Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If I'm too good to discuss hubris...

An interesting trend that I'm noticing as I move through the collegiate ranks is the transition from the closed to the open universe: from what are essentially solved problems to problems that are actually worth trying to find the answer to. The biggest area where this is showing up is of course research, but also in other classes; it's nice to get the occasional Transport problem where I'm allowed to remember that what I do just might be applicable to something. Take an optimization problem, for instance: the focus isn't so much on "getting the answer right," mostly because there isn't a right answer. There is, however, a right method, and that's what's being tested.

One class that I might have the opportunity to take next year is something about "undergrad thesis writing." Very much the "unsolved problem" approach--there's clearly a right and wrong way to write a thesis, at the same time as there's no right or wrong thesis. I looked at a sample syllabus online, and it included a revolutionary lesson plan: discussion. I didn't think you were actually allowed to do that at Tech, until I remembered I had something similar back in good old English II.

Maybe you're not allowed to have these "discussions" outside of LCC classes.

LCC, of course, is the school that offers mandatory English classes, the thesis writing class, and various artsy film classes that I'm not sure anyone actually has time to take. It stands for "Literature, Communication, and Culture," and hosts the much-maligned STAC ("Science, Technology, and Culture") degree. That said, an LCC class was one of only a few occasions in my educational history--until recent advanced engineering classes--where the "closed problem" approach was avoided entirely. There were no tests. There were quizzes, to make sure we were actually keeping up with our reading, that counted for relatively little of the final grade. Then there were papers, where we developed ideas and wrote about them, drawing off examples from the books.

In other words, I had learn-discuss-prove you understand.

Contract that to earlier English classes, which were more like learn-memorize-okay, did you memorize well enough? The best part of English, of literature, heck, of the entirety of liberal arts, is the ability to scrutinize a problem and discuss it both subjectively and objectively. This is the one field in all of academia where "what you think" is actually valid. (Try expressing a personal opinion in engineering, or economics, or law.) Too many English classes discard this concept entirely. It would be like treating fluid mechanics without calculus, or ethics without Aristotle.

Take high school lit staple The Odyssey. Fine book. Immense cultural and historical significance. Plenty of material for discussion, except that it's presented as a solved problem. "Children," a thousand high school teachers might be saying in unison, "this is hubris."

"Is that going to be on the test?"

A much better method would, of course, expect students to understand the role of hubris in the context of Ancient Greek society and religious beliefs, and write an essay on it with things like citations to the text. Is that too much to ask of students, particularly ones in high school?

And is thinking having "hubris" shoved down one's throat in itself hubris?

"Children, this is irony. Yes, it's going to be on the test."


Currently listening: Songs for Christmas, Sufjan Stevens

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Webcomedy

I'm an xkcd man myself.

A couple wise friends--former residents, actually--once told me that there's a webcomic out there for anyone. Doesn't matter who you are, what you're into, what your style of humor is. If you're on the internet, there will be at least something that you can throw your support behind. Or fifteen somethings, if you're a few friends of mine.

My immediate reaction to most webcomics is that, while they're generally amusing in most cases, they're also not something that I'm going to expend effort to inspect every day in most cases. Several have distinguished themselves to my friends and colleagues as "awesome" and things that they think I'd "really enjoy if you gave it a chance." Probably true. The thing is, I don't necessarily want to have to give something that much of a chance. I want to be stricken, right away, with "wow, this is legitimately funny, I will make a concerted effort to keep reading this comic three/five/seven times a week from now on."

It's odd, too, because most of these webcomics deal with topics and inside humor that anyone who knows me halfway would think I'd be rolling in laughter over. RPG jokes? Video game jokes? I should be all about that sort of thing, right? In general. I think the main sticking points are these. First, I was never really into comics, as such, especially ones with recurring storylines. I much prefer my comics to be witty one-panelers, in the general style of Rhymes with Orange, or Non Sequitur at its funniest. (I don't care much for graphic novels at all. Nothing against them, really, just not my style. And I've yet to see a film adaptation of one that I've enjoyed in the least. Exempli gratia, 300.) I can take some week-spanning stories in my comics, but anything that requires me to follow something like a plot over many weeks has lost my attention. It's no longer comedic; it's become a chore.

And many of these webcomics touted as "hilarious" by my friends require that same sort of dedication. It's why I don't like WoW, except maybe on a much smaller scale: if you miss one day, you can't really enjoy the next without some make-up work. For example, I generally like the Order of the Stick that I've seen. It makes for an entertaining and generally amusing read. But it's often long, has a lot of words, and requires explicit knowledge of all the characters and past several comics to understand why it's funny. I actually really admire something that relies on contextual character interactions to drive humor. But that seems more like a novel than a comic.

Second thing I'm less than enthusiastic about is some manner of implied knowledge of all things esoteric that the webcomic author deems it necessary that I know about. Take this recent Penny Arcade. It relies on you knowing not only what Kane and Lynch is but also Jeff Gerstmann and his review. Perhaps I'm simply not the target audience for this comic, then, but I find it hard to believe that half the people exhorting me to read Penny Arcade got the joke either. (As for Mr. Gerstmann, the review isn't all that scathing, at least compared to half the user comments.)

I mentioned earlier that I like xkcd. There are a few things about it I do not like so much. It's "1337" week of comics was perhaps the least funny I've ever seen xkcd, because it combined both of my gripes over webcomics: a story that I'm supposed to follow, and supposition that I know who Richard Stallman is. Here's the thing: that strip was immensely successful to the xkcd hardcore. They know who Stallman is, and probably have lararia to him next to their computers. (I read the Wikipedia about him, and rolled my eyes more than anything.) Oddly, though I'd consider myself a fan of xkcd, I like it the least when it's truest to its most loyal audience.

Still plenty of science jokes to go around, though, like in the latest one. No knowledge of idealistic internet-rights movements implied here, just good old fashioned making fun of physics.


Currently listening: Messiah, Handel

Monday, December 03, 2007

Oh, ES&T Elevator, Why Do You Confuse Up With Down?

In the category of "Things Georgia Tech really ought to be good at, seeing as how it's an engineering school..."

Generally, when one pushes the "up" button on an elevator, one expects the elevator to in fact go up. Not so in the ES&T (aka Ford, or Environmental Science, or CHBE building). For the ES&T elevators lack the usual discrimination that most elevator-users have come to expect from their machines. I swear, that thing is programmed somehow to sweep all the floors that I'm not standing on, pick up passengers, drop them off if convenient, and finally show up to my floor. But wait! That's only to find that the elevator is headed to L2, and not 2 or anywhere else that might be construed as "up" like I asked.

I've mentioned this one before, but it continually perplexes me how poor Tech's water situation is. This has nothing to do with the drought that's plaguing northern Georgia at the moments. In fact, by all considerations, you wouldn't even know that drought existed while you were sitting on Tech campus. After all, what's a faucet that leaks, a shower that won't turn off, and another shower that takes about three minutes to heat up?

Oh, only thousands of gallons of water. I don't know why a shower can go from working one day, and having the handle spin impotently on its stem the next day, with no discernible way to shut off the stream of water that it's wasting. Not to mention the heat. I have never heard of this happening before, but I've had the pleasure of having Glenn's hot water line break over the past couple of weeks. Literally. I didn't know pipes did this. Maybe only in eighty year old dormitories.

On the topic of making things hot and cold, Facilities assures us that we "have the power to control energy costs." A charming little magnet that each resident has the chance to swipe annually during Opening (what a non-housing person would call moving in) tells us that we need to keep the temperature around 68 during the winter.

Truly, that's a wonderful idea. If only our HVAC units didn't insist on radiating heat when it was 60 degrees outside, maybe we would in fact have the power to control energy costs.


Currently listening: "Sonne," Rammstein

Monday, November 12, 2007

Holiday Spirit, part I: Preconsumerism

For a few years, I've sworn, mostly by myself, that the "holiday" season was encroaching on my autumn. This was not a popular opinion. "No," some might say, "stores have always put Christmas stuff in stores this early." Or "What's wrong with it? It's getting chilly out, might as well celebrate." Finally, though, the Fish Wrapper (Atlanta Journal-Constitution for those of you keeping score at home and unfamiliar with my uncle Jim's pejorative) has sided with me. See the cover story from last Wednesday. Rather, have seen the article, as using Douglas Adams' time-travel vernacular seems appropriate here.

Is it really a bad thing? Mostly, yes. The only reason that we care about a special occasion is that it's special in the first place. Artificially extending that sort of dilutes the "speciality" of it. People don't celebrate birth months, or birth weeks, it's birthdays. Retailers are interested in expanding on their most lucrative month of the year, by stretching it into two months. Problem is, that doesn't actually work. People are going to buy at three times: 1) when the season starts, out of a burst of enthusiasm, 2) Black Friday, if only out of tradition, and 3) right before whatever holiday you're interested in buying for, out of last-minute desperation.

At the same time, I don't necessarily want to start hearing Jingle Bells on November 3, when it's still like 60 something degrees outside. I'm not exactly sure why I have this admittedly traditionalist view of the holiday, but the point is, I'd like my Christmas confined to after Thanksgiving. That said... Starbucks holiday drinks are out, which mandates an immediate trip to the local coffee house.


Brief Commentary: Macbeth

DramaTech's production of "the Scottish play" (as it's known in paranoid, superstitious theater circles) was truly excellent. A few missed deliveries and muffled lines against imaginatively choreographed swordfights, an impeccable Lady Macbeth, and an awesome guy with no hair and a footlong beard providing percussive accompaniment throughout? Well done, DramaTech. You've won my ticket purchase for all the rest of the shows you do, from now on.

Oh, and as Zach correctly pointed out, that one Wyrd Sister was totally hot.


Critique: "Orange Juice: With Additional Fiber and Vitamins"

The few motivated friends who are bored enough to read about me for ten minutes and still find themselves wanting can now experience the joys of "Orange Juice: With Additional Fiber and Vitamins."

