May I take your trident, sir?
Friday, May 17, 2013
May I take your trident, sir?
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Every time I travel to a new place, assuming my knees are functional, one of the things I make a point to do is go for a run to explore a bit and see the scenery. I've written about this before, but one thing I realized during a visit to Idaho Falls (where I took this photo), is that it nearly always involves running along some body of water, often a river.
This correlates with a conversation I had with JHH regarding the Clash's "London Calling," where one of the vocalists (Mick Jones? Joe Strummer? I never know who's who. This happens a lot with me and bands - I can never tell who's Ben Orr of Ric Ocasek of the Cars, Conrad Keely or Jason Reece of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) says, "I live by the river." JHH pointed out that, well, everyone lives by the river, because that's where cities inevitably spring up. It's a great point, and explains why I've done so much of my travel running alongside rivers, lakes, and oceans. Here are the ones I can recall - in not every case did I necessarily run right along the body of water, but I encountered it:
Oceans / Seas
Other watery things
Strait of Dover
Gulf of Mexico
San Francisco Bay
Little Lake Sunapee
Monday, May 13, 2013
We've had cellular telephones for quite some time now, haven't we?
You know what, before I advance any further, I'd like to ask what, exactly, we should be calling these devices. "Cell phone" seems to have fallen out of favor; "mobile" sounds arch and fancy regardless of whether you pronounce it with a long or short "i" sound; "iPhone" is an inaccurate eponym; "smartphone" has a certain "information superhighway" vibe to it, like the speaker isn't tech-savvy...I really don't know. I suppose I'll use "mobile phone" since it is the most descriptive and accurate. Let's move on.
Anyway, back to my original question, to which the answer is: yes. I was a famous holdout in joining the mobile phone bandwagon, and even I've had one for more than seven years.
If I might take a second aside, let me address that famous decision of mine not to get a mobile phone during the initial wave, waiting until I was 26. I still stand by it. I wasn't against cell phones (to use the term of the time) - I just didn't feel that I wanted or needed one. Remember what they were like back in 2000: reception was spotty, sound quality so-so, and texting and data non-existent. It simply wasn't a must-have product in my mind. Now, if I could have had a Galaxy S3 with 4G service in 1999, that would have been a different story. When 2006 rolled around, and I moved to Albany by myself, I decided flip phones had gotten to the point where it was a good investment for me. If I could re-do it, I would make the exact same phone decisions.
Like I was saying - even I've had a phone for quite some time, and use of mobile devices has been widespread for, let's say, 15 years now. So why do people apparently still not know how to silence their phones yet?
It's puzzling to me the frequency with which embarrassing mobile phone rings in public settings still take place, despite the facts that: (a) it's trivially easy to put a phone on vibrate, and (b) whenever a phone does go off during a movie, lecture, or other event, the owner of the phone gets the same look he or she would get had he or she thrown a giant bucket of paint on every member of the assembled crowd. With a few exceptions, the ring-ee looks and feels like a total idiot, yet somehow more than a decade of public shaming from inappropriate rings hasn't convinced people to be particularly dilligent about silencing their phones.
Not everyone feels bad about public ringing, of course - as with any frowned-upon behavior in society, there are people so oblivious and embarrassment-proof that the normal rules don't apply to them. Take this strange fellow sitting in front of me at a recent conference, who not only had a loud ringtone announce his call to the attendees, but proceeded to take the call from his seat and complete a conversation while making no effort whatsoever to lower his voice. This is probably a good time to mention that this gentleman had no fewer than two bottles of hand lotion on his desk during the symposium, which seems like at least one too many.
I heard a speaker once claim that his or her spouse had "cell phone amnesty" because the couple was expecting a grandchild that evening, and thus shouldn't be looked down upon for having a chiming phone. Granted, that's an uber-important event, and the spouse should definitely be vigilant for the announcement and politely excused at a moment's notice, but...why is the audible ringtone necessary?
Let me go a step further: why would anyone, ever, have their phone set to ring aloud in public? Wouldn't it be easier for all concerned to just keep our mobiles on vibrate any time we leave the house, saving ourselves potential embarrassment and scorn? I personally never turn my ringer on, not even at home. I honestly don't even know what my ringtone is. I'm not necessarily advocating this - I recognize that there's some benefit in leaving one's phone on a table and receiving audible notice of incoming communication - but I will say that I have never had my phone's ringer cause an embarrassing situation for me.
