Monday, January 1, 2018

Questionable Content

Questionable Content (QC) is a web comic by Jeph Jacques. It started in 2003, and has been updating M-F for many years now.

The original cast of Western Mass-dwelling 20-somethings were: Martin, indie-rock aficionado, Faye, his curvaceous and geeky roommate and love interest, Steve, his friend, Dora, the girl he eventually ended up with, and Hanners, the girl next door but not in that way. Martin also owned a small robot companion, Pintsize.

As time went on the cast grew, with relatives, relationships, and friends. But a pattern began to emerge which I have come to find very annoying.

Early on the three female leads, Faye, Dora, and Hanners shared equal time. The first two because of a Martin-based love triangle, the third because Hanners was initially mysterious and sort of kooky. But once a steady relationship formed, Jeph started introducing more and more female characters.

There was Marigold, an amime-watching curvy geeky girl. She was accompanied by

Momi, her anthro-PC companion who looks like a Japanese schoolgirl.

Then Tai, bisexual leader of a small crew of library grad students which included characters such as Emily and

Claire, the geeky trans girlfriend Martin ended up with after Dora (who paired with Tai).

Then we had Brun, a geeky curvaceous girl with an interest in clocks and a possible love triangle between two supporting male characters.

Then Bubbles, another, far more curvaceous female android and former combat vet who may be romantically interested in Faye.

And now Tilly, who uses them/they pronouns…

And I’m done.

 I don’t care anymore. No more wacky or woke female characters. Please. Each one gets a story arc that can last a very long time, but then they’re dropped when Jeph gets bored, and we never hear from them again. And I left out some of the secondary female characters who didn’t get big story arcs, like Martin’s dominatrix mom, the curvaceous geeky (see a pattern?) savant Raven, or Penelope, who is secretly Pizza Girl. Nor do I know whatever happened to the leftovers of the original cast, like Steve and his girlfriend whose name I’ve long since forgotten because it has been literally years since we’ve checked up on them.

Examples of what I’m talking about: Marigold’s arc began around strip 1600. (She also had a boy crush, name lost to the ether.) By 2650 she was wrapped and done, hardly seen since. Claire had showed up as a supporting side-character somewhere around 2250, got together with Martin around 2900, and shortly thereafter she (and Martin largely, by extension) started to disappear. Around 3300 Brun showed up, by 3400 Bubbles was the star of the strip, and by 3600 we’re now on to Tilly.

There’s something unsettling in discarding these women. Each has a different woke aspect. Hanners had OCD, Brun is autistic, Bubbles had PTSD from combat, Claire is trans, and now Tilly is some form of gender queer. The original cast successfully carried the strip with minor supports until around the Marigold arc. More worrying still, Jeph made a point that he loved the new focus on Marigold, calling her his favorite character. Then he said the exact same thing about Claire. And then turned to Bubbles…

And I’m done. It was a fun run, but instead of working with what he has it’s clear he’s just going to keep introducing characters and neglecting the women he’s already created.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2017 in Books

This was a very good year in reading - one of the best in a long time. Usually at the end of the year I create a Top 5, with one or two five-star entries, and then the best of the four-stars. This year, for the first time in ages, I have more than five five-star books! So I put them all on, at the end as usual. Didn't read as many pages this year as years past, nor volumes, but very satisfying.

Nonfiction

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

The first portion of the work traces the rise of the Kochs, and others of their type, who have amassed unseemly fortunes for political manipulation. The second section details how unified their spending was based on their business interests – whether greasing up judges for Citizens United, putting the cash into “AstroTurf” (fake grassroots) movements like the Tea Party, lobbying against climate change, or setting up foundations, think tanks, and academic chairs to spread their gospel – a wholesale assault on all branches of American life to convert us to their worldview: the federal government exists solely to protect property rights. The final part handles the moves that have been made since 2010, the back and forth of the billionaire class.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

A book that required I take it in slowly. In the parlance of our times, it is largely responsible for becoming ‘woke’ – even for someone who had identified as a feminist male-ally prior to reading the work. It abolished the model I had been working with, of equivalence, and replaced it with equality. Startling to realize how often our society argues the necessity of the former instead of the latter. A basic understanding of Freud, and Sartre’s existentialism (no surprises there), is useful.

Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenko

A fun little gallimaufry of wandering thoughts. Some quirky, some insightful, and yes, some rather pointless – but all in all a fun and intriguing read.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Parts of this weird 1620 catalogue of things are real gems, and in general I found the first half to be interesting. But the second half was not. At all. And since that comprises fully 400+ pages, that’s a slog that on balance makes the enterprise not really worthwhile. Excerpts suggested instead.

Philosophy and Existence by Karl Jaspers

Three lectures-as-essays. Jaspers was one of the few significant existentialists I’d not engaged with, but I found his observations to be of little interest.

Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti

A fascinating whirlwind through anthropology, psychology, and politics that focuses on the interaction of crowd dynamics, formation, paranoia, growth, and other facets of power.

Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Stephen Jay Gould

The first 230-or so pages are clear enough for a person with a general science background, but then the jargon comes quickly without explanation, logarithmic tables, etc. Interesting ideas about evolution and embryology, but it’s too technical for most.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll

This is a very readable introductory text to ‘evo devo’ – the combination of evolutionary and developmental biology. At times he is a bit folksy, and at times a bit technical, but overall it’s pitched at the right level for a lay reader. Focuses on genetics and makes a strong case for the role they play in how species evolve by activating and deactivating parts of genes.

Fiction

A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Not a particularly good set of poems – fine. Feels like one of those collections you have to read, but there is far superior Beat poetry out there (most notably Ginsberg).

Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories

A very short saga indeed – only around forty pages. Of some historical interest is that Hrafnkel becomes an atheist midway after his fortune turns sour. Then, by Icelandic standards, he becomes a better man. (Although still a vengeance-hungry murderer, so, you know. Different values.)

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

The Mahabharata. Pride and Prejudice. War and Peace. …Pippi Longstocking? So decided the Norwegian Nobel Institute when they included the work as one of the 100 greatest works of world literature ever written. I was, needless to say, skeptical. Yet this slim read was so amusing, so fresh, and so frequently laugh-aloud funny I have to concur.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Truly remarkable – the excellence of the language, the style, the descriptions. Having finished this work I simultaneously wish I had read it sooner, and also felt that it was the perfect work to have read now – and increasingly I find that experience a theme for the books I encounter that are the most valuable.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

ARGH. I loved this book, and couldn’t stop reading it. But honest-to-goodness the last chapter so screwed up the preceding 290 pages, I was very upset. Until that point I was increasingly persuaded that it should replace Orwell in high schools. Still, as dystopias go, I’ll put it as third in the pantheon with Huxley and Orwell – but unfortunately in third place.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Having encountered Marquez in high school, via ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, I for what seemed ages had his more famous novel on my “to read” list. It did not disappoint, despite the very high bar, and most impressively it stuck the landing, which I worried over for a good hundred pages. Absolutely worthy of the 20th century canon.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

One of the few culturally important gifts we’ve received from ‘Family Guy’ is Peter Griffin in exasperation saying: “Oh my God! Who. The hell. CARES.” For the first, oh two hundred-ish pages of this thousand-page tome I gamely followed the (dry) account because it was intriguing to get a glimpse into so different a society, and I genuinely found some of the cultural information very interesting, even if the plot and characters left me mostly cold. But then there were another eight-ish hundred pages of late-night rendezvouses, affronted honor, and complex familial ties and obligations which prompted me to have the same vexation as Peter. It took me four years to finally finish this – after even the main character himself has died it just. keeps. going. Get an abridged edition or – better yet – avoid altogether.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

