Recommendations, 3/14

Jonathan

Sometimes when I listen to Stax-produced soul I wonder where I have been all my life. I should have been listening to Otis Redding as soon as I graduated from my Free To Be and Sesame Street Disco phase. Why did it take me this long? Like all great works of art, the Otis Redding King of Soul box set (available to stream on Spotify) has changed me in ways I don’t yet understand. For too long I have been into the lesser Stax saints like Johnnie Taylor and William Bell. I guess I figured that Otis Redding was just “Sittin’ on the Dock of Bay” and nothing more. Boy, was I wrong. King of Soul gives you the whole raw, rough, brilliant, badass, Otis Redding package.

If fifty-year-old soul seems to square to you, Joan as Police Woman released a new album just this week. On that album, The Classic, the horns, the backing vocals, the groove make it clear that the classic sound lead singer Joan Wasser is going for is the sound that Redding perfected. A song like “Holy City” is the best kind of soul update. It’s not retro; it’s just good.

Gabriella

I loved — no, was borderline obsessed with — The West Wing. Years later, I binge-watched my way through the delightfully nefarious House of Cards. So it’s no surprise that I immediately fell for Borgen, the internationally acclaimed Danish political drama that first aired in 2010. Give me montages of politicos briskly walking while wearing power suits or give me death.

Borgen follows Birgitte Nyborg, the country’s first female Prime Minister, as she maneuvers through the Danish political system — a system that has, as far as I can tell, somewhere between five and 500 different parties. Other standouts are her media advisor or “spin doctor,” Kasper Juul, and his ex, intrepid young journalist, Katrine Fonsmark. Outside of parliament and the public eye, Birgitte struggles with her work-life balance, much to the frustration of her husband Phillip — how do you say “can she have it all?” in Danish?

The show’s been referred to as “the Danish West Wing,” and, admittedly, that’s what initially piqued my interest. And while Birgitte does have the upstanding morals and firm grace of Josiah Bartlet, there’s an acerbic undercurrent to the story — think House of Cards, sans the borderline-cartoonish evil. The result is a show that’s ultimately more complex than either of its American counterparts.

Nick

It would be almost comically cliche for me to recommend the new album by Stephen Malkmus, Wig Out at Jagbags, but even my biased ears know it’s only for Pavement diehards. Who even listens to albums anymore anyway? So, let’s just talk about one good cut instead. For my money, “Houston Hades” is the most fun, and more importantly, the most Malkmusy track on the record. It opens with 30 seconds of aimless guitar noodling, then breaks into a peppy pop rock song full of wandering, disjointed lyrics that turn out to be kind of mean and cynical when you think about them. (That’s five diagonally on your Malkmus bingo card if you count the free space.) “If Houston’s Hades/for Houston ladies/with all those truck huggers, gun luggers/now you gotta have their babies – no,” Malkmus sings, condemning the reproductive fitness of a vast metropolitan area in a single singsongy swoop. “Houston Hades” also shows off what may be the famously aloof frontman’s greatest vocal range to date. He goes so low when he sings “for all you slim shadies” that it almost seems like he’s trying for a second.

I especially love this song because it marks another entry in the “Harness Your Hopes” family tree. Originally a B-side from Brighten the Corners, “Harness Your Hopes” has become a favorite among Pavement catalog trawlers for its prodigious volume of irreverent wordplay. (I can only assume Malkmus was on some hallucinogen when he cut it from the record; it’s one of his best.) It was a unique entry in the Malkmus canon until 2011′s Mirror Traffic gave us the super dense “Forever 28.” “Houston Hades” doesn’t quite have the same profusion of lyrics as the other two, but it’s extra irreverent, so I’m counting it in their ranks.

My attachment to these songs, I think, stems from my perennial struggle to justify my obsession with Stephen Malkmus. On first listen, a lot of his music sounds like straightforward rock, perhaps with some lingering abnormality you can’t put your finger on. It hardly possesses the singular style that usually drives lifelong fandom (as opposed to, say, The Grateful Dead, KISS, or Limp Bizkit). But “Harness Your Hopes” and its ilk encapsulate the appeal of Malkmus’s music and sound completely distinctive. He’s the only person who could have made those songs. And it delights me that he continues to do so.

Kevin

I’m currently in New Orleans, taking a break from New York’s bleak weather and bleak people. Okay, look at these ribs:

I ate the hell out of those ribs — maybe some of the best I’ve ever had. They were at a place in the Bywater called The Joint. It looks like this:

I recommend dragging yourself, wherever you are, down to New Orleans and eating at The Joint. You will feel the sort of cosmic bliss that only good barbecue can provide to your soul. I’ve been here two days and I’ve already eaten there twice. And maybe I’ll keep eating here, transcending my physical being to a higher plane, night after night, via ribs and pulled pork.

At least until my heart stops.

Hallie

Andy Douglas Day‘s new graphic novel, Miss Hennipin, has the elements I love about all his comics — his crudely beautiful drawing style, the elaborate stories, and the feeling, when you finally understand what’s going on, that you’re in on an bizarrely wonderful inside joke.

But at 160 pages, it’s his most elaborate story yet, and his most coherent. As in, you’ll probably get at least half of the jokes on the first read, and incrementally more after that. (The re-reading is definitely worth it.)

Miss Hennipin tells the story of its namesake, or M.H., as so many of her belongings are monogrammed. She lives in a remote mansion with her faithful servant, Mokumbo. Told in a series of disconnected- but- connected vignettes, the book opens with the mysterious arrival of a lost youth on Hennipin’s property. While the stories surround this event, they are mostly about her strange everyday life and her even stranger relationship with Mokumbo. As he helps her with even the most trivial tasks, such as purchasing a fern (“I would like something quiet… Quiet but vigilant”) we gather more and more details on their complex and hilarious relationship (“If you’re trying to pick a fern that you can hide behind at home, then think again”).

There are a handful of great side characters that interrupt the narration, but the surrounding world itself might be my favorite voice other than Hennipin’s. The writing on objects, signs, and decor are funny for the way they comment on the story, but even viewed totally independently of the narrative, they always make me laugh, and they are is part of what makes re-reading the book so enjoyable and surprising.

