Wednesday, March 12, 2014


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


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.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The closing of tabs

Some science linkage:

Satellite images of California in Jan 2013 vs. Jan 2014 show the extent of the current drought. (Yale e360)

Every Earth view from Gravity identified in Google Earth. You'll be shocked to find that the orbit doesn't make any sense. (Ogle Earth)

A recent Type Ia supernova in nearby galaxy M82. This one won't quite be bright enough to see with your naked eye (8th magnitude at peak), but still very close-by -- a mere 12 million ly away! (Bad Astronomy)

A skeptical look at D-wave, allegedly the first commercial quantum computer. Doesn't go into very much physics detail about the current challenges, but still interesting. (Inc.)

The Social Life of Genes. (Pacific Standard)

Annnd, here's a cool graphic of the ranking of U.S. cities by population over time. Caveat emptor when it comes to using rank data, but it's a cool looking graph. (peakbagger)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hot Knife Fiona Apple.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of undergrad a capella groups across the nation are performing this song right this very minute. You know they are. Still, I love the mix of minimalism and chattering complexity. And of course, Fiona's vein-popping emoting and her willingness to risk dorkiness in service of a great song. I suspect the undergrads might keep singing it for a good long while.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Red vs. Green

There's an interesting conflict brewing in Ecuador these days. In December, the Correa government moved to dissolve an environmental group, the Pachamama Foundation, after accusing them of participating in a violent protest against oil extraction in the Amazon region (which the group denies). Although staffed by Ecuadoreans, the Pachamama Foundation is a group founded by U.S. citizens with considerable funding from foreign donors (including, allegedly, from USAID), and so some have defended the Correa government's move as a legitimate defense of Ecuador's sovereignty. NACLA has a good summary here presenting the two sides of the issue. The Morales government in Bolivia also expelled all USAID funded groups, and USAID voluntarily pulled out of Ecuador around the same time.

But that may not be the end of the story. Amazon Watch passes along the recent news that the Correa government is also cracking down on Ecuadorean indigenous groups opposed to increased oil extraction:
The Secretary of Hydrocarbons has filed a formal complaint against eight indigenous leaders who have dedicated their lives to defending the Amazon, including Franco Viteri (President of GONOAE), the presidents of the Achuar & Zapara nationalities, the president and vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and pioneering female leaders Patricia Gualinga from Sarayaku and Gloria Ushigua of the Zapara.
If carried out, this would be a much more serious crack-down on democracy and dissenting voices.

Naturally there is a long history here. As we saw on our trip in 2009, certain parts of Ecuador have been quite heavily polluted by decades of oil extraction, while untouched areas have fought to avoid the same fate. The Correa government had previously put forth a creative plan to avoid having to extract oil from pristine parts of the Amazon. The plan was for wealthy governments who care about climate and the environment to pay Ecuador to leave the oil in the ground. Despite some hopeful signs, the plan failed to gain nearly enough pledges. So the Correa government has decided to go ahead with at least some oil development in Yasuni over the objections of some (but not all) of the indigenous residents of region. Upsidedownworld has a long analysis here of the plan and its fallout.

All this highlights what may be an emerging trend in Latin America, that of a Red vs. Green split. The last decade has seen a number of left governments come to power: Chavez in Venezuela, Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua, Lula and Roussef in Brazil and others. Add Pope Francis to the list and you've got a region moving to the left on economic issues. Traditionally green groups have been part of the left coalitions that support these governments, but there have been tensions and conflicts.

Here in Nicaragua, Ortega is planning a trans-oceanic canal which looks to bring him into conflict with environmentalists. Bolivia's Morales has had his own conflicts with indigenous groups over environmental issues, and even Chavez's Bolivarian revolution was fueled by massive oil revenues. The environment poses a problem for all forms of extractive societies, no matter how they distribute the profits after the fact (see Jacobin for more thoughts on this). So I kind of expect these tensions to keep simmering in the future. Something to keep an eye on.

Friday, January 10, 2014


This song from Chvrches (chuh-verches? cherv-ches? chever-ches?) is a total earworm. It's been synth-ing around my head all week.
CHVRCHES | The Mother We Share from Sing J. Lee on Vimeo.

Related: why does the vimeo player suck so much? is it that hard to queue the video properly without hanging? is it just that my internet and computer are super-slow?

Also: this live version of Tightrope is pretty awesome as well.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Magnificent Seven

Check out The Clash playing a live version of "The Magnificent Seven." The Clash recorded this song in early 1980 -- as the 3rd single off their epic 4th album Sandinista! -- way back when hip-hop was still just a local New York thing, and maybe even just a Bronx thing, not the global behemoth it is today. It has the somewhat asterisky distinction of being the first rap song performed by a white group. (The slower album version can be heard here. ).

Even more amazing is that it's kind of awesome. ("Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)", the other rap track on Sandinista! is also pretty great.) Joe Strummer is clearly rapping in the style of early old-school hip-hop, but you don't want to cringe (at least I don't). It's not just that he sells the song, but that he gets it, he understands the power of this new form, way more than you would think a white Brit in 1980 would get it. He absorbs something from old-school rap and melds it to the collection of sounds and riffs and beats that make up the usual Clash style. It's rap, but it's also a kind of spoken word rant, a furious announcement over the PA. It feels organic and very Clash-like, consistent with their own artistic trajectory and not just opportunistic mimicry of a new style.

