18 July 2006

Summer reruns

Anne and I are about to take off for a couple week adventure in Washington tomorrow, so this blog will be taking a brief nap while I'm away. I'm looking forward to the trip. Getting away from the computer and the lab, seeing old friends in their new house, taking a backpacking trip that Anne and I have been talking about doing since we left Washington, hanging out with more old friends at Anne's mom's place. It should be nice. Since about half of the people who read this blog will be residing at the Kurtz Ko-op while we're there, it probably won't be too missed. But while it and much of television is in reruns, I have a couple TV-related topics I want to write about.

Yesterday I was walking back to my office from Crepes-a-GoGo and I saw a bus with a big ad on the side the said "Free to Be Girlie" next to some doe-eyed young miss. I thought "Boy, that ad sure missed my demographic. What exactly are they advertising anyway?" Then I looked a little closer, and realized that the picture was of Alexis Bledel, and the ad was for the Gilmore Girls coming to the newly-birthed CW network this fall. We've got two appointment television shows in our home, and since Lost horribly lost the plot last season, it'll probably be down to one this fall. And that one is the Gilmore Girls. I guess I'll be "free to be girlie" on Tuesday nights at 8 this fall. How shameful.

In other TV news, we've been watching a lot of Deadwood lately. We're one disc shy of finishing the first season, and both of us are absolutely hooked. The writing and acting are fantastic, and it's a great reminder of how wonderful television can be. It's a bit violent, and the much-publicized, coarse language lives up to the hype, so I can't recommend it for everyone. But I think it's great. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the weekend we rented the Deadwood for the first time along with the first disc of the L Word. I'd have to say that the L Word lost its appeal nearly as quickly as Deadwood worked its charms on us. Don't get me wrong, it's good, trashy fun, but maybe renting it at the same time as Deadwood for two weeks in a row wasn't such a good idea because it really made the L Word's plot and acting flaws stand out. That and the token straight girl is incredibly annoying. But don't despair, because we found a good, trashy substitute recently in Footballer$ Wives. This is a British show about wives of players at a fictitious English Premier League football team. It has no real pretence of being anything but smutty. Although I never watched them, I think it's reminiscent of classic evening soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, only with nudity and swearing (and they say the British are prudes). And nearly every episode has a moment where you think, "Oh my god, I certainly wouldn't have guessed they were going to cross that line!" Highly recommended, especially on a brain-dead Friday evening after a long week of work.

14 July 2006

Shine on you crazy diamond

I was saddened to learn this morning that Syd Barrett, the original lead singer of Pink Floyd, died last Friday. It's interesting that I would be upset by the passing of a musician who hasn't recorded anything since before I was born, but Syd wrote some memorable songs. The time from Pink Floyd's beginnings through a couple years after Syd was unceremoniously removed from the band was by far their best and most creative period, and I think a lot of what I listen to now has been influenced by my discovery of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd in late high school. Who knew that Larry capering about and singing Bike would have such a lasting effect on my pop-cultural preferences? The UK Guardian published a slew of eulogies today, one of which is here. For the most part, they thankfully avoided the cliches about Syd's drug use and talked instead about his continuing influence on popular music. I came home today and put on Arnold Layne and smiled at the audacity of a musician who could write a song that has the peppy sound of early Beatles but is about stealing women's underwear from clotheslines.

13 July 2006

Keeping up with the resolutions

As some of you may recall, I boldly published my New Year's resolutions on this very blog a few months back. As I admitted then, I very rarely make resolutions, in part because I don't really bother to keep them. However, as Chloe pointed out at the time, making them public is an incentive to actually meet them. So now that we're past the halfway point of the year, here's a quick update for those of you who've been dying to see how I'm doing.

First, the bad news. My half-baked resolution to write more has been staunchly ignored. As I phrased it, my goal was to periodically write something (anything), as long as it was beyond the scope of either this blog or my dissertation (i.e. keep a journal or write a prize-winning short story). Well, I've been intermittently good at keeping up the blog, but I'm still in the middle of a dissertation chapter that stalled out sometime in January. As for writing anything else, well, it just hasn't happened. So here's my renewed commitment to at least remember to take a journal with me the next time I go out of town.

As for the equally half-baked resolution to exercise more, I was doing quite a bit better at this one for a while. I had to make it a little more concrete after the first time I stepped on the scale at the gym and discovered I'd put on a few pounds since college. Actually, I'd put on a few pounds since a couple years ago when I stopped doing slimming field work every summer. So I made the ambitious goal of losing ten pounds by the end of March. Although I didn't pull it off in March, I managed to lose the weight by the end of May. Unfortunately, that's also about the time I lost my volition to go to the gym every morning. The World Cup and a class that was a lot more work than I'd anticipated also intervened. So just this past week, I made it back to the gym for the first time in a while. Luckily, I hadn't gained back much of the weight, although the equilibrium was probably in part due to my mid-section taking back some of territory it had ceded in the spring counterbalanced by muscle atrophy. Anyway, I'm hoping to hit the gym with a little more regularity for the rest of the summer. The class I'm TA'ing this fall has an 8:00 am lecture, so I don't like my chances once school starts back up, but we'll see.

