What it's all about

Rummaging through life's couch cushions for topics in the law, economics, sports, stats, and technology

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: Song of the Dodo

Song of the Dodo is the best book about evolution I’ve ever read.

Beginning with the origins of the Origin of the Species and then progressing on to modern debates about species preservation efforts, it provides a compelling narrative on the academic literature of growth and extinction.

Ostensibly, the book is about evolution and extinction. But the main mechanism that the book uses to communicate its message is through international travel to remote islands.  The author, David Quammen, visits the Galapagos, as you might expect. But he hammers his message home by visiting dozens of other islands with which you likely have less familiarity.  Separation plus time yields evolution. And his adventures show how the first biogeographers discovered that fact 150 years ago.

As the author traces the history of evolution science, throughout, the challenges of modernity peak through to color the present history of these islands. The dodo is a metaphor for remote creatures on islands that know no natural predators and have no hope of survival in a globally connected world. And there are many dodo-like creatures on islands and in remote areas that have little hope of accommodating the rest of the world coming to their doorstep. The book concludes with a discussion of human-caused extinction and its significance when compared with other forms of extinction. There are few answers for the many species that stand little chance of survival absent significant attention, intervention, and resources.

On the whole, it provides a fantastic survey course on evolutionary biology for the educated layperson. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bitcoin update

Bitcoin has lost more than 60% of its value in the last week. So much for "prices are expected to continue rising in the years to come."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Bitcoin: Don't Invest in What You Don't Understand

If you don’t know what Bitcoin is, read this primer here.

Yesterday, I read this article on the small business website, Up and Running. The author suggests that bitcoin is a currency hedge, for which, “prices are expected to continue rising in the years to come.” No attribution, citation, or explanation is needed, apparently.

I have some experience investing, and whenever I hear a non-expert say, “prices are expected to rise in the years to come,” without explanation, my brain explodes.

As Felix Salmon points out, Bitcoin is a bubble right now. When non-expert small business owners start investing in bubbles outside their wheelhouse, that’s when peeps get hurt.  As is always the case with bubbles, some speculators will get rich. But as is also the case, many others will be ruined. I guess the question is, “do you feel lucky?”

I don’t doubt that a bitcoin-like currency could be valuable some day. But as other wiser and more knowledgeable folks have explained, they’re still ironing out the kinks in this incarnation. Regardless, I would never recommend investing in anything that is trending this hard this fast. Bubbles take the stairs on the way up and the elevators on the way down.

But even if you disagree, don’t invest in what you don’t understand.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Narrative of Music (Or Why Music Critics Like Music You Don’t)

Most movies that win or are nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars are, at a minimum, watchable. Crash notwithstanding, if a movie wins the Oscar for Best Picture, it will at least keep you stimulated for 120 minutes. Likewise, the most critically acclaimed TV shows are entertaining. You might not love Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but you likely can acknowledge that as far as TV shows go, these ones are solid.

The dissonance between what is lauded in critical reviews and what is popular in music, well, that gulf is something else.

Here is a block quote from the New York Times’ review of Lonerism by Tame Impala, the most highly reviewed rock album of 2012, according to Metacritic.com. 
Tame Impala saves itself from mere revivalism with 21st-century self-consciousness and, tucked amid the swirl and buzz, touching confessions of insecurity.
Two comments: 1) I have absolutely no idea what this means; and 2) This music criticism has nothing to do with music.  

Here is the band’s most popular song from the album.

Ok, now I get what the New York Times meant by revivalism. These guys vaguely sound like Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles. Or Todd Rundgren. Or something from the late sixties, early seventies. Only problem is, the Beatles were incredibly catchy, even on experimental Sgt. Pepper stuff. Tame Impala’s Lonerism isn’t all that catchy. The chorus is catchy enough, but the rest is kind of blah. Which is why it isn’t all that popular.

Near as I can tell, Tame Impala got top-shelf reviews because it kinda sounds like the Beatles and the vibe of the music feels contemporary. That’s an excellent narrative.

Here’s the first line from (my former employer) All Music Guide’s review of Lonerism.
There's a better than decent chance that, no matter where you are, Perth, Australia is pretty far away, a fact that pretty much makes Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker an isolated pop genius' isolated pop genius.
Again, that’s a neat narrative, but it’s also ridiculous. It makes it sound as if Parker gets his music via gramophone records delivered on horseback. In 2012, the most popular song in the world was about a neighborhood in Korea. And the song itself was in Korean, which is a language that has fewer native speakers than Telugu and slightly more than Marathi.

In 2013, it matters not whether you come from Perth, Australia or Gangnam, South Korea.  People all over the world danced Gangnam style. With the exception of a few rock critics, no one danced to Tame Impala. 
Actually, given how great the reviews were for Lonerism, it’s kind of impressive how few people bought the record.

You don’t listen to music because it has a good narrative. You listen to music because it makes you shake your booty, or sing along. Or boil over with emotion. Or because it sticks in your head. Or whatever.  Unless you’re a rock critic, you don’t listen to music because it has a good narrative. 

Unfortunately, I think most music critics miss the point of music criticism, which, by my reckoning, is to figure out whether music is good or not. Too frequently, music critics get distracted by trying to place music into a broader cultural context. That’s a fool’s game, because the broader cultural context can only be understood long after the fact, if at all. 

The gist of this article is not to say that Gangnam Style was the best song of 2012, or that Tame Impala is terrible. It’s to say that music appreciation should be about music, not side-show cultural baggage or narratives of what we should like. 

And you should feel very confident ignoring any music review that doesn’t focus exclusively on the quality of the music. Anything else is just a particularly useless form of storytelling.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Do Cool Shit

My life has been marked, if anything, by a little too much introspection.  I was a philosophy major in college. I spent much of my teenage years reading in my room. I quit my job and spent the last year in a phase trying to figure out what to do next.

If I have come to any conclusion after all of these periods of introspection, it is this: Do cool shit.

That’s terribly vague, I know. But the value of life lies in the things that we do. If the things we do every day are fulfilling and rewarding, then we will feel fulfilled and rewarded. If we find our actions to be empty and meaningless, then our lives, too, will be empty and meaningless. 

I recently travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, I had a conversation with a guy who was contemplating the possibility of moving to Nicaragua. He’s a war vet turned park ranger and nature lover. With his war pension, he receives about $1300 a month from Uncle Sam. That’s far more than anyone would need to live in Nicaragua. He said that he couldn’t pull the trigger.
I, too, thought about the possibility of moving down there. Sitting on a hammock and staring into the sunset, it certainly seemed like a good strategy.

What I’ve learned in all my years of introspection (aka, contemplative inaction) is that it doesn’t matter.

Moving to Nicaragua will not make me happy or fulfilled. Nor will it make me unhappy or unfulfilled, either. What determines that is what I do every day, wherever I might be. If I sit around and eat and drink all day, I’ll eventually feel like a waste of life, regardless of what country I’m in. If I engage in activities I think are enriching, I will feel enriched.

The decision to move to Nicaragua would initially be interesting and challenging, and it would provide an emotional boost for a short period of time. But after the initial boost of adrenaline wears off, you’re still the same person with the same problems and peccadillos you had before you left. You have to come up with new challenges and struggles to give your life meaning. 

Because even if you’re in a cool place, if you’re not doing cool shit, over time, it won’t matter.  

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shortcuts 12/13/12

Home of the free? Little known fact: The United States has the largest prison population in the world. Despite having only a quarter of the population, we put more people in jail than all of China.
We put more people in prison than all other developed nations combined. And most of it is for petty crimes. This is an excellent article in the New York Times about the lunacy of the US penal system. Anecdotes include: a woman serving a life sentence because her boyfriend stored cocaine in her attack.

Similarly, economist Bryan Kaplan rebuts the argument that we need more law enforcement.

Pre-English Irish Law: Fantastic piece that I had never heard of detailing Irish law before the English got involved. It debunks many myths associated with Irish history that are probably faulty because of poor translation of Old Irish text. This describes a highly stratified social structure that enabled a degree of social mobility. Notably, it seems that the Irish kings had relatively little involvement in lawmaking in a very decentralized state. Rather, a group of legal experts called brehons handled legal disputes with a system based on sureties or bonds. I'd be curious of this version of ancient Irish history is consistent with what students are taught in schools today.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Top 10 albums of 2012

Harking back to my music critic days, here are my top 10 albums of 2012.

Compare my list with metacritic or this guy.

1) Jack White, Blunderbuss
It's not even close. This isn't just the best album I heard this year, it's the best album I've heard in many years. I always liked the White Stripes, but I was never that big of a fan. This album is majestic -- far better than anything I've heard from him in the past.

"Freedom at 21" is nominated for the Grammy for best rock song in 2012, but I don't think it's even one of the best three songs on the album. He's evolved from simple guitar and drums into more expansive, nearly orchestral music. Most of these songs feature broad instrumentation, with the piano, rather than the guitar, at the center. But they all still rock. Very hard.

Best Songs: Hip Eponymous Poor Boy, I'm Shakin'

2) Django Django, Django Django
While it's probably unfair to say that Django Django is the Beta Band re-incarnate, the connections between the two bands are clear and joyous. Electronic modulation on top of great riffs and top-notch songwriting. This album is tight, funky, and danceable. 

Best songs: Default, Waveforms

3) David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love this Giant
It's a David Byrne with Tuba. Best David Byrne album since Uh-Oh, and that was 20 years ago.

Best songs: Who, Dinner for Two

4) First Aid Kit: The Lian's Roar

Two Swedish sisters in their early 20s doing classic Americana better than any Americans did it this year. Celestial vocals and harmonies.

Best songs: Emmylou, This Old Routine

5) Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Live from Alabama

Best singer-songwriter and guitarist you've never heard of (unless you're a Truckers fan). If there's a better one alive today, I sure don't know who he or she is. 

Best songs: In a Razor Town, TVA

6) Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Middle-age angst? Ben Folds has the market cornered. This album's fun, funny, and melancholy at the same time.

Best songs: Do it Anyway, Draw a Crowd

7) Kid Koala: 12 bit Blues
This album is a genre in itself, Electronic Blues, without feeling experimental. Handsome Boy Modeling School meets Muddy Waters.

Best Songs: 2 bit Blues, 11 bit Blues

8) Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Mid-tempo, catchy rock-soul. Technically solid and the lead singer has an epic voice.

Best songs: Hold On, Heartbreaker

9) Corb Lund: Cabin Fever

Best lyrics for a country singer ever? Certainly some of the most fun.

"Dig Dig Gravedigger, dig Gravedigger dig, work that shovel with vigor gravedigger before rigor mortis sets in big"

Other songs include a discussion of sex on a motorcycle on the autobahn, and his attempts to try to date Goth girls. Not exactly typical country fare.

Best songs: Dig Gravedigger Dig, Bible on the Dash

10) Brandi Carlile: Bear Creek
Played this a few times with company over, and every time, I caught folks who'd never heard of her tapping their foot to "Hard Way Home."

Best songs: Hard Way Home; Save Part of Yourself

Also pretty good: 
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball; Dr. John: Locked Down; This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark; Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden; Lumineers: Lumineers; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: The Heist