The Clash, of course, had always been fascinated with black music, especially reggae and dub. All of their albums included covers of reggae songs, like Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," and Sandinista! in particular goes deep into those styles, turning its back on the punk that made them famous.

The DJ and filmmaker Don Letts is often hailed as one of the people who introduced The Clash to London's black music scene. Letts also directed a pretty cool documentary about The Clash, Westway to the World, which you can watch for free online at Open Culture [*]. I've always felt that The Clash's openness to a variety of music and their solidarity with England's black and immigrant communities is a huge part of what made them such a great band. It sharpened their politics and kept their music diverse and interesting.
White youth, black youth, Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood and ask him for some wealth distribution?
In his fantastic political history of hip-hop, Can't Stop Won't Stop, Jeff Chang describes this brief historical moment in the early '80s after hip-hop's emergence when it caught on with the downtown punk and art scene in NYC, a meeting of the minds between the Bronx and Manhattan. New wave bands like Blondie recorded rap tracks and members of the Talkingheads played as session musicians on some early rap tracks. The Clash, when they came to America, were also huge fans, apparently. They had Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five as their opening act for several NYC shows, and actually had to reprimand their fans for booing and throwing shit on the stage.

The moment didn't last forever. And of course the idea of a white band taking a black musical subculture and appropriating it to sell records is rock and roll's original sin. Just ask Mos Def.

I was thinking about all this after reading my friend Sandhya's typically thoughtful post on cultural misappropriation, and how difficult it is to distinguish misappropriation from sincere cross-pollination. She teases out a lot of the ambiguities in the question, and provides a good rule of thumb: don't use someone else's culture as a costume. I don't think that's what The Clash are doing on this track, but maybe I would think differently if rap had been less of a brief detour for them and more of a business plan. Like all many great bands, the Clash had the good sense to break-up before fading away. Who knows, maybe with time and more commercial success, they would have turned into U2: sincere, but increasingly corporate. Maybe the follow-up to Sandinista! would have been Rattle & Hum (an album I enjoy, but let's face it, cultural appropriation is basically it's whole reason for existence).

At its best cultural cross-pollination is a two-way street. And indeed, punk did influence black music as well, one example being the 2 Tone ska revival in Coventry, England. The biggest hit to come out of that scene is also pretty topical -- "Free Nelson Mandela." [via Africa is a Country.]

[*] Open Culture actually has compiled a list of over 600 movies that can be watched for free online (and by free I mean, you know, legally). There's a lot of old classics that have fallen out of copyright, including a fair selection of Hitchcock, silent movie classics, old westerns, as well as more recent documentaries and other stuff.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Science Year in Review

Science Magazine published their annual Breakthrough of the Year for 2013. The winner this year is cancer immunotherapy -- various therapies for directing the human immune system to fight cancer itself. The editors seem a little tentative about the status of the work:
In celebrating cancer immunotherapy—harnessing the immune system to battle tumors—did we risk hyping an approach whose ultimate impact remains unknown? ... Ultimately, we concluded, cancer immunotherapy passes the test. It does so because this year, clinical trials have cemented its potential in patients and swayed even the skeptics.
The runner-ups were mostly biology as well (more proof we are living in the Biological Century), although two physics breakthroughs did make the list. One, the Fermi satellite's discovery of pi-zero decays in the spectra of supernovae, indicating that SN do in fact accelerate protons and are in fact the source of cosmic rays. Two, the development of a new technology for solar cells made out of perovskite crystals that are competitive with silicon cells in terms of efficiency, but are much cheaper and easier to manufacture. Anyway, here's the video:

If you want more physics, Physics World has their own roundup, naming the Ice Cube discovery of cosmic neutrinos as Breakthrough of the Year. Elsewhere, Ed Yong rounds up his list of the Top Science Longreads of 2013.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy 5605!

Vienna Teng has a new album out -- Aims -- which I confess I haven't listened to in its entirety yet. But the video for the song "Level Up" is really lovely.

It's really a New Years sort of song, in a way. Letting go of fear, moving forward, leveling up. She has always been a great writer of optimistic, hopeful songs (the Atheist Christmas Carol is another favorite of mine). It feels like an appropriate way to start off a year where we will be returning to the United States, settling into a new life, new house, new city, new jobs, new schools, moving to the next stage, whatever it may be.

Somewhat apropos, lately I've been missing coding. Strange, I know. I did a lot of programming in grad school. And I mean, a lot. But that was years ago and my life has been flooded by mental challenges of a different nature in the years since -- writing, learning spanish, raising kids. For me, debugging code has always had a kind of meditative quality that only writing comes close to. With code you can keep iterating until you get it just right, just how it ought to be. Within the realm of the computer you can make something perfect, exactly matching the vision in your head. How many other parts of your life can you say that about? I've made a lot of mediocre dinners where I wished I could have debugged and re-compiled them them after the first draft. Alas.

So I thought I would learn a new language. In my grad school days everything I did was C or shell scripting on a linux platform, but I've been hearing people gush about python for years so I thought I would give it a whirl. (Also doing this with half an eye for entering the job market this coming year, so if anyone has any recommendations for the hot new language to learn, let me know.) And yep, python is very pretty, like shell scripting but more elegant without all the ugly awk/grep kludges you usually need.

Anyway, the first script I wrote in python was for calculating numbers in bases other than base 10. Which is a long way of saying, Happy 5605 (base 7)! It's going to be a totally crazy year, no avoiding it!