: Harmless Untruths (weblog)

Don’t let the bastards grind you down

May 23rd, 2010 | permalink

I’ve been doing amateur home recording for a long time, let’s call it a decade plus, starting out with second-hand four-tracks and moving up to cheapo laptops and freeware synth programs. Being the overly-independent type, and the absurdly anti-establishment type, I have avoided the methodology of most of the world around me — the whole iMac/Garage Band thing. Instead I have mostly used a patchwork of random software on a succession of computers to get results that I am fairly happy with.

So here’s the weird thing — as the years go by, and computing power multiplies exponentially, it actually gets harder to do the things I used to do. My little tricks and maneuvers get antiquated quickly, and I am left banging my head against a (punk) rock as modern operating systems strip out functionality that I used to rely upon.

I sit and marvel at the fact that it was easier for me to do home recording in 2002 on a pathetically weak Dell laptop with a 10GB hard drive, Windows Me (!!), 256 (!!!) MB of RAM, no CD-burner, and only a slow and unreliable dial-up internet connection. I was able to plug a decent microphone directly into the machine, fire up Audacity, record guitar, use goofy freeware software to make other noises like drum beats. Given the ultra-lo-tech environment I actually made some excellent recordings that way.

The past couple weeks I have been trying to figure out a way to replicate that experience on a new Windows 7 laptop with basically infinite disk space and memory. I also have some audio devices that I’ve accumulated over the years to interface with it. It seems like it should be about a hundred times easier than those computing dark ages of 7 or 8 years ago.

But it turns out that the computer-manufacturing world has modified modern audio drivers to block the ability to record on one program the output from another. You don’t hear much about this, it was done awfully quietly. I spent hours going through settings to figure out why I couldn’t do this simple task — for example, play a drum loop on one stupid piece of freeware and record it in Audacity. Digging through various audio forums I eventually realized that this has been deliberately blocked by a lot of manufacturers. (Does anyone know if new Macs can still do this?) Concerns about internet piracy have made them block this whole function so that you can’t, say, play something on youtube or pandora and record it (because I’m sure that was a major method of stealing music. Geesh.)

I’m pretty annoyed and embittered about this — it only affects a pretty tiny subset of computer users, but it’s not like it has been in the news, or that I could have possibly anticipated that my new computer wouldn’t be able to do this. There are dubious workarounds listed in some of the forums, relating to re-configuring and replacing audio drivers, but they seemed awfully sketchy, and the consensus seems to be that this is just the way it goes. There are possibly hardware issues involved as well.

Anyway I am writing about all this not just to vent — though it ties into my growing ambivalence about technological progress, that the future of computers is one of a world of mindless consumers paying hundreds of dollars a month for subscriptions to various services that they interact with solely through their iPads or whatever. No, I am putting forward one crazy complicated workaround that I came up with that works. If this helps anyone doing a web search for something like “capture audio output” then I will be happy to do my part to combat the omnipresent Man.

So here is what I have done. It is not the least bit elegant, but it might help some folks figure out their own workaround. I was able to get around the blocked drivers by outputting the audio signal to a series of external devices, and then re-inputting it for recording. With trial and error I figured out a way that doesn’t seem to significantly degrade the signal quality. Probably no one else in the world will have the same equipment handy, but there are probably other comparable solutions.

First step is to export the audio signal from the PC. I have an M-Audio Audiophile USB device that is able to handle audio I/O and does the trick.

Second step is to send the signal to another device. I was able to export it from the Audiophile to an old 4-track via standard audio cables. Possibly even a stereo receiver would work.

Third step is to re-import the signal. (So ridiculous!) I was able to send it from the 4-track’s monitor mix back into the Audiophile USB device.

Then you have to capture the signal in Windows. It turns out that I had to use “Microsoft Sound Mapper” as my Windows recording device to actually get it to work.

So insane. It also means that if I want to do this it takes a huge amount of set-up, and I have to adjust the volume levels of like 3 different machines and 2 pieces of software. But it can be done! If you have another work-around please let me know — and if you have experience doing semi-pro-level audio work on a new Mac I would also love to know how that works. This issue with Windows machines seems to be pretty recent, like within the past year or so.

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous)

March 8th, 2010 | permalink

One of my few goals in life is to someday have a house in the woods — maybe in West Virginia, near my roots in Appalachian Maryland — where I’d have a creaky porch, some humble supplies, and a basement with a piano and some old recording equipment. This would be a place I could take sabbaticals from urban life, drinking whiskey, playing guitar, writing strange pop music and recording it. I’ve talked about this modest dream lots of times, but I never realized until now that basically what I’ve always wanted is to live the life of Mark Linkous.

