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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Whiplash Top Five

I was going to do one of those "List the next N songs on shuffle play" posts, because it's been a while, and I got a pretty decent run of songs not long ago. After writing down 15 names, though, iTunes coughed up a set of five that are about as good an example of Shuffle Play Whiplash as you'd ever want to hear:

If I thought hard about it, I could probably come up with a different set of five good songs that did a better job of spanning the full range of my collection, but this is pretty good.

Posted at 9:10 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Where's The Love?

Since the movie quotes post has been up for a full week without anybody guessing #3 ("Have you got pigeon shit in your eyes?!?!?"), I'll reveal the answer: Hoosiers. It's what Gene Hackman yells at the referee in the game where he deliberately gets himself thrown out and sticks Dennis Hopper with coaching the team.

There's just no love for basketball around here, is there?

Posted at 9:07 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Last Year in Music

Via a comment below by Skwid, there's a compilation of Best Album Lists over at Amy's Robot. There's also a list of the Top 90.3 at KEXP, which is a more accurate reflection of what I've actually been listening to. These serve two purposes: 1) to remind me how out of touch I am with the tastes of most music critics, and 2) to remind me that I never did any kind of summary post.

I have kind of a tough time trying to sum up this year in music, because this is the year that I got an iPod, and ripped all my old CD's to MP3's, which means that I spent a lot of the second half of the year immersed in the sounds of forgotten album tracks from my own record collection. It makes it a little difficult to sort out what was really new this year, and what was an old song that I heard for the first time in a long time.

Of course, the iPod/iTunes thing also means that I haven't been listening to albums as much as single tracks, even when I've bought albums. So I don't have a lot to say on the subject of "best albums," but I'll say what little I do have here.

The compiled list offers as the top ten albums:

10. Morrissey – You Are the Quarry
9. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose
8. The Libertines – s/t
7. Interpol – Antics
6. The Arcade Fire – Funeral
5. Wilco – A Ghost is Born
4. Brian Wilson – Smile
3. Kanye West – The College Dropout
2. The Streets – A Grand Don’t Come for Free
1. Franz Ferdinand – s/t

And what a near-washout that is. I've only bought four of those (Loretta Lynn, The Arcade Fire, Wilco, and Franz Ferdinand), I might eventually buy two others (The Libertines and Interpol), I have no real interest in Brian Wilson or Kanye West, and I actively dislike what I've heard of The Streets and Morrissey. (I've never liked Morrissey, though, so this isn't a new development).

KEXP offers a different top ten:

10 Tom Waits - Real Gone
9 The Killers - Hot Fuss
8 Wilco A Ghost - Is Born
7 Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill
6 Citizen Cope - The Clarence Greenwood Recordings
5 Snow Patrol - Final Straw
4 Interpol - Antics
3 Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
2 Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News
1 The Arcade Fire - Funeral

This one fares a little better, as there's nothing on here that doesn't have at least some redeeming qualities. The Modest Mouse record did produce two kick-ass singles, "Float On" and "Ocean Breathes Salty." Sadly, those are the only good songs on the album, but they're very good indeed. I wasn't blown away by the previous Elliott Smith album that I bought, but it's not bad, and what I've heard of the new one is good. Snow Patrol is almost completely anonymous-- I must've heard something by them at some point, but I couldn't hum it for you. At least they don't piss me off. Citizen Cope must be a Seattle thing, as KEXP plays him all the time, but it's not terrible. And Tom Waits is, well, Tom Waits.

The striking thing here is how lukewarm I feel about, well, just about all of these records. A Ghost is Born is an improvement over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (in terms of being able to, you know, listen to it), but that's about it. The Loretta Lynn record is a good country record, and it's sort of novel for Jack White not to be annoying, but again, it doesn't go much past that. As noted recently, I like the Arcade Fire record, but I haven't had it for all that long (and, technically, I didn't acquire it until 2005, which makes it a little dubious as the Album of 2004 for me).

