Thursday, December 31, 2009

Summing up the decade on New Year's Eve 2009

"The decade where people communicate as indirectly as possible but as often as possible while sharing as much information as possible and as useless of information as possible." -- a friend on Facebook

"Throughout the decade, the real world pursued, hectored, harassed. Ignorance was punished. Hubris found its comeuppance. The optimists were routed, the pessimists validated. ... This was a decade when things you didn't know about could really hurt you." -- Joel Achenbach

"The aughts were ruined by not letting good crises go to waste." -- Will Wilkinson

The worst movies from this decade that you saw because they were critically acclaimed

My mom points out that this is a much more useful idea for a list than the more common "worst movies of the decade." She explains:

I don't need a decade-end list of the very worst crap that you saw and I didn't see. I'd rather make a list of the worst movies that you, the movie reviewer, gulled me into seeing. What did you say was good that I wasted my time and money on?
She has her list at the link.

I haven't been watching many new movies this decade, so I can't make anything close to a definitive list. But with this severe limitation, here are the movies I saw and was baffled by the amount of praise they received:

1. Lost in Translation
2. High Fidelity
3. I Heart Huckabees*
4. Waking Life
5. Away We Go* (blogged)
6. A Scanner Darkly
7. Fahrenheit 911*
8. Amelie*

* Movies with an asterisk received mixed reviews, but many critics gave them effusive praise.

I just saw Lost in Translation last night. That's probably the movie with the biggest gap between the critical reception (Metacritic's aggregation of reviews gives it an extraordinary 89 out of 100) and my actual enjoyment of it.

Now, on the positive side, here are some excellent movies from this decade that fully deserved their critical acclaim:

1. The Pianist
2. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
3. Capturing the Friedmans
4. Sideways
5. About Schmidt [added later]
6. Ghost World

Happy new year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Christmas

I just got back to Albany after a week-long vacation in Madison (part of why the blogging has been light in the past week). The family always spends Christmas together, but this time we had two new (to me) family members, my stepdad and stepsister. We had a lot of fun playing a game that can't be bought in a store, which we called "Word Storm." (I'll explain it in a later post so you can play it too.) We mixed some of our old Christmas traditions with some new traditions. We cooked dinner and breakfast together.

We watched a home video of our old family, shot with a rented camcorder in early 1987, when I was 5 years old. Though most of the video is unavoidably boring, I always watch it eagerly anticipating the occasional flashes of humor or insight. At one point, my mom asks me if I have a message for the grown-up John watching this in the future. My answer: "Travel all over the world." In another scene, she asks what I think of our family, and I respond, "I think we have a very nice family, and we have lots and lots of fun -- with the whole world being white." Huh? No, I wasn't raised by white supremacists; I was holding a white paper napkin up to the camera lens and joking about my state-of-the-art special effects.

I gave that answer with such gleeful enthusiasm that it's hard to imagine I was just saying what I thought I was supposed to say. Having Christmas in 2009 with a family I wouldn't have recognized even last year, I thought back to the young John -- how little he knew but also how important some of the things he knew were. I felt saddened to think: here we are, a very nice new family that could have been having lots of fun together for the past couple decades. I immediately corrected myself: no, that's impossible, things could only have happened exactly as they did. Whether they should have happened another way is irrelevant now. You can only go forward into the future. But you can still remember the things you knew when you were 5 years old.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does evolutionary psychology make it hard to understand "culture"?

I've been reading Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters over my Christmas vacation. It's similar to Robert Wright's The Moral Animal in that it popularizes evolutionary psychology. But the authors (Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa) update Wright's 1994 book by using more recent research to answer a slew of questions about society.

In a future post I'll excerpt some of the more useful insights from the book. For now, I have a complaint with the authors' discussion of "culture."

They start out the book saying that "everyone" realizes that environment, culture, etc. shape human behavior. "[T]here are no serious biological or genetic determinists in science" (pg. 2). The only controversy is whether biology, genes, evolution, etc. also shape human behavior. Of course, the authors, being evolutionary psychologists, are adamant that the answer is "yes." I agree.

But it's not so clear to me that the authors actually recognize that culture shapes human behavior. They say:

Gender socialization helps to accentuate, solidify, perpetuate, and strengthen the innate differences between men and women, but it does not cause or create such differences. In other words, men and women are not different because they are socialized differently; they are socialized differently because they are different. Gender socialization is not the cause of sex differences; it is their consequence. (32) (emphasis in original)
The first sentence in that paragraph sounds relatively nuanced, but the rest of the paragraph eliminates any nuance. Their position seems clear: gender norms are simply not a cause of any differences between men's and women's behavior. It's hard to imagine a more extreme position than that.