Cinematic genius, by the way. The suspense at 1:15! Who could the mysterious figure be, who creeps in the foreground by the fridge, with accompanying icy overtones? What is this mysteriously skeleton-shirted girl's motive? Perhaps we shall never know. A superficial critique of the situation after watching the ending says that it involves hand-drawing, but the more observant viewer will notice the nuanced change in mood, pace, and movement that she exhibits in her latter appearance, suggesting something far more mysterious--sinister? or merely secretive?

The contented sigh at 3:09--does it foreshadow a startling turn of events, in which our hero shall never enjoy his juice this deeply again? Or it is it more of an existentialist nod, wherein the protagonist experiences a sort of Zen of citrus that is in itself nutritious and enlightening? A bitingly oblique social commentary from a repressed capitalist, who knows that the most satisfying outcome can only come from his own mixing efforts? Of course, the postmodernist's trademark at the end, allowing the tightly wound sequence of events simply to unlace and free itself from artificial constraints of "plot" that plague other forms of storytelling.

Says my roommate Hershel, "I'm intrigued. Captivated really. Yearning for more. There must be more!" Hopefully, hopefully.


Currently listening: "Mohammed," the Dandy Warhols

Friday, October 19, 2007

In the Vein of Conundrua and Concerts

On the heels of probably the second-best concert I've had the pleasure of seeing come two more that have slight (but non-negligible) chances of surpassing it. Now I have to decide where (if anywhere) best to put my $20. Both are at the Tabernacle, a fine place to see a show, so no hiding behind venue: these two will have to duke it out on strength of musicianship alone.

The first features Mae, Anberlin, and a headlining Motion City Soundtrack. Most concerts I've been to have had a warm-up act or two, lesser bands to get everyone pumped for the big event. Not so with this one: while Motion City Soundtrack might get top billing, Mae and Anberlin stand to bring as much to the concert as Motion City. Personally, I see Mae as a much bigger draw than Motion City Soundtrack anyway. And what of Anberlin?

I have virtually no familiarity with their music. I see them often enough linked to Mae and Motion City Soundtrack and The Academy Is. Post-punk, some might say, or pop-rock; the sort of music that, a hundred bands over, defined my generation's high school years. Now most of them are losing ground, ensuring that one the very best remain. (Mae, interestingly, has become this sort of band; more on that in a bit.) So at first glance, this is the sort of band that I should probably like.

The trick here, as any apostle of social music (be it Last.fm, Pandora, or another) is loath to admit is that connection does not imply similarity. This Web 2.0 reinterpretation of the statistician's mantra "correlation does not imply causation" holds true across IPv4. This applies whether it's books, other works of art, or even friends. Just because you share 26 friends with someone on Facebook doesn't mean you're going to like the guy at all. And with music? Put the Decemberists, Death Cab, the Shins, and Rilo Kiley into your chosen social music amalgamator, and out pop the Postal Service, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Bright Eyes as sure as night follows the day.

The Postal Service, certainly. Death Cab and the Postal Service are always related, inextricably so, by their same lead singer. Neutral Milk Hotel works too, for sheer power of off-kilter intellectuality. Bright Eyes? By this point, we've gone from a strong base of indie rock with touches of folk sprinkled throughout, to some guy who emos it up, half-enunciating and half-whining in a high pitched voice. (It's almost as bad as Radiohead, but a lot less popular.) Moral of the story regarding Anberlin, they may be in the same vein as other bands I enjoy, or they may be an elaborate musical doppelganger. I won't have time to ascertain which in the next two weeks.

Saving ostensibly-the-best for last, let's talk about Motion City Soundtrack next. Motion City is what I think of as a second-tier band. Perhaps I've gotten a little engineery being at Georgia Tech for so long, but I've got a descriptive and hopefully useful way of quantifying band preference. (This is not my first foray into quantification.)

First tier bands are ones that, for lack of a less cheesy way of saying it, define your aesthetics. For these bands, you hear a song, and immediately identify the artist, the album, the title, and the melody if not all of the words. You call these bands your "favorite bands" when SocialNetworkingSpace.com prompts you for favorite music, and your playlist data backs up that claim. You wouldn't miss a concert from these guys for the world. Except for maybe lack of money or opportunity. It's the thought that counts.

Second tier bands are ones that you like and own some of their music, though it's unlikely their playcounts have broken through to triple digits yet. Maybe you put them on for a nice change of pace, maybe you used to be a lot more into them and are keeping some nostalgia around. Either way, you wouldn't be averse to seeing these guys in concert, but are also unwilling to shell out $20 for the privilege.

Then there are things like third tier, which you only tolerate because of convenience. You roommate volunteers to take out the trash more if you play this band, or your cute lab partner is into them and besides, you need some music to "study" by. They're probably way overrated. You would do a concert, only if it were free, or if the cute lab partner dragged you along.

And like I said, Motion City Sountrack is not on that upper tier for me. The biggest reason, I think, is that all of their music sounds the same. It's not a bad all the same, to be sure. Before Even if it Kills Me came out, I couldn't distinguish between their two albums. Now, I can't distinguish between three. And not much has changed. Mae, however, has.

Two years ago, I would have jumped, probably literally, at the chance to see Mae live. "Suspension"? "Anything"? "Someone Else's Arms"? To be fair to Destination: Beautiful, "Sun"? "All Deliberate Speed"? Any and all of that would make for a downright fabulous concert. But it's clear that is not an Everglow concert or a Destination: Beautiful concert. It's a Singularity concert, through and through.

Now Singularity and I have our differences. Some of them are legitimate weaknesses; some of them are my fault for thinking this album could possibly approach The Everglow in sheer brilliance. To review, I didn't dislike Singularity. It's far from an awful CD when judged on its own merit rather than by association with my favorite CD ever. Recall that I even made a comparison to none other than Motion City Soundtrack, a band that I have a generally (if mildly) positive opinion of.

Oh, wait.

My biggest criticism of Motion City Soundtrack is that all of their music is basically the same. And if this is a Mae tour showcasing their CD that sounds like Motion City Soundtrack, it's like hearing the same stuff over and over again for an hour.

What it comes down to is this: everything else being essentially neutral, my decision is whether to spend $20 for the possibility (granted, a reasonably good one for most of them) of seeing about five songs.


And the second? This is Mute Math and Eisley. Mute Math for me is like Anberlin: probably reasonably similar to bands I like. Bit of a different niche: Copeland, Lovedrug, etc. But the same issue: I have no idea if they're a Postal Service, or a Bright Eyes. So this concert's merit is sitting entirely on Eisley.

Eisley is, of course, my New Favorite Band. You know the indie kids in high school, how they'd proclaim a New Favorite Band every week? First it was Ben Folds Five, the the Juliana Theory, then Death Cab for Cutie, and so on. (Some people still do this.) I'm in the infatuation stage right now, where seeing them live would mean more to me now than it might ever again. (It also doesn't hurt that I have a crush on the entire female half of the band.) Mmm, Sherri DuPree singing "Invasion" live.


In the end, can I turn toward the over-simple and call it "Someone Else's Arms" versus "Invasion"? Maybe I could get grandiloquent and claim it was the old versus the new, memories from late high school against experiments and discoveries from college? Nah. It's more "who wants to go see Mae with me?" versus "who wants to go see Eisley with me?".

Anyone have any input?


Currently listening: Parachute, Guster

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Believe Me Natalie

I've thought a bit about my recent commentary on Garden State and I realized something pretty important. You know, fair enough: if Natalie Portman told me something would change my life, I'd be paying pretty close attention to it. I don't think, necessarily, that Garden State would be a bad movie. Looking at the Wikipedia summary, it looks sort of interesting.

The biggest issue I have with thinking about motivating myself to watch it, though, is Zach Braff. I can't think of this guy without thinking first of Scrubs. For most fans of Garden State (and even probably lots of fans of the Shins) that's far from a bad thing. However, once you see someone with ridiculous antlers strapped to his head staring into the headlights of an oncoming car, it's hard to exorcise that image.

"But Scrubs is funny!" Well, yeah, half the time it is. Dr. Cox and the janitor and Turk are all wonderful characters. And then, someone gets the idea to take a mallet to anything approaching comedic subtlety and give us "deer in the headlights." Thanks. (And besides, if I wanted a good medical drama, I'd watch House anyway.)

Several years ago, before I really knew who Zach Braff was, and before I had any idea at all who the Shins were, I had a conversation with my friend Patrick where he mentioned having seen Garden State. His assertion? Zach Braff wrote a script, casted, directed, and did all the grunt work that comes with movie making for the sole purpose of being able to kiss Natalie Portman. Patrick may be on to something here. If there's any kernel of truth to Patrick's conspiracy theory about Braff's true motives behind Garden State, then forget Scrubs. I respect this man.


Currently listening: Futures, Jimmy Eat World (for comparison, for the still-upcoming review)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Dodo's Conundrum

Review: The Shins, live

A lesser band would not have merited this quick a turnaround from concert to review. That expediency generally stays in the purview of Journalists and Radio People; that is, they who get paid to write this sort of thing. I am not one of those lucky few. So the fact that I'm writing with journalist-speed should serve as a testament to how good the show was. And it better have been damn good, for the $40 the ticket cost after wondrous enhancements like "handling."

Actually, let's talk about prices for a moment. This was not the most expensive public performance I've ever been to; that honor goes to seeing The Producers on Broadway. Nor, do I think, is it the most expensive concert I've been to; tickets for the family-traditional Christmas with the ASO are surely at least $40. If that much money was a bit of a sticker shock for me, only my prior concert-going experience is to blame. Take the Decemberists, for instance. That show was every bit as good musically as the Shins concert (and even better from an audience-involvement perspective) but a lot cheaper. Throwdown and Zao weighed in at a measly $12. (Big surprise there.)

And yet, grossly overrated bands like Dave Matthews can pull in ticket prices that have three digits to them. Exactly how they're able to pull that off is far beyond me. But it gives a nice perspective that at least my favorite bands aren't such tall orders compared to some.

