Petri Wessman's weblog

Another one bites the dust

Well, the best record store in Helsinki, Tunnelin Levy, is closing its doors after being a fixture for music fans for 40 years. In other words, pretty much as long as I have been alive.

It’s not surprising as such – digital music and other forms of media are steadily eating away at “regular” CD sales, and it’s hard for a small store to compete. Tunnelin Levy has tried, for years… they’ve always had pretty reasonable prices, an excellent selection which also contained a ton of eclectic stuff, and usually very knowledgable staff. You could go there and ask about some pretty obscure bands, and even if they didn’t stock them the guy behind the counter usually would know what you were talking about.

…but all that doesn’t help when the bottom line is continually in the red.

I can see that trend in my own music shopping. Even though Tunnelin Levy has pretty much always been my “go to” place for CDs, during recent years I haven’t bought all that many physical CDs. I get most of my music via eMusic nowadays, and the CDs that I do buy end up getting ripped to high-quality AAC immediately. I don’t listen to CDs, as such, at all. Physical “containers” for music, be they CDs or records, are slowly on their way out. The future for music is digital – it’s hard to fight against that, even if you wanted to.

But damn, it’s sad to see Tunnelin Levy go. It was a great little music store, and I’ve bought a ton of music from them over the years – including some stuff you would never find in a “normal” chain music store: the Camper Van Beethoven “Cigarettes and Carrot Juice” box set, lots of non-standard alternate editions of CDs, stuff like that.

“Thank you for the music”, as ABBA would say.

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Avatar and other stuff

We stayed cooped up inside for most of the New Year extended weekend; we originally intended to “do some stuff”, but the extra-chilly weather and general laziness put a stop to that. It was nice to just cozy up inside for days, don’t get me wrong. Anyway, yesterday we felt like doing something, so we decided to go see Avatar since a) it’s by Cameron who is generally awesome and b) it had been getting generally positive though slightly mixed reviews.

Well, it was very much worth seeing. It’s not a perfect movie; the plot is more than a tad predicable and follows the classic “boy meets girl and becomes hero” pattern a bit too much by-the-numbers. Maybe the most fitting thing to say about the plot is that it was serviceable; while it could have been (a lot) more original, it didn’t get in the way. But the visuals. Damn, they were jaw-dropping, especially when seen on the large screen with 3d. This is the best visualization of a science fiction world and native culture that I recall even seeing. Even though I knew that most of what I was seeing was computer-generated, my eyes were telling me the stuff was real. During the whole 3-hour span, there was only one short clip where the CGI was obviously CGI in a way that jarred me. That’s damn well done.

So. The complaints about the plot do have merit. But it’s not that bad, and this is one movie that is worth seeing for the visuals alone. They are just that good. The star of this movie is the planet Pandora.

(Added later: here is a hilarious plot summary. Spoiler alert, you might want to skip until you’ve seen the movie!)

Apart from that, I actually spent a large part of the mini-vacation coding and watching “TV” – coding in one window with a video player running in another. I’m working a hobby-project Exalted character generator web thingy. I’m not sure when if ever it will be ready, let alone ready for general use, but it’s one of those things – a way to learn lots of new tech while building something useful. I’m using a lot of bleeding-edge stuff, and Ruby on Rails of course. Among the toys are: authlogic, declarative_authorization, formtastic, css_dryer, jQuery & jQuery-UI, AJAX (with dynamic jQuery/Javascript generation via Rails views), and rspec test cases for all models and controllers. Fun stuff, and complicated enough to keep it interesting.

On the TV side, I managed to watch:

  • True Blood season two. Good stuff, and very interesting “bad guy”. Still among the best of the current crop of series. Not for the prudish, though.

  • Californication season two. Very good and very funny. Also not for the prudish, and I mean it: this show is mostly about sex. And about how people deal with it. I really like this show, because the characters are excellent and it somehow manages to be lewd & irreverent and warm & understanding at the same time. The characters screw up (and just screw) all the time, but you can’t help understanding and liking them at the same time.

