Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

Tag: work

Ice candles shining in the darkness.

Brief Candles

Oh my it’s been a year. I know that pretty much every person who lives long enough will witness their parents declining and dying, but the commonness of the experience didn’t stop it from feeling utterly unique to me. My dad experienced a health catastrophe in June — a glioblastoma diagnosis, and then a massive stroke during the craniotomy to remove his tumors. He died on December 9th. That experience obviously left the biggest mark on my year, but it was a year of pain and loss in other ways too. Two key colleagues at my job — one my boss and one my peer — moved on to better opportunities within a few months of each other, and both shortly after Dad’s health crashed. Also around the same time I underwent a major change in my role at work, a change that is definitely for the best but that still felt like another loss.

I’m so grateful, though, that through all this, Laura and Dante have remained rock-solid. Their steady support has been an incredible comfort through all this other turbulence, and their presence has been the source of some of this year’s sweetest memories. In particular, Dante and I went on a wonderful Pacific Northwest college-visit trip in the spring, meeting with Laura at the end in Portland, where she’d gone for a library conference. Then, just after Dad’s surgery, the three of us visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, staying at a marvelous and unique vacation rental when we weren’t out exploring.

It’s a blessing to have those times to look back on, and there have been some silver linings to the other parts too. Mom and I have spent a ton more time together — I saw her and Dad pretty much every weekend while he was alive, as well as some weekdays where she and I took care of all the various pieces of financial and logistical business that all this spawned. Even though the reason is shitty, I’m glad to have spent all that time with her. And though I’m way out of my comfort zone at work, as Laura always says, when you leave that zone you find it’s larger when you come back.

Musically, I’ve spent time as usual doing deep dives on albums alongside exploring new reaches via Spotify. There’s some music that I finally checked out after long intending to, some stuff from beloved artists who had newer material, some left-field finds from random experimentation, and some things that just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I also saw my first concert since the pandemic — Stevie Nicks at Red Rocks, which, come on, I wasn’t going to not see. It was outdoors, and felt safe enough to me. When I was there, it felt like revisiting a part of myself I’d locked away for a long time.

This mix kind of shook out into thematic pieces, and that’s the arrangement that felt best to me, so it really moves from one major destination to the next, starting at home.

1. Steve Forbert – Romeo’s Tune
I came across this song in a really sideways fashion. For a while there pre-pandemic, I had a side gig putting together trivia rounds for a pub quiz company, including audio “name the artist” rounds. I made one with a “Romeo and Juliet” theme, and unearthed this gem while searching for tunes to fit the theme. I was totally unaware of this song when it was popular, and it never got any play on local radio, but I absolutely loved it when I found it. That made me search out a Forbert collection, another piece of which will appear a little later on. As for this song, I find it to be a sweet tribute to the comfort of a strong relationship.

2. Taylor Swift – Sweet Nothing
With every passing year, I become more and more of a Swiftie, I was listening to folklore on repeat right as I passed from this year’s listening period into the next one — so look for that on next year’s mix — but right at the end of October, Midnights came out and I switched into listening to that on repeat. On one level, I don’t exactly vibe with this song, because I don’t think it’s a real thing (or at least a good thing) for a relationship to demand nothing from you.

But at the same time, there are times when the world can feel so demanding, when it’s so healing to come home to someone who knows you and only needs you to be you, and be there. That’s how I take this song. With everything going on in the latter half of the year, it sometimes felt like I was on a Twister mat, just trying to cover everything and adjust to whatever new things come up. At home, at least some of the time, I’m able to untwist.

3. Frightened Rabbit – An Otherwise Disappointing Life
Again, on one level this isn’t me. I’m not disappointed with life overall. But this year has been filled with disappointments, disasters, and frustrations outside my door, so it’s an immense relief to have a choir at home to sing my life back to life. Frightened Rabbit mostly trades in depression and despair (though they make it sound incredible musically), so I love it when they let just a little bit of hope peek through.

4. The Who – Break The News
During the period when a ton of stuff was unfolding every day, I’d come home nightly and just tell the whole story to Laura. She would listen, and witness, and it was the best thing anyone could do for me. In the slow-motion car crash that was June, July, and August, there was so much to take in, and talking through it was crucial to processing it all. This song has a bit of ambiguity to it — it could be read as the words of somebody who only tells the good things, so as to keep the happiness flowing, but I see it as being allowed to break the news, speak the truth, as long as the other person lets you.

It’s interspersed with sweet images of closeness, hearkening back to earlier days of the relationship, but leavened with the security that comes with a longtime connection. “If there’s an answer, we’ll find it without doubt.” “We fell through time and space / And cast upon this place / And so far we’ve been saved.” And most of all, “Life’s amazing, but it’s been a bumpy road.”

5. Regina Spektor feat. Ben Folds – Dear Theodosia
This year I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape, a wild ride of various artists covering, reinterpreting, or riffing on songs from the musical. This one feels so precious to me — a moving crystallization at the feeling of wonder you can get from your own child. Watching Dante bloom this year has knocked me out. He has turned into this person who knows what he wants, and is deeply dedicated to making the most of his opportunities. He takes a raft of challenging classes and involves himself in a bunch of extracurriculars, mostly centered around making a better world — High School Democrats, Environmental Advocacy, National Organization for Women, Sexuality & Gender Alliance.