I've come close, though this is through no real fault of my own. I have a work BlackBerry, a generally substandard device that is, nevertheless, free and convenient for me to use for work calls and e-mail. Anyway, there's a button on one side of the phone for Voice Dialing that, even when your ringers are muted, prompts the phone to say "Say a Command!" I think this is what happened when that one judge recently fined himself for breaking his own courtroom rules regarding cell phone noise. I'm not sure the purpose of this particular rhetorical detour, other than to dismiss Voice Dialing as pointless and maybe take a jab at BlackBerry.
I'm not sure where this phenomenon is going. No, we haven't made any progress towards eliminating irksome public ringing since the advent of the mobile phone era, but I have noticed that most of these incidents involve middle-aged people and senior citizens, many of whom are late adopters. Maybe seasoned users have become more conscious of annoying public rings, and the influx of non-tech-savvy users has served to offset that trend. In 30 years, mobile phones will be even more ubiquitous and their users will mostly be people for whom mobile phone use is second nature. Will their familiarity with the devices end the era of obnoxious public beeping forever, or will mobile phones just be so ever-present that the stigma around their disruptive ringing fades away? I hope for the former.
UPDATE! Honestly, I wrote and posted this before Newt Gingrich's bizarre video where he pretends not to know the word smartphone.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Saturday, May 11, 2013
Friday, May 10, 2013
Friday, April 26, 2013
I explained the premise of this exercise in my Smashing Pumpkins exercise, but in case you missed it, I take an artist's 64 best songs, construct a bracket NCAA-style with seedings based on the tunes' historical importance critically and commercially, and run the tournament with my personal picks as the winners in each round. The brackets take a while to build, but it's fun to run the game and have your friends participate. As before, I recommend clicking in to embiggen the brackets for beter readability.
For this installment, I selected the greatest rock band ever: Led Zeppelin. Take a look:
I have to say: it was fairly easy to construct these, considering how deep Zep's catalog runs. I excluded live versions unless they didn't appear on one of their nine records, and it was easy to discard the very few Zeppelin jams that weren't up to the group's high standards, mostly late-period stuff. Here are the opening draws, with, I would think, few surprises. The #1 seeds were strikingly easy to select: Kashmir, Whole Lotta Love, Stairway to Heaven, and Rock and Roll, done and done.
These songs are fucking awesome, by the way. I hate that they almost all have to lose. Check out the first round results:
There's always a lot of chalk early on - as I like to say, hits are hits for a reason, and so it's worth pointing out the overall results and the biggest upsets. All of the #1 and #2 songs cruised through. I actually only put "Hats off to (Roy) Harper" in the draw at all because it's so dumb and awful and I wanted to see it lose. "Moby Dick" deserved a better fate - it's a shame that it's not a straight-up track without that boring drum solo, because wow is that a killer riff. We lost a #3 seed early on - "Going to California." The über-rock-ballad never really did it for me. "Dancing Days" at #5 was deposed by the epic "Achilles Last Stand," and that marked the only two upsets among the top 24 tracks. Some big bluesy jams, "The Rover" and "In My Time of Dying" snuck in as #10 seeds as well.
On to the sweet 16:
Lots of strength here in the Sweet 16. The big top four seeds all still remain, even though I hate that I had to eliminate "The Rain Song." I used to listen to it after every final exam I took in university - just a majestic triumph of a song. To bad "Whole Lotta Love" is such a gigantic steamroller. The titanic #2 seeds that would be most bands' #1's all advanced as well: "Communication Breakdown," "Dazed and Confused," "Black Dog," and "Over the Hills and Far Away." Low seeds advancing include #6 seeds like the beautiful "All My Love," "D'yer Maker," and "Fool in the Rain." That latter I find to be consistently a favorite among fans. The rest of the remaining jams arn't much, just "When the Levee Breaks," "Ramble On," "Heartbreaker/Living Loving Maid" (I condensed this duo into one entry), "Misty Mountain Hop," and "What Is and What Should Never Be." Now we've got some real choices to start making:
"Kashmir" over "Levee" was not easy, but the former, as the band will tell you, really has the whole Zep package wrapped in one. "Black Dog" left "All My Love" in a heap of riffage, while "Over the Hills and Far Away" edged "D'yer Maker" in a battle that is probably mood-dependent for me. "Whole Lotta Love" had an easier 3rd round than 2nd, dispatching "Ramble On," while "Stairway to Heaven" moved past its [Untitled] friend in "Misty Mountain Hop." "Rock and Roll" and "Communication Breakdown," obviously, while "Heartbreaker" and "Living Loving Maid" bounced the occasionally-wandering "Dazed and Confused." Final four, anyone?