You know a show is good when you can positively remark on the lighting, of all things. From the moment LEDs blinked on and off in time to the beginning of "Sleeping Lessons," you could sense portents of amazement. When the veil dropped at exactly the right time later in the song to show the palm tree/amoeba creatures from the cover of Wincing the Night Away, things picked up and never backed down.

Comments on the set list: starting out with "Sleeping Lessons" was the right move. Ending with "Phantom Limb" was also a good choice, and really ending with "So Says I" ensured the the energy stayed through the entire show. Hershel's commentary on "Phantom Limb" still holds true: "I don't understand 'Pam Berry.' Why can't I just get to 'Phantom Limb' 57 seconds sooner?" Interestingly, it's as if Mercer is aware of this criticism; I doubt tonight's version of "Pam Berry" took more than 40 seconds of my "Phantom Limb" anticipatory time. From the new album, it would have been impossible to get away with not playing "Australia" and "Turn on Me" and "Sea Legs," and thankfully they did, as those plus "Phantom Limb" are probably the best to come out of Wincing the Night Away. Add "Girl Sailor" and the ever-depressing "A Comet Appears" and you've covered most of the recent album. I could have done with "Split Needles" too but I won't complain.

Aside from "So Says I," a lot of old stuff was covered too. "Gone for Good" and "Kissing the Lipless" and "Saint Simon" were excellent. We also got various other tracks from both Chutes too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World, none of which I have an issue with. Through this, I've realized that there really isn't a Shins song that I don't like.

That said, something needs to be done about "New Slang."

It's not a bad song; like I said, I don't think there's such a thing as a bad Shins song. Compared to most of the rest, though, and certainly to the better half of Wincing the Night Away, I really don't see what the big deal about it is. But, of course, Natalie Portman's character in Garden State thinks it'll "change your life" so of course it must be the best thing in the Shins' collective portfolio. I'm just not indie enough to have come to the Shins through Garden State. In fact, I haven't even seen the movie. A saving grace: the Shins don't seem to have that problem of Garden State groupies leaving the fandom en masse because too many other people started liking the band.

And let's hope that means the Shins will continue to give concerts of this magnitude for a long time.


Currently listening: Chase this Light, Jimmy Eat World (review coming soon?)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Words that I Hate

You know how buzzwords insinuate themselves throughout society? In science: biocompatibility; in technology: convergence; in current events: whatever talking point Congress has today. Most of these are tolerable. A few are inexcusable.

My biggest gripe lately is "sustainability". 39,500,000 Google results. For comparison, that classic computer entertainment "solitaire" brings in a mere 22,600,000 results. Wikipedia gives a definition telling me that "Sustainability is a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely." Thanks! In chemical engineering land, we call that "steady-state." Then we get into the "environmental" implications of this invented term, having to do with maintaining climate levels and the rest. Without delving into ecopolitics, do we really need a term for that? "Oh, look, we want the environment to keep going." "I'd rather have a source of energy than not." It's sort of like the Darfur example I'm so fond of: just as there really isn't anyone who likes genocide, there's nobody who actually wants the system they're buying into to break down suddenly. Nobody wants their environment to be non-sustainable. And yet? "Sustainability" has become a sine qua non for researchers and industrialists.

It's time we realized that nothing is the new anything. "(blank) is the new black" originated from the mystifying world of fashion, which might be why I'm biased against it in the first place. As long as it was confined to catwalks and flamboyant Parisians, I could ignore whichever permutation of old color-new color correlation was being promoted at the time. It's not that I necessarily liked it, but I could write it off as a vagary of that particular scene. Things are different when it goes into mainstream culture. I just saw--get this--a car product TV commercial that proclaimed "orange is the new fast." That doesn't even make any sense.

Tantamount to heresy in Web 2.0 is the notion that "tagging" is anything but messianic social revolution. Feel free to brand me a heretic, in that case. I use and really, really like the music library network Last.fm. It gives me an idea of what I listen to, it lets me know what concerts are coming up for bands that I like, and it recommends artists that I may never have heard of. That said, I do not care which bands you have seen live. I do not care if you think some music is "female vocalist" as opposed to "singer-songwriter." And I sure as hell will never understand the difference between "indie," "indie rock," "indie pop," "rock," and "pop." I will never understand this difference on the basis of legitimate authority... so why do you assume I will care what some random fan categorizes music as?

Finally, and sort of linked to the notion of "sustainability" is "footprint". Back in my day, a footprint was something you left when you walked in he mud. As I learned more about architecture and how cities worked (mostly through strategy games, to tell the truth), I learned that this word is also properly applied to how much physical space a structure is going to take up. It is not, however, proper as a metaphor to describe your effect on the environment. Carbon does not leave a footprint. It diffuses.


Currently listening: "Invasion," Eisley

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream?

My dreams suck.

Really, really suck.

I'm not talking like "creepy" or "nightmare" or "why did I eat all that pizza ten minutes before I went to sleep" suck. I mean mundane suck. Here's an example of a normal person dream:

"So I was driving my new Maserati down the block, right, past my old high school, and things are pretty sweet. Like all my friends are there asking for a ride, and I'd give it to them, right, but then I see some shadow. And I look up and see this massive alien flying saucer! Well, I'm thinking, holy crap, there's aliens here, but that's not even the freaky part. I see the little ramp thing from the bottom of the flying saucer open, and guess who I see? My old Latin teacher! And just as I'm about to walk up and talk to him, that's when I wake up."

And now, here's a dream that I might have had in its place:

"For whatever reason, I was in the Publix in Centerville, and I was, uh, buying groceries. I was with my friend Brian, I think. Then nothing happened for a while. Then Brian wasn't there anymore. Okay, then, um, I'm not grocery shopping anymore, but I'm at my house, playing Mario Kart."

Here's an example of a recent dream I actually had: I was at my desk, checking my email. I get an email from Gina, my grad student, telling me when I should be in the lab.

Pretty exciting, right? Oh yeah, all of that actually happened and does at least once or twice a week. The only thing remotely out of the ordinary about it was that it wasn't my current desk, it was my old one from last year. If you fancy yourself a dream interpreter, suck on that one for a while.

A slightly more interesting one: Brittain was serving corn dogs for lunch. And guess what was for lunch that day?


Currently listening: Room Noises, Eisley

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Triptych

Review: Singularity be Mae

Inevitably, delays plague "products that I want." Sometimes it's a simple matter of a few days, like a store not having the Game Boy Color in stock yet; sometimes it's an as-yet infinite delay like the case of Mother 3 coming out in America. Singularity had a relatively reasonable delay of a couple of months from the first "announced" release date of June 2007. Truthfully, it's almost good that it was delayed like that, because otherwise I would have had to speculate as to the music's quality while I was in France rather than listen to it as it came out.

If you're not familiar with my feelings toward Mae, let me preface this review by saying that The Everglow is probably my favorite album ever. It's hard to say why. Musically, it's nearly flawless but lacks the sterility that a technically superior performance often sadly carries with it. There are heartfelt emotions, and the total-album organization and presentation is incredible. I don't know of a single other collection of songs, save possibly Green Day's American Idiot, that just works as an album as well as The Everglow does. Even better, Mae isn't politically preachy!

Critically, Mae has done all right. Popular opinion was pretty much uniform for their first album, Destination: Beautiful. A solid indie rock album, though perhaps not brilliant; well-crafted songs even though the production fidelity was a little shaky at times; nothing revolutionary but very positive and enjoyable all the same. The Everglow had more contrast in opinion, ranging from people who feel the same way as I do about it to those who condemn it as "Disney rock." Those people are probably the same ones who think that something that is easy to understand can't possibly have artistic value, that something dark and disturbed is automatically more genuinely emotional than one that dares to be happy or optimistic.

Then what of Singularity? Nobody really seems to know, I don't think. People are ambivalent to the point of not posting reviews of the album. It's no The Everglow, but I wasn't realistically expecting it to be. Nor did it really need to be, because doing that same thing again would be redundant at best and a complete cop-out at worst. The one thing that's sure is that it takes a completely different approach than either of the previous albums. Asking which of the two Singularity is more similar to is sort of like asking if angel food cake is more similar to lasagna or caesar salad. They're all in the vague general category of "food," and there are a lot of good things about all of them, but drawing similarities just doesn't make sense.

I think the most obvious comment to make about the new album is a stylistic one: everything seems harder, faster, louder on Singularity. Instead of comparisons to emo bands, the more apt comparison is to post-punk "alternative"; Motion City Soundtrack immediately springs to mind as a stylistic similarity; Something Corporate and maybe even Guster are audible in parts. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The downside of this is that everything that Mae delicately, beautifully constructed for The Everlow is pretty much gone. A critique of The Everglow said, probably disparagingly, that Mae won't do anything that a music theory class wouldn't approve of. And you know what? All that music theory made their music sound really good. Now you have chord progressions, transitions, and instrumentations that sound a lot more dissonant in places. It's not inherently bad, but from time to time, I caught myself wincing and wondering what the rationale could possibly be for putting in that minor sixth.

A far more serious flaw is Mae's possible "lack of new ideas." I'm used to lyrical mastery form Mae, willing to forgive them if they slip into mere excellence. Contrast "when the lights first came upon us/and we saw The Everglow./And the moment's magic swept us away/and the young man's dream/was almost seen so plain" with "we'll get through anything/are you, are you falling for me/like I'm oh I'm falling for you" and tell me which one is better. Singularity does have its lyrical bright spots, though. "Telescopes" contains at least a triple entendre, talking about "subjects," "objects," and "predicates" in reference to either grammar or actual telescopes, or a conversation, which is very clever writing.

Bottom line is there's not enough of that. I'm not going to delete Singularity or anything drastic like that. I'll probably keep listening to it every once in a while. But looking at my top 25 played tracks in iTunes, twelve of them are tracks from The Everglow. I don't exactly see Singularity making it into there.


