Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dirty music, part 1

Why is a Tegan and Sara fan in this mosh pit?

For about two minutes, that was all I could think about. Nevermind that I, a more-than-infrequent listener of Tegan and Sara, was in the mosh pit as well. I couldn't wrap my mind around the presence of this demure-looking 20-something woman directly ahead of me, wearing her Tegan and Sara t-shirt and jumping around to Gogol Bordello with the rest of us. But she was excited. Lord, was she excited. Less so than the woman riding around on her boyfriend's (one assumes) shoulders, flashing the audience. Less so than the man in a superman cape and a translucent faceplate. But still, excited.

I'm an easily distractable person: the more things I have going on in my life at once, the better. If I'm focused on one thing, it's only a temporary condition until I decide to switch back to one of the five other tasks I have running in the background. It's overwhelming, sometimes.

So Coachella should be the perfect event for me. Camping out in a tent with your friends, you're woken up at 8 in the morning when the heat in your tent becomes unbearable. From then on, you have a day of pure, unstopping activity. Wander in to the stage area, and instantly you're presented with a plethora of things to do. Five stages, simultaneously showcasing music by five different bands. Myriad huge art displays, including a crazy multi-story tall bamboo sculpture and a pair of huge Tesla coils. Live DJs in a center stage, playing house music to accompany strange, choreographed modern dance pieces involving actors in nautically-themed circus makeup. Beer to drink. Food to eat. Thousands and thousands of people to watch.

"OK, so I'm going to spend a half-hour watching Devotchka, and then I'm going to walk over to see the last half of MGMT before checking out Stephen Malkmus, and then on to Death Cab For Cutie. Somewhere in there I need to get some food, too, and I think I might check out the Do Lab for a bit. If we time it right, I think we can get close to the stage for Portishead and then rush over to catch the last couple minutes of Flogging Molly before Prince starts up."

It was too much, even for me. By the end I gave up trying to plan, and just resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to be able to see all the bands I wanted to, and that was OK. If I just insisted on a few bands I really needed to see and just let the rest flow naturally, everything would work out alright. And it did.

I got to see Devotchka play, accompanied by an impressive pair of curtain acrobats (see: earlier post about clubbing experience. I can't think of a better description of them). The Breeders performed the only song of theirs that I (and, to all appearances, everyone else in the audience) knew. The Raconteurs, as uninteresting as their debut CD is, are enormously entertaining live.

And, much as I can't stand his blandness most of the time, it was weirdly relaxing being sung to sleep by Jack Johnson.

And Prince. Oh, my god, Prince. Before I saw his concert, I was woefully uneducated: I can't name a single Prince piece I'd heard other than Purple Rain. And, I suppose, the soundtrack to Batman -- but that doesn't count. So walking towards the elaborately constructed stage, preparing to be educated, I had no idea what to expect.

He introduced himself by saying "Congratulations, everbody. For the next two hours, you are going to be at the coolest place in the world." And he was right. I was overwhelmed. The man is a hell of an entertainer. I don't even know what he played -- I was so awash in spectacle and performance that I just couldn't keep track. Until very near the end, when a very familiar refrain hit my ear. I can recognize Radiohead anywhere. I don't think I've ever heard quite so unusual a cover of Creep before (hell, I don't think I've ever heard it covered at all), but there he was, up on stage, playing his own weirdly modified version. It was entrancing.

But even that couldn't compare to watching Portishead. Portishead is otherworldly in recorded form but live, they were almost more than I could take. I stood there for an hour, watching the stage, doing my utmost to keep my mind about me as I tried to take everything in, and just barely holding on. It was an incredible experience. I can barely even remember anything about the concert now, apart from the sheer, visceral sense of awe it inspired in me.

And so much for part one. Next post: a confusing incident involving a giant pig and shattered dreams.

Also maybe pictures, if L gets her photos developed and scanned. (who still uses film these days? Honestly!)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Crazy scientists

I'm taking a class from a fairly prominent professor whose name I won't be divulging this term. He's one of the more well-known professors in the UCLA CS department -- he formalized the field of causal reasoning, which is what I'm studying this term. It's kind of neat taking a class from someone like that: on the off-chance that I meet someone in the outside world who's ever heard of this field, I can totally brag about how I took a class from a mini-celebrity! Oh, what an exciting life I lead.

In my admittedly limited experience, academics seem to care less and less about social propriety as they go along. A week or so ago, he was lecturing on the concept of Minimality in regards to Bayesian Networks. In essence, this is just a restatement of Occam's Razor, but recast in statistical terms. Basically it just says that, given two models that equally well describe the data, you should prefer the one that makes less assumptions about causal relationships. Very straightforward stuff. But to make sure we got the point, he decided to give us an example.

