2009 December minutiae

  • If you're like me, and I know I am, you probably find yourself wondering, "Canada's population is a little bit smaller than that of California, but how would its various provinces stack up against other U.S. states? Might there perhaps be some states that are close together that could be labeled as the Canadian provinces with comparable populations?" Wonder no more. (NL and PE are smaller than any U.S. state and are therefore omitted.)

  • Washington Post: A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

  • I was recently reminded that around this time in 1990 I was playing a lot of a game called Federation II — a guy in my dorm complex had a GEnie account, and Fed was one of the featured games. For those too young or insufficiently geeky to remember, GEnie was one of those text-only online services like Compuserve: it offered bulletin boards, email (initially only within the network), upload/download areas, and games. Fed was a multiple-user game set in space; you got points and improved your rank by picking up and dropping up cargo. But mostly people hung out in the lounge area and shot the breeze. In retrospect it was pretty dull.

    But things were different in 1990. For the privilege of typing "snog Aeron" GEnie charged $6/hour during off-peak hours and, during the day, an incredible thirty-six dollars per hour. In 1990 dollars! When a gallon of gas cost a dollar and an opening-night movie ticket cost four! The guy who owned the account? His bill for December '90? Over three hundred dollars! And according to some of the stats I read, the game drew a total of twenty players max most nights. That's fewer than frickin' ifMUD!

  • I watched the Nirvana Unplugged DVD with its uncut footage of the chatter between songs. At one point Dave puts on a dazed-robot face and starts tapping out a drum beat that sounded oddly familiar. I finally placed it: it's the beat to "Tear You Apart" by She Wants Revenge, a song that came out thirteen years later.

  • It is getting harder and harder to escape the conclusion that Trader Joe's has a policy instructing cashiers to praise the products as they ring them up. Seriously, every time I shop there, no matter which location I go to, the checkout person will say something like, "Oh my god these are so delicious!" And what are you supposed to say to something like that? "That seems like an extreme reaction to a bin of oatmeal cookies, but, yes, the fact that I have them in my basket does indeed indicate that I have found them sufficiently satisfactory to merit a repeat purchase" is too long-winded.

  • I guess that the placement of San Quentin made sense in 1852, but every time I pass it I can't help but think that, man, Point San Quentin is basically Belvedere with better bridge access. Putting a gigantic prison there may not exactly have been a triumph of farsighted land use. I'm trying to think of an equivalent. You know the Sydney Opera House? Okay, remove that and insert Gitmo.

  • This was a new one to me: I have a student whose apartment building has a trick elevator. The button panel looks like that of a regular elevator, but pushing the button for the floor you want doesn't accomplish anything. You have to type in a secret code to get to your desired floor. For instance, 8-7-5-6 might take you to the 7th floor.

  • On the BART train an old lady in the seat in front of me was reading something on a Kindle. I had never seen a Kindle in use before so I looked over her shoulder to check it out. The first thing I saw was "she opened her robe to expose her full breasts."

  • Paul Rosenberg, openleft.com: snare a nation of followers in one direction only to turn 1800 degrees on them

    Turning 1800 degrees means spinning around five times and continuing in the same direction.

  • The day I turned sixteen years old I had no idea that in twenty years someone would post a mashup of paraphrased R,O! passages and emo lyrics. Starring Tiger Niravong as Krieg and Alyana Nicolas as Echo. I guess no one wanted to play Molly.

  • Article on espn.com: "The NFL is partnering with Boston University brain researchers who have been critical of the league's stance on concussions, The Associated Press learned Sunday. The league now plans to encourage current and former NFL players to agree to donate their brains to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has said it found links between repeated head trauma and brain damage in boxers, football players and, most recently, a former NHL player."

    Reader comment: "comm ave blows"

  • When I was a child I was into astronomy, and everything I read said that the earth would become uninhabitable in five billion years, when the sun entered its red giant phase. I have recently read that current thinking asserts that the earth will in fact become uninhabitable in one billion years, as increased solar output causes the oceans to warm to 140°F, raising the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere high enough to bring about a runaway greenhouse effect like that on Venus. For some reason having a deadline of merely ten million human lifetimes rather than fifty million strikes me as significantly more worrisome!

  • One afternoon as I was driving to a tutoring student's house it looked as though the entire sky had been put through a crimping iron.