Then on top of that, he’s thrown himself into the cello, practicing hours and hours a day in the summer, and finding time even during school to keep his chops up. This summer (and extending into the fall), he worked a job he disliked at KFC so that he could save up the money needed to upgrade his cello, and in the spring we spent many an hour driving to various string shops around here so that he could upgrade his bow. He’s blowing me away already, and I can only imagine what’s to come.

6. America – Ventura Highway
This spring, Dante and I visited some colleges together. He wants to pursue a forestry major, and had done some research into what schools a) have the best forestry programs, and b) are places he’d want to spend four years. We built our visits from that list, starting with a drive up to Colorado State in Fort Collins. Then we flew to Seattle to visit the University of Washington, and drove down to Oregon State in Corvallis. After that, we headed to Portland to meet up with Laura and some longtime friends of hers, some of whom live in Portland and another one of whom was there for the same library conference as Laura was.

The visits were great, and one of the fun parts was that during the drives, we traded off who would pick the album we listened to. So Dante got to hear a lot of classic rock (among other things), and I got to hear a lot of video game soundtracks. One of my picks was America’s Greatest Hits, and this song in particular always brings me back to those drives together. Also, we had a lot of fun dissecting how truly weird their songs can be sometimes. Alligator lizards in the air?

7. Austin Wintory – Nascence
Now it’s only fair to include one of the video game songs. This is a special song for a lot of reasons, and it requires a bit of explanation. For years now, Dante has been a fan of certain video game music composers, and one of his favorites is a guy named Austin Wintory, in particular his compositions for a game called Journey, which follows a traveler through the desert on a symbol-laden, uh, journey. “Nascence” is the first song on the Journey soundtrack.

Dante loved these songs so much that when he had the opportunity to nominate a song for his school orchestra to play last fall, he selected a song called “Apotheosis” from the Journey soundtrack. His teacher agreed to have the orchestra play that song, and asked Dante to play the cello solo, which is a challenging piece of music. Basically, it’s the motif you hear at the beginning of this piece, but played much lower down on the cello’s strings, so that the tones are pitched high and hard to keep in tune. As I learned from Dante’s college essays this year, it was that experience, of focusing on making that solo good, that inspired the passionate commitment he’s acquired for his instrument.

This year, we drove to Great Sand Dunes National Park, an environment that looks a lot like the setting of Journey, and while we were still playing the album rotation game from the spring during our drives, we agreed that as we approached the park, we should play the Journey soundtrack. This song filled the car as we got closer and closer to those dunes, and it will always, always make me think of that day, of Dante, and all the hundreds of times I heard him practice those notes. He still plays it today, just for fun.

8. Indigo Girls – Muster
One more “parent” song. I dove deep into Look Long this year, and I really appreciate how Amy and Emily are incorporating their experience as parents into their music. I tend to feel pretty hopeless about the gun issue in America, but this song both puts that issue into a broader context and also brings in a little hope, with the promise of persistent dedication and the inspirational image of the Parkland kids. This song also connects to a movie I saw this year called Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, a documentary that draws a pretty clear connection between her recovery — slow, agonizing, partial — and our ability to push against the culture that proliferates gun warfare throughout our country. But stepping back, progress is visible. And possible.

9. MARINA – Man’s World
This is one of those off-the-wall tracks that Spotify served up to me, and it caught my ear. She is apparently Welsh! (Just like my friend Siân, a recipient of this mix gift.) I like the production, and the sound of her voice, and the central statement appeals to me. I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore either.

10. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I wasn’t super wild about this album overall — I tend to prefer the less slick versions of both Lewis and Rilo Kiley. But this song is a gorgeous exception to the overall tone of the album, and one of her all-time best. Most of the songs on this mix I relate to personally in some way, but this one is just a lovely piece of writing, attached to a touching piece of music, produced well and sung with sincerity. That’s enough!

11. The Decemberists – Make You Better
I was never a Decemberists fan — not that I didn’t like their stuff, but I just never made the effort to get to know it. This song was my way in, this year. I heard it on a Spotify playlist and was immediately captivated by the killer chorus, the excellent bridge, and the grainy harmonies. I like a band that harmonizes male and female parts, like the New Pornographers, or Jefferson Airplane, or, well, Fleetwood Mac.

12. Simon and Garfunkel – Fakin’ It
Speaking of harmonies. This album has been with me for pretty much the entire time I’ve cared anything about music, which is to say about 45 years, and different songs speak to me at different times. In the beginning of this year, I was trying to make the best of a weird work situation, and “Fakin’ It” could have been my theme song. I mean, I always have some amount of impostor syndrome going on, but this year has felt even more like frantic ad-libbing than usual — pretty much the minute the work situation was resolved, I was already trying to grope my way through the wholly unfamiliar terrain of terminal illness, medical bureaucracy, and omnipresent grief.

13. Frightened Rabbit – Break
Into that landscape stepped this song. Those moments when I want to hear a song over and over, learn it by heart, are precious and rare for me anymore, but WOW did this one ever vault over that fence. I identify with pieces of it so much. I was listening to it amidst work struggles that felt just like “off the ledge throwing punches”, and bending so I don’t break has been pretty much the order of the summer and fall. I did lots of driving back and forth to my home town of Aurora during my Dad’s illness, and I had a very memorable drive where I just sang my head off to this song on repeat — very cathartic.

14. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Minstrel Boy
From Scotland to Ireland. Part of the cruelty of my Dad’s condition was that the stroke didn’t just stop his body — it broke his senses too. He had severe double vision that prevented him from reading or watching video. In addition, his hearing (or perhaps his auditory processing) became muffled and distorted, which interfered not only with conversation but with music. It was unclear at first how severe this impairment was, and in the early days of his recovery we used to ask him if there was anything he wanted to hear. The answer was always “Minstrel Boy”.

