April Playlist

Shelter from the Storm – Bob Dylan 

I’ve heard newborn babies wailin’ like a mournin’ dove
And old men with broken teeth stranded without love
Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?
Come in, she said I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

A marvelous song that’s been in a lot of things and has had many things said about it. I first heard this on the soundtrack to Jerry Maguire, but It was originally on Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks which came out in 1975.

This is an epic song full of symbolism told with delightfully surprising rhymes and references. 

But what is it about? 

To me this song is about love, and in particular how it sustains us through hardship even when all we have is the memory of it.

There’s a good chance the woman in the song might be Sara Dylan, to whom Bob Dylan was married when he wrote the song. The marriage was falling apart, and he could have been mourning the loss of how things used to be. Sara Dylan was born Shirley Marlin Noznisky to Jewish immigrants from Poland, but according to Bob Dylan biographer Robert Shelton (sourced originally in wikipedia) she “had a Romany spirit, seeming to be wise beyond her years, knowledgeable about magic, folklore and traditional wisdom.”

It’s reasonable to suppose that Sara might be the woman born at the same time God was, but it also could be about Dylan’s mother. The song seems to describe a birth into a nurturing environment after living several harsh lives. Sara was a mother already when Dylan met her so it could be that both things are true. To put it crassly, Dylan may have had mommy issues. Or it could be the song isn’t autobiographical at all and it’s about a fictional man recalling a fictional woman. For the sake of discussion I’ll call the lady referred to in the song as “the Goddess.”

The verses are not sung in chronological order, but the singer seems to be telling the story of his life after being asked by someone “Is it helpless and forlorn?”

He talks about other lifetimes, times when he suffered in numerous ways before he found this Goddess who might have been a lover, but who was also something of a mother figure.

Then there was a time of blissful childhood or something like it where he was always safe and warm.

Then people tried to tell him who to be ( they gambled for his clothes) and he didn’t like that so he decided to leave, and the Goddess let him (he bargained for salvation and she gave him a lethal dose).

Growing into adulthood, life was hard and he encountered adversity ( he offered up his innocence and got repaid with scorn).

He currently lives in ” a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm.” Where, regardless of whether one hopes to learn philosophy (becoming a preacher riding a mountain) or learn street smarts (become like a deputized horse walking on hard nails) in the end all that matters is that time is short and you’re going to die eventually (it’s doom alone that counts). But even in this dire situation, to answer the man’s question, the singer repeats “Come in, she said, I’ll give ya, shelter from the storm” There was one time he found love and acceptance, and that alone is enough to make up for whatever hardship he has to endure.

The one-eyed undertaker hasn’t gotten the singer yet. He still walks in this country that seems foreign to him, but someday he will cross the line and succumb to the razor’s edge that beauty walks along. And if he lives in this world again he vows to always do his best for his goddess.

I’m almost entirely sure I got that wrong, but that’s what I’ve come up with for what the song is about. What do you think?

Fire, Water, Earth, and Air – Julie Felix

“And as I grow the earth below explains where the rains comes from.
From clouds that borrow joy and sorrow, that’s where the rains come from.”

This song is vast in scope, encompassing the elements of Earth, and weather, and states of human existence. I would like it for that alone, but then you factor in the surprising internal rhymes of the lyrics, the thrumming native american sound of the music, and Julie Felix’s clear, confident vocals, and it’s just a marvelous, wonderful song.

There is, of course, a hippy undercurrent to the song. One expects there will soon be some one along to say that we should protect the squirrels or eat nothing but rutabagas grown in reclaimed sewage. But I prefer to take the song at face value, as a celebration and appreciation of nature and life. I don’t disagree with people who say we should preserve the environment, but I think where such people can go astray is when they see themselves as separate from it. We are part of the environment, part of nature. It is foolish to destroy nature to preserve ourselves, but it is equally foolish to destroy ourselves to preserve nature. A body needs both a brain and a stomach to function.

I’m a Dog – Crash Test Dummies

“But it seems the thinkers you call greatest are
The sort who often fall ill young, or pine away
How can they help but drag the species down?

Like many Crash Test Dummies songs, this one offers a unique perspective on a seldom explored aspect of life. In this case the song is from the perspective of a dog wondering why humans venerate people who don’t seem to live good lives
The dog, being a dog, is essentially a hedonist, appreciating the physical pleasures of life like brushing up against a cow’s leg and having breakfast with the master in the morning. He marvels at humans who try to control their instincts and be civilized, when all it seems to do for people is make them miserable

There is an added layer of irony here in that Brad Roberts, the lead singer and lyric writer, is, himself, an example of the poets the dog is criticizing. 

Other April Songs

I’ve made a YouTube playlist, which you can see here:

It has the songs I described above plus the following:

One song that’s missing though is this one:

Mr. S – Letter People

Everyone should know about the Letter People. Words are made of Letter People

Pi Day Rabbi(t) Hole

So today is 3/14/2020. Pi day. This is was already a fun holiday for me because it gave me an excuse to eat pie. Last year I had quiche for breakfast, pizza for supper, and for dessert, of course, pie. I think I went with apple. This year, however, I wanted to expand the parameters a bit.

Pi day is also Albert Einstein’s birthday. I’m a fan of Albert Einstein, but celebrating his birthday is a little difficult. I could try dressing up like him, but that sort of thing’s a bit outside my wheelhouse. I could make some cookies with an atom symbol or something on them. I might do that next year. I did do some semi-scientific research in his honor, but then I do that almost everyday. So as much as I’d like to honor Einstein, it’s difficult to find ways to really celebrate.

Now the connection might not be entirely clear, but a month or so ago I was watching Hunters, which is an over-the-top Tarantino-esque TV series about a group of people who hunt down former Nazis living in the US in the 70s. The series is something of a mixed bag. The side characters are great, Al Pacino does some of the best work I’ve seen him do, and there are some heart rending dramatic scenes. On the other hand, the main character is a bit annoying, the series tries to be funny at not quite appropriate times, and the ending was a twist that seemed unsatisfying and didn’t even really make sense to me. Anyway, there’s a necklace that features prominently in the series. It’s gold necklace with a pendant of the Hebrew word “chai,” (pronounced like “hi” but with more throat action on the H) which means “living.” It looks a lot like the greek letter pi with an apostrophe in front of it.

Image result for chai necklace
Chai necklace

So I thought…Chai Day! And of course once you write it out in English you can’t help but think of chai tea. So I could drink come chai while I ate some pie. But that doesn’t make a bit of sense with out the connection to the Hebrew symbol. It seemed I had a…Jewish problem.

