I listened to a lot of music (by my standards) this year, but mostly neglected other media categories. So the rest of the end-of-year list is drawing from a smaller set of works. I'm sure I overlooked lots of worthy books, movies, and games this year, so please point them out in the comments.
Favorite movie: Sin City
This was definitely the most visually interesting film of the year, a film that really looked like its graphic novel source material. This was coupled with a series of storylines running at top speed, each depicting some act of heroism rising up from the dark heart of the city. The movie was grotesquely violent, but I think this was an important part of the experience (I addressed this point in more detail in my longer-than-usual review back in April).
Honorable mention: The 40-Year Old Virgin surpassed expectations by being completely hilarious while being sympathetic to the shyness afflicting the title character. The dialogue and characters were very authentic, even when the situations got a bit ridiculous.
Favorite book: Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Murakami manages to find pockets of magic and portals to alternate worlds hidden around Japan, and then teases us with short glimpses of the wonder he's found. This was my favorite of his since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was more accessible as well. The basic story sounds pretty straightforward: a 15-year-old runaway goes on a journey, falls in love, faces his inner demons. However, as with everything Murakami, there's a lot more beneath the surface.
Favorite video game: Well, Xenosaga II was probably the best game I played this year, but that list is very short. I can't really close this category until I've played Dragon Quest VIII, for one thing... What else should I be playing, as long as this category is open?
I'd better finish up my end-of-year lists before the year actually ends. I decided arbitrarily on a top 5 list of albums; this probably captures about 10% of full-length records I listened to this year. The top two are not going to be surprising to the regular readers; however, the fifth one was a tough decision.
5. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
When I first heard this I couldn't figure out what all the buzz was about. The first song was bizarre and annoying, and I couldn't decide whether the singing was weird, or just bad. But once I got used to the singer and started skipping Track 1, I realized I really liked this record.
4. Architecture in Helsinki, In Case We Die
Brilliant, frenetic indie pop, with a childlike sense of fun.
3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema
This band quickly became one of my favorites when I started listening to them late last year. This release didn't surpass their previous album, but was still one of the best of the year. A couple of the songs are simply amazing, and the rest are just plain excellent.
2. Ladytron, Witching Hour
Previous Ladytron albums appropriated mundane objects of modern society as metaphors: hence songs about credit card numbers, digital watches, black plastic, alarm clocks. Witching Hour focuses on the people in this technological landscape, and brings an immediacy and energy to the experience. This record does surpass Ladytron's previous work: rather than a handful of great songs surrounded by filler, this one is awesome from beginning to end.
1. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday
Here we have an album in which the lead singer rants arrhythmically while the band plays power chords in the background. And yet... they do it so well. Part of the fun is following the twists and turns of the storyline across the different songs; part is listening to Craig Finn's snarling monologue, and the rest is the way the band just rocks. I can't quite recommend them for everyone—some fraction of the population just finds them weird—but this was far and away my favorite and most-played CD of the year.
I'm also going to steal one of Lemming's categories from the comments to my favorite songs post and list the:
Best Albums I Should Have Bought in 2004:
3. Snow Patrol, Final Straw
2. The Delgados, Universal Audio
1. The Arcade Fire, Funeral
One of my Christmas gifts was the GBA edition of one of the best console RPGs ever, Final Fantasy IV. Among the enhancements to the new version is the third official translation of this script into English. The original was infamous for excessive kowtowing to Nintendo's censorship regime, resulting in pretty bland dialogue. The latest one, on the other hand, asserts its freshness by referencing Real Ultimate Power. (Seriously.)
However, the translation is not completely new. Yes: When Tellah attacks Edward, he still shouts, "You spoony bard!"
It's nice to see that someone at Square/Enix still remembers.
I finally uploaded the photos from that roadtrip back in September.
Mostly it's Painted Desert and Grand Canyon shots, with some of the meteor crater. Photoset is here.
It's time once again for us to celebrate Newton's Birthday (which has a Wikipedia entry!). Some physics carols may be found here. Also check out that issue of Physics Today for physics songs. (Was it August '05? I don't have my collection here.)
Enjoy the holidays! Here's an open thread.
I've turned Trackback off by default, since 99% of Trackback use seems to be spam. I'll probably add Technorati links as a replacement in the near future. (There are some spam blogs that show up there, too, but it's not as bad.)
