Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Thomas Pynchon Novel to Drop in September!

All the way back to the Visto, Mason is seiz'd by Monology. "Text, --" he cries, and more than once, "it is Text, -- and we are its readers, and its Pages are the Days turning. Unscrolling, as a Pilgrim's Itinery map in ancient Days...."
-- Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, p. 497-98
I know what i'll be doing in September: I'll be reading the new Thomas Pynchon novelBleeding Edge!

From the New York Daily News:
"The novel will be set in Silicon Alley, a nickname for the cluster of tech firms based in Manhattan, many of them in the Flatiron District.
According to a Penguin 2012 results report, quoted by the Times, the novel will take place in 2001, "in the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11."
I have high hopes for Bleeding Edge, even though I was relatively disappointed with Inherent Vice, his last novel published in 2009. It was amusing, and contained enough of those awesome moments of sublime paranoiac horror to keep me satiated, but in the end it felt like a minor effort, along the lines of DeLillo's The Body Artist (but much funnier then that curious little book).

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Most Popular Books in America, Reviewed

Matt Kahn is undertaking to read and review every book on the Publishers Weekly annual bestsellers list from 1913 onwards. You can see his progress and the list of books on his blog.

I took a quick look through the list and i'm struck by how many books and authors I've never heard of - like The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, which topped the charts in 1931-32 and also won the Pulitzer. I'm also surprised about some of these results. I mean, Johnathan Livingston Seagull was the best selling book in America for two years straight? The Tommyknockers - most definitively NOT Stephen King's best book - was the most popular book in 1987? And it's disheartening to remember just how many people read the taught plots and lazy prose of John Grisham and Dan Brown. I was also surprised to see some film books - what seem to be adaptations of  E.T. and The Return of the Jedi - on the list, but read Kahn's note that Harry Potter books are not included in the PW bestsellers for some reason. (For the record, the Harry Potter books make for excellent reading.)

An interesting project!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Who Play Quadrophenia

I promised a while back that i'd write up my thoughts on the excellent show The Who (read: Pete and Roger and friends) played in Boston a few months ago. Never really found the words to express how I felt about it. Luckily, there are professional writers out there that do this for a living, and so I point you to Ricardo Baca's review of the Quadrophenia Denver show. While I may not have been as harsh, I think he expresses the feeling what it was like to attend, absent the fan-boy glasses I obviously wear. Money quote:
[it] was a night of mixed emotions. Townshend is a monster, still. He's cool and collected, and he never overdoes it — he never reaches beyond his own capacity. Daltrey is no longer cool, and he often stretches his own vigor. But with the help of eight bandmates, they put together a potent evening of music.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Black Keys and the Future of Rock n' Roll

I love rock n' roll. I love it most in it's ragged glory, with feedback and shreaking guitars supported by pounding drums and swooping bass. I love poppy Beatlesque rock like R.E.M., sloppy rock personified by the Rolling Stones and The Replacements, the arty rock of Bowie and Roxy Music, anthemic rock like The Who and U2, and pretty much everything in between. What I don't love is the rock n' roll of today. Something seems to have been lost since the last new great rock bands came along in the 90s, but I don't know what it is.

Stephen Hyden's acknowledgement of this issue is what makes his compelling "Winners History of Rock n' Roll" series in Grantland so compelling. In particular, his final chapter about the excellent Black Keys is recommended reading, containing great insights like:

... the Black Keys, one of the only indie bands of the '00s to break out of the underground rock ghetto and achieve mass stardom. The Black Keys succeeded, in part, because it worked around rock radio, licensing songs to more than 300 films, TV shows, and commercials. In a way, dealing to corporate America from its deep well of bluesy, atmospheric guitar riffs was better than radio airplay, since the audience was bigger and you could actually get paid big dollars up front. ... But once the Black Keys became the soundtrack for every new car, push-up bra, and fourth-ranked nighttime TV drama on earth, people finally began noticing and buying their records.
If you happen to be part of the audience that rock music used to cater to — if you work an unsexy job in an unsexy town in an unsexy part of the country — you're not really invited to the party anymore. Which is OK, because there's still a form of rock music that's made for you, it's just not called rock music — it's called country. One of the best-selling country records of the last few years is Eric Church's Chief, and one of that record's biggest songs is "Springsteen," which is about the ability of rock music to signify the most crucial moments of a person's life. When was the last time a rock song talked about that? Chief is precisely the sort of heartland rock record that people like Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger made into a viable commercial genre in the '70s and '80s. It's not that people stopped wanting records like that; rock bands just lost interest in making them.
I've actually felt this last point for some time, the problem is that the history of country has led to some standard musical themes that I just can't stomach. (Mainly the sensitive yodeling.) So modern country remains one of the few genres that I don't listen to. In other words, while I may like the message, I don't like the music. I want my loud, raunchy, fuck-the-establishment guitars! I want my singing to be screamed, or at least sung in a way that isn't necessarily auto-tuned or professionally trained. I want more bands like the Black Keys - a band whose Pandora station is on heavy rotation at Thought Ambience headquarters.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Dissapearing Package

Ideas like biodegradable packaging for everyday household items is so simple that i'm amazed that nobody has come up with ideas like these cool looking product packages. Grist claims that it would save 70 million tons of trash every year. Get on it companies!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Inert People

"Those who won our independence believed that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a civic duty... That it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression."

