Saturday, June 18, 2016

On the Sublime in the Works of the Dead

            Sometime in the second century after Christ, the Greek author Longinus left behind for us a cryptic philosophical work. Its title is commonly translated into English as On the Sublime – and if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, we can think of the “Sublime” as “that which is excellent beyond customary description”. Simply put, it’s a circumstance where some item, thing, idea, joke, insight, color, shape, form, void, essence has obvious greatness, even perfection, but understanding why its perfection works defies our ability to use words to tell ourselves how it does so. No wonder that Longinus continues to confuse and frustrates students of Greek (by the way, the Greek title for On the Sublime is περι ‘υψος, pronounced “Peri – Hoop – Sauce”, which will be the name of my basketball blog should I ever create one), or even the souls that approach his work in English – it attempts to describe that which, by definition, cannot be easily described. 

Up here! The Sublime's up here, assholes! Why isn't anyone paying attention?
Suits me for not assigning a final in Sublime class.
           Which is what we’re doing today, through the medium of modern music. Specifically, tunes from about 1977-85, in the context of recent deaths.
             First, an aside about the sublime, through the medium of humor, which traffics in the sublime by nature. Confusion of meaning, genre, definition, referent, all these stand among the building blocks of humor. Considering the puzzling nature of the sublime, a familiar instance might be useful. As an example of a sublime joke, an example from the Dave Chappelle Show, in the skit of the “Player Haters Ball”: the situation is that the “Haters” are presented with pictures of celebrities, whom they then “roast”. All is well until they react to an image of Rosie O’Donnell:

“She wears underwear with dick holes in ‘em” is an amazing joke, and apparently unscripted (you can see the other comedians cracking up immediately before the cut). But if you think about the logic behind the joke, it makes no coherent sense. Obviously the celebrity’s sexuality (homosexual) is in play. But what has caused the hole? Is the joke insinuating that O’Donnell possesses a penis, and that it has worn through her underpants (which penises do not do)? That she has cut holes in her underpants to which to pass a penis, real or fake? Or has the penis bored through from the outside in some fashion? Probably best to not fixate on the permutations, because they are not the point. The holes form a sort of fractal, a logic problem, that is best experienced as an impression from a greater whole, and the shock of the initial impression matters more than the precise travel from A to B. Yes, we have no problem labeling this joke “sublime”, although perhaps we are no closer to answers.
            Now one key to approaching the sublime is recognizing that the Sublime does not encapsulate the “excellent”, or the “well-crafted”; it is commonplace for objects of intense craftsmanship, expertise, and devotion to not fit the parameters of the Sublime, though they may deserve acclaim and general approval. Longinus and others from the ancient world who percolated on this topic (and perhaps later ones, as my knowledge of intellectual history ends with the Goths: Visi-, not Anglo) admitted that even works considered “failures” could still be sublime – one need only think of a work of media one loves despite its obvious flaws. And we all could.
            In line with our context, let me present an item from category one (brilliant but not sublime): Metallica’s “Creeping Death” from Ride the Lightning

A hyper-competent song, with memorable music, a suitable yet creative metal theme, in this case the biblical plagues, and fine musicianship. But if you look closely, the seams of its construction show and can be broken down and nitpicked. The lyrical structure is nothing special; the bridge perhaps slows down excessively and becomes repetitive, as do the component words. That said, none would question its basic excellence as a representative member of its genre. A classic, but not sublime.
            From category two (flawed and yet with a hint of the sublime), Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die”, off the album of the same name.

In this case, the production comes through as a mess. The main riff is suspiciously off time, Ozzy’s vocals slightly off key, and the instrumentation much more mundane than our above specimen. Yet the overall package transcends its broken parts in a musical Gestalt. The weak yet professional inter-weaving of the vocals and the music, and the undoubtedly faked energy behind it all, create a whole greater than the sum, and one of my favorite songs from the band’s later years. It helps to comprehend the similarly fragmented nature of the group at the time as mirrored in the track; the band split soon afterwards.
            Capturing the sublime involves surrender to the law of diminishing returns: the larger the framework you draw, the harder the sublime becomes to capture. No wonder that the instant of the Chappelle joke succeeds where songs tend to fail. Often the sublime pertains to a single element of a larger whole. On one slightly hazy evening on a colleague’s balcony, an inebriated enemy of mine, in an unpredicted moment of appreciation, affirmed that the color of my shirt was sublime. I could not help but agree: an off-blue, neither deep, sky, nor powder. 

