Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Unanswered Questions

Kevin Drum discusses the end-of-year list of yet unanswered questions Daniel Engber assembled for his Explainer feature in Slate. I think they're charming, if occassionally distressing, to read through, just for the variety of submitters' mindsets you can infer from them -- jokey, thoughtful, genuinely perplexed, troubled. Often badly confused, one way or another.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Moons Over My Hamstrings

That's been kicking around my head as a prospective title without a post for a while, but I've never had something to say about both leg musculature and breakfast items at Denny's. So, hell, here's just the title.

I'll add on the subject of hamstrings that I'm oddly amused by this sentence from that hamstring page linked above:

It is only relatively recently, as far as evolutionary time is concerned, we stopped performing manual labor and began regularly sitting in chairs for prolonged periods of time.

...I think because it applies an inappropriate time scale to human behavior, deliberately or not. After we reached our anatomically modern form (most significantly, I take it, developing the physiological basis for our use of language) all of human culture, chair-sitting included, makes up pretty much the same blip on the evolutionary radar screen. You could say as meaningfully, if more extremely, that it is only relatively recently as far as geological time is concerned that we stopped riding those funny antique bicycles with the big wheel in front.

I'll also add on the subject of Denny's, don't actually eat at Denny's.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Now That's What I Call Classical Music

Since we all need to be proselytzing about this more, I try and think now and then about what would be the first classical pieces I'd recommend to people if they were interested but didn't know where to start. This week I needed to make my roommate a classical mix CD, so I had to settle the question. Voila!

There is nothing awesomer than blogging about mix CDs you made for people.

So this is my first-draft "If You Think You Might Like Classical Music, Listen to This Stuff and I Think You'll Get a Sense of What to Search Out" list.

Glaring omissions = Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, most of the twentieth century, Bolero, Rhapsody in Blue, and Appalachian Spring.

1. W. A. Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro (1786)

2. Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, 1st mvt. (1893)

3. Johannes Brahms: Trio for Piano, Violin, and Horn, 2nd mvt. (1865)

4. Antonin Dvorak: Piano Trio, “Dumky,” 4th mvt. (1891)

5. John Adams: Tromba Lontana for orchestra (1985)

6. Gabriel Faure: “Sanctus” from Requiem, for chorus and orchestra (1888)

7. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvt. (1812)

8. Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5, for soprano and 8 cellos, 1st mvt. (1938)

9. J. S. Bach: Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor, 1st mvt. (1730)

10. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto, 2nd mvt. (1791)

11. Hector Berlioz: “L’Ile inconnue” from Les Nuits d’ete (1841)

12. Igor Stravinsky: “The Infernal Dance of King Katschei” from The Firebird (1910)

13. Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, 4th mvt. (1936)

14. Dvorak: Slavonic Dance op. 46, no. 8 (1878)

I had to make my roommate a classical mix CD because she's moving out, and because I needed to reciprocate for her burning me a disc of Joanna Newsom and other folkish stuff.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pre-emptive Success

I successfully pre-empted the question to the Final Jeopardy! answer!!!

Category: 20th Century Playwrights


This success was marred only by the fact, that once the answer was given, I didn't realize that it really was Beckett. I went with Ibsen... was incorrect in that regard, but this does not, in my opinion lessen the victory of the pre-emptive strike.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Occassionally we argue a little about whether you're allowed to enjoy advertisements or not, but I think these Blendtec promotional bits chalk another one up in the "pro" column, at least in terms of casual Internet browsage. Though I can't say I'd drop $400 on a blender just because it can puree poultry bones or electrical components.

Wacky Euro-News, Plus Oaths

Belgium's state television channel, presumably having nothing better to do, aired an extended fake broadcast Wednesday night reporting that Dutch-speaking Flanders had seceded from the nation. Apparently they mocked up footage of the royal family fleeing Brussels and everything.