Well, I could be like Hitler and try to eradicate all the Jewishness from the holiday, or, I thought, I could lean into it. I’m not Mexican, but I like to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. I’m not Christian, but I celebrate Christmas. I have perhaps a little more claim to St.Patrick’s day, but I’m only a quarter Irish, and that’s from the protestant part of Ireland at that, so technically I’m doing that wrong too. Besides, I’m half Polish and the Nazis didn’t like them either, and my Dad gave me some Bar Mitzvah money when I was thirteen because he liked that tradition. So I think I’m completely in the right here. It is my right as an ignorant American to culturally appropriate whenever I deem it… appropriate.

Albert Einstein was Jewish, and there are also other connections. Like the Darren Arronofsky film Pi, which was about a Jewish mathematician who tries to find God’s telephone number and goes insane. And then there’s the rabbinical discussions of descriptions of pi in the Torah. Really if you want to have a Jewish day, Pi day is a pretty good candidate.

So what sorts of things could I do to celebrate Jewish culture? Well there’s Purim, which I know about mostly from the film For Your Consideration. That coincidentally happens in March…You know what? I should have totally looked into that more. Maybe next year. But I wanted something I could make that was culturally Jewish, but not tied directly to the Jewish religion. So I settled on Shakshuka. It’s basically chili, only with red peppers and eggs instead of meat and beans. So maybe not like chili at all. I made it last week to try it out. I made it for supper, but it’s really more of a breakfast food. It’s a very bright and spicy dish. If you eat your scrambled eggs with salsa, it’s a lot like that, except the emphasis is on the tomatoes and peppers rather than the egg.

Shakshouka with five cooked eggs on top of tomato sauce in cast iron skillet
Shakshuka

Shakshuka is really more a dish of Israel, the middle east and surroundings, than a specifically Jewish dish. Really Einstein probably ate German food anyway. But it was still fun to try something new. I linked to a recipe but it’s not that complicated really. You sautee onion and red pepper together in olive oil, add a can of chopped tomato and spices, then add eggs and cover till they’re cooked.

I also wanted to find a mixed drink to celebrate the day, and after doing a search for Jewish cocktails, crossreferenced with spring, I found the Cel -Ray Spring tonic. It’s kosher or something, I guess. You take some cucumber wheels and some celery and muddle it with a wedge of lime and then add vodka, lime juice and ginger ale. Not bad, but I probably didn’t muddle it enough or strain it enough, because I had bits of vegetable still in it, which isn’t something I like. Pulp free OJ for me, thanks.

Cel-Ray Spring Tonic. | Photo courtesy of W&P Design.

So if you like Pi day, but maybe you aren’t a fan of Quiche or you want to try something different, maybe try some Jewish dishes. At the very least there’s bagels, which are circle-shaped. And maybe have some chai with your pie for dessert.

March Playlist

As far as music goes, the main holiday of March, at least for me, is St. Patrick’s day, which normally means Irish songs, of which there are quite a few. However expanding that out a bit, Irish songs tend to be about bragging or confessing things. They are all about identity. Most of the time it’s along the lines of “this is who I am, screw you!” but it can also be “this is who I am, forgive me” or “This is who I am, how the heck did I get this way?” So sure, traditional Irish songs belong in this month, but also, oddly a lot of rap and hip hop songs, and a good deal of the punk rock genre.

Parallel Universe – Red Hot Chili Peppers

“Christ, I’m a sidewinder
I'm a California King
I swear it's everywhere
It's everything."

This seems like an odd choice at first, but this song, despite having scientific and metaphysical allusions, is primarily about the singer defining themselves. Also the video is of a live recording of the song in Ireland. So there’s that.

There’s a lot of neat things in this song. It, like many things I enjoy, contains numerous juxtapositions of the numinous and the quotidian. Basically it’s very dreamlike. 

I don’t know for sure what the band was feeling when they wrote this. I found this video discussing their style where the commentor says that the “nonsense” of Red Hot Chili Peppers’s lyrics is the result of them being students of funk and rap schools of music. Still, I enjoy interpreting dreams and poetry, and I think this dreamlike song might have some meaning behind it after all; so I’m going to give this a go.

Like I said earlier, this is a song about the singer defining themselves, but the way they define themselves is through a comparison between themselves and and the listener, and between themselves and the universe, AKA California.

As an aside, I’m using “singer” and “listener” here in the poetic sense. The “singer” isn’t necessarily Anthony Kiedis but rather the character he portrays in the song, and the “listener” is not necessarily you or me, but rather the character that the “singer” is singing to, which in this case is probably a girlfriend or someone in a similar role.

This song appeared in the 2001 album Californication, and anyone familiar with the songs of the Red Hot Chili Peppers knows that they have a love-hate relationship with the state. The crux of the title song of the album is that the culture of California, that is, the worship of fame, glamour, pleasure, and art, is something prevalent throughout the world and in all areas of society. One of my favorite lines from the song “Californication” is a reference to the planet that the Death Star blows up in Star Wars. “Alderaan’s not far away, it’s Californication.” 

So California, for the band, is not just a state in the US, but a state of mind. Nietzche would call this a Dionysian state, as opposed to a cold, calculating, but moral Apollonian state.

The chorus has the singer saying that he’s a sidewinder. A dangerous, poisonous, cold blooded creature that slithers on his belly. He’s also, however, a “California king”. He is simultaneously confessing that he lacks Apollonian morality, and bragging that he is a master in his Dionysian domain, and this domain is everywhere, it’s everything. 

The other aspect of this song, which seems to be between the singer and a girlfriend, is that of metaphysical one-ness. The song starts “Deep in a parallel universe it’s getting harder to tell which came first.” The parallel universe is, I think, the universe that exists for the girl, her “California.” The singer seems to realize that the girl’s universe is just as beautiful, just as intricate and cosmically awesome as his own, and strangely, by seeing this he becomes more aware of the beauty of his own universe.

The complexity doesn’t end there though. Because by the end of the song the singer talks of how his song affects the girlfriend, bringing her to tears. This isn’t entirely a good thing. As much as her universe is just as splendid as the singer’s, it also has many of the same flaws. The very fact that something he can sing can move her means that, on some level, there is some psychic wound that they share. There is glory in that, but also a measure of tragedy. How do you ease the horrible feelings you have of loss and regret, if they are everywhere, in everything, including the parallel universe that exists for the one you love?

Well I don’t know, but I guess whiskey probably helps.

Bad Reputation-Joan Jett

“I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation
Never been afraid of any deviation
And I don't really care if you think I'm strange
I ain't gonna change”

This song is a rebellious, take me as I am song that is almost a call to arms. Joan Jett’s voice is marvelously rough and brassy. She could sing just about any punk rock song and it would be outstanding. But, while some of her songs can be a bit repetitive and shallow, this song has some actual lyrics, it has a message, and it’s great.