12 July 2006

World Cup Review

DISCLAIMER: This is yet another post about soccer, but if it's any consolation, it's probably the last one about the World Cup. Well, at least until Zidane says what Materazzi said to him.

So before I even begin my World Cup postmortem blog, I have to say that I can't get over what Zinedine Zidane did in the final. Every time I see a video of his head-butt, I'm still a bit shocked, even two days later. (Sadly, the video I was going to share with you has been taken off of YouTube, which is too bad because the commentator's reaction was classic. It went something like this: "(some stuff in German) ... Zidane ... Oooooh!!!" If for some reason you haven't yet seen this video, go to YouTube and search for "Zidane" and "head-butt" and I guarantee you'll find it.) I'm eagerly awaiting his promised debriefing with the press later this week to find out what Materazzi said to him. Whatever it was, it was worse than the twist he gave to Zizou's nipple a couple moments earlier, so it must have been pretty bad. The game itself I thought was pretty good, even if it did end in a shootout. I'm not one to begrudge the use of a penalty shootout. Someone has to win, and watching 22 (or in this case 21) completely exhausted players play for any longer just wouldn't be that fun. In the end, I was pleased to see Italy win, although I still would have preferred France. Maybe it was the "Space Cowboys" thing -- as Franklin Foer calls it on his blog -- with the geezers having one last shot at glory. But my opposition to the Italian style of play seemed pretty unfounded once they came out obviously looking to attack the goal, and it made for some pretty entertaining soccer. We're heading up the Reno this weekend, and I just hope that my grandma doesn't bring up the World Cup. I think I'll have to lie about who I wanted to win the final, because if she finds out I was rooting against Italy ... well, she probably won't be making me any of her special ravioli for a while, that's for sure.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the tournament, and I'm a bit sad that it's over. I'm kind of glad it only rolls around every four years, though, because the way it invaded my psyche, I just don't think I could handle this kind of pressure every summer. I'm not going to say anything that hasn't been said hundreds of times before, but I love the fact that this is one event that the entire world watches. I would venture a guess that Sunday's final was viewed by more people than any other event in human history, which is pretty cool (although I'm guessing Zinedine Zidane wishes that weren't so).

I probably watched at least part of half of the games, which probably equaled or exceeded all of the soccer I'd watched cumulatively in the first 30 years of my life. A couple games in particular stand out, two of which featured Argentina. It's too bad they didn't make it past the quarterfinals, because both of their elimination games were entertaining heart-stoppers. I especially thought the game against Mexico was one for the ages, because I didn't expect El Tri to play them so tough, and Maxi Rodriguez' winning goal was absolutely unbelievable. The other game has to be Italy bewildering Germany and winning with two goals in the last two minutes of overtime. Anne totally called it when, in the waning moments, she said "Germany's playing like they want to go to penalty kicks instead of win it." And the Italians made a mockery of that strategy a couple minutes later. I think I was looking down at my plate of ribs when the entire bar erupted and I couldn't quite believe it when I looked up and saw that the Italians had scored. I certainly wouldn't have picked them to win it all at the beginning. Foolish me, I didn't even like their chances of getting out of the group stage. (Full disclosure: I actually thought it would be the US and the Czech Republic moving on. Not that I believed FIFA's rankings, but they must have clouded my judgment. Shows you what I know about soccer.) The way Italy played the last few games, you just had a sense they could win it all. So even though I didn't want them to win on Sunday, I can be happy that I think the best team won the tournament.

06 July 2006

A new Contract On America

Anne and I celebrated the Fourth like most other people, by gorging ourselves and watching fireworks. One activity we didn't participate in, but we could have, was burning a flag. As most of you are probably aware, the Senate narrowly (and I do mean narrowly) defeated a flag burning amendment last week. It's really disappointing to me that with so many of our soldiers in the midst of two seemingly endless occupations overseas, the Republican-led congress focused their energies on trying to ram an unnecessary (to say nothing of freedom-abridging) amendment through the congress instead of trying to find a way to get them home. Seems that if the soldiers are going to protect our freedoms, maybe they should be in DC instead of Baghdad. It really bums me out that at the time of year where I'm supposed to be most proud of my country, what it stands for, and it's amazing potential, all I can think is that it's being run by a bunch of clowns who care more about getting re-elected than about our troops, poor people without health care, or any of the myriad of other social ills that are going unfixed, and that the whole nation is going in the absolute wrong direction. The flag burning amendment is just another example of election year nonsense focusing on issues that are clearly only meant to pander to the Republicans' mouth-breathing base. I read an article in the Chronicle the other day saying that this was part of the Republicans' "American Values Agenda." The last sentence of the article describes some of the other things they've been trying to pass: "The GOP's 'American Values Agenda' also includes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, which died in the Senate before it even reached a vote; a prohibition on human cloning; and possibly votes on several popular tax cuts." I think that last one tells you all you need to know about what the Republican leadership really values.

