Archive for December, 2011

Best of 2011 Mix

In keeping with the time honored (4-ish years) tradition of my people (me), here’s a tracklisting for a mix of the best songs of 2011, as judged by the most rigorously objective standards available (my personal taste).

1. Hugh Laurie – St. James Infirmary (6:25)
2. TV On The Radio – Will Do (3:45)
3. The Decemberists – Calamity Song (3:48)
4. Destroyer – Chinatown (3:49)
5. Art Brut – Sealand (4:02)
6. The Long Winters – Connections In Nashville (4:46)
7. Gillian Welch – Scarlet Town (3:38)
8. Sonic Youth – Alice et Simon (2:38)
9. The Mountain Goats – Damn These Vampires (3:24)
10. Iron & Wine – Rabbit Will Run (5:30)
11. Thurston Moore – Illuminine (4:02)
12. Allo, Darlin’ – Let’s Go Swimming (4:31)
13. PJ Harvey – The Last Living Rose (2:21)
14. Bright Eyes – Jejune Stars (4:10)
15. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes And Keys (3:21)
16. Foo Fighters – Arlandria (4:27)
17. large prime numbers – for those about to galavant (13:38)

Happy New Year, everyone! 2011 was an absolutely killer year for music, and here’s hoping 2012 is even better.

Giles Bowkett: Don’t Use JavaScript, Use a Language

Giles Bowkett is one of the few people who routinely writes essays that strike me as obviously wrong right up until I agree with them completely. Which is a fancy way of saying that he usually knows his shit and he’s always pretty persuasive. At least when it comes to tech anyway. (I disagree with most of his non-tech writing, but I suspect that’s due to us having different axioms.)

At any rate, the most recent essay to give me that sense was his recent post defending the proposition that “JavaScript is not a Language”. Go and read it, and consider it the next time JavaScript permits, forces, or cajoles you into some ridiculous hack or frustrates you with its ridiculously vague and squishy syntax.

If he’s reading, I’m interested what Smurf of Azure Abstraction has to say as a JavaScript hacker par excellence.

At any rate, I think Giles’ piece is substantially true and an interesting view of the problem. I think it helps to contextualize all the redefinition and pointless syntactical recursion I’ve had to put up with from JavaScript over the years. I can’t say whether or not CoffeeScript is better (not used it myself) but if it is, as Giles would have it, an actual language, then I can’t help but think it must be an improvement.

History, 9/11, and the Dangers of “Narratives”

The truth resists simplicity.” – John Green

The economist Tyler Cowen gave a TED talk earlier this year about the dangers of thinking in “Stories”. He makes some excellent points regarding the fact that, though stories are a deeply ingrained part of human nature, they almost always conceal as much as they reveal. The world isn’t carved up into stories by default and in doing the carving ourselves important details get lost, facts get twisted, and emphasis gets assigned where it doesn’t belong.

I think that you’ll find his talk worth the 17 minutes you spend on it. If you’re so inclined, you can do that now:

In talking about stories, Cowen touches one of the most dangerous memes of modern thought: the Narrative. Now narratives are wonderful things in novels or other fiction, but narrative technique is increasingly being applied the factual world around us as a way to shape or distort our understanding of it. In Aristotle’s time this would have been called Sophistry. Today it’s called “Social Sciences”.

But the point remains the same. Narratives are used to take the facts and make them fit a particular worldview rather than the other way around. They are a way to take a common stock of facts and, through omission, emphasis, and distortion, use them to tell a just-so story about the world we find ourselves in.

These stories, of course, tend to grow up mycologically around significant events. The recent global financial crisis has spawned a profusion of narratives, as have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as has the Arab Spring.

Of course no event of recent American history has spawned more narratives than 9/11. Some tell us that it was the first blow in a war of good versus evil. Some tell us that this was the evil empire getting its comeuppance. Some tell us this was our sack of Rome or, at the very least, our Lost Legions. But of course it wasn’t any of those things. It was far more complex and, to use Cowen’s word, messy. It was an event born from incomprehensible chain of choice and motivation. No story could possibly encompass the truth of what happened, and by trying to reduce thousands of lives into a simple narrative we delude ourselves about what really happened.

