Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The phantasm of linearity

It is sometimes said of Duke Ellington’s genius at composition and arrangement that he could “play his band like an instrument”. The appropriateness of this metaphor can only be gauged with experience, on hearing Ellington’s most shining pieces lushly interweave the breathtaking complexity of Bach with the riotous exuberance and carnal vivacity of early 20th century New Orleans. Ellington, along with Louis Armstrong, laid out the domain of jazz at its infancy, and gave it the form that dominates vast swathes of improvisational music to this day.

It took an iconoclast to strip this definition down to its barest bones. Working in isolation, misunderstood for large parts of his early career, Thelonious Monk demonstrated what it meant to pick a melodic line, play a variation and a half on it, flip it over, twist it beyond recognition, and then, with a half step, arrive right back at the original as if stepping through a magic lens of music. His protégé John Coltrane busted this simplicity into the voids of formlessness, and Ornette Coleman then showed what it meant to be truly free. With free jazz we knew – linearity was good, but it was only one dimension.

Music has progressed even further since then. Hancock and Shorter, the giants of our age, have become adept at playing both sides of the divide – flipping like card sharps between the heads of the melody and the pointed tails of musical quasi-anarchy. My first live exposure to this magic was a few years ago, at the encore of an already-perfect concert: Hancock, Shorter, Holland, and Blade. The band kicked up Footprints. And barely before my joy at hearing the theme had kicked in, they were playing with the tune like putty, teasing, twisting, and stretching it till I was convinced I was hearing the aural equivalent of a photographic negative of one of my all-time favorite tunes. It really was an experience beyond words.

Similar feelings rose to the surface last night as I sat transfixed before I’m Not There – the film that has been called a biopic, for want of a better word, about Bob Dylan. It is hardly that. The film takes the life, the music, and the myth of Dylan as its theme, the starting melody, as it were. It then holds up six, or seven, or whatever, lenses to this melody – think of these as members of Ellington’s orchestra. Each of these has a role to play, in that it provides its own particular peculiar distortion of the life, the music, and the myth. Hence we have the little Black juvenile runaway who calls himself Woody Guthrie, trading repartee with hobos in boxcars and licks with Richie Havens on a front porch, sitting with flowers by the deathbed of the one he named himself after. We have the outlaw Billy The Kid, elder statesman and yes, fugitive from Pat Garrett, pleading with Mrs. Henry and fighting to save the town of Riddle from the highway, yes, a highway, that must plow through its innards devastating the magical world of circus troupes, ostriches, and giraffes that inhabit it. We have the sullen young interviewee called Rimbaud, who mumbles crypticisms through the haze of cigarette smoke. We have the rebel from 1966 who gives the finger to the folk movement along with its greatest icon, his lover, and trips around England calling the Rolling Stones a groovy cover band and, buffooning around with Allen Ginsberg, yells at Jesus to “play your early stuff”.

Most devastatingly, we have the closest depiction of the “real” Dylan through the lens of the life of the actor who plays the character of Dylan in the movie within the movie; named, tellingly, Robbie. From documentary style interviews with his early superstar folk singing mentor and lover through a painstaking depiction of his relationship with his artist wife, a mélange of Suze Rotolo and Sara Lowndes, and their eventual break-up to the score of Idiot Wind, it’s all there in allegory. The one that got closest to the real him was the one that only had to pretend to be him.

The soundtrack of the film is stunning. Yes, there are extended sequences given over to the originals, where you can hear Idiot Wind, Hattie Carroll, One More Cup of Coffee, and Sara, lose yourself in the words, and reinterpret them in the context of the visuals. There is an ear-ravaging rendition of Maggie’s Farm at the Newport Folk fest and a surreal quasi-literal MTV video of Ballad of a Thin Man complete with the naked man and freaks and geeks. There are mind-blowing covers – Marcus Carl Franklin’s rendition of When My Ship Comes In is transfixing in the dual power of the lyrics and the realization that the delivery is by an eleven-year old; and Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, dresses as a sad clown and gives full weight to Going To Acapulco in one of the most hypnotic sequences I have ever seen. The rendition has stuck in my head, I woke up this morning with it swirling round my brain. And even where there is no song, there are allusions in the dialog. Some of it is clever; “The sun isn’t yellow, it’s chicken” comes across as particularly apposite in the midst of a drunk party sequence. Other times it’s scattered across the screen like so many herrings of various hues, for you to chase at your wont; comforting in the thought that they will appear anew on second and third viewings.