Similarly, they say:
[T]he sex differences in behavior, cognition, values, and preferences are largely innate; universal across cultures; and, in many cases, constant across species. If the sex differences were the result of social and cultural practices such as gender socialization, then they should by definition vary by culture and society. In fact, however, in every human society (and among many other species), males on average are more aggressive, violent, and competitive, and females on average are more social, caring, and nurturing. What is constant in every culture and society (sex differences in behavior) cannot be explained by what is variable across cultures and societies (cultural and social practices). A variable cannot explain a constant; only a constant can explain a constant. (32) (emphasis added)
But later in the same chapter, they have this heading:
There Is Only One Human Culture
Um, I thought they just said that anything that results from culture must, "by definition," "vary by culture and society." But no:
[A]ll the cultural differences are on the surface; deep down, at the most fundamental level, all human cultures are essentially the same .... [C]ulture is a universal trait of all human societies. Yes, culture is a cultural universal.
I'm open to hearing out someone's argument that all human culture is the same. And I'm open to the argument that culture is wildly varied; therefore, any traits that are universally present in humans cannot be the result of culture. But is it too much to ask that the same co-authors stick to a consistent position within a given book?

Aside from the internal inconsistency, I'm not convinced that sex differences are so universal that they can't be the result of social norms. One problem with this is: how could you ever conclude that a particular sex difference is universal? Even if you've surveyed every society in the world and found that, for instance, women refrain from serving in the military in all of them, you'd still only be speculating that this will continue to be the case for all time. Of course, women didn't used to serve in the military, but they do now. Many jobs used to be considered out of the question for women, but this is no longer the case. Who's to say that a sex difference that appears universal right now won't crumble in the future?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thinking about the best songs of the first decade of the 2000s

Now that we're done with the list of the 100 best songs of the decade, what can we conclude about the past 10 years of music?

Maybe not much -- after all, the list is just my opinion. But for the sake of this post, I'm going to adopt the tried-and-true critics' method of assuming that my taste is synonymous with the objective truth.

Here are the features that jump out at me, the things that made the decade what it was:

1. Conspicuously female. About 40% of the lead vocals in the top 100 songs are sung by women. In contrast, my favorite rock and pop music of the decades from the '50s through the '90s was much more predominantly male when it comes to vocals (to say nothing of instruments and production). This is related to another trend:

2. The decline of straightforward "rock" and the rise of a vague cluster of genres often loosely described as "indie,"
in which rock is just one influence of many. In the '90s, by contrast, ROCK -- screamed vocals, bashed drums, and walls of distorted guitars -- seemed to be de rigueur unless you unambiguously fell into a non-rock genre.

Returning to point #1 by way of point #2: in the '90s, you mainly found female artists in one of two categories: (1) women playing straightforward rock music (often drawing praise for showing that they're capable of being like men), and (2) women playing music clearly not intended to rock. Examples of the first category would be Hole, the Breeders, Veruca Salt, and L7; examples of the second would be Sarah McLachlan, Lisa Loeb, and Jewel. Outstanding exceptions -- that is, women in more innovative grey areas -- were Tori Amos and Bjork (who both did most of their strongest work in the '90s, though they happen to also be in the 2000s list). In this decade, women in the spirit of Bjork and Tori Amos have multiplied: St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond, the Dresden Dolls, Hanne Hukkelberg, Imogen Heap (Frou Frou), Rilo Kiley (Jenny Lewis), Feist, Psapp, Decoder Ring, Camera Obscura, Regina Spektor, and many others.

3. Guitars have been demoted from the dominant instrument to just one of many. Bands routinely go beyond the standard rock ensemble of guitar/bass/drums and use the full panoply of instruments. A rock song with piano and strings doesn't stand out as unusual. (For instance, #55.) It's reminiscent of the Beatles' later work except that sophisticated electronics are part of the toolkit now. Of course, there was already an earlier decade where popular music was heavily electronic -- the '80s -- but synthesizers became so dominant then as to be overwhelming, which led to the alt-rock backlash of the '90s. Artists in the '00s have generally struck a more tasteful balance between electronics and traditional instruments -- and the electronics themselves sound better anyway.

4. Male singers often use a style distinctly unconcerned with living up to the old expectations of rock singing (screaming, raspy, macho, aggressive). The new style is exemplified by Rufus Wainwright, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), and Andrew Bird. Other examples are Beirut and Grizzly Bear. It's influenced by a man who tragically can't be on this list: Jeff Buckley. It's more flowing and refined. It's less conventionally rocking, more classically melodious. These singers can and do "rock," but they also freely choose not to.