Maybe it’s a little odd that this would make the top of my list. While I suppose I too have qualms about the stifling expectations of the patriarchy, it’s arguably not really something I have to deal with that often as a male living 40 years after this song was first recorded. I grew up nerdy in the South, though so I’ve been called strange and weird with the contemptuous sneer of the “in” crowd. It’s probably something everyone has to deal with to some degree, even people in the in crowd. So while the song doesn’t perfectly pertain to my problems, and has even less to do with my issues in my current life (nowadays rebellion for me is deciding to take a day off work) I still appreciate the commitment to being true to who you are in the face of peer pressure and the pressure of authority.

You know what? I don’t give a damn if you think it’s odd. I’m going to keep it at the top of my list anyway 🙂


Carrickfergus-Celtic Woman

“But I'll spend my days in endless roaming,
Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus,
On that long road down to the sea.”

A sad Irish tune. But it belongs in March not just because of that, but because even here the singer is placing themselves in the universe. 

Carrickfergus is a town in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland is where my grandfather on my father’s side is from. About twenty years ago now I took a trip with my father and some relatives over to Ireland. We took a tour around the whole island. The first beer I ever had was a Guinness at the pub where they filmed The Quiet Man. Just about everything in Ireland looked beautiful. I remember us visiting some thatch roof homes on a warm sunny day. I think we were looking at my grandfather’s childhood home or perhaps just an example of what it might have been like. We were walking through high grass for some reason and there was a swarm of insects near the corner of one of the houses. Normally not a pleasant thing to behold, but even sweating slightly in the heat and not entirely sure where we were going, I couldn’t quite get the idea of fairies out of my head. 

We visited Carrickfergus as part of the tour. I wasn’t that impressed with the actual place. Ireland is riddled with castles and once you’ve seen one the others aren’t as exciting. We got souvenirs and did the usual tourist things. While we were in Northern Ireland though, we met with some of our relatives who were still in the area. They were very gracious hosts and made potato soup for us and talked about various things. Potato soup was something that was always on hand in Ireland, and it was always excellent. Nearly every restaurant would serve the soup along with a piece of thick sliced bread and that was, oddly, enough. I’ve never had a soup like it in America. Irish potato soup is thick, hearty, and tasty. American potato soup is usually thin and bland. 

We visited Belfast in  Northern Ireland, which was pleasant, even with the not so distant threat of the IRA (the “troubles” ended about three years earlier). There was a string quartet that played Pachelbel’s Cannon at one of the street corners, which has always been one of my favorite classical pieces, simple yet increasingly complicated as layers of instrumentation are added. I have to stop and listen whenever I hear it done well, even thought it’s perhaps a bit over played at weddings and the like. the thing I enjoyed the most about Belfast, though, was going to an arthouse cinema. They had a small book store in the front end where they sold…well they were these thin paperback summaries of novels but made by fans and with literary criticism. I got one about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Then my dad and I saw a German movie starring Franka Potente.  

There were many more wonderful moments on that trip. So while the actual castle of Carrickfergus wasn’t my favorite part of the journey, I still feel the wistful desire to return to Ireland and see all those sites, including that one, again. 

There are many different versions of this song sung by different people. Celtic Woman does a nice job, but the reason why they are ones in my playlist and not the Dubliners or some other band is that my mother liked them a lot. My mom had very particular tastes in music. For her the singer had to be able to sing, which when you consider how often singers get by on attitude and character nowadays, was something of a tall order. She would hear something raucous and strident, and say “Daddy must have had some money.” She enjoyed older music from the fifties and sixties, and some country music, particularly the songs that had a sad narrative to them. 

At any rate, she and her friends went to a concert by Celtic Woman, and she really enjoyed their take on the old Irish songs. When they sing, each syllable is understandable and each note is clear. She got an album for one of her birthdays, and I copied it to MP3 for her, so they ended up on my harddrive. Me and Dad and my brother would sometimes make fun of how breathily feminine and borderline pretentious they were. She would laugh and maybe make fun of how noisy our music was.

It’s been almost five years since my mother died, and these Celtic Woman songs are still on my harddrive, and I can’t help but find them beautiful.

Ah to be back now…

Other Songs:

mull of king tire-Paul McCartney

Last Man on Earth-Cory Branan

(the audio is crappy in the beginning on purpose for effect)

Madder Red-Yeasayers

Kirsten Bell stars in this video! Weird yet touching.

Silent Melody-Working for a Nuclear Free City

Mo Ghile Mear – The Cheiftains

Citizen of The Planet – Alanis Morrisette

I’ve Been Drinkin’ -Jeff Beck featuring Rod Stewart

Danny Boy-The Celtic Women

Genius(Destruction is our function)-Pitchshifter

Pauline- Eleni Mandell

Bakudan Koushinkyoku (Marching Bomb)-Ningen Isu

Man of La Mancha(I, Don Quixote)-Man of La Mancha

(I’m a )Liar-Rollins Band

Mohammed Ali (and Me)-Cory Branan

Minor Thing-Red Hot Chili Peppers

All on Black-Alkaline Trio

HIstory of Drunks-(the)Melvins

February Playlist

Foux de Fafa – Flight of the Conchords

If you don’t know about Flight of the Conchords…you really should. They’re a comedy duo from New Zealand comprised of Jemaine Clement and Bret Mckenzie. More than that though, they’re are kind of at the nexus of half of everything that’s good in the entertainment industry right now. It’s been more than a decade since they had their show on HBO, but many of the people involved in that and in other things they’ve done have gone on to do amazing things. Jemaine Clement in particular has been in a lot of good things from the “shiny” crab in Moana to the trippy astral traveller in the FX series Legion. He and Bret worked together on What We do in the Shadows a funny movie about vampires that got turned into a series of the same name on FX. They worked with Taika Waititi on that and that guy just made a movie (JoJo Rabbit) that got nominated for a Golden Globe. Waititi also directed the last episode of the first season of The Mandalorian. Not to mention Thor:Ragnorak. The credits are already getting tedious at this point, but suffice to say that many of the people involved in Conchords show up in other good things.

This particular song is great because it combines the normal awkwardness of trying to impress a girl with the somewhat more specific awkwardness of speaking a foreign language. I’ve taken a lot of classes in Spanish and Japanese. I can almost speak Spanish. And I can understand a bit of Japanese, but always, inevitably, without fail there is a moment where my knowledge of the language just runs out. That situation is captured beautifully in this song. I also like how the Spanish I know means I can kind of understand a lot of the French. All the terms are your basic first year French terms and so it makes you feel like you’ve maybe learned something after all.

