Anyone who has traveled internationally has almost certainly cursed the various electrical systems of the world. Why do North America and Japan have one type of plug, while the UK and Ireland have another? And how come those plugs are different from plugs used in India, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland… all of which are different from each other? And how did China and Argentina end up using the same plugs as Australia and New Zealand?
In short, you might wonder why there isn’t a “universal plug”. If you think about it, though, the real question is… why would there be a universal plug?
When electricity first came to homes in the United States and other countries, it was only used for lighting. And light bulbs were wired directly into the electrical system. Indeed, part of the reason early bulbs lasted so long – like the Centennial Light at a fire station in Livermore, California – was because replacing a bulb meant calling an electrician to remove the dead bulb and wire a new one in.
This, of course, was a huge expense and inconvenience, so a slew of inventors came up with ways for customers to easily replace bulbs themselves. One version became more popular than all others, and it probably shouldn’t surprise you that it came from Thomas Edison. The “Edison screw” became the standard base for almost all household light bulbs in North America and Europe. So now, people could replace bulbs by simply unscrewing the dead one from the fixture and screwing a new one in.
What few imagined at the time, though, was the birth of electrical appliances like toasters and radios. Early versions of these products were also wired directly in to the electrical system, which was a huge pain: to move a radio from one room to another, you’d have to call an electrician, and you’d possibly have to repair busted plaster or drywall the electrician would have to open to get to the wires running through the walls.
So inventors went back to the drawing board again, and came up with something like this:
This is a modern device that screws into a light socket, provides two outlets you can plug any two-prong device into, and a pass-through socket you can screw a bulb into. But in the early days, there wasn’t a single standard for electric plugs, and were all kinds of different plugs on the market in the US. A toaster might use one type of plug, a radio another. If you wanted to use the two devices on the same adapter, you’d have to make sure they used the same plug, or have an electrician rewire one device with the appropriate plug.
Finally, in 1904, a man named Harvey Hubbell II was awarded a patent for the modern American electrical plug, now called a “Type A” plug. Some time later, a third (ground) prong was added; this is called a “Type B” plug. Type A & B are used throughout North America, Japan, most of Central America and the Caribbean.
While all this was going on in the US, conflicting plugs and systems were raging all over Europe and the UK, too. Inventors there came up with systems and plugs that worked well for their countries, and eventually standards were settled there as well.
So why didn’t anyone ever talk about a universal plug? Because there wasn’t a need for one. International travel wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, and those lucky enough to travel overseas usually didn’t want to bring lamps with them. International trade in electrical devices wasn’t common, either, since each country had its own manufacturing base. And by the time portable devices like electric razors and radios became common, electric standards had been set. Thus, travelers have been forced to buy plug adapters and power converters ever since.
In 1986, the International Electrotechnical Commission got tired of all the different plug types in Europe and created a new type of plug – Type N – they hoped would become the standard throughout the entire European Union, and perhaps the world:
But the EU didn’t consider it a top priority, and since any mention of new plugs set off unending bickering between EU members, the whole matter was shelved for good in the mid 1990s. And the idea was a non-starter in non-EU countries like the US and Japan as they all had plugs that worked fine… or were at least “good enough” not to incur the massive expense of switching over to a new plug for no good reason.
But one country was interested in a new type of electric plug: Brazil. At the time, Brazil had at least ten (ten!) different types of plugs in common use throughout the country. In 2001, the Associação Brasileira de Normas Técnicas (Brazilian Association of Technical Standards) adopted Type N as the sole electric plug to be used throughout the country. Hooray!
There’s just one little catch, though: although the country has had a single standard for electric plugs for 14 years now, Brazil is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t have a standard voltage! As unbelievable as it might seem, most of Brazil’s 27 states use 220 volts, but there are a few that use an older 127 volt standard. So an electric coffeemaker bought in the state of Minas Gerais will blow up if plugged into an outlet in the Distrito Federal… and because every device now uses the same Type N plug, there’s no visual warning to prevent you from doing that!
For some time now, Google Chrome has had a nifty feature: a little speaker icon appears on any tab that’s playing sound. That way you can easily figure out which tab is playing music, or an auto-play video, and kill the noise.
But it’s like Google didn’t think that feature all the way through. What would be really cool would be the ability to click on that little speaker icon and mute the tab completely. Well guess what? It’s now a hidden feature in Chrome!
