2014-04-18

The End of the Road

After almost nine years, 2158 posts, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.1 million words, I've decided to retire The Francis Blog. I've thought about the right time to wrap it up for a while. Part of it is that time is fleeting - I mean, I'm still pretty irresponsible for a 34-year-old, but I'm nonetheless somewhat less irresponsible than I was as an irresponsible 25-year old, and it's just hard for me to prioritize blog writing in my schedule anymore. My publishing rate has slowed way down, from about 20 posts per month to right around 5, and frankly, I've already written about a lot of the things that I wanted to write down my thoughts about.

Although I've joked for years that I only have five readers, I really do appreciate all five of you, especially my loyal reader and friend Anonymous, and I'm flattered that anyone took the time to read The Francis Blog over the years. I had a great time writing it, and I hope that anyone who spent some time here was able to take away something from what I've written - maybe you laughed, or learned something, or discovered something new.

I'm going to spend some more time working on TFB - archving, revising and fixing mistakes from the past few years, and removing some of the old posts that aren't timely any more. I'm going to put together one more post to serve as a splash page, featuring an overview of the blog and an index and guide to some of my favorite posts.

Thanks again for reading.

2014-04-17

Holey Week

Today is, apparently, Maunday Thursday, another of the many exciting and thrilling and totally historical days in the Christian Church's Holy Week. I find the naming conventions of the week fairly comical and figured I'd take a few shots at it while I'm here.

Before I even start, it's worth a mention that Easter itself is named after Ä’ostre, a pagan goddess. Christianity stole everything from religions that already existed - never forget this. Not an original idea in sight.

The first day of Holy Week is named Ash Wednesday, which ... oh, right, doesn't even happen during Holy Week. I forgot - that actually takes place 40 days before Easter to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent fasting ... oh, right, it's actually 46 days before Easter. You obviously wouldn't want to count Sundays in your total, because ... you don't. I always feel embarrassed for people who I see walking around with ashes "imposed" on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday.

The Sunday before Easter is called Palm Sunday because hey, we have these plants.

Today we have Maunday Thursday, despite the fact that "Maunday" isn't a real word (ha, apparently it means "washing the feet," which is super creepy), and that it totally sounds like "Monday" for maximum confusion.

The day where Jesus was actually killed is commemorated as Good Friday. I hope you can see why that doesn't seem like the most appropriate name for a day based on a brutal death. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when that name was picked.

The Saturday is called Holy Saturday, apparently because they got tired of trying to think of names for the various days. Really phoned this one in.

It all culminates in Easter Sunday, or as I like to call it, Sunday. Enjoy!

2014-04-16

Cosmos!

Although I never saw the original, celebrated Cosmos: A Personal Voyage hosted by the later, great Carl Sagan, I've been enjoying the new version of the show, titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and hosted by science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson. Cosmos currently has the distinction of being the only show that I actually watch when it's broadcast live. Hey, I don't have HBO, so the Game of Thrones conflict doesn't exist for me.

The show features Tyson, Director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium and all-around science enthusiast, discussing scientific topics ranging from supernovae to tardigrades, gliding between length scales from galaxial to nano in his "Spaceship of the Imagination." The storytelling is enhanced by animation segments (probably the legacy of Executive Producer Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame), Tyson's careful explanations, and "science fact-ion" imagery from Brannon Braga of ST: TNG and 24 fame. (That's a pretty impressive career.)

I love the intent and the execution of the show. I don't want to be a preachy nerd, but there's so much dumb shit on TV (looking right at you, The Bachelor) that it's great to see a thoughtful show where one can watch both to learn and to be entertained. Plus, in a nation with so much scientific illiteracy and so many people in positions of power who can't and won't even accept the basic tenets of science, it's refreshing to see a show simply presenting scientific facts - astonishing and counterintiuitive as many of them can be - as the straightforward truths that they are. No apologies, no eggshells. The Universe is 13.8 billion years old. People evolved. Cosmos has thus far sailed right past the predictable and yet still mind-bogglingly pathetic complaints from creationists who want utterly underserved "equal time" on the show and the worst of the Twttersphere whining about the content. Can you people just go away and let us have one hour a week where we think about the real world without your brainless meddling? Thanks,

I also think that Tyson is a great choice as host - a friend of mine described him as "too Hollywood," which, considering that this is a television show, seems a bit like calling a skiier "too Austria" or a farmer "too Iowa." Tyson's enthusiasm for the material is apparent, and he does a great job comminucating the material at an appropriate level - not overly technical, but not dumbed-down either. If you're interested in learning about light, gravity, evolution, astronomy, and other neat scientific topics, or if you already know a bit about these and just want to revisit science's greatest hits, I highly recommend checking it out.