The video I’ve linked to is the segment as it appeared on the HBO series with added subtitles (I didn’t post it, I’m just describing it) They did a great job with the video too. All the colorful Frenchisms and the music video tropes. The style they’re parodying, the internet informs me, is “scopitone,” and even while I recognize it as silly, I kind of enjoy the bright cheerfulness of the style on an un-ironic level too. 

Love Song 311

I first heard this cover of The Cure’s Lovesong in the movie 50 First Dates. This is a movie starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore where Barrymore’s character has a peculiar form of amnesia that causes her to forget whatever happened the previous day. It’s an Adam Sandler movie, which means that for any particular scene there’s an even chance someone is going to get hit in the balls… or someone is going to be going through some dramatic realization that makes them a better person. Depending on the particular movie, I sometimes wish for more of the other thing, but Sandler has a success rate for me of about 70%, which is better than a lot of actor comedians. 

50 First Dates is mostly silly, but it still addresses a little of the horror that the condition of Barrymore’s character has. There are actual people with anterograde amnesia, and although their situations are usually more like the character in Memento than like the 50 First Dates scenario, the problems do get some play in the movie. Another thing the movie has going for it is that it doesn’t rely completely on the amnesia part of the story. Sandler’s character has an interesting job and lifestyle and they could have just had a simple love story with his character and it would have been fun to watch. Having such an interesting premise just pushes it over the top. The final thing 50 First Dates has is the soundtrack, which is excellent. You really get a nice beach vibe from the whole thing, which helps set the scene, but more than that, the music is all high quality. 

311 does a great job with this cover. You do get the beach life feel that goes with the soundtrack, and that goes against the February feel a bit, but it is, of course, a love song and it’s done well. 311 manages to do their take without removing the Cure’s melancholy tone from their version. 

The subtle sadness conveyed in the music matches the movie’s theme as well. Sandler’s character has to lose his love every night, but he meets her again every morning. It’s terrible, but beautiful.

Koop Island Blues Koop

“The truth is

We were much too young

Now I’m looking for you

Or anyone like you”

I first heard this song in a brothel in Paris. It was the 1940s.  I was a race car driver and demolitions expert working with revolutionaries to fight the German occupation. Times were tough then, and listening to this song was a welcome respite from a day spent killing Nazis and blowing up military installations…

The videogame called “The Sabateur.” that I’m referencing  has its problems, but it’s still a fun game. It plays similarly to Assassin’s Creed with a lot of climbing and finding things and clearing out areas. It also borrows a bit from Grand Theft Auto, with a lot of driving and a minimap that lets you know where enemies are and how alert they are. And it takes place in Nazi occupied France so the buildings you have to climb are famous and the people you are killing are evil. The brothel singer’s songs aren’t the only ones. There are other playing on the radio and on record players throughout the game.  Really it’s strange that the game wasn’t more popular than it was. It has its fans, but when it came out in 09 it wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. The critics gave it middling reviews and it seemed to be largely ignored afterward. And back when I was playing it, I would have probably agreed with the sentiment. But while I’ve mostly forgotten other, arguably better games, The Sabateur has stuck in my mind. I keep thinking of it at odd moments. 

One thing that comes up for me often when I think of WWII or the name Jules or even failing at something in a particularly bathetic way is how the main character Sean would say “Sorry, Jules” sometimes when he died, which was usually either by falling off a building or getting riddled with bullets. His brother is named Jules in the game and Sean spends most of the game trying to get revenge on the Nazi that tortured and killed him. But the back story for that happens early on in the game and I played it off and on for the span of a few years so I forgot about Jules. It seemed like Sean was saying “Sorry, Jews,” which seemed delightfully irreverent without quite .

Aside from that, though the game had some striking visuals that just worked really well even with the lower resolution of the time. Having everything under Nazi control be in black and white until you liberate it…it’s something that had been done before in movies, but it seemed particularly effective in a video game where you weren’t just seeing it once or twice, but actually seeming to move around in it. 

As for the song itself, (oh yeah, that’s what this is supposed to be about!) it’s kind of perfect. The singer lays out each note like a collection of postcards from somewhere sad and beautiful. Time goes by, people change, and they yearn for what they once were, and the feelings they once had. The ever widening gyre of life continues to confound the compass of desire. The video…is not what I picture at all when I listen to it, although it has some things going for it. The band that created the song is actually two dudes from Sweden. But whatever. The song is pretty. I like the song. Maybe they made other pretty songs? I haven’t found out yet.

Other good February songs:

A Girl Like You – Edwyn Collins

A Girl Named Go! – Cory Branan

Aquarius – The Fifth Dimension

Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love – Pink Martini

Uninvited – Alanis Morrisette

Michelle – Beatles

Got to Get You into My Life – Cliff Bennet & the Rebel Rauser

All I Have to do is Dream – The Everly Brothers

Carol Brown – Flight of the Concords

Melody Dean – Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra

Concept – Cranberries

Cupid – Sam Cooke

Never Far Away – Jack White

Like a Stone – Chris Cornell

Madonna No. 18 – Fantasys Core (couldn’t find a video for this song. They’re an obscure Japanese rock band that I saw in Memphis here’s another song of theirs though)

Head Over Feet – Alanis Morrisette

Ain’t Misbehaving – Tommy Bruce & The Bruisers

January Songs

December is the time for Christmas songs, but what do you listen to when Christmas is over? That thought led me to organize my music collection into twelve playlists, one for each month. I also try to rank the songs over the span of a year to find the best ones, the ones I’m not going to mind listening to several times on a sixty song or so playlist. The idea is that each month I listen to my favorites songs that follow a theme of that month, and then the next month I listen to another set of songs. I get the pleasure of knowing the words better and getting the nuances that come from repeated listenings, but I don’t get too sick of the songs before the month is out.

For this year (2020) I’ve decided to write a blog about my monthly playlists for anybody looking for songs to add to their own sets. There are probably fifteen apps that do that for you automatically. Still, Pandora, I Heart Radio, and some others I’ve tried don’t seem to be eclectic enough. They all operate under the idea that you’re going to like songs that are similar to other songs you like. This works to some degree, but just because I like Pearl Jam, doesn’t mean I only want to hear 90s grunge for the rest of my life. So I’m stuck actually creating my own playlists, which is a time-consuming, but entertaining endeavor. It also gives me an excuse to clean out some duplicate mp3 files, delete some songs that are just stinkers, and revisit ones I’ve forgotten about. And often, oddly, I find out new things about artists I like that actually lead me to new music.

