Archive for January, 2010

One Year Later

With the state of the union address rapidly approaching, I want to highlight some excellent articles bringing Obama’s first year into perspective. Many people have become disheartened by the lack of swift action by the administration on many topics – health care, Iraq, the economy, etc. I’d encourage you to read Andrew Sullivan’s article: Obama’s Substantive First Year:

Obama is a liberal pragmatist in politics and a traditional conservative in his understanding of the presidency. Once you grasp this, his first year makes much more sense.

The article highlights Obama’s strengths and shortcomings in a calm, collected manner. Further reading on the year’s accomplishments:

All that is great – things have been getting done… so what’s our problem with Obama? The New Yorker addresses this succinctly – One Year: Storyteller-in-Chief:

I’ve been an Obama man all the way. I voted for him in 2008 and I’ll vote for him again in 2012, with far less enthusiasm. But it would help me out so much if he could give me some kind of story to hang onto. At this stage, a scrap would suffice. A President can have all the vision in the world, be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, have a bold progressive plan for his nation—but none of these things will matter a wit if the President cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his will, his plan in the idiom of story.

People need stories to latch on to and remembering our personal narrative is vital to projecting our future. Obama would be wise to heed these words: after all, so much of his meteoric rise comes from his extraordinary storytelling (Dreams from My Father, anyone?).

As for me, I remain optimistic about the future of the administration. A great deal of current frustrations have to do with participation. 2008 was a never-ending deluge of political news and activism. Working for the campaign and delivering Indiana was the highlight of my year. In 2009 our nation had to unwind and reconcile our own drive for action with the notion that legislating is a full-time job, requiring a ton of expertise. The government is huge and most people don’t have time to read every bill, to learn the details of every issue – that’s why we are a representative democracy. I think a large part of liberal frustration comes from a headstrong dislike of delegation. We have to let those we elected do their job; our role as citizens is to give them feedback through our communications and then our votes.

From the inaugural address Obama knew he faced a myriad of difficult problems:

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real.  They are serious and they are many.  They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.  But know this America:  They will be met.

We still face serious challenges, but fortunately we have three (hopefully seven) more years. Let’s recognize those challenges “future work” and take solace what’s already been accomplished in this short portion of the excruciatingly slow march of progress. My hope for the State of the Union is that it frames our current challenges in the “unlikely story that is America”, reasserting that once again we will meet and far surpass our challenges.

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Thoughts on Dawkins

Just wanted to highlight an excellent article on Neuroanthropology about Richard Dawkins.

Neuroanthropology: Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’

I saw Dawkins speak in October and was very non-plussed by the whole experience, since then I’ve wanted to write a very similar article. The article captures what I wanted to say with eloquence. This piece is not just reflective of Dawkins but a larger cultural trend. When he was at IU, he answered a barrage of pretty terrible questions from a mostly groveling audience. (“I am an atheist, but you are my God” was said and is admittedly the most ridiculous exemplar, but the general tone was maintained.)

One of the key problems is that Dawkins seems to rail against a very particular kind of theism – that of the omnipotent, omnipresent “guy in the sky” which can rail down thunder and lightning in a feverish outbreak of fury. I don’t think that’s what the majority of people conceptualize when they see the divine. When Dawkins answered a question about life’s purpose, he got at what a lot of people agree with – a general sense of wonder and marvel at the infinite complexity of life, and the immense grandiosity of the universe.

Also, he asserted that the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other religious leaders have no problem with evolution and their faith coexisting. You cannot study biology without evolution, and to accept creationism as scientific fact is raw ignorance. Instead of focusing arguments on polarization like theism vs. atheism, why not just strike at the core? Ignorance and bigotry are terrible in any incarnation, but are not a direct result of having any theistic conviction.

If Dawkins (and other new atheists) aim to make the world more “scientific” the emphasis should not be on any epistemological claim that replaces religious belief with scientific “belief”. Rather, they should teach people to engage the world, to challenge their beliefs, wrestle with them and question them. By teaching people to accept science as something “to believe in”, we gain nothing except struggles when scientific “doctrine” is found to be a misunderstanding – as has happened at countless junctures in the history of science. By teaching engagement we can challenge our assumptions boldly and discover the next step on the long path to truth. Carl Sagan puts this desire eloquently on the first pages of Cosmos: “If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”

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2009 in Music

I’ve been a member of last.fm (my profile) for almost three years. Last.fm is a social music recommendation engine. It does this by collecting play counts (scrobbles) through iTunes, your iPod and any number of other media players (download). It then examines the music of people with similar listening habits. This is augmented by a tagging system. These recommendations are then piled into a radio station, tailored to your tastes.

Personally, I don’t use the radio stations that often, but the site offers other benefits. The historical information allows for some powerful investigations of musical taste – and with three years of data and nearly 35,000 plays I have an impressive personal dataset. It’s all accessible through the last.fm API. This makes it possible to create really cool mashups, like LastGraph, which creates awesome visualizations of listening history:

Today I started using the pylast Python library to track the evolution of my musical tastes from last year to this year. Here’s a quick recap:

’09 Artist ’08 Change
1 Wilco 1
2 Radiohead 3 (+1)
3 The Avett Brothers 6 (+3)
4 The Decemberists 13 (+9)
5 The Beatles 2 (-3)
6 Say Hi 12 (+6)
7 Third Eye Blind 21 (+14)
8 Counting Crows 4 (-4)
9 Nickel Creek 9
10 Nada Surf 73 (+63)

Note: Links in italics point to Amazon Associate links, plain links should be YouTube videos.

