This might make you feel old

  06/22/12 09:42, by , Categories: Music

Do you remember when you were a kid in the 80s or 90s and listening to Oldies on the radio? Today those stations play Classic Rock (the very term makes me cringe), but I clearly remember a time before that when you could tune in to stations that played rock hits from the 50s and 60s -- stuff like “Hound Dog” or “Rockin’ Robin,” and to me this was the music of a distant past.

Now here’s the disturbing thing: as old as that music was to me in my childhood, that’s how old my music seems to kids today. Just do the math: Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” was released in 1956, so in 1984 it was 28 years old. In 1984 U2’s The Unforgettable Fire was released, making it 28 years old today.

Did you get that? The Unforgettable Fire (or, if you’d rather, Madonna’s Like a Virgin) is as old to today’s youth as “Hound Dog” was to me.

Or consider this: Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in 1991, is now nearly as old as Abbey Road was when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been listening to music with my summer school students and listening to repeated claims that my music is “old.” I resent that accusation first of all because it isn’t entirely true (they assume anything they haven’t heard before is old, even if it came out last year); second because they listen to music by Tupac, who died before many of them were even born; and third because today’s music just doesn’t sound that different from the music of twenty years ago.

Rock and Roll used to be about rebellion. When Elvis was shaking it for the teenagers of the 1950s the grown-ups were shocked and outraged. Then, when his fans grew up, it was their turn to be shocked and outraged by hair metal and Madonna’s sexuality. Each generation has worked to challenge the popular culture’s assumptions about what is acceptable in popular music, and each generation of parents has dutifully complained about that garbage kids listen to today.

But I’m afraid we’ve reached the limit of how shocking or radical popular music can (or is willing to) be. I have students who still think it’s rebellious to listen to Marilyn Manson and Eminem, and I take great joy in pointing out to them that those artists rose to fame when I was in high school.

When Adam Yauch passed away recently, Erika and I paid our respects by listening to some of our favorite Beastie Boys tracks. Daniel either told us he didn’t like that music or asked us to change it, and we lamented that kids today don’t appreciate good hip-hop. It was a fun joke, but there’s a real question underlying it: What music will the next generation be able to claim as their own? Is there any truly rebellious music left for them?

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Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

  06/06/12 11:42, by , Categories: Literature, News

I’m teaching summer school right now, and I have several students in my room reading Fahrenheit 451 to make up some English credit. I interrupted their reading, though, to let them know that the man who wrote the book they are holding in their hands has passed away.

Although he had a very long and productive life, there will be many mourning his passing. He was one of the most significant writers of the 20th century and had a particular appeal to boys at that critical age of adolescence.

I remember one summer in my teenage years when I immersed myself in the man’s short stories. There were a lot of great ones, but one in particular has a special place in my heart. “The Rocket” takes place in the future, when rockets are able to take passengers to other worlds. The story is about a poor junkyard owner who has always dreamed of going into space, but can’t afford it. He doesn’t want his kids to be denied that opportunity as well, so he uses all his savings to fix up a rocket prototype in his junkyard and give his children a one-time experience they will never forget. The mother is afraid that if he attempts to actually build a working rocket he’ll kill them all, but the father actually has other plans. It’s a beautiful tale about a father’s his love for his children and his desire for them to have a better life.

I think that story illustrates what made Ray Bradbury such a wonderful and timeless writer. Many other science fiction authors write about rockets, time travel, and other fantastic technology, while Bradbury wrote about people. His stories just happen to include those other things as well.

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  05/25/12 09:05, by , Categories: Computers, Music

I started listening to Rdio around seven months ago as a way to try new music for free before downloading it. Since then, due to its rolling out some new features and my discovering some old ones, Rdio has grown to be not just my favorite online music service, but my primary media player, period. In fact, I have all but ceased downloading music altogether.

The first thing I've grown to love about Rdio is the ability to create a collection. I know it's really just glorified bookmarking since I don't own the music in any sense, but I have a hard time keeping track of all the music I want to listen to, and having an iTunes-like collection I can scroll through is nice.

Second is the Queue. I don't want to have to get up and select another album each time one finishes, but I also don't want to go to the trouble of creating a playlist I'm only going to listen to once. From an album page, though, I can choose Play Later, and Rdio will queue it up to play as soon as it's finished with whatever I'm currently listening to. I can even line up three or four albums to play in a row if I have a long morning's work ahead of me, and I can go to the queue page to rearrange the order anytime. Also, since I play it all through a web browser, if I close Rdio on, say, my work computer, drive home, and start up Rdio on my laptop, it will resume my queue exactly where I left off.

That's another thing I love, by the way: the web app. I can play Rdio on any computer without additional software, which is ideal for my work computer, on which I'm not supposed to install anything.

My favorite new feature, though, is Remote Control Mode. I have a computer hooked up to my entertainment system that I use to play music at home. When I have Rdio playing on that computer, but then open the site on my laptop, that second connection opens in Remote Control Mode: I can browse Rdio, make changes to my queue, and pause or change tracks, all of which is carried out by the browser on the computer across the room (or the other side of the house). It's fantastic.

