Thursday, March 29, 2007

Geek rock

Mastodon is a metal band that I have been recently introduced to and fallen in love with. I am not, by any real measure, a metal fan, but Mastodon has really grabbed me. They're the kind of metal band that Pitchfork would rave about, even as they make fun of you, indie poseur, for wandering away from your precious Bright Eyes and Decemberists LPs (no, not CDs). How can you not love a band that writes hard-rock songs about Moby Dick?

So, of course, when I heard that they were playing in Portland, I had to go out immediately and buy tickets to the concert. (Don't let me lie to you like that -- it's not nice. My friend Eric (no, not Eric) heard about them, bought the tickets, and invited me along). Of course, four hours of driving on a worknight to see them at the Hawthorne in Portland was but a small price to pay in sacrifice to the rock gods (who hopefully shall soon be opening the Secret Underground Vault). Of course, the concert was amazing and well worth the trip.

I'd never been in a mosh pit before, which was more fun than I thought it would be. I was near the front of the audience (small venue for a Grammy-nominated band), and try as I might to stay on the outskirts, I was repeatedly pulled from my comfortable, horns-throwing position near the stage and shoved, thrown, and bruised until I was able to force my way out again (I'm still sore, three days later). There's a weird sense of etiquette, though -- people were getting punched and shoved and thrown around, but the moment somebody fell over or lost their shoe, everything ground to a halt as people helped them to their feet or they reclothed themselves. Also, a 250-pound, muscular, bald guy grabbed me by the shirt during the last song and proceeded to scream along with the song in my face. Good times, good times.

I also don't think I can imagine another concert whose audience consists of equal parts the lady at the left and the gentleman at the right. There was a continuous spectrum ranging from hipster to metalhead, with all possible variations in between represented. (For most of the concert, there was a tiny woman wearing a Ninja Turtles t-shirt immediately in front of me, and aforementioned bald, tattooed guy to my left). It was neat. Music uniting disjoint social subgroups. Kumbaya and shit. I also saw the cutest little metalhead ever, an eight year old boy who was apparently there on some sort of bonding expedition with his dad.

Should be an interesting contrast with the Decemberists concert I intend to attend in May.

Monday, March 19, 2007


[I would put a spoiler alert up here, but I'm not sure that this movie is actually spoilable, since it's all about a war that happened ~2500 years ago. That being said, if you don't know about the Battle of Thermopylae and have any intention of watching 300, you might not want to read this post.]

So, not to ape Eric or anything, but I too watched 300 last weekend. Overall, I wasn't too bothered by the historical inaccuracies. There were some definite omissions, of course, like the battle of Salamis. I guess I would have been happy to have a more complete and accurate picture of the surrounding history, but it was intended to be a recording of the battle of Thermopylae, and not of the entirety of the Greco-Persian War itself. By and large, from what I've read, the order of battle of Thermopylae itself was more or less true to the actual events, modulo the addition of fantastical animals and crazy mutant Persians.

The only real historical deviation that bothered me was the misrepresentation of the Greek army itself. The film gives the impression that the Greek contingent was basically 300 Spartans plus a bunch of mooks from the countryside. While it's true that there was a contingent of 300 Spartans present and that their contribution is the most remembered, the Greeks had a total of about 7,000 soldiers fending off the Persians. Which is, in and of itself, an amazing feat, and it would have been no less interesting a movie to show that battle instead.

A friend I saw it with made the point that the movie was effective at portraying the "emotional truth" of the battle, rather than the historical fact behind it, and I think there's some legitimacy to that argument. In reality, the Greeks of course fought in a phalanx formation and didn't charge willy-nilly into single-handed comment -- while I appreciated the brief representation of phalanx combat, it would have been boring as hell to watch what really would have amounted to a three-day-long shoving match. And of course the Persians didn't have 10-foot tall unarmored soldiers and the Immortals weren't hideously disfigured (and would Xerxes's army even have had elephants?). But those seemed to me like reasonable shorthand representations of the overwhelming sense of fear and intimidation that the Greeks would have felt when confronted by the overwhelming Persian army. Plus, they just looked cool.

Nah, I had only two real gripes. The first was that the movie was just plain boring. It was gorgeous, and the choreography was quite impressive, but there's only so many gruesome dismemberments and wave upon wave of endless combatants that I can see before the effect gets completely deadened. It was compounded by the nigh-invulnerability of the Spartan troops: it's hard to get emotionally involved in combat when none of the characters can die (which is sort of ironic, given that they do all die at the end, of course. Just not in the middle). The Spartans were quite impressive soldiers, of course, but they were hardly immortal, and were beaten in battle plenty of times (just ask Epaminondas about that...). I had the same problem with the big, gory fight scene at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1 -- its over-the-top gore and violence was fun for a minute or so, and then it just got monotonous.

