• Before I've had a chance to make a significant dent in 2008's film offerings, Wired has posted a movie guide to "wild" (read: sci-fi, superhero, and fantasy) upcoming movies in 2009. Some things I've read little about before now: Land of the Lost (Brendan Fraser), The Wolfman (Benicio Del Toro), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (Brendan Fraser). (2) #
  • The New York Times Magazine has an article that attempts to explain, in layman's terms, David Foster Wallace's philosophy thesis from his senior year at Amherst.
    A highly specialized, 76-page work of semantics and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart. Brace yourself for a sample sentence: “Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs (), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a boat.
    Until his recent death (but not because of it), the thesis was generally unavailable to the public until this past September. (0) #

Top 20 Albums of 2008

As I was struggling to rank my top albums of 2008, I read Roger Ebert's top twenty films of 2008 where, finally giving up winnowing his choices down to just ten, he wrote:

If you must have a Top 10 List, find a coin in your pocket. Heads, the odd-numbered movies are your 10. Tails, the even-numbered.

This served as a moment of inspiration. Rather than ordering twenty albums, I thought, I would put them into two tiers and then write a bit of code to randomize their ordering within the tiers with each page refresh.

Perhaps luckily for my readers, in the end I decided against this. As I started to write my little blurbs, momentary preferences started to sink in. But I admit they are just that: momentary preferences. I still like my number one album from last year, but man that Spoon album, which I ranked #16, sure has been getting a lot of play this year.

So here it is: a snapshot of what I currently think are my top twenty albums of 2008. Last year, some of the recommendations in the comments became new favorites, so please tell me where I went astray.

Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
20. Kanye West -- 808s & Heartbreak

When I heard the first singles coming from this percussively stripped-down and AutoTune-obsessed breakup album, I was expecting throwaway tracks, some filler before his next proper album. But it turns out that this is a proper album, with only the live freestyle on the final track meriting the skip button. It isn't quite Kanye at his finest, but it just goes to show that we all benefit by his persistent sincerity.

Favorite tracks: Paranoid; RoboCop

El Guincho - Alegranza
19. El Guincho -- Alegranza

Yes, it sounds like it was produced in exactly the same way as an Animal Collective album, but on Alegranza the loop components come almost strictly from the tropical realm (think steel drums and maracas). But it's never exhausting in the way Animal Collective can be, and it's surprisingly danceable throughout.

Favorite tracks: Antillas; Fata Morgana

Coldplay - Viva la Vida
18. Coldplay -- Viva la Vida

While I've always had a guilty pleasure like of Coldplay's singles, their past albums have been filled with aimless, tiresome songs. On Viva la Vida, they still wear their influences on their sleeves (along with colored ribbons), but the songs are rarely boring and benefit from Brian Eno's light touch.

Favorite tracks: 42; Death and All His Friends

Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
17. Gang Gang Dance -- Saint Dymphna

How to describe this eclectic album? I could say Pure Moods meets Battles, but that really only describes a few tracks on here, and doesn't manage to explain the electronic touches or dancefloor moments. I guess I'll give up and say this is the best compilation album of 2008 by one band.

Favorite tracks: First Communion; House Jam

Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules and Love Affair
16. Hercules and Love Affair -- Hercules and Love Affair

Yes, 2008 was the breakout year of new-wave/disco (see also Cut Copy's In Ghost Colours). And it's not even "retro-influenced" anymore -- much of this album sounds straight out of the 70's, with the exception of Antony's voice, which has finally found a comfortable home. It started with the Junior Boys a few years ago, but I've been a sucker for this stuff ever since.

Favorite tracks: Hercules Theme; Blind

Thu, 12/11/2008 - 12:31am
  • You've likely already seen it, but here's the Hulu link to Jizz in My Pants. It's all about the high-quality music production. (9) #
  • The "Green Sahara":
    The Neolithic Subpluvial... was an extended period (from about 7,000 BC to about 3,000 BC) of wet and rainy conditions in the climate history of northern Africa. It was both preceded and followed by much drier periods. The Neolithic Subpluvial was the most recent of a number of periods of "Wet Sahara" or "Green Sahara" during which the region was much moister and supported a richer biota and human population than the present-day desert.
    The Big Picture just posted an excellent series of photos of an archeological dig in this area. The giraffe petroglyph is awesome. (0) #
  • Roger Ebert lists his top 20 films and 5 documentaries for 2008, but for the first time (as far as I know) refuses to rank them. I love this line of his regarding Synecdoche, NY:
    [A] film that should never be seen unless you've already seen it at least once.
    Implicit in this statement: The first viewing of this movie is very unpleasant -- and it indeed was for me. But now I have an explicit recommendation to see it again. (16) #
  • Merely an unusually few years after the publication of his last book, the hefty Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon will be releasing a 421-page new novel in the summer of 2009. It's titled Inherent Vice and looks sort of like a detective-story spin on The Crying of Lot 49:
    It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.
    (thx, david h.) (0) #

Writers writing about your state

Seventy years ago, the U.S. government -- via its Federal Writers' Project -- funded the creation of the American Guide Series, a collection of books and pamphlets about every state in the union at that time. (Hard copies are hard to come by now, but I found the Nevada one on Google Books.)

