So Let Me Get This Straight: Lady Gaga, Body Image, and The Media

September 27, 2012 - 7:25 pm No Comments

Note: This post was so popular on my Facebook and Tumblr I’ve decided to post it here for posterity. Could this be a sign of new posts to come? Perhaps…

So let me get this straight: Lady Gaga puts on 25 pounds and suddenly she’s “fat.” Or putting on weight because she’s a drunk.

Right.

So she looks exactly like I do now. In fact, she’s almost exactly the same dimensions as me, head to toe.

I went to the doctor today and weighed in at 115. Doc informed me I’m at “low normal” weight, but I should definitely take steps not to lose anymore or I could risk becoming unhealthy.

I don’t care what you think of Lady Gaga. I don’t care what you think of her music. I don’t care what you think of me.

But what the fuck is wrong with this society when a woman who is at a normal to low weight for her size is “fat” because she put on weight, even if it only takes her to the low side of what is considered conventionally healthy, conventions which are, in this country, skewed to hell in the first place.

What. The. Fuck.

We are so fatphobic, so disgustingly focused on extremes, that a woman who admits to weight gain is automatically shamed.

Don’t… don’t even get me started on using “fat” as an insult. Don’t even get me started on what is and isn’t healthy and who the fuck we are to judge what people should and shouldn’t do to their bodies. Don’t even make me go there. That’s a different issue for a different time. But this… This is a new fucking low, society, and I’m seriously angry with you.

Go to your room.

O Pioneers, O Readers

April 18, 2012 - 2:35 pm 1 Comment

I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks back that I’d picked up Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! at my local library for the simple fact that it had no cover. Apparently, there was a huge hole in my literary experience; I’d never even heard of Cather and I’ll admit it, because I have no idea how it happened. Within moments – and I do mean moments – I got at least three tweets back asking, telling, wanting to discuss Cather’s works, and I’d never read any of them. It seemed to me that everyone had been made to read My Antonia in high school, and I use the term “made” loosely: after reading My Antonia almost all of those who tweeted at me had gone on to read O Pioneers of their own accord.

I can see why.

When I was a little girl, I did love Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Let’s be honest, though, even in the nineties I didn’t know two many kids my age who didn’t. O Pioneers hearkened back to all that, the simplicity of living off of the land, the love of nature, of the animals, and of the communities and dynamics of the people who live there. Cather goes deeply into the interactions of people from incredibly different backgrounds and how that affects their relationships while they try to eek out a living from the wild land. The family the story mostly follows, The Bergsons, are Swedish immigrants. Immediately you know these are practical people, willing to do whatever they have to to get what they need. They aren’t cold, but they aren’t flamboyant. Alexandra, the business-minded daughter and sister has only her family’s best interests at heart.

As the book progresses, we’re introduced to many others living on the prairie. Marie Shabata nee Tovesky is a Bohemian girl who is Marie’s best friend and her polar opposite, falling head-over-heels in love with the first man who comes along, a source of conflict later on. But I won’t go into that. It’ll ruin the surprise. Those in the French community are the antithesis of the Scandinavian families, eager to embrace anything new, eager to dance and sing, eager to live life to the fullest and practicality be damned.

The story spans four parts and changes greatly among the years that pass between them, but oddly enough, it’s not the story that keeps you reading this little novel. It is the character of the prairie as a whole, the characters of the people who live there, and how they strive to work together despite their differences of the people they were and the differences in the people they become. I didn’t expect to get as emotionally involved in this book as I did, but part IV had me feeling everything: anger, sadness, loneliness, resolution. There were passages where I wanted to argue openly with characters, wanted to shake my head and ask them how they could possibly feel that way, after all they had seen, and done, and said.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! is perfect late-spring reading. It’s easy to fall into, quick to read, and will have you thinking for hours after you turn the last page. It’ll have you staring wistfully out of the window and onto the breezy street and even though a century of years and miles of space separate you and that open, lonely Nebraskan prairie, you’ll share something with it. You’ll understand. I did.

Ever in Your Favor

March 29, 2012 - 10:18 am 1 Comment

You’ve probably all read or seen or read and seen The Hunger Games by now, I’m sure.

If not, I have one question for you:

Why. Not.

I don’t really keep up on what’s new and hip in literature. I read what I like, when I like, and as a result, this blog is rarely if ever relevant. It took me until two weeks ago to read The Hunger Games.

This is probably the best thing I’ve read in years.

For those of you who have been living in a cave, The Hunger Games is a book about a distopian future, where the citizens of North America has rebelled against the government, referred to in the books ominously as The Capitol, and the citizens have lost. The result is Panem, a nation divided into districts, technically Districts 1 – 13, but District 13 has been bombed into oblivion, so only 12 districts remain. As punishment for their uprising, the Capitol now selects a male and female tribute, one of each from every district, and makes these tributes, ages 12 – 18, fight to the death. The Hunger Games are over when only one tribute remains.