He had various versions of this (and many many other folk songs) on his phone, but the Clancy Brothers’ rendition always seemed to bring him the most pleasure. Why he found this song and this version so compelling I don’t know, but I cherish the memory of his closed eyes and half-smile when it began to play. He later slipped away from the place where this worked for him anymore, but it was a sweet moment on the path.

15. Steve Forbert – January 23-30, 1978
As I said, I’ve been making a lot of trips to my old hometown over the last several months, so the mood of this song works for me right now. Not that I’m hanging out with old friends, but I am definitely visiting or passing by a lot of old haunts, kind of inevitably, and helping out with my childhood home. It’s a feeling that combines a sense of time travel with a sense of dreaming, because some things are exactly the same, and other things are so different. It feels strange, but as Steve says, “Life is strange, oh yes, but compared to what?”

16. The Eagles – Peaceful Easy Feeling
This song connects to my favorite movie of the year, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. This came to me kind of unexpectedly — I knew nothing about the viral videos that had come out in 2010, 2011, and 2014. I just went into it knowing it had gotten great reviews, and oh my gosh how I loved it. I don’t want to talk it up too much, but seriously, give it a try. It’s not just funny (it’s hilarious), it’s also a profound meditation on grief, loss, letting go, and moving forward. It was the perfect movie at the perfect time for me, and this song plays an important part in it.

17. The Zombies – Brief Candles
I always loved “Time Of The Season”, “She’s Not There”, and “Tell Her No”, but I’d never gone any further with The Zombies. Then they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as Stevie Nicks, so of course I watched the ceremony and saw this incredible outpouring of love for their album Odessey and Oracle. I gave the album a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. Picking a track for this collection, at the time I was pulling it together, this one just jumped out at me, not just as the right song to include but an impeccable title track as well.

18. The Alan Parsons Project – Old and Wise
A nice side effect of listening to more Zombies was to give me a deeper appreciation of Colin Blunstone’s voice, and in turn his vocal contribution to this Alan Parsons Project track that I’ve liked since high school, and that I absolutely love now. I can’t put into words what this song brings me today. It’s exactly what I need, and the peace it expresses is all I could wish for my dad.

19. Taylor Swift – Anti-Hero
Almost anything would be an anticlimax after the last song, but “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser” feels like a pretty divine transition. Like I said, I ended October listening to Midnights on repeat, and while there are plenty of good songs on that album, this one is a clear standout. Not only is it a brilliantly catchy melody, it also beautifully articulates familiar feelings of self-doubt and inner criticism. Every time I hear it, I want to hear it again. Pretty great video, too — a deft mix of comedy and parts psychology.

20. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart / Bella Donna (live)
For the end of this collection, I wanted to revisit one of the best moments of the year for me — Stevie Nicks’ return to Red Rocks over the summer. She had held off touring during COVID, so I hadn’t seen her for a long time. In fact, I hadn’t seen anybody in concert since before the pandemic started. Her set list hadn’t changed much from her pre-COVID shows, but that’s okay, because she’d gotten more adventurous at that point. Case in point is this medley of the title tracks from her first two albums — I never expected to hear either of these songs, because I suspect she’s not capable of singing some of the parts anymore. This blend skirts those tough parts, and is more than satisfying to me.

21. Stevie Nicks – Rock and Roll (live)
This was the final song of Stevie’s show, and it felt so perfect. It really had been a long time! I still get goosebumps hearing it now — it felt like all 8,000+ of us were re-embracing life and joy in that moment. I know I’ve put this on a previous collection, and I usually try not to repeat stuff, but this cover took on whole new layers of meaning for me this year, and there was no other choice for an end to this collection.

That’s all for 2022! Eyes closed, deep breath, eyes open, and forward.

Ice Slowly Melting

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my annual Christmas traditions with my friends Siân and Kelly, a mix CD of songs I’ve been listening to that year. The songs generally reflect a little something about my life in one way or another, though not perfectly so — sometimes they’re just songs I’ve imprinted on for some reason. The liner notes tradition has continued as well, but I didn’t post the notes from 2010. See, 2010 was a terrible, terrible year. Professionally, it was by far the unhappiest I’d ever been in my job, and personally, my marriage tailspun into a major crisis right at the same time we moved into a new house and my work life was at peak misery. It was very difficult, and painful, and I withdrew from many things and people.

Then came 2011. In January, I started a new job, thank god. I am in a much healthier atmosphere now, and am much, much happier at work. Laura and I finally found the right counselor in the spring, and have healed a lot of things. By the time November rolled around, I had started to emerge from a fair amount of depression, and it was in that mood that I made this year’s CD. I feel really happy with the collection, both as a musical collage and as a reflection of my year.

1. DEAR PRUDENCESiouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie Sioux was always in the back of my mind as somebody I wanted to learn more about, so last year I procured a greatest hits album. I liked it, though I don’t think I’ll go much deeper than that. I quite enjoy her voice, especially on this cover. It was a pretty Beatles-y year for me, so this was a fitting choice for that, but even more so for the lyrics and tone of the song itself. To me, this is about emerging, after being shrouded in protection. That’s pretty much what happened with me this year. I can hardly measure how much better things are now, both at home and at work, compared to this time last year. Not that everything is magically perfect — there’s still a lot of work to do — but the skies are a lot sunnier now.