Another multi-year project. It started off so well, sending-up religion, the art world, academia, middle class values – and then kept on doing that. For about a thousand pages. As challenging to read as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and equally unrewarding.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Making a loathsome main character relatable is a very hard task to achieve. And Achebe does not achieve it. But after the introductory ‘Anthropology 101’ chapters it moves quickly and has a tight ending.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

An excellent read, but it does expect a certain intellectual familiarity with dialectical history (and Romaine Rolland would also help). Still, a superbly written work – both gripping and reflective, which is rarely achieved. A fictional counterpart to Camus’ “fastidious assassins” of The Rebel.

Ramayana by Valmiki (Trans. Ramesh Menon)

The epic tale is very enjoyable, and a must-read for those who enjoy Homer, mythology, and the like. The last section, however, the Uttara Kanda, is a problematic years-later addition to the main text, and may safely be avoided.

Poems of Paul Celan (Trans. Michael Hamburger)

I intensely enjoyed the initial poems of the first publications by Celan, but this was followed by a rather uninspired middle (with repetitive focus on certain tired themes like the eye, words, and stones) before refreshing itself, at least partially, towards the end.

Canti by Giacomo Leopardi (Trans. Jonathan Galassi)

This slim volume of 40 works breaks down with an opening on how everything sucks and Italy isn’t, like, cool anymore, at which point he discovers love (which also sucks) – accounting for the first half. Then there’s some reflection, some contemplation on how frequently he used to lament and whether life really sucked that much… But this does not last.

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

It was very difficult to get through the first part of this bitter and cruel work about repression and screwed-up mother-daughter relationships. It slowly improves, but not a great deal.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Imagine ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ but it’s too long, too preachy, and not funny.

Ironweed by William Kennedy

A nice little ramble of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ meeting Steinbeck’s Joads in Albany, with a gratifying, and Pulitzer-worthy use of language.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

An absorbing work which starts of firmly grounded in Borgesian themes and then expands well beyond them into moving contemplations.

Angels in America: Perestroika by Tony Kushner

A decade after reading Millennium Approaches for school I finally got around to reading the second part of the play. I preferred the first volume, but Perestroika manages to pull it all together near the end to make it as good as Millennium.

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

A sort-of ur-mystery which kept me turning pages until two in the morning. Modiano’s work sucks you in and compels your attention with his use of language.

Loving by Henry Green

Pleasant-enough upstairs-mostly-downstairs portrait of English servants working in a castle in Ireland during the War. The style is fine, but I wasn’t overly impressed, and sort of surprised that so many people give it high plaudits. Perhaps the market is so saturated these days with this sort of fare it has diluted the enjoyment of the originals.

Sunjata by Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute

Two orally-transmitted Gambian versions of a Malian epic.  The first is tribal, the second post-Islamic. Neither is particularly enjoyable.

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

For a reader who relishes well-crafted plots, this book will disappoint. Within the first section I knew where it was going, and it unfolded exactly as anticipated. That said, the first two of three sections are very good for character development and capturing a certain time of life when one has just graduated from university and is trying to decide who they are.

The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France

Set in the last days of France’s Terror the plot and outcome is already known, allowing the author to focus with very good detail on the psychological cross-section of how Parisians dealt with living in a climate of fear.

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric

This epic covers the centuries that pass by a bridge with an episodic, almost short-story feel before the final third which settles in on a stable cast of characters. I enjoyed the first two thirds, and it has a great last chapter, but he fumbles the “main” (?) characters fairly badly in the final third.

Winesburg Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

An American classic – frankly psychological and sexual for its time. That said, this milestone pales a bit, now given that such themes are ordinary and commonplace in much literature.

El Senor Presidente by Miguel Asturias

Asturias has a powerful command of language which settled deeply into this nightmarish world. While we in the US tend to refer to “banana republics” derisively ‘El Senor Presidente’ peels back the view for an outsider to reveal a horrific personal set of tragedies caused by such a dictator.

Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers

Before Steinbeck, Jeffers was the voice of the California Central Coast. His poetry is not very good.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

A nice philosophic novel, but it is stained with the ideas and racial descriptors of a worse era.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

All the King’s Men tells the story of a young man, in his early thirties, with a keen interest in politics and history, who needs to know the truth at all costs (even if it takes him to California), has strong principles (and failed relationships), and is living through the rise of an American dictator.

I mean. Come on.

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee

A very good allegorical tale of waiting on the frontiers, and the roles and abuses of power – the simple style will probably stick with me for some time.

Graphic Novels

Saga vol. 6+7 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples


After a nearly two-year hiatus I was concerned about picking up the thread where I’d left off. It’s a credit to the team for making it easy to get back into the still-engrossing story.


Top "5" - All five-star books!

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
El Senor Presidente by Miguel Asturias
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Songs of the Last Five Years

2017 to 2012. 

Looking back on music I’ve found the years since 2012 to be kind of… blegch. Which got me thinking, reflecting on this lousy stretch: which tunes will be considered the icons of this weird five-year spread? What will be played at the parties, fill out karaoke playlists, and be the backbone of digital 2010s radio stations ten years (or the 2010s-themed parties in twenty years) from now? Here are my guesses for a Top 40 of Pop.

NOTE: I loathe some/many of these tracks. This is just my prediction for what’s going to last, not my personal endorsements.

NOTE NOTE: The fact that I’m even making this list is rather silly, considering how many of these I only knew in the vaguest terms, and had to look up by lyric or digging. I don’t listen to pop music! So if the song made it through my radio-free bubble, I guess it has to be pretty well-known.

All About That Base – Meghan Trainor, 2014.
Alright – Kendrick Lamar, 2015.
Anaconda – Nicki Minaj, 2014.
Applause – Lady Gaga, 2013.
Bang Bang – Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, 2014.
Black Beatles – Rae Sremmurd ft. Gucci Mane, 2016.
Chandelier – Sia, 2014.
Counting Stars – One Republic, 2013.
Cranes in the Sky – Solange Knowles, 2016.
Despacito – Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee, 2017.
Fancy – Iggy Azalea ft. Charli CXC, 2014.
Formation – BeyoncĂ©, 2016.
Gangnam Style – Psy, 2012.
Get Lucky – Daft Punk ft. Pharrell, 2013.
Happy – Pharrell, 2013.
Hello – Adele, 2015.
Hotling Bling – Drake, 2015.
I Love It – Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX, 2012.
Ivy – Frank Ocean, 2016.
Let It Go – Idina Menzel, 2013.
Mask Off – Future, 2017.
Q.U.E.E.N. – Janelle Mona eft. Erykah Badu, 2013.
Radioactive – Imagine Dragons, 2012.
Roar – Katy Perry, 2013.
Royals – Lorde, 2012.
See You Again – Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth, 2015.
Shake It Off – Taylor Swift, 2014.
Shape of You – Ed Sheeran, 2017.
Stay With Me – Sam Smith, 2014.
Sugar – Maroon 5, 2014.
The Fox (What Does the Fox Say) – Ylvis, 2013.
The Sound – The 1975, 2016.
Thrift Shop – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, 2012.
Timber – Pitbull ft. Kesha, 2013.
Trap Queen – Fetty Wap, 2015.
Turn Down for What – DJ Snake ft. Lil Jon, 2014.
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars, 2014.
Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker, 2013.
Work – Rhianna ft. Drake, 2016.
Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus, 2013.


Fun Fact: While compiling this list I legitimately wondered, and had to look up, if The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” (released in 1996) was recorded in the past five years. I am old.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2018?

