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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, August 22, 2002

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Regular readers may have noticed a pronounced tilt toward the "pop culture" side of things in recent postings. There are two reasons for that: one, the BlogCritics launch (and the recent CD-buying binge) got me thinking about music, which turned up plenty of ideas for blog posts; and two, Kate and I are going on a long-delayed and well-deserved vacation this weekend (running up the road to Montreal for a few days), to try to unwind a little before the new school year. I've been making a conscious effort not to think about class prep until after we get back, which has sort of spilled over into not thinking about physics much at all.

When we get back, it'll be hard-core class-prep time, so there'll be plenty of science-type posts, as I try to work out the best way to explain Relativity and Quantum Mechanics to sophomores, and do some of my thinking out loud on the Web. If you just can't wait to read more about science and education, SciTech Daily provides a link to a Richard Dawkins piece about great science teaching, which is worth a read. It sort of veers off into an anti-religion rant for a few paragraphs in the middle, but then he wouldn't be Richard Dawkins if he didn't veer off into the occasional anti-religion rant.

(I'll also note that Salon has a book review with the absolutely wonderful title "Sometimes a Snake Orgy is Just a Snake Orgy", which is pretty entertaining.)

On the other hand, if you're in the mood for more pop-culture stuff, I'll plug 75 or Less Album Reviews. Leaving aside what may be a grammar error in the title (words being discrete, "fewer" might be preferred, but then "75 words or fewer" doesn't really sound right...), they do exactly what the title says: review albums using no more than 75 words. I haven't heard enough of the records they've reviewed recently to get a good read on their accuracy, but their reviews are sharp, to the point, and often amusing. It's worth a look.

And that's pretty much it. Having stuck Mike Steeves with the image of me singing a Go-Go's tune, I'm off. Back next Tuesday, or thereabouts.

Posted at 10:02 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

What I Bought Last Weekend

I'd been holding off on buying new CD's for a while, what with the expenses of moving, and the looming need to buy a house, but a recent blitz of new stuff that I want lured me back into the store, and I picked up a whole bunch of stuff. I don't usually buy CD's in blocks of ten, but I did this weekend, and it was a decent scatter of things, which provides another fair guide to my tastes in music, so I'll list them here:

There you go. Nothing all that daring, really, but then these were chain stores in the Albany area, so it's a little tricky to find "daring" at all...

Posted at 9:39 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Watch Out For the Crystal Sphere

It's sort of fashionable to pick on NASA, and harp on how far they've fallen from the glory days of the Apollo program, usually with a few digs thrown in about how their incompetence proves the gross inefficiency of government, bureaucracy, or some combination thereof. And, to be sure, the agency has provided its critics with plenty of material for mockery-- the warped mirror on the Hubble, a rash of missing Mars probes, the white elephant of the Shuttle program. Some of these truly are unforgivable-- the persons responsible for the missed unit conversion that blew up one of the Mars probes should be beaten to death with a platinum-irridium alloy meter stick.

But a lot of the criticism of NASA's failures tends to miss the point-- what they're trying to do is astonishingly difficult. Trying to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars is akin to trying to land a radio-controlled model airplane on the Empire State Building, from Boise, Idaho-- it's not like you could give a bunch of wise-ass pundits a billion dollars and a wrench and get better results overnight. It's fairly amazing that they can get a probe in the vicinity of another planet at all, let alone land one on the surface and do interesting science once it's there (and a lot of the problems they end up with stem from the fact that just getting a probe to Mars no longer counts as interesting science). The impressive successes they have managed are overshadowed by the past-- we've all been spoiled by the Apollo program, from which we picked up the mistaken impression that this stuff is easy, and success should come automatically.

So it's important to take a few minutes every now and then to salute the things that NASA's done right. And two of their biggest successes are the Voyager probes, still going strong after 25 years, and coming up on the outer "edge" of the Solar System. Yeah, fine, these probes date from before the agency really fell on hard times, and they're each basically just a camera and a radio, but still, they're an impressive achievement, and deserve a little recognition.

Here's to the Voyager probes, then-- may they keep running for another 25 years.

And may they still think kindly of us when they're absorbed into the consciousness of a destructive alien space cloud...

(Aside: The post title is taken from David Brin's short story "The Crystal Spheres," from the excellent collection The River of Time (go buy a copy now). The story offers an interesting take on the "Fermi Paradox." Another story in the collection ("Senses Three and Six," if I'm remembering correctly) offers a wonderful explanation for NASA's problems-- the failed missions and cost overruns are all an accounting blind to hide the vast sums being siphoned off into a secret effort to oppose evil Alien Overlords...)