If that doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know what will. In fact, the whole reason I finally decided to read The Hunger Games was because the premise made me so angry. You can’t help but immediately sympathize (or even empathize) with the districts. You can’t help but immediately hate the Capitol, though of course it’s much more complicated than that, a fact which becomes abundantly clear the more you read.

It’s that kind of complexity, that kind of not-quite-one-sidedness, that made me truly enjoy this book. There’s a little bit of good and bad in everyone, and I do mean everyone, throughout the entire story. No one is perfect, no one’s allowed to be perfect, no one is capable of being perfect. The Capital is not entirely evil, the tributes not entirely pure (or, as some cases may be, entirely sinister).

Your main character, the narrator, is Katniss Everdeen, voluntary tribute for District 12 and her imperfection is immediately obvious, though she’s a better person than she herself chooses to acknowledge. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, or at least the weight of her entire family. She is the sole provider for her sister and mother, her father having died in a coal mining accident years before. Her mother’s imperfection becomes obvious at this point, too: upon hearing of her husband’s death, Katniss’ mother completely shut down, becoming almost catatonic for a long period of time, a time wherein Katniss nearly gave up and gave in, until she was saved by Peeta Mellark, the boy who would be District 12’s other tribute, a boy to whom Katniss feels forever indebted. I’m holding my tongue here because I don’t want to give too much away, but the characters in the story are so deeply interwoven it’s hard to mention one without mentioning the others.

There are moments when it’s painfully obvious that this is, in fact, young adult fiction. Cringe-worthy moments, actually. But that’s simply what this novel is: young adult fiction, and you have to accept that. That said, the plot is deep enough, dark enough, the characters real and powerful enough, to carry the heavy story without stumbling too much.

The film did a pretty good job of capturing this, too, though I’m saying this with the knowledge of someone who had read the novel before hand, and almost immediately before hand at that. In my own view, the film was powerful and beautiful and held its own. The changes that were made were gentle and made sense; it was clear why back stories were shortened, altered, or left out, and despite this, the movie stayed true to the original character of the book. Characters that were added were clearly added with purpose… even if that purpose wasn’t immediately evident.

I went to see the movie with @wackfiend, who had not read the books. He mentioned something I had not even considered: that there was no clear villain. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that the characters of Seneca Crane and President Snow were clearly amped up in importance in the film to give The Capitol a definite face, a definite sense of evil. They were basically meaningless characters in the book because The Capitol itself was the villain, and that was so easy to discern. The Capitol was doing this. The Capitol was the reason that every year, twenty-three children were sent to the slaughter out of a need to instill fear – and hope, in that one of the tributes lives – in the citizens of Panem, to make them easier to control. The movie gave us two faces, one wholly malicious in President Snow, and one nearly sympathetic in Seneca Crane. While I, as someone who had read the book, was basically unfazed by the upped importance of these characters, having that hatred in my heart for The Capitol going into it, @wackfiend was unmoved. I can see his point, and almost wish I’d waited to read the book so I could have gone in as a clean slate. But a clean slate I was not and I will confess that I spent nearly 25% of the movie utterly in tears and nearly the remaining 75% on the verge of tears, either out of anger, or frustration, or absolute sadness.

But then, I had read the book. I had those stories and characters already inside me, I knew about Panem, I’d been there, I knew that injustice, and I survived the games.

Yes, I had read the book.

And I loved it.

Human Again, Indeed

February 29, 2012 - 5:22 pm No Comments

I’ve got my Ingrid Michaelson back.

I was not first on the Ingrid Michaelson boat. I was probably towards the very end, coming just before the people who recognized her as the singer on the apple juice commercial. But from the very moment I heard her music, her voice, her quirky piano riffs, I fell in love.

Ingrid Michaelson writes music which, at first, seems like it’s going to be piano-pop nonsense. It’s about love, it’s silly, it’s fun and upbeat. At first. But Ingrid doesn’t shy away from the gritty, shitty parts of life. Some of her songs, or even snatches of lyrics in otherwise typical songs, are totally out of the realm of traditional, flighty, girly piano-rock. A song from her self-released debut album Slow the Rain comes to mind. The song is called Porcelain Fists, and not only are the piano melodies incredibly dark, the lyrics are painful to hear:

“Locked in the bathroom stall/Your back against the wall/Cold tiles beneath your knees/Your body broke your fall/Spitting into your own reflection gazing back/Inside your porcelain fists, your palms begin to crack.”

The first time I heard that, I was won over. Everything I’d heard of Michaelson’s music up to that point was whatever Pandora had selected for me, and until I sought out her earlier music on my own, I would never have expected a lyric like that from what had initially seemed like songs that I would listen to, shall we say, in good fun.

So with tears in my eyes and my hands folded together, each hugging the other tightly, I declared myself an Ingrid fan and dove into her music head first.

Things were really good between Ingrid and I. I got to see one of her shows, for free, at that, when she performed at the Pittsburgh Arts Festival, and Be OK had some real gems on it.

Then, just a few days after my birthday in 2009, Ingrid released Everybody.

I’m gonna be really harsh here for a moment, okay?