- Justice Louie D. Brandeis

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Album Covers and iTunes

iTunes used to be a great program. A single place to both organize your music and do your music shopping (i'm old enough to remember when being able to buy any song as a $.99 single was transformative), it served its need and served it well. However, as time has passed it's become a hopelessly bloated, unusable mess. A function of trying to do too many things, it's lost the simplicity of the best Apple products. There are many things to complain about (why force installation of Quick Time with iTunes? Why shove Genius down our throats? I don't want you do download my "safe browsing data"! etc.) Today, however, I'm going to focus on a small thing: album covers.

It's no secret that i'm a music geek. I love learning everything about the songs that I listen to, and I enjoy having an album cover with my music. In fact, one of the things I loved about the iPhone was that you could easily display the album cover for all of your music. One right-click later and voilĂ : there was your cover! But somewhere along the way, iTunes got confused. Now when you download an album cover, it's frequently only for one song, not for the entire album. Or the cover is attached to the album, not the song, so it doesn't port over to your iPhone. Why not? I can see it in iTunes and i've "synched" the two devices! Are these not two apple products? Makes me wonder what else isn't being synched. And in perhaps the most frustrating part of all, you can't directly copy album covers onto your iPhone! You need to download the album cover, make sure that it's attached individually to every song on an album, and then you need to reimport your songs to your iPhone! And even that's not guaranteed to work! The end result: I have perhaps half of my music collection that displays that annoying "generic album cover" on my iPhone with no easy way for me to remedy the situation.

If you buy your music through the Apple Store, then you'll have none of these problems. And I suspect that that's the real culprit behind iTunes disintegrating utility: their focus on pushing you to buy stuff through them to the exclusion of supporting all of the other ways you can get music (download from other sides, burning music from actual CDs, etc.)

In my next rant, i'll go off on how poorly the UX is in both iTunes and the iPhone with podcasts. Until then, feel free to use my soapbox - i'll leave it right here for you in the comments.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Warren on the Warpath

This is the type of behavior that I was hoping to see from our newly minted senator when I voted for her:
At a hearing on Thursday examining the oversight of the Dodd-Frank Act, Ms. Warren grilled top banking regulators on their response to Wall Street wrongdoing. Ms. Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts who helped create the Obama administration’s new consumer protection agency, pressed government officials to justify how they police big banks.
“If they can break the law and drag in billions in profits and then turn around and settle paying out of those profits, then they don’t have much incentive to follow the law,” she declared, receiving a smattering of applause from the gallery. “The question I really want to ask is about how tough you are.”
What followed was the Congressional equivalent of a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” moment. “Anyone?” she asked, receiving silence in reply.
Here's hoping that she can help add some real teeth to our financial regulations and rein in our out of control banking system.

Friday, February 15, 2013

J-pop and Death Metal

Just the thing for the weekend! Play me out girls...

h/t Dangerous Minds

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Can any one explain the logic behind this to me?

Earlier this month, the Facebook Inc. released its first “10-K” annual financial report since going public last year. Hidden in the report’s footnotes is an amazing admission: despite $1.1 billion in U.S. profits in 2012, Facebook did not pay even a dime in federal and state income taxes.
Instead, Facebook says it will receive net tax refunds totaling $429 million.
What value are we, as a society, getting from subsidizing (i.e., protecting it from Federal taxes) Facebook?

Russian Meterorite

Incredible news out of Russia this morning. A meteorite exploded or impacted the ground near Chelyabinsk, Russia (just east of the Ural mountains). The pictures and videos are a testiment to the power of these types of events. Check them out at the Bad Astronomy blog or on Talking Points Memo. A few containing the awesomely loud sound of impact as well as show just how much broken glass resulted from such a powerful sound wave.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cherish Your Fantasies

“I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy."

"Cherish it!" cried Hilarious, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by it's little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”

- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: "Road Side Picnic" by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

An alien visitation story without any aliens, Roadside Picnic is one of the better SciFi books I've read. Sometime in the future, mankind is still learning how to deal with the mysterious aftermath of an extremely brief alien visit (they appear to have just stopped by Earth as a “roadside picnic” on their way elsewhere). Each alien landing site is filled with bizarrely deadly phenomena, like the deadly "Greenie" slime, or the spots of intense gravity called "Mosquito Mange". However, the zones are are also filled with highly sought after artifacts, such as the perpetual-energy machines called Batteries, so they are prospected by "stalkers" who illegally sneaks into these zones and steals alien technologies for the black market. The book is divided between highly entertaining excursions into the Zone, and scenes pondering the implications of the visitation on both a personal and societal level.