Then, of course, there's the incredible wealth of music available. A few months ago, as part of my musical history self-education, I decided to listen to all the titles included in Tom Moon's 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, relying almost exclusively on Rdio's catalogue. While some of the albums are too old or obscure to find online, I would estimate that at least 90% of the pieces mentioned can be found on Rdio. When I'm not listening to those inclusions I'm constantly trying out new releases or older ones that I never had the chance to hear before. I actually have to take an occasional break from tearing through all this new music discovery just to listen to some of my old favorites again. Otherwise I would never listen to an album more than once.

I have yet to take full advantage of the social features of Rdio. I've created just a few playlists, and I don't have any friends in my network yet (if you have an account, look me up).

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As a fan of both Mike Birbiglia and Terry Gross, I endorse this video.

  05/10/12 20:10, by , Categories: Movies and TV



  04/25/12 19:37, by , Categories: Home and personal

It's interesting how being a parent for nearly six years has altered the way I perceive and judge other people's parenting styles.

For example: as recently as just a few years ago, if I saw a naked child playing outside his house, I would certainly would have had some condescending words in my internal monologue. What are those parents thinking? Do they even know what their child is doing? Do they care?

But then today, on this unseasonably hot afternoon, Daniel and Eva were having a sprinkler party with some neighborhood kids in our yard. When I stepped outside to check on them, the neighbors had all left, and there was Eva, running around our backyard. Naked. Again. This despite our previous conversations about the importance of leaving one's swimsuit on until one is safely inside.

Fortunately for my ego, being a parent for nearly six years has also altered the degree to which I care how other people judge me.

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Arplans: a poem by Daniel

  03/27/12 05:04, by , Categories: Home and personal

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The Tree of Life

  11/21/11 12:26, by , Categories: Movies and TV

I debated about whether I should put a spoiler alert on this. On the one hand, I do reveal most of what happens in the movie, but on the other hand, is it really giving away the plot when the story is this nebulous? Either way, consider yourself alerted.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of The Tree of Life at first. I definitely enjoyed watching it, but there were a few glaring problems that caused me to at least question whether it deserves to be a truly Great Movie.

In case you haven’t seen it, the story revolves around a boy growing up in the 1950s and his relationship with his father, mother, and younger brother. The movie cuts somewhat between the past and the present, with Sean Penn playing the boy as a grown man. Apparently Sean Penn said in an interview that he didn’t know why he was even in the film. Frankly, I don’t either. The movie gains nothing from his scenes in the present, in which he mostly mopes around and thinks about the past. I don’t mind the nontraditional structure of the movie, the long break from the story to explore the creation of the universe, or the whispered voice-overs, but the one place the film did lose me is in the end when we see the adult protagonist daydream about the people from his childhood.

Aside from that, though, I think The Tree of Life is fantastic, full of gorgeous visuals and interesting biblical allusions. It opens by quoting lines from Job chapter 38, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” followed by the introduction of two parents learning that their child is dead. In voice-over the mother asks the expected questions about God, suffering, and death. From there the film begins to dramatically illustrate God’s response Job in a sequence that traces the history of the universe from the moment of creation to the generation of life, to the time of dinosaurs, and finally the Ice Age. Visually, this whole sequence is easily the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a long time. It combines chemical effects, photos of distant galaxies, natural footage of oceans and volcanoes, and some computer-generated effects to weave together a coherent visual history of the known universe. Did I mention it’s gorgeous? And through the whole thing these astronomical events are set in contrast with the death of a single child. The result is profound, going beyond the simple “look how insignificant one human life is” to a broader sense of the beauty, wonder, and weight of the entire universe.

After going through the entire history of the universe, the film returns to the human characters in the story and the birth of who will turn out to be the main character. As we are presented with a montage of his infancy and early childhood, the passage of time gradually slows and finally settles into one time frame that dominates the rest of the movie. I kept waiting for the story to revisit the death of the son and the question of suffering, but it doesn’t. It seems that the whole Job aspect of the film is completed at this point.

Instead, the film begins to explore other biblical themes. The mother and father are presented as embodiments of two opposing ideas, Nature and Grace; or, I would suggest, God’s Judgment and God’s Grace. Brad Pitt as the father is a strict disciplinarian who devotes much time and effort to instructing his sons, but through his harshness creates a climate of fear in his house. The mother is the opposite: all comfort and forgiveness and unconditional love. For much of this section we see the oldest son grow increasingly fearful and resentful of his father, and increasingly affectionate toward his more caring mother, and the movie clearly seems to imply that she is the better parent.

But then the movie takes an unexpected turn: with the father away on a long business trip, the mother finds she has almost no control over her children. The oldest yells at her, leaves the house whenever he pleases, and indulges in acts of destruction and rebellion. If the parents represent God’s Judgment and Grace, then the theological implication is that both are necessary.

While this is happening, the movie also explores the relationship between the oldest and middle brothers in a way that echoes Cain and Abel. Whereas the oldest is rebellious, resentful, and mean, the middle child is sweet, innocent, and obedient. He enjoys special attention from his parents because of his aptitude for art and music, which clearly inspires jealousy in the oldest. At one point the mother discovers a painting that the oldest son has ruined. And in later scene, when the two boys are in the woods far from home, the older brother intentionally inflicts physical harm on the younger, paralleling the first act of violence in the Bible.