I felt betrayed. I’d never heard a more wishy-washy, boring, flat album in my life. I didn’t know what had happened. We’d been through good times and bad, Ingrid and me, we’d talked about everything, no matter how embarrassing or pointless. We were going to buy everybody nice sweaters and teach them how to dance.

When I got to “The Chain,” I knew I’d found an album I really, really didn’t like. “The Chain,” when it was live on Be OK, was so blisteringly powerful I would put it on repeat and sob. It was that beautiful, that painful, that absolutely touching. But this new studio version on Everybody… It was limp. There was nothing to it. It wasn’t hand-crafted, it was machined. There are about four songs on Everybody I’ll even deign to listen to at this point (“Everybody,” “Soldier,” “Locked Up,” and “Maybe,” if you must know, which are incidentally the first two and last two songs on the album, which means, yes, I don’t listen to the entire middle of the album).

So when I heard Ingrid was in the studio again, I have to admit, I was… tentative. I followed her faithfully on Twitter and Tumblr, keeping up with the progress of the album, and reading her mailing list to see if she was playing any shows near me. But I held my breath.

On January 24th, 2012, Human Again was released.

I rejoiced.

The album is funny and smart, the 17 songs (the last four from the deluxe edition) borrow from just about as many genres, and there are those familiar touches of darkness that anyone who really wants to talk about life can’t shy away from. But it was that same, familiar, girly piano-pop, that same heavy lightness Ingrid had brought to me years before.

“Keep Warm” has got to be my favorite song from this album. It’s happy. It’s relateable. It’s the kind of song that makes you feel safe. Other notable tracks, at least to me, are the peppy “Blood Brothers,” and the heart-wrenching, bittersweet “I’m Through,” which was the first track I’d heard from the album, and the first time I knew everything would, pardon the expression, be okay.

Human Again screams Ingrid Michaelson. Though it’s got touches of rock, country, jazz, folk, it couldn’t be more original, more true to the woman that I slowly became familiar with through three albums three years ago. I wonder if the title speaks to that, a sort of coming back to herself, or if it’s just happy coincidence.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is I’ve got my Ingrid Michaelson back.

The Over-Producers

February 5, 2012 - 12:40 am 1 Comment

Maybe this is a feeling you’ve all had.

Maybe I’m just a pretentious bint.

But I hate music that sounds like it has a purpose.

You know what I’m talking about, you must. Music that was made to fit a sound. And I’m not talking about shitty pop music (though don’t get me wrong, a lot of shitty pop music does fall into this category). I’m talking about the bands who are so obsessed with the way they’re supposed to sound (she said, oozing disdain) that they forget they’re making music, and the music ceases to be for the music’s sake, and it becomes for the sound’s sake.

I’m not making any sense.

Let me give you an example.

The Hush Sound.

Oh, don’t get all up-in-arms, I actually like The Hush Sound. I like their weird folk cabaret hipster pop thing that they’ve got going on.

But I would love The Hush Sound if they weren’t so obsessed with sounding like a weird folk cabaret hipster pop band and just wrote songs that sounded like weird folk cabaret hipster pop. But they aren’t. It’s apparent in all of their full-length albums that the idea of the sound comes before the actual writing of the music. There are a few songs that really get me, songs that are just piano and a lonely vocal track, songs powerful enough to make me cry. Songs I love. And then the next song will come on and it’s all fun and bebop-y and I could love it. But it’s just not honest.

And I’m not just hating on The Hush Sound. I’ll throw Sara Bareilles, A Fine Frenzy, and even Editors (which is a band I really do enjoy) into this category.

I don’t know what studios produce these acts. I don’t care. I just know I can feel the studio when I listen to their music. I can smell it. I can taste it. And it tastes like sodium. Like high-fructose corn syrup. Maybe delicious, but fake, processed, and really not good for you.

It’s not bad music. Some of it is good music. Some of it is great music. But it’s false, and that’s what kills me. It’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s okay if you know how you want your song to sound before you write it, but when the whole of your music is shaped by the idea of the band you always wanted to be (or, if I’m allowed to be really cynical here for a moment, the idea of the music you want to sell), it’s time to take a step back, listen to your heart, and write something honest. Even if it’s not entirely what you thought it would be.

That might even be the point.

Tropical Caramel

January 30, 2012 - 12:54 am 1 Comment

Or as I like to call it, the mouthgasm.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a food blog, and I don’t think I’ve ever blogged anything sweet even though my friends would insist I’m a much better dessert chef than a savory chef, which is especially weird because I only very rarely enjoy sweets.

Tonight was one of those nights when I wanted something sweet.

I hope you do too.

What It Is:

Tropical Caramel, an amazing topping for… Fuck, I don’t know, everything ever? I used mine to top some right-out-of-the-box just-add-hot-milk banana oatmeal.

What You’ll Need:

1/2 banana, sliced into coins
3 tablespoons canned pineapple chunks(reserve some juice)
1/4 cup sugar (I used white)
1 tablespoon butter
1 dash cayenne pepper, powdered
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
A small non-stick frying pan

How to Do It (No Not Like That):

Heat yo’ pan, yo’. Put your frying pan over medium low heat, until it’s hot enough that when you drop your butter in it, the butter immediately sizzles but does not burn. If it doesn’t sizzle, turn up the heat.