2014-04-15

Fox News, summarized perfectly by one of their own graphs

I mean ... look at this thing. This graphical presentation alone is so dishonest and pathetic as to completely discredit anything else Fox "News" ever spews out, not that they had any credit to begin with. Nothing says that you have a strong point like scaling your graph to completely obscure the real numbers. It's worth noting that if Obamacare signups really were underperforming, they wouldn't need to hide the numbers behind this sort of douchebaggery.

The mentality that went into actually running this graphic intrigues me. What could this production meeting possibly have been like? Do you think there was one person there with some shred of intellectual integrity remaining who balked at this, or maybe had that last remaining light extinguished by this bit of shamelessness? Or maybe it's just that, to get to a position in Fox News where you influence what sort of propaganda they run, you have to check all of your principles at the door. Probably that one.

2014-04-14

Great Record: Chronicle


Overview
The broad appeal of Creedence Clearwater Revival's music is best described by my good buddy Nick, who brashly and comically asserts that: this is America, and if you don't like John Fogerty, you're free to get out. He says this with tongue in cheek, but CCR's body of work set the standard for American roots rock, and their best-of compilation Chronicle is pretty much bulletproof.

CCR wasn't around for a very long time - they were only active as recording artists from 1968-1972 and almost all of their best-loved tunes are from the prodigious three years 1968-70. CCR burned hot and bright, as the quality of the songwriting and easy feel of the playing here is remarkable - Fogerty's swampy yelp and clean leads, brother Tom's churning rhythm chords, and the raggedly punctual rhythm section of Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. Just a terrific band with the tunes to back it up: folsky jams like "Down on the Corner," the countrified ramble of "Proud Mary," and even "Lookin' Out My Back Door," one of my favorite tracks about dropping acid. These guys hardly ever cut a bad track, and this is a good (if overlong and slightly suboptimal) summary of their career.


3 best songs: Bad Moon Rising, Fortunate Son, Have You Ever Seen the Rain

Mis-heard lyric: "There's a bathroom on the right" ("there's a bad moon on the rise") from "Bad Moon Rising" is an all-time classic Mondegreen (look it up), perhaps rivaled only by Hendrix's "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

Fantasy: Fogerty and company signed this horrible contract with Fantasy records and ended up in a weird legal situation where John C. didn't play any CCR tunes - songs he wrote! - for a long, long while. Legend has it he got back in the game when Bob Dylan told him, "if you don't start playing your songs again, people are going to think Tina Turner wrote 'Proud Mary'".

Wait, didn't Tina Turner write "Proud Mary": Nope, and the CCR original is better.

What is the proper length of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"?: Six minutes. Not 11:06.

Doug and Stu: It's lame that the group's bassist and drummer later toured as "Creedence Clearwater Revisited," but that's a damn fine rhythm section.

How did Fogerty describe his own music? "Swampy"

Mixtape: I originally only rated this compilation as "Very Good" (4.5 stars, A) on the basis of I made a mixtape as a youth with mostly CCR but also some Fogerty cuts, a mix that outshines Chronicle. It really was a remarkable piece of work. But come on, Andy, this body of work is 5 stars, let's not be foolish.

Francis band: We play "Bad Moon Rising" in H9RD - it's the one track on which I sing lead vocals! The Big Man harmonizes on the chorus, and yes, we sing the Mondegreen full-on.

Creedence outside of their hits: I got nothing. What's wrong with me? I should grab Cosmo's Factory from the library right away.

Blue Moon Swamp: Fogerty put out this solo disc in 1997, eleven years after the poorly-received Eye of the Tiger, and damned if it wasn't terrific. It's always interesting to me when an apparently washed-up artist returns with something genuinely good, like Smashing Pumpkins' Oceania or Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

Why It's Great: Because CCR has the best singles of any American rock band, that's why.

2014-04-10

Conflicting views

Honestly, I haven't taken the time to do a good fisking in a while, and Sana Saeed's recent article in Salon was so awful (Jerry Coyne called it "The worst atheist-bashing article of the year") that I decided to go ahead and sharpen my knives.

