Saturday, September 29, 2007

Avril Lavigne: The Best Damn Thing Ever?

Did Avril Lavigne inadvertently create an “Edsel” when she set out to write the songs on her third album?

By: Vanessa Uy

The title of this blog would have been “Ten Questions About Avril Lavigne That the Press and Her Fans Were Afraid to Ask”. Those “ten questions” could still crop up as we go along, but first lets take an in-depth view of Avril Lavigne’s third album.

“The Best Damn Thing” (RCA88697 03174-2) is Avril Lavigne’s third and latest release. Also RCA records released her two previous albums – “Let Go” and “Under My Skin” – which I paid full price (I also own a number of rare 7” vinyl of Avril Lavigne’s singles). Luckily I acquired “Best Damn Thing” for free since I won the CD from a local FM radio contest.

Compared to her two previous albums, me – and anyone I knew whose musical tastes more or less mirrors my own – were disappointed by Avril Lavigne’s “Best Damn Thing”. Was it the headline single “Girlfriend”? The answer is a big juicy yes for the reasons not just from the song being overplayed by the local FM stations or the local mall’s P.A. system. To us – especially me – “Girlfriend” has the hallmarks of being a mere “product”, no more or less inspired than a half-decent NBA or NFL halftime show or Britney Spears showing her privates. After the second to third time I heard the song “Girlfriend”, I had a “Road to Damascus Epiphany” on the true meaning of the term bubblegum-pop. Despite the happy “disposition, the “apparently” catchy hooks and lively beats fails to save “Girlfriend” from having the holistic integrity of Avril Lavigne’s “sadder” songs.

All of this made me wonder if the artistic quality / merit of Avril Lavigne’s performance demos being sent to RCA back in 2001 or 2002 sounds like her “Best Damn Thing” album. The A & R executives (talent scouts) of RCA would seriously reconsider about signing Avril Lavigne up – to the point of not signing her up.

The saving grace of this album is the torch song (?) “Pieces of My Heart”. But still I wonder if this song’s beauty is the result of Avril Lavigne’s excellent songcraft or the song’s music video - which is in heavy MTV rotation this past few months since the American “Credit Crunch.”

The way I see it, Avril Lavigne – for reasons that still elude me – has sacrificed her artistic integrity in exchange for more money. I mean she’s quite busy since Memorial Day pandering to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant / Evangelical community of America by implying that she’s a viable, kid-safe replacement for Michael Jackson. The way she talks about “God” in her MTV interviews could “Anglo-Saxonify” Jesus Christ to the point of looking like Conan O’Brien.

I mean if Avril Lavigne was around during that crucial period in 1988–1989. Where the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which was headed by Tipper Gore - wife of Al “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore. Was then reaching out to the teens of America at that time to help them fulfil their core mission of making the REAGANISM of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority a way of life to a whole generation of American teenagers. To me back then, Avril Lavigne would have no choice other than to become a herald of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority’s “Imperial Ambitions” because her “musical” competitions in the pop charts circa 1989 are very weak, which primarily makes Avril very rich. The mediocrity of Milli Vanilli alone would make Avril Lavigne a wholesome, child friendly substitute to Axl Rose. Avril Lavigne would single handedly save PMRC -if only this hypothetical situation can be made real. Except that 99% of her fans don’t even know what PMRC is or if they even care about the time when the game show host Howie Mandel of “Deal or No Deal” was still in “St. Elsewhere”. This makes a good book / novel don’t you think?

But in Avril Lavigne’s defense, living in the “Stepford Wives-ville” that we call Anglo-Saxon America (Sen. John Edward’s “Other America”) had probably made her extremely unhappy. Empty materialism can be such a drag. The way I see it, Avril probably needs the millions of dollars in revenue that her “talent” provides, just to achieve the same levels of happiness experienced by pastoral folk like the Kalahari “Bushmen” of Sub-Saharan Africa. If Avril Lavigne does something similar to what The Beatles did with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi back in 1967 maybe by incorporating Sufi or Druse mysticism into her lifestyle. Will this do wonders to her “creative process” without sacrificing the millions of dollars that she earns? I think –at the present Bush / Neo Conservative administration - its way too risky to her preferred charity organization: War Child. Will Avril Lavigne’s artistic appeal be lost amidst the millions of dollars in royalties? Praise Goddess for my way overplayed Paramore “promotional” DVD.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Earth’s Ozone Layer: Safe at Last?