Add the sugar into the melted butter and add just enough of the pineapple juice so that the sugar is damp. You won’t need very much at all. Let that ooey-gooey mixture bubble a bit. The moment it starts to take on any color, any at all, add the banana coins and the pineapple chunks.

Now wait. Okay, don’t just stand there. If you’ve got teh skillz, you can saute the fruit – and I do mean saute; make sure all of the pineapple bits and banana slices get flipped over at least once. If you ain’t got the skills, you can use a spoon or a fork or something I guess.

Once the fruits have taken on some nice, brown color, add the cayenne and the vanilla.

But wait! It’s time for science!

Why are we adding the vanilla now? Why don’t we just add it at the beginning when the sugar needs more moisture anyway?

Vanilla extract, as you probably know, is like 99% alcohol (okay, it’s actually a minimum of 35% and unless you’ve got the extra-strength stuff, it’s probably not much more than that) and if you paid attention in science class or have ever had a bonfire, you know that alcohol is pretty darn flammable. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean your caramel will catch fire (well, not if you’re careful) (I mean, unless that’s what you’re going for, but I wouldn’t attempt a flambe in my non-stick cookware), but it does mean that if you add the vanilla too soon, not only will all of the alcohol cook out, the flavor will as well and you just wasted, what, a buck fifty’s worth of vanilla.

That was science!

After you’ve added the pepper and the vanilla, another 30 seconds at a slightly-higher medium heat should give your fruits a nice color and a little bit of a singe.

It should look a bit like this:
Tropical Caramel
…but it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit darker.

That’s it. Seriously, that’s it. Use it like I did to top some really boring oatmeal, pour it over ice cream, or, fuck, eat it with a spoon.

Oh, and for the record? You’re welcome.

The Art of the Mixtape

January 3, 2012 - 9:36 pm 2 Comments

Let me tell you.

There is a hell of a lot more to making a mixtape then just throwing some songs together.

I talk about music a lot on this blog, because it’s always been a major part of my life. From the time I was born, it was more to me than just melodies and lyrics. My dad is a guitarist; my mom played the piano. Both of them are very, shall we say, musically active; they keep up with new stuff, they take an active interest in knowing what’s out there, they still go to shows. Hell, I take them to shows. They even named me after a song. They played music for me in the cradle, everything from Black Sabbath to The Beatles to Bach. I knew how to work a record player before I knew how to work a microwave. (I’m still not entirely sure why a microwave has so many options. If it’s that difficult, put it on the stove.)

Now that I’m older, to repay them, for my parents I make mixtapes.

As gifts for my nearest and dearest friends, I make mixtapes.

When I’m feeling bored or sad or lonely I make mixtapes.

But there is so much more than just throwing a bunch of tracks together.

Mixtapes are something that should be crafted with purpose: an idea pops into your head and you think you could show someone exactly what you mean with music; you hear a song that doesn’t just remind you of another song, it speaks to you about another song; a time in your life is defined by a series of tracks you can’t ever hear again without thinking about that moment, and you can’t ever think about that moment without hearing those songs. Mixtapes are like chapters in books that make up our lives; they’re the narration, not the soundtrack, and all we do is following along. Giving someone a mixtape, a well thought-out mixtape, is a gift that speaks to thoughtfulness and concern and shared emotions and memories.

When you make a mixtape, every song has to say something. It could be musically or lyrically, but it has to be part of a consistent flow. One off song can ruin the entire mix. A truly successful mixtape should go so smoothly from song to song you hardly realised the track changed, but should hold you so captive you wait and watch for each song to pass to the next.

When you make a mixtape, you have to think like you’re writing a paper. You need an introduction, and then you need a thesis statement. You need supporting information but you can’t be redundant. You need a conclusion supported by the information you’ve just given, and more than that, you need each paragraph to be in the right order. And then, if you’re feeling really, very confident, you can say something clever in closing that’ll stick with the reader – or in this case, the listener – even after they’ve reviewed the paper and moved on. Even after they’ve taken their headphones off and walked away.

A mixtape, all on its own, all by itself, with no additional media, should convey a message.

It should create an environment, or a moment, or a relationship, inside your head.

It should be one, whole, complete entity.

A mixtape is not just a collection of similar tracks thrown together.

A mixtape is a collaboration on the part of artists and one independent adjudicator, working together without ever speaking.

A mixtape is powerful and meaningful and beautiful.

A mixtape, when properly constructed, is a work of art.


Someone whose mixtape-creating ability I have always respected is William the Bloody, formerly of William’s Bloody Hell. You can now find him on his Twitter, still making awesome mixes. He sent me two for Christmas. Don’t let me forget, I owe him.

Lately I’ve been exchanging a lot of mixtapes with MannequinneHands. You can see a little of her work on her 8tracks account. Her mixtapes are so carefully crafted. They’re utterly magical.