Richard Dawkins is so wrong it hurts: What the science-vs.-religion debate ignores
I hope she means it "hurts" metaphorically, not "hurts" like throwing acid in someone's face or stoning them. As I like to say, we're off to a good start here.

Acolytes of Dawkins & Hitchens pretend that ignorant evangelicals represent all of religion.
No, we don't. You've already lost. Sam Harris, in fact, made it a point of emphasis in The End of Faith that so-called "moderate" religionists had much to answer for. Also, I saw that trap you laid with the "acolyte" thing, making us sound like unthinking lemmings. It's funny how apologists always want to project the trappings of religion on those of us who have consciously and outwardly rejected them.

Here's what they miss
Sigh. Let's get going.

I’m supposed to hate science. Or so I’m told.
No you aren't, and no one told you that. Seems a bit early in the piece for strawmen, doesn't it?

I spent my childhood with my nose firmly placed between the pages of books on reptiles, dinosaurs, marine life and mammals. When I wasn’t busy wondering if I wanted to be more like Barbara Walters or Nancy Drew, I was busy digging holes in my parents’ backyard hoping to find lost bones of some great prehistoric mystery. I spent hours sifting through rocks that could possibly connect me to the past or, maybe, a hidden crystalline adventure inside. Potatoes were both a part of a delicious dinner and batteries for those ‘I got this’ moments; magnets repelling one another were a sorcery I needed to, somehow, defeat. The greatest teachers I ever had were Miss Frizzle and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
This is all very good and cool. Who told you that you were supposed to hate this, again? It certainly wasn't me.

I also spent my childhood reciting verses from the Qur’an and a long prayer for everyone — in my family and the world — every night before going to bed. I spoke to my late grandfather, asking him to save me a spot in heaven. I went to the mosque and stepped on the shoes resting outside a prayer hall filled with worshippers. I tried fasting so I could be cool like my parents; played with prayer beads and always begged my mother to tell me more stories from the lives of the Abrahamic prophets.
This is decidedly less cool. All of this time wasted on superstition and nonsense when you could have been doing more potato experiments!

With age, my wonder with religion and science did not cease. Both were, to me, extraordinary portals into the life around me that left me constantly bewildered, breathless and amazed.
That's great. I mean, one portal is based in facts, evidence, and honest investigation, and the other based on myth, superstition, and legend, but I applaud her youthful curiosity. I assum she grew out of the latter, right?

Science would come to dominate my adolescent and early teenage years: papier mache cigarettes highlighting the most dangerous carcinogens, science fair projects on the virtues of chocolate consumption during menstruation; lamb lung and eye dissections, color coded notes, litmus tests on pretty papers, and disturbingly thorough study guides for five-question quizzes.
Again, this is cool. I think we're good on the bona fides now - you can start constructing your argument whenever you're ready.

My faith, too, remained operational in my day-to-day life: longer conversations with my late grandfather
Sorry to interrupt, but these weren't conversations. This was you talking to yourself.

and all 30 Ramadan fasts, albeit with begrudging pre-dawn prayers. I attended Qur’anic recitation classes where I could not, for the life of me, recite anything that was not in English. I still read and listened to the stories of the prophets, with perhaps a greater sense of historical wonder and on occasion I would perform some of the daily prayers. Unsupervised access to the internet also led to the inevitable debates in Yahoo chat rooms about how Islam did not subjugate me as a woman.
It doesn't?

At the age of 16, I was busting out Quranic verses and references from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad to shut up internet dwellers like Crusade563 and PopSmurf1967.
Take that, PopSmurf1967!

It never once occurred to me during those years, and later, that there could be any sort of a conflict between my faith and science; to me both were part of the same things: This universe and my existence within it.
Therein lies the entire problem with this article, and with Saeed's entire approach to science and religion. BFrankly, this should have occurred to her. It should have occurred to her over and over again, in bold red giant-font-sized mental print, that these two spheres of thought stood in direct opposition to one another. Dawkins and others who refuse to take accomodationist positions are correct: science and religion are in conflict. At best, religion adds a superfluous extra layer to the useful interrogations of the real world that science offers; at its worst it contradicts them directly and encourages its adherents to choose the "revealed" "truth" instead of the available facts and evidence gained through the Scientific Method. If Saeed did not see that these magesteria were in conflict, she simply didn't think about it hard enough or, more likely, lacked incentive to. After all, if both of her portals were near and dear to her, she's not going to push very hard to find conflicts between them, and indeed she has not, choosing to ignore those conflicts and lash out at those who point them out.