Just open a browser tab and paste the following into the address bar:
Click the Enable checkbox and restart Chrome. Now you’ll be able to click on the speaker icon to mute a tab:
“Can’t get there from here” is a colloquialism from the American South referring to directions too complex to easily give. If a traveler stopped and asked a local for directions, and the proper response would be “go two miles and take a right and it’s on the left”, the local would probably just say so. But if it was significantly more complex than that, the local would dismiss the traveler by saying “you can’t get there from here”.
It’s also the name of a popular R.E.M. song off the band’s 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction. But it would seem that the band can’t agree on how to punctuate the title.
R.E.M. traditionally ignored apostrophes, as seen in the song titles like “Feeling Gravitys Pull” and album titles like Lifes Rich Pageant. According to guitarist Pete Buck:
“We all hate apostrophes. Michael insisted and I agreed that there’s never been a good rock album that’s had an apostrophe in the title.”
And “Cant Get There From Here” is punctuated as such on the album’s outer sleeve. However, on the album itself the song is listed with the apostrophe. The same goes for the CD: no apostrophe on the sleeve, apostrophe on the disc. There are two versions of the song’s single, one with and the other without the apostrophe:
On their early greatest hits album Eponymous, the track listing lacks an apostrophe, but the liner notes include it. And the apostrophe appears once again on the back cover of the And I Feel Fine… The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982–1987 box set.
So who knows. It would seem the band enjoys the ambiguity. The A side of the album and cassette versions lists the album as Fables of the Reconstruction, but the B side is listed as Reconstruction of the Fables. Both have meaning, first as tales about the Reconstruction Era of the American South following the Civil War, the second as the literary deconstruction of fairy tales. But the album art doesn’t help: the front cover says Fables of the Reconstruction, but the back says Reconstruction of the Fables. Most CD versions of the disc say Fables of the Reconstruction on the cover, but Reconstruction of the Fables on the spine.
If all that wasn’t confusing enough, Fable’s liner notes include references to a song called “When I Was Young”, which isn’t included on the album. The song exists – it was played on a 1985 tour before Fables was released, and appears in demo form as “Throw Those Trolls Away” on the 25th anniversary edition of Fables. But if you have a CD player capable of reading CD-Text data from a music disc, you’ll find the song is listed as “When I Was Young”. And if the title sounds familiar, it’s the opening line of “I Believe” from Lifes Rich Pageant… which is the song “When I Was Young” eventually became.
Utopia is a British conspiracy thriller that originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK.
The series is about a small group of fans of a graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, which some believe predicted many of the worst disasters of the 20th century, especially epidemics. While chatting on a fansite one day, someone logs in the chatroom claiming to have a copy of the mysterious, much discussed but never seen sequel. The group, who only knew each other in cyberspace, agrees to meet the man in meatspace. This piques the interest of a mysterious cabal known as “The Network”. Will the group be able to figure out the hidden meaning of the sequel before The Network can hunt them down? And why is The Network so interested in a graphic novel anyway?
So far, it sounds like an interesting, if conventional, premise for a TV series. But Utopia is different. For one thing, the writing is good and the acting is solid. So that’s nice. But with Utopia, it’s all about sight and sound. Chilean-born composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer provided the show’s quirky, at times almost atonal, soundtrack:
But really, with this show, it’s all about the camera. It’s shot in a 21:9 aspect ratio, making it feel like a film. The show is chock-full of lovely long shots:
The series is a full-blown riot of hypersaturated color. I hate to sound like a film student, but it’s true: the depth of field and mise en scène is just… breathtaking:
For the record, these are just crappy screen caps from a YouTube promo. The actual show is just beautiful, much more like an artistic thriller than a mere TV show. A bit of warning, though: it’s very dark and very violent.
If you haven’t seen the show yet, you really owe it to yourself to track it down via onDemand or Blu-Ray or whatever. It’s really, really well done, and – as I’ve mentioned a hundred times already – it’s just… amazing to look at.
2014 was something of a down year for music. Sure, tons of new albums came out last year… but few really grabbed my attention. The album I listened to most in 2014 – E-Bay Queen by my favorite synthpop duo, Marsheaux – came out in 2008. The rest of my yearly top ten was dominated by albums that came out in 2013: Langsom Dans by Gliss (#2), Inhale by Marsheaux (#3), The Bones of What You Believe by CHVRCHES (#5), Lost Causes by Flunk (#7) and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s soundtrack for the British TV show Utopia (#8). With 2012’s Observator by The Raveonettes coming in at #9, that means only one 2014 album even made the top 10!
