This title is only meaningful in context

Malcolm Gladwell is a well-known writer. He became famous with his articles in The New Yorker and then blew up with a series of pop-science books: Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers. His formula for each is essentially the same: he takes a number of anecdotes and massages them to form a stunning, profound conclusion… that, usually due to faulty logic, is bogus. (Though the concept might be fundamentally correct, it is usually not supported by his assertions.) In other words, he takes some paper and tries to print cash on it.

Chuck Klosterman is also a well-known writer, though not quite as famous. His schtick is exactly the opposite of Gladwell’s: he comes up with nuggets of wisdom (or entertaining psuedo-wisdom), like

    “Comparing [Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose] is kind of like comparing a black-and-white photo and its negative: They are totally opposite, yet they’re completely the same.”

    “Every relationship is fundamentally a power struggle, and the individual in power is whoever likes the other person less.”

    “You used to be able to tell the difference between hipsters and homeless people. Now, it’s between hipsters and retards. I mean, either that guy in the corner in orange safety pants holding a protest sign and wearing a top hat is mentally disabled or he is the coolest fucking guy you will ever know.”

    “In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever in and of itself.”

    “It was the kind of love you can only feel toward someone you don’t actually know.”

    “If you define your personality as creative, it only means you understand what is perceived to be creative by the world at large, so you’re really just following a rote creative template. That’s the opposite of creativity.”

… whose eventual conclusion is jumbled or non-existent. In other words, he takes some hundos and uses them to wallpaper his apartment.

The end result for both authors is surprisingly similar: books that are basically brain candy, enjoyable for the duration of the read but with little lingering value. I guess you could say, in some sense, that Gladwell and Klosterman are like a black-and-white photo and its negative: they are totally opposite, yet they’re completely the same.


… Though for some reason I have a much better opinion of Klosterman. I suppose it’s because he doesn’t try to achieve too much. Or maybe it’s because his off-hand observations appear to take less effort to produce than Gladwell’s heavy-handed conclusions. And, you know, people who try less hard are naturally better.

I’ll leave you with two of my favorite Klosterman passages, both of which I’ve quoted in an earlier entry. Unfortunately, I won’t link to that entry for reasons that would be embarrassingly obvious in a meta kind of way if you were to actually read it. But here are the passages:

No woman will ever satisfy me. I know that now, and I would never try to deny it. But this is actually okay, because I will never satisfy a woman, either.

Should I be writing such thoughts? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s a bad idea. I can definitely foresee a scenario where that first paragraph could come back to haunt me, especially if I somehow became marginally famous. If I become marginally famous, I will undoubtedly be interviewed by someone in the media (hopefully Charlie Rose) and the interviewer will inevitably ask, “Fifteen years ago, you wrote that no woman could ever satisfy you. Now that you’ve been married for almost five years, are those words still true?” And I will have to say, “Oh, God no. Those were the words of an entirely different person — a person whom I can’t even relate to anymore. Honestly, I can’t imagine an existence without _______. She satisfies me in ways that I never even considered. She saved my life, really.”

Now, I will be lying. I won’t really feel that way. But I’ll certainly say those words, and I’ll deliver them with the utmost sincerity, even though those sentiments will not be there. So then the interviewer will undoubtedly quote lines from this particular paragraph, thereby reminding me that I swore I would publicly deny my true feelings, and I’ll chuckle and say, “Come on, Mr. Rose. That was a literary device. You know I never really believed that.”

But here’s the thing: I do believe that….

and

As America’s best-loved semipro freelance conversationalist, I am often queried about my brazen humorousity. “How is it possible,” I am asked, “that you are able to extemporaneously lecture so effortlessly on such a myriad of complex topics? What is the key to your incisive, witty repertoire?”

It’s a valid question.

Certainly, there is a formula to being relentlessly dynamic. There’s a shockingly simple equation to being uber-interesting, and it works with every subject imaginable.

