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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Giblets is My Co-Pilot

As is so often the case, Fafblog says it best:

Things I will not do the next time I live through 2004 my eyes at any time; the scary part does not end

Here's hoping for a better and brighter 2005.

Posted at 11:35 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Friday, December 31, 2004

Belated Musical Griping

With the religous tolerance comment thread closing in on 50 posts (or 0.25 Making Lights), I probably ought to try to capitalize on that and post on some other Big Issue or another. But that kind of thread is really kind of exhausting, so I'm going to gripe about Christmas music instead.

I know, I know, the time to do this was a week or two ago, as was done at the Whatever (draft New Year's resolution: stop linking to Scalzi five times a week) and Making Light. But between the digital cable music channels, Web radio, and iTunes, I managed to more or less completely avoid hearing Christmas music this year, outside of the occasional shopping trip. It wasn't until we got to my parents' that I was forced to listen to Christmas music for any length of time.

The fact that I just don't like Christmas music is a recurring source of holiday family conflict, as my sister gets very annoyed if I try to play anything else, or even watch tv rather than listen to Christmas CD's. (I was good this year, thanks in large part to Old Man's War, which was diverting enough that I didn't pay attention to what was on, but I still got snarked at a couple of times for wanting to watch football.) Coming back to find the holiday music post at Making Light, and the usual collection of fascinating comments, got me thinking about why it is that I don't like the stuff, and I thought I'd write down some of my thoughts.

There really isn't a single reason for it-- more a collection of reasons that each knock out a large chunk of the Christmas classics. For one thing, I just don't get into classical music, which knocks out a bunch of stuff right away, but we'll restrict this to songs with, you know, words.

Right at the start, I'd like to say that I really like the distinction Tris McCall makes (via Bill Higgins) between Christmas carols and Christmas music:

Christmas carols are very old, and are by and large about Jesus. Christmas music is mostly from the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and generally replaces Jesus with Santa Claus.

I think this is dead on, and while he goes on to really badly overanalyze the whole Santa/Jesus thing, the basic distinction is a very useful one.

Taking the two groups separately, the problem with the Santa-positive Christmas music is that most of it is either insipid, or crass, or both. Add in the fact that the whole Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole crooner thing doesn't do much for me, and, well, there's not much here for me to like. There are some songs whose craftsmanship I can admire, and some really disgustingly effective earworms, but by and large, I just don't care for this whole class of stuff.

Which brings us to the Christmas carols. These start in a slightly uneasy position, given that they tend to be explicitly religious, and I'm, well, not. But then Christmas really is a religious holiday, so I'm actually more or less OK with that. To be honest, I'd prefer more angels singing to shepherds and fewer chestnuts roasting on sleigh rides.

The problem with the carols isn't really with the songs themselves, so much as the way they're presented. My parents have a big collection of Christmas CD's and tapes, mostly put together by Hallmark, and they all do the same thing: they try to turn "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" into Bach. Big orchestras, complicated arrangements, huge choirs with lots of different parts running simultaneously. They take simple songs, and try to render them into spectacle.

And for me, that really misses the whole point. With the exception of "O Holy Night," the main virtue of Christmas carols is that they're eminently singable. They've survived through the years (or just became popular in the first place) not because they're grand and timeless explorations of the best that orchestral music has to offer, but because they're catchy, memorable, and can be sung effectively by large groups of people who don't necessarily have any musical ability, but who have some enthusiasm for the subject.

Tarting these songs up with big choirs and complicated arrangements drains all the life out of them. It takes a moving participatory number, and attempts to turn it into Art, to be admired from a distance, preferably behind glass. It's like doing symphonic arrangements of early Rolling Stones songs-- sure, you can do it, but why would you want to?

Yeah, fine, "Joy to the World" is impressive when sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir backed up by the London Philharmonic. But it's moving when belted out by tone-deaf farmers as the recessional at Midnight Mass. They don't have the technical ability of professionals, but it means enough to them to be standing there singing at one in the morning, and that's worth a lot. You lose that when you add the strings and the nineteen different vocal parts.