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2018: And the nominees are…

Nineteen nominees this year, and lots of strong contenders. First thing’s first, here are the essentials who need to get inducted:

Nina Simone
Radiohead
The Cars

This trio is too pivotal, too important, etc. Next, are artists who I really like, or whose musical importance I acknowledge. Any of these would be good to round out the above three, but I’ve gone ahead and put them in the order I would want:

The Zombies
The Meters
The Moody Blues
Dire Straits
Link Wray
Eurythmics
LL Cool J
Judas Priest
Bon Jovi
Depeche Mode
Rage Against the Machine

These would all be fine. If the committee was stupid and lost their mind they could even make a list out of a combo of those second-runners and be okay. (Note: I don't listen to Judas Priest, but I like that they are at least giving a nod to the edgier sounds. Still no Def Leppard, or many other unrecognized pioneers of heavy / metal.)

Of note: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Should totally be inducted… But if Louis Jordan and Ma Rainey are “Early Influences” she should be too.

Not keen on seeing put in there:

Kate Bush. I don’t like her, but the Hall of Fame is behind on women...
MC5. Again, I just don’t get them. I tried a couple of their albums – not my style.
J. Geils Band. I had to look them up. They aren’t that good. But they’ve been nominated five times, so someone at the Hall really wants them in.
Rufus feat. Chaka Khan. Blegch. I had to look up who they were, and boy was I not impressed.

So I guess my worst list would be these four plus Rage Against the Machine or Depeche Mode. That would be a pretty crappy lineup.


Seriously, though, if Nina Simone isn’t inducted I’m going to be pissed. Regular folk can vote until the 5th and as of now Bon Jovi is way, way in the lead.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Western Science

I used to always read three books at a time: one literature, one social sciences or philosophy, and one science or mathematics.

In the past two or three years I have been neglecting the last category. Partially this is due to a massive upturn in reading literature. 2016, for example, was a year of reading obscure lit I was tracking down in Berkeley's libraries. Partially, though, this was also due to consistent rebuffs in attempting to read physics books.

For my money, no good physics books, that is those which elucidate novel discoveries, were written after the 1930s. Heisenberg, for example, made an effort to ensure his work 'The Physical Principles of Quantum Theory' made sense to a lay audience. Since the "scientific revolution" of the Renaissance most scientists usually took some pains to make sure their work, if obscure or difficult for the non-specialist, came with lots of explanation. (Isaac Newton is a notable exception to this rule.) Preceding and following a couple pages of equations there would be ample text spent on disentangling the meaning of what was just stated mathematically.

Last year I tackled Planck's 'Treatise on Thermodynamics' - only the first third of which was intelligible to a layman like me. The other big scientific work last year was 'Cybernetics' by Norbert Wiener, had the same issue. It was better than Planck, but still a struggle. The year before I only read Levi's 'Periodic Table', admittedly more memoir than scientific text, Muir's work on glaciation in California, and two mathematical works I found all-too-cumbersome for decidedly opposite reasons: Fibonacci's 'Liber Abaci', which was dull as unseasoned millet porridge, and Boole's 'Investigation', which, like Planck, began promising, and then devolved into unintelligible equations for hundreds of pages. 2014 saw Boyle's 'Sceptical Chymist' finally checked off, but providing little of value, with no other works of scientific or mathematical interest being read that year.

I learn best when approaching a subject historically. And so, for the time being, I'm going to give physics a rest, and return to a different field, genetics, where I had left off with Jacob and Monod's theories, and Dawkins. My study of the history of genetics had taken me from Mendel to Sutton, to Dreisch and Morgan, through Beadle and Tatum to Watson and Crick. But it had stopped in the late 60s / early 70s. So that's where I returned. First I picked up an older paper by Barbara McClintock, on chromosomes in maize varieties which was very interesting, published in the mid-50s. Then I took out Gould's 'Ontogeny and Phylogeny', which I just began, and which is quite interesting so far. After this I intend to turn to Carroll's 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful'.

