Sunday, May 27, 2012

Music Sunday: A Few Favorites...

No deep analysis today for Music Sunday. No theme. Just a few things I feel like sharing, songs and performances that I particularly like.

First, here's a live version of Summertime, by Janis Joplin, from 1969:

Also, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris with their cover of Love Hurts. I think this is the definitive version of this song.

And, finally, The Who, live, from 1975, Behind Blue Eyes (plus bonus Keith Moon):

Friday, May 25, 2012

Research and headaches and thinking too much, oh, my!

So, this is me, complaining.

I'm on the third day of a headache - migraine, sinus, or a combination of the two. Makes it really difficult to get anything accomplished.

Oh, I've gotten a few things done. Wrote some on the novel I've been working on, the one I started for NaNoWriMo last November, that hit a block when I started working on my non-fiction project. It will be interesting to go back and read what I've written the past couple of days and see if it makes any sense when I don't have a headache.

So, that project is going now, but the non-fiction work is still in the water, so to speak, because I've hit a block there. That mostly has to do with ongoing research (I tend to research as I'm writing, a section at a time, rather than doing all the research and all the writing, separately) issues. The local public library system here doesn't seem to have the sciences as a priority, and it is difficult to find up-to-date sources. In something like history, having access to up-to-the-minute work in the field is good but not necessarily imperative. Of course, you want to make sure that there haven't been any recent discoveries of primary documents or anything, but history, by its very nature, doesn't change that much in the retelling, unless you're working in relatively recent times. The bigger problem in history is watching out for sources that claim to be authoritative but are actually revisionist.

In the sciences though, and especially in paleoanthropology, which is what I'm researching currently, new discoveries are made frequently - at least, there have been several discoveries, or, at least, announcements of discoveries, that have the potential to rewrite what we know about human evolution in the past year or two - and if the writer is not aware of them, he or she can look like an idiot when the book comes out. There are periodicals, of course, the science journals where the official announcements and descriptions of new fossils are made, and my library system has a pretty good online source for some of those journals that I can use; otherwise, the online presences of most of the top journals make it prohibitively expensive to do research. You can either subscribe to the online journal for hundreds of dollars per year or you can purchase access to individual articles - sometimes at $20 to $30 or more per article. There is no way I can afford that.

But, books that are up-to-date in the field are rare in the local library system. And, for some reason, they are also rare in the library at the local state university. Added to that is the fact that if I use their resources, I have to use them there. Oh, they have a "community borrower" card for non-students, but that costs, last time I checked, $100 per year, and then you can only check out two or three books at a time. While I understand that students should have first access to the books there, two or three is a ridiculously low maximum. At the private university I attended for my upper division work on my BA, the community borrower card costs something like $25 per year, and the non-students is allowed to check out something like 25 books at a time, despite the fact that it is a much, much smaller library. Unfortunately, their collection of books on paleoanthropology is very small. Now, if I were researching something in history, or in theology or biblical studies, I'd have access to more than enough research materials there.

But a lack of research materials is not the only problem I'm running into presently regarding my non-fiction writing project.

There is, in addition, my blessing/curse of an oversize dose of curiosity and my belief in the principle, stated by John Muir among others, that everything in the universe is attached to everything else. It goes something like this with me, on this project:

I'm writing about archaeology and physical anthropology (hence the current focus on human evolution), and so I'm thinking about beginnings a lot. Part of what archaeology looks at is physical evidence for the beginnings of civilization, and before that, the beginnings of agriculture, and even before that the beginnings of art and other symbolic thought that mark the beginnings of behavioral modernity. But thinking about the beginnings of behavioral modernity in turn leads, at least for me, into thinking about the beginnings of humans. Which leads to thinking about the beginnings of mammals, which leads to thinking about the beginnings of animals, which leads to thinking about the beginnings of life, which leads to thinking about the beginnings of the earth...the solar that, pretty soon, I'm wanting to go find things to read about the beginnings of the universe. The questions that topic raises can be all kinds of frustrating, not least because I don't have the mathematics and physics to really understand most of the work on the subject.