While I believe all these biblical allusions are clearly intended in the film, I think it’s important not to go too far in extending the allegories. I think Terrence Malick is more interested in calling up these archetypes to get at some universal themes about existence. These are just the elements that make up the whole. There is a plot here (despite complaints to the contrary), but to focus on the plot is to miss what Malick is really up to. I think you could look at the film as a mosaic of images, ideas, and archetypes that may or may not all connect to each other, but when taken all together present a unified and universal picture. Although I found a few individual parts of this mosaic unnecessary or tedious, they don’t ultimately detract from the beauty of the whole.

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Winnie the Pooh (2011)

  11/13/11 15:36, by , Categories: Movies and TV

I recall watching an interview with John Lasseter in which the Toy Story director said that movie’s creators were purposely going against the formula for Disney movies at the time. In Toy Story they wanted no singing characters (the Randy Newman songs were a compromise) and no talking animals. This on top of it being a completely computer-animated movie, a risky venture at the time. It’s enough that Toy Story dared to go against the formula of what had worked in the past, and it must have been very satisfying for the creators when the movie not only met with commercial and critical success, but also ushered in a new era for animated films. Toy Story has been followed by a long line of great computer-animated films from Pixar as well as from other studios trying to replicate their success.

Unfortunately, such success tends to stifle creativity in the movie industry, as filmmakers copy what has worked in the past instead of take risks with something new. Now, for an animated movie to be successful, it has to be computer-animated, be filled with epic actions sequences, and feature a large cast of recognizable celebrity voices. It’s a formula that has become just as stagnant and constricting as that of the Disney musicals twenty years ago.

I find it appropriate, then, that John Lasseter, in his role as head of animation at Disney, has co-produced this new incarnation of Winnie the Pooh, a movie that seems to rebel against everything that guarantees success today. Here is a cel-animated film that features no villains, little suspense, and virtually no celebrity voices (excepting John Cleese as the narrator). It’s easy to imagine what it could have been instead: just look at how many popular children’s cartoons and books are transformed into big, flashy, computer-animated crapfests today. I have to admire Winnie the Pooh’s producers for their restraint. In every way this movie dares to be absolutely old-fashioned.

The film obviously takes as its model 1977’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, preserving the classic elements that worked and losing the ones that didn’t (I’m looking at you, annoying whistling gopher). The result is a quiet little movie that is probably the best adaptation of Winnie the Pooh to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its faults. Not all of the jokes work, the many musical numbers get a bit tedious, and the movie may adhere a bit too close to the original movie (especially in regard to Tigger, whose characterization suffered the most in its adaptation from print to screen). I would have liked to see a more direct adaptation of A.A. Milne’s books with more of the clever wordplay that makes them so much fun to read.

But for all its faults, there’s a lot of innocent fun in this movie and I actually laughed out loud at several parts. Most of all, it’s just nice to see a 2011 movie with the boldness to do its own thing.

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Oh, by the way

  10/31/11 18:16, by , Categories: Music

The Flaming Lips' twenty-four hour song is currently streaming here. It started at 12:00 A.M. the morning of Halloween, so it only has about four hours left at this point. According to Wayne Coyne in an interview, though, it will start over and continue to stream for possibly as long as a year.

And if you have an extra $5,000 and don't know what to spend it on, you can buy a chrome-dripped human skull with an enclosed hard drive containing the complete song. You might even give it to me if you're looking for a birthday idea.

How not to do a half-marathon

  10/24/11 10:55, by , Categories: Home and personal

So you’ve decided to run a half-marathon. Good for you! But before you start preparing, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Is it a street race or a trail run? Paved roads provide steadier, more consistent terrain, whereas a trail can be full of tree roots, stream crossings, and dramatic inclines. Conventional wisdom would say a first-time runner should begin with a road race, so naturally you’re going to want to sign up for a trail run.

Now, you may hear some people recommend that you go out to the course well in advance to get used to the terrain and plan a racing strategy. Ignore them. You are far too busy for that. I recommend that you don’t even set foot on the course until the day before the race. Every day of training leading up to that should be on nice, paved streets with very few hills.

The modern runner has at his or her disposal a vast wealth of information about training methods and schedules. In fact, a simple Google search will point you in the direction of several free websites that will generate a training plan for you. This is the easy way out and should be avoided. It’s really best if you make it up as you go, based on your experience running around your neighborhood in your spare time.

Many of those fancy websites and experienced marathon runners say that you should do several shorter runs during the week and do a long run just once a week, gradually increasing the distance until race day. This is to avoid the kind of injury that can occur from adding too much distance too quickly. You, however, are invincible, and don’t need to worry about such things. You’re only running 5 miles a day right now, so if you’re going to be ready for a 13-mile race in a couple of months, you’re really going to have to start training hard. I recommend a long run about every four or five days.

Once you get up to 9 miles in training, you may begin to feel some slight hip trauma. It is very important that you do not seek medical attention at this point. Pain is just the body’s way of letting you know that the training is working. Even if the pain persists for a week, under no condition should you stop your training. You already paid the registration fee for the race and it’s non-refundable.

If, on the off-chance that your hip problems increase to such a degree that you can no longer run, you may want to take some time off. Stretch, walk on it, stretch some more, whatever. If nothing helps, then four days before your race you may seek the help of your friend the Osteopath. He will find that one side of your pelvis is completely out of place and will fix it for you. Of course, your hip will still be in quite a bit of pain for the next several days.