I love Miss Hennipin because she carries on the tradition of the best old ladies. She reminds me of my grandmother in her meticulous approach to the most mundane chores. Of Emily from Gilmore Girls in her total sense of entitlement. Of Dickens’ Miss Havisham in how bat-shit crazy she is.

This is Andy’s second book for Sonatina and he’s already working on his third. He’s only getting better, so get on board while the jokes are still “inside.”

You can order Miss Hennipin from Sonatina, and if you’re in the bay area, attend the book release at Mission Comics on April 4.

My Family Eats Paleo: An Activity Book for Kids

Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by David Mansfield

Hi, kids! Welcome to the healthy and yummy world of the Paleo Diet!

I bet you’re wondering: what exactly does “Paleo” mean? You’ve probably heard Mommy and Daddy talking about it a lot recently. You may have even noticed some changes in your kitchen, at your dining table, or even inside your lunchbox. Where has all the bread gone? What’s happened to your cookies? And what are “chia seeds”?


The Paleo Diet is really simple — it’s what our ancestors ate thousands of years ago, way back before there were supermarkets and delicious, terrible carbohydrates. Early humans ate only what they could kill or gather. Their food was LEAN and GREEN — lots of meat and yum-yummy veggies, and NO bread!

Even though their average life expectancy was under 30, they sure were fit and skinny. Your Mommy and Daddy are very smart, and have realized that lots of experts, CrossFit trainers, and people on the Internet are right: eating like early humans is the best possible way to be healthy. And Mommy and Daddy want YOU to be healthy too!

These activities are a fun way to learn all about your new and exciting way of eating. Have a blast! And remember: no more Doritos, ever.

Find That Food: Help the caveman find his dinner in this forest drawing! Circle:

  1. The animal he can spear for meat (hint: it looks like a hairy elephant!).

  2. The plants he can collect for healthy nutrients.
  3. The berries he can pick for a sweet natural treat.
  4. The almonds he can grind using his Vitamix to replace white flour in baked goods.

Draw an X through the pile of bagels. EW, carbs! Color in the forest when you’re done.

Little Paleo Chef: Make Paleo “Oreos” to take to school! Use banana slices for the cookies and almond butter for the cream filling. Remember: don’t cry when your friend eats his Chips Ahoy in front of you at lunch — he’ll probably end up morbidly obese!


Word Scramble: An important Paleo lesson is hidden in this word scramble — can you find it?


N J Z O W R
O P C A K E
D S U C K S
H J P L M K


Finish the Story: Help Mommy finish her latest Facebook status update by filling in the blanks with the words below.

“Wow, what a week! Whole family is now eating _____ and training ______ ! Excited for these _____ to get even looser! But, most importantly, we’re all feeling ______ – we don’t even miss _______! Check out our latest dinner on our _____ :)”

mean | pants | clean | carbs | Instagram | healthier    

Connect the Dots: It’s you in your CrossFit Kids class! Don’t forget to color in your Vibrams with your favorite crayon.

Daddy And Me: Daddy bought a sandwich today – where can he hide it? Help him look for hidden spots in the garage to eat in secret.

Little Paleo Chef 2: Everyone loves bacon! Try wrapping protein-licious bacon around your favorite Paleo snacks, like kale, grass-fed beef, and more bacon.

Math Superstar: Using everyone’s body weight and average amount of physical activity per day, help your whole family calculate their required daily protein intake and carbohydrate levels to reach a state of ketosis. Remember to measure in grams!


Mommy And Me: Test Mommy’s real hunter-gatherer skills by going on a hunting trip. How much protein can you help her kill in two hours? Give yourself a pat on the back if you skin your prey correctly!

Crafts: Use orange, red, and brown construction paper to make your very own big four-cheese pizza! Give it to Daddy so he can sadly rip it apart in front of Mommy as punishment for the sandwich thing.

Little Paleo Chef 3: Make your old favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs, then throw the spaghetti part in the trash!


Talk About It: Make sure all of your classmates know about your healthy new lifestyle. Punch anyone who doesn’t agree. You’re an expert now!

Me, My Quantified Self, and I

“The quantified self” is a technocratic movement that encourages self-tracking data. Broadly, the quantified self could mean acquiring data on everything — one’s environment, health, and activities. Usually, it means people tracking their daily step-count on a Fitbit.

Reporter is a new app that takes the notion of the quantified self, crosses it with journaling, and dresses it in bold colors and nice typography. It pings you at random points throughout the day to ask you questions about what you’re doing, who you’re with, and where you are. Default questions include “Are you working right now?” and “How did you sleep?” The goal of Reporter is to measure how you spend your day and to identify long-term patterns in your behavior. In an interview with The Verge, Drew Breunig, a developer behind Reporter, believes the data will be instructive, since it highlights aspects of your life you might not regularly contemplate: “I want you to be scared by your routine, or by decisions you haven’t thought about because you don’t want to face them.”

Having used the app for a couple weeks, nothing about my routine really scared me. Outside of the app’s pleasant visual aesthetic, there was little else of interest. Brendan O’Connor listed his gripes at The Daily Dot (most of which I agree with), namely that the sorts of data Reporter collects is tedious. He writes, “The aspects of our lives that make us who we are — the people we love and the people who love us, our passions and obsessions, our flaws and our work and our deepest, darkest secrets — clearly surpass the imagination of apps like Reporter. What dull lives we would lead if these (‘How many cups of coffee did you have today?’) were the most important questions we could ask ourselves.”

Though the defaults certainly don’t encourage creativity, one could argue that Reporter is only as unimaginative as its user, since it allows you to customize the questions. I added two queries of my own: “Are you reading or writing?” and “Did you exercise today?”

On one hand, I’m identifying what parts of my life are important to me. I like the idea that I’m someone who writes and works out regularly enough to track it. On the other hand, by deciding to quantify these things about myself specifically, I am creating an identity for my most idealized self. I collect this data because it’s how I want to construct the narrative of my life.

Most of the buzz around Reporter comes from the app’s proprietor, Nicholas Felton, a former designer at Facebook who conceived the Timeline and the Open Graph. Felton has also been an early proponent of the quantified self, releasing annual reports on his life since 2005 (though it seems the attention they receive has more to do with how nicely they are designed rather than what data is represented).

