April 08, 2007

A classical musician walks into a subway station...

Everyone should read a story published today in the Washington Post, both for its entertainment value and what it says about our society and human nature. It's a sociological experiment of sorts involving Joshua Bell, a violist who has been described as a musical genius. He's sold out concert halls at $100 a seat and plays a $3.5 million violin manufactured in 18th century Italy. The Post, equipped with hidden cameras, plopped a plain clothed Josh in the entry way of a D.C. Metro station, and observed what happened:

bell.jpgIt was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Read the full story here.

Posted by Will at 02:23 PM | Comments (2)

February 11, 2007

The "history" of indie rock

I don’t like clichés, but I have noticed over the past couple of years the growing number of artists and music groups that appropriate a historical period as part of their image. Unconsciously or not, I am usually attracted to the music of such groups and while in theory their product should stand on its own, it doesn’t make the group less desirable to me that they are historically literate or dress like historical figures. I want to share some of my favorite groups and artists that look to history for inspiration and sometimes their sound. All the groups I talk about here are some of my favorite.

tod.jpgPerhaps the most fitting band for me to like is …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead (or, “Trail of Dead” for short). Intriguing name, indeed. Formed in late 1994 in my home state of Texas, one would expect Trail of Dead to be some sort of crazy thrash metal band who worships Dimebag Darrel and Ozzy (when he used to bite the heads of off bats). Instead, Trail of Dead is one of the most artistically talented bands to emerge in the past decade and have, among other things, become the quintessential indie rock band. So why are they so fitting for me personally? Because much of their stage persona is derived from the ancient Maya civilization (note they formed well before Apocalypto was a glint of blood in Mel Gibson’s eye). Legend has it that the band’s name comes from a Maya ritual chant. Like Apocalypto, there’s little about Trail of Dead that is true ancient Maya, but the imagery and artwork is engrossing and adds to the pseudo-mystery of the band. At least they don’t focus on blood or dress like Maya kings.

decemberists.jpgOne of the more famous indie bands to appropriate historical imagery is The Decemberists. Their name is a variation of that given to the 19th century political uprising in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Portland-based band even dresses like historical figures for photo shoots. It’s hard to get a firm grasp on one particular historical period: their music and lyrics have to do with 19th Century Russia, Civil War-era America, and almost everything in between. Their music is good, their lyrics read like a novel, and they make catchy, happy (sometimes sad) pure indie rock music.

queen.jpgThe Good, the Bad, and the Queen is a band that I only found out about today and prompted me to write this post in the first place. I don’t know too much about them yet but their sound is great and they are made up of former members of really good bands. As a result, they are undoubtedly stuck with the questionable label of “side project.” The band consists of Damon Albarn of Blur, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the former guitarist from the Verve Simon Tong, and according to Wikipedia an Afrobeat pioneer named Tony Allen. As they’re still new to me, I’m not completely sure of their use of history, but the name and album art (pictured) is clearly reminiscent of a historical period.

newsom.jpgJoanna Newsom is a young musician from California that plays the harp, piano, and harpsichord and offers up her own brand of singing. Yes, her singing style is truly unique and I’ve never heard anything like it, but her music is mind blowing in its scope and sincerity. It’s emotional, beautiful, heartbreaking at times, and uplifting at others. Newsom’s connection to history comes from the classical feel of her music and the artwork of her latest album, the 5-song LP Ys. This is not an easy album to digest if you’re used to pop music that you hear on the radio. It’s even a bit difficult to those in to weird indie music, but after a few listens I was hooked and it became one of my favorite albums to relax to before going to bed.

Posted by Will at 01:16 PM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2006

Seriously, car accidents?

Via Yahoo! comes a story only a yahoo could take seriously:

So, what's your sign? You crash here often?
TORONTO, Dec 13 (Reuters Life!) - Never mind how careful you are behind the wheel or how long you've been driving, the signs of the zodiac may be bigger factors behind your ability to avoid car crashes -- or why you have too many.

While I've never taken astrology seriously, I've never been more proud to be a Libra:

The study, which looked at 100,000 North American drivers' records from the past six years, puts Libras (born September 23-October 22) followed by Aquarians (January 20-February 18) as the worst offenders for tickets and accidents.