By this point, you have not done any real training for two weeks. This is not ideal, but what can you do? (Don’t forget those essential words: non-refundable entry fee). Fortunately, the day before the race, your hip should be feeling better. Not totally healed, but better. Now is when you want to actually try out the course for the first time. It will help you limber up after your overlong resting phase and, when you see how fun and invigorating it is to run on a trail for a mile and half, you will gain the overconfidence you need, coupled with the blissful ignorance of how impossibly cruel those hills will be in the final three miles of the course.

It’s finally Race Day. Wake up early, eat a healthy breakfast of oatmeal, and be sure to take three Ibuprofen. This will mask the lingering hip pain during the start of the race. When you get to the starting point you’ll feel great. For the first time in weeks you’ll think you can actually complete this run at the pace you’ve been training at. Don’t bother trying to warm up. You have a mile and a half of paved roads before you get to the trail, and you can use that to loosen up. Let everyone else start out ahead of you, then pass a good number of them in the first 5 miles. Even though you’ve been telling yourself that you only want to finish the race with a decent time, you have to treat it like a competition: if you pass people more than you get passed, you win.

Feel the soft ground you’re running on. It feels pretty nice, doesn’t it? And that cool breeze blowing across the lake, and that sun shining through the trees. It’s a gorgeous day for a run, and you feel fantastic. You feel like you could run forever. This is your runner’s high kicking in. You should assume this feeling will continue indefinitely and increase your pace accordingly.

Since this is a trail run you’ll be navigating hills almost constantly throughout the whole thing (they don’t call it Thousand Hills Lake for nothing). Most of these will be no problem for you. There will be some slopes, though, that are so steep that it’s nearly impossible to run up them. Make sure you keep running anyway. Even if you have to use your hands to help support you, as long as you keep your feet moving you’re technically still running. Your legs may burn once you get to the top, but you’ll have a good five or ten seconds of downhill running to recover before you get to the next hill.

Even if you maintain a moderate pace, the never-ending hills (and perhaps your two weeks off, if you're really honest) will begin to take their toll, and you will begin to grow fatigued. By mile 9 your calves will feel tight and sore, and by mile 10 you will no longer be able to run up the steeper hills. When you get to this point it’s best if you just stop caring. Stop caring about your goal of running the whole way. Stop caring about your time. Stop caring about the people who are now passing you. Your only thought should be to get to the finish any way you can, even if that means walking up the hills and running the rest.

With a little over half mile left you will exit the trail and reach a nice, flat gravel road to the finish line. Normally, this would be time to open up your stride and use everything you have left to run in to the finish. However, when you finally get to this point you won’t have anything left. Every muscle in your legs will ache and it will take all the will you have just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t get discouraged when the 40-year-old man you’ve been fending off finally passes you.

When you are in sight of the finish line, you’ll see your loving wife and kids waiting and cheering for you, and despite your fatigue you’ll feel a little rush of delight. Enjoy this moment. You deserve it, because even though the way you trained and ran the race was probably not the smartest, you just finished a 13-mile race, and within a minute of your goal time. And even though you'll barely be able to walk for the next few days you'll know it will only be a matter of time before you do it again.

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Head in the Cloud, part two

  10/18/11 16:41, by , Categories: Computers, Music

The way I consume music has just changed.

A month or two ago I signed up for Spotify. I had heard what an amazing service it was back when it was only available in Europe, and I was anxious to try it once it saw its North American debut. As advertised, Spotify offers its users streaming access to 15 million songs, which is a very impressive selection. There are some artists who do not have deals with Spotify (including the perpetually behind-the-times Beatles catalog), but aside from the usual holdouts I was hard pressed to find artists who were not available, no matter how obscure.

What really sold Spotify for me, though, was when I finally figured out a way to install it on my Linux-powered netbook, which spends most of its time sitting idly around the house. I realized I could hook that up directly to my living room stereo, leaving my primary laptop free for other uses. Soon I was streaming music around the clock, listening to all the albums I didn’t have the money to buy.

Spotify is not without its drawbacks. First of all, I have to install their music player on my computer, which is fine at home, but is not allowed at work. Second, their free service is unlimited only for the first six months. After that it will be limited to ten hours of music per month, which I would probably surpass in a matter of days. It’s also supported by ads, which at first seems like a small price to pay for unlimited music, but it does get annoying. Of course I can pay $10 a month to take away all these restrictions (and add streaming to a smartphone if I owned one), but I’m just not willing to pay that right now.

Then I found out about Rdio, which, aside from having an annoyingly unpronounceable name, rivals Spotify’s services and resolves nearly all of my complaints. It boasts ten million songs to Spotify’s fifteen, but I have yet to find anything on Spotify that is not on Rdio. If anything, the latter has produced positive search results where the former has not. In addition to a desktop app, it also offers browser-based streaming, which means I can listen to it at work. In fact, if I begin listening to an album on one computer, all I have to do is close the browser, drive home, and open the browser on my home computer, and Rdio will automatically resume where I left off. Pretty neat. Rdio is not ad supported and offers a limited amount of monthly streaming with a free account. They won’t say how much you get because they intend the free account as a trial, not as a long-term subscription (although there's no time limit on it that I'm aware of). I probably would have reached my monthly limit in a couple of weeks, but I just signed up for a paid account. Why? It’s only five bucks for a computer-only streaming plan, which is exactly what I need.

