Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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 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.]

You Can Read These Books with Strings

August 3, 2011 - 11:08 pm No Comments

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of physics, and for some reason that intimidates people.  I have a new nickname at work, which has been used in jest, in earnest, and in mockery all: Lil Miss Science, usually followed by “over there”.

But here’s the real secret:

You can be too.

If you’ve ever logged on to my Goodreads account, you’ll see a slew of books on the subject, especially regarding physics of a quantum nature (though recently I’ve been branching out into pure mathematics and even geometry, Euclidian and non- both, but that’s a blog for another time).  Most of them have five stars, few of them have three or less.  And I am about to tell you which ones you can read off the bat, knowing only the maths you learned in high school.  Don’t scoff.  I failed algebra.  Twice.

In the Beginning:

If you really want broad, sweeping strokes, only touching on hard physics to get you prepared, start with Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Ah, I can see you being intimidated again, stop that.  I read this one over the course of a week while on vacation in North Carolina (because that’s what you do on vacation).  Not only will this book brush you up on your physics, the title is not really a lie – it’s got a little bit of everything in there, though it’s steered mostly toward the natural sciences.  And it’s clever.  And you’ll enjoy it.

For a more focused but still broad overview, try Simon Singh’s The Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.  This was something I read in college while sitting alone in the cafeteria, busily not making friends.  Everything is explained clearly, and while it does get into a few technicalities, there are helpful pictures and charts, and if you don’t follow the math exactly (fuck, no one does) that’s perfectly okay, you’ll get more than the gist of it.

I Have the Science Channel and I Have Seen The Universe:

So you actually know what I’m going on about when I say quantum entanglement and dark matter.  Then you should read A Zeptospace Odyssey: A Journey into the Physics of the LHC by Gian Francesco Giudice.  Do not take it lightly when I say I have not been this impressed with a book – nonwithstanding a technical book – since I read House of Leaves.  And Maker above this is about nine trillion times easier to understand.  Giudice ties everything to easy-to-understand concepts and even popular culture, from Sherlock Holmes to the power output of the engine in a Ferrari Scuderia (he uses that last one for the mass to energy ratio, you’ll like it).  And you’ll get to learn fun facts like, if the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was constructed entirely out of Swiss chocolate, it would have cost the same to build. This is what would happen if I was actually a physicist, binged on Top Gear, and then wrote a book.  Except you can actually understand A Zeptospace Odyssey. I laughed.  Out loud.  While reading this book.  To make it all the more impressive, this book was written by a native speaker of Italian.  In English.  You may commence feeling like a failure… now.

And if you haven’t already, read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  There are not difficult books.  I promise.  And if you get the fancy version, they have really nice pictures.  And Star Trek references!

I Have Made a Schrodinger’s Equation Cake:

No, really.  I have.

And if you’re like me, you’ll want to read Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.  You may begin to feel a little intimidated, and this time it’s justified.  I’ll admit, there were parts of this book that I skimmed, but it’s not hard to get what the author, Peter Woit, is saying at all.  Though the math is a bit weeooweeoo scary, the points are clearly and concisely covered, and with a tinge of dark humor as well.  It’s always good to understand the alternate theories in physics today, if you’re interested in any of them, and string theory, despite its myriad Nova Science Now specials, honestly does come up a bit short.  Should we entirely discount it?  I don’t know, read the book and decide for yourself.

I Breathe Math:

I don’t.  This one was beyond me but there was so much good stuff in it I plowed through until I simply felt like taking a bath with a hair dryer: Nothingness: The Science of Empty Space by Henning Genz starts off easy-peasy, but about halfway through I knew I’d gotten everything out of this book I possibly could.  It starts pretty much where all the others leave off: the details.  I believe particle spin is introduced in chapter 2 or 3 and while I have a (tentative) grasp on that, there’s a point where even I shake my head, sigh, and make a special, defeatist library trip.  That all said, what I did understand was definitely worth the trouble.  It’s fascinating to learn about all the weird things that happen in what we considered to be The Vacuum of Spaaaaaace.  If you’re into that, give it an honest effort.  I did.