Currently listening: The Four Seasons, Canadian Brass version

Monday, August 20, 2007

J'aime le bifteck

Or: my roommate Hershel's approach to the entirety of the French language. Mine is more along the lines of "j'aime les croissants" but I think either is equally valid.

Now here's an amusing anecdote, drawn from somewhere in the Stygian marsh. Before the trek to the City of Dis (alternately known as the Swann Modern Languages building), the petitioner is confronted with the Placement Test. Now, generally, a placement test when taking a language makes sense. If you had a really slack high school teacher who only taught you how to count to fifty in your first semester of French as opposed to the more standard seventy, then you might not want to jump into the strenuous demands of "count to one thousand" that French II springs at you. If, on the other hand, your most recent French experience consisted of writing a nuanced thesis on the competing influences of Abusrdist versus Existentialist thought in Albert Camus' L'Etranger then French II might not be the best choice either.

That said, the "multiple choice" format for said placement test may well be the worst idea I've heard in a long time. First off, a multiple choice test examines only one skill (reading) when in fact there are four that go toward determining fluency. This test format utterly ignores the ability to write French, or to speak or comprehend spoken French. Reading is the easiest one of these skills to develop because you get things like context clues. Take a test question I ran into. The question presented me with several paragraphs of French, which to me seemed like "word word word-with-funny-accents, 'he is going to,' word word more funny accents." The question asked me "What did the boys do with the watch?" and it's funny, because except for that question I wouldn't have known a watch was involved at all. So I started to do a little creative guessing: I recognized the words for "earth" and "gardener," and one of the answer choices involved "soil." The thing is, I'm pretty darn sure I got that question right. And so it went.

A question asks "what verb means the same thing as 'to make the paintings'?" I didn't think "peinter" sounded good, so I went with "peindre." A quick Babelfish query after the test was over confirmed that one. I've never had a formal education of what food names were, but damned if I didn't go to Cora every week and learn "pomme" and "artichaut" and "chou" for "apple," "artichoke," and "cabbage" by some sort of advertisement-osmosis.

Apparently that osmosis worked better than I'd ever imagined. Or my good Qi chose a strange time to manifest itself. Possibly both; I'll never know. What I do know is that based on no evidence of ability to write, speak, comprehend, or interpret French, I'm apparently good enough to skip French II.


Currently listening: "Hold On," KT Tunstall (via our friends at YouTube)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 3: Where to Go

If you're going to be abroad for two and a half months, like I was, you probably don't need a great deal of direction regarding where to go. Chances are you won't be spending upwards of half your time in Metz, France in that case either--and you're better off for it. Nothing against Metz, really. It's a fine town: plenty of history, one of the best cities to experience Lorraine culture, and all in all a decent place to spend a few hours in a train layover. The Moselle's Obligatory River Shot compares to some of the finest in Europe, like the Rhone or the Saone. That said, Metz falls short in two key areas.

The first is "having anything to do after 8 pm." This includes getting anything to eat anywhere except for maybe the kebab shop. (Of course, even if that restaurant is still open, you'll pay eighteen Euros for the pleasure of eating there.) Apparently there's a couple of clubs hidden somewhere if you're into that sort of thing, but some of my classmates who are into that sort of thing didn't seem too impressed with the local nightlife in any case. You can always see whatever big American movies are out with varying degrees of success in their French dubbing. Word of caution: it's better to see a movie that you don't really have to think about what's going on. Pirates 3 was not a good choice in this regard. The bus schedule even ceases running normally after 9 pm, when you'll have to rely on the once per hour "Route tardif" to get anywhere at all.

Metz's only other shortcoming is "having anything to do at all in the Technopole." You hear "college campus" and you think it's going to be like Tech's. Spread out and too much car traffic, an unacceptable amount of construction most of the time--but otherwise peaceful and attractive. Green space, places to buy food and necessities in walking distance, amenities and at least some sort of solidarity-building locations, traditions, etc. There's really none of that. College campus here means you're in a dorm (which is actually a little nicer than Tech dorms) in walking distance to your one academic/administrative/student services building. And in between? Road. Offices. Urban bus service. More offices. You can go to the grocery store, certainly, but it'll take 20 minutes to walk there, then you have to walk back with your junk.

Where to, then, if not Metz? First off, you know I'm no big fan of France. Overrated in almost every regard, you can get just about everything that you can get in France elsewhere in Europe except 1) cheaper and 2) with better service. A major concern when going to Europe, of course, is willingness either to speak English or to navigate their way through your broken attempts at the local language. Now you might be conversational in German, or approaching fluency in Spanish, and that's really impressive. If you're going to say that you have the same level of mastery of Dutch or Catalan, I'm going to go ahead and call BS on that. People use English as a sort of mutually agreed upon mediation language. Take the Viennese tower I visited. The German-speaking man who was handing out information on the tower and the Korean man who'd brought his son finally settled on an informational flyer in English. Or the Italian train conductor who was trying to negotiate with the Russian man about his passport? English again.

English proficiency is generally very good in Germanic countries, or in countries where Germanic languages are spoken. Maybe that's due to linguistic similarity, maybe to straight-up cultural differences; I'm not sure. But it's very easy to communicate in English in Germany and Austria, and not too bad in Switzerland and the Netherlands (or Dutch-speaking Belgium). Spain and Italy fall a little behind, but communication is still generally possible. Even people who don't speak a word of English (like the owners of those wonderful "little granny hotels") really try to get across what they're trying to say.

Now that you're able to talk to the locals, what's worth visiting? A country-by-country guide:

In Spain, one of my travel guides said trying to choose between Madrid and Barcelona is like trying to choose between London and Paris. This is apparently a more difficult choice for the author of this book than for me. I'd compare it more to trying to choose either New York or Chicago. Both are wonderful cities, both are worth a visit, and honestly I think it's better to shortchange them both by spending half your time in each than to miss either. Madrid is Spain. Bullfights, sangria, and flamenco, and everything else you could think Don Quixote missed out on while he was jousting against windmills. Barcelona is something completely different: artistic, independent, and modern. Apparently it has a great club/bar scene too. Both are culturally phenomenal.

On any trip to Europe, London is not to be missed. I was in London for longer than any other single city (except Metz, of course), and here is a list of things I didn't get to do that I'd still like to.
  • Go inside the Tower
  • National Gallery
  • Harrod's
  • Afternoon tea
  • Other half of the British Museum
  • London Eye
  • Some boat thing down the Thames
  • Globe Theater
  • See a play (the theater district rivals or maybe even surpasses New York's)
  • Go into Westminster Abbey
  • Observe Parliament

and even here, I'm probably forgetting things. London is a remarkable city, with especially easy public transportation, and English generally spoken. Even though it has a funny accent.

In Germany, I think Munich is essential. Bavaria in general is great--and that's not just the inherent Catholic bias I have. Pretzels, check. Sausage, check. Cuckoo clocks, check. Dirndls, check. Magnificent palaces, check. Depressing concentration camp sites and other World War II memorabilia, check. Beer... you've got no idea. And unlike most other countries' beer (especially America's), it's actually worth putting in your mouth.

I've already discoursed on Rome. Go there. The only danger in visiting Rome is that Roman ruins across the rest of the world seem a lot less impressive. Naples is sort of dirty and obnoxious, too urban for my tastes. Two huge saving graces: the best pizza you will ever taste, and Pompeii, which is the quintessential Roman ruin. Switzerland is really pretty, though too Protestant for my tastes. I mean, 20 foot statue of John Calvin in the middle of town square in Geneva? That's a little much.

Finally, towns that I would have really liked to go to, and would very much like to visit on a later European excursion: Dublin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Prague, Florence, Venice, Berlin, Budapest. We'll see if that ever materializes.


Currently listening: Singularity, Mae. Review soon to follow.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Interlude

Review: In Our Bedroom After the War

Taking a break from the discussion of Europe for the time being--don't worry, it'll be back in full force discussing things like why London is better than Paris, and some specific commentary on the GTL program--I'd like to review the new Stars CD. If you don't know Stars (not "The Stars" interestingly enough, given the preponderance of similar bands whose names start with "The") you really ought to. Think a little Postal Service but less electronic, a little Rilo Kiley but less folksy, perhaps a dash of the Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens? Now move it north across the border, and you've got the best thing to come out of Canada since... well... it's good music.

Upon listening to this album for the first time, I committed a cardinal sin of music review: doing something else besides listening to the music. That's right: I reduced In Our Bedroom to background noise while I was conducting room inventories. (Most of the towel racks were actually there!) And it's not deserving of such a fate, really. So I resolved to change things the second time I listened to it. And what ended up happening? Door decorations and welcome letters, that's what. Frustrated, I vowed to set aside time to listen to this music and do nothing else. Then I started humming "Take Me to the Riot" and "The Night Starts Here" without even realizing it.

This is one of those albums that starts too strong for its own good. The aforementioned songs are excellent, certainly the two highest quality here, and a couple of the best I've heard since Wincing the Night Away came out. After that, the rest of the songs seem to fall a little flat, when they certainly don't deserve that. Final Fantasy fans will be interested to hear that one of the more creative songs on the album is called "The Ghost of Genova Heights"... a reference to Sephiroth's mom? "Personal" is lyrically brilliant, then we get to some songs whose names I can't remember, then the title track ends the album better than any last track I think I have ever heard.

AbsolutePunk.Net loved this album too, maybe even a bit more than I did. The reviewer there said not since Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise had he heard something to magnificent. While the comparison to that great bastion of indie music might be a little unwarranted, the point is made: In Our Bedroom After the War is an excellent collection of music, and not to be missed.