That’s where I am now: listening to the new releases that catch my attention, the classic albums I read about, and the artists about which I’ve always said, “I really ought to give them a try sometime.” And if I ever want to listen to some rare release that isn’t available on any music service (like the ultra limited edition stuff The Flaming Lips have been doing this year), there’s Google. This summer I turned my entire music library over to Google Music, which has since become my preferred music player for stuff I actually own.

So for most of the music that exists in the world that I don’t yet own, there’s Rdio, and for everything else there’s Google Music. Currently, I’m working my way through listening to Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time, in addition to checking out whatever new releases grab my interest. I’m finding that there is so impossibly much music out there to discover and so little time to do it in. More significantly, though, I think I may be changing the way I think about music ownership. With millions upon millions of songs at my disposal (and not likely to go anywhere), I find myself questioning whether, aside from the occasional rare release, I will really need to buy or download music at all.

I was having this conversation with a friend from work. When he was younger he amassed a sizable record collection, which he later sold and switched to the physically smaller format of CDs. When mp3s came about he again made the switch, filling terabytes of space on his hard drive. But he says that’s the end for him. He can’t get on board with music streaming because then he wouldn’t own the music. I thought it was really interesting that someone can gradually go from a completely physical, analog format to a completely digital one with no physical product, yet that final step from storing files on one’s hard drive to merely accessing audio files over an Internet connection is too great a shift.

I have to admit I’m not sure I’m completely ready either. I’ve had time to get used to subscription models of media consumption through other services. Thanks to Netflix I’ve quit buying TV shows on DVD, and I’ve virtually quit buying movies. I think I’ve come to see these as things I can enjoy without owning. But a piece of music by a favorite band I do feel like I need to possess, even though it exists only as data on a hard drive and I may go years without listening to it. It's just nice to know it's there. I think the generation growing up right now will have no such problem. For them, music will not be something you own. It will be what you listen to on your computer or on your phone, and the actual location of the file will be irrelevant.


The Six Hour Song

  09/23/11 06:18, by , Categories: Music

A few days ago The Flaming Lips sold the first 11 of their StroboTrip light toy with six-hour song included. Members of the Flaming Lips fan community immediately worked together to get the song on Soundcloud so that everybody can hear it. Apparently six hours exceeds the site's limit, so it had to be broken into three parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

It took me two days of sporadic listening, but I finally finished the entire song. I must admit it's better than I expected. I listened to it off and on while driving or working at school, and I found that after hearing it continuously for long stretches of time it has a bit of a mesmerizing quality. There are some harsh noises early on (particularly around minute 20 or so), but if you get past that (or skip it) there are some much more rewarding sections later. The whole last hour, with its dark drone and tripped out jam I enjoyed quite a bit.

I also have to admit I was wrong about the reading of the names of people who donated the $100 to charity. It seems I underestimated The Flaming Lips' ability to make anything sound beautiful and profound. The band recruited none other than Sean Lennon to read the names for them, which he does in a tender, otherworldly voice in four sections spread throughout the six hours. I strongly recommend listening to the final ten minutes (although the effect might be better if you start even earlier than that). After the final name is read, Lennon soothingly adds, "We love you. We will always love you," which is then repeated over and over like a mantra. It's actually quite beautiful.

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This may be their craziest idea yet.

  09/07/11 15:09, by , Categories: Music


I was actually planning to buy one of these strobe light toys they've been working on before they announced it would come with a six-hour song.

(Here's a video of a working Strobotop™ put out by another company)


So the Flaming Lips version will be like that, but with an assortment of weird drawings by Wayne Coyne. I think it looks awesome.

I'm not so sure about this six-hour song, though. I'm willing to try just about any kind of experimental music, but this is something I wouldn't even be able to hear all in one sitting (who has that kind of time?). And now I find out that this ridiculously long song is going to be filled with The Flaming Lips reading off a list of random people's names. That sounds about as much fun as watching the ending credits for The Return of the King Extended Edition.

I still want the toy, though.

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I can't wait

  08/23/11 08:54, by , Categories: Music


Okay, the video's kind of corny, but I am really excited to hear this album.

An Open Letter to the Lady Offering Unsolicited Parenting Advice at the Public Pool

  07/22/11 16:25, by , Categories: Home and personal

Okay, I realize that from an outside point of view, it must have seemed cruel of me to order my son to jump into the water as he stood crying on the edge of the pool for long minutes on end. It was admittedly not my finest parenting moment. However, I think if you knew some of the context and the events leading up to that moment you may have a little better understanding of why I was doing that.

First of all, contrary to what you (and, if your assertion is correct, half the parents in the pool) think, my son loves the water. We have a season pass to the pool, and every time he comes he has a great time. He also enjoys his morning swimming lesson. He floats, he goes underwater, he kicks with a kickboard. In fact, he tries pretty much everything appropriate to his age. Everything, that is, except jump into the water by himself.