Part of the reason the book is so mesmerizing is the first person perspective of Red Schuhart, a drunken, paranoid and stressed-out Stalker. Red's struggle for meaning despite his deep fatalism wins you over despite his many unlikable qualities as the prose skillfully depicts the thought process that leads to his actions. Another reason is the convincing world the Strugatsky's create: one dominated by both an overreaching government and a pervasive black market capitalism. The price that such a dualistic societal setup exacts on its citizens feels convincing; after all, the Strugatsky's were writing in 1970s USSR (the absurdity of which is detailed in a wry afterward). Overall, the sheer inventiveness and psychological depth build all the way to the last chapter – a riveting highlight of this taught little book that’s stuck with me ever since I closed its cover. Part of the credit must go to Olena Bormashenko, whose translation never feels stilted or makes you aware that it's a translation. Highly recommended.

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox

Monday, February 11, 2013

A La Carte Sports Pricing Now!

On the unbundled cable front, hardballtalk speculates that the complete arrogance of the Dodgers new cable deal might spend the death toll for bundled cable:
To pay for [the reported $8B deal], Time Warner is going to charge other carriers (Direct TV, Dish Network, other cable systems) $4 or $5 per subscriber for the right to carry the new Los Angeles Dodgers network they’re operating, with those costs passed on to the other carriers’ customers. This is how all sports TV rights deals go. ...
Many — probably most — of the customers who are seeing their cable bill go up are not Dodgers fans. They just want to watch Nick Jr. or History Channel or BBC America or any number of other channels. But, because you can’t (for the most part anyway) pick and choose which channels you get, the non-sports watchers are helping subsidize the sports watchers.
Joe Flint and Bill Shaikin of the L.A. Times ... talk to one former TV executive who thinks that such a pattern is unsustainable:
“[“a la carte”] is the solution everyone should be looking at seriously,” said Derek Chang, a former senior executive at satellite broadcaster DirecTV. Such a move, he added, may be the only way to lower the cost of TV sports. “Ultimately the market for fees would then reset.”
As I wrote about here, bundled cable makes a mockery out of capitalism, because there's no mechanism by which the consumer can let the supplier know the true value of their product. To reiterate my example, I pay Verison something like $45 extra a month for their "Basic Plus" package (or whatever meaningless name it's called) just so I can have access to NESN and Red Sox games. I get a shitload of extra channels with that package, but do I watch any of them? Hell no. I'd happily pay for NESN alone, but that's just not possible. Stop subsidizing bad programming! Split apart the bundles and institute a la carte cable pricing and let the market do its work!

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Nemo Haiku

green leaves or fallen leaves
become one--
in the fallen snow

- Chiyo-ni

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"Mature" Comics

For some reason, the trend in comics appears to be towards presenting more "mature" content. My mature, read sex and blood. The most egregious example I've recently seen is Batman and Catwoman fucking, although Noah Berlatsky points out that the new Wonder Woman comics are cut out of the same cloth:
That blood is supposed to be the guarantor of sophistication and knowledge; it's the sign of adulthood and, not coincidentally, of masculinity. And yet, is Azzarello/Chiang [the current creative team] really more sophisticated than Marston/Peters [Wonder Woman's creators]? After all, a golden love gun isn't really any less ridiculous than a golden lasso of compulsion. And as far as that iconic measure of adulthood known as sex goes, Marston seems a lot more adventurous than his successor. The original Wonder Woman comics included page after page of bondage imagery, scads of cross-dressing villains, and really remarkably unrepressed lesbian eroticism. The best Azzarello/Chiang can do, in contrast, is to have their Amazons pose like Playboy models while Eros makes sophomoric cracks about the quest for seminal mortal vessels.
Azzarello's comics, then, are for older readers, and they fairly consciously embrace the blood-curdling masculinity that Marston decried. But that doesn't mean that blood-curdling masculinity is more adult than the alternative. It simply means that blood-curdling masculinity in this case—and not just in this case—justifies itself ideologically through appeals to maturity and realism. But making Wonder Woman more violent doesn't make her more mature or more real. It just makes her more conventional.
Good points. I'd expand this to include the loss of comics that you can read with your children without exposing them to sex, death, and bloody zombies. I'm continually looking for newer comics to show to my kids and none of the traditional series are IMO appropriate, leaving me with the option of going with back issues of older comics or series explicitly marketed to kids (Lego Star Wars, Super Hero squad, etc.). I fear that if/when the major superhero comics make this leap to "mature" content, they abandon the alluring gateway that introduced superheros to kids in the first place.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Best of Luck!