It’s not so often that one of your musical idols commits suicide. It’s left me a little sad and contemplative, but I spent the past day or two listening to Linkous’s musical project Sparklehorse, and my sadness is balanced out by appreciation for what he left behind, a strange and lovely body of work that’s had a deep impact on me over the course of my whole adult life. Linkous’s frail work was so tinged with mortality — and he famously already died once, only to be revived — that his suicide isn’t surprising or even exactly tragic. (Though it’s tragic in the sense of Greek drama, I guess, where you know from the prophecy at the beginning that someone is going to kill her children or stab his eyes out.) I’m still deeply affected, though, and I’ve rarely felt stranger than I did walking around yesterday on the first blue-skied sunny spring-like day of the year, listening to sad Sparklehorse albums on my ipod while taking in the beauty of a world shaking off winter.

Nowadays I can’t remember what prompted me to buy the first Sparklehorse CD at a used CD store on Main Street of my hometown — I probably read about it, a review in Spin or something. This would have been around 1996, and I would have been 18 or 19 and in college. The album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot was, well, weird. It certainly didn’t sound like the alternative rock that I might have expected from the typewriter-font album cover and band name (“Sparklehorse” doesn’t sound that different from, say, “Candlebox”). At the time, it was probably the most experimental music I’d ever really listened to, with its twisted distorted pop, sound collages, literary allusions, and elegiac tone. I liked it, and it grew on me, though of course in those days I used to listen a fair amount to every CD I owned. Nobody else I knew really got into it, but I kept returning to it from time to time.

I followed the music news (and emerging internet) enough to learn a little about Mark Linkous. He was from Virginia, from some rural area that was something of a parallel to the area of Maryland where I grew up. As I listen to Vivadixie… all these years later, the most striking moment of the whole album is an answering-machine message that plays in the background during the song “Spirit Ditch.” It’s the sound of a middle-aged woman with a notable Appalachian accent telling someone she loves (her son?) about a dream about him as a child; it’s sad and makes me wonder who’s speaking. Linkous’s mom? A friend’s mom? Someone completely unrelated?

Sparklehorse: Spirit Ditch

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Anyhow it reminds me of Appalachia and my own roots. I went a different direction from Mark Linkous — where I turned into a snobby urbanite, he seemed to retreat even further away from modern civilization. I spent my 20s walking city sidewalks and haunting loud rock clubs instead of going the moonshine-and-piano route that still sat in the back of my mind. But I remained interested in Sparklehorse.

I didn’t pick up the second Sparklehorse album when it came out, though I was interested, having read all about Mark Linkous’s death-and-resurrection experience. I did pick up a free promo videotape at some record store that had videos for 4 or 5 of the songs on Good Morning Spider, including “Sick of Goodbyes” which startled me (I had never read my Cracker liner notes carefully enough to notice that Linkous co-wrote the song with David Lowery).

So I didn’t listen to much Sparklehorse for several years, until the third album, It’s a Wonderful Life, came out in 2001. The record got a fair amount of press and publicity, probably because it was chock-full of big-name guest stars, but maybe because it was such a stunning album. I must have listened to the CD hundreds of times in the first few months I had it — it was so pretty, so lush, so weirdly out-of-time. It contrasted neatly with one of my other favorite records of the time period, Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You, and together those two albums, both hazy masterpieces, kicked off a strange decade with mystery, wonder, and quiet sadness.

Eventually my copy of Wonderful Life got too scratched up and scuffed to play very well, and to this day my mp3 rips of it are full of skipping and other problems. So listening to it now is more mysterious than ever — I am stuck with spectral versions of ghostly tracks, songs I know by heart but haven’t properly listened to in years. It’s both aggravating and satisfying — maybe the songs in my memory are better than any new versions I could buy from

Following up my obsession with It’s a Wonderful Life, I finally tracked down a copy of Good Morning Spider and proceeded to fall right in love with that album, too. Over a couple of cold, tough winters in remote regions of eastern Europe, I lived and breathed Sparklehorse songs, learned them on guitar, stared out of windows into the dark evenings with Good Morning Spider playing in the background. It’s even a sadder album than Wonderful Life, but I was impressed by Linkous’s simple life goal: “All I want is to be a happy man,” he sang. I could relate. This seems like something that ought to be possible to attain, like a fair thing to demand from life.