For some reason he has convinced himself this summer that he can’t jump into even waist-deep water without help. He will do it if someone is holding his hand, and he will do it if someone pushes him (in fact, in the last several days he has frequently ASKED me to push him in the water). But for whatever reason he thinks he just can’t do it by himself, despite the fact that he did it last summer when he was four. It was the same thing with his bicycle and with the monkey bars in the backyard. If he goes a long time without doing something, he forgets that he can do it and has no confidence in himself.

For five days we have struggled with this, both during his swimming lessons and afterward at the public pool. But the more that we encourage him and the more we help him (by holding his hand or giving him a push) the more firm he is in the belief that he just can’t jump in the pool by himself. I finally realized that the only way for him to learn that he can do it is to do it totally independently, with no help from me, which brings us up to this afternoon. I was determined that today he would jump in the water.

I’m sorry if our little family drama disrupted your swimming experience, but I had had enough. He can jump in. I know he can jump in. The only problem is that he doesn’t think he can. Or didn’t, I should say, for as you saw, he finally jumped in by himself. I was really glad you got to see that. I’m also glad that you got to see him proceed to jump into the water twenty times after that, laughing and beaming with joy, because that’s exactly what I knew would happen.

I also wish you had been there when I told him it was time to leave the pool, and he whined, “I just want to keep jumping in the water.” And then when we were walking out, and he said to me, “I’m so proud of myself that I jumped in the water.” If you had heard him say that, then I think you would understand why I did what I did.

I must admit now that I told you a small lie when you confronted me. When you said we were making a scene and all the parents were staring at us, I told you that I don’t care what people think of me. In truth, I do care what other people think of me. I just care more about my son having confidence in himself and having the courage to do things that at first he’s afraid to.


And now for a little shameless begging

  06/30/11 06:48, by , Categories: Home and personal, Computers

As I've previously established, I am committed to gradually turning over every shred of personal data to Google's servers.

That said, if anybody has a Google+ invite they'd like to send me I would greatly appreciate it.


Storm of 2011

  06/28/11 09:45, by , Categories: Home and personal

I think I can confidently say that I won’t be underestimating the power of the Missouri storm anymore.

When I was growing up in Nebraska I didn’t have much reason to fear the weather. The state certainly had its share of threatening weather, and at least once a year I could count on a tornado warning, during which time I would have to go down to the basement and wait for the warning to expire before returning to bed. None of these tornadoes ever came near our house, so I learned to not take the warnings too seriously. Thunderstorm warnings, on the other hand, weren’t even worth getting out of bed for.

This week, though, I learned just how destructive a thunderstorm can be. Erika and I first saw the storm coming when were went to bed Sunday around 10:30. As we lay in the dark, I could see through the curtain flashes of lightning. Several things immediately seemed odd. First, we couldn’t hear any thunder. The storm was so far off that the sound didn’t even carry to us, yet there was enough lightning to brighten our atmosphere. Second, there weren’t just occasional flashes. The lightning was more or less constant, and while we couldn’t see any single point of origin it was lighting up the whole sky to the north of us.

“Someone is getting one heck of a storm,” I said. Little did I know it was coming straight toward us.

Two hours later I woke up to the sound of strong winds tossing our window blinds around noisily. I got out of bed and performed the usual drill: close the windows to keep the rain from blowing into the house, then go listen to the storm from the comfort of my warm bed. Although I already learned two years ago that, yes, tornadoes can strike in my own backyard (literally), I still didn’t think thunderstorms were anything to be concerned about.

But as the winds grew stronger and stronger, and rain began to violently pelt the west side of our house, shaking and rattling the windows, I began to fear that this was no mere thunderstorm. I turned on our weather radio, which informed us that all the surrounding counties, though oddly not our own county, were under a sever thunderstorm warning (thanks, National Weather Service!). The warning included reports of 70 mph winds and large hail. As if on cue, hail now began slamming into the side of our house.

Erika suggested that perhaps we should take the kids downstairs. I wasn’t convinced this was necessary. Both of their rooms are on the east side of the house, facing away from the wind. Besides, it was only a thunderstorm. Just then two consecutive BANGs sounded from our bedroom windows that were so loud they made me yelp involuntarily. We agreed to grab the kids and get to the basement. Just then the power went out.

In moments the four of us were huddled together on the floor of our basement bathroom, listening to our pipes hum rhythmically with each gust of wind. Erika and I looked at each other nervously as we held our kids and assured them that we were safe. Eva didn’t seem bothered at all, but Daniel, who remembers the tornado, seemed a bit more worried.

Suddenly we heard from upstairs the very distinct sound of glass shattering. I immediately jumped up and stepped out of the bathroom to go see what happened. After just a few steps, though, it occurred to me that if the storm had blown our windows out upstairs, that was probably the last place I should go. I returned to the bathroom, realizing I was powerless to do anything until the storm calmed down. Instead I sat and imagined what damage was being done to our house. Was it the window by the computer and entertainment center that broke? Was a torrent of rain currently blowing all over our electronics? Or was it our bedroom window, and was our mattress now getting completely soaked from the rain? Interestingly, it was this latter possibility that distressed me most. Our electronics can all be easily replaced (with some help from American Family Insurance), but if our bed got wet, we wouldn’t have somewhere to sleep the remainder of the night.