5. We've established that "rock" is less dominant (#3), but what was the best rock of the 2000s like? If we take the listed songs by the Strokes, the White Stripes, Hot Hot Heat, and Franz Ferdinand, we can hear a decisive shift away from '90s rock. The new rock is simpler and more down-to-earth. These bands aren't like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, or Alice in Chains -- who bared their souls and tried to overwhelm you with their emotion. The new bands just want to write fun rock songs with catchy melodies and a cool guitar lick or two; if they succeed at that, their job is done. The singing and guitar playing are usually less ambitious (Jack White being the exception that proves the general rule when it comes to guitar), and the songwriting tends to be more concise. The drumming often sounds like a human version of a disco beat. For these bands, a song with the earnest drama of Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" or a concept album with the grandeur of the Smashing Pumpkin's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness would be unthinkable. (None of this is inherently better or worse than '90s rock -- just different.)

7. Less originality, more synthesis of the past. I don't mean to criticize this music as "unoriginal." It is original, but in subtler ways -- and that subtlety is itself an achievement. It's not usually original in the sense of "Congratulations to these people for creating a brand-new genre!" It's original as in "Hey, this Of Montreal band picked really good music to be influenced by, and they piece together the influences in unusual, refreshing, fantastic ways."

8. Love is in; angst is out. Love is once again the default subject matter even in "indie"/"alternative" genres. Unlike in the '90s, you rarely hear an outpouring of angst unconnected to romance.

9. A certain intangible quality you might call "positivity" or "optimism." The songs have lines like "You are my sweetest downfall / I loved you first" (#56) ... "Maybe I'll never die / I'll just keep growing younger with you" (#8) ... "Say what you want to satisfy yourself" (#34) ... They have titles like "Good Day," "Better," "Marry Me." Even counterexamples like "Bad Day" and "2080" ("I can't sleep when I think about the future I was born into") usually have some kind of uplift. The few that stand out as purely negative -- Radiohead's "Sit Down. Stand Up," Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and Beck's "Lost Cause" -- are by artists who had their breakthroughs in the angst-ridden mid-'90s. While Radiohead has perfected the rock of eerie atmospheres and tormented souls, people like the Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor, Of Montreal, and the Dodos have been no less brilliant at playing music with more major keys, less cynicism, more vivacity, less darkness, more sunshine.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"This is a sacred place."

So said Dave Douglas, in the middle of his in-between-song banter last night.

It was the first time I had heard any such statement made about a music venue. Normally, it would seem like a ridiculous and perhaps sacrilegious thing to say. But I doubt anyone in the audience was surprised to hear this asserted about the Village Vanguard.

You can hear a complete concert -- the same group and venue, from earlier last week -- by clicking that link and then clicking the link near the top of the page that says, "Listen Now: The Dave Douglas Quintet In Concert." That will open a pop-up player -- or, if you'd rather have it in mp3 form, use the link right underneath. It's over an hour of music. (Isn't the internet great?)

Dave Douglas jazz trumpetDouglas described two of his songs as being about "November 2008 and the wonderful change that occurred in this country." Both of those songs -- "The Presidents" and "Campaign Trail" -- are on his latest album, A Single Sky. (The music on that album isn't actually representative of last night's show since it's performed by a big band. The quintet's set lists for the past week largely consisted of those same big-band pieces arranged for the smaller group.)

It was a great show, and the pianist, Uri Caine, was particularly magnificent. His solos were so adventurous they were practically little songs unto themselves. You wouldn't have guessed that his piano-playing was a major departure from the group's past: he played only keyboard (Fender Rhodes) in the group for almost 10 years and just recently switched to piano.

Incidentally, Uri Caine's albums based on Beethoven and Mozart would make great Christmas presents for anyone who likes classical and/or jazz music (not for me -- I already have them). They are much, much better than I would have expected a jazzified version of Beethoven or Mozart to be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Houston elects an openly gay mayor

"I know what this win means to many of us who never thought we could achieve high office."

Reuters oddly claims that Houston is the first "major" American city to elect an openly gay mayor. That seems like an unnecessary swipe at Portland, Oregon (which has a population the same size as Las Vegas) and Providence, Rhode Island (the capital of and most prominent city in its state).

If you want to describe this as something unprecedented, you could point out that Houston is the most populous American city to elect an openly gay mayor. But that's not saying much since the United States has only 3 cities with larger populations. The biggest news is that this happened in such a conservative city.