What is more immediately frustrating to me is that I've been being very good about staying focused on the topics directly related to the book I'm writing. A long as I've got work to do on it, sources that I can use for research, I've been very good at staying on task, researching a section and then writing it, then starting the cycle over again for the next section. But now that I've got a temporary break due to inadequate sources, my mind is wanting me to go seriously off the reservation and start looking into some of the questions that I have about other kinds of beginnings than just the ones that archaeology and physical anthropology are so key in studying.

I'll be fine when I can get back on track with research sources. I know I will. It's this down time that is driving me crazy.

That, and this damn headache, which is better today - else I wouldn't have had the concentration to write this blog post - but still needs to go completely away.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Eclipse, Part Two...

Most people don't look up at the sky on a regular basis. A lot of people nearly never take time out of their busy days and nights to ever look up and see what's going on in the universe around them.

There's nothing like an eclipse to change that, although even in the midst of yesterday's annular eclipse, I saw people rushing around at the height of the Moon's journey between Earth and the Sun, apparently not paying attention to the wonder in the sky above them. Some of them seemed not to notice the odd cast to the light and the extraordinary blue tint that the sky had taken on.

I have to say that I honestly don't understand how they could just go on with their normal, everyday activities with what was going on above their heads. Even here, not in the path of the most extensive coverage of the Sun's disk by the moon, it was clear that there was something extraordinary going on. I've seen solar eclipses before, but I've never experienced one that so obviously diminished the amount of sunlight that usually makes it to Earth on a clear spring afternoon. You just couldn't not notice if you were anywhere where you could see outside, not here where I am.

And if you weren't in the path of the eclipse, let me just say, I'm sorry. It was spectacular.

Actually, aside from being in a windowless room, it would have been difficult for anyone here where I live to notice even if they were inside. I had been watching the eclipse off and on from the beginning, going outside every half hour or so to check the progress of the moon making its way across the sun with my home-made pinhole camera, but I was inside writing, when I glanced out the window above my desk because it had grown noticeably darker in the room as the height of the event approached.

Of course, I went outside to take a look. With the exception of one man across the street, none of the neighbors were even outside. The twelve-year-old in me wanted to go knocking on doors, to tell people to get outside and see the wonderful show the Sun and the Moon were putting on in the sky. I didn't do that. I've been made fun of before for looking up rather than down an my feet. But some part of me still thinks I should have.

It's not like what is above our heads is some faraway place that has nothing to do with us. The Sun warms our world so that life can exist here, and it makes it possible for plants to make their food to live, to become what feeds us, directly when we eat fruits and vegetables and indirectly when we eat meat that has in turn fed on plants. But those aren't the only connections we have to the stars.

In a very real sense, we come from the stars. Every bit of us, every molecule, every element that our bodies are built from, started out inside a star. When Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang that line in "Woodstock", "We are stardust...", they weren't making it up. We really are part of the stars. Not the ones we can see in the sky at night now, if we are lucky enough to be in a dark enough location to see the night sky without the competing lights here on Earth. Instead, we are the product of stars that have already lived and died and exploded, sending the elements created in them as they went supernova and spread those elements out into the universe where they could create planets and plants and people and, well, pretty much everything else in the cosmos.

This is my challenge to you. Wherever you are, take ten minutes to step outside tonight and look up. If you are in a city, try to find a place where the lights in the sky aren't overpowered by the lights on your block, so that you will be able to see as many stars as possible. But, even if you can't find a place with low light levels, just go outside and look up. There are stars up there, and galaxies. And planets, not just here in our solar system, but out there orbiting other stars. At last count, nearly 800 planets have been detected outside our solar system. Even if few of those planets so far discovered are not likely to have life on them, who knows how many might be out there that could have, might have, do have some kind of life. It could be "life as we know it" or it could be life of entirely different kinds. It could be microscopic life, or it could be intelligent life. But none of that matters. What is important is that they're there, part of the grand whole that we call the visible universe.