My second complaint had to do with the racial politics of the movie. I hold no truck with the comparison of the movie to current-day political issues; that just seems like knee-jerk criticisms (has anyone actually said this?). And certainly, told from the perspective of the Spartans, it makes some sense that the Persians are portrayed as uncultured brutes. But, given that Persians are essentially white and ethnically indistinguishable from Greeks, I'm a little confused by all the dark-skinned people serving in the Persian army. I mean, the Persian empire did extend into Egypt at this point, and I can imagine that they would have mercenaries from Africa, but I would think that the vast majority of the army would consist of troops from Asia Minor, who would be ethnically indistinguishable from the Greeks they were fighting. Am I seeing issues that weren't there?

And Eric, what was the ET reference? I appear to have missed it.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


So, LA is everything I expected it to be. Take that as you will. As my airplane flew in, I was struck by how bizarre and (literally) alien the surrounding environs felt. There was a grid system of lights as far as the eye could see, and as I looked out the window, I could see another small plane descending from the sky about a mile or so away. It was really eerie, and looked like a scene from Star Wars. (You know, in Episode 2, where the ship is descending towards Coruscant and there's city as far as the eye can see and...).

Unsuccessfully navigating the bus system after dark added a bit of excitement to my initial experience. And by "excitement", of course, I mean "duration". The bus ride was an hour-long as it was, which stretched into about two-and-a-half hours upon having to retrace my steps and wait a long time at the south station terminal. Given that the entire duration of just the plane portion of my trip was ~3 hours, I felt ever so slightly silly. My mood was not helped by the presence of an extraordinarily smelly fellow in the row ahead of me. Seriously. The guy could have stunned an ox at twenty paces. Needless to say, I'm taking a taxi to the airport tomorrow morning. There are some sacrifices I'm not willing to make in the name of public transport.

Ooh, and I got to see a celebrity! That's right! We were taken out to dinner, and the street immediately out front had been blocked off (with a red carpet laid out and everything) for the premier of Shooter, a movie I'd not heard of before. It stars Mark Wahlberg, though, and I got to see him walk by and primp for the cameras and everything. Mind you, I was inside a building and ~50 feet away, but it was definitely him. It was weird caring about it: I'm not a particularly celebrity-oriented person, but the draw of the flashing cameras and people's stares elicited this strange, herd-like compulsion in me to track the center of attention. I'm sheep.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Gone native

So Max's is this local dive bar type place near campus. It's loud and small, and not really my favorite place to go hang out. Surprisingly, though, they host a trivia night every Tuesday, which I only recently learned about; being a huge fan of trivia and trivia games, I've been attending religiously ever since I heard about it. Now, I'm pretty good at Trivial Pursuit and usually do quite respectably as I follow along with Jeopardy, but I utterly suck at Max's event. Part of that's 'cause I don't watch Seinfeld, South Park, or sports, which are topics that come up with greater-than-expected regularity. And part of that is 'cause there's people there who take it much more seriously than I do, and more power to them. If I can win just once, though, and maybe take home a My Little Pony lunchbox as a prize, I'll be happy.

At last week's event, my friend E (who has been a frequent companion in suckiness at these events) made the offhand comment that I "didn't seem like someone who'd spent their life overseas." He couldn't really explain much more than that, so I'm not quite sure what he meant by it. I mean, what exactly is a person who grew up in Africa supposed to look like? Perhaps I should walk around in Khaki clothing, wearing a pith helmet and carrying an elephant rifle, and call all my friends "bwana" or something.

I mean, it's not like I hide it or anything. Hell, half my anecdotes start with "I was living in Ethiopia at the time" (which, by the way, is the ultimate excuse for lack of pop-culture knowledge. Try it sometime! Alright, maybe it won't work so well for you.). I guess I've just been here long enough (or I'm quiet and introverted enough) that that's just not enough anymore. Or perhaps I'm extrapolating way too much from a single data point.

On a completely unrelated note, I just read over a sketch of Cook's proof that Boolean satisfiability is NP-Complete. I can hardly claim to completely understand it entirely, but damn is that an awesome proof. It seems unlikely that any of you out there care, but the basic idea is to use a set of rules to encode a Turing Machine that solve an arbitrary problem in NP as a satisfiability problem (basically, a long conjunction of variables to which true or false values have to be assigned to make the whole expression resolve to a true value). I've known of the existence of the proof for quite some time, but only recently decided to do some research and figure out how exactly it worked. Nifty!