Posted at 11:11 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

"Perfect Albums"

Having suggested that people writing reviews for BlogCritics ought to post "favorite album" lists to provide some context for their reviews, I suppose I'm obliged to post such a list myself. Of course, being a naturally contrary sort, I'll do this in a slightly idiosyncratic manner.

As noted in another recent post, I have some fairly strong opinions on what constitutes a good album, that go beyond just having three or four good singles. A really great album is a collection of songs that all work together, and add up to something more than the sum of the individual tunes-- mediocre songs should be lifted up in the context of a really great album, and sound better than they would on their own. It's also crucial that none of the songs be actively bad or annoying.

I've sometimes referred to this (with characteristic humility) as the "Perfect Album" concept, but it's a little tricky to concisely nail down exactly what I mean. It's important that all of the songs be at least reasonably good, so I've sometimes said "They're records on which all the tracks are good" or "They're records you can put on 'Random Play' in a CD changer without needing to skip tracks," but there's more to it than that-- you can make a good shuffle-play album out of a dozen tracks that all sort of sound the same, and don't really suck. Buffalo Tom has a few such albums, to pick a name off the MP3 collection, but none of them make the Perfect Album list. It's important that the songs all fit together well, which is part of why I exclude "Greatest Hits" packages from consideration, but live albums are off the list as well, just to be difficult.

I should emphasize that this isn't really a "favorite albums" list per se, or a good indicator of the sort of thing I play most frequently. There are lots of albums that make regular appearances in my CD player that aren't listed below, usually because of one or two actively irritating tracks, some of them great records by almost any standard. I'm a big Bob Dylan fan, but Blonde On Blonde misses out because "Rainy Day Women" is so goddamn annoying, and Highway 61 Revisited doesn't make it because "Ballad of a Thin Man" bugs me. It's also limited to records I actually own, so while there's a chance that Born to Run or London Calling might belong on the list, the fact that I don't have them on CD disqualifies them from consideration. And all the usual disclaimers apply: Tastes Vary, all IMAO, YMMV. HTH, HAND.

So. The list, in alphabetical order by artist, because that's how the discs are shelved:

And that's ten, which is a nice round number, and a good place to stop. There are dozens of albums hanging just below the level of this list (Fight Songs was the last one on (I've been on a country-ish kick for a little while now, and needed something to represent that), while Exile On Main St. and Utopia Parkway were the last two cut, and might well make it into the top ten if you asked me again in a month), and dozens more which were excluded on the basis of one arbitrary criterion or another. But these ten are consistent favorites, and probably as good a quick indicator of my tastes in music as anything else I could provide.

Posted at 10:54 AM | link | follow-ups | 19 comments

What Kate Said

For the benefit of the few people who read this, but haven't already seen this link on Outside of a Dog or Making Light, or Boing Boing, or any of the other places that have linked it, John M. Ford is a genius. From 110 Stories:

The firemen look up, and know the time.
These labored, took their wages, and are dead.
The cracker-crumbs of fascia sieve the light.
The air's deciduous of letterhead.
How dark, how brilliant, things will be tonight.
Once more, we'll all remember where we were.
Forget it, friend. You didn't have a choice.
That's got to be a rumor, but who's sure?
The Internet is stammering with noise.
You turn and turn but just can't turn away.
My child can't understand. I can't explain.
The towers drain out from Boston to LA.

Read the whole thing, link to it (with proper attribution-- that's John M-as-in-"Mike" Ford, author of (among other things) Growing Up Weightless and The Last Hot Time and From the End of the Twentieth Century, not the director of Westerns...), and go buy every one of his books.

(Update: Minor editing to correct an embarrassing typo and mention the many links I hadn't yet seen when I originally posted that.)

(Update II: Link changed to point to a copy at, for bandwidth reasons.)

Posted at 8:44 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Monday, August 19, 2002

Tanned, Rested, and Ready

The hot political topic of the moment in the "blogosphere" is, of course, the "coming war with Iraq." I'm sort of torn on the whole issue-- in principle, I have no problem with the idea that Saddam Hussein ought to be removed from power. He's a vicious asshole, and just about everybody would be happier to see him gone. On the other hand, though, it's not clear that this is a can of worms we really ought to be opening at this time-- there's no clear replacement for Saddam, there's no real support for the war outside the US and the "blogosphere," and this doesn't strike me as an incredibly urgent and pressing concern. I'd probably be all in favor of removing Hussein by military force, if we were to go about it in the right way, but I'm not convinced we need to rush into it right now.

