Sunday, August 26, 2012

Music Sunday: Moon Song Edition, in memory of Neil Armstrong

Today's Music Sunday is a little different, although not lacking in music.

As you've probably heard by now, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died yesterday. The word hero gets bandied about a lot these days, but as far as I'm concerned Armstrong is one man who really deserves that title. He landed the Lunar Module Eagle on the moon, flying it manually after the computer program that was designed to guide the landing turned out to be trying to put the lander down in a place where too many rocks made a landing dangerous. Of course, being a pilot, I suspect Armstrong was not all that disappointed or upset that he actually had to fly the lander, rather than having the computer do it for him. Just having the guts to go to the moon, much less the cool to take over like that and make a successful landing in such stressful circumstances, qualifies him for the title of "hero".

I think it is notable that after his return from the moon, Armstrong simply went about the rest of his life and didn't make a career out of having been the first human to walk on another planetary body. He could have ridden the adulation that came his way as a result of his accomplishment for as long as he wanted to. Instead, he came back and taught, sat on some corporate boards, participated in the spaceflight accident investigations after Apollo 13 failed to make its scheduled moon landing and after the Challenger disaster, and generally led his life. In the US culture of hero worship and celebrity adulation, I think it took a great deal of character not to fall into the trap of living the rest of his life off the fame he gained from being the first man on the moon.

Because it became a tradition at NASA to play musical wake-up calls for the astronauts on missions, I was going to share the wake-up music from the Apollo 11 mission as a tribute to Armstrong. However, it turns out that the wake-up calls on that mission consisted of news and sports reports rather than music, so instead, I'm going to share a few "moon" songs.

"Fly Me To The Moon", by Frank Sinatra, seemed a natural place to start. Two Apollo missions had flown to and orbited the moon before Apollo 11 made the first landing. But the Apollo 11 crew was the first to fly to the moon, rather than just to the vicinity of the moon.

And then, I thought it seemed appropriate to share Louis Armstrong's version of "Moon River":

The Police's "Walking on the Moon" also seemed like a natural song to share here, even though it isn't really all that much about walking on the actual moon:

The moon, of course, plays a role in a lot of songs. "June, spoon, moon" is sort of the classically stereotypical love-song formula, and has nothing to do with moon landings, of course. But I couldn't resist sharing a few more "moon" songs. Many of these songs are romantic in nature, of course. One of my favorites is "Moondance", by Van Morrison:

Cat Stevens's (Yusuf Islam) "Moonshadow" is a song I've liked ever since it first came out. At first listen, it seems awfully depressing, with lyrics about losing, well, just about everything. But then, when you listen to it more closely, it really is about looking on the positive side of every situation, no matter how dire. That is a difficult thing to do, but something I think more of us should try more often. This live performance is from 1976:

Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street" is another favorite of mine. This performance, from 2010, includes a symphony orchestra and is perhaps a little over-produced for my taste, but it's a good live interpretation of a very good song:

Not all songs about the moon are romantic (in whatever way you want to interpret that concept) or hopeful. "Bad Moon Rising", by Creedence Clearwater Revival, takes the opposite tack of exploring the theme of the moon as an ominous omen:

Neil Armstrong's family has requested that those who want to do something in remembrance of him do a very simple thing. On a clear night sometime soon, go outside look up at the Moon, think of Mr. Armstrong, and give him and the moon a wink. I can't think of a more appropriate way to remember a man who lived an ordinary life after doing such an extraordinary thing as being the first human to walk on another world.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Music Sunday: The Protest Something Edition

Since summer is almost over and since this is an election year, with the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions coming up soon, and especially with the rhetoric from both sides of the political divide heating up to unprecedented proportions, I thought this would be the perfect time to share a slightly different genre of music - the protest song.

I suppose people of my generation think first of the protest music of the 1960s when the topic of protest songs comes up, but protest songs have been around for a lot longer than that. Just in the United States, protest music has a long history that goes back to the Revolutionary War, while the genre exploded during the Civil War. Since I have limited space here, however, I'll limit myself to songs from the 20th century and forward. And even with that limitation, there won't be room to share more than a few of the many songs protesting many things.