  • The Doctor Who “specials” Waters of Mars and End of Time (parts 1 & 2). Watchable but nothing all that special. Will be interesting to see how the new Doctor works out, since these were the final ones with the (great!) David Tennant.

  • Some other bits and pieces… some Heroes (meh, but at least getting a bit better), Sanctuary (meh), etc. Nothing much worth commenting on.

Where's my flying car?

Somehow 2010 sounds very futuristic, yet my car solidly refuses to fly and I can’t find any reasonably-priced flights to the moon in the morning paper. It’s a scam.

We were at a nice New Year’s party, which went on until the early hours. Uncharacteristically we didn’t grab a taxi home at some point, but instead stayed there until something like 6am and then took a morning bus home. The rest of the day was a wash, of course, but still… fun.

The Ice Age conditions outside (-18 – -20C) put a stopper on our preliminary “let’s go do something outside” plans, so we’ve just lazed about and played computer games and stuff. No complaints, as such. Yawn.

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All Christmased out

It’s almost nice to be back at work. Not that Christmas wasn’t nice, it was. Very. It’s just that after multiple days of lounging about and eating way too much Christmas food and candy, you start to feel like doing something else.

I’ve apparently been very nice last year, Santa brought me a huge new 24” monitor (among other nice stuff). 1920x pixels is quite a change after using 1280x for ages and ages. The kittehs also appreciate it: running Dragon Age at that resolution makes my graphics card actually work for its living, which in turn heats up the machine quite a bit, which in turn pushes out lots of hot air out of the cooling vents. Guess where the kittehs like to lounge? Right.

My intention was to do all sorts of useful things over the Christmas break, but in reality I’ve mostly been playing Dragon Age and reading a bit. Oh well.

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Looks like winter is (finally!) here, the gadget by the door claimed that it was -12C outside this morning. Nice.

Nice quiet(ish) weekend. We’re having a small change of personnel at the house, Niksu has moved out to a place of his own (along with girl & recently-born kid), and Timo is moving in. We went furniture shopping to Ikea on Saturday, and it’s a good thing we had a station wagon along; we managed to just fit everything inside & on the roof, but there wasn’t much space left unused. Two tables, a chair, a shelf, a tv-shelf thingy, and various other stuff we sort of needed. Which meant that the rest of the day was spent in the exciting world of “build your own furniture” land. After lots of swearing and alcohol, we finally managed to change lots of piles of bolts & wood into actual furniture. Go us. The new tv/stereo rack thingy is very nice, we finally got all the AV equipment off the floor and into a neat rack. Wonder of wonders, we even managed to connect the wires correctly, as sounds seem to come out of the thing.

Sunday… I maybe should have done all sorts of useful things, but in practice I made some tuna pasta and played lots & lots of Dragon Age: Origins. Addictive game, and extremely good. More about that one when (and if) I finish the thing; it’s huge.

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Back from the EC

So, the VTES 2009 European Championships are now over, and we’re back from Palma de Mallorca (Spain). Us Finns didn’t score too well this time around (with a couple of exceptions), but otherwise the trip was a blast. Flying from cold, dark and drizzly Finland to warm and sunny Mallorca was a nice beginning, and for once the hotel actually did live up to expectations and pictures. The rooms were nice (our apartment suite was close to the pools), the food was excellent, the staff friendly, and in general almost everything went smoothly. The games did have a tendency to start very much behind schedule, but since I could spend that time sipping sangrias on the sunny terrace I didn’t mind too much.

I was already qualified (thanks to running the Ropecon tournament), so on Friday I decided to play in the sideline “Friday the 13th” tournament, organized by Tiago and Teresa. Was a lot of fun, though my Akunanse deck wasn’t quite up to the challenge; managed to scrape together two half-VPs due to two timeouts. The storyline rules did slow the game down a bit, so we had more timeouts than normal. Still, had a lot of fun. I thought I was packing a lot of combat, but the first round stuck between Matt’s Potence rush deck and someone else’s celerity gun intercept deck taught me differently.