If you want to see some of my own mixtapes, you’re more than welcome to check out my 8tracks, where I am Paperclippe as per usual. I’ve been adding about one a week, on average, and I always update old mixes when I hear something new that belongs.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received was a mixtape from @wackfiend. I put it on on New Year’s Eve and I’m pretty sure it made my year.

If you’re asking yourself what an 8tracks is, you should really go to http://8tracks.com and check it out. It’s the rebirth of mixtapes as we know it, especially for people who are a) too broke to buy blank CDs or b) make mixtapes too long to fit on CDs or c) want to share a mix with someone instantly. I am all three of those things. Even if you don’t make your own mixes, it’s worth a look just to see what other people create. It’s also an amazing way to discover new music in a more personal way than something like Pandora or last.fm, and I’ve found it’s also a hell of a lot more accurate. You can never substitute the human touch entirely.

So go on. Get mixing. Make some art.

And I’m Damned if I Do and I’m Damned if I Don’t

December 29, 2011 - 10:30 pm 2 Comments

I got on the Florence + The Machine boat a little late; in fact, I only listened to Lungs in anything more than passing this year.

In something like two weeks, last.fm informed me I’d racked up over 200 plays.

It would be an understatement to say I liked it. In fact, I love Lungs. I can put that album on and just listen over and over again, singing into a hair brush. But what’s more than that, I can listen over and over again quietly, appreciating every little nuance. There are only two songs I ever skip past, and if you must know which, they’re I’m Not Calling You a Liar, simply because I hear it every time I beat Dragon Age II (it’s a lot of times, just trust me on this one), and You’ve Got the Love, because I think it was a horrible choice to end the album on (strictly speaking, I don’t skip this one, I just stop the album at the end of Blinding because the end of Blinding would have been a perfect freaking ending, okay?).

I’m not feeling the same way about Ceremonials.

Let me, at first, dissect this album from a vocalist’s point of view, since there are two things I went to school for: one of them was writing, and one of them was singing. Bear with me here.

There are more than a few places in Ceremonials where Flo sounds utterly flat. Don’t get me wrong: it happens, especially with such an ambitious style of music. But I can’t ignore it. There’s a point in Hurricane on Lungs, toward the very end, where the note she’s holding goes totally sour and I cringe every time but the song is so good I just go along with it. Like I said. It happens. But it happens a lot in Ceremonials. There’s an off note or two in Shake it Out. There’s one in Breaking Down. There are a few in Only if for a Night. Cringe cringe cringe cringe cringe. I’m not criticizing Flo’s vocal abilities; I have no place to do that. What I’m saying is that the production of the album feels rushed, or sloppy somehow. It feels a lot less careful than Lungs felt.

Perhaps I shouldn’t compare the two albums, strictly, but I’m going to again when I say that Ceremonials doesn’t feel as clever as Lungs. Ceremonials has some great moments, some great lyrics, some great melodies, and there are plenty of hooks and choruses that have gotten lodged firmly in my head since I first heard the album. But over-all, that’s all it seems to be composed of: moments. Lungs was a piece. Ceremonials is a series of moments. It’s missing some of the power Lungs had. Which brings me to my next point.

I have the deluxe edition of Ceremonials (I know, I’m so fancy). At the end of the album, or I suppose, making up the majority of the deluxe content, are acoustic versions of Heartline, Shake it Out, and Breaking Down. And they kick the shit out of the original versions. The first time I heard Shake it Out, I liked it. I liked it a lot. But I wouldn’t say I was moved. The first time I heard the acoustic version, I cried. I shed tears. On the bus. On the way to work. Same song. Same Flo. Entirely different reaction. Maybe I’m biased; I do love me some acoustic guitar. But I don’t think it’s overreaching to say that on Ceremonials, some of the power of Flo’s brilliance is dulled by all of the processing, the electronics. As far as Lungs went, I don’t think there was another way to do it, especially with the jazz/electro blends, a perfect example of which was Girl with One Eye. That sounds made Lungs. On Ceremonials, it feels forced.

I’ve also noticed that Ceremonials feels less like Florence. I know she’s only got the two albums, but on my first listen of the album, I went through and basically said to every song, “Oh this sounds like such and such band, and this one sounds like this!” Most notably, Breaking Down sounds like it should be on a Beach House album. It’s not a bad thing – I love Beach House. But I didn’t buy a Beach House album. I’m aware artists borrow and evolve. I’m not naive. But Lungs was unmistakable. Unmistakably F+TM.

My final gripe is one song: Landscape. If you don’t have the deluxe version, you’ll never have heard this song.

Which is a fucking shame.

Landscape is listed as a demo. It’s not actually a part of Ceremonials. It is, in my humble opinion, the best song on the album. And it is unmistakably Flo.

Strangeness and Charm is another deluxe edition-only release, and I have to say, I was taken by it from the time I read the title. Strangeness and Charm are properties of sub-atomic particles known as quarks. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’re familiar with quarks. Yes, Flo. Please sing more science to me.