Most students, I wager, would have a hard time naming a living scientist who contributed significantly to their field. Sure they know Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, but what are these men known for? Tyson did a little productive work in studying supernovas, and Nye invented part of a jet engine for the Boeing 747. Neither is known for this work, they are instead science popularizers. Really, beyond Stephen Hawking, there are no superstars in the science field, and most students, at best, would only be able to say (if anything) that Hawking did something to do with black holes. I mean, he hasn't won a Nobel Prize, and most of his theoretical predictions have yet to be proven. Whether Hawking's ideas prove themselves is still to be seen. That's a far cry from someone like Einstein, who in his lifetime saw most of his theory confirmed. Indeed, one of the few sensational science stories of the past two years has been the final confirmation of Einstein waves - showing what a long shadow was cast by our fascination with the German physicist.

It was unusual, back in the 20s and 30s, to have so many superstars all at once. Rutherford and Fermi, Einstein and Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrodinger. Not often do we see this. But for decades this trend continued, with people like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Willard Libby, and William Shockley. The last time Time Magazine put a scientist as Person of the Year was 1996. It was David Ho (he helped pioneer AIDS research, and is not exactly a household name). Twenty years have elapsed since then, and his distinction came after a long pause since "US Scientists" won the title in 1960. By the Watergate era it seemed scientists were taking more and more of a cultural backseat. Sure you have Steve Jobs and the technologists like Tim Berners-Lee, but hard science, physics, bio, chem - we don't really celebrate that much anymore. We hear of new developments, everyone seems abuzz about CRISPR Cas9, but can you name the scientists who discovered it, or those who decoded the human genome? (Craig Venter, a creep who has tried to patent genes and Francis Collins, who is a creationist, for the latter. I don't know who figured out CRISPR either.)

Perhaps our society's turning away from science is because we have so few role models. Since the popularization of the internet, twenty years ago, we've been on a technology binge, and our greatest discoveries have been in the transfer of satellite data, microprocessors, robotics, and software advancements. These are all very cool, and worthwhile, but it would be nice to have another Feynman or Fleming, another Rachel Carson or Marie Curie.

Another reason, of course, and this returns to my reading of Gould, is that scientists don't write for lay audiences. The people publishing the articles, they don't write a tome or treatise on their work and its importance, carefully breaking down how to make sense of it. We learn all of this second hand, from faceless textbook editors, or from news stories.

Finally, the third reason we don't have as much scientific awareness, besides anonymity and not writing for masses, is the issue of cost of entry. High school students today still learn the same cellular structure their parents' did. We all laugh when we hear that "mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell", it's become a meme. It's a meaningless phrase - it doesn't tell us what mitochondria really is, or how it works, or what it's made of. School is a limited time-frame, so like anything, you can only cover so much in the time allotted. By the 1950s quantum physics was trickling down to the general population, but you don't get that taught to you in high school now any more than they did back then; because we still need to spend the earliest years of science describing how frogs grow and how there are eight planets around the sun. A child in middle school can be told about DNA, but they won't really get it. Hence why we can all make fun of mitochondria - we're taught facts that are essentially meaningless. I know the words xylem and phloem, but I'd be buggered to describe which is which. The jargon, created by scientists as a necessary result of the increase in their fields' complexity, renders comprehension far too difficult for any but the most capable adolescent minds.

Which is a real problem. We still draw pictures of atoms based on Bohr's orbits, because shells are too complicated. Most students who get a basic high school physics class won't really get Einstein's theories of Relativity. Nuclear radiation we know is bad, and something called half life follows, and that's bad too, because... atoms get scrambled? Somehow? So most people with high school degree's understanding of chemistry would be able to allege.