Of the records available on these lists, I'm probably happiest with Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. They're almost the same record, in some ways, but of the two, I prefer Hot Fuss, mostly because I bought it earlier, and listened to it a bunch. Also, "Mr. Brightside" is a terrific song-- enjoy it now, before Fox or the WB attach it to a dreadful teenage soap opera and ruin it forever.

But boy, that's not really a ringing endorsement for musical 2004.

Posted at 8:19 AM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Politicization of Scientists

I used to think of myself as a fairly apolitical person, and I still cling to some of that. While I find the modern Republican party pretty thoroughly repellent, I'm not willing to begin speaking of the Democrats in the first person, either (though this is partly an extension of my objection to "we" used by sports fans), as they've got their own corps of objectionable wing nuts.

However, it's been recently driven home to me that I've become more politically attuned in the past several years. There was a dog show on tv the other night, that Kate had on as background noise while I wrote exam questions, and I have to say, I find the whole purebred dog show concept faintly objectionable.

I mean, as the announcers kept telling us, the dogs are judged solely on their conformance to "standards" for the breeds, which are a more-or-less arbitrary set of criteria defining the breed. The politics of this are just revolting-- it'd be like having a Human Show where the "Best Caucasian" prize went to the person with the blondest hair, bluest eyes, and smallest vertical leap.

(It's also lousy television, since the announcers don't actually provide anything that's recognizable as commentary in the usual sense. They don't even attempt to highlight features that the judge may be basing the decision on-- they just talk about the breeds in general.)

Really, were it not for the "Awww... Doggie!" moments, it would be completely unwatchable.

I'd love to find some way to blame this on the Bush Administration, but this is really just a continuation of a trend that began long ago. By the time Bush took office, it had already ruined Tolkien for me. (The best move Peter Jackson et al. made on the script level was moderating the loathsome class and gender politics of the original, though some of the scenes still make me squirm.) This one, I have to pin on the Liberal Academy, whose insidious influence has not only made me more aware of race and class politics, but also turned me into the sort of person who looks for political subtext in a dog show, fer Chrissakes. I'm, like, two steps from becoming a British music journalist.

Maybe I need to get out more.

Posted at 8:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 27 comments

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Extinction Events

While putting together the list of movie quotes a few posts back, I spent a while trying to come up with a good but non-obvious line from Heathers to use, but drew a blank. I ended up referring to it in the post title, and that's it.

Heathers is an interesting movie, because I always think of it as the death knell for 80's teen comedies. There was a thriving subgenre of teen movies in the 80's-- that whole Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, The Sure Thing, John Hughes rite de passage thing-- and Heathers took off from that. And after Heathers, there's nothing along those lines for ten years, until American Pie kicked off the current spate of teen movies.

Now, you can argue about whether or not Heathers was a cause or an effect of the death of teen comedies-- the real heyday of those flicks was a few years earlier, so it might just have been a trend running its course. But I've always linked the two events, making Heathers, in my mind at least, a rare example of a pop-culture extinction event.

There are lots of trends out there that rise and fall, and it's not hard to find creation events-- albums or films that came out of nowhere and started a trend. It's much rarer to be able to point to any one event, and say "This event killed that trend." Disco, for example, dropped from "popular" to "reviled" in an instant, but I'm not sure I could point to anything in particular that killed it. My memories of that time are a little vague, but I don't recall any one thing that took disco's place. The very late 70's and early 80's are sort of an aimless muddle, pop-culture wise. Disco was dying or dead, and New Wave was starting up, but it took a few years to really take hold. Likewise the death of New Wave a few years later-- it just sort of faded out. It faded quickly, to be sure, but there wasn't any one thing that clearly killed it.