This is the first Google Images search result for "transcendent blue".
An odd moment. But it remained one element of an otherwise nondescript formal shirt, whose sleeves, cut, and buttons escaped no constraints of the shirt genre. So with that aspect of the sublime forward in our minds, to the music of the dead.
            David Bowie’s music certainly has many spots which a more ambitious reviewer could catalogue as sublime, but let us focus on one moment. 1977. Burned out at the start of the Berlin Trilogy, experimenting with electronic music in the company of Brian Eno, Bowie begins his album Low with roughly four minutes of instrumental music, starting with a song called "Speed of Life", and capped off by the opening guitar line of the second track, “Breaking Glass”:

The same riff repeats three times with minor variations, and the opening warble resonates with a soulful air, a quality that resounds at several other times in the space of its relatively few notes. Obviously the produced result comes from the vibration of several bent strings, but it carries with it an implied emotion, something that reaches down into the individual and vibrates inside them as well. At this point the audience has yet to hear a spoken or sung word, and this repeated line creates the bridge between them. From this sublime moment we move on to the lyrics, fine in and of themselves, including the profundity of “You’re such a wonderful person/ but you got problems/…I never touch you”. I’m not the first person to read this as a wry encapsulation of modern love, something Mr. Bowie had multitudinous words about.
            Onward to a different type of the sublime in the work of the recently deceased Prince. On his greatest achievement, Purple Rain, perhaps his best song is “When Doves Cry” (although I have and will be a partisan for “Let’s Go Crazy” and the title track). Good luck finding an online version of it, however, as the estate of Mr. Nelson famously and zealously guarded his music copyright even before his passing. Enjoy this for the week it'll be up on Youtube:

“When Doves Cry” remains an odd song in form and timbre; the bass never kicks in throughout even after the listener expects it, and the second half devolves into a perfectly fine if not exceptional dance instrumental. You could argue that the entire track fits our definition of “sublime”, and you are free to in your own forum. But I would argue that in the depths of this unusual song, its oddest moment is indeed its most sublime. Think of it as the musical equivalent to the Rosie O’Donnell joke. Here we are mid-verse, the second verse of the song (starting at :50):
            Dream if you can a courtyard
            An ocean of violets in bloom
            Animals strike curious poses
            They feel the heat, the heat between me and you
            Transition to chorus
Let’s pay attention to the third line. This song, unlike many others, clearly aims to be heard and understood by the audience: its vocal performance verges on simple speech. Via the expectations of us, the listener, think about the vocal deixis (what the poetry directs us to envision and focus upon). We see the courtyard, the flowers, fairly logically connected to one another, and typical romantic imagery. Then we include animals, apropos of vary little and with little introduction, and immediately learn that they “strike curious poses” – once again, the issue of interpretation lingers: are the poses themselves curious, or do they indicate the animals’ curiosity? Only in the following line do we receive the explanation for their behavior; without it, the third presents a puzzle without obvious solution, and a disorientation, via the decomposition of meaning, which verges on the sublime.
            Consider also, if you have the track available, the manner in which Prince sings the line. He pronounces “Animals” with a strange emphasis on the final syllable, nearly eliding the "L"; the rest of the line continues with an elongation of most syllables, including the final one of "poses". Once the line is over, the diction snaps back to normal. We’re led into a moment of curiosity as to what precisely is occurring, signaled by wording and “animals”; in that moment we find the workings of the sublime. This is even without mentioning the puzzle of why animals should react in this fashion to human behavior, and why the artist decided to craft this detail into the song itself.
            Finally, an example from American punk, specifically the band “X” and their song “Los Angeles” from the album of the same name. To my knowledge, no members of the band are deceased, but if rock is dead (a fair hypothesis), certainly punk is the deadest, having lapsed into self-parody for most of the last 20 years. Anyway, the sublime to be found in this excellent track (finding out this track was on the soundtrack to GTA V certainly made my morning) comes in the manner of subverted expectation, near the track’s very start:

We know that the track is called “Los Angeles”, and so we anticipate the title, the name of the city, to be mentioned, a sense only heightened when John Doe sings “She/ had to leave…”. What will follow should most likely be “Los Angeles”, and as a rock song, the delivery of the words “Los Angeles” should follow the bounce of the rhythm. However, nothing of the sort happens.
            Instead, we have a sequence of eight “chugs” – well, not actually. We have seven, and the eighth hit removes a drum and has instead a more muted tone. When we return to vocal, our delivery defies expectation: the singer changes to Exene, so far unheard on the track, and instead of following the beat, she wails the city’s name off-beat, in a different register, slightly after it logically should occur. The sublime lies in the moment of waiting, of uncertainty, as we stop to ascertain whether or not “Los Angeles” will occur, and in what way.
            Perhaps I have not explained well the sublime. Perhaps the instances of the sublime in such pieces of music cannot be really recognized as such by others than myself – certainly critical taste diverges between people, even among widely accepted masterpieces. And, perhaps most critically, perhaps the effort to explain the sublime fails to capture what specifically the sublime is, and its key components. Would then that “quine” (a term I learned from Gödel, Escher, Bach to refer to statements that describe themselves), and make our analysis, itself, sublime?

            No, I think not.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Bud Light Platinum: nectar of the demigods

I've already gone on the glorious record (where else but here?) calling coffee (oh sweet sweet coffee) drink of the Gods. So obviously the next drink I want to talk up will have to do being nectar of the mere demigods. That drink is none other than Bud Light Platinum (or BLP, as it is reverentially known among its devoted followers) - a top notch offering of St. Louis'  Belgium's very own Budweiser InBev SAB Miller.

Launched with much fanfare in early 2012, BLP became an instant sensation with its sleek shape, deep blue color with bold silver accent, and  - more importantly - 6% ABV. The beer was in short supply (probably intentional?) in the initial weeks to the point where any schmuck who brought a six pack to a house party was the instant center of attention. I can personally attest to that, by the way. Oh the joys of wielding such power over the thirsty masses clamoring for a taste, nay just a sip of the sweet nectar!

Think I am exaggerating? Just look at the image below. Go on, spend a good two, three, five, eight, thirteen minutes staring at it and you'll see what I am talking about.


Budweiser describes BLP thus - "Bud Light Platinum is a premium light beer with a bold taste and a smooth, slightly sweet finish. From the moment you grab one of our signature cobalt blue bottles, you’ll be ready to make it platinum."

Quite possibly for the first time in history a company may be underselling its product. BLP is not just a light beer with a bold taste. It is a light beer that provides a truly life-altering experience the first time you touch that bottle to your lips, tilt the bottle and go glug glug glug. It has a silky smooth taste with just the perfect amount of intensity to it that you feel right as it hits your throat. Looking to go all out on the town with your friends? Blaze through a six pack right before and they'll thank you for it. Hosting the perfect super bowl party? Grab a 24 pack off the shelf and pass them out as generously as you would salsa for the nachos. BLP is the ultimate versatile beer with the same good taste each time. (Speaking of which, I am available to write copy for your ads if you are hiring, InBev. I am already a convert so I don't even have to lie!)

Now the snobs will all get themselves in a tizzy over this. Bud products have been called everything from 'pisswater' to 'water' to 'an insult to beer'. That's ok. You can let them froth all over while you relax on your recliner nursing your ice-cold BLP.

Something happiness is as simple as enjoying the simple things in life.