I also kind of wanted to write more blogs and this gives me something to write about. So here’s my list for January 2020 I’ve written a bit about the first three, songs but the rest I’m just leaving as exercises for the reader.

January is a cold month. It’s a month about beginning, and time, and making resolutions. In a vaguer sense, it’s about figuring out what’s important, and having the courage to leave behind what’s not…

Nothing Else Matters- Metallica

  • “So close, no matter how far
  • Couldn’t be much more from the heart
  • Forever trust in who we are
  • And nothing else matters”

A classic Metallica song. One of the reasons why Metallica’s music exists outside the bounds of the heavy metal genre is songs like this one. This song is in some ways a call to arms, in some ways a love song. It’s all about being true to something and moving on, which is why I think it fits into January. This is a song about resolve and January is a month about resolutions.

Nocturne/ Bohemian Rhapsody-Lucia Micarelli

Back when Netflix sent out DVDs in the mail there was a little more drama in the process. You would select what DVDs you wanted to see, but usually you’d forget what you had selected by the time they arrived in the mail. Also Netflix’s recommendations seemed like a bigger deal (they still are a big deal, but they aren’t as obvious as they were back then), they’d suggest things to watch based on what you’d liked previously and they’d be right maybe half the time. So you’d get the red envelope in the mail, and you’d open it and read the description on the disc sleeve, remembering all the reasons why you thought the movie might be good and wondering if your bet would pay off, or if it would be a dud. A lot of times even the duds had something worthwhile in them though. Such was the case with this one disc I got, which was a live recording of a Josh Groban concert. 

Now Mr. Groban was something of a sensation back in the early Aughts. There were fan message boards (like reddit only less convenient) dedicated to Josh Groban, which, in their off time raised millions of dollars for a charity. Clay Shirkey ended up writing about it in his book Cognitive Surplus, which was about how people on the internet can get amazing things accomplished in the time they’re spending not doing traditional work.  But this Netflix disc arrived a couple years before I read Shirkey’s book. Netflix had been trying to push it on me for a while. “No, really,” Netflix was saying “This will be right up your alley!” 

For the most part, however, it wasn’t. Groban’s genre is basically good, pretty-sounding music. I liked a rendition he did on Vincent, a song praising Vincent Van Gogh, but nothing else really jumped out at me, and even that was a little too…nice.

Groban had a guest musician however, and that guest was Lucia Micarellii

You can see her performance in the YouTube video, but for the full effect, imagine you’ve listened to an hour or so of elevator music. Elevator music that’s expertly, and lovingly performed, mind you, but elevator music nonetheless. And now here’s this lady walking on stage barefoot, looking like some kind of forest spirit. She starts playing this mournful, heartrending piece of music. It’s quite pretty and you can see the passion she has for the music in her playing, and then…wait a minute…Holy shit! That’s Bohemian Rhapsody! Drums join in, along with other instruments. Everything rises in intensity until it hits a breaking point and finally returns the original mournful music. Just awesome.

This was the first time I heard about Lucia Micarelli. Later though she showed up as an actress in a series created by David Simon (who created the shows Homicide and The Wire) called Treme. I didn’t care for the Treme much. There were too many characters and not enough focus on any one storyline. Furthermore, the tone was dismal and it got a bit too political. Still, one of the bright spots was the music in general, and Lucia Micarelli in particular. Her character, Annie, had her faults, but she was always looking for ways to improve herself and the situation around her. While everyone else in the show was pursuing political gain, investigating murders, and committing suicide, she was playing music. Of course that was a fictional character, but still, it was a role Micarelli chose to play and she played it well. 

So I think of all that when I hear the song, but of course the original Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen is a classic. The new movie starring Rami Malek was pretty good, and it also reminds me of the scene in Wayne’s World where they are all head banging in the car. The lyrics in the original are also about resolve (“Time to leave you all behind and face the truth…”) . It fits January for that reason, but the Nocturne bit at the beginning and end make me think of a cold, January morning, when it’s still too early to see by the sun, and everything’s trying to remember a good reason to wake up. 

Fire Escape – Fastball

  • I’ll be the rain falling on your fire escape
  • And I may not be the man you want me to
  • I can be myself, how ’bout you?”

This song is 90% about saying “Screw you! I’ll do what I want!”… but then there’s that odd poetry of the chorus and some of the lines that mellows it somewhat and makes it more than it would be otherwise. Rain falling on a fire escape. I suppose that’s a dangerous thing, something that makes things less safe. The feeling I get from the song though is more that the rain is kind of nice, just providing atmosphere, existing outside and informing what goes on inside, but not really being a part of things. 

It reminds me of James Joyce’s book Ulysses, which follows a character Leopold Bloom as he makes his way home on a day’s journey. The places he goes mimic the places the character Ulysses goes to in the original epic by Homer. In the chapter that relates to Ulysses’ encounter with Circe. Leopold and his friend Stephen Daedalus find themselves in a brothel. Things start to get a bit strange later on, but there’s one part where there is a commotion outside the window and someone wonders what it is. Someone else replies that it is God. God is the commotion outside the window.

God, then, could also be the rain falling on the fire escape. So sure this is actually most likely a song about a guy setting boundaries in a relationship , but halfway in my head I also kind of see it as a god (or more secularly the Universe) explaining itself to its creations. I may not be what you want me to be, but I can be myself, what about you? Like, maybe, stop asking me for crap and do some work yourself, huh?

Other good January songs

Redneck or Hillbilly?

I was trying to figure out a story that’s told by one of the characters in Ozark about a hillbilly and a redneck This is the script for that part of the show:

A redneck and a hillbilly are strolling along a country lane, talking about the Garden of Eden. The redneck, drinking whiskey as he walks, believes that Adam and Eve had every right to take that apple for, if God were kind, why would he forbid them from partaking in that delicious fruit? The hillbilly listens and nods. Then the redneck finishes the bottle and throws it onto the path. When the hillbilly frowns, the redneck says, “Judge not,lest thee be judged.” When the hillbilly frowns again the redneck says, “You judge doubly, you sin twice.” Whereupon God smites the redneck dead. The Hillbilly, forever silent and diligent digs the redneck’s grave and fashions a humble tombstone from the empty bottle, and walks on. That eve he witnesses the most beautiful sunset ever ‘fore made.

Here’s a link to a youtube video of the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8B-bNrOLj0

The point of this parable seems to be that the Redneck has the wrong attitude about life and the Hillbilly has the better one, but I’m not clear on where exactly the two types differ. They both seem to agree on the apple comment (even though some would argue this should be “fruit” since in the original language Genesis was written in, the fruit of the the tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn’t of any specific variety.). So both seem to think that the knowledge of good and evil is a good and wonderful thing and that God, being kind, actually wanted mankind to take the apple, which runs counter to about 97% of Christian doctrine.

Now it’s possible that by nodding the Hillbilly is merely being polite and placating the Redneck while disagreeing, but if so, this isn’t made clear by the narrative. Let’s take the assumption then that they both agree on this odd assertion. The first point of disagreement seems to be when the redneck finishes his bottle and throws it on the path. The Hillbilly frowns. Why? Is it because the Redneck didn’t share the whiskey? Is it because the redneck was littering? Is it because the Redneck didn’t appreciate the path?

As a secular taoist I like this last interpretation the best, but it still isn’t exactly clear. The Redneck says “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” quoting Matthew 7:1. The bible verse later says that you will be judged in the same manner that you judge others. As far as context goes the quotation is meant for those who worry about the specks in other people’s eyes when they have planks of wood in their own. So it is a tad incorrect to use the quote when someone is merely frowning at an act of disrespect.

Is the Hillbilly committing an act of greater disrespect? No, not as far as we know. Also, the Redneck is being rather judgmental himself by saying this.

The Hillbilly frowns again, I suppose at the hypocrisy of the Redneck.

The Redneck says “You judge doubly, you sin twice.”  Now, no one ever said judging was a sin, just that judging invited reciprocal judgment. Still, after the Redneck says this, he is struck down by God. So first, God definitely exists in the universe of the parable. Second, God is of the opinion that the Redneck is wrong. So I suppose we can take the interpretation that the Redneck is being ironically hypocritical each time he uses the phrase “judge not lest ye be judged.”And it is he who “sins twice” as it were.

Still, this seems like a complicated moral stance for a story about a redneck and a hillbilly. Another idea might be that God strikes down the Redneck because the Redneck is saying a bunch of stupid crap about things he doesn’t understand.

This interpretation is buoyed by the  bit afterwards about the Hillbilly being silent and diligent. However, there is the larger context to take into account. The story is told by a Drug Dealer to the Owner of a strip club. The Drug Dealer was using the strip club to launder money, but the Owner sold the deed to the strip club (or more precisely took money for the deed after it was taken from him and he was arrested). The Drug Dealer told the story to the strip club owner as they were drinking lemonade. Then the Drug Dealer’s wife sticks the owner in the neck with a syringe full of heroin. As the Owner is dying, the Drug Dealer calls him a redneck. So the Owner of the strip club is supposed to be like the Redneck in the story, and the Drug Dealer like the Hillbilly.

So perhaps the whole problem is that the Redneck didn’t consult the Hillbilly before finishing the whiskey? And then got indignant when the Hillbilly was upset about that? But then how does that relate to the part about the apple and the garden of eden? And what about the judge doubly, sin twice part?

So here’s my own interpretation, developed from trying to get some sort of consistent meaning out of what is likely an unimportant string of dialogue whipped up on the fly to work as something cool to say before killing someone.  The knowledge of good and evil (the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the garden) is a wonderful thing. But knowledge of good and evil is only worth something if you use that knowledge. That is, if you use judgment. If you use judgment, you have to be prepared to be judged in turn, but not using it isn’t a moral option either.

In terms of Christian mythology, Adam and Eve were naked and shameless before they ate the apple, but afterward, they had to cover themselves up because they had shame. God, being a omnipotent and omniscient, but having granted humans free will, would have known that they would eventually eat the fruit, so it’s possible to believe that it was a gift to humankind, but one that came with consequences. For the Redneck to say that knowledge of good and evil was a wonderful thing and then subsequently perform a wasteful act (finishing the whisky and throwing the bottle in the path carelessly) is hypocritical. Then for him to disparage the  judgment of others, is doubly hypocritical. Using the quote from Matthew is ironic, because it would be the Redneck with the plank in his eye. The Redneck shows no shame when he should know better and so God strikes him down. So the moral of the story is “Don’t pretend you don’t know better, when you do.”

Or at least that’s the best I can come up with.

I did a brief search for other interpretations. My favorite comes from Popmatters.com in an article titled “An Ozarker Considers Netfix’s ‘Ozark'”. The author doesn’t really analyze the parable in any real detail, however he does reveal that, much as one might expect, the terms hillbilly and redneck are not really all that distinct, even in the Ozarks. Both are pretty much insults, but ones that may be embraced by certain groups as cultural identifiers. Furthermore, the Ozarks portrayed in the show are really a fantasy version of the real place made up of previous stories and memories of the area from the seventies. In short, the parable here is a tale made up by a made up character in a made up story in made up version of a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. Its possible relevance to the world at large is remote at best. And yet I still find it oddly fascinating. Way to hack my brain, dude or dudette in the writers’ room who came up with this thing.

Interesting fact: I learned a new word from the wikipedia entry on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: merism. A merism is a combination of items of a set of things to indicate the entirety of that set. For instance “the long and short of it” or “sword and sorcery”. Yay vocabulary!

Germ Cultivation

I recently came upon an article in the New York Times about how people with skin disorders such as acne or eczema could be helped by a sort of topical probiotic treatment. In other words if we take bacteria from the skin of healthy people and spread them on the skin of diseased people, evidence suggests that the good bacteria will fight off the bad bacteria and the skin condition may go away.

This idea of probiotics, (using good bacteria to fight off bad bacteria) has been around for a while now, but it’s been steadily gaining popularity.

I find the whole thing fascinating for a number of reasons. I like the counter-intuitive aspect of it. I like how it looks at the problem of infection from more of a systems perspective, rather than seeing it as a single cause requiring a single remedy. And finally I like how it flies in the face of all the do-gooders who were telling us all how to live our lives in the 80’s and 90’s when I was growing up.

BactRanch

Bacteria husbandry?

It turns out (to a certain extent) it’s better to have children go out and be dirty for a bit. Visiting a farm and interacting with animals, for instance, reduces the risk of asthma. It turns out we shouldn’t take antibiotics every time we get a stomachache since it kills off our gut microbiota and could cause even nastier diseases to run rampant. And now it turns out that if you’re worried about getting a disgusting skin condition, perhaps what you should do is shake hands with as many (healthy) people as possible.

Of course it’s important not to get too carried away. A little dirt outside is okay, but living in filth is not. Just because antibiotics aren’t always the best choice doesn’t mean you should stop using them when you need them. And obviously you should wash your hands often and thoroughly to prevent the spread of diseases like MRSA and the flu.

