Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cha-lang-a-lang-a-lang

I've been too busy packing for the apocalypse, hence no time to blog. Thankfully Janelle Monáe continues to have you covered on that front.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

In The Woods

I just finished reading Tana French's mystery novel, In The Woods. It was pretty cool, and you can read my review of it on goodreads. Lots of spoilers, so if you're thinking of reading it, don't click!

Friday, February 14, 2014

On the desert plains all night

Dark but pretty. "Song for Zula," by Phosphorescent.
If you like this you should definitely hear Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball album. Just amazing. It has the same dreamy, shimmery, high desert vibe you get from The Joshua Tree (both albums were, not coincidentally, produced by Daniel Lanois).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Linger

When I was a kid we had a set of World Book encyclopedias, of the sort I'm not even sure you can buy anymore. I used to sit down and just read random volumes, usually starting with an article I had to look up and getting intrigued by the next one in alphabetical order. The same thing happens nowadays with wikipedia, but it's a little more thematic. With an encyclopedia the path was different and often I would find myself fascinated by a topic I would never have thought to look at. Rembrandt -> rhubarb -> RNA -> rock 'n' roll -> Russian. As a result I always had a bunch of facts and names and pictures floating around in my head, but I couldn't really place where I had got them from. In fact, for a long time I didn't know the name of my "favorite" work of art. I had stumbled on it one day, somewhere in one of those 26 volumes, and loved it instantly. I remembered a girl playing alone in the middle of a town square bathed by a harsh afternoon light, but not the name.

Art nerds may have already recognized the piece from my description: Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, painted by Giorgio de Chirico in 1914. (No doubt it had been the "D" volume where I encountered it.) Not sure why that particular image stuck with me. I'm sure I loved the cinematic drama of the scene and the palpable sense of menace. I had no idea who painted it or what it was called, but I carried the shard of memory with me for years. Of course, once the internet rolled around it took just a few quick searches to figure out who the painter was.

I've noticed that there is sometimes a disconnect between the critical opinions of my brain's higher and lower reasoning components. My conscious brain might decide that such and such book, movie, music, art is a favorite. And maybe it has good reasons for thinking that, but probably at least part of it is because it was recommended by a friend, or a critic said it was good, or I admire the author's life story, or I want to signal sophistication to my peer group, etc. And sometimes my lizard brain says, "no. what you really actually like is actually this other thing instead. see I'll show you."

This isn't even so much a "I like action movies but I pretend I'm really into Tarkovsky" sort of thing (although I do like action movies). It's more that certain works of art that I hadn't given much thought to just linger in the mind, coming unbidden into the forefront thanks to some subterranean resonance. I've been trying to pay more attention to that lizard brain, to actively remember art that lingers, as opposed to what is consumed, appreciated and forgotten. I'm trying to get back the feeling of that anonymous painting.

An example. If you've never seen Jim Sheridan's "In America" it's pretty good and well worth watching. It has strong performances from Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou (transcending a cliched "magical negro" role) and, especially, the two little girls. It's noways the best film I've ever seen (fore-brain speaking), but it has some nice moments. And there is one scene in particular that has lingered. The movie concerns an Irish family who has immigrated to NYC and one night they head to the fair and the father decides to play one of those carnival games where you throw a baseball through a hole and win a prize. The family is dirt poor and just scraping by, but he lets himself get drawn into a "double-or-nothing" dare after missing the first few throws, and pretty soon the price has doubled and re-doubled until the next missed throw will cost them next month's rent.

It's contrived, but damn if it doesn't pack a punch. For me it was a tremendous dramatization of the way we live -- all of us, not just poor immigrants -- perched on the precipice. We are all one moment of recklessness, or bad luck, or bad driving, or a slip of the tongue away from disaster. When I go to the top of a tall building to admire the view there is always one Evil Neuron in my head that brings up perverse thoughts of jumping. Watching this scene is like a five-minute conversation with the Evil Neuron. It makes me want to take a deep breath and hug my family members. (Unfortunately the scene in question isn't available on YouTube, but here's the trailer for the film.)

Here are some more lingerers. The two books that I have spent more time thinking about over the past few years are Little, Big by John Crowley and The City and the City by China Miéville. At the time I read them I thought "interesting but flawed" and now I can't get them out of my head. The same thing goes for Michael Winterbottom's film Code 46 (also starring, ta da, Samantha Morton), John Greyson's Lillies, and more. Oddly unforgettable, all of them.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Libre Soy

Like most other kids in the known universe, my daughter Quinn has proven defenseless against the charms of Frozen, and in particular the big show-stopper sung by Idina Menzel -- "Let It Go."
I've been trying to blog new music each week, and if I'm honest, this is the new music that has been ringing through our house this past month -- Quinn luuuvvvvs this song (and the Snowman one). We listen to the spanish version ("Libre Soy"), we listen to the various adorable versions sung by little kids, I catch her singing it to herself while she's playing. She's even started writing her own stories starring Elsa and Anna (her first fan fiction?).

All of which fills me with great parental joy (the princess thing notwithstanding). It's always exciting when your kids are genuinely excited about something (whatever it is). And up until this point Quinn's list of projects and interests and obsessions hasn't really included much music. Which is fine of course, but you can bet we'll be encouraging this going forward.

