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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Administrative Note

In an effort to deal with the increasing levels of poker spam, Kate upgraded our comment system this morning. The changes on the user side should be pretty minimal (a bigger comment box, and different text), but if you notice anything not working right, let me know.

Posted at 11:28 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Friday, June 10, 2005

Hot Physics Video

Dave Bacon links to a home video of the 1927 Solvay Conference, shot by famous Schenectady resident Irving Langmuir. This was one of a famous series of academic conferences in which the founders of quantum mechanics got together to hash out their new ideas.

The video shows brief clips of many eminent physicists mugging for the camera, but manages not to include the conference's most famous attendee, noted semiconductor expert Britney Spears (photographic evidence is available here). It does have a few shots of Marie Curie, though, and her second album was way better than Spears's overproduced pop crap.

(I'm sure this post is going to lead to a dramatic increae in the quality of my comment spam...)

Posted at 8:57 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Better Is Music Live

Kate got tickets for a Serenity preview yesterday. For those not in the know, it's the Firefly movie, and it has all sorts of geeks a-quiver.

I'm going to lose major Geek Points over this, but I won't be going to the screening. Not because I didn't like the show-- it's not as good as some people make out, but I definitely want to see the movie-- but because Kate previously bought tickets to see John Hiatt and the North Mississippi All-Stars at the Egg on the same night. There's really no contest.

It's not just that I like John Hiatt (though we wouldn't've got the tickets if I didn't)-- live music beats a movie screening every time (well, almost-- I'm sure it's possible to find combinations of bad live bands and good movies where that wouldn't be true). The movie will be in general release in September, and on DVD after that, so there are an effectively infinite number of chances to see it in the future, and it'll be exactly the same every time. A live show is a one-off event, even when it's somebody like John Hiatt who tours almost constantly.

There are countless reasons for this, starting with song selection. With the exception of a few highly-packaged MTV acts, most touring musicians vary their set list from one night to the next. A band with two albums out already has more songs than they need to fill a typical live set (a headline act will typically play for 1-2 hours, a "special guest" more like 30 minutes). Someone like John Hiatt, who's been at this since the Seventies, has a back catalogue running to hundreds of songs (I count 109 on my iTunes, and that's a heavily edited selection). Even throwing out the weak filler tracks, and taking into account the basic rules of showmanship, the permutations are endless. And that doesn't even take into account the possibility of cover tunes.

And then there's the chance of hearing a different version of a known song. Some artists do more of this than others-- Fountains of Wayne played straight-off-the-album versions of most of their songs, but most live acts will shake things up a little bit. This ranges from fairly extreme re-writings (Bob Dylan re-doing "It Ain't Me, Babe" as a country waltz, Ryan Adams with a mournful version of "New York, New York") to splicing in other tunes (Counting Crows put Springsteen's "Thunder Road" into the middle of "Rain King," the Afghan Whigs did about six other songs in the middle of "Turn On the Water"), to relatively minor tweaking (Tom Petty doing an acoustic "Yer So Bad," or most of Richard Thompson's solo show). Most acts will do at least a few new things on the road, that you'll never hear anywhere else (unless they make it to a live album).

And finally, some songs are just better live. Not because of any obvious re-working, but for reasons that are hard to nail down-- the atmosphere, a slight tempo change, the addition or smoothing out of some rough edges. Last Friday's show was a good example-- "Magnolia Mountain" played live was terrific, but it's kind of a nothing song on the album. I didn't notice anything really different in the way they played it, but some combination of factors made it work really well.

The most extreme example of the superiority of live versions (in my CD collection, at least) is probably the Blasters. Part of this is undoubtedly that I picked up the live album Trouble Bound before getting any of their studio stuff, but there's no doubt in my mind the live versions of most of those songs are just better. Particularly for a song like "Help You Dream," the studio version of which is grossly overproduced, but even something like "Marie Marie" benefits greatly from the added energy of the live version (not that the studio cut is dull, mind-- but the album-closing live version is really something else).

The phrase "Live Music Is Better" used to be spray-painted backwards in highway department fashion (hence the post title) on a stretch of abandoned road running through the woods near my parents' house. I have no idea who did that (it's an odd phrase to use in graffiti at all, let alone in the middle of the woods), but what they wrote was right, more often than not.

Posted at 8:41 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Culture Shock

I spent the first couple of days of this week down in New Haven at a CLEAN collaboration workshop (which is why nothing's been happening here other than the slow accumulation of poker spam). Sadly, I didn't get a chance to go to one of my favorite restaurants (I could've snuck in just before I left, but it was so wretchedly hot and sticky that I wasn't actually hungry), but I did get to my favorite bar, meeting Derek Lowe for some wings and beer. (For those who care, he looks exactly like his picture, and has a distinct Southern accent. In the traditional manner of scientists meeting over beer, we exchanged funny stories of people almost killing themselves in lab accidents.)

The CLEAN meeting itself was really interesting, and not just because it provided another chance for me to give my background-measuring sales pitch (which went over very well). The talks were mostly pitched at the right level for me to follow the basic idea of what they were about, and it was fascinating to watch the beginnings of the design process for the actual detector under consideration.

The main result of the meeting was a decision on the scale of the next step to be attempted (around 100 kg), which is a step that never really comes in in my own area of physics. In AMO physics, there's not usually a lot of prototyping-- you either build the whole experiment, or you don't. Some sub-parts can be built separately (I'm planning to have a student build a new metastable source this summer, while I'm using the one that's already been built), but they rarely amount to experiments in their own right. It's strange to see people planning a three-year effort to build something that they know going in will serve only as a proof-of-principle for the larger device that they really want to build.