Reading this review, you must think I hate Ceremonials. You would be wrong. I only just got it and I’ve listened to it probably about twenty times so far and I’ll probably listen to it once a day for the next couple of months. I love it. I really do. It’s a great album. But there are so many small, small things that could have made a great album a masterpiece.

A brief review:

Paperclippe’s Favorite Songs from Ceremonials (Deluxe): Only if for a Night, Heartlines (Acoustic), Breaking Down (Acoustic), Shake it Out (Acoustic), Landscape (Demo), Strangeness and Charm (Deluxe Only).

Least Favorites: What the Water Gave Me (Demo), Remain Nameless (Deluxe Only), Heartlines.

Fucking Higgs Field, How Does It Work?

October 24, 2011 - 8:16 pm No Comments

Lots of questions must be answered. What are the properties of the Higgs particles and, most important, what is their mass? How will we recognize one if we meet it in a collision? How many types are there? Does Higgs generate all masses or only some increment to masses? And how do we learn more about it? Since it is Her particle, we can wait, and if we lead an exemplary life, we’ll find out when we ascend to Her kingdom. Or we can spend $8 billion and build us a Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas, which was been designed to produce the Higgs particle.

The above excerpt comes from a little book called The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? by one Leon Lederman. In an older blog post, I mentioned a book called The Universe on a T-Shirt. The God Particle is the book you wanted to read instead. Or, at least, it’s the book I wanted you to read instead.

The God Particle is an incredibly clear and witty overview of particle physics from an experimenter’s point of view. Where as most of the books I’ve mentioned before have touched on the modern physics field (ha, it’s a pun) as a whole, this book sticks to the small stuff, and due to its directed nature, paints a really clear picture of quantum physics. You will learn things if you read this book, I promise. You might even understand quantum electrodynamics by the time you’re done (that’s a lie, no one understands quantum electrodynamics). The God Particle also eventually gets to the point: talking about the Higgs boson and its field, the search for it, why it’s so hard to find, and what it does, all of which was briefly and humorously touched on in the quote above.

Unfortunately, what was also touched on in the quote above was the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator which was meant to be the United State’s 2000s-era foray into the very small. It was to be finished around the year 2000 and was pretty much for two things: to replace the Tevatron at Fermilab and to find the Higgs boson. This book was written in 1993, just before the SSC was scrapped (due to, you guessed it, budgetary concerns) with just about 20% complete (as I understand it, there’s still a giant hole in the ground in Texas where it was meant to go). However, the intro to the book, added in 2006, acknowledges this foible and introduces the reader to the Large Hadron Collider which, yes, is looking for the Higgs boson and, yes, as of this writing, no one has found it. So every time the SSC is mentioned in Lederman’s The God Particle, just replace it in your mind with “LHC” and you’re on the right track.

If you want to know more about the Large Hadron Collider and what it’s doing to find this mysterious God Particle, you can refer to a book I mentioned in my post You Can Read These Books with Strings, a Death Cab for Cutie joke none of you were cool enough to get. (I’m a hipster physicist: I want to know about the universe before it was cool.) (Alright, I’ll stop.) The title of that book was A Zeptospace Odyssey, a book I still consider to be the best layman’s physics text ever written for reasons I already mentioned.

If you want to know more about the characters involved in the great story of physics, I recommend The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek. The book does go into some great detail about the search for dark matter, dark energy, and other things no one really understands, but the best part about it is how deeply it looks at all the people who have devoted their lives to finding out all the things that allow me to write these ridiculous blog posts. And believe me, there are some great personalities in there. As an added bonus for you math-averse readers, there’s nothing in The 4% Universe you won’t understand. It is quite actually a book everyone can read, and it contains a good base of scientific knowledge as well. That said, it’s definitely told in such a way as that it kind of expects you to know what’s coming, glossing over major events in an effort to get into the dark matter/dark energy situation. You won’t be missing anything, but unless you know a little bit of physics history, you might start to wonder what the point of it all is.

So there you have it. Two more books which attempt to explain literally everything and which come pretty close, at least for the average Joe.

One last thing: I’ve added a new category to the blog! It is, simply, “Science,” since I realise my last few posts have been pretty much… well, yeah. I may make an attempt to move out of my comfort zone and actually explain some science here! On this blog! Or I may just continue to read things that other people would never consider making a joke about and then make some jokes about them.

[A note on the title: I was originally going to call this post, "Fucking Quantum Electrodynamics, How Does It Work?," but then I realised I had already made that joke on Twitter.]

It’s Enough to Give a Girl a Headache

September 22, 2011 - 1:20 pm 5 Comments

This is a more personal post than I normally put on this site, so I hope you’ll bear with me.  It’s about something that’s had a huge impact on my life, and it’s because of that that I’m making this an actual post instead of a multi-tweet rant; it’s something I’d like to be able to point people to when they have questions without repeating myself or getting frustrated, which is something I’m entirely guilty of, especially when in my current state.  It’s a bit long, and a bit wordy, and I hope you’ll understand.

I get migraines.

In fact, I have one right now.  Which is why it took me ten minutes to write a three-sentence long paragraph.