The University of California, in partnership with Bechtel, has held on to the contract for management of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
1. I'm surprised the UC won the contract, given the recent political attacks on their management of LANL. However, I didn't know about the Bechtel partnership, which was undoubtedly a deciding factor. I don't know much about Bechtel, except that they're one of those huge corporations that always seems vaguely sinister.
2. Would the UC have been better off without managing LANL? Certainly there's some prestige that goes with it, but lately it seems more trouble than it's worth, with the UC having to fend off mostly trumped-up charges of financial irregularities and security breaches. Meanwhile, paranoia over these things is making life more annoying for those of us connected with other UC managed labs. (And I only have to deal with LBL, which is an unclassified lab—I'm sure it's even worse at Livermore or LANL itself.)
Everyone's posting their end-of-year lists, and while I was planning to hold off until next week, I figured I'd start with one that I had ready: my favorite 18 songs of 2005. Why 18? Because these 18 songs will fill up a CD-R. (Normally my mix CDs run to 20 songs, but this list contains one 11-minute track.)
I limited myself to one song per album since otherwise a couple of albums would have walked away with half the list between them. (And naturally there'll be a favorite albums post forthcoming.)
18. Get Him Eat Him, "Mumble Mumble" (Geography Cones)
A song about shyness, the frustrating way it shuts down your verbal abilities when you most need them (especially if there's a lady involved). So you can see the appeal.
17. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)
Once I got over how weird the singing was, I started to really like this song.
16. The Decemberists, "We Both Go Down Together" (Picaresque)
The heartwarming tale of a spoiled aristocrat committing suicide with his underclass lover. One gets the sense of an unreliable narrator, and hopes for Miranda to push the dude off the cliff and walk away.
15. Sleater-Kinney, "Let's Call It Love" (The Woods)
Sexy lyrics and a sexy 6-minute guitar solo. There are people who claim that women have less aptitude than men for rock music; these people are crazy.
14. Bloc Party, "Helicopter" (Silent Alarm)
I can never understand what these guys are saying through their British accents, so it was a while before I realized this was an anti-Bush song. Fortunately, the song is awesome with or without the political context.
13. Caribou, "Hello Hammerheads" (The Milk of Human Kindness)
It was a bit tough to pick a favorite song from this album, which is consistently good all the way through. "Hello Hammerheads" has the most appealing atmosphere, I think.
12. New Order, "Dracula's Castle" (Waiting for the Sirens' Call)
The actual relevance to Dracula's castle is questionable, but the song is in the grand tradition of excellent New Order songs.
11. The Rosebuds, "Leaves Do Fall" (Birds Make Good Neighbors)
A song that perfectly captures the urgent longing of a long-distance relationship. I love the lyric, "I'm a desperate man/and that terrifies me".
10. Franz Ferdinand, "The Fallen" (You Could Have It So Much Better)
I'm a sucker for songs about the devil, and this is an especially good one.
9. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Ain't No Easy Way" (Howl)
BRMC have been accused of opportunism for their sudden genre-switch to Americana, but if it leads to songs like this I'm all in favor.
8. Spoon, "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" (Gimme Fiction)
This song is just under three minutes long and I am always sort of outraged when it ends. I want to hear more about Monsieur Valentine, dammit!
7. Iron & Wine/Calexico, "He Lays In The Reins" (In The Reins)
I have no idea why there is a dude singing opera in the middle of this song, but the song has one of the best intros I've ever heard and the rest doesn't disappoint either.
6. Architecture in Helsinki, "Wishbone" (In Case We Die)
A love song in a rapid-fire style reminiscent of REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It". It's like candy.
5. Iron & Wine, "Evening On The Ground (Lilith's Song)" (Woman King)
A bit darker and angrier than a typical Iron & Wine song. They should do more like this.
4. Ladytron, "Destroy Everything You Touch" (Witching Hour)
This is the song that's convincing all the hipsters that Ladytron is actually a good band. Of course, I knew this already, which means... Yes. I liked Ladytron before they were cool.
3. Mercury Rev, "Secret For A Song" (The Secret Migration)
I feel like I should be embarrassed of this pick, with its overly grand musical gestures and slightly fantasy-geekish lyrics. (Two suns?) But I can't get enough of it. Somehow, "I'll sell you my secret for a song" really resonates with me.
2. The New Pornographers, "Stacked Crooked" (Twin Cinema)
I have no idea what this song is about, but the way it builds to its anthemic climax is spectacular. The lyrics just sound good, even if they don't make any sense.