A belated congratulations to my Mom and Father-in-law for the sale of Microcheck, their microbial analysis company, to  ATS Labs. The two of them poured everything they had into the company, and are now looking to enjoying a retirement in Florida.

What Football Does

As much as I enjoyed watching last night's exciting Super Bowl, i've become very ambivilant about watching the sport given all that's come to light about just how much the players are damaging their bodies by playing. Stories like Junior Seau's suicide, the concussion storyline in general, and Dan Le Batard's incredible story about Jason Taylor's tactics for staying on the field. LeBatard captures some amazing stories, but here's the money quote:

Taylor was leg-whipped during a game once in Washington. Happens all the time. Common. He was sore and had a bruise, but the pregame Toradol and the postgame pain medicine and prescribed sleeping pills masked the suffering, so he went to dinner and thought he was fine. Until he couldn’t sleep. And the medication wore off. It was 2 a.m. He noticed that the only time his calf didn’t hurt is when he was walking around his house or standing. So he found a spot that gave him relief on a staircase and fell asleep standing up, leaning against the wall. But as soon as his leg would relax from the sleep, the pain would wake him up again. He called the team trainer and asked if he could take another Vicodin. The trainer said absolutely not. This need to kill the pain is what former No. 1 pick Keith McCants says started a pain-killer addiction that turned to street drugs when the money ran out … and led him to try to hang himself to break the cycle of pain.
The trainer rushed to Taylor’s house. Taylor thought he was overreacting. The trainer told him they were immediately going to the hospital. A test kit came out. Taylor’s blood pressure was so high that the doctors thought the test kit was faulty. Another test. Same crazy numbers. Doctors demanded immediate surgery. Taylor said absolutely not, that he wanted to call his wife and his agent and the famed Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion. Andrews also recommended surgery, and fast. Taylor said, fine, he’d fly out in owner Daniel Snyder’s private jet in the morning. Andrews said that was fine but that he’d have to cut off Taylor’s leg upon arrival. Taylor thought he was joking. Andrews wasn’t. Compartment syndrome. Muscle bleeds into the cavity, causing nerve damage. Two more hours, and Taylor would have had one fewer leg. Fans later sent him supportive notes about their own compartment syndrome, many of them in wheelchairs.
Taylor’s reaction?
“I was mad because I had to sit out three weeks,” he says. “I was hot.”
It's difficult to enjoy the violent hits when you know what they are doing to people. And even harder when you're surrounded by your kids, wondering why you preach nonviolence 99% of the time and then clap when you watch over sized men barrel into each other at top speeds.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

First Lines of Stainslaw Lem's "Eden"

"Because of a miscalculation, the craft dipped too low and hit the atmosphere with an earsplitting scream. Lying flat in their bunks, the men could hear the dampers being crushed."

- Stainslaw Lem, Eden.

Intriguing read so far. It's a early (1959) example of the "cold" Lem (as opposed to the satirical Lem of The Cyberiad) in that he refers to the characters by their titles - The Captain, The Engineer, The Doctor, etc. So far it feels like Solaris in that it's an attempt to describe the futile attempt by mankind to understand an alien world, but (in the first three chapters, at least) it doesn't have one-eighth of that novel's psychological depth.

Friday, February 1, 2013


Can't embed it for some reason, but you have to see this disarming Disney animated short: Paperman. It's a lot of fun, has excellent animation, and took the grumps out of me after a hard day.

Hat tip Boing Boing

Update: It seems that Paperman was created using Meander, a new tool that combines hand-drawn techniques with CGI. Promising!

Amazon is Scary

While I continue to purchase from Amazon, it truly is eerie how much cost cutting they do. Which is why I had to laugh when I read this from Matthew Yglesias:
Amazon kept up its streak of being awesome this afternoon by announcing a 45 percent year-on-year decline in profits measuring Q4 2012 against Q4 2011. Not because sales went down, mind you. They're up. Revenue is up. The company's razor-thin profit margins just got even thinner, and in total the company lost $39 million in 2012.
The company's shares are down a bit today, but the company's stock is taking a much less catastrophic plunge in already-meager profits than Apple, whose stock plunged simply because its Q4 profits increased at an unexpectedly slow rate. That's because Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers. The shareholders put up the equity, and instead of owning a claim on a steady stream of fat profits, they get a claim on a mighty engine of consumer surplus. Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way. And the competitive pressure of needing to square off against Amazon cuts profit margins at other companies, thus benefiting people who don't even buy anything from Amazon.
It's a truly remarkable American success story. But if you own a competing firm, you should be terrified. Competition is always scary, but competition against a juggernaut that seems to have permission from its shareholders to not turn any profits is really frightening.
One wonders how long they keep the cost-cutting and market-cornering before they truly do begin to flex their muscles and honestly dictate terms.