What the researchers did in this study was put healthy bacteria into a lotion and put this on the forearms of people with eczema. There seemed to be a reduction in the disease, but there are still questions of whether the treatment will continue to work over time, or what might happen if there’s an open wound.

My personal prediction would be that a small open wound like a scratch or abrasion wouldn’t be much of a problem in this case. The bacteria used in the study (Staphylococcus hominis and Staphylococcus epidermidis) are so common that most people’s immune systems will quickly recognize the bacteria in the blood stream and destroy them before they can cause any harm. That “most people” would not include immunocompromised people like the elderly, people preparing for transplant surgery, or AIDS sufferers, however. And if someone has a skin condition, there’s a good chance that something might be off about their immune system.

Ultimately, like many science stories out there, this is cause for some cautious optimism. IF someone has a bacteria-related skin problem, and IF they don’t have some other complicating condition, then they MAY be helped by this therapy IN THE FUTURE (probably 5 years or so I would guess), ASSUMING there aren’t some unforeseen side effects.

As for most of us living outside of laboratories and going about our day to day existences, what I would say this means is that we shouldn’t worry so much about germs. Or more precisely, don’t worry so much about getting rid of them. It’s not good to douse our bodies with antibacterial soaps at every opportunity. It’s also still not a good idea to live in squalor either. Chances are, if you wash your hands regularly and don’t stink, you are clean enough.

Beyond that common sense assessment, if you want to improve your health, you might try finding someone who has healthier skin than you, and shake their hand. Or ask them to rub some lotion on you. Or maybe do none of these things. That way they won’t think you’re a creep and you may benefit from their simple proximity. Yes, it may be that if you want to be prettier, you need to hang around pretty people, which will be easier if you are already pretty. Perhaps yet another astounding example of the Matthew Effect.

‘Member Star Wars?

Writing this in December 2016 a couple days before Rogue One comes out in theaters. I’m excited about the movie because it’s Star Wars, it looks like it’s going in a new, mostly good direction, and Alan Tudyk is involved and many of the things he’s involved in are awesome (Firefly, Wreck-it Ralph, Baseketball). On the other hand, Tudyk has been involved in some stinkers (In my opinion: I, Robot; Death at a Funeral; and his webseries Conman). The robot he is giving his voice to also looks a bit like a hillbilly with his overalls hiked up too far. (Edit from 7/2/17 I’ve seen the movie now and, interestingly enough I liked that it was going in a new, mostly good direction, but was not as pleased with it as I hoped)

Also disturbing is that Forrest Whitaker is in the movie. I have yet to see Forrest Whitaker be in a movie that’s actually good. The closest is the Crying Game, which was memorable mostly because it was disturbing, not because it was particularly good. Somehow he has a reputation of being a good actor, and while I can’t say he’s a bad actor, I can’t really think of a time where I was struck by any of his performances. I think he’s one of these arthouse actors that get thrown into a movie to give it gravitas, only it often seems to backfire. (Edit: Did NOT like Forrest Whitaker in this movie either.)

It’s kind of a shame, because I get the impression that Whitaker has a good sense of humor and likes a lot of the same things I like. It’s just he always gets these overly serious roles. In most of his scenes he seems to be expressing dismay at having learned some unfortunate truth. At any rate, his being in the movie makes me think that we’re going to have a scene at some point where there is a field of dead soldiers and several lines bemoaning the horrors of war. I suppose that could be a good thing for the movie, I just hope it’s not what the movie is about.(Edit: I was a bit off. Instead of a field of dead soldiers there was a tremendous apocalyptic wave of earth and death)

On a somewhat related note, I just finished playing a Star Wars game from about 8 years ago called Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. This was a game released from LucasArts, before the rights to Star Wars were sold to Disney, but after the last of the three prequels came out. There is a funny moment in  the game where you’re fighting in a room of collectibles and on the wall is a gungan frozen in carbonite that looks an awful lot like Jar Jar Binks.

It’s a frustrating game to play, mainly because the targeting system is so buggy. You can move things with the force, shoot them with electricity, or throw a lightsaber at them, but only if they have a blue square around them, AND you have a clear line of sight, AND they aren’t something that’s immune to the attack you’re trying. Not to mention that if you move a little bit the blue square winks off, and sometimes you can attack somebody even though they don’t have a blue square.

This frustration aside though, it’s fun fighting with and against wookies, jawas, and Rancors; throwing spaceships around with the force; and seeing all the iconic robots and ships from the movies. Also you get to be Darth Vader for a bit, which is neat. The story line of the game isn’t too bad either. It at least has one or two interesting characters. Not the main character, Starkiller, who, while voiced excellently by Sam Witwer, has a strange arc that makes it hard to figure out his motivations. Rather it’s two side characters that I wanted to know more about.

Proxy is a droid that can use holographic projectors on its body to appear as any one he’s studied sufficiently. He repeatedly says that it is his mission to kill the main character, but he obviously cares about him too. Also he has strange insights into the people he pretends to be. There’s a line about midway through the game after Proxy becomes Darth Vader to deliver a message. Proxy says “I hate having to be him” and Starkiller says, “I think he does too.”  I would love to play a game where I could play as Proxy, or see a movie where he was around more. But I’m not even sure if he made it to the sequel of the game, and since the story is no longer canon, we might never see his like again.

The other character I wanted to know more about is Maris Brood, the apprentice of one of the Jedi Knights Shaak Ti. Shaak Ti herself is a canon character now, I think, but at least in the game Maris Brood was way more interesting. She was trained by someone who followed the light side, and yet she herself was dark side. She had an affinity for animals, notably a Megarancor that you have to fight when you battle her. She also could teleport and used lightsabers like tonfas. Shaak Ti’s fight by comparison was something of a letdown and I didn’t get anything of where she was coming from. Maris Brood seem to have a genuine beef that I would have liked to know more about.

Doing research for this post led me to a novelization of the game, which I might check out later, because overall the game was like a glimpse into a much larger story. I play games for three reasons, to pretend to be someone else, to challenge my brain with interesting puzzles, and to be entertained by an engaging, if often not particularly sophisticated, plot. The game had definite good points in all three categories, although it stopped frustratingly short of complete success in any one of them. The ending was a bit contrived and the one choice you could make to influence the plot was way too little, way too late. By the time it comes, you’re almost not even aware that it is a choice, since the rest of the game is so linear.

Now is a good time to pick it up if you’re looking for something to play that’s not too expensive, since it’s got a lot of good Star Wars references, but if you want a game from around the same time period that’s easier and more fun to play, Infamous is probably a better bet. You have many of the same powers, but without the clunky UI. Also Infamous has choices all the way through it that affect gameplay as well as the character’s appearance. Granted the affect on gameplay isn’t very drastic, there are mostly a few lines of dialogue that are different and a few missions that turn out differently. Still, it’s much more satisfying from a roleplaying perspective and it meshes with the storyline better too. I think a good takeaway might be that Force Unleashed tells a better story, but Infamous tells its story better.