By the way, at least 3 cities outside the US have elected openly gay mayors: Paris, Hamburg, and Berlin. 

Near the end of the Houston race, anti-gay activists sent out mailers attacking Annise Parker (now the mayor-elect) for her "homosexual behavior." (What's with the anti-gay contingent's obsession with the word "homosexual"? They seem to use it as much as possible. Never "gay" -- always "homosexual.") The New York Times reports that Parker's opponent "denied having anything to do with the attacks, but two members of his finance committee gave $40,000 to help finance one of the mailings."

Anyway, this election is a relatively small step -- not nearly as important as actually changing the laws -- but still a step in the right direction. Some day, people won't even think to remark on this.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The top 10 songs of the first decade of the 2000s

After almost 200 songs, we've finally made it to the top 10 of the past 10 years.

(Click here for the whole list.)

Just to heighten the suspense, I'll add another two songs to this post every weekday morning this week, concluding on Friday.

Next week, I'll analyze what made this decade of music what it is. [UPDATE: Here you go.]


10. Gnarls Barkley - Crazy

A song so great it shows up twice in this list (see #91).




9. Sufjan Stevens - Chicago

Summer Anne, ranking this the 10th best song of the decade, says:

[I]f I ever made a church, my kind of church, we would worship outside, and this song would be our "Amazing Grace."



8. Of Montreal - Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games

Let's have bizarre celebrations!




7. Dresden Dolls - Coin-Operated Boy

This is an ingeniously constructed song. It starts out all jaunty and full of innuendo for a few verses. The singer, Amanda Palmer, then takes the song deeper into her psyche by describing the songwriting process itself: "This bridge was written to make you feel smitten-er / With my sad picture of girl getting bitter-er...." The shift in the lyrics and music here (flowing arpeggios instead of percussive chords) seems to tell us we've left the physical world and entered her stream of consciousness. The bridge culminates with an obsessively repeated "I want it --," then "I want you --," then "I want a --," while the whole band mimics the repetitive, jerky movements of a wind-up toy (a lyrical and musical transition back to the verse). When Palmer finally finishes the sentence with the same words and melody that started the song ("...coin-operated boy"), her delivery has lost its previous childlike quality. She sounds weary from the one-sided relationship. At the end, the band winds down like a toy running out of batteries. Not only does Palmer's voice slow down along with everything else, but she sounds unexpectedly meek, as though it were dawning on her that she doesn't quite believe everything she's been singing.




6. St. Vincent - Paris Is Burning



Here's a living-room performance without all that production:




5. The Postal Service - The District Sleeps Alone Tonight

I remember sitting in a cafe a few years ago, hearing this chorus for the first time -- "You seem so out of context / In this gaudy apartment complex" -- and thinking, "Hm, that's a pretty clever hook." Since then, I've probably listened to this song hundreds of times, and it still sounds startlingly new.




4. Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

The rock anthem of the decade.




3. Imogen Heap - Hide and Seek

Here's Imogen Heap's description of how this song came to be:
“My favorite computer blew up on me. ... But I didn't want to leave the studio without having done anything that day. I saw the [DigiTech Vocalist Workstation] on a shelf and just plugged it into my little 4-track MiniDisc with my mic and my keyboard and pressed Record. The first thing that I sang was those first few lines, ‘Where are we? What the hell is going on?’ I set the vocalist to a four-note polyphony, so even if I play 10 notes on the keyboard, it will only choose four of them. It's quite nicely surprising when it comes back with a strange combination. When it gets really high in the second chorus, that's a result of it choosing higher rather than low notes, so I ended up going even higher to compensate, above the chord. I recorded it in, like, four-and-a-half minutes, and it ended up on the album in exactly the structure of how it came out of me then. I love it because it doesn't feel like my song. It just came out of nowhere, and I'm not questioning that one at all.”
The result sounds like a 21st-century version of a Renaissance madrigal.

Have you ever thought to yourself: if God is watching me and has to choose the single greatest 5 minutes of my life, what would they be? For Imogen Heap, the answer just might be those 5 minutes when she was creating this:




2. The Arcade Fire - No Cars Go

The songwriting might be embarrassingly simple, but this is some of the most exciting music to come along in recent memory.

Between the click of the light and the start of the dream...




1. Regina Spektor - Fidelity

Spontaneous but refined, sincere but quirky, simple but complex. I submit that no song more beautifully encapsulates the spirit of this decade of music.



Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s (20-11)

(Click here for the whole list.)