2. ALL THIS BEAUTYThe Weepies
And what do we see when we come out to play? This was a year of The Weepies for me. They’re a married couple of singer-songwriters, Deb Talan and Steve Tannen, who started out as fans of each other’s solo work, and then literally began to make beautiful music together. Their harmonies are lovely, and their songs are just killer. I absolutely fell in love with their album Hideaway, from which this track is taken. That was the launching pad for my Weepies infatuation, and this was one of the songs that made me want to buy the album. (Thanks to the Internet radio station for bringing them to my attention.) It’s hard to pick just one song from that album, but this one fit my mindset a lot, or at least a part of it. (Lucky for me, there are other Weepies songs to fit other parts. 🙂 It’s about remembering to be amazed — there is so much beauty in this world, and sometimes it’s easier to see it if you close your eyes, then slowly open wide.

3. HERE COMES THE SUNPaul Simon with David Crosby and Graham Nash
Speaking of lovely harmonies. I saw Paul on tour this fall, and he completely surprised me by singing this song as part of his set. It’s such a beautiful song anyway, and it fits his voice perfectly. After a little research, I found that he actually has a long history with the song — he sang it with George on an SNL episode way back in 1976, and various times in his career after that. I’m a lifelong Paul Simon fan, but I had no idea about this connection. It was a high point of the concert for me, and those always find their way to these end-of-year compilations. Not only that, it resonates with one of the most beautiful moments from the Love show I saw this year (more about that later), and perfectly encapsulates the theme of the year. Hence my title. I had a little trouble finding a good recording of him singing it solo, so I went with this one, from the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s 25th anniversary concerts.

4. TRUE FAITHNew Order
Sometimes focus falls on something one year because it belonged to a project from the previous year. So it was with this song. My Christmas gift for my sister in 2010 had a Guns ‘n’ Roses theme, since that’s one of her favorite bands. I decided to follow up on that with her birthday gift (not much of a reach, since her birthday is on New Year’s Eve.) Our tradition is some kind of themed CD as her birthday gift from me, so last year I decided to make her 3 volumes of songs from 1987, the year G+R’s first album came out. I love a lot of the music from that year — it’s probably not coincidental that I was 17 at the time, and just fully embracing music as a part of my identity for the first time. I’m sure plenty of people find much of their favorite music rooted in their late teens. This song appeared on that collection — it’s one of two New Order songs written that year to be bonus tracks on their greatest hits collection Substance. I find the music both hypnotic and uplifting, and the lyrics fit in well with the previous song — “my morning sun is a drug that brings me here.”

5. SECRET LOVEStevie Nicks
Why yes, Stevie Nicks did come out with a new album this year! 🙂 In Your Dreams was her first release in 10 years, and I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that several songs from it would appear on this compilation. This one was the advance single, and the record company offered a download of it with pre-orders of the album. It’s based an a demo I’d been listening to for years. Stevie has tons and tons of these unrecorded demos that have circulated amongst fans forever, and it’s an incredible thrill when she finishes one up with a proper studio version and releases it. Sometimes these actually turn out to be a little less satisfying than the demo — a couple of songs from the 2003 Fleetwood Mac album are like that — but often they are wonderful realizations of a rough outline. That was the case with this song. I got a full-body rush when listening to it for the first time. I think Dave Stewart does a fantastic job of production, Stevie’s vocals sound great, and it got me very excited for the album.

6. MOONLIGHT (A VAMPIRE’S DREAM)Stevie Nicks
Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, and one of the standouts from her wonderful concert this summer. Again it’s based on a demo, but in a peculiar way. The demo that fans have been calling “Lady From The Mountain” has the beginning verses and piano part, but the more driving music that kicks in on the lyric “Strange, she runs with the one she can’t keep up with” is all new. Apparently Stevie was inspired by the first Twilight movie — she says it reminded her of an experience she had, though she coyly never reveals what that was. I’ve never read or seen any Twilight anything. All I know is that this song charges me full of energy every time I hear it. I love what it does with “Lady From The Mountain”, marrying its fragility to a smooth, powerful backbone.

7. GERM FREE ADOLESCENTSX-Ray Spex
This song begins what I think of as the “Thank You Siân” section — all artists I’ve learned to love because of her influence. Laura was friends with Siân first — they were in CU‘s English Literature PhD program together. That’s how I met Laura too, except that I was doing my M.A. Siân wrote her dissertation on punk rock. I remember her telling me about X-Ray Spex back when she lived in Colorado — in fact, now that I look at the dissertation, its very title is an X-Ray Spex reference. So I filed that away but rarely thought of it again until she mailed me a couple of CDs of punk songs from the Sunday Times. This song appeared on that CD, and I liked it enough to seek out a compilation. The songs in that collection made X-Ray Spex one of my favorite punk bands — “Identity”, “Art-I-Ficial”, “I Am A Cliche”, “Let’s Submerge”, “Age”… I’ll stop before I list out all their songs. They’re all great, but this was the one that lit the way, and there’s still something special about it.