And if that isn't something to stir the imagination, and the soul, I don't know what is.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Music Sunday - Eclipse Edition

Happy Music Sunday!

Because there is an eclipse of the sun today, I thought I'd just leave you some sunshiny music, so I can go outside and monitor the eclipse when it starts here, at about 2:30 p.m. local time. We won't get the full effect; this part of California is a bit outside the path for that. But, we should get a pretty cool view, anyway.

Here's George Harrison and a few friends, with Here Comes The Sun. An obvious choice.

And John Denver, all by himself, singing Sunshine On My Shoulders.

And then there's Cream's Sunshine Of Your Love

In case you're wondering what all the hoopla about the eclipse is about, here is a little primer from NASA.

And, finally, because this is an annular eclipse, known as a "ring of fire" eclipse, I'll leave this last song for today with you.

That was Johnny Cash, singing "Ring of Fire" on the Grand Ole Opry in 1968.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Music Sunday - Censorship Editon

I suppose that music censorship really started to be a "thing", in that it came to the attention of many people here in the United States, during the 1985 Senate hearing regarding what was labeled "porn rock" after nearly 20 record companies agreed to put labels warning of "Explicit Content" on some records. The agreement by record companies to do this came after a group called the Parents Music Resource Center put pressure on them to do so. And this is probably the thing that comes to mind most often when record or music censorship is brought that has sexual content or so-called obscene words, or that has what censors consider to be references to drug use, all of which some parents might object to their children listening to.

The hearings were interesting, including testimony from Frank Zappa, who called the stickers, and the PMRC campaign "nonsense", and an appearance by John Denver, whom the PMRC expected to support their cause. Instead Denver spoke out against censorship and what he called misinterpretation of songs, including his own "Rocky Mountain High."

This sort of censorship has been going on much longer than since 1985, however. In the 1960s, the popular Sunday night variety show staple, The Ed Sullivan Show, attempted to censor performances by, among others, The Rolling Stones and The Doors for respectively, sexual and drug references, with varying success. Mick Jagger altered the words of "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "let's spend some time together", as requested, but he obviously rolled his eyes at the camera as he did so.

In the case of The Doors' performance of "Light My Fire", Jim Morrison was asked to change the lyric, "girl, we couldn't get much higher" to "girl, we couldn't get much better". During the performance, Morrison sang the lyric as originally written. After the show, the band was told that they wouldn't ever be invited onto the show again, and they weren't, but it didn't seem to bother Morrison or the band very much. They'd already done the show and apparently were not interested in repeating the experience. Both of these incidents took place in 1967.

More interesting to me are the songs that have been censored, or that there have been attempts to censor, on radio or television, based on lyrical content that doesn't consist of "dirty" words. One of my favorites in this category is "Lola", by The Kinks, which was released in 1970. The BBC would not broadcast the song, not because the subject matter of the song included a transvestite, but because the lyric named a product, Coca Cola. Ray Davies had to go back into the studio and replace "Coca Cola" with "cherry cola" before the BBC would play the song on the air. I hear both versions on the radio here in the US, and was puzzled that there were two versions until I read this story a few years ago when I was writing a paper for a college class on music censorship.

Politics have also resulted in music censorship. "Eve of Destruction", most notably recorded by Barry McGuire in 1965, was banned on some US radio stations for its lyrics critical of, among other things, the draft, the war in Vietnam, and the existence and use of nuclear weapons. Earlier, in 1963 and again on The Ed Sullivan Show, a scheduled appearance by Bob Dylan never took place because the song he wanted to sing, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues", was deemed too politically sensitive to sing. Dylan walked off the show rather than agree to the censorship.