Posted by Will at 11:01 PM

November 28, 2006

Social (dis)connections

Steven Johnson, a fantastic writer that I came across last week who writes about the intersection of science, technology, and personal life, has a post up on his NYTimes.com blog (unfortunately available only with a TimesSelect subscription) about the ever-increasing distance between, well, people:

This is the lament of iPod Nation: we’ve built elaborate tools to connect us to our friends – and introduce us to strangers – who are spread across the planet, and at the same time, we’ve embraced technologies that help us block out the people we share physical space with, technologies that give us the warm cocoon of the personalized soundtrack. We wear white earbuds that announce to the world: whatever you’ve got to say, I can’t hear it.

Social landscapes have been studied extensively in sociology and anthropology. How people interact and organize themselves can be indicative of how people organize themselves in certain social contexts. Johnson is speaking primarily about big urban cities like New York, but the iPod silencing effect (my awkward phrase) seems to me to be plausible for a variety of non-urban situations. For example, when we plug in we can not only cut ourselves off from other people but from nature as well. Imagine taking a hike in a forest only to miss the sounds and subtle vibrations that contribute so much to that environment’s beauty. There are social landscapes and natural landscapes each with their own unique characteristics (sometimes overlapping) and the encroachment of technology into our everyday lives invariable has an effect on our perceptions of our surroundings. In my opinion, it is often to the deficit of the perceiver.

So while Johnson eloquently describes the social distance that is often caricatured as the iPod-wearing urbanite, he is optimistic about the relationships that can be introduced and the dialogue that can be facilitated by technologies that permeate our everyday lives, mainly the internet:

So the idea that the new technology is pushing us away from the people sharing our local spaces is only half true. To be sure, iPods and mobile phones give us fewer opportunities to start conversations with people of different perspectives. But the Web gives us more of those opportunities, and for the most part, I think it gives us better opportunities. What it doesn’t directly provide is face-to-face connection. So the question becomes: how important is face-to-face? I don’t have a full answer to that – clearly it’s important, and clearly we lose something in the transition to increasingly virtual interactions.

The reason Johnson’s post satisfies me is because it strikes a happy medium between a hypersensitivity to the effects of technology in our lives on the one hand and the unbridled technophilia that so many of my generation have succumbed to. I wish that I could say more than this or offer some sort of insightful analysis, but like Johnson I believe the true sociological/psychological benefits of face-to-face connection are elusive at best and unattainable at worst. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that intimate communication is infinitely important to healthy social development, but to what extent can science (social or otherwise) lend itself to understanding the recently-renegotiated relationships and social dynamics brought about by the rather swift emergence of the iPod Generation?

You heard it here, you'll be hearing big things from this guy in the coming months. Stephen Johnson’s new book The Ghost Map (subtitled “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World”) is currently on the top of my to-read list. His website is stephenberlinjohnson.com.

More iPod Generation:
Anxious life of the 'Ipod' generation - TimesOnline
Murdoch tunes in to iPod generation - The Register

The above are only two of many news stories and websites out there, and from doing a simple Google search most of them, interestingly, seem to be from UK-based publications.

Posted by Will at 11:20 PM

November 17, 2006

PlayStation 3 madness: blame Sony

playstation-3-gde.jpgI've been following the steady stream of stories having to do with today's release of the PlayStation 3 video game system by Sony. Remember the good ol' days when nerds used to line up outside of Radio Shack for the midnight release of Windows 95? Not any more. Since early this morning people have been shot with BB guns, real guns, trampled over, robbed, beaten, and assualted. Ex-senator from North Carolina John Edwards had a volunteer drop his name at a local Wal-Mart so his kids could have one. The problem? Edwards has been a vocal critic of Wal-Mart in the past. And I've just learned that a student was beaten and robbed on the campus of my undergrad school, UNC-Wilmington (also see StarNewsOnline.com)

Consumers going crazy over a new product are nothing new-we've seen it with basketball shoes, computer software, and wedding dresses. But I can't remember so much violence over a single item and all because of the limited availability of the product. Obviously the stores aren't to blame. They stock what Sony ships to them. The individuals who were shot, beaten, robbed, and assaulted are only partially to blame. The real culprit in my opinion is the Sony Corporation for obviously manufacturing demand and not having the foresight to see such a fiasco coming. Clearly Sony could have produced thousands of more PlayStations than they already have, but instead they wanted to create the sense that these things were in such demand that fans were camping out in front of stores and getting into fights. It makes for nice public interest news stories and is free advertising for Sony. Yet another glaring example of corporate irresponsibility.