This is one of the reasons why Simon Schama’s piece for BBC News on 9/11 was so refreshing. The only stories he tells are memories. He uses them to highlight, powerfully, that this event matters and still ought to matter. But he does so without presuming to tell us a story about what it means. He demands that we pay attention, but doesn’t tell us where this is all going.

Human beings are story tellers by nature and so it’s probably no surprise that we try to understand the world in the form of narrative arcs. But while narrative arcs work well for the constrained world of fiction, they are inherently insufficient to help us navigate the real world. Even more troubling is the fact that narratives are inherently skewed. Not all are biased (though, per H. L. Mencken, Americans can’t resist a morality tale and so ours almost invariably are) but all of them make errors of emphasis or value. So at the best of times narratives are incomplete and at the worst of times they lead us actively astray.

And so I think Cowen’s call to resist the temptation towards stories and narratives is important, as is Schama’s call to attend to an event like 9/11 and to not write it off into the past so quickly. Stories may help us understand our myths, our culture, ourselves, or even our past, but they’re an extremely poor way to try and understand our present or to guide us as we build our future. Because the truth resists simplicity, and we do ourselves no favors by trying to force simplicity upon it.

Apparently Dogs Like Jazz

“You and what army?”

I’m currently working on putting together my Best of 2011 mix. (Drop me a line if you’d like a copy.) One track I keep coming back to is “Arlandria” by Foo Fighters. I was generally hit-or-miss on their new album, but this tune is just absolutely killer.

Here’s a pretty good live performance of it. I can’t find details as to where or when this show was, but the band just rocks it live:

Toshiba Satellite A505 Won’t Connect to WPA-secured Wireless Network

Attention Conservation Notice: Regular readers can skip this post without missing anything of importance.

Solution: I fixed this issue by opening the properties for the network and selecting “do not automatically connect to this network”, then disconnecting, reconnecting, and reauthenticating.

Details: I’m visiting my folks for the weekend, and their ISP here in the Tri-Cities is a little flaky. Earlier today the Internet service cut out and, not needing my machine at the moment, I just put it to sleep.

On resuming the machine, I couldn’t connect to their network. I confirmed that the network and internet were working fine on another machine.

Restarting router and modem did nothing. Restarting the machine did nothing. Restarting just the wireless LAN adapter did nothing. Windows’ Network Troubleshooting Wizard was its typical useless self. I tried reauthenticating to the network and messing with the network settings. Nothing worked.

On a lark I went into the list of visible wireless networks, right click on the appropriate network, selected properties and disabled the checkbox that says “Connect automatically when this network is in range.” I then reconnected to the network, it prompted me for credentials. When I reauthenticated, it worked fine.

I then re-enabled auto-connect and the network continued to work fine.

Seems that flaky Internet plus system suspend somehow equaled corrupted cached credentials or something. At any rate, the secret sauce for me was disabling auto-connect on that network.

Hope this helps.

Vaclav Havel, Kim Jong Il, Liberty, and Communism

Communism will go down as one of the great evils of the 20th century. Here’s hoping that the last communist regimes in the world collapse soon enough that its toxic impact on the 21st century can be minimized.

Kim Jong Il’s death will hopefully offer us a small step in that direction. His unique “juche” take on the twist Communist world view lead to the death (through starvation and execution) and imprisonment of millions of people. But North Korea and its people are still laboring under the horrors of a communist state. Kim Jong Il’s death is happy news, but it doesn’t end the terror that reigns in Northern half of the Korean peninsula.

A less happy death also occurred recently. Vaclav Havel, a great defender of liberty, also recently died. In this video he reminds us not only that there are still Communist and tyrannical states in the world, including one in our own backyard, but that there are still dissidents working to foster liberty and justice in those places. These dissidents deserve our admiration and support.

My favorite band of Cuban “dissidents”, Porno Para Ricardo:

Related: the lead singer, Gorki Aguila, spent time in a Cuban prison on charges of “Social Dangerousness”. I submit that this is the single most Punk Rock accomplishment a dissident can have.