"Kashmir" is the favorite jam of every member of the band, and this blogger is a great admirer of the song...but "Black Dog" is just an amazing force. Not hard to put that #2 into the finals. "Whole Lotta Love" moves on too, largely on the strength of the single greatest riff in the history of rock and roll, not to put too fine a point on it. Speaking of "Rock and Roll"...yep. Note also that "Stairway to Heaven" worked its way into the ultimate bracket. The reason that's notable is that it's something of a thing in the Zeppelin fan community to not have "Stairway" be your favorite jam. It's too commercial, too overplayed, too casual-fan...we shall see. Onto the finals:
Yes. I had "Stairway to Heaven" defeating "Black Dog" in the final. I did the hacky thing and had "Stairway" as the victor. But you know what? I didn't do it just to do it. I did it because it's better than all of the other Led Zeppelin songs, even including "Black Dog," which, to reiterate, is DESTRUCTIVE. I hope it's clear that the point of these brackets is to explore taste and spur debate - have fun with the Zep bracket and let me know where you end up. ROCK.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
What happened at the Boston Marathon a week was, unquestionably, awful and fucked-up. That "goes without saying," as they say, but I'm saying it anyway at the outset here. Like any of these tragedies, it's hard for the non-psychos among us to process what sort of a monster could and would do such a thing, and it's natural to lash out at the perpetrators. I only want to talk about Boston in passing, though, and make a larger point about how people process the death and violence we see on TV.
I'm intrigued and semi-impressed how dilligent and restrained news agencies are about calling those two douche brothers - the dead douche and the still-alive douche - as "suspects" and "alleged" bombers. I feel like, in this case, we can safely dispense with such niceties. After all, though our court system is staunchly "innocent until proven guilty," there's no need for the court of public opinion to be. These jackasses are "bombers" - let's stop worrying so much about their feelings.
Most of the complaints about the news media's reaction focused on their overreactions and misinformation, listing non-suspects and giving out other non-news in the hope of gaining a scoop. There was no Saudi national, by the way, at least not one with any connection to the case. As usual, The Onion lampooned the reaction brilliantly, "Breaking" news almost constantly that they had no news to break, and documenting CNN as having named three random Mexican women as suspects. Classic.
Also, enough with the "he is not believed to have ties to Al Qaeda." Yeah, we know. AQ is done for. He's not part of a broader teror network. He's a psychopath. We're not going to get any earth-shaking revelations out of him if and when he can ever speak. Frankly, I wish the medical resources were being devoted to someone else, someone who actually deserves to live.
My complaint about the response from the media, from law enforcement, from everyone is simpler: too much coverage. Too much attention. Too many resources expended. Too many people offering "prayers," which, to reiterate, don't do anything. This is a compelling story, yes, and a tragic one, and I don't wish to minimize the hideousness, but I am concerned about the lack of perspective we as a nation have about the scale of events.
Consider the incident in West, Texas. Did you even hear about it? If so, how much coverage did it receive relative to the Boston debacle? A tenth? Not even that, I suspect. Yet the fertilizer explosion was far more deadly than the backpack bombs - fourteen people died in that small community, versus the three felled in Beantown, with roughly the same number of injuries. Again, to be perfectly clear, those bombs in Boston were HORRIBLE - I just think it's intriguing how disproprtionate the coverage and reaction were to the two events, despite the far more deadly nature of the Texas incident.
The reason, of course, is that the Boston bombings were far more visceral and terrifying than the West explosion, even though both were, fundamentally, people dying unnecessarily from bombs. Yet the spectacle of Boston, the fact that someone sinister was behind it, elevated it to far more newsworthy and terrifying status. Yeah, the chemical plant exploded, but that's just an industrial hazard - Boston had madmen pltoting and murdering, and that invariably captures the imagination more than some weird chemicals reacting. I don't blame people for this - Boston is undenably easier to grasp and react to - where my concern lies is with regards to our public safety.