From CNN.com:

playstation3.jpg
Ralph Clearly celebrates with his new PlayStation 3 after waiting in line for three days at a Best Buy store in Los Angeles, California.
Clearly and many others across the country -- some die-hard gamers and some planning to re-sell the coveted units -- began lining up days ahead of the release of Sony's newest video game console. In addition to being a platform for video games, PS3 is a high-definition DVD player.
The PS3, which retails for $500 or $600, depending on how large its hard drive is, went on sale Friday morning. Some stores held special midnight sales.

Update: from the folks who brought us the classic SmashMyiPod.com comes the following video on YouTube, via SmashMyPS3.com:

Quite refreshing to see people taking their PS3 agression out on an actual unit rather than someone's face.

Posted by Will at 02:41 PM

October 24, 2006

This can't be serious...

george-clooney.jpgAskMen.com has published the Top 49 Men, or those men that readers have determined as best representatives of the male gender. The number one "man's man" is George Clooney. Also on the top of the list is Jay-Z and Richard Branson, among others. Now, these men are certainly manly, but "best representative of the male gender"? Can you freakin' imagine the flack a woman's magazine would get if they named Paris Hilton and Angelina Jolie best representative of the female gender? Thanks, but no thanks. George Clooeny is a fine actor and Jay-Z had one good song when it was produced by a non-rapper (99 Problems), but I'll stick to not generalizing an entire gender based on an out-of-touch Hollywood elite. The only person mentioned in the CNN.com article that I maybe agree with is Lance Armstrong, although he too is freakishly abnormal. But what's the criteria, you ask? Well, according to AskMen.com they gave up trying to come up with a list of use-submitted criteria. I assume this means that a manly man basically means anything:

In the end, we decided to let the list speak for itself. The Top 49 Men of 2006 is the product of more than one million votes cast by AskMen.com readers, and every guy on it possesses some quality, characteristic or virtue that we men prize and strive to cultivate in ourselves. You, the AskMen.com reader, built this list; now get on with reading it. Start with number 49.

Ah yes, a quality, characteristic or virtue that I try to cultivate in myself. I've always wanted Richard Branson's beard.

Posted by Will at 10:04 AM

October 22, 2006

Diwali

DiwaliSwastika.jpgOne aspect of religious traditions that I love is the ceremonial. In fact, it's perhaps the main reason I pursued an undergraduate Philosophy & Religion degree. The beauty of the the world's religions (including Christianity and Islam) has always fascinated me and made me wish I could study it more. This time of the year, throughout the world, people are celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. From Wikipedia:

Diwali, also called Deepavali (Sanskrit: दीपावली) is a major Hindu festival. Known as the "Festival of Lights," it symbolises the victory of good over evil, and lamps are lit as a sign of celebration and hope for mankind. The festival of Diwali is about harvesting. Celebrations focus on lights and lamps, particularly traditional diyas (as illustrated). Fireworks are associated with the festival in many regions of India.
Diwali is celebrated for five consecutive days in the Hindu month of Ashwayuja. It usually occurs in October/November, and is one of the most popular and eagerly awaited festivals in India. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike regard it as a celebration of life and use the occasion to strengthen family and social relationships. For Jains it is one of the most important festivals, and beginning of the Jain year. Jains celebrate Diwali because Lord Mahavira achieved Moksha. It is also a significant festival for the Sikh faith. In 2006, Diwali will occur on October 21, 2006.

Diwali.jpg

Some more links:
CNN.com slide show
HindustanTimes.com guide

Posted by Will at 11:27 AM

July 05, 2006

So they don't want us to burn the flag, but...

...this type of desecration of a national symbol is OK? From the New York Times:

05liberty.large1.jpg
At a megachurch in Memphis, the Statue of Liberation Through Christ was consecrated Tuesday. The statue, says the church's pastor, is a way of "letting people know that God is the foundation of our nation."

Posted by Will at 04:37 PM