Best. Matress Sale. EVER!

I simply can’t stop watching this video. Luke is absolutely hilarious. If you’re not familiar with Barats and Bereta, then you owe it yourself to check them out.

“I will not be told where to stand”

Seeing as how I just got my awesome “We Keep You Safe” Protomen shirt in the mail, I thought I’d take the opportunity to post of my favorite Protomen tunes. Insanely good Prog Rock based on an amazing video game franchise? Don’t mind if I do.

Strange Homes

I’m typically very hit-or-miss on the American Scholar Quarterly. It’s maddening that it occasionally carries some of the most thoughtful, articulate work published today and just as often carries immature, wrong-headed tripe.

So it’s always a pleasure when it offers something that leaves me unsure which camp it falls into. The most recent edition has an essay, I guess certain literary types would refer to it as “creative nonfiction”, entitled “Letter from Stuttgart” by Olufemi Terry. (Alas, not available online at the moment.) It’s apparently autobiographical, which makes the third-person narration a bit annoying, but it’s a charming sketch of an aging Europe seen through the eyes of a serial expatriate.

I have some disagreements with Terry’s characterization of Europe (he refers to it erroneously as “the cultural monolith Africa is made out to be”) but his observations on Stuttgart and on being immersed in a new city are fascinating. He masterfully evokes the sense of lostness that comes with alighting in a new place, knowing you’ll be there for some time. It’s the sort of feeling that leads China Mieville (possibly quoting Algernon Blackwood) to refer to complete, existential bewilderment as being “bewildered in the way a man is when he’s looking for a post box in a foreign city.” (Cf.)

I remember the first day I moved to Norwich. I deposited my bags in my tiny room, made a weak effort at unpacking, and then struck out to explore, feeling too restless to do anything but move about, but too jetlagged to really make much of my surroundings.

I ended up standing on a hill in a lightly-trafficked part of the campus, staring out over dead trees and damp brick rowhouses as the gloomy skies got dark. And all I could think was “is this why I’m here?” I had entirely forgotten every purpose I’d had for moving abroad. It was a helpless feeling, but not altogether a sad one. I think that one of the differences between people who make good travelers and expatriates and those who make poor ones is that good expats feel that drifted, purposeless feeling without any trace of existential horror. We accept it and know that, in time, we’ll remember or discover our own purposes for having upped stakes and moved to a new country.

That’s the sense I get from Terry’s “Letter from Stuttgart”. It’s the story of someone moving once again and discovering only after the fact some of the things that brought him there. He discovers that the new culture he finds himself in has its own purposes and problems. And towards the end, I think he begins to identify with them. To take on at least some aspect of his new culture. Not, as he asserts at one point, to lose any part of himself, but to discover the rhyme and reason behind the culture and its people.

I think this is most in evidence at the end of the letter. He closes by reflecting again on European culture with a more informed eye. Having seen the passion with which people defended the things the mattered to them, and having talked to people who understood the culture as only natives can, he finally understands that “not for nothing … is Europe an old civilization.”

This discovery of the purpose of places, of the causes for which people of a certain culture strives, is part of the reason why I’m so interested in living abroad. All cultures, like all people, have a story that they’re shaped by. They have an implicit map of the universe and a notion about why societies (or at least theirs in particular) exist. And one can’t really understand that story or that world view from the outside. One has to be a part of it. And until one understands the story that, e.g. Norwich or Stuttgart tells about itself and its place in the world, then you can never understand the culture that has grown in that place.

But once you understand the stories and the worldview and the culture of a people, a strange thing starts to happen. You begin to be able to see the world the way they do. And everything takes on a new aspect. Knowing about British Reserve is entirely different from experiencing it first hand. And once you know a people that simply cannot be beaten or bombed into submission, then you start to understand a lot of the contours of British culture. And once you understand British culture, you begin to see the British World like an overlay on top of the one you already knew.

That is, I think, why people of the expatriate bent decide to move to strange new homes. To understand the world in a different way. Not just to see different parts of their own world, but to see an entirely different world altogether.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.