What I am sure of is that the way we're actually going about it is completely wrong, and frighteningly so. There was an article in yesterday's Washington Post under the headline "White House Push for Iraqi Strike Is on Hold: Waiting to Make Case for Action Allows Invasion Opponents to Dominate Debate" which had a couple of quotes that nicely sum up the problems. First, from uber-hawk Richard Perle, we have this:

"Timing is everything when you do this," said Richard Perle, a former Reagan defense official who is close to key figures in the Bush administration. "If you launched [a public campaign] too far in advance and nothing followed, that would raise questions and fuel a debate that would not be helpful to the administration. . . . If you join the debate now, but don't act for months, you pay a worse price."

(Let's ignore the patented Josh Marshall complaint about Perle's real status within this administration...)

You pay a worse price than... what? Than backing our way into an ill-thought-out and poorly-justified shooting war? 'Cause, you know, we've done that, forty-odd years ago in Southeast Asia, and it was pretty bad...

(Please note, I'm not saying that involvement in Iraq would automatically be a quagmire like Vietnam was, or that it we'd end up losing like we did in Vietnam. Iraq is not Vietnam, and the constraints on our actions that were present during Vietnam are no longer there. War in Iraq, at least at the start, would be a straight up two armies face to face sort of affair, and there's no force in the world that can go toe-to-toe with the US military machine-- the complaints that the New York Times and other publishing "leaked battle plans" are "compromising the war effort" are laughable. We could email Hussein detailed copies of the war plans, and tell him the date and time that we'd commence firing, and he'd still lose.

(A future war in Iraq would not be a bloodless affair, though. "Regime change" will require something more than Gulf War II. American blood will be shed, and things have the potential to get rather messy. And any sensible approach to the aftermath (indulge me in a hypothetical...) will require a significant commitment of American resources to the region, for a long period of time. This is not a trivial undertaking, and if the current Administration wants to embark on this course with the same sort of hazy half-assed justifications we used when we backed our way into Vietnam, they're setting themselves up, potentially, for the same sort of fall.)

The really creepy quote comes later in the piece, though:

Advocates of quick action against Hussein say Bush will get automatic support and opponents will retreat when he moves against Iraq. "It'll be a piece of cake to get public support," said Ken Adelman, a former Reagan official with close ties to senior Bush aides. "The American people will be 90 percent for it. Almost nobody in Congress will object, and the allies will pipe down."

This is what I find really frightening about the whole war issue, and this administration in general. It's not just that they're endorsing dubious policies, and setting a questionable course with only the flimsiest of justifications. Anybody with half a brain knew going in that Bush the Younger is all about dubious policy-- it was the whole basis of his campaign.

What bothers me about the administration's conduct of the run-up to war is that they go beyond disinterest in what people think of their ill-thought-out policies, to actual contempt for public opinion. Because that's what these two quotes amount to-- we don't need to have public debate about policy, or provide the American people with an explanation of what we're going to do, because when the bullets start flying, everybody will fall in line like the sheep that they are. This isn't just undemocratic, it's downright imperial.

I've long thought that G. W. Bush was not so much Bush II as Reagan II-- a genial halfwit elected on a promise to cut taxes. Quotes like these, from people "close to key figures in the Bush administration" are starting to make me think we've actually gotten Nixon II.

Posted at 11:41 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, August 18, 2002

Absolutely Critical Springsteen Opinion

So, where do I stand on the all-important question of "Mary's Place"? Is it the standout track on the album, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Jim Henley claim, or is it "thoroughly embarrassing" and "an apparent concession to Boss diehards stubbornly stalled in the '70s".

I'm not quite prepared to declare it the very best track on the album (I'm just philistine enough to really like the title track), but I'm inclined to agree with Jim and Patrick. The disconnect between the subject matter and the music is fairly extreme, but it's a terrific song. I was put off by the mismatch between the music and lyrics the first time I heard it, but it's been growing on me.

