25 April 2013

Is Kanye West an emissary from the future?

I'm wondering because on Jesus Walks (2003) he quotes his own future song Hey Mama (2005).  UNCANNY.



As always, Wikipedia destroys the mystery by informing that Hey Mama was actually recorded in 2000, citing an MTV interview.  Still, it strikes me as pretty ballsy to steal from one's own unreleased track.  I see it as a glimpse of Kanye's early clear view of the long game.  He lays it all out in that 2003 interview, which paints his ambitions as kind of adorable:  he "earnestly" says he'll follow up The College Dropout with Late Registration and then Graduation.  "Is this an overly optimistic projection of his hip-hop future?" asks the author.  "Maybe."

Nope.  It's fascinating and kind of disorienting to look at this snapshot of the pre-Kanye world.  Another anachronism is the reference to Yeezy's "typical disarming modesty."  The nuttiest part is that it backs up the claim with quotes which actually do exhibit disarming modesty.  "I gotta give myself the best chance because I don't really feel like I'm the best [rapper] out there."  With a decade's hindsight, it's easy to forget there was a time when KANYE WEST knew how to say things like that.  Who knows, maybe he is a time traveler, and in the future he went back to 2003 because he didn't like what he had become.  Maybe this time he'll figure out how to be happy and peaceful and fulfilled.  Only one way to find out.  Imma let him finish.

18 April 2013

Oh Maybellene.

Why can'tcha be true?

I wish I knew how to fix cars. I feel like in my dad’s generation, the minimum functional level of cultural savvy included the capacity to open up the hood of a car and poke around and pronounce casually authoritative assessments using words like “torque” and “gasket.” I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know a gasket if it punched me in the nose. Much less a torque.

I take solace in the observation that at least among my generation, I’m not alone. I don’t think the median twentysomething American knows much more about fixing a car than I do. And I blame the machines themselves. In 1959, when my dad was born, all cars had the same basic elements, and the way they interacted was transparent and reasonably intuitive. Not so now! Cars, like the rest of the world, are run by computers. I actually felt a stab of irreparable loss when I was listening to Car Talk a couple weeks ago and heard Tom and Ray mention “the computer.” I know, it’s the twenty-first century, and it’s their job to understand comprehensively whatever someone decides to put in a car. But it jarred. I don’t turn on NPR to hear Click and Clack talk about computers. I want to hear Carburetor and Spark Plug and Belts. I want to hear Gasket.

I mean the Gaskets are still there, of course. It’s just that they’re controlled by the computer. Okay, maybe the gaskets aren’t directly controlled by the computer -- I can’t actually say because I still don’t know what a gasket is -- the point is, fixing a car in 2013 requires some understanding of a computer. But the computer is made by a human, and I want to propose that what cars were to my dad’s generation, computers might be to mine. I don’t mean that we all have to be able to write machine code, any more than my dad’s generation was all professional mechanics. But I think today, cultural savvy increasingly requires familiarity with a basic toolbox that helps you bend computers to your will.

I’m late to the party. It took me a while to get excited about telling stories with numbers (there is another post to write about that). But lately I’ve been learning how to scrape screens and do some basic automation with Python, and it’s opened up a new world. Sure, real codeheads might guffaw at how infantile the stuff is that I’m getting excited about. (Although to their credit, I’ve found computer geeks in general to be indulgently supportive of humble outsiders who want to learn.) But that’s just my point: it’s not that hard to reach a level of basic conversance which, while not exhaustive, is still really useful. I can tell Python to go gather data for a paper I want to write, or tell it to email me when a band I care about is playing nearby.

This is empowering. Eisenhower’s interstate system opened up the country and helped create the abiding American myth of the Freedom of the Open Road -- and cars, as the vehicles for accessing that network, became the symbols of that freedom. As much as I hate to perpetuate a cliché as exhausted as the “information superhighway,” it’s really apt for this metaphor. The world’s data beckons, and the vehicle which now embodies the freedom of that network is code.

I’m making a comparison, not drawing equivalencies. Until I can sit at my keyboard and feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my gangster-leaning arm -- as I listen to some artist who does for the Internet what Chuck Berry did for the Interstate -- I’m not going to pretend it’s an unambiguous step forward for humanity. But it’s pretty cool to be able to tell a computer to download all the data from a government website, crawl through it, and tell you the parts you care about. Or write a script for a game of Battleship! Who knows; maybe within another generation computers will get so complex that, like cars, they will become the exclusive realm of specialists. Like Chuck Berry, we live in a time when amateurs can still customize their own machines as an expression of personality and independence and creativity. Let’s do it, amateurs.

17 April 2013

On the sunny side of the street.

On the Sunny Side of the Street by Ella Fitzgerald on Grooveshark

One of the thousand independently sufficient reasons to live this life must be its constant newness.  That's got to be near the top of the list.  Even its oldness can be new.  I've been hearing jazz for 26 years, and somehow I never noticed this glowing old standard -- copyright 1930 -- until this week.  I know the words sound saccharine.  But there is depth to it.  Listen: some of the turns in those chords describe pangs of sharp melancholy.  Ah! those first bars of every chorus, that I III7 IVM7 VII7 vi. Remembering hopelessness, yearning for present joys to stay, accepting that times will be dark again, and that they'll be good again, but they'll never be quite the same flavor of good, and ultimately celebrating the gift of this day along with a touch of lament at its passing.  THAT is what that I III7 IVM7 VII7 vi says; that's why the song can be taken seriously.  It is triumphant and optimistic.  But it has been around the block.  It knows whereof it speaks.

I must have listened to this song a hundred times this week.  There are lots of wonderful recordings of it by different folks; I've picked the incomparable Ella.

16 April 2013

On darkness and storytelling.

I keep thinking of this piece, Leap, by Brian Doyle.  And of his premise -- our premise, right? -- that we doggedly persist in the face of cowardice by knowing and telling and breathing our loved ones' stories.  Our stories.

Of course it's too soon to know what this thing means, or how we'll look back on it, or what should have been clear.  What there is now, as near as I can tell, is confusion, compassion, and some pretty incredible stories of grace under duress, including some from my friends, who were there.  Also little declarations of stubborn solidarity from New Yorkers, bless them.  I don't know how to deal with loss.  I don't know what to say to those coping with loss right now.  But we can tell stories.

03 April 2013

Meine Schwester.

Anne LaMyrl Sandholtz, as anyone who knows her can tell you, is brilliant, compassionate, thoughtful, creative, articulate, curious -- she is, ahem, literally a peach. She is also my sister. She is also Jesus’ sister, and will be spending the next year and a half telling everything she knows about him to anyone in Portugal who will listen. This project is bound to produce stories hilarious and life-affirming and heart-wrenching and true. She has promised to tell us about them in her letters, which will be posted on her blog, which I recommend to you, gentle reader:

Hurrah for Israel.