You see, that same day, statistically speaking, roughly 90 people died in car crashes. 85 people died in gun incidents. Countless people died from easily avoidable diseases triggered by smoking and obesity. It's a staggering number of people who die from easily identifiable and addressable causes, and it happens every day, whereas Boston and West were isolated incidents. Yet, in terms of spending and attention to public safety, very little is done to ameliorate areas where we lose tens of thousands of our fellow citizens every month. As long as the visceral trumps the statistical, we'll keep commemorating 9/11, where nearly 3 000 innocent people died, and raising speed limits on our highways, where 33 000 people die every year. Ohio is currently considering a bill to raise speed limits in certain areas to 70 MPH, as many states have done - the research presented by Tom Vanderbilt in the excellent Traffic shows that this bit of legislation, if passed, will quickly kill more people than the Boston and West incidents combined. As an example, someone crashing at 50 mph has a fifteen times higher chance of dying than someone who wrecks at 25 mph.
The best insight I found on this topic - on our overreactions to terrorism and general ignorance of other public safety concerns, was offered by security expert Bruce Schneier in Wonkblog earlier this week. I strongly urge you to read the entire interview, but if you don't get to it, I'd like to quote Schneier at length. He starts off by imploring people to ignore terrorism, to refuse to capitulate to it:
Terrorism is a crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is theater to make you scared. That’s the point. The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe, and the government can’t protect you — that the existing power structure can’t protect you.
I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button.
Schneier offers some rationale for why wild incidents like Boston make people so spooked:
Many reasons. It’s rare and spectacular. It’s random. It comes out of nowhere. It’s immediate. It’s graphic. Compare this to global warming, which is a gazillion times more dangerous. There’s no comparison. This terrifies you, the other is boring.
Same point I thought with respect to West, though I give Schneier bonus points for treating Global Warming as the fact that it is. Schneier makes a strikingly correct, blunt point when asked what policymakers should do in the aftermath:
Love it. I have to say, though, that this doesn't always apply, though my point doesn't invalidate his general point. Take the case of Newtown. Policymakers should have done something in its aftermath instead of cowering before the mighty Wayne LaPierre - but not as a response to the incident, rather as motivation for something long overdue. I'm sure Bruce would allow exceptions in cases where something should have happened a ong time ago but a particular impetus provides public support and political capital for important change.
Schneier goes on to deftly kick around security efforts, particularly those instituted post-9/11:
I remember then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking two years after 9/11. He said that the lack of a repeat event was proof that his policies worked. But there were no terrorist attacks in the two years before 9/11, and he didn’t have any policies in place. What does that prove? It proves that terrorist attacks are rare.
Almost everything we have done post 9/11 is mere security theater. The stuff that did work was interdicting terrorist funding and rolling up terrorist networks. Unfortunately, the FBI relies so much on informants and moles that they essentially create terrorists out of disaffected youth — and that’s not good. Some of what the FBI does is good, and some is not. But I wouldn’t say we’d all be dead if not for the FBI or the Patriot Act.
Did you know the Patriot Act is actually the PATRIOT ACT and that it's backronymed to mean some Orwellian nonsense? What a horrible law. Sorry, I just read Nineteen Eighty-Four and I'm edgy about surveillance states.
The single most important point he makes in the interview is one that I do hope you read, and it is his response to what people should be worried about.
Car crashes. Global warming. It feels insensitive to say it so close to the tragedy, but it’s true. What people should worry about are things so common that they’re no longer news. That’s what kills people. Terrorism is so rare, it’s hardly a risk worth spending a lot of time worrying about.
He's absolutely right, and yet to some extent, it's something that people have limited control over. It's one of those things that's easier to say and understand intellectually than to really put into practice in one's mind. I can sit here and tell you that I'm 10 000 times more concerned and interested in car crashes than the Boston bombings, but that ain't the truth. I watched the news stories and checked in every few hours to see if those awful, awful brothers were dead, yet I don't routinely check in on the National Highway Safety Board's statistics. You know why? Because there isn't any such thing. The fact that you didn't know it's really the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration speaks volumes to how we process and organize our views on unnecessary loss of life.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be fascinated by events like Boston - that's unavoidable and unreasonable of me to ask. But it's entirely legitimate to ask our policymakers to allocate their public safety resources to areas where they can have the most decisive impact on keeping our friends and family alive instead of simply appearing to do so and avoiding a few high-profile fatalities. Instead of the TSA spending a gazillion dollars a day and annoying the hell out of people, while bringing about little in terms of actual added security, we could lower the Federal speed limits and put in background checks and avoid the loss of life of literally thousands of Bostons. I've actually heard opponents of assault bans and background checks deride new regulation as only potentially reducing gun deaths by 1%, which is, of course, a small number. It's also 300 people a year, a hundred times more than died this past April 15 at the marathon. What if regulation reduces deaths by 0.1%? Are 30 people worth it? I would say yes.