8. SHOOT THE MOONHugh Blumenfeld
Yeah, here’s another guy I wouldn’t be listening to if not for Siân. Hugh is actually a friend of hers, and she’s put various songs of his on mixes she’s made for me over the years, and I eventually became a fan. She and Kelly visited us in August of 2010, and she brought me four of his CDs at that time. My backlog being what it is, I ended up listening to them in November, which marks the beginning of this music-listening year for me. There were many songs I enjoyed from those CDs — I picked this one both because it reminded me of Dante and because it happened to have a wonderful resonance with another much-loved song from another much-loved Siân Mile artist…

9. THE SPACE RACE IS OVERBilly Bragg
I think Bragg is Siân’s favorite artist overall, and another one I adopted because she passed some of his best stuff along to me. I’ve been buying more things in MP3 form in the past few years, to feed and fill the iPod’s sacred shuffle, but that’s meant that I don’t listen to them as closely as I do my CDs. Therefore, I periodically burn a batch to CD, and so it was with one CD from a Billy Bragg box set I’d downloaded a couple of years ago. It’s a fine collection — some songs I knew and liked because Siân had included them on various compilations, while others I heard for the first time and learned to love on my own. This was one of the latter. I think my jaw literally dropped when I heard him sing, “I watched the Eagle landing on a night when the moon was full / And as it tugged at the tides I knew that deep inside / I too could feel its pull.” What an incredibly gorgeous lyric. I love the way this song summons an elegiac and wistful tone for the bright future that might have been. I think it’s better than the Blumenfeld song, though that’s hardly a fair comparison, and they do pair so nicely.

10. PICTURE WINDOWBen Folds and Nick Hornby
This is from the album Lonely Avenue, in which Ben Folds and Nick Hornby do their version of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin partnership — Hornby wrote the lyrics and Folds wrote and performed all the music. It is a gorgeous album, and while it’s hard to pick a favorite song on it, this one emerged from the pack for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s just heart-rendingly poignant; it’s easily the most moving song on the record. Second, it reminds me strongly of an experience that made a major impression on me this year. A very close friend of mine went through a horrible hospital experience this summer — her 12-year-old son went into the hospital as a result of multiple health issues crashing into each other. I visited them frequently during this period — her son loves comics and music, so I was able to relate to him and bring him some things to make him happy in that difficult hospital environment. I watched him suffer awful, awful mental and physical anguish, and I watched her agonize every day over him, playing the very difficult role of protector and intermediary between him and the institutional realities. There was a series of horrible situations produced by a combination of organizational dysfunction, misjudgements, parental personalities, and the nature of his issues, which weren’t easily pigeonholed. After several weeks of hell, he finally got some treatment that, although rather invasive, began to turn things around. They were in there for a couple of months total, and they’re still recovering. Watching your child suffer like that day after day is one of the worst things I can think of.

11. HELPLESSk.d. lang
About 5 years ago I saw a movie called Away From Her, about a woman (played by Julie Christie) whose mind is slowly disintegrating from Alzheimer’s. It made a huge impression on me, and this song played over the credits of that movie. It blew my mind. lang’s incredible voice brings out a power I’d never heard in this song before, and every time I hear it, I feel this thick blanket of emotion settling over me. Eventually I sought out the album it came from — Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, in which lang covers all Canadian artists — and listened to it this year. Covers are definitely her metier, I think — her own material (with the exception of Ingenue) tends to fall flat for me. Whereas when she gets a hold of something that’s already really strong, like this song, she can make it profoundly affecting.

12. LIVING IN TWILIGHTThe Weepies
Remember when I said the skies are sunnier now? I know that’s true because we spent much of the earlier part of the year in the twilight this song so perfectly describes. Parts of my life this year were like one of those movies all scored by one artist (Magnolia, Harold & Maude, Good Will Hunting). The Weepies sang the soundtrack of my movie.

13. THE SOUND OF SETTLINGDeath Cab For Cutie
Last year, Pink was the artist I discovered 10 years later than everyone else. This year, it was Death Cab For Cutie. I think I listened to their album Transatlanticism for about 3 weeks straight in September. It is just amazing. I knew I’d be picking a song from it for this compilation, and the choice was so difficult I just randomized it. Fittingly, this was one of the Death Cab songs that made me decide I needed to go out and buy their albums. I find the first lyric especially arresting: “I’ve got a hunger / twisting my stomach into knots / that my tongue has tied off.” Wow! I just love that.

14. YOU JUST HAVEN’T EARNED IT YET, BABYKirsty MacColl
There is one reason that things are better between Laura and I, and that reason is that we have worked our asses off this year to get to where we are. We have both been very committed to learning new ways of relating, and putting our new knowledge into practice. As a consequence, our conflicts are fewer, less frightening, and more quickly resolved. I don’t mean to make it sound like we’re finished working, but we’re closer than we’ve been in years, and we’ve earned it, baby. I’ve loved this song ever since hearing it on the She’s Having A Baby soundtrack in high school. I’ve never been much of a Smiths person — I like Johnny Marr well enough, but with a few big exceptions I just find Morrissey too grating. However, I do have strong affection for some Smiths covers, and this one tops the list. I adore Kirsty’s voice, and the production is gorgeous and uplifting. I can’t get enough of it.

15. ON SUNDAY‘Til Tuesday
‘Til Tuesday’s Welcome Home was another of those CDs I burned from downloaded MP3s. I’ve been a Mann fan for years, but never went beyond the “greatest hits” level with her old band. I like this song a lot, and it fit my life since part of my commitment with Laura was to do a regularly scheduled session of emotional/relationship work on Sundays when we didn’t have a couples therapy appointment. “Why spend your sadness now? / Save it up for me, on Sunday.”