First, from the 1930s, there is "Strange Fruit", made popular by Billie Holiday. The lyrics for the song came from a poem published in 1936 by Abel Meeropol, who also sometimes wrote as Lewis Allen, that protested the lynchings then occurring with disturbing regularity:

In 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as an answer to "God Bless America" and in protest of the way the working people of the United States were treated by the capitalist owners of big business in a country and at a time when th captains of industry were revered and worshiped. It was read then as socialist in sentiment, and it was. Later it was reinterpreted (and maybe tamed) by those who chose to take the song as more environmental in nature. But, it is difficult to mistake the meaning of the man who carried a guitar that had the message "This machine kills Fascists" glued to its body. This version does not include all the lyrics to the song, but is the only one I could find that would work:

Even if "This Land is Your Land" isn't one of them, there have been many songs directed at protesting what has happened to the Earth's environment. One of the best of those songs, at least in my opinion, was Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)", recorded in 1971:

In the sixties and seventies, however, most protest songs centered on war, particularly the war in Vietnam. Some of these songs came from unexpected places. For example, the song "Unknown Soldier", by The Doors. This is a live performance of the song, at the Hollywood Bowl:

Other songs protesting Vietnam in particular and war in general, were not so unexpected. John Lennon and Yoko Ono and a few of their friends recorded "Give Peace A Chance in a hotel room in Montreal on June 1, 1969:

Some songs, on the other hand, protest the protest. As Bono has said of U2's song "Sunday Bloody Sunday", about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, "This is not a rebel song". That is reiterated, and reiterated very graphically, specifically and emphatically, in the middle of this performance, a live version of the song from the movie "Rattle and Hum":

And then there is probably the ultimate "protest-the-protest" song, Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee", from 1969 and released just a few months after "Give Peace A Chance". There has been some opinion that the song was a satire, but being half-Okie myself, I see it as a heartfelt statement of the feelings of many people at the time, who were genuinely confused and upset by what they saw going on around them. And there's nothing wrong with that - protest songs can protest whatever the writers of the songs want them to protest:

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Music Sunday: Summer Edition

It's summertime in the Northern Hemisphere. With a vengeance, at least here. It was 110 degrees F here yesterday and it is forecast to be 109 F today. That's just too hot as far as I'm concerned.

But, the heat and the crappy air, the winding down of the Summer Olympics, and the fact that here in my community summer vacation is ending for all the kids (and adults) who will be going back to school in the next couple of weeks, all have me thinking about "summer" songs. And there are a lot of them. But, because there are so many of them, I decided, for the purposes of this blog post, to stick with songs that actually have the words "summer" or "summertime" in the title.

First up, this is "Summer in the City", by The Lovin' Spoonful, from 1966, with a lead vocal (and bonus mid-60s sideburns) from John Sebastian. Sidewalks "hotter than a match-head" indeed, or at least it felt like that when I was outside yesterday:

"Summertime Blues" was first recorded by Eddie Cochran in 1958, but arguably the best-known cover of the song is by The Who, although it has been recorded by artists as diverse as Blue Cheer, The Beach Boys, Alan Jackson, and Olivia Newton-John. This is a live performance by The Who, at the Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967:

And then there's "Summertime". This song, which originated as an aria in "Porgy & Bess", by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward in 1935, is one of the most covered songs in recording history, with one source claiming that there are over 33,000 covers of the song in existence. Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that I can't decide which of my two favorite covers of the song to post here, so I'm going to post both of them. First is Billie Holiday's cover:

I also love Janis Joplin's cover of "Summertime", here from a live performance in Stockholm in 1969:

I hope it isn't as hot where you are as it is here. If it is, try to stay cool. If it isn't, just know how jealous I am that you're there and I'm here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Some posts were just not meant to be...

I truly believe that a person should know when to just give up. This is one of those times.

I wrote a lovely post about a list of most popular YA novels that was assembled by National Public Radio after voting by over 75,000 readers. Within that post, I linked to both the final list of 100 books and series and the list of 235 finalists that readers were then invited to vote on.

In an attempt to get the links to work after they didn't do so initially, I managed to make the whole blog post disappear.

It's been a long day. The post is staying disappeared, at least for the time being. So, if you saw it in the few minutes it was up before I discovered that the links didn't work, that's what happened to it.

These things happen.

With any luck the next post I put up will behave itself better than that one did.

Monday, August 06, 2012

A little Curiosity is a good thing...

I love science.

I especially love the whole idea of exploring space. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise. I grew up listening to test firings of the rocket engines that took US astronauts into space and, ultimately, to the moon. This fascination with space exploration has not faded, and so I watched coverage of the landing of Mars rover Curiosity last night.