The Montreal Protocol might be working since scientists had observed a steady decline of ozone destroying chemicals in our atmosphere since the 1990’s, is this good news for the ozone layer?

By: Ringo Bones

Compared to the Kyoto Protocol’s mandate of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the harm that could be caused by climate change. The Montreal Protocol’s mandate (mission?) of eliminating existing chemicals then in use in the industry and in domestic situations that are harmful to the Earth’s ozone layer was perceived as an insurmountable task – by both critics and proponents alike- 20 years ago.

The Montreal Protocol, whose full official title is the Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is a treaty that was established on September 16, 1987 at Montreal, Canada by a 25 nation body who first signed on. Presently, 168 nations are now parties to the accord. The Montreal Protocol’s mandate was to set limits on the production of ozone depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons, and related substances that release chlorine or bromine to the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. But first, a brief description on how the ozone layer of our planet works.

The Earth’s ozone layer –or the part that filters harmful UV rays out- is found in the upper part of the stratosphere at 40 to 50 kilometers up. The ozone found at ground level is a pollutant. Ozone is an allotrope of oxygen. Allotrope is an element in two or more different forms usually in the same phase like the element carbon that can both exist as coal, or a diamond depending on how it’s atoms are arranged. Unlike the ordinary atmospheric i.e. diatomic oxygen that we breathe whose molecular structure is composed of two oxygen atoms, while ozone has three. Even though both are composed of the same elemental oxygen, ozone can irritate –even damage- our lungs in long term exposure. While monatomic oxygen i.e. gaseous oxygen existing as single atoms plays a part in providing color in the aurora borealis and australis as it gets hit by charged particles from the sun. Every time an ozone molecule gets hit by an energetic ultraviolet radiation from the sun like UV-B (cancer causing), UV-C (chromosomal and immune system damage) and UV-A (tans the skin but still harmful in excess), it breaks apart into a diatomic oxygen molecule and a monatomic oxygen. Oddly enough, the same harmful UV rays allow the ripped oxygen molecules to recombine into ozone thus the cycle continues. This is how ozone absorbs UV radiation. While ozone destroying chemicals that reach the stratosphere also break ozone molecules apart, the bad part is the ozone molecule broken by this method didn’t perform it’s duty of absorbing UV rays. If enough ozone is broken apart chemically, levels of harmful UV rays reaching to the Earth’s surface could increase.

The biggest hurdle in the total manufacture and utilization ban of ozone destroying chemicals is that the “miracles” of contemporary society like refrigerants / keeping things cool and putting out “technical” fires will be seriously affected by the ban. The haloalkane / BCF fire suppressant halon had saved countless fighter pilots that served during the Vietnam War. An F-105 Thunderchief survived being hit by a Soviet made surface-to-air missile to return to her home air base thanks to the halon fire suppression system. Next to the modern ejection seat, halon is the modern jet pilot’s “other best friend.”

Under the Montreal Protocol, the ozone depleting potential or ODP, of any substance is measured with respect to an equal molecular mass of CFC-11, which is assigned a value of 1.0. Most other CFC’s have an ODP rating that ranges from 0.5 to about 1.3. Hydrochlorofluorocarbons, which are being used as transitional replacements until 2020 for CFC’s in refrigeration, have ODP’s that are generally less than 0.5. The problem with hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFC’s is that HCFC’s are a very efficient greenhouse gas because of its high specific heat rating. Thus it’s use could contribute to global warming while it’s molecular structure is still under investigation if it chemically breaks down fast enough before it reaches into the stratospheric regions to affect the ozone layer. Hydrofluorocarbons, which are also replacing CFC’s as refrigerants, have an ODP of zero. The molecular structure of HFC’s allows it to chemically break down before it drifts high into the ozone layer. The caveats of hydrofluorocarbons or HFC’s is that the refrigeration system that use HFC’s as a refrigerant are inefficient compared to ones that use CFC or HCFC i.e. it consumes more electricity. Also, ozone-depleting potentials are based on existing scientific knowledge and are to be reviewed and revised periodically. Thus the ODP rating of HFC's could change in the future.