And the acting. It has been said that Cate Blanchett steals the show in her persona as the young rebel. Indeed, she is outstanding. There may sometimes be a fine line between acting and mimicry, and perhaps she went back and forth between the two, but for the vast majority of the only-forty minutes that she was on screen, she was compelling. I stand in awe of the imagination that conceived her in this role. However, magnificent as her performance was, there were others that drew blood as well. Julianne Moore was totally Joan Baez, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale as their different Dylanavatars, Heath Ledger as Robbie, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire, all draw you in to the film entrancing you with the play of their various lenses. The underlying theme is one that we know -- the play on it, the stretching, flipping, twisting, and distorting of it is captivating: "fantastic", in every sense of the word.

In a previous review of a Dylan release, I had called his world “an old familiar place” and had concluded:

this isn’t about the words any more. it isn’t about meaning, or the message. this is about hypnosis. it’s about security… this isn't even about the music any more…this is about an hour long visit to an old friend’s place.

Last night I had that same feeling once again. I watched the film with a friend who has never really heard a single Dylan song in her life. The first thing she said as we came out of the theater was it reminded her of 8 ½. She mentioned the points at which this had struck her -- they were all spot on. We talked a bit about the film, I went over some of the major events in Dylan’s life, and she, with increasing excitement, made the connections with their representations in the film. As I was sitting there replaying the words, scenes, lines, and thoughts, I realized why I had been so in love with this man’s work when I was younger. I used to have the time to lose myself in it. These days I stand back and treat myself to it once in a while. But truly, it is an old, familiar, magical place in which to drown.

And as you lose yourself, all of it washing over you like the water over the young Woody in the movie, if you ever truly loved Dylan, you realize that two hours have passed as has half your life, and you continue to delight in not being there.


Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, "This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem."
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker's bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There's a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in heaven
And we all want what's his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I'm gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Friday, November 23, 2007

Basic instincts

Here's another one of those "just *how* moronic can they get" type of stories. A group of schoolkids in Florida got together and decided that every Thursday they'd wear t-shirts with peace messages on them. Predictably, there was a backlash. Also predictably, the school administration denied them status as a "club or organization" because it claims they haven't submitted a formal proposal (the kids disagree). However, the thing that caught my eye was the nature of the backlash from some of the other students in the school. Other students are harassing the t-shirt wearers, for sure, but it's the nature of some of the messages that cries out for attention.

"I Love America, Because America Loves War"
(Wha?! Yes, Rambo, now get your pimply ass to Iraq.)

"If peace is the answer, it must be a stupid question"
(You asked it, Dub. Remember: "Why do they hate us?")

Even these are sort of predictable. The one that takes the cake is the reaction in kind. The anti-peace movement in that school has also decided ot sport t-shirts with messages. And the motifs it has adopted for its t-shirts -- wait for it -- are swastikas and Confederate flags. I can do no better than quote:

The Confederate shirts they wear express support for the troops in Iraq, and nothing more. Joseph said the shirts have nothing to do with racism. “Someone took something that stood for peace and twisted it” in regards to the swastikas (drawn by a third group) and the Confederate flag, he said.

Well of course! We're out there fighting for democracy, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. And all this time we thought it was only about democracy. The truth had to come out some day, didn't it?


The jaw-dropping moronicity reported on in this story reminded me of something called social identity theory -- a staple of every introductory social psych class. And in a funny coincidence, I just received an email about an interesting and well-written post that basically covers most of the material in an introductory social psych class. This will take a little while to go through if you're not just skimming but I assure you it's fascinating stuff to anyone with half a brain. It is stuff that I think should be compulsory in school -- every person with an education should be aware of. And I'd be really interested to see how you - regulars, irregulars, lurkers, passbyers - I'd be interested to see how you vote in the poll at the end.

If you go through it all, do swing by and let me know what you thought and how you voted.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Dude gets webcam, manages to get aged parents online. Flashes winsome smile, gets told he's becoming fat (i.e., aged ps' way of communicating affection). Makes faces at webcam, frustrates aged father who has no webcam and hence must make retaliatory faces in the dark. Runs out of faces, decides to extend conversation by picking up webcam and directing it into backyard, at shed. Conversation ensues.

Aged Maternal Parent: Ota ki? Payekhana?[1, 2]
Dude: Na, shed.
Aged M P: Shed-e ki korish? Payekhana?[3]
Dude: Na, cycle rakhi.[4]
A M P: OK.


[1]পায়খানা [ pāẏakhānā ] n a latrine, a lavatory, a privy, a toilet, a water-closet. পায়খানা করা v. to ease oneself (of), to defecate.
[2] What is that, an outhouse?
[3] What do you do in there? Crap?
[4] Not really, old flesh and bones, that's where I park ye trusty two-wheeler.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Voodoo night

Such a night.


It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Watermelon exchange

09/17/2004 (full show)
Cincinnati, OH

I was in the mood for a little Herbie so I looked on archive for Watermelon Man and here's what I came up with. Check out the Red Rocket > Chameleon > Red Rocket sequence. I have an evening with Dr John lined up for tomorrow but hey, it's always nice to discover a new band.