Needlessly playing up national cultural tensions seems like an abuse of government funding, but fortunately, since this is Belgium, nothing much is coming of it. There is a such thing as a Flemish separatist movement, however, which I was intrigued to learn:
“For many decades, the free-market oriented Flemings have been subsidizing Socialist-dominated Wallonia,” Frank Vanhecke, the president of the [Vlaams Belang] party, has written on its pro-secessionist web site. “The Belgian Constitution gives the Francophones 50 percent of political power and a veto over major issues, which makes the French-speakers act as if they are the majority. The Flemings have had enough.”
Best to take the sentiment seriously: one thing you don't want to reckon with is a mass movement of Flemings. Once they get started, boy, they'd sooner go over a cliff than give up what they're looking for.

I think people from Flanders should be called "Flanderes-es," Homer Simpson style.

At work I've recently had to do a lot of "diskwork," which is the preliminary stage of manuscript cleanup that mostly involves stripping formatting out of Word documents. You end up with a very cursory read of the manuscript, but you can generally pick up on whether something is interesting or not. The one I was doing a couple of days ago had to do with the history of judicial systems, and included this colorful artifact — a Norman oath from twelfth-century England, sworn by witnesses on religious relics:
"Know ye by the faith and belief that you have in Lord Jesus Christ, and that you received in baptism, and upon these relics . . . that if you have lied or concealed the truth in this matter, your souls will be damned in perpetuity, and your bodies will be exposed to shameful abuses in a gaping Hell."
I think we should dust this off and start using it in courthouses and at inaugurations. I mean, as long as we've got a meaningless, Christian-specific swearing-in process, it may as well be as awesome as possible.

In a pinch this could also substitute for other tired phraseology, such as "I understand and agree to abide by the terms and conditions" and "I pronounce you man and wife."

Also interesting is the earlier (like tenth-century) Norman "trial by battle" system for resolving knights' disputes, in which each party would designate several witnesses and a single "champion." The losing witnesses would be guilty of bearing false witness, but the losing champion would be a bit worse off than that.

Hey, it's a flawed system, but you've just got to let it work and abide by the results.

Xmas Musik

Arnold Schoenberg? Tonal? It's a Christmas miracle!

Seriously, that's a lovely piece of music — give it a listen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's Raining. It's Raining a Little.

Woke up early this morning to go to the gym and it was foggy; exited the gym and it was colder and raining. Somehow this struck me as unusual, like it's usually either raining when you wake up or doesn't start raining for a while yet.

Got back to my apartment and heard a peculiar, faraway, chirpy sound: That would be my iPod, stuffed in my pocket, blithely playing through John Adams' Fearful Symmetries.

(Apropos nothing but the word association that got me to this post's title, here's the full German text of Kafka's incomplete short story Wedding Preparations in the Country. Among other things you can extract some helpful, pre-Metamorphosis tips on avoiding your life's obligations by assuming the form of a giant beetle. An appealing option on most cold, rainy mid-week mornings.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Electric Violin Album Duration Test

Mixed in with the gifts I've been picking up for others, I just got myself a copy of the recent recording of John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur and My Father Knew Charles Ives on the Elektra Nonesuch label. I haven't been through Charles Ives yet (or anyway been back through it for, um, non-promotional purposes, using an actual commercially-released CD) but Dharma at Big Sur is fun; it fits pretty well with a walk to the gym and back, both in terms of time and content. At very first blush the keening electric violin glissandi and use of just intonation never gel, and the music starts to drift dangerously close to new-agey Song of the Whales territory, as it tends to in Adams' less effective efforts... Still likeable, though, with a lot of the usual thrills and momentum. The Baltimore Symphony and Leila Josefowicz are performing it this spring (Marin Alsop conducting; always good to see a couple of female artists' names on the marquee at the same time) so hopefully I can make the not-as-far-as-you-start-to-think drive up the parkway to inform my opinion of the piece better.

My original point for this post, though, and the weirdest aspect of the album, is that Nonesuch split less than an hour of music across two CDs. (They do sell it at the standard one-disc price, which I suppose is kind of them.) At some point I should do a quick survey of my music collection and see which Nonesuch disc I have actually has the longest playing time (I'm guessing either one of the halves of their El Nino or the rerecorded Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack) but anyone who listens to a lot of their products is probably familiar with their apparent allergy to producing a CD with more than 45 minutes of music on it. Given that, this still seems very peculiar... They couldn't just put them together, kind of a one-for-the-price-of-one deal? Or fill out one of the discs with some additional material? Haven't they been sitting on a recording of Adams' Guide to Strange Places for something like three years? Even that added to the current release might clock in at under the 80 minute limit.

