Monday, December 29, 2008

My favorite songs of 2008

1. Kim & Jessie (M83) -- Shimmering, soaring shoegaze electronica with a French accent. It also twinkles.

Kim & Jessie - M83

2. I'm Outta Time (Oasis) -- This is what latter-day Oasis has morphed into, for better or worse: their best songs are now melancholy knife-in-the-heart ballads. Usually sung by Noel. This one isn't, so there's your present-to-past connection. Really kicks in around the Lennon sample, but unfortunately fades away shortly thereafter.

Im Outta Time - Oasis

3. The Righteous Path (Drive-By Truckers) -- Seldom do I pay much attention to lyrics...this song is an exception. Sums up the Good Fight of Life and the fine line between success and failure better than any I've ever heard. The music's good too.

The Righteous Path - Drive-By Truckers

4. Blind (Hercules and Love Affair) -- This one teleported into my life from 1979. Now it won't leave. I can't believe I like this crap.

Blind (Full Album Version) - Hercules And Love Affair

5. The Rip (Portishead) -- Soft and spooky early, then halfway through, when that vocal note, suspended in midair, is gradually swallowed along with the rest of the song by that Casio keyboard bassline slowly materializing out of the fog, the song goes to another plane. Gorgeous.

The Rip (Current TV 04/08) - Portishead

6. Tyrants (Black Mountain) -- The best 70s prog metal epic from 2008.

Tyrants - Black Mountain

7. A Ghost to Most (Drive-By Truckers) -- The only song on this list I've heard live, twice, four feet away from the guy who wrote it. Would it be "punny" to use the word "haunting" to describe a song about a metaphorical "ghost"? Even if it has the word "britches" in it? What if I use "quotation marks"?

A Ghost To Most - Drive-By Truckers

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

My favorite albums of 2008

1. Brighter Than Creation's Dark, Drive-By Truckers. Another gothic roots-rock epic from the current greatest rock band in the world. Best songs: "3 Dimes Down", "The Righteous Path", "A Ghost to Most"

2. Third, Portishead. An eerie, spooky, after-midnight fog of clinks, clanks, and hums. Best songs: "Silence", "The Rip", "We Carry On"

3. Mudcrutch, Mudcrutch. Tom Petty side project of laid-back country-rock. Best songs: "Scare Easy", "Lover of the Bayou", "Crystal River"

4. Dig Out Your Soul, Oasis. Thankfully it isn't bad. It's actually pretty dang good. Best songs: "I'm Outta Time", "Falling Down", "Waiting for the Rapture"

5. In the Future, Black Mountain. What would happen if Black Sabbath and late-60s Jefferson Airplane got together, indulged in various illicit substances, channelled Caress of Steel / 2112 -era Rush, and loaded the songs with doom riffs hewn from barbed wire and incense. Good times. Best songs: "Tyrants", "Wucan", "Bright Lights"

6. April, Sun Kil Moon. Arcane, ethereal, ghostly yet melodic music best listened to late at night. Best songs: "Tonight the Sky", "Moorestown", "Lost Verses"

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cycling year in review, 2008

Season start: 2/3/08
Season midpoint: 7/23/08
Season end: 11/3/08
Rides: 47
Total distance: 2676 km (1663 miles)
Average miles per ride: 35.4
Longest ride: 119.6 km (74.3 miles), 9/8
Fastest ride: 16.7 mph over 39.5 miles, 9/3
Fastest speed: 41.7 mph (heading south near Laurel / Knox County line on 1803) 9/8
Steepest ride: 4,482 vertical feet climbed, 7/23 (Rockcastle River ride)

Total distance good for second all-time (1741 miles in 2005), and is almost double last year's total (847 miles, thanks to the knee tendonitis). Not bad, considering my aversion to riding in the cold this year compared to years past.

Unfortunately this was the first year in several that I didn't ride in either the Tour de London (work) or the Red River Rally (vacation).

This year's rides, compared to years past, were fewer in number, longer in distance, and were probably as a result slower, although I haven't crunched those numbers. I set a new personal single-ride record in distance (74.3 miles vs. 71.6 miles on 8/14/06). It wasn't a lot further, but the average speed for this year's effort was significantly higher (16.2 mph vs. 15.3 mph), so I'm happy. Experience helps you feel out your physical and mental efficiencies.

My chief aim for next year is to make significant progress toward my biggest goal, a century. Certainly attainable, but I will have to find a way to carry another water bottle or two.

Season's highlight: new distance record
Season's most chilling fact: The Tour de France is a good 32% longer than my entire year's distance, and they do it in three weeks.
Season's lowlight: the dog wanting me to give it a hand on 8/6
Season's worst pun: see above


Monday, December 15, 2008

Man on Wire (2008): Netflixin 12/14/08

  • Why I rented it: I read about it in the paper back in the summer when it came out and thought it sounded interesting, but never got a chance to go to Lexington to see it. After noticing it on several critics' year-end best-of lists, rented it the day the dvd came out.

  • Verdict: 8/10. Bad things first: the non-linear story structure (flashbacks are often so subtle that they go on for several minutes before you realize they're flashbacks; characters appear in medias res, then are re-introduced later) and occasionally thick French accents make the story sometimes hard to follow.

