in a pop song. House music usually has the bass line hit on every beat giving it a noticeable 1, 2, 3, 4, rhythm pattern. Your body can move easily to house music because the major keys are upbeat, easily identifiable, and consistent.

Dubstep is a fairly new sub-genre of electronic music. What makes Dubstep music unique is the heavy oscillating synthesizer. This gives Dubstep the “womp, womp, womp, womp” sound. Unlike house music with its 1,2,3,4-rhythm pattern Dubstep has a half time tempo every four beats. Dubstep has a more ominous beat to it. It is harder to dance to because the rhythm is slower. The melodies in Dubstep songs are played in a minor key setting making the vibe and mood of the song much darker than upbeat house songs.

A common misconception about techno music is that everyone that likes it is also an Ecstasy popping, Molly dipping rave craving addict. This is like saying that everyone who enjoys listening to reggae music is a pothead. Although this may be true for some people it is not a fact for all. Electronic shows can be so powerful that the music alone can take you on a journey. A multitude number of DJs support the organization Dance Safe. Dance Safe is an organization that promotes health and safety within the electronic music world. They are aware that many people do drugs during shows and on their website dancesafe.org they inform people of drug information and safety at shows, and they will address any question that you may have. This is a step in the right direction for the electronic music community. This organization helps educate the dance community to have fun at a show but in a healthy, harmless way.

Many DJs make their sets so unique that the only way you can truly enjoy the songs is if you see them in person. A huge part of electronic music is the experience that goes along with each song. DJs go above and beyond to make their show a once in a lifetime experience. A big difference between electronic music shows and other shows is that DJs don’t stop between songs and introduce them. Once a show starts a DJ doesn’t stop playing songs until the concert is over. This makes the concert, more than just a concert; it becomes an experience like reading a story. There is a rising action, climax, and a falling action during a show.

Although Electronic Music Festivals are all exciting to go to, the locations where they are held are not very convenient for people living in the Boston area. To get your fix of electronic music in Boston you have to keep an eye and an ear out for upcoming shows. Places like the Middle East in Central Square do Dubstep Tuesday nights. Royale Friday nights sometimes has a good DJ but they also have electronic concerts there with DJ’s like Steve Aoki, Tiesto, and David Guetta. The Ocean Club, even though they are only open during the summer, has reputable DJs and this past summer they had the famous DJ Avicii spinning house tracks there. The Ocean Club’s ambiance of palm trees and white cabanas can make you feel like your on a hot beach in downtown Miami instead of Quincy, Massachusetts. Club Rumor also has a room that’s dedicated to playing electronic music while in the next room over there is a DJ playing top forty hits. Although it is hard to find a DJ in Boston who doesn’t occasionally add in songs by Pitbull or Black Eyed Peas, the serious electronic music scene is becoming popular at a rapid pace.

One of the reasons that electronic music is becoming more popular is because it continues to change and morph and it keeps up with the fast pace changes of modern society. Electronic Music Festivals attract different kinds of people who are all looking to dance, party and feel the energy that this genre of music can provide. If you are still unsure about giving electronic music a chance, DJ Armin Van Buuren addresses you “I think dance music is a beautiful thing, it’s a great thing, and that’s what I want to show the world: dance music can really bring people together…its about going out, its about meeting people, having a great time with your friends. That’s what life is about. It’s not about bullshit or whatever. So I challenge people to come to my shows, see what happens, not to me, but to your friends, to all the people in the club.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Be-Gone Radon

Imagine Fenway Park in October. Playoff time. Packed to the gills, 37,000 fans. Now, for a moment, imagine yourself standing at homeplate staring back at those 37,000 faces. 37,000 different walks of life inextricably tied together, united as one. Now, imagine that in two years every single one of those people will have died, inextricably tied to the hands of fate. At the same time hope--pray, even-- that you, yourself, will not have succumbed to the very radioactive poison which has taken these lives.

Yes people, radon kills, and it kills tremendously. It takes the lives of roughly 21,000 people a year and does so by surreptitious intrusion. Radon, an odorless, tasteless, colorless, and radioactive element, found predominantly in soil, rock, and water, manifests largely in the basements of new and old homes alike. Similar to carbon monoxide, radon is both undetectable and equally fatal. 