Currently listening (additionally): The Official Lost Podcast, ComicCon edition

Monday, August 06, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 2: Food

Being something of a culinary adventurer, of course one of the biggest things about Europe was being able to taste various local cuisines in their natural habitat. From fried squid sandwiches on Madrid to a good old pile of sausage in Austria, I certainly got to run a delightful gamut of meals over the last few months. Of course, in all that, one can't discount the prominence of the French hypermarket in the equation. Described by one of our American program coordinators as "Super Wal-Mart multiplied by three," the term "grocery store" doesn't begin to do Cora justice. A few further observations:

Restaurant food is really expensive. I mean, I guess it sort of is in America, too? Not nearly that bad. Let's look at, say, McDonalds. Admittedly, I don't know how much things cost at McDonalds. I don't eat there. That's not a reactionary Morgan Spurlock-eqsue movement, more of a "there isn't one on campus" combined with "I like Burger King better anyway." But there's no way that a Big Mac, medium fries, and medium Coke costs $6.15. That's how much said food cost, in Euros. So if there's no way it costs that many dollars to begin with, factor in the exchange rate to get $8.49? How they get off making me spend an Atlantic Station movie ticket to eat a hamburger, I don't know.

When we're not talking about MacDo (as the French are fond of calling it), stuff gets really pricey, really quickly. Take my lunch in Paris: a sandwich. Eight Euro. And it wasn't anywhere near as good as say a Quizno's sub, which would have cost me the same thing but in dollars.

French food is overrated. "Okay, guys, let's take a hunk of meat, slice it really fancy, and pour some sauce over it. Sweet. That's gonna run you thirteen Euro." And yet, people the world over have the impression that if it's French, it has to be marvelous. When I'm 1) abroad and 2) in a country that does not contain the Eiffel Tower, I don't need to eat at a French restaurant. Look in a travel guide for the best places to eat in most given cities, though, and what do you see? Something that starts with "Le." (Or any of the imaginative variations on "le" such as "la" or "les" or the dreaded "l-apostrophe.")

And what the hell is a Michelin star anyway? If it were up to me, I wouldn't have DeAndray and Bubba Wayne who just changed my tires cooking me food. I pretty much see it as "okay, now we can serve you less food and charge you more money for it, provided we serve it creatively." To quote the Wikipedia article on the subject, "the inspectors use secret criteria, unknown to even the most experienced chefs" and "As the Michelin Guide is published by a French company, some international food critics have denounced the rating system as inherently biased toward French cuisine." Shocking.

As with many things in Europe, the Germans have it right. Plate of sausages and sauerkraut for seven Euro? Wiener Schnitzel and weird potato ball things for nine? Good choices all around. Austrian cooking is basically the same level of deliciousness and cheapness. Bavarian is a slight variation on the theme, with the addition of the "gro├čebretzel" or "giant pretzel." This is about a foot in diameter, and you won't spend more than three Euros for it.

A trip to Europe turns out to be a great time to drink some alcohol. Now I'm not exactly a partier. I don't think I've ever been per se "drunk." But unlike anything else you might want to ingest, the booze in Europe is surprisingly cheap. And it's really, really good. I never had an American beer that I liked. And I only had one or two European beers that I didn't like. The Hofbrauhaus is amazing. French wine is amazing. Belgian beer, Spanish sangria, the list goes on and on.

And finally, the grocery store is totally bizarre. You think you've seen weird things at your friendly neighborhood Publix? You haven't seen anything until you've browsed a French store. Walking down the meat section, you see the familiar labels of "porc" and "boeuf" and "poulet" (chicken). Then... wait a second, surely you can't buy horse here? But there it was, "cheval." The juice selection was incredible, but there wasn't a jar of peanut butter in sight. Baguettes? As far as the eye can see.


Currently listening: "Rocknroll," Lovedrug

Monday, July 30, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 1: Trains

Things are winding down here at GTL. Finals are being taken (albeit not taken seriously), 6:45 am train reservations to get to Paris are in place, and plans have been made to go to the most ghetto McDonalds in Hartsfield-Jackson airport, order a large Coke, dump it down the drain for the hell of it, and get a free refill. Oh yeah. I don't know of anyone who isn't glad to be getting back to the US of A, even the most stridently progressive worldly-minded among us.

At this point, I think I have the experience to consider myself a reasonably experienced European rail traveler. I've taken trains in eight different countries, ranging from the crappiest regional Belgian train between Namur and Charleroi to the state-of-the-art German high-speed "tilting" train from Kaiserslautern to Munich. I've exercised my Eurail pass literally past the breaking point--I've had to apply at least three remedial staples to keep it attached to its cover. And I have but one more train trip to take before I can get to the airport and fly home. First, a few comments on the Eurail pass.

You might be surprised at what the Eurail Pass doesn't do for you. Clearly, it doesn't just let you hop an overnight train. You're going to have to pay a premium for those--20 Euro for a couchette bed seems to be the going rate. It might be a few less or a few more depending on who's operating the train and where the destination is. Is a couchette worth it? Generally if you're going to be getting what you deem a good night's rest, then yes. They're a little small, and the pillows suck, but you at least get a bed and a blanket. Often you'll get amenities too: a bottle of water is common, and if you're especially lucky you might get breakfast upon arrival. Oh, and don't be freaked out when the Italian train guy says "I take-a your pass-a-port." He's protecting you from it getting robbed over the night.

The other thing it doesn't do for you is get you on many high-speed trains. Germany's ICEs are free. In Italy, it costs a whopping 15 Euros for the exact same service. And everywhere else is anywhere in between.

On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised at what the Eurail pass does do for you. At one point, it became necessary to take a bus to the middle of nowhere, France, to a little town that doesn't have rail service. We observed other people showing their train tickets to get onto the bus for free, so we figured why not? The first person in my group to get on the bus showed his Eurail pass, and after several minutes of scrutiny, the driver said what I believe to be the French equivalent of "I don't know what this is, but I think it's okay." A few weeks later, in Geneva, we were welcomed aboard a Lake Geneva ferry with a hearty "bonjour!" by showing the Eurail pass. The German subways in every city are part of the Deutsche Bahn system, so they're covered too.

A big question is what sort of rail pass to get. In relation to the GTL program, it might be tempting to get one of those flex pass things, because after all, you're not going to be traveling by train every day of the summer. That only works, though, if you're sure you're only going to be traveling on whatever dates you set. Miss a train and have to try again the next day? Out of luck. It's possible to time the two month pass exactly right and only have to buy one additional train ticket, but it's a lot easier just to go with the three month, I think.

And finally, all trains are not created equal. German trains are remarkably efficient, and all of them are covered by the Eurail pass. They're clean and spacious, and every once in a while you're lucky enough to get an announcement in English too. Italian trains, on the other hand, are often the better part of an hour late (at one point, more than half the trains coming into Naples were delayed at least 15 minutes). They're not awful quality, except that you pay out your nose if you want to get anywhere remotely close to quickly. French and Belgian trains are unremarkable.

If you want service, though, Germany and Austria are the best places to go. Here's an anecdote illustrating the superiority of the Austrian train system over the French. A few friends and I wanted to book an overnight train from Strasbourg, France to Salzburg, Austria. We go down to the train station to do this, because there's no way that anyone can figure out to do anything online. My friend asks, "Parlez-vous anglais?" The woman responds "un peu." Things are looking up, because this is a lot more anglais than most French train people parle. "We would like to book a couchette from Strasbourg to Salzburg," my friend continues. The woman types "Stras" for the departure and double-clicks the arrival. Then she types in... "De" and brings up Germany? "No, Salzburg is in Austria," I volunteer. "Autriche."

The woman boredly hits backspace a few times, and puts in "As." Now, if I had to guess a country code for Austria, I think "As" would be a fine guess. This woman, though, should not be making a guess. This is her job. Eventually, she figures out that "At" is the right code. She looks at it for a while before declaring "No, it's not possible. All full." To be fair, this is reasonable. It's Tuesday, and we're looking to travel Friday night. Maybe it is full. "How about another way to get to Salzburg?" asks my friend. The woman says "No, the only way." I give her the benefit of the doubt and think that she understood the question as "are there any other overnight trains." So I clarify, "Are there any trains during the day on Saturday?" She doesn't input anything, but tells me "No, all full."

Things are starting to seem a bit fishy. She's telling us that the only way to get to Austria at all on Friday or Saturday is on an overnight train that's full? We already know that's not true: we have a last-ditch itinerary worked out that involves taking ICEs across Germany and getting into Salzburg around 10 hours after we left Metz. That sucks, but it's at least a way to get there. My friend and I have a quick sidebar in English. We'd really like to go somewhere East, and we're not entirely set on Austria. The guy I'm with then asks the woman, "How about Budapest?" She considers typing in "Romania" and both of us automatically respond "Hungary." That's full too.

Another English sidebar, and we decide that we might as well resign ourselves to trains all day Saturday, but at least we might be able to get one for the way back. That's a Monday night, almost a week away, and during the middle of the business week. No way that's full, right? Alas, "It's not possible." At that point, my friend and I are forced to just punt and walk out. Now it's looking like we're going to have to travel all day Saturday and all day Monday, leaving only Sunday to see all of Vienna and Salzburg. We enact out last-ditch itinerary of "travel all day Saturday" and immediately upon arriving in Austria, we ask the OBB guy if we can reserve the couchette on the way back.

"3 beds?" he asks. "60 Euros total."


Currently listening: "Benzin" from Rosenrot, Rammstein

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Final Word in the Final Sentence

...is no longer "scar." But we knew that a while ago.

Review, Discussion, and Plenty of Shameless Spoilers: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Come on, guys. If you haven't read the book yet, don't say I didn't warn you. And now it's time to have a little chat, in what I promise will be the last Harry Potter post for a long, long time.

Let's start with that "scar" while it's fresh on my mind. I can't quite comprehend why the last word wasn't "scar" anymore. I mean, it's not as if "scar" was erased from the epilogue--at least in the British version, it was on the very same line, for goodness sake. Rowling could easily have rewritten it to keep her ten year old promise to us. Instead we came away with "all was well."