Before being acquired by Facebook, Felton created a service called Daytum, self-described as “an elegant and intuitive tool for counting and communicating personal statistics.” Felton’s Daytum profile is used as an example of a “personal dashboard.” It displays the number of miles he ran, cities he’d vacationed to, and celebrities he’d sighted. What we’re supposed to take from his profile is that Nicholas Felton is a runner, a jetsetter, a person who regularly spots Terry Richardson. But this is the information he chooses to display about himself; the data he collects projects the type of person he wants us to see.

Recall David Hume’s bundle theory of the self from your college Intro to Philosophy class. Hume argued that despite the fact that our experiences, feelings, and memories appear connected, there’s no evidence that they are more than a bundle of perceptions. For that reason, the “self” doesn’t exist. What exactly is the quantified self, then, if anything? We can convince ourselves that all the data points we collect in an app like Reporter add up to something when in reality they don’t — though we might try to convince ourselves and others, with elegant fonts and colorful charts, that they do.

Illustrations courtesy of Bob May

Guest Recommendations: Suzy Hopkins

Watch The Bad Seed

Epic pigtails, a serial killer and an increasingly haggard and horrified housewife. Those aren’t memories of my parenting career, at least in terms of hairstyles and death count, but of the 1956 movie, The Bad Seed.

Probably it signals some grave psychological dysfunction, this intense interest in grave psychological dysfunction. Each of six siblings in my original family, in fact, suspected they might be a “bad seed,” a competition of sorts in which different winners emerged decade by decade.

It was reassuring, though, to fall far short of the mark compared to little Rhoda Penmark, she of an era’s rigidly plaited pigtails, a mistress of chilling looks and incessant toe-taps and memorable lines like “Gimme those SHOES back.”

As a child, I thrilled at the slow revelation of evil… “The whisper of suspicion grows… into the thunder of the terrifying truth.” I always supposed that if you knew that truth, you might not make it out alive, and of course in the greater sense that’s all too true.

Part of the movie’s charm was an express request not to reveal the shocking ending. Which of course I won’t — I take these movie promises seriously — except to say that she gets cosmically spanked.

mom_cat

Sleeping with a cat on your neck

Don’t try this with a baby in the house, but if you’re baby free consider wearing a cat at night.

Photos of my mother-in-law circa 1950s show her raking leaves with a dead animal curled around her throat, a fox or mink or some other unfortunate fluffy tailed soul.

Perhaps that pleasure she must have derived — clearly, it looks like the leaf raking takes a backseat to the fur displaying — is akin to this wearing of the cat.

Eight months ago, my daughter Hallie and friend Adia rescued two kittens from dire circumstances and bestowed them upon me as gifts. Gracie is shy and prone to hide; Molly is the gregarious one who has claimed my neck at night.

The cat derives a great deal of warmth, I suppose, and an abiding sense of power as she rapturously settles into full curl, paws wrapping around to knead the skin under my eyes.

I derive worry, wonderment, questions: Worry over those future visiting grandchildren — steel-capped cribs, I’m thinking. Wonder at the audacity it takes to claim shifting human turf for your own.

Questions about the actual mechanics of purring, an engine that starts at exactly the time restorative oblivion should be under way. If I weren’t so tired I’d look it up. Do cats decide to purr, or is it a bodily function devoid of meaning any deeper than “You’re mine.”?

The question being, as it always is with cats and perhaps even my mother-in-law: do we own the fur or does the fur own us?

Talk to old people

The most interesting people I know are old. Not old as in you’re 20- and 40-year-olds seem ancient. But really old, like deep-rooted trees battered by storms you can’t even imagine.

I didn’t always feel this way. I used to be scared of old people, from the time my stern grandmother lost it over my failure to properly hang a broom (“I have a bone to pick with you” was her alarming introduction to the reprimand.)

Fifty years later, to my surprise, I publish a senior magazine and interview the oldest of the old.

There’s 105-year-old Bill, who at 103 drove across country with a loaded pistol in the trunk. Car and driver returned safely, no shots fired. (In 1926 he joined the 7th Cavalry and was issued a horse — Number E-213. Eighty years later he bought an iPad.)

Lola, who at 89 was still mourning her eldest son’s suicide when she fell off a rural hillside and broke her neck. She downplays her constant pain, is quick to welcome visitors with tea and a companionable chat, and vows to keep helping her family members with their challenges “for as long as I’m able.”

And Rusty, 86, who recalls the day when as a stressed-out middle-aged businessman he swapped cigarettes for running shoes. He divides his time between two gyms these days and hangs out with his 73-year-old girlfriend.

Maybe it’s my childlike desire to hear a story that makes me love these folks. But I also appreciate how advancing age seems to lift the fog of vanity.

Ask to take a 40-, 50- or 60-year-old’s photo and their first concern is how they’ll look, with break-your-camera jokes quickly following. An 80-year-old is more likely to say, “Sure, what time?”

These old folks often have lousy hearing, failing eyesight and take a long time to answer the door. And while they may not lord it over you, they’re probably smarter (who can help it, with all that extra time) and can run circles around you in the life-dealt-me-a-storm department.

The thing is, they hung on and kept going, grateful to get another chance tomorrow. I like hearing the stories, but I love learning the lessons.

Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by Hallie Bateman

The Traveling Salesman

salesman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hello ma’am. May I come in for a second? My name is — whoops! I’ve spilled a handful of dirt on your carpet, and now I’m rubbing it deep into the fibers with my foot!

Luckily, I have with me a product that will forever change the way you tackle your most noisome domestic duty. Tell me, are you dissatisfied with your current kitchen cutlery? What’s that?

Oh, the dirt, yes. Just a little “trick of the trade” that one of my salesman buddies taught me. His name is J. Gregory Stanton. He’s what we in the trade call “a veteran of the trade.”

Allow me to demonstrate the durability of these knives. You could use these babies to cut a soup can in half — with the soup still in it! Ha, ha.

Yes, ma’am, I did throw dirt on your floor. It’s an old salesman’s trick, all part of the show. Trust me — you’re going to love that dirt pile by the time I’m done. Did you hear my soup joke?

Why, my knives are so strong that they’ll cut through an actual penny! I happen to have one here, and could you take your eyes off the dirt for just one second?