Prefaced by the very brief disclaimer, "I hope I'm not offending anyone," he launched into a fairly extended diatribe about how science provides a better model for interpreting the universe than religion. Imagine, if you will, with a thick Israeli accent: "You see, the difference is that science sticks out its neck! It sticks out its neck and makes a hypothesis that you can say is wrong! But in religion, something happens that you don't expect, and you say 'God did it!' and you don't explain anything. It doesn't stick out its neck! What good is that? Useless!" This went on for a good several minutes. Mind you, I completely agree with his rant -- it's just not quite the kind of lecture I expected to hear in a computer science class.

Unrelatedly, last weekend I went out to Cal Tech to listen to Stephen Hawking lecture about black holes (what else would he talk about?). Admittedly, I spent a huge chunk of the talk wondering exactly how much of the talk was pre-scripted -- I would have been surprised if he could form phrases fast enough to do a lecture in real-time, but it seemed kind of strange to have a lecture in which the speaker essentially sat still for several hours while a pre-recorded speech was played in the background (which was, in fact, basically what happened). As I sat there thinking vaguely disrespectful thoughts, Hawking makes a vagina joke. Hearing a prominent physicist joke about how the French read suggestive subtext into the name "black hole" caught me more than a little off-guard (apparently, the maxim "A black hole has no hair" only served to reinforce their suspicions).

He also said some other stuff about how information can escape a black hole and stuff like that, but frankly, that wasn't what stuck with me.

And, apropos of nothing, a lesbian stand-up comic called me a male hooker last night.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Spring Break!

You know, it never occurred to me until about a week ago that I had never really experienced a spring break. Ever. I mean, I'd certainly had them, since I was in school and all. But I was always working, and never really did anything special for them. No trips to Cancun, no massive parties, nothing. I probably did some fun stuff here and there, but nothing leaps out as memorable. Alright, I guess maybe my freshman year spring break was pretty cool, but I'm not going to write about that here.

But that's the great thing about being back in grad school, right? You can pretend you're back in college again (because, really, you sort of are) and relive all the stuff you never got to do the first time 'round. Which, in retrospect, basically just means getting drunk. A lot.

My friend C decided to come down and visit for our shared spring break, so we spent a week bumming around LA. Mostly just site-seeing and bar-hopping, so nothing that would interest you that much. That being said, a few observations:

* I found a dive bar in Hollywood! Right next to the Walk of Stars! Mind you, a dive bar means that a Long Island costs $8, but that makes me kind of happy. On entering, the bouncer asked if we were cops. Apparently, that's more efficient than actually checking our IDs. Even better, though: It's Danny Boneduce's bar! Halfway through the evening, Danny walked in to the bar, much to my friend J's delight, and ordered a rather ridiculous amount of liquor. Coincidentally, my friend L tells me that he attends AA meetings at the theater where she works...

* If your friend has a tendency towards motion sickness and is drunk off of her ass, it would behoove you to not take her on a jaunt down Mullholland Drive.

* Did you know they're filming a Land of the Lost adaptation? Well, you do now. If you watch it (why wouldn't you?), watch for a scene where a bunch of kids run around screaming in the La Brea tarpits. If you look very closely in the background, you should see some very frustrated techies trying vainly to shoo a pair of 20-somethings off set. Apparently, film crews don't like it when random nerds crash the set trying to figure out what the hell they're filming.

* If you want to go out to karaoke in LA (BYOB karaoke! OMG!), make sure you start early. They close at 3:00 AM on weeknights, and it would be a shame if you only got in 6 hours straight of karaoke, like we did. We tried frantically motioning to the clerk that we wanted one more hour, but apparently there's only so much leeway they're willing to extend to a group that persists on dumping booze all over their songlists.

* Security at Disneyland is lax. Make sure you wrap your flask up in a sweatshirt, and they'll never find it. That way, you too can experience Space Mountain drunk off your ass. It's surprisingly more fun that way.

* Addendum to previous bullet point. Most rollercoasters have cameras on them that take your picture while you ride, which you can buy afterward for a ridiculous sum. If you and everyone else in your car makes coordinated, obscene gestures at said cameras, Disney will thoughtfully censor your pictures and not allow you to buy them. Try it!

* Joshua Tree National Park is gorgeous. The hiking is fantastic, camping is neat, and the scenery is amazing. Also, there are a lot of nifty secluded places where other people can't find you.


While drunkenly stumbling around Hollywood at midnight, we stumbled upon the footprints of a couple of my youthful heroes.

My friend L and I, having found a largish Joshua tree.

A Joshua tree by night.