And yet, here we are today being told that the two are irreconcilable; that religion begets an anti-science crusade and science pushes anti-religion valor. When did this become the only conversation on religion and science that we’re allowed to have?
Have whatever conversation you like - this is the one that treats the two sides the way they actually are. The happy coexistence of scientific and religious thought in Saeed's mind, and their apparent friendliness, is made possible through the remarkable (though often regrettable) ability of human minds to compartmentalize. It's why so many people who are incisive critical thinkers in their daily lives can abandon that trait when they go to church on Sunday, and it's why Saeed's mind has no problem with these two viewpoints occupying space in it.

This current discourse that pits faith and science against one another like Nero’s lions versus Christians — inappropriate analogy intended — borrows directly from the conflation of all religious traditions with the history and experience of Euro-American Christianity, specifically of the evangelical variety.
I conflate them all in that they are all equally unsupported by fact, and all extremely unlikely to contain any truth about the natural world whatsoever. Evangelical, non-evangelical, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever - they all make ridiculous claims about the world without a shred of evidence to back them up, and as such place themselves in direct opposition to scientific modes of inquiry. This doesn't have to be a difficult thing to understand, and we don't need to resort to claims of Eurocentrism or Americentrism (?) to discuss why. But, Saeed has an axe to grind, so we have to go down that path.

In my own religious tradition, Islam, there is a vibrant history of religion and science not just co-existing but informing one another intimately. Astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, alchemists, surgeons, psychologists, geographers, logicians, mathematicians– amongst so many others – would often function as theologians, saints, spiritual masters, jurists and poets as much as they would as scientists. Indeed, a quick survey of some of the most well known Muslim intellectuals of the past 1,400 years illustrates their masterful polymathy, their ability to reach across fields of expertise without blinking at any supposed “dissonance.”
Presumably, we are supposed to play along with this line of discussion and act as if this vibrancy is still the case today, that Islam and its scholars are contributing anything to modern science anymore. Sorry, Sana, can't do it. Google "Islamic Science" and the first hit is, tellingly, the Wikipedia article "Science in the medieval Islamic world," because that's when Islamic science was, like, a thing. And it really was (even the alchemists Saeed proudly claims among her roster of scientists). The last 600 years, though? Not so much, and it's disingenuous of Saeed to act like the Islamic world has this amazing 1 400-year-long unbroken tradition of scientific thought.

And, of course, this is not something exclusive to Islam; across the religious terrain we can find countless polymaths who delved into the worlds of God and science.
It's been pointed out before that the apparent religiosity of great scientists is mostly a statistical inevitability, a product of humans having been overwhelmingly religious throughout the years. It's certainly not the result of religious traditions supporting free inquiry, I can tell you that much. It's revealing that in today's modern societies, like America, where atheism still has a stigma but not a potentially deadly one, the great majority of scientists are nonbelievers even though a high proportion of the overall population professes religious faith. Those polymaths achieved what they did despite religion, not because of it.

Despite the history of the intellectual output of, well, the whole rest of the world, contemporary discussions in this country on the relationship between science and religion take religion to consist solely, again, of Euro-American Evangelical Christianity.
I'm not going to get into a jingoistic conversation about how much Europeans and Americans have contributed to the world's scientific and intellectual output since the Enlightenment. I will say that her complaint about this discussion in the US taking place mostly in the realm of Christianity is ridiculous. Look, the overwhelming majority of people here are Christians - doesn't it make sense for that to be the most common starting point for these kinds of conversations, just for reasons of pragmatism? Maybe she feels left out, or whatever, but this is by far the most logical jumping-off point for conversations about science and religion in America. This is pretty much the same as people who bitch about NBC covering the USA too much in the Olympics, even though we make the finals in pretty much everything and NBC is a fucking American TV network.

Thus “religious perspectives on human origins” are not really all that encompassing. Muslims, for instance, do not believe in Christian creationism and, actually, have differences on the nature of human origin.
They're both wrong!

The Muslim creationism movement,
[sigh]

headed by Turkish author and creationist activist Adnan Oktar (known popularly by the pseudonym Harun Yahya), is actually relatively recent and borrows much from Christian creationism – including even directly copied passages and arguments from anti-evolution Christian literature.
[falls asleep]

The absence of a centralized religious clergy and authority in Sunni Islam allows for individual and scholarly theological negotiation – meaning that there is not, necessarily, a “right” answer embedded in Divine Truth to social and political questions.
Sunni Islam: it's whatever you want it to be!

