Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Music, Music, and ... More Music

I had very little chance to listen to music during November and the 1st 1/2 of December, so the music has really piled up. Finally had a chance to do some listening, so let's clear the stack.
  • "Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action", by Franz Ferdinand. No, it's not a buddhist album. Catchy energetic rock, which I mostly put in the genre "Punk". A little too energetic for me, I'm afraid -- I'm getting old. 3 stars.
  • "The Third Eye Centre", by Belle & Sebastian. Like their last album, more adventurous, more quirky, better than their earlier stuff. 4 stars.
  • "Love In The Future", by John Legend. This would be great music to play if you were in your 20s and looking for a romantic evening with a beautiful woman -- so it's useless to me in my current state! Nice tunes, very romantic music. 3 stars.
  • "The Electric Lady", by Janelle MonĂ¡e. A sci-fi theme album, in which Janelle plays a liberated android who is a symbol of android rights. Interspersed with comments from a supportive DJ on a call-in show. Some good tunes, a very interesting effort. 4 stars.
  • "From Here To Now To You", by Jack Johnson. Easy listening, what my wife would call "dinner music". In fact, we were lunching at Captain's Quarters in Louisville and a Jack Johnson song that I recognized came on. Then a few songs later, another song I couldn't identify, that shazaam'ed as Jack Johnson as well. 3 stars.
  • "Wise Up Ghost", by Elvis Costello And The Roots. Wow, nasty, tight grooves, dripping the trademark Elvis cynicism. A great album. 4 stars.
  • Eponymous, by MGMT. Kind of electronica/dance but not quite. Some strong tracks. 3 stars.
  • "Babel", by Mumford & Sons. I've got kind of tired of this power folk -- not enough variation in the songs maybe. 3 stars.
  • "lousy with sylvianbriar", by Of Montreal. When I first started listening to The Flaming Lips, I thought that the lead singer's voice would eventually become annoying -- but it never did. I did not particularly think that the lead singer of Of Montreal's voice would become annoying -- but it kind of has. There is good variety on this album though. 3 stars.
  • "Plantation Lullabies", by Me'Shell Ndegeocello. On the recommendation of the excellent drummer Keith Halladay. Definitely fine "angry black woman" music. She's the bass player as well as the vocalist. This was her 1st album, I will probably try out more of her several others. 3 stars.
  • "Let's Be Still", by The Head And The Heart. Very lyrical tunes, but I don't like it quite as well as their prior album. 3 stars.
  • "Reflektor", by Arcade Fire. All disco, all techno, all the time. Their usual interesting instrumentation, but no standout tunes. 3 stars.
  • Eponymous, by San Fermin. Probably the best find of this lot -- from economist Paul Krugman, who posts music in his blog every Friday. Another Brooklyn band. It comes across as a symphonic work, which is confirmed by this article. The 24 YO composer has also done scores for ballet. What an outstanding 1st effort. They have a male baritone lead singer like The National, but also a female lead singer, and some backup vocals by the women from Lucius. I think this is my favorite song -- I'm going for 5 stars for it: "Oh Darling".
  • "Shields: B-Sides", by Grizzly Bear. I really liked "Shields" -- the song "Sun In Your Eyes" was my 1st new 5 star song in years. I'm guessing that that album was successful enough that they went back to the tracks that didn't make it and said, "Well, let's see what else we got". 8 tracks, with some really different stuff -- long-form disco for instance. This really reminded me of Department of Eagles 1st album vs their 2nd. The 1st album had all kinds of different, and maybe incompatible(?), stuff, like they were trying to figure out their sound. Then the 2nd album was much more cohesive. So this album was the all-over-the-place one, and "Shields" was the "we figured out what we want to sound like" one. 4 stars.
  • "Nilsson Schmilsson", by Harry Nilsson (1971). Recommended by my younger brother. It had the hits "With You", "(You Put De Lime In De)Coconut" and "Let The Good Times Roll" on it. But I really didn't like it much. I'm surprised, I loved the tunes he wrote for the movie "Popeye". 2 stars.
  • "Five Spanish Songs", by Destroyer. The album of course contains 6 tracks. I think that is a point of honor that the number of tracks in an album title cannot agree with the actual number for tracks on the album. A bit more variety in the songs that his prior album, which I liked a lot regardless. Hunh, he's out of Vancouver, not Syracuse. Worked with New Pornographers. Daniel Bejar has been performing as Destroyer since 1996 and now has a total of 11 albums out?!?!? Well, we got that going for us now! 4 stars.