A few years later, during a more mundane phase of my own life, I made sure to buy the fourth album, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain . (This is actually one of the last times I bought a new CD — I was in a transitional phase towards buying only cheap used CDs or else going for cheap downloads.) Dreamt for Light Years, from 2006, is a really good album, too, though I never went through a phase of obsession like I had for the previous two. With its David Fridmann production it sounded kind of similar to contemporary Flaming Lips albums, and I was already on my way to getting tired of Wilco and Flaming Lips types of bands. Or maybe I was less enchanted with the album because my life was so much less turbulent than it had been during the previous two records. Who knows. Listening to it now, I find it better than I remembered — compared to earlier Sparklehorse it sounds pretty peaceful. Maybe this was the sound of Linkous accepting middle age? Maybe he wasn’t really going to teeter over the edge after all? Here and there he even sounds happy, though it is a desperate kind of happiness, hinted at by the album’s single, “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.”

In recent years Sparkehorse has been in the news occasionally, mostly from the DangerMouse/David Lynch collaboration that hasn’t been officially released yet. Dark Night of the Soul is interesting too — I have listened to it a bit, though I can’t say it sounds too much like Sparklehorse. There is also a collaboration with Fennesz which has been sitting in my eMusic “save for later” section for a while:

save for later

But I find I don’t need these later efforts, even if they are impressive. The four albums alone (especially the middle two) are enough legacy for Mark Linkous to ultimately leave me grateful and even kind of overwhelmed. And the collaborations on It’s a Wonderful Life seem distracting to me now — I don’t really want to hear PJ Harvey and Tom Waits intruding on Linkous’s songs, though I really like the more anonymous female background vocals on Spider.

I prefer to ignore the collaborations and stick with his most basic work, because it is so rich and complex and leaves me with plenty to digest. I can’t think of any other musician who really captures the same type of atmosphere as Linkous. He was inspired by the poetic songs of Tom Waits, the simplicity of Daniel Johnston, and the country tinge of Neil Young, but had few contemporaries who matched his sense of vision. His songs are cinematic, or poetic, or mystical. He went back repeatedly to natural symbols and themes — ghosts, pianos, dogs, spiders, sparrows, teeth, sunshine — that almost add up to a coherent mythology.

I’m always fascinated by artists who develop their own symbols or entire mythologies. I love to hear about people who leave behind apartments full of obscure writing or drawing, or “outsider” artists who obsessively return to particular themes that nobody else can entirely understand. Mark Linkous’s songs have a lot of that same feeling, like hints of a supernatural world that only he could see. (There are traces of this in a handful of other latter-day musicians, particularly some of Phil Elverum’s Microphones/Mt. Eerie songs about wind and moon and sand.)

I think my fascination with these vague mythologies has some sort of complicated connection to my Catholic upbringing — I wouldn’t say we were “strict” Catholics but maybe the right word would be “staunch.” Growing up Catholic meant that there was this system around, a complicated but definitive one, that we slowly pieced together over time. There were rites and rituals, symbols and prayers. Certain colors in a mass meant one thing, others another — and this stuff wasn’t obvious. You wouldn’t know why a priest was wearing red one day, or why those candles were removed, or whatever. It required training and the ability to piece together various hints into something coherent. (Well, ok, you can argue about the coherence of Catholicism, but that’s a separate issue.) And trust me — everything about Catholicism and its rituals is carefully plotted, well thought-out, it’s all very deliberate. They don’t do random in Catholicism.

Since Mark Linkous shot himself in the heart two days ago, I have somehow found myself thinking about all the years I spent at Catholic funerals as a kid, serving mass and absorbing the symbols and ideas of a vast, complicated system. I don’t know if Linkous was religious — he mentions things like praying once in a while, but it is not at all obvious what he means. His religion seems far more likely to have been a construct of sunshine and woods than anything Christian. Ultimately, though, the symbols of Christianity have the same function as symbols built of leaves, and I think maybe it is appropriate to borrow some of the beautiful language of Catholic funeral masses.

The Catholic funeral mass uses words like this:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.

This seems to be exactly what Mark Linkous would have wanted. Rest and light. Those aren’t symbols, they’re concrete parts of human existence, things we can all get from time to time even if happiness (or a house in the woods) is harder to find than it should be. Requiem æternam, Mark. Eternal rest.

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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Just a drop of water in an endless sea

September 3rd, 2009 | permalink

The internet may be a timesucking black hole, but I prefer it to some of the alternatives (like tv) because at least you can feel you’re wasting your time in a productive sort of way. The internet, if you sort of squint at it sideways, suggests an infinity of patterns — harmonic resonances of information and insight — dazzling multidimensional arrays of facts and ideas and multimedia extravagance.

So you tunnel through layers of meaning, right-clicking madly. You know that everything you find has been written or created by somebody else, but maybe nobody has looked at these things in quite the same way, or found the same striking juxtapositions. You right-click further…

I am listening to a live recording of the band S PRCSS, singing about the Sphinx’s nose, while reading articles about national politics, but something (the Sphinx’s nose?) compels me towards wikipedia to do an apparently pointless investigation of the history of cities throughout human history. And the wikipedians have composed a pretty fascinating list of the largest cities throughout history.