An article published in the March 5, 2007 edition of Science Now about the findings that chlorine based ozone destroying agents are in decline. But the scientists conducting the study are still wary about the future recovery status of our ozone layer because bromine based ozone destroying agents can not yet be tracked with certainty as easily as chlorine based agents using current procedures. The good news is that the preliminary findings suggest that if current preventive measures on ozone depleting chemicals continue, there will be a marked improvement on the status of the Earth’s ozone layer 50 years from now. All of humanity now lives in hope.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lunachicks: The Epitome of Punk Rock Creativity?

During this age of “same-sounding-Billboard-chart-downloaded-to-iPod” phase of pop music, one wonders of the existence of an active government conspiracy 10 years ago – a la X-Files – bent on keeping the band Lunachicks in relative obscurity?

By: Vanessa Uy

The first time I listened to Lunachicks was during a point in my life that could be considered “musically” tumultuous. I was 8 at the time when I knew that achieving Joe Satriani like levels of guitar virtuosity is second nature to me. Avril Lavigne’s debut album was conquering the local airwaves unabated when I’m starting to wonder if my newly found virtuosity will only be in vogue in classical music circles (or 1980’s hair metal bands). My guitar skills will always be a legal way for me to achieve easy money by being a session musician, but it’s only fair to thank the band Lunachicks for keeping me sane during this past few years.

First formed way back in 1987 Lunachiks were said to be discovered by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth at their second gig. The two members of Sonic Youth thought that Lunachicks were a “noise band” – but in actuality- Lunachicks hadn’t learned how to play their instruments yet at the time. A few years later –in 1990 – Lunachicks released their debut album titled “Baby Sitters on Acid” on the record label Blast First. Baby Sitters on Acid “is” the only Lunachicks album that I haven’t heard or owned yet (CD or LP only offers please).

The principal members of Lunachicks are: Theo on lead vocals full name Theo Kogan, stands a full 6 feet and extensively works as a model in the NYC area. Gina (full name Gina Volpe) on guitars and vocals. Squid (Sydney Silver), on bass guitar and vocal duties. Becky Wreck a.k.a. Susan Rebecca Lloyd was their drummer during their first two albums. Chip, (Chip English) replaced Becky about the time when Lunachicks signed up with Go-Kart records – a legendary New York based independent music record label. Sindi, (Sindi Benezra Valsamis) served as the bands other guitarist from 1987 but she’s no longer with the band during the 1998 leg of their tour. Helen Destroy served as the band’s drummer from 2000 to 2001.

After achieving a substantial cult following and critical acclaim from their Baby Sitters on Acid album, Lunachicks released “Binge and Purge” on the Safe House record label in 1992. The album served as a creative template for the succeeding Lunachicks albums. With songs about female masturbation whose lyrical descriptions rival those of Jonathan Swift’s literary description of defecation on his book “Gulliver’s Travels.” As a Punk Rock band, Lunachicks’ uniqueness is the result of their unabashed use of “technical” guitar playing which is the preserve of 1980’s “hair metal” bands.

Lunachicks came into their own when they signed up with Go-Kart records. A friend of Greg Ross once told him to sign Lunachicks because they are NYC’s most popular “indie” band. Around 1995, Go-Kart was still a fledgling record label but as luck would have it Lunachicks signed up with Go-Kart. In May 1, 1995, Go-Kart released Lunachicks’ third full-length album – “Jerk of all Trades.” Because of their popularity, Lunachicks single-handedly became the label’s financial bread-and-butter. During the later half of 1995, Lunachicks toured with “alternative / indie” bands made famous by MTV circa 1995 like Offspring, Marilyn Manson, Luscious Jackson, Rancid, and Reverend Horton Heat.