Regina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator of Air and Radiation, informs us that “radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking in the United States.” McCarthy, University of Massachusetts Boston alumna, was appointed to the post by President Obama in 2009. She urges those buying homes, as well as those that already own, to check for radon. “Many people, simply, just don’t know about the threat and so, therefore, never address it. It’s very simple and cost effective to test for, and it literally can save your life.” 

So who knows about radon? Let’s check it out. Survey data compiled by the National Lung Cancer Partnership in 2011, shows that 88% of Americans are unaware that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Deductive reasoning, therefore, tells us that people are slowly dying in the luxury of their own homes due to a paucity of awareness. A much smaller survey, conducted solely for the benefit of this article, targeted fifty people: a mixed bag of homeowners, landlords, and tenants. The results were mind numbing. 90% of the people polled had never even heard of Radon. In fact, many even confused it with the insecticide Raid. If you are among this overwhelming, ill-informed majority: fear but do not irrationalize. McCarthy tells us while the threat of lung cancer is imminent, “it is not something that happens overnight.” McCarthy encourages solution.

A simple, cost-effective remedy is to test levels in your home by purchasing a radon test-kit. The National Radon Program Services, at Kansas State University, offer both short-term and long-term kits ranging from as little as $15 to as much as $25. These kits can be purchased online at www.sosrad.org and any information regarding radon can be learned by contacting the National Radon Program hotline at (800) 767-7236. Test-kits can also be found at department stores such as Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Ace Hardware.

When using a radon test-kit, the EPA recommends following these easy steps:

1) The test-kit should be placed in the lowest lived-in level of the home (for example, the basement if it is frequently used, otherwise the first floor).

2) It should be put in a room that is used regularly.

3) Place the kit at least twenty inches above the floor in a location where it won’t be disturbed (away from drafts, high heat, high humidity, and exterior walls). Leave the kit in place for as long as package says.

4) Once you’ve finished the test, reseal the package and send it to the lab specified on package right away for analysis. You should receive your test results within a few weeks.

A more detailed tutorial on how to operate these test-kits can be found at “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon” located on the EPA’s website: www.epa.gov. 

If the results of the test reflect a level equal to, or higher than, 4 picocuries per liter, the EPA recommends fixing your home. This can be done by installing a radon mitigation system through the services of a Radon Mitigation Contractor. These systems work by recycling radon out of the basement and into the outdoor atmosphere, a process known as “soil suction”. Mitigation system expenditures will vary on the climate you live in, the kind of reduction system you select, and how your home is built.

Andrew Kepple, of Medway, recently bought a house in which levels of radon were through the roof. He advises those buying houses to make sure the seller includes any testing and subsequent mitigation systems (if necessary) within the inspection of the home. In terms of the machine itself, Kepple says “It’s quiet, energy efficient, and not intrusive.” For those of you living as tenants, recall a time, if ever, your landlord tested for radon. Be inexorably firm in your stance to negotiate a radon test before signing a lease. 

Word of mouth, alone, is not sufficient enough to eliminate the threat radon poses. McCarthy and the EPA have teamed up with other federal agencies, including Departments of Health and Human Services, Energy, and the Housing and Urban Development, in order to “focus efforts on radon reduction and mitigation in homes, schools, and daycare facilities, as well as radon-resistant construction.” The Federal Action Plan, McCarthy’s brainchild, came into effect earlier this year. According to Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s Administrator, the plan seeks to address “radon-risk reduction, financial and incentive issues to drive testing and mitigation, and build demand for services from industry professionals.” Through this program, EPA estimates that 7.5 million homes, schools, and daycare facilities will be affected. As McCarthy tells us, “it’s all about awareness and this is a step in the right direction.”

So, what can you do to follow McCarthy’s lead and help heighten radon awareness? Talk about it. Be the voice. Everyday tell five people and make sure they tell another five. Make it a cultural movement. Through this awareness, we can proactively reduce radon exposure and eliminate it as a lethal threat. It starts today. Be-gone radon.


For any information regarding radon, radon test-kits and mitigation systems, please visit www.epa.gov

Weighing The Merits of Attendance Policies

“I'm a grown god damn man, for Christ's sake.” This is what Carlos Fonts, a twenty two year old English major at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, explained to me when I asked him about his feelings regarding mandatory attendance policies.