Merry Christmas!

For the prior few years, I had been a soldier in the War on Christmas. I have not considered myself a christian since my early teens. I did love all of the Christmas stuff as a kid: going to midnight mass and belting out carols ("Joy To The World", "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", and "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" were favorites) in particular. But, as the Religious Right has kept pushing and pushing -- "the US is a christian nation", etc -- I've felt the need to push back.

So the last few years, I've been celebrating Winter Solstice explicitly. Not that I'm particularly a pagan, but I was an astronomer, and the solstices and equinoxes are astronomical events. I do think that the pagan myths, particularly the Norse ones, are a lot more fun and interesting than the christian and hebrew myths.

But this year, I have figured, screw it. If I know someone's a christian, I tell them "Merry Christmas". So funny tho, the Indians around the neighborhood or working various places, I stick with "Happy Holidays" -- because they probably aren't christians. They are some of the new, multi-cultural americans whose existence conservatives are trying so desperately to deny. I think my newfound tolerance is a result of my generally more relaxed attitude to life since retirement.

One thing though that is Not Right. Christmas, by name, is a religious holiday, and it is the only religious holiday that is s federal holiday. Seems like a 1st amendment violation to me. Hmmm, asking The Google about "christmas federal holiday constitutional" points to this lawyer's blog post. Apparently there was a court case in 1999 that said it was OK -- because there is no requirement to actually do anything or accept anything religious or christian on Christmas. Ha ha, it also mentioned that Thanksgiving being the 4th Thursday in Novemember, is not an endorsement of the Norse god Thor, whom Thursday is named for. Yay, I guess???

Last week, on impulse I got a couple of history books out of the library. BTW, our local public library branch is really nice. Lots of meeting and study rooms, and a bank of 32 public PCs in the back. I skimmed both the books and only read in depth in a few places. The first book was "The Atlas of Past Worlds", by John Manley (1993). This tried to give a sense of what development was going on around the world, rather than just in the famous places. They took 5 locations for the years 2000 and 1000 BC, 1, 1000, and 1500 AD for a total of 25 chapters. I didn't get that much from this. The author is an archaeologist, so a lot of the emphasis was on the physical layout and the types of artifacts found. I think Jared Diamond spoils you for this kind of stuff by providing so much of the "why" of the time and how it integrates into the sweep of history.

The 2nd book I skimmed was "The Encyclopedia of North American Indians", edited by D. L. Birchfield (1997).I don't feel like I learned much new here, except for maybe more of an appreciation for how many different tribes there were. Generally a tribe consisted of up to 10s of villages with 10s of 1000s of individuals living in areas of a few 1000s of square miles. This book and more googling seemed to confirm that in the 18th century at the time of 1st contact with the white invaders, Kentucky was the permanent home of no tribes. It was used as hunting grounds for Shawnee from north of the Ohio River and Cherokee from the southeast. I wonder why that was?

This book, in the entry for "Alcoholism, Indian", also denies that there are genetic differences that limit the ability to metabolize alcohol that are more prevalent among Native Americans. A friend of mine who claims Indian blood would disagree with that, claiming that his Indian blood makes him a lightweight when it comes to alcohol consumption -- 1 or 2 beers and he's done, and the more so as he ages. Hmmm, googling "alcohol metabolism genetic variation" gives among others this article, which says that there are definitely different genetic alleles that give some individuals more ability to metabolize alcohol. So the question I guess is, how are these alleles distributed across ethnic groups? This article addresses this explictly, and says:

Additionally, despite the fact that more Native American people die of alcohol-related causes than do any other ethnic group in the United States, research shows that there is no difference in the rates of alcohol metabolism and enzyme patterns between Native Americans and Whites.
So my friend probably has the slow alcohol metabolizing genes, Indian blood or no Indian blood.