Anyway, strange recording practices, but decent music at least.

Mallard Shouldn't Have Filled That Much More

Via the increasingly indispensable-to-me Comics Curmudgeon, news that the creator of the deeply obnoxious conservative comic strip Mallard Fillmore was picked up on DUI charges recently.

I'd do more than just pass the link along, except I don't have anything to add. Also Jack's been on my case for bringing up cartoon ducks too often.

Language Instinct

See, this is why I love general-readership nonfiction:

I bought a copy of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct towards the end of my linguistics-course audit so that I could recover or at least re-cover some of the big-picture material from the course. Now, without getting into the nitty-gritty of things, liguistics (or at least a major stream in linguistics) is heavily oriented around something called the "X-bar theory" of syntax, which basically holds that all kinds of phrases (noun, verb, etc., as well as full sentences) consist of the same fundamental structure. This was rather confusing as it was presented in the course, largely because the professor was opposed on principle to spoon-feeding her class with textbook material. And even after getting the basic idea down, I never felt completely comfortable with the system.

Pinker explains what the basics of X-bar syntax are, doesn't cut any significant corners that weren't cut in class, and moreover explains why X-bar is really interesting, in the course of about pages 100 to 130 in his book. I read this part over a roast beef sandwich in a bookstore/cafe last night. Finally, the light bulb goes off: the right kind of authorial body English will really light up your mental pinball machine.

Lucidity really shouldn't be something to be afraid of. It's just wildly more efficient to learn entry-point concepts in a field this way.

The first two weeks' worth of our reading were chapters out of a book by linguist Ray Jackendoff, whose point had to do with arguing that a similar X-bar system underlies semantic concepts (semantic info being "meaning" info). What I remember of this seems fascinating in retrospect, and I'm going to try to re-read some of it. But nothing else in the course built on it, and it made no sense to read it at the time since (1) Jackendoff's writing, not being for entry-point readers, assumed you already knew all about X-bar syntax and (2) one of the first main unintutive ideas we had to learn was about the difference between syntax and semantics.

The Pinker book's a beautiful read, lively and fast-paced. I'll try to finish it by Christmas so someone can borrow it for the new year.

Well, Dreamsomething-or-other, Anyway

Maybe I'm too literal-minded, but I always think it's strange when movie posters show actors, and list those actors' names, but don't line up the names with the faces. Like if you have George Clooney in the picture, and it says "George Clooney" somewhere, it should go under George Clooney, not under Matt Damon or what have you.

I submit that the poster for the upcoming movie Dreamgirls takes this kind of incongruity to a whole other level.

(You'd think it would be easier to tell those three people apart in those particular outfits. You heard it here first: "Dreamgirls" is a shoe-in for the costume and makeup Academy Awards.)

I don't have any actual interest in seeing this movie. Seeing Jamie Foxx's name on a musician-related movie poster reminds me that I should get around to watching Ray sometime, though.

Monday, December 11, 2006

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Extremely Unsanitary Conditions of Beer Pong

Via the somehow-George-Washington-University-affiliated GW Hatchet, a tongue-in-cheek story (free registration required) about some not too robust-sounding undergraduate research into bacterial contamination and beer pong. A sentence like this one pleasantly hints at an overgrown science fair project feel to the proceedings:

Both [microbiology students] said their starting hypothesis was that they were going to find a lot of bacteria in a typical game.
It's also worth noting that the basis of their experimental data was a three-hour game of beer pong. No mention of the revised hypothesis, but I'll bet it was something like "Dude, I'm so wasted but I totally could have made it with Shauna if I weren't being such a [expletive] idiot and maybe I should call her right now. Oh [other expletive], what happened to the notebook with the data."