I like this list a lot. The first thing it does is provide a pretty good overview of human history, at least from a narrow, power-politics point of view. Thousands of years of Mesopotamian, Chinese, and especially Egyptian cities! I’ve always thought the ancient Egyptians were especially interesting, with their incredibly long-lasting empires and civilization. Then, aside from a few big cities in other parts of Asia, it’s all Rome and Constantinople for a while, until the Arabs come along and turn Baghdad into the center of human civilization.

Then it’s like, China (particularly Beijing), Constantinople, China, Istanbul, China, and so on for, like, most of the last millennium. Not until 1825 did London surge to the top, beat out by New York in 1925. Then Tokyo since 1965. It’s hard not to draw some historical parallels from those dates and cities. Hard not to think that the lowly U.S. of A. had its moment in the sun for about forty years and has been fading ever since. Forty years — a blink of an eye on this kind of scale.

In 1180, a city in Sri Lanka called Polonnaruwa was the largest in the world with a population of 250,000. Never heard of it — have you? I would venture to guess though that those 250,000 people did not care much about what was going on in the history I grew up learning… Crusades? Thomas Becket? Frederick Barbarossa? Whatever.

The world has grown smaller since 1180, but it’s hard for me to believe that the 32 million in Tokyo today care much about what is happening here in the United States. Why would they? Surely they are not concerned about what some senator from Iowa thinks about healthcare. There are billions of people right now who are happily ignorant of Iowa’s senator. So should I care about him? I dunno. I can’t help but feel like these things are important, but then I think about humanity on this kind of massive scale, and my concerns fade.

So then I think about stoicism again, which is basically the “Dust in the Wind” philosophy, so I shift over to youtube to find the most ludicrous versions of “Dust in the Wind” that I possibly can. It’s a tough call! It’s a really easy song to play on guitar, one of the first songs most people ever learn to play, and it also has this sort of tragicomic seriousness that lends itself to very very serious renditions. I mean, this song is deep.

Here’s a good example:

In the end, though, scrolling through the endless variations on “Dust in the Wind” makes me feel pretty excited about this ever-changin’ world in which we live in. Stoicism basically tells us to stay engaged with the world, but to not get too stressed about petty details like Iowan senators. Things will pass. In a thousand years nobody will know about soft rock songs, any more than I know about ancient Sri Lanka, but they are great while we have them. So I will continue to enjoy them while they last…

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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September 2nd, 2009 | permalink

Today DCist highlighted as “photo of the day” a scan of a letter about the photography policy of the Department of Transportation. Here in the nation’s capital, there is a lot of conflict between photographers and the various types of security personnel at the various federal agencies, landmarks, foreign embassies, international agencies, etc, etc. I have an opinion about this (pro-photographers’ rights, anti-security paranoia), but thinking about it today I had a different reaction than normal.

I felt grateful to live in this country! This doesn’t happen to me all that often. But I felt grateful that we have an ACLU, and enough engaged citizenry to make an impact. For all my many, many frustrations about politics, and all my disappointment in the lazy American people who support nonsensical policies when not busy watching So You Think You Can Dance?, this country can occasionally still impress me.

I had this odd swelling of pride because this morning, over breakfast, I read this terrifying article by Charles Bowden in Mother Jones, which I highly recommend reading. It’s about a Mexican journalist’s quest for asylum here in the U.S. He was fleeing the Mexican army, which reigns with impunity, fighting versus the narco-cartels for control of the drug trade. There is nowhere to run when the army is trying to kill you, so he’s exiled on this side of the border and hanging on.

It is a truly awful situation, and I think the U.S. is complicit in many ways, and has an obligation to help our neighboring country aside from the “Plan Mexico“/Merido Initiative. But at least domestically, for all the civil liberties we’ve tossed aside, I don’t see the American people ever accepting the military terrorizing the people. Maybe that is a naïve belief. It is easy to imagine scenarios where average Americans cheer on troops fighting the “War on Terror” against domestic enemies. But if the current weird right-wing protesters prove anything, it’s that the anti-government, anti-elite strain of American politics has not died out. And while I would like to see universal healthcare, I am also glad that Americans distrust the government. I wish they would distrust it a lot more, actually.

Anyway I am not saying that photographer’s rights to are as important as the right of journalists to live without intimidation. But there is a spectrum of authoritarianism, and I’m just glad that there is push-back still to be found in America. I read the international news. I notice when Russian human rights activists disappear. I notice when “color revolutions” from Burma to Belarus are brutally suppressed. The U.S. has corruption and serious flaws, but it is still a pretty great place, and I’m incredibly lucky to have been born here.