Deal with the emotionally-relevant tragedies with interest and emotion. But deal with the things that really cost us so many fellow Americans with the full weight of our will and intellect.
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Inspired by both the ongoing amateur men's basketball tournament and my Forest City Fanatics colleague Figgs' Jay-Z songs bracket (itself borrowed from similar Grantland pieces), I decided to construct March Madness-style brackets for the songs of a few of my all-time favorite bands. Today (foreshadowing!) we'll start with a 64-song single-elimination throwdown of Smashing Pumpkins songs.
What I discovered in the process of constructing these games was that producing the bracket is by far the most time-consuming part - the "games" themselves only took a few minutes to run through. The process I used to make the matchups was, first, make a list of every song of the artist I had off of my iPod. For a few bands, this was fully comprehensive; in the case of the Pumpkins, I also reviewed their discography and found all of the important songs and singles that I didn't have. I then went through and cut down that original list (161 for the Smashing Pumpkins) down to the 64 that I thought were the band's most important. The idea at this point was not to pick my favorites - that's what the games are for - but to assess as objectively as possible what songs had the most critical and popular acclaim, and historical importance. I used that same idea within the selected 64 to assign seedings, and arrived at this 64-song bracket.
I split each into two images for formatting reasons - click to embiggen. They look pretty good on a screen once you blow them up.
The Pumpkins bracket was a little trickier to build than a couple of the other ones because of their career arc - they had two true classics, a few good-to-very-good discs, and some real rubbish. I ended up taking all of the singles from all eras, which was like 45 songs, and filled out the rest with their best material from their landmarks Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I don't think anything of great significance from Billy Corgan and company's career is missing - if there were other major songs, trust me, "I of the Mourning" wouldn't be here. Here's how my opening round shook out:
As you might expect, I mostly went chalk in this round - classics are often classics for a reason, after all. I thought it was interesting that all three songs from their 2012 comeback album Oceania advanced. The tracks from Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness did particularly well, though it's a shame "Spaceboy" got such a bad draw. The biggest upsets were B-sides toppling singles - 12-seed "God over 5-seed "Stand Inside Your Love," 13-seed "Pissant" over 4-seed "Landslide," and 13-seed "Marquis in Spades" shocking 4-seed "Thirty-three." All of the 1, 2, and 3 seeds rolled on.
Who would advance to the Sweet 16?
All of the 1's and 2's carried on - "Today," "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Cherub Rock," "Siva," "Tonight, Tonight," "Disarm," and "Zero." The Billy Corgan regional has all four top seeds left, with "Silverfuck" and "Rocket" moving through. James Iha has 11-seed "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" and "Drown" (not the extra-feedback version) surviving.
In the Jimmy Chamberlin region, "Muzzle" rolls on (songs I play in a band tend to do well), joined by "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)." 6-seed "Hummer" makes it through the D'arcy Wretzky region, joined by low remaining song "God." Now things get really interesting:
Three regions remain predictable, with smash hits like "Today," "Rocket," "Cherub Rock," "Tonight, Tonight," "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," and "Disarm" making it through. The top two seeds in the D'arcy region bite the dust here, with "1979" and "Zero" being sent packing in favor of "God" and "Hummer." Who will make the Final Four?
Three of these come as absolutely no surprise - "Today" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" are two of the greatest and most amazing songs of the 1990's, timeless classics that stand up well today. I can still remember the first time I saw "Cherub Rock" in 1993, on Halloween, wondering what I had just seen and wanting to see more. "Hummer" is the only real surprise, a great song from Siamese Dream benefitting from a relatively weak region.
Within any group of seeds (all the #1's, for instance), I randomized them so that they were scattered across all the regions. There was a chance that "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" would face off with "Today" before the final, but it's fitting that these two titans ended up in the final, with "Today" taking home the crown.
How would your Smashing Pumpkins bracket shake out? Who would you do one of these for? It's a fun exercise - if you'd like to use my bracket template, let me know.