16. ROCKS AND WATER (LIVE AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011-08-27)The Weepies
As a part of my Weepy year, I saw them on tour at the Chautauqua Music Hall. It was a wonderful concert, everything I’d hoped it would be and more. The “more” was composed of a few things. One of these was actually the amazing set and lighting. They had this stylized miniature city set up on one side of the stage, and then kind of a forest glade on the other, and throughout the show, the lighting would change on various things to highlight different parts. At one point, a previously unseen river gets lit up, running through the city and the woods. You can get a little flavor of it from this photo, though obviously that doesn’t get at the different lighting changes. One of the other great parts was the new songs they played — well, new to me anyway. I have their albums, but forgot all about the fact that they had solo careers before they got together! This is a song from one of Deb’s solo records, and I just adored it the first time I heard it. As soon as I came home, I downloaded both her version and one that they did in an iTunes exclusive concert. However, neither version captivated me the way the concert version had. Lucky for me, some bright soul put up a bunch of clips from the concert on YouTube, so I used my handy-dandy DownloadHelper and turned the audio from that clip into an mp3. God bless the internet.

17. SEA AND SANDThe Who
Three things about this song. 1) I listened to Quadrophenia more intently this year than I had ever done before. For reasons “I Can’t Explain”, Quad was kind of a passed-over Who album from my youth, so I ended up really appreciating it much later than most of the rest of their material. 2) This song is a major standout from that album for me. It’s one of the most perfect Who songs to me, flawlessly blending Pete’s fantastic lyrics and storytelling with the immense power of the band. 3) Given that “Sea and Sand” was already on my list, how could I resist pairing it with “Rocks And Water”?

18. HERE COMES THE SUN/THE INNER LIGHT [TRANSITION]The Beatles
I went to Las Vegas for a trivia convention this summer — a great experience. While I was there, I saw the Cirque Du Soleil show of The Beatles Love — an utterly transcendent experience. I’ve already written about how I spent most of the show with tears streaming down my face, so I won’t rehash all that. I just new that I needed to pick a song for this compilation to represent that experience. It was very hard to choose. I settled on this one both for the reasons I mentioned in the Paul Simon entry, and because this part of the show remains absolutely indelible for me. It wasn’t the yoga poses and the trapeze artists, though those were certainly eye-popping. Instead, it was the massive ball of candles, glowing warmly and rising from the center of the stage, as robed children sit on the edge, radiating joy from meditative poses.

19. ADD MY EFFORTThe Weepies
Yep, one more Weepies song. This one returns to the theme touched on earlier in the MacColl and ‘Til Tuesday songs. It’s about loving someone who frequently lives in darkness — really loving them. I was always adding my effort, but without understanding, that effort can be fruitless or even counterproductive. However, when understanding is there, effort can be enough.

20. CHEAPER THAN FREE (FEATURING DAVE STEWART)Stevie Nicks
Yep, one more Stevie Nicks song. This the closer for In Your Dreams, and it felt like a perfect closer for this collection as well. It is a pure love song, and for me, purely magical. “What’s cheaper than free? You and me. What’s better than alone? Going home. What does money not buy? You and I. What’s not to feel, when love is real?”

Until next year…

What is “the future”?

That post about the art of the trivia question is still brewing, but I got sidetracked this week by another event in the trivia world. You may have heard about it. Watson, an IBM supercomputer, played two games of Jeopardy! against that show’s most famous champions, and thoroughly trounced the both of them.

A number of friends who watched the match complained that it was boring. If what you were looking for was a tense, movie-like contest with the drama of close scores or a come-from-behind victory, I can certainly see why you’d be disappointed. It had all the drama of the 49ers annihilating the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. On the other hand, if what you were looking for was a glimpse of the world to come, in the form of a breathtaking technical achievement, this match absolutely delivered the goods.

See, some people tend to think computers are smart, and that of course a computer could beat a human at Jeopardy!, given a sufficiently broad knowledge base for its answers. But really, that’s a case of misplaced signifiers. Many human brains find rapid mental arithmetic of large or complex numbers difficult, and therefore associate it with intelligence. Computers happen to be fantastic at this kind of thing. The chess club is full of smart kids, and therefore chess must be a smart person’s game. Knowing that a computer could defeat the chess world champion must mean that computers are smart, right?

Here’s the thing, though. Computers are great at one thing: computing. Arithmetic is computation. Chess, at a sufficient level of abstraction, is also computation. The further away from numbers you move, the dumber computers become, meaning that for the vast majority of tasks our brains do each day, computers are extremely stupid. “Natural language”, aka the way we humans talk to each other, is an enormous challenge for a computer to deal with, as anyone playing interactive fiction for the first time could tell you. (Though the idea that better parsing of natural language will automatically make for better IF is another case of misplaced signifiers — better understanding of language is great and everything, but the more important part of IF is its model world. Advancing the parser just means the model world’s seams show more quickly.) Because computers lack human experience, they are stunningly bad at dealing with linguistic context, and are therefore capable of spectacular misunderstandings when faced with any language outside the very limited domains for which they’re programmed.

Watson is no exception to this, but it has a few advantages that other machines lack. For one thing, there’s an enormous amount of processing power behind it: some 90 servers, over 21 terabytes of data, 15 terabytes of RAM, and 80 teraflops of throughput. More important, though, are a couple of its conceptual approaches to knowledge.