Some of the most influential and fundamental Islamic legal texts are filled with arguments and counter-arguments which all come from the same source (divine revelation), just different approaches to it.
At risk of sounding like an unsophisticated religious scholar, this seems to me like a really good reason to abandon the whole religious enterprise and start using reason and logic instead. I mean, as long as we're just making shit up and arguing about vague texts written centuries and centuries ago, why don't we just discard it altogether?

In other words: There’s plenty of wiggle room and then some. On anything that is not established as theological Truth (e.g. God’s existence, the finality of Prophethood, pillars and articles of faith), there is ample room for examination, debate and disagreement, because it does not undercut the fabric of faith itself.
That fabric seems pretty thin, the way Saeed describes it. I might also point out that many of her co-religionists do not seem to share this flexibility when it comes to divine interpretation. They seem pretty damned sure about certain things.

Muslims, generally, accept evolution as a fundamental part of the natural process; they differ, however, on human evolution – specifically the idea that humans and apes share an ancestor in common.
Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. If they don't accept that humans and apes share a common ancestor, then they don't accept evolution, and that's that. You're entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

In the 13th century, Shi’i Persian polymath Nasir al-din al-Tusi discussed biological evolution in his book “Akhlaq-i-Nasri” (Nasirean Ethics). While al-Tusi’s theory of evolution differs from the one put forward by Charles Darwin 600 years later and the theory of evolution that we have today, he argued that the elemental source of all living things was one.
Yeah ... that's just not as good as what Darwin wrote. Sorry.

From this single elemental source came four attributes of nature: water, air, soil and fire – all of which would evolve into different living species through hereditary variability.
Worth pointing out that this is totally wrong.

Hierarchy would emerge through differences in learning how to adapt and survive.
Not really.

Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate (how they emerge from the same source and work in tandem with one another) objects is stunning in its observational precision as well as its fusion with theistic considerations. Yet it is, at best, unacknowledged today in the Euro-centric conversation on religion and science. Why?
Because it's pretty much all wrong?

My point here in this conversation about religion and science’s falsely created incommensurability isn’t about the existence of God
It should be. Positing the existence of a god is inherently anti-scientific. Run any god through the Scientific Method once or twice and it vanishes.

– I would like to think that ultimately there is space for belief and disbelief.
This is a revealing comment - Saeed would like to think this. That's characteristic of the wishful thinking that characterizes religious belief. Many of us would like to believe that we'll live forever, that we can talk to our dead ancestors, that we can escape these Earthly constraints someday. But we can't. It's made up. There's space for belief and disbelief, yes, but not if we want to be logically consistent.

I would like to also believe, however, that the conversation on belief and disbelief can move beyond the Dawkinsean vitriol that disguises bigotry as a self-righteous claim to the sanctity of science;
Wow, we really kicked things up a notch here. We're not even having a conversation anymore - this is just Saeed working out her issues in the digital pages of Salon.

Look, lady, criticizing bad ideas is not bigotry. Championing reason and logic over arguments from the ancients is not self-righteous. And science is not sanctimonious - it's just by far the most successful system ever devised for exploring the world. Throwing "bigotry" in here is ugly and stupid, and undercuts any credibility she might have had left after the rest of this piece of shit article. I fucking hate being called a "bigot" for pointing out that certain ideas - ideas thoroughly debunked and contradicted by mountains of evidence - are in conflict with rational modes of thought. God damnit I'm mad now, let's finish this.

a claim that makes science the proudly held property of the Euro-American civilization and experience.
Let's be honest here - that's where science has, by far, flourished the most over the past 500 years. I'd love for other civilizations and experiences to join the party, and some have, but the majority of modern science stems from the Euro-American tradition.

Hoisted into popular culture by the Holy Trinity of Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris,
STOP PROJECTING RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY ONTO US. So annoying. We're not the ones with holy trinities and divine texts.

New Atheism mirrors the very religious zealotry it claims is at the root of so much moral, political and social decay.
Hey, this boring argument again.

In particular, these authors and their posse of followers have – as Nathan Lean characterized it in this publication back in March of last year – taken a particular penchant for “flirting with Islamophobia.”
If "Islamophobia" means "criticizing bad ideas that have had a deleterious effect on humanity for centuries," then yes. But the term is clearly used here to imply bigotry and racism, which is stupid and wrong.

