Monthly Archives: June 2007

The Long Blondes, Someone to Drive You Home

Apart from Coachella I haven’t reviewed any music (or anything else) for about six months; I felt a little burnt-out on writing short reviews of every album I heard. So instead I’ll try another format, longer reviews of records I’m really into in which I overanalyze them. Here’s a pilot installment.
The Long Blondes: Someone To Drive You Home
This band has been all the rage in Britain for like six months now, but their debut album just came out here at the beginning of June. The British music media seems to find a new Savior of Rock every year or so, thus making me skeptical of massively hyped Britrock bands, but I picked up this CD anyway and have practically put it on repeat all week—it’s really kind of addictive. I can’t figure out how to categorize the musical style: it’s loud and fast and danceable, frequently poppy and with a touch of punk. Play the video below and you’ll get an idea.
The lyrics are terrific, and one of the rewards of repeated listens. Clever psychological studies and layers of meaning, in the best traditions of fellow Sheffield artists like Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys. (What is it with that town? Def Leppard aside.) Film noir and the femme fatale archetype are clearly influences, and not just because they’re explicitly mentioned. In fact the band knows its cinema pretty well, from the shouted chorus of opener “Lust in the Movies”—Edie Sedgwick! Anna Karina! Arlene Dahl!—to the Billy Wilder reference in “You Could Have Both”.
If there’s an overall theme to the album it’s relationships between women; although most of the romance is heterosexual, the male characters are frequently in the background, with the song focused on the (female) singer’s rival. In (my personal favorite) “Only Lovers Left Alive”, we learn nothing at all about the man she’s got her eye on, but plenty about the girlfriend she plans to take him from.
And many of these songs are ultimately more revealing about the character of the singer rather than their nominal subjects. Perhaps the best song on the album is “Once And Never Again”; here’s the video:

I noticed the Wikipedia entry has a section on the song’s meaning, which reads:

It has been speculated amongst fans about the meaning of this song. Some have thought of it as playing with lesbian undertones (“Oh how I’d love to feel a girl your age…”), whereas others think it is about self-harm.

Yes, the teenage girl’s self-harming tendencies are an element of the song, and it’s definitely a thinly-veiled come-on, but as I read it neither of these are what the song is really about. Rather, it paints a picture of an older woman wanting to recapture her youth by latching onto a younger girl. The singer desires the girl in the song because she wants to be her, and her insistence that it sucks to be 19 are ironic because she wants to be that age again herself. Thus, the title line, repeated twice in the song: the first time an assurance that “to be your age” need only be suffered “once and never again”, and the second a lament that the singer already had her chance herself. And so the line Wikipedia quotes has a double meaning: what she’s really saying is “how I’d love to feel like a girl your age… [but it was] once and never again”.
If you like the song, you’ll like the whole album—it’s good all the way through. The US release comes with a bonus disc that has some of the B-sides from the UK singles, but they’re more optional.
Someone to Drive You Home: Amazon iTunes

Line-choosing algorithms

Here’s Tyler Cowen on why supermarkets seem to prefer individual lines at each checkout stand rather than one unified line (apparently Whole Foods uses the latter strategy).

The intuition is that consumers can take advantage of price variability, in this case “time price” variability, and come out ahead. Admittedly the notion of “going to the store more often when your innate line-choosing algorithm turns out to be good” requires a mental stretch.
People also might like knowing that the end to waiting is in sight. On the phone they put you on hold and tell you the expected wait time, or they should. At least five times in my life I’ve bolted a supermarket and abandoned the groceries, simply because the lines appeared too long. It is harder to estimate how long a single line will take, and it is harder to compare single lines across supermarkets.

I think there’s something to this; seeing the long line stretching across the store can be daunting even though it may be moving quickly. I would also guess that multiple lines are more space-efficient. My local Safeway wouldn’t have anywhere to put a unified line, and at busy times the individual lines fill the space at the front of the store as it is.
Actually, egregious lines are fairly common at that particular store during the evening rush, but luckily it’s across the street from me so I can easily bail when it’s too crowded and come back later. This strategy only works if I don’t procrastinate my grocery shopping until it’s urgent, but luckily the more upscale Andronico’s is only one block further away and never has significant lines at the checkout, so I have a fallback. I hate waiting in line enough that I’ll walk down to the next store to avoid it even if I don’t save any time that way—at least by walking I get a little exercise and fresh air.
It might be better if I had a good innate line-choosing algorithm, but somehow mine is terrible—I suspect it’s worse than chance, and that I would do better by throwing out my initial guess and choosing randomly from the remaining lines. But surely the readers here can help me improve it. How can I identify the fastest lines at the grocery store?