First, through a paradigm called machine learning, Watson learns by example, getting better and better at the game as he sees more and more Jeopardy [leaving the exclamation point off from here on out] clues and their correct answers. It would be ridiculously impractical to try to construct a set of rules that would allow a computer to recognize every possible Jeopardy question, so instead Watson’s creators gave it a framework for recognizing associations between question words, answer words, and source texts, then fed it tens of thousands of Jeopardy clues as examples. This technique enabled Watson to make a huge leap in its Jeopardy prowess.

The other key aspect of Watson is its embrace of uncertainty. Watson doesn’t deal in right answers and wrong answers. It deals in answers that are more likely to be right vs. less likely to be right. Thus, when faced with the clue, “The parents of this 52nd governor of New York immigrated to the United States from Salerno, Italy,” we see its top three answers thus:

Three answers, with "Mario Cuomo" listed first and a certainty of 98% indicated. "motorcycle club" and "Marine Corps" are below, listed at 8% certainty.

Watson was quite certain that “Mario Cuomo” was the correct answer, but hadn’t entirely ruled out the far crazier answers “motorcycle club” and “Marine Corps.” Indeed, if what you’re seeking is comedy, look no further than Watson’s runner-up answers.

Laughs aside, though, it’s this uncertainty which makes Watson so formidable. In a frequently-cited example, Watson can look at the name “Alice Cooper” and weigh the evidence that Alice is a woman’s name against the evidence that Alice Cooper is a man, give each pile of evidence a score, and come to its own conclusion. A strictly rule-bound computer would have to be given a specific exception to handle this case. Watson can generate its own exception, thereby improving its knowledge base. As a co-worker of mine pointed out, isn’t this a hallmark of intelligence? The capacity to allow for the possibility that we may not know everything or fully understand the world is an incredibly powerful tool in the search for truth.

So as a computer, Watson rocks. But Jeopardy is an entertainment program, not a science program. Is it fun to watch Watson play Jeopardy? George Doro, my teammate in the Anti-Social Network, called it “more fascinating than exciting,” and that’s right on target. IBM branded the hell out of this show, and it would have been a black eye for them had Watson lost. Consequently, a few gameplay decisions were made which helped Watson win, but made the show a little less fun.

First off, Watson was allowed to be lightning-fast on the buzzer. People think of Jeopardy as a purely mental game, but unlike chess, there’s a physical component of Jeopardy. People (and computers) with faster reflexes do far better on the show — it doesn’t matter if you know 100% of the answers when you’re getting outbuzzed 80% of the time. Trying to play buzzer-beaters against a computer is like running a 500-yard dash against a car. Watson didn’t have to be this quick — just subtract a little of that processing power until the computer’s average buzz-in time equals the average human’s buzz-in time (or even Ken Jennings’ average) and you’ve got a fairer battle, but instead, when Watson was certain enough of its answer, no human thumb could possibly outrace its mechanical plunger. (There were a few exceptions, but overall it was clear that Watson’s buzzing speed was what allowed it to dominate the match.)

Secondly, there’s the fact that each human had not only Watson to contend with, but also another top-notch Jeopardy player! Consequently, anytime Watson doesn’t pick up a clue in time, the two humans tended to split the points between them. I know Jeopardy is traditionally played by three contestants, but there was plenty about this match that was non-traditional. I would be very interested to see how Jennings would do against Watson by himself, especially if the buzzer advantage were corrected. As he put it in an NPR interview: “It’s the worst of both worlds, you know? The ideal scenario would be to have a human versus a computer, or maybe a computer versus a very good human and a lousy ‘Jeopardy!’ player. I don’t know if you saw Wolf Blitzer on the show, but I’d like to have Wolf back.”

That’s not to say that Watson was flawless. One of its major weaknesses was its inability to see or hear. Instead of listening to Alex Trebek read the clue, Watson was fed the clue via (essentially) a text message, so it saw and started processing the clue at the same time as Ken and Brad saw it. The show neutralized the most obvious disadvantage of this blindness and deafness by eliminating the audio or visual clues it often features. Jeopardy has made this sort of accommodation before, to serve disabled human players, and while it’s certainly true that Ken and Brad could have whomped the computer on those clues, that’s really not what Watson was built to do, so it would rather miss the point. A more pertinent disadvantage was that it could not hear what the other contestants were answering. It was told whether its own answer was correct, and told the correct answers provided by humans, but was not told of wrong answers, leading to this exchange:

Ken: “‘Name That Decade’ for a thousand.”
Alex: “The first modern crossword puzzle is published & Oreo cookies are introduced.” [Ken buzzes in] “Ken?”
Ken: “What are the ’20s?”
Alex: “No.” [Watson buzzes in] “Watson?”
Watson: “What is 1920s?”
Alex: “No. Ken said that.”

[The correct answer was “The 1910s.”] Trebek’s schoolmarmish correction of a machine that had just that moment proven it can’t hear him was amusing, and perhaps reflexive. Watson’s error was the kind of mistake that humans rarely make, though it’s not unheard of. When a human does it, though, it’s a sign of frazzled nerves. With Watson, it’s an Achilles heel. Well, maybe an Achilles toenail.

Another major weakness Watson displayed was its difficulty leveraging the category title to come up with the answer. Humans completely dominated that “Name The Decade” category — Watson was having trouble processing quickly enough to outbuzz them, and at one point its top guess for one of the clues was “2002,” even though it did come up with decades for the others. Most famously, in the Final Jeopardy round of the first game, it encountered the category “U.S. Cities,” and the clue, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” which it answered thus:

Watson answering "What is Toronto?????"