Inspired by this social project, editors Sean Wilsey (New Yorker, McSweeney's) and Matt Weiland (The Paris Review) compiled State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, a book of new essays by contemporary authors about every state in the union. Here's a sampling of the contents:

* California by William T. Vollmann
* Illinois by Dave Eggers
* Massachusetts by John Hodgman
* Montana by Sarah Vowell
* Nevada by Charles Bock
* New Jersey by Anthony Bourdain
* Ohio by Susan Orlean
* Rhode Island by Jhumpa Lahiri

I read a few chapters on Amazon, and unlike their FDR-era counterparts, many of the essays -- perhaps due to the space constraints -- are rather narrowly focused. Bock's Nevada piece, for instance, is a brief memoir about the pawn shop owned by his parents (now run by his brother) near downtown Las Vegas. Vollmann's piece, on the other hand, somehow manages to capture the grandeur of the entire state of California, from poetic descriptions of its landscapes to an S&M joint in San Francisco. The beginning of his essay touches upon the purpose of the book:

It says something about our changing America that once upon a time, an art-friendly governmental organization commissioned one volume about each of our fifty states; whereas this book, inspired by the WPA's example, has been commercially published and allows each state only a few thousand words. Fortunately, mass culture, with its big box warehouses of the landscape, language, and mind itself, has already destroyed so many differences between states that there is less to say anyhow.

Based on the fact that Vollmann's next book, Imperial, contains 1,300 pages about one county in California, my guess is that his last point is somewhat facetious.

Wed, 12/03/2008 - 7:46pm
  • A video demonstrating what I can only describe as "electronic face dancing." (0) #
  • Prop 8 - The Musical, starring Jack Black, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, and many more. This is quite literally the definition of "singing to the converted" but it's actually quite succinct. (0) #
  • The New York Times has an article about how President-elect Barack Obama may have to give up his Blackberry and emailing in general when he assumes the presidency. I'm sort of hoping they work out the security issues and he can continue to communicate in a way that he finds comfortable. This line also got my attention:
    Mr. Obama, however, seems intent on pulling the office at least partly into the 21st century on that score; aides said he hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American president to do so.
    (2) #
  • The ACLU of Mississippi has received numerous reports that students are getting in trouble for mentioning President-elect Barack Obama's name:
    [U]pset parents... said a school bus driver told the children on a Pearl school bus that if they said Obama’s name, they would be written up and taken to the principal’s office for disciplinary reasons.

    Another parent said that a coach at Pearl Junior High School told students that if they speak Obama’s name, they would face expulsion.
    This kind of thing isn't completely surprising due to the attacks against Obama in the last two months of the election, but I hope this sort of thing is rare within a year or two. (11) #
  • I've spent most of my free time in the past 24 hours reading the Newsweek seven-part series called "Secrets of the 2008 Campaign." (The highlights I linked to on Wednesday were culled from this series.) It's an in-depth look at the recent presidential election from beginning to end, and it's revealing, thorough, and cathartic. (0) #
  • Change.gov. Welcome to the *real* first administration of the 21st century. (23) #

President-Elect Obama

I was up at 5am yesterday and worked until 8pm in the nonpartisan Election Protection command center at the ACLU of Nevada's office, so by the time I realized that Obama had it in the bag, I was feeling rather delirious. It was a great day for American politics, only tempered by a lost wallet, now found, and lost rights in California, the recovery of which will be longer in the coming. Other post-election nuggets:

  • All my hard work in Washoe County paid off, as Obama destroyed McCain in both the county and in Nevada as a whole. Alas, the local elections were more of a mixed bag given my preferences. (E.g., my state supreme court choice lost, and a really awful eminent domain initiative passed.)
  • Bill Ayers gave his first interview since he became an election issue to the New Yorker, and he seems like a decent but flawed guy who was heavily caricatured.
  • 2009 will be the first year in 45 years without a Dole or a Bush in elected office.
  • The Marijuana Policy Project, my former employer, had a successful day winning both medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.
  • Newsweek has an article reporting some campaign items that they couldn't reveal until now: a "foreign entity" hacked into the systems of both campaigns, Palin may've spent more money than was even originally reported on herself and her family, and violent threats to Obama increased sharply in September and October at the same time when the Palin rallies were getting scary.

I wish I lived within driving distance to D.C. for January's shindig.

Wed, 11/05/2008 - 11:04am
  • Today is the last day you can donate to the No On 8 campaign to defeat California's Proposition 8, which would eliminate marriage rights for same-sex couples in that state. Help end legal discrimination by sending them a Halloween treat. (5) #

Memorials of Wallace

There have been several recent memorials of David Foster Wallace. There was a public memorial in New York City, attended by his sister, Zadie Smith, Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, and his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, among others. One account of the memorial talks about an assigned nonfiction Wallace essay we'll never see:

...a piece on Barack Obama and rhetoric, commissioned earlier this year by GQ. [Wallace's agent] Bonnie Nadell... described conversations between the two and Wallace's wife Karen on their enthusiasm and excitement over Obama as presidential candidate. The assignment was to focus less on Obama (there was no way he'd get close to the candidate, Nadell said) and more on his speechwriters, those young turks tasked with putting the words of inspiration in Obama's mouth during stump speeches, town hall meetings and of course, the Democratic National Convention.

And Amherst has a lengthy audio file of the memorial recently held there -- it gets emotional at times, and I was particularly affected by a remembrance from a college friend who talks about Wallace's thoughts about the "spinal" nature of music, mentioning Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" as a favorite of his. (It is a favorite of mine as well.)

Fri, 10/24/2008 - 9:39am