(Weirder still was the statement, in favor of the 100-kg scale rather than the 5000-kg scale, that "100-kg is only a million-dollar experiment, and we don't even need to talk to funding agencies for that." Again, that's close to four times my integrated funding, projected through the end of the NSF grant...)

Anyway, it was a fascinating meeting, on several levels. It's also convinced me that it would be good to learn a lot more about these sorts of detectors, because it would be nice to have something to contribute to the general discussion. Another project for my infinite spare time...

(Recommendations for a "Neutrino/ Dark Matter Detectors for Idiot Atomic Physicists" sort of reference are welcome in comments.)

Posted at 7:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

The Capital District of New York is not what you'd call a major stop on the pop-music touring circuit. They get a few big-name acts a year at SPAC (mostly perpetual-tour workhorses like the Dave Matthews Band), and there are ocasionally interesting shows at the Pepsi Arena, but it's mostly smaller acts in smaller venues, bands that are on their way up, or down, or just perpetually under the radar. Some of these acts are very good (see previous posts about John Hiatt (who's coming around again in a couple of weeks) and Richard Thompson), but they tend not to produce your classic sort of intense live show.

This past Friday's show by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals (apparently, he's promoted his touring band to co-equal status) was easily one of the strangest I've ever seen, though. It took place at Northern Lights, a club/ bar in the middle of nowhere in Clifton Park (the back door sported a sign saying that the door had to remain closed due to a Clifton Park noise ordinance, but I can't imagine who would be disturbed if it were left open, as the view was scrubby little trees as far as the eye could see), just across the river from us.

The club itself is pretty bare-bones-- a big empty concrete-floored space, with two bar areas (and Red Hook IPA on tap, so that's good), a stage off in one back corner, and some pool tables and video game machines up near the front. The crowd was pretty good, but was a pretty braod cross-section of people, most of whom appeared to be there not so much to see Ryan Adams as because there isn't a great deal to do in Clifton Park on a Friday.

The start of the show wasn't especially promising, either. First of all, there wasn't an opening act, so while the doors opened at 7:30, the show didn't start until just after 9:30 (Kate and I got there at around 8:00, expecting a Very Special Guest to start at 8:30 or so...). More importantly, when they finally did come out (Adams sporting a full beard and Buddy Holly glasses-- there must be some sort of Rivers Cuomo look-alike contest going on), they devoted most of the first set to extended mopey instrumental freak-outs.

This may have been the worst mis-match between the set being played and the crowd in attendance that I've ever seen. The occasional up-tempo song got the crowd's attention (the opening "Easy Plateau" and "Let it Ride"), but then they'd lose it again after a long and brooding version of some deep cut from an early album ("To Be Young" off Heartbreaker, re-done as a slow country song). Musically, it was pretty interesting (he did a mournful re-write of "New York, New York" as well), and the band was very good, but the crowd wasn't into it at all.

And, having had better than an hour of drinking and chatting while waiting for the band to come out, they responded by just not shutting up. During the quiet songs (which were most of the set) and awkward instrument-tuning breaks (which were many), there was a constant buzz of barroom conversation. It wasn't confined to the back edges of the crowd, either-- after working my way forward to get away from some annoying chatterers, I got stuck right behind a guy in a Red Sox cap who was working really hard trying to pick up a young woman with a long, involved anecdote about going to Fenway Park. I wound up going back to the bar, because the alternative was knocking their skulls together in time with the music they were ignoring.

After about an hour and a half, the band took a set break, and better than half the crowd just left. I was frustrated enough with the crowd that I was almost tempted to leave, and Kate was very clearly not enjoying it at all. Just before the band came back out, I gave her the car keys, in case she decided she couldn't take any more so she could go out to the car and nap.

And then the second set was amazing. I don't think it was a matter of lowered exepctations, either-- after opening with a slow song, they played a lively set of tunes ("Magnolia Mountain," "Dance All Night," and "Beautiful Sorta" off the new record, "My Winding Wheel" off Heartbreaker), and even the slow songs ("Harder Now That It's Over" off Gold, "Come Pick Me Up" off Heartbreaker) had some life to them. They did a goofy "Song Lotto" shtick in the middle, where they pulled a song request from a box of suggestions, and invited the woman whose card was drawn on-stage for a version of "Meadowlake Street" that was one of the highlights of the evening.

It helped that by that time, the crowd was down to just fans (singing along with "Come Pick Me Up" is a give-away), no question, but it was mostly just a better selection of material. The band was good at the instrumental noodling they did in the first set, but when they had good songs to play, they were terrific. They didn't play anything off the Rock n Roll album, but the charged-up version of "Love is Hell" that they played as an encore showed that they could've if they'd wanted to.

I'm really not sure what to make of this. Adams made a couple of comments in the second set that made it sound almost like a strategic decision to drive away the non-fans (making the band's appeal "more selective" in the immortal words of Ian Faith), and that wouldn't be inconsistent with his reputation as an erratic live act. But then, that very reputation could also argue that it was a coincidence-- that he just can't quite be bothered to put in the effort for two crowd-pleasing sets.

Regardless, the second set more than made up for the problems of the first (which, again, was musically good but poorly aimed). And the overall show was well worth the ticket price-- $20 (I drove over there to save the $5.50 Ticketmaster fee, as 27.5% seems a little steep as a "convenience" charge) for a three and a half hour show (two and a half if you subtract the half-hour set break, and the half-hour of miscellaneous dinking around and guitar tuning).

Sadly, Kate heard the opening slow song of the second set, and went out to the car, and missed the best parts of the show...

(If you'd like confirmation of my version of events, you can find excited message-board wibbling about what a great show it was here and here. Of course, there's also this guy complaining about the first set (as predicted in second-set stage patter). And if you think you can get any information from pictures, there are lots of concert photos here. There's also a set list for the show.)

Posted at 9:32 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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