So there you go.  Physics is phun.  I swear.  And hell, you might even learn something.

The Universe on a T-Shirt

July 17, 2011 - 7:20 pm No Comments

The Universe on a T-Shirt by Dan Falk is a book which starts at the beginning and ends at the present, telling the story of the famed Theory of Everything, a theory – first in religion and now in quantum physics – which should be able to explain everything ever, quite literally, with an equation short enough to fit on a t-shirt.  However, in its quest for simplicity, the theory so far has failed.

And so has this book.

There’s a fine balance between simplicity and too little information.  Parallel with today’s Theories of Everything, this book just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.  There are places where Falk seems to go on for days about things we learned in middle school – possibly because they’re simple to understand.  And then there are places where the sheer simplicity of the book in its efforts to mirror the ever-elusive ToE is simply too simple.

Now, I’m not so hot at math, but in layman’s terms, I’ve wrapped my head around a good deal of physics, from spin to quark flavors to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  I would go so far as to say that on a basic level, I understand quantum theory, from physics to electrodynamics to entanglement.  In fact, I think anyone could if they just sat down and watched as much of the Science Channel as I have found possible to do.  However, while reading Universe on a T-Shirt, I was confused – honestly confused – by Einstein’s relativity.  Now, these days, this is high school stuff.  And the problem wasn’t me, trust me.  It was the absolute dumbing-down of the content.  In his attempts to cut out the mathematical fat, a thing which, trust me, I very much appreciate, Falk has cut out the core of the theory.  I read the same three pages over and over, saying to myself, “No, but wait, I know this already…” but in the first-grade manner in which it was presented, I really couldn’t understand it.  Too much was left out, too much was simplified, and too much was just told wrong.  That there is the best example I can give of the overall presentation of the information in Universe on a T-Shirt.

Perhaps it’s ironic (or perhaps it isn’t) that it was Einstein himself who said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  This book is courageous, I’ll give it that.  But it’s sure not genius.

Since.

June 12, 2011 - 1:05 am No Comments

Since I last updated this blog,

I have incurred over $21 in library fines. I will pay them off, I promise.

I got a new job, which didn’t at first leave me much time for updating this blog.

I received over 1600 emails, about three of which I’ve read.

I have not checked Facebook more than thrice.

I became addicted to a certain series of video games which I’m sure will work their way into this blog.

And so on.

What I have been doing, aside from playing said video games, is reading like a fiend.

Kristen, who makes myriad appearances within the text of this blog and even more within the context of my life, convinced me finally to watch BBC’s Sherlock.  It being streaming on Netflix didn’t hurt either.  Suffice is to say, I fell in love.  But what does one do when one is faced with a series containing only three episodes?

One reads the books one should have read as a child.

And that’s what I’ve been reading.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collective works are now lodged firmly at the top of my Kindle’s list, right underneath Thread Words (it’s a real problem).  I read at least one of the short stories every day, mostly on the bus to work (which, I confess, was initially a plot to stop people from talking to me on the bus.  It didn’t work).

But what do you say about a century-old series of short stories which everyone knows and no one has read?

You say how funny they are, how the clever interjections Holmes makes and the first-person narrative of the keen Watson hold up to a century of hype and expectation.

You say that the absolutely logical deductions that Holmes makes are typically neither far-fetched nor impractical and that if you yourself were capable of such leaps someone would have created dozens of television programs loosely based on your life as well.

And you say that if such crimes really ever took place the world would be a more interesting place to live.

So that’s what I say, in brief.  I also say that everyone should be forced to read Sherlock Holmes and I also point out how Wishbone cleverly forgot to mention all the cocaine Holmes jammed into his arm.

Funny thing, that.

First they built the road, then they built the town.

April 1, 2011 - 12:56 pm No Comments

By now you’ve probably heard of Arcade Fire.

I mean, they won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards which is apparently still a thing that people watch.

Which brings me to my point.