Saturday it was time for the EC day one tournament. I picked my Anarch Cry Wolf Khazar deck for this… it has a lot of bounce, some rush, and I thought it might have a chance. Well, it didn’t work out, the day ended with zero VPs. There were a few close calls where I almost got a VP, but “almost” doesn’t count. In the end, the deck (though decent) wasn’t quite resilient enough and it was simply too slow for this metagame. Lots of powerbleed, fast votes (Panders etc) and other fast, brutal decks. Oh well. The games were fun in any case, and everyone was very nice and sportsmanlike. After talking about it, I got some nice ideas from Janne and other people, and have since tweaked the deck to be more efficient – dropped it down to 80 cards, tightened up the combat module, etc.

Sunday was the First Chance tournament, where I tried out my !Toreador/Daughters tap&bleed deck. Still not all that much luck, but things went a bit better: got 1 VP on the third round, and both of the first games had me with my prey at one pool. One is unfortunately a lot more than zero, but still… I’m pretty happy with how the deck performed in general. In hindsight, I probably would have gotten another VP if I had played my hand (a combo of tap cards, Freak Drive, and Siren’s Lure) a bit differently. I’ve since also modified this deck, also paring it down to 80 cards and hopefully making it run a bit more tightly. Will need more playtesting.

Janne had better luck, he was playing his deadly Fortitude weenie horror all weekend. He almost made it to EC day 2, which is very well done. On the other hand, lots of normally high-scoring Finns ended up at around my number of VPs (i.e. zero-to-one). Weird.

As traditional, I didn’t get all that much sleep. Usually went to bed around 2am after playing all day and night and drinking quite a bit on the side…. and then it’s up before 8am, in time to register for the next day’s games and eat breakfast. Still, those 6 hours proved to be enough, I wasn’t totally zoned out or anything. We played quite a few games with Team Denmark (great guys), with some of the games held at out apartment suite – we had a fridge, lots of salmiakkivodka & beer, and two game-worthy tables. Luxury.

So. Great trip, really felt like a vacation (despite lack of sleep and little real “rest” at any point). If was great to meet and play with lots of fun people once again (LSJ&Oscar, we demand that Imbued toilet paper!). Huge thanks to Ginés for organizing this, and to everyone else who helped. Meeting the Portugese guys was great, thanks Tiago and others! Likewise for the Italians, thanks Paolo and everyone for great company and fun games. Even though not everyone could speak all that much English (hey, my Italian is worse!), things worked out.

This was probably the best EC so far, for me. The sunshine and sangria helped.

Extrala brings us some VTES EC essential vocabulary, along with results and some pictures.

Oh, and Scott is a Cylon. Duh.

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Card with an identity problem

Got a call from Luottokunta (the company managing most/all Finnish credit cards), asking me if I was in Finland at the moment. I said yes, and that I had been here for 3+ weeks now. Turns out that someone has been using “my Visa” in the States during the weekend, buying all sorts of weird stuff from K-Mart, Stop&Shop (whatever that is), and even a burger from McDonalds(!). Since it obviously wasn’t me (hell, we didn’t even visit McDonalds once during our trip), I told them to close the card at once.

Should not be a problem financially, I can easily prove that I was on the other side of the globe at the time. But it is a big hassle. I have to change my card info to various places (Eve Online, EMusic, etc), and to begin with I have to wait a week or so till I get a new card. Since that thing also contains my debit card, I’ll have to resort to the old-fashioned visit to the bank in order to get cash in the meantime. And of course I have to write a letter to Luottokunta once I get this month’s bill, itemizing which charges aren’t mine. Sigh.

Oh well, at least Luottokunta monitors card use in a competent fashion. Apparently the fact that the same card had been used on opposite sides of the globe at more or less the same time raised some red flags.