Watching on television was not an option, since none of the cable news or broadcast networks bothered to cover the event live. Fortunately, NASA provided live streaming from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, where the project to put Curiosity on Mars is headquartered. I had that coverage open in one tab on my laptop, so I could watch along with some of my fellow science geeks/knitters on Ravelry, open in another tab. I also had a third tab open, where I skipped back and forth between Facebook and Twitter. It was like going to four parties simultaneously.

See why I love science? Not to mention the technology it enables.

As I sat and watched, I was reminded of when I spent an afternoon in 1969 watching TV coverage of the first manned moon landing. I was twelve years old then, and watched the landing with my father. I missed him a lot last night, watching Curiosity's landing. He would have loved it. He would probably have said, as he did in 1976 when Viking 1 landed on Mars to send back the first color photos of the surface of the planet, that it would be absolutely hilarious if a little green guy turned up making faces at the camera in the first pictures back. He took his space travel seriously, but he also had a sense of humor about it.

Of course, there was more at stake when Eagle landed on the Moon. There were two men inside the lunar module, and if something had gone wrong.... Well, it would have been a Very Bad Thing.

But, a lot could have gone wrong with the landing of Curiosity, as well, and while there were no human lives at stake, a lot of effort by a lot of people would have been lost if the landing hadn't gone as planned. The whole landing apparatus was new. The parachute could have failed. The landing engines could have misfired or not fired at all. The sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the surface could probably have malfunctioned in several different ways.

Even if everything went right with the landing, the word was that because of the uncertainties of communications due to the time and location of touchdown, it might not be clear for up to two or three days if the landing had been successful. As it was, the length of time that it takes signals to travel from Mars back to Earth meant that Curiosity would be on the ground for close to fifteen minutes before anyone on Earth would be able to know for sure that it had arrived safely.

Watching the live stream from JPL, it was clear that there was a lot of breath-holding in the control room in the minutes before touchdown. Then, as the signals began to return, tracking the descent of the craft, there were small, tentative bursts of applause at certain milestones. Signals were handed off, then continued to come in. The parachute had deployed. The landing engines had kicked in. The craft was slowing as it should. The sky-crane was lowering the car-sized Curiosity to the surface.

And then, "Touchdown confirmed."

That was the announcement that set off pandemonium, cheers, high-fives, and tears of joy and relief in the control room. Someone had to shout pretty loudly to get the team members to pay attention: "Heads up, folks!" And then, shortly after that, "We've got thumbnails. Keep watching the screen."

And, indeed, there were thumbnails. Pictures. Curiosity had only been on the surface of Mars for a few minutes, but it was already sending back photos, taken through a clear dust cover that had not yet been jettisoned. The horizon was visible. So was a wheel of the rover, and the rover's shadow on the ground in the late afternoon sunshine. You could even see bits of dust thrown up by the landing rockets that had lodged on the dust cover.

It was amazing.

It was also more proof, as were those first photos sen back from Viking 1, in 1976, that Mars - like the Earth and the Moon - is a place. A place with dirt and dust and rocks and hills. It isn't just a slightly reddish dot of light in the night sky.

It is a place we can go, if we just decide to do it.

Oh, it won't be easy. And it will be dangerous, especially for the first people to go. Like the Moon, people would not be able to go out for a stroll in their shirtsleeves. They will need protective suits and breathing apparatus. Habitats will have to be built to enable human beings to live and work there.

It will also be much more expensive to send human beings to Mars than it was to land Curiosity there which, as was pointed out during the coverage last night, cost just seven dollars per man, woman, and child in the United States. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't much.

It will be worth it, though. Worth every penny and every ounce of danger. But, as one JPL official said during the press conference held shortly after the landing, all it really takes is "the passion for adventure". It was more than evident last night that the team responsible for sending Curiosity to Mars and landing it safely has that passion.

If you didn't get to see it last night (or very early this morning, depending on where you are), here is the scene in the control room as data arrived conforming the landing of Curiosity:

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Music Sunday: Tempest Edition

I decided to do something a little different this Sunday for Music Sunday.

Since I started writing these Music Sunday features, for the most part, I've been sharing music from artists who have made a big splash in the media, artists that everyone knows. The band whose music I'm sharing this week, on the other hand, are very popular, but in an indie sort of way.

I had heard of Tempest for years. But I never knew their music, which is mostly in the Celtic Rock genre, until they played at BayCon, a literary science fiction convention held in the San Francisco Bay area every year. I was just a bit skeptical going into the concert, but I was a fan by about the second song they performed. I've seen them perform live several times since then, and I like them more and more every time I hear them play.