Arcade Fire won the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year.  I’m not going to downplay this because I have to say, that’s awesome.  Allow me to be completely selfish when I say that this means the music I listen to is now popular and that means I’m cool again and I didn’t even have to do anything.  (I am cool, right?  Then again, if you have to ask…).  But the album that won the Grammy was (obviously) their new album, The Suburbs.  If you haven’t heard it yet, go open your Grooveshark, play it, and come back.  Back?  Okay, now go listen to their first album, Funeral.  I’ll wait.

Funeral was Arcade Fire’s first real album (disregarding the “Us Kids Know” EP from 2003), which was released in 2004.  And it was magical.  MTV2 named it their Album of the Year way back then, and it won a lot of stuff and broke a lot of ground and was generally very well respected.

And no one heard about it.

Hell, I didn’t even hear about it until right around 2007, and the when the opening strains of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” hit me, I was sucked in.  My heart was ripped out of my chest.  I listened to it dozens of times in a row.  That was right before their second album, Neon Bible, was released, and the timing was perfect.  Soon enough, I was an Arcade Fire addict.  There was something so raw and powerful about those albums, more so with Funeral, but it wasn’t lost in the more polished Neon Bible.  They both meant something.  They didn’t have to grow on you, they were you.

The Suburbs is not that kind of album.

In fact, let me fess up right here: the first time I heard the album in its entirety, I was entirely unmoved and entirely disappointed.  In fact, I listened to it twice in a row, but for the exact opposite reason I put Funeral on repeat for the entire summer of 2007: I had completely zoned out and missed half the album.  It took me several minutes to even notice there was no music playing in my headphones anymore.  But the second time, the same thing happened.  Could this be the case, I thought?  I’d heard the single “We Used to Wait” on The Daily Show and had messed around with the totally engrossing interactive video for it and I’d loved it; how was it that the rest of the album could be so lacking?

And then I listened to it in the car.

This is not the kind of album you can listen to sitting still, staring out the window.  This is the kind of album you put on and turn up and roll down the windows and go for a long drive.  The lyrics reflect this, they’re almost about this, but that’s not even the point.  You have to be moving.  Get on a bus, ride your bike, go for a drive.  This album is too huge to listen to sitting still.  If you’re not moving, it won’t move you.  It’s like an experiment, or it feels like it to me.  It’s also completely back-loaded with the good stuff.  Sure, the first seven or so songs are by no means bad; they’re catchy, toe-tappy.  I’d go so far to say that “Rococco” is infectious and that the extra beats inserted into “Modern Man,” after it’s finished giving you a head trip, will make you want to take up the drums.  But it’s the second half of the album that has that magical, gut-twisting, tear-jerking Arcade Fire feel.  It’s hard to say where it starts, since all the songs are derived from three or four central themes and bleed into each other, but you’ll know it when you feel it.

That is why The Suburbs won Album of the Year.  Because unlike the longing, lonely, and yet somehow upbeat strains of melody in Funeral’s “Wake Up” or the crushing, solitary pipe-organ opening of Neon Bible’s “Intervention”, The Suburbs is not something you can put your finger on.  You almost can’t find a place to say, “This is my favorite part,” because there are no parts.  It’s just one massive creation.

It’s still not Funeral, it’s still not my favorite.  But I get it now.  It’s part of a story, a story that Arcade Fire started to tell us in 2001, that they’re still telling ten years later, of primal humanity and modernization, of finding light in dark places, of corruption and a salvation that we cannot find in things or institutions, but that we can only find in each other.

New to Arcade Fire?  Paperclippe recommends: “Crown of Love” from Funeral; “Intervention” from Neon Bible; “Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains)” from The Suburbs.

Think you’ve maybe heard this band before?  You might have heard the re-recorded version of “Wake Up” in the movie adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are or heard Peter Gabriel’s cover of “My Body is a Cage” on a recent episode of House.  BBC’s Top Gear used “No Cars Go” as the montage for their introduction of the show’s tenth series, and oh yeah, they played at the 2011 Grammy Awards.