Eventually the storm did subside enough that I felt safe venturing upstairs. I could still hear the wind blowing outside, but as I shone my flashlight first around the family room, and then around our bedroom, I saw that all our curtains were hanging completely still. Could it be that all of our windows were still intact? Another sweep around the house revealed that, aside from a bit of water on the windowsills and around our front door, the house was dry. Then what was the breaking glass I heard? I finally found a pair of storm windows in our bedroom that had blown out, but thankfully the interior windows were intact. It was a great relief compared with what I had expected to find upstairs.

With the danger now past, we put the kids back to bed. They were upset about having to sleep without the comfort of their night lights, and Daniel was particularly concerned about not being able to see his water cup, but otherwise the whole ordeal didn’t seem to have caused them any lasting trauma. After briefly inspecting the house again, righting the overturned trash can on the driveway, and drying off the windowsills, Erika and I returned to bed as well.

The next morning, with our electricity still out and no way to learn for certain if the schools had power or if summer school would be in session, we decided to wake the kids and go eat breakfast somewhere with wi-fi service. When we pulled out of our neighborhood and onto Lincoln Road, this is what we found:

(click to enlarge)

While there was never a tornado spotted in town, and the city thus never activated the warning sirens, the storm’s winds were obviously strong enough to do some very serious destruction. The second day after the storm, work is still underway to clean everything up. Our power is still out, along with thousands of other residents, and the street pictured above didn't even get crews working on it until last night. Yet, as with the tornado two years ago, we feel very fortunate that we are all fine and that our house suffered as little damage as it did.


Head in the Cloud

  06/17/11 12:05, by , Categories: Computers

I remember a conversation I had with a friend several years ago about the future of home computers. We were talking about how someday the purpose of a personal computer or a laptop will not be to store data, but merely to be used as an access point to data that is stored elsewhere. I can’t remember now exactly how I imagined it would be done, but it seemed very advanced and science-fictiony, this idea that one’s personal data can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

What’s interesting to me is that this change in the way we access data has come about so gradually that I didn’t even notice until last week that it’s here.

When I first started using Google Docs around five years ago I was excited by the idea that I could keep my documents saved online and eliminate the hassle of using a flash drive to constantly update my files across my home computer and work computer. Even better, if I were working in a library or a computer lab at school I would have access to the same documents simply by logging into a website.

As excited as I was about Google Docs at first, it was not an ideal word processor. It was difficult to see how a page would print without using the print preview function. Often, when printing worksheets or papers it was easier to copy the text into Word to format and print it. Recently Google has overhauled their document editor to make it function more like other word processors and print much more easily. I’ve finally been able to stop using Word altogether.

Along with Google Docs I’ve long taken advantage of the company’s other free services, like Reader, Gmail, Calendar, and iGoogle, my homepage that serves as the jumping-off point for all of them. And after I finally broke down and paid for a storage plan, I uploaded all my photos to Picasa as well. After that, there was only one type of data that I use on a daily basis that wasn’t being stored on Google’s servers: my 100+ GB music collection exists on only one computer, and if I want to take it with me anywhere I need to sync it with my iPod via a physical cable.

As I’m sure you know, Google unveiled its music service in beta about a month ago, and I naturally signed up for an invite, which I received a couple of weeks ago. It takes a while to upload one’s entire music library, and right now I’ve only completed 9,000 of my 14,000 songs. I’m impressed with the web player that Google has for its service, as well as how effectively it works with the iTunes library. It’s not just my songs that are being imported, but also all my playlists, play counts, and ratings. There’s even a extension that can be installed in Chrome to scrobble the music I play.

Last week I began teaching summer school and I had to borrow another teacher’s room. After creating another user account on his computer, I opened up the Chrome browser which, provided with my account information, began installing all my extensions and preferences. Over the course of the next week, I played music from my library, printed worksheets and packets of materials for my students, communicated via chat with Erika at home, and kept up on e-mail and the latest news, all from within a single web browser. I didn’t have to install a single piece of software, and I had access to virtually all of the personal data that exists on my home computer.

That’s the moment that it all finally came together for me. The futuristic scenario I once imagined is reality, and I barely even noticed.

Leave a comment »

My Favorite Milestone

  04/21/11 13:59, by , Categories: Literature

Recently Erika was passing by the dresser in our bedroom and saw sitting on it our glasses, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, and a postcard print of a Frieda Kahlo painting. She snapped a picture of the little scene and titled it "Nerd Love." It’s a term we have occasionally used to refer to our relationship, particularly at those times that our shared introversion and love for books reveals what a perfect match we are.

It’s not just that we like books: the very act of reading itself, preferably side-by-side in bed or on the couch with a thick blanket pulled up over us, makes us all warm and fuzzy inside. At times we truly crave that experience, and can’t wait until dinner is cleaned up and the kids are in bed so we can just enjoy the pleasure of reading in a quiet house.

We also share a uniquely nerdy fantasy. For as long as we have had kids, we have dreamed of the day that they will be enough to read independently. When that happens, we can spend our afternoons sitting around the house as a family, each of us quietly reading our own book. I’m not kidding: this idyllic scene is something that we actively fantasize about.