This is, as far as I can tell, some of the most probing and hard-hitting journalism coming out of the District of Columbia these days. Anyway, my point is, if you want to avoid rampant bacterial cross-contamination during drinking games I recommend a little game I call "Wing Attack Plan R", which requires drinking only pure grain alcohol and rain water.

Also, to all you up-and-coming publishing industry insiders out there who may click through to it: Don't bother line-editing the story for grammatical correctness. It will just make you sad.


So I've been for a while (since, maybe, Thanksgiving or so, when my parents asked me what I want for Christmas this year (or, at any rate, perhaps hinted to the fact that perhaps I should ask for a thing or two, without the explicit query (or perhaps it went something like this:

Dad: What do you want for Christmas, Pete?
Pete: Makes noncommittal noise accompanying by a gesture meant to demonstrate apathy
Dad: waits for response
Pete: Just don't get me an mp3 player. I really don't want one. And I don't mean this in a reverse-psychological way; really, do not get me an mp3 player.)

being forwarded)) been trying to put into a coherent paragraph what it is, exactly that I dislike so much about iPods (and any other portable mp3 players, for that matter) beyond just the obvious things like

- the obnoxious white headphone & headphone cable that are more ubiquitous than slap bracelets on an elementary school playground in 1988

- working a retail job which involves talking at people through their damn iPods that they won't even mute for the damn two minutes during which I'm being paid to interact with them

- some ill-defined conception about people who listen to music all the time being unable to ever hear any of it.

And its not like I'm pro-CDs and their CD-Discman counterpart. But I'm definitely not antiCD-Discman. I don't really mind carrying around a little 6-cd envelope thingy with the rest of my stuff. Having to stop every 36-78 minutes to change discs can be a bit of a hassle, its probably easier to not deal with the physical handling of objects, but not that much a difference.

And I don't collect records or anything (though I still own a couple crates of 'em).

And there are plenty of other things that I dislike for no good reason, but at least with them I can tell you what that no-good reason is:

-TEXAS: I picked up a lifelong back injury on the ride home from Dallas (which has some of the shittiest architecture I've ever encountered in my short life) while my family was laughing it up in San Diego without me.

-IOWA: When I was on a many-houred van ride from Pittsburgh to Yellowstone, for whatever reason our route took us both across and then up Iowa, without going diagonally, thus making what looks like a very small state on the map seem interminably long and boring.

-PEAS: If I ever finally would have had a chance to like peas, I ruined them for myself forever as a little kid by always letting them get could and smashing them, hiding them, or swallowing them like pills, whatever.


I think maybe, unfortunately, that I hate mp3 players in the same way that I loved the '87-'90 Mets.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Philly Dee Doo, Va Va Va

[Remotely "blogged" by paper & pen earlier today during train travel; herein keyboarded and revised just a bit. Mind . . . can't help . . . but make . . . revisions . . .]

Hey, let's go to a different city for the weekend! Just on a whim. Nate emails me Friday morning that his friend Kuzman is having an "evil twin" theme party in West Philadelphia on Saturday night. Well, hell, I'm not going to pass that up.

A few hours on city rail systems will get you there from Connecticut: Metro North, NJ Transit, SEPTA. Hooray megalopolis. I was looking forward to getting some pleasure reading in this weekend anyway, and that meshes with train travel as well as it does with anything else. Having finished auditing that linguistics course, I've been greedily going at some readable nonfiction, much more appetizing than chapters on syntactic structure. Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice has been on my list for a couple of years, particularly since I took a class he taught at Swarthmore on the same subject. I finally picked up a copy of the book up at the Harvard bookstore last month: cute little paperback with a banana-yellow cover. Gets one thinking about one's subjective well-being.

What is my subjective well-being like nowadays, anyway? Like on a scale of 1 to 7, say. Five? It's leveled off some in the last few weeks, which makes sense since the year's settled down so much. (My objective well-being, of course, is off the charts.)

I spend a couple of hours Saturday afternoon catching up with my college friends Andrea and Corey, who are both available to hang out on short notice, happily. I haven't seen Corey for more than four years, and only have written back and forth with him a couple of times in that span, so that's a particularly healthy connection to reestablish. In some basic sense it's like we haven't missed a beat.