So, today, I'm just going to shut up and share some of their music.

This is an instrumental piece, performed at an arts and music festival in Humboldt County, CA, in 2010. I was not at this performance, but thanks to a kind soul who posted this on YouTube, I can pass this on to you:

This is the official video for Tempest's cover of The Grass Roots "Live for Today". It kind of tickled me that they covered this song, since The Grass Roots were my favorite band way back in the dark ages when I was in junior high school (late 1960s/early 1970s):

"Black Jack Davy" is an adaptation of a Celtic folk ballad from the early 1700s. One of the things I really like about Tempest is how they can take traditional works and themes from centuries ago and make them sound so contemporary:

Here is a two-part mini-documentary focusing on the making of one Tempest album, in 2006:

More information about Tempest can be found here and here.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A little Olympics geography...

So. I'm still watching the Olympics. Men's indoor volleyball, currently.

What I've been thinking about, however, is geography. Last time I took a geography class, about 10 years ago or so, I did really well. And so, during last week's Opening Ceremonies, while the athletes filed into the stadium, I played the game I always do: Where's That Nation. And I could locate most of them, at least to continent and general location within that continent. Or, body of water, in the case of island nations. I should be able to do that. In that geography class I just mentioned, we had to memorize the locations of all the world's nations. We were tested on them, so it wasn't just an idle exercise.

I recognized the names of nearly all the nations in the parade on Friday. There were four, however, which were a mystery to me. Never heard of them. Really. Never, as far as I could remember. Yeah, I did really well on that map test in geography. I did not get 100 percent.

So, I sat down and looked up the four nations I hadn't recognized. Now that I have done that, I understand why I hadn't heard of them, at least in relation to that geography class. Or, three of them, at least. Three out of the four are located in the Pacific Ocean. In class, we were not required to learn every little island nation in the Pacific. The fourth nation that I didn't recognize is in West Africa. I must not have been paying enough attention when I was memorizing the African nations.

The three Pacific Ocean nations that I didn't recognize the names of were the Republic of Kiribati, the Republic of Nauru, and Tuvalu. Kiribati is the largest of the three, with 313 square miles of atolls and a raised coral island scattered over 1,351,500 square miles of ocean in the central tropical Pacific. It has a population of just over 103,000, as of a 2010 estimate. It sent three athletes to the Olympics this year.

Kiribati is absolutely huge compared to the other two Pacific nations I didn't recognize. The Republic of Nauru is an island nation in Micronesia, located just 26 miles south of the equator. It covers 8.1 square miles and is the world's smallest republic. A July 2011 estimate put its population at 9,378, with only Vatican City having a smaller population among sovereign states in the world. The other Pacific nation in question is Tuvalu, 10 square miles in area, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, and with an estimated 10,544 residents. But, even with these small populations, Nauru sent two athletes to the Games, while Tuvalu sent three.

Notably, Tuvalu is the second least-elevated nation in the world, with it's highest point at 15 feet above sea level. Only the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, are lower, with that nation's highest point at 7 feet, 10 inches above sea level. It is interesting to note, too, that one of the titles Queen Elizabeth II of England holds is Queen of Tuvalu, as the monarch of that member of the Commonwealth of Nations.

The African nation I didn't recognize, Togo, is considerably larger in both area and population, covering an area of 21,925 square miles between Ghana and Benin in West Africa. It has a population of 6,619,000. Out of that population, Togo sent six athletes to the Games. French is still the official language of Togo, reflecting its history as a French colony, but there are a number of indigenous languages spoken there, and over 50 percent of its inhabitants still practice indigenous religious, although about 20 percent of the population practices Islam and 29 percent claim Christianity as their religion. Togo won its independence from France in 1960.

Another of my geekdoms, as you may have noticed, is geography. I learned the joy of geography and map-reading at my father's knee. So, I feel kind of disappointed in myself that I didn't know anything about any of the nations I've written about here. But they are not the only participants in the Games that have interesting stories to tell about their geography and inhabitants. I could have gone on for several more paragraphs about the very small European states that are represented in the Olympics. I mean, the city-state of Monaco is less than a square mile in area and still sent six athletes to the games.

But I've gone long enough for tonight. I started writing while volleyball was on, there was some gymnastics in there somewhere, and some swimming. It's almost time to go out and put the trash can out at the curb.

And, hey, there are still more Olympics to watch.