So… apparently someone managed to copy my card at some point when it was out of my grasp (restaurant, most likely). Or there was an illegal card reader installed at some gas station pump, or some such. It happens, but it’s always annoying.

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...and back

Back in drizzly Finland. Actually, back almost a week ago.

Trip went well, and even though it was a very “active vacation” it left me feeling relaxed and I feel I’ve been away for a long time (even though it’s only been a month). We visited Iceland, then flew over to California & Burning Man. Janka provides some trip recap in her blog, so I won’t repeat (much) of that here. I took a ton of photos – nearly 2000 – but then again more than half of those were 3-picture HDR composites, and then after the obvious failures are weeded out… well, the number of “reasonable” shots left is a lot smaller. Still, took lots of pics. The batch from Iceland is now available (slideshow), I’ll add the rest later once I get them processed.

Since I don’t have pics available yet I also won’t talk about the U.S. or Burning Man here, leaving that for later.

So, Iceland. I found the country quite amazing. Sure, it was expensive, and sure, it’s small and insular – but somehow, that insularity wasn’t as annoying as it can sometimes be in Finland. Maybe it’s just the fact that I was only on a short visit and didn’t see the reality of things, or maybe it’s also other things: I found the Icelandic elitist megalomania quite refreshing (compared to the Finnish traditional cultural inferiority complex), and the fiercely independent ethos of the people was also very appealing. Sure, Finland is supposed to also have some degree of that, but I think that died out at some point in history and was replaced by a general “it’s not my fault, I’m a victim of society!” outlook. Having said that, there do seem to be a lot of common points between Finland and Iceland: tiny, insular societies that speak an incomprehensible language, endless long dark winter months, a love of (lots of) alcohol, lots of beautiful unpolluted nature.

…but as always, it’s the differences that charm you. I’m a sucker for harsh landscapes, and the Icelandic volcanic wasteland was just too cool for words at times; especially so during our hike of the Laugavegur 55km mountain trail. Some of the scenery up there was just breathtaking. Culturally, I mentioned the elitism… I guess it’s because according to the Icelanders, the Vikings did pretty much everything first, better and with more style than anyone else – and naturally enough, Icelanders are direct descendants of said Vikings. Somehow, all the rape and pillage involved gets a lot less press over there… In any case, while the place felt very insular, it didn’t feel annoyingly so; in fact, it felt quite charming to me. Oh, I’m sure the “everyone knows everyone else” thing gets old fast if you live there, but that’s just how it goes.

The music scene in Iceland is amazing, and the same applies to the arts scene in general… for some reason, it seems that arts are very much respected there culturally and pretty much half the population dabbles into some artistic pursuit. You could explain it away with “well, they have to do something during those long winter months”… but then again, why do Finns use those same months to plan suicide (or axe murder) and drown their depression with Koskenkorva?

Yes, I kid. Finns get artistic too, and I’m sure Iceland has its share of suicides, alcohol and depression. But still, you have to admire the amazing artistic scene in Iceland, especially when you compare to the population count (about the size of your average larger metropolis). To me, the music was (and is) especially impressive.

About that music… I have to mention the record store 12 Tónar. At the time we visited I wasn’t aware that it’s also a record label, and “home” of many known Icelandic musicians. We just saw an advertisement about “lots of Icelandic music!” while strolling around and decided to drop in. Glad we did. Since I didn’t know much about current local bands, I walked up to the guy behind the counter and asked for some recommendations, saying I was familiar with Björk & Sigur Rós and had a fairly eclectic taste in music. Now, that sort of approach generally tends to work in many non-chain stores, but here I got especially nice treatment. The guy gathered a pile of 8-9 CDs and said “start with those”, then sat me down at one of the many eclectic CD-players scattered around. He also brought me a cup of (free) espresso. That’s what I call service. In general, the place was what a good record store should be like (but all too seldom is): knowledgeable & friendly staff, comfy surroundings, and freedom to listen to a lot of stuf in peace. I ended up buying two records: “Það kólnar í kvöld…” by Rökkurró (excellent alt-folk-pop sung in Icelandic) and “Clangour” by Sin Fang Bous (weird but fun music, sung in English). Janka picked up an album of Viking poetry set to an ambient music soundtrack.