The formula is as follows: When discussing any given issue, always do three things. First, make an intellectual concession (this makes the listener feel comfortable). Next, make a completely incomprehensible — but remarkably specific — “cultural accusation” (this makes you thoughtful). Finally, end the dialogue by interjecting slang lexicon that does not necessarily exist (this makes you contemporary). Here are a few examples.

When talking about sports: “I mean, come on — you just know that Rodney Rogers is sitting in the locker room before every game reading Nietzsche, and he’s totally thinking to himself, ‘If Ron Artest tries to step to me one more time, I’m gonna slap jack his brisket, Philly style.’”

When talking about music: “Oh, let’s face it — we all know that if Rivers Cuomo makes one more album about the Cubism didactic, he might as well just give up completely and turn Weezer into a hobo-core three-piece.”

When talking about film: “Everybody in this room has seen Peter Bogdanovich at his worst, and everybody in this room already suspects that he probably sits in his gazebo and beats off to Pet Sounds five nights a week, so I think it’s safe to assume this whole era of the ‘Scarecrow Thriller’ is as dead as the diplodocus.”

When talking about politics: “That crazy Condoleeza Rice — who does she think she’s fooling with all that neo-Ventura, post-Dickensian welfare state pseudo-shit? If that’s supposed to be the future, she may as well stick the Q like the salt queen that she is.”

Do you understand? Do you see the forest through the trees? Do you not see what I am no longer not saying to you? If so — congratulations! Prepare to have sex constantly.

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This one goes out to the older song

Hey, guess what? The Decemberists did a remake of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”:

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And oh yeah, Iron & Wine just came out with a remake of Paul Simon’s “She Moves On”:

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Just kidding. But damn, you’ve got to admit the similarities (after a careful listen). Anyway, the new Decemberists and Iron & Wine albums are both great.

Edit: I realize that complaining that a song has been done before, that there are only so many popular chord progressions, etc., is one of the oldest tropes in the book. Fair enough. I guess what’s interesting to me is that the original songs are so well known. I mean, there’s no question that Colin Meloy has heard “The One I Love” before. Did he just not care? Is it an homage?

Edit 2: I guess so: “Decemberists Pay Tribute to R.E.M.”. But the funny thing here is that they’re talking about a different song on the album — they think this one is a take on Neil Young! But the fact that Peter Buck actually plays on the album explains a lot.

Coincidentally, I heard the new Lady Gaga song for the first time tonight on the radio.

It’s very obviously a take on Madonna’s “Express Yourself”.

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And clearly Lady Gaga knew that. I somehow imagine that I would be ashamed to put out something so derivative. But hey, Lady Gaga, The Decemberists… I guess, to paraphrase a meme, good songs sound good. I’ll be the first to admit that they’re all pleasurable to hear.

I’ll leave you with another of my favorite “remakes”, original first:

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Foundation’s Foundation

A few entries back, I wrote about the Foundation series. Its premise rests on the (imaginary) science of psychohistory, which allows its practitioners, twelve thousand years in the future, to predict the course of human history in aggregate over billions of people and thousands of years. The books are exciting but also implausible, since so many critical plot events turn on the actions of individual people. That psychohistory could predict so well the decisions one person (not a logical automaton, a real person) is hard to believe. (It also makes the books a little more awesome, the way any powerful force does in sci-fi and fantasy.)

I happen to be re-reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a thrilling fictional account of communism (and why it went wrong) from the inside. I recently came across a curious paragraph. In it, the protagonist is trying to imagine what’s going in the brain, the “gray whorls”, of his country’s leader, known as No. 1.