Again, pointing out the flaws and negative consequences of bad ideas is not bigotry. Offering blanket criticisms of entire ethnic groups, like, I dunno, Europeans and Americans, though - one could make a decent argument that such behavior qualifies.

Instead of engaging with Islamic theology, New Atheists – the most prominent figurehead being Richard Dawkins – are more interested in ridiculing Muslims and Islam by employing the use of the same tired, racist talking points and images that situate Muslims in need of ‘enlightenment’ – or, salvation.
They aren't racist. Ugh, so hard to be restrained. This article got real infuriating, real fast. Anyone who believes the made-up beliefs of Islam - or Christianity, which Dawkins inveighs against as well - does need enlightenment. Is it racist when Dawkins points out the illogic of white, European Christians? No, it's only racist when someone like Sana Saeed needs an inflammatory smokescreen to hide behind while constructing terrible arguments. This is simply pathetic. This woman should never try writing again.

The Evangelical Christian Right is a formidable force to be reckoned with in American national politics; there are legitimate fears by believing, non-believing and non-caring Americans that the course of the nation, from women’s rights to education, can and will be significantly set back because of the whims of loud and large group of citizens who refuse to acknowledge certain facts and changing realities and want the lives of all citizens to be subservient to their own will. This segment of the world’s religious topography, however, does not represent Religion or, in particular, Religion’s relationship with science.
Sure it does.

Religion is a vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, the environment and something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything.
It's superstition and it's nonsense, and there's no such thing as elemental glue.

Science and religion are not incommensurable – and it’s time we stop treating them like they are.
One last time: you are wrong.

2014-04-08

Kurt Cobain



Kind of hard for me to believe that it's now been 20 years since Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his own life at his home in Seattle - like so many things these days, it makes me feel old, but it also takes me back too. I loved Nirvana when they first came out, and embraced fully the changes in the style of modern rock that Cobain ushered in with bandmante Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. By '94, though, I had other interests and had kind of moved away from Nirvanamania. I rediscovered the group in '97 when I picked up From the Muddy anks of the Wishkah and, as TFB attests, my appreciation for the trio's musical legacy has only grown since then.

The news of Cobain's death thus didn't make that much of an impact on me when it happened, though obviously it was a big story in the music world and pop culture at large, and still has some relevance today. The anniversary of Cobain's death shifts the focus away from Nirvana's brief yet brilliant career and onto Cobain as an individual. I've read two biographies about him - Michael Azzerad's Come As You Are tracing the band's meteoric rise and sudden end, and Charles Cross' heavier Than Heaven focusing more in-depth on the life and times of its frontman. And for some strange reason, despite his not even seeing his 28th birthday and really only being musically active for 5 years, I still find Kurt Cobain utterly fascinating. From Nirvana's origin story, to Cobain's well-publicized difficulties, to his rejection of fame, to the general way he appproached his music and his celebrity, he remains one of the most compelling public figures of my lifetime.

Just for the heck of it, here are a few links to articles I've written about Nirvana, though I'm sure there are a few more.


A Great Records Post on Nevermind

"Breed" placing among my all-time greatest riffs.

A Very Good Records post including Incesticide

A Great Records Post on In Utero

A Great Records Post combining Nirvana's first two live outings - Unplugged in New York and From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

A review of the essential live document Live at Reading

My favorite bands 1-10, with Cobain and Co. taking the top spot

Some comments on their documentary Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!!

2014-04-07

Great Record: Greatest Hits (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)



Overview: Other pop and rock artists have made music with greater impact, with greater originality, and perhaps greater artistry, but I can't think of anyone who's made rock and roll music as likeable as Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers. The survey of his career provided on the 18 tracks of his Greatest Hits are ample proof of this, with sure-shot songwriting, sturdy melodies, and Petty's inimitable voice delivering classic after classic. Play this one at your next barbecue - everyone will dig it, and if someone doesn't, they shouldn't be at your barbecue in the first place.

Greatest Hits collects Petty's work from his band's eponymous 1976 debut through 1991's Into the Great Wide Open, plus a couple of bonus tracks. The extra tune or two on a compilation like this is usually included to get die-hards to pay for it, but here Petty and the band included "Mary Jane's Last Dance," a deserving hit in its own right. I honestly haven't delved deep into Petty's catalog, which is kind of surprising since I like pretty much every song of his I've heard, though perhaps it's a testament to the consistent quality of this disc that I've always felt satisfied when I got finished with it.