Please, have faith. Everything I’ve done is straight out of the Salesman’s Handbook. Have a look. See? Just like it says: I’m wearing a suit. I called you ma’am. I threw a lot of dirt on your carpet. I took that dirt from under the sod on your front lawn so you wouldn’t be spooked by strange dirt. I joked about soup, since you are a housewife and spend most of your time in the company of soups.

But if you mean to question sales techniques developed by Mr. J. Gregory Stanton himself, the top grossing vacuum cleaner salesman in the northeast, well, I’ve got news for you, lady: I just realized why I shouldn’t have put that dirt on your floor.

I’d be happy to run out to my car and see if I have a vacuum stowed away somewhere. No, I don’t know why I would, either. My whole back seat is full of knives and tin can fractions. Who’d keep a vacuum under a pile of knives? Not J. Gregory Stanton, that’s for sure. Say, do you have a vacuum?

Maybe I could use your phone, then? I could place a call to J. Gregory and ask him what I should do now. No? That’s alright. I suppose he’d just suggest I vacuum it up with my vacuum.

Let’s see… what else… Oh! Hello, young lady, is your mother home? I’m joking, of course. I know full well that you’re an adult. I just forgot to say that when I came in.

I think I have an idea. If my knives are sharp enough to cut a penny, surely it would be no trouble for me to cut a measly few feet of filthy carpet out of a lovely young lady’s living room floor? That would be no problem for my knives. Here, please observe. See? Would you like to take a stab at it?

Say, did you catch that? “Take a stab.” I wasn’t even trying to do that. I should have been a stand-up comedian instead of a traveling knife salesman.

Oh, sure, when I want to call my mentor J. Gregory Stanton, it’s all, “I’d rather you didn’t use my phone” this, and “Why are you like this” that. But as soon as you decide to call the police? “Well, hello operator! Get me my best friend, the police!”

Why, my knives are so strong that they’ll cut through an actual penny! I don’t know. I thought maybe I could slip back into the pitch and you wouldn’t notice.

Maybe I’m just not salesman material. Maybe I should call it quits. What will I say to my wife when I go home? “Hi, honey?” “How was your day?” I’m sure I will. I love talking to my wife.

Listen, if I don’t make a sale today, I’ll be forever disbarred from the Salesman’s Federation Of America. They’ll take away my fedora. They’ll take my cans. The dream will be dead. I’ll have to go back to my day job performing bone marrow transplants. The monotony of it! Day in and day out, sick kid after sick kid. It’s enough to make you want to kill yourself.

Ah, officer, hello! Tell me: are you dissatisfied with your current kitchen cutlery?

Major Label Debuts

st_vincent

When Phantogram released their sophomore record Voices a couple weeks ago, it seemed like nobody cared. The conversation that week was fixated on an early stream of the new self-titled St. Vincent album on NPR. I clicked through to a video for St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness” and had to skip an ad for the new Phantogram record. Once I had finished, YouTube recommended the new Phantogram single again. Finally, I clicked. During the video for “Fall in Love”, the album’s first single, I realized then that St. Vincent and Phantogram were approaching similar moments—their VEVO moment, so to speak—only it was going better for St. Vincent.

For this record, her fourth, St. Vincent departed British indie label 4AD for Lomo Vista, a new label under Republic Records, owned by the Universal Music Group. Similarly, Phantogram’s newest album, Voices, is their first for Republic. This marks the first major-label album from both bands.

Their paths to the Big Four were markedly different though. St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark. It’s hard to find a review of any of her albums that doesn’t mention how she started as a background singer for Sufjan Stevens and was briefly a member of the Polyphonic Spree. But they’re important details. The story here is that Annie Clark has earned it. She put in her time.

Over four records, St. Vincent has been consistent but each successive album builds on the work that preceded it. It’s why reviewers will run profiles and reviews of her work under facile headlines like “Annie Clark is more St. Vincent than ever.”

Clark’s work has always been defined by a disconnect between the sonic and substance. The sweetness of Marry Me‘s melodies were always sharpened by Clark’s lyrics, often darker and more twisted than her angelic euphony might express. Actor heightened this strain between aural elegance and lyrical grit. Look at “Laughing With a Mouth Full of Blood,” deceptively one of St. Vincent’s most serene songs until it bares its teeth during the refrain: “All of my old friends aren’t so friendly/ All of my old haunts are now all haunting me.”

Actor also introduced some jagged electronics. On “Marrow,” Clark’s voice is as fragrant as ever, but the presence of glitches and punchy guitar chords give Clark’s work a new texture and nerve. Strange Mercy, St. Vincent’s last album, indulged a new penchant for twitchy guitar licks. The album’s first single, “Cruel,” opens with Clark’s soft alto, floating on an orchestral swell, before the chorus breaks with a fuzzy guitar riff. The interplay between these two elements are like sweet and savory. Clark’s latest, merely titled St. Vincent, continues this progression. Its edges seem rougher; its constructions are edgier. The brass of “Digital Witness” march forward with a sense of warped irony, while the noisy crunch of distorted guitars turn “Birth in Reverse” into a muddy funk jam.

There is always the worry with major label transitions that artists will be forced to make their music more accessible. If anything has changed with St. Vincent, it’s that Clark is more assured than ever. It’s easy to be dismissive when a musician’s fourth album is self-titled (or “underwhelmingly-titled” as one reviewer said), but it’s perhaps the most fitting name: this is the record St. Vincent has been working toward for seven years. As much as I hate to say it, Annie Clark is more St. Vincent than ever.

phantogram

I’d never thought of Phantogram and St. Vincent together until I started listening to both of their new albums heavily over the past couple weeks. Like St. Vincent, Phantogram’s sound relies heavily on a tension between the digital noise — synthesized drum beats and hazy overtones — and warm voices. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter split vocal duties, but Barthel handles the majority of the tracks. Her voice is cool and ghostly, like a siren luring you into a dark alley.

In interviews, the duo has dubbed their sound as “street beat” and “psyche pop.” The beats show influences from R&B and hip-hop; the production is a mix of moody trip-hop ambiance and indie rock muscle. The band’s debut, Eyelid Movies, is eclectic — Paul Thompson at Pitchfork even compared the album to Beck’s Odelay for its genre-jumping. It’s inconsistent at times, but sounds like a band discovering their sea legs, often illustrating their range. The diversity of Eyelid Movies is its strength; it promised even better, weirder things to come.