I think people in this day and age, generally, are aware of the pain migraines cause.  It wasn’t very long ago, however, that even the medical community thought migraines were a disorder exclusive to women brought on by hormones or hysteria or worse still, were nothing more than pleas for attention from lonely young mothers with children.  And the pain?  Either they were greatly exaggerating or making it up all together.  While it is true that women are more prone to migraines and hormones do indeed play a major role in migraines for some people, they are definitely a real condition which causes real, and sometimes boarder-line unbearable, pain.  And they certainly have nothing to do with attention.  In fact, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that if you try to give attention to a person suffering a migraine, they with either a) cry b) politely ask you to leave and lock the door behind you or c) shoot you.  That last one might seem a little extreme, sure, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.  And you also have to have a sense of humor about these things or you might just end up pointing the gun in the other direction.

If you’ve never encountered pain that could be considered almost unbearable, let me ask you a question: do you know the definition of the word ‘writhe’?  Dictionary.com has this to say on the subject:

1. to twist the body about, or squirm, as in pain, violent effort, etc.
2. to shrink mentally, as in acute discomfort.

Both of those are pretty applicable to the activities you’ll be performing when you have a migraine.  You’ll also become very religious, whatever your former spiritual persuasion.

In fact, I’ve got a pretty strong theory that most exorcisms are actually archaic migraine treatments.  And about as likely to work as just about anything else, really.

You’ll put a frozen steak on your head even if you’re a vegetarian, you’ll drink more water than a marathon runner, and if you’re very very lucky and lie very very still, you won’t vomit it all up again.

You’ll also probably swallow a lot of pills.

Like many (probably most) Americans, I don’t have health insurance, and I don’t have the kind of money to be seen for what’s 99% certain to be a lifelong condition and then chuck out more cash for non-painkiller migraine pills that rarely work or painkiller migraine pills that will just make me stoned all the time (or worse, migraine pills that take away my migraine pain but cause a completely new kind of pain in the back of my neck so horrific I’m paralyzed for 24 hours thanks Imitrex!).  So I take Excedrin Migraine.  And that shit works.  Boy howdy does it work.  But unfortunately it’s chock full of caffeine and aspirin and acetaminophen in extremely high doses, all things which on their own can upset even the most steely of stomachs.

And guess what else upsets your stomach.

And if you have a persistent migraine, you have to take upkeep doses, so even if you’re pain-free, you’re jittery and more hyperactive than a twelve-year-old boy who’s just been given a bag of cocaine-laced confectioner’s sugar, and the threshold on your temper, on a scale of one to ten, is set to about negative six.

And if you want to sleep the pain away, and believe me, you will, you, non-insurance-having American, will take melatonin. Melatonin, according the Great and Powerful Wiki, is

a naturally occurring compound found in animals, plants and microbes.[2][3] In animals, circulating levels of the hormone melatonin vary in a daily cycle, thereby allowing the entrainment of the circadian rhythms of several biological functions.[4]Many biological effects of melatonin are produced through activation of melatonin receptors,[5] while others are due to its role as a pervasive and powerful antioxidant,[6] with a particular role in the protection of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.[7]

In mammals, melatonin is secreted into the blood by the pineal gland in the brain. Known as the “hormone of darkness” it is secreted in darkness in both day-active (diurnal) and night-active (nocturnal) animals.

Melatonin will put you in a goddamned coma.  That is an exaggeration.  What is not an exaggeration is that if you had any plans that day and you do end up taking melatonin, you can forget about your plans.  In fact, you can forget about your day, because you’re going to sleep through it, and if you have to take an upkeep dose, you’re going to sleep through the night and maybe the following day as well, because

[o]ral caffeine may significantly increase the bioavailability of melatonin. The proposed mechanism is inhibition of CYP450 1A2 first-pass metabolism. After administration of melatonin 6 mg and caffeine 200 mg orally to 12 healthy subjects, the mean peak plasma concentration (Cmax) of melatonin increased by 137% and the area under the concentration-time curve (AUC) increased by 120%. The metabolic inhibition was greater in nonsmokers (n=6) than in smokers (n=6). The greatest effect was seen in subjects with the *1F/*1F genotype (n=7), whose melatonin Cmax increased by 202%. The half-life did not change significantly. The clinical significance of this interaction is unknown

according to drugs.com.

That’s right.  If you take this sleep-inducing hormone with a thing that would normally keep you awake, it will make you sleep up to twice as much.

And I won’t even get into the vivid dreams.

So by now, you’re in unspeakable pain, you’re bloated, nauseated, full of medication, and halfway in a coma.  So you should really probably eat something.  But you won’t want to.  I don’t care how much you love food, or what kind of cravings you have on a daily basis.  You will look in your fridge and find every item contained within a device for some sort of torture.  To say you won’t be hungry is a bit of an understatement.

Today I have had 750mg of acetaminophen, 750mg of aspirin, 195mg of caffeine (which, incidentally, is enough to be considered legally intoxicated on the stuff depending on your height and weight and oh did I mention I am five feet tall), and 3mg of melatonin.  I have have a spontaneous two hour nap and 40 ounces of water.