This year I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to post my top ten albums by playcount (thanks, Last.fm!) and then post my “editorial” top ten. Enjoy!
TOP TEN 2014 ALBUMS BY PLAYCOUNT
Here are my top ten 2014 albums by playcount. The number of plays is in parenthesis:
1) The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi (122)
2) La Roux – Trouble in Paradise (74)
3) Kid Francescoli – With Julia (66)
4) Warpaint – Warpaint (62)
5) Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine (59)
6) Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso (51)
7) Bryan Ferry – Avonmore (41)
8) Blondfire – Young Heart (40)
9) Lisa Gerrard – Twilight Kingdom (32)
10) Blackbird Blackbird – Tangerine Sky (27)
Of course, ranking albums by playcount is tricky. The Raveonettes dominate this year’s list largely ‘cos I played two songs from Pe’ahi over and over again. Take “Sisters” and “When Night is Almost Done” off that album, and Pe’ahi probably wouldn’t even crack the top 10. And Lisa Gerrard comes in at #9 not because I liked her album less than others, but because one needs to be in a specific mood to listen to her music, as great as it is. And that’s why you need to rank the best albums of the year.
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2014, RANKED
So here’s my “traditional” list of the year’s top albums:
#10: Warpaint – Warpaint
Warpaint are an all-girl band from Los Angeles. Did you know that Shannyn Sossamon, Heath Ledger’s love interest in A Knight’s Tale, played drums in the band’s early days? You do now! This disc shows a lot of promise, like a female Dot Hacker, or a slightly edgier version of Melody’s Echo Chamber. Or, if you’re an old fart like me, Mazzy Star with a lil’ more oomph. But the album seems to lose steam halfway through. It’s one of those albums that’s not at all “bad”, but you’ll put it on and by the time track 6 rolls around, you’re looking for something else to play. With the right material and production, their next album could be really, really good.
Have a listen:
9) Blondfire – Young Heart
I don’t know if kids still do this – or if other kids ever did this – but back when I was in high school, one could get “cool points” for discovering a hip new band. If I were still in school, I just might get points for discovering this duo, brother-sister combo Bruce and Erica Driscoll. I fell in love with their 2008 album My Someday almost instantly, and this disc is even better! While Someday was more or less your basic snythpop, this album is fuller and richer, with more guitars and drums and fewer drum machines. Erica’s often child-like voice won’t win any awards (it ain’t opera, folks), but it’s soothing and comforting, much like the voice of Sarah Cracknell, singer of my long-time fave Saint Etienne. In fact, many of these tracks almost sound like a lost Saint Etienne album: electronic and synthy, but warm and approachable. Not something you’d hear blaring at a nightclub, but rather something you’d hear at a cool party in north London. This album is surprisingly solid, too: there aren’t a lot of bad or filler tracks on it, and I’m often surprised to see that I’ve listened to the entire thing in one sitting!
Have a listen:
8) Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine
It’s my shameful secret: I’m falling in love with French pop music, and especially female singers. And this disc, a project of French songwriter Héloïse Letissier, just hits it out of damn park. There are a few misses, though: a couple of slow songs I could do without, and a couple of English-language tracks that miss (why is it that French singers switching to English is almost always bad?). But the tracks that are good are really good, and more than make up for the misses. It’s sophisticated, yet approachable, synthpop that isn’t “too cool” for you.
Have a listen:
7) Lisa Gerrard – Twilight Kingdom
I’ve been a Dead Can Dance fan since I first heard them back in… 1985? 1986? And, like a lot of people, I was more a fan of Lisa Gerrard songs than Brendan Perry ones. Thing is, though, in my opinion, she never really had a solid solo album… until now. In fact, when I think about this album, I don’t think of any single song… I think of the entire thing as a single work of art. It’s all so beautiful and haunting. But then, that’s the problem with Gerrard’s music: it’s lovely, but it’s not something you can listen to on a whim. Well, I mean, sure… you could cue it up on your iPod any time you wanted to. But this isn’t something you’d play while doing household chores or at a party (unless it was late and you wanted everyone to leave). Still, though: I’ve owned all her solo albums at one point or another in my life, and this is the best one… by far. I’ve owned The Mirror Pool for almost 20 years now, and can only name a few tracks on the disc. Twilight Kingdom, however, is an album that sticks with me, one I know I’ll be listening to years from now.