Cue up some lame patriotic music — though I guess we can all get behind this:

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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Aging Rock Stars

August 16th, 2009 | permalink

Speaking of poetry…

I have never written much of the stuff myself, but do write a lot of song lyrics which are kind of similar in some ways (as I mentioned in my last post). I like writing lyrics much more than I like singing, but sometimes the lyrics are pretty perfunctory or just thrown-together nonsense. And on very rare occasions I have started writing lyrics but abandoned the song, yet kept the lyrics around anyway, somewhere in my brain. What do you call song lyrics without the music? Doggerel. Usually.

I thought recently of the following charming bit of rhyme, an ex-song from around 1997. How awful that I called Michael Stipe and Bono old at the time! Michael Stipe would only have been around 37 — not old at all! Sorry Michael Stipe! And I don’t know why I claimed Lou Reed was not famous.

Here is a scan of this silly pseudo-poem, click through for a full-size legible version:

Aging Rock Stars

Here is a transcription, slightly corrected (i.e., “tinnitus” for “tinninitus”).

Michael Stipe, he shaves his head while
David Bowie follows trends
Neil Young, he never changes
Lou Reed never quite got famous.  

Thinning hair and aged appearance,
Rock stars looking like grandparents
Some sell out and some stay true
What's it mean to me and you

Comeback albums, comeback tours
Comeback hours, comeback whores
Rock 'n' roll was made for teens
So now what does Bob Dylan mean?

Bono doesn't seem to like us
Pete Townshend has got tinnitus
Springsteen's still an average guy
The Rolling Stones are just a punchline

When all ex-Beatles have been knighted
Will John Lydon get invited?
Who knew Patti Smith existed?
Rock 'n' roll is pushing 50

And what about that place in Cleveland?
Another building no one needed
Kids who tried to break the rules
Now end up trapped in exhibit halls

Background music in a bar's the
Last insult to aging rock stars
Music written from the soul is
turned to muzak, bought and sold

The critics say you've lost your edge
Or that the fame went to your head
Biographies full of attacks and
Your catalog's owned by Michael Jackson

So tell me now what are you feeling
When you play sold-out arenas
Where every single person knows
The words you wrote 20 years ago

Do those words ring true today
And do you still have something to say?
When you sling on that guitar and play
Is it for the future or yesterday?

Do you still believe in rock and roll?
I guess that's what I want to know

Ouch! Take that rock stars! Getting awkwardly called out by a snotty 20-year old, I bet that stung. Actually I mostly remember this “poem” from time to time based on the line about “thinning hair and aged appearance”… How quickly things change.

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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Poetica/Poem Jam

August 11th, 2009 | permalink

I don’t often read poetry, but I have had a distant wisp of a poem stuck in my mind all day, and spent an hour or so leafing through books of poetry and some general literature compendia, seeking out something that may not even exist. I have more poetry on my bookshelves than I would have guessed, and more than I have ever read. Part of the reason that I even have any poetry at all is for moments like tonight, so that on terribly rare occasions I can leisurely look through it, wondering if anything serendipitous will catch my eye.

I didn’t find the poem I sought, but I amused myself sufficiently to share with the universe. Because one thing I found, on two different occasions, was my own scribbled marginalia, comparing a poems to song lyrics by Metallica and Pearl Jam. This is particularly amusing since one was a note I wrote in high school — reading “PEARL JAM RIP-OFF” — while one is just from a year or so ago, a note saying “like Metallica’s ‘One’ :-)”. Apparently my mode of reading poetry has not advanced very far since high school. I’ll probably spend my whole life reading poetry and thinking about song lyrics from the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Anyway here are the comparisons:

If you know the songs (and everybody knows these songs, right? at least “One”), go read the poems and you’ll see what made me laugh.

I’m surprised how striking the similarities actually are. The poems are subtler than the rock songs (Plath moreso than Heine), but they are obviously saying almost the same thing. “Paralytic” and “One” simply give impressions of being trapped inside the body — I would have guessed that the Metallica song would come across poorly in comparison, all hamfisted and literal, but honestly I think you can easily interpret it as being metaphorical. “Rats” and “Die Wanderratten” are even more similar in style and sentiment — whimsical and sarcastic, making a simplistic comparison of rats and men in terms that a high school student could easily follow. But even the phrasing is similar! It makes me wonder if maybe Eddie Vedder actually was influenced by the poem. Heine adds some political considerations that I don’t see in the Pearl Jam song, but really they are awfully similar.

I’m not saying Hetfield or even Vedder are first-rate poets, but maybe I’m just contemplating how, when you add moderately good lyrics to moderately good music, you come up with something even more appealing than a dusty book of poems.