Proxy class warfare: Facebook vs. MySpace

This essay about the class division underlying the Facebook/MySpace divide has been linked all over. The basic claim is this:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.
MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

I’m on both networks but it’s not obvious to me whether this is true, since I’m outside of the relevant demographic—I just don’t know that many teenagers online or off. There is a clear divide between which of my friends are on which network, but it’s much more due to their different origins: for the most part, my friends who are still in academia are on Facebook, and the rest are on MySpace.
Since I joined Facebook roughly a year ago (I was already on MySpace) I’ve considered it to have a couple of clear advantages. One is that from a design standpoint it’s vastly superior: it’s much easier to navigate, and easier to keep track of developments in one’s social network. (I’m one who really likes the News Feed.) Meanwhile it takes loading two or three pages to do anything on MySpace, and that’s assuming the user doesn’t just encounter a random error in the process.
The second point in favor of Facebook is the fact that it doesn’t make my eyes bleed when I read it. The visual layout is clean and simple, in direct contrast to the garish hideousness of MySpace, even before users take the opportunity to crowd their profiles with so many animated GIFs that they induce seizures. I invite you to go to just the front page of MySpace, where an advertisement for the Bratz movie has apparently been loaded into a shotgun and fired at the background.
But, as the essay points out, this preference just reveals my bourgeoise values:

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and “so middle school.” They prefer the “clean” look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is “so lame.” What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as “glitzy” or “bling” or “fly” (or what my generation would call “phat”) by subaltern teens. Terms like “bling” come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics. I’m sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the “eye of the beholder” – they are culturally narrated and replicated. That “clean” or “modern” look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

The author has a point here. What I’m praising Facebook for above is essentially enforcing its users to follow a conformist, generic white-bread design template, resulting in exactly the blandness one would expect. Pottery Barn, indeed. No wonder the more artistic types prefer MySpace. Now if only its interface weren’t such a trainwreck…

Careers, locations, and settling

As I start to see the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I’ve been contemplating more and more my various options after I finish. The most obvious one is to go on to an academic postdoc, with the aim of eventually getting a tenure-track professorship somewhere. (Other alternatives are various industries or finance.) At the moment I’m leaning strongly against an academic career, which has lately seemed unappealing for a variety of reasons.
A major such reason is the fact that there are many more applicants for tenure-track positions than there are positions available, so that after slaving away for several years as a postdoc (generally considered to be an awful job) I’d be lucky to be offered a position anywhere. It’s a job market that’s extremely unfavorable to applicants, and having seen the stress and unhappiness it produces in the postdocs I’ve met, I am thinking I should look at other options.
One corollary to the scarcity of academic jobs is that I would have to take whatever I can get, meaning that I will have basically no choice over where I live—the institution that offers me a job could be anywhere in the country, urban or rural, coast or inland. And I’ve realized that where I live really is important to me. I like living near enough to a major city that I can take advantage of the cultural and economic diversity. Furthermore, I want to live in a walkable neighborhood where essential goods and services are close by—not just for conservation reasons, although this is certainly part of it, but because I’ve found firsthand that it brings a definite improvement in quality of life. (This, of course, is also only possible in or near a major city, and only in certain cities that are planned this way.)
And on an emotional level, I’ve found that I don’t want to leave the Bay Area. This surprised me, because (possibly due to my migratory upbringing), I generally feel like I need to move on every few years and explore a new place. I’ve tried to ascertain why I might have a special attachment to my current location: certainly I don’t want to leave my friends, and I like my current neighborhood, but I feel like there’s something more than that. There’s a sense I have of being settled here, that where I’m living now is woven into the fabric of my life. I haven’t felt that way about anywhere else, but I’ve lived in Berkeley longer than I have any other single place (for a continuous span).
I’m not convinced that this is a good reason to want to stay here—I know that living in different places is an enriching experience for me, and there’s some attraction to going and exploring someplace new. But it will probably influence my thinking on career options.