Really, that unexpectedly weak last sentence underscored an unexpectedly weak epilogue in general. Samantha eloquently characterized it as "Grade F fanfiction." (As if there were some other sort.) Intellectually, I realize this is probably Rowling's attempt at a "feel-good ending" for all the little kids who got screwed up by all the Bad Things that happened during the book. Literarily, it was sort of a letdown after a powerful final installment that could have easily stood on its own without "awww, Harry and Ginny made some babies."

Now let's talk about the title. Thinking back on it, it was foolish to assume that we could guess what the title meant. There was no way we could have guessed what the "Chamber of Secrets" was based on the first boo. No way we could have guessed the "Goblet of Fire" from the first three, etc. And yet, the fan community was adamant that it knew what the Deathy Hallows were before reading the book. Half of it (myself too) thought it meant Horcruxes, half thought it meant Godric's Hallow, and both camps were completely wrong in a sort of interestingly half-correct way.

Thinking back to the earlier books in the series, remember how every book was considered "the darkest book yet"? The first one, sure, a few creepy things happened, but it was essentially a children's story. The second and third, creepier stuff happens, like possession. Then, at the end of book four, somebody finally dies. A couple more deaths, now significant ones, in five and six. And by maybe a third of the way into Deathly Hallows you find yourself thinking "wait, we thought a single death was 'dark' before?" The first three hundred pages or so of the seventh book were far more intense than the rest of the series, put together.

I think a lot of what made the series succeed in the past was the fact that there was a lot of "normal school stuff" balanced with "heroic saving the world." The seventh book had none of the "normal" stuff, which made it sort of weird. Like I've said before, one of the strongest points in the series has always been its immersive depth of setting, and Hogwarts was the critical element of that. People commented that it didn't make sense for Harry to go back to school, because he had more important things to worry about than Potions essays. The thing is, one of the reasons the books were so good in the past is because all of us have had our Potions essays to trudge through, our Draco Malfoys to combat, our Hermione Grangers to try and live up to. The first six books had some of their most brilliant moments in offhand comments made by some Weasley, in History of Magic lectures that you swear you've had to sit through, in Minerva McGonagall's mood swings.

It's clear from the start that if the seventh book is supposed to succeed, it's going to have to carve an entirely new path for itself, utterly abandoning everything we already grew to love about the series. And that's not exactly a reassuring thought. Ultimately, Rowling succeeds in concluding her series, but at the cost of systematically breaking down each and every reason we read the first six books. Or is it "with the added benefit of redefining why we liked the first six books?" Tough to say. If she was going for "make you feel utterly hopeless by the halfway point," then she did a really good job. You know that Good has to triumph over Evil in the end, but around that halfway point, you're not entirely clear on how that's going to happen.

Rowling's greatest strength in this book, then, is making the reader feel exactly as demoralized or emboldened as the characters are at any given point. And at that halfway point, when we meet the white doe, the grand pendulum starts to swing out of "sheer desperation," for both the characters and the reader. Only then do Good Things start happening instead of death and flight everywhere. How incredibly significant that white doe seems when you think about it, and who it symbolizes, after you've finished the novel. Of course, that symbolism is Lily Evans through Severus Snape.

The other assertion that I've made about the series is that Severus Snape is the only interesting character. I don't actually think that's true, after reading the final book, but he was undoubtedly the most complex. And... well, I got my wish, didn't I? Snape, neither truly good nor truly evil. Working for the Good Guys, yes, but not because of a desire to do good. The book's most interesting issue to think about is Snape's ultimate motivation in his actions for the last fifteen years. Was Snape actually in love with Lily, or was it a sort of obsession instead? Did he actually want to honor Lily's memory, or was he instead disgruntled with/fearful of Voldemort and wanted a back-end way to work against him? I'm mostly satisfied with how our friend Severus turned out, although I do find one thing a little strange. Whether is was obsession, fear, revenge, or actual love, does it make sense to have one and only one goal drive all of your actions for fifteen years of your life? I can't see it, at least for myself.

And now, death. It's in the title, so you've got to be expecting it. I think the many deaths in this book can be roughly divided into a few categories:

1) Characters I expected to die who did. I thought some member of the Order would probably die, such as Moody, Lupin, or Tonks. Turns out we hit the trifecta. I thought some Weasley would die, because it's so improbably for all of them to have survived--probably Molly. We got Fred instead. Voldemort. Bellatrix (though I thought for a sense of poetic justice, Neville would have brought her down). And finally, Snape, no matter what side he turned out to be on.

2) Characters who I never saw it coming. Hedwig? Seriously, Jo? I mean, damn. She didn't even have a noble death--just green flash, squawk, thump, boom. And... Dobby?

Finally, I really appreciate the new dimension we got for so many of the main characters. Who'd have thought the exalted Albus Dumbledore would have been simultaneously into immortality and a massive coverup to hide his family secrets? And who'd have thought that Neville was actually a hero?


Currently listening: "Black Wave" and "Split Needles" from Wincing the Night Away, the Shins

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Eighteen Come April

You probably haven't heard of the English folk song "Seventeen Come Sunday." I hadn't until I played it as part of Ralph Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite in concert band. On a side note, this is one of the best wind band pieces I have ever played or even heard... incredibly complex counter-melodies, "hummable" melodies, intriguing dynamic and solo work. If you have heard and liked Holst's Suites for Military Band, Folk Song Suite is more of the same, and probably better.

And even if you have heard of "Seventeen Come Sunday," probably by means of Folk Song Suite, you probably didn't know that it had words. I didn't, until one of those famous Wikipedia binges, where you start on "hydrofuran," end up on "Voltaire," and pass through "Mythology in Final Fantasy X" in the process. On one of those excursions, I discovered this, which lists all the lyrics to this song. They're absolutely hilarious. I figured that if it had words, they would probably be about war, because it was a march. Given that the title was "Seventeen Come Sunday," I figured it had a coming-of-age theme, and so I assumed that the narrator of sorts was off to join the army as soon as he was old enough. Turns out that's not exactly incorrect...

Here's the Reader's Digest version: some guy is walking through an English village one morning, and he sees a cute girl.
Guy: Hey, what's up?
Girl: Oh, not much, just doing some errands for my mom.
Guy: Right... how old are you?
Girl: I'm seventeen come Sunday.
Guy: Yeah, about that... do you really want to be doing errands for your mom?
Girl: Well, I guess not. Let's screw.

And now we turn our attention to the lovely Miss Emma Watson, who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. She, of course, is eighteen come April.

Now, Emma Watson being not quite eighteen, I obviously don't have a thing for her. Not until April 15 2008, that is. This is an unfortunate temporal arrangement, but it doesn't preclude me from planning for the future. Interestingly, hers is a very badly-written and edited website. It needs someone else to maintain it... me, for instance. And if I'm going to be applying for this job in 38 weeks, I'm going to need to do a little background research. Here are a few of Emma's favorite things, taken from the website, and with my own commentary added below.

1) Colour: pink
Fabulous. This suggests that she's girly, and that's instantly attractive.
2) Band: the Postal Service
Amazing. She likes good music, too. I'm holding out hope that she too detests the Black Eyed Peas.
(skip a few that I haven't heard of)
5) Musical: Chicago
Acceptable. I might have preferred something satirical like The Producers or Spamalot, but at least it's not something totally lame like South Pacific.
6) Actor: Johnny Depp
Excusable. For all the overhype he receives, the man actually does know how to act.
(skip a bunch about which I'm unqualified to comment, like fashion)
14) Food: spaghetti
Delicious. Who doesn't like spaghetti... and yet putting it as your favorite food is sort of gutsy.
15) Comfort food: Toast and hot chocolate
Intriguing. I'm going to have to try this.
16) Drink: orange juice and lemonade
Imaginative. As long as it's not "cheap beer" I have no objection.
17) Car: I don't know anything about cars.
Fine. Neither do I.
18) Holiday destination: France
Disappointing. Hopefully this is a product of "lack of worldly experience" and not "genuine love of France." Unless she's flutently bilingual, which would be totally hot.
19) Sport: field hockey
Unusual. Though not entirely bad. I wonder what she thinks of good old American football?
20) Animal: cat
Adorable. How can you not love cats?
21) TV show: Friends
Unfortunate. There's a lot out there that's a lot funnier.

And finally, she is apparently artsy, too, having drawn an illustration for her own website. Lovely. Of course, we already know that she's a sort of artsy, being an actress and all...


Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Let's be honest here, seeing the movie was not the primary reason I went to see the movie. It was so I could go the wonderful Utopolis theater in Luxembourg, which it turns out is an amazing little slice of America. Liter of Coke for 3 Euros? It just doesn't get any better than that. Well, okay, it does, but only in American grocery stores. In super-expensive Europe, that drink price is even cheaper than American theater drink prices! Add theater-style (read: drenched in butter) popcorn, and you've got a great reason to skip Thermo.

And even so, the movie turned out to be pretty good too. Primarily, I think it was as true a 2 1/2 hour adaptation of an 800 page book is going to be. And that's going to be the main reason anybody is going to want to see the movie. They're not expecting astonishing cinema; they want an adaptation. The movie had its strong points--the wizard duels were particularly convincing, and the Department of Mysteries was exactly as I think it should have been. It had its weak points, too--I take issues with how the centaurs are portrayed. In the books, they're supposed to be incredibly intelligent and rightfully offended when Umbridge calls them "creatures of nearly-human intelligence." In the movie, they're portrayed as just that; merely grunting and shooting arrows at her.

I don't have an eye for good/bad editing, but even I saw a few clumsy transitions and the like. A few scenes I think really should have been in the movie, like Harry's emo rage when he smashes all of Dumbledore's crap in the office, or when Harry finds Sirius's mirror, or when Harry and Cho start screaming at each other on Valentine's Day. Finally, the whole Cho thing seemed a bit odd; making her out to be the traitor tidied things up cinematically... except that it didn't, because of the equally as bizarre use of Veritaserum. In the end, though, that's probably a minor point.