Here at Umass-Boston, every single professor creates some sort of attendance policy for the courses he or she teaches. Generally, the number of allowed absences ranges from two to five. Exceeding the allowed number of absences will usually result in automatic failure of the course. While it is easy to understand the need that professors have to quantify student participation in some way, such concrete attendance policies fall short as true and accurate indicators of commitment to and success in mastery of a subject.

There is no doubt that, if one attends every class, one is much more likely to have a more valuable learning experience than another person who is often absent. However, this is not always the case. Physical presence in class is not, as many students can attest to, necessarily a signifier of academic commitment, or even of basic mental engagement.

A student may attend every class, blessing his peers with their physical presence, while sticking his face into a computer screen, browsing Facebook and playing computer games all semester. This student may never speak unless called upon, and might not even bring his textbooks to class. However, there are often no clear-cut punishments for this sort of behavior. While I am certain professors take note of such things, and frequently reflect them in a student's final grade, there is rarely, if ever, the threat of automatic failure. Does a student who attends and actively participates in 80% of classes deserve to fail more than a student who attends 100% of classes, while actively participating in none of them?
Another thing to consider is the actual composition of a student's final grade in a course. Many professors at Umass conveniently put a proportional breakdown of the semester's assignments in the syllabus. Here is an example of the grade breakdown from a Fall 2011 lower level English course which allows five absences (Three excused, two unexcused):

Class Participation/Workshops – 15%
Quizzes – 10%
Paper #1 – 15%
Mid-Term – 20%
Paper #2 – 20%
Final - 20%

This is a typical grade breakdown at Umass. Class Participation, which almost always includes attendance, comprises approximately 15% of a student's final grade in a course. It makes sense that a student's participation grade would be negatively affected by excessive absences. However, the issue lies in the automatic failure of the student after 4-6 absences. If it is true that class participation is only 15% of the grade, then why should a student who receives A's and B's on all other assignments automatically fail the course for missing six classes? Is this student accomplishing less than a student who is there every day, but receives C's on all other assignments? Did the C student somehow earn the right to remain enrolled in class, while the A student is forced out because of absences? Clearly a student who receives C's is deriving less from the curriculum than a student who is earning A's. Clearly, the A student does not require as much class time to learn the material as the C student. If students are judged on an objective scale of progress and accomplishment (as they should be, in the interest of fairness), then how is it fair to punish students who clearly have a better grasp on the material, despite their lack of presence in class? Do the ends justify the means in this case? They certainly should. If one student can write a thorough, in depth, and ambitious final paper, despite having missed six classes, does he actually deserve to fail? Has he somehow gotten less out of the course than the perpetually present student who simply does not understand the material, and writes a mediocre, contrived final paper? Should the C student be rewarded simply for “trying harder”? If a professor grades students based on effort, then they should be fired. It is not fair to hold one seemingly more capable student to a higher standard than a student who is less apt to succeed in the class. We are not in elementary school, and if you struggle because of ineptitude, then you deserve to fail. If you prove that you are able to keep up with the material and achieve the course objectives, despite absences, then you deserve to be in class.

One of the converse arguments that is of merit is the claim that there is a chance that another, more committed student could have taken the frequently absent student's place in the course. This is only true when applied to full courses that students were turned away from due to high enrollment. There is no logical rebuttal to this argument, other than the fact that both students paid the same amount of money to enroll in school, and are thus equally entitled to the service for which they paid.

Of course, this a multi-faceted argument, and it is plain to see why professors implement attendance policies. It makes their jobs and grading easier, and is usually a fairly accurate indicator of success or commitment to a class. It is in the exception to this principle that the problem is present, and it is a shame that some students fail courses that they perhaps did not deserve to, based on a concrete, unforgiving policy that may or may not be an accurate indicator of anything at all.
            Information floats through the air like a fart or a sneeze, and is just as common. Fortunately for us, information’s most common medium is language. Language is a fairly simple concept to observe, million-dollar-words not withstanding, yet language has a depth to it hidden in plain sight. Consider for a moment the word “cheese.” When one person says to you “cheese,” you immediately have a mental image or memory of what “cheese” is. Although there can be an easy understanding between the speaker and the receiver of what “cheese” is, the concept itself is unique to the person. For the sake of example, a simple distinction could be that the speaker is perhaps thinking of blue cheese whereas the receiver is thinking of Gouda cheese. But to dig even further, in reading “blue cheese” and “Gouda cheese,” your concepts of these things are different from my own, despite our ability to agree on the general message.