Anyway, of course “One” (deservedly classic) is a much better song than “Rats” (one of the worst PJ songs until their most recent albums). Here are some videos that make this very clear. In the meantime I am going back to searching for a lost poem.

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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Q and Not U

August 7th, 2009 | permalink

I’ve always been interested in the English language, and language in general, and linguistics, and the mechanics of language, and its history. So I have been known to waste major chunks of time nerding out to things like the blog Language Log and wikipedia articles about, say, the history of the alphabet.

The alphabet is pretty interesting. Studying foreign languages gave me a different perspective on the Latin alphabet as used in English. I’ve never studied a non-Latin alphabet language, but I have a passable understanding of Cyrillic and learned the Polish alphabet. The Polish alphabet is awesome — it looks imposing to English-speakers with all those crazy characters like Ł and ź and compounds like sz and cz, leading us to scary-seeming common words like “szczęście” — but once you get those letters down, they correspond very closely to the pronunciation. Pronunciation of Polish from reading the words is a breeze.

English makes hardly any orthographic sense. The way we spell words is sometimes only tenuously related to the way we pronounce them. And while I like and appreciate a lot of the quirks about the written language, I can remember even as a young kid thinking that the alphabet has some serious flaws.

As maybe a seven- or eight-year-old, I would think to myself, “What’s the deal with Q? What is the point of it?” It just never made any sense that it basically always had to be followed by U. No other letters made such a demand. And it didn’t give us any sound that wasn’t already present in the alphabet. “Qu” might as well be replaced by “Kw” or “Cw,” it would be the same number of letters in a word.

“And for that matter,” my youthful monologue would continue, “what’s up with K and C? K is at least consistent, but why have a letter C that is sometimes pronounced like a K and sometimes like an S?” Heavy matters indeed.

So it was pretty exciting to read up on the alphabet’s history, and discover that there is somebody to blame for this weird feature of the language: the Etruscans!

From the wikipedia article about paleohispanic scripts:

It may be instructive to consider an unrelated development in the evolution of the Etruscan alphabet from Greek: Greek had three letters, Γ, Κ, and Ϙ, whose sounds were not distinguished in Etruscan. Nonetheless, all three were borrowed, becoming the letters C, K, and Q. All were pronounced /k/, but they were restricted to appear before different vowels — CE, CI, KA, and QU, respectively, — so that the consonants carried almost as much weight in distinguishing these syllables as the vowels did. (This may have been an attempt to overtly indicate the vowel-dependent allophony of Etruscan /k/ with the extra Greek letters that were available.) When the Etruscan alphabet was later adapted to Latin, the letter C stood for both /k/ and /g/, as Etruscan had had no /g/ sound to maintain the original sound value of Greek Г. (Later a stroke was added to C, creating the new Latin letter G.).

Whoah! So this whole confusion about the letters C, K, and Q is a legacy of the awkward adaptation of Greek letters to the Etruscan language. Thanks, Etruscans! It makes for an interesting example of a legacy feature within a system that manages to stick around for two thousand years, kind of like the junk DNA sloshing around inside of us.

ANYWAY this whole discussion is all really just a prelude to a few words about late-’90s/early-’00s local indie rock superstars Q and Not U. Here’s the thing about Q and Not U: I never was into them because of their name. I knew about these guys throughout their career, and our social worlds overlapped considerably. But that name, ugh. I couldn’t accept it. And so I can now safely blame the Etruscans for screwing up the alphabet and directly leading to this terrible band name and making me never get into Q and Not U. Again, thanks, Etruscans! At least now I have an excuse.

I suppose if I really and truly loved their music I could get over their name, but somehow Q and Not U never quite worked for me. I saw them live a couple times and thought they were good but a little overrated. In hindsight, it seems to me that they helped launch an era of DC-based indie music that was a little too ephemeral and poppy for my tastes. Coupled with the Dismemberment Plan’s efforts to get indie kids to dance, local music sort of veered sharply towards bland, inoffensive, polite pop music. Or maybe I can somehow blame the Etruscans for that, too…

Anyhow nothing really against Q and Not U, they were a good band, just not a great one. Here’s a clip of QANU from the DC Burn to Shine video:

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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It’s been swell, but the swelling’s gone down

June 17th, 2009 | permalink

For two and a half years I have been using eMusic to get my legal music fix. I thought it was nearly a perfect service. So much for that. Here is what my eMusic account information has to tell me now:

We’re sorry that we’ve had to retire your current plan, but we’re confident that you’ll find even more music to love among the many new additions to the music catalog. And of course, you can always choose a different plan by visiting the Plan Options page within Your Account.