So… yes, I liked Iceland a lot. The food was great (though expensive), the atmosphere was nice, and the scenery awesome. I also really liked the language, it’s actually the first Scandinavian language I have any larger interest in learning – which is inconvenient, since it’s also arguably the most generally useless of said languages. Whatever, it’s quite pretty (in a weird fashion), and while it reads a small bit like Swedish etc, the pronounciation is almost totally alien.

I probably want to visit again, sometime down the road. Armed with a large travel budget, since the place was very expensive – and I say this as someone from Helsinki, one of the more expensive cities in the world.

After 1.5 weeks in Iceland, we hopped aboard a plane again and headed off towards the land of the free(ish) and home of the paranoid. More about that later.

Leaving normal, once again

Now I’m leaving normal and I’m heading for who knows where

–Cowboy Junkies, “Leaving Normal”

More or less dropping off the grid now. Flight leaves in… all too few hours, I should already be trying to grab a few hours of sleep. Maybe I will.

Tomorrow Iceland, then in a few weeks Black Rock City. I can already smell the playa dust.

P.S. The Ropecon VTES tournament report is now up. Enjoy.

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Even though it’s hard to believe it now, with rain drizziling down from a leaden sky, last weekend was “Scorchio!”-tastic around the Turku-Hanko seaside (Kasnäs, to be more exact). Even though there’s a lot of trip prep stuff to do, we decided to take the weekend off and go sailing for a few days on a friend’s boat (well, boat belonging to a friend’s parents, to be more exact). We drove down there Friday after work, arriving at the marina a bit after 9pm, after which we settled down for a quick onboard dinner and some drinks. The marina had wifi connectivity, which was a new feature for me even though I’m told it’s quite common nowadays. Somehow, sitting in a sailboat and browsing the web on a netbook was a bit strange. I got over it.

The next two days were hot. Unfortunately they were also a bit on the overly calm side, so we just motored around on Saturday. Sunday the wind had picked up a small bit so we unfurled sails and did some actual sailing. Nothin fancy, but it’s always more pleasant to move on windpower instead of marine diesel… at least when the weather is nice.

Good short trip, and it helped reduce pre-vacation stress levels a bit. Now we’re approaching the point where we actually have to start packing soon; so far we’ve just made checklists of stuff to bring and have done some shopping along the same lines. I got a new camera bag (well, two actually), a new carbon fiber tripod, a small Gorillapod, and some other stuff. Photowise I should be all set now, and I also tested the workflow from CF card to card reader to netbook (Lightroom) to home workstation (Lightroom with some actual processing power). Seemed to work fine. Also cleaned the camera sensor (long overdue and cause for angst on previous Lapland trip) and updated the camera firmware to latest.

It’s always the same thing before a long trip abroad. The few weeks before are hectic; you try to tie up loose ends at work, you try to think of all you’ll need, you try to finish off the most critical parts of your “todo” list. Once you actually get on the plane things lighten up, before that it’s always a bit of a hassle. All this is magified a bit, since we need to do some “extreme packing”: first we go hiking in Iceland, in an area in which there is a real possibility of snow even at this time of year. Then we go to the Nevada desert and Burning Man, where temperatures around +40C are quite possible. Oh, and everything needs to both fit in the airplane loggage allowance and be as portable as possible. We have some experience at this already so it’s not as bad as it could be… but it still needs quite a bit of planning. This will also be the first actual field test for our new high-tech Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT tent, both in Iceland and at Burning Man. If our trusty Terra Nova Ultra Quasar has managed Burning Man, the Hilleberg should too. But we’ll see.

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