These tunes are enough a part of the Great American Rock and Roll Songbook that I probably don't need to spend much more cyberspace describing them, so let's just call Petty the premier rock and roller of his generation and get to the miscellany.


3 Best Songs: Refugee, Runnin' Down a Dream, I Need to Know

Live Performance: H9RD plays "Refugee," and part of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" though frankly I'd do any Petty I was asked to. "Refugee" is a damn good song - my Pops always said it was his strongest tune, and he's right.

Album art: Possibly the worst in my entire collection. Why is it wavy? Why is the one guy's face all green? Why is Bob Seger back there? Why are those two idiots smoking? Let's just move along.

Remember that time Tom Petty played the Super Bowl? I sure as hell do

Lawsuits: A body of melodies as extensive as Petty's is bound to have a few knockoffs along the way; the Strokes' "Last Night" borrows liberally from TP's "American Girl," while Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dani California" is similar enough to "Mary Jane's Last Dance" that H9RD actually splices the two tunes together in a medley. Some people (hi, New York Post!), addled by our litigious society, got it in their heads that Petty would go after the Peppers in court over the resemblance. Petty's take:

The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took "American Girl" - I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, "OK, good for you." It doesn't bother me. If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe. But I don't believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.

What a great fucking American Tom Petty is.

Special Effects: TP won the inaugural MTV Music Award for Best Special Effects for the video, even though it doesn't actually have any special effects.

The single greatest song to play in an arena after the visiting club scores a goal: "Even the Losers" (get lucky sometimes)

Is it funny to say sing "free ballin'" to the tune of "Free Fallin'" when one is not wearing underwear? Yes.

Trivia night: I'm still salty about the time I correctly answered "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and the guy wouldn't count it because he assumed it was "Last Dance With Mary Jane" because that's how the chorus goes, and was too lazy to look it up. This will never stop bothering me. There was a jukebox with the song on it 10 feet away.

Minor Flaw: "Don't Come Around Here No More" just doesn't fit with the rest of the material here.

TP sans Heartbreakers: I mean, I guess they aren't there on Wildflowers, but it doesn't sound significantly different. Nice little record, actually. That's no knock on the band, just saying.

Why It's Great: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are the epitome of American heartland rock and roll.

2014-04-01

The IRS thing is not a scandal

Neither is Benghazi, but Republicans have nothing to offer in the marketplace of real ideas (vague promises of glittering generalities like "limited government" and "self reliance" don't count - they aren't policy nor are they reflective of the Right's actual governance in practice) so the whole IRS "targeting" thing staggers along.

Quick primer on the "scandal": the IRS was screening groups in 2010 and 2011 to see if they qualified for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. Such a designation is favorable for the organization, obviously, but their activities must "promote social welfare". Political activities and candidate advocacy do not fall under this guideline and are thus taxable. Word got out that the IRS had been using certain keywords to screen potential groups that would not meet this designation, including Right-wing buzzwords like "Patriot" and "Tea Party." Republicans, as usual, mounted as much fake outrage as possible, comically alleging that President Obama was using the agency to target and suppress his enemies.

Like most such claims, these said more about the people leveling the accusations than their targets. Republicans were quick to jump on this because - obviously - they saw a chance to score points against the President, but also because that's what they would have tried to do. Obama, in a sadly-not-surprising act of remarkable cowardice, fired the head of the IRS over the claims, before documentation came to light that the IRS had used buzzwords associated with both sides of the aisle ("emerge" and "ACORN" received heightened scrutiny) in their efforts to identify groups applying for 501(c)(4) status that might not be on the up and up. A pathetic "investigation" launched for politically-motivated reasons by the right wing only succeeded in 1) making them look stupid in the eyes of those who actually looked at the facts, 2) made them look tough on Obama for those who can't be bothered by facts, 3) made Obama look weak to people who wanted him to look strong, and 4) made Obama look like the strong, firing type to his opponents. Weird.

Of course, out of all of this, I never saw it pointed out that: it makes perfect sense to pay extra attention to groups with "Patriot" and tea party" and "progressive" and "libertarian" and all that in their names. The whole fucking point of the things was to check for groups likely to carry out explicitly political activity, and we're apparently supposed to be outraged that the IRS thought, hey, maybe we should take a look at these groups with political words right there in their names. Right.

2014-03-30

Mitchapalooza

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a terrible politician and leader. I think we all recognize this, from him declaring that his number one (#1!) priority was getting Obama voted out off office (rather than, say, governing) to, well, just about everything he has done in the Senate.