I get it from a reliable source that Rupert Grint is supposed to be attractive, and I get it from an equally reliable source that Daniel Radcliffe is supposed to be attractive. My feelings on the matter? Rupert Grint looks sort of dorky--how else do you describe a guy whose hair comes down to his nose? And Daniel Radcliffe looks sort of geeky. Yes, there's a difference. A little more on casting decisions: my feelings regarding Emma Watson are well known. I think that Luna was cast perfectly (apparently Rowling thinks so too). She's young, but has lots of attractive-potential, possibly more so than the character warrants.

Next post, of course, will be the fourth Harry Potter-themed one in a while, where I very carefully discuss the new book without spoiling anything. Or completely open the floodgates on what happens and give my opinion on all of it; I haven't decided yet. At any rate, there's no point making predictions at this stage, when spoilers are probably abounding all around me anyway.


Currently listening: Love, The Juliana Theory

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Expatriation

Think of the strangest 4th of July experience you could have as an American citizen. You may be having fanciful visions of oppression in Iron Curtain Europe, or malaria in the jungles of Panama, or subsistence in some remote African village where they may not even know it is the Fourth of July, or even care for that matter. And yes, you'd be right, those would be strange Fourths of July indeed. How about sitting in the common room of a French campus of an American university? This would involve colored mood lighting--not red, white, and blue, mind you, but red and orange. It would incorporate that most American of music genres, jazz, as performed by a duo of French musicians. The food would not be entirely out of place: sausage, chicken, and pork on the grill, but with a strange European twist of paprika-flavored potato chips. (This was later determined to be a conspiracy, as these tasted strangely similar to barbecue chips back from the States.)

And the day's entertainment? No fireworks, of course, but that can almost be excused on the basis of a rainy morning and afternoon. This rainy morning and afternoon, spent in the World War I battleground of Verdun. Verdun is a strange choice for such a day of American patriotism, as no American regiments actually fought at Verdun. One American was killed at the battle, an ambulance driver who volunteered with the French army, but the good old AEF would not enter the way for another year at that point.

More than just being a strange place to celebrate American patriotism, Verdun is a strange place to celebrate much of anything. I think the operative word here is "somber." Touring the inside of Fort Douaumont is at least historically interesting, and the memorial has plenty of military relevance in the form of artillery and old uniforms. Taking a look around, though, you see acre after acre of shell-shocked land, miniature hills and valleys that have been a part of the landscape since 1916 that nobody has any reason to think will ever go away. Then you come to the graveyard: row after row of "mort pour le France," "mort pour le France." Taking all of this in combination with weather that Seattle seems to have modeled itself off of, and you get a 4th of July that's more depressing than anything.

And apple pie? Forget about it, though there were some tasty apples available; imagine crust and cinnamon and sugar and you're almost there.


Tangent: I just found the drop-down that lets me access Blogger in English. This made me very, very happy, despite the cloud cover that is still reminiscent of an Atlanta February.


I know when I've been beaten, and it looks like time to clarify my position on the Harry Potter finale just a little bit. It's interesting how negative the reaction has been to using Norton's standards of "classic" to describe the Harry Potter books. Even so, I believe my argument remains essentially the same, even disregarding the entire "classic/not a classic" framework. To quote Nick's comment from the previous post, "there is substantial difference between a book that is enjoyable and layered throughout [...] and a book that sacrifices all of that hard work for the sake of a pat and satisfying ending." And to me, making Snape a clear-cut Good Guy or a clear-cut Bad Guy is doing exactly that: taking the only morally intriguing character in the series and defenestrating everything that was interesting about him.

One hallmark of a good piece of literature--whether a "classic" or whatever else you want to call it, is allowing the reader to consider what's happening in it and make his own conclusions about at least a few points. In Harry Potter, we're told virtually everything else outright; allowing her readers to make their own conclusions regarding Snape is the least Rowling could do.

One comment Gina made on the Book of Faces goes like this: "Snape is too intelligent not to understand the bigger picture and to have an opinion on it." Too true. And the only thing that makes sense, given everything that we know about his character from books 1-6, is that this "opinion" is "how do I manipulate everyone so that I come out the best for myself?" He's a Slytherin, so he's nothing if not ambitious.

One further comment by Gina: "If she does have him turn out to be good, it further enforces what Sirius (or perhaps Lupin) says in Order of the Phoenix, 'The world isn't broken down into good people and Death Eaters.'" This one I definitely disagree with. If he turns out to be a Good Guy (or a Bad Guy, for that matter), it shows that the world absolutely is broken down into Good Guys and Bad Guys. When I read that quote, I immediately thought of Snape. Virtually everyone else we know of it one or the other (aside from the people at the Ministry of Magic, who are probably the least compelling and developed characters in the series). I still argue that not only does the setting Rowling has created benefit immensely if he's somewhere in between, it actually suffers if he's not.

A final question on the issue: what does everyone think about having Snape's allegiance go completely unresolved? What if Rowling were to kill him off before we knew for sure? We already know that this isn't going to happen of course, but I'm interested how people would see that. A cop-out, merely a literary trick to escape making a tough narrative decision? Or an act of realism, a final stroke to give the reader something to think about once the book is finished?


Currently listening: "Kalimba Story," Earth Wind and Fire

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sound the Keening Bell

...for Harry Potter, of course. The release of Book Seven, alternately known as Deathly Hallows in English and Relics of Death or even more morbid options in other languages, is probably the biggest book news of the year, maybe of the decade. It marks the end of one of the most successful literary enterprises, ever, probably next to Gutenburg's rendition of the Bible. And I'm really, really apprehensive about how this book is going to turn out.

First, a little background of my experiences and interactions with the Harry Potter series. Like almost every semi-literate twelve-year-old, I picked up the first book when it came out, and liked it. I kept reading the books, faithfully, from the second to the fifth. I considered them to be truly good books, and they held my interest over half a decade. My peer group and I, of course, are exactly the right age to enjoy the entire range of the series, from its innocuous childlike inception (when we were in middle school) to its dark and somewhat depressing antepenult (when we were nearing the end of high school and ready to handle such heavy matters).

Enter Patrick Norton, one of my five most respected high school teachers, who taught my AP Lit class. One of the obvious foundations for an advanced treatment of English is its classic literature, and to understand that you have to first define what a classic is. Norton used the counterexample of Harry Potter to define what a non-classic is. To be a classic, among other criteria, a book must have a point beyond mere storytelling, it must be unique or at least creative and lucid in making that point, and it must show us rather than tell us why that point is important. Harry Potter does none of these things, according to this instruction.

Why use Harry Potter as this counterexample? First, because of the contemporary relevance of the series. For an intelligent bunch of teenagers in the mid-2000s, there was a good chance that their recent literary development at least had a flavor of Harry Potter in it, if not outright dominated by it. Second, because of its overwhelming popularity and fanbase. People are fanatics about these books. Sure, John Grisham, Robin Cook, and Dan Brown, just to name a few, have their loyal readerships. But nobody's proclaiming The Firm, Toxin, or even for all its attached controversy and resultant staggering popularity, The DaVinci Code a classic. And yet, Harry Potter apologists are more than willing to do so for their books.

So, according to Norton at least, Harry Potter is not a classic... not that there's anything wrong with that. The immediate follow-up to the "what is a classic" discussion was the "what makes a book good" discussion. Just because a book isn't a classic doesn't mean one can't find it entertaining, exciting, or even thought-provoking. And just because a book is a classic doesn't mean one has to agree with or enjoy it.

At the time, though, I wasn't so ready to accept Norton's assertion. After all, these books did have characters that were at once deep and relatable, they had literary devices peppered throughout, and they had a staying power that far outmatched most popular fiction. Didn't that qualify as a classic? Once I finished that class, I read the sixth book in the series. This one was even darker than the previous, bordering on horrific (or at least occult) in some places, and it introduced a completely new plane of moral ambiguity into the series. That much further emboldened my intellectual position that, if Harry Potter wasn't a classic, it at least had admirable classic-like qualities.

So, the more Harry Potter I read, the more convinced I was that the series shouldn't be immediately dismissed as non-classic. And now, the more I read about what book 7 is going to be like, the more convinced I am that JK Rowling is sabotaging her own position. The biggest fear I have about this book is that it's going to attempt to explain too many things, to tie together too many loose ends. Loose ends are okay. In the real world, things don't come together nicely. Granted, a world with wizards and flying brooms and evil necromancers isn't real, but once you accept the premise of those things existing, you can at least shoot for verisimilitude. Explaining every last unknown destroys that.

To paraphrase JRR Tolkien, the undisputed founder of the modern fantasy genre and an author to whom JK Rowling owes virtually the entirety of her inspirational credit to, "in a fantasy setting, there are some mysteries that don't need to be explained." Tolkien cited Tom Bombadil, the yellow-booted primordial guardian of nature, as one of those mysteries. He's been there as long as Iluvatar (God) himself. He played into the main storyline of the series, but wasn't central to it. He comes and goes as only a being that ancient and powerful can please. None of this is addressed in the books, and Tolkien correctly asserts that it does not need to be. That's because Tolkien was building a setting in which the reader was supposed to believe that many things were happening: the story of the One Ring, and many other complex lives, tales, and events that didn't necessarily interconnect. That's the mark of good world-building.

Rowling had the potential to do the same thing. Her world is cleverly crafted, and from the start of the first book, we're awash in believability of setting. With her promises to make things all come together at the end, though, it's clear that she's crafting a story, not a setting. Take her mention of bringing Dolores Umbridge back. In the real world, a character like Umbridge would come and go, making her indelible mark on the environment, and then departing when the time was right. If Rowling brings her back, it's only for fan satisfaction and the exploitation of an inside joke.