Jim rightly points out the parallels to Sam Cooke's "Meet Me at Mary's Place" (and if you haven't read his discussion of the lyrics, go do that now), but misses another parallel. The "Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain" chant seems like another reference to the musical past, to songs like "I Wish It Would Rain":

Day in, day out, my tear-stained face is pressed against the window pane
I search the skies desperately for rain
'Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops
And no one will ever know
That I'm cryin', cryin' when I go outside

It may not be the very best song on the album (though I may yet come around to that opinion), but it does combine most of the best features of the album in a single song-- the lyrics nicely evoke the pain and loss of the widower, and celebrate the redemptive power of music, with the band in fine form, and the gospel-ish "Waitin' for that shout from the crowd (Turn it up)" back and forth buildup to the ecstatic "Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up" that shows the music "transmut[ing] the pain (and the love that abides) into something like joy" (as Jim puts it).

I'll stop talking about this now, before I start to sound any more like Anthony DeCurtis. It's a great tune, leave it at that.

Posted at 10:44 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Come On, Rise Up

I finally got around to buying Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, along with a bunch of other stuff, and can't resist throwing my $0.02 into the discussion about it.

This is a difficult record to write about, in a number of ways. For one thing, it's a rather long album (pushing the limits of the CD format), and could easily have been trimmed by a few songs without losing any quality (I'd suggest "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)", "Further On (Up the Road)", and "The Fuse"). It also sprawls in a musical sense, covering pretty much all the bases you can cover with the E Street Band. (Which are a lot of bases, given that it's basically a band built around excess-- two keyboardists and three guitars, for God's sake. Were Clarence Clemons a smaller man, they'd probably have two saxophone players as well...)

The biggest difficulty by far, though, has to do with the subject matter. As anyone who hasn't been living in a cave knows, this is Springsteen's September 11 album, with the bulk of the tracks touching on one aspect or another of that horrific event. There are songs about lost loved ones, songs about firemen, and songs about the anger and rage of the aftermath. It's hard to separate the album from the trauma (despite the big uplifting gospel shout of the title track, knowing what it's about gets me all choked up), and that's the sort of thing that can easily get in the way of determining whether the album is any good or not. (See, for example, Neil Young's Sleeps With Angels, about Kurt Cobain's death, which Rolling Stone gave five stars at the time of its release, but now pretends not to have reviewed, because, well, it's just not that good an album...). The important question to ask about a new record is not "Is this a good album right now?" but "Five years from now, will I still think this is a good album?" It's a difficult question to answer, made more difficult by the fact that this album, and these songs are so inextricably bound up in recent history.

That said, the answer is almost certainly "yes." There are some tracks that are probably slightly over-inflated by their currency (chief among them being "Worlds Apart" which gets lots of critical attention for including qawwli singers, but aside from that inspired touch, isn't that great a song), but for the most part, Springsteen manages to avoid the trap of excessive topicality. The songs gain an added resonance from the context of September 11, but with a few exceptions ("Into the Fire," "Empty Sky," "Worlds Apart," and possibly the title track), most of these songs would work nearly as well in a different context. They're about loss and separation, true, but the cause of the loss is unspecified-- Mary's Place" is about a wake, but the singer's wife could as easily have been killed by a drunk driver as a terrorist. And even "My City of Ruins," one of the songs which might seem to be most strongly linked to the September 11 tragedy, was written before the attacks, and is about more general urban decay.

And those songs which are inescapably about the attacks are, for the most part, really, really good. Springsteen has a real gift for writing songs that sound like you've known them for years, with infectious choruses that you can't help singing along with. Yeah, "Waitin' On a Sunny Day" is repetitive, but it's catchy, and by the second time through the chorus, it's really hard not to join in. Ditto "Countin' On a Miracle," "Mary's Place," and the title track. The slower songs ("Nothing Man," "You're Missing," and "Paradise") aren't nearly as catchy, and take a little more work to really appreciate them, but they're some of the most effective tracks on the record. The only real clunker here is "The Fuse."

It's a slightly different sound for the E Street Band. There's a heavy gospel tone to the album, with the prayerful chorus of "Into the Fire," the exhoration to "Come on, rise up!" in "My City of Ruins," and, of course, the title track. It's a more spiritual record than his other big rock albums-- Rolling Stone rightly proclaims it "The Gospel According to Bruce"-- but it's fitting, and the band absolutely nails the material. Of course, you'd expect nothing less.

So, is this a five-star album, as Rolling Stone declares? Well, no, as it's a little too long, and sags a bit in the middle. But then I'm awfully picky about rating albums, and this comes about as close as you can get. It's a great album, and the four people reading this who haven't already bought it should go do so immediately.

(Update: I decided to join up with the cool kids, and posted this to BlogCritics. I'm a trend-hopper, no doubt about it...)

Posted at 10:36 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

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