This clip of "Eve of Destruction", from the time tht the song was the #1 hit in the US, is a little strange. I'm not sure what the producers of the show thought the dancers would add to it. At least, it was allowed on the airwaves, which was more than some radio stations would allow at the time.

I could go on and on in detailing incidents in which interest groups or networks or governments themselves have attempted to restrict or completely stop the playing of some music over the airwaves. The BBC appears to have an especially lengthy record of this sort of activity. It once even banned an instrumental piece of music, the theme to the Frank Sinatra film, "The Man With the Golden Arm", in 1956, because it was connected to a film that had drug use as a theme. Doesn't make any sense to me, but then again, most censorship doesn't make much sense to me.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Another book review...of a much better book

This is much, much better.

After taking more than a week to drag myself through the last book I read which, if you saw the review I posted here I didn't like that much, it took me just two days to read Dead Time (Dutton, 2008; 400 pages), by Stephen White.

I hadn't read anything by Mr. White in awhile, and after this installment in the story of Dr. Alan Gregory and his family and friends, I suspect I'm going to be catching up on the volumes that I've missed in the past few years, while my reading attention was elsewhere. Simply, I had forgotten how good a writer Mr. White is, how he can spin an engrossing story, and how he is able to write realistic, multi-dimensional characters that are completely believable. He even makes the info-dump that most novels have to have, to catch the characters (as well as the reader) up on events, entertaining and readable.

For those of you not familiar with this series, Dr. Alan Gregory is a psychologist living in Boulder,, Colorado and who has an unfortunate (well, fortunate for the reader) habit of getting caught up in murder and mayhem. In this case Meredith, his ex-wife, calls on him to find the woman who is carrying her child as a surrogate when the woman disappears under mysterious circumstances. Those circumstances end up having to do with the disappearance of another young woman at the Grand Canyon some years before, in event that involved both the surrogate and Meredith's fiancee, Eric.

The story, this time, opens out from Boulder and stretches to New York City and Los Angeles, where Dr. Gregory manages to get himself in over his head on more than one front. I really hesitate to say anything more about the story, because I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't yet read it. I will say that there are family complications along the way for the doctor, in the form of a new adopted son and as his current wife, Lauren, sets out for Holland to find the child she had given up for adoption before she knew the doctor.

That is one of the things I appreciate about Mr. White's books. He is able to juggle the main plot and side plots in a way that makes them seem like one whole, rather than a story with an "Oh, by the way" or two cobbled on in order to make the world creates for the reader more like real life, where there are usually five different, and mostly unrelated, things going on at the same time. This ability makes his books more than just a straight line from one event in the story to the next, again like real life. As there are few straight lines in nature, there are very few in real life.

And that was one of the problems with Natural Selection, the previous novel I read and reviewed. It was one straight line, jumping from one event to the next, with very little respite, and very little believability. And, by the way, info-dumps that were excruciating to read. I didn't realize how little believability, in fact, until I had the reading, so close in time, of Dead Time to compare it to.

I like the books I read to make me feel like I have fallen into the world the author has invented for the book, whether it is the "real" world or a close facsimile thereof, or a completely invented world. And I like to feel like I have been on a journey, rather than on a sprint to the finish line.

Dead Time is a good book, and a an excellent reading experience. I wish I could find more novels with so much texture to them.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

I read it, but I didn't necessarily love it...

I grumbled all the way through, but I finally finished reading Natural Selection (Hyperion, 2006), by Dave Freedman, after posting recently about how I wasn't sure I really wanted to finish it.

I think reading it probably wasn't a waste of time, since I believe I learned some things about how not to write a novel as I read along. I did nearly throw it across the room in the last 50 or 100 pages, when there were some things said or implied about evolution were unclear and didn't seem to jibe with what I've learned about how evolution works. Or, maybe the author just left things out that would have made that part of the story make more sense. There was also the fact that Mr. Freedman included one of those "I never mentioned it but..." scenes as he was wrapping up the story. I hate it when a writer does that, especially when it contradicts things that were established earlier in the story.