So next Friday night treat yourself to a BLP (6% alcohol, 137 calories, 0g in fat and just 4.4g in carbs). For a glorious moment you too will live like the demigods. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

End of the year stuff: 2015

In the past when this blog ran like a well-oiled machine end of the year posts were a thing. Mostly random musings (are there any other kind, btw?) and lists of books, TV shows and movies: typical end of the year fare.

So coming at you from 35000 feet (yeah I am in a plane above an undisclosed location - not because I am secretive but because I really have no clue where I am) 2015 in summary.

What happened this year? Well I dicked around in lab. A lot. I think there might have been times where my undergrad worked more than I did. If you want to know whether a man can browse reddit for six hours straight I am your guy (the answer is yes, in case you were wondering). A decent number of people I started med school with are residents now, meaning there is a good chance some of them will supervise me when I am a lowly clueless  third year med student (is there any other kind?). Other than that the year just flew by, not unlike an F-22 at a college bowl game (sorry). Oh and I became a coffee and a scotch snob. Good times.

The four best books I read in 2015:

4. Dresden Files by Jim Butcher:
Kinda cheating here since this is a series of not one, not two, not three, but FIFTEEN books with more in the works. Even for a fantasy series this is quite an achievement. I not a fantasy fanatic by any means but Jim Butcher has created a great world here. If you were to split hairs (how thin would your ax need to be for that?), DF falls under what those in the know call 'urban contemporary fantasy', seeing as it is set in modern day Chicago. Basic premise of the series is that magic and supernatural coexist in our world and our protagonist Harry Dresden is a private investigator making his living solving petty magical mysteries. As the series progresses he finds himself caught up in epic magical wars that have been raging for millenia. Brisk pacing, witty banter and a well-developed magical system make this a fantastic series.
3. The Martian by Andy Weir:
By now we have all seen Matt Damon play The Martian, growing potatoes using his own shit as fertilizer. As is often the case, the book is far superior to the movie. Andy Weir infuses the right amount of suspense, believable science, and dark humor to make this an enormously entertaining novel. There are some pacing issues with the plot, but that is understandable seeing how the book was originally serialized on the web by Weir.
2. America's Game by Michael MacCambridge:
I may not be a fantasy fanatic but I sure am a football fanatic, specifically the NFL (college football is a waste of time). Every Sunday I have games on multiple screens as well as couple devices monitoring twitter feeds. Hell, I think I could call the game better than Phil Simms does. My love for the game is why I absolutely cherished this sweeping history of the NFL. MacCambridge does a masterful job of tracing the origins of professional football, its trials and tribulations through the 1950s and its thorough dominance of the sports scene from 1960 on. He traces lineages of the most storied NFL franchises and gives brief bios of some of its most colorful characters (Lamar Hunt, Al Davis, Pete Rozelle etc.) The cover image alone makes this a book worth buying.
*Drum roll*

1. The Alchemists by Neil Irwin:
Not to be confused with Paulo Coelho's shitpiece, this is a book that does the impossible:make central banking look sexy. As a result of the financial meltdown of 2007 central bankers have become celebrities of sort. People like Bernanke and Yellen have found themselves thrust into the limelight, sometimes glaringly so. Here Irwin traces the origins of the concept of central banking, the creation of the Federal Reserve system in the US and the creation of the Euro before launching into a chronological account of the steps three major central banks (the Fed, Bank of England and European Central Bank) took to douse the raging fires of 07-08. He quotes speeches, memos and meeting notes to diligently explain the reasoning behind this complicated series of maneuvers. I came away wiser and more enlightened than before (which I understand isn't a tall order, but still).
I am not going to do a thing for TV shows because I didn't follow that many this year to justify a list, but I will put a plug in (though it hardly needs one at this time) for Fargo. Stop what you're doing, stop reading this damn blog and go binge watch both seasons 1 and 2. I know it's become a cliche to say we live in a golden age of television, but shows like this are making it harder and harder not to believe that moniker.