Radiohead has solidified itself as one of my favorite bands. I rediscovered Hail to the Thief, which I had never properly listened to before. The entire album seethes with a beautiful driving anxiety, which re-emerges in later songs such as Bodysnatchers and Jigsaw Falling Into Place. Of course, Wilco is still first, but largely due to the strength of their old catalog. Wilco (the Album) was released this year but was generally unimpressive.

The rise of The Avett Brothers and The Decemberists to the top 5 highlights an embrace of “new folk”. I saw The Decemberists live in August which was an absolutely incredible experience: they took the stage in silence and played straight through The Hazards of Love before breaking for a set of old favorites. I find it hard to listen to the album now, as the piece has aged well with practice and performance. The Avett Brothers released I and Love and You in September, which is now one of my favorite albums – from the opening meditation on “three words that became hard to say” to the final resignation of being “Incomplete and Insecure”.

Indie pop has been rising up my charts. Say Hi is number 6, even though half their music is tagged with Say Hi to Your Mom – if the two tags were combined we’d probably be looking at one of the top 5 slots. Say Hi is one of the most under-appreciated bands I know – lyrically and musically they’re great fun. Oohs & Aahs was released in March and last year’s The Wishes and the Glitch was an incredible turn for the band. I also discovered Nada Surf, which rose an impressive 63 places to make it to the top 10. Particularly, I’ve enjoyed the albums Let Go  and Lucky (especially the song Weightless).

90s alternative and pop rock is not quite as prevalent as it once was. As the release of Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings grows more distant, the Counting Crows have been declining. On the other hand, Third Eye Blind has made a huge jump – their eponymous release has to be one of the best albums of all time, particularly Motorcycle Drive-by. They released a new album this year, Ursa Major, which has a few good songs, but doesn’t have the same luster as the original or Blue.

Finally, the Beatles Remasters are one of the best things to come out last year. While I haven’t been listening to quite as many Beatles songs (falling from 2nd to 5th), the remasters have made the experience new again. For the audiophile, there’s several things that have been changed – the most noticeable of which is the crisper bass throughout the discography. I’m not sure I’d pay twice for all the albums, but it’s a highly recommended collection.

A few other artists worth mentioning from the past year, despite not making the top 10: Joe Pug’s Nation of Heat EP is an amazing testament to folk music that belies his age – just listen to the lyrics of Hymn #101. His first album will be released in about a month, and I can’t wait. Also, I’ve been rocking out to Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip’s Angels. Scroobius Pip is a British MC with an awesome beard with some amazing diction – check out The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Look for the Woman, which have been stuck in my head forever. In a more dance-y vein, I’ve been checking out dubstep – a techno style marked by the “wobbly bass”, heard clearly in Africa VIP. A great album to get into the style is Caspa & Rusko’s Fabriclive.37.

What should I watch for in 2010?

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Spring Break in DC

For 2010, I’ve decided that the adventure part of my identity needs some attention, so I’m going somewhere for Spring Break. I’ve decided to go to Washington DC, as I’ve never been and have really grown to appreciate our political process and common history. Here’s what I’ve got scrapped together so far:

When: March 11-16, 2010
Where: Washington DC
Details:

  • Depart Thursday, March 11 around 9pm to catch the midnight Amtrak Cardinal from Indy to Union Station. Spend the night on the train and the next day observing the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains from railcar. Arrive on Friday at 6pm. – $59 for coach, 18-hours in transit including 1 night.
  • Check in at Hosteling International – Washington DC, which is 4 blocks from the National Mall. Set up home base for the next 4 days, find some grub and walk around for a while. – $30/night in the dorm.
  • Saturday-Tuesday are pretty open- I would be content to spend hours in the Smithsonian and the National Archives. Of course, there’s all the monuments, and I suspect I’ll spend plenty of time just chilling in the Mall.
  • Gilberto Gil (last.fm), the former cultural minister of Brazil and Creative Commons advocate, will be performing a concert on Saturday night at George Washington University – this would be super awesome. Seats start at $35, but I think it would be an awesome experience.
  • Leave DC around 5pm Tuesday, March 16. Catch plane from Baltimore to Indy. $9 for Amtrak to Baltimore, $78 for BWI->IND direct flight. Arrive around 10pm.

Overall, I think the plans look good. I’m very excited about travelling by train. The hostel is insanely convenient and includes free breakfast. A cheaper place would likely end up costing more due to transportation and lost time. I chose a flight back because the train would cause me to lose two days – it departs on Wednesday at 11am and arrives Thursday at 5am, after which I would just sleep all day. It seems the base for this is around $270, including lodging, transportation and breakfast. Most of the monuments and museums are free, so lunch and dinner would be the major incidental costs.

Does anyone have any tips for DC? Any places that you would or wouldn’t see? General critiques?

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