The only other unambiguous pop-culture extinction event I can recall is "Smells Like Teen Spirit," (that one, I'm willing to narrow down to a single song, though it was the whole Seattle sound) which slammed into the world of hair metal like an asteroid hitting the Gulf of Mexico. That whole subculture vanished basically overnight, and a thousand "Behind the Music" stories were born. It'll be interesting to see if The Darkness and their hair-metal revival are the start of a new trend (an American Pie for the music industry), or just a bit of semi-ironic nostalgia.

Other than Heathers and Nirvana, though, I have a hard time identifying another good candidate. I suspect the Beatles may have been one, but my knowledge of the pre-Beatles pop scene is pretty much nonexistent. (I know songs and artists, but not dates.)

Is there a movie that's generally felt to be responsible for the long drought of Westerns through the 70's and 80's? The Wild Bunch would seem to be a good candidate, but then, High Plains Drifter comes later, so it can't have been gone.

World War II movies went away for a long time (from the Seventies through Saving Private Ryan, more or less), but that was undoubtedly a result of Vietnam, which is a different effect. You could also argue that the existence of self-aware WWII movies like Kelly's Heroes and The Dirty Dozen indicate that the WWII thing was just about played out. (This argument could apply to High Plains Drifter as well, though it's not as much fun.)

On a literary level, Snow Crash feels like it ought to signal the end of "cyberpunk," as it takes most of the tropes of that subgenre to parodic extremes, while not actually being (entirely) a parody. I'm not sure it's really that well known, though, and it's also not clear that "cyberpunk" as such was still a going concern by that time. It's really easy to come up with books that started trends, but it's pretty hard to find any that end them.

Are there examples I'm missing?

Posted at 7:39 AM | link | follow-ups | 16 comments

Monday, January 17, 2005

Links Dump

Since I started using Bloglines, I've gotten in the habit of clicking "Keep New" for posts that I probably want to comment on, but can't think of anything to say right at that moment. On some level, this is an improvement over my previous practice of just leaving a zillion windows open in Opera (for one thing, I don't lose the posts when there's a power outage). On the other hand, though, I tend to forget about them after a while.

So here's a big list of things that I meant to say something or another about, but didn't get to.

The oldest post on the list is William Tozier's Read Your Signature on the Scattered Ashes, where he asks readers to think about the meaning of their personal possessions:

What items there in the room with you could be used to reconstruct or rediscover a lost aspect of your life, when they pass along their eventual paths into the future and come to the attention (out of context) of other people who do not know you? What of your possessions might be used to differentiate your life from those of others in your demographic? To glean insight about you, when you?re gone?

I particularly like the super extra credit distinction between items you have kept, and items you just have. It's a very nice piece, and thought-provoking, even if those thoughts never did resolve into a blog post.

Next in the backlog is, via Scalzi's AOL gig (and a hundred other places), the Edge annual question, asking a bunch of really smart people "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" There's a big collection of answers, ranging from the all-too-typical to the mildly surprising, and it's worth thinking about. I didn't come up with anything that would make a coherent blog post, though, and the moment has sort of passed.

Sean Carroll gets two entries, the first providing some oppressively real advice for aspiring scientists, the second listing some good sources of scientific information. I really don't have anything to add to either-- read what Sean has to say.

There's a certain category of blogs that seem to me to exist only to provide a great show of principled hand-wringing before coming down in favor of whatever the Republican position happens to be, regardless of the logical contortions required. The Volokh Conspiracy is one, and Jane Galt/ Asymmetrical Information is another. I don't have much use for them myself, but Mark Kleiman, "a man whose patience for self-aggrandizing horseshit is apparently infinite" (in the immortal words of The Editors), spins a good post on poverty, hunger, and obesity out of one of them, so maybe they do serve some purpose after all. Mark also deserves credit for recommending a Bible verse for your next football game sign. In fact, why is he not on my blogroll? I should've added him ages ago. I'll fix that now.