20. The Strokes - Last Nite

Proof that rock music hasn't progressed too far beyond Bo Diddley. And the Strokes probably owe royalties to Tom Petty based on "American Girl." (Petty himself noticed the similarity but says he doesn't mind.)




19. Spoon - Everything Hits at Once




18. Death Cab for Cutie - I Will Follow You into the Dark




17. Regina Spektor - Us




16. Rufus Wainwright - I Don't Know What It Is

This is a good example of the fact that I mainly care about the music, not the lyrics. I'm not saying these are bad lyrics, but I don't really know what they mean, and they're certainly not the 16th best lyrics of the decade.

Regardless, this is a masterful fitting of melody to chord progressions. He must have taken exquisite care in writing this song to make it sound so effortless.




15. Bjork - Hidden Place

The apotheosis of introversion.

The build-up from the final verse ("Can I hide there too?") to the final chorus is quietly overwhelming. She gets so much feeling out of singing the words slightly off from the beat.




14. Goldfrapp - A & E

When I said (in this post) that one of the criteria I used in deciding whether to include a song on the list was...

Does the music have some sort of dramatic arc or development? (A bridge or other deviation from "verse/chorus/verse/chorus" is especially helpful.)
... this is one of the songs I particularly had in mind. Wow.




13. Frou Frou - Let Go

Here's an unplugged version by Imogen Heap, who is half of the defunct duo Frou Frou:



And here's the very different album version:




12. Radiohead - Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders.)

A Slate reviewer said: "When 'Sit Down. Stand Up' quickens, turns on a dime, then explodes into furious broken bass chords and electro-beats and monkish chants of 'The raindrops, the raindrops,' I'm hearing something I've never heard before, something, quite literally, sensational."




11. Rilo Kiley - Does He Love You?

Ditto the above comments on Goldfrapp's "A & E."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A conservative's message to conservatives: Support President Obama on Afghanistan.

Ramesh Ponnuru says:

Conservatives fear that the president looks weak abroad; they should not reinforce the impression. They worry that the war is losing support at home; they should not make it come true. The right course for conservatives--and the one most of us are going to take--is to applaud the president for doing the right thing, hope for the best, and urge course corrections when necessary.

"Aggravated homosexuality"

Uganda is considering legislation to make that a criminal offense.

The definition of the crime, according to that article, would be: being HIV positive and having gay sex.

The punishment: death.

If you merely have gay sex in Uganda, without being HIV positive, the punishment under the proposed law would be life imprisonment.

Also:

The Bill proposes a three-year prison sentence for anyone who is aware of evidence of homosexuality and fails to report it to the police within 24 hours. And it would impose a sentence of up to seven years for anyone who defends the rights of gays and lesbians.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Live-blogging President Obama's prime-time speech on Afghanistan

8:04 - Obama coins a portmanteau word: "toperatives."

8:09 - "Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years now, it has moved backwards." Obama's delivery here was uncannily evocative of George W. Bush's.

8:14 - I'm glad Obama says, of the war on terrorism, "This is not just America's war," and lists some of the terrorist attacks that have happened around the world since September 11, 2001. A welcome change from the glibly myopic refrain we heard during the Bush administration that "we" haven't been attacked again.

[UPDATE: Here's the prepared text of the speech. The key passage:]

We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region. Of course, this burden is not ours alone to bear. This is not just America's war. Since 9/11, al Qaeda's safe-havens have been the source of attacks against London and Amman and Bali. The people and governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan are endangered. And the stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them. These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies.
8:27 - A long-term commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan can't be fulfilled "at a reasonable cost." "The nation I'm most interested in building is our own." It's refreshing to finally have a president who's willing to bluntly acknowledge, in the context of foreign policy, that our capabilities are finite and that trade-offs sometimes need to be made.

[Another update from the transcript:]
I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who – in discussing our national security – said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance, and failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our friends and neighbors are out of work and struggle to pay the bills, and too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we simply cannot afford to ignore the price of these wars.

All told, by the time I took office the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. Going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly 30 billion dollars for the military this year, and I will work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That is why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.
(By contrast, here's Bush's second inaugural address: "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. ... America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength - tested, but not weary - we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.")

8:35 - He ends with a mix of Obama-like inspiration and Bush-like resolve: "Our cause is just. ... Right makes might."

I'm not qualified to judge the actual military strategy Obama was announcing with this speech. (How many people watching could honestly say they are?) But the speech itself was as smoothly effective as we've come to expect from Obama.

UPDATE: Here's the complete video:

Some quick common sense on the leaked Climate Research Unit emails

1. Matthew Yglesias.

2. Will Wilkinson.