Finally, there's the Snape dilemma Rowling has worked herself into. If Snape turns out to be a Good Guy, then there's an inconsistency with him having been so much of a jerk to everyone of the other Good Guys. There hasn't been any narrative justification for him to have switched to the Good Guys; nothing in it for him. If he turns out to be a Bad Guy, then Dumbledore, the smartest, wisest, and most amazing Good Guy ever, was wholly wrong for decades. There hasn't been any narrative justification for Dumbledore to even be capable of making a mistake that big. My own feelings on Snape are well known; it only makes sense for him to be out for himself and playing both sides. And it makes the world more believable. If Rowling neglects this opportunity to make Snape neutral, she's put the nail in her own "Harry Potter is nothing but popular fiction" coffin.


Completely unrelated to Harry Potter, a loyal reader may have noticed that I never posted a review of 300. That's because I didn't have a lot to say about it. The first time I heard of this movie was at a friend's apartment, when I was shown the trailer for what was proclaimed to be "the most amazing movie, ever." A lot of people still held that view after they saw the movie. I was not one of them. I was skeptical of the movie from the first time I saw the trailer, and I still held that view after I saw the movie. But posting a somewhat negative review of 300 on the "This! Is! Sparta!" obsessed Internet would be akin to posting a critique of the Church's position on birth control somewhere in Vatican City. It just wouldn't have any impact.

Someone with a larger reader contingent than I do, though, may get noticed. Take, for instance, someone who had been noticed by Digg. Someone like these guys, who feel exactly the same way about 300 that I do. Give their review a read.


Currently listening: "Clark Gable," the Postal Service

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bong Hits and Americanism

No, I'm not into illegal drugs. And apparently, even if I were, I couldn't advertise it on a school campus. If you haven't heard about the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, now would be a good time to familiarize yourself with it. Here, the Supreme Court limited rights on student free speech, or so it would seem. If you read the deliberately sensationalist headlines on any news reporting service (CNN included) it would seem that it was a new development that schools were allowed to censor their students.

If that were the case, then why hasn't this become a Constitutional issue already? It has never been allowed, for instance, for a student to wear a shirt with a pot leaf on it. This is a clear limitation on that student's free speech, though, so is that a Constitutional issue? A friend of mine reported Southern good old boys being very disappointed indeed when shirts bearing "Old Dixie" on the front and a picture of black people working in a cotton field on the back were banned. A certain Georgia Tech fraternity may also have been dismayed at this news, but it was of course widely supported at the school. Nevertheless, isn't this a limitation on free speech, too?

Looking at other Constitutionally guaranteed rights, students can't bring guns to school. Neither, for that matter, can teachers, staff, parents, or visitors. But that's a limitation on everyone's second amendment rights to keep and bear arms, right? A minor cannot sue anyone for a perceived injustice against him, and neither can a second party bring a suit against a minor. Is this a limitation of a student's eighth amendment rights? Finally, the ninth and tenth amendments reserve non-enumerated rights to the people. But there are all sorts of laws telling minors what they can and cannot do--driving a car, getting married, and entering contracts, to name a few. That should be an abridgment of a student's Constitutional rights too.

In conclusion, of course a government has an ability to limit the rights of its minors. Whether that's right or not is another issue, and one that I'm not well enough versed in Constitutional law to comment on. But the fact is that it exists, for better or for worse.

Now for the kink.

If you dig a little deeper into this case, the incident took place outside of the school. Granted, the students were participating in a school function at the time, and that's what actually makes the case interesting. To me, this was less a case of how a student's rights can be limited, and more a case of how far a school's jurisdiction extends, and under what circumstances. Of course, the Justices thought it was about drugs, and we'll have to assume they know more about the law than I do.

Said Chief Justice Roberts: "[the principle] failing to act would send a powerful message to the students..." About what? It's not like this kid had a bong to offer hits from in the first place. Said Justice Stevens, in dissent: "[this case establishes] a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs..." And here, I disagree too, because I still maintain this case is not about drugs.

Regardless of which side you back, the one person who was clearly wrong in all of this was the student. He contends, ""I find [the sign] absurdly funny," which it's simply not.


One topic that's always interesting to think about is the degree to which politics are acceptable in music. On one hand, I've always been adamantly "keep your mouth shut and sing" or act, direct, or otherwise entertain. On the other hand, politically-driven music can be remarkably good. One of the best examples of contemporary politically-motivated music is, of course, American Idiot by Green Day. I like American Idiot for the most part. "She's a Rebel" is probably among my top twenty favorite songs, and of course "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" was near-ubiquitous my senior year of high school, so it has a sort of pleasant nostalgia associated with it.

That said, it's way too political for me. Regardless of how you interpret its message and if you agree with it or not, this album produced the unfortunate contradiction between "this is music I like" and "this was produced by means I disagree with." It's recently come to my attention that the lead singer of the Killers, another band I really like, had something to say about American Idiot too. According to Brandon Flowers, the album displays "calculated Anti-Americanism." He further goes on to assert that "[English and German] kids aren't taking [the message] the same way that [Billie Joe Armstrong] meant it. And he knew it." Well done, Mr. Flowers.

I contend that neither Sam's Town nor American Idiot is anywhere near as representative of slices of American life, of joy, of change, and of heartbreak as Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise is. But that's just my indie-pop sensibility.

One more note on indie-pop: Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer isn't as bad as it was as I first listened to it. I think the reason I hated it so much for so long is due to a recency effect. Even after a second chance (one that redeemed most of the album), "Faberge Falls for Shuggie" is truly a horrible song. And the track titles are too pretentious. And there's too much unwarranted use of gapless playback. And a lot of the harmonies are so thick that they become dissonant. But other than that, it's not a bad album.


Currently listening: "Suffer for Fashion," Of Montreal

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How to Change a Life

I'm not going to assert that Barcelona was disappointing. On the contrary, it was a lot of fun, a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Evidently it was supposed to be a "life-changing" experience, though, and that it just wasn't. Maybe if you're the type that organizes weekend trips around bars and getting drunk, Barcelona is the place to be. I don't necessarily subscribe to that method of travel... oh well. Then again, the guide to Bruges told me not to spend any money on chocolate (and spend it on beer instead) and that I didn't care about the Michaelangelo sculpture in the cathedral. So perhaps I just don't fit into the "backpack across Europe" stereotype either.

So far, Rome has been the closest thing to "life-changing" that I've seen. It was a Bad Idea to attempt to see all of it in a day, that's for sure. How do you do Rome in a day? Simple: skip the Fountain of Trevi, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus and Old Appian Way, the Capitoline Museums, and the Vatican Museum. Clearly, that's not idea. So, in the spirit of the multitude of travel guides that I've relied on thus far, here's my advice on seeing Rome.

Before you arrive, you'll need to consider where to stay. There are three things you want in a hotel: location, quality, and value. Pick any two. You will not be able to find a cheap and decent hotel in the city center. For that matter, you will probably not be able to find a cheap hotel at all, regardless of quality, in the city center.

Don't try to see the Eternal City in anything less than three and a half days. Arrive one day in the afternoon or evening, and don't rush out to any of the premiere destinations that day. Instead, get some coffee or gelato, wander by the Fountain of Trevi, or do anything else that doesn't demand a huge investment of sightseeing effort.

The next day, wake up early enough to get in line for the Colosseum the second it opens. The line for the Colosseum is enormously long, though it moves faster than you might think. Gawk at the men who have the best jobs in all of Rome: the costumed gladiators who point their swords in the right direction to get in line. Once you're inside, have fun archaeologing it up. The ticket costs eleven Euros, and don't bother trying to get a student discount unless you're a student who lives in an EU country. That doesn't include taking classes in an EU college if you're not a citizen. If the eleven Euros doesn't seem quite worth it once you've gotten there, I sort of agree. For pure ruin potential, Pompeii is much better and a Euro cheaper. Luckily, that ticket also allows you admission up the Palatine Hill and the gardens and ruins there. You'll see the Roman Forum below you; don't be tempted to see that today. Spend a little quality time on the Palatine: after you've walked around the Colosseum and up the Palatine, the gardens are an excellent place to relax. Eat. Now go a bit to the south, and see even more of the ancient landmarks, like the Circus Maximus and the Old Appian Way.

Next day, devote the entire thing to the heart of the ancient city. Start with the Roman Forum, and see the temples, the Arch of Septimus, the New Senate House, and the original SPQR arch. If you can, try and stumble upon a guided tour. I managed to find one that was at once free and extremely informative.

I'm a bit of a Roman history/culture geek, and even I learned some things about how ancient Rome worked. For instance, the reason the Christians were persecuted in Rome wasn't because of their belief in Jesus. On the contrary, the Romans were the most religiously tolerant empire until the Mongols, twelve centuries later. The persecution only came when they refused to bow before the image of the God-Emperor Julius Caesar. The tour guide likened this to JFK in America: an extremely popular leader who was killed. What if his successor, Lyndon Johnson, built a temple to JFK in the National Mall near the Capitol building and made the entire country pay their respects to him as a god?

See the rest of the Forum. Eat. Now walk up the next hill, the Capitoline, and spend the rest of the day in the museums there. You can see ancient artwork and statue dating back from Etruscan times.

Last day, see the Vatican. If you're of a religious (ie, Catholic) bent, go to a Mass here; you'll need a special pass that you can only get a few days beforehand. I don't know how to go about that. The Basilica itself is too touristy, with a line almost as long as the Colosseum to get in and half of it roped off at any give point. But it's still impressive. Be sure to see the Pieta. Go see the treasury, which showcases the immense power and wealth of the early church, located in the basilica itself. Gawk at crystal monstrances and cloth of gold vestments. Afterwards, climb the steps or take the elevator to the dome. Finally, see the grotto, with tombs of most popes since 1300. Eat. Devote the rest of the day to the Vatican Museum, which is supposed to be really impressive. Just be sure to make sure it's open. Specifically, don't go on Sunday, unless it's the last Sunday of the month. Get there before about 2 pm; otherwise you might not be let in.

Now have some more coffee or gelato, and you're done!


Currently listening: "Oh Comely," Neutral Milk Hotel