I’m telling all this to explain why Erika and I experienced so much excitement when Daniel recently showed us he can do this:


We have been excited about every milestone in our children’s development--the walking, the first words, the self-feeding, the potty training--but I think this is the most exciting. The ability to look at symbols on a page and translate them into words and ideas is not easy. I can remember the feeling of not being able to read, the awareness that there was a whole segment of human experience that I could not access. Daniel reading from Hop on Pop represents his first steps toward joining Erika and me in the literate world.

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Even FOX executive doesn't believe the nonsense he's shilling

  03/30/11 06:13, by , Categories: Politics, News


Apparently, he defended his remarks by pointing out that "it was a main point of discussion on all the channels, in all the media."

So he may have propagated a story he believed to be false, but it's okay, because people believed him.

Or, as Homer Simpson put it, "It takes two to lie--one to lie, and one to listen."

1 comment »

Quiet Time!

  02/26/11 13:05, by , Categories: Home and personal, Music


1 comment »

Hey, man, slow down

  02/25/11 18:25, by , Categories: Home and personal, Music

I was listening to the latest episode of the All Songs Considered podcast, in which the critics discuss the best and most influential music of the 90s. It's a great show, and reminds me of how much that decade shaped my taste in music.

The discussion inevitably turned to Radiohead's OK Computer, and as they played “No Surpises” I was taken back to the time that the album came out. It's become such a classic (heck, it was classic 10 years ago), it's easy to take it for granted.

But I remember vividly the day I heard OK Computer for the first time. I was working at the city pool, lifeguarding during the day, hanging out with friends until late at night, and sleeping through the mornings.

One morning I was taking my time getting ready for work, fixing my breakfast/lunch with MTV playing in the background. By the late 1990s people were already making fun of MTV for not playing videos anymore, but there were still some time set aside for new music, and some of it was even good.

On this particular morning, as I was getting ready to leave for work, I went to turn off the TV when I saw a strange animated video set to an exciting guitar riff with what sounded like the voice of Thom Yorke. I was stunned. At a time when the Internet was still in its infancy and most of my musical knowledge came from the radio, I had no idea Radiohead had a new album out, or even that they were still together. After all, it had been over two years since The Bends, which now seems like a ridiculously inconsequential amount of time. But you must keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, those two years fell, for me, between the ages of 15 and 17, a period of tumultuous growth and expanding awareness of the world and popular culture. Second, during those years most of the bands I listened to hadn’t released more than one or two albums, and, though it was obvious that The Bends was something original, there wasn't any indication that Radiohead would still be making revolutionary music 14 years later.

Anyway, I sat in rapt wonder as Paranoid Android, which had seemingly come out of nowhere, revealed itself to be a bizarre rock epic that traced its way through multiple tempo and melody changes, with roaring guitars one moment and quiet, eerie choruses the next. I was going to be late for work, but I couldn’t stop watching until the song was over.

When it eventually wound down to its finale, I raced to work with those otherworldly guitar riffs circling around in my head. As soon as I got off work seven hours later, I went straight to the music store to pick up the CD. The rest of that evening I spent listening to the album again and again and again. I gave it my full attention. I pulled out the CD booklet and read the lyrics along with the music. I studied the artwork and read every printed word, looking for anything that would help reveal the themes of the music.

I probably listened to OK Computer at least a hundred times after that. I took it with me to swim meets, debate tournaments, car trips, everywhere. Sometimes I would turn my headphones up as loud as I could and just focus on the music, listening for a note or a bassline that I hadn’t noticed before. There is probably no album I have listened to as thoroughly as I have listened to OK Computer, and there probably never will be.

This kind of surprise discover and subsequent immersion will never happen again because the way I listen to music has changed. I no longer find out about new releases from the radio or MTV: I read about them months in advance, often in periodic updates from the bands' blogs or message boards. On the morning an album comes out I get on Amazon, download it while eating breakfast, and listen to it on my iPod on the way to work. Rarely do I have time to just sit down with an album anymore: I’m far too busy (sometimes with legitimate work, but also with frittering away on the Internet).

Even when a band does do something unexpected, like Radiohead releasing their eighth album for download last week, It’s big news for a few days, until the next thing comes along. Thanks to the Internet I buy and listen to more music than ever before, and I buy more new releases than I ever did previously. But with this increased speed and availability of information, a great work like OK Computer, instead of being the album of the year, now becomes merely the album of the week.

Don’t get me wrong: I love what the Internet has done to music. I love that I can read about an obscure artist on a message board, visit their website to hear some tracks, and download their album, all in the course of about ten minutes. I feel more connected to important developments in popular music, and I have been able to enjoy artists I never would have heard about previously. But I wonder if the rate at which I consume music is preventing me from really immersing myself in music the way I did with OK Computer.


Daniel Pictionary Solution

  02/22/11 18:49, by , Categories: Home and personal

Congratulations to Matt for guessing the subject of Daniel's artwork.

Daniel Pictionary

  02/21/11 13:39, by , Categories: Home and personal

Here's a little challenge for you.

Daniel recently worked very hard to make an adorable drawing that I'm beaming with pride over.

Your job is to guess what it is a drawing of. Don't just guess "a boy" or "a dog": The subject of Daniel's drawing is very, very specific and familiar. Put your guesses in the comments (and please guess--this is going to be embarrassing if I don't get any comments). I'll post the correct answer sometime in the next couple of days.


Eva just wants you to know...

  02/15/11 18:09, by , Categories: Home and personal




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