Friday, January 31, 2014

I am nothing without pretend

MD's two-piece Wye Oak play "Civilian" live on the radio. Drone-y and buzz-y and closes with a sweet guitar solo.
You can download the album track here.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Young Earth Blues

A couple of years ago I got into an animated discussion with an acquaintance who is an honest-to-God young earth creationist.  He's a young guy, a huge computer geek and really smart.  In fact he's geeky enough actually sit down and add up the dates in the Bible to get his own estimate for the biblical age of the universe, and to defend his estimate in a highly detailed manner.  Like Bishop Ussher and Isaac Newton before him he estimated that our universe was more or less 6,000 years old.

Clearly this was not the type of conversation I had in grad school, but in a lot of ways this guy was "my people."  I recognized in him a lot of the same mental habits and personality quirks that you find in people who do science for a living. Geeks like me, in other words. But for various reasons he had never really studied much science and had instead read widely on intelligent design and creationism.

The interesting thing about our conversation is that he wasn't really opposed to the idea of evolution. He basically admitted that going forward into the future, species would slowly evolve in response to the environment and natural pressures. The sticking point really was that 6,000 year old universe, and the need to defend a "literal-factual" interpretation of the Bible. Disbelief in macro-evolution flowed directly from there simply not being enough time to get it done. And he's right!  If the universe were only 6,000 years old there wouldn't have been time for humans to evolve from simpler life-forms.

Still, my friend had the whole ID/creationism talking points down pat, starting from the old parable about finding a watch on the beach and "knowing" that it must have been designed rather than evolved. Of course, relying on human intuition about how the world works is pretty much why we believed the Sun went around the Earth for millennia.  (I mean, just look at it! It goes in a circle, right?) My mind naturally rushed to the astronomical objections to a young earth, i.e. the known distances of objects that we can see and observe. (Of course there are LOTS of good arguments against creationism, this was just what came to my mind). I mean, the vast majority of stars in our own galaxy are farther than 6,000 light-years away, to say nothing of distant galaxies or the CMB.

For example, the remnants of the stars that went supernova and were observed in A.D. 1006 and 1054 are located at a distance 7,200 and 6,500 light-years, respectively. Their observation by ancient astronomers, plus the light travel time from the object, already puts the age of the universe older than 6,000 years.  The center of our Milky Way galaxy is at 27,000 light-years. Every time we observe objects orbiting the central black hole we are looking at the universe as it was 27,000 years ago.

Obtaining distances to even more distant objects is a little bit complicated and not necessarily intuitive to a layperson. Let's just say it involves a lot of calibration. (In fact, determining the rungs of the "distance ladder" is one of the great accomplishments of modern astronomy.) But in case you don't buy all that calibration stuff, we have direct, "intuitive," geometrical distance measurements (via parallax and the Hipparcos satellite) for most bright stars within 1,600 light-years of earth (and the recently launched Gaia mission will be able to measure accurate parallax distances out to 30,000 lyrs).

So unless you think scientists are lying about the speed of light, it's clear the universe is pretty big and pretty old -- far older than 6,000 years. But of course my friend knew all this and had an answer waiting. And it was pretty jaw-dropping (to me at least). The apparent answer to all these objections was that our enormous universe was created 6,000 years ago with the light from those distant galaxies already streaming en route towards us. Zoink.

In one respect it's a superficially clever response, as it it severs the link between distance and time and allows you to accept (more or less) most of modern astronomy. But in another respect it's a disaster. The universe in this tale is basically just an illusion, a film projected on a screen, a visual trick that God is playing on humanity. It's hard to reconcile this vision with a reasonable God, not to mention that it's completely extra-biblical (which we were presumably trying to avoid from the start). We started the conversation by appealing to human intuition and now find ourselves arguing something utterly non-intuitive.

I had never heard this argument before and it seemed pretty silly to me, but apparently it has a long heritage among creationists. It is sometimes referred to as the Omphalos Hypothesis (from the greek word for navel) and it belongs to an infinite class of totally un-falsifiable ideas about the universe. Maybe we are just brains in vats being manipulated by an evil demon? Maybe we all live in the matrix? Who knows.

However, apparently not all young earth creationists subscribe to this idea. And this is where it gets even weirder. The big creationist site Answers in Genesis comes down against the idea that God would be deceptive in this way, and instead rounds up a bunch of poorly understood ideas from relativity and cosmology in order to cast doubt on the basic idea that light travels at a constant velocity. For example, this:
Since time can flow at different rates from different points of view, events that would take a long time as measured by one person will take very little time as measured by another person. This also applies to distant starlight. Light that would take billions of years to reach earth (as measured by clocks in deep space) could reach earth in only thousands of years as measured by clocks on earth.
Yeah, no. Relativistic time-dilation doesn't make the universe 6,000 years old. It just doesn't work like that. But there are words written on the page that sound like science, and if you hadn't studied physics it might even sound convincing.

Anyway, it was an interesting conversation and it helped me learn a little bit about where our teaching and public talk about science runs aground. More importantly I think it's good to get outside the bubble and have genuine conversations with people with radically different world views. I doubt I changed his mind during our chat (or he, mine), but I hope maybe I planted the seeds of the idea that you can in fact reconcile science and religion, you just have to read the Bible more metaphorically.