And I choked down half a slice of white bread.  And it was an end-piece.  And it was awful.

But honestly?  I think most people get that.  I really do.  Migraines, and the pain and discomfort associated with them as well as the drastic measures most people will go through to get rid of them, are a part of the culture at the point.

Here’s the part I don’t think a lot of people understand.  Right now, thanks to my Excedrin regimen, I am almost completely pain-free.  And I have a migraine.

Before I get into that, let me just clarify: there are tons of different types of migraines, over ten and sometimes up to twenty depending on your classification.  They all have a few basic, common symptoms: headache of a throbbing nature, persisting for four to 72 hours (yes, that’s three fucking days), nausea, and photophobia, all of which are generally exacerbated by routine activity (yes, migraines are made worse by the fact that you exist), but there are tons of different variant symptoms.  Everyone is probably aware of the ‘aura’ symptoms: seeing lights or spots, blurred vision, or ‘rings’ (hence, auras) around objects, especially those with vivid colors.  That has never once happened to me.  In fact, less than 30% of people with migraines experience auras (numbers thanks again to Wiki).  What I do get are prodrome symptoms, which are

altered mood, irritability, depression or euphoria, fatigue, yawning, excessive sleepiness, craving for certain food (e.g. chocolate), stiff muscles (especially in the neck), dizziness, hot ears, constipation or diarrhea, increased or decreased urination, and other visceral symptoms.[14] These symptoms usually precede the headache phase of the migraine attack by several hours or days.

And you know what the worst part is?  Believe me when I say it’s the euphoria.  Because you go from being amazing and talkative and happy and hungry and active and a great person to be around to absolute fucking despair.

And migraines are generally not considered a mood disorder.

Oh, and did I mention the sleeping?

Oh, and did you catch the part where these symptoms come on several days before hand?  Days.

And then there is postdrome, which, is, you guessed it:

effects of migraine … persist[ing] for some days after the main headache has ended. Many sufferers report a sore feeling in the area where the migraine was, and some report impaired thinking for a few days after the headache has passed. The patient may feel tired or “hungover” and have head pain, cognitive difficulties, gastrointestinal symptoms, mood changes, and weakness.[19] According to one summary, “Some people feel unusually refreshed or euphoric after an attack, whereas others note depression and malaise.”  (From Wiki.)

That actually makes it sound a lot better than it is.  Between pro and postdrome, I personally have experienced both binge eating and self-imposed starvation, delirium, hyperactivity, insomnia on a scale of days, flu-like symptoms, loss of hearing, loss of vision, loss of feeling in the left side of my face, and things as weird as an inability to use the same vocabulary that I would use if I had no migraine symptoms.  But I do also experience the euphoria, the restlessness that compels me to be productive, the change in my thought process that allows me to experience things differently.  In fact, during migraines where I am pain-free and not wasting your time with interminable blog posts, I make a point to read or write because I both understand and explain things differently than I do without a migraine because I’m forced by lack of blood flow to use a different part of my brain.

My dad thinks this is really cool.  And you know what, it would be a lie to say it’s not.  The pain, of course, is stupefying.  But if nothing else, it can be pretty damned interesting.

And it’s completely fair to say that migraines, and/or their symptoms, can make you a completely different person.

Now, let me make myself really really fucking clear:

I am not writing this post because I want pity.  In fact, the last thing I want is pity.

What I do want is a better understanding of something that affects the lives of millions of people, including myself and a pretty good percentage of the people I know.  Migraines are not just headaches.  Migraines are a lot more than that, and they can be tough to deal with.  But just like the migraine sufferer who wants to be left alone in a dark room, I’m not doing this for attention, except the attention that comes with understanding.  Migraines are strange beasts, and though they’ve come to the forefront of the social consciousness, at least in western culture, there’s still a lot about them that people don’t understand.  For those of us who put up with the less-common, or perhaps just less-discussed, symptoms, it can be frustrating.

This post, to be sure, is a culmination of that frustration, but it’s also born out of the questions that people have asked me.  People want to know more, and sometimes a personal experience detailing both the good and bad of a condition, even when the condition is, yes, I’ll admit, mostly very bad, can bring a little light to where once there was shadow or doubt or disbelief.

So don’t comment with sympathy (though empathy from fellow sufferers will not be turned away, because I’ve had a good long bitch, and if you want to put your personal experience in the comments to share, I welcome any additional details or information you find relevant to this post).  What I want is the most normal life I can possibly have with such a truly weird condition, and that’s not really that hard to do, most days.  What I want is for someone to read this post and have more knowledge of a common but yet poorly understood condition, for them to be brave enough to ask questions, and to seek help, if they themselves share this condition.  Having migraines is not something to be ashamed of.  It’s something to take care of, and to take care of yourself because of.  It took me a long time, and a lot of forced decisions – I dropped out of college because my migraines were so bad in my junior year that I couldn’t leave my apartment in the morning – to grasp that.  If this post does that for even one person, then writing this, as personal and potentially pity-party inducing as it is, was worth it.