That said, what was going on within the story managed, in the end, to keep me turning the pages, and I ended up reading much later into the night last night than I should have done to finish the book. It was a near thing the whole time, but my need to know what happened outweighed the things I found frustrating and irritating about the book and about Mr. Freedman's writing.

I never did really warm up to any of the characters. I didn't like how Mr. Freedman handled the chapters and parts of chapters that were written from the creature's point of view. I don't know that I can say I liked the book as a whole.

On the positive side, that makes fourteen books I've read so far this year, and takes my total pages read (aside from reading for research for my current writing project when I haven't read a whole book through) this year so far to 5788 pages. With not even half the year over, I'm more than halfway to my pages read goal (10,000 pages) even though I'm still six books shy of the half-way mark to my goal of 40 books read this year, up from the 31 books I read last year. I know I should probably be reading at least a book a week, but with writing and, now, job-hunting, my reading time is more limited than I would like at the moment.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

You have to ask the right questions...

Hat tip to Neil de Grasse Tyson for tweeting this video.

The context of the video is the vote today in North Carolina to decide the fate of Amendment One, the implications of which go far beyond just which personal relationships will be recognized by the government there and which will not. This message is applicable far beyond that, however; it is relevant socially, historically and, most especially for us in the United States, constitutionally.

So, I'll shut up and let the message speak for itself.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Music Sunday - Early Beatles edition

Today is Music Sunday. I was going to write a nice post about guilty pleasures...those songs people like in their heart of hearts, but won't admit to liking because the songs or the artists are not "cool enough". I've got them, you've got them...everybody's got them.

I'll admit to some of mine. Not all of them, but some of them. But that will have to wait for another day. Plans change, and things come up, and it's cleaning day around here. And since I was up until 4 am, there will probably be a nap in there somewhere, and fairly soon.

Never fear, however, there will still be Music Sunday.

One of the things I did while I couldn't sleep last night, was that I watched Help, the Beatles second film. It's a fun movie. Silly, but good silly, and with lots of good music. It isn't the classic that A Hard Day's NIght is, but then again, few movies are. I love A Hard Day's Night, while I merely like Help a whole lot.

So, what I'm going to do is leave the title song of Help here for you to enjoy, along with a little Beatle silliness. I'm not sure where this performance is from, but it just goes to show the sort of thing that pop artists had to put up with in the Sixties. Even the Beatles.

And then, I found this gem, part of an appearance by The Beatles on the BBC on December 7, 1963, not long before they came to the United States for the first time. Here you can see how advanced Beatlemania had become even before it spread here to the States.

By next week, I hope, the insomnia will be gone, and we can get down to discussing those guilty pleasures that music provides.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Choices, choices, choices...

This is my problem...and a decidedly first-world problem it is, of no consequence whatsoever in the universal scheme of things. But it is a problem for me, and it's bothering me for some reason.

I'm reading a novel, Natural Selection (Hyperion, 2006), by Dave Freedman. It's, oh, I don't know, call it science fiction, call it techno-thriller. There is a crew of scientists in search of an elusive new species of ray that is carnivorous and very, very smart. Think of them like velociraptors under the sea. Except that some of them are learning to fly, have evolved the capacity to breathe air...and they are very very hungry. At this point in the narrative (I'm 186 pages in), they've already eaten one person, a pod of dolphins (is that the correct term? A pod? Or is that just whales?) and a whole lot of seagulls.

The scientists have yet to see a live one of these creatures, but they've dissected the one dead specimen they've found, and it is all mouth, teeth and part of their necropsy (autopsy on a non-human specimen), they pulled 56 dead but undigested gulls out of its stomach.

It's an interesting concept for a book. That's not my problem.