The party loses its semblance of "evil twin" theme fairly quickly, but OK. I like Nate's friends, and Nate's friends' friends. And Nate's friends' roommates' friends are all right too. Five people live in this house, so there's a large crowd. Good conversational browsing. And good beer is on hand. Mingle, chat, party game, baby carrots, and so forth. Beery to less beery, social to less social. We're sleeping there overnight so we're in this party for the long haul. Around 2:30 AM I realize that it would significantly benefit my subjective well-being to hide in an upstairs bedroom and stop forcing myself to socialize. Poke through a bookshelf . . . Kama Sutra, Dungeon Master's Guide, Kurt Vonnegut . . . end up re-reading the first twelve chapters of The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time since about 1990. Well, they say it's not a real party until you've read 200 pages' worth of classic children's literature.

Sleep soundly from 4 to 11:30.

West Philly always strikes me, when I visit, as someplace where I can almost see myself living comfortably, but not quite. I get the sense I'd need a car for it to work, and I don't have a car. Moreover, I guess, I don't have a compelling reason to live in Philadelphia.

Friday night was a fairly rare post-work happy hour (free wings, all you can eat! All I could eat was three) and then a get-together at my roommate-during-August Judith's apartment later in the evening, featuring mulled wine and latkes and genial law students.

I don't know that all this adds up to being a social butterfly, but certainly it's on the high end of my personal social-butterfly scale. I feel a bit more like a social caterpillar, in that I've been eating constantly and am now looking forward to cocooning for a while.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Possible Sign of iTism

Walking near my apartment a few minutes ago I passed a young woman standing in front of a bus stop sign, kind of half-shivering, half-bopping to music on her iPod (the telltale, factory-standard white earphone cord running up from her coat pocket and disappearing back under her wool hat). After one or two moments in a psychologically underdeveloped frame of mind it occurred to me that she wasn't necessarily rocking out to the same music that I was listening to on my iPod at that moment. Which made sense, since I was listening to a mambo rendition of "Tea for Two" from the soundtrack from The Mambo Kings, which I have never seen.

Happy Friday, everyone. Brain done, put in drawer, hope put back Monday.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

End of Day of Thor

The kind of Thursday where I feel like I've been running an hour late since I woke up. An adequately domestic evening, preparing a turkey meatloaf and washing dishes while listening to an indifferent national broadcast of the Steelers-Browns' first half on a local AM radio station.

Walked up the Washington Boulevard sidewalk into a frigid, slowing headwind towards the gym. Past the 7-11, past the taqueria. Past the slowing cleanup effort surrounding a house along the way whose upper floor had apparently burned, acrid smell and many flashing lights. Jogging alongside the last two blocks of condos and the boutique toystore before I reached the gym. The condos, the toystore, the gym all new since I moved into my apartment, close to four years ago.

Another mind-clearing span of time on an elliptical machine, listening to "Summer of Love" by the B-52's through headphones and glancing at a soundless local news story about a fatal car wreck involving teenagers.

Wind chilling my fingers through my gloves on the walk back home. Sky clear, partial moon and the usual clutch of dim, tenacious stars that show in a city sky. The crowd in front of the burned house reduced to a few firemen and some young women in slightly too-light coats, arms crossed and shoulders hunched up.

It's said over and over again in writing to write what you know; tonight this is about all I have to go on.

Thursday Night Lights

Well, glad to hear the Steelers have enough mojo left to clobber the Browns in Pittsburgh. That much of the sports universe remains well-ordered.

Willie Parker's breaking of the team single-game rushing record, held by John "Frenchy" Fuqua since 1970, mostly makes me wonder how long it's been since a pro football player has been nicknamed "Frenchy."

You can listen to Steelers games online at the 970 AM (Fox Sports Pittsburgh) website.


That's the term for false pregnancy, which is even more bizarre than you think it is.

It's pretty scary what kind of false conclusions the brain can come up with given the right expectations and hormonal signals.

Earnings Restatement

In Fannie Mae's spirit of fiscal honesty I too would like to revise my income from 2001 to mid-2004 downward by $6.3 billion. In fact my declared earnings of $6.3 billion over that time were overstated by approximately $6.3 billion.

My Internet connection is very slow this morning. Among the implausible explanations that initially spring to mind alongside the technically realistic ones when I think about such things is that since it's colder outside the network transmissions are becoming slower and more viscous.

Monday, December 04, 2006

License Plate Games

Ah, the Oklahoma license plate. Snazzy!

Oklahoma has, of course, been central to the USA's celebration of her Native American heritage, being the 19th century Indian Territory where eastern tribes were sent during the infamous "Trail of Tears" forced relocations. Later the government took back that territory for non-Indian settlement, too. Truly a high point of our country's rich cultural history, there.

For my money, America's best license plates are still New Mexico's ("We're part of your country, dammit") and Washington, DC's ("Bitter and Disenfranchized").

In a different, completely uncynical way, I still haven't lost touch with our collective childhood fascination with out-of-state license plates. Near the Oklahoma plate on the street today there was one from Saskatchewan, which produces a thought that goes (fully, beginning to end) "Ooh! Saskatchewan!" and leaves me that much happier while I'm walking to work.

Incidentally, you can buy old out-of-state license plates at this website. You know, in case you find yourself decorating a family restaurant or something.

Glad Tidings of Christmastime Utility

Linked from Matt Yglesias, an economics blog questions whether early Christmas decorating & advertising is inefficient. An interesting gloss, but the best part is the first comment to the post:
Whatever the causes, the losers are the kids, who don't receive the utility of playing with the toys during the months when they are hidden in the attic. It is a pure deadweight loss, and in most cases, their returns on Christmas morning rapidly diminish as the number of presents exceeds their capacity for excitement. . . .

As the parent of an 18-month old, I'm having a lot of doubts about saving toys for Christmas morning, since the complexity of the toys and books he can handle seems to double monthly. It would surely be more efficient to get a single Christmas present on the 25th of each month.
This is a spot-on, deadpan parody of the kind of analysis that you start to encounter during undergraduate-level microeconomics. Except that it's not a parody. That young child sounds like he's in for some pretty interesting parenting.

I was always taught that it's the efficient allocation of thought that counts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ain't It A Pretty Night?

It is a pretty night, at least compared to what I was expecting this weekend. Save for some raindrops on Friday all the messiness that blasted the midwest landed somewhere north of the D.C. Metro area, so it's been brisk but generally clear. Saturday morning and afternoon in particular were gorgeous, with an open blue sky and the cold, direct quality of light that you get from the sun in December if you don't put any clouds in front of it. Granted, I missed out on most of the nicest weather by taking my fairly regular Saturday post-lunch siesta. By the time my stereo alarm woke me up around 2:30 (critical to set the alarm before your siesta as winter approaches, if you want to be awake again while there's daylight left) the sky was obviously more overcast based on the light filtering through the Venetian blinds... I lay there for a few minutes, dreamily beginning to understand the words in a Washington National Opera broadcast (not very accurately) before I even realized they were German. More wakefulness, some more real (and consequently harder) German parsing, and a couple of helpful leitmotifs eventually convinced me it was the end of "Das Rheingold". Solid music; a clanging, driving instance of Wagner's Nibelung rhythm can bug you out a little bit if you're not entirely awake.

A more conscious opera experience this afternoon, as I made a last-minute trip out to George Mason University's Fairfax campus to hear a Virginia Opera production of Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" -- This one had been on my radar a while back but I'd forgotten about it until hearing radio promos for it earlier this weekend. It's an adaptation of the apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders set in rural Tennessee, made more tragic and very consciously reminiscent of the political paranoia of the 1950s (the synopsis from the program is on the page linked above; writing my own capsule summary seems unnecessary).

I'm growing increasingly fond of the opera -- there's a fine Virgin Classics recording with the Opera de Lyon and Kent Nagano if you want to get to know -- It reminds me of Kurt Weill's "Street Scene" in that you can almost source it to American musical theater as easily as to the European opera tradition. Floyd incorporates an Appalachian folk idiom (though no genuine folk music) into a sweeping, romantic mid-20th-century style, with a couple of big, lush, tragic melodies underpinning most of the opera. (One of these gets the spotlight in the second of the work's two showpiece arias, "The Trees on the Mountain", which would be fantastic to hear performed in a straight-up folk song arrangement.) Floyd is stylistically straightforward both in his music and libretto, with some direct, sometimes abrupt turns into dark places that prevent it from coming off as naive. Floyd's most engaging orchestral writing in the opera comes in a couple of cinematically eerie, lightly expressionistic scenes -- the moment in Act I when Susannah is discovered bathing is a highlight. The choral "Come, Sinner" in the revival meeting scene at the beginning of Act II is the most chilling evangelical pseudo-hymn I've ever heard, for what that's worth.

The soprano in the title role, Lillian Sengpiehl (whose credits include a stint in the Philip Glass Ensemble), has a dark, clear, versatile voice that aptly fit the character's low, colloquial, conversational lines as well as the full-throttle, high-register climaxes in the two gorgeous arias that Floyd generously gives the role. Marc Embree, a bass-baritone who apparently works frequently with the Virginia Opera, was somewhat weak at the top end of his voice (particularly in the opening scene, though he seemed to improve as he warmed up) but effectively characterized Rev. Blitch's descent from stentorian to shattered. The set was relatively spare and full of narrow wooden planking, reminiscent of partly abstract depictions of the American heartland from the early 20th century -- curves in the background suggesting mountains, abrupt Kandinsky-like angles in the fore.

I imagine part of the reason that "Susannah" is ensconced as well in the repertoire as any other 20th-century American opera I can think of is that it plays so well on the scale of a regional production like this one. It's not big as far as operas go, either in cast or orchestra size or time -- if you deleted the intermission it would be shorter than plenty of movies -- and the musical idiom is approachable for musicians as well as players. I could get back on a high and somewhat misinformed horse about what kind of programming would keep opera relevant (and I will say I was unpleasantly surprised that so few college-aged people attended this one, given that it was performed on a large university campus) but even for an established opera-goer it provides some refreshing counterpoint to the grand-opera bread-and-butter type productions that make up so much of every season. To quote one or another of the old biddies walking behind me as I left the Center for the Arts, "I didn't care for any of the music in it, but it was different." Maybe swap it out for every third Lucia di Lammermoor or something.

Things on the TV that Start with 'F'

Since Washington is an NFC East city, Fox 5 is naturally running this afternoon's Giants-Cowboys game between that division's frontrunners rather than the almost completely inconsequential football on display in Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh. So I have that running in the background as I putter around the apartment... Not a terribly impressive game, but I sort of enjoy watching Dallas' young, newly-starting quarterback Tony Romo. In large part that's because his poise and potential has become every announcer's go-to point to blabber about during Cowboys games now that Terrell Owens has more or less stopped doing stuff, but another reason is his name reminds me of a joke from one of Futurama's more quotable episodes:

Hobo: Gus, old chum, let’s give a friendly welcome to this new robo.
Bender: What did you call me?!
Gus: A robo. You know? A robot hobo.
Bender: Oh, okay. I thought you said “romo”.

So whenever the Cowboys offense comes onto the field I step back at some point and say to myself, "Ha ha, Romo. I like cartoons with robots." It's also sort of fun to say "Romo, NO!..." in fake slo-mo whenever he does something wrong.

And thus does every post I write here add to an accretion of geekiness that I'll never wash off.

Odds "N" Ends "R" Us

It's Christmas shopping season! Who wants books? . . . I'm happy to see that there's a Connecticut version of the shirtless firefighter calendars that were sold everywhere in New York City. I don't have much use for these myself, but I'm glad that America's love affair with its civic heroes extends into the realm of shameless beefcake. . . . I still can't believe how good the Pixar Cars movie was! Part of my brain still lights up all happy when I think about it. Yay, talking cars movie! . . . Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is a satisfying soundtrack for cleaning your shower. That and the first half of John Adams's Shaker Loops. Yes, that's like seventy minutes of music. It's been a while since I cleaned the shower. . . . Harpoon's Winter Warmer beer is spiced to taste remarkably like gingerbread. It's like being home for Christmas, except your family isn't around and you slowly get drunk. Heartwarming! . . . The University offers a weekend shuttle-on-demand service within town, which is free and convenient. Unfortunately you have to confront the idea that you're grown up but getting around in what's essentially a short bus. I kind of wish they didn't call it the "Handi-Van" service. . . . The weather is still unbelievably nice here, though I'm not sure what we'll pick up from the nasty front that's been crossing the Midwest this week. Maybe we'll get one of those classic Connecticut ice storms, the kind that tears the facade from the 1970s suburban American ideal and forces Kevin Kline to face uncomfortable truths about his life and family.