Since the album dropped in 2010, the band has quietly been expanding its audience. “When I’m Small” was featured in ads for Canon and Gilette, the band collaborated with the Flaming Lips and Big Boi, and an original Phantogram track made its way onto the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. All these placements seem like the work of a major label, slowly working doses of Phantogram into the collective pop culture bloodstream.

Voices smooths out the edges, but robs Phantogram of its capriciousness. “Fall in Love” distills the concept of “street beat” into an anthemic, radio-friendly single. It’s a terrific song, but unfortunately the same refinement of Phantogram’s hybrid R&B/rock doesn’t fare as well throughout the album. With the exception of “Bill Murray,” the album’s excellent centerpiece, Barthel’s performance throughout hits the same notes over and over. In particular, Carter-sung tracks like “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You” are safe, dull plays (even the song titles are bland). Though I like the idea of Carter’s tracks being the more sentimental ones (not unlike the dynamic of CHVRHCES’s Lauren Mayberry and Iain Cook), his vocal leads feel underdeveloped and overwrought. It’s a shame. Carter actually sang on my favorite track off Eyelid Movies, “Bloody Palms,” a track built around an aggressive riff that would have no place on Voices.

Was it simply too soon for Phantogram to make run at the mainstream listener? Between Eyelid and Voices, Phantogram released two EPs, both of which are hit-or-miss track by track. But they’re both more playful and experimental. “Don’t Move,” off of the Nightlife EP, is a strong contender for Phantogram’s best song to date. The song is actually brighter and more dynamic than anything else the band has produced. It certainly sounded like a step forward. What if Phantogram had spent more time discovering their sound, like Clark did over three albums, before making the jump to a major label?

From album to album, St. Vincent’s development has been iterative. Clark has taken what she has established and expanded carefully, meticulously. That’s not necessarily the right path for Phantogram. But whereas the appeal of Eyelid Movies was its unpredictability, the tragedy of Voices is that it sounds like squelched potential.

Recommendations, 2/28

Gabriella

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) immediately enchanted me: one of the first scenes, a rooftop dance party in the heart of Rome, pulsates with incredible, infectious energy. When the camera pans over various inebriated partygoers reveling in the moment, it’s clear that while this crowd is glamorous, much of it is aging and seedy (take, for example, the squat, balding man who plants himself in front of an attractive, leggy young thing and repeatedly hisses up at her in time to the beat: “I’ll screw you, I’ll screw you”). At the center of this hedonism is Jep Gamberdella — it’s his 65th birthday party, and it’s hard to imagine a bachelor his age who’s having a better time.

Still, despite all the women, Negronis, and perfectly tailored sportcoats he’s able to enjoy, Jep’s struggling with — what else — ennui. A one-time novelist, now half-invested journalist and de facto socialite, he receives the unexpected news that his first lover died, leading him to reexamine his lifestyle and the scene that he’s been a fixture of for decades.

The Great Beauty is a long, sweeping film, but Jep guides the viewer through his Rome in a series of vignette-like interactions that make the grandeur feel manageable and intimate. The most striking parts are the scenes that are so visually lush and dreamlike that they verge on magical realism, but the seemingly mundane ones — say, stopping at a café to buy cigarettes — are particularly moving and, indeed, beautiful.

Jonathan

I labor in the Humanities – that’s the building in your university that hasn’t been repaired or remodeled since the early 1970s – and modern Humanities-types have to be flexible. You never quite know what class is going to run so you try to develop every possible class you could conceivably teach. That’s why I am teaching leading an exploration of Japanese poetry this semester. This is also why I carry around a heavy briefcase full of Japanese poems, from ancient to modern. Of the various tomes I have sampled, The Art of Haiku by Stephen Addiss is my constant companion. The book provides a history and context not just for haiku, but for other forms of Japanese poetry. It takes the reader on the intellectual and historical journey from the longer choka to the tanka through the renga and finally arriving at the haiku. The translations of the poems provide Romanized Japanese along-side beautiful English renditions. Reading it, I feel a bit like Basho’s frog jumping into the sound of the old, clear pool of Japanese poetry – plop! It is a pool that has been waiting, patiently, for me to be wise enough to jump in.

Nick


For anyone who cares too much (read: at all) about the history of videogames, the Gameboy Advance is a fascinating system. In many ways, it’s a continuation of the Super Nintendo, a console where two dimensional graphics ruled and games mostly avoided the numbing clutches of realism. The GBA continued in this spirit, producing some of the best and most innovative titles ever (cough), and it also carried on the torch of pixel art. That little chunk of plastic with its tiny screen etched more images into my memory than the first two Playstations combined because it showcased veteran pixel crafters at the peak of their powers.

If you remember this art as fondly as I do, you need to follow the fabulous new blog Pixel Digest. Using some digital sorcery, the (anonymous?) author rips the sprites and backgrounds straight from old GBA games and, because it’s Tumblr, turns them into gifs. The results are spectacular. Note that every one of those Luigis is its own tiny image with a transparent background. They’re like perfect little jewels of internet. I bet these start showing up all over the web in a few months’ time.

The blog is still young, so it’s no sweat to read through the whole archives, but a few posts stand out to me. I love the eerie emptiness of this background from Mario and Luigi (make sure to click on the full-sized version). And the layout of these Metroid sprites is pure art. The author also gives technical explanations for how artists and developers squeezed so much visual richness out of such underpowered hardware, like how Dragon Quest III switches enemies from background images to sprites when they need to animate. Finally, this huge chart that details the graphical evolutions of the original Gameboy Pokemon is completely mesmerizing and yet more evidence that Psyduck is the best. The author says they’ll move onto new systems soon, and while I’ll be sad to live the GBA behind, I can’t wait to see where Pixel Digest goes next.

Kevin

Despite the fact I have no kids, I think I’ve reached Peak Dad. In December, as a birthday/Christmas gift to myself, I bought a guitar with the purpose of “jamming to old tunes,” as dads are wont to do. (It’s a Mexican-made Fender Strat, for those who know about guitars). I hadn’t played in any regular capacity for three or four years, but I figured this might be a good time to get back into it. I imagined myself occasionally noodling around while watching TV or waiting for laundry. It turns out when you come back to something after not doing it for a few years, you are terrible at it. I’d lost the dexterity in my fingers, my sense of rhythm, and the ability to hang onto a guitar pick for more than 30 seconds. And even though the point of buying the guitar wasn’t necessarily to be good at it, I was immediately frustrated with just how poorly I was playing.