And that's the problem with most recorded Christmas carols: they take simple songs, and make them needlessly complicated. They turn what ought to be a participatory experience into something where it seems almost rude to sing along, if you can even manage it.

And I don't even want to talk about what results when they give the same treatment to Christmas music. The horror... the horror...

(Stepping out of the Christmas subgenre, I have similar feelings about a lot of Celtic and pseudo-Celtic music. I really enjoy the Pogues, but most of the other recordings I've heard of that sort of music have had a sort a cold, preservationist quality to them. "Whiskey in the Jar" isn't Beethoven's Ninth, to be played flawlessly note for note (and it's not a goddamn dirge, Jerry Garcia). It's, well, "Whiskey in the Jar," and it should have some life to it. If the singer gets drunk and is fuzzy on the words, well, I've heard 'em before, so it's all good as long as it's lively.

(I've realized that it's not so much that I like traditional Irish songs, as that I like the Pogues singing traditional Irish songs. I like the anarchic just-this-side of complete collapse feeling, and I love the "we've got every instrument we could find, and if you'll just move into the kitchen, Shane will bang on the sink" arrangements. Recommendations of more bands in that vein would be welcome.)

Posted at 8:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Schedule Conflict? What Schedule Conflict?


10:50-11:55 - Physics 17 Lecture (Section 02)

12:05-1:10 - Physics 17 Lecture (Section 03)

2:30-3:30 - Office Hours


9:00-10:40 - Physics 17 Lab (Section 02)

10:50-12:30 - Physics 17 Lab (Section 03)

2:30-3:30 - Office Hours


10:50-11:55 - Physics 17 Lecture (Section 02)

12:05-1:10 - Physics 17 Lecture (Section 03)

2:30-3:30 - Office Hours


9:00-5:00 Research/ Grading/ Quiet Gibbering


10:50-11:55 - Physics 17 Lecture (Section 02)

12:05-1:10 - Physics 17 Lecture (Section 03)

2:30-3:30 - Office Hours

4:30 - 6:30 Happy Hour

Posted at 11:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Rules of the Game (Translated from Dog)

Things You Need to Play the White Stuff Game:

1) White stuff. A couple of inches will do. Without white stuff, it's just "Fetch." Fetch is dull.

2) A human. It's very difficult to play without a human. They have thumbs, and can pick stuff up.

3) One of these. It's called a "Hurl-a-Squirrel," or maybe a "Heave-a-Beaver," or even a "Chuck-a-Duck." Best. Toy. Ever.

How to Play the White Stuff Game:

1) The human will throw the squirrel. Go get it.

2) Shake it vigorously, to make sure it's dead.

3) Chew on it a bit. It's fun.

4) Shake it vigorously. Squirrels are tricksy.

5) Bury it in white stuff.

6) Dig it back up. Repeat steps 5 and 6 to make a fun trench across the back yard.

7) Shake it vigorously. You can never have enough shaking.

8) Take it back to the human, and wait for him to throw it again.

It's hours of fun!

Posted at 8:55 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

When in Doubt, Send Money

I wish there was something insightful I could say about the unfolding earthquake/tsunami tragedy in Asia, but really, there's nothing to say.

In lieu of commentary, then, I'll just link to a couple of resources:

Posted at 2:09 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

NIST Standard Reference Kate

We currently have three dogs in the immediate family, and the contrast between them is pretty amusing. Kate's parent's have a 20-lb Boston Terrier named Truman, our Emmy is about 50 lbs, and my parents' yellow Labrador RD is a big, friendly, 87-lb lunkhead. It's always strange to go from one to another, because the size shift is so striking.

Of course, as any good scientist will tell you, if you're going to compare things in different places (and bringing all three dogs together would be a total disaster), you need to have something to compare them to. Thus, we present the Chateau Steelypips Family Dog Comparison (larger version available here), with Kate serving as our constant-size reference. (Another amusing comparison is between RD now, and when they got him...)

In other news: Digital cameras still entertaining. JPEG at 11.