1. The Hold Steady, "How A Resurrection Really Feels" (Separation Sunday)
The title is a line spoken by a character in the song, and also the subject of the song, and finally a description of the song itself. It helps to have listened to the previous ten tracks on the album, to get the full emotional weight of Holly's spiritual resurrection, but it's not necessary. The triumphant guitars in the intro, the joy in the lyrics at an old friend coming back from the darkness, the angelic backing vocals in the fade-out... who needs religion when you've got The Hold Steady?
I really should start packing for my trip tomorrow, so I don't have time to track down links to all these songs, but they can probably all be found on iTunes. And, as I alluded earlier, I'm planning to make a mix CD of these 18 tracks, and will be handing out copies during my upcoming travels. So if you'd like a copy, it can probably be arranged.
And it goes without saying that I want to hear about your own favorites in the comment thread.
This item is a bit dated, but apparently there's a prize for "oddest book title" awarded every year:
Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden's extremely serious manual on how to Bombproof Your Horse is today hailed as runaway winner of the prize for the oddest book title of the past year.
It takes what the Bookseller magazine describes as a staggering 46% of the vote in a poll of publishers and booksellers.
Runners-up in a shortlisted international field of six are Detecting Foreign Bodies in Food, with 27%, followed by The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, with 15%.
The British-based Diagram prize - a magnum of champagne awarded by the Bookseller since 1978 - reflects the book trade's unceasing bafflement and delight at the highly specialised titles which some of its members in Britain and further afield produce.
Also on the 2004 shortlist were Applications of High Tech Squids (VCH Verlagsgesellschaft), Equids in Time and Space (Oxbow Books) and Sexual Health at Your Fingertips (Class Publishing).
This week's excuse for not blogging: my apartment flooded due to heavy rain. ("Heavy" by Berkeley standards, anyway.)
I did, however, start A Feast for Crows. Sometimes predictability is nice: you know the poor sucker in the prologue of a George R. R. Martin novel is going to die before the first chapter, so you are free to hate this character and root for the bad guys. (Martin helps out by making the POVs in the prologues progressively more annoying.) Whereas once the novel gets going, it's not wise to get too attached to any particular character, since you never know who is going to get killed off for no apparent reason.
There's been heated debate in the blogosphere recently over whether the hit Black Eyed Peas single "My Humps" is, in fact, the Worst Song Ever Recorded. Near-consensus exists that at least (a) the song really, really sucks, and (b) it is mentally infectious at a level comparable to the Rawling virus from Altered Carbon. I'd been spared hearing this song so far, since I rarely listen to the radio, but against my better judgement I decided to follow my curiosity and find out if it's really that bad.
While listening to it, my impression was that while bad, it wasn't as godawful as I had been led to believe. Sure, the lyrics are egregiously stupid, and the music is shoddy. But one can hear far worse songs getting 70 rotations a week on any given radio station. But then, after listening to the song, I went off to a meeting, and it was already stuck in my head. I sat there for two hours trying to think about physics while my mind was looping "My humps! My humps! My humps!" Then I went home, and listened to better music, and it was still stuck in my head. "My humps! My humps! My humps!" I'm ready to reformat my brain and restore from backup.
Eventually one has to ask the question: what do you get if you combine this song with one of the best songs ever recorded? Hopefully, you get a trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. Someone has created a mashup of "My Humps" with the Arcade Fire song "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", entitled (needless to say) "Hump My Tunnel". To paraphrase Warren Ellis, don't listen.
Finally got a full night's sleep last night. First I couldn't sleep because of the fever, then the cough kept me awake, and after those cleared up I passed a critical point in Woken Furies and stayed awake reading for several nights (since the only time I have to read is when I'd otherwise be sleeping).
Richard K. Morgan: Woken Furies: Morgan redeems himself for Market Forces with this worthy entry into the Takeshi Kovacs canon. I would rate this as better than Broken Angels and not quite as good as Altered Carbon, but still very, very good. It's set on Kovacs' home planet of Harlan's World, thereby explaining a lot of cryptic references in earlier books, and is structured as a suspense novel rather than Altered Carbon's detective story or Broken Angels' treasure hunt; most of the plot revolves around Kovacs mounting a rescue mission for a comrade imprisoned by the government, while avoiding various factions that are trying to hunt him down. Meanwhile a number of characters show up that have been alluded to in previous novels, including some significant figures from Kovacs' past. (Can I spoil something if it's in the prologue? I'll restrain myself.)