    Otherwise, a beautiful, beautiful movie. Innovation, drive, performance art, and the human spirit. Once again (see Amélie), a French movie that, based on its subject manner, my cynical self should consider silly ends up opening my eyes to the simple beauty of a man on a wire.

    Freedom fries my patoot.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

300 (2006): Netflixin 12/6/08

  • Why I rented it: I remember studying the Peloponnesian War in the 9th grade. A bittersweet unit as Athens was always my favorite -- the brains to Sparta's brawn. But before that was Thermopylae. So, how's about an enjoyable sword-and-sandals epic that as a bonus helps us review the history of Ancient Greece? Yes?

  • Verdict: 3/10. There's a point near the beginning of the DVD commentary that is very telling about this movie. One of the film's creators tells how they came up with the titles score, one of those emotive Enya-sounding vocal mood pieces that I first remember from Braveheart but now seems to be the ubiquitous accompaniment to every slow-mo serious scene in every movie made since. He confirms something I've always assumed...those exotic lyrics are nothing more than nonsense, chosen simply for the way they sound. Kind of like this movie.

    Sure, it looks great. It's based on a graphic novel (that's sophisticate for "comic book") and it shows. Style in loads. But gratuitously slow splattering blood gobs, severed body parts, and a bazillion shots of spears going through torsos can only carry a movie so far. After a while, the video-game fight scenes get tedious. And there's nothing to fall back on...the Spartans are supposed to be fighting for their glorious nation, but the audience is expected to accept this a priori. No background, character development, or dialogue to help you along. Just epic theatre accents grunting and growling hollow phrases as interludes between killing sessions.

    As for getting some history with my entertainment, I find it a bit odd that an Iron Maiden song is more historically accurate than an almost two-hour-long movie.


Friday, December 05, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008): Netflixin 12/5/08

  • Why I rented it: I needed some intellectual stimulation. Don't laugh.

  • Verdict: 5/10 (technical); 1/10 (content). I originally wasn't going to write an entry on this movie, as the impressions I got after seeing it were less about the movie itself and more about the ideas it expressed. But it's been sticking in my mind the past few days.

    As a movie, it's ok. A fairly well put-together documentary. Cinematography, animated interludes, all of that. Ben Stein staring down Darwin's statue is probably the visual high point. Both for him and me.

  • But for those actually interested in a big meaty plate of reason, it's about as filling as a fluffy ball of cotton candy.

    Now is not the time for me to write an exhaustive dissertation on creationism, intelligent design, and evolution. This is a movie review on a blog. But I WILL hit some high points about what science is and isn't.

    I sort of expected this movie to be a primer on what intelligent design (ID) is. But after watching it, I feel no more informed about ID than I ever was. They never really talk about it. Instead, the film is dedicated to presenting the cases of a handful of scientists whose work, to varying degrees, was in some way sympathetic to intelligent design and were ostensibly "expelled" from their posts as a result. The stage is set like this: open-minded, innovative, persecuted little guys versus the monolithic, mean-spirited, snobbish institution of science (cue timpani roll). Through the wonders of editing and the flexibility of the visual medium, most of the real scientists come off like arrogant snakes slithering down dark hallways while the ID guys are just regular ol' honest-to-goodness folk like you and me.

    People with even basic capabilities in critical thought should be able to see this movie's punches coming a mile away. But it's a sure-fire way to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of thought of anybody else.

    Up until this point, the movie is simply half-baked. I'm having fun picking out the logical fallacies. But then, Stein shows us that Godwin's Law applies even to intellectually dishonest ID documentaries. The Holocaust, it seems, wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Darwin. Yes, Darwin, in publishing On the Origin of Species and putting forward the idea of natural selection (presented in part with a passage from The Descent of Man edited down so much that it loses its original meaning), gave Hitler all of his ideas about Aryan superiority. I love Roger Ebert's icily succinct reaction to this argument:

    (Stein) takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.

    So I suppose the basic tenet of ID is this: nature is too complicated to have developed through evolution or some other independent process. Therefore, an Intelligent Designer (who is usually implied to be but isn't explicitly defined as God) must have played a part in it. Stein can make his movie, and since you can't disprove him, he's right. This is, of course, to use the term for a logical fallacy, an "argument from ignorance"...using a "God of the gaps" as a catch-all to explain anything that doesn't have a definitive scientific explanation. Fine for religion. Not fine for science.

    I have no problem with ID. If you believe it, that's ok with me. But for Pete's sake, people, IT IS NOT SCIENCE. It is religion. Please stop trying to pass it off as such. Science involves things that can be proven through systematic observation and experimentation. To this day, no article on ID has been published in any peer-reviewed scientific journal. Not one. Please stop contributing to our country's already woeful state of science education and literacy by muddying the waters with something that shouldn't even be there in the first place.

    As for Ben Stein's admonitions to "teach the controversy", there is about as much controversy about evolution in modern science as there is about astrology or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What is so hard to understand about this? School = science. Sunday school = intelligent design. The end.

    The rest of Ebert's excellent essay on this movie can be found here.