Posted at 9:25 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Monday, December 27, 2004

A Study in Contrasts

Here's a bit of Christmas cheer from PZ Myers, on vacation in The City:

I’m definitely an atheist. Here it is, Christmas Day, and we walked by the Cathedral of St. Patrick with its bells pounding and mobs of people milling inside, and I looked at that building and discovered what ‘visceral revulsion’ felt like. It’s hideous. I saw that looming overly ornate lump of gray and thought there really ought to be a burning eye suspended at the top. My wife insisted we go inside, so we went through the annoying security checkpoint and stood at the back while a fat priest in fancy robes sermonized at the front of the place. I felt nothing but contempt, and we fought our way through the crowds to get out. So much money, so much effort wasted on ostentatious display for wicked superstition…I felt like I’d found the rotting heart of evil in New York City.

Here, a week and a half earlier, is John Scalzi (whose novel Old Man's War everybody should go buy right away) on talking to his daughter about Christmas (a very long excerpt, but there's nothing there I want to cut):

And what will I teach her about Christmas as she gets older? Everything I think is important, and also everything she wants to know (which may not always be the same things). I'll read to her the Biblical stories of the birth of Jesus; I'll also explain to her one of the reasons we celebrate Christmas when we do was a matter of the Church co-opting Solstice observances to accommodate previously pagan converts. We'll sing Christmas carols; I'll explain the history of the Christmas tree and Santa Claus. I'll answer the questions she asks, and help her find the answers for herself. I think over time she'll get a good understanding of Christmas as a religious holiday and as a secular gift-exchange extravaganza. And in the end, if all goes as planned, she'll make her own decisions about the importance of each of these aspects to her. But it's critically important she understand that at the root of it all is the birth of a child many consider divine. As they say, it's the reason of the season.

As I'm not personally religious, some of you may ask why I would make the effort to teach Athena the religious aspects of the holiday. The reasons are several. The first is that even if one doubts the Christhood of Jesus, one may still admire him as a man, a thinker, and an icon of peace. You don't have to be a Christian to want your child to know that Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. The second is that it's my job as a parent to teach my child these things; I don't want my child picking up theology on the proverbial street corner because we don't teach her about it at home. That seems a fine way for her to pick up some dubious knowledge from dubious people who might eventually get her in trouble. Better that we introduce her to that sort of thing. Third, it's not a bad thing to reinforce the idea that when Athena does have questions about any subject, she can come to us, and we're going to tell her as much of the truth of things as we can.

Also, unlike a fair number of the non-religious, I'm not antagonistic toward religion per se, or Christianity specifically. As I've said elsewhere, I think Christianity is a fine religion, and I wish more Christians practiced it. And, not entirely separately, of course one reads a story like this, in which Christians were so incensed that a manger scene was taken out of a school play that they voted down much-needed funds for their school district, or that they've mandated teaching "intelligent design" in high school biology classes, and one wonders why so many Christians seem to believe that Jesus wants their children to be dumb as lard, as if there's some sort of natural opposition between accepting Christ as one's savior and increasing one's knowledge of the world to the limits of one's God-given abilities. But that's not about Christianity, or religion in general; that's about some people's thick-headed interpretation of it and the religious impulse. I don't blame Jesus for the stupidity of some of his followers; we don't get to choose our fans.

I am not religious, but I would not be disappointed if my daughter decided to become so, over the fullness of time and through a depth of knowledge, since it is not a failure of the either the human intellect or spirit to seek the divine. Where I would have failed her is if her religious impulse were to take on a close-minded, fearful and intolerant cast. I would have equally failed her if she were non-religious but also close-minded, fearful and intolerant of those who had such an impulse.

In the end, I want to teach my daughter about Jesus so she can understand him, understand those who see him as the son of God, and understand how he fits into her own view of the world. Making sure she understands why Christmas exists is a good starting point. It's early in her understanding of all of this, of course. But better early than too late.

Ask yourself which of these two you'd rather be when you grow up. And the important phrase here is "grow up."

(And if you think that the difference between them is just that Scalzi has a higher tolerance for idiots, well, you haven't been reading the Whatever. And you might also find it instructive to look at the Christmas Eve post on Making Light, because Teresa has a lower tolerance for idiots than either of them.)

Posted at 9:21 AM | link | follow-ups | 63 comments

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