From the perspective of efficiency, language is perhaps a very crude tool. Keeping in mind the cheese example, consider the word “love,” or the word “hate.” Although the concept is reasonably broad and easy to understand, one person’s concept can differ drastically from another’s. Likewise, the emotional definition is ineffable, since language is unable to efficiently convey emotions. Regardless, language is probably the most ergonomic tool used to transfer information.

But is there a way to measure the amount of information sent out? The most direct method of measurement is to observe the language used, even more specifically: observe the number of clauses. The simplest definition for a clause is a joined subject and verb. In the example sentence: “The window broke,” “window” is the subject, and “broke” is the verb. Thus there is one clause. Clauses are useful in measuring the amount of information sent out because clauses denote action, and action tells a story. The more actions there are, the more story there is. Although adjectives and other linked clausal features are also important in giving information, when it comes down to it, clauses are the meat of information transference.


There are three points of interest featuring an attempt to transfer information to us, the readers. The first is interesting because it is an instruction manual. Efficiency is paramount with this avenue because one assumes that the company will want to save as much money as possible by using the least amount of words to convey the necessary information. That said, here is an excerpt for a Black & Decker 18V cordless chainsaw:

            “Some dust created by power sanding, sawing, grinding, 
             drilling, and other construction activities contains 
             chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or            
             other reproductive harm. Some examples of these 
             chemicals are: 

• lead from lead-based paints,
• crystalline silica from bricks and cement and other 
  masonry products, and
• arsenic and chromium from chemically-treated lumber. 
  (CCA)

Your risk from these exposures varies, depending on how often you do this type of work. To reduce your exposure to these chemicals: work in a well ventilated area, and work with approved safety equipment, such as those dust masks that are specially designed to filter out microscopic particles.”


There are eleven clauses in this portion of the instructions, which contains 105 words. One must consider that there is a huge amount of non-clausal information, however. Still, from the perspective of actions taken, there are only eleven.




            The second example of information transference is provided from a comic book. Comics provide an interesting contrast to the bleak nature of instruction manuals. Where instruction manuals are meant to be as efficient as possible, comics can be argued to require inefficient artistic flourishes. Likewise, the images presented to the readers can sometimes convey concepts ineffable. The following example is found in Detective Comics’ (DC) Batman, issue 610:

“Criminals, by nature, are a superstitious and cowardly lot. To instill fear into their hearts I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become……alone…?”

With a mere six clauses, this tiny portion of dialogue is featured upon an entire page, perhaps twice the size of the instruction manual previously mentioned. Its inefficiency seems extreme, despite its evocative nature. However, one must remember that because this is a comic book, images tell an even greater part of the story. Furthering this is the image juxtaposed with the aforementioned dialogue: single image of Batman and Catwoman embracing in a passionate kiss, made complete by the night sky and full moon as a backdrop. Thus, it is observable how the constraints of language can sometimes be bypassed. Though inefficient from the perspective of language use, the imagery is used to prop up the point of the story.


            The final excerpt is both an example of very efficient language use and the filth that such efficiency sometimes entails. Looking back at the two previous examples: the instruction manual’s bleakness is not at all pleasing, whereas Batman’s evocations are fairly poignant. This contrast is perhaps what makes novels and the like so alluring: they are able to provoke poignancy whilst remaining efficient transmitters of action, or efficient “stories.”

            In our last example, SkullAssassin2472 writes:

“When I began reading good comments about the first game I knew I had to play it, I did, and it sucked, the graphics and AI where just awful, not even the story made me want to keep playing beyond the first mission.
I really hope this second attemp works, I really hope so because I am a huge fan of cyber-punk stuff. And, hey, it is Square-Enix logo in there.
The graphics look very nice.
Now, I'll se what GT has to say about this game.
(After watching review)
Oh...
:(”

In 92 words, SkullAssassin2472 spews out seventeen clauses. Recall that the cordless chainsaw’s instruction manual excerpt used 105 words, and realize that in those 92 words, SkullAssassin2472 paints an action-packed story. Consider the phrase: “…I knew I had to play it, I did, and it sucked…” In 12 words, there are five clauses. SkullAssassin2472’s filthy butchering of grammar belies his incredible ability to transfer information to the reader, an inherent trait in most, if not all, of humanity. Indeed, consider the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered.” Though Julius Caesar and SkullAssassin2472 are worlds apart, the bridge of language equalizes them in their use of language.