Frank Tipler {TECH}s up the Bible

When I was in high school, a physicist named Frank Tipler published a book called The Physics of Immortality. The book purported to show that modern cosmology was not only compatible with Christianity, but predicted something like Christian theology including the concept of an afterlife. At the time I was still a believer, and was becoming interested in physics, so I was curious to see what the book had to say.
It was bad—really bad. So much so that even with only a high school knowledge of physics, and a predisposition to accept its conclusions, I found it ridiculously implausible. It wouldn’t even have made it as bad science fiction (although Charlie Stross borrowed the concept in a more interesting way in Iron Sunrise). Years later, taking Caltech’s intro astronomy course, I had the pleasure of hearing the professor deliver a very unflattering digression on Frank Tipler.
I was reminded of all this when I found out (via Sean Carroll) that Tipler has a new book out: The Physics of Christianity. And it sounds even sillier, if possible. It seems that Tipler is now interested in explaining various Biblical miracles though physics, for example: (from Victor Stenger’s review)

In the case of Jesus walking on water, protons and electrons in the normal matter in a layer of water under his feet are annihilated. The neutrinos produced go off invisibly downward with high momentum, the upward recoil enabling Jesus to keep from sinking.

This is actually similar to what you see in other The Physics of… books, such as in The Physics of Harry Potter‘s explanation of how the Sorting Hat could be implemented with SQUID sensors. But those books are, as Sean Carroll points out, just fun exercises in comparing fictional worlds to the real world. On the other hand, Frank Tipler is trying to explain supposed actual historical events, and it’s hard to see what the point is of making up some story about a hypothetical decay process underpinning various miracles. Does it really change anyone’s understanding, believer or not, to go from “Jesus could walk on water because he’s omnipotent” to “Jesus could walk on water because he could annihilate protons with electrons on demand, because he’s omnipotent”? It doesn’t do any explanatory work.
And so what all this suggests to me is that Frank Tipler thinks the Bible should be more like Star Trek. A while back I found this post on an RPG-related blog, which explains how technical language gets inserted into Star Trek scripts:

I am told that the writers of Star Trek scripts do not usually come up with all of the jargon that the characters use. Instead, they just make the notation {TECH} wherever the characters should say something technical, and someone else will come along to fill in each such instance with some chunk of technobabble. This has an important story consequence: since the science is completely arbitrary, it’s necessarily the case that the plot can’t really hinge, in a compelling way, on the technical and scientific choices the characters face. It’s all just {TECH}, and at best technobabble can provides sci-fi color, and at worst it’s an excuse for a deus ex machina resolution.

So I imagine that Frank Tipler reads the Bible and sees a bunch of {TECH} notations that he feels compelled to fill in himself. And the last sentence of that quote describes the effect pretty well, which is why even as a believer I found Tipler’s book unsatisfying.

Blogroll pruning

I recently cut down on the number of blogs I subscribe to in order since I wasn’t able to keep up with all of them. This required me to remove a number of very good blogs that I simply didn’t have time to read. In some cases I am relying on the fact that good posts from certain prolific bloggers will be linked by other blogs that I do read. Anyway, I’ve updated my blogroll to reflect what I’m actually reading now.
One addition to the blogroll is Zifnab’s new blog Labyrinth.
I also removed the media links on the sidebar since I haven’t been updating them.

Yippie Ki Yay

Last night we watched the first two Die Hard movies to prepare for Live Free or Die Hard. Now I want to trim my beard to look like Alan Rickman’s in the first one:

I had actually never seen Die Hard 2 despite owning the DVD (in a set with the other two, which I had seen). I had heard that it was the worst of the three, and that was my assessment upon seeing it—it doesn’t hang together as well and has some laughably silly moments. (Die Hard with a Vengeance, a.k.a. Die Hard: The Stack has its share of silliness but pulls it off better.) Part of the problem, I’m convinced, is that they spend too much time trying to pay homage to the first movie, bringing back most of the surviving characters for some relatively pointless roles. Meanwhile, the third installment made a connection to the first film in the plot while ditching the entire cast (except of course for Bruce Willis) and bringing on Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons, a formula which was considerably more successful.
One thing I didn’t know was that likely Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson appears in Die Hard 2 in a standard Fred Thompson role. Likewise William Atherton appears in the first two movies in a standard William Atherton role.
Finally, I’m sure you’ve all seen this already but no Die Hard post would be complete without the music video: