Saturday, July 31, 2004

Rare Books and Egyptian Relics

Top of the FountainMom and Pa came down for a visit today and we all went on a field trip to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, where they currently have a rare books exhibit. We showed up right at 11:00 when the doors opened, to "beat the crowds," but luckily not everyone gets as excited about old books as we do, so we actually had the exhibit to ourselves. Lots of neat things there, like a first edition (1721) of Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting. I wish we could have actually flipped through the books and read them. We wandered around the rest of the museum too, of course, through an Egyptian tomb replica, past actual mummies and a rare original statue of Cleopatra VII, and eventually outside to a nice fountain where we had our picnic. A fun tri-generational outing all around.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Spine Surfs Alone

Now that I've had The Spine Surfs Alone EP for a little while and listened to it a fair amount I think I can say a few things about it. The title track was the kind of song that my brain doesn't really hear the first few times through. I like it rather more now, though, especially the way Flansburgh's voice morphs into the guitar parts.

Unquestionably, my favorite song on this album is Now is Strange. Linnell's vocal gyrations took a bit of getting used to at first, but hey, it's supposed to be strange after all, right? I think that the extremes to which he twists his voice add a very immediate, visceral feel to the song; I feel myself pulled into it much more than if he sang it straight. When he sings the word "unbelievable" in particular, I can practically feel the shape of it in my own mouth. It's wonderful.

I'm All You Can Think About is suitably obsessive with its constantly rising melody and bass lines. To me that seems like an interesting tie-in with the last verse of I Can't Hide From My Mind, at the end of The Spine, but in a greatly intensified way. The bridge that switches into the relative major is somewhat of a relief, like finally taking a full breath of air when you hadn't even realized you'd been holding your breath. But that relief just accentuates the intensity of the rest of the song, more so than if it had been absent.

Fun Assassin seems to fill a similar role for the EP as a whole, since it's the only major-key song on an otherwise very dark album. It's a big contrast to the following Skullivan, which I still think is just weird. The Other Side of the World is a tiny little instrumental that mostly makes sense because of the two songs it connects.

Canada Haunts Me is a good end to the EP, I think. It's another match for I Can't Hide From My Mind, and I like how each song ends its respective album with something a little quieter and more introspective. What I love about Canada Haunts Me is how perfectly they nailed the instrumentation and arrangment. It is not only haunting but evokes a feeling of wind whistling over huge expanses of barren tundra. Very nice.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

The WCS Matrix

Last night was the usual West Coast Swing lesson at the Dance Spectrum. I've been going for the last month or so, and doing both the beginning and intermediate classes. The intermediate one is usually considerably more interesting and I'll probably stop going to the beginning ones soon, but getting a new approach on the basics has been really good. Last night in particular I really felt like I got a better sense of how the basic whip works, so it's more fun to do now and I'm less likely to confuse it with a Lindy Hop swingout.

The most interesting part of the class though, was at the end. The classes go roughly in one month cycles, though they're all drop-in-able as well. So this was the last one of the month and R2 was giving us a bit of a teaser to show us a bit of what you can do with WCS as you get better, and to encourage us to keep it up. His focus is on following and expressing the music, and so he described how he organizes this in his mind. He has a matrix of two independent variables (well, probably more, but this was the beginning class, after all) and different ways he dances depending on where a piece of music falls in that matrix.

One variable is heavy/light, which confused me at first, because the music he was playing for each one didn't seem to match my musical conceptions of heavy and light. I eventually decided that the music he termed "light" was generally more consistent and homogenous, whereas the "heavy" music had stronger accents that stood out more from the rest of the sound. The terms seemed to make more sense when he danced to them, working the accents with his body.

The other variable was direct/free, which seem like somewhat more arbitrary terms to me, though I can't think of better ones. With "direct" music, you can dance very precisely and robotically. It's good for beginners, since you can just focus on doing the steps and not stress out about style so much. You probably actually have to be a little better though, to make it look good -- like actual styling, rather than like a robot. With "free" music, everything was looser and more flowing. I wish I could remember the actual examples of the music he played, so I could figure out what the musical distinction in this variable was. I've forgotten now what it sounded like.

So R2 danced short examples to music from each combination of those variables, and it was really very nice to watch. He stuck mostly to pretty simple moves but his style changed dramatically for each one. It was very inspiring. I definitely want to keep learning from this guy.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Harry Potter y la Orden del Fénix

I finally managed to finish Harry Potter book 5 in Spanish this weekend. It took me about a month to do all 893 pages of it. It was every bit as exciting the second time around, even in Spanish. I read it so fast when it came out a year ago that I'd lost a lot of the details by the time I started it again. So that was fun. I must say, though, that I found myself somewhat more disappointed with Harry in this book than I remember being in some of the others. I disliked things like how he handled (or didn't) the Occlumency lessons, or how he forgot about Snape being in the Order, or especially using the Crucio curse. That just wasn't cool, even if it was on Bellatrix LeStrange. Oh well. I think I probably just identify too much with Hermione, anyway.

I'm going to try to get something in Spanish for my next audiobook. Reading Harry Potter is all very good, but listening practice will probably be better for my upcoming Costa Rica trip. Of course, I should practice speaking Spanish, too. But I tend to have fewer chances to do that.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Contra Newbies

We had quite an exceptional turnout at the contra dance last night. I had been doing some recruiting on the Mondae dance list and we actually managed to get about 10 new Stanford dancers to show up. Over half were people I hadn't even known previously. I think most of them had a pretty good time, too, so that probably bodes well for future dances. Hopefully we'll be able to get some people hooked over the summer, so they'll keep coming once school starts again, and so they'll convince other friends to come, too. So anyway, it was all very successful and I was quite happy.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Unclaimed Property

Via a process I do not entirely understand, I have just received $70.90 from the Stanford Bookstore, by way of the State of California. If you go to the California State Controller's website you can search for "unclaimed property." Somehow, a few months ago someone (it was either my dad or my aunt) discovered that I was owed money by the Stanford Bookstore and it was listed there. Unfortunately, their database is bizarre enough that once you've looked something up there, it disappears and you can never find it again. Luckily though, they got the ID number before it disappeared, so I filled out some confusing forms, added a copy of my old student ID card, and cast them out to the government, never expecting to see them again. After just enough time for me to forget about it entirely, I received a check from the state treasury for the full amount. I still don't have a clue why this money was supposed to be mine, or why it got shuffled off to unclaimed property. I'm not going to make much of a fuss about it, though.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


I finally got my copies of The Spine and The Spine Surfs Alone today. I actually managed to borrow some mp3s of The Spine over the weekend, so I've been able to listen to that while I waited for the actual CDs to arrive. Thus, I have various things to say about it, now that it's had a chance to sink in a bit. I nearly always need a little time with new TMBG songs to determine what I really think about them, and even then it can change considerably over time. That's half the fun, of course.

Museum of Idiots, though, was one song that I liked right away, even from the original Dial-a-Song version, so I was very happy that it made it onto this album. It's a waltz! Plus, the instrumental bits have a few parts with accents on the 1's and the 5's, which would make for some interesting pivots. (Regular pivots on 1 and 3, then accelerate a little bit on last pivot, count 5.) I don't generally like to pick absolute favorites, even just from a single album, but this song is definitely up there.

I've seen a lot of comments on how well the tracks are arranged and flow together across the whole album. There are lots of obvious things, like the Spine -> Memo to Human Resources segue, or the Au Contraire -> Damn Good Times connection. And overall it is very nicely put together. But I particularly like the unit of three songs that round off the end of the album. They're all in F, which groups them a little bit, but the sequence is interesting as well.

This sequence starts with Broke in Two, which is another of my favorites, though I didn't notice it until the second time I heard it. I particularly like Linnell's voice on it, and the guitar part. The ending is interesting because it suddenly goes all garbled, like a faulty record, then zips its way up to a high pitch and pops into nothingness. By itself, that's kind of a neat ending, but the great thing about it is that the next song is Stalk of Wheat. So I get the feeling that, by the end of Broke in Two, something really did snap. The tension built until the narrator just couldn't take it anymore, and decided to just go mad and have done with it. So Stalk of Wheat is all about being out of luck and broke and miserable, but it's still a delightfully silly little song. I especially like all the lines with connecting words, linking rhymes and alliterations.

Then at the end, there's I Can't Hide From My Mind, which is rather on the darker side of being crazy, pitting himself against his own mind, and is a nice musical complement to the previous two. What really does it for me in this song are the chord progressions which have some gorgeous flat sixths. For instance, the Db in the progression: (C) F Bb Db / C F Bb C. You've got to hear it in context to fully get it, though. The Db lands on an F in the melody so you'd have expected an F chord there. Great effect. And then the second chorus leading into the bridge is pretty neat, too. The final F chord slides down to an E (mimicking the Db to C transition from before) which leads you to A for the bridge. But then A goes to F, which goes to Db, spelling out an augmented chord. That's nice both for how it ties in with the augmented fifths (= flat sixths) and for all the slithery voice leading you can do with the progression. (Each transition there keeps one note the same and moves the others by a half-step each.) So this was the song that made the music geek in me happy.

A few other random comments on various songs, before I finish up. I've heard some good things about It's Kickin' In but that one hasn't quite kicked in for me yet. Still, I do like how the lyrics sheet actually says "(fake words)" where they're just making noises. Memo to Human Resources has another one of those flat sixths, though it works a bit differently there. Experimental Film is still a fun song, but not as absorbing as it was for me at first. Maybe because I got my fill of it for a while before the album was out, and now other earworms are taking its place. Wearing a Raincoat is one I'm going to have to be with for a while longer before I start grokking it.

Now that I have the actual physical CD, of course, I'm also noticing the liner notes. Someone actually did an awesome job designing this. But that will probably be a topic for another post. Likewise, I'll need a few more listens to The Spine Surfs Alone before I can say anything worthwhile about it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

St. Stephen's Demise

A little while ago a new Irish dance started up on Tuesday nights at a pub called St. Stephen's Green, in Los Altos. I decided to go tonight, play some banjo, and see who dances there. When I arrived, though, I found that the pub had been closed with virtually no notice, at least for the dancers, who were all outside dancing in a small, nearby plaza. So they're looking for a new venue now, which is kind of sad. But we got to play tunes and dance outside for a while, so that was okay for tonight at least.

I didn't know any of the musicians, but it was an interesting group. Aside from me, there was a guitar/vocalist, a pennywhistle, an electric bass, and a marimba. Yeah. Didn't hear much out of the latter two, though. When I showed up with a banjo, the whistle player decided he needed a break, so the guitarist told me to pick three jigs and had me totally carry the whole first set, without even a warm up. Very trusting of him, but it worked out alright. We did a few more sets and some waltzes after that, but it didn't go too late.

Bob and I convinced three new people there to come to the contra dance this Saturday, so that's very good. I'm going to try and get a whole Stanford contingent to show up this week. For reals, this time.

Friday, July 16, 2004


As much as I'm not a swearing sort of person, I can still be amused by it sometimes. Especially when it involves kids who don't yet have (or are afraid to use) the usual vocabulary.

I was at Patrick's Irish session last night and his 7 year old twin boys were in the next room watching the Giants game, and we could hear some of their commentary between tunes. At one point, the bases were loaded with two outs, and somebody struck out who shouldn't have. In amongst the cries of despair from the boys I heard "What the blooey?!?" That just cracked me up.

It reminds me of one of my step cousins, when he was about that age, or a bit younger. When he really had to let off steam he'd yell "Poop darn it!" Ah, kids.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


They Might Be Giants' new album The Spine came out today, along with The Spine Surfs Alone EP. I'm feeling kind of silly because I pre-ordered the CDs a little while ago, not knowing that I would be able to buy and download everything cheaper and faster than waiting for the CDs to arrive. Aargh. In the meantime, though, I'm listening almost continually to the first track, Experimental Film (from a RealAudio file here), which is one doozy of a good earworm. The Homestarrunner folks made a music video of it, too, which is kind of amusing. Check it out.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Human-Computers or Computer-Humans?

Isaac Asimov's I, Robot was interesting to me not so much because of the writing or the stories, so much as the overall perspective on robots. It's fascinating to read science-fiction written 50 years in our past, about events and technology 50 years in our future. If I were writing about Asimov's robots today, I would work on the assumption that they were basically computers that were made to be as much like humans as possible. That would affect the types of situations they'd get into, as well as the problem solving skills used by the people around them when trouble happened. The approach in the book, however, seemed to start more from the human end of things. Robots seemed to be essentially living creatures, that just happened to be created mechanically. They even have robo-psychologists who try to figure out their problems, rather than programmers who flip on-off switches and run tests on them. Very interesting, but also a bit frustrating for me at times, too. I kept wanting to remind the humans that the robots they were dealing with were just machines.

The main thing that never quite sat well with me though, was the idea of the Three Laws of Robotics, which, of course, shaped the entire book. (They can't harm humans, they must obey orders, and they try not to get themselves damaged, in that order of priority.) I don't have a good concept in my mind of how those laws could be so unbreakable, regardless of whether you have human- or computer-based robots. It would have been interesting to get some theory behind that. Still, it made a good framework for all the deductive reasoning that was going on.

It'll be interesting to see the movie when it comes out.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

WCS Niceties

More West Coast Swing lessons last night. The beginning level class had a lot of people who weren't actually complete beginners, so the teacher (whom I will probably start referring to as "the other Richard," or "R2") spent a lot of time giving us refinements to the basic steps. It made me feel somewhat less confident in my general west-coasting, but in the long run it will probably be good. I also thought it was interesting how he made a point of focusing on the lag time between a leading a move and following it, and on how the follower should actually be conscious of a distinct moment of choice for every move. I tend to think of things as being more simultaneous in the other dances I do, even though I know there are lots of leading cues that come before a move actually starts. So I suppose it's kind of a subtle difference, really.

The intermediate level class was unusual in that R2 didn't really teach any new moves, but focused on musicality. New moves might have been more useful to me personally, but it was fun and I still got some handy tricks from it. We did a couple nice breaks, and learned some easy ways to line ourselves up with the 1's of the music, even with a lot of six-count steps throwing us off. I really appreciated that, since it let me take more control of my phrasing than I had been able to before. (I'm a stickler for phrasing.)

Oh, and we also spent a few minutes trying to learn a basic body roll. That was rather more disastrous, at least as far as I was concerned.

Monday, July 05, 2004


I went up to Berkeley yesterday to watch the fireworks out on the Marina with Mom. The fog was so thick that it made for a very unusual display. Some of the fireworks went off deep enough in the fog that we couldn't see any of the actual flares, but the entire fog bank would just light up green or red or blue. And sometimes, a cloud of smoke from a previous firework would be in front of it, and get backlit, making it look like a photo negative of a regular explosion. The ones that were going off closer to us looked pretty normal, though with a bit of an extra glow from the fog, so all in all it was a very entertaining show.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Make a Joyful Noise

The SF Chronicle has an article about one of the local shape note singing groups: Make a Joyful Noise. I wasn't there the day the reporter visited though, so I'm not in the article. Actually, I've missed the singings for about two months now. I need to get back to that at some point. Ditto for the Irish sessions; I've skipped several of those recently. Kind of sad. I need more music.