(This inspired the funniest Watson joke I’ve yet seen: “Me: Hey Doc, I’ve got this pain in my left arm and an awful headache. Doc: What is Toronto?????”) The answer was in fact “Chicago,” but even if a human didn’t know the answer, he very likely would have guessed an actual U.S. city based on the category, rather than a Canadian city.

As some of the IBM guys pointed out, Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy are a tough area for Watson, because it has to guess something, and therefore risk looking stupid. When it’s not sure about its answers on a regular clue, it can just refrain from buzzing in. Watching the show, I thought perhaps that Watson’s creators forced it to simply focus on the question, more or less ignoring the category. Turns out this isn’t quite true. In fact, it considers the category in its approach, but it’s learned from its thousands of Jeopardy clues that category is often only weakly tied to the answer. For instance, that Chicago question could have been reworded, “Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named after a World War II hero; this airport, its second largest, was named after a World War II battle.” The question still would have fit the category, but the answer would have been an airport, not a city. Watson has seen that scenario play out many times, and is thus wary of assuming that the answer in a “U.S. Cities” category will always be a U.S. city.

In the end, Watson defeated the humans soundly, with a score of $77,147 to Jennings’ $24,000 and Rutter’s $21,600. A lot of the press coverage has focused on the “man vs. machine” angle, and of course the match was set up to emphasize that. In fact, it was rather poignant to see Watson beat one of its human practice match opponents on the clue, “This African-American folklore laborer: ‘Before I let that steam drill beat me down I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.'” I guess there’s this sort of pastoral vs. industrial thing that gets set up when machines attempt a traditionally human activity, even though people holding buzzers and answering trivia questions doesn’t exactly fit neatly into the pastoral mold.

I don’t feel much solidarity with the OMG SKYNET IS HERE!!!!! response. As somebody who works in IT, I’m fascinated by the achievement. I think about how satisfying it must have been to have worked on the team that created this. Those people just finished a massive four-year project, and the result was an incredible leap forward in information processing, with a world-famous, historic, televised, wildly successful debut. I just finished my time as a team member on a three-year project, and the result is a shakily implemented student system whose portal is currently driving everyone crazy with how incomplete and slow it is. I’m sure there is mental, emotional, and physical damage associated with both project teams, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been on the one whose final product worked so well?

In his Final Jeopardy answer, Ken Jennings wrote, “(I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.)” It’s a reference to a hilarious moment on The Simpsons. And interestingly, it may not have been one Jennings thought of himself. Here’s an excerpt from his NPR interview with Neal Conan:

Mr. JENNINGS: Maybe it’s just my own ego, but yeah, I feel like I’ve somehow, through some weird coincidence, been elected as the champion of carbon-based life on Earth against, you know, our new future oppressor.
CONAN: Silicon, yeah.
Mr. JENNINGS: And I would like to strike a blow while I have the chance.
CONAN: I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.
Mr. JENNINGS: You may have no choice, Neal.

Then again, it’s quite possible that this interview was taped after the Jeopardy round was taped, so who knows? But whether Jennings was lifting a joke or simply making a reference, isn’t this the skill for which we celebrate him? He gathers knowledge from various sources, and retrieves it quickly, using it when it can make the most impact. His graciousness and humor in that final moment certainly set him apart from his predecessor in IBM challenge history, Garry Kasparov, who famously stalked away in an enormous huff after being beaten by Deep Blue. But in that graciousness and humor, he also subtly made the point that for all Watson’s skill and speed at information retrieval, humans can still wield that information with a precision and effect that Watson could never hope to achieve.

Giving 110%

This is something I sent out at work, and it got a good enough reception that I decided to post it here as well. We’re in the midst of a massive project at CU, replacing the student system and a bunch of peripheral systems with Oracle PeopleSoft products. There is a lot of pressure, a lot of intensity… and a lot of status reporting. Some of that, especially as it travels up the chain, takes on a glossy, nonspecific quality. In talking about it with Laura, we were reminded of another place where that kind of status reporting happens…


My ESPN-loving spouse started this train rolling, and it became unstoppable. Now I just have to write it all down. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Project Status Report, consisting entirely of clichés from sports interviews. (With substitutions, where appropriate.)

  • It is what it is.
  • There were factors beyond my control.
  • We came to code, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a tough match so far.
  • This time around, the software problems just wanted it more.
  • But I’m just gonna settle down, focus on doing my best. I can only control myself, you know what I mean? I’m gonna step up, and from this point forward, I’m just gonna focus on my game. I mean, work. That’s what matters, sticking with my guys, doing my work. I’m gonna do everything I can to get this project to the Superbowl. I mean, completion.
  • I’m a team player. It’s not about me, it’s about the whole team. We have to pull together.
  • It’s been tough out there, but we’ll get our game back. It’s still early in the project. We’ve got a lot of go-lives after this one, and we’re just gonna take it one go-live at a time. We’ve still got a long timeline ahead of us. We’re not circling any go-live on the calendar. Every go-live is important.
  • Replacing student systems is a professional business, you’ve gotta understand that. Stuff that happens out there, it’s not personal.
  • It’s easy to see the things that went wrong in this go-live, but there were things that went right. Anyway, this go-live is not over. We’re gonna get back out there and give it our best, stay focused, and take it to the next level.
  • We’re gonna get back into the office next week, practice the things we need to practice, take another look at the PeopleBooks, and keep working hard.
  • I’m only thinking about the next go-live on the schedule. It’s not about momentum — the project happens one go-live at a time.
  • I’m just glad to be here. I want to help the project any way I can.

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