What went on in the inflated gray whorls? One knew everything about the far-away nebulae, but nothing about the whorls. That was probably the reason that history was more of an oracle than a science. Perhaps later, much later, it would be taught by means of tables of statistics, supplemented by such anatomical sections. The teacher would draw on the blackboard an algebraic formula representing the conditions of life of the masses of a particular nation at a particular period: “Here, citizens, you see the objective factors which conditioned the historical process.” And, pointing with his ruler to a gray foggy landscape between the second and third lobe of No. 1’s brain: “Now here you see the subjective reflection of these factors. It was this which in the second quarter of the twentieth century led to the triumph of the totalitarian principle in the Easy of Europe.” Until this stage was reached, politics would remain bloody dilettantism, mere superstition and black magic…

Well now. Foundation was written between 1942 and 1950; Darkness at Noon was published in 1941. For all we know, Asimov got his idea from Darkness.

But Koestler goes further: in this single mocking paragraph, he neatly introduces the concept of psychohistory before Asimov and simultaneously exposes its essential absurdity, that the course of human history could be predicted merely by “objective factors” – which, in Asimov’s books, do not attempt to account for the particular vagaries of No. 1’s brain, but instead only broadly cover its expected behavior, and yet provide astoundingly robust results. (It takes a mutant to get the psychohistorians off their game.)

Where would the US be today – militarily and fiscally, for starters — if Gore had been elected selected President instead of Bush? Koestler’s tongue-in-cheek examination gets it right: even in democracies, so much depends on the gray whorls of a single individual. (Of course, whether that individual is Dubya himself, or instead Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court justice who swung Bush v. Gore 5-4 in his favor, is debatable. Maybe it was inevitable after all. Aughhhhhh.)

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Unlearning the good stuff

Notice anything strange about the following ESPN.com headline from last night?You gotta see it.

I’ll give you a hint: “it’s” grammar sucks.

Now, I’m not a good grammar theorist; frankly, I couldn’t define its more esoteric concepts and have to repeatedly remind myself what a gerund is.

But when I was growing up, I internalized the basic rules of grammar by inference — by reading lots of books. Books have editors and even the most basic adhere to a cohesive set of grammatical rules. Sure, descriptivists love arguing about “he/she” vs. “their”, the proper use of semicolons, and whatnot, but in my experience, when it comes to published media there’s a staggering level of agreement about what constitutes good grammar.

Of course, I have my quirks. The New Yorker is as good as modern writing gets, but I still grimace when its editors throw in gratuitous umlauts, as in “coöoperate”, and “ands”, as in “three hundred and twenty”. On the other hand, I’m cool with split infinitives (find the one in paragraph 3!) and sentence-ending prepositions. But on the whole I can read an entire issue of the magazine and only set the internal grammar klaxons firing once or twice.*

Anyway, the web is ruining all that. The average Facebook user is a grammar-ignorant heathen who probably thinks that “Strunk and White” is a web comic. Worse, popular bloggers — people who actually make a living as writers — are just as bad, and more shameless. TechCrunch routinely has elementary-school level grammatical gaffes on its front page, and it’s by no means an exception.

I wonder: is this because (a) bloggers just don’t know grammar, or because (b) most writers don’t know grammar, but only bloggers that don’t have copy editors fixing their mistakes?

Fine, I understand that no one wants to hear complaints about bad grammar. It’s overdone. But I’m not out to change other people; this is my personal forum for narcissism, after all.

The problem is that the Internet’s poor grammar is killing me. It’s making me dumber, and I know it, like I’m Charlie Gordon in the second half of Flowers for Algernon. I read these blogs every day. I learn by inference. And my internal inference generator, which long ago induced the basic rules of grammar from reading texts, is going haywire. I sometimes double-take when I see a grammatically correct phrase because I expect to see something incorrect. It’s really bad.

(For instance, I might read that last paragraph, and hesitate on the last sentence for just a second… is that “It’s” actually correct? Is there any truth in a morally relative universe?)

And now… the front page of ESPN. Ouch.

P.S. My computer science friends tend to be exceptionally good at grammar. Is this because the same skills that enable you to understand the syntax and semantics of a programming language also enable you to grok English grammar? Or maybe the maddening attention to detail that’s required to write good bug-free(-ish) code also applies when writing prose.