So I bought the newest edition of Rocksmith, a videogame that’s more or less Guitar Hero with a real guitar. (You plug your guitar in with a special cable.) Back when music games were in their heyday, I was pretty good at Guitar Hero and Rock Band, mostly because I played them so often. Rocksmith is far less game-like. In fact, nowhere in its promotional material does it ever refer to itself as a videogame. It’s a method by which to learn guitar — the “fastest way” if its motto is to be believed.

At first, I didn’t like Rocksmith. As someone who knew the basics of guitar, it felt like the game was teaching me how to play itself rather than sharpening my picking and strumming. If you ever thought the five buttons on a Guitar Hero controller were a lot to handle, you’ll be terrified by the visual representation of notes in Rocksmith. It depicts the fretboard and each of the six strings on the X-axis of the screen while future notes come at you through the Z-axis. The information design is a bit of a mess — a chaotic string of moving numbers and lines — but once I got used to interpreting what the game was asking of me, it started becoming pretty enjoyable.

I’ve been playing regularly for a week now, mostly drilling the same songs over and over (the track selection is similar to those featured in Guitar Hero and Rock Band: a mix of classic and ’90s rock with a few newer indie songs for good measure). There are game-like motivators, like scoring and accuracy percentages. It all adds up to a sense of accomplishment and progress. And in the end, it’s far more satisfying to learn the entirety of “Reptilia” on a real guitar than in Rock Band.

I still take issue with a lot of the visual design. There are some strange inconsistencies, like the way the fretboard moves and which notes are numbered and which aren’t. But I realize Rocksmith has more to communicate than Guitar Hero. Actually, once I accepted that Rocksmith wasn’t a game, I had a lot more fun with it.

Special Skates

I, Bot

The best ideas are born out of spite. After I taunted my friend Brett O’Connor mercilessly with tweets during the Super Bowl (he’s from Denver), he responded the only way he knew how: by creating a Twitter bot.

This is how @knguyen_ebooks came to be. To build a Twitter bot takes a little bit of programming know-how, but it’s surprisingly unsophisticated. @knguyen_ebooks is built on a framework from an Australian developer who goes by “mispy.” Similar to its namesake @horse_ebooks (before its tweets were written by a human), it uses Markov chain, a mathematical system that is “memory less.” With text, it chains together words based partly on randomness and partly on what is likely to follow a given word. The result, when applied to a large corpus of text (in this case, my last two thousand tweets), is an output that often sounds like a bizarro version of me.

It’s startling how easily I can be imitated by a Twitter bot, hosted on a Raspberry Pi, a $25 computer the size of a credit card.

According to Brett, @knguyen_ebooks has a completely random chance of doing one of the following: tweet every 30 minutes, reply to someone it follows, reply to a mention, and continue to reply in a conversation. I’ve retweeted @knguyen_ebooks a handful of times, and it’s convincing enough to make people think, at least for a second, that the bot is me.

Bots that imitate humans are nothing new. @tofu_product, a bot created by Joe Toscano last October, “absorbs flavor,” meaning it replies to your tweets in a voice resembling your own. The bot attempts to be conversational by picking up key words in your reply, but the responses rarely make convincing sentences. Therein lies the humor of @tofu_product: it sounds like a broken, mangled mirror of yourself. Rob Dubbin’s bot @oliviataters tweets like a teenager by searching for phrases surrounding “is literally” and “was totally” and splicing them into new sentences, convincingly enough that on a handful of occasions it (she?) has gotten into Twitter spats with users who believe she is human.

But how important is a bot’s ability to resemble a human? Does it matter if we know it’s a bot or not? Whether a bot could pass the Turing test seems beside the point. Before the reveal that @horse_ebooks was not a bot, the charm of the account was the way it strung together poetic and cogent tweets from what appeared to be an algorithm; the same is true of @knguyen_ebooks. The fascination of these types of bots is not what they say, but how people interact with them. Since a bot’s output has no intention or motive, the meaning is what a human takes from it.

Having done web programming for so long, Brett wanted to try something completely different with his skills. So much of web development is focused on building tools or services that perform a specific useful function. With bots, they exist simply to delight and annoy. Their purpose (if we’re being liberal with the definition of “purpose”) is to evoke an emotional response. This sentiment is echoed in a Boston Globe profile of Darius Kazemi by Leon Neyfakh. He writes, “By imitating humans in ways both poignant and disorienting, Kazemi’s bots focus our attention on the power and the limits of automated technology, as well as reminding us of our own tendency to speak and act in ways that are essentially robotic.”

Kazemi is perhaps the godfather of Twitter bots (or at least the person who has probably built the most). His work includes bots that make puns out of trending Twitter topics, combines news headlines, and generates games of Fuck, Marry, Kill. Brett cites Kazemi as an inspiration for the four bots he has created, including one bot imitates himself as well.

“I’ve called my bot an ‘algorithmic mockery of my life’ before because every once in a while it will assemble some of my tweets into something that seems like a criticism or brings back a bad memory,” Brett says. “Of course this is all just me reacting to noise and garbage. I sometimes think it’s like ‘internet training,’ because humans make noise and garbage on the internet too.”

In following @knguyen_ebooks, I’ve recognized patterns in my own tweets. I talk obsessively about the same subjects (football, books, videogames) and too often use the same joke constructions. In a lot of ways, @knguyen_ebooks is funnier than I am because it heightens the tedious things I say by breaking the expectations of those who are familiar with my Twitter account.

When friends have asked me about my bot, I’m reminded of an interview with Larry David. Not surprisingly, David says the question he’s asked most often is how closely he resembles the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Every time, he says the character is not necessarily him, but the person he wishes he was. Larry David the character is funnier and weirder and more surprising than the real one.

A sentence is perhaps the simplest way to express an idea. It’s this understanding that makes Twitter’s limitations so powerful. All tweets are presented uniformly in a stream — chronologically, showing no preference (except to ads I suppose) — so the voice of an individual, a news organization, a corporation, and a robot are all on equal footing.

And yet, Twitter’s lack of context forces the user to create context. By design, Twitter gives us so little to go on that we must be conscious of our internet literacy. When an unfamiliar person follows us, we check to see if it’s a human or a spambot; when a famous person dies, we make sure it’s being reported by a credible news source. Twitter’s power comes from this tension between the lack of context and our ability to discover it. @knguyen_ebooks is only funny if you’re familiar with @knguyen. Curb Your Enthusiasm only makes sense if you know who Larry David is.

Still, the contextual relationships we have to Twitter don’t necessarily have to be true. Since my Twitter handle is my first initial followed by my last name — the 57th most common surname in the U.S. — I often get replies that are meant for a different K. Nguyen. A couple years ago, a college student from South Carolina began regularly tweeting insults at me, which I later realized were meant to be directed at a different Kevin Nguyen. When he figured it out, he decided to continue following me, occasionally retweeting me to his group of friends. I was then referred to as “Bootleg Kevin,” a sort of alternate-universe version of their Kevin Nguyen.

It was all in good fun. Apparently I resembled the complete opposite of their friend — a liberal who doesn’t regularly quote Family Guy and binge drink until he blacks out — and they would joke and retweet whenever I would say something that betrayed the reality of their Kevin Nguyen. Occasionally, I was tempted to tweet back at them, but I didn’t want to break the role they’d created for me. It didn’t matter that I was a real person; to these college kids, my account was an inside joke, a context they had invented, one that was funny and personal and delightful to them.

Illustrations courtesy of Bob May

Guest Recommendations: Kaylee Harles

Friday Night Lights (Except Season 2)

Yes, it is a teen drama. Yes, it is about football. Yes, it takes place in Texas. But, it is, without bias or exaggeration, the quintessential American television drama that no one watched while it was on air, a stunning portrait of rural America across a sweeping Western landscape that never falls into the trap of cynicism. It takes plot lines you’ve seen a thousand times and treats them with dignity, respect, and depth when you least expect it. You will laugh, you will cry, you will learn what a “running back” does. You will mock Tim Riggins’s greasy hair and brooding looks only to weep once you realize he’s just a misunderstood greasy-haired brooder. You will dream of Coach Taylor adopting you. You will want to become Connie Britton. You will lovingly accept the atrocious murder plot line of season two and never mention it to yourself or to me or to any other FNL fan again. The entire series is available on DVD as well as Netflix streaming, so, grab a box of Kleenex and a pillow to hold, and become a Dillon Panther in the 43 minutes it takes to watch the pilot.

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Sneese’s

I wish I could take credit for this, however, Sneese’s were invented by my dear friend, Jamie Huberty, baker by day and a soon-to-be mommy by night. Now, you might be thinking, “What is a Sneese’s?” First of all, how dare you. Second of all, a Sneese’s is the most delicate and scrumptious dessert known to man. Thirdly, how dare you. Fourthly, a Sneese’s is the perfect combination of a Snickers bar and a Reese’s cup. To indulge yourself in this mouth-melting delight, heed to the following instructions: Chew the nougat part off a Fun Size Snickers bar (which, let’s face it, is the worst part of a Snickers bar anyway.) Then, put the remainder of the bar on top of a Reese’s cup, squish them together, and put the concoction in your mouth. You are now the possessor of the greatest chocolate secret known to human race. However, I must warn you, if you see a Peanut Butter Snickers at your grocery store, do not be fooled. This is not a Sneese’s, and is, in fact, an insult to Sneese’s everywhere.

Polaroid Instant Cameras

We’ve all become accustomed to taking a picture and being able to see it, edit it, and post it into Facebook instantly. Long forgotten are the days when we had to protect the film from sunlight, hook the teeth of it onto the camera’s spools, drop off the black plastic cylinders into the hands of a Walmart employee and hope for the best. Polaroid Instant cameras offer the best of both worlds. There’s the instant gratification as well as the nostalgia of printable photographs for fellow camera nuts like myself. If you don’t have one collecting dust in your basement somewhere, you can easily find cheap cameras on eBay. The film is a bit harder to come by and prices range from $10 for twenty pictures to $24 for eight. But to me, it’s all the more worth it to save the Polaroids for only the most special of moments, like a plastic bag blowing in the wind or your cat getting its head stuck in a cereal box. You can buy the film online via The Impossible Project, or, for about half the price, at Target or Walmart. I prefer the Impossible film because the quality of color saturation is beyond compare, but if you’re looking for a fun photo booth at your next party, the cheaper stuff will do just fine.

Illustration for The Bygone Bureau by Hallie Bateman

Science or Religion?

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Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute

As you stumble through this complex world of ours, there are two possible guides: science and religion. Both have their pros and cons. It’s important to pick the right one, but first you need to understand what religion and science are all about.

Religion is spiritual. Science is physical.

Religion has ministers and priests. Science has scientists and subjects.

Religion gives us bread. Science gives us mold.

Religion can heal a leper. Science can’t cure a cold.

Religion will comfort you after the death of a loved one. Science will do stuff to the corpse.

Religion helps athletes win football games. Science ruins football games by diagnosing traumatic brain injuries after stealing athletes’ brains.

Religion says, “Let us pray to God.” Science says, “Let us offend God with abominations.”

Religion gives you the Ten Commandments. Science gives you thousands of peer-reviewed journals full of mumbo-jumbo, gobbledygook, and blasphemy.

Religion is a wonderland of saints and angels. Science is a dystopia of mad scientists, demented assistants, and petri dishes brimming with nanotechnology and hate.

Religion says Heaven is above us. Science says the Earth is getting too hot. Religion says Hell is too hot. Come on now, which sounds hotter, Hell or Earth?

Religion gave us a soul. Science gave us a government brain implant during wisdom tooth surgery.

Religion has sacraments. Science has experiments. They both sound creepy, so I guess that’s a wash.

Religion has voodoo doctors. Science has Associate Professors of Vodou Studies.

Religion has God, who does not play dice and has a plan. Science has graduate students, who are the most miserable specimens ever created by God.

Religion showers you with love. Science bidets you with French nihilism.

Religion says, “Go in peace.” Science says, “Pick me up a fresh brain while you’re out.”

Religion is holy. Science is unholy.

Religion creates holy wars, but science creates the weapons that make a holy war possible. So that’s another wash.

Religion has nuns. Science has fembots. Score one for science.

Religion is concerned with the health of your soul. Science is concerned with the health of your organs, which it dearly wants to take, before or after your death. The lifeblood of science is your organs. The lifeblood of religion is the blood of Christ, which is actually wine.

Religion says a magic sky king made us out of nothing. Science says we evolved from monkeys. So I suppose science also says magic sky kings evolved from magic sky monkeys. Yeah, that doesn’t sound crazy.

Religion says, “Love one another.” Science says, “Further research is needed.”

There is no right or wrong answer to the question “Science or religion?” We all have to decide for ourselves if we want to obey the will of God or throw the baby Jesus into a sewer full of demonic mole men created at research universities with your tax dollars.

God grant you the wisdom to choose correctly.

Rules of Threes

Kevin: I downloaded Threes last week. I’m not sure I’ve been this addicted to a puzzle game for iOS since Spelltower. Hell, it even makes a strong run at my all-time favorite, Drop 7.

But here’s the thing: no matter how much time I spend playing it — waiting for the subway, on the subway, in bed when I should be sleeping — I feel like I’m not getting any better. The game’s mechanics are stupidly simple: you add numbers together in multiples of three, based on four easy directional movements. And still I don’t know what I’m doing! I think this tweet from Gabriel Roth puts it best:

I looked at Game Center and saw that out of my twelve friends that play the game, I am ranked eleventh with only 3,420 points. At the top is you, with 27,762 points. Why is this game so much fun even though I don’t know what I’m doing? And how the hell did you accumulate so many goddamn points?


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Nick: Man, this game. I wanted to sneak in a quick round to get in the right mindset before responding, and I ended up playing for like an hour. So yeah, it’s definitely up there with the best/most addicting/most infuriating iPhone games I’ve played.

I could point to a couple things that make it so compelling, but they all come back to the game’s brilliant, deceptive simplicity. All you really do is combine numbers, but because of smart touches like how all the tiles move at once and the semi-random placement of new tiles, a ridiculous depth of strategy emerges. If Threes was an animal, creationists would use it as evidence of the divine hand at work because its pieces fit together too perfectly.

I try to keep my strategy pretty simple too. While I’ve seen a few people discuss managing the placement of tiles across the whole game, that sort of macro approach doesn’t work for me. Instead, I think of Threes as a “process game,” where I try to come up with some low-level principles and apply them scrupulously to every decision I make and trust that good results will emerge in the long term. So, my first priority is always to combine the pink and blue tiles. Even if I really want the satisfaction of mashing two big numbers together, I won’t do it if it screws up the balance of pinks and blues. That’s really important because a low-number tile in the wrong place can basically fuck up your whole game. Get rid of them.

When pinks and blues aren’t a concern, I just look for moves the ensure future moves. Generally, this means favoring moves that combine multiple numbers, since that frees up space on the board and provides more flexibility. I really try to avoid going multiple turns without any combinations because that can clog your board really quickly. (Remember, A-B-C: Always. Be. Combining.) And finally, I just try to get lucky. That big score happened when I got a 48 added to the board at just the right time, which is super rare.

I’m curious though, if you don’t feel like you’re making progress, what keeps you playing the game? The style? The music? The fascinating backstories of the anthropomorphized tiles?

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Kevin: OK, so I took your advice and prioritized combining the 1s and 2s as frequently as I could (and you’re right, not combining big tiles immediately was absolutely painful). I also followed some of the tips from the two links you sent and attempted building into one corner, reducing the number of movements I could make from four to three. After a few tries, I doubled my best score. It’s still a far cry from your 27,000-whatever, but it definitely worked.

I think your Threes philosophy highlights something that makes the game so appealing. Since Threes isn’t timed, it allows the player to move at his/her own pace. On top of that, since the actions you can take are limited to four directions (and as you noted, movements that can be previewed), you’re not crippled by unlimited time and overwhelming options (the biggest shortcoming of Spelltower). The leisurely speed Threes operates at makes it the perfect game for any moment that you want to distract yourself with an iPhone game; the depth of the mechanics suck you in for longer than you intended to play.

Adhering to the process you defined actually made the experience even more Zen-like. In some ways, it reduced my decision making into something more automatic. I actually played more quickly, but I also felt like since my choices needed to abide by the rigidity of your Glengarry Glen Ross philosophy, it took a lot of the thinking out the game. I’ve reduced a simple game into an even simpler set of actions. Threes was never a game about reflex, and now it’s not really a game of strategy. Strangely, I find this kind of mesmerizing, almost in the same way Flappy Bird is (but like four thousand times less annoying), but am I really playing Threes anymore?

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Nick: You’re not going to believe this, but I’ve actually put a ton of thought into that question over the last few years of my iPhone gaming habit. I gravitate toward turn-based puzzle games that only require a narrow part of my focus; last year’s under-appreciated Stickets is a perfect example. My approach to that game was just like it was for Threes: I came up with a basic strategy and applied it almost automatically so I could tune out while playing. And you’re right, at that point interacting with the game feels very little like “play.” There are few decisions to make and almost nothing to react to.

Why do so many of us find games like this so appealing? In an old Businessweek profile of Jonathan Ive, there’s this tidbit on his design philosophy:

[Ive] created a pen that had a ball and clip mechanism on top, for no purpose other than to give the owner something to fiddle with…”We began to call it ‘having Jony-ness,’ an extra something that would tap into the product’s underlying emotion.”

Because of the fully analog, semi-tactile nature of a touchscreen, iPhone games are overflowing with Jony-ness, and perhaps none more so than Threes. Just sliding blocks around feels great because the animation is so well done, but when they slot perfectly into place during a big combination, it’s so satisfying.

And these sorts of games offer a tiny but pure sense of completion. In Threes, you’re literally building a bigger number, and when you finish, you get the positive reinforcement of a score. Your scores will likely increase over time too, and that feels like progress. We tend to fit these games into little pockets of our lives when we’re either bored or stressed and we need a distraction. The psychological reward structure of games like Threes is incredibly soothing, which makes it the perfect diversion. Whether you’re putting in overtime on the toilet or taking a five minute break from staring at some foul Excel file, playing Threes will feel pleasant.

Well, until you accidentally put a 1 in the wrong goddamn place.