            Though language is omnipresent, it is overlooked, often seen as white noise of our day-to-day operations. It is with hope, that in observing this information presented, you, gentle readers, may be able to garner a bit more insight into what you say, hear, read and write.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Galway House in JP serves delicious food at reasonable prices!

The Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston is a diverse area known for large populations of Latinos, activists, artists and hipsters. Some of Boston’s top-rated restaurants reside within the 02130 zip code, including Ten Tables, Ghazal, and The Haven. While these new hot spots serve up gourmet fare, their gourmet prices leave JP residents aching for good cheap food. The Galway House on Centre Street relieves that ache.
 The Galway House is located at 710 Centre Street, in the heart of JP’s commercial district. With a private parking lot out back and the front door open until 2 A.M., this convenient spot attracts all kinds of traffic at all hours of the day. The menu is just as eclectic as the clientele. Many reviewers on Yelp.com mention the scary old brick facade of the restaurant, but even more rave about the food and service they find once inside.

 Come in during the lunch hours for a sandwich. Order a $9 open faced steak sandwich, and unbutton your pants as you consume a hearty ten ounces of beef on a sub roll, accompanied with a heap of onion rings and a piece of seasonal fruit. “They eyeball it,” explains bartender Mike Owens when asked how much steak is on the sandwich. “It’s the junior steak, and they eyeball it, definitely in favor of the customer.” You might also try the eggplant parm sandwich, weighing in at approximately four pounds, and enjoy it while watching a daytime Sox game with local old-timers.

Perhaps you’ll sit next to Herb, former owner of neighborhood staple Herb’s TV, whose shop sign adorned South Street for over 40 years and now hangs inside the Galway House. Or maybe you’ll be near the door as Mr. McIntyre, father of New Kids on the Block singer Joey, comes in for his weekly take-out order. Or there’s a chance you’ll find a new friend in a tattooed artist or bicycle-commuting doctor; a sample of JP’s new residents. Whoever you meet, you can be sure they’re there for the same reason: the unreasonably delicious but reasonably priced food.

Above: A bartender buzzes briskly behind the bar. Overhead, to the right of a glowing MBTA sign, hangs the Herb's TV sign, gifted by Herb to the Galway House in 2010. Photo credit to Galway regular Joel Veak.
Dinner specials change nightly on dry erase boards in the dining room, but the regular menu is where you’ll find the best deals. The 20 ounce prime rib is as big as my head, but only costs $18. Served with a soup or salad and choice of two sides, this might be the best deal in Boston. Or perhaps the Jr. Steak, nine ounces for $9, is the better bargain.

In an Irish pub with an Italian cook (“the best of both worlds,” the website boasts), one can’t neglect the pasta menu. The Galway Italian Platter might force you to head to neighboring thrift shop Boomerang for a bigger pair of pants after dinner. For just $15, the plate serves eggplant parm, chicken parm, sausage, meatball, and pasta, as well as a soup or salad. The menu description of the Baked Lasagna says “HUGE,” and even at only $11, you can be sure they’re not lying. 

Pictured: The heaping Fried Clam platter and the enormous Montreal Steak. And no, those plates aren't just extra small!
With such great lunch and dinner options attracting so many people to the restaurant, the bar has had to expand food service as well. This spring saw the launch of a late night menu, which runs from 11:30 P.M to 1:30 A.M. Monday through Saturday. You’re not just looking at wing dings and potato skins on this menu. Order a bar pizza for just $7 and wash it back with one of over 25 beers on tap. Grab an $8 burger, or that open-faced steak sandwich, and your nighttime drunk munchies will be cured. Bartender Mike is not only the cutest bartender in JP, his years of restaurant experience will have you feeling as relaxed and sated as Thanksgiving Day by the time last call rolls around.

Above: an iPhone drawing of the facade of the Galway House regular Peter Allan.
 The Galway House is open from 11 A.M to 2 A.M., with take-out options available during regular dining hours. Late night options are available Monday through Saturday. Visit their website at www.GalwayHouse.net. Like them on Facebook and get nightly updates of the action at the bar, or become a fan of head bartender “Mikey Galway.” To visit via public transportation, take the T to Green Street or Forest Hills, or have the 39 bus drop you at the front door. Come in for the cheap eats, stay for the 52’ plasma TVs, friendly service, unique conversations, and cold beers.