One of my (few) complaints about Broken Angels is that it didn't do much with the series' central digitized-consciousness premise, in comparison to Altered Carbon. Fortunately Furies comes back to this and derives some entertaining new conflicts from it. I was especially impressed by the cliche-breaking, Whedonesque way one of these conflicts was resolved; the ending on a whole was excellent, and one of the nice elements of this series is that the books always end in a way that suggests that exciting developments are ahead for the next one.
Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Ukrainian gypsy punk music sounds like a great idea, but is better in concept than in execution. The gypsy instruments were interesting to listen to at first, but once the novelty wears off I found there wasn't much substance underneath. Plus the singer got irritating after a while. A couple tracks are above average, "60 Revolutions" being one of them.
Pharyngula has a post on squid sex. With diagrams and photos. Go on, click, you perverts.
The SQUIDs I study never do this, although I have been studying qubit couplings for the past few weeks. The process is somewhat less titillating than actual squid getting it on, but when I have better data I may post about it anyway. (I named the two qubits Angelina and Brad in the hopes of encouraging them to couple; it seems to have worked.)
I recovered from my illness but have been playing catch-up, hence the lack of blogging. This is just another tiny post to point out that Caolionn O'Connell has a photo of this year's Christmas light display on Millikan Library at Caltech. Looks spectacular as usual (at least in the photo). I do miss seeing that as I walked across campus to turn in my finals at 3 am. I bet the Campanile here would make a good Christmas tree, but it wouldn't be the same...
Apparently this is not a cold but some extremely unpleasant fever. So I may not be traveling this weekend after all.
This is brilliant: Now That's What I Call Blogging! Some of these have been heard on occasion around here...
My body may be rebelling against my intent to make it run 26 miles this weekend. I can only assume this is why I seem to be contracting a cold at this precise moment. Anyway, I'll be traveling this weekend since the race is in Dallas. Then I go back to Berkeley for about ten days and then back to Dallas again, followed by Connecticut. Maybe I should throw in a visit to Pasadena?
Spoon: Gimme Fiction: I kept hearing "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" on internet radio, and liked it better each time, so I finally bought the album. Pretty straightforward and well-executed indie rock; "They Never Got You" is another excellent track. I hear their older stuff is good too, so I should look into that. (The clerk at Amoeba recommended Kill the Moonlight.)
Like PZ Myers, I read the Chronicles of Narnia at an age (I think I was eight) where I was too young to notice the Christian allegory. My ability to understand metaphor actually turned on fairly late; even in my senior year in high school I was unable to handle questions in English class that required sophisticated textual interpretation. Nonetheless, in retrospect it seems pretty obvious, once I am reminded of the details. I mean, the lion dies and gets resurrected? (Well, Lord of the Rings did that too, but supposedly Tolkein himself was unimpressed by Narnia's heavy-handedness.)
Anyway, at the time I read them I liked the books well enough, and they were probably the first fantasy novels I read, but I soon moved on to other authors and didn't really return to Narnia (and I remember basically nothing of the plot of any of the books). I think I made it through the entire series once, where by comparison I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series about 8,000 times. As children's fantasy goes, the latter series is far superior, with more interesting characters, wittier dialogue, and more emotional impact—scenes from that series are seared into my brain in ways that C.S. Lewis never accomplished. Wonder if that one had Christian subtext too, or if it was all Welsh folklore. But I digress.
Back to Narnia, my excitement about the movie has thus far been limited, but not due to the allegorical aspects. After all, Lord of the Rings had that, and I was still excited about the movies, because they were good stories. And one of the reasons a lot of people find Christianity appealing is that it draws from universal narratives about sacrifice and redemption, which are certainly appropriate for epic fantasy. No, what turns me off about Narnia is that I tend to be uninterested in stories in which the protagonists are children. Of course, that wasn't the case when I originally read the books, but maybe that's why I never returned to them as I became more interested in mature perspectives. Likewise, the Harry Potter series has become more interesting to me as the characters age (although I am still one book and two movies behind on that one). Speaking of which, another thing that worries me is that filming the Chronicles of Narnia right now is a transparent attempt to jump on the LotR/Harry Potter fantasy bandwagon, and while this doesn't mean the movie won't be good, it means the filmmakers have less motivation to do a good job if they think it's a sure thing commercially. (Remember that Fellowship of the Ring was a huge risk for New Line and Peter Jackson!)