* A strict nerd will realize that if you have no internal grammar rules, your klaxons will never fire. In other words, your internal grammar checker is sound but not complete. But rest assured that I have plenty of rules, and strictly hew to them to irritating effect. I mean affect. Just kidding!


Addendum: I posted this last night. By 8am this morning, an old high school friend, Allison, sent me two more mainstream errors:

from “you’re” favorite paper, the WSJ.

from the Chicago Tribune. We’re on a “role” now!

Yeah, so these are still bloggy, but the writers are real journalists, and anyway the posts have been up for hours and the errors are still there.

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Foundation

I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It’s a sci-fi classic about the period of time following the Galactic Empire’s collapse.

Well, that sounds trite, doesn’t it? But the books introduce an interesting premise: the creation of the science of psychohistory. Psychohistory applies the laws of statistics to the large-scale behavior of populations of humans.

Of course, it’s difficult or impossible to predict how an individual person will act, but at scale, or so the theory goes, humankind’s aggregate behavior is predictable. In other words, if there are enough people, you can predict the future.

Conveniently, the books take place about 12,000 years from now, when a quintillion humans populate the galaxy. The father of psychohistory is able to predict the collapse of the Empire, and the 30,000-year dark age to follow. He envisions a shortened 1,000 year period and, to save people from an additional 29,000 years of barbarism, carefully plots its course…

… in secret. Because there’s one additional caveat: if people know of a psychohistoric prediction, they may change their behavior, affecting its accuracy. So there’s the constant tension of normal humans discovering their 1,000 year path along the way, and possibly sabotaging it by accident or intent.

Asimov does an admirable job of constructing a world in which psychohistory is plausible, and then runs with it. He’s a master plotter, and twists abound throughout the series, as various foreseen and unforeseen forces conspire to derail a thousand years of predictions.

I might as well point out that the series is eminently mockable, as well: the wooden, identical, hyper-rational characters, the implausible specificity of the psychohistoric predictions (down to the day!), and the plot twists so insane that you start thinking that the least assuming characters are going to be the most important — and find that you’re correct. But it’s still a gripping read, and the concepts are rewarding.


Anyway, probably the biggest hole in the setup is the failure to account for technological advances. Sure, Asimov handwaves about the slow pace of discovery and the ignorance of the galaxy’s inhabitants. Many regions have lost the use of atomics, even — that staple of energy and military might!

But Asimov uses atomics as a crutch. It’s one of the principle differentiators of power, and technological progress is stated mostly in terms of who has atomics and who doesn’t. What about all the new stuff?

Yes, ignorance abounds, but there are 1,000 years and literally 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 minds at work. And these are people who can travel through hyperspace. Surely revolutionary technology will be invented.

And this is where it gets interesting. Asimov, like all sci-fi writers, is faced with the challenge (and pleasure) of imagining future technology, and hits some snags. For one thing, he starts so far in the future as to make a mockery of plausible prediction*, but we’ll give him that — in sci-fi books, you pretty much accept the technology accompanying a story’s given time as axiomatic. But Asimov (a) writes on a time scale so large that even within the context of the story technology must advance an incomprehensible degree, and (b) uses as his fundamental premise a mechanism, psychohistory, that claims to predict the future but does not (and, realistically, cannot) account for such technological advances.

The result is a level of disbelief that’s harder to suspend than what’s usually required when reading a science fiction book.

* It’s as if the ancient Egyptians had to predict the year 8000.


But it’s also a really neat insight into Asimov’s time. The books were written between 1942 and 1950, during and after World War II and the attendant astonishment and hysteria stemming from Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 that established America as the world’s primary power.

As such, it’s no surprise that, at least in Asimov’s mind, atomics would be humankind’s dominant technology. And it’s not a bad guess. We’ve wrestled with atomic power for the last half century, but given its potential, good money says atomics are going to be around for a long time.