Turns out that at least part of the problem is that he doesn't understand the Constitution, or at least pretends not to so that he can rile up his base. Mitch, take it away:

Last June, I spoke at the American Enterprise Institute and warned of a grave and growing threat to the First Amendment. That threat has not let up. Our ability to freely engage in civic life and to organize in defense of our beliefs is still under coordinated assault from groups on the Left. Left-wing groups like Media Matters [who] harass and intimidate conservatives.

This is such stunning dumbfuckery that I don't even know where to start. The author of the linked DailyKos piece has made a nice start, but I'd like to add a few things. And I'm not even using "I don't know where to start" as a rhetorical device or a way to express incredulity ... I actually can't figure it out. I guess a good place would be to actually write down the First Amendment that finds itself under imaginary assault:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The "Left" organizations to which McConnell are referring, especially Media Matters is absolutely, positively, in no way even the slightest threat to the First Amendment. Note that the 1st Amendment specifically calls out lawmakers as being barred from abridging freedoms of speech and the press. There has to be a government actor doing the speech-assaulting. It's infuriating the way right-wingers run crying about their First Amendment rights being infringed any time they find themselves criticized or disciplined for saying idiotic things, as if the words of private citizens are somehow Congress making a law.

Now, it's different when a government actor is restricting the important freedoms laid out in the Bill of Rights. To take a random hypothetical example, if a Senate Minority Leader were to bar a reporter and threaten his arrest for no other reason than that the reporter was asking pointed questions of the politician, that could reasonably be construed as abridging freedoms of both press and speech.

I hope we've established how poorly McConnell understands the Constitution, or at least how willing he is to pretend not to understand it so he can make false claims of victimhood and injustice on the part of those who disagree with him.

And false claims they are. A threat to the First Amendment? A coordinated assault? Harassing and intimidating? So much military imagery, so much bullying language, and over what? A website that points out and corrects when right-wing pundits and politicians say stupid ad inaccurate things, which is pretty much always. It's not intimidation, harassment, threatening, or an assault. It's a free fucking press, and if McConnell really thinks it's any of those things, he's a big fucking baby and needs to shut up. Seriously, read a few articles on Media Matters and see if you find any of the doom and gloom to which McConnell refers. You won't. They basically just watch Fox News and read right-wing blogs, quote the pundits and authors, and point out how lacking they are in factual content and how appalling they are in tone.

Media Matters and other news and political outlets aren't an assault on the First Amendment - they ARE the First Amendment. I know that's too subtle of a distinction for McConnell to grasp, as concerned as he is with being exactly and spectacularly wrong, but it's a fact. Even the straight-up bullshit on Fox News is the First Amendment in action, and you don't see politicians of commentators on the left blasting it as a "threat" or an "assault," even though it's pretty much all wrong and the tenor is far more aggressive and negative than anything on MM. That's because people like me value the First Amendment for what it does and accepts its downsides rather than immediately concluding that any speech or press that we don't like is in conflict with it.

Even more concerning is: why does McConnell get away with saying such stupid shit? This is a man who wields enormous influence and power, and he's saying something that a fifth-grader who has taken his or her first social studies class could recognize as incorrect, and yet, in the moment, his strikingly idiotic comments went unchecked. Why is that OK? How have we not gotten any farther than this, even with all the information that we have at our disposal? I suppose it's the great reluctance that people have to understand and acknowledge things that contradict the worldview they wish to hold - as Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Recent studies have confirmed this demonstrating that learning contradictionary facts pretty much just make people double down on wrong views in something now known as the backfire effect.

It's hard to find anything outside of psychopathy that says less about our reasoning faculties than this "backfire effect," yet I think we all recognize it in our everyday lives. The coworker who clings to a pet idea or project despite overwhelming evidence that another project has more promise. Christians who find their faith in god strengthened by his striking them with natural disasters. Climate change deniers, my god, climate change deniers. It's an extremely frustrating thing for someone like me who likes to marshal facts and present them logically, and someone who adopts positions about the natural and social world supported by wide bodies of evidence, to know that that evidence is not only not likely to convince people, but indeed to strengthen their viewpoint that is not supported by facts. It's hard not to feel defeatist knowing this. I mean, what's there to do? How can I get people to stop favoring pseudoscience, religion, and other nonsense, and get them to start thinking critically about the world? I dunno, maybe get to them early like religions do - that seems to work.