03 July 2006


Thanks to my office-mate Emily, I've found something called Pandora Internet Radio, and it's one of the coolest internet radio stations I've ever seen (with all due respect to KEXP). It's built on the concept of letting the user program their own music stream. The premise is quite simple: you pick songs and artists you like and the website constructs a playlist for you based on those preferences. Because of copyright laws, you can't tell it to play specific songs, but the website has an ingenious way of taking your preferences and turning them into a continuous audio stream. What makes it interesting is that the playlist is based on specific characteristics of individual songs determined by a team of people who listen to music all day and describe each song they hear based on certain characteristics like "major key tonality," "mix of electric and acoustic instrumentation," and (my personal favorite) "extensive vamping." These characteristics, rather than arbitrary assumptions about which bands are similar, or which musicians influenced other ones, are used to program your personal station. They've even given their efforts to describe and interrelate the songs the highfalutin' name the Music Genome Project. From the pictures on their blog of headphone-wearing people hunched over computers, the Music Genome Sweatshop might be a better name, but I can't dispute the results.

To start playing music, you pick a song or band to seed the station, and then the website picks songs that match the characteristics of your seed from its database. You can train the station by clicking little "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" buttons on the player to rate a particular song. You can also add a song or artist to a station you've already created to expand its repertoire. Each individual station keeps separate track of the song qualities you prefer, and you can customize up to 100 stations.

It's been fun coming up with different bands and combinations, and after about a week and a half of listening I have a couple stations that are pretty well tuned where the "thumbs-down" songs have become increasingly rare. Here are some "seed" bands I've had good luck with so far, along with other bands I added to the station once I'd created it: Joy Division (augmented by Wire, Gang of Four, and Bauhaus for a post-punk extravaganza), Iron Maiden (a band that needs no augmentation), John Coltrane (with Ornette Coleman to make a skwonky saxophone paradise), and Eric B & Rakim (for all the old-skool jams). Not everything has worked out so well, however. David Bowie Radio took a lot of training before figuring out that I didn't want to hear anything off of Let's Dance, and Hawkwind (German space rock from the 70's) Radio has an unfortunate predilection for 80's hair metal like Sammy Hagar and Loverboy.

One of the big pluses has been discovering new music. The website's founders take a particular interest in exposing listeners to music they might not have heard before, so every few songs will be from a less well-known band. Granted, some of the obscure stuff I've heard is probably obscure for a reason, but it's definitely been a way to learn about different bands. For example, Iced Earth is a newer band that writes classic 80's metal with crunching riffs and high-pitched vocals on songs about topics like the signing about the Declaration of Independence. A perfect musical accompaniment to your barbecue on Tuesday. Happy listening!

02 July 2006

Twenty-eight down...

DISCLAIMER: This is another post about soccer. I promise my non-sporting readers that the next one will be about something else.

I was a little disappointed by the two World Cup games today, primarily because I no longer really have a horse in the race. I started the day with two of the four teams I was hoping would win (England and Brazil) still alive. (The other two were the US and Mexico.) Anyone who saw the games knows things didn't work out so well. The England game was sad because you hate to see a team go out on penalty kicks. But at least that provided some drama and excitement. I'm afraid the Brazil-France game had precious little of either, and Brazil definitely deserved to lose that one. There was nothing bonito about the way they jogo'd.

As for who to support the rest of the way, I think I'll go with Germany and France. I like France because they're definitely the underdog at this point, and it's always good to root for the underdog. Especially when they knock off the pre-tournament favorite. As for Germany, I have a couple less rational reasons. The first is that I can't with a clear conscience support Italy, which makes me very sad because I'm a quarter Italian (does that only make me 25% sad?). But the Italians play a grinding, unattractive version of soccer that I can't support. Also, I'm still a little jaded by their game against the US in the first round. The second reason is the less rational one. We're planning on having some people over for the final next Sunday, and we were planning on serving food that reflects the teams that are playing. I like to eat sausage with sauerkraut when I watch sports, so it's clear I need to support Germany. (Another reason I should support France over Portugal is so we don't have to serve our guests salt cod.) I'm not too strongly motivated by any of the final four teams, though, and I'd just be happy to see some exciting soccer in the four remaining games. Too bad all the teams are from Europe, though.