But, oh, what he misses. While reading the books, I made a list of some technologies that are around now — a mere 50 years in the future — that Asimov fails to predict. For instance, in Foundation (again, 12,000 years in the future), people use:

  • Pen and paper, exclusively
  • Physical film
  • Taxi drivers (see Google’s driverless car)
  • Contact lenses (see LASIK)
  • Slide rules (!)

Conversely, there isn’t:

  • Encryption (secret messages are delivered by hand! even onto a spaceship)
  • A repository of knowledge (see the Internet)

Oh yeah, also: no computers. Kind of a biggie. People plot spaceship trajectories by hand.

Of course, Asimov is not to fault for these omissions. How could he possibly know? Other stuff he couldn’t have known about: the double-helix structure of DNA, silicon transistors, genetic modification. I hesitate to make a blanket statement about the futility of all science fiction predictions, because there have been some spectacular bulls-eyes in the past, and anyway it’s just something you accept when you get into the genre.

But by illustrating what Asimov couldn’t have predicted, we expose the central flaw in psychohistory’s framework: that predicting human behavior is sufficient to predict the future. The web, Google, even WikiLeaks — these things are disruptive. Technology matters.

Or perhaps he’s onto something. 60s counterculture, the fall of Soviet communism, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… would these events have played out radically differently without the above technologies? Does technology dictate the direction of human events, or merely serve as an accompaniment?

But Asimov traps himself. Atomics are critical to the plot of the Foundation series, and their use influences the outcome of several conflicts. So he argues by example that technology does play a huge part in human events. And the only technology he gives any credence to is atomic energy. If he had written Foundation a mere 15 years later, my guess is that computers would have played just as significant a role.

But atomics is all there is, because atomics are all he could see, writing through 1945 and the singular, transformative bombing of Japan. Art is the product of its age, and all that.

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You can’t stop the circle of the sun

Of all the gorgeous and catchy songs by Girlyman, it’s this simple, poignant reflection that plays in my head the most:

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Here are some other great Girlyman songs, if you’re into beautiful three-part harmonies:

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I found out today that Doris, one of the members of the band (and lead vocalist on “Bird on the Wire”, “Speechless”, and “Tell Me There’s a Reason”, above), has Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. Sad news. They’ve had to cancel many tour dates, but they’re still on schedule for next year, including a stop at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage on January 28th. I’m getting tickets shortly, so if you like what you hear and want to come along, let me know.

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Quiz Results!

In my last post, I had a short quiz. If you haven’t taken it yet, do so now! Once you look at the results, your own answers won’t count.

View the results!
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Nouveau Notions

In its most derogatory meaning, the term nouveau riche describes a person of newfound wealth who doesn’t know how to “be rich”: he acts ostentatiously, spends conspicuously, and surrounds himself with unsubtle signals of his wealth that the “old rich” find distasteful.

In this vein, I’d like to introduce a related term: nouveau in-the-know*.

Someone who’s nouveau in-the-know has just learned something, and is eager to show off that newfound knowledge, even if it means ignoring or overlooking subtleties that only come with a period of further thought.

For instance:

  • Someone who has just heard about an event in the Israel-Palestine conflict and eagerly touts what he thinks is a solution — because he doesn’t know all the attendant issues.
  • Any irritating person at work who picks up a new technology and promotes it as a panacea without having a firm grasp on what it can actually do. “Ruby on Rails FTW!”
  • Your activist friend who learns about Asian sweatshops, and immediate goes on a crusade against them, without trying to understand the nuanced arguments both for and against sweatshops.
  • Sarah Palin, about 95% of the time she learns something new.

Have I been guilty of this infraction? Absolutely. It’s a dangerously easy trap to fall into,  more dangerous than simply being naïve, because you actually think you know what you’re talking about. It’s also a very quick way to expose your ignorance.

The best antidote is to shut your mouth when you feel you have learned something really big. Invariably your brain will start peeling back the novelty and begin considering the idea on its merits.**

Of course, there’s no good antidote for being around someone who’s nouveau in-the-know, except to relax, and patiently (and gently) challenge his argument.