In February 18,1997, Lunachicks released “Pretty Ugly” on Go-Kart. It’s rare for them to retain the same record label in releasing a new album, but they might have been satisfied on what Go-Kart records did to the band’s career. A quirk about this album is the title track –“Pretty Ugly” was released on a Go-Kart records compilation titled “GO-KART VS. THE CORPORATE GIANT”. Production value-wise, “Pretty Ugly” is somewhat too bass heavy a recording for a Punk Rock band. Either they are following a trend – Massive Attack, Portishead and Trent Reznor / Nine-Inch-Nails - at the time were releasing albums with ridiculous amounts of bass which were selling like hotcakes- or experimenting. Back then, a friend of mine damaged his US$1,500 Velodyne sub woofer during the song “What’s Left” when he played the song at unamplified-drum-kit-sound-pressure-levels. Mind you his audio rig easily passed muster playing other well-recorded drum kit recordings at their natural/unamplified sound pressure levels (105-110 dB SPL). Remember, at that level of loudness the stereo set up should make the recorded sound of the drum kit sound like a real drum kit the way God and Her infinite wisdom intended to sound in nature.

In 1998, Lunachicks released “Drop Dead Live” which to me is probably the best Live Rock Concert album of all time in sound quality terms. Rivaling that of Kiss’ “Alive” and Cheap Trick’s “Live at Budokan”. This is where –as a live band – Lunachicks’ performance rivals that of Iron Maiden circa 1984. This just proves that independent labels –like Go-Kart – good sound quality comes naturally.

In 1999 while still with Go-Kart records, Lunachicks released “Luxury Problem”. I think –as epitomes of the Punk Rock ideal – Lunachicks became somewhat “uncomfortable” with their popularity in the audiophile community chose to record their “Luxury Problem” album with heavy amounts of audio compression and “dry” i.e. no reverb. But the resulting sound quality made the recording sound as if Lunachicks are playing in the cramped confines of a typical Punk Rock venue in New York City like CBGB’s. Are they trying to mimic the godfathers of Punk – The Ramones – on this recording? The tattoo art world / culture references are still present though.

From 2001 onwards, the band’s tour itinerary has gone from few to nonexistent. The band’s members are busy with their “other jobs.” Gina is now the lead singer and guitarist of the band Bantam. Theo now play’s with Theo and the Skyscrapers. Theo also appeared in the movie Zoolander, you know, the tattooed woman in Hansel’s loft. Becky was the drummer for the Blair Bitch Project back in 2000. Helen Destroy plays drums in the all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band Lez Zeppelin (The Lesbian Led Zeppelin?). Squid is currently working as a tattoo artist. I wonder if Squid did Theo’s tattoos?

Despite of their album’s quirks sound quality wise, it’s really hard to pick a single favorite album from Lunachicks. It’s like picking a best Mark Levinson amplifier. To me, Lunachicks’ influence reached beyond the confines of Punk Rock. Theo grazed the cover of Tattoo Magazine’s international edition and probably influenced a generation of women on their taste in fashion. They made some “conventional guys” that I know into loyal fans even though these guys are Soldier of Fortune types who helped Zimbabwe to become independent back in 1980 even though the country has bee going to hell recently. Some used to roam downtown Grozny, Chechnya with Kalashnikovs back in 1992. They don’t care about the “Brickface and Stucco” connotations, to them it’s all about the music and one’s “preferences” is his or her own business not the Government or the Church or whatever.

The songs that stuck on me are “FDS” from Jerk, which sounds like a Broadway show tune Punk Metal hybrid. I also like “Bitterness Barbie” for reasons that might result in me writing a 250 page Doctoral Thesis about what is wrong with George W. Bush and his neo-conservatives. “Spoilt” for it’s critique on Capitol Hill / Wall Street Imperialism that required the sacrifice of working class American blood in running it. And who could forget “Fallopian Rhapsody”, the Roe v Wade question that nobody seems to care or the American women whose voices are silenced by the Moral Majority / Right Wing Christian extremists. Remember the January 16, 1997 Sandy Springs incident?

To me, Lunachicks deserve multi-platinum status. Their drummer Chip’s been playing like they already had one. When the Suicide Girls appeared in Jerry Bruckheimer’s CSI New York, I thought would an appearance by Lunachicks be not far behind? Or is that prospect as viable as a Henry Rollins – Black Flag reunion tour?

Lately, a new band called Paramore whose promotional DVD was given to me from a sympathethic friend who works our local Kuwait Fund facility. To me Paramore's artistry could well rival that of Lunachicks, but it's too soon to tell.

Monday, September 17, 2007

RNAi Therapy: Hope or Hype?

Touted as the latest cutting-edge therapy to turn the tide of battle against the AIDS pandemic, will RNA interference (RNAi) therapy succeed where protease inhibitor based drugs failed?

By: Ringo Bones

Growing up during the 1980’s, one can’t seem to ignore the doomsayer’s predictions on how humanity will be wiped out by the relentless spread of HIV infection or AIDS. Since at the time the existing therapeutic regimen are next to useless compared to the drugs set to replace them in the coming years. In the 1990’s came protease inhibitor based drugs that proved very promising – albeit very expensive – in saving the lives of AIDS sufferers in the early stages of the disease. Due to the high cost of the therapeutic regimen (Did it used to cost US$30,000 a year per patient?), only the extremely rich like NBA basketball star Magic Johnson can afford the expense. A decade or so later, the cost of the drugs came down dramatically that philanthropic institutions - like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - could provide the same therapy to parts of Africa seriously affected by AIDS at a cost of less than a dollar a day for every patient.

Though somewhat still awaiting field trials, RNA interference or RNAi therapy is the latest cutting edge therapy that has the necessary fighting chance to cure AIDS. RNAi therapy has the capability of switching off the pathogen that causes disease. If successful, RNAi therapy could not only cure AIDS but also hepatitis-C infections and further research could make RNAi therapy as a cure for cancer.

RNAi therapy was pioneered by an Australian biotech company called BENITEC. On July 2007, BENITEC was about to start dosing patients in the first human trials of their RNAi therapy, which attacks HIV infections on three separate fronts. Dr John Rossi from the Beckman Research Institute, City of Hope, California, outlined BENITEC’s RNA interference (RNAi) therapy – which he has collaborated on – and said that the first patient in the Phase I clinical trial will be dosed sometime by the end of July 2007.

Although the virus that causes HIV / AIDS can built up resistance to existing protease inhibitor based drugs alarmingly quickly, Dr John Rossi explained that attacking the virus on three separate fronts could enable the RNAi based drug to fend resistance for longer. It’s easy for the AIDS virus to mutate around one thing but much more difficult if there are three factors to contend with. Also, the mutated viruses that he has observed so far are much weaker that their previous “generation / parents” as observed by Dr Rossi. But later, the virus reverted back to its original sequence.

Dr Rossi explained that the RNAi based drug uses a lentivirus vector to deliver the genes that encode for the three different forms of RNA to battle the virus. RNAi in the form of short hairpin RNA (shRNA), that targets an exon in the transactivator or transcription (Tat) and Regulator of Virion (Rev) gene (ShI). A decoy for the HIV TAT – reactive element (TAR) and a ribozyme that targets the host cell CCR5 chemokine receptor (CCR5RZ).

The scientists at BENITEC are using two different techniques to introduce the DNA into the body. The first one is where they remove the patient’s own bone marrow progenitor cells, genetically modifying them using the virus and then reinfuse them into the patient during a bone marrow transplant. BENITEC claims that – if successful – the new treatment could allow patients’ bodies to produce HIV-resistant white blood cells indefinitely.

BENITEC and City of Hope are also using a similar approach, only with T cells instead of stem cells explained Rossi. He went on to explain that the anti-CCR5 ribozyme may prevent the virus from entering the cell but if it does get in and starts to produce RNA’s, the drug will capture that RNA and also move the Tat away from the virus.

Not only does the drug attempt to knock back virus levels, Rossi said it also aims to destroy the lymphoma that develops in many HIV-positive patients. The trial itself will be treating five patients in this subgroup, with the results expected within a year.