My problem is, I don't like any of the characters, I'm running out of patience with the chapters told from the rays' point of view. And the author, probably because this is his first novel, has a tendency to info-dump more than he really needs to.

In ordinary circumstances, I would have given this book 50 pages, 75 at the outside, and then put it down in frustration. But, I find myself wanting to see where the story goes, how the author solves the problems he's setting up for the characters, and how he solves the problem he set up for himself as a writer in seeing the story through to the end.

This, even though at least once a chapter I get an almost-overwhelming urge to throw the book against a wall.

Part of me wants to keep reading, for the reasons stated above, as well as just that I'm nearly halfway through the thing and it seems stupid to put it down now. On the other hand, well, the frustration just keeps building. And it isn't like I don't have anything else to read. My to-read pile is huge. Plus, I should be spending more time on my writing and less time reading a novel I'm pretty sure I don't even like that much.

My questions to you, dear readers, are two. First of all, should I keep reading or give it up and go on to something else? And two, do you ever run into problems like this when reading a book, where you want to put it down and not pick it back up but can't quite convince yourself to just cut your losses before it sucks any more time away from you?

Drop a comment if you have any advice, experiences or just think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

In which, again, I just don't understand some people...

I don't know what's in the air around here, but my allergies are kicking my butt the past two or three days. Feeling, most of the time, like someone has bashed me in the middle of the face with a baseball bat, which is how my allergies tend to manifest, has put me in a surly mood. In addition, I've had a headache that I'm not that sure is completely related to the allergies, although they are probably a contribution factor.

Consequently, in the crappy mood I've been in, I've been trying to avoid anything that will make me angry. Oh, like the news. Me cranky and angry at the same time is not a good combination.

However, surfing around the Internet, it's well nigh impossible to avoid the news entirely. And so, I've heard about the preacher in North Carolina who told the fathers in his congregation that if their sons start to act "effeminate" (his word), the fathers should punch the kids.

Excuse me? Completely aside from the question of what the Old Testament has to say about social issues in general or homosexuality (which is, of course, what the preacher was referring to) in particular, and whether the verses those who believe God does not like homosexuality really mean what they think they mean, which is a different post altogether, HOW IS ADVOCATING PUNCHING SOMEONE BECAUSE YOU DON'T LIKE HOW THEY ACT IN ANY WAY CHRISTLIKE?

Sorry for screaming, but really? Was this guy, who will remain nameless because I don't want to give him a name-check, even in this blog that not that many people read, saying that fathers should beat the gay, or what they perceive as the gay, out of their sons? Is this really something that Christ would have advocated, based on his reported attitudes in the New Testament? Having read the gospels, and huge portions of the rest of the New Testament, I would say that, no, this is not something Christ would have been okay with.

Now, since the video tape of this preacher saying these things has been all over the Internet and all over the other media, he has backpedaled furiously that he's dug himself a deeper hole. His explanation/apology? He didn't mean it. It was a joke.

I suspect that all this as to do with the fact that North Carolina is about to vote on whether to define marriage as between one man and one woman. It's an issue that tends to get the religious right all riled up and saying things that they really shouldn't be saying, things that tend to get them in hot water one way or another. But, again, that's beside the point. He shouldn't have said what he did, no matter what the provocation.

So, who is going to volunteer to sit this guy down and explain to him that suggesting that fathers beat their sons because they think their sons might be behaving "effeminately" is not very funny. That it is, in fact, child abuse.

I'm on the other side of the country, so I'm not a good candidate for the job. And even if I was in shouting distance, he's probably not the sort of person who would be amenable to listening to a mere woman. Basically there's not a snowball's chance in hell that I would be able to convince him. I know there's no way he'd be able to convince me of his position, either that punching kids - for any reason - is a good idea, or that it is something to joke about.

But, hey...if you're in his neighborhood, and if you want to give convincing him that he is wrongheaded on this issue a try, please, let me know how it goes.