Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Tech: Calm

Lately I've been using Calm, the 800 pound gorilla of wellness apps. It's sort of the 21st century version of those soothing sound machines at Brookstone and The Sharper Image (think white noise, whale songs, and heartbeats). While the price is insanely stiff (a recurring $70 annual subscription or a one-time $400 purchase, though there are often steep discounts), I must admit there is a decent variety of content to help you doze off.

To start with, you get the standard relaxing "soundscapes," things like ocean surf and rain:

Then there are "sleep stories," slow-paced (and intentionally boring) tales designed to lull you to sleep. A lot of these are read by celebrities; my favorite is this one featuring LeVar-freaking-Burton:

For the meditation-focused, the app has "The Daily Calm," a new 10-minute session each day narrated by the hypnotically-voiced Tamara Levitt (Calm's "Head of Mindfulness").

Finally, Calm is updated with ambient and dreamy collaborations with famous musical artists, like Moby and Sigur Rós. I'm partial to the slow violin of Lindsey Stirling's "Lunar Lullaby":

So, is Calm worth it? I guess it depends on how much you value sleep, and how much help you need to get there. The app might be mass-market and overpriced like a Starbucks Frappuccino, but it does what it says on the tin - it couldn't be worse than popping an Ambien, after all.

Miscellany: Victorinox Huntsman review

I like Victorinox's Swiss army knives as much as the next guy, but even I can admit that some of the tools on their knives are fairly useless. Take the Huntsman, for instance, a 91mm four-layer knife with a combination of really good and really questionable tools.

First, the really good - the front side of the Huntsman has a bottle opener/screwdriver/wire stripper, scissors, a saw, a small blade, a main blade, and a can opener/screwdriver. You also get the same tweezer and toothpick that you get in practically every Victorinox multitool.

Now for the bad.  The back side of the Hunstman has an okay awl, but also the parcel hook and corkscrew. I've seen YouTube videos of people struggling to explain various uses for these tools, but they're never very convincing. Unless you need to carry brown paper packages tied up with strings or crack open a bottle of Syrah, they just don't have much real world use.

As such, I can't really recommend the Huntsman, not when you could get a Hiker or a Fieldmaster with either a smaller footprint or a more useful back layer tool, respectively.

Movies: Coherence

The "bottle episode" is a time-honored sci-fi tradition, and the film Coherence (written and directed by James Ward Byrkit) hits all the high points of the trope - a group of sometimes disagreeable characters, trapped in a house, with weird stuff going on all around them:

What makes Coherence memorable is the slow, Night of the Living Dead-style way in which the tension in the house ratchets up. There's no special effects or gore to speak of, just conflict, paranoia, and (without spoiling too much) Everett many-worlds weirdness being inflicted on an unsuspecting dinner party. When the credits start rolling (backed by an awesome song by Laura Veirs), it's both a shock and a relief.

Rating: 8/10

Miscellany: Coup card game review

Whenever my sister and her husband come down, we break out the board games. Mostly we play "light" Euro strategy - stuff like Catan and Carcassonne - but sometimes there's just not enough time to roll dice or lay tiles.  For quick hits of gaming, we turn to "party" style card games like Coup.

In Coup, each player controls two character cards with unique powers (the Duke, for instance, allows you to take more money from the treasury than normal). The rub is that your character cards are hidden from everyone else, so you can fool people into thinking you have powers that you really don't. Be careful, though - if someone correctly calls your bluff, you lose one of your cards. If you accuse someone of bluffing but are wrong, you lose a card, too.

Coup is not terribly deep, and often very dependent on luck. However, the bluff mechanic holds up well whether you are playing once or twice (games last 10 minutes tops) or over and over again. For the price and size of the game, it's a fun, surprisingly social game.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Music: Black Dog

As the world emerges from quarantine, musicians are taking stock of the strange, solitary year that just passed. "Black Dog" is an introspective track from one such up-and-coming artist, Arlo Parks:

The song comes from Parks's debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, and it's a straightforward-but-moving account of caring for someone with depression.  While that premise could have easily felt contrived, the neo-folk rhythms and insistent vocals give "Black Dog" the requisite emotional authenticity to, as the kids say, "hit hard."