As scientific literacy wanes, kookiness abounds. Astrology, psychics, creationism, these are all doing fine in our frightening post-truth, "alternative facts" landscape. But it doesn't have to be this way. Firstly, there are giants among us, we just need to see more of them. News programs, late night, podcasts - we need people dedicated to weeding through the noise and taking the time to cover not just headline-grabbing stories, but the actual interesting work that's being done. People need to have a face to put to these stories. Secondly, we need the scientists who are making the big discoveries to start making their writing accessible. Peter Higgs, for example, has complained about his boson being called a 'God particle'. Very well, then he must write a better book, or at least collaborate to create a work, in which he describes his ideas the way he wants them expounded. If you make no efforts to educate the public, you can't really complain if they are uneducated. And finally, we need to consider how we teach science. If we spent less time on admittedly basic specifics, but which lacking context are rendered meaningless, and more time on central concepts of the scientific method, and logic, (combined with a non-problem solving teaching of mathematics) we could start to get people to think scientifically. And then the barrier to entry of these fields would not seem so high.

In the meantime, I'm going to get back on the wagon of reading science books, and trying to figure it out for myself.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

20th/21st Century Classical

Some of the best classical music of the last century is, not surprisingly, film scores.

In the 1800s, composers we admire, like Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, composed music to accompany moving images, like the ballets "Swan Lake" and "Scheherazade". A century before, Handel composed the evergreen "Music for the Royal Fireworks" to accompany just such a display of pyrotechnic images. And of course modern opera can trace its roots back at least as far as Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo", from 410 years ago.

Good film music, like all famous classical music, contains either an emotional connection, or a wildly catchy hook. Typically it can paint a very specific, easy-to-relate-to, image evocative of a time or place. For my purposes I'm only selecting one work by composer, and strictly classical - so no jazzy scores like Lalo Schifrin's "Bullitt" or Alex North's "A Streetcar Named Desire". So whether you've seen the movie or not, here are ten film scores I think will persist into the centuries to come:

10. "Gone with the Wind" – Max Steiner

Tara's Theme is pure manipulation. Catchy, schmaltzy, manipulation.

09. "The Godfather" – Nino Rota 

This famous tune evokes the same feel as the descending notes in the Habenera from Carmen.

08. "Inception" – Hans Zimmer 

Zimmer's output is vast, and generally mediocre. This piece so perfectly represents the early 21st century, though, I think it will be the one to survive - often imitated, etc.

07. "The Pink Panther" – Henry Mancini 

Personally I prefer "Breakfast at Tiffany's"... but that has a lot to do with "Moon River". "The Pink Panther Theme" is arguably the catchiest cinema hook yet, and will be a hallmark of the sound of the sophisticated side of the 1960s.

06. "The Magnificent Seven" – Elmer Bernstein 

It's so high-energy, so widely-copied. This piece has the most typical feeling for an orchestral suite. It's optimistic, American, Western - at home somewhere between a trite composition like Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" and a masterful work of emotional resonance, like Copland's "Rodeo".

05. "Beauty and the Beast" – Alan Menken 

From the vast archives of Disney film music, and Alan Menken in particular, this work sticks out. The frequent problem of Disney film scores is a certain doofy, kid-friendliness (consider "Under the Sea" or "Friend Like Me"). "Beauty and the Beast" would have fit in nicely with the ballet scores of an earlier era.

04. "Lawrence of Arabia" – Maurice Jarre 

If Steiner, above, is the schmaltzy version of what a film score can do with strings, "Lawrence of Arabia" is the properly romantic. It is inherently romantic, foreign (no native instruments or arrangements here), and tragic - as befits a fading, and problematic view of the world that Lawrence inhabited.

03. "North by Northwest" – Bernard Herrmann 

"Psycho" will be Herrmann's "Ninth Symphony", but "North by Northwest" will be his "Fifth Symphony", just as recognizable, if not quite the magnum opus. (I guess that leaves "Vertigo" to be "Eroica"?) It's so obviously post-Stravinsky, a modernism that's daring, dynamic, unsettling, and most importantly suspenseful.

02. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" – Ennio Morricone 

If Copland and Bernstein capture the excitement of the West, Morricone shows us the existential loneliness of a desert landscape, and a circling buzzard up in the sky. It's opening, the eponymous main title, is universally known, and "The Ecstasy of Gold" has become nearly as famed due to it's marvelous emotional vividness. 

01. "Star Wars" – John Williams

Of course Williams' "Star Wars" is the top spot. It's already in our collective psyches as a suite we've heard it so many times. The triumphal sound which opens the score, followed by the menace of the march, a romance for a bridge, and a final, and distinct, triumphant end in "The Throne Room". Critically the incidental themes capture the vast emptiness and alien nature of outer space, a sonic relfection of a species who was for the first time, beginning to explore other worlds.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Higher Standard

I recall as a college sophomore looking at Nietzsche with my philosophy professor, who said something almost offhand to me I’d not ever considered before: “You can’t pick and choose. You can’t just take the parts of Nietzsche you like and dismiss the parts you don’t like, like his sexism.”

Up to that point in time, and frankly since, that’s precisely what I’d done with philosophers – creating a mix-and-match of the aspects I liked from various sources. Why couldn’t I just cherry pick, and only focus on the parts that were agreeable to me?

In the last couple of weeks, increasingly, women (and in the case of Kevin Spacey, men) are coming out and demanding justice for abuse, rape, and harassment. It feels like a turning point in America for women’s rights.

Remember when Hugh Grant and Rob Lowe had sex scandals in the 90s, and we never ever heard from them again?

That era of tolerance seems to have passed. The ‘apologize and lay low before your critically-praised comeback’ days seem over. Which is a good thing. Yet as a historian it brought up really, a very troubling consideration:

How many of the great artists of the past were rapists?

Since the 1800s the sex lives of our artists are relatively-ish well-known, from Edgar Allan Poe to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Or at least we think they are – who can really say? But go back further and the waters become brackish in the 1700s, muddy in the 1600s, and nigh-imperceptible prior. All clarity is lost.

Statistically, I’m pretty sure some of them were. But how do I know which ones? Was it Beethoven or Voltaire? Caravaggio or Cervantes? I’m presuming male.

The question which arises, is what next? What can we do about it? Do those older historical figures get a pass? It seems unlikely, and arguably unwise, to throw them all out – knowing, with  near-certainty, that some of them were sexual predators and, by modern (not to mention moral) standards, criminals.

We return then to the old chestnut of separating the art from the artist, or as my prof would have it, the philosopher’s better angels from his demons. Can we allow it? Once it’s known, established, a part of their character – can or should it be set aside in the consideration of their talent, contributions, or even genius?

Contemplating this I returned to Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ but even her Judith Shakespeare doesn’t address this topic: Some of the men we praise, whether the Whitmans or Warhols, did unspeakable things, and we sing their songs in ignorance.

In five hundred years will the monologues of Louis CK or Bill Cosby be separated from their actions? Will Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s films be elevated, or reviled? As our globally self-aware civilization moves forward, will we simply adopt a higher standard, and those now on the cusp will be the last generation of artists and entertainers to have made it this far with these skeletons in their closets? I hope so. But those from the past remain deeply unsettling.

De Tocqueville. Erasmus. Raphael. Shakespeare. We may never know. Dante. Bach. Swift. Monet. Statistically it’s almost certain. Goethe. Mussorgsky. Tennyson. Plato. What do we do about it?

I don’t have an answer. Maybe we just need to live with the disquieting consideration in our minds. Forever. For all of them:

Sophocles. Chaucer. Mozart. Montaigne.

Moliere. Euripides. Verdi. Wordsworth.

Stravinsky. Twain. Descartes. Camus.

Rodin. Rabelais. Wagner. Aquinas.

Vermeer. Donne. Tchaikovsky. Emerson.


Wilde. Tolstoy. Virgil. Socrates. 

Nietzsche...