Turning to the subject of education, we have a couple of posts via LiveJournal people. First (via a lost link) is Farah Mendlesohn's "The Child Reader v. the Reading Child". As a critic, Mendlesohn is hit or miss for me, but I like the distinction she makes here. I'm not sure what to do with that information, other than to post it here.

Finally, we have an article, via "Sartorias" on LiveJournal (I'm not sure if her real name is a secret or not-- these things are so hard to keep track of), on the troubles of smart kids. Most of the time, when I hear people talking about how difficult life is for "gifted" children, I hear myself at age 14, whining, and I want to reach back trough time and slap me. I'm not unsympathetic, but the "they're picked on because they're intimidating" genre of work has an unpleasant air of self-justification that I find grating. I was a smart kid, and I was picked on, and in retrospect, it had more to do with my social ineptitude than my fearsome brains.

This article by Lydia Joyce is not as easy to dismiss. She writes about the problems of extremely gifted children in great detail, and cites sources to back up her claim that they're subject to unique problems. I'm still not sure I buy it, but it's an interesting read.

And that ought to be enough to keep people busy if I disappear into class and exam prep for a few days.

Posted at 8:00 AM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Small-Time Hoops Update

Yesterday was a Saturday in January, which means it was prime hoops season, with a huge slate of games on tv. Taking a cue from the Mid-Majority, though, I decided to go for live hoops action, rather than the televised variety.

Of course, there aren't a lot of Div. I teams hereabouts, so I had to drop down to Div. III, and watch Union's men's and women's teams play Vassar, as part of the official opening of the spiffy new basketball center (complete with luxury box, occupied yesterday by the friends and family of Dave Viniar '76, who paid for the building, and was on hand for the dedication).

If you're going to dedicate a new facility, of course, it pays to do a little strategic scheduling, and play a team you're sure you can beat. For the women's team, Vassar was a clear choice-- the score was 20-4 in Union's favor when I arrived, and it never got much closer than that. This was the sort of game where starters get pulled and chewed out for letting the lead shrink to 14. The final score was 73-42, and my main interest in the second half was seeing how many points my current and former students would manage (15 among four of them).

If you'd like a clear indication of exactly how big a gap exists between basketball at the major-conference level, and Div. III women's college hoops, by the way, look no further than the player listings in the program, which show three players having different numbers for home and away games. That's right, they're playing in a brand new multi-million dollar facility, and they don't appear to have two jerseys with #13 on them.

On the positive side, though, admission to the games is free, and it's possible to watch the whole thing from ten feet off the court, directly underneath one of the baskets (which is more comfortable than sitting on the plastic bleachers). So, hey, win some, lose some. But really, some alumn should buy them some new shirts.

While strategic scheduling had obviously worked for the women, things looked a little rockier for the men's team. Star forward Devon Bruce (who's a much better player than I am) had injured his ankle during the previous night's defeat, and was visibly limping during warm-ups. While the game started out well, Vassar switched to a full-court zone press midway through the first half, and gave Union fits. They led 41-40 at the half, and really controlled the last several minutes.

The second half opened at a rather frenetic pace, with several exchanges of breakaway layups, but eventually settled down a bit. Union managed to crack the press, and Vassar wore down a bit, so the final margin of 82-69 doesn't really reflect the closeness of the contest. Bruce managed 19 on a bum leg, including a few dunks that pleased the not-even-close-to-capacity crowd, and guard John Cagianello led all scorers with 21.

I really ought to be better about going to more of these games. The games are entertaining, and much closer to human scale than the Div. I ball I usually watch. They're still better than I'll ever be, but not by the orders of magnitude that you get with Div. I players. After a Vassar up-and-under lay-up rimmed out, I remarked to one of the people I was sitting with, "That's the difference between Div. I and Div. III right there. In the ACC, that circus shot goes in more often than not, while these guys are happy just to get it close." (Of course, I can't even manage that...)

Anyway, there's your live basketball report for the weekend. Coming up next, I attempt to play in an intramural game tonight...

Posted at 9:06 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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