Link Lending

. . . Extra-miscellaneous for Laundry Day:

1. My favorite example of how Fake News can outstrip Real News is this Onion article from the very beginning of the Iraq invasion. At the time it felt like the smartest bit of commentary about the whole debate. From this vantage point, well, 'nuff said.

2. Greg Sandow has a long post up about the changing demographics of orchestra audiences, pretty interesting if you're into that sort of thing.

3. From Time magazine, an article about people's inability to rationally assess risk. Quick & newsweekly-breezy, and even if it doesn't have a lot of new news in it, I've always thought this topic was interesting.

I'd like to see them back up the figure that people living "near an airport" have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being hit by a plane during their lives. I don't know what they mean by "near," but that sounds unrealistically high to me.

Dept. of Egregious Collocations

Herewith George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language, which you can take as a brief & readable writing style guide. It's interesting to read him riffing on real-life '40s-vintage intellectual babble, drawing from the same hatred of poor or denuded language that animated his portrayal of Newspeak in 1984.

The central nugget in list form:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Kind of an abbreviated Strunk & White with some added midcentury political overtones. Not unworth reading!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Further Drilling Into the Apparently Addictive Junk Food Consumption Habits of Late-1980s Commercial Mascots

I sense that part of Nate's last post was a subtle request to re-air something funny he wrote almost a year ago, so here it is.

Hooray for never discarding old emails. Incidentally, this is the kind of workday back-and-forth that gave us the idea to have a group blog in the first place. Ironically, we only started the blog after we'd quit the respective unhappy jobs that planted that seed.

(Note: outdated sports references left in for sake of laziness.)


[Jack to Nate, 12/22/05, 1:15 pm]

In further time-wasting news, I learned just now about the most implausible urban legend ever. (This came up somehow at work. I did know about the Pop Rocks rumor before, of course.) Ha ha! Someday you will remember the information, but you will not remember that it is completely false!

Meanwhile, I'm trying to get my mind around Johnny Damon signing with the Yankees. Unclean! You will not be beautiful any more!

Somehow it is easier to accept the Pirates' decision not to re-sign Josh Fogg.

[Nate to Jack, 12/22/05, 3:16 pm]

I hadn't heard about Josh Fogg yet, but I agree he won't really be missed. Too bad he wasn't a power-hitting third baseman. Johnny Damon going to the Yankees, presumably shaving and cutting his hair in the process, is a team-and-personality switch worthy of the WWE.

Nice to know that the Mikey-likes-it kid did, as the site says, "survive unexploded", though I'd never had cause to doubt this before reading about that urban legend. Not only that, but he sounds like a successful and well-adjusted member of society, which is more than a lot of cereal-commercial stars can say after going through trials such as overbearing parental expectations, the aftereffects of the hard-partying cereal commercial lifestyle, or being molested offstage by the Trix rabbit. For instance, I heard that the reason you never see Frankenberry anymore is because back in the 80s he got a bad sugar rush from his own product and jumped off a 30th-floor hotel balcony. He survived somehow but he can't talk anymore because of the brain damage and his legs are paralyzed. I know it's true because the guy I heard it from knows a guy who used to play racquetball with Count Chocula.

You know, I'm just going to stop now, while the part where I was ahead hasn't scrolled off the top of the page yet.


So who's funnier, Family Guy or Nate? You be the judge. While you're at it, judge why Nate has chosen Thursday as his drinking day instead of part of the weekend, or why he can't seem to stop blogging about Tecmo sports games.