Now on the magazine stack, then on to "The Wealth of Nations". Oh, also signed up for an online course at Columbia University that starts Jan 21: "The Age of Sustainable Development". Interested to see how that goes.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

10 Albums

Now on FaceBook we're doing 10 albums. As I wound up doing with the books, I'll just go with 1 per artist. In no particular order:
  1. Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix
  2. Waka/Jawaka, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
  3. Workingman's Dead, The Grateful Dead
  4. Talking Book, Stevie Wonder
  5. Last Train To Hicksville, Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks
  6. Blue, Joni Mitchell
  7. After Bathing At Baxter's, Jefferson Airplane
  8. Healing, Todd Rundgren
  9. Minute By Minute, The Doobie Brothers
  10. Petrushka, Igor Stravinsky
Hah, you can tell when I was in college, can't you?

Friday, December 20, 2013

An Exciting Conclusion

I finished the 3rd book of The Expanse Trilogy by James S. A. Corey, "Abaddon's Gate". As with the 2nd book, we have one narrative thread that continues (Jim Holden), and his crew are still characters. We pick up 3 new narrative threads. I think that's a decent plotting technique for a trilogy. 1 of the threads is a minister -- but not too bad, not very much "religion in the face of the unknown" thrown in. Another is the daughter of the villain of the previous book on a mission of revenge.

This seemed a little weak to me. Thinking about stories of revenge, (I tweeted about IMO the 2 greatest stories of revenge: "The Count of Monte Cristo", by Dumas, and "The Stars My Destination", by Bester) I couldn't really think of any where the person seeking revenge was not seeking it for harm done to themselves. Dedicating one's life to avenge a wrong to one's parent seemed far fetched to me. But, if you go to Japanese or Chinese stories, you could probably find a fair number of instances. So I guess that the authors had Japanese or Chinese influences.

The exciting conclusion is maybe a little unexpected from the previous thrust of the books, and way over the top, but still, there's a lot of that that goes around in science fiction. I think the conclusion worked, and was somewhat inspirational.

So if you like space opera, I would recommend this trilogy. It definitely sucks you in and keeps you turning pages.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

10 Books

Hmmm, a friend on Facebook did a post of "10 books that have stayed with me" and tagged 10 people, of which I was 1, and asked us to do likewise. Man, hard to do. But seems like a fun mental exercise, to actually go back over my whole life and list books. I'll do these in rough chronological order by when I read them. Well, here goes:
  1. D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, Ingri d'Aulaire
  2. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  3. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
  4. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger
  5. 1984, George Orwell
  6. The Viking, Edison Marshall
  7. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  8. Dune, Frank Herbert
  9. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes
  10. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
Huhn, kind of an odd list, but given the "don't overthink it" directions, I'll stick with it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Definitely a Page Turner

I finished the 2nd book of The Expanse trilogy by James S. A. Corey, "Caliban's War". It was definitely a page turner, probably the most so of any novel I have read in the last year or so. One of our main characters from the 1st book is back, with his crew, all of whom are interesting characters, but this time there are 3 narrative threads in addition to his. The 3 new ones are a kick-ass Martian marine, a grieving father botanist, and the power-behind-the-throne of the government of Earth. That last thread adds a lot of political intrigue to go with the space action. And, a satisfactory ending, although the cliffhanger of cliffhangers is brought up on the last page! So definitely ready to forge ahead to the 3rd book. Onwards!

Re economics, I have decided that rather than read Keynes' "General Theory", I would go back to the fountainhead and read Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations". Published in 1790, it is now of course free and available in several eBook formats. Nice!