If you are curious about how your brain can jump to incorrect conclusions based on what you think you know, take this 30-second quiz I’ve created:

* Alternatives: “nouveau knowing”, “nouveau knowledgeable”, “nouveau informed”, etc. All ugly. Suggestions?

** Relatedly, there have been countless times in college when a professor says something interesting in lecture, and a really insightful question occurs to me. I’m eager to ask the professor about it. But I sit quietly for a few minutes, and slowly my brain realizes exactly why it’s not an insightful question at all, in fact it’s kind of a dumb question, and if I just think about it for a few minutes, the answer would be obvious. Luckily I do, and my hand never goes up. Disaster averted!

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Welcome, welcome.

I’ve finally done the dirty deed and switched from LiveJournal to my own WordPress installation. The main reason I’ve been putting this off is the sheer number of friends’ WP installs that have gotten hacked. I figure it’s inevitable, so let’s see how far I can get before this blog becomes a giant advertisement for male enhancement drugs.

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An introduction to Opeth

I’m going to try to introduce you to a band called Opeth. Opeth plays progressive metal*, which sounds scary and inaccessible, and is, a little bit, especially because they use growled or grunted vocals in many of their songs. I’ll give you that: when you first hear growls, you might find them disturbing — or funny. They’re not something most people appreciate on first listen.

But Opeth is about a lot more than a few grunts. Their singer is also an accomplished “clean” vocalist, and all the musicians are first-rate. The songwriting is complex and diverse, encompassing an elaborate and intoxifying combination of genres. The result is music of startling depth, beauty, variety, and power.

So I’d like to introduce them to you one step at a time. At their quietest:

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Perhaps this is more accessible than you expected. Let’s add a two-part song structure (most of their songs go through three to five parts), and some distortion in the second half. This song is nearly eight minutes long, but be patient.

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We’re getting pretty kickass here. Same quiet opening, but then — louder, more powerful, killer riffs. Notice how strong the melodic core of the song is, even at its loudest moments.

Get ready for the biggest shift: this next song is a fully-realized Opeth composition: loud parts, quiet acoustic parts, clean singing, growling, multiple movements, nine minutes long. Right off the bat you’ll hear the growling, and hopefully you’ll appreciate how it fits into the mood. A guest vocal by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson opens up the clean section at 3:25, and by 5:20 we’re off in different territory altogether, before hitting the reprise.

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Yes, this is tough to listen to if you’ve never heard this kind of music before. But if you’re willing to put in the time to habituate to the new noises and wrap your head around the song structures, you’ll find yourself amply rewarded.

I’ll leave you with one last track, which traverses a dizzying breadth of sonic terrain, at 0:00, 2:30, 3:30, 5:05, 7:15, 8:10, and a rhythmically interesting coda at 10:00 that I dare you to try to tap along with the first time you hear it.

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How many people do I expect to convert with this post? Realistically, zero. But it’s worth a shot…

* Many people actually label Opeth in the sub-genre “death metal”, as opposed to its cousin, “black metal”. Though any music labels are generally imprecise, I think of “death metal” as “feeling bad about yourself” and its cousin, “black metal” as “feeling bad about everyone else”. I’ve never really gotten into black metal, this second genre, but I do have a few albums. It’s pretty extreme — there’s occasionally animal blood at shows, and the musicians sometimes do crazy things, including burning churches, killing themselves and even committing the occasional murder… all of which I agree is ridiculous. A friend of mine was shocked that I’d even consider listening to black metal, given such behavior, and at the time, I kind of had to admit his point. In retrospect, though, it’s very similar to rap (which we both listen to), in that both often glorify a violent, hateful worldview and occasionally live up to that promise in real life. In both cases, I don’t think you have to endorse the lifestyle to appreciate the music. Black metal is a little comical in its absurdity, but there are still some jaw-dropping moments (give yourself at least until the “clean” vocals about halfway through this video), and impressive technical prowess (see the guitar work here, a live version of the next song on the same album by the same band).

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