EMusic is going the way of many good things on the internet (becoming more corporate, raising prices significantly) and I am putting my account “on hold” for 3 months to see if I miss it. I seriously doubt that I will. It was a great deal (I was paying $20/month to get 75 song downloads) but this was a bad time for the coolest online music service to hike their prices so much (mostly in order to add Sony content). It’s not just a 58% price increase per track, and it’s not just the shockingly poor job the company did of advertising and explaining the change. It’s that the world of free music — as in open source, as in freely given away — is expanding rapidly and insanely.

Sad as I am to give up on eMusic when I still have 90-something albums on my “save for later” list, I am already drowning in new content from places like the Free Music Archive. There are thousands of musicians giving away their content for free and a lot of it is more adventurous and more interesting than anything you can pay for. For example, yesterday I was digging on the dreamy sounds of Ducktails. You can’t get much better than this.

A lot of the reason I was part of eMusic in the first place was as sort of a charity for the artists and indie labels that help to bring great music to me. I have always been willing to give some money for that, even though I am web-savvy and can easily acquire music for free. But really, services like eMusic are all going to disappear as the market for music recordings continues to vanish. I still support artists in other ways… like going to shows, and buying CDs directly from bands, and buying beer at the clubs in order to help keep them open. It’s not much, but it is about all I can do.

Anyway, it seems to me like the world of music recording and consumption has already split into two directions. On the one path, racing towards oblivion, is the corporate model which has been hemorrhaging revenue for the past decade. This is the model that brought us, you know, the Beatles and the like. Most of the best musicians of the 20th century were affiliated with major record labels, and their successful model led small-time artists to emulate them. So even as far back as the ’50s there were local record companies putting out 45s of exciting doo wop and early R&B; as technology progressed, and recording became cheaper and easier, indie labels proliferated and turned into something of a farm league for the majors. The cross-pollination between big-time companies and little handshake labels helped create a whole universe of pop music of surprising depth and diversity. Surely there has never been such a blossoming of original music in human history, and if it wasn’t all of stellar quality, the sheer quantity of new music ensured a lot of successes.

But this awesome era, where the interests of art, fun, and making money could all overlap to a greater or lesser extent, is over. This piece about Sonic Youth (no longer affiliated with a major label) suggests that it is the mainstream’s loss, that we are losing something when the underground no longer throws curveballs at middle America. I agree. If you want to see the future of mainstream pop music, imagine Coldplay stamping on an echo pedal, forever.

The underground will be ok, though. Without money as even a realistic possibility, people will continue to make great music for the sake of art or for fun. With improving technology and software, soon half the world’s population will have the capacity to make high-quality recordings. It should be a crazy awesome future, if you aren’t trying to become a platinum-selling artist. So we won’t have too many more Radioheads, but in its place there will be a hundred bands like Ducktails. Seems like a pretty fair trade, even better than 75 songs for $20.

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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The persistence of Memorial Day

May 26th, 2009 | permalink

This past Memorial Day weekend I was out of town (as per the American tradition), but on the Friday before the holiday I spent a few minutes walking through Arlington Cemetery, thinking about sad topics like the perpetual wars we continue to fight and all the good-hearted Americans who are so loyal to the military but so strangely unwilling to criticize the wars that endanger said military or the government that sends young people halfway around the world to kill other young people. But the cemetery itself, as ever, is serene and moving.

Arlington National Cemetery

I like the idea, at least conceptually, of having “memorial days.” Days of remembrance. Días de los Muertos. Armistice Day. In Poland (and apparently other parts of Catholic Europe) there is a lovely All Saints Day tradition of visiting cemeteries and putting candles on family members’ graves. In the hubbub of daily life, I acknowledge that it is important to take stock of things, look back and salute those who brought us here. I make that effort on occasion. But I don’t think Memorial Day, U.S.-style, really fits the bill.

A youthful, forward-looking, and shallow nation, the U.S.A. has a Memorial Day much more focused on going to the beach, cooking out with the radio blaring, and starting summer off with beer and sunburns. This is also a great thing, though it maybe doesn’t leave a lot of room for remembrance-ing of things past. But it’s got some nice features of its own.

My favorite Memorial Day tradition, hands-down, is the rock-radio staple of playing a 500-song list of top classic rock songs over the course of the weekend. When I was growing up, I would listen to Q94 and they would call it the Memorial Day Listeners’ 500, and presumably you could call in and vote for songs. I find it hard to imagine that enough people called in to vote for 500 different songs, but the DJs must have had something to work with, and I guess you could always rely on Keyser, West Virginia, to have enough serious Kansas fans to make sure “Dust in the Wind” made the top 20.