Have a listen:
6) She & Him – Classics
She & Him is kind of a love-hate affair. I know there are tons of folks out there who can’t stand them, who think that the band only exists because of Zooey Dechanel’s star power. And there’s probably a kernel of truth there: would She & Him be as big a deal if Zooey wasn’t already a star? Having said all that, the band is coming along quite nicely. Ward was always a solid guitarist, and Deschanel really is developing her voice and vocal personality. She’ll never be the most talented singer in the world, but she’s just so damn… lovable. But that’s also the album’s Achilles Heel: no one wants to bash earnest musicians making an album of pretty cover songs. But not every track on this disc works. For every “Stars Fell on Alabama”, there’s an “Unchained Melody” (a cover that misses by a wide margin). My one issue going forward with She & Him is that they’re teetering on becoming “Starbucks music”, stuff you’d hear in the background of a coffee shop. She & Him were never “edgy”… but they’re at serious risk of becoming my mom’s favorite band, ya know? Still, this album is a lot of fun. Enjoy it.
Have a listen:
5) Bryan Ferry – Avonmore
I’ve loved Bryan Ferry since the first time I heard Roxy Music in (I think) 1982. But Ferry’s solo albums have never been very good, Oh sure, any given album might have 2-3 awesome songs on it… but there are also 4-5 completely forgettable songs, too. Seriously: can you name any song on Olympia other than “You Can Dance”? Did you ever even listen to side 2 of Frantic? Do you remember As Time Goes By at all? That’s what makes this album so remarkable: the whole thing is pretty damn good! I mean, it kind of loses steam towards the end (as most Ferry albums do), but I was surprised by how much I like “Loop Di Li”, “Midnight Train”, “Soldier of Fortune” and “Driving Me Wild”. It’s like the best string of Ferry songs since side 1 of 1985’s Boys and Girls. Of course, it’s Bryan Ferry, and the music doesn’t really sound that different from Boys and Girls, either. This album could have been recorded much any time after 1985. Not that that’s a bad thing. What is bad, though, is that you can tell Ferry’s voice is starting to go. That’s not entirely surprising – he turns 70 this November. It’s still sad to see such an icon in decline. But this album is a pretty good way to go, if you ask me!
Have a listen:
4) The Raveonettes – Pe’ahi
Yep, here they are in the top 10 AGAIN. Raven in the Grave was my top album of 2011, and the main reason Observator ended up at #2 instead of #1 on my 2012 list was that I just didn’t want to repeat myself. But while this is a solid album totally worth buying, it just doesn’t stick with me like other Raveonettes albums have. And what really puzzles me about that is why. Objectively, any track on this disc is as good as any other Raveonettes song. The album’s kind of disjointed – one slow song, one fast song, one really LOUD song, then another slow one – but Observator was the same way, and I freakin’ love that album. I think it might be because the middle of the album – from “Z-Boys” to “The Rains of May” – kind of runs together. Or something. And I might be the only one here, but it seems like The Raveonettes are making their vocals clearer than ever. Whereas on earlier albums vocals were mixed in closer to the music, and the lyrics were often opaque, with this disc, they’re completely front and center. And I have this theory that every Raveonettes song is about murder, suicide, drugs and\or sex… and having that beaten into your head just gets old after a while. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just was in a different place when this disc came out. I was listening to their (somewhat obscure) EPs – which are older, and have a more synthy sound – when this came out. It’s still a good album, mind you. It’s just not as good as the band can be.
Have a listen:
3) Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
I never, ever thought folk and synthpop would work as a combo, but it SO DOES with these guys. The band, from Durham, NC, is made up of folk singer and Appalachian music champion Amelia Heath, while bandmate Nick Sanborn used to play bass in Magafaun, a group “on hiatus” with connections to Bon Iver. Yet somehow, it all works. Were it not for Heath’s charming vocals, the opening track “Hey Mami” might be the most annoying track of the decade. But they pull it off, grabbing your attention enough to want more. And in some senses, you’re rewarded for wanting more: “Coffee” and “Uncatena” are two of my favorite songs this year. But too much of the album is repetitive; it’s one of those discs where if I was going to put it on my iPod I would, for sure, only choose certain tracks. But the songs that work do work, and make me wonder what their future will be like. With a better producer, Sylvan Esso could make a masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said for synthpop with lyrics that actually have something to say, and Sylvan Esso is most certainly the band to do that. Also, be sure to read this fun article at the A.V. Club where Heath talks about her love of biscuits and gravy, and how a good plate of biscuits and gravy is the “light of humanity”.