And now, bridging to something completely different, here is a news item about a little slam made with finesse, now in danger of being trumped by a dummy.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


There is this guy who joined my department as a post-doc the year I graduated. He's a very interesting and multifaceted person, having pursued a very cool parallel career that he still keeps in touch with. Anyway, I don't work with him, so I only meet him once a year, and he had floated to the periphery of my world.

Until we linked up on Facebook. Now I can know pretty much what he chooses to reveal. (He was in Israel as a keynote speaker this week, is hoarse now, and must clear out his physical inbox.) One such status update a few weeks back struck me as funny and ironic, so I messaged him saying so. Two days later, we met for the first time in a year, at our annual conference.

It was late in the evening and a crowd of people were gathered around the bar in the hotel lobby. A large group of people all with ties to my alma mater had commandeered a couch and some armchairs, and we sat around together, catching up. This guy appeared and plonked down next to me. The first thing he said was -- "So, we should be able to use Facebook to study something." I looked at him. I wasn't so sure what. He said, "There's an awful lot of data that can be collected there." I said, "Yeah, but what will it tell you? Apart from who has how many friends, and who uses how many applications?" He persisted, "There has to be *something*." I agreed there could be something, but I just wasn't sure what. It sounded to me a lot like what one would hear during the internet craze of the late 90s. "The internet will change everything," a lot of people said. "How?" I would hear my academic hero ask. "What will they do that's different? Not faster, or more conveniently, or more efficiently... *different*. How will behavior change?"

I never heard a good answer to that question. People would say - "Oh, but you can buy groceries online." But, until the boom collapsed, they never got the point that that's not *different*. People still buy groceries, and they buy the same stuff as before -- they're just going to a different sort of store, but they're doing the same thing (just as the folks in Indian metropolises today are now going to the department stores in malls instead of the sabziwalas). So that's what the whole "let's research Facebook" idea sounded like to me. I just didn't see what people were doing *different* thanks to Facebook (except perhaps pretending to throw sheep at each other). So that conversation didn't go anywhere.

But then I had the strangest experience today, which, when I reflected on it, brought it all back to me. A blogger I have known and liked for a while now, but only recently well enough to exchange emails and chat with, initiated this conversation. It started off innocuously enough, with said person popping up to ask me what my latest status message meant. I explained. Abruptly, s/he shifted gears. "Do you live in a house?" "Do you have pets?" "You're sounding like one of those people who call you up," I said, "Hi! I'm calling from the State of Massachusetts." "What is the one thing you cook that you refer to as your speciality?" ("I'm trying to fill in a mental picture.") "Have you met a lot of bloggers or did you know a ton beforehand?" The questions just kept coming.

It was really interesting. I was working on the side, but kept answering them as they flew at me -- all sorts of questions from all sorts of angles. "When you were in college were you insufferable? Have you ever dressed in drag? Do you worry about losing your mind? " "Where do you get these questions from?" I asked. "Making them up as we go along." Finally, after an exhilarating ride, I answered "What was your worst hangover" with a story that said person approved of as "very good", and I was off the hook.

Something like this had never happened to me before. But I'd had so much to do during the day that I couldn't reflect on it till dinnertime. Which is when the Facebook conversation came back to me. Think about the process of making friends, I thought. You see someone - they do or say something you like, or you do or say something they like, and the other person reciprocates. You get into a conversation; you reveal certain things about yourself. If these things are not repulsive to the other person, they maintain contact. Similarly for you. You interact repeatedly, usually in various different settings -- you meet for coffee, you go to a bar, you have lunch, you call each other up (heck you even add them on Facebook). All the while, you get to know a little bit more about the person -- from the things they say, the way they talk, the jokes they crack, the stuff they order, the way they look suspiciously at the wait-staff. You share confidences -- each personal datum revealed elicits one in return, bonds are built. That's how friendships grow.

And how different this internet business can be. You can have a blog for nearly two years. You can read someone else's blog for large parts of that period. You can interact almost daily on this forum, on your blog, their blog, other people's blogs. Yet what you reveal is very constrained, what they reveal is as controlled, and the medium of communication is unitary, and restrictive. So when, after all these presses of the reload button you find that you feel as if the other person is your friend, you also find - that in some sense of the word - you "know" this person not at all.

And yet, you feel as if you are friends.

Now, is *that* different?

Friday, November 02, 2007


Black glove thinsulate. toss.
Lock twist.
Stuck jiggle pull close clasp.
Back kick.
Glove lights blink steady.

Cross brake cross swerve.
Pedal pedal gear pedal switch look pedal switch.



Turn manholes deft guide coast.
Brake switch down.
Stop stand look wait look.
Push kick lane speed burritoman fly.

Switch down
Leaves leaves leaves