Since I never listen to the radio anymore, I wasn’t sure whether or not this tradition still existed, and was pleased to find out that it does. I tracked down a few examples, including this one which is pretty solid. “Sweet Emotion” is an awesome choice for #1. I’m scrolling through this list and I think it’s quite possible that I know every song on the list — even “Lay It on the Line” by Triumph (!!). It’s like a canon of sorts for any aspiring hard rock specialist. (Ok there are a couple I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised if I could sing along on the choruses…)

Triumph — “Lay It on the Line”

I don’t listen much to classic rock these days either, but I still like the idea of songs to kick off the summer. Few could top “Sweet Emotion” obviously, but the classic rock canon needs a serious facelift. I nominate, as a perfect song to head a hipster version of a Memorial Day 500, the sugary punk of “Plenty for All” by San Diego’s sadly departed Hot Snakes:

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This song is perfect for Memorial Day… it reeks of school’s-out exuberance; it has that swaggering “nothing to work with, nothing to do” defiance; it talks about moving to southern California which is pretty much the ideal American summer dream. “Southern California, let’s go! There’s room for us all!”

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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Tempest in a teapot

April 15th, 2009 | permalink

So I don’t watch cable news, but the internet tells me that there is some sort of uproar going on over on the libertarian/right quadrant of the political map. Something about taxes, and tea? Maybe you’ve heard?

It’s interesting to see protest and even hints of radicalism coming from the right. On the one hand, it’s frightening as all hell; on the other hand, it’s a pleasant surprise to see people actually acting like they care about something. A month or so ago there was a hullabaloo about corporate power and AIG bonuses; now we have this inane “tea party” thing where some folks seem to be upset about paying taxes. I think those are fine things to be outraged about (albeit selfish when it comes to taxes). After all, I am at least halfway in favor of a revolution, though my version would be a whole lot different from a right-wing one.

I find the protests today ironic in a couple ways, though. It’s been pointed out elsewhere that, if anyone in this country deserves to have an anti-taxation tea party, it is DC citizens like me. I get taxed without representation as a matter of course. I don’t get terribly upset about it; taxes don’t bother me much (although how my taxes are spent does).

The other funny thing, though, is that these protests on April 15 come on the ninth (!!) anniversary of another little protest that happened in Washington, one that seems to be half-forgotten. Nine years ago today I spent the night in a police holding facility after getting swept up in a broadscale illegal arrest of protesters and bystanders (I was something in between) ahead of the A16 protests of the World Band and IMF meetings. Taxes were the last thing on my mind, though I was paying noticeable taxes for the first time, having just started my first real job, and I was just as disenfranchised then as now.

The A16 protests were the follow-up to the “Battle in Seattle” in the inchoate, non-hierarchical, anti-globalist, leftist protest movement that was mostly decapitated by the 9/11 attacks. For the record, I never was exactly opposed to the World Bank and I know that it really believes in its mission of ending poverty. Still, it was (and remains) part of a disastrous system; it’s a cog in the wheel. I still sympathize more with the protesters than I ever will with the WTO. The interesting thing is that a lot of the goals of that anti-globalization movement came true. Those protests were more effective than they seemed at the time. Look at how the Doha Round has failed to get anywhere. Look at how the balance of global economic power has shifted away from the U.S. Look at how development policies and strategies have shifted in the aftermath of the protests.

I don’t want the right-wingers to have even that level of success in changing the world, but I am pretty much in complete favor of populist movements and demonstrations. I’m not going to judge these tea parties by their looniest attendees: everyone that attends a political protest can be impacted by it, and maybe the experience will open up a few people’s eyes. That seems like something we can all rally behind. There is nobility in fighting for global justice, but there is also dignity in going out and trying to make a statement about political and corporate corruption. Maybe some of the populists can help seize control of the benumbed Republican Party from the miserable fat cats and CEOs who ran it into the ground. To all the rational conservatives who protested today, I had no interest in joining you — again, I don’t mind paying taxes — I’ll be happy to sip some tea in modest solidarity.

By the way there is a paucity of information about A16 on the web. It was all over the internet in 2000, I swear! I tracked down a NYT article detailing the arrests (note how the police lied about the incident). I also found this interesting set of youtube videos… they’re a little dumb at times but they do capture the spirit of the times. Part 2 is a little more interesting.

And here is a little treat: my receipt for paying my citation (the alternative to paying $50 was to stay in jail and wait to see a judge). I also still have a little piece of plastic somewhere in a box: a snippet of the plastic cuffs I wore that night.

parading without a permit

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Previously: Requiem æternam (a lengthy tribute to Mark Linkous) · Just a drop of water in an endless sea · Patriotismo ·

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