Have a listen:
2) Kid Francescoli – With Julia
Kid Franescoli, a music project started by Mathieu Hocine, and later joined by singer Laetitia Abello, is a hazy, dreamy synthpop band from Europe (yes, “Europe”. I spent 20 minutes trying to find out where these people are from; “Mathieu Hocine” sounds French, but he sometimes sings in Italian; “Laetitia Abello” sounds Spanish, but could be French or Italian. I found one reference that says they’re from Marseilles – good enough for me, I guess). Oh, and most of the album was co-written by Julia Minkin, a girl from New York Hocine dated and broke up with (hence, the name, With Julia).
Anyway, the band’s music is intimate and lovely – kid of like a hip (but not too hip) European version of Washed Out. To listen to them is to fly over the Mediterranean at 30,000 feet as the stars twinkle above. And their music is hard to pin down: sure, it’s electro- or synthpop, but there are influences from everywhere: elements of classical, Italian folk and even Ennio Morricone in there, and guess what? It all just works. It’s really worth tracking this album down. And yes, this album is in English.
Have a listen:
1) La Roux – Trouble in Paradise
In 2009, a woman named Elly Jackson blew up the British music scene with her eponymous debut album recorded under the stage name “La Roux”. That album made it to #2 in the UK, won a Grammy in 2011 for “Best Electronic/Dance Album”, was nominated for a slew of awards in Britain and Europe and went platinum in the UK are Ireland, and Gold in Australia. It was a BIG DEAL, and people who had no idea synthpop even existed were pleasantly surprised by an album that reminded most of something the Eurythmics would have put out. But there was turbulence ahead: La Roux was actually a duo, with producer Ben Langmaid. The two quarreled over the future of the band. Entire albums were scrapped. Acrimony grew and Langmaid eventually left the band. Hence the long delay in her follow-up album… but the wait has been, by and large, worth it.
Trouble in Paradise is like La Roux, but somehow slightly better. While the debut album was great, it felt trapped in 80s nostalgia, as if Jackson was somehow afraid of breaking the illusion that it was 2009, not 1983. On this disc she actually steps out a bit. It’s not all drum machines and cold synths like the debut. Where La Roux might have been a beautiful, yet black & white, photograph, this album is a riot of tropical color. Yet once again, were trapped, this time by sexuality, which seems to permeate every inch of the disc. This isn’t a surprise – Jackson told us the album would be all about sensuality, and with song titles like “Cruel Sexuality” and “Sexotheque”, it’s not exactly a hidden agenda, either. But La Roux has always been about the hooks, that catchy something that makes her so appealing. The disc only has 9 songs, but damn if 8 of them could have been released as singles in a different era (ya know, when singles actually mattered). I know some will question my making this the album of the year, but the truth is, it’s the one disc I instantly fell in love with and wanted to hear more of. Sadly, this isn’t entirely of its own merit; 2014 was a down year, and so here we are. But Jackson deserves it anyway,
Have a listen:
THE RAW DATA
In case anyone’s interested, here’s some raw data from Last.fm.
Top Artists of 2014 (playcount in parenthesis)
1) Marsheaux (505)
2) The Raveonettes (460)
3) CHVRCHES (184)
4) Gliss (170)
5) Cocteau Twins (114)
6) Flunk (108)
7) Cristobal Tapia de Veer (96)
8) Saint Etienne (85)
9) La Roux (77)
10) Warpaint (72)
Top Songs of 2014 (source album in italics, playcount in parenthesis)
1) Marsheaux – “Analyze “(E-Bay Queen, 98)
2) Marsheaux – “The Game” (E-Bay Queen, 67)
3) The Raveonettes – “Sisters” (Pe’ahi, 58)
4) Gliss – “A to B” (Langstrom Dans, 56)
5) Flunk – “Queen of the Underground” (Lost Causes, 56)
6) Marsheaux – “So Far” (Lumineux Noir, 56)
7) The Raveonettes – “Last Dance” (In and Out of Control, 50)
8) CHVRCHES – “Recover” (The Bones of What You Believe, 42)
9) La Roux – “Sexotheque” (Trouble in Paradise, 38)
10) Gliss – “Hunting” (Langstrom Dans, 37)