From what I learned so far from virus physiology, using the “reproductive” phase of the pathogenic virus to “kill” it or render the virus impotent is a good way to tackle fast mutating RNA based viruses like HIV / AIDS. But a part of me that’s been reading (and watching) far too many science fiction stories find this technology rife for abuse. Especially further on when the science behind RNA interference therapy can be made to make one’s own immune system attack ones own body or make each and every cell in one’s body into a bunch of malignant tumors. As with any scientific “tool”, it’s up to the global community to police its applications.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Domain Names: The Internet’s Real Estate Bonanza?

From the 1990’s “Dot Com” boom to the bubble bursting in 2000, are domain names the magic bullet that will restore investor confidence on the Web?

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

Touted as the “Real Estate Market of the Future” in the middle of the 1990’s, domain names are now a billion-dollar industry, not only for the major search operators like Google and Yahoo but also to a new breed of Internet real estate developers. Domain names have since become the “bread and butter” of the on line marketing and on line advertising business. Having outgrown the “dot com” slump of 2000, domain name – the real estate of the web – have been delivering far greater returns compared to it’s real world counterpart as reported on For those of you who have the resources to invest in the domain name development business yet don’t know what it is, here’s a primer.

Domain name refers to the first part of a URL - (URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator – the unique address of any Web document that can be keyed in a typical browser’s OPEN or LOCATION / GO TO box to retrieve a document) – on to the first / where the domain and name of the host or SERVER computer are listed. This is usually arranged in reverse i.e. name first, then domain. The domain name gives you the information on who (the origin of) “published” the page i.e. made it public by putting that page on the Web.

In the 1990’s – when the Internet evolved from a mere “academic curiosity” to a telecommunications medium with a promising economic viability – the exclusive right to use Internet domain names became a highly contested issue. Enterprising individuals knew that there’s money to be made in these unique sequences of letters that are divided – by convention – into segments separated by periods that correspond to the numerical Internet Protocol Addresses that identify each of the millions of computers connected to the Internet. Because domain name labels enable packets of information to be sent to their specific destinations across the Internet, the commercial implications are not lost to the world’s various advertising agencies.

Domain name development profits does not only fill the coffers of unscrupulous entrepreneurs, but can also benefit an impoverished country because all countries are designated a top-level domain name on the Internet usually as a suffix to that country’s Internet Address. For example .be for Belgium, .hk for Hong Kong, .ph for the Philippines, .za for South Africa and so on. A number of these domain names have been featured on stamps. During the last few years of the 20th Century, a relatively poor Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu hit the jackpot when it received the .tv domain name, although initially Tuvalu’s citizens didn’t realize that they owned the most recognizable suffix of all, .tv.

Back in 1999, the .tv domain name gained “humanitarian / philanthropic” status when Jason Chapnik – a Canadian businessman- walked into a Tuvalu parliament meeting and pleaded his intentions to buy their domain name. After further negotiations, by the year 2000 Tuvalu decided to sign up with Chapnik to form a new company called Dot TV that’s currently based in Pasadena, California. Tuvalu owns 20% of Dot TV and received US$50 million from the lucrative deal which the country – via structured settlement – receives quarterly payments of US$1 million each over a period of 10 years. Tuvalu recently received a payment of US$18 million that instantly doubled the country’s GDP.

This sudden windfall of revenue allowed Tuvalu to achieve an economically independent status. Ever since gaining independence in 1978, Tuvalu could hardly afford the US$20,000 UN membership fee. It wasn’t until September 5, 2000 where Tuvalu could finally afford being UN’s 189th member nation. The domain name revenue enabled the various islands of Tuvalu the ability to upgrade their public infrastructure like roads, schools and water purification facilities. The upgrading of Tuvalu’s main airport to accommodate larger planes has allowed the country to export food for the first time in history.

Despite of the recently found wealth, the global community is now wondering whether Tuvalu can cope with the challenges of sea level rise due to global warming and the increased typhoons brought about by climate change with “dot com” funds alone. Is Tuvalu now in the front line for the global community’s battle against sea level rise?