Along the lines of remembering things from the past, I’ve run into a lot of stuff on Alzheimer’s research lately. First there was an episode of 60 minutes that aired recently about a group of people living in Colombia that have a rare genetic mutation, making it almost inevitable that they will develop Alzheimer’s. It’s a recessive mutation, so not all of the people get it, but by testing for it, researchers can know ahead of time who’s going to get the disease, and therefore they can know how well whatever therapy they come up with will work. Most of the therapies they currently have show little or no effect on the disease, but that might be because the patients who receive the therapies aren’t getting them early enough.

Far more exciting in my opinion, though, is the research coming from Li-Huei Tsai about using the light from flickering LEDs to lessen the beta-amyloid plaque in the neurons of rats with Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid plaque build up is though to be one of the major contributing factors in the development of the disease. It was theorized that causing neurons to fire at a certain rate, known as the gamma frequency, would encourage janitor cells in the brain (microglia) to clear up the plaque. Initially Tsai, used a rather invasive procedure (optogenetics) to cause the neurons to fire at the right frequency. She found that there was, in fact, up to a 50 percent reduction in plaque using this procedure. However, when she simply tried using LEDs with no further surgery she found it had almost the same effect!

Now here’s the clincher, and the thing that ties this whole blog post up. A human gamma wave is a neural oscillation of between 25 to 100 Hz, 40 Hz being the most typical. The unit Hz stands for “Hertz” and means “per second.” Most monitors and TV sets show images at around 60 frames per second. This equates to a light oscillation of around 60 Hz which is well within the gamma range. Furthermore, Gamma oscillations occur when the mind is in a state of extreme concentration, which can occur during meditation, during a difficult calculation, or…playing a particularly engaging video game.

Playing video games could possibly keep you from getting Alzheimer’s.

Dad&BradPod Episode 2

Part two of a conversation between me and my father in March of 2014 about Midsouthcon and other things.

This episode makes reference to the following things:

Police procedurals:
(although I should note that I was initially thinking of police reports, the things actual police write, but said “procedural” which caused some confusion.)

Dragnet

True crime

Tropic Thunder

The character Hannibal Lector from the movie “Silence of the Lambs” from the series of novels by Thomas Harris and the new (at the time) TV series Hannibal

A joke about monks and cannibalism.

Midsouthcon

Consuites

Science Fiction art  and its similarities to surrealism

Kelly Armstrong and the TV series Bitten based off of her first book of the same name. Also the new (at the time) book she had at the con Omens

Nanowrimo

Frank Sinatra

What is the best way to focus, learn and understand any concept?

Here’s another answer to a Quora question, which you can find here as well as in this post.


string-theory-2First, you have to pick a concept. I’m not just being flip here. Picking a concept can be difficult, and it is the essence of focus. If you want to learn string theory, you can’t learn to program, study the economy of Tahiti, and grok the subtle nuances of a TV show about super heroes at the same time.

You have to budget your time. I like half hour segments, but you may find something else works better. For me I tell myself that for this particular half hour, all I’m going to do is study this concept I want to study. I have a plan for the day where each free half hour segment that I have is set up ahead of time. Of course making the plan is one thing; actually following it is another. That would be another Quora answer, and my solutions for that may not work for you.

The point is that you must devote yourself to the thing you want to learn for at least some span of time. The more time you devote the better, although you may find some diminishing returns if you get too obsessive. You may have heard how many of the best musicians played until their fingers bled; the best programmers spend all night on code surviving on cheesy poofs and energy drinks. These stories may be true, but sometimes passion doesn’t come as naturally. Sometimes you have to cultivate it. So for half an hour, or whatever you can manage, attack the concept with all the will you can muster. After the time is up, you have permission to stop.

Devoting yourself to learning the concept means, no internet beyond what you need, no texting, no talking to friends, no video or TV watching, and no distracting music. You may have a playlist of songs that help you concentrate. I like instrumental music with a dance or techno rhythm sometimes for that, but most of the time I find I’m so worried about whether or not I can work with a particular song, that I just learn to deal with silence. This can be difficult, even dangerous for some people. Your job may depend on you being available. But if you want to focus on something, you are going to have to let something go for a little while. If you can’t find some time to devote to this thing you want to learn, I’m afraid you aren’t going to be able to learn it.

Now, after you’ve picked a concept, and devoted yourself to it, the next thing you need to do is step away from it. Ask any writer who has managed to overcome writer’s block. Sometimes obsessing over something, especially something complicated and difficult to understand, just does not work. Sometimes you have to give the logical part of your mind a rest. Do something else for a while. You may need to schedule this you-time just as stringently as your concept-time, but it helps. Although it’s true that learning the concept will be it’s own reward, the human brain wants instant gratification. After the third time you read about some one arguing over whether there’s six dimensions or eleven, you are very likely going to want to say “screw string theory” and eat a hot dog.
(There’s nothing difficult to understand about a hot dog. You can ponder it’s origins and chemical make up if you want, but it will only last a second before you tell yourself “Dude, it’s a freaking hot dog!” Much like religion, hot dogs require faith, but with faith comes solace, and you can make yourself one with everything.)
Wait until your devotion time is up, but then go for it. Take it easy for a while. After you’ve worked on it for the duration you set for yourself it will feel like a reward, and you’ll be more likely to want to study again. Don’t forget you’re human. Don’t burn yourself out.

Finally, for all the times when you aren’t intensely concentrating on some concept, you should remember to be open to serendipity. You may suddenly understand why there has to be six (or eleven) dimensions while you’re sitting in traffic on your way to work. It all has to do with rollerskates, you realize. Suddenly your boss calls. You pick up your phone. You could answer it right away, or you could text “rollerskates” to yourself while traffic is stopped. Text those rollerskates. As long as it’s not going to get you fired to let the phone ring a little longer, let your brain work in it’s weird and wonderful way. Remember that you care about string theory. It’s important to you. Later on, when you’re diving into it again and you’re lost you’ll remember you texted yourself something and then you’ll go “Oh yeah, it’s like rollerskates!” and you’ll be back on track.
So in review:

  • Pick your concept (don’t do everything at once)
  • Devote yourself to it (schedule it)
  • Step away from it (when you need to)
  • Be open to serendipity (when you can)

That’s my advice. Hope it helps


 

Image from http://www.egymbb.sk/vesmir/teoriastrunE.html

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