All that said, I do have a certain curiosity about how the Narnia movie will handle the source material, so I'm likely to end up seeing it anyway.
As many other bloggers have noted, certain conservative blowhards are once again pushing the "War on Christmas" meme this year, the idea being that us secular liberals are somehow forcing businesses to say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", and that this is an issue of apocalyptic significance. Bill O'Reilly in particular seems to have been driven completely insane through his obsession with this fictional issue. Needless to say, there is no sinister conspiracy to cancel Christmas, and even I, as secular and atheistic as they come, am not bothered by "Merry Christmas"—in fact, I'm likely to respond in kind.
The fact is that a large component of Christmas is already secular, and even if I don't go to church on Christmas Eve I can participate in much of the celebration. I have, in the past, been accused of being a massive hypocrite for doing so, but I enjoy seeing my close relatives and giving them gifts, so why shouldn't I take part? Exchanging gifts isn't exactly a sacred rite on the order of taking communion—it's a fun tradition with little if any spiritual aspect. (I guess the religious connection is supposed to be through the gifts of the Magi? But this always struck me as more of a rationalization than some deep scriptural mandate.) Besides, I think the trees and lights are kind of fun, most of the traditions have their roots in pagan solstice holidays anyway, and I'm happy to celebrate the birthday of a great man who made immeasurable contributions to civilization. (I'm referring, of course, to Sir Isaac Newton.)
However, there is one unavoidable element of the season that makes me want to enlist in the nonexistent War on Christmas, and that is the saturation of Christmas music in stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of business (presumably the same ones that are being forced to say "Happy Holidays" by Grinch-like liberals). It used to be that I'd only start getting sick of the music around Dec. 20th, but these days I cringe when I first hear some lame rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" come over a retailer's loudspeaker (usually around Oct. 3rd). Now maybe I'm overly sensitive to this sort of thing—I like a certain amount of variety in the music I listen to, and I have an elaborate set of iTunes smart playlists to prevent any given song from playing too often (and that's for music that I like to begin with)—but I know I'm not alone, since I hear more and more complaints about this every year. Fred Clark at Slacktivist, perhaps out of the same masochistic impulse that has led him to produce elaborate page-by-page analyses of the horrific writing in the Left Behind series, has been listening to one of the all-Christmas, all-the-time stations, and produced a couple of interesting posts on the subject. And via his comments I found this series of short reviews of Christmas music by a witty and theologically-knowledgable atheist. None of this really soothes the pain of having to listen to "Jingle Bell Rock" for the millionth time, but at least I know I'm not alone in this.
If the comments weren't working, it's because the database went down and I didn't notice. It's been fixed now.
The right-wing anti-science movement is succeeding in driving researchers to more rational nations:
Fallout from the corruption of secular science by the Bush administration and its religious allies continues to pile up. The latest is a particularly harmful blow: Two of the world's best geneticists will leave the National Cancer Institute and move not to Stanford University, which had heavily recruited them, but to Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. The reason is simple: They will face far fewer restrictions on their research, which involves stem cells.
At a certain level it doesn't matter whether stem cell research is being done in the US or Singapore—science is a human endeavor, not a nationalistic one. But if there are scientists who feel they need to leave the country in order to work in this field, there are others who are choosing to work on other problems because there are so many barriers to stem cell biology. Not to mention that of the research institutions with the world-class infrastructure needed to do cutting-edge research, many are in the US and this infrastructure will be underutilized as a result. Bush's policies are slowing down the progress of the entire field, not just US science.
On the other hand, this will have a deleterious effect on the US economy as biotech and medical companies relocate. One might think Bush's big-business allies would be uneasy about this, but one only need look at the US current account deficit to see that Bush's big-business allies aren't exactly taking the long view.
Meanwhile, the qubits are keeping me busy and I got my March Meeting abstract in. The submitted abstract implies a substantial to-do list between now and March. Funny, that wasn't in the original draft...
I should review a CD or something, but there are circuits demanding to be fixed at them moment and it's been a bit of a dry spell in terms of music releases lately anyway. Anyone else find any good music lately? Books, movies? When I next carve out some free time I should look into some of these things. (I did start the Kovacs novel!)