  • Music is weird. There's an old story about the distinguished Shakespeare professor saying that he'd give anything to be able to see the plays for the first time, but I rarely get much out of a first listen to a new record, even if it's by one of my favorite bands. For instance, as my Bands page indicates, I'm crazy about the new Die Mannequin record.... but for the first month I had it I didn't even like it much! I played it over and over waiting for it to click, and weeks came and went, and it still sounded like noise to me. And then just as I was about to give up on it, click — suddenly I could hear the hooks. How is it that you can listen to a song ten times and think "meh" and then on the eleventh suddenly think "holy crap this is awesome!"

    I audited a music class in '06 and the professor suggested that much of our ability to appreciate music has to do with anticipation. It's sort of like the song is a key, and the first few times you hear it you're unconsciously studying it and building a lock in your brain that the key will fit. And then one day your neural architecture is ready — you've established a route between a certain set of audio cues and your pleasure centers. (But then why do other songs that you've never heard come on the radio and sound awesome the first time out?)

  • The standard explanation for the dreaded sophomore slump goes like this: when a band is first starting out, it has years to put together a good setlist. These songs all go on its first record... and then when it's time to head to the studio to record the second, all the band has left are its rejects from the first time around plus whatever new material the members have been able to scrape together over the past few months. And yet in my experience second albums are nearly always much better than first ones! Of the bands listed on the page I mentioned above, here's the breakdown:

    Second album significantly better than the first:
    Nirvana, Hole, Stone Temple Pilots, Letters to Cleo, No Doubt, Local H, Tuscadero, Jack Off Jill, Bangs, Made Out of Babies, Killola, Die Mannequin

    First album significantly better than the second:
    the Muffs, Kenickie, Damone

    First and second albums roughly equal in quality:
    Madder Rose, Veruca Salt, Garbage, Scheer, Scarling, the Dollyrots

    I moved to Seattle in 1999 in order to try to turn my net.band into a real band. It didn't work out, but I have a pretty good idea of what our first record would have sounded like. What I often find myself wondering is what our second album would have sounded like — i.e., would we have made the leap to cranking out much better material or would it have been pretty much the same stuff?

  • I recently got hold of a collection of Garbage B-sides and rarities. What I found interesting is that while I found their '05 album their worst by a pretty fair margin, their '05 B-sides are much better on average than those associated with any other album.

  • "You know who's really getting popular now is this Sandra Bullock." —Kerry McLaughlin's dad

  • Any linguists out there? The Internet is telling me that, in the famous cot-caught merger, the word "caught" changes from /kɔt/ to match "cot," /kɑt/. Buh? I mean, yes, I do indeed pronounce "caught" as /kɑt/... but that's because I don't merge the two words. "Cot" is /kat/. The people I grew up among who did merge "cot" and "caught" pronounced both of them /kat/. I mean, the [a] sound is a pretty big element of the California accent, no? I remember that after my family moved to Anaheim in 1980 my New Jersey-born mother used to complain about Californians pronouncing "water" as /wadər/ rather than /wɔdər/. (Me, I say /wɑdər/.)

    Addendum 2010-01-01: I probably should have done this in the first place, but here is an audio file I made to clarify what I'm talking about. I probably just mislearned my IPA!

  • I've been watching Chemistry 1A at webcast.berkeley.edu and have found that any single week's worth of lectures contain more interesting, practical information (e.g., why is graphite soft and diamond hard? why does water evaporate?) than my entire high school chemistry class did. I seem to recall that I spent most of my high school chemistry class doing worksheets about electron shells. (Well, that and gazing longingly at Marie Martin.)

  • The diagrams in that webcast blithely assert that the bond angle in a tetrahedral molecule is 109.5°, a sufficiently weird number that I had to calculate it for myself to see why it was so. I filled both sides of an envelope figuring it out, and eventually wound up getting arccos(-1/3), which is 109.47°. I found this tremendously satisfying — I think this is basically the hardest question I'm capable of solving with my limited math skills. (I've forgotten everything beyond the first few weeks of trig, and a fair amount of stuff before that.)

  • Watch the girl in the clip on this page, and answer me this: great hairstyle, or greatest hairstyle?

  • I don't know about you but I am totally ready for Daylight Saving Time to start back up.

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