Have a happy 2016 everybody.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Three iconic images

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I suppose that makes a gif worth a million, amirite? hahaha. BTW who is 'they', this mysterious cabal that seems to issue pithy one-liners and aphorisms at an alarmingly regular frequency? If you happen to know 'them', please introduce me. I would be delighted.

Anyway back to regularly scheduled programming here.

I've been thinking about the topic of iconic images for a while (well for almost two years, I suppose, considering my last post was in Febru-frickin-ary 2014).

I've chosen three here representing different eras and ideas. These are images that capture your attention, give you goosebumps, make you contemplate your mortality and your place in the Grand Universe, and maybe even cause a tear or two.

In no particular order then:

'Pillars of creation' by NASA
If you squint hard enough you can spot a wolf hidden in there! Or maybe that's just me hallucinating again

This breathtaking image is actually a composite of several images (with added color and some other technical enhancements) taken by the beloved Hubble telescope some time in the 90s. The image proved to be so popular NASA published an updated version several years later after upgrading the Hubble.

So what's going on here? We are looking at the essence of creation. This is the Eagle Nebula, the birthplace of stars, located approximately 7000 light years from us. The clouds are composed mostly of molecular Hydrogen and interstellar dust. To get a sense of the scale, each pillar is approximately 4 light years across (!!) and just the tips of these pillars are larger than our solar system.

I get legit goosebumps when I look at this image but instead of feeling insignificant I feel a renewed sense of purpose and legit pride at being able to glimpse at something so profound.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The terrifying specter of death by car wash

Not many things on this planet, material or otherwise, scare me. I am not afraid or terrified easily. Valor is practically my middle name and courage my favorite drink. In fact I am regularly known to indulge in acts of bravery and daredevilry (I once jaywalked in Washington, DC! A mere two blocks from the White House!). One might safely say that I live and thrive right on the edge. 

But that's not what I am here to talk about today. Today it is time to discuss my fears. Fears with a capital F. FEARS.

Now you may wonder - why is this guy blabbering about his fears? 
And I will counter right back - what is braver than discussing our deepest fears, our strongest foibles, our starkest shortcomings? Take the case of the philosopher/vigilante billionaire Bruce Wayne. He embraced his fears and look where that got him. 

On that note, let's move on. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The five most badass quotes of all recorded time

Quotes. Everyone has them, everybody loves them. In this day and age of internet memes, corny motivational posters, and shitty self-help books with untenable nonsense, quotes are a dime a dozen. They have flooded our cultural psyche, polluted our minds.

Let us then harken back to simpler times (when the life expectancy was south of 35 and the food scarce and bland) when quotes actually mattered. Nah I am just kidding. These quotes are taken from all eras - fictional and not. Enjoy.

Coming at a comfortable #5...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The magnificent beard of Andrew Luck

As many people around these parts know, I am a fanatic of the NFL. And no, before you ask, I don't root for or support or cheer for one particular team. I am a fan (hey here's something I just noticed - 'fanatic' has 'fan' built right into it! Coincidence? I THINK NOT) of this beautiful, intricate game as a whole. The parity in the league, the superstars who entertain us consistently, the intensely contested games week in and week out - this all makes for an enthralling experience.

Three years ago I would blog a lot about the NFL. Every week I published an update. I stopped doing that eventually because the internet doesn't need yet another NFL blog. But I have to make an exception here. As you may (or may not) know it's playoffs time [insert obligatory Jim Mora playoffs?! rant here]. Some crazy shit went down last week in the wild-card round. In comparison yesterday's games were a tad tame. One thing stood out to me, however: the magnificent beard of Andrew Luck. Now I can grow and successfully rock a mean beard myself, but Luck's beard makes me feel inadequate. I can stare at that thing for hours, mesmerized and in utter awe of its magnificence.

This season Andrew Luck played like a beast. Despite throwing three potentially game breaking picks last week against the Chiefs, he engineered an epic comeback (the stuff that transforms men into legends), making for a scintillating viewing experience (probably not for Chiefs fans). Yes he got bulldozed by the Patriots run game (!) yesterday, but his beard made everything alright.

Take a look for yourself: